The Road Ungraveled

I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled






here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.


A meandering scooter ride in north Thailand



Took another three day trip, a ramble on the motor scooter, heading God Knows Where, but knowing that it’s all going to be good, because this is Northern Thailand. On our trust steed, the one year-old Honda PCX150, we headed due north.


Got as far as Fang, which is up near where the mountain range that forms the Burma border comes in from both the west and the north. Went to a shining gold temple up in the hills and tried to relax by meditating. Couldn’t calm down very well after five hours of driving, but found myself amazed by this ultra-modern temple, one that looked more like a spaceship in a fifties Sci-Fi movie than a standard Thai, Buddhist temple. I kept expecting Michael Rennie from the 1951 movie The Day The World Stood Still appear. There were these big crystal balls about 500 centimeters in diameter surrounding this very large glass bell. In a Christian church you would call it the altar, but I don’t know what you would call it here.

We went into the hills as sun was setting, and noticed that the people who live there are shorter and darker than the Thai people who live in Fang. Maybe they have come from Burma.

The next day we went to a National Park for the Fang Hot Springs, and there was a sign saying the baths would be closed from July 10 to 25, but using Thai numbers for the dates, which was odd, and is often a sneaky way to keep things from foreigners. They also disregarded my Thai drivers license as proof of residence and tried to charge me eight times what they charged my Thai friend Wipa for admission. She talked them down to only four times. Then we drove around and found the place was closed. There was no hot water at this hot springs!


The big treasure of the trip was the road that ran from Chai Prakhan straight south to Phrao. Amazing scenery, wonderful two-lane blacktop road running along the ridges of mountain valleys. When you get to Phrao, it meets the highway that goes west to Chiang Dao, and the scenery remains spectacular all the way into that town.



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this last picture is a depiction of Buddhist hell from a temple in Nan.  The usual non-stop torture for all eternity thing.


The almost un-inhabited province of Nan lies five hours east of Chiang Mai.  It’s very mountainous, as is neighboring Laos, and it’s no picnic getting  there, and the roads all run the wrong direction, blocked by the mountains that lead up to Chiang Rai.  It took us five and a half hours by bus to get there, but nine hours of travel to get home, for all the buses were full.  A minivan took us to Denchai train station, and then the next morning we were able to take a train to Chiang Mai.

But Nan province is worth the trip.  Thai roads are so much better than Lao roads there is no comparison.  The people look very much like Lao people, tall, lighter-skinned and at least to this Caucasian, more Chinese-looking. The trip we took involved renting a motor-scooter in Nan city and then riding up to Pua, spending the night as the only guests at a large resort, and then moving on the next morning to Bo Klua, passing through glorious mountains and chilly fog. I’ve got to remember to be more careful when I rent motor scooters from guest houses. Ours had no rear brake and shook violently when going faster than 35 miles per hour.

The last two hours of the trip back to Nan were gradually more and more disappointing, as clear-cutting of the forest in order to grow corn makes the mountains look like Thai boys with the summer haircut that is now popular, bushy on top and shaved on the sides.

The Sacred and the Profane in Northern Thailand


With my friend Sam, I took a three day motorcycle trip to Phrae.  It’s about five hours east of Chiang Mai, past Lampang and then up into the hills.  Once you get into the mountains it’s fresh and cool, and the scenery compensates for the long haul. Phrae was once the center of Teak logging in Thailand.  Teak is a magnificent wood with which to build houses and furniture.  It’s heavy, insect resistant, and grows straight as an arrow. It’s also largely missing, as Thailand has lost 85% of its forests since World War II.  They’ve replanted a lot, but teak takes a long time to grow.

When we got to the mountains northeast of Lampang, we were looking for someplace to rest and came across a coffee shop that was largely hidden from the highway.  It looked like a dark recess in the trees.  The owner had built a delightful tree house in addition to his main buildings, the coffee house itself and a little church.  That’s right, church, as in Christian Pentecostal place of worship.  His name is Chestha Suwannasa, and he credits his conversion experience with saving him from a life of dissipation.  He also fancies himself an artist, and was busy working on a large canvas when we arrived.  The canvases have titles like “The Last Judgment.”

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When we got to Phrae, we toured one of several nineteenth century mansions that were made, of course, of teak. The largest had belonged to the governor of the region, and the opulence of the upstairs was in great contrast to the basement, which was used as a prison and a place of torture.  I could not imagine relaxing at home knowing there were people being tortured in my basement, but heck, maybe that’s just me.  Guess I don’t have thick enough skin to be a provincial governor in 19th century Indochina.

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Rainy Ride in the Mountains of Northern Thailand

We rode for about seven hours, and five of those involved being rained on. You get used to reduced visibility and steep slopes with slick pavement, but it’s dangerous coming around hairpin turns every hundred yards, especially facing trucks who don’t stay on their side of the road. When we first started to climb out of Samoeng, on the back road to Pai, I noticed there were great gobs of animal shit on the highway. I assumed it was horses. Then I noticed a smell like the zoo. I guess it was elephant shit, though I saw no elephants during the ride. Seems like maybe someone had brought elephants through here a few hours earlier, as the shit had already been smeared by passing tires. They use them here as we used tractors and trucks.

In Iowa you have to be careful of hitting deer, here it’s elephants and water buffalo.