9th – 15th September 2013
Week three. We’re settling into a routine – at the moment some things will not be missed: the daily grind of getting up for work at the same time every day; any form of driving; trips to the supermarket; the washing up. At the same time it’s worryingly easy to fall into the habits of eating out for almost every meal, and summoning a sorngthaew for any sort of travel that covers more than the walking distance of a tired 4 year old.
This week we are taking in the Mae Hong Son Loop – the classic 600km trip out from Chiang Mai and up into the far north west of Thailand, near the Burma border. This trip was a loop too far in our last visit to these parts: it’s unfinished business for us. This is the last week that Grandma is with us, so let’s share an adventure together.
The Sabretoothed Chickens’ Tour Bus
During the week we (OK Prunella, who is the Sabretoothed Chickens’ specialist deal maker and chief haggler) had secured the services of a minivan and driver for four days. This option is the best for us – we’re not interested in driving, we want to be able to stop along the way for viewpoints, waterfalls, coffee, ‘pit stops’ and potentially motion sickness. The local public transport options are the few and undesirable minivans.
So at 0600 on Monday we pack a subset of our bags and stow the rest in the hotel. Our driver, a young looking Thai and his clean silver Toyota 11 seater are waiting outside. We get on the road straight away, heading north out of Chiang Mai and after 45 min stopping for breakfast in the local markets at Mae Rim, before turning left and heading off toward Pai.
1…2…3…All the way to 1865
The road climbs up, counting off the first of the famous 1865 bends that make the Loop so loopy. The road climbs into the mountains, higher and higher, until the jungle thins out to pine thickets and mist clouds. Soon we drop down again, stopping first at the site of a bridge built by the Japanese as they swept down through these parts in 1941. It’s been several times replaced, but is a testament to their determination to incorporate this area into their routes into the riches of Burma.
Next we stroll the Pai canyons before finally stopping on the edge of the traveller’s stop in Pai itself. We don’t stop in the town itself, with its single set of traffic lights, and the inevitable collection of trekking tour operators, gatehouses and collection of restaurants. There seem to be lot of dreadlocks here.
We stop on the far side of Pai for some of the Larp Muu, the local (very) spicy pork mince. Even an icy Chiang or two does little to hose down those chillies, but the service is friendly and the view of the local main street is entertaining for an hour or so. Back in the van we head up to a nearby Yunnan village: one of the Chinese influenced villages settled by demobilised Kuomintang forces/refugees after the end of the Chinese War, that are scattered through these parts. Eschewing the winterised themed restaurants, we instead chew the fat (or ice cream) in a roadside shop/post office. We detour up to the back of the village, where a hilltop viewpoint offers a sweeping panorama of the Pai valley, surrounded by hazy blue mountains…and then hit the road again.
Once more we climb, looking out for the town of Pangmapha. Here a friendly local tour operator sketches us a map to the Shan village of Mae Lana, which hides in it’s own tiny valley, a green oasis of rice terraces among soaring mountains that reveal itself as the trusty Toyota claws its way up the steep gravel road.
Living in a Rice Bowl
In Mae Lana, there is a discussion which we barely follow, a short wait, and we are allocated to a homestay, one of several which participate in a locally run accommodation scheme. This is an eye opening and memorable experience.
We appear to be allocated the best two rooms of a wooden house that sits on the edge of the village. A local family have agreed to host us, and though we share only a couple of Thai phrases in common, the children on both sides, as ever, break down the barriers. Soon Lucas, Reuben and Felix are playing ‘duck, duck, goose’ with the contemporary aged lads of the house, while we grown ups sit on the porch, watching the sun drop over the mountains, sipping tea. We are presented with a freshly prepared feast, grown, fed, harvested and caught within a hundred metres of where we dine. We divide up into our rooms (tonight it’s two older boys and Dad in one room, Felix, Grandma and Prunella in the other) and, under the cover of a clean mosquito net, fall asleep to the distant sound of villagers catching up on the day’s news.
Morning in Mae Lana and we’re up early to stroll the byways. Reuben, our 6 year old, has become quite the walker, and together with Graham we find a tenuous pathway that enables us to circle the rice paddies that form the floor of the valley. After a trip to the empty temple, setting serenely among the rice and roosters, we saddle up for the road again. Waiting for our driver to return form his overnight digs in Pangmapha, we watch our host roll one of the home made cheroots while the village gets going. For us, it’s not the zip-line ‘experiences’ and kayaking back in Chiang Mai but quiet moments like this that really make our trip worthwhile.
Tuesday is a shorter day in distance terms – first stop is a slight back track along the road, turning off at Pangmapha and visiting the Tham Lod caves. We hire the mandatory guides who fire up their kerosene lanterns and in turn hail the boatmen who row us into the darkness. A short boat trip takes us into the caves, which present an array of stalagmites, stalactites (all the boys remind us which is which), ‘cascades’ and ‘elephant heads’. It’s almost empty and for once free of the almost mandatory lighting that often rob such places of their silent, ominous beauty.
Returning to the minivan, where our driver snoozes in the shade, accompanied by Thai pop music, we continue to the far corner of the loop, but instead of turning south to Mae Hong Son, we turn right and push further into the corner of Thailand. The mountains are more rugged, and there’s a feeling of quiet isolation about this area. We cannot be sure, but believe this is one of the last stops before Burma – those mountains could be the land of Prunella’s birth: it’s a sobering moment. On the way in we stop at the Pha Sua Waterfall, which thunders majestically in the forest, only metres from the road while no-one watches.
Soon we draw up for the night in the curiously artificial single street of Ban Ruam Thai. Purportedly attached to one of the numerous local ‘Royal Projects’ this village has a single straight main street which terminates at a pine-forested reservoir. It’s all very picturesque, but somewhat sterile.
We settle in for the night a the town’s principle guesthouse, for a hot, restless night in dark and cramped huts. The mosquito nets hang low, close and musty, and the giant bamboo looms oppressively overhead. This was to date, a lowlight of our trip. Next morning, we finish our breakfast and hit the road early, somewhat under a cloud.
Mae Hong Son – At Last
Things brighten up after the gloomy start today. Our road rejoined the loop trail, and before long we pull up at the Fern Coffee Lounge in central Mae Hong Son. Good service and a chance to catch up on email and caffeine. We then head up to the Wat that overlooks the city in bright sunshine, and continue on the road for lunch of chicken rice. Settling into our seats again, we follow the road south. The loop divides at Khum Yuan, a longer variant continues south, but our days are limited.
At Khum Yuan, in a sudden downpour, we persuade our driver to stop at the Japanese-Thai Friendship Memorial and museum. This building is newly renovated, and provides a good insight into the presence of the Japanese forces in the area. Marching up from the south, they arrived and stayed here, using Khum Yuan as the base for several operations and logistics routes for their infamous campaign into neighbouring Burma. Over a few years, friendships between locals and occupying forces inevitably developed. Apparently some of the troops stayed on after the Japanese war effort collapsed, and certainly many Japanese soldiers found their last resting place here.
The museum displays a few weapons, artefacts and some interesting English language commentary. We were not charged by a smiling attendant – an informative experience which offers a new perspective on the Japanese, different to what we commonly learn at home. An impressive little stop.
We resumed our trip for the last hurdle up into the Doi Inthanon National Park. We stopped overnight at a local guesthouse, enjoying a hot shower for the first time since we left Chiang Mai.
On Top of Thailand
Having pretty much visited the Northern most part of the country, now we ascended Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak (2565m). The road winds (or, in gearbox terms, grinds) up to this misty spot. A brief stop for photos in the wet cloud (there is no view today, like most days). Dropping down again the driver stops at the very impressive Watchirthan Waterfall. There we enjoy a self indulgent lunch of BBQ chicken and…chips! There are few people in the world who do not appreciate a share in a plate of chips once in a month, and we proudly count ourselves among them.
The road then returns to the relative familiarity of Chiang Mai, where we collapse back into the comfort of our hotel. The Mae Hong Son Loop is completed – and our various detours mean we can say we survived more than 1865 curves.
The Mount Doom of Our Boat Noodles Quest
This Friday morning is Grandma’s last on the road with us, and we complete a small but lingering quest. Prunella’s brother long ago mentioned a noodle shop in Chiang Mai which he visited on several occasions. We had a rough idea of where it was, and the clue that in the restaurant was a boat. We have several times searched unsuccessfully for this place, but this time some persistent digging by a determined grandma pinpointed it to a short section of the SE city walls. A bit of a walk, and an informed sorngthaew driver later, we found it. Not ideally a breakfast venue, but the staff were firing up their cookers (including the owner, sitting in his little red boat) so we ordered some nice beef noodles. A solid 7 out of 10 Sabre Toothed Chickens.
After this early success, we had a quiet day after four on the road. The kids enjoyed a long swim, where Dad’s swimming lessons are paying off.
Prunella has an interview with a local NGO in regard to some teaching opportunities back in the Mae Hong Son area that would start in 5-6 weeks. Grandma heads off to the Chiang Mai airport for one of a string of flights that will get her back to Perth. The humdrum of life on road sees us drop off some laundry and wander through the Sois of the old town for some dinner.
Getting Itchy Feet
By now, Chiang Mai has served us well, but it is time for us to move on. Our travels from here will take us to Laos, and we mean to cross via the Mekong border at Chiang Kong. Accordingly, we head out to Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal for a recce trip and ticket buying mission. Here we discover the modern efficiency of the Green Bus Line, which plies Northern Thailand with it’s VIP coaches.
Having secured tickets for tomorrow, we grab some lunch nearby and then head back into the city. We just have time to get some passport photos taken for our Laos Visa, and then duck into a local shop for ice cream and to sit outside on the veranda and watch the stallholders set up for the Sunday Walking Street Market. We skipped the market itself – it is primarily touristic trinkets which we could not justify carrying, even if we were inclined to buy.
The Lady of the Lake Town
Some days on the road just fall together. Our time in Phayao was one such occasion.
Taking the Green Bus X610 from Chiang Mai to Phayao to the North East, we zoomed along, skirting south of Chiang Rai. During the trip we struck up a conversation with a local Thai lady travelling to Phayao for her work. She was very friendly and completely lacking in any agenda save to welcome a travelling family to her town.
Having helped us find a lakeside guesthouse (no pressure to choose any particular establishment) she offered to return and drive us to some local sites. We enjoyed some lunch at a popular local restaurant, and a visit to Wat Ananlayo, which sits atop a forest covered hill overlooking the otherwise flat landscape of the area. Very tranquil to walk among the stupas in the dripping rain, hearing the chanting of the novices.
Returning to Phayao itself, we share a coffee and some laughs before our friend dropped us off at the night markets, with a smile and a wave and a genuine sense of welcome. To the lady of Phayao – you know who you are – we can offer only our warmest thanks. We’re ready to return the favour one day.
Week 3 closes on a pleasant high – on the cool lakeside shores of Phayao. We’re only passing through this place, but it’s added more than its share of memories.