August 15, 2017
In Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author derides the current state of affairs in 1974 by saying “There’s no escaping it.” But “it” is undefined. It could be stress, it could be routine, it could be “the system” – but it doesn’t matter what “it” is because one theme rings clear: The motorcycle and the open road are the best way to overcome “it.” Even in 2017.
In Thailand, route 1095 is that motorcycle escape. The route goes from the northern urban epicenter Chiang Mai to the remote border town Mae Hong Song. The legendary two-lane snakes through the Thongchai Mountain range, winding around pine-capped peaks and descending into verdant valleys of banana trees and villages filled with the faint and constant odor of burning brush.
This is the Thailand of yore. Sure, there are occasional coffee shops along the way offering wifi and facilities, but they are far and few between. Out here, simplicity reigns supreme. Old wooden huts with thatched roofs make up small villages like Mae Lana. Between these villages riders can go for hours without seeing a sign of modernity.
The Thai military maintains checkpoints along the route, so be prepared to stop and have a chat with the friendly soldiers while they review your identification documents.
The proximity to Burma, and the sheer remoteness, means the military keeps a watchful eye on the region. Small outposts along the way are often a welcome sight, since wildlife, like water buffalo, porcupines, and wild hogs, are the dominant life forms the further west one travels towards Mae Hong Son.
If uninhabited mountain roads sound like the perfect place to twist the throttle to speeds that might be incriminating in North America, then Route 1095 is the perfect testing ground to explore the relationship between man, machine, and velocity.
The small town of Pai is the halfway point between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, and it’s just as strange as one might expect a former cornerstone of the Golden Triangle smuggling route to be. Khun Sa built a small army after learning from the Kuomintang, a military faction that fled to Burma from Yunnan Province, China.
When Sa’s army grew to great numbers, he controlled the Shan state and began a thriving opium production business. Pai was a key node on the route to smuggle opium out of area in the 1970’s. Today it still draws a number of young Western travelers searching for remnants of legends shared by their hippie-era parents about “Thai Stick” and substances deriving from dried poppy latex.
The route to Pai takes a whopping 762 turns, many of them switchbacks that require riders to look over their shoulder and gauge whether the ensuing downshift lands on first or second gear.
While locals have developed specialized knowledge that allow them squeeze enough climbing power out of 125cc scooters and whiz up the hairpin turns, I’m thankful to have enough power pumping out of a modest 500cc parallel twin to climb hills as steep as 10 degrees. There are a bevy of bikes available in Chiang Mai for hire–everything from Honda’s dirt king, the CRF 250, to the Dakar-dominating Africa Twin. On the European side, Triumph’s Touring star, the Tiger is also available.
West of Pai Rt. 1095 is dominated by hill tribe villages that have crept across the border from Burma. These communities don’t speak Thai and have reverence to the hills rather than to specific nation. On the way to Mae Hong Son, savor the unique opportunity to stop for a bowl of Shan noodles, a hearty medley of tomatoes, shredded chicken, fish sauce, and peanuts atop thick noodles.
After 1,864 turns, Mae Hong Son offers much needed respite from the road. Nestled in a valley next to a large lake, the area is perfect to reflect on the journey over a cold one. Other travelers may talk about where they went, but it will hard to explain that Route 1095 is more about getting there rather than being there.You’ll hear that Mae Hong Son is the perfect place to disconnect from society, and that’s not untrue, it’s a great place to get away from it all. But you’ll know: Two wheels and the open road are the real key to escaping “it.”