Nothing like the hot summer wind on your face whilst racing across the Thai countryside on a motorbike… mind you this wind is so hot that at times you imagine a giant oven door swinging open and you speeding directly into it at 80km an hour, wholly parched and yet still sweating out whatever water your body has reserved. Let us not forget the giant metaphorical roast that has burned badly and is gushing smoke out of said metaphorical oven –this is March in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
After leaving Ko Lanta I took a sleeper train back to Bangkok, the highlight of which was me being served a large bottle of beer in a tea pot and the food car staff panicking and running away with my tea pot of beer when the state inspector entered the car, which is a fun story for another time. From Bangkok I flew to Chang Mai, and in Chang Mai I rented a 125cc semi-automatic motorbike to undertake the famous Mae Hong Son Loop.
The Loop is a 550km network of roads that arch north and west from Chang Mai toward the border with Myanmar, then straight south through amazing mountain terrain punctuated with lush rice paddies and small villages, and then back east through incredibly steep mountain roads passing through lush jungle and barren mountainside wastelands – victims of slash and burn agriculture. The loop is best attempted in December or January when the mountain air is cool and moist and the rains keep the jungle florid, the waterfalls gush with fresh rainwater, the air is clear and clean.
In March the conditions take a bit of a turn for the worse. The temps soar into the upper 90s and low 100s, the hill tribes in the area gather organic matter and burn it in huge piles (leaves, sticks, trash, etc.), or set huge unattended fires that roll across whole mountainsides. More than once on my tour I saw whole mountains on fire, issuing forth a thick haze that turned the sun orange and left an acrid taste in my throat. With the air so hot, charred earth all around, and the relentless orange haze, I felt as though I was in some sort of ‘last man on earth’ apocalypse film, like Charlton Heston or Will Smith, but with fewer zombies and more banana trees. In spite of the harsh conditions I immensely enjoyed the loop and did find some areas that weren’t so badly affected by the brutal heat and roaming fires.
Pai was the first stop on the loop – a very small town which serves as a hippie-backpacker’s oasis. If you go to Burning Man, or if you have circus skills, or if you smoke eucalyptus cigarettes and have dreadlocks, this is your town. The town was dominated by European girls with huge baggy pantaloons (they look a bit like pajama pants with elephant print on them), half shaved heads and nose rings, boys with blonde dreadlocks and linen shirts, or hippie-bros wearing tank-tops with beer ads on them. This was definitely not my kind of place, but I’m not one to let broken expectations ruin my travels. I just had to readjust a bit, put on my best dirty shirt, and not let anyone discover that I’m terrible with a hula-hoop. I want to return to this point in a later post – tempering expectations is a hugely important aspect of travel, I met so many disgruntled travelers during the course of my journey that complained - in the midst of amazing natural splendor – that it wasn’t what they had expected, or that they were tired of eating rice (what?!). Travel is a mixture of expectation and discovery – you must adjust yourself to what you find and focus on the best aspects of it. If your happiness hinges solely on realizing your expectations, you’re relegated to a life of Starbucks. The whole point of Starbucks is providing you with exactly the same experience anywhere in the world, it’s a great model. However traveling through developing countries is not like going to Starbucks. This may appear self-evident, but I met many a traveler slogging through a lot of misery on their way to realizing this nuance.
On the whole I enjoyed my one night in Pai, I met an American and a Brit at a nearby waterfall and we had a really great time hanging out in a Bob Marley-themed bar and playing Jenga with a group of Israelis. When the sun came up, I got the heck out.
Mae Hong Son – and some World History
I spent the next day cruising through extreme heat and smoke and generally suffering, but it was the sort of suffering that was ultimately enjoyable, like riding over a mountain pass on a bicycle. From time to times the smoke gave way to beautiful valleys with lush fields and picturesque villages tucked up against densely forested mountainsides. And, since I mentioned Starbucks, it’s also worth noting that the riding was broken up by dozens of little espresso shops along the way. I felt at times like I was riding through a tropical pacific northwest, with its thousands of roadside espresso huts. This surprised me, and the story of how this coffee culture emerged is worth noting.
The mountains of Northwestern Thailand were, after WWII and through the course of the Vietnam War, a prime location for the cultivation of poppy, which is ultimately rendered into opium and heroin. The mountainous regions that comprise the northern sections of Burma, Thailand, and Laos were all major cultivators of poppy, and the revenue generated from that crop were used by various factions to fund other endeavors. While most of the actual farmers were hill tribes that had been living in and migrating across this mountainous region for thousands of years, other major players included the KMT – the Chinese Nationalist Army that was defeated by the Chinese People Liberations Army, a.k.a. the Communist Party of China, which rules the country to this day. While the bulk of the KMT retreated to Taiwan some factions from Southern China moved into Northern Thailand and took up the opium trade. For decades the KMT, hill tribes, the Shan United Army, and other players produced opium, which found its way all over the world.
During the Vietnam War a major customer was the CIA, which used proceeds from end-user sales to fund secret operations in SE Asia. One of those operations was Richard Nixon’s secret war on Laos, which few Americans know about even today. Tricky Dick dropped hundreds of millions of bombs on to Eastern Laos, along the length of the Vietnam border, killing an unknown number of Lao Communists and likely a lot more Lao and tribal civilians. That story I’ll save for another post.
So, this story ultimately leads to coffee how? After the era of warfare passed from SE Asia, the Thai and American Governments, along with NGOs began an effort to convince and/or coerce Thai hill tribes to give up the opium business and pile into coffee. From what I’ve read, the real success came from NGOs going into villages and demonstrating that in the long run the tribes would actually make more money from coffee than opium since the market for coffee is robust, and government forces won’t show up and burn your coffee crop to the ground without notice like they do to poppy fields. Over time the coffee business took root, literally, and along with it came a rich coffee culture. Today in Chiang Mai you can find Brooklyn-style coffee shops selling cups of single-pour coffee for the same price you’d get it in Brooklyn, a testament to the total embrace the region has given to coffee.
Today the coffee trade dominates, but the hill tribes still cultivate a bit of the old stuff for low-key sales made to Western travelers looking for a mellowed out experience during their holiday. When I was motorbiking around the outskirts of Pai I got a first-hand example of this. In one village a group of women waved me down, at first I thought they needed help. She pointed to a fold in her dress, "Ganja Ganja, Opium Opium" she repeated quickly, even giving me a wink. My eyes opened wide, I gave her a big smile and a laugh, "Not for me, but that's so considerate!" I yelled, pulling on the throttle as I spoke.
Back to the trip. I spent a quiet night in Mae Hong Son, which had about 10% the number of tourists, and precisely one European with blonde dreadlocks, which was an improvement for me. I ate some delicious and spicy papaya salad, and later in the night joined up with some locals who were having a great time with a bottle of Thai whisky. They taught me some Thai, specifically how to say, no scream, POM RAK WAT! POM RAK WAT!, or, I LOVE TEMPLE! I LOVE TEMPLE!. They were a lot of fun to say the least.
The next day I made an epic 300kms back to Chiang Mai, it was the hottest day of all and was totally exhausting. From Chiang Mai I made my way into Laos – where the real adventures began. Those stories will be coming shortly.
I have to apologize for the huge three week break between posts. Laos was non-stop excitement which included jungle treks, mountain bikes, river boats, off-road motorcycles, and epic waterfalls. I had no time to write, just to relish my time in paradise. Upon returning I was thrown into an intense work schedule and have just come up for air. More soon!