Rubber necking in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

March 4, 2010 at 5:10 pm 4 comments

After seeing the healthy tourist scene in Pai we were expecting something similar from nearby Mae Hong Son. Less IKEA furniture and live music for sure, probably something a little less quaint too but when you are dealing with the capital of a province – and one with such easy access to so many hiking routes, minority villages and frontier towns – that comes with the territory, doesn’t it?

What we weren’t expecting, and what we got, was a peaceful traditional town which, according to the German we shared our tuk-tuk with, has hardly changed one iota in the last 27 years. Once an important logging town, Mae Hong Son has changed its stripes – using its elephant population for jungle treks instead of heavy lifting and turning many of its traditional wooden houses into inviting little guesthouses. Yet a wander around the town rarely reveals more than a handful of tourists, all of whom are quietly perusing menus or whispering over a beer.

It was in one of the town’s homestays that we dropped our bags after the long and bumpy drive from Pai and in the spirit of the Mae Hong Son, Home for Relaxing didn’t take long to impress us. Run by a young couple with the help of their bouncy young daughter and a gregarious puppy, the guesthouse was nothing less than the most welcoming place we have ever stayed. After almost 4 months away from our family and friends, being invited into another family to share meals, smiles and even bum the odd lift, was exactly what we needed and we were only sorry that we had no more than 2 nights to spare.

Of course if I had my way we would have had our own set of wheels. The plan had always been to rent bikes and do the renowned Mae Hong Son loop which takes in 1864 bends, three important towns, several national parks, Thailand’s highest peak, an immeasurable amount of mountain passes and almost 1000km of smooth road. Gary had other ideas though and, after taking one look at the winding route from Chiang Mai to Pai, he put his foot down, refusing to let me anywhere near a bike in case I lost the other side of my face too (granted that was almost inevitable). As a compromise between his paranoia and my suicidal tendancies, we decided to rent a shared bike in Mae Hong Son and be our own guides for the day. What our photocopy of a hand-drawn map didn’t tell us though, was that we would be attempting to drive 140km on dodgy road entirely uphill in both directions. Had we known, we might have dragged ourselves out of our cozy bed before 12pm.

Our first stop was a nearby Kayan village, or to be less PC, a long-neck village. One of Mae Hong Son’s most controversial ‘attractions’, traditional Kayan women wear heavy brass coils on their neck, starting at the age of five and adding more rings as they get older. The end product depresses the women’s collar bones, giving the impression of a foot long neck. While some people will tell you that the women have to wear the coils non-stop because taking them off causes their chest to collapse, this is just a myth and the Kayans take their jewellery off regularly. That said, no-one seems to know exactly why they do wear them. Popular theories say that it is to make them less attractive to men of other tribes; to stop them from being carried away by the neck by tigers; to keep their valuables safe from thieves; and according to Lonely Planet as a simple fashion statement. What is definite is that the practice was dying out until money brought in by tourists and pressure from the government encouraged the tribes to keep the custom alive. Today these tribes, originally from Burma and once self-sufficient farmers, live on the proceeds of tourism – collecting a toll of 250 baht from every visitor and selling souveniers in return for a photo opportunity.

As much as this may sound like a zoo, we didn’t get this impression at all on our visit. Arriving in the least touted of the villages long after the tour groups had gone, we were the only westerners around at the time so instead of pandering to hoards of flashing cameras, the women were all lazing in hammocks, weaving, gossiping or tending to their children.

After spending a day’s budget on souveniers we didn’t want and Gary getting exactly the photos he did want, we hopped back on the bike and headed for a shan village on the Burmese border. While it was nice to see the town itself and the waterfall we visited en route was fine, the best part of the excursion was the drive which took us from winding valley roads, past elephants grazing on the roadside, over pocmarked warzones, through swishing rice paddies, clambouring up cliff-faces and eventually, free-wheeling into tea and coffee plantations.

We argued over speed (G:“Slow down Ro, you’re going to kill us.” R:“Do you even have the damned thing turned on, Gary?”), throttle (G:“Just give it some revs Ro!” R:“I am Gary but this hill is at like 179 degrees!”) and who got to drive (G: “I’m a much better driver than you are.” R: “Eh no you aren’t.” G: “Yeah well which one of us lost half her face to a road then?” R: “It was a patch of gravel, there was nothing I could do. And anyway, it’s hard to crash when you never top 5km/hr.”) and generally just had a gay old yearlongbreakup time.

As excited as we were to get back to Chiang Mai for our upcoming trip to elephant sanctuary and cookery course, we were sad to leave Mae Hong Son in the end. With its scenic day trips, glittering temples, tranquil lake and smiling locals, the provincial capital was exactly the slice of Thailand we had been hungering for.

More pictures from Mae Hong Son are available in the gallery

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Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , , , .

A slice of Pai, Thailand Thailand’s mistreated mascot, Chiang Mai, Thailand

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Celina 'look at me, I'm on Ro's laptop' Murphy  |  March 5, 2010 at 12:36 am

    “a gay old yearlongbreakup time”…

    Bless yous, you can bicker with the best of them x

    Reply
  • 2. Hazel 'I'm a better driver than the both of you' Hayes  |  March 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Gary, I have to go with Ro on this one… you’re an atrocious driver. I know you had to spatula her face off the road recently, but still.

    Reply
    • 3. yearlongbreakup  |  March 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm

      Hazel. SHUT UP!

      Reply
      • 4. Hazel 'I'm a better driver than the both of you' Hayes  |  March 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm

        Love you too Gary! 🙂

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