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

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