We reached Mae Sot on our way to entering the Mae Hong
Son Loop from the south. The loop, which runs from Chiang Mai through
Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai and then back to Chiang Rai is famous to
motorcyclists and arguably features the best motorcycling roads in
Thailand. Coming over the pass into Mae Sot we had noticed dozens of
small fires burning on distant mountainsides. Swidden agriculture is
something that is a fact of life in this part of the world. As we
crested the pass, however, we road through a grass fire burning
perilously close to the road. It would of made a great photo, but with
a leaky fuel pump we thought it best to move on. We had come to a
difficult decision about our visa. Our original thoughts were to do
northern Thailand and then head into Laos near the Golden Triangle.
That would leave us with some leeway about visiting Laos, Cambodia, and
maybe even Viet Nam. Unfortunately, we had already burned twenty-four
days of our visa, and racing to the Laotian border in only six days
would severely short change northern Thailand. It was obvious that
crossing at Mae Sot into Myanmar would be our last best chance to
update our visa stamp. The decision was all the more difficult because
now we would have thirty days, a bit more than we wanted to spend in
the north, and were left feeling that if we didn't use the time, we had
Our situation was feeling all the more frustrating as we rolled into Mae Sot only to have the rear brake overheat and seize again in Mae Sot's maze of one-way streets. With the bike unable to roll at all, I was quickly on the phone to Yut, this time in an irrational rant. Yut, who is one of the sweetest and most polite men that I have ever met, told me he would contact a friend in Mae Sariang and then he would call me back. Yut, who remained unflappable throughout this, and went to heroic lengths to try and be of assistance to us, knows motorcycle people all over Thailand. After a little effort, I had been able to free the brake by loosening the brake fluid hose which released the pressure. By the time he got back to me with the name of a guy in Mae Sariang, the brake had cooled and so had my temper. In the morning we walked across the bridge over the Mae Nam Moei river into Myanmar, and after paying about $15 dollars each for entry we had a cup of tea and returned to Thailand with a fresh thirty days. I might point out that the fifteen bucks does not get you a visa. Rather it is a day pass, and Burmese officials hold your passport at the border and return it as you exit.
Retrospect: As I have mentioned, in the real world it is June and I am actually filling in the blanks about events that occurred in March. Because of the hassles with the bikes we had elected to stay in an upscale hotel that we would have normally avoided because it was easy to find and near the road out. We were kind of surprised to find this large hotel nearly full, as this is not exactly a tourist destination. What we learned, is that most of the people there were working for NGOs or other aid organizations. It was a scene that we saw repeated in every town along the western edge of the Mae Hong Son Loop, especially in the better hotels. I mention this because Karen and I had commented on the fact that in just one town we had seen more volunteers than we had seen in our six-and-a-half months in India and Nepal. This includes the fact that the hotel we stayed in in Kathmandu had been hosting a seminar and workshop for training UN aid workers. I hate to sound cynical, but I am, and I don't mean to diminish their efforts, but there is some irony in the fact that so many choose to work in one of the most beautiful provinces of a country that is decidedly Southeast Asia's playground.. Although there are a substantial number of refugees from Myanmar in this area, we had encountered refugees in other places as well. The upside of this, however, is that the aid workers were uniquely positioned to respond in the wake of last months cyclone Nargis. The hardest hit Irrawaddy river delta is less than a hundred and fifty miles from where we did our visa crossing, and today's news, more than a month after the disaster, is claiming more than a million homeless.
|Clockwise from top left: This is just one of scores of refugee camps along Thailand's border with Myanmar, this one is home to Karenni refugees. This Wat, which sits near the river, also serves as a rest stop for travelers. The road, which is for the most part a meticulously maintained two-lane has only a few spots that are yet to be upgraded. At this small roadside place we enjoyed an excellent dish of Thai noodles. You will note in both top photos the pall of smoke that hangs over the area. Most of this area is home to forests of teak and other hardwoods. The thatch on the huts here are made of the large durable leaves of the teak tree. It leaves us to wonder what effect all of the slash and burn will have here. We would see a good deal more of it in Laos, and there we were able to get a better feel of its causes and impacts.|
|In Mae Sariang we found a
cozy spot overlooking the Mae Nam Yuam river and decided to have a look
around. It is a quiet and beautiful little town, ideally suited for
walking. Places like this meticulous produce market (top left) seemed
to snooze in the midday sun. Above, we knew Yut's friend Mr. Sutin was
expecting us, but we decided that with a little caution about staying
off of the rear brake, I could avoid the problem of the brakes locking
up. On the steep and winding roads, using the front brake only was
sometimes a little harrowing, especially on the downhills, but since we
were expecting other parts in Pai we thought it better to do everything
at once. Mr. Sutin and his wife were more than happy to pose for us. In
one of Mae Sariang's best eateries we also saw evidence of this regions
strong attachment to motorcycling (left). The restaurant's owner is so
protective of his 650 dual-sport that it enjoys a privileged spot
inside the restaurant. Bikes of this size are not that common in
|Moving on to
Mae Hong Son we found a comfortable guesthouse right in the center of
town overlooking the tiny lake Nong Jong Kham with a small wat at its
center. Each night, the far side of the lake was transformed into a
night market with craft stands and food stalls. At about eight dollars,
this clean place run by a British expat was one of the best values we
encountered in Thailand.
villages in this area include Shan, Lisu, and Lahu villages, and
there is even a Kuomintang settlement a bit farther out. The Kuomintang
are Chinese Nationalists who align themselves with Taiwan. But no group
attracts tourists like the women of the Padaung villages above.
Referred to as Karen, the Padaung is actually a linguistic subgroup.
Almost as many theories exist about the origin of this practice as
there are speculations as to why it continues. Much of the tourist
literature that you read quotes the women as saying it provides them
with a better life than they had in Myanmar. Others have made claims
that some of these villages are complete constructions designed to
profit their builders with little profit returning to the community.
Still others say that the girls are often pressured into wearing the
coil, and suffer being ostracized if they refuse. As I was graduating,
two of my classmates in the Anthro Dept. at Berkeley had just been
awarded a grant to do a month long study of one such village. I ran
into them some months later in an airport, but I have not been able to
read their report.
|Here, as in
many other Padaung villages, before you cross this bridge into the
village you must pay an admission fee. The fee is collected by the
Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who issue you a receipt.
Many claim that little of the money actually reaches the women, and
their income comes largely from sale of their weavings and other
souvenirs. I should point out that the neckwear they use are not rings,
but rather a single continuous coil of solid brass. A coil the size of
the one in the photo at top right weighs more than thirty pounds.
|Having left the
single main tourist "strip" of the village and moved into the actual
living area, it's readily apparent that not all of the young women wear
the coil. Above the village there is also a tiny Catholic church.
|The road in and
out of the village winds back and forth through this stream. It was
obvious at this crossing who was the star of this show.
conceive of leaving the Mae Hong Son area without a visit to Tham Pla.
Tham Pla, or Fish Cave, is home to masses of two-foot long brook carp.
At a small restaurant near the gate we had the best chicken we have had
on our entire trip. At least I think it was chicken.