The closer we got to Mae Hong Son, the more we could see the Shan, or Tai Yai, influence. Mae Hong Son borders the Shan State in Burma, which also shares a short border with Laos and a long border with Yunnan Province, China. The Shan State of Burma is huge, slightly less than one third the size of all of Thailand. Many Shan people come to Chiang Mai as migrant workers, but in Mae Hong Son, the generations of Shan influence demonstrates just how irrelevant borders are when it comes to this area’s numerous, both migratory and indigenous, cultures. On the way into town we couldn’t help but stop in a few villages with spectacular Shan temples.
Our hostess at the Sang Ton Huts was another history steeped Aussie who has witnessed huge historical changes in the region. Louise has lived in Mae Hong Son, on and off, for 30 years. The property was like a park with just-rustic-enough bamboo and teak huts dotting the property. During the Golden Triangle heydays, the property included a boarding house for the hill tribesmen who would have to come down into town to defend their regular drug offenses. An annoyance, but not enough of a deterent, to turn their poppy fields into a legal, less lucrative crop. For us, staying at the Sang Ton Huts was almost like staying in a small village; it was the only time all four of us had the same room, but is was really a small house with a luxurious bathroom, 2 bedrooms, a living room and a small kitchen, next to the pool with 5 lounges, really, five beds for all five dogs on the property.
I had a list of #pakhrua Instagram stops (see #thankyouandyricker), the first, some Yunnanese food in Ban Ruk Thai (see The Road to Pai). Louise gave us a number of sights on the way. I was a little concerned about the roads; I knew there would be a lot of climbing, and we would end up being about a mile away from the Burmese border. The roads were actually in great shape.
First stop was the Su Tong Pae, or Prayer Bridge in the Shan language, a 500 meter bridge made completely of bamboo stretching from the village of Kung Mae Sak, across a valley of rice fields and the Mae Sa Nga River to the local temple. Just another example of the power of bamboo construction.
Pha Sua Waterfall was on the way up to Ban Ruk Thai.
And, yes, we were climbing again. Ban Ruk Thai is up at 2000 feet elevation, just about a mile away from the Burmese border, and the air is crystal clear, cool and it just smells sweet.
Ban Ruk Thai is one of the larger Kuomintang settlements on the Thai border, and was at the heart of the drug trade. We could clearly hear a Chinese dialect being spoken by the older residents, wulong tea (famous in Szechuan Province, China) and pu ehr tea (famous in Yunnan Province, China) are grown in the hillsides, and all the food in the restaurants is distinctively Chinese. We found the restaurant with the pork dish on #pawkhrua Instagram feed. We had it with a tea leaf salad, and some steamed buns, and hot wulong tea.
Our next stop was coffee, or the Pang Ung Royal Project. I’ll definitely be writing more about the Royal Projects and Thailand’s great coffee later, but this former opium plantation, tucked away in the hills, again, right on the Burmese border, is now known for camping, its enormous bamboo, and coffee.
Thailand has the world’s only successful opium replacement program, funded by the Royal Projects Foundation. As the name implies, the Foundation is funded by the Thai royal family, and fueled by King Bhumiphol’s desire to provide the impoverished hill tribes with sustainable, organic farming techniques and legal cash crops to get them out from under the drug lords. Thirty years ago photos of the hill tribes on the northern Thai border usually had a camouflage clad, AK47 toting drug runner in the background. Now they independently grow some of the best coffee in the world. Opium replacement projects have been attempted in the golden cresent in Pakistan and Afganistan, and in the Golden Triangle, in Burma and Laos, but Thailand is the only one of these countries who can say that their farming community is poppy-free and thriving.
Pang Ung is also a bamboo research center. Bamboo is often overlooked because it grows so effortlessly, everywhere. It is used in Thailand for everything from building houses, to tattoos, to cooking, to eating. In the refugee camps, that we would see near Mae Sot in a few days, the first task of a new incoming refugee is to build their own hut out of bamboo. It is used as a vessel to cook rice, on the farm it is used for planting seedlings, and building trellises for beans and cucumbers, it’s used as rafts, bridges, and, of course, decoration. It is so beautiful, and Pang Ung has some of the biggest stalks I’ve ever seen. The village around Pang Ung is very small, very neat, and made completely of this sturdy material. We had a great cup of coffee, next to the big, beautiful bamboo, overlooking the hills of the coffee plantation.
And, last but not least, the town of Mae Hong Son, is a place I could honestly say, “I could live here”. It is Thailand’s 2nd largest NGO hub, next to Mae Sot, mainly to aid hill tribes who are limited to living in refuge camps on the border. It is a very comfortable, walkable town; at night, most of the activity is at the nightly market on Chong Kham, a manmade lake next to Wat Chong Klam, a temple that is illuminated every night.
The Sunflower Cafe (#thankyouandyricker) is not a place you go for the food (unless you have kids who are craving a pizza), but for a great people watching base for the evening, and the proximity to the food vendors. There is one vendor for Tai Yai cakes (#thankyouandyricker), and yes, they taste like a really good, gooey coffee cake, with caramelized coconut milk and date palm sugar on top.
In the morning, after climbing up to Wat Phratat Doi Kungmu for the sunrise, we hit the main market for some more #thankyouandyricker local dishes. The breakfast bar in the market had the Tai Yai noodles we were looking for, one with a soup of graham flour that reminded me of an alfredo sauce, seasoned to taste with homemade chili paste and fish sauce.
The other was a bowl of fat, chewy rice noodles with a dollop of a tomato base sauce, not unlike a bolognese.
The market was full of novice monks,
Tai Yai hats,
hill tribes vendors, and some new fruit and herbs that I had never seen before. After stopping at Bush Austin’s* favorite coffee shop, we headed back to our Sang Ton hut to pack up and head to our next stop, Mae Sariang.
We will definitely be back, but, next time I think we’ll take the 35 minute flight.
*www.austinbushphotography.com has some great photos of Mae Hong Son, as well as many other stops in Thailand. You can also find his photos on Instagram #bushaustin and Flickr.