Wednesday, 30 December 2015

[Part I: 5 Days in Northern Thailand] Chiang Mai - Pang Mapha - Pai - Mae Hong Son

I took a short trip to Northern Thailand for 5 days earlier this month with my friend F. It was a much, much needed holiday from the life-sucking machine that is called work. 

It was, however, a very poorly planned trip (i.e. we only decided on going for the Northwestern route instead of the Northeastern side the night when we arrived in Chiang Mai) and you'd get to see why through the post. 

Nevertheless, I managed to get a good fix of nature, adrenaline and misadventures. And here we go!


DAY 0: Reaching Chiang Mai

The domestic flight from BKK to Chiang Mai was delayed for an hour without any explanation, and it had me irritated panning myself around the gate while the Thais were just super chilled, reading their papers and all. That's the defining moment that I realized that I have left Singapore and reached in Thailand, Land of Sabai Sabai

The Old City of Chiang Mai is very near to the airport. We chose to walk, but you can always get a tuk tuk from the airport at 60B each.There were a lot of bars and eateries still opened when we reached around 11pm, so dont worry about food. 

But it doesn't mean you should take your own sweet time to get to your guesthouse.

LESSON #1: Always tell your hosts your check in time +/- 2 hours and arrange for passing of keys especially if you are reaching at night. 

Otherwise, you could try:

1) Shouting "ANYBODY IN??" x10 outside the locked door
2) Forcing open the door and failing
3) Getting the host's number from the neighbour and failing to get through
4) Thinking about finding another accommodation but deciding not to cos you've already paid the deposit 
5) Explaining to the guest who happened to be returning back and asking her to let you in
6) Digging through the reception's desk and drawers to find your room key (Not Advisable)
7) Leaving a note explaining everything (but just briefly mentioned about the digging through their drawers part) to the hosts when they come back the next morning. 

Anyone who briefly knows my soul, knows that Somtham (Thai Green Papaya / Mango Salad) is my spirit animal. So it's a no-brainer to guess what is the first thing I bought. But there's also when I had my Lesson #2.

LESSON #2: Always make a small marking on your money, particularly the big notes.

Even up till now, I still think I've given the Somtham seller a 1000B note though he insisted that I only gave 100B. Even though there was indeed no 1000B note in his money basket, I still find it suspicious because I don't remember having any 100B note with me in the first place. I gave him the benefit of doubt my stupidity this round, but I went back that night and marked every single 1000B note I had. Nobody is gonna fool me twice.

DAY 1: Around Chiang Mai

The Old City of Chiang Mai is still dynamic place, where you literally see the old and new / East and West culture collides. Lot of temples, eateries and cafes to keep you occupy for a good half of the day. 

We rented a typical Thailand Honda scooter at 180B per day and officially became our trip. It would the be machine that would be responsible for our lives for the next 5 days. 

LESSON #3: Remember to haggle your bike rental price if you are renting for a few days. Check if insurance is covered. Take picture / video of the bike condition before leaving the shop. And most importantly, do not let them confuse you with the days of rental and the dates.

For example: If you are renting the bike from today to tomorrow, you should only be paying 1 day of rent. But if you were to count by dates, then you would have two days (ie. 30th Dec & 31st Dec). We didn't figure this out when we make the payment, so we technically paid for one extra day of rental. 

Rode up to Doi Suthep and visited the temple there. 
Saw this sign at the entrance and I just couldn't resist myself.

Note: Ignore the "Foreginer pay here" sign at the entrance, there are so many unguarded entrances around the temple once you walked beyond that point. 

There were many place of interest along the way, several other temples, palaces and waterfalls. We wanted to go to the peak, but it was F's third time riding a scooter in his life and the roads were more getting more difficult as we rode up. So we came to this viewpoint, played with some kid, and decided to head back down.

She talked to me SOOOOOO long in Thai and I thought she liked me so I was just kissing her and hugging her. Turned out that she was after my baht (I wanted to say butt -HAHA- but it's just such a bad pun) and after given her 20B, she wandered off heartlessly busy counting her earnings for the day. 

LESSON #4: No elaborately dressed Thai kid actually like to cuddle with you. Don't be naive and believe in love.

We then wandered off to a ticketed waterfall place. There were 4 or 5 waterfalls and a good half an hour trek. Would be nice if the weather was not too cold and you could have do some swimming in the waters. 

Got back to the city and went to check out the market. Cheap, delicious and weird (I am talking about beehive /bee larvae kind of weird) food guaranteed. 

There's a HUUUUUGE (you won't be able to finish everything in one night) night bazaar just outside of the Southern gate of the Old City. Don't miss it especially if you were there for the weekend. Food, drinks, interesting accessories, fantastic roadside massages etc. all in one. 

We walked into a temple and the lights suddenly went off halfway through my prayer for the Thai God's blessing. It turned out that they were conducting some ceremony for the Thai King's oncoming birthday.

LESSON #5: If you are a free-thinker, always make it a point to go to the local religious place and ask for the local god's blessing. Especially essential if riding on mountainous roads was gonna be involved.

DAY 2: Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son (Call us mad)

DAY 2 is the EPIC DAY  to be remembered of my N.Thailand Trip.
Not because that it was fun or exciting, 

Let me first introduce you the "Switzerland of Asia - MAE HONG SON LOOP"

The Mae Hon Son Loop is a comprehensive way to discover one of Thailand's most authentic provinces. For those wanting to get out of the tourist scene in Chiang Mai, and experience authentic northern Thai & Shan minority culture, the Mae Hong Son Loop is the perfect antidote. Mae Hong Son is the most mountainous province in Thailand and receives few visitors due to its relatively remote location and time needed to reach it.
The loop is approximately 600km long and needs a minimum of 4 days to complete, this excludes time for sightseeing and activities along the way, so adding on an extra few days for this is recommended. The Mae Hong Son Loop is a circular route which starts from Chiang Mai and takes you through the Mae Hong Son province ending back up at Chiang Mai. The Mae Hong Son Loop can be taken clockwise (Chiang Mai-Mae Sariang-Mae Hong Son-Pai-Chiang Mai) or anti-clockwise (Chiang Mai- Pai- Mae Hong Son- Mae Sariang- Chiang Mai). Source: Wikitravel

Our plan was to get to Mae Hong Son and come back from through Pang Mapha and Pai because (1) we didnt have enough time to complete the whole MHS loop; (2) we wanted to clear the longest leg (Chiang Mai to MHS) in the earlier part of the trip.

I apparently didn't read the Wikitravel guide carefully cos I dont remember reading about distance and casually told F that Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son should be around 30+km. And apparently I seemed really trustworthy cos F took my word for it.

It turned out to be a freaking 255km.
And our butts basically got killed from the 10-hour ride. 

To add to the ordeal, I ALSO missed out the"most mountainous" part.
Good job me. 


 The road was turning like intestines like that for a good 3/4 of the journey, and the uphill and downhill certainly did not make it any easier. In fact, the 1095 route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son is infamous for its 1864 turns. 

And to make F the scooter newbie to drive on this kind of roads for 10 hours with me and another 3 big bags was just MAD MAD MAD!! I have no idea how we even managed to survive and finish the journey. Must be due to Lesson #5 (see above).

LESSON #6: Always find out how far the journey is before embarking on it. Also, never trust me with numbers (e.g. dates/distance/money). 

Suddenly found ourselves at the end of a military cannon halfway out of Chiang Mai. I like unexpected road condition like this hahah.

Once we were out of the city, the scenery was fantastic.

Sometimes when you think life couldn't get any worse, it would. Just to prove a point.

Our tyre BURST halfway down a hill and we just glided our way to the nearest shop, which miraculously appeared not far away on an otherwise civilization-less road. A helpful local told us to find the mechanics shop 1km down the road and offered to pump up our tyre so that we could ride it for another 5 minutes. 

I got so overwhelmed and tired of my heart being in my throat for hours and hours of horrendous mountain roads and its non-stop turning, that a burst tyre was the last straw on my mental stability. I wandered off to take photos of nonchalant sleeping dogs as F stayed with the bike.  

LESSON #7: Sometimes life sucks. You should try to deal with it until you couldn't anymore. Then just ignore it. 

The pumped tyre didn't last us a minute. So we had to push the bike down to find the shop. When we reached the shop, the person kept pointing to the school down the road and asked us to go in. We were super hesitant and reluctant, cos WE ARE TRYING TO GET OUR BIKE FIXED BEFORE THE SUN SETS YO! AIN'T NOBADY HAS TIME FOR SOME STUDYING RIGHT NOW. 

But what else could we do? 
After some finding around the empty school and exaggerated sign language, we finally found the legendary mechanic, who was so shocked by how damaged our tyre tubing was that he just kept shaking his head. 

And it's time to hit the road again. This time, we really had to rush because sun was setting down fast and there was no street light on the mountains.

This sunset shot was taken so half-halfheartedly. All that was on our mind was to get to Mae Hong Son asap.

The following journey was double the intensity of the half prior to it. It was pitch dark, the uphill/downhill didn't stop, neither did the turns. We didn't even dare to lose focus for one second (thus the lack of pictures and videos) and rode in complete silence. I tumbled off the bike and rolled into the grass at one point, but also saw the most amazing starry skies I've ever seen in my life. It was a perfect moment mixed with awe and adrenaline.

LESSON #8: When you find yourself at a life-and-death situation, have faith and focus.

This was my state when we finally finally reached our place in Mae Hong Son. No words could describe the wave of relief I felt at that moment. 

I promise things would get better from here.