Jan 092008

Mae Hong Son

We arose early and headed to our next destination, the mountain town of Pai, often the chilliest of the three spots we visit. First, though, according to a long tradition, the young women from the hill tribes who work at the Fern resort posed with the group for photos. Smiling in their make-up and bright clothing, they then posed with Kasma and her husband. And then posed with the single men in the group (all two of us). We knew we would miss the comforts of this resort, but we gamely loaded into our vans and returned to the congee/noodle shop for our final breakfast in Mae Hong Son. Along with our soups or fried noodles (I had the noodles this time; very filling), we had rather unsweet mangoes from the market, custard with sticky rice, and smoky shredded coconut in small glutinous rice balls. A little fresh squeezed tangerine juice, some caffeine, and we were ready for the next leg of our journey, through the twistiest mountain roads.

Our first detour from the highway was to the Fish Cave at the Thampla National Park. Described on a sign as “Soro brook crap fish,” the sacred carp can be viewed in a dark hole, and become active when fed. Vendors sell a variety of items; lettuce and tasteless orange melon slices were not very popular today, but red berries were a big hit. The park itself is pretty, and workers in the nearby fields provided an active foreground subject for photos of the misty (smoky) mountains beyond.

Back on the highway, we stopped near a local temple to take in its panoramic views before visiting a Lisu village. Known for their weaving and colorful bags, the Lisu products looked familiar because they are sold all over Mae Hong Son. Unlike the more reticent Hmong, the Lisu vendors lugged bags out to our vans and followed us around the village as we visited different families Kasma met on previous trips. Some trip members blew up balloons for the children, which created a very playful atmosphere and helped with the photos. Meanwhile, we shopped. I purchased some useful gift items, and some more eccentric pieces that might not work in the States.

On the road again, we twisted through the hills and took the exit for Tham Lot. Upon arrival, it was nearly 1:00 and time to consume mass quantities. Here we enjoyed the classic combination of Isaan (Northeastern) style BBQ chicken, spicy green papaya salad, and sticky rice. This was supplemented by a spicy pork larb salad, grilled yams (thin, yellow, dry, sweet potatoes), fried bananas, and some rather tough grilled corn. Excellent picnic, but hard to keep the photographer’s fingers clean between courses. We finished with a plate of market desserts, including a coconut flavored confection with alternating translucent and green layers, a cassava “cake” (more like a slab of pudding), and a repeat of the smoky shredded coconut balls from breakfast. Just when I was filled to the breaking point, we all headed over to the ice cream cart for Thai-style sundaes. The vendor drops a small scoop of homemade coconut ice cream into the bottom of a plastic cup, then quickly adds sticky rice, palm seed fruit, a scoop of taro ice cream, and a sprinkling of peanuts. For the truly hungry, cubes of bread can be added somewhere in the stack. Very tasty, and we were now ready to explore the caves.

One enters the caves at Tham Lot with a guide toting a lantern (Coleman style), floating to the first stop on a sturdy bamboo raft over shallow waters. The first cavern had a very dramatic and tall column formed when a stalagmite growing from the cave floor met a stalactite descending from the cave roof. This makes sense, since both are formed from the same dripping action, but perhaps frequent breakage events make these columns rare. The air in the cave was cool, but between the hike and the humidity, we were plenty warm. Across a suspension bridge, we alighted on a beach and gazed up at the intimidating staircase to the Doll Cave. Only about half the group braved the climb; with stairs about 4″ deep, it certainly was worse on the way down than on the way up. We toured the various formations and returned to our boats and continued through the cave. We soon heard a cacophony of sounds in the darkness. Not only do bats inhabit this cave, but also swifts; apparently there is no shortage of edible insects in the region. Disembarking at the foot of the Coffin Cave, there was bat guano pretty much everywhere, and the air was heavy with an oddly familiar odor (it reminded me of the scent of toasted teriyaki nori snacks, but I might be misremembering). Only three of us were interested in taking this staircase. I managed to avoid using the guano-contaminated handrail on the way up. We saw several thousand-year-old teak coffins carved from logs. None had intact tops, and many had been broken or shattered. A tap on the wood revealed it to be still soft and not petrified. Very mysterious.

By this time we were hot and tired, and made our way carefully down the staircase to find ourselves without a raft and at the beginning of a 1 km hike back to the vans. Our guide turned off the lantern and led the way, at one point stopping to harvest some fallen flowers (their purpose was not clear). I stumbled back in last place, quickly purchased a chilled roasted coconut for sustenance, and climbed into the van for the final leg of our journey.

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Many twists later, and after stopping for more panoramic photos, we pulled into the Hut Ing Pai Resort, a few kilometers short of Pai town. Pai — pronounced “bye” (actually bpeye, using the combined bp sound) — attracts a growing number of tourists, but we did not see too many of them here.

The rooms here have cold tile floors throughout. In the bathroom, there is no shower curtain: both the shower and the sink drain to the low point of the tile floor. This leads immediately to uncomfortably wet socks, so it is helpful not to wear any while in the bathroom. There are slippers with rubber bottoms, or certainly you could wear flip-flops, to work around this age-old design. Fortunately, the toilet flushes in the usual Western fashion. The air conditioner was strong, and although the cooling isn’t really needed, it is nice to reduce the humidity as low as possible.

For dinner, we met in the hotel’s dining room for a “buffet” dinner. In this system, the restaurant charges on a per person basis, and brings “bottomless” plates of food to the table. There were crunchy spring rolls (a cheap “filler”); a tasty green curry of bony chicken parts and small Thai eggplants, accompanied by rice noodles over which to pour the sauce; roasted spare ribs; a fried fish larb attractively served on the fried skeleton, and bookended by the head and tail; tender roast pork with a garlicky dipping sauce; and mixed vegetables featuring “Western” broccoli and mushrooms in a Thai oyster sauce. The food was much too abundant, but how is that different from any other meal? I do feel bad about the waste, but it was not humanly possible to eat any more. Well, except for some fresh pineapple and a bowl of apple bananas in salty-sweet (somewhat too sweet) coconut milk. I might need a new belt soon.

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