Diamond in the Rough: Chiang Dao, Thailand
For our first full weekend in Thailand, we decided to get away. Most of our new acquaintances were heading northwest, to popular rural tourist town, Pai. We felt that joining them would be a blunder. Since we see them on a regular basis, we thought we should disembark, detox, and detour to some other remote Thai location. We wanted a place where we could experience the natural and fierce beauty of the north, a place we could be the only farang, a place away from the sound of traffic, we wanted Chiang Dao.
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that this was a well thought out trip, an insightful choice. It was a) luck and b) just the product of being bad-asses (random success comes with the territory). We woke up Saturday morning to a knock on the door. It was Tom, our new amigo and fellow bad ass. “Get up, we are getting motorcycles” was all that was said, but it lit the fire. We packed a backpack, took a shower, and headed out. After securing motorcycles we headed to the nearest book store for inspiration and perhaps a map. Someone had a vague recollection of a particularly beautiful stretch of road that led to some picturesque villages that would be a perfect mission for our new biker gang. We hoped seeing some names on a map would help, it didn’t. So, Cengiz bought a map of the golden triangle, since it seemed to cover the immediate area north of Chiang Mai and we went to lunch, determined to figure out the itinerary while we fueled up for the day.
During lunch, we threw out the name of just about every city on the map and futilely debated over which to choose (since no one had any idea about any of them, I can’t believe this lasted as long as it did). Meanwhile, I shuffled through Gina’s Thailand guide (we were a foursome) and found mention of a “Pai without the party” (Pai is the popular “rural” get away, not too far from Chiang Mai, that now offers nightlife and any number of organized “adventures”) called Chiang Dao, directly north of Chiang Mai and situated under an impressive mountain. This sounded just as good as any other place we brainstormed and even had a recommendation to back it up, so the choice was easy, the bill was paid and we were off.
WAIT. Not quite. Cengiz just dumped the motorbike. OK, no blood or permanent damage? Now we’re off. It was tough getting out of the city. Thailand doesn’t do traffic lights very often, so there are lots of one way streets and turnarounds that make navigation difficult for a non-native. When you also add the adaptation of driving on the other side of the road and the lack of traffic laws in general, there is enough fear, adrenaline, and information thrown at a driver to freak out any first timer. So, being the overachiever that he is, Cengiz dumped it, AGAIN. This time there was blood, broken glass, and snapped metal, so we had to stop. After buying some really hilariously frivolous band aids, we were back on the road again (somehow the dangling break from the left handlebar was not a successful deterrent). To make sure the blood had as long as possible to ruin his socks and shorts, we were proceeding with extreme caution (and lack of speed), for the rest of the 3 hr. trip. To be honest, we were all a little rattled with the events (Cengiz was, after all, the only one of us to have been on a motorcycle) so the 45 km/hr cruising speed was widely accepted and actually turned out to be a great pace for cruising to the iPod speakers blaring UGK out of my cup holder.
The trip was going very well before our caravan was overcome by a true South East Asian rainstorm. As we were in the middle of nowhere when it hit, we have very few options and elected to brave the elements and press on. After about 20 minutes, the rain subsided, and we found ourselves cruising through a rain forest, rapidly drying in the wind. This is what we came for. The scenery was so beautiful that it was dangerous. It was difficult to keep your eyes on the road, which was also wet, and winding through a precipitous mountainside. Looking out over the trees, we saw mile upon mile of the lushest vegetation on the planet. At one point I found myself counting shades of greens as I scanned the canopy for monkeys. We slowed our pace to a crawl, the curves were intimidating and there was no reason to rush this stretch of road, especially once we found ourselves following a crooked river on our left.
Almost as soon as the picturesque stretch ended, we saw the signs we were looking for, so we followed with a right hand turn and enjoyed the 2 km to Chiang Dao. The city isn’t much. Which, I guess is the point. I ran into a Dutch Pirate (no joke) and he couldn’t recommend anywhere to stay or eat so we grabbed a beer at a local shop to rest our soar necks and hash out a plan for accommodations. I saw a sign for a home stay who’s name seemed familiar, so we scoured the Lonely Planet to confirm. They agreed, “Malee’s” was the place to go, 4 km back up the road we had come, situated right under the mountain.
The home stay was perfect. When we pulled in, we weren’t sure we had the right place, it seemed abandoned. Then, we were greeted by the hounds and a “receptionist.” After being showed some bungalow’s right out of a movie, we quickly payed the man for the night and got started on his refreshingly cold Chang beer collection. It was already pitch black, I could barely see Tom across the table, and after 3+ hrs en route, we were exhausted. Dinner was a distant thought, but one we thought should be heeded none the less. We hesitatingly asked if there would be dinner served that night, it was so dark we were sure it was going to be a difficult request. It was 6:00. Of course there would be dinner, if we could just wait for them to prepare the grill, it would be served within the hour.
The fresh local coals sparked like a pile of flint; the deep reds flying through the air against the pitch black were mesmorizing, like projectile magma from a personal volcano. Exhausted, the four of us faded into the dark silence, entranced by the visuals. We were broken from this moment of rest by a small creature scurrying round behind us in the dark. It jumped up and bit tom. It was a “Peter.” Now “Peters” are the rarest creature I have encountered. They resemble your standard 8 year old Germanic Thai, but they also speak French and English and are fluent in snake hissing, barking, and tiger growling. They climb with the agility of a chimp, can identify any vegetable in the garden, but particularly prefer bananas, and (as any cold blooded creature) enjoy curling up to warm bodies, specifically homestay guests. Peter was our entertainment for much of the night, biting bottles, bodies, and bananas and showing off his mastery of Muay Thai and genital crushing to anyone in his path, no matter the size. Peter’s mom, the unbelievable Malee, is unbelievably amazing. She not only speaks several languages, has a nack for decorating, runs the most efficient guest house I have ever been to, knows first aid, knows everything about the area, and makes friends with other people FOR you, she also has jokes. As she was brutally cleaning Cengiz’s wounds, she would remind him that there would be “no loving tonight, you have to stay off your knees” or that he should go to the hospital, not for medical care, but for “a sexy young nurse.”
After the wounds were cleaned up, we were served with heaping portions of pork cuts, chicken wings, fresh shrimp, squid, salad, pineapple, and a variety of magnificent, home made condiments. It was absolutely delicious. We spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, meeting some fellow visitors, and figuring out that we should hit the sack so that we could be up and chipper for the 5:45 sunrise from Thailand’s most sacred place, the Wat atop the overshadowing mountain next to (and above) us.
Cengiz and I made it up the 500 stairs to the mountain, in pitch black, which was not easy. Most of the climbing was just keeping a rhythm. We couldn’t see the steps but knew the pace and length of each stride so as not to miss the next. Once up the steps we came to a wat, dug into the side of the rocks, with a look out tower lined with and guarded by Thai basilisks. We patiently waited for the sun to show, but were let down. The overcast skies left us with a gradual glow rather than any kind of “breaking of dawn.” However, we were alerted to the exact moment of the sunrise as we were lucky enough to hear th monk alarm clock. At exactly 5:45, when the sun started its rise, a loud high pitch sound crashed out of the jungle. Unwaveringly, it held its note as a symphony of other jungle sounds -chirps, croaks, howls, clicks- joined the note, like an orchestra tuning to the oboe. The morning went from a deafening silence, to an even more astounding roar of sound.
After taking some video and pictures, we headed back down to base camp. Tom was still struggling with the local stomach bug he picked up the evening before and Gina was playing with Peter. We mounted the bikes, loaded up some emergency TP, and took off for home. Cengiz regained his confidence so we ripped through the country side at nearly twice our previous speed. The rush was incredible and the weather couldn’t be more perfect. Along the way we randomly came upon an elephant, grazing near the side of the road. The beast’s hunger and resounding sense of power was intimidating and though it was docile and obliging to our attention, my heart was pounding and my spider senses activated to a state of hyper-alertness. After taking off again at breakneck speed, we found ourselves making ridiculously good time, good enough to warrant a detour at Shri Lanna National Park. We didn’t get to boat out into the lake to the floating house or uncover the park’s waterfalls, but it was a beautiful backdrop for some lunch and a break for our bike sore backs.
When we finally were getting into the city area, we reduces speed with the increased danger of the traffic and things stayed well… for a while. Rain once again started pounding the troupe as we were just entering the city’s center. It was uncomfortable, but we had ridden in it before so we pressed on. The city’s moat, which is now the center of the city’s main avenue, is easily the most difficult traffic for a first time rider. We cautiously entered the avenue and I made the turn to enter our final stretch before dropping the biks off. When I looked in my mirror, no one was following. I pulled over and waited for 5 minutes, hoping my comrades would be following shortly. Nothing. I assumed they took a different route, we had said “if all else fails, meet at the shop.” So, I headed there to drop my bike off and meet them. I was waiting long enough to get a table next door and order a beer. My stomach was beset with a pit the size of a watermelon- Cengiz dumped it on the wet turn and was in the hospital, I knew it. I waited for a solid 20 minutes until they finally rolled up. As Tom and Cengiz went to go settle up, Gina explained to me that Tom T-Boned a Tuk Tuk and flipped it. He was ok, and the tuk tuk driver survived with minor scrapes. A quick 1,000 baht bribe was sufficient to keep the police out of things. The damages to the two bikes cost a total of 600 baht, so financially it was no big deal. And, with everyone safe, we walked back to the hotel, laughing at the absurdity of our 50% casualty rate and enjoying the sheer sensation of relief that we made it back. Nostalgic musings about the paradise we enjoyed at “Malee’s” didn’t hinder the cloud 9 high either.