Chiang Mai, Thailand
I didn’t sleep at all well last night with all the turmoil over today’s scooter excursion. It was too late to back out and besides, I knew my fear was (mostly) irrational. I met Keshia at Art Cafe trying to do my very best duck impression – calm and composed on the surface whilst going crazy underneath! We had breakfast then walked back to her guesthouse where the arrangements had been made. A woman turned up with some rudimentary paperwork and two enormous helmets. Her strange excuse was that she thought we were men (from the booking, not upon seeing us!). We strapped them on as best we could, the loose fit doing nothing for my confidence but the others didn’t seem phased. Keshia jumped on raring to go, I climbed on behind far more tentatively making silent prayers to Buddha or whichever deities jurisdiction I’m in and with that, we were off…
I had the fear of death in me until we reached the end of the soi, I was petrified up to the end of the main street, bringing it under control by the old city limits and loving it by the time we hit the open road.
Before long, we left the city and its sprawl behind and were well on our way up the mountain side. The higher we climbed, the cooler it got and it was just perfect – the light dappled warmly through the trees which protected us from the worst of the days heat. We stopped occasionally along the way to take in the views but were amused to find ourselves as much of an attraction to the locals who apparently don’t see too many women outside the city limits riding scooters, especially with Keshia’s blonde hair flapping out the back of her helmet.
When we reached Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Keshia pulled up a pew and left me to explore on my own. The temple more commonly referred to simply at Doi Suthep (which is actually the name of the mountain it’s on) is the most venerated temple in Chiang Mai and is regarded as sacred by most Thai people. It was bustling with both local and tourists alike who’d come to worship and bask in the reflected magnificence of its golden centrepiece and surrounding prayer halls. I went into one where I received a blessing and another white string to keep company my one from Elephant Nature Park which is showing no signs of weakening. I read about the various monuments in my guide book but wished I knew more about the rituals so I could better appreciate my visit and perhaps buy a lotus flower and know what to do with it other than think it’s beautiful!
The views from the top are spectacular too, looking out over Chiang Mai far below. I took my time looking around though was mindful of the fact that Keshia was waiting having seen it all a couple of days ago. I walked down the long staircase to find her in the designated meeting place and away we went again.
We decided to forgo a visit to the Royal Families Winter Palace and instead went in search of a more remote Hmong village. Keshia had visited the main one on the tourist trail the other day and hadn’t been all that impressed by its rampant commercialism. She’d read about another one a little further off the beaten track so we turned right instead of left at the fork in the road and headed off into the unknown. The roads that were intended for two way traffic were little more than single paths dotted with signs to honk at every corner to alert oncoming traffic. It started to feel a little hairy. The incline was so steep that at one point we slowed to 10km/hr at full throttle then stopped all together. I had to get off a couple of times just to get the scooter moving again. We went on like this for quite a while, much longer than we thought it should’ve been and then found ourselves at the crest of a steep hill that we knew we would never get back up if we went down. We made the executive decision to cut our losses rather than get trapped and miss out on the rest of the days adventures. We carefully made our way back down through some very steep blind curves and I have to say Keshia was cool, calm and collected and managed to skilfully manoeuvre us out of there without incident.
We rode back towards the city but skirted its edges to arrive at Huay Teung Thao Reservoir, the banks of which are dotted with small floating bamboo huts. We parked the scooter and took up residence in one marvelling at the exotic beauty of the place. No sooner had we both commented that it was like being in a magazine photo of a dream destination, than a man with a very professional looking camera came along and took our photo looking oh so relaxed and happy in paradise. If anyone sees it in any tourist literature, let me know!
Although not exactly a secret place, we seemed to be the only ‘farang’ (foreigners) there and got the impression that this was a local retreat more so than tourist trap. This is to say the menu was in Thai and no english was spoken. I said my magic sentence “chan kin jay” (I’m a vegetarian) and hoped for the best. Some time later, a simple but delicious omelette arrived and I was a happy camper. We stayed a long while, revelling in the moment and loving being alive. Right there in that moment was my reward for overcoming my fear and I have Keshia to thank.
We headed back via a crazy multi-laned highway, trying to outrun nightfall. Keshia broke 70kms/hr which was a feat for our little scooter and meant that I had to hold her helmet on against the wind drag. Despite our best efforts, we hit peak hour on the roads back into the old city where we found ourselves jostling for position in scooter swarms at every traffic light. It was a thrill to be in amongst the thick of it but also slightly diminishing of our accomplishment as many of our fellow gang members seemed to be school aged children and entire families without any helmets at all!
We arrived back at the guesthouse elated by the days expedition and all the more for the fear and pain overcome to make it so. All that fuss and we only fell off once… while we were perfectly still. I still don’t know how it happened but me and my wayward balance will take the blame!
We brushed off the worst of the days dirt and headed to Stefano’s Italian Restaurant for Keshia’s last supper. Though I’m still not sick of Thai, it was good to get my carbs up! Afterwards we had a final nightcap before it came time to say goodbye to another extraordinary person. Keshia, you are an excellent driver, a brilliant navigator and a brave and authentic soul who will leave your mark on the world as you have on my life. You are so wise beyond your years and I will be ever grateful for this time we’ve spent together. Thank you.
We parted ways at the Thapae Gate and I meandered back to my guesthouse still reeling from the day’s events and the magnitude of what I had overcome to participate in them more so than my new found ability to sit in a seat and not fall off. Although I’m not likely to get behind the handle bars anytime soon, I definitely end today feeling very much in the drivers seat of my own life.