In my seven months of travel around Southeast Asia, I embarked on more journeys than I can remember. I travelled by train, bus, boat, car and bike. I went through countryside, mountains, cities, villages and beaches. And yet the drive between Mae Sai and Mae Salong is still up there as one of my favourite journeys yet.
Maybe its because it was my last trip with Dom before he flew home to Ireland. Maybe it was because the scenery was so unexpected. Probably a bit of both.
The drive around the Golden Triangle isn’t renowned for being the most beautiful or exciting, but then I don’t think many people travel along the road that we did; the narrow little mountain road running along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.
We woke on the second morning of our trip after spending an ‘interesting’ night in Mae Sai. Eager to leave, we packed our stuff, quickly ate breakfast and left, armed with a few clothes, a scooter and a map.
The map showed two potential routes from Mae Sai to Mae Salong. One was a busy main road leading straight there and the other looked smaller, travelling alongside the border with Myanmar. We decided on that one.
We asked the hotel security guard for the best way to get there and he strongly advised us against it. The road conditions were too dangerous and the hills too steep he said.
We took one look at each other and decided we’d do it anyway. We needed a bit of adventure after the previous day. Now I must say, I don’t tend to go against the advice of locals but we did this solely on the basis that we would immediately turn around if the road got too rough.
And so off we set, weaving our way across the busy main road leading to the border (Mae Sai had livened up again now it seemed), through a market and onto a smaller, quieter road leading out of the village. Not long after that the road began to slope upwards, trees on either side of us.
About an hour into the journey, I was admiring the views and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves when we rounded a corner and ran straight into a military checkpoint.
Checkpoints are pretty standard in Thailand and nothing out of the ordinary at all. So I have no idea why I felt so panicked that day. Maybe it was being somewhere so rural and isolated.
But when three guards came out of the hut with HUGE guns that’s exactly what I did – panicked. They told us to get off the bike and started searching through our bags, whilst one of the guards filmed everything on an iPad.
I was terrified. We were alone on a completely empty road. No one knew where we were. Even we hardly knew where we were. This was it…the end! I was going to be killed and my body dumped off the edge of the mountain, never to be seen again.
A few tense (on my part) minutes later we were ushered through the border, still alive, body not dumped over the side of the mountain. Panic over! Maybe I was being a bit over-dramatic after all.
We only made it another 10 metres beyond the checkpoint before having to stop again. We had just been greeted by one of the most incredible views I think I have ever seen. On one side of the road was a beautiful view over Thailand and on the other was a huge, green valley in Myanmar. It was just breath taking.
These were the scenes we would be travelling alongside for the majority of the journey.
As we continued on, the roads began to get narrower and more bendy, twisting around the mountain and in and out of forests. The views were spectacular but the scooter was struggling now.
The road conditions were getting worse – we’d transition from cracked tarmac to dirt roads to gravel to more cracked tarmac, with sheer drops on either side of us. We would hit steep hills where it felt as though we were on the verge of rolling backwards, both leaning forward, willing the scooter to keep going.
We drove past a Myanmar military watchtower on the right hand side of the road. The place was surrounded by sharpened bamboos sticks, all pointed inwards towards Thailand. As we passed, a dozen or so Burmese heads popped up from behind the sticks, curious to see who was there.
Not even 100 metres further up the road, on the left hand side of the road, was the Thai watchtower. Again, bamboo sticks pointed in the direction of Myanmar’s watchtower and curious heads bobbing up and down.
On occasion we’d come across a scooter at the side of the road which someone had obviously left whilst they went to work in the fields. And every now and then we drove past people who, definitely not used to seeing Westerners in these parts, would shout and wave enthusiastically.
There was a number of scary experiences. A few times I was terrified we were going to drive right over the edge so I grabbed Dom and swerved him the other way, only to nearly push us over the edge myself. Another time, once we had reached wider roads near Mae Salong, we were met by a lorry headed straight towards us on our side of the road. We had to steer off the road into the bushes at the side to miss him. Thank god there was no steep drop there!
But eventually we reached our destination safely; Doi Mae Salong, a Yunnanese town in Northern Thailand. It had been a tiring drive. We had spent an entire day driving difficult roads in the baking hot sun. But the views made it worth it, driving through lush mountains and small mountain villages, and as a result it became one of our favourite ever experiences in Thailand.