“Hold on, I am at the office now and will email the permits as soon as I have them”. We read this text from our Thai fixer as we were standing in front of the Thai customs office. We were being told by the official that we would not be allowed into Thailand without them, “perhaps you should go back to Myanmar”. We knew that Myanmar would not take us back and we were stuck in limbo. So we walked into Thailand, without a visa, bought a SIM card for the phone and went back to the border to see if our magic papers would come. They didn’t.
Thailand is moving towards a policy that will only allow foreign vehicles entry with a guide. The laws are changing rapidly and we are caught up in the churn. Fortunately we are entering before the guide requirement takes effect. But, still, the paperwork required is monumental, often confusing, and expensive to obtain.
After two hours we were able to put our fixer on the phone with the Thai customs official and explain, in the native tongue, that “yes” these travelers had done all that was required of them and that the hold up on the permits was entirely the fault of Thai bureaucracy. To clarify, the Department of Land Transport officer that needed to give final sign off on our permits went out to lunch and never came back. On hearing our story the border agents softened their stance and allowed our passports to be stamped into Thailand on an emergency basis. The bikes, however, would not be allowed to enter until the permits were issued.
Thailand has become very difficult to overland through these days. In fact, we are some of the last foreign vehicles allowed access into Thailand that still have the ability to travel without a paid chaperone. The amount of paperwork and planning took months but as we arrived at the Thai border from Myanmar our promised permit had not arrived. Our bikes were impounded and we entered Thailand on foot. The next morning the documents arrived in our email and we were able to collect our bikes. We cleared out of customs as fast as we could, before anyone could change their minds.
We walked into Thailand as the sun set while the bikes remained covered and chained at the border. Welcome to the land of smiles. Our papers came through the following morning and by 11am we had recovered our motorcycles and were rolling in Thailand. Without some bitter how would you know the taste of sweet?
We headed north on the Mae Hong Son loop route on good roads, winding through the lush mountains of northern Thailand. Having just come through Nepal, India, and Myanmar, Thailand felt ultra modern and civilized. It also had more tourists than we have seen since Italy. We are far from being the lone explorers in a far off land.
Yes, you have my attention but you cannot have my chair. Mae Sot, Thailand.
We went to find an old friend. John runs a quiet guesthouse in a Shan village near the Myanmar border called the Cave Lodge. We first met John in 1993 when we stayed here for almost a month on our way to war torn Cambodia where we ended up living for all of 1994. Cave Lodge has only changed for the better and we quickly feel into the same serenity we had felt decades ago. Like before, it was difficult to tear ourselves away after only a week.
John and his wife Nang run Cave Lodge in Ban Tham Lod, Thailand. John founded this place in the 1980’s and it is still going strong. We first met John in 1993 when we passed through here as clueless and dirty backpackers. The place still holds us like a magnet and we found it very hard to leave.
Shannon and John in 1993 at Cave Lodge. Ban Tham Lod, Thailand.
The riding gear has not seen a wash since Serbia, we were beginning to smell. A scrub brush and a Thai river sorted out the funk and we should be good to go for a while.
It rained in the night and the small, clear river where we washed our riding gear quadrupled in size. Ban Tham Lod, Thailand.
There is a magical retreat in Northern Thailand called Cave Lodge. As the name implies, caving is the predominate leisure activity in this region. Swiss riders, Bernie and Kevin, rode with us in Myanmar and then met us again in Thailand for some serious cave exploring. Probably the only picture of Shannon you will ever see with her in both swim trunks and a helmet. Ban Tham Lod, Thailand.
The cave we explored went underground for 1.5 miles (3.5K) before reaching an impassible barrier. The entire trip was in a subterranean river, mostly walking but sometimes having to swim. Photo by Kevin Bartschi
Over two years on the road and we haven’t thought much about work. That changed at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. We volunteered to work in the dog sanctuary at the park for a seven-day stint. Our days were long and we dropped off to sleep every night exhausted. But the reward and satisfaction in helping sick dogs in the clinic made the effort worth it.
After our time in the mountains exploring caves we were off to do some real work in Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. One would assume we would go to such a place to work with elephants but we came for the dogs, the park has a dog sanctuary with over 600 dogs. While the elephants here get all the attention the dog volunteers are the unsung heroes of this place. We signed up for a week of labor in the clinic, and work us they did.
Dog runs to the horizon and two Suzukis in their green sleeping bags waiting patiently for us while we work.
There is every kind of dog here from big to small, from healthy to sick. The pack of 6 disabled dogs all have paralysis in there hind quarters, mostly from car accidents. Taking this crew out for their daily walk was a hoot. Once these pooches get their wheels they are unstoppable.
Cleaning, feeding, and caring for sick dogs is a lot of work. Often the only break we took was to eat lunch.
Working with sick animals sometimes ends in heartbreak. “Ma-rew”, one of the paralyzed dogs, died of kidney failure mid-way through our week. All of us on staff cried as this lovely dog was buried in the shade of an old tree.
Just before we arrived an illegal toy-breed puppy mill was raided by police and the 96 filthy and abused dogs were brought to the sanctuary for care and rehabilitation. By the time we arrived the dogs were starting to recover from their captivity and were a joy to work with. The ones still in cages were the un-fixed males awaiting surgery, the last thing we needed here was more puppies!
Carolina has worked with the dogs here for almost 3 years. Long term staff are the glue that holds this place together. Having done our week we wish we could have stayed longer but our bike permits don’t last forever and we needed to get our motorcycles out of Thailand.
Sick dogs need lots of care and bonds to these lovely animals grow quickly. “Shimmy” quickly became one of Shannon’s sweethearts and she wasted no time each day showing her love.
Elephants are a constant companion around here. One of our duties was to take the sick dogs in the clinic out of their kennels and give them a leg stretch. We often had to pull to the side as we walked our dogs to let the bigger traffic pass.
The dog volunteers all grabbed a pooch for the group photo. Elephant Nature Park, Thailand.
It is a unique feeling visiting places where you have traveled long ago. I first visited the city of Chiang Mai in 1990; now 27 years later we are riding through my old stomping grounds. It is unsettling revisiting the places of memory; the changes of time are glaring and not as comforting as the mind’s eye. The city is now huge, full of traffic, and jaded to the tourist swarms. But once the new reality settled it was not so bad, after a few days the new paradigm had replaced the old and we enjoyed a lazy week running errands and walking around the old parts of the city. Change is the only constant in life and rigid expectations are a sure path to disappointment, you can never go back to how it used to be.
“Emma” is a little camera shy today. She became our favorite pup and we have adopted her. The park will keep her safe until we return home and then they will send our dear girl to Seattle once we are settled, probably late November.
Introducing our new dog, a healthy Thai mutt of unknown breed and the runt of her litter. We love her to pieces. Photo from John Kenyon.
It took us a few days to reach the Laos border crossing after leaving Chiang Mai. The ride across northern Thailand heading east was peaceful and easy and we enjoyed the good roads and civil drivers. We will return to Thailand after Laos and Cambodia where we will head south towards Malaysia. With the mountain adventures finished it will be time for Thai beaches and fresh seafood.
Our work is done and the siren song of the open road calls once again. Now we head for Laos and Cambodia after which we will re-enter Thailand days before the new transit laws go into effect, so more on Thailand in a later post.