Jan 132010

Mae Hong Son (January 13, 2010)

Departing the Fern Resort is always a bit of a production. Kasma has been staying here since the “hill tribe girls” were teenagers, and these long-time employees wanted to look sharp for their photos (some coming in much earlier than their usual shifts). After a lot of smiling for the cameras in different configurations, we piled into our vans and headed out. We will miss the nicely designed bungalows and well landscaped grounds. And the smiles.

We returned to the noodle shop for breakfast, and today I tried the “Vietnamese breakfast” of a fried egg with pork in various forms, from a somewhat bland pate, to chewy sweet Chinese sausage, and a sprinkle of ground pork on top. As if this wasn’t enough, we also had khanom krok, pork siu mai with a little pile of fried garlic to roll them in, sour sausage with a strong lemongrass flavor, and mushy but tasty confections of apple banana rolled in coconut shreds. And delicious fresh-squeezed tangerine juice.

We set out for Pai, pronounced “bye.” While it was only a few hours drive away, with several side trips, we would make a full day of it. The road winds through the mountains, up and down, but in the early going, no tummy trouble. Our first attraction was the “Fish Cave” at the Thampla National Park. We detoured to a nearby group of cooperatively farmed fields to see big piles of rice straw and tiny seedlings in the ground. Hmmm, must have missed the harvest. Back in the park, it is only a few minutes walk to a crack in the rocks literally churning with fish. Described on a sign as “Soro brook crap fish,” the sacred carp behave like all other fish when fed. In the past, Kasma has found them most enthusiastic about slices of hard boiled egg, but today the fish were extra hungry, sliding over one another even for a piece of lettuce.

Downstream, where the brook widened to a pond, I experimented with a polarizing filter. If you’ve ever tried to see sea life beneath the surface of water with and without polarizing sunglasses, you know how much clearer the view can be with most of the sun’s reflections filtered out. On a camera, this is not automatic: the polarizing filter has to be rotated to match the angle of the reflections from the subject, and on water, there are almost always reflections from multiple directions. Oh well, new toys always take time to learn.

Back on the highway, we stopped near a local temple to take in its panoramic views before visiting a Lisu village. Known for their colorful hand and shoulder bags, the Lisu products looked familiar from every street corner in Mae Hong Son. Dogged and entrepreneurial, the Lisu vendors — all women — lugged bags out to our vans and followed us around the village as we visited different families Kasma met on previous trips. We did manage to find some items that were not the same old same old, and I spent the last of my Thai money here and started borrowing.

Our lunch stop was at a very basic rice shop without walls. Even with our group, the customers did not quite outnumber the flies. After a brief viewing, Kasma dismissed the pre-made options and ordered a round of freshly cooked ground pork stir fried with basil, garlic and chillies, accompanied by a fried egg. A new dessert item from the market was a tender-crisp agar jelly with clear, white, dark green and milky green layers; some coconut milk and pandanus extract was used, but the exact composition remains a mystery.

Just up the road, we signed up for rafts into the cave system at Tham Lot (pronounced Tam Lohd). In 2008, we had four riders per raft, but with a lower water level, four of our well-fed Western bodies would have exceeded the new weight limit, so we divided eight travelers into three groups. After a brisk walk to the shore, we surveyed the scene near the cave entrance: an armada of bamboo rafts with low stools awaited, each with a single paddler. Our guides had been carrying propane lanterns, and now set about lighting them. (I think they should switch to electric for air quality, heat, and safety reasons, but I’m sure they have their reasons for sticking with the traditional design.) With our guide in front, and then the trip members, we couldn’t see our paddler in the back of our raft. However, we saw other paddlers knee deep in the water with a rope over their shoulder propelling their rafts through the shallows with leg strength. Their faces seemed to say “this wasn’t in the job description.” Or perhaps it was “these people need to lose weight.”

We quickly arrived at the first cavern, which had a very dramatic and tall column formed when a stalagmite growing from the cave floor met a stalactite descending from the cave roof. Head room was excellent, and the cool cave air was nice. Not that we were very cool: between the hike, the humidity, and the ever-present lanterns, we were quite warm. After crossing a suspension bridge, we reached a beach where we would catch a raft to our next destination. But first, we had the option to brave the steep staircase to the “Doll Cave,” so named for its intricate formations. A bit more cramped, visiting this cavern definitely counted in the exercise column.

The next part of the raft journey was much darker, and we heard bats and/or swifts high above us; we could only hope that occasional drips were water and not bat or bird excrement. Along the way, we doled out fish food from bags we purchased near the ticket booth. Every time we passed a school, we could see (and hear) a flurry of slithering and splashing by lantern light. Disembarking at the foot of the Coffin Cave, there was bat guano pretty much everywhere, and the air was heavy with its bouquet. Four of us proceeded up the fetid staircases to the caverns containing several thousand-year-old teak coffins carved from logs. Mostly shattered, it was difficult to imagine that these boat-shaped boxes could hold an entire set of remains, but the bodies probably were smaller, with fewer snacks and more physical labor back in the day.

Our guides led us through the woods back to parking lot. Along the way, two of us split off to try to photograph a water buffalo mother and child resting in the tall grass. Mama buffalo chewed her cud with huge sweeping jaw motions, and didn’t seem too concerned by our approach. (Good thing, those horns look nasty.) Before leaving the park, we had to have a coconut sundae: two scoops of coconut milk sorbet in a plastic cup, with a spoonful of sticky rice and some chewy/gelatinous sweetened noodles in between. Very refreshing.

Pai (January 13, 2010)

At the crest of a long rise, we made one last stop for wide angle photos and hill tribe crafts shopping. We turned off just short of Pai at around 5:00 for the Hut Ing Pai Resort. The best feature of my room was a good wi-fi connection. The worst was that the sink drained onto the tile floor in the bathroom and some of the water always missed the drain. This traditional Thai “water room” had been upgraded since my last visit: the shower appeared to have its own drain now. At least the floor was pretty quick to dry.

Most of us assembled at poolside — the water was too cold for a comfortable swim — for a pre-dinner beverage. There we met Henry, who is in Thailand on his traditional three month Winter vacation. He met his Thai wife in the Netherlands about twelve years ago, and they return every year to avoid the increasingly cold European winters. The prices for massages and facials are so good near his mother-in-law’s place on the outskirts of Bangkok that he will have one or the other almost every day. But for now, he is on a brief tour of the North with all the other tourists.

In the resort’s dining room, dinner arrived in extra-large portions of slightly bland food. The green curry with chicken (with a side of plain rice noodles) had a good flavor, and the son-in-law eggs (halves of hardboiled eggs with a tamarind sauce) were pretty good as well. The fried fish pieces coated with thick choo chee curry and the mixed vegetables with Thai oyster sauce were okay. The tender pork spare ribs were mysteriously sauced with something you might find in a jar anywhere in America, and I skipped the oyster sauce beef. To increase the oomph, Kasma had them bring an extra order of one of the dishes provided for guides and drivers, a spicy dip with raw vegetables. The fruit dessert course was disappointingly under-ripe; I can only imagine what might we might have been served without someone looking out for us.

Tomorrow we drive to Chiang Mai and return to the delights of a big city full of tourists.

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