“She is bigger, broader, with more padding… ” I am being introduced to Flo, my companion for the next 11 days and I think we are going to get on. Flo is a Bangkok style Tuk Tuk, specially modified to withstand the bumps in the road (another thing we have in common), by contrast my human companion comes in the form of Ya-Ya – whose very name is a clue to her affirmative nature – a live-wire of a woman whose staccato delivery isn’t that far removed from the 650cc Daihatsu engine that gets Flo all revved up.
Ya-Ya and Flo
Ya-Ya is a one-off too, the first female Tuk Tuk to drive through the mountains in Thailand. She came to the job via a degree in chemical engineering, a bad boss, a broken heart and a fortune teller and, despite her mother’s skepticism (it’s never entirely clear whether about her individual potential or because she’s a girl), she has been one of the Tuk Tuk Club’s lead driver for the past five years. Ya-Ya’s dad died when she was twelve, the same age my youngest was when his dad died. She says she feels connected to him while driving and that knowledge makes me feel connected to her.
Connection it turns out is a powerful theme in Thailand. From the Karma that ties us together, good or bad, to the literal blessings strung from the Buddha’s hands to the monk at the temple and then in turn strung round our wrists as he blesses our Tuk Tuk adventure and sends us on our way.
The monk and his dog
I’m in the company of John Borthwick, one of Australia’s foremost travel writers but as much a novice as I am when it comes to handling Flo.
A Tuk Tuk has three wheels and no steering wheel but handlebars instead. You twist to accelerate, the gears are automatic (to stop them burning out on the many, many 8% hills- for some reason every hill in Chiang Mai has a sign saying 8%, even when it feels more like 25%), you brake with your foot and the whole thing pivots around a central axis when turning.
It’s fun! A go-kart-cum-milk float, crossed with a motorbike, think more Del Boy than Lewis Hamilton. To Ya-Ya’s shouts of “Ba! Ba!” we “Go! Go!”
The first couple of days are full: a visit to Mae Wang Elephant Home (no touching!), the towering four golden Buddhas at the remote seminary of Wat Sapanyu, river rafting, a waterfall. These are the delights of low season travel: The waterfall doesn’t thunder in high season, then the river is crowded with lazying uni students (the Thai equivalent of punting the Camb), but John and I have it almost entirely to ourselves.
And as our driving ambition begins to stretch, so do the miles…
Day three sees us cover 66 kilometres as we begin the long climb to Doi Inthanon, at 2565 metres, Thailand’s highest mountain. Our visit coincides with the first hard downpour of the monsoon, sweeping views are swept away as we are enveloped in a mist-wrapped-middle-earth: spagnum moss, peat bogs and tree ferns. With our breath actually condensing it’s not hard to believe this is the tail end of the Himalayas. The sacred waters of Doi Inthanon were used in the coronation of the King of Thailand, Rama X, I content myself in the knowledge I am being anointed with the same.
The car park at Doi Inthanon National Park
We are staying at Mae Khlang Luang, a Pga-gan Yaw village of Karen people from Burma. The biblical floods of yesterday have subsided and I am woken by a dawn chorus of chanting nuns; they are, I’m told, on a ‘silent’ retreat. Our simple teak and bamboo huts look out over paddy terraces and flower fields, lushly green now but which will yellow as the season continues. There are squadrons of giant dragonflies, so big they show up in photographs!
Rice fields at Mae Khlang Luang View
“When I was a boy all this was opium…” opines our host, but since the 1980s the hill tribes have been ‘persuaded’ to take up far more socially acceptable crops – there’s even a caviar farm – all set up at the instigation of the Thai Royal family. Coffee is now pretty much the strongest stimulant, and another unanticipated delight of this trip. Even in the most unassuming of coffee shops the brew is top notch. Take La-Noi, it literally translates as One Horse Town, but in this widening in the road we find the award winning Sook coffee shop. Rose, the owner, was off to Australia to work as a history teacher when she broke her arm. Karma intervened and now her brew travels even fewer miles than she did; it comes from her family’s own farm and you can measure the distance from ‘crop to cup’ not in miles but metres.
We however have many miles to go. Unlike being in an airconditioned car the tuk tuk keeps all your senses alive, from the scents of garlic, shallots, jasmin, mint, wood-smoke and cooking, to the cooling breeze and the far reaching views.
Pai after the rains
Glimpsed through the teak trees the distant hills form a self satisfied “MmmMmMMmm”, as we make the last big push to Mae Hong Son. It is a gem of place resting in a bowl at the foot of the mountains. It’s known as the City of Three Mists: Clouds, Fogs and Fires depending on the season. We are definitely in the cloud season, and it earns its reputation as a ‘humdinger’ of a storm sees huge boulders dislodged in the river bordering our rooms, the rumbles of thunder never break to allow an interval for lightening. (Incidentally we are enjoying Fern Resort, as favoured by Brangelina back in the day. Arriving during low season makes it just as an exclusive experience for me and I get to enjoy the infinity pool all to myself!)
When I began this journey I thought of Ya-Ya as a guide, midway she became an endurance athlete but by the time we leave Mae Hong Son, she has become a warrior! Whereas I, all tucked up in the tuk-tuk, don’t even get wet!
Mae Hong Son
Thais are the only nation I know who count their journeys in curves…. In eleven days we conquered around 5000 curves or 800km. The sight of two Anglo Saxons being driven around the bend by a diminutive Thai woman in a Bangkok tuk tuk apparently a few hundred miles off-course does turn heads. But while John and I may have looked like a last remnants of the Raj, Ya-ya is greeted with shouts of “You look cool!” as passers by do double-takes when they realise there’s a woman at the wheel (or handlebar to be accurate).
Road sign measuring ‘curves’
We are in contemplative mood as we near the end of our trip. While I ponder the compatibility of solo travel with Low Season Travel, Ya-Ya loves the freedom of being alone; John believes travel is all about being someone else for a while.
I’m not so sure. A good road trip shows you a bit about yourself, something to take home – whereas solo travel is all about learning to living with yourself.
Ya-Ya and Nikki
In Ya-Ya’s other life she’s a Tik Tok guru, she spent the pandemic helping people to deal with debt. Her advice: Focus on yourself, she says, it’s all you can do. And with that she’s off to conquer another 5000 curves.
Nikki Morrison spent 32 years working as a journalist for BBC News, her husband Rory Morrison, a Radio 4 Newsreader died in 2013 and having bought up their children Nikki is now creating a new life, solo travelling the world and exploring the best of responsible, Low Season Travel as a solution to the problem of over-tourism.
For more information on The Tuk Tuk Club’s 11 Day Adventure and to follow in Nikki’s footsteps, have a look at the itinerary here and don’t hesitate to get in touch for more info!