Where is the road calling you?
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The moment had finally come when the sun appeared, the clouds began to dissipate, and sensitive extremities on our bodies could finally return to their fully relaxed position. Our rapidly missed hippie pants and tank tops had re-emerged along with flip flops replacing our unfashionable hiking shoes. We could scarcely contain our excitement to rent our first motorbike of the trip. Although we had become more than accustomed to our proper motorcycle back in the state, a sexy pink Fino fit for a princess from Disneyland and equipped with a whopping 115cc engine we rented from our usual place we’d frequented on previous trips would have to suffice for the time being. Granted we could have sprung for a larger bike and spent a bit more money, but our budget conscious selves paired with multiple experiences on the exact same machine convinced us otherwise.
With a full tank of gas we threw ourselves back into the chaos that is Thai traffic, weaving between cars and public transportation while treating the majority of traffic lights and roads signs as mere guidelines versus actual rules of the road. It was immediately apparent I hadn’t yet lost my touch, narrowly avoiding swerving motorbikes and mirrors of zig-zagging cars by inches with strategically timed throttle twists and braking. An ear to ear smile stretched wide across my face as the first few close calls prompted a shriek in my ear mixed with fingernails clenching my sides and thighs clutching my hips. Perhaps I should have eased into my local driving habits instead of throwing my co-pilot directly into the fire our first ride away from the city and up to one of our favorite view points and temples, Doi Suthep.
It may have been far from the first time we’d climbed the slightly intimidating staircase leading to the famous temple, but the same feeling of awe surfaced the same as every other time we had visited (along with the burning sensation in our asses courtesy of cold weather back home successfully preventing us from preparing for such physical exertions). The massive golden stupa commanded the undivided attention of each visitor in unison upon first glance as tourists struggled to decide what to capture a photo of first. Our winding trip up the steep mountainside however would continue further than ever before, accidentally missing our next turnoff and venturing onto a single lane road peppered with potholes and road hazards fully capable of rupturing a tire. Every muscle in my body tightened as I fought to maintain control, bobbing through the dips in the road and avoiding certain death courtesy of a head on collision with a songthaew racing around blind hairpin turns or untimely chunks of missing road washed away from the rainy season leading to a several hundred foot drop straight down the mountainside.
An unexpected turn off to a viewpoint resting alongside the road nestled high up the mountain begged to be entered. As the bike rolled to a halt over the loose gravel making up a small parking area and I peeled my hands from the grips of the bike, we slowly swung our legs off the side of the bike and back onto solid ground, unable to look away from the sight ahead. A slow, ginger walk to the edge of a cliff provided a breathtaking view of a valley we hadn’t seen during all of our visits to the city we loved so dearly. Locals smiled as we joined in their pleasure, gazing at us with curiosity and seemingly wondering how we managed to find the special lookout. Without another tourist in sight, the happy, relaxed energy of the small crowd was felt with appreciation as we took our time losing our gaze in the vast distance. Layers of towering mountain peaks, each one taller than the next, captured our undivided attention, forcing us to sit in silent adoration nearly as long as we had visited the famous temple below.
Within an hour of renting our bike we knew we were ready to begin exploring further than ever before. Our usual ride to and around Pai wouldn’t do this time around. We craved something greater, something different…an experience to push us out of our comfort zone yet again. This time around we would travel north to the city of Chiang Rai nearly to the border of neighboring Myanmar and Laos. Although I must admit, our longtime friend and owner of the guesthouse we stayed at in Chiang Mai deterred our confidence momentarily, curiously wondering where we were headed as he saw us suited up in long sleeves, full length pants and proper shoes with a small day back stuffed between my feet on the floor of our motorbike. His wide-eyed expression and slight bought of laughter in response to my answer should have made us think a bit harder about our decision.
Instead we shrugged it off and sped out of the city, needing only to follow a single road all the way to our destination. Our vision of casual mountain driving full of sweeping views over valleys however was quickly replaced with the harsh reality we had drastically underestimated our route. On the contrary, we had begun a four hour ride along a major highway, fighting the backdraft of massive semis and buses as I cracked the throttle of our little bike to its fullest extent, no doubt utilizing every bit of lacking power to simply reach speeds of forty to forty-five miles per hour as traffic continued to pass us as if we were standing spectators. If not for our extensive experience traveling the roads of countries throughout Southeast Asia, it’s quite possible a steady stream of urine would have followed us throughout our journey. The only reprieve we would receive was securing a room for the night, finally able to rest our aching ass cheeks and screaming backs after an intense day of concentration and avoiding a barrage of sure accidents. Only a masochist would enjoy the royal pounding our asses had endured.
We had fully intended on spending two nights in the familiar city, but our aching bodies yearned only for a return to the comfort of our room in Chiang Mai. Still, we had two goals to accomplish, a trip to a famous black house, home of a well-known deceased artist, and a stop at the white temple we were unable to visit in prior trips due to necessary maintenance closing down the grounds. The black house however, proved to be more interesting than we could have ever imagined.
Multiple open air houses sat scattered on the large plot of land, each more unique than the last. The interiors of each home were decorated with massive amounts of animal remains, from shark jaws filled with rows of sharp teeth to stacks of water buffalo skulls complete with impressive outstretched horns. Alligator skins lined various parts of the wooden floors and served as runners atop tables that seemed stolen from mid evil times and fit for royalty. Hides of exotic cats, bears and wolves accented various rooms adorned with distorted images of Buddha and prize worthy racks from moose and deer. In the center of the lot rested three small cages, each trapping a different animal; an owl, a group of song birds, and 2 giant black pythons. Never had either of us felt so conflicted before, slightly disturbed by the amount of death surrounding us but incapable of looking away from the incredible collection.
Although it wouldn’t provide us with the same surprises, our stop at the white temple the following day on our way back to Chiang Mai was equally as memorable. Having visited incredible temples all over the world before, we’d been fortunately spoiled by unforgettable beauty. Still, nothing could compare to the originality of the white temple. Completely made of white stucco and decorated with small pieces of mirror, the stunningly gorgeous temple glistened proudly in the sunlight. Not a single spectator could argue its brilliance, nor look upon it without awe. Sculptures of tortured faces, both animal and human, lined the front entrance.
A sea of white hands stretched out from the underworld on each side of the narrow bridge leading to the main staircase. Inspiringly unique designs highlighted various points of the artwork, prompting an endless amount of camera clicks, presses on selfie sticks and slowly rotating go-pros attempting to retain the moment for years to come. We may have been initially disappointed upon arrival to learn we were unable to enter to temple that day, but after witnessing the volume of tourists flooding through the gates, we quickly realized we had chosen the perfect day. Only by not allowing tourists inside the temple could we attempt to document its magnificent presence without battling eager participants fighting for the same pictures. How fortunate we had been, though our good fortune wouldn’t last forever.
The woman running the guesthouse we stayed at during our single night in Chiang Rai recommended an alternate route for our return, which would add an extra hour onto our journey but allow us the ability to enjoy our ride through winding mountain roads lacking the amount of traffic the highway would no doubt once again be accommodating. Curve after curve we grew more and more grateful for her recommendation, verbalizing how happy and grateful we were to feel the freedom of the open air around us. It wouldn’t be until a couple hours into our leisurely ride we would realize how rare it truly was for us to complete an extended motorbike trip without issue.
We emerged from the cool mountain air to a clearing home to a small village about ten kilometers from the next major town. As the rear end of the bike began to sway and my lack of control increased, an unsettling familiarity began to grow. Within seconds we both knew, we had blown our rear tire. I slowed cautiously to the side of the road, each of us hopping off the seat and inspecting the tire, hoping we had made an incorrect assessment. My thumb and index finger pressed the walls of the tire in with little effort, leaving no need for further confirmation. Only one word could appropriately describe the overall dilemma of our situation as we looked around us and noticed only a few run down, wooden homes surrounded by rolling hills of vegetation. Fuck. With no other option, I began pushing the bike down the road about twenty minutes until finding a fairly busy intersection.
Each small empty pickup truck I saw drive by was an opportunity to flag down a local willing to help, but my efforts were futile. Only as I began pushing the bike once again and my beautiful blonde haired, blue-eyed woman waved to the next truck would we find our savior. We hoisted the light bike into the bed before Jessie and I hoped in and sat to the side of it, grinning at one another and chuckling slightly as we rode to the nearest shop capable of fixing our problem. It wasn’t the first time we had been rescued the same way, and rest-assured…it won’t be the last.