Our three month stay in Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without a road trip around the surrounding country. Especially since the Mae Hong Son Loop, as it’s called, is ranked one of the best road trips in the world! After talking to a few locals and friends we met here, we decide to rent a car rather than ride a motorbike or take the bus. Although the bus is only $4 per leg between the four main cities, (Mae Sariang, then Mae Hong Son, then Pai, then Chiang Mai), the anecdotes about multiple passengers tossing their cookies in the bus really pushed us toward renting a car. Also, although motorbike enthusiasts rave about the trip by bike, we heard it could be dangerous because of construction and the windy turns. We rented a car for 1,000 baht per day ($28), and had plenty of room for fun extra things that we otherwise wouldn’t have taken: some extra pillows, towels, multiple pairs of shoes, and best of all, plenty of snacks!
The outskirts of Chiang Mai have blooming bougainvillea in their wide median. It’s one of the most common hot weather plants we’ve seen, and resembles the azalea in constant bloom back home. Notice they are red, then white, then red. Sidewalks and medians are hand-painted these colors to mean “don’t park” or “warning”. Once past the traffic and many gas stations, the land gives way to coffee plantations and rice paddies as we approach the hills. After about an hour, we turned off the easy highway towards Doi Inthanon National Park – and the hills and windy roads started! Our first destination was the Wachirathan Waterfall. Although broken up into a few falls, the water falls a total of eighty meters where we are, from the top of the highest point in Thailand. Stunning, but too fast even in dry season to go swimming. For lunch at the base of the falls, I got an entire grilled fish coated in a thick layer of salt, and Broc ordered rice porridge, which is more interesting than it sounds, because it’s like a stew with rice already in it, rather than rice on the side.
Back on the road, we see many of the rice paddies are dry, waiting to be planted in May when the rain starts. Between rice fields and on the side of the road there are primarily banana trees, which are always green. Last year’s drought is still evident though; water seems low in every pond, canal, and river, and the forests we’ve hiked in are blanketed in dry leaves from the bare trees that have dropped their leaves. Even in shades of brown rather than the vibrant, almost neon green of the rice, the drive was stunning. If we had stopped to take pictures at everything that looked amazing we wouldn’t have gotten to our destination before dark!
Our next destination was up to the top of the mountain to the King and Queen chedis, which are located at the highest point in Thailand, Doi (Mount) Inthanon! A chedi or stupa is the pointed part in the temple, usually a separate building containing relics, remains, ashes, or built in memory of a person’s life. In this case, the stupas were constructed to celebrate the King and Queen’s 60th birthday anniversaries, in 1987 and 1992, respectively. These chedis were enormous; they were the first chedis we could actually walk in. The king’s chedi had large carvings from Buddha’s life on every wall, and the queen’s was more feminine, with simple white walls, pink lotus flowers, and an ornate mosaic ceiling in pleasing hues of blue and pink. I really liked the stories depicted in the Queen’s chedi; they were lesser known stories and had female characters, such as Buddha’s mother, Maya, and the first Buddhist priestesses.
On the way out we got some ice cream and started back down the mountain to Mae Sariang. We saw a sign for a hot spring, and we had read about hill tribe villages along the mountain road, so we decided to take the windy but more direct route which cut through parts of the mountains. The winding roads were far more adventurous than even the steepest mountain passes back in the U.S., and boy were we glad to have Dramamine! We had trouble finding the turn offs to the villages, (which were probably very small), but we did finally find the hot spring. It was a little smaller than we anticipated, but still pretty neat. One thing we hadn’t considered from the comfort of our air conditioned car was that in the heat of Thai day, a hot spring is less appealing somehow. The source pool was way to hot, and had strange algae growing, but I dipped my feat in another man made hot tub which must have had cool water mixed in.
Mae Sariang is a darling, quiet town along the river with many old style teak houses. After driving through town and looking at Trip Advisor, and decided to stay at a small family-run inn called “Above the Sea.” We had seen cheaper hostels and inns right over the water, but this place had a garden, large bathroom, free breakfast, and modern decorations. The surprisingly sturdy handle of the sliding door to the bathroom, for example, was made with a garden spade! We borrowed the free bikes and rode around the block to the 7-Eleven for a cheap whisky & coke aperitif. What a charming town with so much Lanna (N.Thai) character! We went to the highly rated “Sawadee” for dinner. (Sawadee means hello-one of the few Thai words we know!) It was right on the river with great views and some nice music, but the food took forever and there were so many bugs! The river bugs actually landed in our food a few times, and there were geckos all over the walls eating them! Sawadee did have darts and pool, however, which was fun. We walked back across the street and turned in early.
We got up early for some exercise; our Tacoma habit of Broc running and me biking next to him! We went over the river and through the outskirts of town, then stopped to feed the fish over the river. Another example of Thai generosity; we slowed down to see what a teenage girl was doing with the strange cooler sitting all by itself on the bridge’s sidewalk. She put twenty bhat in a slot (honor system of course!), and took out two bags of fish food, and handed us one! Before we hit the road, we stopped at a unique local coffee place overlooking the river, with hand built wood furniture and its own mini waterfall.
On the way out of town I tell Broc that we should buy a cord to connect our ipod to the stereo, and he said, “yeah, like we are gonna find one of those in Thailand!” Within thirty seconds we see a shop selling car stereos and seats, and we happen to find the cord right away! Now our road trip is really ready to get started! Next stop, Mae Hong Son!