Northern Thailand

1999 John Lancaster
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I suggest that you save this as a file and read it offline as it is rather long to read online. For this reason I have not included any links to photographs in the text. Please look at my photographs of Northern Thailand. You may print this story out and use it for non-commercial or educational purposes.


Chiang Mai


Our trip to the north started in Chiang Mai. I had not been there for over fifteen years, but I remembered it as a pleasant and relaxing place which ran at a much slower pace than Bangkok. We tried to stay at Mee's Guest House first as I used to know one of the guides who worked from there and it in well positioned by the side of the river. I wanted to make contact with him and some of his old friends who were also guides. In particular, I wanted to talk to a Burmese ex-guerrilla who had arranged for me to cross into Burma and meet the chief of the Karen army near Mae Hong Song. Unfortunately, that guest house, which is nicely situated by the river, was full and my old friend was on a trek. We then went to my second choice, Je T'Aime, another guest house I had stayed at.


Thais have an incredible memory for people. After 15 years they recognised me and remembered me. The place had changed. It was much quieter and less popular than it had been. Before it was always crowded, and it was hard to get a room there. I got the feeling it is never crowded these days.


I read that there was a flower show there at the time we arrived, and Kanjana said that she wanted to see it as she loves flowers. It was a good show, and in a pleasant park where we could sit and relax. After doing that we headed into town and found a motorbike to rent.


The next day we went out beyond the umbrella village to a hot spring, where we both had a bath and then back to the umbrella village so that Kanjana could see it. I had seen it before. The lawn where masses of brightly painted umbrellas were put out to dry had been turned into a coach park. There were still talented people painting the umbrellas. The speed with which they could produce pictures with so few brush strokes was indeed impressive. Then we headed back to Chiang Mai and the guest house.


The guest house did arrange hilltribe tours, but I thought Gan as a Thai would not really enjoy it. The idea of trekking over the mountains to see the simple life is not really what they want to do. I decided that we would take the bike and go to a Meo village not far from Doi Suthep, the famous temple which overlooks Chiang Mai.


The steep hill up to Doi Suthep informed me that the bike we had rented was pretty clapped out. We made it up to the top of the hill, but only just. The bike did grind to a halt a few times. We stopped near Doi Suthep to give the bike a rest and check the way to the Meo Village. There is one quite near Doi Suthep, but somehow we missed it and travelled quite a distance until we came to a coffee plantation where we stopped and had a cup of coffee. Usually Thai coffee is not very good, but this was. Coffee seems to be a new crop that is being encouraged as an alternative to opium. What I mean is that it is is being encouraged as an alternative crop that grows in the mountains, not an alternative drug. We then discovered that it was only a short distance to a Meo village from there.


When we got to the village, a young man came out to greet us. He told us where to park our bike and showed us around the village. He seemed to be the official village guide, and he did his job well. He was not only knowledgeable but good at explaining various aspects of the village to us.


He told us to take a different route on the way back, and we followed his instructions. The road was pretty rough. It was muddy and slippery so we had to take it easy. At one point we took a wrong turn and ended up at a small Meo farm. Actually we were lucky because just as we got there, there was a sudden downpour, and we sheltered under a roof until it stopped. This was actually the kind of place I really wanted to see. There was no guide, and we were looked upon as strangers who needed shelter from the rain rather than as tourists.


We continued and got to Doi Suthep just before sunset. The timing was excellent because the light was so good at that time. It was that wonderfully expressive light you get after a rainstorm.


When we got back to Chiang Mai, we decided we should look around the night market, but that was perhaps the biggest change. Instead of being a place to buy the handicrafts of the north, it was just another place to buy fake Rolexes, fake designer socks and underwear and fake just about everything else. There is even a Macdonald's and Pizza Hut there. It was just like Bangkok or Pattaya. What a disappointment.


I think the best thing about the night market was that it, more than anything else, persuaded us that it was time to leave Chiang Mai and go further afield. There was a flight to Mae Hong Song for only 345 Baht, although I have heard it has since gone up, so we decided to go there, and the following day we did.



Mae Hong Song


When we arrived in Mae Hong Song, we checked in to a guest house. For some reason Gan was in a foul mood that day. She would not speak to me and tried to ignore me. She walked and walked hoping that I, carrying all my camera gear, would get exhausted before she did. She was unsuccessful. We took a taxi up a hill to the temple overlooking the city. She still ignored me however. Then we walked down the hill, and she was exhausted. She was continually stopping to rest.


When we got to the bottom of the hill, we went to a restaurant and she felt a bit better after something to eat.


Early in the morning I went out to find a motorbike rental shop and got a small bike. Then I headed to the market and got some food for breakfast. I like going to the markets early in the morning as that is when they are at their most interesting. The market at Mae Hong is a particularly interesting one as it is frequented by a variety of hilltribe people, Meo, Lisu, Karen and Karian Padang, the ones with the long necks. Another good feature of the market is the price. Everything was so cheap even for Thailand. It was possible to get a small plastic bag of food for 5 baht. Inevitably with prices so low I always bought far too much, but the food here seemed to be a bit different from what I was used to eating in the rest of Thailand, and I always want to try something new. I was informed that it was Thai Yai food.


When I had got enough, or more accurately too much, food, I headed back to the guest house. I woke up Kanjana and told her breakfast was ready and a motorbike had been sorted out. While eating breakfast we discussed where to go and looked at the maps. We decided we wanted to visit the long neck village, the Pha Sua Waterfall and Mae Aw, a Kuomingtang (Taiwanese Chinese) village on the Myanmar border. Before we left, Gan insisted that we changed rooms. She was convinced that the room we had slept in had a "phee"; in other words she thought it was haunted. The Thai variety of buddhism is heavily intermingled with animist beliefs, and it seems as if there are spirits that need to be appeased or avoided all over Thailand. We had move all our luggage to the new room before we could leave.


When we headed out of Mae Hong Song, it was still cloudy as it was the rainy season. There is only one road running through the city, but as I could not see the sun, I did not know whether we were heading north or south. We stopped to asked the way. "Where does this road go?" I asked. "Chiang Mai," I was told. Now that was not a very helpful answer. The road goes to Chiang Mai whichever way you go, the north route being more direct and the south route being longer but quicker. After a few more questions revealed no more information, we went to a petrol station and found we were going in the right direction.


Further down the road we stopped at a police box to ask for more directions. We were told to take a turning to the left, which we did. It was starting to clear up and getting hotter and sunnier. After travelling down this road a few kilometres we came to a bridge over a river. As we could see a pair of elephants eating the grass on the river bank, we stopped to take some photographs of them. Next to the road bridge was a narrow footbridge, the kind of suspension bridge then always makes me think of Indiana Jones. I was glad that the new bridge had been built and we did not have to ride over that suspension bridge.


On we went and after asking directions a few more times we came to the Long Neck Village. We knew that we must have been near the Myanmar border because there were shelters made of sandbags and military checkpoints in the area. It looked as if they expected the Myanmar army to spill over into that area at times.


We parked the bike and after paying an admission fee entered the village. It was immediately evident that it was a tourist attraction. The road through the village was lined with souvenir shops staffed by long-neck women in their best clothes. We stopped at some of the shops and did the tourist thing and bought a few little things off them and took some photographs. I managed to get a photograph of one girl washing her brass-covered neck at the village tap. I also took a photograph of one girl lying in a hammock playing tetris on a game machine. I find such contrasts interesting.


We walked through the village looking for something a little more interesting than souvenir shops. We found some weavers making cloth and some musicians playing instruments I did not recognise. They were playing for themselves too, not for tourists. At the end of the village I was interested to see one woman with a key hanging form her ear; I always thought that was a punk fashion. Just near there I noticed many children so we walked in their direction. Children make good subjects for photographs. We discovered that they were going to school. We had found the village school. Inside they were sitting in rows at desks, some with rings around their necks, studying English.


After that we moved up the hill a bit and discovered that the people in that area were rather different. The women instead of having long necks had long ears. Their ear lobes had been stretched so that there was a large hole in the middle of the lobe, and huge ear rings were inserted. One old lady was looking particularly splendid in her finery. I noticed coins attached to her clothes. It looked as if some were silver. I had a closer look. She was wearing old silver coins, some showed the head of Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Such coins were used by the hilltribes for trading. Not so long ago they did not trust paper money, and people who wanted to trade with them had to use silver coins. Before moving on we put some money in a donation box for the children of the village.


As we started walking back to the bike, I started to wonder if we should have visited the village at all. Had we been to a human zoo? Were the children having their necks stretched for the benefit of tourists like us? Who was benefiting from the money? I was feeling rather guilty as I left.


Next on the agenda for that day was Pha Sua Waterfall. We would have to hurry to get there. Our guide book said that the road was rough, but in fact it was no problem. Even though most of the road was new, the jungle greenery was starting to spread across it. We continued along the road until we got to the top of a hill with a small clearing from which you could see for miles across a verdant green valley of rice fields which was cut in half by a brown silt-laden river. There were some villages in the valley and in the distance we could see the bluish hills.


After a few more kilometres we came to a T-junction and turned left for the waterfall. A little bit further down the road we saw a mudbath and decided to stop there. There was a lady there who spoke excellent English, one of those people you meet occasionally who give off an aura of intelligence. She was a Shan. First she told us about the mudbath and encouraged us to take one. I just had the facial, but Kanjana went for the whole thing.


While the mud was drying on my face, I had an interesting conversation with the Shan lady. She said that she had stayed with the long-neck people and told me about their culture. Apparently the children are not forced to wear the rings anymore, but many still choose to. Some of the older ones take them off, but they must wear casts to support their necks for a few months if they do.


We then discussed the politics of the area. As she was Shan, I decided to broach the subject of Khun Sa tactfully. "Was he good or bad," I asked. It was a hard question or maybe I should not have expected a direct answer. Some of her family "volunteered" for his army, but she explained that it was not at all voluntary. The army would visit a village and decide who would volunteer. Then she talked about nationality. For Shans it was difficult to become recognised as Thai although it was apparently quite easy for the Nationalist Chinese to become naturalised.


Then a couple of minibuses full of tourists arrived. They piled out of their buses and had their faces covered with mud. When we arrived at the mud bath, we wondered why there were so many bicycles there. We soon found out. The new arrivals with mudded faces got on the bicycles and rode around. The wind made the mud dry more rapidly. Once the mud had dried, it was washed off, and they got back in their minibuses and left.


As it looked as if it would rain, we headed back to Mae Hong Song. It did rain, and we sheltered for about half an hour in a police box until the rain stopped. Then we went back to Mae Hong Song and had dinner.


The next day we had decided to go to the Pha Sua Waterfalls. As usual I started the day by going to the market to buy the breakfast, and took it back to the room where we ate it. Then we got on the bike and headed to the waterfall. We knew which way to go as the day before we had been to the mudbath on the same road. We had no problem finding the waterfall. What we could not find was the hilltribe villages which were shown on the map. All we could see was Thai villages. Then we realised that the Thai villages were in fact hilltribe villages, but the hilltribe people living near the road had become indistinguishable from Thais. In fact it occurred to me that nearly all the people living in that area were ethnically hilltribe, most being Shans. Sometimes it was possible to identify a Karen as they often had something, maybe just a shoulder bag, made out of the distinctive red Karen cloth.


We parked the bike in a car park and walked down a steep hill to the waterfall. There were signs saying that it was dangerous to swim in it and my guide book supported this claim. However, there were people in the pool, and it did not look particularly dangerous. We spent about half an hour there, and had a picnic lunch at one of the tables in the car park.


After lunch we continued along the road to Mae Aw. There were some quite steep hills on the way and the road was windy, but generally in good condition. An inexperienced and unskilled rider like myself would have no problem. We took one turning off to the left just to see where it went. We thought it might lead to an interesting little village, but in fact it led to an army camp. The sentry at the gate post politely told us we should be going the other way. We passed through several villages and then the scenery started to change. The hills started to look different. There was something being cultivated on them, but we did not know what it was. Later we learnt that it was tea. We were approaching the Kuomingtang village of Mae Aw, otherwise known as Ban Rak Thai.


Mae Aw is high up in the mountains right beside the Myanmar border. When you enter the village the first thing you notice is the lake. It is unusual because there are many seemingly dead trees growing out of it. It has a rather strange look to it. I should also add that it is remarkably beautiful. We stopped and took some photographs. Some water buffaloes passed by. We then followed the road round the lake to the village centre where there were a few shops. We parked the bike and walked around. We came to a teashop which we entered. We were offered some tea, which we accepted. I do not usually drink tea without sugar and milk, but this was tasty and refreshing. When we finished the tea, we were given a different kind to try. I was interested to notice Chinese writing and a Taiwanese calendar on the wall. We had some more cups of tea, all different, and then decided to buy a packet of the best one. It was delicious.


Before leaving the tea shop, we asked where the best place to eat was. We were directed to a small shop where we had some excellent Chinese noodles. Kanjana was starting to worry about the time. She wanted to get back while it was still light. "Don't worry," I said, "sit down and relax." She said we should go before the rain started. It was the rainy season, but I said we should wait until some dirty black clouds passed overhead. She insisted so we got on the bike.


Almost as soon as we started to ride, I do not think we had covered fifty metres, it started to rain. At the other end of the village, completely soaked, we stopped at a shop, and I ordered a Coke. We waited for about fifteen minutes and the rain stopped. Some mules were walking into the village. I wondered what they were used for, what kind of contraband they sometimes carried. I also wondered what the villagers did before a road was built that enabled them to sell the tea they grew.


The sun came out again and we soon dried off on the motorbike. As the sun was setting, we came to some rice fields built on a gentle slope. The sudden rainfall had increased the water level so that we could fully appreciate the design of the irrigation system. Each little field had an overflow designed so the water flowed from one field to the next. It was getting dark on the way back to Mae Hong Song, but there was only a little light rain.


Mae Hong Song to Soppong


After a few days in Mae Hong Song we decided to go to Soppong and stay a place called Cave Lodge. About twenty years ago I had been along this road on a motorbike with an American friend and it had been rough, dirt all the way and once we had to take the bike through a river. I remembered that the scenery had been magnificent. Fortunately the road is much better these days, and much quicker.


We loaded up the motorbike with our luggage and off we went. Shortly after we passed the turning to Mae Aw, we saw a place where many people had stopped. We checked the sign and found that this was a famous sightseeing spot called the fish cave.


We bought some food to feed the fish with and walked through a rather nice park to the cave. The park was nice, but the fish cave was boring. There was a small hole through which you could look and see a few fish swimming against the flow of the water. As soon as any food was thrown in, it disappeared, washed away by the rapid flow of the water. We soon left the cave and spent a bit of time by the pool just beside it. The light filtering through the trees had a magical quality to it. While walking back to the bike, we passed under a mulberry bush. A silk worm dropped on Kanjana landing in her hair. She was most disturbed by this and made me check her hair and clothes. I looked up at the tree. It was alive. What I thought were leaves blowing in the breeze were in fact silk worms wiggling around. Kanjana thought it was time to leave so we got back on the bike.


A bit further down the road Gan suddenly told me to stop. I did, and she then pointed out a snake in the road. I got off the bike and got out a camera and walked over towards a snake, which backed off towards the grassy verge. I have only ever seen a snake in the wild a few times and I do not know much about them. I cautiously approached not knowing whether it was poisonous or not. As it was having lunch at the time, I thought it was safe to go closer. It could not bite me not bite me when there was a frog in its mouth. In fact only the frog's legs were visible. I took some photographs. Later, I realised that it was a cobra. Thai cobras seem to have a much smaller hood than the Indian ones, and are therefore not so instantly recognisable.


The scenery along this stretch of road is quite spectacular. It winds up over mountains and down through valleys with limestone cliffs breaking up the greenery. We stopped several times and got off the bike to appreciate the view. One view point we stopped at had been turned into a market by some hilltribe people. On one side was a Lahu family dressed in black selling vegetables and a few souvenirs. Most of the area however had been taken over by the Lisu in their colourful clothing, who seem to be big manufacturers of souvenirs these days. We were surrounded by Lisu children begging us to buy. They are born salesman. They never give up, and if you buy something from one, the others try to make you buy something from them too. We did, of course, buy one or two little things. A Lahu child gave me a little bit of their food to taste and they were friendly so I bought a small cheap purse from them to make them happy, not that I really wanted it. We also bought a few little things of the Lisu. I think it is almost impossible not to.


A little further down the road we stopped by a turnoff. There was a dirt road turning off the main road. By this turning there was a bus stop, a shelter with some benches. We wondered where the road led to and, as there were two boys with motorbikes there, we asked them, but they could not speak Thai. Anyway that road looked pretty rough and steep. We decided not to try it, but we did try going a short way down some other turnoffs.


Shortly before we got to Soppong we turned off and went to a Lahu village. The most notable thing in this village was a big sign in English saying "Proud to be a drug free village." We parked the bike and walked around. Some old ladies were weaving and making jewellery. Times are changing. They had electricity in this village. I had wanted to show Kanjana some of the hilltribe villages, but as transportation is improving they are starting to look more and more like Thai villages. Even so this place looked quite spectacular with steep limestone cliffs behind it.




After leaving the Lahu village it was only a short distance to Soppong. We passed through Soppong and turned left for Cave Lodge. The scenery seemed to change and went along a narrow road winding through tall trees. Actually, the scenery reminded me of parts of Europe. It was getting cooler. When we got to the village Tham Lot, we looked for Cave Lodge. It was well sign-posted and quite easy to find.

The Lodge itself was a spacious wooden building set in some woods. There was a large open space with raised levels on two sides. In the middle of the bottom layer was a square open fire with some logs smouldering in. There were some cats sitting inside the fireplace keeping themselves warm. When we arrived some Lisu were sitting around there. They seemed to be making themselves quite at home there. A little girl was on a swing which was attached to beam. The owner, John, an Australian who is married to a Thai, was not there. He had gone to Chiang Mai to do some shopping.


We were shown a few bungalows by a friendly Australian girl working there, and after negotiating a special price, took what seemed to be the best. It was still fairly basic but did have a hot shower.


The food seemed to be aimed at the traveller and was a mixture of foreign and Thai food. I found the Shan food set the most interesting item on the menu whereas Gan developed a taste for chocolate. I usually avoid traveller's food but I must admit the homemade chocolate cake was rather good. Until then I do not think Gan had ever tasted a piece of real home-made cake.


The weather was not good when we were at Cave Lodge, but it was the rainy season. It seemed to rain nearly every day and it was quite cool at night. However there always seemed to be someone to have a friendly conversation with there and the lodge did seem to be an excellent source of information. The walls were covered with lots of good maps of the area. Places of interest were marked on them and estimated trekking times. There were albums containing articles and photographs taken by the owner, John. He is apparently a caver of some reputation and is a mine of information on caving in the area. Apparently, some of the caves are quite dangerous because they contain high levels of carbon dioxide. Recommended, and also not recommended, caving routes are shown on some of the maps.


We decided to go to Tham Lot, the best known and easiest cave in the area. It is near the Lodge. We took the bike there and parked it. We paid the fee for visiting the cave and were provided with a Karen guide carrying a lantern. We walked through a small park where I was befriended by a gibbon living there. When we first saw it, it was swinging from some power cables, but when it saw me, it swung down and climbed up on my shoulders and grabbed me by the head. Our guide told us that it liked farang, foreigners. Gan was most amused by the whole procedure. The guide helped me to get free so that we could continue on our way to the cave.


There was a river flowing through the cave. We entered by walking along a raised wooden walkway and were taken past some stalactites and stalagmites. Evidently it can be quite strenuous climbing some of the staircases in the caves. One woman from another party was suffering from exhaustion, and had to rest. The smell was pretty bad as the place was full of bats.


We decided to take the optional boat ride to the other end of the cave. There was a boatman on the boat. The guide at times got into to the water to push the boat or act as a rudder. At the other end we walked up some staircases and were shown some supposedly ancient wooden coffins. After that all there was to do was return to the entrance, have something to eat and head back to cave lodge.


In the evening we decided to return to the caves. The information which so helpfully covered the walls in Cave Lodge said that it was well worth visiting the caves at sunset, too. We walked over to the far end of the cave where the view was supposed to be better. As we got nearer the cave, it got noisier and noisier. Then we could see the birds, actually it was like a scene from the birds. There were thousands and thousands of birds returning home to spend the night in the cave. They were swirling around and around. We went into the cave and could see them pouring into it.


The following day it was raining most of the time. I did clear up bit in the afternoon, so we decided to go to a Karen village not so far away. We went by bike and it was a hard ride. In places the road was very muddy and slippery. For safety's sake Gan had to get off several times and walk. It seemed to take an awfully long time to get to a village that was in fact not so far away. We wondered if we would make it before it got dark, and even thought of giving up and turning back. Then we saw the village on a not too distant hill.


When we got to the village, we found the village shop and got something to drink. Then there was a sudden downpour. We were glad we had found some shelter. When the rain had stopped, some Karens appeared on top of their elephants. These were not elephants for tourists but real working elephants with chains for pulling logs. We were asked if we wanted to have an elephant ride for 200 baht, but declined. We wanted to get back before it got dark. Instead we walked around the village for a short time then headed back.


On the way back the going was really rough because there had been the downpour. I had great difficulty getting the bike up some of the hills. We both got off the bike and tried to push it. The bike's rear wheel was spinning and our shoes were unable to get any grip on the hard but extremely slippery red mud. We managed to get back before it got dark.


Gan decided that she wanted to head back to Mae Hong Song as it was warmer and the weather was better. I agreed, but said that we should go back slowly, making a few stops on the way, and the first stop was just down the road at Soppong.


We had been told to go up the hill on the left just after Soppong to get to a Lisu Village. When we arrived there, we were met by the little Lisu girl we had seen on the swing at Cave Lodge. Actually she and some of her friends were climbing a mango tree to get some of the fruit. When she got down off the tree, she insisted on taking us to see her house which was made of bamboo and had a straw roof. On the walls there were posters of Thai pop idols or film stars. Of course she succeeded in selling us some more trinkets. In the middle of the village, there were some old ladies weaving and chewing beetle. I got some good photographs of them. It was warm and sunny while we were there, and pleasantly relaxing. The villagers were very friendly, and Gan enjoyed talking to them. The Lisu seem to be the most openly friendly of the hill tribes, or perhaps they are the most extroverted in contrast to some who seem quite introverted.


We had decided that we were going back to Mae Hong song that day, and the weather can change quite quickly. We decided it would be a good idea to get back on the road while the weather was good.


Back to Mae Hong Song


Back on the main road, we continued along it for a few kilometres, and saw a line of farmers walking through some rice fields; probably they were going to get their lunch. We stopped to take some photographs of rice fields and then stopped again shortly afterwards when we came to some vegetable stores run by some Lahu. There were selling some wild mushrooms that they had collected. I bought some even though Gan was protesting that we could not cook them. I planned to ask a small restaurant or food stall to cook them for us. Gan said we could not do that, but I like wild mushrooms, especially ones I have not tried before.


Further down the road we came to a sign to a Monk's retreat, and followed the lane leading to it. It was set between steep limestone cliffs and had well maintained gardens and lawns. We took a path to one of the cliffs. There were some monk's cells set in the cliffside and some shrines and some gory but interesting statues, which I assumed depicted a Buddhist hell. In spite of the gory statues, the atmosphere was peaceful. It was no doubt an excellent place to meditate.


After leaving the retreat, we made one or two more stops of no particular interest on our way back. When we got back to Mae Hong Song, we checked in to the guest house. Gan talked to the owners and asked if she could do some cooking in their kitchen, which was not what I had intended. We went to the market together to do some shopping. Gan pointed out some people who looked a bit different. They were not hilltribe and they did not look Thai either. A young man was wearing a dark sarong. She told me that they were Burmese, and I agreed. A stallholder who heard us discussing their ethnicity told us we were quite wrong. "Khon ippun," he said. I listened to their conversation. He was right; they were Japanese.


Having done our shopping we went back to the guest house and Gan made a tom yam with the mushrooms. She does not like cooking, and I think it was in fact the first time she had ever cooked anything for me. It was superb. Now where could I get hold of some more wild mushrooms?


After dinner we went for a walk around the town. Gan wanted to do some shopping. While walking around the town, we saw a Japanese girl from the group we had seen in the market earlier. It was rather a funny sight. She was wearing a sarong, but she did not know how to tie it. She walked a few paces and it started to fall down. She hitched it up and tried again, but again it started to fall down. I felt sorry for her. Maybe she did look stupid in a sarong, but she was trying hard. These Japanese kids had got to a really remote part of Thailand, and were not doing the usual Japanese thing of being guided around by someone carrying a flag to all the tourist traps. We went over to her. I spoke to her in Japanese and told Gan to show her how to tie her sarong. She deserved some sympathy and help.


The following day was spent relaxing in Mae Hong Song. Travelling by bike can be tiring. I went out on my own, leaving Gan to rest and walked around looking for interesting places. The temple by the lake in the middle of the town had many interesting paintings. I found a place with home-made chocolate cake, which I knew would make Gan happy. The shop was run by an Australian girl and her Thai husband. She told me her husband ran treks to the jungle, and they specialised in nature and birdwatching treks.


When I got back Gan was very pleased with the chocolate cake. I got out the maps, and we decided where to go next. Gan wanted to go to the Mae Surin waterfall. It looked too far for a one day trip but there were plenty of places to see on the way, so I told her we would go and stay at Khun Yuam.


Between Mae Hong Song and Khun Yuam


We were heading towards Khun Yuam. Our first stop was a hot spring just outside Mae Hong Song. It looked in need of repair. I do not think anyone had used it for quite some time. It had changed since the last time I had been there. Then it was just a field with a few hot, muddy ponds in it. It was not very interesting, but it was a good place to be when there was a sudden downpour of rain. After the rain stopped, we continued down the road and made a little diversion to see a small waterfall. The next diversion was to go to Meo Microwave. It is easy to find as there is a clear sign to the TV transmission centre at the top of the mountain just above the Meo village. That is why it is called Meo Microwave.


The hill was really steep with lots of hairpin bends. We seemed to spend a lot of time in first gear on the way up. On the way we passed some Karens who were taking their water buffaloes for a walk. Our timing was faultless. We really could not have done any better. We must have arrived at the village just before four o'clock. Their was a pickup truck that had been converted into a travelling shop in the village. There seemed to be no other shop. Then at four o'clock school finished. All the kids came out of school and surrounded the shop. I got some great photographs. We then walked around the village, which really does seem to have some character. These people must have been really isolated before the road was built, and that cannot have been so long ago. We could see paths seemingly going nowhere, but in fact probably leading to even more remote villages. There were fields of crops on the steep side of the mountain. Part of the reason for building roads to these remote villages is to enable them to grow some crop other than opium and get it to market.


From Meo Microwave we went straight to Khun Yuam and checked in to Ban Farang, or the foreigner's house. It used to be run by a frenchman and his wife, but apparently he had recently passed away. His wife seems to be running the place very well on her own. The place certainly deserves a mention, as it was so clean comfortable and well-managed. It was a bit more expensive than the average guest house, but worth it.


What Gan really wanted to see was the Mae Surin Waterfall and that is where we went. It was a long ride and a tough one, too. At first it was easy along paved roads climbing up through hilltribe villages. We were there at the wrong time of year. Apparently, the time to go is in the autumn when the boutong, a kind of sunflower, is in bloom, and the fields turn to yellow. Also, at that time of year the roads are much easier to travel on.


The paved road ended and turned to gravel, but it was still not too bad. Then after one Meo Village there was a long, steep hill that looked more like a ploughed field than a road. The ruts had been made by four wheel drive vehicles and covered the whole width of the road. That made it extremely difficult on a bike. Gan had to walk most of the way up this hill, while I, going no faster than her, had to get the bike up it, sometimes travelling in a rut, sometimes balancing on a bit of dried mud between two ruts and sometimes on the verge going the wrong side of the posts marking the edge of the road. After we got up that hill, everything else on the way to the falls was easy by comparison, and there were some spectacular views.


Eventually we got to the falls. We passed through a checkpoint and parked the bike, then walked to the viewpoints. Actually, you cannot get to close to the falls. You have to view then across a valley. There are several viewpoints and we walked down the steep hillside using the slippery path. The falls were fairly impressive, but it was a lot of effort getting there.


On the way back, we saw a sign to an orchid farm and made a diversion to go there, but although it was the wrong time of year for orchids there, we saw some rather nice, small Karen farms. When we got back to the main road, we stopped by some more Karen farms to take a few photographs, and sheltered under a roof there when there was a sudden downpour.


Of course that sudden downpour made the road much worse on the way back. It was hard, for me anyway, to get the bike down that steep, extremely muddy hill. The locals did not seem to have too much trouble though as they road passed me with ease. We saw one four wheel drive weaving its way throught the mud up the hill. It seemed to be doing all right. I stopped the bike to take a photograph of it. Unfortunately, I put my foot on a muddy ridge that was not too strong. It collapsed and as a result we fell over. By the time I got the bike up again the four wheel drive had passed, and I had missed the photograph.


Further down the road, we stopped at a Meo village where they were loading cabbages on to a pickup, and once more at another Meo village when Gan wanted to get off the bike to play with some piglets. We were both relieved when we got back to tarmac as it was getting late in the afternoon. We just had time to stop at another waterfall just before we got back to Khun Yuam, but the light was fading fast.


The next day we headed back to Mae Hong Song. Maybe we should have visited the museum in Khun Yuam, which contains old Japanese trucks from the second world war and things like that. Apparently, it is run by a local policeman. Anyway, we did not visit it and just went straight back to Mae Hong Song, stopping only once so that I could take some photographs of some Karens waiting at a bus stop by the turn-off for Meo Microwave.


Back at Mae Hong Song we tried to check the time of the bus to Bangkok. We found the bus station from which the bus left, but could find no one there. We asked at the noodle shop next door, and were told there was no bus until the next day. Later that evening, a local doctor who spoke excellent English told us that the bus was not very reliable, on occasions crashed and frequently broke down.


We went to the bus station the next day. The person selling the tickets was more interested in the Thai boxing on the television than in selling tickets. He was also in a drunken stupour. I told Gan to make sure that he was not the driver before we bought tickets. He was not the driver, so we bought tickets. We should have listened to the the doctor's warnings. Sure enough the bus did break down, and we had to wait for a replacement bus to come, but we did get back to Bangkok without any crashes.


1999 John Lancaster
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