The roads in Thailand are first rate and it wasn’t long before we were heading down highway 108 towards Doi Innthanon National Park
. We went first to Mae Ya waterfall which is allegedly Thailand’s highest which was most impressive and then onto another called xxxx where Issy got in again for a swim. At Mae Klang waterfall we stopped and had lunch in a small stall which was delicious followed by a magnificent café latte. The latte was so good that I had to have another! This was remarkable foresight as later in the day we would misjudge the amount of time it took to drive 140 kilometres. Anyway after refuelling ourselves we headed up to Thailand’s highest peak at 2100 metres. The car we hired was a Honda City (India’s poshest day to day car) that had done 135,000km. On the way we had heard some sort of screeching noise coming from what appeared to be the brakes. As somebody who has spent 20 years in the car industry, I did what every skilled and experienced person should do; I put the windows up and turned the radio louder! On the way down from the highest peak we fortunately stopped at a lookout point only to be greeted with billows of smoke and the most rancid burning smell coming from the front wheels. It was very steep and clearly the brakes had overheated a bit. I thought of peeing on them to cool them down but having only just gone, I wasted a bottle of water instead. Scenic photos and ten minutes later we were on our way with more 1st gear than brakes being applied.
It was now about 4pm and we were humming and haring as to whether we could face yet another waterfall that was en route
. At 8.45pm when we finally got to the next town with the only type of accommodation, we were mighty glad that we had given it a miss. The road was fantastic, there were more bends and curves than a David Beckham free kick. So much so that, at an average of 25km we climbed and descended mountain after mountain for almost five hours. The scenery was stunning with the mountains turning from a shade of light mauve through to the deepest violet as night fell and a sunset of burning fire led our path. We lost count of the times we thought and had gotten lost, however there was only one moment of driver and co-pilot tension. Pretty good really and perhaps a sign of our stress free existence! All we needed for the ending of the perfect day was a cosy guest house in the country. Sadly we didn’t get it and we put up with sleeping head to tail on the hardest bed I have ever known. It made concrete feel like a double sprung bed from Slumberland.
Needless to say we left early without taking breakfast and headed up to Mae Hong Son an hour further north. We had heard good reports of this town and were looking forward to it. The reality was a little different and after breakfast in The Sunflower overlooking what was a pretty skanky lake cum pond, we duly visited a couple of Wats and moved on.
We arrived at Soppong early afternoon and sought out the Cave Lodge
. If we had been disappointed with the previous nights lodging, then this place made up for it in bucketfuls. Situated on a hilly bank of a river there is a central communal area with hammocks, low tables and chill out areas, and a number of teak cottages spread around the forest. Tranquillity, peace and oodles of nature, all bundled together with 24 degrees sun and clean air – yes please! The place is owned and run by a 55 yr old Aussie and a local family of helpers and gets its name as there are numerous caves in the surrounding hillsides. The closest and largest is called Tham Lod and we went down for a visit late afternoon. I’ve done a few caves in my time and was feeling a bit “same same” but it just shows that you should always reserve judgement. It was massive, there was a river running through it and it is inhabited by thousands of bats during the day who vacate their home for the thousands of swifts that arrive at dusk. Actually they both leave and enter at the same time and amidst the blackened sky as the pandemonium commences, a few casualties fall with no doubt a big headache. To get into the cave we took another bamboo raft and went into the first of three enormous chambers. The roof was probably close to 80 metres high and the rock formations were incredible. The third chamber is known as coffin cave as when first discovered, there were a number of hollowed out tree trunks serving as coffins with skeletons of local tribal folk in.
We decided to stay another night at the lodge and organised a kayak trip down the river. Our intention was to do white water rafting in the region but as this was literally on the door step, we plumped for a more sedate passage. Did I say sedate, well it was for the first five minutes! Liz and I were left in and out of control of our kayak and Issy and Ady were in two others, captained by a guide each
. As I said it started off serenely, we took in the birds, wildlife and just the quietness of the place. Then the first rapids came. “Just small ones, hun” I said valiantly as we approached. In fact they were pretty small and the two guides expertly carved a way through the rocks and shallow waters. We didn’t. We hit every rock. We got grounded on every low patch. We had to get better. We did, for a while. There were probably around twelve small groups of rapids in the two hour trip and so we needed to improve. We then arrived at the big cave that we had been through the previous evening. At that time a guide with a huge gas lamp took us through lighting our way. Our kayak man strapped a tinsey winsey torch to my helmet. You’re having a laugh mate, I thought as we entered the cave. And indeed he was. He laughed so much as Liz and I bounced around with only enough light to see three foot ahead. Miraculously we saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel without falling in. Yet. A couple more rapids arrived and we went through pretty well, easy I thought. Lucky thought Liz. Then came the weir. It was only a drop of ten feet, no problem said the kayak man as he made us paddle up to it. Got to show the kids how easy it is and how brave we are. Well, we got grounded on the top, hovering on the brink, overlooking the nigh vertical drop to the crashing water below. When the man yelled at Liz to move forward I thought she was making to get out. She probably was but hadn’t banked on the thing suddenly rushing forward taking us crashing into the water below
. We opened our eyes and were floating sedately downstream. No problem this kayaking. Of course the kids fairly flew off the top, whooping and a hollering. By now our confidence was at an all time high. Now some might say over-confident and justifiably so because minutes later we hit a big rapid, got wedged again into a rock and looked helplessly at each other as the boat rapidly filled with water. The last thing I saw of Liz was her backside as she was jettisoned from the front, I, I think went out the back and resurfaced 5 yards further down wedged into a rock with the river gushing past. All I could see was the upside down raft up stream but no Liz. Seconds later she surfaced from under the kayak clinging precariously to a sharp sticking out rock and the kayak, clearly deciding it just wouldn’t do as a hat, seemingly unhurt but hyperventilating like a rabbit in the head lights, and frozen stiff from the experience. The force of the water had me pinned onto my rock and so the guide made his way quickly to help her. After a couple of minutes of persuasion he was able to convince her that she compose herself and get back into the kayak. We had both got bashed a bit on the rocks and Liz added some lovely purple bruises to her now growing collection but it didn’t take us too long to laugh at our stupidness. We carried on continuing to get stuck and avert capsizing by the smallest of margins before arriving at the final obstacle. A 20 foot weir drop. OH well, we said and went for it like seasoned professionals
. We got stuck again on the top. This time though we were determined to do it ourselves and I shooed the guide away just as we got lift off and rushed headlong down the drop. We made the perfect landing and congratulated ourselves for surviving! The rest of the afternoon was spent doing schoolwork followed by games of ping pong and a wonderful thai dinner. We had a final little ceremony down at the beautifully tranquil river under a wonderful tree for Liz’s Mum who would now be able to experience Northern Thailand and its stunning nature.
Nicely rested in comfy beds, we continued to the next large town Pai for lunch. 10 years ago Pai was a small hippy town with a handful of guest houses and not much to do but chill but now it has mushroomed into the adventure capital of the North. There are loads of boutique hotel resorts and sports companies to which literally thousands of young Thais come to throughout the year. As we were walking down one of the street we amazingly bumped into Jo and David so took a leisurely lunch together before carrying on our way back to Chiang Mai.
We had a couple more nights in Chiang Mai at the brilliant Thai House before hiring a car for 4 days to go even further north-west towards the Burmese border on the Mae Hong Son road. The first night back in Chiang Mai involved a night out with Jo and David again and rather a lot of Chang beer and a dodgy dancing girl bar!!. We stopped at a bar with a free pool table and after a couple of warm-up games, Ady turned into a real pool shark and played like an absolute demon. So well in fact that I got him to stand by the table, all meek and innocently, and invited opponents to play him for money. He took 20 Baht off a Frenchman from Nice and 40 Baht from a local. Next week we will progress further in Bangkok where I will put him up for millions! The expression "I'm feeling absolutely Chang’ed" was born at about midnight that night!