Thursday, 21 March 2013

Mae Hong Son: Thailand's True North

Regular contributor John Borthwick admits he’s a sucker for old teak towns and mountain mists. No surprise that he loves Mae Hong Son in far north Thailand

With some 1864 bends on the tortuous route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, you need to be a resolute traveller to not hop off the bus at Pai, roughly mid-way. However, much of this once snoozy upcountry village has now gone to T-shirt racks and night market ruin.

If Pai is a Thai-dyed farang fusion town, then Mae Hong Son, farther west, is still a living, working Thai hill town. Mae Hong Son sits just beside the Burmese border in far northwestern Thailand – a place of wood-smoke and temples, hot springs and cold nights, ATMs and opticians. It has a dreaming-pool lake and an airstrip right in the middle of town, and only one traffic light.

Now, if only it had a beach and a strip of beer bars? Thank Buddha it does not. This is a walking town. Stroll around its lake that reflects the glittering spires of Wat Chong Klang and Wat Chong Kham by day and night. On every street you’ll pass a few surviving teak buildings — boxy, two-storied shop-houses whose venerable timbers seem alive with the tales of those who’ve lived within. These grand old dames make Mae Hong Son one of Thailand’s last “teak towns.” They don’t make them like this any more, the buildings, the teak or the towns.
Wat Doi Kong Mu
I hoof it up almost a thousand steps to where Wat Doi Kong Mu sits on a mountain overlooking the town, a marzipan castle of whitewashed pagodas and golden gee-gaws. From the summit you can look across to the hothouse jungle hills of Myanmar’s Shan state. Up here, the tiny Before Sunset Café has a sunny deck, shade parasols and fine local coffee that can cause you to linger over daydreams, tossing into the valley whatever plans you might have had for the rest of the day.

Many visitors join trekking tours in the surrounding mountains and hill-tribe villages. Most of these have been "sight-seen" for decades so don't expect too much anthropological virginity. However, there will be plenty of carvings and embroidery coming at you for sale.

Other visitors take the tour to nearby Huay Sua Thao village, there to rubberneck at the so-called Long-Necks, the famous Karen tribal women who wear multiple brass rings around their apparently elongated necks. (In fact, their shoulder and collarbones are depressed rather than their vertebrae being stretched.) Advertised crudely as “Giraffe Women”, it seems to me like a human freak show, so I skip it and go play in the mud.

Mae Hong Son is known as "the City of Three Mists," thanks to its fogs in winter, bushfire haze in summer and rainy mists in wet season. I see none of these, but instead find a fourth kind of vapour – clouds of steam rising off the mineral mud pools at Phuklon Mud Spa.

Two attendants paint me from head to toe in black mud (not a pretty sight), the starting point in an hour-long ritual that involves baking dry in the sun, being scrubbed with tamarind paste, immersed in mineral springs and finally anointed with lanoline. By the end of it I feel like a million bucks although it has cost me only $25.

I don’t want to leave lovely Mae Hong Son but when I must, it is by air. Leap-frogging those thousands of bends back to Chiang Mai in 25 painless minutes is indeed a lofty pleasure.

Getting the job done ... PICS: John Borthwick

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Happy Elephant Day!

It's National Elephant Day in Thailand!

Here's to a safe and happy future for Thailand's elephants, off the streets and living in natural and holistic environments where their well-being is paramount!

To celebrate, here's my favourite happy ele photo, taken at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai...
Pic: Julie Miller

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Thailand's Sun Bears in New Book

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I'd like to draw your attention to a new book about to hit bookshops on April 1.

Called 'Free the Bears', it is the auto-biography of Mary Hutton, founder of the Australian wildlife charity, Free the Bears Fund. I helped Mary write her book, and have a co-author credit.

The book tells the story of how an ordinary Perth grandmother started a charity from scratch and has subsequently made a huge difference, facilitating the rescue of hundreds of captive and abused bears in South-East Asia and India. From collecting signatures outside her local shopping centre, to creating a million-dollar charity responsible for the care of over 500 bears now living in FTB-supported sanctuaries, it's testament to the power of passion, dedication and putting beliefs into action.

One of Free the Bear's major undertakings was the creation of a bear sanctuary within the grounds of Lop Buri Zoo in Thailand. Before FTB's input, the bears in this zoo were kept in awful cages, barely big enough for them to move in. They now have a lovely enclosure with a pool, climbing equipment and access to sunlight, grass and trees.

FTB also supports bears at the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Centre near Hua Hin. Run by Dutch wildlife warrior Edwin Wiek, this sanctuary rescues injured and abused wild animals such as gibbons, leopard cats, slow lorises and even tigers, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and re-release into the wild. The 10 badly injured or disabled bears, however, have a permanent home at the centre, safe from further abuse and the dangers of poaching. 

'Free the Bears' by Mary Hutton and Julie Miller is truly an inspiration read, a must for any animal lover and supporters of wildlife charities. It also gives some insight into Thailand's stewardship of its native wildlife, which is controversial at best and frustratingly appalling at worst. But above all, the book presents a message of hope - that anyone can facilitate change if they truly believe in a cause.

'Free the Bears' by Mary Hutton and Julie will be published April 1 by Pan MacMillan. Available in any good book shop.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Thailand Etiquette and Survival Tips

After years of blunders (and much kind forgiveness by Thai people), guest blogger John Borthwick has compiled the sort of “Newbie’s Guide” to Thai survival that he wishes he’d had way back when.

Thais value good form and politeness, so learn a few basic Thai phrases, such as greetings and thanks, and keep in mind the following tips:

Heads and feet. Buddhist Thais see the head as sacred. It is impolite to touch someone else’s, so don’t pat cute kids on the head — try the shoulder. It is equally impolite to point the soles of your feet at someone. 

Royals. Thais are publically very respectful about their royals, even if they have private reservations about the system. The King is deeply revered so don’t make jokes about the monarchy, even “harmless” ones. 

Stay cool. When things go wrong, as they can, don’t lose your cool and raise your voice against a Thai person. Speak calmly and keep negotiating if possible. Thais intensely dislike losing face (or money), especially to a foreigner, so sometimes it’s less aggravation to just button your lip and walk away. 

Temples and monks. Women are never permitted to touch a monk. When visiting a temple (and there are lots of them), dress modestly (this often means no shorts or bare shoulders for women), always remove your shoes, and never point your feet at the altar. 

Despite being footloose and free in the so-called Land of Smiles, we farang (foreigners) still have to watch out for scammers and our own dumb mistakes. 

Road sense. Some 8,000 people die on Thailand roads each year, and April’s Songkran (Thai New Year) festival delivers one of the worst spikes. Minimise your long-distance van or motorcycle travel during peak holidays. If you hire a motorbike, note well that unless you hold a current, valid motorcycle licence (as opposed to a car licence), your travel insurance policy (you do have insurance, don’t you?) will very possibly NOT cover your medical or damage expenses. This is definitely true for Australian policies. And good Thai hospitals are very expensive. 

Double pricing. Non-Thais pay higher entrance fees at most attractions. For example, Thai adults pay 40 baht to enter national parks while foreigners pay 400 baht. It’s much more annoying at commercial attractions. Cough up, and don’t let the discrimination spoil your day. 

Gems. Buyer beware. Regardless of the “certificate,” don’t invest more money on gems than you can afford to laugh off when you return home to have some of them assessed as coloured glass. 

Jet-skis. In Pattaya (and elsewhere) unsuspecting tourists are often extorted by jet-ski hirers who claim that “damage” has been done to their craft. Threats and violence, plus official indifference, leave victims with little option but to pay up, big time. Jet-skis are allegedly “banned” at many popular beaches but still remain dangerously unregulated, a real hazard to swimmers. If you cause death or damage when driving a jet ski, you’re in major trouble. 

Fighting. Thailand is a very safe country, but never get into a physical fight with a Thai (such as a jet-ski operator). Queensbury does not rule here. In the Land of Smiles, they fight to win at all costs, and in numbers. Being a foreigner is no protection; it’s more like an invitation once the brawl begins. And don’t assume that the law is on your side. 

Taxi Mafias. Phuket taxi and tuk-tuk drivers collude in charging passengers absurd fees. Koh Samui has a version of the same problem, with drivers often refusing to use meters; in such a case, set the fare before staring the ride. If possible, arrange an airport transfer prior to your arrival. Bangkok is not a problem in this respect — just make sure the taxi meter is turned on. Pattaya’s “baht bus” (shared pick-up truck) system work admirably: basically, it is just 10 baht for any journey. 

Finally, a few obvious and not-so obvious pointers:

Drugs: don’t even think about scoring anything unless you feel spending the next five to ten-plus in the Monkey House. 

ATM fees: cash machines are everywhere but Thai banks keep 150 baht (approx. $5) each time you withdraw (no matter how little) from a foreign account. And that’s on top of whatever your home bank also charges on the transaction. 

Street elephants: buying bananas from mahouts to feed young elephants that are paraded through the street just adds to the animal’s misery. 

Got all that? OK. Now go have fun.

PICS: Julie Miller