The bus ride to Pai was one of the most scenic rides in all of Thailand. The roads winded through the mountains, and it felt like we were back in Laos again. As we pulled into the bus station, a man was walking across the street with a shirt that said “Do nothing in Pai.” This pretty much explains the town in a nutshell. Pai is a small little tourist town in the North-West area of Thailand which for some reason has turned into a backpacker hangout. There are no real attractions, except for the scenery, which can include riding elephants through the jungle to view numerous caves and waterfalls. The town itself is relatively calm, with Western style restaurants everywhere you turn. There are also plenty of motorbike rental places lining the small, narrow streets.
We decided to take a hint from the hordes of westerners riding motorbikes, and rent one ourselves the next day. We began the day riding a few kilometers outside the town to a wat located at the top of a small hill. This wat was not spectacular by itself, but the view from the hill was great. Unfortunately, since it is almost the rainy season, most of the farmers were burning their fields to create fertilizer. While this may be great for future crops, the haze in the sky blocks the beautiful scenery.
We continued our tour past a few of the elephants used for trekking in the area, but decided not to stop to ride one. Most of the elephants looked very old and tired. We did stop further down the road at a hot springs site. It was relatively expensive to get in, so we were expecting huge pools of heated spring water to bathe in. However, when we got in, all there was to see were a few 80 degree Celsius pools. A small stream ran across the pools, but it wasn’t too much fun to wade only up to our ankles in the hot water. We suspect that this spring is much better during the rainy season when the stream probably turns into a river, and the cold rain water would make the heated water bearable. The rest of the day, we spent riding around the area taking in the scenery and enjoying our time in what felt like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle, and just us and a motorbike.
Luckily enough, our motorbike rental came with 6 free hours, so the next day, we decided that instead of heading South like the previous day, we would head North for a quick bike. One suggested itinerary was to head to a Chinese village nearby, as well as a local waterfall. The village was rather dull, in that the only evidence that it was a Chinese village were red banners hanging above the doorways of houses. Mo Paeng, the waterfall, was actually pretty neat. We had heard that in the dry season, it’s possible to slide down the smooth rocks into the water below, but due to the rains the night before, the water looked a little too strong to do it safely. Before going back to town, we toured the rest of the countryside, and fortunately for us, it was finally sunny! However, before we knew it, we were back in Pai, and getting on a bus bound for Soppong (Pangmapha).
Our reason for visiting Soppong was to see Cave Lot, a cave known for it’s various chambers and coffins. The bus stopped in the small town, and we jumped off and got a room. The town itself was a single road bordered on either side by a few shops. You could drive through it in about 10 seconds, and it seemed as if we were the only westerners in the place. It was still early by this time, so we decided to walk the town to see if there was anything to do. Five minutes later, we were back at our starting point. That’s how exciting the town was. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing by the river in our bungalow, and eating different kinds of fruit including mangosteen and rambutan that we bought from the vendors. We both decided that mangosteen is now our favourite fruit. Too bad we can’t get it in North America.
In order to get to Cave Lod, we had to rent a motorbike. This seems like a re-occurring theme in the Mae Hong Son province. “Mama” from our guest house told us that we could rent a bike no problem, so we waited about 45 minutes before she told us that it wasn’t possible. Undaunted, we walked to the nicer guest house in the area, and they made some calls for us, but told us that there were no bikes for us and that the only place we could get one was in Pai. It looked as if we had definitely arrived in the slow season. After asking even more people, and getting turned down, we returned to our guest house, where Mama’s daughter offered us her bike. We were relieved, because visiting the cave was our only reason for stopping here. What we didn’t know, but learned quickly, was that this was a real motorbike, complete with a clutch. All previous motorbikes that we had used were either automatic or were manual “step-throughs” without a clutch. All you have to do to drive a step-through is step on a pedal to shift up or down. Thankfully, Adam is a quick learner, so off we went to the cave.
About 10 km into the jungle, we came across Cave Lot, a huge cave with a wide river running through it. After paying the entrance and guide fee, we set out with our guide carrying a huge gas powered lamp. As we approached the cave, we could hear thousands of bats and swifts flying in and around the opening of the cave. The opening itself was probably 8 stories high, and just as wide. Our guide signaled for one of the men to come with us, and he prepared a bamboo raft for us to sit on to take us through the cave. The water isn’t that deep in the cave, probably as deep as 2-3 feet in some spots, so the man just jumped in the water, and pushed us along. As we entered the cave, the bats and swifts were circling above us, going about their daily business. It was a really cool feeling, almost like we were in a Batman movie.
We visited three different huge caverns inside the cave complex. Because of the huge torch and lack of lighting in the caves, it really felt like we were exploring something just discovered. The caves were full of huge columns, stalactites and stalagmites, and gigantic sinkholes. The second of the caves even had a pre-historic drawing of an animal with an arrow and a sun. However, due to people touching the picture, it’s been reduced to light shading. The last cave had a bunch of teakwood coffins made from hollowed out trees. According to researchers, these coffins are from 2000-3000 years old (about the same age as the drawing). This last cavern was situated at the other end of the cave, right where many of the bats and swifts live. There was crap everywhere, and as we were pushed through the water, we were barely missing their bombs as they fell above us. Somehow, Tara managed to escape the wrath, but Adam definitely got hit. At the end of the cave, our raft pusher turned into a raft puller, and pulled us back to the entrance of the cave. This must have been a tough job, because we were going upstream. After finishing our visit of the cave, we jumped back on our motorbike and headed back to Soppong. We arrived just in time to catch the next bus to Mae Hong Son, the capital of the province.
When we arrived in Mae Hong Son, we got caught in the bus scam that was prevalent in Laos. The new bus station had been built just outside the city, and we were forced to take an expensive tuk-tuk ride into the city. When we arrived at our chosen guest house, the girls running the place were very helpful and gave us a map of the area, including distances, and what they recommend to see. After reading about the sites, we decided to rent another motorbike (surprise, surprise) for two days.
The first day we rode as far North as we could to Mae Aw, a small town right beside the Myanmar border originating from remnants of Kuomintang (KMT) supporters that had fled Yunnan, China. The scenery along the roads up there was breathtaking, although at times a bit chilly. We left for this trip early in the morning, and ended up motorbiking through some clouds in the mountains. We didn’t stay long in Mae Aw, as we had heard that fighting sometimes breaks out around the border, and so we backtracked to Pha Sua waterfall. This waterfall is about 20 meters high and 30 meters wide, and has a little pool at the bottom, although it looked too murky for swimming when we were there. They also encourage you to feed the fish in the pool with a sign that read “Food Fo Fish”. These fish were pretty big; they definitely weren’t starving.
After a rest at the waterfall, we were off to see some more huge fish, at Fish Cave. This cave, set in a beautifully manicured park, is home to thousands of huge “Pluang-Hin” fish. These fish can grow up to one meter long, and for unknown reasons are continuously swimming into this cave. Unfortunately, we can’t see what is in the cave, but we did end up feeding the fish insects and plants. We’ve never seen fish that voluntarily eat veggies. When we threw the food into the water, they all jumped for it and went crazy. They even followed us in the water because they know they were going to get fed.
Our final stop for the day was a village that was also close to the Myanmar border. This village is regarded by the Thai as a self-sustaining refugee village, and there is an army base right beside it that also takes in refugees from Myanmar. As we were driving on the road to the village, we saw a variety of NGO trucks filled with workers. There are also permanent offices in Mae Hong Son, and so the refugee flow is probably constant, not just due to the cyclone last month. The reason we wanted to visit the village was due to the long-necked women. From an early age, these Kayan women wear rings of metal around their necks to suppress their bone and muscle structure, and “elongate” their necks. This is an illusion, because their necks aren’t actually elongated. The pressure on their collarbone and rib cages actually cause the ribs to slant downward, and the muscles just follow suit. We spoke with one women who said that it didn’t hurt, but it was obvious just from speaking with her that her speech is slightly impaired, and she might also not be able to eat very well because her jaw was restricted.
After a long day of touring around the countryside, we took it easy at night and walked around the lake in town to see the small night market. On our last day in Mae Hong Son, we decided to motorbike pretty far to a waterfall called Mae Surin. Our trusty yellow guidebook suggested visiting it, and our guest house didn’t, so we definitely wanted to go. After motorbiking for almost three hours along the windy roads, through clouds and rain, we finally arrived at the spectacular waterfall. This waterfall must be hundreds of meters high, and surrounded by lush green forest. It really was a sight to see. Unfortunately, it wasn’t sunny, or the pictures would have been unbelievable. We spent a bit of time here just admiring the falls, and before we knew it, it was almost time to head back. It seems to rain every afternoon around 3-4pm in this region of Thailand, and so we weren’t sure if we were going to make it back dry. Thanks to Adam’s great driving, we beat the rain by about 15 minutes.
To complete our time in the Northern part of Thailand, we took the bus back to Chiang Mai along the southern route, through the Doi Inthanon National Park. We’re now back in Chiang Mai to try and pick up our Buddha, and head toward Bangkok for the final portion of our trip.