Backpacking Travel Story: Easy as Pai

Thailand travel in the islands

Vintage Content

 

By Greg Rodgers

My motorbike screamed in protest as I made my way up yet another steep mountain.

The screaming was interrupted from time to time by a disheartening sputter as whatever petrol was left in my tank shifted so far to the rear that the engine couldn’t reach it. I tried to take in the gorgeous jungle and mountain scenery around me, but my eyes always ended up in the same place…

The fuel gauge. The same fuel gauge which I had watched over the last few hours make the transition from “F” to “E.”

I began my adventure in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, several hours earlier. A conversation with a French guy at breakfast (if I have to blame someone, it might as well be the French) had ended with an absurd idea planted in the dangerously fertile soil of my brain.

Rather than take the local bus up the mountainous road to the small village of Pai, I would hire a motorbike and make my own way. The winding bus ride was notorious for making all but the strongest stomachs want to empty their contents, and April is one of the hottest months in Thailand – not the time to be on a crowded bus with no AC.

Besides, what could be more manly than the wind blowing through my hair as I tackled the Kilometers Che Guevara style with a backpack on? There was only one minor detail:

I have never driven a motorcycle.

I convinced myself that it would be like riding a mountain bike with no pedals, and so off I went to rent one at the local shop. With Songkran, the Thai new year, rapidly approaching, the not-so-friendly woman behind the counter only had 2 scooters left to offer me – a pink Yamaha or a brand new lime-green one.

I had to sign a contract that would have made the Devil’s legal department cringe. Dings on the bike were punishable by caning of the feet, a dent could be punishable by death. After securing my passport as ransom, we stepped outside and she made a beeline for the scraped up pink one. I gave her a “don’t even think about it” look and sat on the green bike instead.

After all, one never knows when I may pull up at a biker joint in Northern Thailand. A respectable ride was worth the difference in baht that she charged me.

The busy streets of Chiang Mai caught up in a festival preparation is one hell of a place to take your first ride on a motorcycle, but I soon got the hang of it. I decided against stenciling my confirmed pedestrian kills on the side of the bike (there may have been a few) – for fear of the contract. An hour later and I was dodging market carts and tuk-tuk drivers with an ease that would have made Neo proud.

After securing my heavy backpack which made the bike lean precariously whenever I turned, I grabbed a free map from my guest house and set off on my first motorcycle adventure.

I twisted the throttle to a comfortable 50 MPH and made my way north away from the hectic Chiang Mai and into the lush green hills. I was feeling very Guevara-ish until a giant, Southeast Asia sized bug decided to end its life across my forehead and nearly knocked me off the bike. Did Guevara have this problem or did they avoid him out of sheer respect? I’ll never know, but when I took my first break on the side of the road, it looked like I had measles from all the insect impacts.

The road was in fairly good condition and I was covering the kilometers quickly. The problem was that there were a LOT of kilometers to cover. Soon enough, it became clear that my petrol was going to run out before my determination.

I had not passed a soul on the mountain road in almost an hour, and there had been no encouraging signs. Around every corner, I looked for a house or some indication that civilization was approaching, but instead found only more trees. I began to doubt myself and wondered if maybe I had missed a turn…or had misread the map which had a giant disclaimer printed at the top “NOT TO SCALE”.

Finally, I hailed a couple of young Thai teenagers on bikes of their own and in my best slaughtering of the Thai language asked them how much further it was to Pai.

“Hok kilometers” he answered and I felt hundreds of pounds lifted off my shoulders…or was it the straps to my rucksack finally giving in? He had said it was only six more kilometers and confirmed that I was going in the right direction.

I thanked him and with a cheery wave as we parted ways. Six kilometers was nothing, I could easily make Pai. I could push the blasted thing that far if it quit on me! I gave the throttle a jackrabbit twist and left victory tire marks on the street. Ten minutes later and I was regretting those petrol-eating tire marks. I rounded a sharp curve in the road and a giant green sign read:

“Pai – 60 kilometers”.

My jaw dropped open and I stopped the gasping motorbike in the middle of the street. Somehow above the noise of our 3 rides, I had missed the Thai word “sip” which would have multiplied my friend’s distance estimate by ten.

Oops.

There was now no doubt in my mind that I was not going to make it. It felt like I had fumbled the ball on my own 5 yard line. So close, but not really. So much for the revolution.

I furiously thought back to breakfast. Why hadn’t the French guy warned me that Pai was out of reach for these little scooters? And where was he now anyway?

Probably on the bus.

The sun was getting low on the mountains, and the trees around me were beginning to cast longer shadows. I went into disaster recovery mode and began thinking through scenarios. I thought about chaining the bike to a tree, or hiding it in the jungle, then hitchhiking my way to town to get a can of fuel – but visions of the lady standing behind the rental counter with a bamboo cane soon took over.

I had heard rumors that the scooters would even run on Thai whiskey, but I decided against it because given my stress levels I probably would not have saved the bike any. One thing was for sure – I had to keep going forward, and that is what I did.

I took my hand off the throttle at every hill so that I would coast down with the help of gravity. I slowed my speed to a jogger’s pace in an effort to conserve precious fuel, even using my feet Flintstone style to kick off on the ground when I needed more acceleration. I made much more progress than I had expected, but I soon found myself with the throttle wide open and my bike barely moving.

Uh oh. The ride was up. It was time to insert another quarter, but I didn’t have any in my pockets.

I looked over and set out in a farmer’s field was a wooden shack with giant 55 gallon drums inside. I had nothing to lose, so I pushed my worthless rental up the dirt path to the house and was met by a toothless Thai woman, probably in her sixties. I pointed to the bike, and she gave me a smile like she had just hit the lottery and pointed to the shack.

Yes! I was saved! I fought the urge to do a backflip and rolled the bike over to where the cans were. She inserted a handpump and I watched as some sort of oily sludge made its way down the clear tube and into my tank. I didn’t care if I filled the tank from her septic system, if it made my cylinders fire then I was a happy man. When she told me the price, I understood why she had smiled – she HAD hit the lottery.

Oh-well, we were both happy and about an hour later, in a cloud of black what-the-heck-did-you-just-put-in-my-tank smoke, I rolled into Pai victorious. I patted my fiberglass steed on the side with a grin, and began looking for two things: Some Pad Thai and a mechanic, I knew I was going to need it.

Meet the Author:
Greg Rodgers

Greg Rodgers is the editor of Startbackpacking.com and left Corporate America to begin traveling in 2005. He’s survived many motorbike drives (and breakdowns) to Pai since this was written. His homepage is www.gregoryrodgers.com.