Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Thailand - The Road of Broken Bones

One of the opportunities not to be missed when in Northern Thailand is the so called Mae Hong Son loop, also known as the road of 1864 corners. It runs right along the border with Myanmar and winds its way through some breathtaking scenery. It's a road made for motorcyclists and one of the classic Golden Triangle Rides from Chiang Mai. Do it at a leisurely pace and it will take you 3 days, do it any faster and you'll miss too much!

The loop is about 700 km, when you include the Ban Khun Khlang loop, and has plenty of accommodation options along the way. We opted to go camping again and found 3 campgrounds in the various National Parks. They are spaced roughly at 200 km intervals, which suited us perfectly. We did the loop anti-clockwise, which worked out best for a couple of reasons. For starters, while we were there the northern part of the loop had plenty of roadworks, which we thus got out of the way first. We also found ourselves on the side of the road with the best views. The first part was chopped up by roadworks but do-able. To keep the dust down, most of the roadworks sections were being swamped by a water truck, resulting in muddy sludge at times and for some reason mostly so at the really steep sections, but no real dramas.

We had lunch near the Tai-Pai bridge. The bridge is... well... a bridge. Nothing really special until you read the history of it... which doesn't make any sense. The various articles I've read about it, only seem to agree that the Japanese built it with slave labour during the World War II, if it was ever used or not is unclear as the road never seems to have been finished. What happened with the bridge after the Japanese retreated is unclear as well, some reports state is was burned down, others state the first precarious moment for the bridge was the flooding of a couple of years ago. Today it is unfortunately a tourist attraction which seems to attract mostly weirdos doing their tasteless 'look how amazing I am' selfie poses. Just opposite are a few roadside vendors who knock up a restaurant out of bamboo sticks and a big tarpaulin. Don't worry about building standards in this part of the world as there aren't any. It's all good though, I mean what could possibly go wrong? It's not like a concrete ceiling is coming down on your head, is it? Language barriers meant we had no idea what was cooking. As it turned out: nothing was, at it was all cold... ok. Next question is 'what is it?' Looking at the menu meant looking in the various pots and pans and pointing at what we would like... or thought we would like. The lady behind the pots pointed at the ones which were not spicy... what I thought was some sort of couscous turned out to be cold munched fish... yuk! The rice which came with it though was good. Mike had something with chicken, we think. Cold chicken is normally not to be advised of course but in this case we don't think it mattered... it was so unbelievably spicy that no bacteria could possibly survive this :-) and this is what they called 'non-spicy'... right!

In the afternoon the beautiful landscapes just kept on coming. This ride is one of the so called Golden Triangle Rides. Unfortunately taking photos was a bit problematic with power lines everywhere and even bundles of them at only 2 mtr high above the ground, ie in the middle of the view. Filling up the small bottle for our camping stove turned out to be once again too complicated for the lady attending the pump. I told her to do it slowly and 0.8 litre max. She understood, or so she said, and thus opened the nozzle fully... Petrol spew out of the spout and came out of the bottle like a fountain, into her eyes and flooding her feet... The bottle was full to the brim, her feet soaked and she managed to get 1.5 litre 'in' a 1 litre bottle. 

At the end of the day we rode into the National Park and onto the campground, which was packed with people! No idea camping was this popular in Thailand... However, on the other side of the hill we found only one camper and thus pitched our tents there. Despite camping being seemingly more popular than we thought in Thailand, they seemed totally gobsmacked when they saw foreigners camping... Having been stared at by several Thai people for like 15 minutes at a time, we decided to turn this thing around and started staring at them with the same blanc numb face... It didn't get the desired result, so we adopted Meerkat behaviour... Imagine seeing 4 motorcyclists facing you in Meerkat pose without moving a muscle... Let's just say it worked a treat and they left us alone after that. Looking at the lake in front of us made us think we should perhaps stay a day, the persistent sewage smell made us reconsider... On top of that it was Vince's birthday (Happy Birthday Mate!) and he couldn't think of a better way than spending it riding on roads like these! Problem sorted.

Day two started with wet tents. Condensation! We thus left late, weren't in a rush, and stopped for some coffee as Vince can't think of a better way to start the day... it's hard travelling with these addicted people, beer, wine, steak, coffee... The place we stopped at assured me they had coffee... and they did... in the fridge... in a can! Vince was game and tried it, didn't finish it and won't try it again! Still we had plenty of the 1864 corners left to do so a beautiful riding day it was. Who wouldn't want to celebrate their birthday riding the Golden Triangle!

The campground at the Salawin National Park turned out to be a beauty and... no other campers! Karen and Mike cooked up a storm and all was good. We camped at the edge of a lake, heard the fish splashing in the water, or at least we thought it was fish, and decided to stay the extra day here. The fish turned out to be snakes splashing in the water, just metres from our tents and... lots of them. We thought the 'no swimming' warning signs along the lake were for people who couldn't swim... Later in the afternoon we saw a whopper of a snake on the road too. We spend the day sorting out photos and talking about our route from Chiang May north towards Laos. Mike wanted to visit a mountain along the way to Chiang Mai first, so we plotted that into the GPS as well. But, as we found out the next morning, all in vain... Fog made sure our tents were wet again. Not so much of a problem with our tents but the MSR Mutha Hubba doesn't have a waterproof inner tent. Karen thus took the fly and hang it out to dry... slipped, fell nasty and broke her forearm in two places...!

The broken bones were clearly visible pushing against her skin. She was rushed to hospital by the National Park workers, a hospital which turned out to be a temporary one and with some mediaeval practices. Having seen the X-ray they realised it could not be fixed there, she had to go to Chiang Mai hospital. With no ambulance available Vince and Karen decided to take the bike and ride her there, while we would follow shortly behind as we had to fill the bikes up first... Classic mistake this, always make sure your bike has a full tank as you never know what happens... Had I needed to take Mike to hospital in a hurry then I couldn't have done it as the tank was empty!

So we didn't go to Ban Khun Khlang but took the direct route back to Chiang Mai instead. It's still part of the Mae Hong Son loop though and a beautiful winding road. At the hospital an operation followed and at the time of writing she's bolted together with screws, a plate resembling a garden rake, a nail and fencing wire... all made out of titanium! The insurance, the same as we have, took care of everything promptly and comes highly recommended (World Nomads). All in all she was 4 days in hospital and needed to go back 10 days later to have more X-rays, the stitches taken out and a permanent cast. So we ended up being in Chiang Mai for 14 days... all because of condensation...!