I recently finished a week-long tour of Mae Hong Son province, a region of northern Thailand which borders Burma. I rode around the Mae Hong Son Loop, 600km of mountain roads, on a 150cc Honda scooter which I rented in Chiang Mai. It was a wonderful trip, leisurely enough to get to know a few of the towns along the way, with plenty of lovely curves on the mountain roads and space to reflect as I zipped through magnificent karst landscapes. My possessions fitted (almost) neatly under the saddle of the bike. I felt free.
Because I am the Master of Cheese, I decided to take the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as reading material on this journey. I’ve read it twice before at the ages of 17 and 30 (more or less). Each time it has given me something different. This time was no exception.
The book is the memoir of Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig’s life was fairly run-of-the-mill. He studied molecular biology at university, but dropped out after thinking too hard about life and questioning science; then he went to India, studied Eastern philosophy for ten years, left after questioning that too, and taught rhetoric in a remote mountain town in Montana, where he thought himself firmly up his own rear end, went mad and was committed to a mental hospital. So, pretty normal, then.
In the book, we follow a post-mental-hospital motorcycle trip that he takes across America with his son and some friends. We see both the trip, and the ‘new’ personality of the narrator piecing together the bits of his previous life – the life of a character he calls ‘Phaedrus’ after one of Plato’s Sophists – before they gave him electroconvulsive therapy and he forgot himself. It’s the story of a divided mind searching for a way to reunify itself, as well as an exposition of Pirsig’s philosophy of ‘Quality’, which he claims to be (at least related to) a pre-Socratic way to understand life. By the end of the book, he is styling himself as a modern-day Sophist doing battle against two thousand years of Aristotelian ascendancy, as well as showing us the Tao of being a mechanic. It’s a great read, especially if you’re the kind of person prone to thinking themselves up their own rear end, which I most undoubtedly am.
Here is the story of my 8 day scooter trip in Thailand. Please read and enjoy.
I take too long over breakfast in The Larder Cafe and don’t leave town until 2pm. Cramming a plastic bag full of clothes and several books into the under-seat compartment of my Honda plus a plastic bag with its handles wedged under the seat dangling off the side, then texting a friend the word ‘Geronimo’, I head to the inner circular road and tentatively south on Highway 108, trying to avoid being squashed by trucks.
After an hour or two, there is a side road off up into the mountains. It’s beautiful. I reach the highest part of Thailand. Pine trees, mountain ridges receding into the distance. After a while I realise that my aim, which is to get to Mae Sariang that evening, is completely over-optimistic, since I’ve been scooting along at 40kph or so. Yes, it’s wild ride.
In Zen, Pirsig is always pitching a couple of tarpaulins as a tent and heading off to find spring water, in a proper man-of-the-mountains purist style. I briefly consider following suit, but decide instead to check in to a lovely guest house in the mountain town of Mae Chaem, strum the house guitar while I watch the sunset with a beer, then head for dinner at the cafe next door. I eat, listen to the acoustic guitarist and befriend some cats. I fail utterly to ponder the meaning of metaphysical ideas, and send lots of text messages instead.
While wandering around Mae Chaem and taking a picture of a cow, I am struck by the friendly of the local people. Such unadulterated niceness must be the result of some fairly deep epiphanies, I reckon. I scratch my head and determine to get to the bottom of the mystery: Why are the people around here all so, like totally Zen? Still pondering this conundrum, I mount my trusty Honda and head down out of the mountains to join back onto the 108 as it winds east towards the valley where Mae Sariang lies.
I somehow ride blindly straight past Mae Sariang and am stopped at a police checkpoint. I am suddenly aware that I have left my passport with the scooter rental people in Chiang Mai and I am alone, a foreigner, in a border province with no papers. Images of police cells and espionage charges haunt me as I cheerily greet the officers. Then the nice policeman gives me a glass of Coke and tells me to turn around and head back to Mae Sariang. I check into the Riverhouse Hotel and have a pleasant beer on the terrace, watching the river, pondering again the inexplicable niceness of people round these parts.I also realise that I have badly sunburned knees from the first two days of riding. They have gone the colour of beetroot and are quite painful.
I have booked a tour to hike to a Karen hill village. Since I am alone, the tour guide takes his moped and I take my scooter. I insist that we stop to buy long trousers so that my knees will not spontaneously combust. I find a marvellous pair of tie-dye brown and purple baggy trousers, and don them proudly.
The guide leads me by motorcycle out into the surrounding
countryside and then we hike for a few hours through rainforest and rice terraces. We pass by a forest full of monkeys and listen to their calls. I might have been imagining it, but the monkeys’ cries seem to me to contain a note of mockery. I cannot understand what they might be mocking, though.
On an unrelated matter, my trousers, by this point have more or less disintegrated at the crotch. This just goes to show that you can’t have everything in life. Mae Hong Son: lovely people, poor-quality garments. Yin and Yang. Balance. Et cetera. That’s what life is all about, after all.
We finally arrive at the village. The villagers find me hilarious for some reason, but I am used to the mysteries of the mystic ancient mountain peoples of the world and I expect there is some deeply symbolic cultural reason for their laughter. We have an extended lunch, weather a heavy but brief downpour and hike to the bikes via a waterfall where I cool off.
We then go on a ride through steep, rocky dirt roads and winding mountains to
hot springs, where I un-cool off. I end back in Mae Sariang on the terrace of a restaurant with the glorious rain beating down on the roof and a Paenang curry, and more beer.
This is a straight ride up the valley, ending at the town of Mae Hong Son. I take a day off the sightseeing and work for some time writing in my notebooks. I find a great little dive bar – the Crossroads – and befriend an Irishman, who is teaching grammar and syntax at a local university, much as Pirsig taught rhetoric in remote Montana. He is happy to talk, so we do. Cows return home. By the end of the night, between us, we have solved all of the world’s problems.
My hangover does not prevent me from enjoying the best ride of the trip, from Mae Hong Son to Pai, through the most stunning mountains. I end in Pai, which I have been told by a friend is ‘a hippie orgy’. I eat a very bad steak.
I explore Pai – off to the canyon, where health and safety regulations seem not to have been adequately thought through, and go for a walk along precipitous, crumbling paths in the heat. I then go for a long ride through the surrounding countryside, nearly get lost, but don’t.
Finally, I find the famous Circus Hostel, which is both a hostel and circus skills school, all top knots and braided beards and poi-spinning and people with artistic tattoos all desperate to look cool. It is the main remnant of Pai’s old hippie backpacker scene. I spend a pleasant enough hour or two reading my book and silently mocking the poseurs, because I am not pretentious at all, oh no, au contraire.
Back to Chiang Mai through the famous however-many-it-is turns of the road from Pai. I park my trusty scooter outside the Larder Cafe, where the staff are happy to see I haven’t broken my neck. I’m happy to be backing Chiang Mai for a couple of nights before leaving Thailand.
I have come to the conclusion that the chilled-out-ness of the locals around the Mae Hong Son loop must be because they are always riding motorbikes everywhere. There’s something different about this kind of travel. You feel part of the scene. As Pirsig puts it in Zen, the view from a car is just more television.
Did my motorcycle trip have a similar effect on me as Prising’s epic journey across America? Did I piece together the fragments of a previous life? I have felt, during this stay in Thailand, that I have found a lost part of myself, that I have become again closer to someone I used to be. But that happened before this trip, while I was still in Chiang Mai, and the part of me I had lost was not someone with a metaphysical axe to grind, but someone who allowed himself to feel deeply in other ways. So there’s a parallel, yes, but this trip was not an awakening. Rather, it was a pleasant, reflective coda to a stay in Thailand which has shaken me up, turned me around and set me on some new path.