I awoke before my alarm (at 4:22) and still, I was adding strips of tape to my box in line at the check-in counter. In part, I was running late because I needed to make a fast walk up the street at 8:00 to get one last order of khanom krok. Food first? Some things never change.
This is my seventh trip, so tonight will be my seventh finale feast. Each one has been a bit different, but on at least two occasions I ended up on stage. This year I plan to sit back and let the newbies be the stars of the show. At least that’s the plan.
After a few bites of breakfast at the buffet and a few final minutes on wi-fi, we loaded into a couple of vans and headed to the Chiang Mai airport for our flight South to Bangkok. Our day looks easy on paper, but the best laid plans do not always work out in practice.
Chiang Mai seems to have evolved for tourism. Days do not start too early, so visitors can remain awake through the wee hours. Shops, restaurants, and even temples cater to those who need a souvenir of their journey. Still, we would try to stick to the high quality attractions as much as possible.
We left Chiang Mai under cover of darkness for the hill tribe village of Mae Sa Mai where a dozen Hmong tribes would gather for the big festival day. As we wound our way up the hill, a man stopped us in the road well before the village explaining that all the parking already was taken two hours before. So much for being early.
After my usual routine of passing out fully clothed, a few hours later I awoke to find myself still much too full. My body seemed to be rebelling against eating ever larger quantities. I would need to take a break.
We would bid farewell to chilly Pai and brave the twisty highway to Chiang Mai, the major city of the North and a magnet for handicraft shoppers. Like us. In past years I’ve snuck out to a local restaurant for karaoke one night after dinner, but with our unusual schedule (Tuesday we rise before dawn to drive to the Hmong village of Mae Sa Mai for the New Year celebration) I don’t know whether that will be possible this time.
Although Mae Hong Son lacks many of the conveniences of a major city, the relaxed pace of life (not including our itinerary) and fresh mountain air will be much missed in coming days. Still, it’s time to return to the hustle and bustle of modern Thailand.
Today I buy my favorite green tea. And eat Yunnan-style fresh “bacon” with fermented greens. In a village of Chinese refugees given Thai citizenship in exchange for turning over their weapons. One kilometer from the border with Burma. Can you get any more Thai than that?
One reason to visit Mae Hong Son is its ready access to the wilderness. From scenic rivers to more temperate jungles, you need only step off the main road to experience nature. With tiny subsistence farms mixed in. Just remember your insect repellent.
Misty turned to cool and then cold as we lay in our unheated wooden bungalows at the Fern Resort. Still, having grown up in the Bay Area, the combination of sunny days and chilly nights feels very survivable. I’m not breaking out the long underwear just yet. On the contrary, with several temples to visit, I’m wearing sandals to town.
Our brief taste of nature in Mae Sa Valley is coming to an end, but we are moving further into the wild. Not only will our next resort not have 3G data service; it won’t have any cell phone service at all. So there will be no excuse for failing to look up from the screen and notice nature, the Thai people, and of course the food all around us. Let’s go.
Today we were challenged to learn about Hmong culture by visiting their village and experiencing their ceremonies, intoxicating beverages, musical instruments, songs, and dances. In exchange, we supported the village economy with a few purchases, and put on a little show of traditional American songs. We definitely got back more than we put in.
It is time to leave Thailand’s central plain and head for the hills which mark the beginning of Northern Thailand. We have more temples to see, more noodles to eat, and more shopping to do. Sukhothai was affected in several ways by the flooding this past Spring, but one particular change that touches our schedule is that the morning market has been moved to temporary quarters. We will visit the old market site for a traditional breakfast of wide rice noodles with roast duck, buy bags of fiery chillies, and then head over to the alternate location.
After a quick breakfast of rice porridge with various toppings, we headed West to view the famous ruins of Wat Mahathat and other temples. Once it became too warm to wander in the sun, we pointed our vans North toward Si Satchanalai to dive into the local culture.