Zen and the Art of Motor-Sai Maintenance

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 20, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

Ever since I read Robert Pirsig's epochal novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and read it again, and again), I have dreamed of imitating his motorized wanderings. I suppose there is something in the American soul that craves peregrination, a somewhat cowardly impulse to escape responsibility and the ordinary. On the Road, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick -- it seems that so many of America's literary classics are concerned with Getting Away From It All.

So it was partially for this reason that I recently purchased a motorcycle, and why, the other day, I suddenly became determined to drive it through the breathtakingly beautiful hills and valleys just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. At first I thought that I might stay overnight at some bungalow or resort --- of which there are several, all gorgeous -- and I prepared a backpack with clothes, toiletries, the first volume of the gargantuan classical Chinese novel A Dream of Red Mansions, paper and pen. But this proved unnecessary, in part because as I rode I discovered in myself an emotion I do not ordinarily feel: loneliness. Where am I? I thought. What am I doing here?

My route was a fairly standard one: Chiang Mai-Samoeng-Mae Rim-Chiang Mai, a loop around the mountain of Doi Suthep that requires about three hours at a speed of seldom any more than forty kilometers an hour. Unfortunately, being an impulsive and often impractical person, I made the journey during the hottest hours of the day and during the hottest time of the year (during which, as Orwell splendidly put it in Burmese Days, "one's ennui reaches a pitch that is frantic, suicidal.") So by the time I returned my nose was a Rudolph red and my arms the color of a medium rare steak. My body would be radiating heat for the rest of the evening yet I had arrived at a state of mild enlightenment: I desired nothing at all. Ennui had evaporated.

There are a few ways to get to Samoeng from Chiang Mai but the least taxing is probably to take the Canal Road (a.k.a. the Rimklong Road) until you come to an intersection with -- yes -- the Samoeng Road, onto which you take a right. It is advisable to have a full tank of gas before you get this far, however, as there are only two or perhaps three PTT stations (PTT is Thailand's principal gas company) before you get to Samoeng, which itself is hardly swarming with them. About sixteen kilometers before Samoeng I had only a quarter tank of gas and it was dropping faster than I expected. The thought of pushing my cycle up those extremely steep hills in a blazing sun with barely any food in my stomach inspired in me a faint dread; fortunately I made it to a station where a kindly lady topped me off for about 55 baht, and I was on my way.

Having fueled my machine, I next needed to fuel my body, and soon enough I was pulling into a small roadside noodle shop that looked positively deserted. The floor of the place consisted of bamboo planks covered with what was probably rattan, and I imagined that I might plunge through it like some hapless character in an adventure film. There then appeared the shop's proprietor, who eyed me with a combination of wariness and bemusement as I ordered gooey tieo moo, or pork noodle soup. When it arrived (slowly, apparently because he had to fire up the massive tank of water that cooks the thin noodles within a matter of seconds), I was suddenly scared of the tough pork and opted not to eat it. Noodle soup is never the same anywhere, and this manifestation of the Thai staple had noodles that seemed to have been made from wheat and not rice, while the broth was that dark brown that usually signifies a high proportion of pig blood. Still, it (and a Coke in a glass bottle) hit the spot. Yet when I checked my wallet I had only a 500 baht note and 20 baht in change for the 30 baht meal. Presented with the choice between the two, the man took the 20 baht and uttered that bedrock of Thai culture -- mai bpen rai, or "never mind" -- even though it was clear that he could use the 10 baht more than I could. Like Tennessee Williams' Blanche, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Shortly thereafter I arrived in Samoeng, but what little of it I saw looked distinctly desolate. The ATM of the only visible bank was covered with an "out of order" sign, and on the bank's steps were empty cups and bottles of beer. I consulted my map and also noted that my mobile phone had returned in range of the network (how oddly liberating it had felt to be off the grid for a while!) I realized I had missed the turn to Mae Rim and had to go back a few kilometers; at the turn there was a police checkpoint, probably for the purpose of searching for drugs or illegal laborers. After all, this is the Golden Triangle.

The scenery on the way to Samoeng had been stunning enough, but it was already familiar to me because I had lived and worked at an international school off the Samoeng Road near a village called Ban Dong. Just before Ban Dong is a small restaurant that I took to calling the Lookout Restaurant because of its valley view; but the restaurant was closed that day ("Come back on Monday!" chirped the lady there.) And past Ban Dong is one of my favorite places in Thailand, the posh resort Belle Villa; and just beyond that are the so-called Beer Bungalows. As I passed them that day I saw to my left three representatives of the chao kao, Thailand's hill tribe people.

But the Samoeng-Mae Rim leg of the trip is the more delectable to the senses. It is easy to forget just how complex is the tropical environment, especially amidst hills whose lower reaches may contain palm trees but whose summits are dotted with conifers. The farmers employ terracing, which often gives the hills the appearance of enormous beehives; and their browns and greens are sharply contrasted with the limitless blue sky, so blue that (as Marguerite Duras wrote in her Vietnam novel The Lover) "you could hold it in your hand."

On this leg I encountered a group of three elephants and their mahouts, and this got me to thinking about how extraordinarily difficult warfare would be in this terrain, especially in the days when elephants were virtually the only transportation available and there were precious few roads. I came to see the north of Thailand as a bulwark against invasion for Siam's historical capitals in the lowlands -- Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok. Everywhere you looked there were endless silhouettes of hills -- a daunting vision for even the most intrepid explorers or aggressors.

Foreigners are so common in Chiang Mai now that they do not merit notice, and indeed some Thais grumble that their country is being overrun (they need to be politely reminded that the second largest collection of Thais in the world is probably in Los Angeles; the first is Bangkok.) But outside of the major cities the foreigner still sticks out. Several times during my journey truckloads of children or laborers would call out to me and wave and smile (not grumble.) Pirsig had remarked on this superior cordiality in America's rural areas; it appears to hold true everywhere, because rural people are not so surrounded by others that they become indifferent or hostile toward them. Anyway, my loneliness abated somewhat with these unexpected greetings.

My motorcycle was giving me no problems, except that on steep declines it sounded as though it was backfiring. The motorcycle is built by a company calling itself Tiger, which is apparently the first ever Thai motorcycle manufacturer (the overwhelming majority of bikes in Thailand are built by Honda, although Vespas are becoming increasingly popular with the young.) The longer I drove the more comfortable I became with the route's hairpin turns and sudden drops, but one never quite gets used to the propensity of rural drivers to weave across the yellow line (although one learns to appreciate the time and effort this saves.) Beginning in Samoeng I had stopped wearing my helmet -- probably so flimsy as to be useless anyway -- but after a near miss with a reckless lane-changer I put it back on again. Better safe than splattered.

The Chiang Mai-Samoeng leg had consisted mostly of resorts and restaurants, but the Samoeng-Mae Rim leg has an assortment of elephant camps, snake farms, waterfalls; there is even a botanical garden dedicated to H.M. Queen Sirikit. So although Bangkok towers over Chiang Mai in terms of population, there is certainly plenty to do nearby the latter.

True to form, I almost missed the hard right turn to Mae Rim, but decided that as the cute girl with the Hello Kitty jacket was headed that way I would head that way too (serendipity!) The decision proved to be correct. On my left appeared the gate to the regal Regent Hotel, where long ago some friends and I sipped expensive cocktails and took in the sunset. Mae Rim itself is one of those countless Thai cities that seems to owe its entire existence to the terrifying highway passing through it (mae rim literally -- bafflingly -- means "mother edge" but it may actually mean "river's edge" because the word for "river" in Thai is mae nahm, or "mother water".)

Anyway, the return to civilization was an abrupt one, as fiendish and obnoxiously loud trucks roared by me and monstrous gas stations replaced the bamboo huts. Nevertheless I pulled into a station and guzzled some much-needed mineral water, while -- this is proving surprisingly common -- people quietly admired my novel Thai bike. Sometimes I feel like an actor in a Tiger commercial, and I am tempted to wink at pretty girls as they squeal, "Tay jung ler-y!", or "Way cool!" I am Walter Mitty.

The evil sun -- there is no better word to describe the sun in the hot season -- finally began to show some mercy as I barreled into Chiang Mai and found myself once again on the Canal Road. It struck me as quite unbelievable that these two worlds of city and country could be on the same planet, but there was no doubt which was the more magnificent: when I asked a journalist friend of mine recently to name the main reason he preferred Chiang Mai over Bangkok, he pointed toward Doi Suthep, or toward the mountains generally. And the best way to become acquainted and enchanted with these mountains is to thread your way through them on what the Thais call a motor-sai.

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Motorcycles are so common in Chiang Mai that renting one is as easy as falling off a log. Shops are most ubiquitous around Thapae Gate, and among their number are shops called POP and Mr. Beer. Daily rates generally hover between 150 to 250 baht, monthly from 2000 to 2500; and all you need by way of collateral is your passport -- or, barring that, a deposit of around 2000 baht. Possession of a driver's license is rarely, if ever, required; but lately in the city center the police have become increasingly aggressive about enforcing the helmet law: a recent Bangkok Post photo showed a cop holding a sign that read: "We are arresting you because we love you." Ah, Thailand.

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