Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 5: Doi Inthanon

View from the top of Doi Inthanon
We left Khun Yuam somewhat early Thursday morning to start the drive to Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand and a huge national park. Eric had read really great things about Doi Inthanon and we planned on staying 2 or 3 nights before returning the motorbike in Chiang Mai. Although the drive was just as beautiful as all the other days, the novelty of traveling by motorbike was wearing off for me. It was our third day in a row of driving (we should’ve stayed two nights in Mae Hong Song) and my butt was definitely feeling it.

The road going into the park was exceptionally windy and steep and we spent a lot of time in first gear puttering up the mountain. We saw a sign for a campsite and turned off the main road into the national park to find an amazing, yet empty, campsite. It was a bit too empty and we found only one man working at the information building to have little to no information. We didn’t bring our tent on this trip and learned that you could only rent them at headquarters, which was about 30 km away.
Freezing and bummed about the expensive hike
Before going to headquarters, we drove to the top of the mountain (this is Thailand so of course there is a 

road that goes to the top and not a hiking trail). It was actually freezing at the top so we didn’t spend much time up there. We tried to do a hike that Eric had read about that was near the top and supposedly had great views. Unfortunately it cost 200 baht each to do this hike (paying to do a hike that “requires” a guide-no thank you). This should have been an early sign to us about the type of operation this national park was running. When we finally made it to headquarters, we learned that renting a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads cost the same as staying in a nice guesthouse, but we paid up since our only other option was a lot more time on the motor bike to get to the nearest town. We then drove over to the campsite to see enough camouflage tents set up to house an army, all of which were empty, so we took our pick. This just made what would have been a kind of disappointing experience a hilarious one that was so stereotypically Thai.

Thing started looking up when we were able to share our silly experience with another random American at the campsite who had just gotten out of a 2 week meditation retreat. The three of us took advantage of the evening by walking to 2 of the few free attractions at the park- a waterfall and a research center/garden. The waterfall was a small hike from the research center, which was more like an immaculately groomed arboretum. We strolled through the gardens and thoroughly enjoyed our evening activity before dinner.

Another strange thing about the park was that there were a few different villages in the area that became the park, but the villagers weren’t kicked out or anything so our campsite was across the street from a village with food stalls, a school, and small grocery store. The people were very friendly, though, and it was convenient having good cheap food so accessible.


So obviously we decided against staying in Doi Inthanon more than one night and parted ways with our new friend Friday morning. She planned on hitch hiking her way to the top of the mountain and we planned on checking out some more waterfalls and a cave. We were hoping for some hikes, but the waterfalls were basically on the side of the main road (but still beautiful) and we never ended up finding the cave. The side of the park that we exited from is very close to a main highway, which was quite a change after over a week of windy country roads and we made our way into the bustling city of Chiang Mai.

It really was an amazing trip and different from anything I have ever done, especially in Thailand. If I were to do it again, I would stay two nights in Mae Hong Song and then go further south to Mae Sariang bypassing Khun Yuam and Doi Inthanon. I would highly recommend Chiang Dao and Pai to anyone traveling in the north of Thailand and Mae Hong Song if you have more time or are on the western border. Traveling by motorbike in those regions allowed me to see what I envisioned when I thought of Thailand before moving here. That is, rural villages, beautiful unscathed mountains (besides the burning), and truly friendly people. Definitely a trip I will remember for the rest of my life!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 4: Khun Yuam (Day 8)

We had a relatively short drive from Mae Hong Song to Khun Yuam (60 km) up and down hills on windy, beautiful roads. We stopped for lunch at the top of one of these roads where this older shirtless man with an adorable/yucky little pot belly served us some rice with fried eggs. His english was actually very impressive for living in almost the middle of no where and he talked to us about where we were headed, villages to stop in, the death of Hugo Chavez, and other socialist ramblings. He was a funny old guy who could have talked our ears off all afternoon if we had let him, but, alas, we had a destination in mind and said our goodbyes promising to return in November.

Shortly after lunch we realized that we should have filled up our little gas tank in Mae Hong Song so our drive became a game of how efficient we could be with tucking and shifting into neutral (2 people and a 40 pound backpack on a comically small motor bike trying to tuck down windy roads was probably a hilarious sight to behold). We were very surprised when we made it to the gas station in Khun Yuam and went on to find a place to stay for the night.

Khun Yuam didn't have much to it, but we found a guesthouse appropriately called The Farang Guesthouse (Farang=white foreigner), which was actually pretty nice and we were able to talk down the price by 150 baht (probably because we were the only people staying there). After resting in the heat of the day, we left the guesthouse to check out the town and find food, but there really wasn't anything to see (and not many places to eat for an early dinner). We did surprise some people and chickens walking through their neighborhoods (because we are white and scary and novel).

Khun Yuam was really just a place to stay for the night and not a necessary stop along the drive, but still a nice small town. (I just realized I didn't take any pictures between Mae Hong Song and Khun Yuam or in Khun Yuam, but there were some neat little villages we passed by while we were focused on gas conservation)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 3: Mae Hong Song (Day 7)

We left Pai around 9:30 am Tuesday morning to start our next long drive to Mae Hong Song. We climbed the first of many windy hills and made our way into a cloud that fortunately never unleashed on us. We got to the top of the small mountain and put on more layers, but within five minutes of driving all layered up, we came out of the clouds and descended into a warm and gorgeous little oasis valley. This was a sign of what the rest of our drive would be like and we stopped on the side of the road often to try to capture the scenery on camera. We were so happy for the nights of rain in Pai that completely eliminated the smokey skies and we had nothing but blue skies and pillowy clouds all day.

We planned on going to the Tam Yod cave in Soppong, but they charged 500 baht for the two of us (the equivalent to two extra days in a bungalow) so we passed and continued to enjoy the drive. It is supposed to be a really awesome cave with a rive going through it, so if you ever had the chance to see it and are not traveling on a Thai salary, I would probably do it. We did stop at a much smaller cave on the side of the road (for 20 baht each), which used to house coffins from the ancient Burmese. The tombs that were discovered were over 3,000 years old!

We hadn't heard great things about Mae Hong Song and expected a larger town (since it is the capital city of the Mae Hong Song province) without much going for it in a less beautiful setting than Pai. We were happy to discover that it was a relatively small city (much smaller than Suphanburi), with the perfect amount of tourism and it was in a beautiful setting! The cheap guesthouses are situated around a small manmade lake and we found a great little place for 300 baht (which was originally priced 500 baht). Supposedly it is a great base for doing treks, which I can believe with how beautiful the surrounding area is and it looked way less commercialized and ridiculous than the trekking companies in Chiang Mai.

Because of the long drive and all the stops for taking pictures, we didn't get to Mae Hong Song until 4 or 5, but had enough time to stroll around the little lake, get some Vietnamese noodle soup for a late lunch, and relaxed and read a bit before dark. We went out a little later for dinner and enjoyed the small market on the lake where vendors sold Burmese style clothing, art, and other little things. I bought a very beautifully woven scarf from a really cute and friendly woman that is part of the Karen Hill Tribe (famous for their long neck women) and regret not buying more from her.

I woke up Wednesday morning for a beautiful long run and then we walked up to a temple on the hill to get a great view of the town. We easily could have stayed a few days since the town had such a nice atmosphere, but we decided to continue on our road trip and were on our way by noon.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 2: Pai (Day 3-6)

We got an early start for our long ride to Pai on day 3, which we soon realized was too early for our cold selves (I never thought I would actually need warm clothes in Thailand so I did not pack accordingly). We only made it to the main part of Chiang Dao before stopping for breakfast and coffee. This unplanned early stop turned out to be awesome and hilarious. As I was in the bathroom I heard some drumming and rushed out to see the start of a parade, which it looked like almost every member of the small town was in. With this ridiculous sendoff we started our drive to Pai. 

The drive from Chiang Dao to Pai became more and more enjoyable as the weather started to warm up a bit and we started gaining elevation. We were really enjoying ourselves and time was flying by when we had an unfortunate turn of events. While we were driving a flying bug got stuck in Eric's helmet and quickly took refuge deep inside his ear, which caused a lot of panic on both our parts. It sounds silly, but it looked torturous (and Eric would confirm that it was). We continued to drive after a long stop on the side of the road hoping the bug would find its way out (but didn't) and we made slow progress with some stops when the trapped bug struggled too much for Eric to focus on driving. After about an hour of this (and the thing was still alive!), we stopped at a roadside stand to get a straw and get that guy out. With a lot of air on my part, patience on Eric's part, and suggestions of using water from a nice Thai couple, we at least killed the bug (and it is still unknown if any of it came out at the time since Eric went to the doctor in Chiang Mai where the doctor took out lots of bug parts). It was enough for Eric to feel much better and we were on our way again.

Because of this little episode, we got to Pai later than expected and felt quite ready for a nap when we checked into a guesthouse. I didn't know a lot about Pai before our trip, but had heard it was a hippy tourist valley town. I prepared myself for the deadbeat hippy traveler types and kept my expectations relatively low. (Sidenote: My definition of deadbeat hippy traveler types are those that you see in many parts of the world who have dirty dreadlocks, wear the same loose and somewhat trendy hippy clothes--which I do love at times-- who don't really do anything in the countries they visit like working or volunteering and don't attempt to learn about our be a part of the cultures they are visitors to). However, I was very pleasantly surprised by Pai! There are definitely a lot of tourists and most of the town caters to them, but it was great to see a place in Thailand where they is actually a market for organic food since most of the farming here is anything but organic. Although there were some of the aforementioned types of travelers, it wasn't a homogeneous group of people. Many people are just there for a few nights, many accidently stay for weeks of months, and others relocate to Pai permanently. There is definitely a big night life (which Eric and I didn't take part in since we are like grandparents), but there is no drinking or smoking allowed on the main streets, which I thought was nice. There is a lot of good shopping (very tempting for me) and local artists bring their work out in the evening to sell on the street.

Our days in Pai consisted of leisurely mornings reading in bed, one "activity" per day, eating, more reading and napping. The first night we made the mistake of staying at a guesthouse in the midst of the main street and were awoken in the middle of the night by those taking advantage of the night life and then awoken again early in the morning to hear the effects of said night life. I escaped with a great run out into the country and looked into guesthouses and bungalows further from town. We found some nice bungalows for a great price in what was somewhat of a Swiss community that had a very friendly communal feeling. It was very peaceful and a great place to stay for the following 3 nights.

Our third day in Pai we went on a hike to a waterfall, which was long enough to discourage others, so we only saw a couple other groups the entire 5-6 hours. It was a very beautiful hike with many many stream crossings. After slipping in a few times and getting my feet wet, I gave up trying to cross the rocks and trudged through the rest of the crossings which proved to be much faster and refreshing for my hot feet. We discovered that we went to the north of Thailand at the wrong time of year because from February to April they burn the rice fields and all of the hillsides so the views are very smokey. We got used to it and it was interesting seeing the contrast to the parts that had been burned (or were still burning) on our hike. Luckily, it rained the next couple of nights which got rid of the smoke completely for the rest of our trip and we got some great views of Pai the last day there!

I can definitely see why people stay in Pai longer than they plan and would have stayed longer if we had not been paying to keep our motorbike every day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mae Hong Song Loop Part 1: Chiang Dao (Day 1-2)

Our first break of the trip. We named our bike Lek (small in Thai), but she had a big heart.

Eric and I had a three week break between finishing teaching our students and one week of teaching the science and math teachers at our school and headed out the Sunday after our last day with our students to the north of Thailand. We met my cousin, who was finishing his 6 weeks of traveling throughout southeast Asia, in Chiang Mai. It was great to see family and to hear about some of the countries that Eric and I will be headed to after Thailand, but unfortunately we were quite disappointed by the city of Chiang Mai, which we had heard many great things about. After two days in the city, we were definitely ready to get out of there so we rented a motorbike from Mr. Mechanic in Chiang Mai for 250 baht a day (about $8) plus gas (less than $5 a day) Wednesday morning to start the Mae Hong Song loop. Unfortunately I never asked anyone to take our picture, but imagine Eric (who is about 6'3") driving what is more like a scooter than a motor cycle with me hanging on behind him carrying our big backpack that we shared for the trip.

Once we were 20 minutes outside of the city, the feeling of freedom washed over us. Thailand has a very developed tourist industry, which makes it very difficult to get off of the tourist track. As I have talked about in my posts about weekends when we rented a car, having your own transportation makes a huge difference and riding on the back of a motorbike is an even more enjoyable way to travel. Our first stop was Chiang Dao, which actually isn't part of the Mae Hong Song Loop, but was an excellent addition. It was about 2 hours from Chiang Mai, not including stops, which were relatively frequent since our butts could only handle half an hour to an hour of driving at a time. 10 km outside of Chiang Dao the highway was lined with Som-o stands (Pomelo in english) so we enjoyed one next to the stream before heading into Chiang Dao.

The only bad thing about the area is that it is difficult to find a truly cheap place to stay, but after stopping at 5 or so places, we found a place called Malee's for 350 baht a night. We thought of looking for a cheaper place, but when we saw the mini pool (and playset) we were sold. Plus, we were just down the street from some hiking trails, the Chiang Dao cave, and a nice little village. After a quick swim, we went to the little resort next door that Eric had read had great food. Holy Shamoly. Prices were relatively high, but the menu looked like it was made by a gourmet Californian chef. We order a panini with grilled vegetables and a chicken sandwich with bacon, tomato, and lettuce and both came with side salads. Our jaws dropped when one of the extremely friendly ladies brought our food out and continued our meal in awe. We are going back to Chiang Dao with my mom in a couple weeks and will definitely eat at this place again.

After being wowed by our lunch at Nest, we decided to check out the cave expecting a similar deal to the caves we saw in Sam Roi Yot (aka hike straight up and then explore an awesome cave). However, this was much more of a tourist trap and although it was a crazy cave with many different rooms, it required a guide and was tricky about how much you had to pay. We payed an expected fee outside (40 baht each) and then when we walked in they told us we had to take a guide and it cost 100 baht, but we were also expected to tip her. This was a bit of a bummer, but we learned from this experienced and were much more careful about what we payed for the rest of the trip.

Thursday morning we woke up and went on the 7km hike near Malee's, which involved a lot of straight up and even straighter downhill hiking. As always in Thailand, there were some awesome trees and we soaked in the sound of the forest and barely saw anyone the entire hike. The trail skirted the property of a Wat and near the end we ran into some monks working on the trail with machetes, chain saws, and who were also smoking cigarettes (wish it had been appropriate for me to take a picture and yeah, not sure what the deal is with the smoking since I assume that is not allowed in Buddhism). Further down there were some other guys working on the trail (non monks) who enlisted Eric to chop down some of the bamboo with their machete and he welcomed the exercise while I laughed at the man's enthusiasm every time Eric chopped one down.

After hiking we had some pool time, found some cheap noodles down the road, more pool time, read, and napped. After going for a run through the main part of the village (which was home to some of the friendliest people I have met in Thailand), Eric and I found another cheap, yet amazing, meal of omelettes and went for a ride up the road toward the national park nearby. The road leading to the park was absolutely gorgeous and wound its way along a little stream and was surrounded by jungle mountains with cool air blowing by us all the while being wrapped in the smell of orange blossoms. I thought of how amazingly different I felt compared to the nights in Chiang Mai wondering what I was doing in Thailand. I went to sleep very content for the second night in a row looking forward to our next leg of the trip the following morning.