Under a veil of low morning fog, we quietly slide our motorcycles onto the pontoon and cross the Mekong River for the last time, exiting Laos and entering the most northern realm of the Kingdom of Thailand. After successfully getting the bikes off the float on the other side, without dumping them (or ourselves) into the river, we are riding the spine of the Daen Lao Mountain Range in stifling heat.
All that Shines is not Gold
The mountains are a towering natural border separating Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and Laos. We climb higher by the second on a narrow strip of tar that twists and turns at an ever-increasing angle. This is one of the steepest roads we have ever battled, and we are forced to push our weight over the bars while standing on the pegs in the hopes of keeping our front wheels from launching skyward. Cresting the peak, we ease on the brakes, release our death-grip on the handlebars, and pull to a stop near a clearing. Through the tangle of branches, we see Burma sprawling into the distance—tropical, primeval, and for now, unreachable.
We’re riding inside the once notorious “Golden Triangle.” In the not-so-distant past, these 367,000 square miles of viciously guarded mountainous jungle (where warlords held sway and wandering visitors are still unwelcome) were Asia’s most prolific opium-producing area.
Curves Ahead …
On the outskirts of Mae Rai, we smile as we pass a plethora of imaginatively named guesthouses. “The Opium House” and “The Drug Den Lodge” catch our attention. We are cruising southward on the new silky smooth tar of Route 107. After 103 miles of dizzying curves, we are 20 miles north of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “second city,” and at the start of one of the top ten motorcycle routes in the world. I flick on my blinker, lean the bike, and turn west as Lisa follows suit. “Welcome to the Mae Hong Son Loop,” I shout to Lisa as I twist the throttle and blast ahead.
Riding this route is to be our Asian pilgrimage. Ahead of us is 380 miles of curvaceous tar with 10,000 hairpins and 4,000 fast bends that take us across mountains, through remote villages, and past rivers, lakes, and scenic hilltop temples.
With our energy spent, we pull into The Ton Pai View Doi resort and agree on a price of 500 baht () for the night. We transfer our gear from the bikes into a small log cabin before digging in to a delicious mix of stir-fried pork and morning glory (a type of spinach). The valley beneath us slowly darkens to the tune of a frog chorus.
The City of Three Mists
We’re hard on the throttle and climbing through a steep valley where loftier mesas are scattered with small tribal settlements. We negotiate potholes in the sleepy village of Soppong and ease on the brakes to control our decent into a long, deep vale as we cruise into the center of Mae Hong Son (The City of Three Mists). Isolated for an age from the outside world, Mae Hong Son exudes a rhythm that harks back to ancient times.
Not what You Think
I scan the GPS screen for Joe’s Guesthouse where we plan to spend the night. As we pull up, Mrs. Benja (the owner) is already at the gate, and when Lisa removes her helmet exposing her long hair, wide-eyed Mrs. Benja erupts into high pitched shrieks of Thai laughter. “I do not know you are woman; you are woman,” she blurts. “How is this possible with such a big bike? You are woman,” she repeats even louder just to make sure. Excitedly she calls for her neighbors, and with equal incredulity each of the three women gently pokes Lisa with a finger. Lisa’s now fit to burst with laughter and confirms with a grin that she’s definitely of the female persuasion.
With our room settled and the afternoon turning to evening, we are sipping sweet iced coffee on the broad steps of Wat Jong Klang. Its gold-lacquered chedis (stupas) are perfectly reflected in the serene waters of the Jong Kham Lake.