วันจันทร์ที่ 8 มีนาคม พ.ศ. 2553


saw sheets of water sweeping across the two-lane road, only after all of these did I stop and turn around.
the rain. It was a sign. Or, at least, it should have been. Within a minute, barely able to see the highway in front of me through the downpour, I centred my rental car over the yellow line painted down the spine of the road. This looping stretch of highway dropped off hundreds of metres on both sides, though the exquisite views out either window were now claimed by the storm. Billed as one of Thailand's most scenic drives, Highway 1256 heading due east out of the small town of Pau towards the border with Laos lived up to its billing and then some.
Flat and twisting at first, the route quickly ascends and, in a quirk of Siamese engineering, actually forms the ridge between two deep valleys. The scenery that steals your attention on the way up is jaw dropping and it's a bit unnerving to attempt to keep your eyes on the road and the car from instantaneous freefall.After two landslips that reduced the road to a single lane, after a large red sign with white Thai script that screamed warning in any language at the start of some ongoing roadworks, after the beginning of a:delugethat ON ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT TWO DAYS EARLIER, THE KEEN RENTAL-car rep handed me a map of Chiang Mai. The fact that we were in Chiang Rai mattered little. He smiled, and I was on my way.
Using Chiang Rai as my base for a Royal Orchid Holiday rental-car tour of Thailand's far north, where better to head than to the very top of the country? On the way, a stop at Doi Tung — the 2,000­metre-high village and hillside that was rehabilitated by the Princess Mother — is mandatory and besides, I've read that it offers a back road into Mae Sai, the northernmost town in the Kingdom. Doi Tung's appeal is obvious and in the air after the twisting drive up to the Princess Mother's home: her love of all things floral means that the scented air is about as fresh as fresh can get.
The asphalt slalom down into Mae Sai makes the car squeal along a narrow two-lane road. Add in some switchbacks not more than two car-lengths long and it is easy to see why traffic is so light. The highway dips quickly and climbs just as furiously, paralleling the border with Burma before I am forced to an abrupt halt a few kilometres from Mae Sai. A roadblock. A Thai soldier jots down my details before raising the gate and waving me on down along the road that passes through a tunnel of bamboo that opens up on to some flatlands. This pancake landscape is pierced with soaring cliffs that look like so many molars protruding from the valley floor. A drought has parched these lush mountains, while everyday fires are only exacerbated by the dry season. Exiting the narrow side streets of Mae Sai to rejoin Highway 1 is like being sucked down a funnel where all the traffic is headed towards the busy border crossing. The crowded sidewalks of Mae Sai double as department stores, with Burmese stamps, coins and blue jade mixed liberally with Chinese tea and sweets, not to mention the incessant cries of shopkeepers hoping to relieve me of some of my burdensome baht. At the border proper is the requisite sign noting the northernmost point of Thailand, queues of Thais
headed north, lines of Burmese headed south, all peppered with a few Westerners about to dip a toe into Burma or, in the opposite direction, now boasting that they've been to another country, a controversial one at that. At least for an hour or two.
On a map, a country's relative wealth is underscored by the number of roads it boasts. Northern Thailand's highways knit the landscape together very well, all the moreso when seen next to neighbours like Laos and Burma, where roads are more of a novelty.Satisfied that I'd now been to the very top of the Kingdom, I head out of town east towards another notable geographic point, Sop Ruak, where Thailand and Burma are met by Laos. This is another town that lives off its location.At moments like this, you realise that the best thing about self-drive is that the journey is entirely in your own hands. On any trip surprises, both good and bad, abound. In Sop Ruak, a town devoted to a past of opium cultivation, this area more famously known as the Golden Triangle, hordes of videocam-toting tourists film local children hastily dressed in their hill-tribe finest. It's all too Disney so I hop back in the car and head south. Just as my
thoughts turn to a late lunch, I spot Anantara, and steer into its five-star confines. A meal like only Thailand can offer awaits.After a peaceful lunch, across the highway is an attraction equal in measure to the resort: the Hall of Opium. A very professional presentation of the drug's 5,000-year-old story is told in this well-thought out museum, which is set amid mountains that were once carpetted with poppies.
Due south lies Chiang Saen, a much more laid-back stop mainly because of Wat Pa Sak on the outskirts of town. The temple is cheek-by-jowl with the city's fortified wall and is known both for its mix of Sukhothai and Burmese styles, and the fact that it's surrounded by a modest teak forest. Light drifts down through these teak trees, dappling the chedi. After the constant sound of two- and four-stroke scooters and the buses belching exhaust, this stop offers a serene moment worth remembering. It really is a quite beautiful location and I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that no one, not even someone to oversee donations, is here. With the sun slowly dropping in the sky, the drive back to Highway 1 and Chiang Rai is a peaceful way to end the day.AFTER HAVING PORED OVER ROADMAPS, DAY TWO'S ITINERARY IS IN place: a long drive from Chiang Rai to Nan, with a few diversions thrown in for good measure. Some of them even planned. The first few hours pass through typically Thai countryside that is devoted to farming. Once beyond Chiang Kham though, the hills get higher, the roads wind tighter and the views become more spectacular.
Into every long drive with a male behind the wheel must come a wrong turn. I make mine en route to the pin-prick town of Hang Thung where a shortcut beckoned. On the map, it is a 25-kilometre diversion but my suspicions grow once I hit a dirt road. Cresting a ridge, the valley below looks like a scene out of a movie: undulating green hills stretch off in every direction, though what catches my eye is a small group of huts that, together with a Thai flag flying on a bamboo pole, look suspiciously like a border post. Five hundred metres on, and I discover it is. "Laos?", I ask pointing beyond the gate. One of two Thai soldiers nods politely and waves his hand for me to turn around. And not return. Once back at the main highway, I discover that the shortcut I had been looking for was another kilometre along. I don't take it.
While eventually headed for Nan, my aim is to drive along that breathtaking Highway 1256. Once there, the climb eastwards is well worth the effort. The stunning roadway sees little traffic and, beyond small stands of elephant grass and bamboo, are majestic views of the 1,939-metre Doi Dong Ya Wai and, to the south, the slightly higher Doi Phukha. There is nowhere to stop except the middle of the road, so I do just that. But before I can reach Bo
Klua, the rains come and I turn the car around content that I have driven one of Asia's most scenic roadways.Once back in the Nan valley, the rain stops. Too often overlooked, the town of Nan is home to some beautiful temples and one of the country's best small museums. With one eye on the purple sky, an early dinner is in store. Arriving at a small restaurant, the deluge begins, thunderclaps vying with the rain machine-gunning off the corrugated tin roof so loudly that it is almost impossible to hear the waitress. Having ventured here on foot, I'm stuck until the rain lets up, then it's a matter of dashing between rooftops and overhangs storm and awoken the next day by neighbourhood dogs.That morning, the story on the weather is the same. Having my own transport, it doesn't seem to matter since I still get a good taste of daily life. Along Highway 101 between Wiang Sa and Rong Kwang, is a pleasant surprise: lush forests. These eventually give way to clear cuts, but on a rainy day, mists waft their way through cliffs cloaked in greenery lending the landscape a mystical nature.Arriving in Phrae, a town noted for its ageing temples and a handful of reconstructed teak homes, in a constant downpour dampens of temples are all worth exploring, but only in better weather.