My longest planned journey by bike yet, I woke up Saturday morning and left my big backpack with the guest house I was staying at. Loaded up on supplies and drove off.
In the wrong direction! This is me, of course, I kind of did a semi-circle around from North to East, driving for an hour before I decided that the road signs I was seeing weren’t right. I stopped at a coffee shop with wifi and located myself – abused myself mentally and then double backed, back towards Chiang Mai.
It did give me a chance to stop at a viewing point and have a Korean guy take my photo.
The two outer roads in Chiang Mai are one way, with few U-Turn possibilities. I ended up on the right road thanks to a friendly American who spotted me with a map, and I was off! Because of the wrong way fiasco I had to refuel. It’s just two roads to Pai, one is a motorway heading North out of Chiang Mai, then a left turn onto the road of death (RoD), the 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai! Before the RoD I refuelled to the top, not knowing if I’d get another chance along the way.
The first stretch of the road is easy going, you can get up to 80 for prolonged periods of time. It’s scattered with small towns and villages either side, and the usual beautiful Thailand scenery. There comes a point however when the roads start getting a bit narrower, and then the curves, bends and twists hit.. Literally every 100 metres, give or take, you will see a warning sign to slow down, that there’s an incline or a decline (is that what the opposite is?) a sharp left, sharp right, hairpin, sharp left then right, or sharp right then left, slow down to 30, etc..
This goes on for approximately 70km. I was told it was a two and a half hour ride total, it took me 5 – yeah okay I was being the overly conscious driver that I am, wasn’t doing the 50km/h that I’d heard was possible, even 40 at some of the less tight corners and I was veering into the opposite lane. What beautiful scenery though, wow! The main reason it took me so long was that I was stopping so frequently to photograph the amazing views.
The video above doesn’t really show the curves until around 1 minute in.
At one point a convoy of porsches drove past, around 30 – 40 of them, “Drive of the Year 2013” must be some kind of tour/paid event.
Then when I stopped for a coffee at a really beautifully designed coffee shop an almighty roar of bike engines went past, slowed, turned around and came to the coffee shop, around 20 bikers on racing bikes pulled up so I got the chance to photograph them too.
It does get very cold in places though, something I’d yet to experience in the oven-hot temperatures elsewhere in the country.. My hands were numb, I only had (I thought) a jumper with me to go over my measly thin shirt, and my bottoms which are also thin.. So I was stopping and pausing in the few brief glints of sunlight through the mountains just to get my hands back to normal temperature. At most it must have been about 10 degrees, but when you couple in the wind factor from driving, it may have been around 5 in all.
Luckily it was one road though so I didn’t have to pay attention to a lot of signs, except the warning ones. Around 4pm the road got extremely dodgy, hairpin bends downhill one after another. I nearly wiped out on one of them by undercutting the road and ending up on the verge. The verge itself was a couple of inches of tarmac and then a dip, so, very luckily, I was able to right myself and get back onto the road – I stopped and gasped for a second.. got my head right and carried on. Maybe 15 – 20 hairpins later the road evened out, the weather got warmer and I was able to increase my speed.
Even more beautiful scenery came into view, terraced farming communities to the left, not far after hitting the ‘welcome to Pai’ sign, 33km to go. The petrol gauge that was worrying me throughout – as it seemed to go from full to empty super fast, and there’s no stations on the road – seemed to have stuck at half full for about 40km, so I wasn’t panicking so much. The road got even straighter and I was back to doing 80 again for a short while.
The memorial bridge was signposted as being 8km away, and I knew that to be close to the centre of Pai. I stopped there as the sun was dropping and saw people washing themselves in the river and catching fish.
Then, before I knew it I was in Pai! What a stunning little place this is.. I felt my blood pressure drop hard as I took in the clean air and golden sunlight vistas. I had to find a place with wifi so I could locate my guest house, and once again it turned out I was very close. I drank my coffee and headed there. Just over a small bridge and a lefft turn I arrived at Darling Viewpoint Bungalows – this place is so perfect, all wood and hammocks, cushioned living, easy going. I was greeted by Sophie the owner’s niece who asked me by my name which was a nice touch. I checked in and was shown around, I was upstairs in the main bungalow in a 4-bed dorm, but as I went up the steps, the balcony overlooking Pai blew me away.
I showered and sat on the balcony camera in hand waiting for the sun to go down over the distant mountains.
It was getting dark so I quickly headed into town for supplies and came back to meet the other guests. A huge campfire was lit, and we went and sat on the benches surrounding it, beers in hand, and talked long into the night. It was around 3am before I dragged myself to bed, knowing I’d had to do the long journey back the next day, I was told though that there are 2 waterfalls in the vicinity that are free to go and see, which would also take some time – I’d have to leave for Chiang Mai no later than 12:00 otherwise it would get too cold and potentially dark on the way back.
I woke up around 8, feeling a bit worse for wear, so had a stodgy breakfast and coffee, and then sat gathering my thoughts. Chatted to the guesthouse owner, Darling, and Peter the husband and Sophie his niece, before checking out, thanking them for the experience and heading to the Mor Paeng waterfall. These were the worst roads I’ve come across yet, potholes the size of two pillows stacked on top of each other, and camoflaged in the shadow of trees, so it was slow going. Passed by one lady who made a ‘cigarette to mouth’ gesture. I was smoking so I presumed she wanted one, I asked and she said “no, ganja?”.. Uhm, no thanks, and on my way.. Another lady up the road gestured the same but I declined, and then before long the waterfall was close.
I arrived to the parking area and a guy, Italian, or French maybe took a dirt track to the left.. Thinking this was the way to the waterfall I went up there, steep as hell, rocky, came close to the guy and asked where the waterfall is, he told me it was back the way I came so I tried to turn the bike around.. what a disaster, the bike toppled left, so I only had control of the accelerator handle, revving the enging all to hell gashing my leg on the way down and worst of all scratching the front fender and left wing mirror slightly (there goes the deposit, or some of it). Cursing myself and in sight of the guy, feeling foolish, leg bleeding and hurting, I picked up the bike and dusted myself off before getting to the parking area.
From the parking area it was a short, but slippery walk to the waterfall, there was a family there and I wasn’t so impressed by the fall itself, but I sat there quietly contemplating life and listening to the water flowing and taking pictures. One of the family’s children was naked so I couldn’t shoot the whole scene, luckily they weren’t in key positions to ruin the photos I took.
It was around 12, so I scrambled back up to the bike, and rode back slowly over the treacherous roads to Pai. I drove around Pai trying to work out which direction Chiang Mai was, eventually found a signpost and followed it, stopping to fully refuel along the way.
One of the things I really wanted to do whilst in Thailand was experiment with my photography, I’ve done HDR before but I gave up for a long while, with such beautiful scenery around, and having shot most of it on the way up here, I thought on the way back I’d shoot some HDR photos. Cautious that I’d set off for Chiang Mai later than the previous day setting off for Pai, I knew I’d have to hurry up and stop less. Stupidly I’d found the last night that I’d actually packed an extra shirt and pair of trousers, and knowing what it was like on the way up, I wore everything I had for the way back down.
I also saw the porsches on the return leg of their journey!
I had another near death experience, some idiot was overtaking on a hairpin, despite the no overtaking signs, I had undercut the curve on the opposite side and couldn’t see what was coming, luckily though I evened out and missed the minivan, both of us going around 30, by a few inches. That was it, no more cutting on to the wrong side to save some time.
Slightly warmer than the last time, though I’m not sure if it was because it was a different level of sunlight at a different time of day, I made it back to Chiang Mai in less than it took me to get to Pai, around 4 and a half hours total.. I went to grab my backpack which luckily still had my laptop and everything in, moved onto my next place, the Mojito Gardens 2, checked in, showered, and relaxed..