Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Long-necks & Monks in Mae Hong Son

After Pai, the next stop on the "northern loop" was Mae Hong Son.  The drive to Mae Hong Son was similar to the drive to Pai; up and down, side to side, rolling over and through the Thai highlands.  When we finally arrived in Mae Hong Son, people were selling t-shirts exactly like the ones for sale in Pai, but the "I survived the 762 curves to Pai!" tagline was replaced with "I survived the 1,864 curves to Mae Hong Son!".  Mae Hong Son is located on the Thai-Burmese border so you can't really go any further north or west, but I imagine if you could there would be a shirt available for purchase saying just how many curves it took to get there.

I liked Mae Hong Son from the beginning.  It's the most mountainous province in Thailand and it's name means "The City of Three Mists".  The town itself is "nestled in a deep valley, hemmed in by the high mountain ranges" of the Shan Hills that surround it.  Because it's a bit off the beaten path, Mae Hong Son is not nearly as touristy as Chiang Mai or Pai.  That's part of the reason it appealed to me.

Our guesthouse (Johnnie House, about $5 USD/night for a fan room) was located conveniently at the center of town, right on a lake.  Jong Kham Lake is small, but charming.  It's quiet, kept very clean, and there are restaurants and shops along the outlying footpath.  From our guesthouse we had a great view of a beautiful 200 year-old Shan-style temple on the opposite side.  Not-so-distant mountains provided an epic back drop to the scene.
Wat Jon Kham
Mae Hong Son's natural setting provides both a place to relax and a place to be active.  There's world-class hiking, biking, rafting, and elephant trekking.  The province is also home to many hill-tribe villages that have been forced to flee their native land, neighboring Myanmar (Burma), as political refugees.  One of these hill-tribe peoples is the Kayan (or Karenni), also known as the "long-necked" tribe.  The women (Lahwi) wear coiled rings that put pressure on the collar bone and, over time, give the appearance of a stretched neck.  A few long-neck villages around Mae Hong Son that have become tourist sites.  This allows foreigners to get glimpse inside the Kayan culture in addition to providing a source of self-sufficient revenue for the people.

I found a map, rented a motorbike for the day, and drove out to one of these villages.  It cost 250 baht to enter.  According to an information leaflet I was given, the entrance "fee supports their daily needs such as food, medical treatment, children's education, [the] development of their village, and other extra needs".  As I walked around these people's village, I felt more than a little uncomfortable.  I understood that because they are refugees and have no way of working (or farming, as was their traditional way of life), that this is the only real stream of income that they have, but I still felt a sense of guilt.  Some people have gone as far as to label these villages "human zoos" and while I wouldn't go that far, the ethics of such an issue are certainly debatable.  I got permission from a few of the "long-neck" women to take their pictures.  Afterward, I donated some money in exchange for a postcard, hopped on the motorbike, and left.

I'm convinced Brittany is a long-neck descendant
I had the motorbike for 24 hours and the day was still young, so I made use of it by exploring.  The mountain roads may be hell while in a bus, but on a motorbike they're a lot of fun!  I raced up and down the rolling hills.  Just outside of town I pulled off the main road to follow a steep dirt path up a hillside.  Upon reaching the hilltop, Britt and I were greeted warmly by two monks living in a monastery there.  They invited us to sit down, gave us cupcakes and water, and showed us around their temple that was still under construction.  We spoke in Thai for the best part of an hour on topics ranging from Buddhism to Mike Tyson.  They were curious as to what Americans eat, if not rice, and at the end of our conversation they invited us to stay at the monastery and teach them English.  This random and quirky encounter was probably my favorite part of the day.

photo credit: abrutalkind on tumblr
From there we rode further, on a quest for Tham Pla, the "Fish Cave", a local tourist attraction.  After an hour of riding and searching we found it, but decided we didn't feel like paying the 100 baht ($3.25 USD) entrance fee.  It was, after all, just a cave with some fish in it.  We turned around and drove back to town.

When we got back, we decided to try and catch the sunset from Mu Kong, the local hill that looks over Mae Hong Son town.  From the bottom, ascending the hill looked like an exhausting task, but it turned out to be pretty pleasant.  The hundreds of steps to the top were well worth it.  On top of Mu Kong hill, is Wat Phra That Doi Mu Kong, a Shan-style temple, accompanied by two Burmese-style Chedis (stupas) built in 1860.  One of the stupas is said to "contain the relics of Phra Moggalana, one of the disciples of Buddha".  We walked around and checked out the stupas and the awesome hilltop views.  First, I looked out from the viewpoint on the east side.  I could see over the entire valley.  The town and the lake below looked like a miniature model.

We went to the other viewpoint to watch the sunset from the cleverly named Sunset Cafe on the west side of the mountain.

By the time we reached the bottom of Mu Kong hill, there was a night market set up around the lake and a parade going on in the streets.  People were dressed up in Northern Thai-style outfits.  Some were singing and some did traditional dances.  We watched for a while, then retreated to the guesthouse for some much needed rest.  It had been quite an eventful day.
Jong Kham lake & temple at night
The following morning we packed up and took a rickety bus a few hours to the even smaller border town of Mae Sariang where we'd stay just for one night.  We were about to finish the loop.  The final leg of our northern tour was an interesting one.  Our ultimate destination was Mae Sot, where Britt and I would be volunteering for the next couple of months, working with Burmese refugees.  Unfortunately, we didn't know that there is no bus from Mae Sariang to Mae Sot.  The only way to get there is in the back of a songthaew, essentially a pickup truck with a caged-in bed.  To make an insanely exhausting story of even more exhausting ride short, watch this super quick video I shot of the songthaew journey.  Seriously, watch it...  It's amazing how many people they can fit into the back of one truck!

After 6 hours of bumpy unpaved roads and being crammed together with something like 34 other people (90% of whom were chewing and spitting beetle nut the whole time), we finally arrived Mae Sot.  It wasn't fun, but we made it.  We were safe and we'd had a crazy new experience.  In the end, that's what traveling is all about.

panoramic shot of Jong Kham Lake-- where we stayed in Mae Hong Son

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