Mae Hong Son – Northern Thailand

MAE HONG SON

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Our flight westward to the remote town of  Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai took only about 40 minutes.  The scenery on the way over the mountains was spectacular.   This is some of the most varied scenery in all of Thailand, consisting of mountains, lush forests and valleys, and swift clear streams.  Since it is also situated on a few kilometers from the Burmese border, we could see a number of the refugee camps that house displaced Karen tribe members who have fled the despotic Burmese government over the past 20 years.

We could have come by car.   There is a sensational ‘loop road’ that can be taken, starting south from Chiang Mai on route 108 to MHS, which changes to route 1095 and winds its way back to Chiang Mai.  “winds” is the operative word here: the loop consists of 600 km of unique curves and hairpins – – – 1864 to be exact!  and you can buy t-shirts along the way that declare you are a survivor of such an expedition!!  But if you are stretched for time, or want to spend more of it just walking/hiking these gorgeous hills and valleys, take the plane!          (We did head north to Pai and Chaing Rai eventually on route 1095 from MHS, and that was plenty of thrills in and of itself – – but only 762 curves in this 155 km stretch to the Chiang Mai highway…!!   that’s 5 curves per kilometers )

The Mae Hong Son valley we landed in is beautiful.  There were several unique Burmese style temples/wats in town and a brilliant white stupa on top of Doi Kong Mu high above the city.

We stayed at the eco-friendly Fern Resort, just outside of town, overlooking rice paddies and banana trees beneath the hills in the heart of the forest.  It was staffed almost exclusively by members of the Karen Tribe who live throughout this area.  Peaceful in the extreme, and well-situated bungalows to enjoy the setting.

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Mae Hong Son and airport

Mae Hong Son and the shortest jet-capable runway in Thailand!

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Stupa at top

Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu Temple, on the hill overlooking the town.

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Evie and Bing

Evie and Bing, our wonderful guide, up here in the NW.

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The prayer tree

A ‘prayer tree’ for seekers of some divine guidance

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Mae Hong Son -- more temples below

The townsite as seen from Wat Phra That.

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Two different temples next to each other

Two distinctly different temples right next to each other on Jong Cham Lake; the Wat Chong Klang on the left and the Wat Chong Kham on the right.

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A woven bamboo Buddha

A Buddha woven entirely of bamboo, crafted by a local woman.  The only one of its kind!   and a great source of pride to this community.

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temple

the Stupa at Wat Chong Klang

next door temple

Wat Chong Kham Temple  is located next to Wat Chong Klang (see previous picture)

Novice monks learning how to put on their robes

Young Novice monks learning how to wrap  their robes —  a lot of fabric to deal with!  (and a creative use for a picnic table)

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details

Wat Hua Wiang —  Shan-style  architecture with elaborate tiered wooden roofs

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A Buddha

A bronze Buddha statue from Mandalay in the Wat Hua Wiang

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the FERN RESORT

Rice paddies at the Fern Resort

Rice paddies and banana trees at the Fern Resort

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Sunset on the rice paddies

Sunset overlooking the rice paddies

Path to our bungalow

Path to our bungalow

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a Long-Neck Karen Tribe

We took a boat trip on the Pai River to visit the mysterious Padong Long-Neck Tribe at their village of Baan Nam Peing Din.  It was interesting to learn that this Padong tribe are a sub-group of the Karen people living in eastern Burma and elsewhere in northwest Thailand.

This particular village is a relatively new location for the tribe.  Having been persecuted in neighboring Burma for many years, they jumped at the chance to relocate across the border in Thailand, at the request and providence of the Thai government.  They don’t own enough land to farm traditionally here, but the Thai-govt provides for their community needs (including a school, clean water, sanitation ) and in return, theirs’ is an open-community where tourists are able to get an up-close and personal look at this different lifestyle.  It was evident that they were used to the tourists and easily welcomed them.  They were very friendly, but never pushy in trying to sell us items they had crafted.

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Beautiful river

The boat-landing on the Pai River

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Beautiful river

Here is our boatman to take us to the long-neck village.

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A prefect day for a boat ride

A prefect day for a boat ride on a beautiful river.

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Entering the Long-Neck Village

‘Main Street’ in the Long-Neck Village of the Padong Tribe

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Very pretty woman

Very striking woman.   Note that the neck rings come in several different sections.  Easier to take off and easier to add new ones when “needed”.

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Many weavers in the village

Many weavers in the village, and they were all doing expressive work.

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She wanted me to try -- (sisters this is a good way to get rid of the "Smith" double chins)

She wanted me to try — (to my sisters ,this looks like a good way to get rid of the “Smith” double- chins) Reminds me of a body cast I once had a long time ago . . .

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This old woman insisted that we have our picture taken with her

This old woman insisted that we have our picture taken with her.  Don’t have a clue how old she is.

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She insisted Gary have a picture also

She insisted Gary have his picture taken with here as well.

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Many young women with small children

Many young women here with small children

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Had soccer stickers for the children.  Will I had real balls as on the way back to the boat one of the boys was trying to kick the sticker down the road.

I had many stickers for the children. Wish we had packed some real balls,  as on the way back to the boat one of the boys was trying to kick the sticker down the path.

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Not all of the woman now-a-days wear the golden (actually brass) necklaces that stretch their necks.  It was interesting to see information from a study of x-rays done on these women, that it didn’t actually stretch their necks, but rather lowered their collar-bones, while squashing their vertebra. The women with the “long necks” are very proud of their appearance!

We were told that today these women have a choice of wearing the collars or not; but if they start this procedure with girls at 5 and 6 years of age, like we were told, I am not convinced they really have a choice!  Also if this is a tourist financial necessary it seems that it will continue.  We had mixed feelings about being there, but later reflection had us thinking that, without the Thai governments help, and without tourist income from their crafts and visits, their’s would be a much poorer existence.

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Not all of them had the gold collars

Not all of them had the gold collars (I bought one of her attractive scarves)

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Love the paint on the cheeks to protect from sun

Love the Thanaka paint on their cheeks which is used for protection from the sun.  This is a more common sight in Burma than in Thailand (where it gets much hotter!).

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typical house

typical Padong dwelling

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Walking through the village

Wandering through the village

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Our guide brought along packages of instant noodles to give to the villagers.  Something they don’t get and LOVE to eat.

We continued through the village and were able to go into a kindergarten class that was in session.  These kindergarten children were learning the Burmese language, in addition to their tribal dialect, and Thai language!!

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Visiting a kindergarten class

Visiting a kindergarten class

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She was learning Burmese along with their own dialect and Thai.

Appreciative for the package of noodles, and just maybe a break from learning all those Burmese scripts!

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village

the main street, heading back down to the Pai River

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Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

CHAING MAI  –  Northern Thailand

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We arrived in Chiang Mai after a short 50 minute air-hop over the mountains from Hanoi.  Nothing up in this part of S.E. Asia seems very far from anywhere else… (by AIR!)

Chiang Mai is a beautiful, planned city founded back in 1285, and currently has about 400,000 inhabitants. The walls of the old town are in evidence at the corners of this well-layed out old metropolis, and the entire moat around these ancient brick walls is a very attractive addition to the city-scape.  It was a delight just walking these streets, visiting museums, exploring the many Buddhist temples, and casually taking in the sights, while eating at a number of excellent northern Thai restaurants.  And you MUST check out the great saturday and sunday markets here, where they close a number of streets to vehicles on these two evenings and and you walk for hours looking at all the goods while smelling the tantalizing foods stalls and listening to performers and street musicians all along  the way. . .

The Sunday Walking Street market was quite festive with thousands of people inching along shoulder to shoulder while looking at all the items for sale. One could easily get lost.  Locals come to shop, socialize, hang out and the crowds swell with Thai and foreign tourists.   It was the most crowded and largest night market we have been to.  There were performances of children singing and Thai dancing.  We didn’t have our camera with us, but they were delightful in their costumes.  The Wats open up their grounds for food vendors — lots of yummy food cooked right there. The whole event was quite something to see, but we were glad to get away from the crowds and have a drink in the restaurant close to our hotel and listen to some very good local live jazz (a surprise to us here in Northern Thailand), but a welcome from all the karaoke we have heard elsewhere.

Chiang Mai really seems quite modern and a definite contrast to the towns we had became acquainted with in neighboring Laos. We quickly noticed we were now back in a part of SE Asia that is doing pretty well economically.

The hotel we stayed in was very pleasant and in a very convenient location for us, just within the walls of the ancient city near the eastern-most gate (the Tha Phae Gate).

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pool

The small pool at the DeNaga Hotel was perfect for us; a relaxing place for a drink before dinner.

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temple

Temple near the Art Museum

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Lovely swing

Lovely swing to rest from walking the streets

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There is much more to explore in Chiang Mae, but we are not here long.  We found a couple of great restaurants and would have loved to try more.   A speciality of Northern Thailand is a dish of yellow noodles with chicken, chili, and crisp noodles on top.  It was so good, but the spiciest dish we have had so far.  Another great place for Thai food was “Mamory Delicious”, were we had a wonderful curry dish.

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Patara Elephant Farm

A highlight of our trip was being an elephant owner for a day at Patara Elephant Farm.   It was an amazing experience from getting to know our elephant, feeding, bathing, checking poop for health, and riding the elephant bareback.  The day is a perfect combination of education, conservation, hands-on experience, and breathtaking scenery.   You can tell by the enthusiasm of the owner and those who care for the elephants that these creatures are truly family.  The program they have for rehabilitation and natural breeding program is so humane.  Each elephant has a trainer that is responsible for the care of that elephant and is consistently tending to its care.  It was such a great day getting to know our individual elephant and learning about the elephants in general, learning the commands to go, stop, open mouth, lie down, get up, raise leg so we could climb up on their neck.  What was truly amazing is that they responded to us, visitors, even with our accents.  Elephants are very gentle and intelligence creatures.

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Mother and baby -- 3 weeks old

Mother and baby — 3 weeks old

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Adorable little girl

Adorable little girl

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The two new baby elephants -- 3 and 4 weeks old

The two new baby elephants — 3 and 4 weeks old

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Great way to start our day with elephants

Great way to start our day with elephants

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She was a leaner -- was about to push me down

Ready to suck on my hand

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Mama was a better option

Mama was a better option

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Walking in the fields to find the other elephants

Walking in the fields to find the other elephants

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Feeding our elephant to establish a bond for the day

Feeding my elephant to establish a bond for the day — bamboo, sugar cane bananas, and grasses

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Gary's is larger and older (38 yrs old)

Gary’s is larger and older (38 yrs old)

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Another one joined us

Wait-a-minute!   How’d I get 2 of ’em?     Another one joined us for the feast

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We had to check their poop -- healthy if it didn't smell.

We had to check their poop — healthy if it didn’t smell.

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Dusting off the dirt

Dusting off all the dirt they had been rolling in.

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Then hosing them down

. . . Then hosing them down

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Time to get up -- lifts his foot as a step stool

OK: time to ride!   She’s easy to get up, right?   —  Just lifts her foot as my step-stool.

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An awkward  mount and I was first one chosen to demonstrate the technique

UGH!  An awkward mount and of course I HAD to be the first one chosen to demonstrate the technique!

Made it!

I DID IT!

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Gary had a higher climb

Gary had a higher climb (and needed a little help)

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Success

Success!

Thankful to be on the elephants

Thankful to be on these magnificent creatures.

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We are ready to go

We’re ready to go

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We then took a couple of hours ride through the forest with our new friends (with many steep ups and downs to the trails, it was uninteresting trek) before coming to a waterfall and large pool, where we bathed and scrubbed our elephants.  The riding was actually quite comfortable up their on their necks with our legs behind their ears.  Bathing and playing in the water with them was great fun, as they seemed to really enjoy it.  But, mostly their trainer kept encouraging  us to “scrub harder”.

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Down the forest path

Down the forest path

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He was a pro

Gary became  a real pro at riding his.

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Time for a scrub in the river

Time for a scrub in the river

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Even had to clean her teeth

Even had to clean underneath her trunk and her teeth!

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Only way to clean the top

Only way to clean the top.    Then she decided to roll over in the water, and I got off quick!

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She seemed to be enjoying the scrub

She seemed to be enjoying the scrub

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Gary joined us and then she got up!

Gary joined us and then she started getting up!

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The elephants lined up to get the last splashes

The elephants lined up so we could give them some last splashes.

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But the elephants gave us the last bath

But the elephants wound up giving us the last bath!

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It was a surprise

Turn-about is fair play, eh?

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We then had a lovely lunch overlooking the water hole, and then took a short ride on our elephants back to where we had to say good-by to our new friend.

It is hard to describe the joy of interacting with these magnificent animals.  Truly, one of the most intelligent creatures we have encountered, and an experience we won’t soon forget.

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time for a great lunch

time for a great lunch  —  love the banana leaf tablecloth

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Watching the next group bath their elephants

Watching the second part of our group bath their elephants

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This little guy loved the water

This little guy just couldn’t get enough of the water

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As we left for our 30 km ride back down the mountain to Chaing Mai, we all had a hard time believing we had just spent a very long and tiring day taking care of these massive animals.  If you get to S.E.Asia we heartily suggest you put such an activity on your trip agenda:  you won’t regret it.   BUT, choose the experience carefully.  Elephant tourism is a big-ticket item over here, and there are a lot of promoters/operators that are in it just to make money, without thoughtful care of the animals as the basis for their operation.  In fact, many of them are mistreating the elephants so tourists can just get close to them. Hence, ‘caveat emptor’ applies: do your research before deciding where to go for such an experience.    This one is the Patara Elephant Farm and they can be found at:                     http://pataraelephantfarm.com

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All-in-all we didn’t plan for enough time in Chiang Mai.  Next time we will spend at least a  week or two here alone.  So much to see and do.

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