At some of the steep junctures, I crawled at 10kmph and used my feet to push the bike ahead.
Despite the constant search for anything that can be hashtagged offbeat, I still ended up joining the hordes of tourists who flocked to Chiang Mai in the Northern region of Thailand. It was the month of Yi Peng or Loy Krathong – the lantern festival of Chiang Mai’s Lanna tribe that has spiked Instagram engagement levels for many hipsters in the past. I don’t judge and I definitely didn't hesitate to join and update my social feeds with pictures of the plumpest parasol lanterns near Nawarat bridge in the heart of old Chiang Mai.
The Yi Peng (lantern festival) at Chiang Mai
But it was only after I finished 2 days of lantern-flying and the customary partying in Chiang Mai, that I desperately started looking around for other things to do. I had plenty of time in Thailand, and intended to make the most of the 2000 Baht I had paid for the 15-day visa on arrival. I had maxed my time at ‘Zoe In Yellow’ bar getting boozy-eyed and was hungry for something unusual.
After searching and visiting some of the lesser known places around Chiang Mai (do you know they have an erotic garden) my well-trained Google maps cursor finally landed on an oft ignored, but very suitable target for visitors - Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain of Thailand in Chom Thoi District, just 110 kms from my location. There were no accommodation options nearby, but I reckoned if I left by 6 AM, I could make it to Inthanon by 8, explore the mountain, and get back to Chiang Mai by the evening. It was the perfect plan.
There was a road leading all the way up to the summit of Doi Inthanon. I had 3 options to get there. Rent a red Thai minitruck called Songtaews to take me up the mountain - cost 3000 Baht. Second option was public transport. I could take a public red Songtaew from Chiang Mai to Chom Thong, and then find another yellow Songtaew from Chom Thong to Doi Inthanon. The third option was a motorbike.
In India when I think motorbike, I think Enfield or Avenger, with burly men in leather jackets. But Thailand is a simple country and motorbiking is simple too. There are mostly 125 CC bikes, and almost always single gear. In other words, I was going to rent a scooter to ride up Thailand’s tallest mountain.
I went to a rental shop near Tha Phae Gate, the commercial nerve center of Chiang Mai city. The options weren’t plentiful. I had the choice of a red, blue or white Honda wave scooter. All 125cc. I did the customary checks of the condition of the scooter, signed the required forms, and left my passport as security deposit. At 300 Baht per day, I was set for the mountains.
My ride started at 6 AM as planned. The morning breeze was slightly chilly so I dressed in jeans and jacket – just like a Harley rider. Oh, the irony! At Tha Phae Gate, I met another Italian traveller and we decided to make the trip together, more so we could take pictures of each other along the way. The highways were in excellent condition, and the only things that we had to keep a watch out for were some crazy fast Thai cars, who went zipping past our small scooters like whale sharks swimming right through us.
The roads were in great condition, but the bike wasn’t
The uphill climb began a couple of kilometres after Chom Thong, on highway 1009. The 40km stretch took me all the way to Ban Luang, from where I had a steeper, winding ride to the summit of Doi Inthanon. The Honda Wave with its single gear made the climb a painstaking one – sometimes at crawling speeds. There were stretches I could have walked faster!
But we persisted and soon came to the entrance of the Don Inthanon National park. Tickets - 300 Baht, and 20 Baht for the bike (scooty).
The Doi Inthanon National Park
Shortly after we cleared the entrance gate, the battered old scooter started giving out smoke signals. Perfect round billowing smoke rings. And a red light started flashing on the display. What could it mean? (Silly question.)
But the bike was still functioning, so we kept moving. We were crawling at this point, at 10kmph or maybe even less. At some of the steeper junctures, I started using my feet to push the bike ahead. Thankfully, there were some interesting pit stops along the way. In the middle of nowhere, we spotted beautiful coffee houses, some of which required me to ride my tired scooter down yet another winding road. I was rewarded with the most amazing coffee and mesmerizing views of golden yellow fields.
Tempted to stay here for the rest of the day!
We refueled at an uber-colourful automatic gas station in the small town of Ban Luang. I’ve seen different grades of petrol, but it was the first time I saw petrol being called Gasohol. I filled up.
Our second pit-stop was the holy relics pagodas. If you follow any Thai Instagrammers, you’ll know this is the coolest place in Chiang Mai right now. The site is home to two different stupas – the Naphamethinidon and the Naphaphonbhumisiri – which were built in 1987 and 1992. Of course, there’s a royal connection here, as both these years were the 60th birthdays of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.
Popular Instagram spot
The pagodas themselves were marvelous sights, but what made this place stand out were the gardens that occupied the space between them and around them. With small ponds and brightly laid out rows of flowers, the scene was simply enchanting. Sure enough, across the small footbridge over one of the ponds, there was an entire crowd of people queuing up to get their pictures taken! Social media whores (me included).
Highway 1009 ended at a military gate. A gold on black canvas announced ‘Thai National Observatory’. So apparently, this was the home of TNT – or the Thai National Telescope. The largest optical telescope in the region. Also the home of the Royal Thai Air force weather radar station. And ergo, strictly off-access to civilians.
The Ang Ka nature trail, a perfect green photographic spot
From here we went to the Ang Ka nature trail, a short walk through some amazing moss-filled views by the side of a walk bridge. And soon reached what we had set out to see – the highest point in Thailand!
View from the top
How did we know this was the highest point? Ah, not just due to the fact that there was a giant board proclaiming the same. But because we were in a queue for 10 minutes to take a picture under the board, jostling with a group of Thai monks – all of whom wanted a selfie. No one can resist their 15 seconds of fame!
And I did it!
We hung around, took some more selfies – most of them with the monks – and made our way back. Hats off to our sturdy 125cc’s with which I conquered my first mountain. My epic adventure!
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Abhilash Surendran
Photographs by: Abhilash Surendran
Cover photo credit: motorbeam.com