The Road Trip Part One

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We’ve just finished a most wonderful 10 day road trip through northern Thailand. The first stage was the so-called Mae Hong Son loop, then we went up through the Golden Triangle. We did 1300 kilometres in a rented diesel pick up, with my amazing pilot negotiating over 3000 hairpin bends using a gear shift with his left hand. (This number of bends is not an exaggeration, someone, probably on a motorbike, has counted part of the loop, so our estimate is probably low.) It was really nice to be out of the city and into real countryside, staying in small towns, and using the truck for day trips out to remote villages. We loved it! Very simple to do and I would highly recommend it to those thinking of going to Thailand — but rent the car for 14 days not 10, we wished we had.

I am dividing this blog into two halves as it is not possible for me to curtail my customary verbosity with so much to describe.

The most challenging part of any road trip with a rental vehicle in a foreign land is leaving the city you rented it in and finding the open road. This time we succeeded amazingly well (no screaming matches between driver and navigator), with me reminding D at every turn “left, left!” we negotiated the one way streets and multiple bridge crossings of Chiang Mai and headed out towards the so-called Mae Hong Son Loop to the west and then north towards the Burmese border.

The road into Doi Inthanon National Park began to wind and wind, and that was pretty much the story of the whole trip. Hairpin bend after hairpin bend, but thankfully very sane traffic and by and large good paved surfaces though narrow. First stop was at Mae Sariang where we found a lovely all teak guesthouse built in the old style hanging over a river. Very picturesque, and though our room at the very top of the house, up gorgeous open teak stairways was very hot when we arrived, the night became downright cold and by morning we broke out our jackets to eat breakfast on the open deck. The staff were all in padded coats and toques, but the mist burned off quickly and then it was hot again.

The people in this area are Shan Karen, like their counterparts just across the border in Burma, some native Thais, some refugees. Small and broad faced, we remembered them from Burma. The next day we took a small road out to the Burmese border, which is delineated by the Saleen River, to visit a tiny trading settlement called Mae Son Laab on the river’s edge. Part of the adventure was surviving the road, and marvelling at the incredible landslides that had brought parts of it tumbling into the river below. We began to realize that the landslides were numbered when we were at #4, we got as far as #8 before we reached the precipitous turn off down into the little village. At places the road had been replaced for 4 or 500 metres, with proper cement drainage ditches below the slope and all kinds of interesting stabilization techniques which Jeremy would have found fascinating, including rice plantings to hold the dirt. The soil is that sticky red stuff which is horrible to drive in when wet, and though it was dry for us, the craters that had been formed by run off and stuck vehicles were an amazing test of my pilot’s skill. Just when we were about to give up, we would reach another small patch of new road and gain hope, only to have those hopes dashed 1/2 a kilometre along. Quite fun in the end, but rather bone jarring.

All along the road’s edge we began to see flimsy stilted hill tribe homes hanging over the precipitate drop below. We remembered this choice of building lots from Laos — I suppose no one else wants this strip of road’s edge, and road access is certainly easy, everyone basically eats and lives on the road, but the dust is terrible. Clearly the awful slides whose evidence we were driving through must have washed all these poor people’s dwellings right out of existence. Women kept emerging from the jungle laden with huge baskets carried in hill tribe fashion by woven straps around their foreheads. At first we couldn’t figure out what they had been gathering, but later realized it was the dinner plate sized leaves from a variety of teak tree, that litter these parts and are used to make roofing. This was new to us, we watched a woman attach these very thick and leathery leaves together into panels using the same techniques we have seen with all manner of palm and bamboo materials in other countries, and put them in overlapping strips on the roof. In the next town we slept in a hut roofed like this and the manager of the guesthouse told us they last 7 years. Clearly unsuitable for composting!

The village was a tiny affair, totally Burmese Shan heritage I would say, and all trading in Thai goods, I suppose with Burmese traders who came across the river. Was surprised at the lack of police interest, as our bus was stopped on the way to the Death Railway from Kanchanaburi and police got on and took two Burmese young people off and into the check post and we left them behind. Seemed so sad. We walked and looked around, all were friendly but completely uninterested in selling us anything — I guess they knew nothing on offer was for us.

On next to Mae Hong Son, a much more bustling town, farther north. We had an entertaining guesthouse there — we drove up a rutted, narrow path, motivated only by the signage or we would have been convinced we had missed the road. As I got out of the truck to check, a cadaverous, dissipated looking figure ducked out of a very dark hut which turned out to be reception. “Mind your head,” he said, briefly removing the cigarette from his lips, an understatement as we basically crouched to get into the dim, dirt floored interior. This turned out to be Peter, retired physician previously working for WHO, and a TB specialist — he was minding the “huts” for a friend who was off on holiday. Our hut was interesting, it was called “Tree Tops” and with good reason as we were at tree top level, the slope of the land being that precipitate, and was thatched with the large leaves I have just described. The whole establishment was the brain child of a Thai guy and his German wife, the Thai had died and she rarely returned from Germany – hence the generally down at heels atmosphere. The food however was terrific, all the guests were served a many course meal in the dirt floored reception/kitchen at a long picnic table, excellent food and fun to meet other guests and good conversation. It was hard to pin Peter down for long, he had a gnat-like attention span, but he had interesting stories about working in that area originally with the Karen refugees from Burma.

We took a drive next morning out to the border again to Mae Aw, a village of descendants of the Kuomintang army from China when they retreated from Mao Tse Tung in 1949 and took refuge in Burma and later Thailand. News to me, but when Chiang Kai Shek took half the Kuomintang army to Taiwan, another large contingent under General Li went to Burma and then filtered into Thailand. They planned a pincer movement to achieve victory, but it never happened. A cute little red lanterned Chinese town with a zillion tea shops. The road out was really scenic and well paved though one car width at times. We are extremely impressed with the state of Thai highways here in the north, but I suppose much of it is strategic, enabling the army to reach the borders quickly. It has been fun having the truck for these more out of the way spots as we would find it hard to do this route by bus and would be stranded in these out of town guesthouses when we did and village life is always so interesting.

Next day we headed to Soppong, more amazing curves but also extremely scenic. They sold tee shirts in Mae Hong Son that said – “I did the 1085 curves” which I think was just between Mae Hong Son and Pai, a tiny portion of the road we did. A lot of people rent motor bikes here to do it, but having witnessed the walking wounded foreigners in Chiang Mai — every second tourist seemed to be bandaged, or on crutches, or with arms in slings, and of course we didn’t see all the head injuries in the hospital — we think anyone who does that who isn’t an experienced rider with the proper gear is crazy. This is not a road for beginners.

Soppong has many famous caves, including an accessible one called Tham Lot, so we chose a place called Cave Lodge right next to it. This was another interesting guesthouse experience. Run in deceptively laid back, but actually very efficient style by an elderly Aussie who has been there 30 years and a younger sidekick, ably assisted by a whole bevy of beautiful half Thai young women with perfect Australian accented English, they cater to the whole run of travellers. Our tiny perfect bungalow cost $20, “our best room” as the cute little miss who took us to it proclaimed, or you could stay in their dorm for about $6, with a whole range of bungalows in between. They had a huge array of caving adventures, treks of days and weeks into villages, kayaking through caves, etc etc. We felt quite the pikers just taking a bamboo raft through the big cave, assisted by a wee Shan lady armed with a gigantic Coleman lantern. When the Australian first arrived, they explored the cave with flaming torches. When the area became more accessible to tourists, he encouraged the villagers to take on the guiding as a business and they were really well organized. Our lady took us up ladders into other caverns and pointed out all the funny animal and food shapes a fertile imagination could conjure. She also stressed the “no touch” which is good because many of the formations were damaged before they took it on. For those who know how claustrophobic I am, it was my kind of cave, no crouching and good light from the Coleman, though the railings of the ladders were disgustingly thick with bat guano. I saw one lady with the foresight to wear rubber gloves. At sunset, 300,000 swifts enter the cave mouth to spend the night, replacing an equal number of bats who stream out. We sat at the cave mouth watching the swifts come in, but it was too dark to see the bats go out. Quite the sight, not for the bird phobic! We ate dinner that night with 3 elderly spelunkers who have literally been in caves in every country, one spent his life filming caving expeditions but has now moved to Thailand because he can’t afford to live out his old age in England. Seemed quite happy with a 30 year younger Thai wife though. She doesn’t join in the spelunking.

Leaving the madcap summer camp for adults atmosphere there — as we ate breakfast the younger Australian was charging around the large open air deck where everyone was eating, shouting, “Kayakers, where are the kayakers, the truck is waiting, where is he? Go wake him up, 3 minutes to lift off,” and that was only one of the day’s trips… One that sounded really fun was designated as only for the fit, with a warning that part of the journey involved wading neck deep in water with only air space for your head. No mention of a height requirement…

We would have loved another day there, so regretted not having the time, but that was the end of the loop and we headed in the direction of Chiang Mai to turn north for the Golden Triangle. To be continued. Sent from my iPad

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