Chiang Mai and the Mae Hong Son Loop

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January 19th 2010
Published: January 26th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Very Rough Estimate of Route!

Google maps didn't show many of the towns or roads for some reason, but this shows the vague route we took.

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Flower market
Arriving in Chiang Mai, on the 11th, we were instantly hit by how much more developed and tourist-savvy Thailand is. Got a taxi on a fixed fare straight in to the main tourist area and hit the streets to hunt out a room. We'd spoken to some people in Laos who seemed to think Thailand was cheaper than Laos, but we're definitely not finding that. Finally got a room for a good price, although the room reflected that! We spent the rest of that day eating in veggie restaurants (not all day!), wandering around town and figuring out where to go from here. Chiang Mai was a lot more grimy and tourist orientated (at least in the center) than I'd expected - lots of restaurants and fairly seedy bars, but also a good buzz as we wandered around town. After talking ourselves in circles about what to do next, particularly whether to hire a motorbike to do the Mae Hong Son Loop, or to do it by bus, we suddenly figured why not by car? So the next morning we first got up early and found a nicer, cheaper hotel a bit further north in the old town - this hotel
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Strawberries in the flower market
also had the advantage of having some insane cats in residence who'd seat themselves in bizarre positions, like attached to the mosquito screen on windows, and then freeze when you got close - almost whistling nonchalantly to themselves. We then went off and sorted a hire car for the following day, going with one of the more established firms recommended in Lonely Planet (Journey) as we figured it was not worth risking either our safety to a dodgy car, but mainly to hopefully avoid dodgy insurance should something go wrong! The rest of the day we wandered a bit further afield, seeing a few Buddhist temples in all there shiny glory (they really are very glitzy! Gold, flowers, carvings everywhere); one Chinese temple where the guardian proceeded to proudly and very, very painstakingly walk us through a twenty page sheet of notes printed from wikipedia explaining the various gods and deities in intricate detail, calling us back to yet another statue whenever we thought we must be done; the flower market with bright bunches of white, purple and pink orchids and golden marigolds (amongst other flowers), some sitting on ice to keep fresh, others wrapped in newspaper, and most of
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Wat Chiang Man
the stallholders threading blooms in long chains as offerings you often see draped on Buddha images or elsewhere on temples; and finally the night market, stall after stall of tourist tat, watches, electronics, clothes, lamps etc. stretching as far as the eye can see down streets by the river.

The next day our trusty steed was delivered to our hotel at 9am, a magnificent Honda Jazz...oh yes, the Jazz! We is the kings (and queens) of the road for sure! And so we saddled up and headed off in to the rising sun on the Mae Hon Son Loop (as this particular route has become known) towards our first proposed destination, Pai. First stop on route was the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, once we've got past the slightly nerve-wracking suburbs and dual carriageway, prepared for vehicles coming at us from any angle (its always considered the duty of the car to be aware of whats in front, meaning that a car can pull on to the road in front of you at any time and you'd be expected to cope with this...more worrying when its a scooter...although would probably do more harm to the Jazz to be honest). The
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Wierdos in our guesthouse!
gardens are mostly very well tended terraces covering a steep hillside. A series of glasshouses are nestled at the top in a dip. We've been spoilt by Kew but still a few of them, particularly the carnivorous plant and cacti collections, were quite cool. We tried to do a bit of a wander but the Gardens are very much built for cars (or tour buses) in mind. Still, we got in a short walk through a little valley with a stream running through it which was pretty, but then failed to find a waterfall in the car, accidentally popping out on to the main road again. We then tried to go to another waterfall (Nam Tok Mae Sa) but the entrance fee for tourists was way to high to justify a wee peek, may have been worth it if we were going to spend the whole day in the National Park. This was our first experience of the milking of tourists - costs are way higher, sometimes prohibitively so, than for Thai people - I see the rationale but it may be doing more harm than good, reducing the numbers of tourists visiting (although maybe that's also intended).

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View from the dirt road
on we trot, the road getting more windy and climbing further, until we start to get a bit confused by our rubbish map and the less than consistent (to non-existent) roadside signs. But on we go, given encouragement by those we ask in various villages along the way. Soon a sign in Thai indicates something will happen in 20m, the road ends we joke as the road has become decidedly minor. 20m on...and the road least the tarmac does and we follow a dirt track, the Jazz feelin' the vibe and bee-boppin' and scattin' over some decidedly rough patches, rocks lurking or deep trenches worn during the rainy season. Still, when we do stop the occasional (and much better equipped) 4x4, or stop in the occasional village, the people (having first stopped wondering what the hell this wheel barrow car is doing here) confirm that this is the road to Pai. At one shop in a village, having first got over the embarrassment of being humped by the dog, Rach once again confirms we are on the road to Pai, and we finally see where we are on the map - the road is marked, a very faint blue

Cycle of death (and rudeness!)
squiggle. Awesome! It would seem that people were right when they waved us on, but that perhaps the first person we asked would have, if there English allowed it, been better to say 'indeed you two charming people, this is a road to Pai, but really given the caliber of your vehicle (magnificent in its jazziness though it is), you should probably take that turning back there which will not dwindle to a rough dirt track, and will deliver you to Pai in half the time.'

But to be honest, that would have been dull! The dirt track took us (for three hours) through some absolutely stunning scenery, up and up (and up further!) in to the hills through beautiful unspoiled forest. When the canopy opened there was always a distant, clear view of fold after fold of bright, lush forest without a hint of human habitation (hence a few of our worried moments....please no punctures), and with bird song all around. And so when the Jazz burst out of the jungle back on to the tarmac at Wat Chan (I'm sure I heard a burst of triumphant sax from under the bonnet) with only one teeth-jarring scrape of
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Entrance to the caves
her belly, it was well worth it! The still beautiful road took us round more and more loops and twists through forests and fields, and finally in to Pai where we found a lovely wee bungalow a 10min walk out of town.

Pai itself is known as a bit of a hippy town and also a major destination for Thai tourists getting out of the heat of the lowlands. It certainly lived up to this, with plenty of guesthouses, including the more 'flowery' ones, and loads of restaurants. Indeed we had the best pizzas and also some of the best chips we've had since leaving...oh yes, immersed in local culture, its dripping off us! But seriously, sometimes we need to get away from rice and curries/fried food. There was also a massive lively market for tourists which was good fun, and lots of live (and sometimes entertaining for the wrong reasons and from a safe distance) music - we found one great little Thai ska/reggae bar with great cocktails and Jenga to while away an hour or so. The place we were staying (Sun Hut) had a reputation as a bit of a hippy retreat. Some people there had
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Through the cave
booked in for a few weeks (for spiritual healing, yoga etc.) only to find the place had changed hands (sadly the previous owners had to sell up due to health problems) - the veggie restaurant had closed (just open for breakfast and lunch), and there was not a yoga mat in sight. They had found a nearby place to eat, but we declined their kind offer of diner there where you could 'discuss openly the problems in Europe and be more spiritual' - I'm sure it would have been great (particularly the veggie food for Rach), but we had pizzas to eat in town! Plus the bungalow at Sun Hut was still on the better side of our quality scale, and good value (if anyone does stay there, do not eat there though. I imagine the new owners will run in to the ground, living of its previous good get it while its still good!).

On our one full day in Pai we hired bikes, and decided to go for a tortuous 7 mile cycle which was uphill the whole way (we didn't know that) to a waterfall...the bikes were gearless, a foolish choice in hindsight! One old
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Temple on the lake
woman took pity on us as we crawled our way past in a sea of sweat, to offer us some weed, and then when we declined, opium. Bless her, sweet little love! So we got to the waterfall (Nam Tok Mo Paeng), a series of sloping cascades, realised we had forgotten our swimming gear (which may be considered even more stupid than the gearless bikes) but then got to free-wheel the whole way back in to town which was great fun!

So after two nights at Pai, we hit the road again, an actual road, a ridiculously windy (as in winding, not breezy!) actual road towards Mae Hong Son. On the way we stopped at Tham Lot, a huge series of limestone caves carved out by various underground waterways. A long bamboo raft took us in along the river which still flows under the hill in a very high tunnel. On the way we stopped at various caves - Column Cave which has one particularly massive column (formed by stalactites and stalagmites joining and then gradually enlarging with calcium deposits over what must have been thousands of years); Doll Cave which in one part has a series of thousands of small stalagmites which look like, yep, dolls; and Coffin Cave which has the remains of wooden (teak) coffins between 1-2000 yrs old. There are loads of these coffin caves in the area. The caves were beautiful, and the river is filled with carp which we fed (probably very ecologically insensitive!), and in same areas with an almost overpowering stench of swift shit, nice! From here we took carried on, and took a turning up another beautiful windy road, along rice fields, to Pha Sua Waterfall and then the Royal Summer Palace. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon at the palace, drove under a half lowered barrier and around a deserted botanic gardens. We started to feel a bit uneasy that maybe we shouldn't be here, and so headed off before we got arrested!

Finally, we pulled in to Mae Hong Son which proved to be a lovely little town, very calm and quiet and centered on a lake and Buddhist temple. The town was fairly popular with tourists (Thai and western) but was much more low key than Pai, with a scattering of nice restaurants and guesthouses and a small night market of colourful local textiles and
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Trekking through flowers of dead bamboo
where people were sending up lighted lanterns - bright red paper lanterns, about 1m high, with a small fire at the base, filling the lanterns with hot air which then float off. Very pretty and I think the intention being that they carry up your good thoughts or wishes. That night we even found a pub quiz! We got very excited, joined in 10 minutes late but caught up and then came second, Rach in top form and only pipped to the post by a bunch of bikers who absolutely cleaned up on the rock music round!

In the morning we were having breakkie (a wee bit sore headed), waiting to be picked up for a one day trek, when an elderly gent wandered up with a basket of weird looking pastes and herbs. He tried to sell us one, talking away in Thai, took another look at me and then pulled out a paste marked 'male' and saying 'big tower, big tower, boom boom.' Feeling slightly aggrieved, I declined and then luckily the waiters shuffled him on. We then headed off for a trek, hoping to restore some of my masculinity!

We drove for about 45 mins,
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Lisu village - New Year drinks!
then stopped off in a small village of the Red Karren tribe. A lot of the people in these areas are Burmese refugees and despite, in some cases, having been in Thailand for years have very few rights and can find it hard to get official employment. From there we started the trek, taking a very sweaty trail up the hills through rice fields and jungle. We walked through large areas where the bamboo had flowered, seeded and died, something that apparently happens on a 40 year rotation, the old bamboo making way for the new seedlings to grow up. Our guide explained how they villages have fixed fields down on the valley floor where the soils are richer, and then up in the hillsides have forest plots which are cleared, burnt and sown with rice on a five year cycle. Seriously hard work for one year of production in five, all clearance of regrowth done by hand, all materials and produce carried up and down by hand. In theory each of these plots is registered with the local government to stop unregulated clearance of the forest.

After a while, having passed through one of the forest rice plots
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Spider on the trek
being cleared of the five year regrowth, we got to a village of the Lisu people. This village had previously been much bigger, but now only two houses are inhabited as the surrounding area was just not suitable for production. It was the Thai new year and so we were offered rice wine and a hunk of pure pork fat - I've got to admit it was absolutely foul but I think it was a mater of manners to accept (obviously Rach was let off the pork fat) - I'm not sure if it is the act of giving food to guests, guests joining in or a combination of both which will help assure a good year to come. We had a wander around what remained of the village, chickens and pigs all over the shop, and then had lunch in one of the houses with the family watching on. A few other locals were around who turned out to be employed to check that no unregulated felling is going on - I assume this is prone to massive abuse! We were just heading off when a man invited us in to his, the only other inhabited, house. Again, partly
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Karen tribeswoman
to help welcome in the New Year with more rice wine, a rubbery cake of pounded rice and a dark brown, crunchy slab of palm sugar. It was very sad, he was obviously really lonely, just him living in his house, surrounded by stores of rice and maize, with a raised wooden platform as a bed and a small fire constantly going in the center (with a blackened kettle) to smoke out mosquitoes and bugs which might be after his crops. Not sure what happened to his wife, but he had a son living in town who he used to go and see, but now he couldn't as he had bought a pig which needed looking after (now with nine piglets). The people here practice animism and he showed us the bones of a chicken which he'd recently slaughtered for New Year - he read the bones for us and they told him it was going to be an OK year, not good, not bad, just another year. An amazing life compared to everything we are surrounded by - he had his livestock, his fields and his house, every year the same routine. After half an hour we left with
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Karen tribeswoman
our guide, stopping to see the rice mill which was powered by the stream in the wet season - very simple but very effective with a massive trunk on a pivot, a scoop at one end filling with water and then emptying, sending a large pestle at the other end crashing down in to a large wooden mortar.

We then passed down a steep path, the surface alternating between slippery dust, ball-bearing like stones, and large sled-like leaves which made for an interesting journey to the valley floor. At the bottom we followed a beautiful rocky stream bed through some real un- (or at least little) touched jungle surrounded by massive trees, vines, ferns and palms, with loads of bird song but few to be seen. We lost and then (happily!) re-found our guide (he didn't think to pause when he got to a junction!), and finally popped out in to the clearing, real sweaty, to be picked up by the car and taken back in to town.

The next morning we drove the short distance to the Burmese refugee village of Ban Huai Shua Thao. This was a bit of a weird one - having no rights the refugee village largely lives off charity support and tourist money. They sell goods in a market, but the real attraction is for tourists to come and see (and photograph) the long-necked women who depress their collar bones with bronze rings around their necks, making their necks look elongated. It was interesting, and we paid our entrance fee and bought a few things which you presume will help the village, but it was a bit strange, definite voyeurism.

From there we passed on to the village of Mae Sariang which gets a good talking-up in the guidebooks. We didn't get a great vibe though - partly as we arrived on a Sunday so it was pretty closed up, partly as the treks were very expensive (they say due to the low numbers of visitors, but maybe they should drop their prices to bring people in?) but largely because, having quickly booked a room (VIP room no less, but still very cheap!) we had lunch, went back to our room and only then noticed that it stunk of piss. They had dogs and cats so we're hoping it was at least animal piss!

Thoroughly put off, we changed our plans (great having a car) and headed off to spend a of night near the Doi Inthanon National Park with Thailands highest mountain at 2565m (ooooh!!). We'd heard of guesthouses in the nearby town of Mae Sariang, and so off we drove, luckily finding the guesthouses on the far side of town nearest the mountain, and got ourselves a good value bungalow. We then headed up to the peak, along another incredibly winding road, trying to keep out of the way of Thai drivers who will happily use either side of the road. The road went up through agriculture, dry oak woodlands, and then up to the top forest kept damp by the mists and clouds, trees covered and dripping on moss. We had a quick peek at the view from the top and went on the Ang Ka trail, a short boardwalk through wet woodland and along a stream. Very beautiful. But then the next day we came back and took the Kew Mae Pan trail. This did not start well when we were told we had to pay for a guide, despite the path being completely obvious - having already paid a chunky National Park fee we were a bit pissed off. But the walk was stunning and our guide, despite having no English, was good, trying to point out birds where possible, interesting plants and trees, claw marks of bears on trees etc and even offering us his lunch. The path first passed through the moss drenched forest, including some stunning Lord of the Rings moments when we were enveloped by cloud, the suns rays piercing the clouds and canopy. Then we passed along the top of cliff-side grasslands and scrub, home to the rare goral (a species of goat antelope). But the cloud was racing up at us from the mountainside below, leaving only occasional, ghostly views of stunted and gnarled, red flowered rhododendrons. From here we ducked back in to the jungle and back to the car park. For the whole of the two hours we were surrounded by birds, rustling and singing but rarely got to have a good look at them.

From here we went on to one last waterfall, Wachirathan, where I got shat on by a bird. It was also very nice!

And then back to Chiang Mai for one more night.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


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Doi Inthanon National Park

The view was superb!

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