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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Loving Thai Loving Villages

Hello hello! Once again, sorry for the delay- I'm doing my best to get back onto my weekend update routine, but I guess weekends away for me mean more interesting posts for you. So this past weekend was probably tops so far for my trip, and honestly up there in most memorable experiences of my life. I'll do my best to describe it all, but I'm warning you ahead of time, one of the themes for this post is going to be my inability to articulate just how spectacular and special everything that I was experiencing was. So I guess you'll just have to hop on a plane to northern Thailand at some point to experience it all for yourself!

Alright so let's get going- Since I last wrote, Aaron (from Georgetown) asked Dustin and me if we would be interested in a weekend trip to a little town called Mae Hong Son. The town is close to the Burma border, about an 8 hour drive northwest of Chiang Mai. I hesitated for a while, mostly because originally I had been planning on taking a day trip to Doi Inthanon (the highest peak in Thailand) with some people in the house, but when that fell through I decided to just go ahead and join up with Aaron. It was a very last minute decision (Friday afternoon when he was plannning on leaving Saturday morning) and funny enough his mom (who is visiting here in Chiang Mai) had decided to come along as well, so we had a nice little group for our adventure. To be honest, I actually wasn't expecting much of an adventure going in- I had heard that there's really not much in Mae Hong Son, but that it's mostly just a very beautiful town in the rural north, great for just a relaxed weekend and a change of scenery. I had no complaints with just hanging out surrounded by some scenic mountains for a weekend, so I booked my plane ticket (we weren't about to make that 8 hour drive, especially with only 2 days available for our trip) and met Aaron and his mom at the airport Saturday morning for our 1/2 hour flight.

So once we landed (it was literally one of those trips where you went up and and came straight back down), we caught a tuk tuk to try to find a place to stay for the night. We tried out one place that we had read aobut in Lonely Planet, which turned out to be beautiful- set off the road for a ways, it was basically a little community of rustic bunga lows set into the wooded hillside. The bungalows themselves were each uniquely decorated and really quite charming, each with its own balcony overlooking the hillside, but since it was so isolated and we only had such a short time we decided against it (plus, most of the cabins had nothing covering the windows, and even though the place did have mosquito nets, we figured this was just asking for trouble in the middle of the forest in the rural north of Thailand). So after deciding against this place (and actually a second place as well), we finally said goodbye to our poor tuk-tuk driver and settled in to our third try- it actually worked out really well, air conditioned with TVs, right on the lake in the middle of town, and all for a pretty cheap price. Plus, it was just about 20 yards from the main road in Mae Hong Son- just to give you some perspective, when I say the main road, I don't mean the biggest and busiest road among several hoppin streeets, I mean the only main road in this town. Of course, it's not a town in Thailand if it doesn't have at least three 7-11's (which are always nice to step into for a quick break from the heat), but after this one street the rest of Mae Hong Son was basically just straight up run-down/impoverished dwellings on tiny side streets, which were often unpaved (or too small to even call them 'streets'- basically just walking paths to get through the clusters of huts). Anyways, the main road did have a decent selection of restaurants and small shops selling ethnic Burmese crafts. So once we checked into our guesthouse and put our bags down and everything, we headed out to a place for lunch (another Lonely Planet pick- we were sold on the descriptions of Burmese and Thai food and organic Burmese coffee hand-picked in the border villages). Lunch turned out to be quite interesting and really the source of the best parts of the weekend, but I'll leave you hanging on that one for a bit and talk about the rest of our Saturday first.

So after lunch we basically did a bit more walking around...actually, now that I think about it, it was a whole lot more walking around. We started with a stroll around the lake in the center of town, stopping at a couple of Burmese-style temples along the way. I know peope tend to get "templed out" fairly quickly in Chiang Mai, and I'm no longer stopping to stare when I pass one every 50 feet or so walking around the city, but when I do take the time to stop and take them in each one turns out to be spectacular (and always a lot of fun to photograph). These were no different, especially with the neighboring lake and mountainous backdrop, and it was cool to see some slightly different architecture with a more Burmese-influenced design.

The rest of the lake wasn't really much, but nice to walk around for a relaxing stroll- it's not too often that I get to just go for a walk, just for the sake of walking, so it was pretty relaxing. After a pit-stop at an upstairs restaurant overlooking the lake for some smoothies, we headed out to do a bit more exploring of the town, but as we had been warned there really wasn't a whole lot of exploring left to do. We started down one road that seemed promising but ended up just meeting back with the one main road previously discussed. Anyways, we finally made our way to what had been our original destination, Doi Kong Mu. Doi Kong Mu is very similar to Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, basically a Buddhist wat built up on a mountain with spectacular views. I actually ended up liking Doi Kong Mu better than Doi Suthep, despite the epic climb to the top (it was quite a steep walk, and with the heat I was not a pretty site by the time we reached the wat). It's a Shan-built temple (one of the Burmese ethnic groups I've mentioned) about 1500 meters above the city, and unlike Doi Suthep we were treated to an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding area (more like 270 I guess but still, an upgrade). I also found the view itself to be a bit more scenic- we were basically looking down at the tiny town (which, again for perspective, we found from our vantage point was shorter in length than the airport runway). Unlike the sprawling Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son is basically completely surrounded by moutains, so from the top it looked like we were looking at a miniature city inside of a big bowl.

Oh one funny thing that happened while hanging out at the top- I ended up making friends with a dog who lived at the temple (might be kinda gross, but I couldn't help myself- she was a beautiful dog and I felt bad when Aaron ignored her, so I had to at least acknowledge her and give her a little scratch on the head). She ended up hopping straight up onto the bench where I was sitting, and just sorta sat with me looking out at the view together. This was too cute, but the funniest part was that after a few minutes of scratching her head, I got up to walk around some more and she jumped down and followed me all around! Not at all in an annoying street dog way, just trotting along by my side looking around like she was exploring too. Then, when we decided to make our way back down the mountain, she again followed me, and stayed with me the entire way down the mountain! Again, never the type of timidly stalking from behind like she's hoping for some scraps or anything, but confidently and playfully taking the lead right in front of me, jumping on and off the wall they had along the side of the path and basically just enjoying the company. Too funny, but unfortunately we parted ways at the base (and I tried to find the closest place to wash my hands haha).

This was basically our event for the day, but one more random funny occurence from dinner- Of course after our hike up the mountain we were starving and decided to go back to our smoothie restaurant for dinner. We ordered our food, they brought Aaron's fairly quickly, but after a while of conversation we realized that it was taking an unusually long time for them to bring the food for Aaron's mom and me (seriously, it was bizarre how long it took, especially since I had just ordered some pad thai- you'd think they'd like have that stuff pre-made here). Aaron went down to check on the food and it turns out that they had literally forgotten about our meals. The funniest thing is, we were the only customers in the restaurant, so it's not like the staff was crazy busy with other peoples' orders- they were lounging on the street just people watching, and literally forgot about our order. Once I got some food in my stomach I thought it was kinda hilarious (partly because the staff found it rather hilarious too), but imagine that happening in the States? I've been warned plenty about 'Thai time' and everything, but I thought this just epitomized the Thai way of life.

Alright quick background before getting into Sunday- rewind back to Saturday's lunch. We happened to strike up some small talk with a couple of westerners sitting at the table next to us, who, as it turned out, were living in Mae Hong Son for a while (one was a huge Swedish guy who claimed that he used to be a "city guy" but found Chiang Mai too overwhelming for him- I was quite curious what his idea of being a "city guy" was if his tolerance for urban life peaked with Chiang Mai...). Anyways, I asked them for any recommendations for a weekend activity and they suggested trying to take a day trip to a small village further north called Mae Aw. They said it was a cool little Chinese village buried along the Thai-Burma border, and after reading rave reviews in Lonely Planet about the drive out there alone, we were sold. After shopping around a bit to find someone who would drive us out there, we finally found a little old guy who gave us a good price for a private air-con van and promised to be our personal tour guide throughout the day. I told Aaron and his mom right after we booked him that I was getting good vibes from this guy, and he really played such a huge role in making Sunday one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

After an early start, we piled into the van at 8:30 on Sunday and started off on our adventure. The van itself was great because I got a whole row to myself, so I was literally bouncing back and forth from one window seat to the next to try to catch as much of the scenery along the drive as possible. Honestly, the car ride itself and the accompanying scenery was one of the best parts of the day- I'm just disapointed that I don't have more picutres of some of the amazing landscapes we passed along the way (either we were going too fast and the pictures would blur, or I would miss the opening in the trees or roadside bushes in the delay between when I pressed the button and when the picture would actually take). Throughout the whole ride, we were passing stretches of rice fields in the absolute middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by stretches of mountains that you would expect more in Switzerland than in Thailand, with groups of villagers out working in their big circular hats like something straight out of National Geographic. One of the coolest feelings for me was just thinking of how really remote we actually were- I'm talking about villages and areas that are almost a two hour drive north of a tiny town which itself is an 8 hour drive north of Chiang Mai. In fact, until just a few years ago, it would have taken 8 hours to travel where we went in just about in hour, because the road still had not been paved. I pass by some rice paddies and farmers on my way to work everyday in Chiang Mai (after all, Chiang Mai is about as remote as you can get and still legally be called a "city") but out where we were on Sunda, there were no neighboring highways, no 7-11's, not even any sense of a 'town'- there were generally just a handful or less of simple bamboo huts overlooking the rice fields on the closest hillside. Like I said, I know I'm going to be completely unable to describe just how breathtaking it was to drive through all this for a couple of hours, but all I kept thinking was "now I've seen Thailand". Looking back on the rest of my time here, I realized that as cool as my experiences had been, I really hadn't seen the heart of Thailand- In some sense, Chiang Mai and Bangkok are the cultural centers of Thailand, and I don't mean to downplay the richness of Chiang Mai's history, culture and spirit. But this weekend made me realize that it was the people in these villages and the surrounding countryside they call home, both literally untouched by the modern world, that give the country its mystique, that are the fountains for any and all culture you see in Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Basically, you get the sense driving through this area that it all starts there. Hopefully I'm not beating a dead horse, but the whole scene was just more genuinely "untouched" than anything I've ever experienced- It seemed almost fictional, like I was stepping back in time, and yet I got a powerful feeling that it was the most "real" place I've ever visited. And all this was just the start of our day...

So after driving for about 45 minutes, we reached our first stop- a post card-perfect (the most perfect of picture-perfect scenes) waterfall called Nam Tok Pha Sua (pretty sure we were at this one, but it might have been called something else). Anyways, the falls were incredible-all the more powerful being in the middle of the rainy season, and completely tucked away in an opening in the jungle- is it weird that it reminded me of something out of Peter Pan? Not sure why I got that image, but part of me was expecting some mermaids to pop out of the pool below the falls while we were there...The one thing I was disapointed about was that the path to the bottom/base of the falls was blocked because the rainy season had made the water so powerful and dangerous (but hey I guess I can't complain because this just made the view from the top all the more scenic).

So after spending a short while taking in the falls, we got back in the van and again continued on our spectacular drive. One section of the drive after the falls included an extremely steep climb through some very windy roads, and of course no street lights or anything like that - basically not a road I would care to experience at night, especially during the rainy season. At one point we were so high that we were above the clouds (my ears even started to pop). After another 45 minutes or so we puled off the paved road and drove a bit down a dirt road into a tiny little village (again, just a cluster of the tiny one-room bamboo huts, thatched roofs, no electricity, etc.). After a couple of minutes, we got out of the van to walk for a bit because the road was so muddy and slippery that the van couldnt even get up a tiny little slope. So after walking for just about 10 minutes through a narrow clearing (during which I received a private lesson from our tour guide about the "king of opium" who used to live in that village and the glory days when opium was just grown along the side of this path and 100% free for any one who wanted it) we came to a wooden sign with "Thailand" painted in white on its front. I was a bit confused at first until I looked just behind the sign and saw a similar sign, this one with "Myanmar" painted in white. Yes, we were officially at the Thai-Burma boder! Unfortunately, we couldn't see any Burmese villages or anything on the other side, but we were treated to yet another breathtaking view of endless mountains from our vantage point on top of somewhat of a ridge running along this mountain. It was almost nice that the view wasn't corrupted by villages- it gave the experience a very powerful feeling as I couldn't help but think of the vastness of the country that lay before me. Just as we were arriving at the border, two Burmese women were crossing over with baskets of goods. It was interesting to see the surprised looks they gave us, which made me wonder when the last time they had seen a Westerner was, if ever. We got the soldier who was guarding the post to let us cross the border, though we werent't allowed to walk too far (basically had to stay in sight, which mean within about 20 yards or so). Still, it was very cool to say I was officially in Burma. In any case, it likely would have taken quite some time to reach anything of note- our guide told me that the two women we saw likely came from the closest village on the Burmese side, which would have been about an hour's walk through the mountains (it's hard to exagerate how isolaetd these people are).

So after a little photo opp on the Burma side of the border, we walked along the ridge for a few minutes before our guide led us up a small slope to what looked like some sort of camp. We noticed a stretch of 3-foot ditches along the perimeter of the ridge, and when we saw some sandbags and overhead cover scattered along the perimeter we realized we were at some sort of military outpost. I honestly thought it was abandoned- there were a few little bamboo huts, again with just one tiny room and a very low roof (obviously meant exclusively for sleeping), and a few open-sided structures with thatched roofs. But after a few minutes of walking around looking at the view, a Thai soldier came out from one of the huts and started chatting with us. His name was Ooan (sp?) a middle aged guy who spoke pretty decent English after starting off with some small talk, we were soon talking all about his family (he had a son my same age at university), about how he received his university diploma from the princess of Thailand, even about how he met his wife at university. He brought out his camera and was showing us pictures of all of this, of his family, his graduation, and I got a kick out of the fact that pretty soon he was asking for to take some pictures with us. He even introduced us to his commanding officer- the whole thing was just another amazing experience- who knew I would be hanging out with these Thai soldiers at their camp on the Burma border for the better part of an hour on a random Sunday morning!

So once we finally left the army camp, we walked down a hand-made mud "stair case" through a bit of fields, and finally got to the Chinese village of Mae Aw. It turned out that we didn't really see a ton of the village but it was interesting to see all the lanterns and decorations with Chinese writings. It was also cool to learn a bit about the village from our guide (another personal lesson)- Mae Aw was started by some Chinese renegade fighters who fled China and started this village as a sort of military outpost. Apparently its one of the last remaining KNT settlements, and for a while was used as a supply center to smuggle basic goods to the opium king I mentioned before. More recently, Taiwan expressed its interest in getting the village and the people to join its population (I guess Taiwan was trying to boost its population, but why look to Thailand? If I'm remembering correctly, I feel like there was some other country nearby with a bit of a people surplus...). Anyways, the Mae Aw people rejected the offer and chose instead to remain a part of Thailand- actually, it's Thai name (Ban Rak Thai) literally means "Thai Loving Village". Our one fun little activity in the village was going for a free tea-tasting session (basically the same concept as wine-tasting)...the cool thing was that on the drive in, we had literally seen women out in the field picking the tea leaves that we were now drinking.

Alright this feels like an epic entry already, but nearing the end (I think...). So after we left the tea tasting/Mae Aw, we got back in the van, drove through some more (never-ending) breathtaking scenery, and finally arrived at a tiny little village of Shan ethnicity, where I guess our guide was fairly familiar with the villagers. I was shocked at the opportunity to see something like this- in Mae Aw they had at least had electricity (though only as of the last 3 years or so, and still no running water), but pulling into this village we were back in "complete isolation" land. Right when our van pulled up we were immediately greeted by two tiny children who came up to stare, their faces and clothes smudged with dirt- it was the type of sight that gives you sort of a pit in your stomach, and yet they seemed healthy, well-fed (big plus about Thailand being a rice-surplus country, there seems to be very little starvation, though of course plenty of poverty), and there was something beautiful about their curiosity. But again, this seemed like a village straight out of National Geographic- I saw a couple little 5 year-old girls carrying infants on their backs, back-pack style, and my guide was telling me how polygamy is still common (one of the leaders of the village had three wives, aged 62, 42, and 22)...One of the most amazing parts of the day (really one of the most special experiences of my life) was getting invited into the house of a 97 year old couple. They literally looked like they would crumble to pieces if you touched them (I was actually extremely annoyed with myself a few hours later when I accidentally deleted my one great picture of the old man, but at least I still have one of the woman). Aaron and his mom chose not to come into the couple's home for whatever reason, which really was too bad they missed out on this. Their home was a tiny one room hut, easily smaller than my 1st year college dorm room, with a very low roof. There was a pile of produce in one corner, and a small stone structure acting as a sort of stove with a big pan sitting on top and an open fire underneath- there was something really awful-looking in the pan, with flies swarming all around it, but I came to find out that it was food for their pigs. In another corner, there was an open smoldering fire, over which hung some vegetables and small skewers of meat that they were smoking. The combined open fire and wood burning stove gave the room the smell of one of those old colonial re-enactment houses from Williamsburg or Old Saybrook. I tried to converse with the woman a bit in Thai, but it didn't really go too far. The amazing thing was as we were leaving, she gave me and my guide each a small stalk of corn on the cob. It was such a simple gesture, and yet was so moving, especially after seeing how she lived and considering how much it must have meant to her to even give that corn away. My guide kept insisting that it was a sign of respect, that it meant she really respected me, and while part of me kept thinking that it was just him being a flattering tour guide, he seemed so genuine and actually moved himself that I was quite ready to believe him - overall it was an incredibly special experience, exactly the type of experience I had dreamed about having coming into Thailand, but never though it would actually happen.

Anyways, after we visited with these people, we walked for a while through the rest of this village and basically just saw how the rest of the people lived. While some people had two story bamboo homes, there was literally no electricity in the entire village, no running water (their "showers" were basically large buckets of water with small pales to scoop the water and pour it over themselves). After walking for a pretty long time we came to a slightly more upscale village (but only very slightly, still the small bamboo huts and thatched roofs, still no running water), but it seemed like a few of the huts were available for tourists to rent. I met another man and spoke to him for a bit about picutres he had of the King and Queen visitng the village and receiving gifts from all the villagers, and about how he had personally grown, picked, ground, and prepared his specialty coffee for the royals. So we continued this epic walk until we reached a stunning lake at the end of town. We took in the view for a bit, and then walked even more around the entire lake. The whole surrounding area and walking path was covered with woods, and dense jungle just beyond that. Most of my time on this walk was spent listening to my guide about the importance of getting back to nature, and how it is impossible to find air that fresh anywhere in the industrialized world- quite true, and there was, in fact, a palpable difference from the air in Chiang Mai.

Alright, so I'm just about spent with all this writing- long story about getting some pictures up on this post, but I'm feeling a bit lazy with that right now and I can't explain how much of a pain it is to post them on here, so if I don't change my mind soon and publish this without pictures, I apologize but prommise there's a decent amount up on Webshots and hope you'll take a look at them there (though like I said, the pictures don't even capture half of the beauty of it all). Hopefully you enjoyed reading the post as much as I enjoyed writing it, even if it does lack the normal illustrations. In other news, I'm officially less than one month away from my return to the States, so that's exciting!

Till next time,

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