Saturday, December 31, 2011

A roll of the dice...

 2 people × 1 bag ÷ 1 scooter + 125cc's (-15cc’s) √19,820 ft.

As we were weighing up the numbers for Doi Ang Khang, I was, more than ever, aware that maths were never my strong suit. 

“Let’s just see how far we can get”.

Doi Ang Khang was the tantalising unknown in our Pai to Christmas itinerary. A mountain town dubbed “Little Switzerland” (for reasons at that stage unknown to us), Doi Ang Khang caught our eye on the map – on the border of... practically peering into Myanmar, it was a reasonable deviation from our route north and an excursion off-track was overdue.

We needed to roll a six just to get there, and we didn’t really know what we were betting, or what we stood to win.

We skipped the town of Chiang Dao, taking the bus instead up to Tha Ton – hopefully giving us enough time to find a scooter and return the 200-odd kilometers of unknown gradient to Doi Ang Khang before sundown.  There was very little information anywhere about the place, and much less about the road there.

We expected big things from our freshly rented Yamaha “125cc”, after the gutsy effort one of its brothers put in to get us from Pai to Mae Hong Son…and back.

Where you go??” demanded the Thai lady who had the scooter ‘For Rent’ in Tha Ton. It was midday - we wanted to be in Doi Ang Khang that night, so time was of the essence. 

“Doi Ang Khang?”, I probed, hoping for an approving nod.


After four weeks in flamboyant Thailand, we now knew such emphatics were more conversational than derisive.

“No, no…it’s okay.. we’ll leave our big packs here”, I said, noticing her nervously eyeing our two 60L backpacks.


We thanked her and returned 15 minutes later.

“Okay, okay…where you go??”

“Fang” – a small town, not far away, at the base of Doi Ang Khang.

She eyed me, grinning. “hah! Humph...mmmm okay! 350 Baht!” (more than double what we paid for a much better machine in Pai).
These pics are giving away the ending, hey?
We looked at each other. It could be a total waste of time. And money…at best. But it’s all about thinking positive. 

We blew on the dice for luck – you win some, you lose some. We rented that bad boy and we hit the road.

Two hours later we were at the base of Doi (Mount) Ang Khang. As the assent began, we resolved to see how far we could make it, before it became too much for our little scooter.

We hit the first hill and quickly realised this scooter wasn't cut from the same stuff as his brother in Pai. We slowed to 20. Then to 10. Then a 5km/h crawl up the steep initial slope. Thinking light, aerodynamic thoughts, we slowly climbed up, drawing grins from the locals at the roadside stalls.

I was suddenly having flashbacks to a similar experience in Mexico, a few years ago, when we pushed poor Fred, our not-so-trusty Kombi Van to similar terrain-conquering feats.

After 30 minutes of precariously slow but steady climbing, we reached a section of steep hairpin turns. After failing to ride up together, Kimee, determined as ever, jumped off, pack-on-back, and started hiking up the hill so I could get the scooter up.

This worked for a while, but the gradient became steeper, the turns tighter (and the views more spectacular). We were resolute but doubts were creeping in, and we were getting very low on fuel. 

Just as we had achingly decided that turning back was probably best, a pickup truck stopped just ahead of us and a hand poked out, waving me up. A Thai bloke wearing a leather Acoubra and clenching a cigar in his teeth told me he’d take Kimee and the bag – I could get the scooter up. 

I look dubiously at Kimee. Trust this bloke? Kimee nods yep – the clincher: his Ute can’t get above 10km/h (Kimee later tells me he’s hauling 1.5 ton of cement in the back – incredible!)

With me as it’s only load, the scooter grew a pair of elephant eggs. I raced up behind Kimee and the local, through 30° steep hairpins and sweeping turns. 

20 minutes later, we rounded a final sweeping corner and we were there.

Suddenly, I am assaulted by sensations as we make a short decent from the summit into the town of Doi Ang Khang in the high-altitude valley below. The road is lined with spectacular cherry-blossom-like trees that the local tells us are native only to this particular mountain.

The air is freezing in my face as I follow the truck down into the small town. My head is still giddy  as I take it all in – we arrive, I’m shaking hands with the local who got us here – he’s refusing any payment for his good deed as he waves over a local boy on a motorbike, who immediately tears off, leading me to a farmer’s shed on the other side of the valley to refuel. 

Returning to town through postcard-perfect fields of trees and flowers (we later discover most of the valley is part of a Royal agricultural research project), I find Kimee – she has spent 20 minutes in the market: “HEDGE – YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS FOOD!”. I still haven’t regained equilibrium.

I follow her to a stand where an old man with a wispy moustache is smoking a huge bamboo bong (…!?), as his wife fills our hands with samples of dried dates, flavoured nuts and other delicacies. 

We look around – there isn’t a tourist in sight and no one speaks English. It’s magnificent. What is this place?? 

Finally gathering our thoughts and our bags, we find a place. Still no English. Our room opens onto a balcony that looks out over the small town and over the entire mountain-rimmed valley. Ahhh…little Switzerland! Now we understand.

We spent the long twilight riding through the Royal agricultural research project grounds. The project was developed to encourage local hill-tribes’ sustainability as they transitioned from subsistence as farmers of Poppies for Opium (as in surrounding regions, a legacy of the infamous Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) to farmers of flowering plants, temperate fruit trees, vegetables and other crops, many of which we later saw sold in the local markets.

The grounds take up most of the small valley. Poppies now grow in the company of a spectacular array of flowers – the first field was an orchard, the next a greenhouse full of Roses, followed by 6-story high bamboo and so on. A horse grazing on a grassy hill… to boot.

For those who think this is a bit too much excitement over a botanical garden – I hear you. But while I dig on a good garden, when we watched this little communities’ magnificent project disappear into a frosty dusk, high up in a place we should never have made it to, we knew we’d hit the jackpot.

Here's a few extra pics of the Royal project grounds...

Waking up to the misty-valley views.
We spent a frosty night enjoying treats such as hot, herb-infused milk and ginger tea from large clay pots, while joining the locals excitedly watching the Thai boxing on TV’s all over town. We woke the next morning to a red sunrise creeping over the mountains and through our window, to where we lay sleeping. I blinked and sat up sleepily, swung out of bed and walked to the window. When you start the day looking through your bedroom window at a crimson sunrise over Thailand’s Little Switzerland, you know life is pretty good.

After breakfast, we returned to the northern town of Tha Ton – Kimee got her morning workout hiking a few of the hills on the way. After returning our brave little scooter, we bought tickets for our boat ride to Chiang Rai, before removing our layers and basking in the sun for an hour; defrosting from our ride down. 

The orchard at the end of the garden loop - at dusk.

Heading for the Laos-Thai border, we propped in a longboat for the 3-hour ride along a scenic stretch of the Mae Nam Kok River to Chiang Rai. 

Chiang Rai was another place where we didn’t plan to stay long, but in the short time we were there, we lucked-out with a few little things.

Kimee says if I ever write
an organic garden cookbook,
this is my cover-shot. :|
In the short half-hour after our boat from Tha Ton docked, we had a free lift into town (friendly local #1), a school kid stop and ask if he could help us with directions somewhere (friendly local #2), and an older man who sauntered up to us to bash Laos for a few minutes, before telling us we should stay in Thailand and that he sincerely hopes we were enjoying it there ( get the idea).

We had dinner at a small restaurant that served only five local dishes, two of which we can attest were absolutely delicious – and that’s to say nothing of the run-to-the-store-to-buy-you-the-beer-you-would-really-like service.

Afterwards we were enjoying coffee at the centre of town, right by a gold-gilded, extravagant clock tower at the intersection of the main streets. Suddenly, tourists materialised around us. At the strike of 8, the statue came to life in a flashing light show, as a 5-minute long Thai ballad boomed from hidden speakers all around us. Tourists craned their necks and reached their cameras for a snapshot as we sat front-row – in the best seat in the house, shaking our heads in disbelief at our run of good luck.

The next day, we took a bus to the border towns of Chiang Khong and Huay Xai, to say goodbye to Thailand and find out what Laos had in store for us.

Border crossing over the Mekong,
at Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos.
I have to say it…over the last four days we have been racking up the points on the win side of our win/fail ledger. People have appeared when we need them, and we’ve rolled double-sixes when we needed them most, resulting in spectacular views and a really fun, very memorable part of our trip.

Stay posted for a wrap-up of our romantic Christmas-week in the very charming town of Luang Prabang. We're presently bunked down halfway between there and Vientiene in the hedonistic paradise of Vang Vieng. There may or may not be a post from here.

Love for now - Kimee & Hedge.

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