Thailand – Travelling north and up to the mountains

Near Nan The rainy season has finished, protests have started in Bangkok and rural Thailand is going from a tropical green to a sun scorched brown. Waterfalls are dwindling to a dribbling reminder of their rushing torrents and I've got itchy feet again.

I decided to revisit the far north east around Nan and Chiang Rai and give myself enough time to have a good look. I started from a town called Lom Sak in the center of Thailand, a typical Thai town very much like any other in this area with a Tesco supermarket , yes they’re out here,  but it is surrounded by superb mountains, and when leaving the only way is up as they say.

This corner of Thailand has no direct route North unless you go via Phitsanulok some 120k out of the way. I traveled the main road towards Phitsanulok until I was at the top of the mountain range and turned right along the ridges giving great views of deforestation. Finally I got "off the beaten track" and vegetation returned complete with bad road surfaces which have the effect of slowing you down so you get to see or notice more. I was on the trusty Chinese bike again having fitted a new chain and sprockets to stop the death rattle going on in the transmission.

Motorcycling, apart from giving a sore bum, gets you out of the air conditioned cocoon of a car and opens you up to the smells of tropical vegetation. On these quiet roads it is not unusual to go for twenty minutes without seeing another car and knowing how far I am from the nearest police station I sometimes remove the crash helmet and ride as I did when I first got my license back in the sixties.

Alternative transport between Nan and Chiang Rai I hadn't gone more than five miles when a local version of a hornet hit my nose and through my tears I regretted my rash action. I am used to the odd sting so carry some sting relief but this only took the edge off the pain. Soon I was conscious of a red object in my vision, the end of my nose. Painkillers, dodging potholes and looking at the improving scenery soon took my mind off the hazard to navigation gently pulsating in my vision. I followed a fast flowing river for a couple of hours with frequent rapids that warranted stopping and taking in. Soon I was in the area of village border checks and came to the road junction that had sent me off into Laos before. I stopped for fuel and confirmed I was still heading for Nan with the owner but from what I gleaned from him I was heading for the same road I'd traversed before that turned into a goat track for thirty miles across the mountain. Back ten kilometers and I was on the right road, the map was wrong again! I was so lucky to arrive in Nan at five o'clock in time to catch the rush hour. In Thailand it's like Paris but with most people on mopeds and most of them school children three up with absolutely no road sense.

My nerves can only take so much, so seeing a sign for a hotel pointing down an alley I escaped. The hotel turned out to be a gem at £10 a night but no breakfast only unlimited tea and coffee. “Anywhere local?” “Ah yes round corner is Tony's Place”. Tony's turned out to be run by a Welsh ex-biker with his Thai wife and served up Thai and British food with homemade bread and sausages. A very welcoming place and Tony opened the banter by commenting on my nose “ Looks like you've caught the sun on your nose”. “No actually one of those big black and red bees stung me” “Looks like a strawberry….do you want some cream on it?”  Oh ha ha the old ones are the best. I bought a very detailed map of the area from Tony and with his advice spent two days touring the border roads. It was interesting that both he and his “Falang” patrons all knew of the road I had taken that turned into a goat track a while back.

North of Nan on Laos border On the second day I was getting a bit adventurous and headed down a concrete road for 10 kilometers to a set of rapid . The road soon deteriorated to gravel then dirt that was deeply rutted by water flow, certainly not navigable by car and it got steep, boy did it get steep! I started to wonder if my little 125cc pony would make it back up but it was too perilous to turn round and after a white knuckle ride I eventually came to the rapids. I was surprised to see a local sat on a  moped here nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. After nodding greetings I started filming the rapids. A man came out of the jungle on the far bank carrying a large plastic bag, he stripped down and putting his clothes in the bag he climbed down into the fast flowing river and started to wade across . Nothing particularly unusual in that for rural areas but then I wondered where he had come from. I knew from my map there were no roads, villages or anything that side of the river for five miles or so until the Lao border. I watched him stumbling across and thought what he was carrying surely wasn't worth the risk of drowning for the river was going fast and he was just above the rapids. I swear if it wasn't for the noise of the rapids you could have heard the penny drop, out of the way place, man just waiting on motorbike, man wading covertly across river, golden triangle, drugs? Pleased to say the pony made it up the hill in double quick time.

Rapids in Golden Triangle Back to the safety of Nan and as I had decided to stay an extra night, a different hotel. I had left my trusty rucksack at reception before the day’s ride as it was too early to check in although we had done the paperwork side. It was just getting dark when I passed Tony's and noticed a large gathering of bikers from Chiang Rai, a good lead for me as that was the next destination. Completed the check in at hotel but they couldn't find the room key “you must have” “No someone in loom when I come early”. “No have key but look you must have it as you sign in” “Not my signature” . Found another hotel as they had given my room to someone else, it turned out one of the Chiang Rai bikers had turned up and thinking he was me they gave him my room, now I'm not a small guy and he was, so identification should have been easy. Fortunately hotels are plentiful in Thailand.

A great evening of gleaning information about places to see around Chiang Rai plus the company of fellow bikers completed my stay in Nan, tomorrow across country to Chiang Rai.

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Steve Francis

Thailand tour guide

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