Its the smells that stay with you. In a car you have the air conditioning on, on a motorbike you’re going too fast. On a bike you get to smell the world around you. Drying herbs, fish paste fermenting, exhaust. The works.
Today’s smell was the pine forest. I’ve moved north from jungles full of creepers that want to stick to you into deciduous forests with heavy undergrowth. Today I climbed over a mountain that was covered in a pine forest and my nose was full of that pine needle smell.
Coming from Australia, I associate pine forests with the plantations around Nanga Mill. I remember going to the US and having to comphrend that all the pine forest around the Rogue River was not a plantation, but was natural in Oregon (we call it Oregon pine after all).
The riding from Mae Sot to Pai has been difficult. Thailand is proud that it was never overrun by the French, unlike its neighbours in Vietnam and Laos. However the French occupation in Vietnam brought with them quality coffee and road engineers, trained in places like the Alps. The roads in Laos especially are beautiful to ride up and exhilarating to ride down. They are perfectly graded and carve a beautiful gradient into the landscape.
The majority of the road from Mae Sot to Pai was the type of road that has been expanded from the original goat track, following along ridges and dropping down to streams so the goat could get a drink. There is no fear of steepness on the way up or down. Some inside corners will be at 60-80%. The hills are punchy and make you sweat up them then squeeze the breaks all the way down. On a motorbike they may be great, but on a bicycle they are hard work and not particularly rewarding, especially after a bad coffee that morning. At the end of the day you have statistics like; Average speed 14.7km/h. Maximum speed 74km/h.
Maybe that is why I have seen 2 groups of cyclists and yet countless foreigners touring on motorbikes. The cyclists will stop for a chat, we have a bond. But the motorbikes deny my existence. I think to a motorcyclist, I am the leprosy victim that lost my engine. If they make eye contact with me then they risk suffering the same fate, therefore it is safest to look at the opposite kerb and rocket past as fast as possible.
However, 40km out of Pai everything changes. From Sopphong to Pai the road is awesome. The French must have had a temporary outpost there. It climbs from 650m to 1500m then drops into Pai at 700m. I was climbing it at the end of the day when the sun was getting low and orange was appearing in the sky. The forest changed into pine trees bringing back those memories of travelling in the USA and all of a sudden the motorbikes got over their leprosy fears and began to wave and acknowledge me.