The Motorcycle Diaries

After arriving in Thailand, our summer holiday destination, we set off with the wind in our hair, feeling like the Sons of Anarchy but looking more like Crazy Frogs on our 125cc scooters. Weaving through traffic and pedestrians, we made our way slowly out of the city of Chiang Mai. I was feeling exhilarated and relishing the prospect of the freedom of the wide-open roads that lay between my destination (the town of Pai) and me.

Difficulties arose immediately when, against the advice of the bike rental shop owner, my three friends and I recklessly set off without a map. We knew that we had to hit the Super Highway and head north but as we stopped to ask local residents, they only ever seemed capable of ecstatically screaming ‘Pai!’ and then pointing in any direction away from the path we’d been heading. It wasn’t until several hours, half a tank of petrol and too many 7/11 snack stops later that we were finally on a mountain road heading into the surrounding jungle-clad hills.

The midday sun beat down on our scooter gang as we rode higher into the hills. We stopped at a monastery on the steep sides of a hill in Doi Suthep, only to find that it had been descended upon by hordes of tourists from passing mini-buses. Orange-robed monks sold Buddha necklaces and blessed charms, whilst hawkers tried to flog overpriced, tacky souvenirs to anyone nearby. The spectacular views of Chiang Mai were the only saving grace.

We hit the road again at our top speed of 70mph. After two hours riding, the road became a dodgy dirt track leading us into a small village. Realising we were in entirely the wrong place, we appreciated that we should have taken a map, instead of relying so confidently on the wild pointing and gesticulation of locals!

As the sun began to dip below the mountains, we found ourselves in the middle of a national forest, having gambled on taking a dirt track in the hope of finding a place to stay. Dusk fell and our ragged crew spluttered into the midst of a collection of bamboo houses. In a mixture of broken Thai and English, we were directed further up the treacherous track to a lush green valley. Amazingly, there was a small guesthouse, which had opened up especially for us, and consisted of mattresses on the floor and a thousand mosquitoes. Basic luxury. Even more satisfying were the bottles of whiskey the owner pulled out for us!

The following day, we finally found the Super Highway and after dodging trucks and avoiding the odd motorcyclist heading the wrong way, we saw the first sign for Pai. As we headed into the mountains, the roads became frighteningly steep and curved. I half expected death on every sharp corner as vehicles hurtled around at alarming speeds and swerved wildly across lanes.  Seeing a sign for some hot springs, we decided to take a break for the sake of our sanity and to recover from our sunburn.

Later on, we were rolling down a steep mud track when I heard a loud crash behind me. I looked back and saw one of my friends sprawled across the dirt. A second crash followed as my other friend frantically swerved out of the way, causing his bike to skid out from underneath him.  I rushed over and saw the ground coated in blood. I feared the worst but both guys stood, swaying in a daze before giving me an unenthusiastic thumbs-up. Some passerby stopped, shouting ‘Farang! Farang!’, the Thai term for foreigner, and laughed ungraciously. They’d seen this a thousand times, and a thousand times worse. They gave us water and took me to a village to get antiseptics, screaming loudly about the ‘Farangs’ who had crashed to anyone within earshot. Luckily, nothing was broken; the bikes were scratched but working and after cleaning up, we set off, albeit in a more subdued and fearful manner!

After a few days of travel, we finally rode into Pai battered, bleeding and with the worst cramp imaginable only to have a hail storm hit us full-on. But after our relentless journey through the jungles and mountains of Thailand, we all still felt that sense of achievement that comes from adventurous, reckless forays into travel.

Richard Collett


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