Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mae Hong Song

January, 2010

We easily could've passed more time in Pai, but hurried over to Mae Hong Song to meet up with Dew and Pom, who we hadn't been able to reach by cell (and ultimately wouldn't find). The bus ride was one of those memorable Asian journeys, crammed into the back seat and surrounded by oddly-shaped luggage. The road today was as windy as the day before, below some very impressive peaks. I was entertained by a middle-aged hill tribe couple, who were taking a ride straight out of a slapstick comedy, complete with inadvertent pratfalls. The young girl next to me was browsing a celebrity magazine whose common denominator seemed to be very large breasts, an endowment shared by the reader. The woman beside her was adamant that no one touch her bag, which had been placed on the floor in front of me. After she fell asleep, one young man wound up sprawled across it completely. Being quite close to Burma, we stopped at many check points. At one, the cop threw me a wink and a smile.

Mae Hong Song didn't impress much on first glance, and I began to regret not staying in Pai. Then we came to the lake, which became the focal point of the next couple days. We had a dinner and a breakfast beside it, and on the final morning, I sat on its shore to watch the sun appear behind the high peaks to the east.

The mountains ringing the town were spectacular, stretching over into Burma. We watched the sun drop there from the wat on the hill at the town's center. It seemed like half the town was circumambulating the chedi there, flowers in hand. A monk had climbed up and was unwrapping a piece of broad yellow cloth. Further up, a handful of monks were burning the forest, including the base of one large tree. Smoke form other fires were visible across the landscape, and by springtime, the whole thing would disappear.

We had gone into the mountains earlier in the day, to a long neck Karen village. It was composed of several dozen huts, maybe half having been converted into shops selling the textiles woven here. There was also a Catholic church built by the Koreans, as well as a small school. we spent a great deal of time at the latter, distracting the kids , to the obvious annoyance of the staff. In our party was an actual Korean school teacher, who stepped to the board to give a quick lesson. I always feel slightly uncomfortable in visiting villages, and here especially so. Half of me longed to stare and take photos, and half felt like I was gawking at the handicapped. The Thai government pays the Karen women good money to wear the neck rings, but they have no rights, and must return to their villages at night. Some of them have left the village to refugee camps at the border, populated by 15,000 people and increasing every day with those escaping the fighting across the border. The UN will relocate the lucky ones to European countries.

On the ride back to town, our driver told us that the tourist industry had yet to recover from the 2008 airport closures. He hoped that people will return in a few years. We saw very few, as we rounded out the day visiting Shan style temples done up as silver wedding cakes. The dull light inside the teak structure reflected lazily off the Buddhas.

One theme of our time in Mae Hong Song was a series of amazing meals. I had a wicked Shan curry at Mae Si Bua, followed by a coffee at a nearby cafe, as I perused a magazine about 1960's mods, wishing I could read the Thai characters. At the Salawan River Cafe, the dark interior was of a western saloon, emphasized further by Hank Williams on the speakers. Dogs snoozed in the doorways and Miki slumped against the wall like a pair of gunfighters.

On our final night, coming down the hill on a sunset walk, we found the whole town absolutely throbbing. The town was hosting a huge festival, so we moseyed on down to have a gander. It was more of a carnival, with games and rides. There were quite a few hilltribe people about, including some longneck Karen, who looked completely conspicuous in the crowds. One of them wore a hoody, to blend further. It really looked as if the entire population of Mae Hong Song was here. Most of those back in town were farang. Beside the lakeside wat, a few Thai people released paper lanterns into the sky, which rose to become yellow specks of light mingling with the crescent moon...

On the turntable: Hillstomp, "Darker the Night"

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