This past November, we had an incredible trip to Thailand. After briefly visiting Bangkok in 2009, I was ready to return to get to know this country better, and away from hustle and bustle of a giant city. Since we only had 2 weeks for this trip, we decided to skip the beaches, and focus on the hilly North. Here are some photos from our Northern Thailand adventure.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but it feels way different from Bangkok – much more laid back and provincial, with a slower overall pace. No wonder so many expats settle here – for a season, or a couple of years, or the rest of their lives.
It also has hundreds (if not thousands) of temples, and while it is simply impossible to check out every single one, big effort was made to stop in all the ones within the walls of Old Town. Of course, the long songthaew (passenger truck) ride to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep up the windy road in a rainforest is a must.
Chiang Mai Sunday market is a treat for all senses and goes for blocks and blocks. There are trinkets, and furniture, and clothing, and art, but our goal was to eat street food until we drop (of being full, not of food poisoning, of course).
I had quail eggs and seafood and sausages and cheesy snacks and exotic mushrooms, and for the first time ever – some insects! Starting off easy, we got a little bag of fried silkworms, which were crispy, greasy, and tasted a little bit like anchovies. You think it’s gross? But how is it different from eating all kinds of other creatures with legs and feet (shrimp, for instance)? Don’t knock em until you try them! They are full of nutrients. The following morning, we asked our hotel staff to add them to our eggs. They were happy to do it!
Next stop (after a 3 hour hilly road van ride) – Pai, a so called “hippie paradise” (just like a tropical island, but inland!) is a small town in a beautiful mountain valley, overlooking a river. Sometime ago, this was a tiny, quiet, and serene place. Today, it is bustling with tourists, and yet still manages to feel quiet and serene (once you walk away from the main street), so while there has been plenty of development with the guesthouses and restaurants, it manages to hold on to its charm. The best thing to do in Pai – nothing! If you have a hammock and this view – what else do you really need?
From Pai, another van took us to Soppong and then a pickup truck taxi dropped us 8 kilometers uphill at Cave Lodge. A fun guest house with no-frill bungalows, it caters to backpackers and adventurers.
Our schedule was all preplanned here, and the following morning at 7 am (Thanksgiving Day), with met our trekking guide with a funny name – Gaymoo.
This is Mae Hon Son province, a mountainous area of Thailand bordering Burma, technically in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is home to numerous hill tribe villages (such as Karen and Lasu), residents of which often do not even speak Thai. Gaymoo himself was born and raised in a nearby Karen village, and he effortlessly switches between Thai, Karen, and English (although he will tell you that he only learned English from tourists and does not read it just yet).
Our trek was one of the most interesting 2 days of my life. We went through hills, caves and farmland; waded through many rivers and mud. Gaymoo was super entertaining and fantastic, especially at cutting through jungle with his machete. Due to his mastery with the knife, extensive knowledge of forest, trails, and plants, on our journey we enjoyed endless amounts of fresh tropical fruit and sugar canes.
I learned rice fields run around here: rice gets harvested and laid out to dry for a few days / weeks. Then it gets pounded to separate grains from straw (look, I got to help!). When it is ready for consumption, it is run through the machine that removes grains from shell. Villagers don’t get paid to work the fields, they just take turns volunteering and always have a year worth of rice stored in their common sheds (just in case, of a bad harvest year).
We spent the night in a Lahu village hut (owned by a lovely woman who did not speak one bit of English, took care of many animals, as well as her toddler grandson). We played with puppies and pigs, ate the most deliciously cooked thanksgiving meal, and slept on (slightly bouncy) bamboo floor.
There was a surreal moment when I walked up the hill to take in a stunning sunset view. This small, basic village felt like it was cut off from most the world, I certainly did not have a slightest phone signal on the long trek here. Somewhere between those distant hills, is a Burma border. I raised my phone to snap this photo, and….. ding! A text comes in from a friend in Chicago. “Happy Thanksgiving!” it said. “Happy Thanksgiving to you too!” I typed back.
The evening was wrapped up by local villagers bringing us rice whiskey, and everyone tasting it with sticky rice dessert, cooked inside of bamboo sticks over the fire. Morning was started with strong coffee, more rice sticks, and preparation of snacks for the road (wrapped in bamboo leaves). What followed was another beautiful, day-long, hot and humid trek through the countryside.
After such intense 2 days, normal people rest their bodies, but instead, we woke up and chose to go scrape our feet (and knees and hands) against some sharp rock on a 6 hour trek through Tham Nam Hoo cave, one of the most picturesque caves in Thailand. Getting through this cave involved swimming against the current, and balance, which we did not have much of left. Yet, another crazy fun experience and the one I will never forget!
Moving on from Sappong, our Northern Thailand adventure continued in Mae Hong Son.
It is a frenzy-free town, with Burmese-style temples, hills, and gorgeous views, mostly devoid of tourist crowds, was a welcome place to rest.
A nightly market here was another food heaven.
We decided to visit a “long neck” Kayan tribal village, reached by a 20 minute wooden boat ride down the river. Kayan “long neck” village visits and their ethical repercussions are a source of debate (some believe that they are akin to a human zoo, as the neck rings that ladies wear are extremely uncomfortable and supposedly worn for tourists and not as much as a custom or tradition). However, after weighting the pros and cons, we made a decision to go. This informative TravelFish link presents balanced information on the current status of Mae Hong Son “long neck” villages.
We very glad that we had an opportunity to visit this place. We paid a fee to hire a local guide, and that decision made a big difference. He took us around the entire village, not just the gift stalls where ladies are selling scarves and crafts.
We visited village residents’ homes, and dropped in on school classes where cute kids were learning Thai, Burmese, and English.
We learned about these people’s struggles, how the older generation migrated from Burma, fleeing a war zone, and how they still do not have Thai citizenship as they have not been recognized as residents by Thai authorities. As for long neck ladies themselves – they were extremely nice, and those who knew English, were happy to converse with us about their lives. The village residents make a big portion of their living from tourism. We purchased many hand woven scarves, and contributed to school’s donation boxes.
My plan for a last day in Mae Hong Son was a courageous one: to finally learn to ride a motorbike. Kurt was game. It costs $6 to get a cocktail here; it also costs $6 to rent a motorbike for an entire day. We have NEVER driven a motorbike (or a motorcycle) before, and I admit, that by that point of our vacation, I have already witnessed a couple of crashes, and almost chickened out on the way to the bike rental shop. Yet, after signing paperwork, and handing over a deposit, we had bikes and helmets ready to go! The “riding practice” took place in circles, right there in a market square – there were a couple of unfortunate turns, but overall I started to feel more confident (and, suddenly, so free!).
So, we set our travel destination to be a famous bamboo bridge, and then, right at Burmese border – Ban Rak Thai, a picturesque village of Chinese settlers. We hoped to make it back before sunset, relying on phone GPS. Here is the view of our travel route (not too shabby for the first time ever on motorbikes, eh?) Estimated travel time though, was accurate for cars, but was way off for us, and it took us 2 hours to reach the place.
Bamboo bridge (Su Tong Pae) did not underwhelm, it is a gorgeous landmark of Mae Hong Son province.
Here is a brief description of it, from Thaiser.com: “Used daily by villagers and monks, the name of the bridge translates as ‘successful prayer’ in the Tai Yai language and Su Tong Pae is a source of pride amongst the local community. Rice plantation owners donated the land and the villagers came together to construct the bridge using interwoven strips of bamboo for the walkway and wooden supports to elevate the bridge above the rice fields.”
The ride to Ban Rak Thai was steep. And hilly. Did I mention steep, as in crazy uphill curvy road? My motorbike was slow, but managed it, however, Kurt’s almost did not have enough horsepower to take those hilly roads. He was worried that he would have to get off and push it, and I stopped to wait for him constantly. Yet, eventually we made it to our destination. The Chinese village was cute and quiet and full of tea shops. We sat down in a restaurant to rest from our crazy ride, pointed at a few things on the menu and somehow ended up having one of the best meals EVER. There were mushrooms, and veggies, and meat, and was so hungry that I completely forgot to photograph it! Here is the village though:
On the way to Ban Rak Thai, one thing we never came across, was a gas station. At the village, our tanks were nearly empty, and it was time to ask around about gas. (which is the word no one understood). “Petrol?” “Oil?” “Gasoline?” “Fuel?” People at the restaurant smiled at us, but had no idea what were were talking about. Finally, a manager was motioned over and I made some super awkward motorbike gestures. “Go around the lake, that way!” he said. After more searching and asking, we found it! No wonder the gas stations here are hard to notice. It’s not a station! It’s a bunch of plastic gasoline bottles, conveniently sitting next to flammable straw brooms. One bottle = full tank. Excellent! We can make it home now.
If the road to get here was all steep uphill, you can only guess the satisfaction of reverse. My hands hurt from gripping the breaks. It was amazing. And so freeing. And I want to wrap myself forever in that scenery of setting sun and rice fields and villages and Thailand beauty. I’m hungry for more!!! We made it back to Mae Hong Son just in time to navigate rush hour traffic. I would say, we passed our initial motorbike test pretty well, and I can NOT wait to get on one again!
From Mae Hong Son, there was a brief 40 minute flight, and suddenly, we were back in Chiang Mai, where it all started. By the way, Chiang Mai music scene is not too shabby: Croissant, the reggae band, played covers, but always rocked it. The jazz club musicians we also excellent.
Last, but not least: elephants! There are many places to visit them, some humane, and some not-so-humane. We chose to go to a no-riding elephant sanctuary, which houses a few female elephants and a baby. Adults were actually “rescued” (bought out) from places that used them in the past for riding.
Elephants are so cute and weird. They are like aliens – their trunks are powerful and multi functional, which is both entertaining and awe-inspiring. That thing is a nose, and a hand, and a thumb, and just wait until one sneezes on you – you get showered with a stinky mist, and yet it is somehow also very lovable. They eat tree branches and tree trunks for lunch with ease, and readily take bananas from your hand, wapping it with their giant tongues. We gave them a mud bath and they seemed happy, prancing away to their tourist-free pastures.
Northern Thailand, you were amazing. Your people are friendly, kind, and gentle, you are full of beauty and adventure. Of course, you have some strange parts, but think I’m in love with you, and no surprise, many others are, too. Someday, we will meet again, and until then – please stay as wonderful and safe and peaceful as you were to us.