Somewhat reluctantly, we did manage to leave the lovely Chiang Dao, and continued on our way to Chiang Mai. It was an easy drive along mainly scenic roads, and we quickly found the guesthouse at which we had made a reservation. The name Chiang Mai translates as “new city”, although in this case it actually refers to when it superceeded Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, all the way back in 1296. Today it is exceedingly popular with Thai and foreign tourists alike, with hordes of visitors each year drawn by its shopping, temples and museums.
However, sightseeing was not our main object, and this was for the most part to be a practical stop. Over a few days we collected our almost brand new front tyre (very kindly gifted to us and posted to Chiang Mai by the KTM rider we had met in Laos), had it fitted, stocked up on medicines and supplies, purchased a multimetre (prompted by our Konglor breakdown experience), and of course ate a lot of good food. Most importantly we also had the bike washed, which was previously unheard of for us. The guys at the car-wash had done such a good job that Oli willingly paid a little extra, and we were shocked to be reminded of the original colours of some components.
The easy availability of pretty much everything in Thailand is still a novelty for us, and it felt good to get a few much needed jobs done. Sadly however, one thing we did not manage to sort was purchasing new motorbike jeans for Oli, so it appears that he is going to have to continue looking like a tramp until we get to Malaysia.
Whilst Oli was occupied with the bike jobs that did not require my assistance, I enjoyed relaxing in the pleasant courtyard of our guesthouse. Very much missing the dogs at home, I was delighted to find that the guesthouse was also occupied by the owners' ridiculously sweet golden retriever. She was very shy at first, but realising that I could serve as a bountiful well of attention, quickly got over her nerves. The courtyard provided a pleasant and shady resting spot, and we felt lucky that we had picked such a great place to stay.
Buoyed by our success at getting the majority of our jobs sorted, we decided to have a celebratory beer at a bar / restaurant known as Rider's Corner. They had kindly taken delivery of our tyre for us, and it is also a popular place for motorbike travellers, so it seemed only right to go for some food and an alcoholic beverage.
As we finished a satisfying dinner, an older lady came and introduced herself, as Phil (the owner) had told her about our trip. It turned out that she had done plenty of motorbike travelling herself, starting in the 1960s and including a solo trip through Africa in the 70s, as well as more recently riding from the U.K. to Australia. She was one amazing woman, and we were tickled to learn that she was currently spending three months in South East Asia, as her license had been temporarily suspended in Australia due to speeding tickets. Not wanting to manage three months in such an enormous country with no car, going travelling instead seemed like the ultimate way of making the best of it! Once again, we were struck by how travelling provides such an opportunity to meet some truly brilliant characters.
The next day was our last in Chiang Mai, and as we had not achieved anything remotely cultural I was determined that we were going to do some sightseeing. Oli spent the morning unsuccessfully trying to get a corroded bolt out of the brake caliper, and even the garage failed to budge it using an impact driver. As it was not an urgent job and can wait until Malaysia, I forced him to leave it alone and to go a-wandering instead.
One of the things Chiang Mai is known for is its temples, so we set out from our guesthouse without a plan, looking forward to what we might stumble across. We were not disappointed, and before long had come across one of the most beautiful and unusual wats that we have seen so far, Wat Lak Moli. The original structure apparently dated from before the year 1367, and it remains an ornate and colourful space. The Buddhist architecture was set off wonderfully by bright flowers, which worked together to make it a beautiful area.
From here, we wandered back along the other side of the main road, where we were rewarded with two more beautiful temples. The first was brilliantly coloured, the dark red and the gold having a bold visual impact. In addition to this, the temple had some highly unusual dragon statues, which made for impressive guardians. After pausing to admire the place, we continued along the road and found ourselves at another unconventional temple. The external walls of this were decorated entirely with tiny mirrored tiles, which made walking past it rather trippy. After ten months on the road our sightseeing stamina is rather low, so we called it a day after this, and instead went home for a pre-dinner rest.
Whilst we had mostly found Chiang Mai to be a pleasant city, we were pleased to leave it. Somewhat lulled by the experience of Luang Prabang, we had been expecting the ancient city to be a little more picturesque. Whilst it is by no means ugly, it appears to have lost a lot of its historical buildings, and much of it looks just like any other large Thai town. The road infrastructure does not seem to have kept pace with increased traffic, and the streets were sometimes choked with it. Bizarrely for a town so popular with tourists, there is almost no provision for pedestrians, and getting across the roads can sometimes feel either like an adventure sport or an exercise in patience. Nevertheless, it had been an enjoyable and productive stop, and we did not regret visiting Chiang Mai in the slightest.
We were setting out to complete part of what is popularly known as the Mae Hong Song loop, or the 1000 Bends Road. As we felt we have ridden plenty of twisty roads, we decided to stick to what we had heard were the prettiest and most interesting parts, rather than completing the full loop for the sake of it. The scenery at first was pleasant but fairly uninspiring, but this all changed as we began to descend one of the mountain passes. Dry forest became a lush, green, seemingly impenetrable jungle, which in places opened up to reveal lofty views across layers of mountains. Excitedly noticing a sign for a viewing point a few hundred metres ahead, we swiftly decided to have a break there.
In the event, the view point was a let down. The surrounding foliage had become overgrown, meaning that far superior vistas could be seen just down the road. Worse, the amount of litter was overwhelming. On the whole we have thought Thailand quite clean when compared with other places we have travelled to, but this was a very sad exception. We decided not to hang around, and happily noticed that the views from the roadside just a few kilometres down the road were far more worthy of a stop. The asphalt snaked along a ridge in a huge sweeping bend, and showed dramatic views to both sides. As we paused to take in the beauty of the scene, three minibuses appeared and proceeded to pause, engines loudly running, whilst the tourists inside snapped pictures out the windows with their camera phones. This did diminish the peace somewhat, but thankfully they did not hang around, and we were once again in glorious solitude.
We spent the evening in a charming small town, Khun Yuam. We made a failed attempt to stay in some nice looking bungalows. The price kept wavering up and down once the owners finally bothered to appear, so we ended up abandoning that place. Enquiries at a second establishment were far more successful. This hotel was surprisingly excellent for £10 a night, and we had a huge room, lovely bathroom and an indulgently comfortable bed. It may sound sad, but having a proper duvet has become a true mark of luxury for us. We managed to find somewhere that served food, and turned in for a good night's sleep.
The fabulous scenery continued today, and we looped and twisted our way along pristine roads. We had been warned that the Mae Hong Song trip may be overrated, and had also been told that the level of traffic might take all the enjoyment out of the challenging roads. However, we are pleased to report that this was not the case for us today. Our route took us cruising past picture perfect sights, towering mountains and awe inspiring views. Although we are firmly in the dry season for this region, we were still lucky enough to be able to enjoy the vivid green of rice paddies against their imposing mountain backdrop.
Rather than heading all the way to Pai, we decided to stop off near the village of Sappong. Some travellers we had met in Laos had recommended us a place to stay, and after winding our way through woodland along a single track road we eventually arrived. Accommodation at Cave Lodge is basic but decent, and it has turned out to be a brilliantly social place. We have spent the evening chatting with the other tourists staying here, and have now retired to our cabin. It is wonderfully quiet, with the only sounds being the singing of the night time insects, and the call of a random bird that sounds lovely and exotic now, but no doubt will be incredibly annoying come three a.m..We are still not 100% decided on where we will go tomorrow, but this is the beauty of having our own transport. One thing is for sure though, we will certainly be enjoying the roads.