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