Turning left onto Route 1095 in Northern Thailand is an unforgettable experience.
Chiang Mai’s insane traffic is soon forgotten, a large green sign announces the distance to Pai, and a perfectly paved straight road stretches out in front of you. The throttle just begs for a sharp twist — I oblige.
Workers beneath conical hats toil in mucky rice paddies on each side of the road. A buffalo waves its tail at some flies. Green mountains in the distance promise one hell of a winding ride and the prospect of a new town, new people, and new adventures.
While this is my third visit to the little riverside town of Pai, the four-hour drive from the big city is just as enjoyable as it was the first time I tried it in 2006. Only this time I was smart enough to fill up at one of the roadside petrol barrels half way there so I wouldn’t have to push my ride into town.
The scooter buzzes along with little protest and my shirt is splattered with sizable insects. At 70 km per hour, they sting like bees. My teeth chatter when I hit the highest point in the mountains and my eyes tear up with cold air.
Higher in the mountains, I pass through pine forests that smell just like the national parks at home. Kentucky is on my mind when I roll into the first security checkpoint.
Soldiers man the roadblock, sun-darkened youngsters with M-16s and berets. The first of hints that I’m not too terribly far from the border with Myanmar. I know from experience that there’s nothing to be nervous about, but the motorbike rental has my passport so I have no identification, and I signed a contract saying I wouldn’t drive my bike out of town.
Really, it’s more about seeing the old M16A2s that I once carried; they bring back blood-tingling memories; I know the exact weight, smell, and could probably disassemble it quicker than most of these guys.
I slow a little, a young soldier smiles, I nod, and hit the throttle again, leaving them in a puff of gray smoke. No hassle, no bribe or explanation necessary. I love Thailand.
More peculiar smells coming from my scooter; what did that old woman pump into my fuel tank anyway?
A stop at a small cafe for fried rice; jasmine tea warms my blood. The smiling woman has only one tooth and shows it to me repeatedly. She’s incredibly happy to hear a foreigner speak pitiful Thai rather than having to embarrass herself with attempting to speak English.
I don’t linger. Rain clouds have replaced my blue sky and I’ve got Pai on my mind.
With all sounds drowned out other than RPMs and the occasional whoosh of passing vehicles, I’m in a pure state of Zen. I push each twist of the road to the limit. There is no danger of ending as roadkill because I’m not just a visitor to this moment, I am the moment.
For a while I fancy myself on a motorbike with a few more CCs than my scooter and realize this is the true meaning of vagabonding. Of life itself. Nearing a state of enlightenment where both myself and my motorbike transform back into a state of pure energy…
…a 16-year-old Thai girl with hair in pigtails passes me on her scooter while texting on the phone. The Hello Kitty stickers are just a blur. And so that’s just the way it just goes sometimes in Asia.
I recover my dignity and roll into Pai with time to spare, and once again I’m blown away at how much the once-tiny place has grown. Signs for tourist places stretch out for miles before I actually get to town.
When I dismount my ride, I walk like a sore cowboy and my hand is permanently twisted into the shape of a throttle.
Needless to say, most of the hippies that once made Pai so appealing, have packed up and left. Thankfully, they did leave the vibe behind; there’s no shortage of organic cafes, healthy and not-so-healthy drinks, and retreats with names like ‘The Womb’.
I enjoy a great reunion with Jessie from Travel This and Cheryl Pinebox, friends from years past, and find myself in a $3 bungalow on the brown river where I am outnumbered by resident snails at least 10:1.
Although they seem harmless enough, I wonder what the repercussions will be if I accidentally step on one. Will they seek out some slow, slimy revenge?
I can hear the river spilling over rocks at night.
After a sleepless night of wondering what keeps testing my mozzie net for weaknesses in hopes to bite me — it has to be a bat rather than a mosquito — and squishing at least one slug between my toes on pitch-black trips to the toilet, I move into town for a little room in a friendly guesthouse — also $3 a night.
One of the best things about Pai? The mushrooms. Not the kind that transform your friends into giggling teddy bears or fanged monsters depending upon their personalities, the kind that keeps you alive. Ugly and unpretentious, my favorite little edible grows out of nothing, out of wet and decaying tree stumps. When you eat wild mushrooms, you are essentially eating the forest itself.
Simply put, Pai is healthy hippie food heaven. Herbal teas are served in refillable bamboo tubes, fresh veggies are everywhere, and the mushrooms are life changing. I could probably have extended my life a day or two eating the food in Pai had I not closed the party at sunrise nearly every night.
I guess you win some and lose some.
I did manage to enjoy some philosophical discussions about the universe with Jessie and Cheryl, meet some great new friends, find the best punk rock bar in Thailand, attend a groovy art happening with music and dancing, and was even reminded that life goes on even without a keyboard (the laptop was locked up back in the city).
And all this time I thought my survival depended upon a Wi-Fi signal.
Ten days later, I was back in the saddle, speeding toward Chiang Mai. Scooters in Thailand know me and fear me.
On the ride back to the city, the smell of clean air was contaminated with the reek of burning oil, no doubt squeezing through a blown engine head gasket somewhere beneath my sore bottom.
While I’ve never crashed a motorbike to earn my ‘Thai tattoo’ of road rash, I rarely return them in working condition. It really isn’t my fault. The small engines are made for short runs to the local 7-11 for MSG snacks rather than Zen-inducing road trips.
I stopped several times through the mountains to pour water over my smoldering engine — it was bound to explode at some point. When I ran out of water, Mother Nature did her part and then some with a monsoon rain that slowed me to a crawl. My Overboard waterproof backpack really came in handy.
I arrived back into Chiang Mai soaked to the bone, sunburned, shivering, filthy, and grinning from ear to ear. The woman at the rental agency never said a word and forked over my passport when I handed over the keys.
It’s better for both of us that way.
Life is good. Aside from reoccurring nightmares of one impressively grotesque public toilet I was forced to use along the way. [you were warned]