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.