If this post had a subtitle it would be “A Lesson in Scooting Within Your Abilities.” I’ll say it plainly: scooting along this road is the Olympics of scooting. If you were attempting to earn your doctorate degree in scooting, this would be your final exam. While I’d had plenty of good experience in Vietnam, I was in no way prepared for the way of the road ahead, as I would soon find out.
Small interjection: thanks to the show “Trailer Park Boys” the phrase, “way of the road” made its way into our everyday vernacular whilst in Thailand. It’s fitting in nearly all circumstances of travel and was used so often we could have developed a drinking game out of it. In fact, let’s go ahead and do that now. I’ll wait while you grab a bev…………………… and catch up since I’ve already used the phrase a few times………………… All good? Good. We’ll get right back to it ’cause that’s just the way of the road. DRINK!
I’d heard from countless people how amazing Pai was (and it is), so Brett, Rich, Bibi and I figured we’d get some scooters and go on a fun little drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. The drive is famous for making people car sick since it’s unspeakably windy, but that sounded like perfect scooting material to us. When we mentioned our plan to a few people they casually mentioned that it’s a bit of a challenge, especially since there was some construction being done on the road. We brushed it off, feeling very able to handle the way of the road. So we rented our bikes and promised to have them back the following evening.
Now, looking back, I have to say I’m a bit peeved at the people who we told about our plans. What they should have said is, “the way of the road to Pai is a veritable death wish and you should not, under any circumstances, attempt it!” This is my battle cry now to anyone who mentions that they’re thinking of making the trip via anything other than a van/car/plane.
However, we were not warned (which is really and truly the way of the road) and felt overly confident. Brett had scooted before, I certainly had, too. Rich drove a motorcycle, so he was more than capable, and Bibi told us that she had a scooter that she drove at home. Perfect. First thing that happened, right out of the gate, ole Bibi pulls out in front of another scooter on a busy street, crashing into him. Now, it wasn’t bad. They were fine and there was no damage to either of their bikes. But this was foreshadowing of what was to come and the dead weight that goes by the name Bibi (I’m sorry, but nothing could be truer).
Once out of the city and off the main, busy highways (which took a good while), the drive eased up and was really enjoyable. We wound around some back roads, taking in the sights. We even made a stop at a waterfall for a quick, chilly dip. It was refreshing and the setting was the very image of tropical paradise. Back on our bikes, we started the next leg of the trip – the long haul up the mountain to Pai.
Here’s what awaited us: 180 degree switchbacks on a 30 percent incline/decline, narrow lanes upon which trucks and buses came zooming past, steep, unguarded drop-offs that would send you plummeting to your death, and a few very tense games of chicken with steamrollers and other heavy construction machinery. Not wanting to turn too sharply and flip my bike, I would shakily try to ease into the turns, but this sent me drifting into the other lane, staring into the grill of whichever vehicle was barreling towards me. And so it went for the next five hours. Now, it has to be said that the scenery was beautiful. But I can’t speak to that too much because my head with in a lock, looking forward, eyes darting for oncoming traffic, hands white-knuckling the handles.
Rich – who drives cycles back home – gave me the expert advice that I shouldn’t look down, but straight up in front of me, looking at the road ahead. My bike would naturally follow the way of the road as my eyes did. Turns out this was great advice, but it took me halfway into day two to find it out. I was too scared to bring my head up and ignore the manhole-sized potholes in the road.
Once in Pai our nerves were so shot we would have loved to tie one on. But, since we had to return the bikes the following day, we knew we’d just have to get up and make the drive again and we’d need a clear head about us. It was a bit of a tense night with our nerves shot and our patience thin, already anxious about the following day. That evening, when Bibi was relying on me to get the group back to the hostel from the bars (even though SHE was the only one with 3G and had stupidly left her phone back in her locker), I snapped and told her that she had been “completely worthless” that day.
Not a great choice of words I’ll admit, but I stand by the general idea. When traveling with others, you’re expected to pull your own weight. Maybe not all the time, but generally speaking you should contribute whatever strengths you have whenever you can for the good of the group. Those strengths might be specific skills or maybe just a positive attitude, but if you’re bringing nothing to the table you’re gonna be cut loose. Like the zombie apacolyse. That’s just the way of the road. Bibi was later cut loose, but not before nearly killing Brett, pinning him between two trucks, and being coaxed/coached through Chiang Mai rush hour traffic the following day by Rich.
The following day we were joined by my old English pal, Izzy – who’d been staying in Pai, but wanted some company for Christmas. I absolutely wanted her lovely company for the holidays, but after the perils of the day I was nervous about her coming with. Luckily, she proved a very able scooter and her dry English humor did wonders for my morale. This is a perfect example of pulling your weight. Well done, Izzy!
I wish I could say that the way of the road back was easier. That after making it up the mountain I was confident and well-equipped for going back down. Sadly, this was not the case. I was even more nervous, shaky and just plain scarred. The scariest moment on the trip home came thanks to the massive construction that was being done on the road. Throughout the trip we tried to hug the shoulder of the road to stay clear of passing traffic. This usually served us well, but then the shoulder was wet…and really dark…and it smelled funny. I started fish-tailing wildly, loosing control for no apparent reason.
“GET OUT OF THE OIL!” yelled Rich.
With no sign and no warning, the shoulder had been completely saturated in oil by the construction crews, preparing to lay the new road. Is this a joke?! Like are we in some kind of video game right now where all manner of dangerous obstacles are thrown at you?! Nope. Just the way of the road. Luckily, icy Indiana winters had prepared me for this and I made small corrections, turning into the slide instead of away from it, allowing me to maintain my upright position. We were able to make our way safely out of it, but ahead the crews had oiled nearly the entire road. Both sides of it, in fact. The only patch that remained was a sliver down the center, so when you approached an on-coming car or truck you had to assess your options: death by vehicular impact or mangling your body as you roll over jagged gravel?
Later, during my second stay in Pai, I ran into some Aussies I’d met briefly at my hostel in Phuket. They’d also attempted the drive from Chiang Mai, but about half an hour from Pai, one of their friends had swerved to avoid a hole, sending him off the road. At first his friends thought he’d just gone into the ditch, but past the ditch was a large drop off that had sent him plummeting. He was knocked unconscious and the strap of his helmet was choking him. His friends managed to remove his helmet and flagged down help. An ambulance brought him the remainder of the way, but the hospital in Pai is more like a small clinic. He had a concussion, broken bones and host of other problems that required surgery – surgery that could only be performed in Chiang Mai. They were able to arrange for a transfer for him to be taken back down the next day, but for that night all they could do was give him some medicine for the pain.
As you can see, because I’m writing this, we did not suffer the same fate, and made it back to Chiang Mai, just before the cycle shop closed at 6pm. Speckled in dust, black oil and sweat, we pulled over at a shop once through the most difficult section, promptly grabbed beers from the fridge and toasted our unlikely safety. That night, after showers and a change of clothes, our dinner/drinks tasted a little better than they ever had before.