Monday, August 2, 2010

Thailand - Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son Loop by Motorcycle

Bangkok was as one would expect -- a major urban city buzzing with activity, with lots of characters, scams, temples, with same amount of energy as a locomotive trapped inside a glass bottle.  The political situation was calm and there were no signs of protesters or army officials, which is basically what we were told to expect before we arrived.

We took every method imaginable to get around the city from river rides, to the urban overhead sky-train, down below on the underground MRT (subway), on three-wheeled gas powered scam loving Tuk Tuks, and on foot.  Jake and I quickly decided Bangkok wasn't our scene, but we did check out a few of the major attractions while we were there. 

We checked out a few of the famous Wats, or temples as we would call them, a few savory markets, and went to one of the world's largest snake farms. The snake farm is a research facility where anti-venom is studied and created. We also got to see a couple of insaneThai guys play with cobras.

Since Bangkok is the sex change capital of the world, there was no way we could miss the sex change factory.  Jake even opted to turn into a girl for a day since it was so cheap...while in Rome they say. Only kidding. 

After a couple of nights in the Khao San flea pit (the main backpacker area) we decided to head north to Chiang Mai on an overnight sleeper train.  It was a great and new experience as well as being an efficient way to travel and save a day by traveling at night. 

Chiang Mai is revered by the Thai for its cultural heritage and its salute to the old way of living. For us, it was just a break from dirty Bangkok.  One night we decided to go to a Mui Thai kickboxing match to watch a headline fight between a Myanmar and Thai guy.  Most of these guys were tiny, but had huge legs and threw some impressive blows.

Jake and I were joking as to whether we would get into the ring with these guys (the weight classes started at around 120lb and ended at 160lb), and after watching a few high kicks we were both like "no way" (little did I know that before the end of the night, Jake would enter the ring for two rounds). Later we spoke to one of the 130 lb kick boxers, and joked about getting into the ring... he said "no problem...I go see," and asked the ring announcer.  For 400 baht ($12) he lined Jake up for the next fight. After having several beers and some Thai rum, I knew better and was not about to let the liquid courage convince me that I could take a trained Thai kickboxer (even if he was 5ft 7in.), especially in my current state. 

Jake had some training and boxing experience and was eager to test his skills against one of the Thais so I made him sign his will over to me before entering the ring. Jake and the fighter agreed on the conditions: No Kicks, No elbows, No knees, and big gloves. I think he assumed Jake was going to be an in-experienced tourist, but figured out pretty quickly that he knew how to box. I have a good feeling that if there were kicks, elbows, and knees, Jake might have two black eyes and a concussion right now...but amazingly, he was able to go both rounds, dropping him on two separate occasions, and finish him off with an impressive flurry of jabs, crosses, and uppercuts. Pretty neat experience, crowd was into it, and not many can say that they got into a ring with a Muay Thai kickboxer for 2 rounds...especially to put the hammer down like Jake did.  Truely impressive.  Here's a video of the finish:

After doing some research on things to do in northern Thailand, Jake and I came across the Mae Hong Son loop, which is said to be one of South East Asia's motorcylce riding meccas.  The loop is probably the most popular riding route in Thailand.  Almost 600 km in total, the Mae Hong Son loop is also known as the road of 1000 hairpin bends. Besides exhilarating turns on well-paved roads, the loop passes through scenic mountain regions blessed with points of interest such as caves, waterfalls, national parks, hot springs, temples and hill tribe villages. 

Mae Hong Son Loop
This sounded like exactly the type of trip we needed to help us escape the heat and hustle of over-hyped Bangkok.  Anyhow, Jake and I found some "motorcyles", well in the US they are actually mopeds...but here 125cc is as large as you need and there are a lot smaller bikes all over the road.

Traffic here is interesting... driving on the left takes some getting used to mentally, and just the chaos of the road is daunting. Motorcycles can go between cars while stopped, and when you are driving it seems like there are always 10 thai motorcyclers zooming past you on all sides. Interesting to say the least. But they are definitely the way to get around.

 Our route took us counterclockwise from Chiang Mai to the laid back hippy enclave of Pai, then onto Mae Hong Son, and later skirting the Myanmar (formerly Burma) border to Mai Sariang, and finally back to Chiang Mai.  Northern Thailand was at one time well known for its large role in the world's opium trade, but has since substituted other cash crops in place of the poppy flower.  I bet the local farmers were excited when they found out they had to trade in their poppy plants for legit crops. 

The route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son was built during WWII by the Japanese, who forced villagers to complete the road to allow better access to neighboring Burma. Burma was occupied by the British at the time and was later attackd by the Japanese.  Interesting stuff.

The Mae Hong Son loop provides a good opportunity to visit North Thailand’s rugged north-west frontier. This region of Thailand is also home to the famous Karen hill tribe. If the name does not ring a bell, the images of women with long necks adorned with brass rings would probably be more familiar.

Pai - Our first stop

During our first day in Pai, we went riding through the countryside to a local canyon which had some neatly carved out mountain tops used as trails.We then went to an elephant camp (elephants were a large part of the Thai culture and workforce before machines were popular) and were able to take the elephants down to the local stream and play. They were huge and the one they let us ride was even more massive than the others.

To get up on the elephant they lifted us up with their trunk onto their head and then we climbed the rest of the way up. The ride was basically bareback (on a small blanket), and quite scary as we had to be 8-10 ft up since there's nothing to hold onto.

Our elephant was constantly eating any plants it could find on the way to the stream and was playful when we got there.  We took turns sitting near his head and the trainer would yell a command for him to either spray us with water from his trunk or throw us off.  We got to feed the elephants as well, which basically felt like being groped by a wet vacuum cleaner. Pretty wild...
Getting tossed by an elephant is as fun as it looks

The food in Thailand is some of the best I've ever tasted without even exaggerating.  And this is coming from a guy who ate only PB&J's until I was 20 and started eating salad just a few years ago.  Jake and I decided to try a cooking class to learn how to prepare some of our favorite local meals in hopes of impressing our lady friends back home.  

First, we took a trip to a local market to gather the many ingredients.  The market had all kinds of food from fried chickens (including the heads, feet, you name it), to whole pig ears, wasp larvae, quail eggs, and lots of other vegetables, herbs, and spices.  We made 5 different dishes which included: Green Chicken Curry (the best), Tom Yam Soup (spicy prawn soup), Pad Thai, Stir-Fried veggies, and Sweet Sticky Rice with Coconut Milk and Mango for dessert.  It was ridiculously good and all made from scratch.  We discovered that we're such good cooks that we may even open our own Thai restaurant back home -- watch out Basil.     

Tomorrow we leave Pai to continue the rest of the loop which will take us only a few miles from the border with Burma.

Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang and back to Chiang Mai

After two days in Pai,  we got back on the Mae Hong Son loop with the motorcycles and it was incredible. I had no idea that Northern Thailand would be such a motorcyclist's paradise. The roads were great by US standards, 1864 curves (perfect for the bikes... I have tons of video and pictures, but something is wrong with my camera at the moment and I'm unable to upload so here's a video from youtube ).
The scenery was incredible.  Flooded rice fields with the most vibrant greens I've ever seen, surrounded in tall mist covered mountains...amazing.  It was a bit rainy, and would rain hard at least once per day, but we had rain gear (thankfully I am the son of an ever-prepared father who has never ventured outside without rain gear) and were often dried out quickly. It was a bit cold when we got to the tops of the mountains (50's F), but other than that it was spectacular. We went from Pai to Mae Hong Son, then to Mae Sariang... the further we went the less tourists we saw. Mae Sariang the level of English speaking locals went way down. The towns were a mix of Thai and a local mountain people "Karen" who were refugees from Burma. 

Next we are on to Laos...we have to catch a couple buses to Chaing Khong, then taking a  2 day slow boat down the mighty mud filled Mekong river (Southeast Asia's largest river) to Laos ( The scenery is supposed to be great and there's no better way to see the country than a slow boat through the country's heart.  The only problem is that the boats are generally overcrowded and the painfully uncomfortable especially with our abnormally large (at least in Asia) western body frames.  The boat is filled with rows of tiny, straight back, wooden bench seats of which we'll spend a masochistic total of 16 hours sitting on.   However, being the clever lads that we are, we bought cheap hammocks to hang up for the ride.  Will give an update once we get to Luang Prabang in Laos.

1 comment:

  1. can you please give reccomended cooking class contact?