After our meditation retreat in Chang Mai, Christina and I wanted to get away from the crowds and visit some of the many hilltribes that inhabit the northern regions of Thailand, Burma, and Laos.
In 5 days we did the Mae Hong Son loop. We left on a 5 hour van from Chang Mai to Mae Sariang, then a 5 hour bus to Mae Hong Son, rented a motor bike to Mae Aw (2 hours), rode in the back of a courier truck for 4 hours to Pai and took a 4 hour van back to Chiang Mai.
The most fascinating part of this region is the multicultural presence. Every town along the loop is mixed of Thai, Burmese, Laos, Chinese, indigenous hill tribe people, ethnic Muslims and sporadic Americans (this is the group we fall into). It is so refreshing to be in a place where so many different ethnicities coexist in one place.
The first place we stayed along the loop was Mae Sariang which was a relaxed riverside village with a population of about 2,000. We explored a night market and left early in the morning, taking a winding bus up to Mae Hong Son.
On the way to Mae Hong Son our bus was stopped several times by military personnel checking everyone’s identification. Being on the border of Thailand and Burma, and so close to Laos, I assume they were checking for illegal immigrants. Several people were scrutinized for not looking like the person in their picture ID. Since Christina and I were the only westerners on the bus I could tell she was getting a little nervous when the officer approached but I knew exactly what we should do. When the first officer came up to us I gave the officer a friendly smile and said “sawadee khop” (Hi) and the officer smiled back and continued to the next passenger. A smile and “Hello” was enough ID for the remainder of this bus ride.
Mae Hong Son quickly became a favorite town of ours. The central point of town is a lake alongside a Burmese pagoda with a back drop of rolling hills. In the distant hills we could see another temple and a monument of none other than….you guessed it, The Buddha. With less than 8,000 inhabitants in Mae Hong Son, the town moves at a slower pace than many other provincial capitals.
Once we located a map of the area we could see that we were only a few hours from the hilltribe villages that lie along the Thai-Burma border. A trip to these villages seemed like a formidable way to break Christina into the motorbike culture of Southeast Asia. Motorbikes are a main form of transportation for most Thai people and in my opinion a really fun way to integrate into local life. The next day I negotiated for a motorbike and we were on our way. We tore through the main drag of town on our smoke dusting hog and on into the mountains. Quickly, all the rules of Thailand motorbike driving came back to me. The first and most important rule is to drive on the left side of the road. The second rule is to stay focused and decisive (even when there is a timid passenger behind you constantly reminding you how valuable her life is).
The motorbike trip was a complete success. We visited several villages (got chased out of one by scowling glares), saw the Chinese refugee village of Mae Aw, and reduced Christina’s fear of motorcycles.
The highly admired town of Pai was the next stop on our loop. We walked a couple miles out of Mae Hong Son to the nearby bus station. Upon arrival we were told the next available bus to Pai didn’t leave until 4pm. A sympathetic songathou driver overheard our conversation and said he could take us there now for a minimal price. We jumped in the back of his truck and were off…only we started heading south when Pai was north. We stopped just outside of town at a hut where the driver picked up a few packages and then generously bought some candy bars for Christina and I. (The candy symbolized this was not going to be the quick ride we anticipated and he was sorry for any inconvenience.)
We left the hut heading north for Pai . Along the way we made dozens more stops in the backroads of villages loading and unloading random items next to us in the back of the truck. We picked up and dropped off fruit, hydraulic fluid, some weird smelling fish cakes, oats, two unmarked postal packages, rice, one Hmong hilltribe family, fish food, eggplants, and the list goes on. Christina and I made a game out of guessing what we would pick up next. We never guessed correctly, but the randomness of it all made for a fun experience.
Multiple hours later our savvy businessman, driver dropped us off on a busy road in Pai and sped off to finish his route. We were grateful, tired and dirty all at the same time. Quickly, we looked for a nice hotel where we could take hot showers and have some creature comforts. We found a great place called the Muslim House. Once we saw the room and that there was air conditioning, a hot shower, comfortable beds and Satellite TV!!! (which was a huge bonus since neither of us have seen television in over three weeks) we were sold.
All the other guests were practicing Muslims and everyone was very gracious to us (even though I accidentally used the prayer mat in our room as a shower towel). After my shower, still smelling like fish cakes, I plopped down on the bed ready to watch some Satellite TV!!! and to my surprise there were 32 channels of straight Islam. Islam news, Islam cartoons, Islam sports and even one channel which had 24/7 coverage of the Kaa’ba (a very anticlimactic show for a non-Muslim). I’ll admit my Arabic is a bit rusty so this wasn’t the Satellite TV experience I had in mind. Oh well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be…Inshallah.
Around 4PM a few Bengali Muslims knocked on our door to see if their surrounding Muslim neighbors wanted to pray with them. Once they saw my unmistakably sephardic face they laughed and said “sorry wrong room” and walked away. I felt like the odd kid on the playground that didn’t get picked for soccer.
All joking aside, we were overwhelmed by the generosity of the Islamic people we met (a common characteristic of the majority of devout Muslims). Of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the majority of them reside in Southeast Asia and are very moderate in their faith. (Actually, less than 20% of the world’s Muslims are from Arab countries). I find the negative stigma on Islam very unfair. In my life, I have known dozens of Muslim people, all of whom have been very generous and tolerant. Yet every time I watch American news they only show extremists. It would be fantastic if the U.S. media provided more positive coverage of the many great Muslims in the world.
I digress, Christina and I only spent one night in Pai before heading back to Chang Mai. We both agreed with limited time left on our visa we wanted to make it north to the town of Chang Rai in time for the Hmong New Year, where the villagers break out into song and dance like an indigenous flash mob.
We are less than a month into this journey and I have never felt better about where we are. When I think about Southeast Asia, it is hard to put into words why I love it so much. But every day I am more grateful to be here. The past couple days we’ve spent at the Northernmost point in Thailand, right where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. This area is known as the Golden Triangle, famous for its history of opium production.
Tomorrow we are crossing the Mekong River into Laos.
Photographs of Northern Thailand
(click image for slideshow)