Mae Sot to Mae Hong Son

       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 wasted it.
      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 Thailand.

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.
Hill tribe 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.

We couldn't 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.