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.