Notes from a Nomad

Remarkable People, Memorable Events and Fascinating Destinations from Around the World.

56 A Short walk across the Burmese Border Ban Rak Thai, Mai Hong Son Province, Thailand – March 31 2019

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I am a Geographer by training and I have been a Geographer all my working life, firstly as a Geography Teacher and latterly for 40 years as a Tour Operator.

I love looking at maps and, as a child, enjoyed nothing more than going for a ride in my father’s motor bike and sidecar and discovering Dorchester was indeed just as the map said, 25 miles west of Bournemouth.

The Temples in Mae Hogn Son City are all very Burmese in style which is hardly surprising when the border is so close.

And when I look at a map, as soon as I see a small abandoned  Forestry road heading deep into the Canadian wilderness, a minor road heading into a remote Alpine Valley or a longer variant of a mountain trail crossing over a rarely visited Pass, it attracts me like a magnet.

Indeed, in 1990, when looking for a hotel as an alternative to Interlaken in Switzerland, I was first drawn to the long  dead end road heading south from Interlaken towards the end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, deep in the Bernese Alps and it changed my life. I found an archetypal Alpine Inn  at Stechelberg, we stayed there for 5 nights, discovered the car free mountain village of Murren,  accessible by cable car from Stechelberg, had a family holiday there for the next five years before buying a home in Murren in 1997 and I have spent between one and three months each year in Murren ever since.

Looking down over Mae Hong Son City from Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. The severe haze was pollution caused by ‘Slash and Burn’ farming techniques and covered most of Northern Thailand and led to cancelled flights in and out of Mae Hong Son. The government advised everyone to wear masks as the pollution levels were to high to measure (!) and considered to be an unacceptable health hazard.

So when I found myself in Ban Rak Thai last weekend and learnt there was a minor road that crossed the border into Burma (or Myanmar to use its more modern name), then the obvious thing was to cross the border.

Why?

Well surely that’s obvious and, just as George Mallory is reputed to have answered when asked in the USA why he was so keen to climb Everest:

‘Because it’s there’

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Monks at work cleaning the Temple at Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu.

Where exactly is Ban Rak Thai and what was I doing there?

Ban Rak Thai is a (very) small  town on the Burmese Border in the Northwestern Thai Province of Mae Hong Son and No, I had not heard of it either until a couple of weeks ago!

I usually spend around four months a year based in Thailand and am normally happy to enter on a 30 Day Tourist Visa, which motivates me to leave every 30 days and travel in one of the many fascinating South East Asian countries in close proximity to Thailand, before entering on a new 30 day visa.

There was a fascinating collection of nineteenth century Craft Dolls from Burma on display in the Wat Jong Kham in Mae Hong Son city.

However on this occasion I had extended my visa for another 30 days at the local immigration office. My reason was because this would enable me to make an extended domestic trip within Thailand, perhaps to Chiang Mai which my son David and fiancée Amber had visited earlier this year, when coming to Thailand to celebrate my 70th Birthday.

Indeed it was ten years since I had visited the north of Thailand, so I was thinking Chiang Mai would be  the starting point until my friend Ampai said:

‘Mai Hong Son looks interesting and I have never been there.’

It took me at least two weeks to distinguish between Mai Hong Son and Mae Ee Song which is an Asian delicacy and quite tasty – deep fried grubs!

Thailand is a big country and some preliminary research indicated there was plenty to see in Mae Hong Son Province, without travelling an additional 100 miles along a tortuous and twisting road to Chiang Mai, which will have to wait for another year.

And so it was eight days ago, when we boarded a Nok Air prop jet  in Bangkok for the direct flight to Mae Hong Son town, capital of Mae Hong Son Province.

Tourist arriving at Huai Seua Thao Longneck Village.

When we exited the Airport and found not a taxi in sight but only a motor cycle Tuk Tuk, I realised the pace of life was slower in Mae Hong Son and this was reinforced when we reached our small lakeside hotel (small lake that is, one guidebook rather unfairly described the lake as a pond!) that displayed a list of the phone numbers for all the Tuk Tuk drivers in town.

Apparently Taxis  do not exist in Mae Hong Son!

We spent four nights around Mae Hong Son, one night in the ‘city’ and three nights in the highly rated and delightful Fern Resort, which I surmised must have included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as former guests from the number of framed but faded pictures on display at  the Reception!

The Karen people are stateless refugees in Thailand and largely rely on selling souvenirs, handicrafts and clothing for income.

I hired a motor bike for 24 hours the afternoon of our arrival and we visited the Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple overlooking Mae Hong Son. The views were pretty hazy because virtually all of Northern Thailand is covered by a cloud of haze/fog/smog (call it what you will) caused every year by farmers practising ‘Slash and Burn’. Ampai, of course, advises it is the uneducated farmers over the border in Burma, but that soon got disproved when we saw the top of a hill ablaze whilst we were staying at the Fern Resort and plenty of evidence of charred fields as we drove around!

Portraits of Karen women at Huai Seua Thao Longneck Village.

The haze was particularly bad this year because of the high temperatures and many of the locals were wearing facemasks. The previous day, planes had been unable to land at Mae Hong Son and the government was soon to announce pollution levels were too high to be measured and people should stay indoors, unless necessary to go out.

Personally I did not find the haze too much of an inconvenience, as there was still plenty to see and do.

The following day we visted Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang , neighbouring Temples built in the Burmese style on the shores of the lake (or pond!) at Mae Hong Son and the former housed a particularly impressive collection of 19th century wooden Burmese Dolls.

We drove to one of the Karen Longneck villages at Huai Seua Thao, whose inhabitants had originally come from Burma and who now have a stateless status and mainly earn income from charging a Village entrance fee of about £5/$7 and selling souvenirs to tourists like ourselves. On the way back, as a river flowed across the road, I pretended to follow the river’s course rather than the road and, when I corrected my direction, did not realise that although there were only inches of water flowing across the road, there was in fact  moss below and gracefully slid off the bike at about 5mph and ended up sitting in three inches of water with the bike on top of my leg. It was far more embarrassing than painful, especially when a kindly Thai gentleman driving in the opposite direction asked me if I needed any help, as I sat in the water whilst Ampai tried to pull the bike off me!

The Fern Resort just outside Mae Hong Son City with rooms set amidst Rice fields and Jungle was a great place to just relax and chill out for £50/$60 a night as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt also discovered some time ago!

And, if the temperature was not warm enough (a hot and muggy 34 degrees), I decided we should visit the Hot Springs at Pha Bong. Maybe not one of my finest ideas, as no one else chose to sit in the 54 degree water at the hottest time of the year, although Ampai made a gesture of support for fraternal Thai UK relations by sitting beside me for maybe 5 minutes. I lasted 50 with several intermissions for a cold shower.

Ampai insisted that the acute diarrhoea which was to plague me for the next 36 hours  was a direct result of my being the only person in Thailand stupid enough to sit in a hot thermal bath on such a hot day. Further examples of similar Thai logic can be found here and here. We spent a couple of days at the Fern Resort just outside Mae Hong City and, for £50/$65 dollars, we had beautiful accommodation with a balcony facing a rushing stream, amidst the jungle very close to the Resort’s own rice fields and one of the two swimming pools.I surmised that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt must have been previous visitors judged by the number of pictures of them at the resort displayed around the Reception area! However on this occasion there were few visitors (or famous names!) other than ourselves as it was Low Season.

On our way to Ban Rak Thai we crossed the bridge at Soo Tong Pae to visit the Temple. In the rainy season the bridge allows the Monks to walk above the flooded rice fields.

Our next destination was the aforementioned Ban Rak Thai, about 40 kilometres to the North, and at this point, I realised the lack of taxis in this part of Northern Thailand meant that renting a car was probably our best option and so it proved for just £25 or $33 a day.

Ampai had spotted a nice looking hotel with individual chalets built on the slopes of a Tea Plantation at Ban Rak Thai. That was the good news and I thought this rarely visited town, hardly on the main tourist circuit for northern Thailand, might be an interesting place to spend a weekend. The bad news was that although listed on Hotels.com and Booking.com etc, all websites  showed no availability. However, what this meant was that the Chinese owners of the Lee Ruk Thai Resort wanted you to book direct via Facebook and only accepted bookings by Bank Transfer and all this for the grand sum of £20/$26 per night!

The young Monks enjoy a break from their studies at Soo Tong Pae.

The journey to Ban Rak Thai was uneventful and we made stops to visit the delightful Phu Sama Temple with a school for young Monks at the village of Soo Tong Pae. The temple could only be accessed via a long pontoon bridge across the (now bone dry!) Rice Paddies.

We also made stops at the Fish Cave at Tham Pla, the Pha Sua waterfall and the Pang Tong Summer Palace, where we discovered no evidence of any Palace past or present but a vast park under royal patronage for horticultural training!

The famous waterfall at Pha Sua was somewhat short of water but there was still lots of outstanding scenery on the drive to Ban Rak Thai.

With a succession of stops, our 40km journey took well over four hours and we ascended several hundred metres up a winding and rarely used road (albeit in excellent condition) through dense forest and I was forever grateful we had hired our own car, rather than paid $2 for a seat in one of the three daily songtheows  (basically a pick up truck with bench seats in the back).

When I arrived at Ban Rak Thai I thought I had taken a wrong term and ended up in China! Ban Rak Thai was in fact founded by Yunnanese supporters of Chiang Kai Shek who fled China in 1949.

I am a great believer and fan of Google Maps. We may now take it for granted but I am truly impressed that here I was in a remote corner of northern Thailand, getting step by step directions from Mr Google on how to get from Mae Hong Song City to our next destination, albeit only rarely challenged by Ampai, who has neither ever driven or visited this area before, but some habits die hard as you will discover if you also read here.

But finally at 1740 when we arrived in Ban Rak Thai, I wondered whether  Mr Google had got it wrong or whether had I taken a wrong turn, because surely I had ended up in China and was not still in Thailand!

The architecture, including the individual rooms of our hotel  set amidst tea growing slopes above the lake,  was all very distinctively traditional Chinese in style and the majority of the people, although Thai speaking, looked Chinese in appearance. Indeed, on check-in, we were asked for a key deposit and our very Oriental themed room was also adorned with a notice that any soiled sheets will be charged to guests , neither of which I had ever previously experienced in Thailand.( Perhaps they must have heard about my diarrhoea the previous nights at the Fern Resort!)

Plenty to eat at Ban Rak Thai as long as you like Chinese cuisine, and more specifically Yunnanese Food and in particular……………tea leaves!

When we were asked about dining options, we were advised that last orders at the hotel restaurant were at 6pm and the restaurant closed at 7pm. I laughed and was incredulous, only to be told every restaurant in town was the same!

If I needed any further evidence that whatever the map said  we were no longer in Thailand but in China, there was neither an ATM, or far more significantly, a 7/11 Store to be found anywhere in Ban Rak Thai. And anyone who has been to Thailand, knows ATMs are everywhere and one can hardly go 600 metres in Thai towns of any size without coming across at least one , usually two and frequently three 7/11 stores,  together with their ubiquitous and almost identical competitor  ‘Family Mart’.

Our hotel at Ban Rak Thai was set amidst a Tea growing area

The reason behind this Chinese enclave in Thailand was that Ban Rak Thai  (also known by its Chinese name as Mae Aw) was a relatively new town founded by Yunnanese  Kuomintang supporters of Chiang Kai Shek, who fled China after the Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung in 1949 and subsequently settled  in Northern Thailand. It was these very same Kuomintang Chinese who were to become the drug Barons in the infamous Golden Triangle in the area where China, Burma and Thailand meet and to this day Guide Books warn against unaccompanied trekking in these border areas.

The small road from Ban Rak Thai to the Burmese border was hardly an international thoroughfare!

We found that the check in Receptionist had been exaggerating slightly and that the restaurants accepted orders until about 730pm and stayed open until around 8pm but there was little flexibility as far as the Menus were concerned. There was nary a Thai dish to be found on any of the four main menus let alone a passing nod to western cuisine as is normal in Thailand (ie no sandwiches, pasta or French Fries) so not only were we restricted to Chinese cuisine but spicy Yunnanese in particular.

We walked downhill through noman’s land to the unmanned Burmese Border Post.

For someone who does not like spicy and who has not eaten meat for 23 years, I consoled myself that I was unlikely to put on weight over our weekend stay. However, I was not so successful in persuading our waiter that if there were many dishes that included vegetables, surely it was possible to get a plate of stir fried vegetables alone. The bemused waiter replied it was only possible to cook dishes on the menu, until the Manager said of course it was possible and I settled into a three day regime of Vegetables, deep fried Crackers supplemented by Potato Chips and Nuts in my room purchased from one of the ubiquitous Chinese stores where I eventually found a proprietor hidden behind the sacks and packages.

Descending into the Burmese border village of Kong Mung Mong.

As we were at an altitude of almost 1300 metres, once the sun set and the breeze blew off the lake it was quite cool in the evenings, as we discovered the first evening we ate dinner shivering  at a lakeside restaurant.

We spent a leisurely Saturday reading and admiring the view of the Lake below through the haze and walking around the lake adorned by two small Chinese Pavilions and Pagodas (of course!)  and our plan for Sunday included seeing if it was possible to pop over the border and enter Burma (some cheap Heroin anyone?).

The Heath Post and Temple at Kong Mung Mong.

This involved two challenges as far as I was concerned.

Firstly much as I was impressed by my sole visit to Myanmar (which you can read about here 15), I have subsequently been so appalled by the treatment of the Rohingya minority, and in particular the attitude of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sou Kyi, that I have vowed I will not return to Myanmar and contribute any of my hard currency to the Myanmar economy, until the Burmese government acknowledges the plight of the persecuted minority and takes serious steps to protect them.

Head Monk and Young Monk at the Thai Temple at Kong Mung Mong………………in Burma!

I do understand that although leader, Aung San Sou Kyi is still in a somewhat difficult position, as the army remains the effective power in Myanmar but nevertheless both her intransigence and failure to acknowledge a very real problem is extremely disappointing, although not perhaps surprising. Although a political prisoner under house arrest for many years and a beacon of hope for many within Burma, she was always her father’s daughter, and grew up as a member of a family prominent in the military establishment. I always had the feeling with Aung San Sou Kyi that her position as a leader of the Burmese Democratic movement was more because she was the daughter of Burma’s first leader, rather than because of deeply held political beliefs.

I spent a delightful 30 minutes chatting and chilling with the Monks at Kong Mung Mong but the flowers I was admiring turned out to be plastic!

I am also aware and  believe that any of us can find reasons for not wanting to visit many countries because of human rights issues and concerns. Indeed I am writing these words in Thailand where the army has ruled for five years since the 2014 coup and is still trying to cling on to power by bringing charges of sedition against one of its opponents who performed well in the recent election. And this after the Election Commission had already banned one of the main and popular opposition parties from participating in the election!

The exhibition on Tai Shan History and Culture at Kong Mong Mung was informative, dated and neglected.

My point being I continue to live in Thailand where some government actions may be considered unacceptable and have visited Russia and China in recent years and ,on a point of principal have no wish to visit, and be seen to endorse, Myanmar or Trump’s America! I fully appreciate this could be considered hypocritical or inconsistent.

I decided that a short foray across a remote border was within my tolerance levels and did not represent an endorsement of the regime or government policy, but far more important and pragmatic was the question firstly, would I be allowed into Myanmar (without a visa) and secondly and far more importantly, would I be allowed back into Thailand.

Back at the Burmese Border Post – this time it was attended by a Shan State Army Guard.

I was aware that there were some points along the Thai Myanmar border where one could leave your passport at the border and be allowed to make a visa free 24 hour entry into Myanmar but I was also aware there were times when Thailand will only give a week or two visa to returning tourists who are just crossing the border for a few hours by land to extend their visa, whereas, if you return by air, you will automatically get a new 30 day stay as a Tourist.

I was not planning to cross the border to extend my visa as I had already done that by visiting the Immigration Office in Jomtien, Pattaya so I could extend my Thai stay and come to Mae Hong Son, but I did not want to be caught up in any border irregularities or administration.

Cross Border trade at the unmanned Thai Border – save for a sleeping dog!

And of course there was a reminder from the good folk at Lonely Planet in the Lonely Planet Thailand Guide on my Ipad:

There’s a brief dirt road to the border crossing, but it’s not advisable to do any unaccompanied trekking here as the area is an infamous drug route.

So after breakfast Ampai said:

‘We are going to visit the lake that looks like Switzerland?

‘No Ampai, I thought first we were going to have a look at Myanmar.’

The Dammed Reservoir Lake at Pang Ung is often described by Thais as their own little Switzerland!

Ampai had asked around and Yes it was possible, at least for Thais, to cross the border and enter Burma and No there were no shops and or anything to see.

I guess the absence of a cheap cross border shopping expedition meant the  attraction of a quick visit to Burma had waned as far as Ampai was concerned, but nevertheless we pointed our car northward and followed the road from the end of the Lake. We passed some run down houses, shacks and stalls including what looked like an incomplete storage centre, although the complete absence of either any other vehicles or, indeed, any sign of commerce, made me wonder why anyone was building anything other than to qualify as the last structure on a rarely used road to Myanmar!

The buildings were eventually replaced by trees and the width of the road was barely sufficient for our small car, when we finally turned a bend to find a small post and a raised barrier across the road.

It would not have been possible to explore Mae Hong Don in depth without a rental car.

Ampai got out and asked the Guard who was preoccupied with his phone (Hey this is the modern world) if we could cross into Burma and  she interpreted the grunted reply as Yes but park your car across the road rather than blocking this thriving hub of cross border trade (not!).

And that was all the formalities completed with no passport checked, just pass under the raised barrier, and we wandered between the trees, passed another unmanned border post and hey presto as the road descended  and the trees receded, we assumed (correctly) we had made it into Burma. And indeed, we were on the edge of a small non descript village, which we later discovered was called Kong Mung Mong.

Time to leave the Chinese enclave of Ban Rak Thai

Once we were out of the little hilltop wooded area that formed the border between Thailand and Burma, we discovered we were in a wide valley with high forested hills on either side, a small tributary valley to our right and the village dominated by an attractive temple with pagoda on the lower slopes on our left.

So what does one do when one ends up in a Burmese village just over the border? Head for the main attraction of course which was…………………………….the Temple! The weather was very hot, the ground was littered with trash and the dirt track which descended by the school football field was steep, dry and dusty and then it was a short climb to the steps which led to the Temple.

Impressive stands of Bamboo in a Provincial Park as we descended from Ban Rak Thai.

After a quick look inside the temple and noticing some orange robed monks eating, I was happy to sit on a stone bench in the shade outside of the entrance, whilst Ampai climbed a little higher to the pagoda. Before long, a young shaven hair Monk was sitting next to me with some basic English and was asking me where I came from and what football team I supported!

You will not be surprised to learn he had not heard of Yeovil Town FC which I wrote about with affection here, but sadly the situation has continued to worsen since I wrote my criticism of the club here and the club are in real danger of dropping out of the English Leagues as they teeter near the foot of League 2.

Western Devotees wandering very slowly amidst the trees at the Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery. They reminded the writer of the Walking Dead as they ghosted between the trees.

I assumed this Monk  was in his mid twenties but in fact it turned out he was only 16. He was Thai and had been at the Temple almost 12 months.

Being a Monk brings great respect and is something most males will do once or twice in their life for maybe a few weeks to a few years. It is very much something one can dip in and out from and, for sure, two of Ampai’s brothers were Monks, Chu An on two occasions and the last time I think for almost 18 months. Seats in buses and trains are reserved for Monks who travel for free and they will all be fed and supported by the community living around the Temple where they are, perhaps transitory, based.

I took the opportunity to leave the main road between Mae Hong Son and Pai to pursue my love of Landscape and Mountain Photography.

Before long, two other Monks, both with fairly heavily tattooed arms and legs came out and sat with us, as did Ampai, having explored the secondary stupa and doubtless having knelt and offered a prayer to every depiction of  Buddha she had come across.

It turned out this was a Thai Temple, with eight resident Monks also all Thai, but located about 500 metres inside Burma. This fascinated me and when I asked who paid for the administration and upkeep of the temple, Ampai laughed and said it was from the village and from offerings, to which I responded that the village did not look prosperous enough and, judged by today’s evidence, the Temple was hardly overrun by visitors. I finally deduced that the Temple was administered from Thailand.

The area around the Shan village Mae La Na is renowned for impressive cave systems as well as a precarious viewpoint!

The Head Monk was a friendly and interesting man who also spoke some English. His family were from near Rayong and he had been a Monk for 12 years and for 8 years as Head Monk at this Temple. Some Monks stay attached to a particular Temple, others move around, some live alone in small Forest Temples and some Temples incorporate schools for young Monks.

Backpackers arriving at Pai, one of South East Asia’s premier destinations for young travellers.

In fact one of Ampai’s nephews, Chai, who is now 15, has been living and going to school at a Temple for almost three years. The Head Monk told me he had been a Teacher and Musician before he was a Monk and I thought he said that all the Monks were of the Shan ethnic group although they were Thai. However, I may have misunderstood this, as he may just have been saying this part of Burma is part of the infamous Shan State, which is the home of several armed ethnic armies and parts of which are outside the control of the central government.

When I asked how far it was to the nearest town, he said the road into Burma from the border village was dangerous, as one could be robbed by bandits, so I got the impression that, although we were in Burma, it really functioned as an extension or enclave of Thailand!

Pai River Corner Resort was a haven of tranquillity in the very heart of Pai.

I was surprised to learn the youthful looking Head Monk was in fact 55 but I should have remembered – shaving one’s head makes it so difficult to determine age, It tends to make young people look older (my 25 year old Monk was just 16!) and old people look younger. I first noticed this when many of the Chelsea players like Frank Leboeuf shaved their head and you can hardly tell the difference between the 35 year olds and the 22 year olds.

I learnt my lesson quick and have shaved my head for the past 18 years – best way I know of hiding hair loss!

Big Buddha above Pai and Devotee!

As we sat in the shade under the canopy in front of the Temple chatting to the old and young Monks and admiring the tranquillity all around, I said to Ampai,

‘I  am not sure I could manage 8 years but I think I would be quite happy here for a year – no internet, no email and 80 books to read and I would be happy enough’

Ampai of course was still on her knees, partly out of deference to the Monks.

I was so glad we had taken a stroll over the Border and had the opportunity to meet and chat with the Monks and it was certainly the highlight of the first six days in Mae Hong Son Province for me. We gave a donation to the Temple as our contribution to the upkeep and, as we were were departing, I complemented the Head Monk on the beautiful flowers bordering the Deck in front of the patio and the Monk laughed in reply.

‘They’re just plastic’

The Memorial Bridge was built by the Japanese during the Second World War and is one of the top visitor attractions around Pai.

Rather than go back the same way, we wandered along one of the back streets of what was at best perhaps a four street village. The houses were all built from Bamboo  and there were a couple of run down lean to stores selling the basics – rice, vegetables and confectionery but no evidence of a fridge or cold drinks.

We followed the signs and came to an Exhibition of Tai/Shan History and Culture in a small single room Museum type building.

Ridge walking and watching the sunset into the haze at the Pai Canyon is very popular with young backpackers and older fools!

It was a very comprehensive display of mainly faded photos and faded captions, but also display cases with exhibits and a (presumably) historic Recruitment Poster for the Shan State Army. Someone had put a lot of work into assembling the displays and exhibits, but the building and contents did not look as if they had seen either a cleaner or curator for at least ten years, which was a shame.

We made our way back up the gentle hill to the  Burmese Border Post where this time there was a young soldier on duty, who was proudly wearing the uniform of the Shan State Army and who also confirmed to Ampai that Yes the village was definitely in Burma (she still was not sure!).

We made our way through no man’s land following a man carrying a load on his back (Heroin anyone?)  and this time, there was no one on duty at the Thai Border Post, just a dog sleeping in the shade. And our car was where we left it, I was back in Thailand with no problems, so all was right in the world.

And I guess the reason they are so laissez faire and why there were no restrictions from the Thai’s on people crossing the border on foot,  was because there is not really anywhere for you to go thereafter, other than to turn around and come back to Thailand.

The Bamboo Bridge at Kho Kuu So was only built in 2016 and has rapidly become one of the major tourist attractions near Pai.

As I drove back into Ban Rak Thai, I thought it must be time to read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, which he wrote when he was a colonial officer in pre war Burma-  I have had it on my Kindle for years, but never got round to reading it!

I was so pleased we had made the effort to see if it was possible to go into Burma, as it was really a very interesting and enjoyable couple of hours and we followed up by driving through some beautiful Hill Country to the Pang Ung Resevoir, a delightful mountain lake formed by a dam and surrounded by wooded hills and jungle. The Thais refer to the area as Little Switzerland and, indeed, the scenery was quite  unlike anything else I had ever seen in Thailand. There were some nice orchid gardens, a few people fishing and having picnics and a couple of black swans on the Lake. We explored the lakeside as far as the road would permit and decided it was too hot to be the only people to rent a rowing boat!

The Bamboo Bridge at Kho Kuu is over 800m and connects the village with a nearby forest Temple. The bouncy bridge was quite sapping to walk along, especially during the hot afternoon and most tourists only walked halfway, I was reminded that only mad dogs and Englishmen walk in the mid afternoon sun!

The following day, after stocking up on tea and T Shirts (proactive Christmas gift shopping), we set off for the ever popular village of Pai, located about half way between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, although we had to back track most of the way to Mae Hong Son, before cutting across to reach the infamous Mae Hong Son – Pai road. Infamous because the complete Mae Hae Song Loop (from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son) beloved by bikers, who are attracted to Northern Thailand from around the world to rent bikes and undertake the drive, involves 1864 curves. The drive is loved by bikers but less fun for minibus and Songtheow passengers, as the route is equally famous for the number who throw up as minibus passengers!

The distance was only 120km or 70 miles, but it took the best part of 8 hours, partly because the road was very winding and as well as lunch we also stopped at a wonderful Provincial Park, with some of the most impressive bamboo stands that I have ever seen and also to visit the Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery, where there were a number of foreign monks meditating and gliding through the forest. It may be irreverent to say so, but the way the foreign Monks walked so deliberately slowly through the forest  somewhat reminded me of the Walking Dead! ie unnatural and out of world!

We ended a long and tiring day exploring around Pai with a visit to Tha Pai Hot Springs where you could quite literally boil an egg in the hottest water before relaxing in the warm stream.

We stopped at a couple of viewpoints, wandered off road to look for good photo spots and visited the village of Mae La Na. It was almost 6pm by the time we arrived at Pai and the Pai River Corner Resort, delightfully located at a very quiet riverside spot at the end of Pai’s Walking Street.

If we had barely seen a dozen European/Western Tourists in our first week in Mae Hong Son Province, that all changed at Pai, which, even in low season, was Backpacker Central and one of the places in South East Asia that Backpackers and Gap Year students head towards. But that should not put you off at all, as the pace of life was slow and it was a great place to chill out and there was a wide range of attractive and competitively priced eating choices, covering a range of ethnic options  – Burgers, Italian. Israeli, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai, Vegan etc. Many of the restaurants had live music but never over loud or raucous (I am writing this in Pattaya!).

The Thai Lanna Temple in Pai is a more traditional Thai temple with less Burmese influence.

We visited the giant White Buddha on a hill overlooking Pai, walked across the Second World War Japanese Bridge and went Ridge walking at Pai Canyon on our first day. There are a number of waterfalls around Pai and we visited one but, in the dry season, there was not really enough water to tempt us for a swim, but we did walk 800m across the newly built Bamboo Bridge at Kho Kuu to reach a forest temple. It was quite tiring, as walking on a Bamboo Bridge was like walking on sponge. We visited the nearby  Land Slip area, where an active fault line is clearly visible with the formation of a mini gorge and ran out of time for Elephant Riding which means I do not have to comment on an ethical debate concerning the use of elephants for tourism purposes!

Tham Lot is one of the biggest caves in Thailand and was one of the highlights of our visit to Mae Hong Son.

We did visit a couple of temples and also spent 90 minutes at the end of the day at the Tha Pai Hot Springs, where you can bring eggs to boil in the provided baskets at the 80 degree hot spring or bathe in the cooler 38 degree stream and pools further down the hillside. Other than a local visitor and the Warden’s family, we had the Park to ourselves.

So when you consider there are also Caving, Trekking, Rafting, Cooking, Yoga and Meditation Programs, there is certainly enough of a variety of things to do at Pai to keep most people happy and, all in all, Pai had a very laid back and relaxing vibe.

Given how long it had taken us (me) to drive to Pai, we decided to stay in Pai for three nights, not four, as we also wanted to visit the Cave at Tham Lot near Soppong on our way back to Mae Hong Son and we would not have time to do this if we returned to Mae Hong Son on the same day as we were due to fly out.

Tourist, Monk, Stalactites and Bamboo Boats at the Tham Lot Cave.

As we drove the 40 km from Pai to Soppong, we saw an old man (probably younger than me) walking along the road. We turned round, not an easy feat on a narrow twisting mountain road and asked him if he wanted a lift to Soppong and Yes he did. He said he was walking from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, which was 250km or about 150 miles, as he had no money as evidenced by the speed with which he devoured a packet of crisps. When we got to Soppong I gave Ampai 200 Baht to give him, which would pay for a minibus to Mae Hong Son and food for several days. It turned out Ampai misunderstood (or was more sympathetic) and gave him 300 Baht (£8/$11) and before heading off to the Caves, I noticed his first priority had been to buy a packet of cigarettes! Three hours later, when we were continuing our drive To Mae Hong Son, we saw him on the road several kilometres from Soppong and still walking.  So much for the 300 Baht!

The Tham Lot Caves were huge and very impressive, well worth a visit and for 500 Baht (£12/$15) we had our own Guide with a gas Lamp, visited two cave systems then took a ride on a Bamboo Boat through the Giant Cavern to the Coffin Cave system which contained the remains of Teak Coffins 1200 – 2200 years old. There were 150 Guides, who are all inhabitants of local Shan villages and they come in on a rosta, so the funds generated by the Caves are dispersed amongst the local community.

I was really pleased we had hired a car (which was never my original plan) as we got to see so many places that we would not have seen if we had just restricted ourselves to Mae Hong Son City, Ban Rak Thai and Pai.

Bamboo Boats and hungry fish at the Cavernous Tham Lot Cave.

At the caves we met a young Franco/German couple living in Berlin and offered them a ride back to Soppong and it turned out they were planning to take a minibus or Songtheow to Mae Hong Son, so we offered to take them all the way. I always remember how grateful I was to get lifts, when I was hitch hiking around Europe 50 years ago.

I am personally embarrassed and continually apologising to all fellow Europeans I meet for the chaos the UK seem intent on inflicting on Europe with our absurd decision to leave the European Union and the even more absurd way we have tried to conduct negotiations, without coming close to having a proposal that can be endorsed by parliament, but as well as Brexit, we had plenty to talk about, because Antoine was extremely knowledgeable about football and tennis, which are both passions of mine.

Looking down at Stalactites from the approach to the Coffin Caves at Tham Lot.

As well as illuminating us about online marketing and online secondary ticket sales in particular, Petra had a fascinating background; her family had been part of a Germanic community that had lived in Transylvania (Romania) for over 200 years, before the West German Government gave them the opportunity to relocate to Germany in 1980.

On our last day in Mae Hong Son Province we managed a visit to the Karen Longneck Village at Kayan Taryar.

The following day, our last before flying south to Bangkok, we still had our rental car until early afternoon, so Antoine and Petra joined us for a (very) bumpy ride to a Karen Longneck Village at Kayan Taryar, about 23 km away from Mae Hong Song. As we bounced from pothole to pothole and the exhaust scraped along the track surface, I thought how ironic it would be if we damaged the car on the last morning!

The village itself was less touristy, or should I say less visited than the village we had previously visited at at Huai Seua Thao but it gave Antoine and Petra the opportunity to see some Longneck Karen Ladies and for me to take some more pictures.

We were accompanied to Kayan Taryar Longneck village by Antionne and Petra who we had met the previous day at Tham Lot Cave.

When we got to the airport, we discovered the haze/smog/pollution was not preventing our flight back to Bangkok from operating but that pollution levels in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Song Provinces were front page stories in both the Thai English speaking papers, with pollution levels at Chiang Mai too high to be accurately measured.

However, I have to say the pollution/haze in no way impaired our visit, as we had twelve very full and very enjoyable days in Mae Hong Song Province. I would certainly recommend the area in a heartbeat for anyone looking for an off the track alternative to the more visited neighbouring Chiang Mai Province, but I think it was a big bonus to have a car, as public transport is non existent and songtheows and minibuses on continually twisting mountain roads often result in sick passengers!

Time for some final shopping before flying south to Bangkok.

Mae Hong Son, Ban Rak Thai and Pai were all very different. The Fern Resort outside of Mae Hong Son was a wonderful place to chill out amidst rice fields and forests, Ban Rak Thai is a very inexpensive alternative to China (!) if you are already in Thailand, Pai had a lot to see and do in a very laid back and not overcrowded environment, the Caves at Tham Lot were as impressive a natural attraction as I have seen in Thailand, the Lake at Pang Ung was lovely but what I think I enjoyed the most with apologies to Eric Newby was………………………my short walk over the Burmese Border.

© Michael Bromfield

 

 

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