Pai to Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot to Kanchanaburi Wed 7- Sat 17 January 2009

 The drive through the hills towards Pai was very pretty - cutting through winding hills. We camped that night at the Pong Dueat hot springs on the edge of the Huay Nam Dang National Park.

 
This was a lovely spot and amazingly we were allowed to camp there and use the springs for no charge. There was a large pool and 3 or 4 smaller hot spas -they mainly get day visitors from Pai but we had the entire complex to ourselves as everyone had gone home. In our guidebook it said there was a 200 baht ($8 Aus) charge for foreigners but this seemed to have been dispensed with for some reason! It was a lovely spot and we felt we were staying at a luxury resort. Next morning we walked up to see the source of the springs - a large natural geyser erupting up to 2 metres high at times.

Refreshed and rejuvenated we drove on to Pai. It being high season this town was packed with visitors - mainly Thais. There is a real camping scene here - not sure if it is for the fun of it or due to the huge pressure on existing accommodation but there were tents everywhere, most hotels hiring tents to camp in their grounds as a sideline.

   
 We found a good spot down on the river where we stayed for a few days. It ranged from being empty just us - to cheek by jowl crowded - Saturday night when a lot of weekenders come. This blocked our river view which cheesed us off a bit!! Everyone was friendly and welcoming and we were invited to join various groups for dinner.  

As mentioned before, in Thailand letting off lanterns is a big thing at this time of year and we saw dozens being released - filling the sky at some points. Apparently some areas have banned them as they can be dangerous as they stray into flight paths- you'd certainly never get away with it in Australia!!!- it was lovely to watch.

   
 

Pai is a lively little town - with a very laid back hippy vibe. It reminded us a bit of Vang Vieng (see Laos section) and I guess is similarly love it or hate it -being very touristy.

We enjoyed it for a few days r & r.

The markets were pretty good and at one we saw our first Padaung Karen ladies -the "long necked" tribe. This tribe is originally Burmese and I'll write more of them later - but it was interesting to see them. They were incredibly beautiful.

 

We left Pai on Monday 12th January and drove on towards the northern provincial capital of Mae Hong Son (MHS). We passed many indigenous people selling their wares on the way - betel nut is obviously popular here - some amazing sets of molars!!

 
 

On the way we stopped off at Tham Lot - a large limestone cave with a stream running through it. We weren't sure whether to go in or not - we felt it wouldn't be as good as the one we saw in Southern Laos - but we met a nice American couple who were looking to team up with another couple to split the cost so that decided us!

It was similar to the Laos one - on a much smaller scale - you went a small way in on bamboo rafts and then got out to walk around and view the rock formations - one of which looked like a beautiful waterfall. It was definitely worth a look though we were right not as good as the Laos one. It had an ancient cave painting too - of a hunter. No point in putting on a picture it was very hard to see in the flesh and the photos were useless!

We drove on to hit MHS that night and managed to find a good camp spot right on the river at a recreational fishing centre. The night watchman was very kind though we couldn't really communicate and brought us hot drinks which was welcome as it is again a bit chillier here. MHS was a lovely little city. It is so much more developed than Laos - mentally we were expecting Northern Laos type remoteness - no ATMs etc and had prepared for this, but his place is full of mod cons. Compared to Laos Thailand certainly offers  an easier touristy way of seeing the northern areas  - a good or bad thing depending on your view.

The majority of people here are of the Shan tribe. Indeed the theory is that these were the original inhabitants of this area. They seem to have full status unlike other tribal peoples. There is a large gold statue of a very serious looking Praya Singhanaj - the original Shan governor of the province overlooking the town.

Set on the river with a view of the mountains it is a scenic little town. The city centre wats - Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang make a lovely backdrop particularly when lit up at night. There are various indigenous villages around and they bring their wares in to sell at a night market which lines the river side.

We had a tasty Shan dish - deep fried pork rinds and vegetables with a chilly dip. It was actually really good. The northern food is different to down south -a lot of different vegetables grow here -and a few have a quite bitter flavour. We have developed quite a taste for it.

We took a trip out to Ban Nai Soi - a "temporary" -for 18 years!!  refugee village (one of several) on the Thai/Myanmar border. This is home to 80 Paduang Karen villagers. These people are originally from Myanmar but due to the troubles there (they are fighting the Junta government) many have defected to Thailand. This camp is open to the public and you pay to go in and view the women take pictures and buy souvenirs. We weren't sure whether to go or not - some have likened it to a zoo- but decided to go and make up our own minds.

 
The women are confined to the camp though they can leave for hospital  visits or shopping - men are less of a tourist draw and so can come and go more freely though if they work it is illegal and presumably they are paid very little. I guess it is a bit tacky but they did seem happy enough and were pleased to chat to tourists and want you to come - they have local schools and the kids particularly speak very good English. Many are awaiting replacement in Australia/New Zealand the USA and France. The women start adding neck rings at the age of 5. They continue adding the neck coils (which are pretty heavy up to 22kg) for years and this gives the impression that their necks are stretched when in fact it is just that their collarbone and rib cage become depressed giving the impression of an elongated neck.

One young lady we spoke to said she was very keen to go to Australia but her parents won't go whilst their parents are still alive. The older generation is still in Myanmar so they can't see them as her father was a Karen soldier fighting the government. I was concerned how bored such a bright girl must be being confined to a narrow area and asked if she liked living there. As she said "before every week 1 person 2 person die - here no one die" which I guess puts it all into perspective!

In our lovely (??!!) pictures I have a fake neck piece on but it isn't too comfy at all. Goodness knows how they sleep but the ladies said you get used to it and it is fine. They can remove the rings with no ill effects but they would still look different making it hard to enter main stream society. As I said before a lot of the ladies were incredibly beautiful- I make a bloody silly looking Karen !!

As we left MHS the next day we stopped off at the Pha Bong hot springs. Hot springs are dotted around this area and we often pull over to have our bath/shower and save our own water. It is really nice for locals they have these bathing areas as few homes have hot water. We paid 50 baht ($2 Aus) for a private bath and wallowed for a while!

 
 As our 15 day visa is nearing an end (bloody ridiculous new rule - grumble grumble!) we headed next to Mae Sot to do another Myanmar border run. We drove down along the 108 which goes into the 105 road which runs very close to the Myanmar border. We went through dozens of police/army checkpoints -they just stare and let us through I think we go into the "too hard" basket! - and had no problems. We had checked with the police that the road was ok to use as it has been a scene of fighting between troops and rebels - and were given the all clear. We had no problems but people later expressed horror that we'd driven it! 

   
 At Mae Ramat we stopped to take pictures of what we thought was a village which went on and on. It was a huge Karen refugee camp -one of several housing over 3,000 people- it stretched on for 4km. The children came begging. We didn't want to give money but gave out some cakes - the monks where we camped had kindly given us some packaged cake slices which we really didn't need - and I threw them out and they fought for them. This had a sort of desperation about it and whilst they were friendly it was a bit of an eye opener -first "real "refugee camp we'd ever seen.

 
 Once we hit Mae Sot we were lucky enough to find a good camp at a city centre wat - Wat Aranyakhet. This wat was full of novice monks - and a couple of slightly doddery old monks struggling to keep order! It is still funny - we think of monks as sort of different and holy - and these were a bunch of cheeky 9 year old boys -constantly fighting and getting into trouble!

Mae Sot really feels more like Myanmar than Thailand. It is a busy town full of westerners (most of whom work for NGOs) Karen people and Burmese - either here illegally or on a day pass. Many have refugee status here but they can't leave the town. The busy markets and the restaurants and street signs really make you feel you are in Myanmar. We did the obligatory visa run and had a day in Myanmar - please see the Myanmar section for a write up of this when we get around to it.  

 

   

Back in Mae Sot we went round a couple of attractive wats - a few in the Burmese style. Our wat was actually a school by day for Burmese refugees. It is run by an NGO and is free. Some of the monks at the wat  were Burmese. You did wonder what they had been through - one even had a bullet hole on his shoulder- so it is nice that they have a safe haven.

 

There is a medical clinic nearby Dr Cynthia's- run by a Karen doctor specializing in treating refugees particularly landmine victims and they welcome assistance -particularly from those with a medical background - as well as donations. If you are interested Google them -or the details are in the up to date lonely planet (not our old one!) We never made it to visit but did a bit of voluntary teaching (see above geography using the maps!) at the school!

 

So, with a further 15 days on our visas we took the road south. We drove through the lovely riverside town of Kampaeng Petch. This is from the same era as Sokhotai we visited previously and has various wats and ruins -though not as well preserved. We stopped off at another hot springs near here - a really luxurious hot tub this time with a gorgeous landscaped garden. Really nice though we definitely know we are heading south as it is starting to get too hot for hot spas!  

   
We camped that night at Nakhon Sawang. This is a large urban sprawl industrial town. We found a good street restaurant specializing in duck and then camped at the hill top temple.

 

This was stunning - no signs in English but apparently it is over 600 years old. Most of it has obviously been rebuilt but we couldn't work out when. We got a good early (5am) wakeup call when the chanting started - which was a good thing as we got some good sunrise pictures.

 

Up at the temple we were blessed with holy water and were once more on our way!

 

This trip is becoming a bit of a wat crawl! They are a great place to camp and we've never been refused. Not sure if a Thai traveller would have such luck rocking up to a Christian church in the UK or Australia!! 


We drove on to the 333 and 324 highways - good roads though somewhat uninspiring after some of the beautiful roads we've driven. This area is a big centre for sugar cane which with rice is the main industry in this area. We passed hundreds of heavily laden trucks going to the refineries. On a darker note we also saw 2 awful fatal accidents - one with a motorbike one with a car - which had collided with a truck and come off worse!

 

Finally on Saturday 17th January we arrived at our next destination - the riverside town of Kanchanaburi - site of the bridge over the River Kwai.