Hop on a bus and take a six hour journey into the mountains and experience the winding roads of Mae Hong Son, north of Thailand. From Chiangmai you have access to a lot of the natural beauty of Northern Thailand. While the weather is warmer in Chiangmai, a short journey into the mountains will afford a completely different climate. One would be forgiven to think that you were in the middle of the European woods, the trees are different, the ground covering is a carpet of pine needles and the landscape is far from the typical Thai jungle one might imagine.
Chiangmai Arcade Bus Station > Mae Hong Son, buses and minivans depart every hour from 7AM
6hrs by minivan, 10hrs by local bus
250 baht by minivan, 70 baht by local bus
P’Nara and I were very spontaneous with this trip, leaving on a whim, just an idea. She had information about a Homestay in Mae Hong Son, offering hands-on experience with local hillstribes – to learn about organic farming and many of the crafts such as weaving and hand-dyeing.
I fell asleep on the way into the mountains, the winding roads gently lulling me into sweet slumber. I missed all the beautifully preserved heritage homes, constructed in the traditional style using renewable resources, wood, bamboo and roofs thatched with leaves.
She would accidentally bump into me as we turned sharp corners, then look at me briefly and then burst into laughter.
I sat next to an older woman, yai we called her (meaning grandmother in Thai). She was the most jolly person to have ever enjoyed a nauseating and winding road trip. In the best way we could, we communicated with each other using sign language and a few Thai words I could pull out of my magic bag of tricks. She would accidentally bump into me as we turned sharp corners, then look at me briefly and then burst into laughter. The sheer brilliance she exuded was intoxicating, I felt uplifted to be in her presence.
Yai showed us prayer hands, and it gave us some more clues as to what Thampla actually was.
A few hours into the road trip, yai was telling me about this thing or place called Thampla. Of course, I had no idea what was going on, so I roped in P’Nara into the conversation. Yai was speaking in the northern dialect so P’Nara was also experiencing a communication barrier. Yai showed us prayer hands, and it gave us some more clues as to what Thampla actually was. Eventually, we cracked the code and discovered that there was a Fish Cave not far from Mae Hong Son town – a beautiful shrine and temple built inside a cave full of fish – that was definitely something for us to check out. Thanks jolly Yai!
When we arrived into town we needed to call the homestay host to let him know we were arriving soon. He wasn’t answering the phone, so we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with no place to stay. A motorcycle taxi driver gave us some suggestions – there was a camping ground near a lake that was operated by the Thai military, for 100 baht a night who could refuse the allure of sleeping under the stars?
Each of us got a motorbike taxi and off we went on what was supposed to be a half an hour journey. Tight winding roads, steep inclines as we climbed the mountain side, dense bamboo forests ancient and foreboding, cool and crisp wind blowing through my hair.
By now we were literally only kilometres from the Myanmar border!
My bum was getting numb and it was well-past the thirty minute estimate that the drivers had given us. We stopped in a small village called Baan Rak Thai, there we found out the drivers had taken us far beyond the camping grounds and were intending to take us further and further into the mountains. By now we were literally only kilometres from the Myanmar border!
P’Nara and I decided to call it a day and stay in this lovely town for the night. She had heard about a town established by Chinese refugees and it was by mere luck or coincidence that we stumbled upon it. A beautiful, small lake city surrounded by forest covered mountains. The atmospher here was like the French countryside, sunny yet cool and refreshing.
There were a few guesthouses for us to choose from and we were taken to one that was lining the lake shore. Gorgeous! For 400 baht per night, we each got a room with a queen sized bed, the door opening right onto the lake and its sweeping vistas.
A six hour minivan journey, then numb bums on an hour and a half motorcycle journey – how do you think we rested ourselves? By taking a bicycle ride around town! We rode to the market and indulged in some tasty home made cuisine – I had khao pad (fried rice) and she had a thousand year egg with an omelette and rice. Mmmm.
The local population have been living there for generations and are considered Thai, but they have maintained their Chinese heritage. The cool climate of the mountains is perfect for producing tea and its one of the town’s main products. I did find some pineapple wine and was curious to have a taste – at 10% alcohol, it seems a dangerous formula. But what I imagined to be a sweet concoction turned out to be a potent mouth-burn. We grabbed a bottle of the gooseberry wine, instead.
With the shade of night the sky became a glittery sea of stars.
Sitting on the edge of the lake with a bottle of gooseberry wine and a packet of cigarettes seemed the perfect way to cap off what was a long journey for the day. As the sunset and the night grew, P’Nara and I shared our lives, our philosophies and many laughs. With the shade of night the sky became a glittery sea of stars. So many stars. Out here where light pollution is virtually null, the nightscape is truly a sight to behold, to see so many giants balls of gas, sparkling their light into the retinas of our eyes, sent millions and billions of light years ago – just to think, how insignificant we are in the midst of the universe.
And here’s the kicker! The mountains still cast a dark shape in the background and it was distinct from the sky. I looked across the water to the otherside of the lake and I saw a strange bright light. It was yellow, very different to other stars in the sky so I was certain it wasn’t a star. I hadn’t seen it in the sky before, so I was certain it was moving.
My heart was pounding. Could it be…a UFO?
I alerted P’Nara to it and she reassured me that it was just a star. With a sense of intrigue I continued to stare at the mysterious light.We were literally in the middle of the jungle and deep into the mountainside – for me anything was possible.
A second light came up from below – now two distinctly bright lights were moving in a linear and vertical direction. My heart was pounding. Could it be…a UFO?
A third light rose beneath the first two, so that they formed a vertical line above the outline of the mountain. I was certain now that this was no natural phenomena. P’Nara, too, was questioning it as the events unfolded. She tried to calm me down and rationalise what we were both seeing.
Twenty or so more lights rose from the shadowy outline of the mountain and I would have nearly fallen into the lake.The only explanation : lanterns. All the tension that had been built up from fear and excitement was suddenly met with laughter and a sense of relief.