Mae Hong Son Loop – Mae Hong Son

 

Note: This is part two of our road trip through the Mae Hong Son Loop. We did the loop a couple months ago but are just now getting around to writing about it!

Our first stop on the way through the mountains to Mae Hong Son was a small, well lit cave with neat formations. The drive from the museum lobby up the steep mountain road to the actual cave entrance was short but fascinating. We drove on dirt roads past traditional style houses on stilts. Banana trees grew where there was space between aluminum roofs and laundry hung limp from ropes and balconies in the hot air. A few people waved happily, but the village seemed to be empty; most people must have been out in one of the many local fields, at school, or maybe in town. In fact we seemed to be the only tourists at this awesome but out of the way attraction. We saw many cool formations in the cave.  Here are some specimens, in their scientific Latin names*: white crystal broccoli, lava waves, sea anemones, Muppets, popcorn, etc. They didn’t allow actual cameras inside the cave, but our phones were able to take some pics without a flash. And of course on the way out we stopped to pet some friendly kitties!

*I can ‘t actually speak Latin or know any scientific rock formation names

 

Next, we stopped at Thai/Japanese friendship center in the town of Khun Yuam. The Japanese were stationed at this border town in WWII during the (failed) Burmese invasion. Because they were in no position to oppose Japan, Thailand managed to stay neutral in the war by conceding key resources such as railways and communication systems for Japanese use. According to the museum, the Japanese developed a great relationship with the locals here. There were some cool war artifacts and some insight into what life was like prewar and during the war, but I’ve heard conflicting stories about how friendly the two countries may have been at that time. In a neighboring town, for example, one sign near a bridge monument stated that the Japanese conscripted underpaid/unpaid local railway workers, of whom nearly one-third died! A little internet research revealed that at first, the Japanese were indeed able to pay the Thais for their help, but near the end many locals were forced to work-often to death. Now many call the route “The Skeleton Road”. Also, mass graves have been found with thousands of Japanese soldiers. Apparently, the Thai Karen hill tribe people formed a resistance or were unhappy with their work conditions**! Even though the Japanese were suppose to be our enemies, and provoked our involvement in a war my grandfather fought in, I got goosebumps reading about what the Japanese suffered in this town during their retreat.

**The Karen people who live in the mountains between Thailand and Myanmar have been fighting for autonomy since WWII, and we passed turnoffs to several refugee camps during our trip.

This account directly contradicts the museum sign, which stated the townsfolk were happy to accept well-paid work, and gladly sold or gave food to the soldiers stationed in their town. Hmmm… No matter the actual degree of friendliness at the time, the museum presented this horrible time in human history in a way that showed compassion and forgiveness.

FriendshipMuseum

Broc and I arrived in Mae Hong Son just in time to find a bungalow and drive up to the village temple on the hill before it got dark. This was by far the most active town we’d seen: There were so many people running up the steep hill, and even a dance workout group in the park! Doi (Mountain) Kongmu was a great place to watch the sun set over the city. Two older women attempted to chat with us and we took some pics with them. For how many tourists visit Thailand, the locals never seem to tire of being friendly or taking pics with tourists! The smog slightly distorted our view of the mountains in the background, but the temples, or chedis, were nice to look at.

The family-run bungalow hotel was outside the tourist drinking area, (aka quiet at night), and had a nice garden. It’s a good thing we had a choice in rooms, because the bed in the first room had lizard or mice dirt on it! Although the “mattress” in the second room was closer to a plastic sheet covering some short springs, $14 was fair for no mice, a private bathroom, some quiet, and a garden in a nice neighborhood.

After dropping off our bags and catching the first half of the sunset on the hill, Broc and I found the small lake we first saw from above at Doi Kongmu, and snagged a bench in a pagoda at the end of a pier. As the sun set over the trees, large coy rippled the surface, catching bugs and popped rice thrown by a small boy on the shore. Swarms of swallows darted so close it was hard to concentrate on typing blog notes on my (windows) phone while holding a beer! The slightly improvised notes of “Fields of Gold” floated behind us as the lights of the nearby temple came on, illuminating the gold chedi roof. It was so nice we ended up leaving quite late to get dinner!

mae-hong-son-Chedi

We walked to a highly rated restaurant called Salween River, and it did not disappoint. The roof was made in the traditional style of folded leaves over bamboo, and the meals were actually reasonably priced for a place rated highly on a tourist website. We ordered an appetizer of popped rice (similar to what the fish were eating, but more flat like a tortilla chip), called Pappadom, with homemade salsa. I ordered the beef and pineapple curry, and Broc ordered the seasonal vegetable curry. Thai beef is sometimes risky on taste, but it happened to be flavorful and falling-apart-soft in the sauce.
The following morning, Broc ran to the top of Doi Kongmu! It was one mile of pure windy cliff to the top. He got some pictures of the sunrise while I jogged around the dog infested but less steep pastoral neighborhood. We are used to seeing houses jammed together in the city, or overgrown with jungle in the outskirts, but here the houses all had small flower gardens! When we were ready to check out, the husband and wife were gone, but we were able to pay the maid/gardener after she ran around the neighborhood getting change for our large bill! After our first choice for breakfast turned out to be abnormally expensive, we decided to eat at the same place as the night before-Salween!
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Our next destination was Pai, a small farm town that had recently become popular with tourists, yet still had a lot of charm. On the way, we stopped at Sutongpe Bridge, the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand! Even in the early morning it was already quite hot, but it was worth it to walk the whole bridge for the view and the wat at the end.
The bamboo bridge normally covers wet rice paddies and soy bean plants, but we were there in dry season, so we didn’t have to fear a wet swim if the bridge broke. (Earlier this year that’s exactly what some tourists got when the bamboo gave way! We also stopped at a human ferris wheel, one of the most dangerous inventions in Thailand, and the coolest cave we’ve ever been in, but those adventures will have to wait for the next episode!
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