by Scott Jones
Half of why I live in Thailand is for the motorcycling. The other half is for the succulent food. Another half is the weather that allows year-round riding. Another half is the constant smiles and sweet people. Another half is the stunning mountains. Another half is the relaxed pace of life. Wait, that’s more than a whole. Well, it’s a whole different world over here. Four years ago, I started a ten-country trip around the world, hit China and Vietnam, but then Thailand got in the way. I started the nonprofit organization Give and Live, to help kids that really need it. I’m here for the long haul, and it will be on a bike.
In January 2007, thirteen American riders came for the 11-day, 1,300-mile, Give-Live-Ride Thailand Charity Motorcycle Tour, to taste Thailand and to raise money for Children’s Garden orphanage near Chiangmai. They thawed out on the 24-hour journey as they lost one day to gain an experience of a lifetime. Most arrived in time to wander through Chiangmai’s Sunday Market. A thousand vendors sell clothing, art, silverwork and teak carvings. Countless stalls serve Thai dishes: corn on the cob or hot kernels mixed with sugar, butter, salt and chocolate bits; “ancient” ice cream, baby bee omelets, fried grasshoppers, worms and scorpions; plus food made from every molecule of the pig.
Monday we sort out the bikes, Honda Super 4s. These are 400 or 750cc half-breed sport/naked bikes sold mainly in Asia, that are light and agile on the curves. Even ridden two-up, they have ample power for the mountains. You sit comfortably upright with your feet on pegs right below your body. I lent my Super 4 to friends and choose to ride my 2006 Harley Sportster XL1200, purchased in Bangkok for less than it would cost to get one here from America—legally—but without the $20,000 customs surcharge. I ride it where Harleys shouldn’t go, but it’s limber, with enough torque for the amazing roads that snake up Thailand’s highest peaks.
That evening over a Thai feast, I deliver an orientation lesson (with photos so they’ll believe me) reminding riders to chant “left, left, left” since that’s the right side of the road here. I also warn the riders of potholes the size of Connecticut that lurk in the afternoon shadows and the Tourist Vans from Hell that like to take home bikes on their front fenders.
Thailand has a choice network of grand paved roads throughout the country. Just when you’re lulled into The Zone Of Expectation That It Will Be The Same Around The Next Curve, the road will have mysteriously disappeared into the mud or have been sucked into space by aliens. In the boonies, roads are drying grounds for whatever the natives have just hacked out of the field or jungle. You can sail around the bend on your perfect road to be confronted with 100 yards of rice drying in your lane, or by large, steaming piles of elephant excrement, neither of which are normally covered in a Motorcycle Safety Course.
Tuesday morning we’re ready to head out, baggage in two support vehicles, with a cheerful mechanic, spare parts and an extra Super 4. I dismount to remind riders to burn their headlights, hear a scream and turn to see a truck has backed into my Harley. It now leans precariously to the right, barely held up by my 88-pound Thai mate standing on the left side of the bike, who has transformed into Wonder Woman without the costume. While the Harley survives, I lose a year off my life. We ride tight through the insane traffic, where “lanes” are imaginary concepts unknown to the millions of 125cc scooters carrying one to seven people or animals, “tuk-tuks” (three-wheeled Thai Taxis of Death), cars, trucks, buses and grandfather-powered push-carts. In a few miles, the city gives way to small villages, fields and jungle on exquisite roads around the Doi Sutep mountain that borders the west side of Chiangmai—from chaos to nirvana. After an hour of splendid riding, I can almost hear the riders’ smiles underneath their helmets. After unending twisties and corkscrews, we stop at a restaurant for a sumptuous feast.
A thirty-mile ride brings us to Children’s Garden orphanage to meet the kids and see the construction of the new dorm financed by the tour that we’ll paint upon our return. At first the kids are self-conscious with tall foreign people who they semi-understand help them through Give and Live’s Dollar-a-day Sponsorship Program, but soon the shyness and language barriers melt away, replaced by spontaneous games of thumb-wrestling, which I believe I personally introduced to Thailand. It’s hard to leave, but it’s a fifteen-mile, dark ride into crazy Chiangmai traffic.
Wednesday we’re off on a 100-mile ride through mountains, rice fields and waterfalls to the town of Phayao on the shore of northern Thailand’s largest lake. I’m perplexed at how I’ll manage a group whose members tell me, all in one day, “Hey, what’s your hurry? I want to take pictures,” “I wanna ride fast, man,” “I’m hungry!” “I’ve got to go potty!” “I’m thirsty!” “Ron’s looking at me!!!” Next time I’ll give them a map, directions and a Buddha charm, then meet them for the farewell dinner. A bountiful banquet, awards and traditional Thai dancers fill out the evening at the Moonlight Café overlooking the lake. Each night prizes, are awarded in several evolving categories, such as the Ralph Award for sick boys and girls, the Ba-Ba Award (“ba-ba” in Thai means crazy), the PAY (Pissed At You) Award which involves a cash penalty and the IB (I’m Back!) Award. Minnesota Ritchie receives both the Ralph Award and the IB Award since he missed the previous day because he was sick, then, in spite of some 40-years of biking experience, went down a half-mile after starting, but finished the day healthy and in high spirits.
Thursday is a long ride, though 150 miles, which would be a piece o’ cake in the USA. When you have small villages, intense altitude gain, a few hundred twisties, and grand landscapes all day long, it takes as long as it takes. After lunch at the top of the world on Phu Chee Fah Mountain, we roll into Chiang Khong at dusk and settle into a modern hotel on the banks of the Mekong River, each room with an outdoor balcony facing the river.
After a cool breakfast watching Laos appear through the mist, a river ride along the Mekong takes us to The Opium Museum in the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma collide. Opium still comes out of this area, but through the King and Queen’s Royal Projects, cabbages are replacing poppy plants. Lunch is riverside in Mae Sai, with Burma a few wet feet away. Mae Sai is a busy border town selling dried mushrooms, gems, electronic goods, Chinese whatever and counterfeit DVDs of movies barely released in the USA. These are sometimes filmed with smuggled video cameras in the backs of theaters, complete with silhouettes of people getting up from their seats. The sun sets at our hotel in Mae Salong after several taxing corkscrews on the way up to this very Chinese, tea-growing, mountain village. The markets are teeming with Akha hill tribe ladies selling their wares, and kids frolicking in their traditional kaleidoscope outfits. We stay for two nights, giving the riders an opportunity to do laundry, sample tea, ride to the magnificent Mae Fa Luang Gardens, or sleep late.
I forced many out of bed before dawn to check out the morning Akha market. You just cannot experience this in Minnesota: crispy geometric doughnuts, hot banana something packed in something else, 400-year-old ladies selling roots, leaves, herbs and grass cuttings, or a whole, skinned pig draped over the back of a scooter.
Sunday doles out screaming twisties that level off by another river, then thirty miles on the four-lane and a bypass around Fang, where you can ride as fast as your bike will take you before turning up towards Doi Ang Khang, Thailand’s second highest mountain. If you want to ride steep curves like these in Minneapolis, you’d have to ride up a skyscraper. Ostrich is a lunch option at the top, but not for our lone vegan rider who doesn’t even eat fish sauce, which is absolutely omnipresent in Thailand, including in the air you breathe.
It’s a day of repairs. One bike dies early on, replaced by the spare. Then the 4WD support vehicle gives up on top of the pass. Left for the rental company to sort out, we pile everything into the other truck and make it to Malee’s Nature Lovers Bungalows after dark, nestled in the shadows of Chiang Dao Mountain, Thailand’s fourth highest.
The hardest part of the trip is leaving each wonderful place. You could spend a week at Malee’s with caving, bird-watching, temple-hiking and vegetating, but we head to Pai, a chill-out, Thai/international village teeming with Lisu hill tribes, Muslim shopkeepers and modern hippies from around the globe. After an elephant ride that deposits us back at our guest house, fire lanterns fill the sky before a dip in the hot mineral spa and deep sleep.
Tuesday we ride over a couple mountain ranges to Mae Hong Song, to stay two days at Sang Tong Huts. These huts on stilts are nestled on a hillside in a teak forest. At night, what you think is rain is just the dew dropping from the huge teak leaves onto your thatched roof. Most of the riders want to live here forever. The next morning, many riders take a long-tail boat to a long-neck Karen hill tribe village. That night, we feast on pizzas handmade by us and fired in an earthen oven before consuming several hundred Singha beers.
Thursday is Final Exam Day—every rider is on their own. “Here are your directions. Meet me at the guest house.” Though the scenery is routinely stunning, today is about the ride. The road south is perfection, with sleek curves that feel like you’re water-skiing on a mirror lake. At the turn, the road deteriorates and we eke up one muddy hill under construction that almost takes Harley down. I lose another year off my life. We head for Mae Chaem, a speck of a town tucked under the peaks of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. Our dinner options are chicken-feet casserole at the local market or sit-down dinner at the only restaurant open after dark. We chose the latter. The restaurant served great local food, outdoor dining and karaoke. Luckily, the words are all in Thai, so only our driver and mechanic do the deed. Like all Thais that seem to come out of the womb cooking, singing and riding a motorcycle, they were awesome.
Sigh, the last day. The road over Doi Inthanon and back to Chiangmai throws everything at us, from four-lanes, to parabolic curves, to corkscrews so tight that you wonder if your bike is short enough to maneuver them. We lunch on fresh fruit and vegetables at the Hmong market in the national park, before cruising back to Chiangmai to enjoy a hot shower then a festive farewell banquet. Some riders stay to help paint the new dorm at Children’s Garden; four head home with plans of moving here.
This is an extraordinarily fun ride, but also one of service from the heart. Each rider raises about $2,500 for the kids and pays their own expenses—we just plan the tour, lodging and bike rentals. We’re repeating this one in November 2007 and have a new route planned for January 2008. Join us. Help us help the kids. Advice as you’re packing? Sell all your worldly goods or put them in storage before you come so you don’t have to go back and do it. Life is short. Make it wide. (Info at www.giveandlive.org)