Unfortunately, most of us know someone who has been to Thailand and has told us stories of its beautiful landscapes and incredible cuisine.
When many people speak highly of a destination it’s always comforting but it also takes away that exciting element of surprise and raises expectations. So, sorry about starting this very promising post with such a negative sounding word BUT, although as bike tourers we are always very aware of what “other” types of travellers tell us, it’s difficult not to be excited about getting to a country like Thailand!
So, just so we’re clear about this, no, we didn’t stay in any resorts and no, we didn’t ride an elephant or went scuba diving with the sharks. What we had while in Northern Thailand was the chance to experience a lot more, a lot deeper and a lot more meaningful than most anecdotes that we had ever heard before getting there and all thanks to the slowness of the bike touring …
When you enter Thailand from Myanmar it’s like getting in a DeLorean and skipping forward 20 or 30 years. Myanmar itself is very different to the rest of the world but Myawaddy is exactly what you’d expect a border town to be like; interesting, but also very, very messy! A funny anecdote from this place is going to the bank to get rid of our leftover Kyat and finding them overflowing (literally) with Thai Baht; just a reminder that hundreds of workers cross the border every day to work…
In hindsight, Mae Sot was one of the most interesting towns we have ever visited while in Thailand. Sorry, we don’t have any good pictures to show you but there’s a video about it (Link at the end). Due to its geo-political situation, it’s a melting pot of cultures, people and customs and it was an ideal town to rest and get some well deserved servings of everything we hadn’t had during the previous few months; we did very “simple” things like going to a shopping mall and having an ice-cream (a real one) but also not getting chased by the police or not having to charge our electronic devices before the sun set (please read our previous post about Myanmar) were pleasant changes to our routine!
Ironically, just a couple of weeks later we ended up missing those small “adventures” as we understood that Thailand is, maybe, perfect for more relaxed bike tourers but a bit too comfortable for those seeking more thrilling times… more on that later…
So, we crossed a very easy border (most foreigners get a free 1 month Visa on arrival!) and our next objective was Chiang Mai. You might know us by now, if you do, you’ll know that we always try to get off the beaten track and that’s exactly what we did there too; instead of taking the Highway 12 eastbound, we avoided all the heavy traffic and steep hills and we went North and then East on the much smaller 1175, climbed some much steeper hills, cycled through the stunning Khun Prawo National Park and started getting a good taste of the real Thailand.
Naturally, we decided to continue staying away from big highways and, once in Tak, we followed the smaller roads through Laphun province and into Chiang Mai and so finished our first leg and were left gobsmacked by all the extraordinary encounters we had along the way.
Although we found it more difficult than expected to communicate (we thought that it would be easier because of all the foreigners and tourism…), local people were always more than eager to help out and, whenever we would encounter English speakers, the exchange was always very enriching.
Internationally, Chiang Mai is famous for many things but, probably, at the top of the list is its cuisine. Actually, to be fair, this was something which we were definitely looking forward to. Words would not do them any justice but just know that the dishes that we will forever remember are those served in what can only be described as living rooms extensions which doubled up as restaurants in small villages and local people’s night market, not the tacky tourist ones where you can also find Pizzas and Tacos.
If we may add just a very simple tip; make a sheet with translations of your favourite dishes (here a very useful site LINK) because sometimes ordering can be hard and it’s easy to fall into the routine of asking for the same delicious dish every time 😋
We were so surprised at how simple yet delicious everyday Thai food is, that we decided to have a go at a cookery class while in Chiang Mai and had a blast! Our chef was amazing (it goes without saying that this is one of the biggest tourist attractions there) and we learned some basic tricks which would accompany us all the way around SE Asia and which really helped us to cook better meals because it enabled us to leave our European mindsets while scouting markets. For more info on the cookery class we took, link to the video ; LINK
Writing about Thai food is actually unpleasant 😉 so let’s change the topic…
Although the North of the country gets big bucks out of the “cooking classes business”, another huge tourist attraction are the so called elephant sanctuaries and, sadly, nightlife (hence prostitution) in and around Chiang Mai. So, while we were very tempted by the former (our nightclub days are over), we were also worried about falling in one of many places which pretend to have the animal’s best interests at heart but are in fact just money machines. We finally got in touch with Chi Jungleman and discovered a genuinely unique place which we highly recommend; no riding on elephant’s backs and no watching them perform weird acts, just spending time around them and getting the chance to really observe them in their natural environment (of which there’s not much left). For the first time ever we witnessed, first-hand, a fully operational pachyderm family and were stunned by it! For more info LINK and video; LINK
In Chiang Mai we also had amazing burgers! Trivial you may think but don’t forget that we had just crossed a chunk of Earth with not much Western influence and we were dying for some! Actually, Marco had two in one sitting… by the looks we got, we think that the waiters won’t forget that night anytime soon!
This, burgers, is a great example of how very westernised some parts of Thailand are. The first few days after crossing the border from Myanmar felt a bit weird but were also pretty amazing; Tesco and 7/11 supermarkets with ice creams (recognisable ones!) and ice coffees every few kilometres, a general lack of huge potholes in the roads, good infrastructure and electricity 24h a day (which also meant finding out that people love Karaokes in SE Asia!). All of this, and much much more, would make anyone feel like they’re living a dream right? Well, after about 10 days we actually realised that it was all a bit too boring for us!
You must be thinking that we are horrible people…
Thing is, that’s not what we left our home for! We want adventure and discovery and although Thai people are among the loveliest we’ve met and the country is so incredibly safe, it’s also a place which has already seen zillions of foreigners of all shapes and sizes and it’s a bit difficult to get into local people’s lives and houses and learn more about them.
One place where we managed to do that was temples; we regularly slept in religious complexes and uncovered a lot about local customs and social hierarchy. In Thailand temples are often manned by much larger groups of monks (both male and female) than in Myanmar (our only previous experience of Buddhist temples) and thus we could appreciate the different roles that each member has; from the wise “chief” to the youngest of recruits. More senior monks often speak English and are very eager to practice it for a while. This makes them perfect hosts because they are generally very easy going and open minded individuals to whom you can ask questions about almost anything!
They are also very sagacious and curious so be prepared for an equally exhaustive interrogation 😉
On the contrary to Myanmar, in Thailand it’s also perfectly legal to sleep and stay almost anywhere (including temples) so it’s a lot easier to hang around a little and just observe.
The second part of our “Northern Thailand” adventure took place between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and, again, we never even considered taking the “normal” road. We followed the Burmese border and ventured into the hills and totally flipped out! We knew what was waiting for us in Laos (next country on our way) but wow, what we endured in the Golden Triangle was just incredible! We’re not great at calculating slope steepness but a couple of times Aurelie had to push her bike up (funny video) ! Difficult but unconditionally rewarding; that’s how we’ll remember it forever! Here’s the LINK to our VLOG about this part of the country.
And after a short break in Chiang Rai where Marco finally bought a very typical Thai shirt in a market which he wore nonstop for almost a year, we got the chance to visit three unique temples and found a bike mechanic worth of its title, we were off on the third and last leg of our first ever Thai adventure taking us to a border in the Nan province. The preferred choice for most travellers is a busy border crossing which is just a few kilometres from Chiang Rai but we still had 6 days left on our Visa so we opted to spend them going through Phu Sang National Park which is overflowing with beautiful, natural landscapes, mega steep climbs and refreshing rivers.
On paper our plan was perfect. Sadly, once we reached said border at Huai Kon (Muang Ngeun) we got an unpleasant surprise which meant turning around and going to the original touristic border which we tried so very hard to avoid.
We will not bore you with that right now, we would rather end this post on a positive note, but we also recommend you to read our very entertaining post about some of the border problems we’ve had on our trip in which there’s a section dedicated to this particular one; LINK.
But just as a quick recap for those cyclists/motorcyclists reading this and wanting to go that way; don’t!
And, as always, don’t forget that we also film our trip and there are some really funny VLOGs about Northern Thailand on our YouTube Channel … here are the links for you;
VLOG #5 From Mae Sot to Chiang Mai; LINK
VLOG #6 Alternative Guide to Chiang Mai (including cookery class and elephants); LINK
VLOG #7 From Chiang Mae to Chiang Rai (including steep climbs); LINK
VLOG #8 From Chiang Rai to Laos (including problems at Laos border); LINK