“Tip?” – he asks and smiles, AFTER he unloads the bike from the train…
Seriously, that train guard was too drunk, the bike was already unloaded, and getting the bike on the train was actually twice as much as it was for the passenger ticket! I didn’t want to tip a drunk man. I did tip the elder worker 100 baht who loaded the bike when we departed from Bangkok to Chiang Mai five days ago. We chose this Pai motorbike route because of many good reviews (there’s a reason!), but first, back to beginning.
This trip proved that we have been shifting further and further away from super-planned vacations, more towards spontaneous adventures. Our work week at work is 50 hours, and on top of that we’re trying to squeeze in another 30 hours of photography/editing, but mostly social media work, so it’s almost like having 2 full-time jobs! So this time we basically had a book-tickets-and-go type of trip.
We hadn’t been to the north in 2 years, it was time. A few weeks ahead we bought some cords – two to be exact, just to try and see if they hold our bags. Next thing we knew we were running late – the two weeks passed way too quickly, and now we only had two cords. #firstworldproblems. They worked like magic though and held a 35L Osprey backpack tightly on the rear motorbike rack.
Leg 1: Bangkok – Chiang Mai
The clock was ticking as we were advised to come 2 hours before departure, and now we were already 30 minutes off schedule! Auste was seriously ill, to a point where she couldn’t keep her own head up, so we had to stop as soon as we left home. That moment I had second thoughts about this journey… A quick sip of hot tea worked wonders (as it always does!) and we scooted to the train station. At Hua Lamphong you park your bike at the parcels section at the front of the station, just don’t forget to keep the key! Show your green book, pay the cashier, and get a proof of payment. At this point this piece of paper is just as valuable as your bike! When you arrive – show the slip, take your bike, and off you go. The first leg (our stories about Thai trains HERE and HERE) was flawless – good sleep, no side-to-side motion, no noise, no common drunk train guards.
Leg 2: Chiang Mai – Pai
PACK WINTER COATS PEOPLE! December is as real here as it is in the northern hemisphere. As a rookie motorbike driver I naively assumed that we’ll just need a light jacket – it’s Thailand, you can go commando and it’ll still be hot!
We couldn’t have been more wrong! By some miracle there was an early morning market (5.30 AM) where we bought a thick jacket for Auste, and gloves for me. We were wearing literally all the clothes we had packed, for example I wore two pairs of socks, shorts, trousers on top of shorts, jumper, long-sleeved t-shirt, a regular t-shirt, another jumper, and gloves. And I was still cold. It’s much cooler out of the city. We also bought a blanket which we wrapped around our legs, and used almost 24/7!
Pai: a good pit stop to fuel up, use wifi or have a nice western meal (with local avocados!). It’s in a valley, so there are no mountains, it was full of backpackers, and there wasn’t much to do. The only thing we felt bummed about was missing the hot springs (apparently amazing). Well, there’s always next time. This was the first time (ever, I think) we didn’t book any accommodation before leaving. We googled some hotels around Pai, whilst we were in Pai, and found one about 50 km away.
Leg 3: Pai – Soppong (and Mae Lana)
There’s no point of indicating driving time, because we stopped everywhere, every 15 minutes, for everything: tea, photos, meals… Basically it took us a whopping 12 hours to get from Chiang Mai to Soppong – a tiny town (with a 7-11!) between Mae Hong Son and Pai. On average it should take no more than 6 hours.
I thought the drive itself was going to be rubbish – looking ahead, checking mirrors, looking ahead again.. but it was such a scenic route! There were “layers” of mountains to left and right, twists and turns uphill and downhill, trees and other things green, fields and terraces, and it was just wow. The viewpoint (scenic area) around 25 km from Pai has a big parking lot and nice hilltribe coffee (western style), hot food, restrooms, and amazing views. It’s the place to be for the sunset, the views are spectacular, so are the amounts of people! I kind of understand why people do the whole Mae Hong Son loop without stopping much – it’s pretty everywhere!
Sea of clouds:
Morning sunrise was the main attraction that encouraged us to go. We saw a few places online, but had no idea where to actually see them. By random, we talked to the German guesthouse owner (at Little Eden) in Soppong and he told us where to see the sun rising above the clouds! The place is called Mae Lana (or Baan Ja Bao), 10 km drive towards Mae Hong Son, and then taking a right turn to Mae Lana, for about 4 km. We got up at 4 am every day to be there by 5. The drive itself is an experience, because you have to drive through the same cloud to reach the top. That early you can see millions of bright stars above the mountain peaks. From then until 6 I couldn’t stop taking pictures, and after that vanfulls of tourists are brought in. The sunrise above the clouds was one of the best views I have ever seen, almost as good as the avatar mountains in Zhangjiajie, China. Even when I’m looking through the photos now, it’s hard to believe that place is real!
We’d highly recommend staying at Little Eden Guesthouse, because there isn’t much in the area, and it would take too long to drive from either Pai or Mae Hong Son. Soppong is a great location, as you’ve got the perfect sunrise spot 15km towards Mae Hong Son, and the perfect sunset spot 15 km the opposite way, so you can reach both in under 30 minutes. Also, we stayed in a friggin CASTLE! First night was in a regular room (very cosy and spacious), and the second night we stayed in a two-storey stone house with a tower, terrace on the river, view to the swimming pool, stone bathtub, and a fireplace! It was so cold that we even lit the fire for that night. Some things you just can’t plan…
It seems like everything in this trip turned out so perfectly, it couldn’t have been any more perfect! And then we boarded the dreaded day train back to Bangkok. 15 hours in the heat and total boredom – no beds, just seats. At least that’s what we thought would happen. Instead, we got rewarded with another magical sunrise AND sunset! Day train might not be such a terrible idea after all.