It was two weeks before our Tet holiday trip that we started our planning. Not route planning or hotel booking, no, nothing as inconsequential. We had started on the real work — getting incredibly flashy suits custom-tailored in Vietnam.
Over those weeks of scouring the markets for fabric, jointly attending hilarious fittings and weirdly asking the still-in-Cali female member of our troupe her measurements, we began to evolve an identity for our travel, or at least some jokes.
We were preparing a Tet holiday trip to end all Tet holiday trips, an epic two-week motorbike run through the 600km Mae Hong Son Loop. And we planned to wear these suits the whole time, in a show of unity or whatever. Flying into Chiang Mai on Jan. 26, on two hours of post-Singapore sleep, we encountered our first speed bump.
We loved Chiang Mai too much. It was a problem.
While waiting for the rest of our party to arrive / get suits made, we adopted a nocturnal schedule. Daytimes by the Eco Resort Chiang Mai (109 Bumrungrad Road, Tombon Watkate) pool, nights spent at a variety of places — and then inevitably into the funnel of regret that is late-night party spot Soi 5, a cluster of bars revolving around the generic boom-chik-boom vibe of partyplex Zoe in Yellow (Rajvithi Road). This was a bro-and-floozy nexus the likes of which Phuc Tan and Apo can only aspire to.
Over four days and nights, we also managed to discover some sweet hyperculture in this picturesque walled city. During incredible jam sessions at North Gate Jazz Co-op (95/1-2 Prapokklao Road), people escaped to the fragment of 14th century wall lining the moat on the north side of the old city. Thais and expats jammed along to the driving backbeat, and I was blown away by the thought that this town of 170,000 has a healthier scene — at least in this one specific discipline — than anywhere else I’ve been in Southeast Asia.
On the hip side of town, centring around university-proximate Nimmanhaemin Road, locals licked ice cream in the shadow of the absurdist 10-metre-tall nightmare creature at iBerry (Nimmanhaemin Road Soi 17, follow the signs). I was offered a sniff at my pre-brewed grounds in the chalk-and-wood environs of speciality coffee crafters Ristr8to (15/3 Nimmanhemin Road), and found myself seconding internet coffee commenters in saying theirs was some of the best coffee I’d tasted, at least until I ran into fierce opposition on behalf of Ponganes Espresso (127/1 Soi 5, Moon Muang Road) and Akha Ama (9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Road, Soi 3).
We took the suits to Art in Paradise (199/9 Changklan Road), a museum of trick paintings packed with the photo-ops non-touristy tourists such as ourselves love — or perhaps this is an attempt at the unpinnable logic of ‘so bad it’s good’. We hit up TripAdvisor champs Lemongrass (Loi Kroh Road, Chang Khlan) several times, choking on the spice in their exquisite Thai offerings, and made a lunchtime habit of visiting our ‘sponsors’ — people in suits get sponsors, apparently — at Free Bird Café (Manee Nopparat Rd, Si Phum) for inventive western breakfasts and delicate Burmese and Thai lunches, all vegetarian. Upstairs they run a school for Burmese refugees in Chiang Mai — we thought they were so cool we wished we could sponsor them.
We loved the 24th-ranked TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Best Destination in the World so much we found it hard to leave… until one day we did. Riding on THB180 to THB450-a-day (VND120,000 to VND290,000) rented bikes, we headed out to the mountains.
We headed out to Pai late in the day, after spending the default three hours getting our party of seven sorted for motorbikes, bathroom breaks, books, gas, lunch, directions, bungee cords, the one-guy-delaying-departure-because-he-doesn’t-feel-well and all the other little hang-ups that come with such an enterprise.
We left an hour before sunset, sometime around 5ish. This is never a good idea. As dusk turned to tree-shrouded dark, group member ‘Gare-Bear’ — the man in the snakeskin suit — found the lights on his Vespa-esque Yamaha Fino flickering, its 115cc engine block concentrated on climbing hills. We rearranged our convoy to light his path, gave him a headlamp and shuffled around the one passenger in our group — ‘Chang’, the lass in the pyjama-esque elephant pattern — who’d been sitting on the back of his bike.
By the time we made it to Pai, bonfires were already blazing. At 486m elevation, dwarfed by surrounding mountains, Pai’s chill had gotten to us on the way there. Clothed in our winteriest wear we ventured out, consuming alcohol only for its blood-warming effects (disclaimer: there are none). In its bars and street stalls we found another place we would stay in too long.
As we awaited our seventh member — ‘Key Lime’, in the late-period Monet-inspired threads — we found new favourite brunch spots in Boomelicious (Soi One Corner Plaza) and Good Life in Pai (just next door). We hit some hot springs, photo-op’d on the edge of canyons, went to a ‘reggae on the river’ festival. In this town of 2,200 year round residents, we found more commercially brewed kombucha — fermented, sweetened black tea — than lurks in all of Vietnam. And, for a while, it was enough.
Our third night was our first as a reunited crew, and also the eve of election day in a tense nation. After 6pm, beer became hard to find. One bar tried to serve us milk. And we wandered the town, up to the brightest campfire we could find, and the same beers that greeted us that first night were there. And the same crowd.
One guy asked, “You guys still wearing those suits?”
Fresh off his fever, a 250cc rental to his name, Key Lime was anxious to get moving. As we tried to ingratiate ourselves to certain members of the backpacker crowd, he sat there frowning. When we asked what was wrong, he said, “I’ve been on lads’ vacations before, but I thought this was going to be a motorcycle trip.”
And just like that we pulled out of town, onto the next place.
Mae Hong Son
We got out late again, but with sunlight to spare. We fed our momentum curves at 90km/h, glances off mountain ridges we were switchbacking through.
We pulled into Mae Hong Son at twilight and promptly checked out the lovely central lake, the reflection of temple and mountains within. We found election day beer and a deadly feast at a local restaurant. We did not find a location to watch the Super Bowl the following day.
The next morning, we packed our bikes and said goodbye to this dusty little town we would never see again.
Up Microwave Mountain
I saw a sign for Microwave Mountain and followed it. It took me up 30-percent grades at my Fino’s max at such an angle — 20km/h, with lots of chuk-chuking. Courtesy honk signs marked switchbacks so sharp I already feared the way down. Here the road changed, from the western standard blacktop of the highway to a splintering unlined grey, with traction-supplementing grooves dug in at turns. A truck took over the one lane we shared, on its way down the mountain — I put my left foot off the side of the road and waited for it to pass.
At the top I found an isolated village. I saw school-aged children, but heard no shrieking “hellos”. No roadside stalls catered to my thirst. People shied from my camera, and I felt like an intruder. I headed down the mountain the way I’d come.
Later than all the others I arrived in Mae Sariang, population 10,000, lying in a mountain valley next to a muddy river. I’d broken from the main route, only to reunite in another small town, at another bar, across from another amused but forgettable crowd. The boys in the suits took over the open mic, we posed for some more pictures and it seemed somewhat anticlimactic to think our trip was coming to its end.
Mae Sam Laep
(The End of the Rainbow)
On our last day before heading back to Chiang Mai, we decided to take a river longboat ride on the same Salween River our delicious fish dinners had been coming from (the night before, Salween ‘fish’ in tamarind sauce). It wasn’t the muddy stretch next to the town where we’d spent the night — but rather one 48km away, right on the Burmese border.
Some 15km along, passenger Chang and I found ourselves separated, hitting a patch of rough that the overtaxed cruiser had difficulty on. That patch of rough turned out to be 30km of it, all of our remaining route over broken-up asphalt and gravel-strewn earth. We began to think of the road back, and why none of our comrades — who we’d mistakenly left behind at a forgotten gas station rendezvous — had passed us yet.
After two hours we arrived in perfect late afternoon light. It had been a difficult journey, but we weren’t thinking about that now, in the slow soothing atmosphere of this end-of-the-road town.
Mid-kow pat gai — one of the spiciest dishes we’d yet encountered on the loop — 45 minutes later, the rest of our party arrived, tired and shaken from the road down and a wrong turn taken. The trip hadn’t left them with the feeling of new experience we’d been feeling — turning our heads at woman painted in Burmese thanaka face paint, men clothed in skirt-like longyis — they felt only the encroaching dark and the difficult way back. Avoiding nightfall would mean no river ride, no sunset. It seemed an unbearable tease.
This is one of the limits of a big group, finding compromise between the needs and wants of everyone. It’s a tradeoff with your own needs and wants, and you have to know when it’s not worth it anymore.
I didn’t want to leave, and Key Lime said he’d like to stay as well. Resident unpredictable ‘Bumblebee’ — with the only Chiang Mai-crafted suit in our lineup, an orange jacket-and-shorts combo — decided he’d like to stay for the longboat, then beat it back before nightfall.
In the unfailing luck of meant-to-be moments, we ran into Rufus (Tel: +66 877 872392), a Burmese refugee who’d lived the 40 years of his exodus in this border town, speaking only Burmese and the English of his student days. He took us under his wing — first arranging a late-in-the-day longboat, then inviting us to stay with him when he couldn’t arrange another guest house.
And we went out on that river, a short swim from the Burmese border, filled with the kind of wonder we weren’t sure we had in us anymore. Swimming off the river bank, darting into the sharp current while the local kid who’d joined up with us did backflips into the water, I felt that ‘moment’ — the one which puts you completely and utterly in a place, with no past or future, no outside context. In that moment I knew the life I might have had in that river town. It expanded my perspective in unexpected ways, and all that night and in the days following I felt the effects of this sharp inhale of a different world.
All through our travel, people had asked us why we wore the suits and we said things like, “We like looking good” or “Why aren’t you?” The truth of it is we didn’t know quite why we were doing this.
In that moment, it all made sense. We were trying to catch lightning — the energy that’s all around you when you travel, in passing sights and strangers. We wanted to take this energy and focus it around us, give it something to react to.
But lightning isn’t something you catch. It’s something you watch for a second, before it fades back into the night.