Our transition from 2008 to 2009 included all of the necessary elements: motorbikes, open roads, gorgeous wilderness, Thai food, whiskey, bonfires, caves, Burma and new friends. It also included a flat tire and cold showers, but that is beside the point…
We left Chiang Mai on the 30th, intending to spend four days doing the “Mae Hong Song Loop,” a 60okm+ journey that would take us through an artsy town called Pai, a caving/outdoor place called Soppong and the provincial capital, Mae Hong Song, with lots of incredible scenery in between. As things go when traveling, plans changed drastically!
Chiang Mai was the real test of urban driving skills, and Gabe passed with flying colors weaving in and out of jammed traffic, safely, like a seasoned pro. It took well over an hour to escape the interstate-like driving conditions and turn off onto the quieter (so we thought) Highway 1095 that would take us around the entire loop.
Things were quiet at first, and more scenic by the minute as the road started to climb and twist into the mountains. Before we knew it, the convoys appeared. Convoys of Toyota HiLux trucks, the choice vehicle of the Thai well-to-do’s, carrying them enmass to Pai for the longest public holiday of the year. These trucks are America-big and drivers have little regard (or maybe they just don’t notice) a little Honda Wave puttering up the hill next to them. The traffic got heavier and heavier, and we began to take the warning about “no room” in Pai seriously.
About halfway there we turned off to see a hot spring geyser, along with several convoys. After 6km of hill climbing, we sat in line only to find out that it was a national park and that we’d be charged outrageous “foreigner fees.” We turned back and decided to push on to Pai. Within 10 minutes Gabe pulled over near an overlook, saying that the bike felt strange.
Sure enough, our back tire was low; within minutes it was completely flat. After some unsuccessful communication attempts with the resident Thais, we contemplated what to do. Without tools, spare tube, or airpump we were useless. A car soon pulled up with a young couple who stepped out to take a break, so Gabe approached the girl to ask if she spoke English. Luckily she did, and was intent on helping. She asked the people there about a tire shop; they replied that the nearest place was 4km away. Moving on to the next solution, the girl and her boyfriend starting flagging down passing trucks. It took almost no time for one to pull over, the five Thais and a white guy to pile out, happily agree to help and start rearranging the bags in the bed of the truck. The guys hauled the motorbike up and securely tying it town. A girl who spoke perfect English apologized that there was no room in the cab and that we’d have to sit in the back – we told her it was no problem and hopped in, expecting to be taken the 4 km.
4km came and went; these people drove us all 50km to Pai and drove around the city until they found a tire repair shop, waiting until we were safely inside with our bike before leaving. The tire repair took all of 15 minutes and cost all of $2; by this point we decided to pass on the overrun Pai and head to Soppong, where we had a room waiting at a place called the Cave Lodge. We arrived by 4:00 at one of the neatest guesthouses yet; set far out of town, in the woods and near the main attraction, Tham Lod (Lod Cave), Cave Lodge was a bamboo bungalow sort of place run by a great Australian guy named John, and had a wonderful restaurant/lounge deck with plenty of cushions, reading material and a large firepit.
We went to Tham Lod for sunset, where hundreds of thousands of birds swirl into the cave exit while hundreds of thousands of bats swarm out at the same time. Once it was dark, we returned to the lodge where we enjoyed an incredible meal and lots of conversation with a decidedly cool clientele around the fire until late in the evening. By this point, we’d ruled out completing the “loop” and had decided to hang around for awhile as this was worthy of exploring.
The greatest thing about the Cave Lodge was John, the owner, and the fact that he hands out free information, handdrawn maps and doesn’t try to sell you any sort of guide or tour. As an Aussie, he has spent the past 30yrs exploring caves all over Asia and is a wealth of knowledge. We woke on New Year’s Eve hoping to find the “Sacred Well Cave,” a spot that looked easy enough on the map but was marked “ask us.” We asked, and were directed to a Belgian guy named Vincent and a French guy named Benny who were headed there as well and had the map. The map turned out to be scrawled on notebook paper, but we soon jumped on our motorbike and followed them down the road, soon turning off onto a winding dirt road, through peach tree orchards, rice fences, and up rocky tracks too steep for both of us on the bike.
It was rough ride, much harder on our little 100cc bike than on Vincent’s 250cc monster, but between the four of us we eventually made the correct turns, found the right landmark trees, hiked through the correct valley and arrived at the cave, a massive piece of rock with a lot to explore inside.We found the well, a small pool of water with lots of burnt incense surrounding it, and Gabe happened upon a piece of loose rock that pulled away to reveal a bag full of ash and bone – it was like being in our very own Goonie s movie! It took the better part of the afternoon, and by the time that we went to town for lunch and whiskey purchasing, it was near evening and time to prepare for the new year.
We started by indulging in the herbal sauna on offer at the Cave Lodge; for the price of a small tip we enjoyed an hour of sweaty cleansing! From there we headed along the river (5 mins walk) to foodstalls near the more touristy Tham Lod for some Thai-priced Thai food, then it was dark and time for the festivities! The Cave Lodge had some of the neatest people that we’ve found anywhere, and it was a wonderful New Year, complete with fireworks, a bonfire, a giant bamboo ladyboy (soon to be a burning ladyboy!) and plenty of whiskey. The highlight was shooting bottle rockets from a bamboo bazooka across the river to ignite the “ladyboy” who was stuffed with bags of petrol and fireworks. John also built a Shan candle. This deserves a short explanation – Whenever a Shan village held festivals there were no streetlights to illuminate the festivities. Instead they would tie together 6-7 tall bamboo sticks and place them upright into a small hole dug in the ground. Once lit, the “candle” would burn slowly from the top down illuminating the festivities. This created quite an ambience for our party!
New Year’s day began a bit later than usual, but after a perfect Thai breakfast (padkaprow gai kai dao – wok-fried chicken with basil and chilis over rice, topped with a fried egg) we found Vincent and asked John about nearby caves. He pointed out a few with the jewel being just over the border in Burma. He said it was a great drive, but that our bike might not make it up some of the mountain roads. He mentioned we had a 50/50 chance of crossing over to see the Burma cave…it all depends on the border guards. We teamed up with our friend Vincent, safety in numbers, and took off anyways, soon finding ourselves on some of the most scenic and secluded roads in SE Asia.
Gabe was a master motorbike driver by this point and we had no issues at any point. The scenery was unbelievable and the day was pristine; after about 20km we found ourselves at the immigration checkpoint on the Burmese border. We tried our luck but to no avail; the guard had no interest in letting us pass even after a bribe offer. We took a few photos and headed back towards Soppong, soon turning off into a village that housed the White Cliff Cave. It was a muddy hike, directed by the village kids, but this was easily the most impressive cave that I’ve ever encountered before in my life. It took a lot of climbing and effort just to cover the area covered by overhang, and when we finally reached an entrance Gabe was the only one ambitious (and brave) enough to continue on.
He headed in while Vincent and I enjoyed the relatively bright and spider-free conditions outside, finding a steep, slippery drop down for as far as he could see. On return, he reported what I expected; I would hate it in there! By this point it was well after 3:00 and high time for us to be heading back to Soppong.
There was an immediate detour when the guys spotted a sign marking another cave; we headed down a treacherous dirt road, picking up a persistent “guide” along the way, but ended up declining his services as the cave was far more difficult to get to, and would take far more time, than daylight allowed. The drive back was even more breathtaking, as the time of day lent surreal, painting-like quality to the sky and the endless blanket of mountains.
We’d all missed lunch and spent the evening at the Cave Lodge, enjoying a big meal, a beer, a newfound friendship and the campfire.
January 2nd began with a painful but wonderful mountain run for me, followed by one final incredible padkaprow breakfast and our departure from the Cave Lodge. We said our goodbyes to Vincent and embarked on a long push towards Chiang Mai. The traffic was just as heavy this time around, as the whole of Thailand returned from their holiday along with us, but once again Gabe handled it like a pro. We were free from tire issues and arrived late in Chiang Mai with extremely sore backsides but full of excitement for what lies ahead in 2009!