At the age of 50 I decided I was going to celebrate the turning of each decade with something special. So for my 50th birthday I went sky diving, jumping out of a plane at 20,000ft. It was certainly something to remember!
Then my 60th birthday came along all too quickly so what was I going to do? I had always fancied hiring a scooter somewhere in Asia and setting off on an adventure.
A few months later this became a reality and together with my wife we arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand keen for the adventure to start.
Chiang Mai itself is a fascinating, historic city founded in 1296. Although busy, it is not overwhelming like the streets of Bangkok can be and has a great laid back feel to the place.
There are numerous, Buddhist temples scattered in and around the city, some nestled in the mountains surrounded by the most spectacular scenery. However we weren’t here to explore by foot, we were here to hire a scooter.
The people at the scooter hire couldn’t have been friendlier. Most Thai people appear to be really happy to see tourists which can’t be said for many places in the world.
We chose a Honda 150cc scooter with a slightly bigger engine than the more usual 125cc machines on offer. We figured we would need the extra 25cc as we were travelling two up and the roads to Pai were said to be steep.
Hiring the scooter was easy but getting two crash helmets was far from it. We were told most people didn’t bother with helmets, which appeared true from the number of helmetless riders cruising past.
However we feel naked (and vulnerable) without helmets so had to wait 24 hours before they managed to find two helmets for us. Mine was OK but my wife got one with a broken strap mended with a bit of string and most of the padding at the back had been removed.
Oh well better than nothing so off we set.
After a couple of warm up laps of Chiang Mai we were ready to set off on our adventure.
We had already been stopped by police several times within the city for a licence check. The scooter hire shop does not check your licence and the police are aware many people ride without one.
You need an international licence in Chiang Mai otherwise you will get a fine on the spot. Fortunately I did have one.
Chiang Mai drivers are very respectful and considerate of scooters. The scooter is by far the commonest form of transport there and cars are few and far between.
At traffic lights cars stop well back from the lights to allow all the scooters to nestle up at the front of the queue, waiting for the grand prix start as the lights turn green. Although all the scooters set off together at full throttle, the cars do not join in with this mayhem and happily cruise slowly along with no ‘boy racer’ attitudes.
On leaving Chiang Mai it doesn’t take long before you are out in the countryside on quiet rural roads. The blanket speed limit is 80kph so there was no need to have hired a bigger bike.
The roads are very scenic and in reasonable condition but look out for gravel at the side of the roads each time you pull over.
On hair pin bends it takes some getting used to that other drivers come around the bend on the wrong side of the road! Everyone does it!
However it feels safe as everyone is driving slow and they move over as soon as they see you. You will only get into problems with this if you are driving too fast yourself!
There was much to see on the road to Pai including detours along the way to see temples, bustling markets, scenic reserves with waterfalls and generally exploring the culture each small settlement had to offer.
The main attraction we were heading to for a couple of days was the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary.
This is a charity funded sanctuary for elephants rescued from northern Thailand and surrounding countries. Many have been rescued from the logging Industry and tourist Industry where the elephants can be sadly abused.
Some have been unlucky enough to have been injured by standing on a land mine, remnants from previous wars along neighbouring boundaries. Volunteer vets tend to the elephants wounds. Each elephant is looked after by its own individual carer.
Being an elephant carer is a life- long job, staying with that elephant for life. The carers apply for a position and several are presented to an elephant for selection. The elephant actually chooses which carer it gets on best with.
After spending a couple of days helping prepare food for and feeding the elephants it was time to move on to Pai.
We had chosen Pai as a destination as numerous people had told us it was an amazing village high in the mountains. The road to get there was spectacular and fun to drive with many tight bends and the scenery got better and better the closer we came to Pai.
Pai itself was a little bit of a let-down after some of the cultural experiences we had had on the way. It is a great holiday destination for tourists, especially those under 30, but is a bit too touristy and has lost a lot of its natural charm.
I suspect it was an amazing place 20 years ago but we were 20 years too late. Don’t get me wrong, I did like Pai, but I preferred other, more authentic places we had been.
Pai does have some great street markets with food and trinkets and loads of great cafes which also cater for the ‘western taste ‘ with burgers and pizza etc. Not normally something I would crave in Thailand but after a couple of weeks of eating fried rice, vegetables and unidentified meat products I have to admit the burger was a very delicious change.
Pai also has a very relaxed, hippy vibe which appeals to many, myself included usually. However after being stopped on several occasions by people peddling dope the whole scene started to become tiresome and it was time to move on.
After a tour of some of the other villages in the area to get our ‘cultural fix’ it was time to head back to Chiang Mai and hop on a plane back to reality. Not sure what I am going to do for my 70th yet but I am sure it will come around quickly.