|Travelling: Mae Hong Son|
Mae Hong Son - Mountain City in the Mists
Mae Hong Son, located on the countryï¿½s north-western periï¿½phery, is now not only linked to Chiang Mai by a very scenic road, started by the Japanese during World War II and completed in 1986 by the Thai Army; it is also linked by daily flights. The improved accessibility has thrust Mae Hong Son into prominence as a new destination for tourists seeking adventure and tranquil beauty. You can go trekking, rafting or elephant riding, combining these activities with visits to hilltribe villages.
At least two villages of a rather unique nature can be visited within a half dayï¿½s trip on the back of an elephant or by longtail motorboat. One of these is the village of the Long-neck Karens, or Padaungs, who left their native Loikaw in central-west Myanmar to settle in Northern Thailand. They are distinguished by the multiple rings they wear around their necks ï¿½ to stretch them, as long necks are, for them, a symbol of beauty ï¿½ and bangles on their arms and legs.
The other village is Mae Aw, renamed Ban Ruk Thai (Thai Loving Village), near the Myanmar border, a stronghold of the Kuomintang (KMT) who came to Thailand (via Myanmar) following the Chinese Communist revolution of 1949. The Thais still call them jiin haw, the galloping Chinese, as most arrived on horseback. Horses and solitary riders can still be seen on the drive up from the valley, something you donï¿½t see anywhere else in Thailand.
During the rainy season, when a good many of the dirt roads are closed, these horses are still relied upon for transport here. In the higher altitudes, close to Mae Aw, tea is planted and can be obtained cheaply in the stores.
Close to a small river is another village inhabited by the Pa-O, a small minority group. One cottage is in a particular picturesque setting right on the river, which the owners, of course, have to share. Itï¿½s a busy place where the villagers come to bathe and to wash.
No one should depart from Mae Hong Son without a visit to Doi Kong Mu and its Myanmar-style hilltop temple of Wat Phra That. It is a long and steep climb up a series of stairways but the views over the city and valleys are worth it. Early morning mist ï¿½ caused at times by atmospheric conditions and other times by the burn-and-slash type of agriculture used ï¿½ still covers the valleys and only mountain tops are visible. With the sun rising and becoming stronger, a city, seemingly bursting at its seams, slowly begins to appear, surrounded by thick-forested mountains and valleys. In the centre is picturesque Chong Kham Lake with twin wats near its shores.
Beyond that is a fast-growing, and cleaner, town. Originally, it has been said, the local merchants profited from supplying the drug lords from across the border. Now, tourism has proved to be a new source of income. The original guesthouses catering to backpackers have been augmented by international-standard hotels attracting a better-heeled clientele.
From Mae Hong Son is a spectacular drive to Pai which follows a river of the same name for a while and then winds its way onto higher altitudes. This road undoubtedï¿½ly ranks among the most scenic drives in this part of the world. During the cool season (November through March), the views are glorious. The incipient rainy season paints a more dramatic tableau: as the road winds up and down, it is sometimes lost in wafting fog and, suddenly, you get a distant view of mountain peaks shrouded in clouds.
At a look-out point, a mixed group of hill people has set up shop offering the usual trinkets they produce for the tourist trade as well as some wild orchid plants; for the travelling gourmet, young bamboo shoots and wild jungle ferns can be purchased here for only a few baht.
For those interested in more touristic activities, enroute stops can be made at the Fish Cave and the Pod Caves; the former has been transformed by TAT into picnic grounds which are very popular with Thai weekend travellers. At the Pod Caves, amateur speleologists can spend time exploring the caves and do some blackwater rafting.
SilkAir flies to Chiang Mai thrice weekly (Tuesdays, Fridays & Sundays). Daily connections to Chiangmai (via Bangkok) are available on Thai International Airways; Thai Airways has also several flights a day between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, respectively.
Most nationalities do not require visas for a stay of up to 30 days. For a longer visit, a tourist visa for a stay of up to 60 days has to be applied for at any Thai embassy or consulate.
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