I awoke yesterday in the town of Mae Hong Son. Which is okay because I went to sleep there too. I was halfway through the Mae Hong Son loop:
"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."
This was precisely what I was looking for. A 600 kilometer loop around northern Thailand that I could do on motorbike, stopping where I wanted. Kiesha was off doing a 14-day meditation retreat called Vipassana, so I went alone.
Chiang Mai is great, but in many ways a town is a town is a town. Getting off the beaten path and exploring is part of what I am out here for. A huge thanks to Tres Spicher for recommending this excellent adventure. A new goal while out here, I had recently decided, was to focus on aspects of my personality that I want to change so that I can improve and try to become a better person. After all, I have both the time and opportunity to really delve into these things.
Anyway, I had fun in Mae Hong Son but it felt time to move on. One of the reasons I prefer indefinite traveling is the ability to do that, to stay somewhere until you feel it's time to press on, rather than rushing from place to place like I did a year ago in Europe.
The next stop was Sop Pong, a short 77km drive on the last leg of the loop returning to Chiang Mai. Yesterday the plan was to head to Susa Waterfall with a lovely French girl named Flore, but sold out buses to Bangkok changed her plans. Since it was on the way to Sop Pong, I would go the following day. Taking highway 108 north out of town, I pass by construction.
Before long, the forest recedes into the background and I am offered this glorious view.
The road in the above photo leads to a forest monastery to practice Vipassana. The other direction leads to the waterfall. I pass through a typically large sign of the King and Queen and into a small village. People look at me in one of two distinctive ways: the first is with bewilderment, like I was a cat that suddenly started walking on two legs. The other is with utter disregard. Not in a dismissive way, just as another human being, no more or less interesting than the next.
After passing through the village I see a sign that says SUSA WATERFALL. It says some things in Thai along with the number 8, which I take to mean that the waterfall is eight kilometers away. Unfortunately, Google Translate can not yet translate photos of the Thai language to English, a tool which was incredibly helpful in Europe. I mean, I could type in the characters, which look like this if you don't know:
But ain't nobody got time for that. So I reset the trip on my bike, an important reminder as you never know when a sign will be missing, covered by trees or emotionally stunted. Like many places, things are not as braindead simple as they are in the US, which is fine as long as you're smart about it. Which sometimes I'm not. So I start the trek, and the paved road quickly ends. Keep in mind, I don't have exactly have a dirtbike here.
The road has three features: it is steep, eroded by water in parts and gravely. Which is to say it contains gravel, but the other definition isn't bad either.
At this point I have maybe 700 kilometers under my belt from various excursions on the bike, so I feel confident. I take turns slowly and stick my feet out when things look dodgy so I can balance myself if something were to go awry. Naturally I am wearing the recommended protective gear: swimshorts, a t-shirt and flip flops. At one particular turn, my precautions prove insufficient and the bike begins to slide. I sense that it's going down so I hop off and land on my feet like a two-legged cat. The bike lands with a thud on a handlebar's end. Suddenly I am glad that Flore was not on the back as she or I or both could have easily been injured with the additional complexities of a second person. For better or worse, I am not daunted by such things so I pick the bike back up and continue on my way. I'm one kilometer into the one-way distance of eight.
After some slow-going, eventually I hear some water up ahead. It's the river flowing over the path.
I stop and get off the bike to inspect. It's not very deep, maybe three inches, and must be designed this way as the river has no other way to flow. I start the bike back up and glide through. There are three more such crossings, each one deeper than the last. I make it through all of them unscathed, though on occasion the back tire slides unnervingly.
At 4 kilometers in I reach a bridge, along with a sign that I can't make sense of. Maybe 8 was the round trip distance? I walk through an overgrown path to get to the bridge.
But quickly find that there is nothing on the other side. No path, no signs, no crocodiles, nothing. So I hop back on the bike and continue down the dirt path, which eventually becomes level with the river and a clearing appears on the left. A family is there, fishing and having a picnic. A Thai man walks towards me and smiles, saying Hello! and waving. I return the gesture and keep going. A while later I notice I have passed 8km. Thus begins the "Well how far do I go before giving up?" thought process. I've been down this road before. Well, not this exact road, but I've followed signs with clear indicators of how far something is only to never find the thing. It happens more often than you might think.
I pass a boy fishing and he shoots me a look that, to me, says Boy, just where do you think you are? But is that really what his glare says? And why is he non-verbally calling me a boy? And where the hell was I?
My concern was short-lived as I hear unexpected dance music blaring from a truck on the right and see a gate up ahead. In no way did I expect to actually find people here, let alone structures and dance music. It must be one family that lives here. I stop at the gate and a man runs up, telling me it's 200 baht to get in. Even though that's less than $6, it's more than I want to pay. Six weeks in Thailand have altered my expectations of cost. But after the journey to get here, I wasn't going to turn back now. So I paid the man and drove under the gate.
500 meters later I arrive at a parking lot bereft of vehicles. There is a bridge over the water, exactly like the last one. I can see the beginnings of a waterfall down the river, on the other side, so I cross the bridge. There is a path and I follow it. I immediately notice that the path is overgrown and so I grab a stick to wave in front of me as a protection against walking face-first into a spiderweb, which definitely makes my top 10 list of shit I don't ever want to happen. My arachnophobia is real, especially with some of the meaner-looking ones I've seen in northern Thailand. I soon arrive at another bridge I guess you could call it, of the bamboo and log variety:
The drop is only about six feet but it's enough. I walk across balancing with my arms. My flop hits a slick patch and slides a little but I recover and make it safely across. There have been a number of signs on this trip, most of which have said "Don't come here". The entire day has actually been festooned with them. And I have noted them, but decided to press on nonetheless.
After the bridge the trail gets more faint and gives the distinctive impression that people have not been here recently. I chalk this up to it being difficult to reach and that people, in fact, have not been here in a while. So I brush past plants and duck under long stretches of arched bamboo. I keep hearing water only to discover that it's just a small stream amplified by the jungle. And I realize that I'm actually in a jungle when I hear some wild jungle bird I've never heard before. I am sweating profusely and having two primary thoughts. One, this is probably not the path and two, it's only a matter of time before I make some kind of contact with a spider, mostly likely by it crawling over my scantily clad foot while I contemplate my next move and possibly shriek.
I look at the tracks in the mud, which at a previous glance contained many footprints and ushered me on. Except now I notice that they are most definitely animal prints that merely resemble shoes on casual inspection and that I am on an animal trail. So I turn around and return, unintentionally finding a different path which produces the thought Well, I can always just follow the river back, but I reach the mini-bridge a short time later and cross it very slowly, using the bamboo this time, convinced that it will collapse at any moment. I reach the other side of the real bridge and start walking up the river to see a sign that says WATERFALL. And I think, WHY DO YOU HAVE THESE POINTLESS BRIDGES, THAILAND?
I reach stairs, which is to say blocks carved out of the mud with a bamboo railing that is out of any normal human's wingspan. I walk down and contemplate the river.
Surely people get in and swim to the waterfalls.
I mean, that's what people do at waterfalls.
But what about river snakes? And piranhas?
I get in and frolic, only staying for a half hour, taking photos of the butterflies.
I often don't mind doing things alone, and for the last week I've mostly been surrounded by great people, but certain activities, such as hanging out at a waterfall, are just better with people. So I head out. On the way back, I am struck by a beautiful view of a mountain and its surrounding lushness that I had not noticed on the way in. I involuntarily gasp and say only "Wow". I take a photo but it's shit. I get off the bike to take it in, noticing with unease that the mountain is, in fact, undulating. It zooms in and out kind of like a Magic Eye painting and it makes absolutely no sense. It must be some kind of optical illusion, but I've never seen anything like it. I try blinking my eyes and shaking my head but the wavering effect persists. I don't know what else to say about this. I start up the bike and continue on. As I'm passing through the village, a boy rides by giving me a funny look that is the amalgam of every smirk of every childhood friend I had.
The road to Sop Pong is breathtaking. There are many curves in the road, the air is fresh and there are mountains all around. One odd thing I've noticed about this loop is that there are very few pulloffs - areas to pull over and enjoy an unobstructed view. I pass by a particularly beautiful spot and move my bike over enough to hopefully avoid being creamed by a passing truck. I take this panoramic shot, fully content with a day that is half over.