A panoramic view of the mountain in Burma
Tired of a docile life in Chiang Mai, Pim Kemasingki drives off into the sunset with just one objective – to be back by Monday morning – and gets more adventure than she bargained for.
According to John Ruskin, “All travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity’, I therefore knew that this journey was to be very exciting considering I hadn’t been able to afford the time for a break for over eight months. With three days to spare, a limited budget and a craving to get away, a friend and I decided to let our hair down and take the wild road into the mountains of the north.
Having lived in Chiang Mai for the last 20 years, I must admit that I am thoroughly ashamed with myself for only having visited Mae Hong Son once, ten odd years ago. So, treacherous as the road may be and ancient as my car is, we decided to do a Thelma Louise thing and drive off into the sunset without a care in the world and just see where the road takes us _ as long as we both got back to work on time on Monday morning, of course.
Driving around the north is generally a joy and this trip was no exception. After stacking up on supplies from Kad Luang, making sure the car was in a safe enough condition and buying a terrific map (B&B Thailand North), we set off. The conventional route to Mae Hong Son and back goes from Chiang Mai to Mae Taeng, onto Mae Hong Son and back via Mae Sariang and Hod.
Heading into sunlight after the dim interiors of Lod Cave
Naturally, Melissa and I had absolutely no intention of doing anything conventionally and, scoffing in the face of the unknown, we took a sharp turn after the Mae Sa junction by Trithos Three Generations School. We found ourselves in a maze of narrow roads weaving from village to village along the foothills of Doi Suthep. Of course we got lost and of course we found our way again as we drove through the threads of roads that connected some charming old villages. One particular village, San Pa Yang or “rubber forest on a mound’ was very quaint with the canopies of around eight gigantic rubber trees (yang) serving as a shelter for the small village below. The three-quarters of an hour drive finally brought us back to the main 1095 highway to Mae Hong Son as we once more joined the mainstream traffic heading north west.
Neither M nor I are particularly good drivers, so we took our time as we tackled each one of the reputed 1,750 bends on the road to Mae Hong Son. It really makes you think about how on earth _ and more to the point why on earth _ the Burmese ever bothered to make their way over the hills to conquer little old Lanna. I also gave a mental salute to the construction team that built the road and hope that they charged a lot of money to go marching across such difficult terrain, slicing up mountains and building all those bends.
A sign told us there was a waterfall nearby and sure enough, Mokfa (or sky mist waterfall) was spectacular. Less than an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, the waterfall was in a clean and well-kept park. Unfortunately we arrived in the morning when all the tourists stop for a dip before they head off to trek up the hills. There must have been at least 30 bikini clad bodies basking in the sunshine and mist from the falls _ nose rings, tongue rings, dreadlocks and plenty of “Kodak moments’. About 50 kilometres along the road to Pai, we entered Huay Nam Dang National Park. One of the largest national parks in Northern Thailand, it has received special interest from His Majesty the King’s sister, who has been working with conservation projects in the area and has also a Palace there.
There are panoramic views of the peaks of Doi Chiang Dao to the west, while a tiny museum gives information about the fauna, flora and wildlife in the area. We had lots of fun fiddling around with little buttons and quizzes at the museum before continuing on our crooked road, driving through some of the most spectacular scenery in the north until we arrived at the little town of Pai.
Now, in my early 20s, I’d ridden Enfield bikes in the Himalayas, trekked across Dogan country in Mali, climbed horrifically jagged peaks in Switzerland and generally been quite a little hippie. Three years in front of the computer has dimmed my memory and snuffed my desire for the traveller scene and all the paraphernalia that come along with it. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across Pai. A Thai Yai (or Shan town) set in one of the rare basins between mountains, Pai has enjoyed its relationship with travellers for many decades. As we drove into the town, I was amazed to see lots of pale white legs madly peddling away on bicycles, longhaired throwbacks of the sixties wandering around barefooted and fit young foreigners strolling down the street after a day’s rafting or trekking.
Little wooden houses that lined the quiet lanes had signs in English such as “Sunflower Teashop’, “Happy Herbal Medicine’ and “Wee Guest House’. Being small, accommodation is readily found. Beyond the town there are a few resorts such as the Muang Pai Resort which are in the Bt600-800 per night price range, and plenty of smaller bungalows and guesthouses in the surrounding foothills and waterways costing much less. However, town is where the action seemed to be and town was where we decided to stay.
Rocking at the Be Bob Bar in Pai
M initially insisted on roughing it and so we wandered into little guesthouses charging 80-150 baht a night. Hammocks cocooning travellers in their little day dreams hung from trees and guesthouse beams, as young boys ran around with trays serving banana pancake, pad tai or fruit shakes.
The accommodation was generally clean, though a bit small and dingy _ and the people friendly. But we silently agreed to find somewhere nicer and found Khun Amara’s Rim Nam Bungalows on the banks of the Pai River, which had large wooden bungalows and clean western toilets and even a hot shower. Although I had to spend the night in the same room as a took gae, (gecko) I was quite content. We took an early evening stroll through town, past the market, up the hill to a view point and down into a pub.
With so many travellers, Pai is quite a groovy town for nightlife considering how small it is. The Corner Bar with its straw mats and triangular Thai pillows to lean on was very pleasant and had a good alcohol menu, along with Thai and German food at very reasonable prices.
Then there is Guy Gorias’s Chez Swan restaurant. Mr Gorias is probably one of the more affluent foreign residents in Pai owning a highly successful rafting company as well as his French restaurant. His quality, rubber-rafting tours enjoy a fine reputation. Then we discovered a gem of a place, which had a live band, about 60 dancing and swaying white bodies, and a great vibe.
The Be Bob Bar with its husky-voiced Australian lead singer, MojoWebb, and ex-bass guitarist from Took’s Brasserie band in Chiang Mai, was rocking. The music is similar to the Brasserie; good guitar, classic cult songs and a good rock beat for the dancers _ oh! And loud, very loud. Unfortunately, since Pai is such a quiet town, the music usually stops around midnight but the partying continues for sometime afterwards. If you are in Pai, this is where the action is.
Then we staggered off to a small roadside bar called 50 Satang, where jars of “herbal rice wines’ boasted various healing powers: Tiger Power boosts the heart, Erection Power boosts, well its pretty obvious, Eagle Power relieves aches and pains, Elephant Power eases the nervous system, etc. Pong, the owner, claims his bar is one of oldest bars in town having run it for over 10 years. We tried a few shots of Stop the World Power to boost our energy and promptly felt really tired and went back to our bungalows. Being the first day of our weekend we were exhausted already.
We were up early and explored a few Shan style temples with their distinct filigree-styled silver decorations and woodcarvings, then after a hearty breakfast in one of the guesthouses, we followed the winding road on towards Mae Hong Son.
Around 40 kms beyond Pai we came across a small town called Soppong, and took a sharp right off the main road and headed for Lod Cave. I must say, I am not very good in caves. I feel claustrophobic even when friends hold my hand. The retching smell of bat and bird bits always repulses me and I tend to prefer to wait for friends where rays of lights can penetrate. However, jumping around obstreperously, M forced me to accompany her into the cave. Lod Cave is surprisingly well maintained and cared for. An association of villagers and the forestry department have set up a very useful information centre complete with good English signs, maps, price guidelines and gadgets you might need in the cave.
Children were selling little bags of fish food and then the guides arrived with lanterns, a big smile instead of good English, and charged Bt100. We walked up a steep path for about 300 metres and saw gibbons dancing in distant trees, spider webs spanning five to six feet and surprisingly no garbage. A busy stream wove its way through the jungle to the mouth of the cave, which appeared to be gulping the water down into its unseen depths. Lanterns were lit and we wandered from chamber to chamber, dodging past a group of nuns, admiring ancient columns of stalactites and newly mushrooming stalagmites. Our guide was desperately trying to tell us interesting things about the cave but most of the information I learned was that this particular rock looked like an elephant’s head, that one similar to a space craft, and those over there comparable to the back of a head of a woman with a hand on it.
We were told that for Bt200, we could take a raft ride through the cave. This was all getting quite exciting, and with M smirking at my lack of fear and taking all credit for it, we walked down to where flickering lights illuminated the men sitting on little bamboo rafts gently bobbing on the stream. Passing an English couple munching some food, we realised that we hadn’t fed the fish, so we threw our fish food to the gaping mouths of hundreds of catfish while similarly gaping mouths stared at us. Too late, the English couple that their efforts to try native food had seriously backfired as they gagged on their mouthfuls of fish food.
The 400-metre raft ride took us through the dim cave as we slid down mini rapids in the dark adding a few squeals of excitement. Finally, we saw distant light and another spectacular entrance to the cave opened up before us and the dark water began to glisten in the sun.
At around 6 p.m. tourists flock to this spot to see hundreds of thousands of bats swooping low over the water on their way out skilfully ducking and diving under the hundreds of thousands of swifts flying in. Fascinating. However, we left the cave and continued towards Mae Hong Son, where we were planning to spoil ourselves for the night.
The view to either side was, as usual, breathtaking, and here I was stuck trying to save my life navigating the hairpin bends. This road is not for the faint of heart. Finally, we descended into the valley of Mae Hong Son having left Pai four hours earlier. A small town with large government funding, Mae Hog Son has substantial buildings such as the provincial hall and customs house.
Avoiding any places of interest, we headed straight to the Imperial Tara hotel. At around Bt2,400 a night, the Imperial is a fine hotel set in a tranquil garden overlooking a swimming pool canopied by large teak trees. We checked in and immediately checked out the pool. Cocktails on a deck chair are my idea of a holiday and after two days of intensive driving I felt no pangs of guilt for not exploring the city.
After a night in a guesthouse, the luxurious beds and air-conditioning with a view of green from our veranda were a blessing and I swore that my travelling days were over; I was committed to become a raving tourist. Just before sunset, we headed into town to find some food and action.
The tourist place appeared to be Fern restaurant with its cosy decor, decent food and tables full of tourists. We had a drink and left. Next, we walked down to the little lake and strolled around to the Burmese style temple lit up in fairy lights. The LakeSide Bar was a decent place to eat with vigorous masseuse working our necks as we tried to sip our beers. The food was surprisingly good and we enjoyed the live band as they rock and rolled the night away.
I was a bit disappointed when I asked for wine and a bottle of wine cooler was produced in a mug. For a nightcap, M wanted to go somewhere Thai so we headed to the Bai Yoke, which was air-conditioned,, dark and only appeared to serve Johnny Walker
Black Label. This was obviously where the yuppies of Mae Hong Son congregated and we enjoyed ourselves immensely as we received free drinks from a nearby table full of drunken men. The band, cooing “every shalalalala every wowowowo’ was backlit by a glitzy Manhattan skyline and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves.
We decided that having spent so much money on our room we would go back and just play with various gadgets like the bath, the TV and the mini bar.
The next day we woke up leisurely and made our way to the large veranda overlooking the garden at the Tara. A gigantic multifarious spread of food was awaiting us. Pancake and treacle, kao tom and condiments, eggs freshly cooked to order, bacon, ham, jam, porridge, cereal, fruits, croissants, toast, and the list goes on. I would recommend the Tara to anyone who enjoys a hearty breakfast; it was so good we didn’t eat a bite for the rest of the day.
It was M’s turn to drive, so I had a great time singing along with Neil Young and occasionally acting as back seat driver. Up, down and around mountains we went until we arrived at Khun Yuam about 20 kms from the Burmese border. The normal road to Chiang Mai carries on to Mae Sariang, Hod and Chom Thong. The route would have taken us about five to six hours, but we saw a shortcut on the map and feeling very proud of ourselves took the road towards Tung Bua Tong. Most Thais have heard of the yellow, mellow fields of Tung Bua Tong so, as the sign said it was only 11 kilometres, we decided to have a look. Van loads of Bangkokians were hurling up the mountain as the road began to be lined with yellow flowers. Signs in bright yellow proclaimed that Jesus would cleanse our blood, sacrifice his life for us and is the only pure light. I have nothing against Christianity, but have no doubt that villagers living along quiet Suffolk country lanes would not tolerate signs proclaiming Buddha’s role in retrieving people from the brink of hell. There is a time and a place and large signposts advertising a religion in a strange land is more offensive than appropriate.
A hilltribe commerce area with huts selling noodles, opium pipes, trinkets and clothes was full of tourists. We pushed on until we finally arrived at a sea of yellow. It was quite spectacular with a panoramic view overlooking the mountains into Burma. We bumped into a group of young Chula graduates who told us to go another three kms up the road to Mae Surin waterfall, so we decided to follow their advise and plodded on up the mountain _ 11 kms later we found it. I was slightly disappointed because I am a bit of a water baby and enjoy my little frolics around waterfalls, Mae Surin was so large, so strong, so tall and over a 2 kms walk downhill that I had to content myself with just looking at it from afar.
Melissa and I began to panic as it was already three o’clock and it gets dark just after six now. So after a couple of Kodak moments, we slowly made our way back down to the main road and continued east towards Mae Chaem.
By this time, my 15-year-old Toyota Corona was beginning to struggle as we drove along one of the loneliest road I have ever been on. We had been driving for half an hour before we met a lone Lahu man on his way home from the paddies. Cars were few and far between and after two and a half hours we were still quite a way from Mae Chaem. The road was great fun as occasionally the tarmac dissolved into dusty ruts and grooves, and then we found ourselves balanced precariously as half the road had disappeared down a landslide as I leaned all of my weight towards a petrified Melissa. This road would have been perfect for a four-wheel drive and a day to spare, but two girls in a dilapidated Toyota driving into the middle of nowhere at dusk began to lose its appeal.
Our first sight of Doi Inthanon was a bit of an anticlimax. Large, but not particularly striking, the mountain is rarely seen from usual routes that circumvated it. Finally, we arrived at Mae Chaem at 6.30, as night’s pall was rapidly falling. We had three options: we could spend the night at Mae Chaem and find some kind of accommodation, which was readily available in this gentle old town. Or, we could drive south down to Ob Luang and loop back up towards Chiang Mai, which would have meant another three hours until we got home, and lastly, we could do the most stupid thing possible and just plough on. Intelligence is something neither blond Melissa or mentally blond me have been famous for, therefore, we decided to plough on.
According to the map, we just had to go up Doi Inthanon and down again and we would be home free. So we left the lights of Mae Chaem and ascended the tallest mountain in Thailand. As the thick forest trees swallowed up the last feeble rays of light, we were soon engulfed in darkness. It took us an hour and a half to get up and down the other side of mountain and when we passed the guard post at the base we breathed a sigh of relief as we had driven in pitch darkness for 24 kilometres without seeing one living soul.
By this time our Imperial Tara breakfast was a distant memory and finally bright lights of Chom Thong and its welcoming noodle stalls beckoned and we had a hearty meal before the final easy one-hour’s drive back home.
Some 56 hours after we had left Chiang Mai we were back having been to a hippie town, rafted down a cave, stayed in a luxurious hotel, visited Burmese temples, rocked with MojoWebb, seen two waterfalls, basked in the sunshine of a field of yellow, driven around 800 kilometres and had a few near death experiences.
Our timing wasn’t great, but it’s a trip both Melissa and I would highly recommend to anybody who wishes to just go off on an adventure around the north of Thailand. Thumbs up isn’t an adequate indication, I would gladly hold up two hands.
Have Car, Will Ride
By Pim Kemasingki (The Nation and Chiang Mai News)
Pim is a very nice women in Chiang Mai