South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Baseball, hot dogs, apple Pai and Suzuki. (Epilogue to The Farang)
Date: May 4, 1995 20:01Continued from Part II


21:36 Ban Buatong Restaurant; Mae Hong Son-Thailand :: 27 APR 95

Instant redemption from tourism can be purchased, or rented.

You need to get off the beaten path, at least get onto a path that's only lightly trampled. Mass or other forms of public transit are out. Guided treks and tour operations can be great experiences but are essentially beaten-path-excursions. You're likely to find yourself sharing the trail not only with the 10 or so people in your group but also two or three other groups as well. Besides, what you really want is the freedom to say, "hey, I wonder where this squiggly line on the map goes?" If the response isn't, "Let's find out!" then you don't have transportation independence.

Transportation independence comes in two varieties. Hire someone to take you there; buy or hire your own wheels. We opted for an option #2 rental, a 2-door, four-seater Suzuki Caribian 4WD hard-top. Barely powered by a 1.3 litter engine, but it's taken us anywhere we wanted to go for about $38 CDN a day plus fuel. The roads are narrow, hilly and curvy enough that you don't really want to go very fast anyway. Not that speed's a concern, this ain't Australia where it's important to log 500km/day or you don't get anywhere. The extra 2-wheels of traction and choice between high and low gear ratios has come in handy, which will come as a surprise to the man at the rental agency when he gets a dust impregnated vehicle back. He told us we'd only use 2WD.

Now that we could get anywhere four chipmunk-powered wheels could take us, all that was necessary was figuring out where to go. Anyplace with a bus stop or train station is second choice since all the other budget travelers can get there. Fortunately, the Lonely Planet SE Asia on a Shoestring edition seems oriented toward destinations with bus stops, train stations and airports. Travelers following The Guide like a bible won't stray far from these places. Find an interesting place off the public transit route and there will be alot fewer travelers to contend with. Also fortunately, we were interested in the North Western districts of Thailand. It looked inviting because the major highways formed a loop circumscribing the region. The Lonely Planet, perhaps in recognition of its public transport bias, recommended what has turned out to be an excellent motorcycle touring guide book for traversing what it calls 'The Mae Hong Son Loop'-the guide book's title. It's loaded with interesting sidetrips off the highway featuring waterfalls, hot springs, caves, hill tribe villages and just plain pretty country side.

We've got four days to complete the loop, a time-frame The Little Guide suggests is minimum required to see anything off the highway. Two days into it, I wish we had a couple weeks, or even a month. But then, that's pretty much been the nature of this entire trip. I'm beginning to think I've over-emphasised 'traveler' and short-shifted 'experiencing otherness'.

On the first day we went from Chiang Mai to Pai (rhymes with Mai, like apple Pai), with a little diversion to Samoeng before realising we'd taken route 1096 rather than 1095. The first planned excursion two kilometers off the highway resulted in a refreshing dip under the Mokfa waterfall, an obviously popular spot with the locals. It was also the first opportunity to throw the Suzuki into 4L and see what those chipmunks could do. They wheezed and groaned a bit but were actually held up by the Isuzu pick-up in front of us.

Another sidetrip lead 8 kilometers along a beaten-up track that really tested the suspension. The hot springs at the end bubbled and spat while spewing misty vapour. The scalding water ran downhill a few hundred meters to where it cooled enough to promise hot baths. These, unfortunately, were closed though showers of perfect temperature were available.

Between these dusty, rutty asides the main route featured winding, mountain-climbing asphalt, surprisingly well engineered and maintained.

21:14 Ban Farang Guest House; Khun Yuam-Thailand :: 28 April 95

Knowing what Farang means, I'm dying to learn the meaning of the Thai word 'Ban'.

Charlie's House in Pai was a nice enough spot with hot shower, if you could keep the heater's breaker from tripping. We arrived a little later than expected and by the time we'd unloaded into room #3 and headed out for dinner it was just after 8PM. Pai had pretty much packed it up for the night by then, including all the restaurants recommended by the little guide. We were guided to the one remaining eatery, the Own Home, by some helpful farang (they have their uses.) There we met up with an 'odd couple' we'd shared a mountain overlook and a bit of the highway with just prior to sunset. Lucy is black and from England and her Thai boyfriend's nickname is Pak and their Suzuki is White (ours is black). I can count the number of black travelers I've come across since last June on one hand. Odder still was the room key for Charlie's House lying on their table. It was for room #2.

The oddness settled into good company and, with some helpful reminders to the staff, good food and drink. Meanwhile, the evening rain came and Katrin and I congratulated ourselves for yet again not getting caught out in it.

In the morning we struck out for one of the restaurants recommended by the little guide and again struck out. Soon enough we were back at Own Home eating our typical mixture of muesli, yoghurt and fruit for breakfast.

The post-brekkie walk about revealed the Pai I'd pretty much expected. Two main streets and a couple or three primary sidestreets connecting them. All paved in concrete. Approaching a main street from a sidestreet you'd figure there were a couple of driveways coming up. I was so busy looking for the main street the previous night, I'd never seen the red octagonal signs with the Thai characters that must read "STOP". You'll find these at major intersections of which Pai has four.

Dwellings and other buildings there are teak wood, stucco or have a stucco first floor and a teak wood upper floor. Roofs are either tin or thatch. In towns like Pai they are almost uniformly tin. Doors are always open, even if this affords a view of the living room to any passersby on the street.

16:07 Tanya House; Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 29 APR 95

Pai is typical of Thai villages on the verge of becoming towns. What separates a town from a village is a two-story concrete bank and a traffic light or two. Unlike small-towns in North America, the number of religious buildings is no indicator of town size. I've seen some villages with two or even three Wats.

Mae Hong Song is a town, a buzzing little town, until about 8PM when the rural temperament reasserts itself. There are two concrete banks but only a single traffic light. The town park circles a nice pond rimmed with flowering trees in oranges, reds and yellows. On one shore stands a beautiful Wat, its multi-tiered wooden roof is finished in bronze and silver hammered metal with cookie-cutter Victorian frill at the eaves and geometric relief on exposed panels. The white based stupa rises to a golden peak and is guarded by lions and 3-headed Naga.

9:09 Bangkok Express train; Chiang Mai->Bangkok-Thailand :: 30 APR 95

On the opposite shore we find several funky guest houses of traditional Thai architecture. On their verandahs, farang flower-children-wannabies lounge amidst heaped cushions. If we'd known this park existed last night, we'd have never stayed in the dingy, concrete Siam Hotel. Interesting how the guidebook author doesn't even mention this area. While the places look somewhat run-down, location and atmosphere seemed adequate compensation. A guidebook is a guide, not the last word. Treat its opinions as you would the opinions of other travelers, with the recognition that tastes other than your own are the basis of that opinion.

Before leaving Mae Hong Son we cash in my remaining $300 Australian traveler's cheques and go shopping. We leave about 2,500 baht to get us back to Bangkok but the rest goes toward jackets, shirts, pants, a vest and some uniquely beautiful etched black-lacquer vanity boxes-the kind of pretty little things you put on a bureau to store trinkets only they never have any trinkets in them.

Why the splurge? Well, we are after what are purportedly the handicrafts of Northern Thailand hill tribes people. I find these people's sense of colour and design irresistible. I'm not certain that all we buy is authentically produced by people of the hill tribes nor do I know how much they're likely to profit from our purchases. I try to be more discerning about giving credit where credit is due, but we've run out of time and like I said, it's irresistible stuff.

Between Pai and Mae Hong Song we made a but one side-excursion off the highway. Lod Cave cost us 200 baht for lantern rental, a guide and the subterranean bamboo raft ride needed to cross the cavern without getting wet to the thighs. If you like caves at all, this place is a must. It houses few bats and the swifts concentrate in one wing of the cavern: the smell of guano ain't too bad. But it's the limestone formations that make the cave interesting. As water drips from the cavern ceiling it deposits dissolved lime forming columns, walls and those familiar stalactites and stalagmites. The only English words our 'guide' knows are those she uses to describe some of the formations: elephant, frog, crocodile. The reason you need a guide is there are no lights and no trail markings within the cave. Still, $14 Canadian seems a bit expensive even by Canadian National Park standards.

11:45 Bangkok Express train; Chiang Mai->Bangkok-Thailand :: 30 APR 95

Between Mae Hong Song and Khun Thaum we made another side-excursion to a telecommunications and television station on a mountain peak. This one cost us nothing and proved to be the most satisfying of the trip. And we got to use 4L on the Suzuki again, despite the grippy asphalt surface. It was that steep a climb for 10 kilometers. Had it been clear, we'd have seen forever.

The only problem with traveling Northern Thailand during the hot dry season is the limited visibility due to smoke from controlled burns. I suppose the some might consider another problem to be the dried-up rice paddies, often charcoal black from the burning. What's Thailand without Thai 'peasants' toiling knee-deep in the rice paddies, right? If there's a certain romantic charm missing it's replaced by a less idealistic reality. If one really needs to see rice-bearing rice paddies, they can be found in the lowlands.

In the mountainous north, where steep slopes preclude efficient terracing, rice is only one crop among many. Cabbage and garlic seem to be important cash crops of the hill tribes. After harvest, the land is burned back. We think there's a program of controlled burns in the woodlands to prevent the major forest fire hazard of accumulating dry undergrowth. The result in atmospheric terms is thick, smoky haze with a distinctly wood-smoke scent.

If you couldn't see forever from the telecom station, you could at least see mountain peaks rising from the haze for a couple dozen kilometers. Sometimes limited visibility is magical. That afternoon was an example and for a heightened effect we waited there for the sun to settle down a little nearer the horizon.

On a slope facing away from us, a hill tribe village nestles just 100 meters below the mountain peak. The hill people terrace the steep slopes around the mountain to raise cabbage and some bananas. We sat in the shelter of a thatched hut watching the sun fall and the colour rise while below us some 200 meters, unaware of our presence, people in brightly coloured tunics turned soil and burned back low brush. We heard wind, voices from below and the rhythmic 'thack, thack, thack,' of the hoe.

I took photographs of the sun dipping slowly into smoky haze and of the light it cast on mountain slopes and atmosphere. Then we headed back to the peak where, from a rocky overhang, we perched above the village, its tin and thatched roof huts casting long shadows in the orange sunlight. Children ran about shouting, giggling, making the dogs bark. On foot, astride motorcycles or clinging to pick-ups groups of villagers returned from town and the fields. We watched awhile.

With a long drive yet to the next habitable town, we regretfully made our way back to the Suzuki.

Khun Thaum was remarkable only for its ordinariness. Like all little towns or big villages there were plenty of places to find food and grog. Does anyone recall my entry about the McLean Pizza Restaurant last July in Oz? No worry of that fiasco here since the Thais exist within a diner-or-food-stall way of life. Plenty of venue choices serving roughly the same things with each venue adding its own little twists.

The Phat Thai at our 'diner' of choice was excellent. We were both ready to order something different but the staff spoke no English and the only phrase we could all agree meant anything was 'Phat Thai'. Tom Kha Khai, Som Tham and a couple of the other dish names we ventured elicited no recognition from our hosts. In places frequented by tourists a menu with English translations is made available; one of the comforts of the beaten track.

We rose early the next morning, intent on making Chiang Mai. We had as many kilometers of highway ahead of us as we'd put behind the last three days so the fourth day would see no side trips. That's the problem with the last day of a journey anyway. The destination becomes the cause celebre of the day. We stopped for photographs here and there in the morning but by noon even the most beautiful Wats and picaresque villages offer no enticement to leave the highway. So, well before we ever reached Chiang Mai the journey was over, but for a few scenery changes.

If I come back here ever again it will be at the beginning of the hot dry following the rainy season. There will be water in the rivers, more green in the trees, bamboo and grass and rice in the paddies. I'll take my bicycle and take a month, at least a month, to traverse the circle we gave only 4 days to. I'd make shorter hops between accommodation stops and spend more time making side-trips into the regions off the highway. Hopefully I'd be invited to stay in some hill tribe villages and learn a little about their way of life. My time here was too short and surely there's much I've missed. I've experienced Northern Thailand inadequately.

I know that's what I'd do if there weren't so many places in the world I haven't experienced or even seen at all.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

MAE HONG SON LOOP

ATTRACTIONS

Best general forest cover in North Thailand. Many hilltribe villages -- Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Meo & Lawa. Waterfalls, hot springs, magnificent mountain scenery and views.
  graphical element David Unkovich
The Mae Hong Son Loop: Northern Thailand

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