Thursday, 17 October 2013

to mae hong son

15 October
Up early, almost with the dawn.  Doi Inthanon has disappeared behind the clouds and mist that hang in the valley.  The road stretches ahead, winding through the village and on and on.  In fact it proves easier than the previous section, but there are myriad bends.  Someone has worked out that there are 1864 of them on the loop.  No doubt spurious but the figure has become etched in the tourist literature.  And there certainly are plenty.  Up, up we go, hairpinning to the next ridge, then snaking along it and plunging down the other side to the next little valley bottom with its Spartan village and few impossibly green rice paddies.  Across a concrete bridge and then winding up again to the next pass.  At the top, each time, we can see the ridges ahead fading to blue, towards the Burmese border.   There’s little traffic, mostly just local pickups either going very slowly, laden with cabbages, or very fast, cutting the bends and overtaking on the rare straights.  But we’re eating into the distance better than I expected.  Around noon we come across a little market in one of the larger villages and pull off the road.  Sak negotiates at a little roadside stall and we get 2 bowls of soup noodles with pork and 2 home made lemon teas for 60 baht (£1.20).  He’s already proved his worth at signpostless junctions, where he’s asked the way: I would probably have been lost by now.   

Soon we traverse the last ridge and drop down into the gentler contours of the valleys that lead us to Mae Hong Son.  Now we are in a region whose waters drain towards Burma, and Burmese cultural influence has always been stronger.  A motor road only came relatively recently.  Mae Hong Son means land of three mists, apparently, and is famous for training elephants. 

In the end the drive hasn’t been at all difficult.  Some of the road is washed out by recent rains, and it is very bendy, but actually all the more interesting driving because of that.  Sak declares that I’m a very safe driver – not without a slight sigh of relief perhaps.  In the end it’s only taken us four hours actual driving time, but with quite a few stops n the way.

The town is perhaps not quite so picturesque as it once was.  Even fairly recent guidebooks describe it as mostly wooden 2 story teak houses, and this is still true of most back streets, but the main street has now been partly colonized by those concrete bank buildings you find everywhere in Thailand, of standard design, built to impress, not blend in, plonked down like Studio Gibli robots.  There are also a few larger concrete hotels springing up to blot the view.  But mostly the town rides over all that.  There is a small lake packed with carp, and in every direction the vast blue ranges of mountains that give the area an alpine feel.  Next to the lake, some interesting temples, in the local Yai style, the roofs edged with pierced metal eaves of intricate design, like delicate lace doilies. 

We get hopelessly lost finding the hotel.  Sak asks for directions several times.  These conversations last several minutes each, with lots of polite bowing and pointing, agreeing and questioning, looks of puzzlement and dawning insight.  But when he gets back in the car, each time, he shrugs: “They not know.”  So in the end we have to get the hotel to send someone to meet us in the centre and we follow him back on his motorbike.  A much more friendly and well maintained hotel.  We have a little villa with a view from its terrace across a paddy field to the mountains beyond.  All for about £30 for the night. 

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