Sunday, June 21, 2009

TO MAE HONG SON, MAE SOT AND AYUTHAYA

1. 15 June, Day 50, we left Chiang Mai for Mae Hong Son, after we had our favourite chicken rice near Wat Phra Singh at about 11. Although the journey was only 225 km away, we expected it to be tough as we would be travelling in the east to west direction going across the mountain ridge and rising to more than 1000 m, but with 6-7 hrs of driving we expected to reach Mae Hong Son before last light.

2. Mae Hong Son province is located in the remote northwestern part of Thailand, home to numerous hill-tribe villages. The province borders Myanmar's Shan state to the north and all along the west. It is mountainous and forest-covered, with a few valleys in which villages have developed. Rice paddies are cultivated in every valley. Mae Hong Son is often referred to as the Valley of Three Mists because it seems to have mist all year long. In the raining and cold season a humid fog covers the sky most days until mid-morning, and during the dry season, the smoke from slash-and-burn farming lingers in the valley as it is surrounded by mountains. It is regarded to have one of the most scenic drives in northern Thailand.

3. After leaving Chiang Mai city, we headed north along Route 107, 2 lane either way, before turning into Route 1095, mostly one lane either way, taking us all the way to Mae Hong Soon. Beautiful sealed road all the way, very well maintained. Travelling speed was limited more by the twists and turns of the roads as we went up and down the mountains. Not long after we entered 1095, we came across a charming coffee stop called Pamkled Coffee Corner along the main road, at the entrance to a waterfall, a minority village and some coffee research centre. We decided to stop for a cup of coffee and then explore waterfall and the minority village.

4. Mork Fa Waterfall, part of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, was 2 km up the track beside Pamkled Coffee Corner. When we arrived there, there were 10-12 farangs getting into their 2 jeeps and leaving the waterfall. Like kids, we were thrilled that at Mork fa waterfall we could stand under the waterfall, as one of the pictures at the reception desk showed and we decided to go for a dip. After changing into our swimming trunk, we left the car in the car park and walked 300 m to the waterfall along a pedestrian trail. There were 3 locals at the waterfall who had finished and about to leave. Mork Fa is a twin waterfall, about 50 m high. The pool was shallow enough that we could inch ourserlves close enough to feel the heavy stream of droplets pelting down onto our heads. We had some fun doing that, took some pictures and left after about half an hr. Heres a video of the waterfall to share with you. video

5. After travelling some 80-90 km, as we were approaching Pai, we started to see many signage advertising various resorts and hotels at Pai. We told ourselves Pai must be a popular tourist retreat. Passing through Pai, we could see that it was a small town, almost like a small village, located in the valley, in the midst of padi fields. We did not get to see much of the town but it seems that many tourists come to Pai because of its laid back nature, nearby natural hot springs, waterfalls, trekking opportunities, visits to hill tribe villages and its colourful Wednesday market. We decided to visit one of the hotels just to have a feel of how they were like. We selected Phupai Art Resort because the word art stirred our imagination. We liked what we saw. The resort is located in the middle of a padi field, with the padi fields reaching the door steps of each bungalow. At the distance, you could see hills and farmland. The bungalows are comfortable, tastefully designed. Low season room rate could go for 2000 bahts before negotiation; good value for me, especially for those wanting a quiet and peaceful hideaway.

6. It was a very hilly climb, a long and winding road, up to 1400 m high, with stunning scenery. We now know why Mae Hong Son is called Valley of 3 Mists. As it was wet and drizzling, at some stretches, we were driving into the clouds. At Mae Hong Son, we were told by Tour Guide Nathaporn Ruankaew (Jan) whom we met by chance that there are some 1864 turns that the driver has to made up and down the mountains to Mae Hong Son and Thailand Tourism Authority (TAT) issues certificate for those who accomplishes it. We got the certificate from TAT the next day, after we reached Mae Hong Son, for issue fee of 20 bahts. It says, " This certificate certificates that Lim Neo Chian, driver of SJG 7792X crossed 1 864 curves, has successfully completed the journey to Mae Hong Son. The Doi Kong Moo Pagoda will protect you and give your family much happiness and prosperity in the future". Sunny was also issued a similar certificate.

7. We reached Mae Hong Son at about 6 pm, had our usual beer at Nong Chang Kham Lake (picture on the right shows the beautiful temple at the lake) and then went scouting for hotel. We settled for Baiyoke Chalet 1000 baht for a bigger twin sharing room. After settling in, we went for a walk at the night bazaar along the road which led to Nong Chang Kham Lake. The night bazaar was eerily quiet. Where were the tourists we wondered. We walked down to the lake, had an omelette and then returned to near the hotel for a bowl of pork noddle soup. Before we called it a night, we had a drink at Crossroads, a bar in a charming corner wooden building which we saw on our way coming into Mae Hong Son, not far from our hotel. We were the only customers there.

8. After breakfast the next morning (16 June, Day 51), we decided to visit the tourism information centre to get some direction to visit the minority villages. The lady at the hotel reception pointed to us one near the airport. With her advice, we went hunting and after circling near the location 3 times we still could not locate it. Reckoning that there must be one at the airport, we went to the airport and managed to catch the lady in charge as she arrived for work. A cheerful and helpful person, she hurried in to receive us. She gave us a map and advised a couple of places where we could visit the minority villages. As we were heading south, we decided to head for Huay Seau Thao to visit the long-necked women of the Padaung from Myanmar.

9. Off Route 108, Huay Seau Thao is about 6 km South of Mae Hong Son. The sketch map and GPS did not help much and we were soon lost in the network of smaller roads. It was near Mae Hong Son Resort that we met tour guide Jan at the jetty next to Mae Nam Mae Hong Son. She was with a colleague waiting for her 2 clients to return across the river in the elephant after their visit to the Padaung village. It was she who told us that we could get a certificate from the TAT for accomplishing the tortuous 1864 turns on the way to Mae Hong Son. We were very disappointed to learn from her that the TAT office in Mae Hong Soon was actually next door to the hotel we stayed in, Baiyoke Chalet; just so strange that the staff of Baiyoke Chalet did not know this. From her, we learnt the way to get to Huay Seau Thao.

10. We got to Padaung village at Huay Seau Thao after crossing the bridge over Mae Nam Mae Hong Son, fording 11 small drainage streams, and passing an elephant camp, much like what Jan had told us, but that was after we overshot the location into the hills and travelling up and down the road a couple of times. We thought the signage could have been more obvious.

11. We paid an entrance fee of 250 bahts to visit the Padaung village. The handout explains that the Padaung (Kayan/Karenni long necked tribe) are refugees who have settled in Thailand over 12 years ago, due to political situations in their country, Burma. As they are not permitted work legally, the fee collected supports their daily needs, medical treatment, children's education etc. A note on the notice board remarks that the women prefer to be called Kayan, not long necked or giraffe. For hundreds of years, the Kayan women have been wearing the brass coils, but reading various sources, including one on the notice board at the village, no one seems to know why, partly because the Kayan has no written history. It includes rather silly reasons like protecting the girls from tiger attacks and making the girls look undesirable to other tribes. The more plausible reason is, in my view, as an adornment. Girls could start wearing them from the age of 3-5, and by the time they are adults, the coils, which are permanently attached and look like individual rings, could weigh up to 6 kg and appear to stretch the women's necks to as much as 10 or 12 inches. We only saw the Kayan women wore their coils at the merchandising stalls. At Huay Seau Thao, the women went about their routines without the coils. One source told us that the practice of wearing coils is becoming less popular with younger generations. I bought a couple of souvenirs at the village and have fun taking the picture of me wearing half a section of the coil. Believe me, its quite heavy.

12. After stopping by the TAT office to get the certificate for the 1864 turns to Mae Hong Son and a quick pizza lunch, we headed south for Mae Sot, about 400 km away, along Route 108 and then 105. As 108/105 runs parallel to the ridge line along its foothills, it was an easy drive and stopping for pictures where there was beautiful scenery, including this beautiful mountain village. For a 50-60 km stretch, the road runs next to Thanlwin (Salween) river which separates Thailand and Myanmar and we could see the hills of Myanmar a mere few hundred meters away. There were more security checkpoints along this stretch of road, understandably so because of its proximity to the international border with Myanmar, but other than a couple of peeks into the car we were passed without any hassle. We reached Mae Sot after dark, about 7+, and we decided to eat first and then look for hotel. We chose a fairly crowded well lit restaurant along the main road to Tak. During dinner, we were entertained by a long haired musician playing familiar oldies accompanied by his guitar. Quite good and he received occasional rounds of applause. As Mae Sot is a frontier town in the remotest part of Thailand, it must be rare for people to see a foreign car or aliens like us. We received a fair amount of curious stares the whole evening. After dinner, we checked into Erawan Hotel for a night sleep.

13. The next morning (17 June, Day 52), before heading for Ayuthaya, we decided to have a look at the Mae Sot border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. At this point, the 2 countries are separated by a small river, less than 100 m wide, with a Friendship Bridge over it linking both sides. There were few trucks crossing to the Myanmar side and many people walking along the bridge from the Myanmar side. As all these were going on above, there was a ferry operation going on at the river, with drifting rubber tyre each carrying 7-8 passengers from one bank to the another, steered by an operator using his hands. Once the passengers were discharged, he carried the tyre upstream, took another load of passengers and similarly steered to the other side. With a number of tyres operating, the flow went on, in full view of Thai soldiers seated on the public benches. As outsiders, we scratched our heads and wondered whats going on.

14. Taking Route 105 eastwards to Tak, the stretch through the national park was beautiful with scenic mountain views. After Tak, we switched to Highway 1, a wonderful highway, 3 lanes either way, through the plain of central Thailand, all the way to Ayuthaya and Bangkok. With the very good speed achieved, we were in Ayuthaya slightly after 4. After some scouting, we were surprised that a number of hotels in Ayuthaya were full. We guessed the city must be hosting some major conventions or major meetings at that time. But we were not unhappy as we were very happy to settle for the Old Palace Hotel, a lovely boutique hotel with about 10 rooms, near the ruins.

15. We planned to stay for 2 nights at Ayuthaya to see whats left of the ancient capital of Thailand. For 400 years, it was the centre of Thailand, controlling a big part of Indochina. We would then head south to play a round of golf at Rose Garden, where Sunny and I had played there many years before and loved the course, and then head further south for Phuket.

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