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November 5th 2006
Published: November 5th 2006
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Mae Hong SonMae Hong SonMae Hong Son

Like a wedding cake reflected in the waters of the lake, Wat Jong Kham is the region's most important Burmese temple. © L. Birch 2006
2nd NOV : Doi Kong, Mae Hong Son

The air at the top of the hill was much cooler than it was down below and the view extended out across the mountains of Myanmar (Burma) to the west. We had hitched a lift up to the mountaintop temple of Wat Doi Kong Mu with a Thai couple, who like us, were visiting to participate in festival celebrations at the temple. The celebrations were part of Loy Kratong, the "Festival of Light", and Thai visitors were sending up paper balloons beneath which hung a small cup with a candle inside. Make a wish or a prayer and send it to the Gods in a hot air balloon, that was the general idea anyway. "Look at the balloons Laurie", said Viv pointing upwards at the little trail of lights disappearing into the sunset sky. "Can we buy one and make a wish...?"

29th OCT : The Border Run and Beyond

Shortly after 9am, we were boarding a songthaew for the 300km journey north to Mae Sariang along the border road. To begin with, the roads were exceptionally good and frequent army checkpoints provided a reassuring presence in this
Mae SariangMae SariangMae Sariang

Almost obscured by trees, the town nestles beside the Yuam River at the foot of the mountains. © L. Birch 2006
'wild west' region. As we left civilisation behind, spectacular mountains soon rose up on all sides, sharply peaked and clothed in jungle. We passed Bargor - a Burmese refugee camp with its profusion of atap (thatch) roofed houses and somewhere around the half-way point, the road narrowed and became a pot-holed nightmare. Wet season rains had caused landslips that almost blocked the road and in someplaces, chunks of the road had disappeared altogether. As the road snaked its way higher into the mountains, villages became fewer and finally non-existant as the jungle closed in; if we were going to be held up anywhere, I thought, this would be the place to do it.

We had been reliably informed that robberies were a thing of the past and generally only occured after dark, which was why the last songthaew left Mae Sot at mid-day, in order to get through before nightfall. I was not convinced but it was not long before a hold up of a different kind forestalled our progress. Careering round a tight bend there was a sudden loud "Bang!" - like a gunshot or an explosion - and the songthaew lurched toward the side of the road
Sign of the timesSign of the timesSign of the times

A sign at Mae Sariang bus station warns that bus times can be... unpredictable! © V. Birch 2006
giving us an uncomfortable view of a perilous drop through the trees to the valley below. I was nearly thrown across the vehicle into the lap of a tribal woman sitting opposite me as the vehicle came to a stop amid clouds of dust, just inches from the edge of the road.

Picking myself up, we all piled out to see what had happened. For a moment, we all stood around feeling a bit dazed as we stared at the remains of the rear nearside tyre, which had been spectacularly shredded by the blowout. We stuffed rocks behind the other wheels to stop the vehicle rolling back down the hill and the driver set-to replacing the damaged tyre. In the silence that followed, the only sounds were the muffled curses of the driver as he wrestled with the tyres, the metallic "chink" of spanners as he laid them down or picked them up from the road, and the sound of the Moei River - that formed the boundary between Thailand and Myanmar - somewhere in the valley below us.

Back on the road again, the driver made up for lost time. Far from driving more cautiously, he actually
Hill Tribe WomenHill Tribe WomenHill Tribe Women

Attending the market in Mae Hong Son. © V. Birch 2006
seemed to drive faster and those of us left in the back (Viv had a comfy seat in the cab) were tossed about like clothes in a tumble dryer. After 6 hours travelling, I began to wish for the journey to be over. So it was with some relief that we finally reached Mae Sariang, the smallest town on our journey so far.

Populated largely by Burmese, the town was frequently visited by hilltribe people who came to buy and sell their wares at the colourful market. There were also a couple of interesting Burmese temples but regardless of the sights, Mae Sariang was simply a nice place to "hang out" in for a couple of days and recover from the journey. Our room overlooked the Yuam River and provided a chance to just sit and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Bee-eaters and red-capped swallows dipped over the river by day and at dusk, the bats took over, flickering past our balcony and skimming the water in search of insects.

But as if we hadn't suffered enough punishment, a day or two later we were on a clapped out old bus winding into the mountains once
Fruits of the LoomFruits of the LoomFruits of the Loom

A Paduang woman weaving textiles using a backstrap loom. © V. Birch 2006
more, our destination - Mae Hong Son 270km to the north. As the bus had been late arriving - a not uncommon experience judging by a sign at the bus station - we got into conversation with a monk, who just before we left, presented me with a Buddha amulet "for safe and good luck," he said. In return, I paid for his lunch and pocketed the amulet gratefully. It was always good to have friends in high places. Five hours later, we called upon our good luck when the bus broke down at the top of a high mountain pass. This time, it was the brakes. It was with a feeling of deja vu that we clamboured from the bus and surveyed the trail of brake fluid that followed in our wake. Ahead of us lay a steep 17km descent to the valley floor: not a good place to be without brakes then. But no one seemed unduly worried and the driver flagged down a passing moped rider, who after a brief interchange, dashed off down the hill - returning twenty minutes later with a water bottle filled with oil. Topping up the remaining brake fluid in the reservoir,
Padaung PortraitPadaung PortraitPadaung Portrait

Padaung women in Nai Soi village, Mae Hong Son province. © L. Birch 2006
the driver then ran the gauntlet of the switchback descent - with fluid still leaving a trail behind us - while Viv and I held onto the seats in front of us with white knuckles. Once again, we arrived at our destination relieved to still be in one piece.

Mae Hong Son is a sleepy hill town surrounded by mountains. With the average height around 5,000ft, it's also delightully cool at night - though it can still be hot during the day. We took the opportunity to hire a motorbike and visit a few local hilltribe villages that included - rather contentiously perhaps - a Paduang village where the women wear neck rings to increase the length of their necks. Refugees from a secret war being waged upon the Kareni people in Myanmar, the Paduang raise money - by encouraging curious tourists to visit - that provides them with a living wage and supports the freedom effort of the Kareni in Myanmar. Learning this didn't make me feel so bad about visiting. The only sad thing is that it doesn't provide any real or meaningful insight into the lives of the Paduang. We took photographs and spoke with some
Mandala Flag at the TempleMandala Flag at the TempleMandala Flag at the Temple

A mandala flag flutters outside Wat Jong Kham. © L. Birch 2006
of the women about their lives and about what was happening in Myanmar. Viv asked one girl if she minded wearing the neck rings, after all they're made of brass and very heavy. The girl simply replied, "It is my choice."

2nd NOV : Doi Kong, Mae Hong Son

"...Why not" I said, as we wandered over to the stall where the balloons were being sold for 20 Baht each (about 28p) . "For Luck" the trader told us as she lit the candle in its paper cup. Holding the balloon aloft, we made a silent prayer of thanks for getting this far safely and wished for luck on the rest of our travels - and let it go, watching it rise into the dusky evening sky until it disappeared from sight.

*To view a larger image of any of the pictures on this page, place your mouse pointer over the image and double click.

Despite assisting the British during World War II, a petition to the British Government for a separate Karen state within Burma was not granted. Further petitions made after the
Wat Doi Kong MuWat Doi Kong MuWat Doi Kong Mu

Monks make a puja offering at Wat Doi Kong Mu, Mae Hong Son. © V. Birch 2006
country gained independence were also denied. Under Ne Win, a secret campaign to rid the country of its more 'troublesome' tribal residents was begun - and continues today. There are more than 7,000,000 Karen still surviving in the northern Kayah states of Myanmar and in neighbouring Thailand. If you would like to know more about the Karen people and their plight, go to - Friends of the Karen for more information.


9th November 2006

Mae Hong Son was on my wish list......but now its my priority.......thanks for the beautifully written piece on this unique part of Thailand and giving an historic inside.....Hope to see some more snaps of the region if possible.......Put them in if u have an account...... Santanu Buragohain
11th November 2006

chuffed to bits you're gettin back in the swing of it all so well. you're sounding like real explorers again. oh, and chuffed to bits i worked out how to find your travelblog at all- a bit of an intrepid (cyber space) explorer myself!
17th November 2006

Hi Guys, Getting a bit addicted to looking you up. Beats working though! Looks like you have settled in to travelling again, rather to easily for my liking . If you end up in Cambodia or Burma,or both. Please say its awfull , just to make me feel better! None of this having great experience stuff. PLEASE. But seriously, blogs really good no need for me to travel, better make a ten year plan! Happy Travels love Sean

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