Day 45: Singaporean rider rolls up
Kennie, from Singapore, has been keeping it cheap and traveling rough with his 1000cc Honda motorcycle. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
STAYING true to drone week, Emma's alarm goes off moments before mine. It's 5:17am.
Mesmerized by the sheer cliffs of red sandstone and the sparse twisted trees covering Pai Canyon, the plan is to catch the first rays of sunlight as they light up the long, thin ridges.
“It's raining,” Emma says from the bathroom of our room at Canary. She crawls back onto her side of the bed, as I continue to cuddle my pillow, listening to the dreary storm outside.
Drifting back to sleep, I return to my dream.
There is a woman with me, a friend's girlfriend I think. I'm running an ultra marathon. We turn up hill and are in a canoe. Night has set in, but between the peaks of the mountains, in the distance, there is a dark rainbow, then another between other peaks. In awe, we watch until the mountain caves' yawning cathedral mouths shimmer with iridescent rainbows.
We plunge off the cliff. The canoe catches on an abnormally long cactus, breaking our fall. Back on the ground, we review the map. The woman working as a navigator.
“Fuck, I'll have to run back up to the top of the mountain,” I say. It's essential that I don't miss any part of the race.
The vivid, entertaining dream keeps me wrapped up, half asleep in bed, until Emma returns after 8am with a cup of coffee for me. This is one of the many kind habits that Emma has – it's hard to imagine a better friend or travel buddy than one who wakes you with the smell of fresh coffee.
The rain has stopped.
“Maybe we'll do the drone, but no slacklining,” I suggest. Like a hound fresh on a raccoon hunt, I had bounced around Pai Canyon yesterday, scrambling up and down the soft rocks in search of somewhere to set up a highline.
Emma agrees, figuring it's best not to end up in a situation that might encourage other stupid tourists into a situation where a deadly tumble off the highline was a real possibility.
If there was a perfect setup, I would probably go ahead with the idea regardless, or at least roll the die. As it is, there is no reason.
It is drone week though, so skipping the drone work would be disregarding the the will of the die – the one thing I'm not allowed to do.
The parking lot of Pai Canyon, which was packed with rental scooters yesterday evening, is empty, except for two silver mini-vans.
At the top of the ridge, we find a scattering of foreign teenagers. Adequately interested in the drone and it's capabilities, I chat with a blond-haired kid. It turns out that the teens, who are all consumed with writing in tiny little notepads, are part of a one-month Rural Pathways program.
Rocking out some new skills with the drone, I use the Intelligent Flight mode to run a Point of Interest video. However, I get the settings wrong and the drone moves painfully slow. Then comes the beeping sound of low battery and the remote informing me that the drone is coming “Home”, which always puts me in a mild state of panic, as I'm not entirely confident that it's going to come back to exactly where it took off from.
Beautiful red sandstone ridges in Pai, Thailand. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back in town, with the drone charging in the room so I can squeeze in a second round of flights today, we pop into Cafe de Pai, which has been our go-to breakfast place. The sign outside says avocados are in season and can be put on anything.
With my third Green Man shake since my arrival in hand – the shake is splendid, nearly savory with avocado, coconut milk and lime mix – I order the avocado and eggs. No, the die doesn't get to choose what I'm eating. I know exactly what I want.
Emma eats slowly, allowing me to finish her shake, while she sips her coffee.
After fueling up at the gas station, Emma and I get off our bikes for a goodbye hug, both knowing we've made a friend for life.
About 100 meters down the road, I stop at the post office to mail my tattered work permit back to the Gazette and Nora's harness, which she forgot in Chiang Mai, back to her.
The bike and I work our way through the small square plots of farm land in the valley before heading into the mountains on the southern side of Pai.
A wide section of gently curving road lures the drone out of its box. Turning around, I park the bike and get the drone up in the air.
It's a small grassy clearing with dirt tire tracks leading off into the woods, a perfect place to test the “Follow Me” function of the drone. Balancing the remote against the tank in front of me, I set off taking the several meters of muddy road toward the beautiful pavement.
The drone isn't following me. I park on the slop in front of the road, attempting to get it sorted.
“Battery low. Returning home,” the remote says. “Connection lost.”
There is silence. Instead of the blades buzzing like a hive of bees, there is total silence. I get off the bike.
There is nothing behind me. No drone.
Where the fuck did the drone fly off to? Trying not to panic, I search the sky, then the trees.
It's gone. My drone has flown off.
Holding the remote up, I realize the kill switch on the remote is activated.
I kamikazied my drone on day three of drone week.
Miraculously, the drone fell from the sky a meter away from a mud puddle in some tall grass. Several blades of grass are twisted into the propellers, but besides that the little bugger is fine.
No more droning today, I reckon.
“When I first saw you, I thought you were a girl, because of your eyes,” Kennie tells me.
Ironically, Emma and I had spotted the 26-year-old Singaporean on his 1000cc Honda Varadero motorycle they day before at Memorial Bridge. Even this morning we had a bit of a laugh trying to figure out why he was carry a spare set of tires strapped to the back of his bike. Our best conclusion was that they were his road tires, though we weren't really sure what the guy was up to.
Several hours later, as I jammed away to a Freakanomics podcast about become an expert, Kennie passes me.
He flashes his turn signal, then hits his flashers as we round a sharp down-turning curve. He wants to talk, but I've got Stephen Dubner chatting in my ear. I signal him to wait. He's parked on the edge of the road ahead of me. Once the podcast is cut, I pull up next to him.
“Where you heading?” he asks, pulling down his tiger face mask.
“Not sure. You?”
“Mae Hong Son.”
There on the side of the road, we agree to ride together for the rest of the day, and then find somewhere to camp. I've been lugging around my tent, yoga mat and sleeping bag this entire time and have yet to put them to use. At the other end of the spectrum, Kennie has been camping nearly every night for the last two months.
Accommodations is what blows your budget. If you camp, you save 10 dollars a day, that's 300 dollars a month. One night's accommodations is the same price as three meals, Kennie explains.
He's roughing it. Roughing it properly, doing laundry in sinks, washing in public places, such as gas stations, and spending his nights in his tent.
This might be exactly what I need. Someone to jump start me into the budget-travel mentality. I'm too comfortable in Thailand. I'm so use to being an expat here that I can't seem to stop myself from spending 500 baht for room and 300 baht for dinner from time to time – the dice, of course, don't exactly help.
Nonetheless, more practical rolls that at least provide cheap options should be showing up.
Back on the road, Kennie sets a cautious pace, occasionally glancing in his sideview mirrors to make sure he's not lost me on any of the beautiful hairpin curves along 1095 from Pai to Mae Hong Son.
I assume he's a more experienced rider than I am. I assume that he's actually driving slower to ensure that he doesn't lose me. I assume a lot of things as we cruise along, passing incredible vistas of the distant mountains.
Once we make it into Mae Hong Son, I take the lead to find a cheap restaurant, which I locate at the far end of the little town.
The wide, open-faced place has a limited menu, but cheap food 30-40 baht per plate.
“Including private escort, do you know how much they quoted me? 500 USD a day,” Kenny says. “That was the best price from a number of agents [organizing motorcycle tours in Myanmar].”
After getting that news three months ago, Kenny struck Myanmar off his list, as his sources said it was essential to have a private escort when traveling with your own vehicle in Myanmar.
“Hmmm... that's not what I heard or read,” I say.
“When did you look?”
“About a month ago,” I say, naturally bending the truth in my favor – it was probably closer to a month and half to two months ago. “Things are changing so fast there, and it seems like everyone has a different experience.”
No, I didn't confirm anything with the Myanmar Embassy. I did send them an email, but they never got back to me.
No, I don't want to see the email Kennie received. I'm going to the boarder and seeing what happens either way.
No, I'm not panicking about this. Kenny did a lot more research before embarking on his trip. He even detailed an entire trip through India that the Embassy demanded from him, but has yet to confirm.
Yes, Kenny would like me to be able to disprove his sources about getting into Myanmar. However, I can't do that. I do promise to update him though.
The conversation sticks to logistics, which I'm not really helpful with. I explain that I've found a website detailing how to get a visa for India and how I'll see if I can't wrangle a fake Carnet de Passage while I'm getting the other necessary permissions. I'm currently working off the theory that neighboring countries are more adapt at getting people across borders.
“So why do you have extra tires?” I eventually ask.
It turns out he had a rear tire blowout in Laos, which left him stranded for a few days. He is insistent that I buy a spare set of tires. Kennie gushes advice, reiterating the fact that I need to buy a clutch cable and a throttle cable before leaving for Myanmar.
However, a lot of the advice is doled out without looking at the current situation, which is that I'm supposed to be in Myanmar in the next couple of days. Since working at the Gazette, I found that people giving good advice often neglect to factor in the necessary additional information that might make it impossible to follow through on the advice.
With a little day light left, we decided to check out the Su Tong Pae Bridge, which I noticed on the way into town.
“It's always taking a chance,” Kennie says, as I obliviously walk away from my bike and all my gear.
Parked at the top of a little temple hill overlooking rice paddies and the 900 foot bamboo bridge, I'm not worried about anything being stolen. However, Kenny is on his guard. Traveling solo on a motorbike often leaves your gear vulnerable, especially if it's not all locked up in boxes.
The bamboo bridge is 900 feet long. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
He's a good-natured guy though clearly unsure what to do. Eventually, he decides to grab his tank bag and joins me at the temple. Near the entrance, there is a four-faced Budda head resting directly on the ground, not far from the bamboo structures that house the bathroom, which directly overlooks the bright green rice. With their backs to the field there are four statues of jolly faced, fat women, following the poses of see no evil, do no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.
Having already taken all of this in, I'm chatting with an old hunched backed woman with a genuine smile who works at the temple. There's free water at a nearby, open shelter. A monk casually smokes a cigarette as he stares out at the rice paddies below.
On the side of the main temple, which is a large wooden structure with a golden, feminine Buddha image sitting at the back, there are three smaller temples. Like the main temple, each of these has ornate tin trimming, swirling like silver flames along the edges of the building. It's a temple style I hadn't noticed in Thailand until Pai. Hanging from the shrines are thousands of wooden strips with prayers on them, a mishmash of desires rattling in the wind.
Kenny gets distracted by something, so I wander down to the wooden steps to the famous bamboo bridge below. The rice paddies stretch out toward the blue mountains on either side of the valley, with the bridge stretching across them and the Mae Sa Nga River to the Kung Mai Saak village on the other side.
A troop of rambunctious, bright-eyed boys who were posing for some Singaporean tourists, greet me on the bridge, wanting me to take pictures of them.
I happily oblige.
I find myself wishing I wasn't in my riding gear; it would be so nice to feel the bridge below my feet. Though the metal support bars are visible below, the walkway itself is made of woven sheets of cracked bamboo shoots.
The boys flag me down again. Amusingly, they want to see my “gun show”. They also want so more pictures of them leaping into the river from the bridge. There is a pure joy in the way the boys play, laughing and smiling, even at their own attempts to show off their biceps.
I show them the picture.
“Oh, sorry,” they say with a laugh.
A storm is blowing in from the north. A blanket of rain turns the mountains fuzzy, time to get back to the rest area back toward town to set up our tents.
Kennie was originally pushing to stay under the sheltered gateway at the temple, as their is running water and a place to bathe. Uncomfortable with the idea, I successfully pushed for us to go to the defunct rest stop.
A light drizzle starts as I mount my bike. Kennie wants a GoPro picture though, so we're waiting for him to unpack the camera. The rain gets a bit heavier; we scratch the idea.
My mood changes as the rain gets heavier. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I quickly pitch my tent under the shelter at the rest stop, then wait for Kennie to get himself sorted out.
He talks. He talks a lot and moves slowly, very slowly. Luckily, patience is something I'm getting closer to mastering. It doesn't occur to me until later that it's possible that he's spending so much time talking that its slowing him down.
He rags on me for not having been charging my phone while riding. Since I've not been camping, I really haven't had to worry about security or charging my gear as constantly as he has. However, I've without a doubt blown through much more money. While I was sucking down avocado shakes and eating up the 100 baht plates of backpacker food in Pai, Kennie was sleeping up in the cold mountains nearby, eating yams and eggs.
Unable to find a cheaper, good alternative to the place at which we had lunch, we return for dinner.
I quickly order food, while Kenny turns his bike around. The over-loaded beast is more prone to toppling over than my bike, which I didn't think was possible until I met Kennie.
We secure two tables, as we both attempt to charge everything. My priority is getting the drone battery ready for tomorrow – it is drone week after all.
A young girl in a Madrid FC football jersey, who gave me a bashful smile a half hour ago, comes up to me.
“Is it okay you keep working, but I close the doors?” she reads off a slip of paper she's holding.
It's about 9:40 at this point, we were planning on leaving at 10pm, but I feel like it's time to go. Kennie hesitates, as his DSLR camera battery isn't fully charged yet., but gives in.
The shelter at the rest stop is completely dark as we pull up next to our tents. I keep leaving my tent flap open, much to Kenny's schagrin – he has many good habits for camping and budget travel deeply entrenched at this point.
The water spouts at the rest stop aren't running, exactly what Kennie was worried about, as he's keen to bathe and wash his clothes. I, however, am not fussed. Despite usually staying in hotels, I can go days without washing – I'm a dirty kid at heart.
I crawl into my half-collapsed tent; it's the kind of ten that you need to put stakes in the ground to open it up completely. My feet stick to the sides of the tent as I curl up in my sleeping bag and make a smelly pillow with my riding pants. There must be a better way to do this, but I can't be fussed to sort it out at the moment.
My first night camping on the trip. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli