It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, and practically all human life in Chiang Mai is homed in on Tha Pae Gate, the unofficial start of a once-weekly walking street. I’ve been here before and know what I’m getting myself into—hilltribe products hawked by real-life hilltribe people; feeding frenzies under hot tarpaulin in narrow temple grounds; very public massage; textiles, silver, and replica paintings; a surreal corridor of bath products, synthetic light, and sun-kissed skin. I am also well aware that by the time I reach the midway point, my energy will have flagged, my calves will have cramped, and all objects for sale will have eddied into an indistinguishable blur of cotton cloth and primary colours.
Yet here I am, barrelling into the maw of the beast.
As a rusty sky turns into a black veil, Ratchadamnoen Road, cutting through the heart of the old town, fills with roving herds of day-trippers returned and urban trekkers wandering to guesthouses in elephant pants. The air acquires the sweet jasmine scent of the recently pampered as they pass by. On the cusp of the walking street, I’m solicited by a man whose songthaew is parked on the curb. He leans against the hood. On the windshield is a faded decal of a big cat. Like vines, tendrils of chest hair have climbed over the collar of his aloha shirt. A half-smoked cigarette stays glued to his lower lip. “Tiger Kingdom?” he suggests. I decline, and his attention reverts to market-going masses.
This setting is like a theatre of the absurd. The lighting is hot and yellow, the music off in the distance. Audience and actor approach, but remain separated by the wall between outsider and insider, tourist and native, punter and purveyor. Conversation isn’t so much stymied as it is stuck on peripheral topics. And the crowds are unbearable. Not just in terms of size, but also for what they represent. In every stare fixed on children dancingfor pocket change, every negotiation for faux Birkenstocks mired over 10 baht—in every itinerant soul that brushes against my shoulder I see myself and feel pangs of cynicism and guilt. Other tourists are the truest window to the soul.
On Monday morning, I wake up early to go running around the moat. As soon as I’ve finished, my fiancé and I are taking our 125cc Honda Click rental to Mae Rim, the neighbouring district and most accessible wilderness. I’m warming into something of a strained canter when I reach an intersection, where a paunchy middle-aged man, wearing a late-day look at the daybreak hour, eyes me up, head to toe. “Tiger Kingdom?” he whispers, sweeping his arm like a display model showcasing a songthaew. This is the seventh time he’s invited me into his cherry-red truck in two days. I’ve ridden in plenty before. Always bone-rattling, often life-threatening, especially when ascending the kind of gradients we’re about to ascend, but without seat belts or reachable handlebars. No, thanks.
When I return to the corner an hour later, the songthaew tout is guiding a couple of Spanish tourists into his yawing death machine. This is a shame, I think. Despite the risk inherent in travelling on two thin wheels, which is at least as great as putting one’s faith in a semi-professional taxi-truck driver, the motorcycle’s appeal to primal instincts is too great to deny. Motorcycles—or, in this case, scooters—have a way of bringing us closer to ultimate reality. Ask Harley owners for their thoughts on freedom. Robert Pirsig wrote an entire book about it. In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” he talked about leaving behind metaphysical constraints—about how, after a while on the road, one completely forgets the act of driving. Stripping away the conceptual grid, only the asphalt, the elements, and the driving exist. And eventually one becomes the driving in and of itself.
This, on the one hand, is the selling point of Mae Rim. Or, in broader terms, Chiang Mai. All travellers find the hyper-advertised Tiger Kingdom, not to mention a few unsavoury reptile farms and ATV parks, upon turning off the highway and onto the mountain road. But these are easily avoidable and only representative of a certain breed of tourism. Mae Rim is also a massive splash of raw green on a rapidly expanding map. The road and its proximate attractions are surrounded by jungles and peaks, offering the possibility to escape from the herd—and from oneself—when on two wheels. Circumstantial freedom, in other words: the ability to drive wherever you want, whenever you want.
As the road progresses, soft curves uncoil like northern sausage. We take this winding track to Pong Yaeng, near the Nong Hoi Royal Project, and turn onto a hill up which the scooter does not seem to enjoy hauling over a hundred kilograms of flesh, not to mention bags packed with clothing, locally brewed moonshine, and books. We successfully summit, though, surfacing at Pong Krai, a village of bell pepper farms, hothouses, and a not-quite-opened resort called Baan Med Bua. The entire scene is incongruous against expectations. A few dozen houses of concrete and corrugated metal, a stark white temple sitting on a slope, and this beautiful lodge looking over it all from its paradise perch.
The resort is made of local wood. Some of its structural beams are bamboo with electric-pole girth. On its undulant grounds grow strawberries, papayas, and coffee plants. Lunch and dinner come from the garden. At night, the sky glows with star and moon light. At play is this weird disconnect with luxury and the modern world as we shower in luxury and modern conveniences—one plush bed the size of two king-sized beds, satellite television, high-end alcohol served in a den-like library with a fireplace that would be the perfect setting for après-ski in Aspen. At odds are competing desires. The power to pick and choose the cords we unplug: I wonder if this is the most modern freedom.
The following morning we descend on the bike into Pong Yaeng, where we grab a cup of coffee in a barbershop/homestay/café, the beans procured from a local hilltribe plantation. From there, we head to the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, over 500 stunning hectares incorporating curated gardens, thousands of plant species, and a handful of research centres. We’re allowed to drive our bike through the garden, even “Banana Avenue,” with its 200 kinds of banana species. We stop at outdoor exhibits, a canopy walk, and the “Glasshouse Complex,” where orchids, ferns, lotus flowers, desert-dwelling plants (i.e. cacti), and tropical plants are grown for research and development.
After a self-guided tour of the gardens, we get lunch at a roadside som tam and gai yang joint beside a stream. Thai families are sitting on mats next to the water, drinking Leo and eating chicken, the adults seemingly idling away a hot, dry afternoon with food and drink while kids splash around in the murky pool. Absent are tour buses and other stray tourists, so we’re separated from one kind of hoi polloi but thrust into another. One lens removed, another put on, the perspective reframed.
Finally we visit Mon Jam, the misty hilltop where Thai tourists camp and snack over romantic views. As promised, the views of the valleys below are unimpeded and striking. It isn’t overrun with people, but the dynamic is different. There’s some hilltribe-related consumption in the form of wooden go-karts for hire and colourful attire for sale, and overall the type of tourist has flipped from foreign to local. This is the sort of environment many pine for after spending too much time within the mass travel bubble, although, ultimately, on this level dreams and reality are conflated—being around locals doesn’t necessarily foster meaningful interaction, although it raises the odds of it happening.
There are two paths to consider in Mae Rim. The wealth of man-made or man-sanctioned attractions caters to our basest desires—we want to rest our heads on tiger haunches, take dips in the roaring Mae Sa waterfall, wander through strawberry patches that people tend to for a living. These are well-advertised activities that are exotic and therefore in line with the preconceived image of an exotic holiday. Yet, for many, there’s a deeper urge to discover a feeling of freedom rather than fulfil expectations. We hope to find it in the woods, on the road, while standing on the edge of a cliff above the clouds. But even Zen has its limits. And if we fly too far from the foundation, then maybe we forget what freedom really means.
Photos by Megan Ferrera