Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mae Hong Son, Thailand - mountain rides, excellent coffee, and a cyclone of bats

(the latest journey: biking in Mae Hong Son)

It's been two years since the last post - two years of a ridiculous work load as chair of the English department at an international high school in Thailand. I found enough time for an occasional trip, but not enough time to write about it. In this span, I managed to see a few places in Thailand: Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Koh Sa Met, Hua Hin, and Mae Hong Son as well as trips to Laos (Vientiane, Luang Prabang), Cambodia (Siem Reap), India (Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Darjeeling), and, of course, a few trips to see the family in Kong. I've left the old job in Thailand, and I have a few months off, so I'll see what I can do about chronicling the places I've been and the things I've seen.

I'm gunna start with the end, though - Mae Hong Son - cuz it's the freshest in my mind, and it also happens to be the most amazing place (I've seen) in Thailand. My coworker and friend, Peter, lived there for 3 years, and I managed to convince him (didn't take much) to give a short tour of his old stomping grounds before I left the country.

(view of mountainous Mae Hong Son province from Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu)

Mae Hong Son ("The City of Three Mists") is up in the mountains of northwestern Thailand. The province of the same name is the least populated province in Thailand, and when you fly into the town Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai, it's easy to see why. Our little prop plane from Chiang Mai was a 12-seater, and it allowed for some pretty impressive views of the mountains we had to weave through in order to reach the small town of Mae Hong Son (pop. 6,000) nestled in a valley.

(a view of the town Mae Hong Son from Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu)

The town is surprisingly developed despite the province being very poor, due largely to the fact that much of it is owned and maintained by a small group of affluent Thais. Even so, Mae Hong Son is somewhat off the beaten path for tourism in Thailand, making it a very comfortable, inexpensive, and uncrowded place, especially during the non-peak season of July. Apparently, Mae Hong Son looks the way Chiang Mai used to before tourism completely altered it. Chiang Mai is not so bad - a little gross, crowded, and rife with bars and tourist traps - but Mae Hong Son is pristine. Another surprising fact about Mae Hong Son is that it has very little Thai language or people - most of the province is populated by the Shan (Thai Yai - people living on the border region between Thailand and Burma), the Karen (various hill tribes), and the Hmong. That meant the little Thai I knew was going to be of little use (not that it was of much use, anyway). All of this together produced, for me, a feeling of being completely separate from my life in Salaya (where I lived and worked in Thailand, near Bangkok), which, I can whole-heartedly say, was very welcome.

(Jong Kham Lake in the center of Mae Hong Son)

Peter and I quickly arrived at the hostel we'd be staying at (>1km from the 'airport') and checked into a couple of small bungalows for about $12 a night. A short walk away was a small lake and the center of town. Before dinner, we took a quick hike up to the top of the small mountain overlooking the town and the seat of a temple (Wat Pharathat Doi Kong Mu). The stairs and steep walk up soon had me sweating gloriously; an exertion like that was perfect after sitting in the plane and long overdue (Thailand hadn't provided me with many hiking opportunities). Some hot Burmese food for dinner was equally appreciated before hitting the sack.

(the walk up to Wat Pharathat Doi Kong Mu)
(another view of the town)
(Wat Pharathat Doi Kong Mu)

The next morning, Peter and I wasted no time. We picked up a couple of bikes, and he gave me a tour of the town - the morning market, where he used to live, a reservoir/dam on the outskirts of town, and, of course some choice coffee, which I would become very familiar with by the end of the trip. We then left Mae Hong Son and biked up to Ban Rak Thai, a Chinese village way up in the mountains and about a stone's throw from the border with Burma. The ride was gorgeous. Despite the many, steep twists and turns, the roads were largely empty and smooth - ideal conditions for someone like myself who is developing his comfort on a motorbike. Along the way we stopped at Pha Seau Waterfall for a breather.

(the dam near Mae Hong Son town)
(Pha Seau Waterfall area)

The Chinese village was marvelous. We lazed about in a tea shop, ambled around the reservoir, and lounged at a restaurant for a light lunch, soaking in the sights and remoteness before making our way back to Mae Hong Son for dinner. On the way back, we stopped at a roadside coffee shop in the middle of freaking nowhere for a relaxed cup of joe, which was freaking amazing. The owner spoke with us for a while and explained how coffee grows all over the mountainside - indeed, we could easily see the coffee bushes growing all around his shop and up and down the slopes. I made sure to buy some of his self-grown, sun-dried, home-roasted beans. That's one souvenir I won't be sharing when I get back home.

(reservoir at Ban Rak Thai)
(the tea shop at Ban Rak Thai)
(Ban Rak Thai was originally a checkpoint along the trade route for jade coming from Burma) 
(Ban Ruam Thai - another stopover on the way back to Mae Hong San)
(about 15km off the road, Ban Ruam Thai is also worth a look - many Thais use it as a camping ground)

The next day, we took it easy, which turned out to be a good idea, as the weather cycled between blistering sunshine and rain. I spent most of the day reading (The Spider's House by Paul Bowles, an expat living in Fez) on the porch of my bungalow, taking breaks only for coffee and meals. Vacation time at its best.

Peter and I got up at the crack of dawn the next day, for we were taking another extended ride out of town and into the mountains, this time to Pang Mapha, northeast of Mae Hong Son and most of the way to another town called Pai. We decided to forgo breakfast and head out right away. The cool morning air whipping the face and hands was a delicious change from the heat of the previous days. The weather was simply perfect: overcast and sprinkling (sometimes pouring) all day. We arrived with good speed and eagerly sought out a roadside coffee shop in Pang Mapha as we watched village kids making their way to school. We then got back on the bikes, as Pang Mapha was not actually our destination that day - the location of our interest was a place called Lod Cave, some 15km north of the town.

(approaching Lod Cave)
(entering Lod Cave via bamboo skiff)

Lod Cave is a series of limestone caverns, connected by an underground stream. After parking our bikes, we hired our guide, an elderly woman who knew enough memorized English to say what various karst formations resembled. She led us through the breathtaking caverns and on and off the bamboo skiff that bobbed its way along the subterranean stream. The caves were enormous and extensive with sinkholes, serpentine tunnels, countless twists and branches, many of which we passed by wondering what lay down them. At every interesting formation, our guide would stop and tell us what she thought it reminded her of, mostly animals.

(cave pictures never turn out that well, so I'll leave it here)

By far the most incredible portion of this tour came at the end, as we rode the skiff along the longest stretch of the stream straight toward the cave entrance on the other side of the mountain. While gliding along the silent stream in near utter-darkness, a distant humming sound reached our ears. As the mouth of the cave slowly came into view, the hum gradually developed into the recognizable chorus of countless bats, which eventually became a deafening frenzy of screeching. The light from the cave entrance grew brighter and our eyes became aware of a terrifying cyclone of what certainly must have been thousands of bats and swallows (yup, birds, too). The bats perched on the cave roof breezed over the tops of our heads and seamlessly joined their place in the fray. Bats comprised the top of the cyclone, and swallows the bottom. The smell and sound were overpowering, but the vision was so incredible, you could not take your eyes off of it. It was truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen - to me, it was more impressive than the Ankor Wat.

(coming out the other side)
(though invisible here, this view is looking directly into the cyclone of bats/birds - be sure to click on the video below)
(heading back on the skiff)

After lunch (an unplanned stopover at a roadside place we were trapped due to a brief downpour), we biked back, taking a stop for the view at the top of one of the mountains and at a BEAUTIFUL coffee shop overlooking the rice paddies that lined the roads throughout much of Mae Hong Son province. My main thought on this return ride was that I would be back - MUST be back - again and with family, because Mae Hong Son is a place you must share, once you've seen it. In my opinion, it is hands-down the most incredible part of Thailand.

(view from the mountain top)
(these are the sights that surround Mae Hong Son town and bracket the roads)
(some friendly roadside dogs - a common encounter in Thailand - they're all bark and no bite)
(just one of the coffee shops in Mae Hong Son)
(this picture encapsulates the whole trip)
Lod Cave was the cherry on top of a marvelous trip-dessert. I was in a daze the rest of the day and the next (our last day in Mae Hong Son was another rest, rain, read, and recover day). Sheer bliss.

Some maps of the trip:
(points of interest for day 1)
(Mae Hong Son town)
(view of Mae Hong Son province and routes for Ban Rak Thai and Lod Cave)