A brief overview of the last week or so in Northern Thailand, as our double-decker bus back to Bangkok lurches to and fro like a ship at sea:
Chiang Mai was not quite the bucolic small town the guidebook made it seem, so we headed northwest to the semi-famed Mae Hong Son loop. Thailand isn’t known for it’s mountains, but the northwestern border with Burma is an exception. Stands of limestone karst thousands of feet high jut out of the sort of thick jungle you remember from all those Vietnam War movies. The hills keep getting higher as you head towards northern Myanmar, southern China and up towards India and Nepal. In a way this was a prelude to the end of our trip – the humble beginnings of the Himalaya.
The trip up the winding mountain road to Pai was complicated by the second coffee I had before leaving Chiang Mai. Much of the first half was spent scheming a way to fit a small water bottle up my short leg so that the haughty French couple ahead of us in the converted 15 passenger van wouldn’t get a free show. Luckily, as the situation hit it’s most pressing, we screeched to a stop at a roadside pit stop with strict rules:
Pai was a cute little town well on its way to being overrun by tourists – both Farang and Thai, who apparently fell in love with a couple movies that were set here. (It’s like Sleepless in Seattle!) Luckily for us it hadn’t blown up so much that we couldn’t find a beautiful little teak-floored bungalow for $12 a night from a delightful old Thai couple that drew us a map of the area. After thorough perusal of the nightly street market that night, we rented bicycles the next day and rode about 15 km up to a waterfall. Fittingly, it began to pour as we reached the falls, only to turn to a torrent on the way downhill. The brakes worked, althogh we couldn’t guarentee that for the next renters.
Wanting to cover a little more ground the next day, we followed the example of the hordes of other tourists careening through the local streets in fits and starts and rented a motorbike. This was thoroughly terrifying at first, having been used to four wheels on my machines. But once you got outside of town, with less motorized traffic (and more elephants), it became much easier. This is the preferred method of transportation for locals (in the sticks and Bangkok alike) and for $3.50 for the day plus a couple bucks in gas, it’s pretty hard to beat. We spent the day traipsing across the rice paddies and rolling hills.
We also saw our first elephant of the trip, though not in the best situation. It was chained up by the side of the highway – $1 to feed it and $20 to ride. We couldn’t help but take the opportunity to feed it, despite not feeling good about it. This experience would help motivate us to spend a bit more money a week later to ensure our real day with elephants was spent with a more humane organization.
I’d been lured to Cave Lodge months earlier by a glowing Lonely Planet review and didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. John, an ex-pat Aussie and his Shan wife run the place, which may be one of my favorite hostels I’ve ever visted. Though the $10 bungalow was sufficiently rustic (read: ant-infested), the location was unbeatable. In a small village 8km from the highway, right next to Tham Lod Cave – 1.6 km worth of giant caves. With a river running through it, it’s best toured on a bamboo (sort of) raft with an old woman guide from the local Shan tribe. Wooden coffins and cave paintings that are up to 3,000 years old are a couple of the highlights. And more bats than you could ever fathom – a hundred feet above you, perturbed at your presence. Our Shan guide turned to thank a small shrine (or spirit house) at the entrance to the cave to thank the resident spirits for letting us out. (Buddhism fits in alongside old school animism here.) The exit of the cave also sees hundreds of thousands of swifts return every night at sunset, bloting out the evening sky like a swarm of insects. Another day was spent hiking along a nearby ridgeline and a third was spent on a more athletic bit of caving. The $20 guided daylong tour of three of the nearly 200 caves in the area got the heart rate elevated, as did the steep trails in between, which became ice rinks of red clay with the recent rains. When you’re trying to farm just about every farmable hillside as they do in this area, switchbacks take up too much room. There was much gnashing of teeth, blood, mud and knee pain. The caves required a bit of contortion that looked like nothing to our tiny 60-year-old Thai guide, but were a bit tighter for Americans. At least one was a military style crawl through a stream with just enough room between the cave cieling and waterline for your head. (No pictures of this, as you can imagine.) It ended in an overlook of 100-foot waterfall into seeming nothingness below. John explained later that the cave had seen the only caving death in recent memory when someone ventured too close to the edge and fell to their death. A day worth of failed attempts to retrieve the body were followed by sacrifices and prayer and eventual success the next day.
We tore ourselves away from Cave Lodge, knowing that I might stay forever if we didn’t make an escape. Judging by the wonderful Americans, Germans, Aussies and Israelis we met there, the great food and hammocks and serene setting had a way to keeping you longer than you meant to stay. So on to Mae Hong Son, about 65 km away, it was. But how to get there, with only sporadic minibusses plying the route. John suggested throwing up a thumb and we’re glad we did. A nice old man from Mae Hong Son took us on the hour and a half drive from the back of his pickup, even stopping at an overlook and encouraging us to take pictures when he saw we had cameras. It was the best ride of the trip thus far, despite the occasional rain.
It poured like I’ve rarely seen it pour that night in Mae Hong Son, taking a lot away from a place known primarily for its scenic beauty. With our hostel not very appealing (you get what you pay for, at $6.50 a night) and the forecast equally terrible the next day, we decided we’d make a quick escape the very next day back to Chiang Mai. To our chagrin, we arrived at the bus station to find all the minivans for the rest of the day full and only an eight hour overnight local bus back to Chiang Mai available. Not being able to think of anything that sounded worse than an overnight bus on a windy road that stopped every 30 meters, we got a ticket for the following day. And wouldn’t you know it, a 90 percent chance of biblical rain actually means overcast with intermittent sun in Northern Thailand. The rest of the day was nice enough to take a nice little hike up to a temple on top of a hill with a nice view of the valley. Throw in some great ethnic Shan food and we’re glad we stayed. (Note to anyone who comes back here: do a trek out of Mae Hong Son – we heard some great things.)
Back in Chiang Mai for a second time, we met up with the incomparable Cari Lyle, Michael Murray and Hiro and Sara Egasomethingorother, in Thailand for three weeks to attend a friend’s wedding. There was (P.V.) much merrymaking, accidental walking into a karaoke bar that was a front for a bordello and at least three buckets of SamSong, Red Bull and coke ordered.
Despite that, we made it to the Elephant Nature Park the next morning, and we’re glad we did. Elephant tourism is a big industry in Thailand, with thousands coming to ride and gawk at the things. Elephant Nature Park takes in elephants retired from the trekking industry in Thailand, the logging industry in Burma and the gawking at industry in the streets of Bangkok. It’s probably been said a million times, but one look at these animals’ eyes reminds you of their intelligence. We met a precocious six-month old baby, an ornery teenager (from afar) and an 85-year-old great grandmother whose joints no longer moved and who was missing an eye thanks to a spiteful mahout (elephant trainer/breaker) who shot it with a slingshot. There was no riding, but we got to feed the animals, bathe them and, most importantly, see them roam the grounds mostly free. It was moving to hear how social the animals are – one recently had its lifelong companion pass away and now roams the perimeter of the property, in self-imposed solitary confinement. The organization has to bury dead elephants whole because the smell of a cremated elephant will make the animals highly agitated. They also have to put barbed wire around the graves so that the animals don’t dwell on the grave spots. We met the owner, Lek, who has been featured in Time Magazine and won dozens of conservation awards, and hear her talk about some of the trials and challenges working for conservation and ethical treatment of elephants in a culture that has been using the animals for hard labor for centuries and now relies on the tourist dollars they bring in. I also introduced the animals to their one of their mythical compatriots.
After about 24 hours of total bus travel split up over a few days, we’re currently at our first Thai beach – Railay. It’s a unique mix of the uber-rich here to sunbathe, grungy climbers here to scale the impressive walls of limestone in every direction and Thai hippies here to convince them all to buy as many cocktails as possible. More to come.