Road to Mae Hong Son-Part 3 The road back home
December 15, 2016
Our time on the road to Mae Hong Son gave us a great opportunity to get out and see the country. Part 3, the road back home will share our experiences in Mae Hong Son at the evening market, as well as the trip home through Mae Sariang.
We arrived at the hotel to discover again that emails were sent but not received. This hotel was also booked up, however they sent us to a beautiful spot just around the corner from the lake. The Romtai Guest House had a room with air conditioning for $22.32/night. The room was big enough, clean and the bed not so hard as in Pai. The shower was just in a corner of the bathroom again, but it felt like camping. There was coffee and tea available in the “lobby” which was just an open area with a soccer game playing on the tv. When the owner heard we were in Thailand until March she said, “You can stay here as long as you want.”
The things that set this place apart from just another guest house were the grounds that were Mexican resort-like. There was a huge lily pond filled with fish and little paths led through the jungle to hidden cottages. There was a large covered area with furniture and several lawns with flowering plants. From the street, it looked like a regular low-budget motel, with towels drying on the railings and racks but inside was such a surprise. And less than $25/night! The only con was it is much cooler in the mountains at night and I could have used another blanket on the bed.
Wat Jong Kam
The lake near our guesthouse was apparently used to bathe elephants in the olddays. Now it just provides a gathering place for the Sunday market, as well as great reflections of the Wat Jong Kam. There is a strong Burmese influence here since the border to Myanmar is quite close and the spires on the wat reflected this. The teak construction in the coffee bar also helped to remind us where we were in the world.
Mae Hong Son Sunday Market
We sat up on the second floor of the Coffee Bar and watched the market unfold below us. There were numbers on the pavement for each cart. Some sale items came in cars, or push carts, but most arrived in side carts on scooters. People seem to buy at the market like the place is a big salad bar. They get a stick of meat here, a bag of soup there, a banana leaf pouch of I don’t know what’s in them yet, a fruit drink somewhere else. There were some tourists in the area, but this town is much less popular than Pai, so we saw mostly locals doing their shopping. Most shoppers were on foot, but some use drive through and pull right up to a stall. On the website, I included a separate page of photos under the Travel menu on the ways we have seen families travel so far.
Time to Wonder
As we sat in the same spot for breakfast the next morning, looking out at the quiet empty street, I so glad we decided to come and spend enough time in Thailand to really wonder. What are in those banana leaf packets? Are those brown cubes roasting over the charcoal really sticky rice? How do families manage to live with so little? How do parents look so calm while riding down the road with their 2 children wedged on the bike between them. We find when we just travel quickly through a place the questions are all about us. Where will we sleep tonight? Where will we go next? Having time to wonder makes this trip so enriching.
View point surprise
The first viewpoint of the day was well worth the stop. The hills are so green and lush now that the rainy season has ended. It rained one day the first week we were here but we haven’t seen another drop since. This spot had cement viewing steps with a Burmese style roof. The coffee shop here had pots of strawberries is racks and a cement fire pit in the middle of the floor to boil water for tea.
Pete ordered a banana smoothie. I didn’t want anything, but he brought over a little teapot with 2 tiny cups and a small bowl of roasted chickpeas to nibble. He said they offer that to everyone. His smoothie came with a plate of cut up banana topped with a sweet syrup and garnished with a flower. What a special place to sit and appreciate the care that had gone into our order.
Namtok Mae Surin National Park
There were many other beautiful views for the next hour or so, but no places to stop along the road for pictures. After heading south from the viewpoint we turned at Khun Yuam and headed east then north back into the hills towards the National Park.
Along the road we saw many farming areas where the women were sitting on the ground or around tables sorting some kind of small crop. We saw very small houses on stilts that looked like the change house at the hot springs. Sometimes a scooter was parked underneath. There were some farm trucks (over)loaded with products on the roads. One was loaded with kids.
About 12 km up the hilly, twisty road, we arrived at Bua Tong or Wild Sunflower fields. The hills were just covered with these bushes that were covered with yellow flowers. They were more the size of small daisies than what I think of as sunflowers. They were past their prime but November is when they begin blooming and the locals celebrate with a festival. There was a viewpoint here, but it was busy and we didn’t know how much longer it would take us to get to the National Park and the waterfall at the top.
We saw a few large plants covered in red flowers. Pete asked me what they were and I replied with, “How the heck should I know.” In the parking lot at the park we saw one of the big plants with red flowers. I was very surprised to find it was a wild poinsettia. There was a nice blue hydrangea too. Neither seemed very Thai.
Mae Surin Waterfall
It wasn’t much farther and after paying the tourist entry of 200 baht each, (not much by our standards, but almost as much as our hotel room) we drove down a very narrow one way road to the parking lot. After a short walk up the path, we saw the Mae Surin (Mae meaning river) waterfall. AT 85 m it is the highest waterfall in Thailand. The viewpoint is right across the valley from the top of the falls, so it was a great spot. The sharpened bamboo posts and barb wire certainly reminded you not to go beyond the fence. There is a trail to the bottom but we didn’t have time to take it down.
On to Mae Sariang
The rest of the ride was uneventful. We stopped for a quick lunch in a restaurant back in Khun Yuam. I had a noodle soup and Pete pointed on the menu to a meat and rice dish that didn’t really taste great to him. He only ate a little. We arrived at the Good View Guest house about sunset and our emailed reservation for room 10 actually worked. (about $37) The whole building is teak and looks out on the Sariang River. We even had a balcony with folding shutter doors to open to the view. Unfortunately there were no screens so we didn’t want to leave them open.
It was good we had a room with a private bathroom as something Pete ate was not good for him. We don’t know if it was the pork lunch, the ice in the smoothie or something he touched along the way. He was sick all night. The hotel offered tea and toast for breakfast which stayed put so Pete was able to drive us back to Chiang Mai the next day. The rental car was safely returned to the airport and we took a $4.00 private taxi van back to our apartment.
He laid low for a couple of days but everything is fine now. We feel pretty lucky that we have eaten mostly what we wanted and made it 5 weeks before Thai bacteria overwhelmed our Canadian stomachs.
Road to Mae Hong Son-Part 2 of the Mae Hong Son loop
December 12, 2016
Morning in Pai
Morning in Pai arrived completely overcast with low fog. So much for our plans of vistas and viewpoints. Although Pai has probably hundreds of restaurants, we started with our Fodors Guide book. Walking is the easiest way to find small places, especially when the streets are too narrow for parking. The All About Coffee showed as permanently closed on Google Maps. We walked to our second choice, the Om Garden Cafe but it had a chalkboard sign telling us it was closed for the week.
Travel is all about exploring and making things work. The TTK restaurant and guesthouse was the answer to our breakfast needs. They had real brewed coffee instead of the instant that we often get. The “American breakfast” had bacon, ham and little sausages that were like little hot dogs. The best part were the warm, crusty multi-grain buns. Bread is not a Thai food. We’ve found a french bakery that makes nice rustic loaves that they will even toast and serve with wonderful raspberry jam. The grocery store bread is just fine for sandwiches but these buns were exceptional.
There is hot springs just south of Pai, next to the Memorial Bridge. The Japanese used logs and elephants to build a wooden bridge over the Pai River during the war to move supplies to Burma (Myanmar). As they retreated, they burned the bridge behind them. The Thais rebuilt the bridge using iron from a Chiang Mai bridge that was being rebuilt. The 1946 bridge has since been rebuilt of concrete right next to the old one but you can still walk across the original structure.
Thom’s Elephant Camp
We saw the entrance to the hot springs, but carried on down the road to Thom’s Elephant Camp. We did this with mixed feelings. While it is exciting to see an Asian elephant up close, they are generally not treated as the wild animals that they are. Elephants have been used for centuries as work animals in Thailand, especially in the logging industry. Teak trees were cut down and hauled to the river by these animals. As machinery has taken over, the animals are expensive for their owners to feed if they are not working. Many are now used to entertain tourists wanting rides, to swim with the elephants, or feed the elephants.
At Thom’s, the elephants are taken to the mountains at night to feed and bath in natural surroundings. They are brought into a confined space during the day where you can buy baskets of bananas to feed to them. You can purchase a ride or bathe with them in the river. We decided that we would feed the elephant bananas. By getting close to the enormous animal we had a chance to get to learn a bit more about them, without taking too much advantage of them. Although most of the “domesticated” elephants have a mahout that bonds with them and manages their care, they use shouted commands and a pole with a sharp pick on the end. They hit the elephants on their heads and legs to get them to obey.
OT was gentle and enjoyed the bananas. He also had bamboo leaves to eat. When the bananas were gone, he would blow air in our direction and snort for more. The dexterity of his trunk was quite amazing. He could easily pick up leaves or bananas from the ground. When we put a banana behind out back, he would reach around to retrieve it. I enjoyed watching a young animal lover feed this giant with calmness and joy. After spending an hour or so close up with OT, we didn’t miss having a ride. Before we came it was the only way we thought we could interact with the animal.
There are a couple of elephant nature parks near Chiang Mai that do tours where you see elephants interacting in their natural environment. We even met a lady at the Remembrance Day British Legion dinner who fund-raised to set up an elephant sanctuary that is only for elephants, not tourists. She provides for vets to care for sick or injured animals and provides a salary to the mahouts while the animals are in care and not working. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park are 2 examples of parks where elephants are not exploited.
As luck would have it, the skies cleared and the sun came out. We decided to skip the hot springs and carried on through an agricultural area. It was quite beautiful and nice to get out into the country. Every few km there were little machines. At first I thought they were ATM’s, but they were actually little gas pumps. I don’t know how you paid since most people use cash for everything here but they were just set along the road.
Mor Pang Waterfall
The back road led us back to Pai. We followed a road on our new paper map to a waterfall. It wasn’t that far away, but it was certainly secluded. It really felt like being in the jungle, from what I’ve imagined from the movies. There were actually 2 falls, but the best were the signs. There are many places where I would like the job of fixing a little grammar or spelling to make the message more clear. I do appreciate that there are English messages, but sometimes I am more confused that when I began. Notice the rule that says, “Ban controversy.”
The next set of curves and hills required some good driving. I’m glad I was in the front seat of a car and not in the back seat of a tour van. We saw a couple of people every day stopped by the side of the road with motion sickness. We took a side road into Sia Ngam Hot Spring. It is similar to the Liard River Hot Springs in northern British Columbia. There are toilets and a pathway with some other improvements in progress. It cost us 20 baht or about 75 cents each to get in. The water was pretty warm for here. It was more like a warmish bath than a hot tub.
The location was beautiful. The tree vines hang down and everything is lush and green. There were lots of young travellers there but many Chinese families as well. There was a little thatched hut for changing that looked very much like the family homes that we saw in the farming areas.
One of the hillsides was planted with corn. This is not a native plant to Thailand and farmers are offered incentives to plant it for feed. It is also a popular food in the market but required straw laid along the slopes to prevent erosion where the trees used to be. It produces a lot of waste that contributes to the terrible air quality in Northern Thailand when it is burned in March
There were several tour vans in the parking lot and lots of scooters. The road into the hot springs had some grades close to 20%. We saw a few scooters where the passengers had to get off because the bike just couldn’t get up the hill otherwise. For us in the car, there were a few times where it looked like we were going to take off since you couldn’t see the rest of the road below the crest of the hill. There were very steep cement gutters along the road that were about 18 inches deep with straight sides. I was a bit worried what would happen if we slipped into one of them moving aside to make room for other vehicles, but it was all ok.
There were a couple of viewpoints on the rest of the journey to Mae Hong Son. The first had wonderful views of the area. There were a collection of children in traditional costumes that would pose for a picture for a few baht. I found a bag in the market made of quilted fabric in bright colors. It fits my extra camera lens and cost about $6. This style of bag is made in one of the northern villages.
Our last stop on the road was at the Coffee View Point. It was a perfect location. The views over the mountains were spectacular. There was a bamboo deck and furniture created out of natural wood pieces. I had an iced green tea without sugar. It was very green. It has milk in it but it tasted a bitter like coffee. The regular Thai Tea is made with instant tea, powdered milk, powdered creamer, and sugar. Then it is poured over ice and liquid milk, or sometimes sweetened condensed milk is poured over the top. The result is quite orange, but it tastes like tea and lots of other good things. I have started asking for it without sugar. It’s rich enough.
There was a market at the top, as expected. Deliveries to each stall were made in one truck to the top of the mountain. All the products were unloaded and organized together by a crew of people. They really worked well together. It makes you wonder about the “village crafts” but it is free enterprise taking advantage of the tourist industry.
The last 15 km took about 30 minutes with all the curves and we were ready to be done for the day. I will continue with our time in Mae Hong Son another day.
The Road to Pai-Part 1 of the Mae Hong Son Loop
December 8, 2016
We wanted to get out of the city for a few days, so we rented a car and started on the road to Pai, Part 1 of the famous Mae Hong Son Loop. I’ve included some extra pictures in the Travel heading under the menu.
Before I continue on the road trip, I want to thank the 2 of you who guessed at the picture I posted. Lots of people looked at the post, so thanks for that. Yes, the first picture was cut up papaya. There are street vendors for fresh fruit or fruit smoothies everywhere in Chiang Mai. The fruit is packaged into plastic bags and served with a stick for eating. They usually put the fruit bag into a small plastic bag with a handle so you can hook it onto your scooter hook or handlebars. It costs about $0.75. You can also get pineapple, pomello, watermelon etc.
The bamboo tubes are filled with sticky rice and a few black beans. There must be some water or coconut milk added as well. The top is plugged with coconut husk and banana leaves then roasted over hot coals for an hour. The older lady cuts off the green outer bark with her knife. When you get home, you peel off (or slice off) a section and scrape out all the delicious rice and enjoy. Each stick costs about $0.90 and serves 2.
Mae Hong Son Loop
This loop is about 600 km and is north of Chiang Mai. It is very popular with motorbikes as it winds its way up and down and back and forth through 1864 curves. We gave the seat belts a good test in our little Suzuki Swift. As you rarely reach speeds over 60 km/h, it is at least a 4 day trip. We stayed in Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sarieng. I’ll break our trip up into those 3 stops as I think there is too much to share in one post. There is a good website I found for travel around SE Asia where you can find more information about this trip we took. travelfish.org
The Road to Pai
We booked our car through Hotwire for about $26/day and picked it up at the airport. The first few minutes were a bit stressful for us as they drive on the left side of the road here. Scooters fill in all the spaces between the cars and merging is done when the slightest space appears. Signal lights are not commonly used. Red lights cause the flow of traffic to stop eventually. It is a very give and take flow down the roads. Drivers seem patient and there are no horns honking or people yelling. Apparently there are lots of accidents, but we haven’t seen any yet. We came close to being squeezed off the road by a semi that was losing its lane, but a quick toot from us and he let us escape.
We quickly discovered that having a paper map would have been helpful as Google Maps don’t always choose the best route and it uses a lot of battery power on the phone. The city traffic thinned out fairly quickly. They don’t have big stores on the outskirts like we have at home. The overloaded trucks of eggs, pigs, chickens and vegetables emphasized the market economy in Thailand.
We passed the exit to the town of Pai and continued north to Chiang Dao. The highlight of this town is a large cave at the Wat Than Chiang Dao. It has 12 km of passages but you can travel through many of them with a guide and a light. About a km of them have had walkways built and electric lights added. The fee at the door states it is for the cost of electricity. This cave is inside the third highest mountain in Thailand and has many large caverns. There was active water flow dripping down the stalagtites.
We walked in to see the sleeping Buddha that is thought to be from he 1850’s. The signs are in Thai for the most part, and when I looked up the caves on line, there is nothing definitive. This sleeping Buddha is made of bronze, and like many Buddhas in Thailand has layers of goldleaf applied to the face by faithful followers. They also leave statues, flowers, candles and even toys.
There were people saying prayers and lighting candles. I climbed some stairs to a platform that contained several Buddha sitting in a row. They had different facial expressions and were plastered with gold leaf. There were also statues of dogs and another arrangement of Buddha statues. I don’t understand the significance of the arrangements but it was considered sacred and I had to remove my shoes before I could enter.
Outside the cave was a beautiful hillside with bamboo water wheels, ruins and a pond filled with huge carp and catfish. There was also the usual market offering food and souvenirs. An unusual stand contained all natural plant materials that we would probably define as herbal remedies. There were baskets of ginger, ginseng, gonagal, turmeric, mushrooms and many other unrecognizable roots and stems.
There is an ancient chedi ruins on site that is reportedly 2000 years old. There is also a more recent wat that people were receiving blessings from monks in their orange wraps.
Temple dogs are common in Thailand. They are fed although technically stray. The “soi dogs” that live in our alley (soi) scrounge food or are fed by kindhearted tourists in hopes the dog will remember them kindly later. Almost all the dogs look the same here as far as size and distinctive features. They do vary in colors. That must be what many generations of inbreeding resolves to. The dogs we see are like this. They sleep in the heat of the day and howl, bark and chase tourists at night. We haven’t been chased yet, but I’m glad we got our rabies vaccine before we left, just in case.
On to Pai
We found a little roadside place for lunch. They had 4 pictures of food but then one woman said “Pad Thai” and held up a bag of noodles. We decided that was best. It was tasty and came with a bowl of broth. Condiments are on most Thai tables. They include dried chili flakes, sugar, chilis in vinegar and fish sauce. They cover the spicy, sweet, sour and salty flavors expected to be in Thai food. It is more interesting than just adding ketchup to everything.
The drive to Pai covered many of the curves and hills we had expected. This is truly jungle country. There are green growing things everywhere. The mountains are not as high as ours at home, but there were many vistas and viewpoints. Unfortunately there were not many places to stop and look. The roads are narrow and often along the curve of the mountains. There was one nice rest area with lovely views and a little coffee shop.
The toilets were squat toilets like in China. There was a pail of water beside the toilet. When you finished, you poured water into the bowl to rinse it and make it flush down through the flap at the bottom. Again, you had to be prepared with paper in your pocket. The sink for washing your hands was outside the stall.
I had emailed to book a hotel that was recommended by one of the residents in our building. I didn’t get their email saying that they were full. They did send us down the street to another hotel that still had rooms on a Saturday night. We stayed at Diamond de Pai for about $35/night. The wifi was spotty and the bed was very hard, but it was clean. The shower was like a trailer shower where it is just in a corner of the bathroom, without a curtain. To make the lights and A/C work, you had to put your room key base into a slot on the wall. It was a great way to make sure you didn’t leave it running when you left the room.
Pai is a backpacker mecca. It is full of young people. Our neighborhood in Chiang Mai has a mix of young travellers and retired travellers. Pai is about 80/20 young to old. At first glance it seemed to be much like Chiang Mai, but we discovered that the food in the restaurants caters more to International travellers than Thai visitors. There were many vegetarian places and middle eastern food. I had a falafel made by a Thai woman who makes her own pitas every day and fills them with fresh made falafel cooked in her portable fryer when you order. You could order nutella and peanut butter crepes. The walking street was filled with such a variety of food carts. I understand that this area is also visited by Thais from the south who want to get away from the heat. It was much cooler in the mountains, especially in the evening.
We have discovered that things change quickly in Thailand. The restaurant our friends recommended doesn’t exist anymore. The guide book recommendation had a kitchen issue and wasn’t open, although we could bring food from the market into their space and still buy from their bar. The Edible Jazz restaurant had hammocks, cushions on the floor for sitting at low tables, or just reclining under the stars. There was an open fire and stands of bamboo growing in the yard The server brought us a little bottle of bug spray and a mosquito coil was burning under our table.
We stayed for an hour listening to the live music. There were 2 thai men. One sang and played rhythm guitar. The other played lead guitar. They did some great covers of the Beatles, Eagles, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Bob Marley. We went to the market to eat and while walking down the street, saw the same 2 men singing in another bar. They were singing their own original songs and had changed roles of singer and backup. The bars with live music definitely had the biggest crowds.
I met a woman from Fresno travelling with her daughter. I went over to see where they had bought their falafels. The mom was about my age and was so excited her daughter had invited her to come on this trip. The daughter had been to Thailand before a couple of times. It was a short trip of 9 days, but she commented that it was all about spending time together. They had had massages and listened to live music, rather that just be active and busy on their holiday. Everyone you meet has a story.