This post is all about the roads. And Luck. Some Relief. A lot of Gratitude. I was a little concerned when planning this trip; little updated info was available on the internet about the stretch of road from Mae Sariang to Mae Sot. I could only find info from as recent as 15 years ago describing skirmishes between border rebels and bandits, still affected by the drug trade on the border with Burma. I actually followed the road all the way from Mae Sariang to Mae Sot on Google maps. The first part looked a little curvy, which meant climbing, but the last half was flat and dropped down into the flood plains that would eventually empty into the Andaman Sea. There were more posts about cyclists making the trip than cars, so I thought, if they can do it, so can we.
The road out of Mae Hong Son was beautiful. We were traveling through teak forests, a few Shan villages (the largest ethnic group in the area), nothing to worry about. We started out with the goal of making it to Khun Yuam by 11 am so Frank would have cell reception for a conference call. Just 5 minutes late, and no cell reception until we made it into town, Frank had his conference call, the girls took their laptops to a coffee shop, and I watched a Shan Funeral procession leave the temple across the street, slowly making its way down the road to the crematorium.
Mostly 80+ year old women in sarongs and straw hats following the coffin. The music sounded like it hadn’t changed for several centuries.
Our stop that night, Mae Sariang, was meant to be a rest stop, exactly midway through the 8 hour drive from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot. Two days to do 8 hours may not sound like much, but again, I expected some issues with the roads. Mae Sariang was a perfect place to stay for the night and rest. A beautiful riverside town, no sites, no tours. We focused on one Shan temple in town
and the great morning market. Our hotel had a huge deck overlooking the Yuam River, a herd of goats noisily eating their way through the fields across the river.
We had roti and coffee in the morning market before we set out for Mae Sot.
We heard there were 3 spots of construction on the way to Mae Sot. The first was almost immediate. Basically a dirt road, on and off, for about 10 miles. Not too bad, just slow going. A 4-wheel drive would have been nice. We started climbing, again, and were eventually traveling along the ridge of the Thanon Tong Chai Mountain Range, the start of the Thai Highlands which eventually reach the Himalayas, with spectacular valley views on both sides.
I’m guessing we were at about a 4000 foot elevation, in completely desolate wilderness, road conditions were spotty at best, and getting progressively worse. At least the roads were pretty wide; clearly a goal of the construction was to widen the roads.
The hours of dirt and occasional steep drops were wearing on both Frank and me. This is just about the time Alex started complaining of cramps on her right side. We came to a downhill curve, completely washed out and rutted, then going up to a steep incline. We tried it once, and our car couldn’t make it, wheels spinning, the engine died. We backed down, again, couldn’t make it. It took a few tries for the enging to start up again. Our mountain biker in the car mentioned, “Wrong line, Dad”. Luckily there was NO traffic, so we took the WAY outside line, on the wrong side of the road, starting as far up a we could to get a running start, engine whining, gravel splattering, F-bombs flying . . . we made it.
The F-bombs turned to apologies. “I’m so sorry I got you guys into this . . . I knew the roads would be bad, but . . . “ I was imagining us being put up by a hill tribe village that we found after about 10 km of walking, no way to get the car out of the ravine, then having to take one of those scary local blue buses down to civilization (that was the only other vehicle we saw out there). I couldn’t say it until we reached sea level, but we were so incredibly lucky that it wasn’t raining. We would never have made it if the roads were wet.
About two more hours and we were finally down to the flat, straight roads that I saw on google maps, making good time. We were following the Moei River, the border with Burma, and we started seeing the miles-long refugee camps. By this time, Alex had a fever and severe cramps, so, sorry, no pics, instead I was looking up the nearest hospital. We made it into Tak Province, just in time for Alex to groan every time we hit a bump; I started freaking out in a whole new way. As soon as we hit the Mae Sot city limits, the hospital was minutes away and the skies opened. It rained so hard we could barely see. Luck.
The hospital was brand new, bright and shiny clean, a charming Burmese woman with beautiful English (possibly learned in the refugee camps), and a German trained doctor were there to help. Relief. Thorough tests ruled out dangers, and determined that the fever and cramps were unrelated. She had a virus and a fever for a few days, but eventually recovered. Gratitude.
Gratitude, also, for Frank’s safe driving. I can honestly say I would not have wanted to be with anyone else at the wheel. These are roads with a small margin for error. Knowing that Thailand leads the world in traffic fatalities did not skip my mind during this trip, I just didn’t say anything until we were safely home.
Needless to say, we didn’t see a whole lot of Mae Sot. While Alex napped in the hotel room, we ran out to some markets. Mostly for bags of sticky rice and broth. A lovely woman at a nearby noodle shop knew I had a sick daughter at the hotel and supplied me with chicken broth, refusing to take any money for it. Frank and I did our usual early morning trip to the main market and breakfast at the Lucky Star Curry Shop for fresh nan,
chickpea curry and excellent people watching. I was completely blown away by the fascinating people and amazingly diverse selection at the market.
Catherine and I made a quick trip out to Pra Charoen Waterfall, which was close and so accessible, it was crowded with families picnicking.
Alex’s fever persisted, so the next morning we threw everything in the car in the dark, pulling out of the hotel as the sun came up, cutting our trip short, and made it back to Chiang Mai, close to Bangkok hospital (see Peace of Mind Checklist), in four hours.
Mae Sot definitely isn’t for everyone. I grew up in a border town. Going over the border to Tijuana when I was a kid, with my family on our way to Popotle to camp, with my Twitty cousins on their summer visits, later with my fellow SDSU Spanish majors for dinner, gave me that adventurous feeling of being in a foreign country that I learned to crave. Mae Sot had that same gritty feeling as the Tijuana of my childhood. Frank and the girls have no desire to go back. I can’t wait to go back. Who’s with me for my next visit? Jenny? Are you up for it? No driving, we can fly.
I will have to save the refugee situation in Mae Sot for another blog post. But, basically, for close to 30 years Thailand has allowed Burmese refugees to cross the border. These refugees have been persecuted by Burma’s military rulers for either their politics or their ethnicity, or some for helping injured monks during the Saffron Rebellion in 2007. They are restricted to fenced in camps all along the border, which have become small cities in themselves, with schools and markets. NGOs provide some services, schools for adults to give them marketable skills, mostly English and computer skills, for their future relocation. The hamburger restaurant, Famous Rays, that we went to in Mae Sot is the product of a non-profit that trains Burmese refugees as cooks and restaurant managers, all in English. The hope of many refugees is to be relocated to the U.S., which some have, after long waits and extensive interviews. Mae Sot is also the host to orphanages for Burmese children, mostly of Karen ethnicity, whose parents were victims of ethnic persecution.
I hope that with the recent elections in Burma, this situation will change, drastically, for the better. Stay tuned.