Big questions in Mae Hong Son

Trip Start Jan 10, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2010

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mae Hong Son is a lovely little town in the mountains of Northwestern Thailand and it is presented as a big hub for trekking and visiting the  Hill Tribes villages in the area. And indeed every shop in town big or small, advertises all sorts of trips one better than the other. But on my first morning there when I start looking to book a multi day trek to my surprise it was quite hard to find something. Best places mentioned in guide books were either empty or the front person hardly spoke any English and did not seem to be very interested in my money. Where ever I went and asked what treks they have for the next day all without an exception looked at me like I was from another planet... I realized that there was something that I was doing wrong so, I tried a different approach. I started telling them what I want to do and that started to get me somewhere. It seems that they don't have pre-cut treks but rather whip something up on the spot tailored to an extent to the customers needs. In the end they all do the same few things in the same few places it's just a weird way of doing business.
So I ended up booking a one day trek for the next day, the multi day trek was out of the question since for just one person, me, they would charge 4 times more than say a 3 or 4 persons group...

Having spent all my first morning looking for treks I decided to get up on the hill overlooking the city and visit this beautiful Buddhist Monastery parched up there. There are few hundred steps to walk up, and half way through I realized that I was all alone and it was really, really hot. Duh! it was noon! I felt a little stupid but I had no choice than to continue, I did have my reward just few steps up, see the pictures. When I Finlay got on top I saw an army of Korean tourists in high heels and miniskirts... What?? Oh, there was a road going up on the other side of the hill and a half a dozen minibuses in the parking lot... Anyways, I was happy. I got my few good Monks shots and exercise a bit, Gods know I need that!

Next day, big trekking day. First river rafting on a bamboo raft. Don't get too excited, it's the dry season, people! the river was moving really nice and slow and at the rapids you could count the stones in the water. But it was great never the less. Really enjoyed the river with all the teak, fig, tamarind, banana trees as well as the orange trees plantations on its banks. I was hoping for more wild life but all we saw was a beautiful Kingfisher diving in the river for its fish, striking neon blue plumage, beautiful bird!
There were also people (mostly Burmese refugees I've been told, some of them illegal) working very hard for their daily rice and curry. They would be in the river up to their waists scooping up, sometimes diving for it, huge buckets of pebbles, small rocks and sand which they will later sell to be used in construction. Hard work no doubt and so many of them were families all together working and living poorly right there in the bushes by the river. They are probably the worst off in Thai society...
From the bamboo raft we jumped on some poor elephant back and off we went into the jungle. I love elephants but these poor animals didn't want to be there hauling my big fat westerner ass around on the same short loop at the edge of the jungle I can tell you that much. It was an uneasy hour, interesting to be so high up on an elephant's back, but it was a very touristy kinda cheesy thing to do. the best part was at the end when we fed the elephants with sugar cane sticks bought at a very inflated price. I guess we helped the local economy, at least most of the money went directly to the handlers and raft people so there is a bit of good in that I suppose.

Best part of the day was the hike through the Jungle along this nice creek for about 3 hours, finally something I can do on my own, well with a guide (actually two guides cuz the nice French couple that I started the day with weren't feeling well so it was just me and the 2 guides). Although dry the jungle was fantastic. Real jungle, like in the movies with tall trees and humongous lianas, some thick as a normal tree. Fantastic lianas seeds like a long green beans but 100 times bigger!! Awesome! Bamboo trees everywhere from which the local guide, a sweet little old but agile Karen man, chopped of 3 bamboo mugs for beer in few short minutes. It was awesome to see him handling that huge knife with such dexterity. Was looking for monkeys and yes saw one far away jumping through the trees, to far to really enjoy the thing :( but it was better than nothing.
Thunders were echoing in the jungle so we turn back and picked up the pace but just minutes before we got back to our car in the village the storm hit and boy what a storm it was! I got quite wet for literally being 2 minutes maybe less outside. The downpour that followed was one for the books, I've only seen that much water coming down in Nepal at the end of the rainy season a couple of years back. No more than an hour of crazy rain but it cooled off the whole region well into the next day.

One more thing was that I wanted to do in Mae Hong Son, go see the Karen "Longneck" village. You probably have seen some National Geographic documentary about the women of this mountain tribe (originally from Burma) that have these bras coils around their necks, adding more and more as they grow old until they have this really long ringed necks. My description doesn't make them any justice so I'll stop here but you can see them in the pictures.
So next morning I jumped on the back of a motorcycle and let the guide take me to them, as well as a couple other tribes villages along the way.
It was my dream coming through and yet ... that uneasiness again... I was excited and ashamed at the same time. I felt just like going to the Zoo only this time I was watching people. I was there to observe their life and stare at them and take pictures of them like they were some weird creatures not human beings, refugees from Burma as well, trying to make a living by showing themselves to tourists eager for sensational, me included.
So, here is something for you my friends to mole over and write back to me what you think: human ethics or tourism? Excited or ashamed, which one would you feel being in my shoes?
I have to mention that the fact that a good chunk of the money I paid the guide went directly to the village coffins, in a form of an entrance fee, made me feel a tiny bit better. It is after all that fee from tourists like me that keeps them and their way of life alive, or is it? Ahhhh! Tough one.

The Chinese village was a totally different story, as everywhere in the world they survive and more they flourish. By far the most well off village of all, with huge school and rustic but nice houses, and big tea plantations surrounding it this was definitely a success story of people from outside of Thailand settling in.

That's it from Mae Hong Son.
Tony... out!
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Spiros on

Hi Tony,

The photos from Northern Thailand are really great. Keep them coming.
Sounds like you are having a great time.

Diana on

Hi Tony!
I perfectly understand your dilemma. Faced similar problem in Africa.
What I ended up doing when I was on my own was to spend more time in a place. Once people felt comfortable with my presence they focused on their business.
You did a great job!!! I absolutely love the picture of the weaving woman with the child next to her.
Thank you for these treats!

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