Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mae Hong Son - The Land of Three Mists

After a very exciting 6 weeks in India it was time to move on.  On March 12 we flew from New Delhi to Bangkok, Thailand where we spent the night.  The next morning we flew via Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand where we would spend the next week.  Our base was the Fern Resort 7 km outside of town.  Here we quickly made new friends including the giant Tokay Geckos that visited our bungalow at night.

Tokay Gecko

The resort is right next to Mae Surin National Park and we took a walk along the Mae Sakud Nature Trail to explore a piece of the Park.  During this time of year it is very hot and dry.  The temperature soared to over 100 degrees and most of the trees had lost their leaves.  There were many fires burning in the forest and even along our path in the forest.  We later learned that the locals set fire to the forest understory for two reasons:  One, it clears the forest floor of the dry leaves that crunch underfoot allowing for better hunting;  two, it promotes the growth of a particular mushroom that fetches a hefty price.  We climbed up to a viewpoint where we couldn't see much because of all the haze and smoke before heading back to the resort.
Mae Surin National Park

We met our local guide, Ball, the following morning for a day tour north of Mae Hong Son.  First on our agenda was a 2-hour bamboo raft ride on the Pai River.  We had never been on a bamboo raft before but them seemed very stable even when negotiating the tiny rapids along our way.

Heading for a Rapid on the Pai River

Next up was a visit to the Chinese Village of Bak Thai near the border with Myanmar.  The Kuomintang in Burma (KMT) Chinese Nationalist fighters fled here from Yunnan province in 1949 after their defeat to the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.  In the past this town was notorious for growing opium and smuggling it to Burma.  The King of Thailand visited here and convinced the locals to convert from growing poppies and selling opium to tourism.  

Bak Thai Village
We later visited a Hmong and Shan village, a sustainable agricultural project supported by the Royal Family, a waterfall and an abysmal zoo before returning to the resort.  Apparently this "zoo" is another one of the Royal Family's projects.  If so it is failing miserably and needs to be shut down or vastly improved.

The following day we drove for about 2 hours north of town to visit Thom Lod Cave near Soppong.  A short walk brought us to the entrance where we boarded a bamboo raft.  We had purchased food to feed the fish and now I could see why there were loads of them waiting for a hand out.  Ball threw them some food and a feeding frenzy ensued.  

Fish in Thom Lod Cave

We had to take a guide with a lantern - a good thing as it supports the local economy and protects the cave.  We stopped at the first big chamber more than 50 meters high where giant limestone pillars are formed when stalagmites and stalactites merge.  

Pillar in Thom Lod Cave
We crossed the Nam Lang river on a bamboo bridge and climbed 90 stairs to the second or Doll Chamber.  There was a faint painting of a deer on a rock supposedly 2-3000 years old.  The limestone formations here resembled dolls hence the name.  

Limestone Formations in "Doll Chamber"

One formation looked like a flying saucer and another resembled a crocodile.  

Limestone Crocodile

We climbed back down and boarded a different bamboo raft and continued to the third chamber while feeding the fish along the way.  This chamber is near the exit and thousands of swifts were flying around.  The stench from their guano was quite overpowering.  We had to climb stairs again and the railings were covered in guano.  In this chamber were broken teak wood coffins made by the Lawa people thousands of years ago.

Teak Wood Coffins

After lunch we visited the Black Lahu village of Jabo.  This village is part of a community based tourism project.  Locals are encouraged to open their homes to tourists for a minimal cost to share their culture.  When we arrived the place seemed deserted.  The lady of the house, Nagor, appeared and took us upstairs to her living room to show us some of the clothes she had made.  She is a very talented seamstress and had been selected to go to Chiang Mai to teach her sewing methods at the museum.  She was very proud and rightfully so.  

Nagor Displays her Handiwork

Her husband, Jaha, repaired and played the local gourd mouth organ called a norjurlae or simply naw.   He was the only man in this area who knows how to repair these instruments.  People from other villages bring their naw to him for repair.  The naw is made from gourds and bamboo.  In each bamboo tube there is a reed also made of bamboo.  There are different types of naw for love songs, dancing, funerals, etc.  Jaha played us several songs.
The next morning we met Ball for our final tour.  It started with an elephant ride on 38-year old Maeka.  We traveled along the road before veering off and heading along a stream.  Maeka kept wanting to graze which was OK with us.  At one point our mahout got off to take photos of us and it was a little scary being on an elephant with no mahout.  

Going Solo on Maeka

He went ahead and coaxed Maeka along but she was more interested in eating.  We returned to the mounting platform where Ball was waiting with sugarcane to feed Maeka.  

Peggy & Maeka

A group of locals pulled up in a pickup truck.  They wanted to see Maeka and a few brave souls got on her back.  Others weren't so sure and kept their distance.  The head guy wanted his photo taken with Marc and Maeka.  

The Locals Meet Maeka

We drove to the Karyn village of Huay Sue Tao.  I had mixed feelings about visiting the Karyn (also known as the Padaung) woman as it perpetuates the archaic custom of wearing heavy brass coils around their necks, compressing their rib cages and giving them the appearance of having very long necks.  They mainly do it now for the tourists.  But without our money how would they make a living?  Would I visit if they didn't wear brass coils?  

Karyn Matriarch

To get a better idea of how the woman were faring we visited a row of stalls that had been set up by them to sell their handicrafts.  We stopped at the first stall where a young mother was weaving.  I bought a scarf from her.

Karyn Woman Weaving

I ended up buying 4 more scarves including one from another young mother at the end of the street. She had her 2 children with her.  Her 5-year girl was precious and it was heartbreaking to see she was already wearing brass neck coils.  Clearly her mother was using her to attract business and it was working.  Ball noticed that her coils were cut so that they could be easily removed unlike the traditional ones that are one piece.  That made me feel a little better.  I will not include a picture of her as I feel it will add to her exploitation.   I asked the little girl's mother where her husband was and through Ball she said she was divorced and raising the kids on her own.  This may explain why she was using daughter to help earn money for the family.  Very sad I thought.

Single Mom Weaves to Support her Family

We talked to another young woman who spoke good English.  She gave the impression that life in Mae Hong Son had improved over the years and that even though most Karyn people are refugees from Myanmar they now have more freedom to move around Thailand  and to possibly get better jobs.  Returning to Myanmar didn't seem like a desired option.  We didn't have to pay admission to visit this village and I hope that all the money we spent will stay with the women and not go to some Thai middleman who is exploiting them.

Karyn Woman

We returned to the car and drove to a temple on Kong Mu Hill overlooking Mae Hong Son.  Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (also  known as Wat Phai Doi) is a Shan-style temple.  There were 2 pagodas here built in the Burmese style.  The large pagoda was built in 1860 to house the remains of Monks brought from Myanmar.  The small pagoda was built in 1875 by Phraya Sihanat Racha, the first ruler of Mae Hong Son. 

Pagodas of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu

We drove to Jong Kham Lake in the center of Mae Hong Son where 2 more temples were located. The first was Wat Jong Kham or Chong Kham.  Wat Chong Kham was originally built in 1827 by Tai Yai (Shan) artisans during the rule of Phraya Singharat Racha, the first governor of Mae Hong Son. The second temple was Wat Jong Klang or Chong Klang.  Construction of Wat Chong Klang was carried out from 1867-71 as an offering to Burmese monks who were visiting Mae Hong Son for the funeral of an important abbot.  Wat Jong Klang has the prominent white and gold chedi.  

Wats Jong Kham and Klang

The curiosity of Wat Jong Klang is probably the wicker Buddha sitting in its viharn or wiharn (assembly hall).  The eyes were quite creepy.  

Wicker Buddha

An opportunistic cat took advantage of a glass of water left as an offering (Cat in the Wat).  Cute!  

Cat in the Wat

We drove back to the resort and said our final goodbye to Ball.  I noticed that Lidia who works at the front desk was making a shirt in the traditional White Karen (the ethnic group she belongs to) style. She saw me admiring it and said she would have it completed for me by the time we left.  

Lidia Sewing

I also ended up buying a shirt (modeled below) made by Auria who works in the kitchen.  It will be a nice way remember the wonderful woman who work at Fern Resort!

Nuria, Peggy & Auria

On our last night at the resort, we went into town for dinner.  After dinner we walked to the center of town to photograph Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang reflected in Jong Kham Lake!  

Wats Jong Kham and Klang at Night

What a beautiful end to our visit to Mae Hong Song.  Thanks to the wonderful staff at Fern Resort and to our guide Ball for sharing their wonderful home with us and teaching us about the many ethnic groups that make northern Thailand so vibrant!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Here is a map of our route:


1 comment:

Aviruth M said...

Wow....that s nice......thank you for show this to the world....