From Mae Sot we took the back road up to Pai, it looked great on the map, twisting and winding all the way up, with steep hills on one side and Myanmar on the other; there wasn’t a straight section on it, nor any big towns. Not long out of town we spotted a bunch of tight packed huts through the trees and stopped to investigate, it was odd out here with all this space, huts were usually one per farm, not next to each other. We were not expecting to find a whole sprawling refugee camp. We’d stumbled upon Mae La without knowing what it was.
It was a shocking sight, we could only see a small corner of it and it was not much more than a slum of wooden houses, most with roofs. The fencing surrounding it was broken in places and some kids crawled through to come stare and giggle at us, too shy to interact but curious enough to stick around. There were guarded entrances we passed which showed no sign of us being allowed in. The “camp” has been around since 1984 and houses about 50,000 refugees right now. That’s bigger and older than some cities.
We found a little side road and did some exploring in the hills, Owen getting some fantastic drone shots, but mostly just rode, enjoying the scenery and little towns.
The road was fantastic for a “back road”, not quite the adventure we’d hoped for but it made the going easy. Owen spotted a little dirt track leading off up a hill and we followed it a little way to the edge of a hill with an amazing panorama of the valley. It was a stunning spot, and just where we’d pulled up was a guy working away with a machete and some bamboo, building a house on the hill. He looked up and gave us a wave. It struck me the contrast between our worlds couldn’t be much bigger. He’s building his house on the hill with some basic tools, I’m just passing through on my motorbike.
Our little stop for the night was hoping that there was a hotel in the only town along the road. We were surprised to find a bunch of them there. In this random part of town was a Chinese tourist spot, that seems to be how Chinese tourism works, they all go to one spot. Some very expensive hotels were packed out, but a cheap crappy one had some space for us hobos. A beautiful spot by the river for some beers did us nicely after a long day.
Another amazing stretch of road the next day, endless twists and turns up the river, finishing with a run over the mountains we’d been following and into Pai. The view from the tops of these hills were stunning with flat ground running away to the horizon one side and Myanmar on the other. Coming down the hill was hilarious. Pai is an extremely popular spot for backpackers, and there was a lot of them on mopeds on the road, most of them for their first time riding. Wobbling all over the place they were actually a challenge to pass, so we’d wait for a nice gap then blast by fast to get out their way, usually terrifying them in the process. It felt like bullying, they’d hear the engines behind them and panic trying to figure out what to do while navigating sharp hairpins.
Pai was the only other place beside Phuket I even knew in Thailand. Some traveller an age ago had mentioned it to me and how beautiful it was, I’d marked it on my map and that was that. Now I was here it was actually a bit underwhelming, it was a beautiful spot in the valley surrounded by hills, but hardly the frontier of the jungle I was promised. Packed with vegan restaurants, smoothie stalls and cheap bars packed with tourists all covered in bandages from their moped learning experience. I was not free from the ridicule though, I still had a bandage on my ankle from the little slip on the mud, so I belonged with the rest of the idiots riding over their experience with no gear on.
We had a nice rest day, pottering around and treating ourselves a bit. I decided to finally do something about my loose side stand, heading to the garage to try and borrow a spanner I don’t carry for the very large bolt that had come loose. I got more than I bargained for though when I started to tighten it the whole side stand mount moved. That’s not supposed to happen. I started to investigate and found a very large, open crack running through the mount to the frame. The guy at the garage had a look and looked concerned, told me I need to get to Chiang Mai, no way it could be fixed here. I was a bit confused, it’s just a metal mount, surely someone can weld it here. I got more worried as I researched online. It was cast aluminium alloy, almost impossible to weld together correctly since it’s “dirty” with an unknown mix of metals. It was also part of the frame, so their was no replacing it. Yep, Chaing Mai it is I guess then.
We’d already planned to head there the next day anyway so I shot off a little earlier than the guys to start trying to repair it. There was a good chance I’d find an aluminium welder there, but no guarantee’s it was fixable, I was facing the possibility of not having a side stand. I have a centre stand but it’s not easy hefting 250kg of bike up onto it regularly. It’s hard to even get off the bike without the stand with all the luggage in the way.
I decided my best bet was to try bike places first, they’d know someone who did bike frame welding surely. The mechanic at the Kawasaki dealership nearly had a heart attack when I pulled up and asked about repairs though. “Only Kawasaki, no Suzuki!” he was super nice and was just terrified I’d insist he work on a bike he didn’t know. His friend did know of a place I could try. It turned out perfect, I pulled up and the guy was welding an aluminium motorbike frame for a custom bike he was building. The perfect guy for the job. With some translating help from a girl in the office he told me to come back in the morning and he’d give it a go.
I returned after he’d had it for 2 hours and it was a perfect weld, barely noticeable and looked strong enough. No guarantees it wasn’t brittle but only time would tell. He was struggling to put the bash plate back on though, it was a little bent out of shape and he was a real dick about it. I was trying to show him which way to bend it in the press to get it on, I’ve done this a lot now. He was having none of it, he knew better than the stupid foreigner, and I had to stop him multiple times from bending it the wrong way and potentially ruining it. By the time I left I couldn’t complain, £25 for a custom aluminium weld and a new foot for the side stand to raise it and take some of the weight off it too. The bike would technically be a write off in the UK with a broken frame, let alone that cheap and fast to repair.
With the spare afternoon it was time for a little exploring around Chiang Mai. A little more time would have been good, it’s actually a pretty charming city, 700 hundred years old, and it feels it. Old parts stick out through the new, the people were friendly and the food was great. The next morning it was time to say goodbye to the guys for the last time. They had a long day ahead, getting back to Mae Sot 6 hours away and crossing the border to Myanmar, while I headed South back toward Malaysia.
I made it to Sukothai earlier than I’d planned and headed straight out to the old capital of Thailand, now a fenced in preserved area of old buildings and monuments. It was pretty incredible and so nice to explore on a little rented push bike. It’s been ages since I’ve ridden on my own steam and the park was so nicely kept it felt oddly like riding around Hyde Park in London again, except with ancient Thai temples all over the place.
Leaving Sukothai I was back on the route I’d taken North to get here, repeating those few days in reverse. I sped up wanting to just get South, keen to start the next part of the trip. I could have spent some more time exploring Thailand, but I was a bit disappointed, it wasn’t nearly as adventurous as I’d been hoping for everything felt very easy, already mapped out. So I gunned it. Barely stopping, covering 1,500 miles in 3 and a bit days, stopping in whatever town was closest when it got dark, one of them full of creepy old single white guys sitting around the night market eyeing every Thai girl that walked passed, lovely.
A bit of excitement at one police checkpoint, I got pulled over at random and the guy was super nice happy to see a big bike as a rider himself. We chatted about bikes and where I was heading. When he realised I was on a foreign bike though he looked a bit confused and gave me a little wave and went to check something. Intuition said he wanted me to wait while he checked with his boss about it. I wasn’t strictly on legal paperwork so I decided to take his little wave and walking off as a dismissal and slowly started pulling out into traffic. If they had noticed and stopped me or shouted I would have stopped, I’m not in the business of actively running from police in a foreign country. But I caught a few guys eyes and they just assumed he’d let me go. About 100m down the road I heard a whistle and saw a guy’s face peering between the lines of traffic in my mirror. I decided I didn’t hear it and carried on at a steady pace until I rounded a little corner out of sight then gunned it. I was a bit worried at the next checkpoint an hour down the road in case they’d been told to keep an eye out for me, it’s only one long highway after all but nothing ever came of it.
Crossing the border out of Thailand I was a little nervous, they might take issue with my less than perfect customs paperwork. When I got to the customs office though it was just a building in the middle of a busy town and nobody took notice when I weaved through the cones and avoided it, along with all the locals. I was a bit worried that was also where the passport was stamped and I’d just snuck out of Thailand, but I had no intention to return any time soon. There was a proper border furhter up the road though where the passport was properly stamped and checked, but the customs check was just a little booth with a woman who didn’t give a damn if you handed your little slip of paper in or not. I chucked it in her little basket and took off before she could check any details, just in case.
And just like that I was back in Malaysia, struggling to cross Penang bridge in the rain again. It’s one of the only toll roads in Malaysia that charges for motorbikes to cross, the normal “escape” lane for bikers to bypass the car toll boothes leads to a special motorbike lane. They don’t take cash, only their special toll card you’re supposed to top it. It really freaks them out when I’m just trying to hand them the £1 or so it actually costs. They try to sell you the top-up card for £5 which I struggle to explain I do not want for a single crossing. A nice local behind me though used his card to tap me through and refused to take cash, he looked almost insulted when I tried to hand it to him.
A lovely night in the hostel in Penang before heading back to KL set me up nicely. I met two old travellers from preston, now into their 60s and just wandering around wherever they felt like. He had travelled overland by public transport and hitchhiking from India back to the UK in the 70s and never really stopped exploring since then. They loved the idea of the trip and we traded stories for hours over some of their vodka and ginger ale.
Getting back to KL wasn’t particularly thrilling, after being stuck their for so long I was just keen to get out again. Some more maintenance on the bike was nice though, all the parts here and tools are here. It let me get nicely setup for the next leg, a bit more adventurous and wild, shipping over to Borneo.
14/05/18 to 24/05/18