Monday, July 02, 2007

To Mae Hong Son and Back.

Despite it being the start of the rainy season, Bordeaux and I decided to rent a motorbike to take a circuit trip of Northwest Thailand. It would give us a chance to get away from the major towns and tourist centers, and to explore some small towns and parks on our own.

Weds June 27
We left Chiang Mai early in the morning, leaving most of our luggage at the guest house. Despite being a fairly small town, the suburbs of Chiang Mai seemed to stretch on for some distance, petering out in small wooden shophouses and quiet noodleshops. Eventually we were surrounded by rice paddies, where men plowed and lazy water buffaloes wallowed. About 40 kms out of Chiang Mai, we felt the first drops of drizzle. We pulled to the side of the road to prepare ourselves for the rain, and as we dressed ourselves in on our cheap plastic raincoats, the water began coming down in hard waves. We waited under the shelter of a grove of trees, hoping the rain would die down. Eventually we had no choice but to try our luck driving through the weaker patches of drizzle, hoping the hard rain wouldn't return.

Through cover of heavy mist we reached Doi Inthanon national park. Unlike Khao Yai, which is monsoon seasonal forest and thus spends half the year dry, Doi Inthanon is cloud-forest, and spends the entire year heavy with rain and mist, sheltered by dense clouds. Because of this, the forest is able to grow to incredible height, with curtains of elaborate creeping vines and crowds of oversized leaves. Plants grew leaves of ridiculous, cartoonish sizes. We admired them as we raced up the slick asphalt roads of the park, past columns of thick dripping forest and distant clouded mountains.

We spent the night in Mae Chaem, a quiet riverside town. After trying two closed guest houses, we finally found a room in a guestless resort. Our sterile bungalow felt of mildew, and the towels we eventually located in the cabinet were already damp. We searched for dinner at the quiet night market, but eventually opted instead for spicy sour soup from an open air restaurant in town.

Thurs June 28

From Mae Chaem, we traveled to Khun Yuam. The road was mostly uphill, and the bike guzzled the petrol to make it. At a high curve on a mountain road, we realized that we were going to run out of gas soon. Thankfully, we were able to make it to the next small town, but once there we found that they had no gas stations. Bordeaux tried approaching a couple, but the man went and busied himself below their stilted house as soon as he saw us approaching, and the wife just shook her head apologetically, indicating that she didn't understand us. Eventually we found a group of men who understood us, and they sold us a liter of gas from their truck.

We had few guesthouse options in Khun Yuam, so we took a room at a bland travelers hotel. After taking a shower, we realized that we were sharing our bathroom with another guest, a massive cockroach. To understand the size of this cockroach, you can't use any sort of domestic American cockroach as a reference. This wasn't a chubby, comfortable suburban cockroach. This was a creature of the jungle. It was about four inches long, with strong wings forming a battle shell over its angry musculature. It resisted all attempts at its life, finally escaping down a drain that we quickly shut behind it.

Thankfully, the town of Khun Yuam was rather more pleasant than our guesthouse. The main street in town was lined with old wooden shophouses, which sold fresh tropical fruit, wooden birdcages, and plastic toys and bikes. We ate a delicious afternoon snack of chicken amok served in a banana leaf package, and spent the afternoon watching a herd of lazy buffalo wallow and play in a field like dogs.

Fri June 29
We ran into another herd of water buffalo the next day on the road, as we curved through a forested pass on the way north. They studied us with suspicion, their heavy wooden bells clinking as they sniffed the air. The road to Mae Hong Son was rough, showing signs of the incredible rains it receives. The asphalt highway disappeared in places, giving way to muddy detours and rough patches under construction.

In Mae Hong Son, we found our first guesthouse with character, Pana Huts. The small bamboo rooms were perched on stilts over thick jungle growth, and the wild growing garden was filled with the sounds of birds and the drill of cicadas. Looking out the window, we saw the movement of leaves and grass outside. A strange creature passed by- we couldn't tell exactly what it was, but saw what looked like wasp wings and spider legs. Bordeaux went outside to look, and found that it was a fat brown spider, carrying the body of a giant dead wasp through the undergrowth. Inspecting our room, we found another brown spider, about the size of my palm, living in the drapes.

The town of Mae Hong Son was a busy provincial capital, with a few concrete hotels and stores erected among the mainly wooden houses. It had the feeling of a mountain town, with timber buildings set on the slope of hills. We bought snacks from the busy local market, including a small loaf of banana bread and an amok made with lemongrass and pork. The best restaurant we found in town was the Salween River, which sold freshly ground hilltribe coffee, home baked bread, and a menu including several regional Shan dishes. From inside their wooden shuttered doors, we could look up at the twin Burmese style chedis that graced the top of the hill.

Sat June 30

Halfway en route to our next town we stopped at Phang Ma Pa, aka Soppong. It was a rather small town, stretched into a thin strip along the riverside, that seemed mainly to cater to tourists interested in rafting and exploring the local caves. At the Soppong River Inn we were able to get french press coffee, which we hadn't had since leaving my Bodum in the states.

From Soppong, it was a relatively short journey to Pai. The town is a popular stop for backpackers, and has a rather unfortunate hippie feel. Thankfully it's the low season, so the town felt quiet and relaxed. The highlight of Pai was All About Coffee, a bakery and coffeeshop in a 140 year old wooden shophouse. Seating is up a short set of stairs, on pillows set at low wooden tables. The coffee was amazing- they offered both locally grown and international brews, and had the largest range of specialty drinks I'd seen in a private coffeeshop in Thailand.

Sun July 1

After spending so many days on the bike, we took the chance for a day of relaxation. Pai, despite its population of croc-wearing hippies, served that purpose well. Our room was in a wooden stilthouse, surrounded by a thick bamboo grove. We spent our day lazily enjoying the pleasures of the town. We drank yogurt smoothies in hammocks, looking looking out at rainy mountains, and took long walks past rice paddies and quiet houses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very informative and evocative post, reminds me of my days on the bike in the same region.