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eirekay Ban Mae Song - A travel report by Eire
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Ban Mae Song,  Thailand - flag Thailand -  Mae Hong Son
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eirekay's travel reports

Trek through the Karin, Lisu and Humong Hilltribes

  12 votes
Page: 1 2
As we hiked into a world without running water or electricity, picking vegetables and spices to be used in our dinner along the way, we realized a richness of life beyond modern conveniences. report of the month contest
Jun 2009

White Karen Village with house arranged in communal compounds of 3 and 4.
White Karen Village with house arranged in communal compounds of 3 and 4.
We walk out the back door of our posh Chiang Mai boutique hotel, toss our backpacks into the back of a pickup truck and climb over the tailgate after them. The truck is outfitted with a covered metal frame, with long bench seats - no seat backs - on either side, lightly padded and covered with plastic. Driving through the countryside, quickly gaining altitude once we passed through Pai, on the contorted 1864 turn road that leads to Mae Hon Song. We watched as life quickly transitioned from urban sprawl to increasingly rural and less inhabited fields carved out of steep hillsides.

Ban Mae Song, the starting point of our hike, is little more than a dozen or so bamboo houses in a curve of the road. Our guide, Chai, leads the way down a well traveled dirt path, wide enough for the motor bikes that go between the many villages. As we hike, we have work to do - Chai instructs us on the uses of the various plants as we dig up bamboo shoots and pluck small eggplant and different kinds of leaves for dinner.

We round a bend and see smoke curling through the roofs of the bamboo huts that line the road. This is the main street of the White Karin village, so named because the unmarried women wear dresses of white. After marriage, they don the colorful red Ikat sarong and a heavy cotton jacket in primary colors. We walk up to the open porch of our host - there is no front door. The houses are arranged in communal clusters of three and four around a vegetable garden and an outhouse, complete with a stand up toilet and a barrel of water to wash with, but then we knew we would be sharing a bathroom!

The night is spent in the warmth of family life. The common room serves as a weaver's studio during the day, becomes a living room with floor mats, and later, our sleeping quarters. The wife chides her husband on playing the transistor radio too long - the batteries will need to be charged from the solar station in the garden. This village is as close to self sustaining as it gets.

Favourite spots:
Lisu Village with it's well tilled fields and spread out houses.
Lisu Village with it's well tilled fields and spread out houses.
We wake, wash and hike out the next morning, saying warm good byes. The songs of cicada, visible on every tree trunk, accompany us as we hike to the Lisu village, our next home. Our guide snags one from a tree and pops it into his mouth - "Protein!" he exclaims. The trail narrows and steepens. Small farms lay in every saddle back valley, completely tilled by hand in a steady rotation of corn, ginger, and rice. Smoke from the burning of corn stalks hangs in the air and darkens the sky.

As we approach the village, metal roofs, one bright blue, appear in the distance. It is much more spread out, each farm having its own farm house, then the Karin village of last night. As we soon discover, it lacks the communal feel we enjoyed yesterday. We tour the three room school and then watch some women weave before settling in. Gone though are the neighbors dropping by and the open trade.

The next morning sees us off on a short hike to the Pai River where we lose our boots to catch our Bamboo Raft.

What's really great:
After hiking for 3 consecutive days, a chance to kick back was most welcome!
After hiking for 3 consecutive days, a chance to kick back was most welcome!
Whatever I expected our raft to be, it wasn't this! Our truck meets us, taking our guide and our packs, while we scramble aboard 10 pieces of bamboo lashed together. The raft is easily less than a meter wide, with small benches and plenty of running water! And it is PERFECT! After hiking for three days in a row, the cool water feels great and the slow pace of our float suits the mood. We lazily glide by farms and fishing traps as the river grows wider. A small alligator slides into the water, egrets majestically linger on the shores, fish jump after dragonflies. The hour and half ride (it takes less during the the rains) draws to a close as we reach Mae Hong Son, a small city nicknamed Thailand's Switzerland for the sharp mountains that surround it.

A quick drive up to Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu provides vistas overlooking the city, its three large bells begging you grab a stick to ring them with. Young monks gather on the rails to watch the take-off of Mae Hong Son's one daily flight.

Wat Jong Klang reflected in a small man made lake.
Wat Jong Klang reflected in a small man made lake.
Quaint Mae Hong Son sits near the border with Myanmar, and the influence can be seen throughout. The city is lined with temples adorned in Burmese style tin gingerbread and steep wood roofs. Best known is Wat Jong Klang, beautiful at both dawn and dusk as it casts its reflection. Alongside the Chedi sits a 2nd temple with reverse painted glass murals of remarkable detail.

The Night Market, which runs down the side of Wat Jong Klang, is limited to two blocks: to one for food and another for goods. It features a vast array of Hilltribe crafts without the cheap trinkets sold in so many other places while the food offered varies from "point at it and they'll cook it" Pad Thai to fresh water crabs and crawdads. We grabbed a couple of dishes and ate while gazing at the beautiful lake reflection.

Mae Hong Son is a starting place for many Trekkers, hence it has a cool, laid back feel. Monks walk in the early morning, collecting alms that Villagers set out on artfully arrayed foot stools.

our first Home away from Home in the Karin Village
our first Home away from Home in the Karin Village
Simply put, homestays rock! Our homestays in both the Karin and Lisu village were in woven bamboo long-house huts on stilts. The houses are partitioned into a kitchen on one end, a large common room in the middle and a small sleeping quarters for the family on the other. We slept on mats on the bamboo floor, with mosquito nests, linens and blankets provided. We enjoyed the opportunity to meet the families and see how they live, eat and work. Although we spoke no Thai, it is amazing how much can be communicated with a smile.

In Mae Hong Son, we stayed at T&N Guest House. T&N Guest House was located somewhat off the main drag and while I could describe the bathroom, I would really rather not. Go somewhere else!

Choose one of the many guest houses located near the Night Market or the Lake. Jonnie's looked like a good bet - 14 rooms in a great location. We ate breakfast at the "Mountain Chalet" which had a couple of tour groups staying and it appeared to be another possibility.

Marc, the morning following Rice Whiskey Night, a little hung over but otherwise smiling.
Marc, the morning following Rice Whiskey Night, a little hung over but otherwise smiling.
Mae Hong Son is fully stocked with Pubs, many offering live music. We went up to the main street and grabbed a stool in the Ting Tong to listen to covers of Tom Petty and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This is a good place to praise the excellent Thai brews; whether you order Chang or Singha, both beers are solid!

The Villages provide their own night life. Our first night on the Trek has already become known as the “Rice Whiskey Tasting”. As we finish dinner, three of the Village elders come through the door, each grasping a bottle of homemade rice whiskey. Our host then pulls out his own house brew. They settle in on the floor, our host serving as interpreter. Glasses are passed – after two sips I opt out – this stuff made Sake seem weak, however Marc, 22, keeps pace. As the evening progresses less and less translation is needed. By midnight the whole conversation is a series of hand gestures and laughter. Marc admits to having no idea what was said when asked the following morning!

Marc guides our elephant, Pookie, into a stream for a drink.
Marc guides our elephant, Pookie, into a stream for a drink.
We carefully chose the Ban Luammit Elephant Preserve to ride elephants. This Preserve allows the elephants to roam open fields rather than chaining and penning them. The funds from tourists go to support a breeding programs and expansion of the open space. Our Mahout did not use any prods or hooks to guide the elephant - in fact, about 15 minutes into our hour long ride, he gave Marc the word commands, hopped off and walked some distance behind us! Marc scrammbled down on to the elephant's neck - his only regret was that he wore shorts and the elephant's ears kept smacking his legs. That and the bristly hair was itchy! We rode through the jungle, down into a stream, past several farms and back. There are a number of tour companies offering elephant riding, including some that trek between Hilltribe Villages.

Our first feast - Green Curry Chicken!
Our first feast - Green Curry Chicken!
As dinner time approached, the Matriarch of our first family joked about the chickens. Loosely translated, the slowest chicken would be dinner. We watched as she fed the chickens and deftly reached down as one ran past, grabbed it by the neck and swung it over her head. Seconds later, feathers literally started flying as she started the plucking process. We cleaned the small eggplants and leaves collected earlier on our hike and watched as Green Curry Chicken came together in a wok over the open fire. Chili peppered long beans and cucumber salad.

The next afternoon, we resisted the urge to play with some piglets running around the garden of our Lisu host - having so recently witnessed the selection and execution of our dinner, we thought it better not to get too attached. Sure enough, come dinner time, there was one less little pig.

One of the truest gifts of Thailand is the street food. Stall after stall is consistently good, and safe to eat. Look for the state sticker of approval.

Other recommendations:
Just a couple of the 1864 turns in the road back to Chiang Mai.
Just a couple of the 1864 turns in the road back to Chiang Mai.
A Humong Village, the "Long Necked Women", sits close by Mae Hong Son. A series of brass rings are placed on the necks, starting at the age of 9, to make the them appear longer. The practice actually causes the collar bones to be come depressed, causing permanent disfiguration. The practice had all but died out until about 10 years ago when the Humong discovered the gold mine of tourism. They charge you to bring a camera into the village and then the girls sit around idly waiting to pose, and charge you again for the picture.

I made a personal decision not to encourage this practice by refusing to take photos, however that is just my personal feeling. The Humong are actually refugees from Myanmar, having left some 30 years ago, and they do need financial assistance to survive. Buy textiles instead to offer your support.

Published on Tuesday June 16th, 2009

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Sun, Jul 26 2009 - 12:00 PM rating by horourke

Congratulations on report of the Month. Not only a great report but a thrilling piece of page-turning literature. I love the delicacy of gentle descriptions of horror inducing cultural sanitary dferences.

Mon, Jun 29 2009 - 09:35 AM rating by frenchfrog

Wonderfull good insight of the local tribes. Brillat! Very well written!

Sat, Jun 27 2009 - 10:24 AM rating by gloriajames

brilliant 5*! always a pleasure to read your reports, and I come to expect only the best from you....oh.....the thai curry dishes are yummy! did u learn how its done? (";)

Mon, Jun 22 2009 - 02:50 AM rating by downundergal

Eire - good to see you still write some of the best and most informative reports on Globo - I loved the personal anecdotes as well. Your photo of Wat Jong Klang is fantastic. Cheers, Kerrie

Wed, Jun 17 2009 - 05:14 PM rating by mistybleu

Great reports; it sounds almost poetic.

Wed, Jun 17 2009 - 04:07 AM rating by louis

Eire, one of the greatest reports I have read lately. With sense of humour, fulfiled with useful informations. And seems that you've had a great trip there.

Tue, Jun 16 2009 - 08:39 PM rating by porto

Eire,in my opinion you could go into any travel bookstore anywhere in the world and be hard pressed to find a report as good as this one.Well Done.

Tue, Jun 16 2009 - 04:28 PM rating by krisek

Eire, what a great report indeed. Beautifully narrated, describing your impressions and the surroundings! Thank you for discovering this place and telling us about it. And green curry chicken is what I am addicted to!!

Tue, Jun 16 2009 - 04:09 PM rating by pesu

Great report, Eire, perfectly written! Thanks for taking me with you on this extraordinary gorgeous trip. :)

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