Scooter travels in northern Thailand

Thailand

In July 2016 we spent two and a half weeks travelling around the far north of Thailand on scooters. We were careful not to photograph people without their permission, and we avoided driving into many of the small villages that we passed. This is because these villages never see tourists, and may not want to, and didn’t give us our consent to visit.

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A sketch of our route (from my diary)

I don’t understand the fascination with traffic-clogged Chiang Mai. I can’t wait to get away from the city and the tour agencies selling treks to ‘hill tribes’. But I’ll write more about that in another post.

Chris and I want to explore the far north of Thailand on a long scooter trip. So we hire out two scooters and haphazardly brave the traffic of Thailand’s second largest city. (If you’re new to riding a scooter, I don’t recommend starting in Chiang Mai.) When we arrive in peaceful Chiang Dao at the end of day one, I’m just thankful that I get there in one piece.

We happen to be in Chiang Dao for Asalha Puja, an important date for Theravada Buddhism. So we head to the local temple to see what Asalha Puja entails. The date marks the anniversary of Buddha Siddhartha Guatama’s first sharing of the four noble truths.

Although Thailand is ‘officially’ a Buddhist country, the attendance is much the same as it would be at a church in England during a Christian holiday (i.e. very low). An old lady takes us under her wing and explains the ritual that takes place. In the darkness of the evening, we walk around a shrine three times, paying respect to the Buddha, the dharma (teachings) and the sangha (spiritual community). “No! Don’t walk there! Women always walk behind the men!” the old lady instructs me. Hmph. We then walk to a chedi with a statue of the Buddha on top and give our offerings of flowers, candles and insence.

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Offerings at the chedi

We use a map app called OsmAnd to navigate (decent paper maps are impossible to find). Setting the route to cycling mode takes us off-road. Which would be wonderful if it wasn’t monsoon season. Chris’s scooter gets stuck in half a metre of thick mud in the middle of nowhere! As I try to push his bike out of the sludge, Chris accelerates and splats me with mud.

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Me swearing away as I try to stay upright in the mud (Photo by Chris)

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Chris gets very stuck

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Rice paddies

One afternoon, we arrive in a tiny village called Huai Bai, a village with wooden houses and a catholic church, surrounded by corn fields. We’re immediately greeted by the locals who inform us that there’s a Swiss guy living here, in the middle of nowhere. Sixty year old Blum is proof that wherever you go in Thailand – no matter how remote the place is – an ex-pat will have beaten you to it. The ex-pat is always an older European man married to a younger Thai woman. Blum and his friendly family feed us and house us for the night. Blum’s happy in the countryside, except for the GM cornfields that surround his house. “The cancer rates are high in the village,” he tells us. “My daughter has an allergy. I think it could be the pesticides.”

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Blum’s village

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On the road

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“Where the hell are we?!” (Photo by Chris)

We drive through monoculture GM corn plantations every single day of our trip. Adverts for Monsanto fungicides line the roads. There was once lush forest in northern Thailand, home to an abundance of tigers, monkeys and elephants, but now it’s mostly gone. I think about the insanity of the meat industry. The corn isn’t grown to directly feed humans: it’s used to feed the factory farmed animals that humans will eat, not out of necessity, but for their tastebuds. Ancient forest, gone forever, for the insane ‘luxury’ of eating meat for every meal.

We take a detour to Pu Chi Fa, a mountainous remote area on the border of Laos, and supposedly stunningly beautiful. However, Pu Chi Fa’s forests are also long gone and there’s now corn plantations as far as the eye can see. And wherever we go on this 1,300km long trip, there’s men spraying pesticides onto their corn. I learn the taste and smell of the poison – the air is laced with it – and I develop a wheeze. I feel anxiety for the young children who live in the villages surrounding the corn fields, who will no doubt grow up with health complications and cancers.

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Corn!

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Agro-chemical company adverts can be found on trees on almost every road in northern Thailand

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Attempting to protect my lungs from pesticides (Photo by Chris)

But northern Thailand still has some really beautiful wild forests, usually designated as national parks (surrounded by corn and rubber tree plantations). If you’re thinking of choosing to do a similar scooter trip, don’t do it in monsoon season. National parks pretty much shut down at this time. We visit a number of them, wanting to camp and hike, and we are given a number of excuses as to why it’s not possible. “There’s too many snakes in the rain.” “Walking’s too dangerous during the rain.” “You can camp in the carpark.” The super-organised Thai national parks have a military feel to them, with their rangers wearing camouflage uniforms.

We spend a beautiful last few monsoon days driving on winding roads through mountains and untouched forest, with barely a corn plantation in sight.

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We’re not allowed to camp, but after some persuasion, we’re allowed to stay in a hut at Doi Phu Kha national park

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Up in the clouds

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Monsoon weather

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Rain rain rain

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We meet Ivan in Chiang Kham. Ivan’s on his own scooter trip around northern Thailand

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At our favourite restaurant in Phrao

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By far the best city in the north of Thailand is Lampang, with its slow pace, friendly people, beautiful wooden houses, creative cafes and guesthouses, and an amazing weekend night market

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The elephant hospital run by the Society for the Protection of the Asian Elephant. Many of the elephants are permanent residents and were injured by landmines whilst doing logging on the Burmese border. Others are temporary residents and are enslaved in tourist elephant camps in Chiang Mai. There are many elephant ‘sanctuaries’ in the north of Thailand. However, this is the only place that we feel comfortable with visiting and donating money to.

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Beautiful! (Photo by Chris)

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Asian openbill storks are everywhere in northern Thailand

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Spirit houses (Photo by Chris)

Towards the end of our trip, Chris’s tyre rips open as we drive in the pouring monsoon rain down a mountain road that’s heaving with reckless drivers. It’s a miracle that he doesn’t come off his bike.

After 1,300km, we return the bikes to Chiang Mai. Which is just as well, as we’ve started to develop a driver’s mentality (why walk 1km to a cafe when you can drive?!?)

It’s back to walking and hitchhiking for us!

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***We used the wonderful Travelfish’s North Thailand Loop to give us an idea of our route. We also used the OsmAnd map app on my smartphone to guide us, setting it to the route for bicycles. We rented our bikes from Mango Bikes in Chiang Mai. Total kilometres travelled: 1,300km.
The most beautiful legs of this trip, and highly recommended, are from Doi Phu Kha to Nan, via Bo Klua; and from Lampang to Chiang Mai via Kuantan national park. The best towns are Chiang Dao and Lampang.
We did this trip in July, at the peak time for pesticide spraying. I wouldn’t recommend this. Nor would I recommend February to April, when haze from the ‘burn’ season is at its worst. The only problem with the monsoon rain was that the national park rangers wouldn’t let us camp or hike…the rain itself wasn’t too much of a problem.***

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