Bangkok is amazing on many, many counts, but there is much more to Thailand than Bangkok. For assorted reasons, over the last decade, I have been greatly attracted to the places where the Mekong flows and to the areas of Thai borders with neighboring countries – Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia. In pursuit of these twin attractions, I have been fortunate to make a number of very soul-satisfying trips to where the Mekong flows and the border-junctions of twin-cultures. ALL these have been ‘voyages of discovery’ for me – giving me untold joy and an opportunity to share my experiences with you, good readers.
The last trip was a particularly interesting one where I started from Bangkok, went to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Mae Sot, traveled to the northernmost city in Thailand – Mae Hong Son, and touched Don Khon of the 4,000 islands fame in the southernmost trip of Laos before returning to Bangkok. It is a part of this trip which we are going to share today.
The part we shall talk about covers a ‘Dream Destination’ – Mae Hong Son, a.k.a. ‘City of Three Mists’ and a ‘Lost Village’ whose name Ban Rak Thai, literally translates in to “We love Thailand,” or “The Thai-loving Village.”
Getting to Mae Hong Son was a Great Adventure. The first stop after Bangkok was Phitsanulok, about half-way on the rail route to Chiang Mai. At places rain waters had flooded the rail tracks and the train was negotiating these stretches very slowly, listing from one side to another quite noticeably. Outside, it was a floating world, the waters were over housetops at many places. We reached Phitsanulok about four hours late – but we reached safely. I spent some interesting times at Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet, and Mae Sot before finding myself crammed in the back of a ‘sawngthaew’ in the company of old ladies, young-and-old men, assorted children and numberless bundles and packages. There are no direct buses from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang – on the way to Mae Hong Son – and I had to take the only means of transport available. A sawngthaew (literally meaning ‘two rows’) is a small pick-up truck with two facing benches in the back. It started raining as soon as we started and the canvas flaps on the sides only helped to get everyone wetter. The road was not quite the best of roads, but the young driver must have been a kamikaze pilot in a previous birth and drove like he was Michael Schumacher at the Monaco Grand Prix. We stopped from time to time, with some passengers getting down and others being picked up. The driver decided to make up the time lost due to disembarkations/embarkations and drove even faster. My insides underwent a ‘manthan’ and ‘paribortan’ like never before. After about seven hours of torture, we did reach Mae Sariang. On the day after I viewed the large ‘ordinary’ bus which took me to Mae Hong Son as a VIP Volvo! But the bus did get me to Mae Hong Son.
The title ‘City of Three Mists’ is deserved by Mae Hong Son because there are mists all through the year. When the winter mists and the rainy-season mists are not there, there are ‘mists’ caused by the burning of weeds by the farmers. Never mind the morning mists, Mae Hong Son, the northernmost city in Thailand and the capital of the province by the same name is really a ‘Dream Destination’ – even it was also known as ‘The Siberia of the North’ at one time - with a beautiful small lake with blooming lotus flowers and a promenade around it, an impressive wat on one side, lakeside cafes and bars and a hill with some impressive structures benignly standing guard over everything. The ‘Siberia of the North’ title was earned at one time by the city because there were no paved roads and the only access was through elephant trails resulting in isolation and becoming a ‘fine place’ to banish troublesome officials. Now, the place boasts of an airfield.
I was lucky to get a room a minute’s walk away from the lake and overlooking it. The lake became a favorite morning and evening haunt with its placid and serene beauty having counterpoints such as the glorious sunsets, myriad reflections in the water including those of a nearly full moon flirting and playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, the soothing chants of the monks at the wat and the changing scenes of people enjoying what the lake had to offer at various times of the day. A special bonus was some excellent food and the drop-that-cheers at some very good lakeside restaurants. Mae Hong Son was an ideal location for real/pretending lotus-eaters. There was excitement too in the form of visits to hill tribe villages not far from the town to experience their distinctive cultures. These villages include those inhabited by the long-neck women. Due to paucity of time and having visited a couple of longneck women villages elsewhere in Thailand and Myanmar, I could not sample the hill tribe experience. But I did make it a point to visit the ‘Lost Tea Village’ of Ban Rak Thai, or Mae Aw – as it is also called. But before we go to Ban Rak Thai, a bit more about Mae Hong Son history.
The place has been said to have been founded by Chiang Mai princes around 1831 as a training camp for wild elephants captured from the surrounding jungle. Shan (Thai Yai) people were brought from Burma to train the elephants. Thus the place has a large part of its population which is of Burmese origin and there is much Burmese influence till today, making Mae Hong Son more interesting.
About 40km away from Mae Hong Son is the hill tea-village, Ban Rak Thai/Mae Aw, just a short distance away from the Myanmar border. The journey from Mae Hong Son to Ban Rik Thai is through very picturesque and scenic landscapes. A stopover on the way must be made at the Pha Sua waterfall. The winding-climbing road gives glimpses of the Tea Village much before you reach the place and its tea-character is established by the roadside tea plantations. Suddenly, a picture postcard-pretty ‘lake’ and the quaint settlement around it presents itself, inviting you to explore and experience a ‘Slice of China’ in Thailand. Yes, this is a ‘Chinese Village’, settled by the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese- KMT) soldiers who fled from the Yunnan province of China at the time of the Communist takeover. The Thai government allowed them to settle here and the population of around 1000 is either the Chinese-born or Chinese born in Thailand. The ‘We Love Thailand’/Ban Rak Thai name of the village is a mark of gratitude of the people towards their adopted country. The language spoken is Mandarin and many signposts are in Chinese. The early settlers started growing tea and a major claim-to-fame of the village is its Tea Culture. You are offered for tasting some excellent Oolong Teas in some fascinating cups and the tea is served almost as an extremely charming ceremony. The teas here are perhaps some of the best teas you will come across anywhere. An annual Tea Tasting Festival is held in February. The buildings are a distinctively round shape, made with packed earth and colorfully decorated. The Chinese culture and character has been very carefully preserved. Another great attraction of the place is some superb Yunnan food, served in idyllic surroundings. ‘Must-haves’ include Moo Pang Pee (‘Thousand Year Pork’ – braised pork with preserved mustard greens), usually served with Mantou (steamed Chinese buns). There are other interesting pork, fish and vegetable dishes, including a Fresh Tea Leaf Salad.
Smiling, friendly people, hills, greenery, flowers, the shimmering waters of the lake, good eating and shopping for tea/curios – all added up to a unique experience of the distinctive kind. Not to forget the sign “Mr. Ho – Horse for hire.”
Bangkok is amazing on many, many counts, but there is much more to Thailand than Bangkok. For assorted reasons, over the last decade, I have been greatly attracted to the places where the Mekong flows and to the areas of Thai borders with neighboring countries – Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia. In pursuit of t