We arrived in Chiang Mai with reservations for a motorbike from a nice company and our itinerary for the Mae Hong Son loop planned out. The route is a famous and popular trip with experienced riders around various cities in northern Thailand. It takes through the gorgeous mountain landscapes of the Mae Hong Son province and has several interesting stops along the way, including numerous waterfalls, hot springs, caves, and temples. We were incredibly excited as we had only heard great things about this difficult but rewarding trip.
We spent one day in Chiang Mai preparing for the journey. We packed the essentials into just one bag to bring with us, test rode our motorbike, and mapped out the points of interest we wanted to see along the way, and decided which scenic routes were worth the extra hours. The next morning we set out fairly early for our longest day of driving. The trip from Chaing Mai normally takes 5 hours on a highway, but we decided to detour through Doi Inthanon National Park, home to the tallest mountain in Thailand. This detour added just over three hours to the ride but we had decided it was worth the extra time.
Our day started off fantastically; we stopped at a few waterfalls, went to the summit of the mountain and explored the temples there, and were enjoying the spectacular views along the route. The road was promised to be beautiful, and it far exceeded expectations. Once we hit Mae Chaem, though, things took a turn for the worst.
May is the very beginning of the rainy season in Thailand, and the mountains get it before other parts of the country. We idiotically forgot to check the weather for our trip, expecting it to stay hot and dry like it had been all April. Suddenly, the hairpin turns and endless switchbacks went from fun to terrifying with wet roads. To compound the problem, the back brake on our bike couldn’t take the stress of the steep downhill turns. It needed a new brake pad, and the fluid kept boiling from stress, causing the brake to give out completely periodically on the drive. We only needed to stop and let it cool down for a bit to get it working, but it scared the crap out of us nonetheless.
We were trying to take it slow and easy yet still beat the sunset to our destination, and at a bad and slippery spot in the road, we ended up crashing the bike. It wasn’t a bad wreck; we had dropped a water bottle on the street, and in trying to stop and get it in the middle of a hill, the steering locked up and the bike slid out from underneath us. We got thrown off to the side of the road and the bike went sliding. Luckily, we were wearing full helmets and I a large backpack that protected my body and took the majority of the impact. We walked away with only a few cuts and a scrapes and a bruised ego, but we were pretty shook up and feeling a little out of our element in the mountains. We had been sure that we could drive this route without issue, but the events of the day were starting to crack our confidence.
It continued to rain for the remaining three hours of the drive. When we finally arrived in Mae Sariang about 20 minutes after sundown, the storm had taken out the power to the town. We pulled up at the first guesthouse we could spot, and our friendly host showed us to a a full house rental for only $15 a night. Exhausted and with very sore butts, we passed out in bed right after dinner. The following morning the power was still out when we woke up, and it had gone from freezing the night before to sweltering heat.
Feeling a little beat down, we spent much of the day resting, but we did take a little time to explore. We drove out to Salawin National Park and hiked the gorgeous nature trail there, which took us up and around two foothills of the mountain. There were gorgeous views on all sides and we got to see several different ecosystems, including young and old jungle and a bamboo forest. Our bodies were still pretty sore from the crash and climbing, so we had a nice dinner and went to bed.
On the second day the power finally came back on and we were able to use WiFi. We looked into the weather for the rest of our route and discovered that it was scheduled to rain every day. Like clockwork, the storms began in mid-afternoon and continued throughout the night. As we knew, the route was only going to get more difficult as we went; we had chosen to take the easy direction, clockwise, which gets more difficult as you go. We asked Ben and Katelyn, who had done the loop last year, if it would be too dangerous in the rain, and Ben said the roads were steepest and sharpest curves he’d ever seen and the rain would make it deadly. We decided it wasn’t safe for us to continue our trip and formulated an alternate plan to visit our most anticipated destination on the loop, Pai.
We spent the rest of day in Mae Sariang heading to the Kaew Komol Crystal Cave, said to be one of the most beautiful caves in Thailand. It wasn’t all that big, but it was very beautiful. The walls of the cave are all formed out of crystals, so they glitter and sparkle in the light as you walk through. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with another traveler who was on his last stop on the loop coming from the opposite direction. It made us sad to chat, because he could only gush about how wonderful his trip had been, but we were too afraid to take the risk. The next day we left in the morning to head back to Chiang Mai the easy way- a five hour long stretch of nearly flat highway. We had a quick dinner and spent the rest of the night in, as it was, of course, raining.
Our place in Chiang Mai was super nice, with comfortable beds, good air-conditioning, and plenty of restaurants nearby, so we spent the whole day in recovering from our harrowing experience on the mountains. The following day we drove out to the Bua Tong waterfalls, more famously known as the “Sticky Waterfalls”. This bizarre feature is a series of cascading waterfalls on the side of a mountain that flow over some mineral that is very grippy. You can quite literally walk/ climb right up the middle of the waterfall. At the top there are views of the mountains and a hot spring. The cool water felt fantastic on such a hot day, and we enjoyed splashing around in it. That night we had dinner at the #1 TripAdvisor rated restaurant in Chiang Mai, Tikky Cafe, and it deserves the title. We got to have some our favorite Thai dishes, like Panang chicken, yellow curry rice, and fried noodles. For the record, we also love Massaman curry, Pad Thai (of course), and various street foods.
We decided to go on an adventure the next morning and went ziplining with Flight of the Gibbon. There are many ziplining companies in Thailand, but Flight of the Gibbon has been around the longest. Although it was bit expensive, the experience was well worth the money and the customer service was unparalleled compared to most of our tours in Asia. We spent just over two hours riding ziplines through the jungle canopy. It was altogether thrilling, terrifying, and awesome. Flight of the Gibbon Chiang Mai boasts the longest zipline in the world. I’m not sure if it’s true, but at 800 meters it certainly felt like it. Our favorite part of the experience was seeing and hearing wild gibbons in the treetops. We got to watch one jumping around tree branches, and their loud calls were audible throughout our visit (check out my Instagram if you want to know what they sound like, link at bottom).
Continuing our adventurous and spendy trend, the following morning we visited Blue Daily Elephant Care. Elephant tourism is extremely popular in Thailand. Domesticated and trained elephants have been a huge part of Thai culture for a long time now. They used to be used for logging, but since then mahouts (elephant owner/trainers) have realized that tourists will pay a lot of money to sit on an elephant’s back and trek through the forest. Understandably, it’s often the only way to keep their elephants provided for, as these giant beast consume an obscene amount of food per day and require a lot of resources.
Unfortunately, this type of tourism, as well as logging, are harmful to the animals’ well being. They aren’t actually strong enough to carry the weight of a mahout on their neck along with the metal basket and two tourists on their back without causing serious harm to their spine. The elephant tourism scene is changing, though, as many travelers care about the welfare of the animals. In recent years many sanctuary camps have popped up in northern Thailand. Usually, these camps are home to elephants rescued from the tourism or logging business of from cruel mahouts that use a bull hook. They offer tours where visitors can interact with the elephants by prepping food and feeding them, walking through the forest, and giving them baths– without any riding. If you ever visit an elephant camp in Thailand, please make sure it’s one of these, and NEVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT (unless you’re allowed to sit alone, on the neck, where they can easily support your weight).
Blue Daily Elephant Care was one of these ethical elephant camps, and it was a lovely experience to visit. We did a half day tour during which we were able to meet three beautiful females, a mother and two of her daughters, one adult and one baby. Our tour guide Da gave us lots of factoids throughout the day, and taught us the commands in Thai for them to open their mouths so we could stick the food right in. After feeding them and getting hugs and kisses and a little dance show, we watched them give themselves mud baths before heading to the jungle to hike together. It was fascinating to walk through the woods with these gentle giants, seeing them rub up against trees, pull over giant trunks that were in their way, and use their shockingly dextrous trunks to eat seeds off the ground. We were amazed at how these animals, which don’t look like they belong in a forest, seemed more at home there than humans could ever be.
As the grand finale we all jumped in a river together to give the ladies a good scrub. They played and splashed and we loved every minute of it. It’s such a magical and deeply special experience to stare into those big brown eyes that are so hominoid and see the intelligence that lurks behind. We can’t recommend Blue Daily Elephant Care highly enough. If you’re interested in working with these brilliant animals, there are many camps that host long term volunteers! The following afternoon we boarded a small public van on the curvy, treacherous way to Pai. Luckily we remembered to pick up motion sickness pills; without it, the ride would have been a disaster.
We arrived fairly late to this little hippie town tucked away in to the mountains, so we hit the hay after dinner. Pai is one of our favorite places we’ve been to thus far, and we’re sad we’ve had such a short time here. Nestled in a flat valley surrounded on all sides by jungle mountains, Pai is impossibly beautiful. The tiny town center has hundreds of adorable hip little cafes and shops and many more hippie bars, and the valley stretches out into lush green farmland filled with Asian cows and carabao on either side. There’s a little river running through the center that just puts the cherry on top of the scenic views. The vibe here is very relaxed and it is a backpackers paradise. Every traveller you meet is around the same age, and everyone likes the same things. There’s lot to do, all of it being outdoor and active.
On our first day we attempted to visit Pai canyon, but torrential downpours kept us inside for most of the day. We ended the day by watching sunset with a group of new friends at a cute little bar near our hotel. Like all the bars in Pai, there are more hammocks and cushions on the floor than chairs. With two Brits, a Belgian, a Canadian, and an Israelite, our diverse little group laughed the night away together.
Our second attempt at Pai canyon was more successful on day 2. We spent just over an hour hiking up and down the narrow trails on top of the cliffs that meander through this gorge that Thailand calls their “answer to the Grand Canyon” (a very lofty claim). Although it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the American treasure, Pai canyon was still gorgeous. We got bird’s eye views of the surrounding mountains and farmland and marveled at the geography of this bizarre canyon.
After the canyon we made our way to the Karen Elephant Camp, where you can feed bananas to the elephants for only the cost of the fruit. These giant were quite a bit larger and slightly more cranky then the ones we had met at Blue Daily, I suspect because they were part of one the less humane tourist traps. Afterwards we went down the road to visit the small village of a Karen longneck tribe.
The longneck tribes wear stacked brass rings around their necks to lengthen them, and by the time they are middle-aged their necks are unnaturally long. The practice began long ago to protect their throats from being torn out by tigers in the jungle, but soon became the beauty standard for the tribes people. It felt a bit strange to visit only to ogle at the residents, but they advertised themselves as a tourist attraction. We saw three longneck women, each of whom had a little shop with handmade wares. We bought a few things to ease our guilt and then made our way back towards town.
That evening we got dinner along the walking street of Pai before turning in for the night. The little market is a mixture of tasty street food vendors and talented artisans. We enjoyed curry pastries, Thai barbecue chicken, dumplings, and our favorite SEA dessert, mango sticky rice. We enjoyed seeing all the little hippie vendors and chatting with the other backpackers lining the street.
The next day we enjoyed a tasty breakfast before heading out to go river tubing on the river that the runs through the center of Pai. Being just the beginning of rainy season, the water was a bit low and we spent about 2 hours scraping our bottoms along rocks. We intended to visit some waterfalls after the river, but the relentless rain kept us indoors. Once it stopped raining we met back up with our friends from the first night out to have some drinks at their hostel. Keenen and I didn’t touch any booze, but nonetheless we stayed out with the group for the rest of the night, loving the company and giggling at the drunken stumbles. We feel lucky to have met the wonderful people we did, and hope to stay friends with them! Meeting like-minded traveler friends is certainly the best part of traveling, and we’ve got plenty from this trip to give us places to stay all around the world.
The next morning we sadly had to return to Chiang Mai to catch a flight. Our trip is finally coming to an end, and I write to you now from our first flight of the three-leg journey: Chiang Mai to Hong Kong, then to Beijing, and finally on to Chicago. We’ve had a wonderful time taste-testing southeast Asia and will most certainly return in the future. We’ll miss the fruits we can’t get at home, the beautiful scenery, and the thrill of exploring new places, but we truly can’t wait to be able to drink water from the faucet, flush our toilet paper, and eat real dairy. Thanks for the memories, Asia. You’ve made us stronger, more open-minded, and altogether better people, and we’ll treasure our experiences here forever. We’ve gotten to fulfill many life-long dreams and, most importantly, we’ve been constantly reminded how fortunate we are to lead the lives we do. It’s been fantastic to share our love of science with everyone we meet, and to be reminded just how unique and special our lives are. We’ll certainly go home with a fresh perspective and a deeper appreciation for everything we have.
Don’t worry readers, I plan to keep the blog going. Turns out we lead pretty interesting lives, and we have many, many stories to tell. You can look forward to more travel advice, a retelling of our previous international trips post by post from old blogs, and anything else I feel like putting up. To those of you living vicariously through us, I have one bit of advice: YOU CAN DO THIS TOO. The travel bug can never be cured, and it only takes one trip to catch it. I truly believe adventure is in everyone, so go and find yours! See the world before you lose the chance; it has so much to offer. Every time I travel it only deepens the feeling that I’m just scratching the surface of what’s out there. So get out there and shoot for the horizon, it’s never too late!