Navigating Thailand's Mountain Roads

Navigating Thailand's Mountain Roads

John Robshaw
John Robshaw
Alan Brown takes the wheel in Thailand to discover hidden mountain caves, tasty roadside snacks, and the pleasures of traveling alone

The first time I visited northern Thailand, I actually started to believe in reincarnation. Only having lived here in a past life could explain the sense of belonging I felt as I strolled down the narrow lanes of old Chiang Mai, where bright bougainvillea splashed over fences and fruit vendors sold canoe-shaped slices of papaya. This was in the mid 1980's, when Chiang Mai was still an exotic destination undiscovered by most Westerners. On the edge of the notorious Golden Triangle, poppies were harvested for opium and heroin, and Chiang Mai was the jumping-off point for jungle treks or visits to hill-tribe villages and forest monasteries. In those days, I believed that public transportation was the one authentic way to see a country and know its people. I chatted with everyone from monks to police chiefs and grandmothers (Thais study English as a second language). I was befriended by a platoon of backslapping soldiers on a scenic train ride to Nong Khai; they got me falling-down drunk on Mekong whiskey, and then presented me with the dinner bill. On a bus from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai, I sat next to a young woman whose mother tried to strong-arm me into taking the girl back to America as my bride.

Now, I guard my privacy too much to sit for long, un-air-conditioned stretches in uncomfortable seats, trapped with strangers and bad radio. My romance with public transportation has faded. So, on a recent trip to northern Thailand, I rented a car to drive the 217 miles of twisting mountain roads between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.

Mae Hong Son, a remote market town on the Myanmar border (the first road connecting it to Chiang Mai opened only in the 1960's), sounded like a tantalizing combination of the film depictions of Shangri-la and Casablanca: Buddhist temples framed by mountains, underground rivers filled with sacred fish, bars teeming with smugglers and ethnic insurgents.

Planning on two days of leisurely driving, I started out early from Chiang Mai heading north and turned west onto Route 1095, which would take me all the way to Mae Hong Son. Aside from the motorbikes, which unnerved me by buzzing by on both sides of the car without warning, the trip was surprisingly tranquil. Continuing west, I moved through quiet villages, ascending gradually into pine forests, passing slender waterfalls that gushed down the mountainside at each bend in the road. Every once in a while, the forest opened up to views that stretched into neighboring Myanmar. I was seeing and experiencing more than I ever did sitting passively on a train or a bus. I had to pay attention, so I noticed every lazy dog napping on the side of the road, every uniformed schoolgirl pedaling a bicycle.

It was the tail end of the monsoon season and the beginning of sunny, cooler weather. I drove—often in blessed silence—with the windows open to catch the breeze. When I wanted entertainment, I chose from the eclectic grab bag of Western rock and pop cassettes I'd picked up at the Chiang Mai night market. I could sing along at the top of my lungs and bother no one.

And I ate. There were plenty of stores and stands en route, and I stopped frequently. The passenger seat became an archaeological record of my journey, a food stratum of bottled water, salted and sweetened dried mango and tamarind, coconut yogurt, and a Thai version of Rice Krispies Treats—round, crunchy rice cakes, decorated with drippings of caramelized palm sugar—that proved to be dangerously addictive.

I reached Pai, just over the halfway point on my journey, in the late afternoon. A small village made for walking, it's located on the banks of a river of the same name. Pai's proximity to trekking routes and hill-tribe villages attracts the same global mix of adventurous travelers that first popularized Chiang Mai. The nascent tourism industry has spawned signs advertising MONKEY MAGIC CAFE and DRINK. COUCH. REGGAE. The town is still off the standard tourist route, but Pai has been "discovered" enough to have lodgings with hot showers and restaurants where I could eat decently—and safely. (Once, in the dusty countryside near Khon Kaen, an entire village turned out to slaughter and cook a chicken in my honor and to feed me silkworm larvae that I was too polite to refuse; the experience left me so ill that I eventually lost 12 pounds. I gave up eating home cooking after that.)

It was early evening by the time I settled into a bungalow at Rim-Pai Cottage, conveniently located where the town's main road dead-ends into the Pai River. A porch overlooking the river made up for threadbare furnishings and dim lighting. I happily fell asleep under a cloud of mosquito netting, listening to the gentle rush of the river. That night, a late-season monsoon rolled in. I woke in the dark to a frightening roar and a downpour of biblical proportions. At daybreak, I walked out onto my porch to find that the town's bridge had been washed away and the bungalows on the opposite bank, on slightly lower ground, were now in the river. The town itself showed no signs of the deluge, a regular occurrence during monsoon season. All About Coffee, a tiny café owned by two Thai artists who moved there from Bangkok, was open for business as usual.

To the west, peaks rose out of the mist—as if in a traditional Chinese landscape painting—and receded into the distance. Storm clouds blew in, and I drove through showers that lasted only minutes but were so intense that I could hardly see past the curtain of water spilling onto my windshield.

Spotting a sign for the town of Mae Lana and its scenic caves, I turned off the main highway onto a switchback road that was treacherously rutted from the frequent rains and descended into a lush valley. Mae Lana isn't much more than a cluster of neat wooden houses with gardens, plus a small school and a temple. Nothing, and nobody, stirred—except at the general store, where a plump, gregarious woman waved me over and introduced herself as Noi.

Mae Lana did indeed have caves, Noi told me, and it was no more than a 20-minute walk into the jungle. For a small fee, she'd arrange for a guide. While I waited, perhaps some lunch?Would I need to rent a flashlight from her?Wouldn't I like to see photos from her trip to Switzerland?

A bowl of noodles and many snapshots of the Matterhorn later, a Mr. Long appeared, cheerfully swinging a rusting machete and accompanied by two slingshot-wielding teenage boys. The "20-minute" stroll turned out to be a strenuous, hour-long hike in the midday sun to a narrow hole in the ground, out of which poked the top rungs of a bamboo ladder. Mr. Long motioned for me to climb down into the darkness. I eyed his machete. This is it, I thought, stepping onto the ladder. No one will ever find my body.

Of course, I survived the trip down into the crevasse, and I wasn't disappointed by the cave, a cool labyrinth of limestone stalactites and stalagmites. On our return trip to town, one of the boys tried to teach me how to hunt with his slingshot. I managed to take out a giant leaf or two.

Back on the main road, I fell in behind a minibus about to burst with passengers, including one brave—or just crazy—boy who clung, spread-eagled, to the roof, grinning widely at me on the hairpin turns. I lost sight of him when I stopped to pick up a hitchhiking soldier who didn't speak a syllable of English but nodded gamely in response to every question I asked.

A while later, on top of a chilly, fog-shrouded peak, he helped me attempt, unsuccessfully, to squeeze six giggling hill-tribe women into the car.

By the time I reached Mae Hong Son, it was sunset. Atop the town's highest hill, the white stupas of a Buddhist temple glowed a vivid pink. Though Mae Hong Son had lengthened its tiny runway to accommodate small jets and acquired a couple of nice hotels, its pleasures were still decidedly local and authentic. That evening, there was a festival at the hilltop temple. After milling through crowds of families and orange-robed monks, I watched what appeared to be a provincial talent show on a makeshift stage. I bought noodles and a beer and ate my dinner on the grass, providing brief but amusing entertainment for a gaggle of teenage girls.

The next morning, while wolfing down rice-flour-and-coconut pancakes at Mae Hong Son's busy morning market, I fell in love with northern Thailand again. I realized that my past life had been spent not in Chiang Mai, but here in Mae Hong Son, devouring these scrumptious kanom krok, fried while I waited and still hot when I popped them into my mouth. I saw myself working the morning market or haggling with the hill-tribe peoples for their handicrafts. Whatever I had been in my past life in Thailand, it surely wasn't a bus driver or a train conductor. From now on I would be traveling through the north, in my latest incarnation, in air-conditioned privacy.

ALAN BROWN is the author of the award-winning novel Audrey Hepburn's Neck. He wrote and directed his first feature film, Book of Love, which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Chiang Mai is 531 miles north of Bangkok; there are daily shuttle flights between the cities. The 217-mile route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son is well-maintained and easy to drive; my trip took two days. Affordable rental cars are readily available.

Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai Stylish villas with views of rice fields in the Mae Rim Valley, a 30-minute drive outside Chiang Mai. The spa uses local herbs and aromatic oils. DOUBLES FROM $375. 502 MAE RIM SAMOENG OLD RD., RIM TAI; 800/819-5053 OR 66-53/298-181;

Muang Pai Resort Teak A-frame cottages in the foothills about four miles north of Pai. DOUBLES FROM $21. 94 MOO 4, BAAN MOR PAENG, T. MAE NATOENG, PAI; 66-53/270-906;

Rim-Pai Cottage Basic accommodations with hot showers along the Pai River. DOUBLES FROM $10. 99/1 MOO 3 VIANGTAI, PAI; 66-53/699-133;

Tara Mae Hong Son Hotel This 104-room hotel overlooks a lush garden and a small stream. DOUBLES FROM $53. 149 MOO 8, PANG MOO, MAE HONG SON; 66-53/611-021;

Aroon Restaurant A down-home favorite for northern Thai cuisine, just across from the old city moat. DINNER FOR TWO $7. 45 KOTCHASAN RD., CHIANG MAI 66-53/276-947

All About Coffee The house-baked cakes and pastries at this café are perfect for breakfast. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $3. CHAISONGKRAM RD., PAI; 66-53/699-429

Bai Fern Restaurant Fresh Thai salads and Chinese noodle dishes. DINNER FOR TWO $6. 87 KHUNLUMPRAPAS RD., MAE HONG SON; 66-53/611-374

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