Sublime dining in the border jungle of Thailand and Burma
19.09.2011 - 29.09.2011 32 °C
After a four hour flight that felt much shorter than our recent twenty minute hop from Lombok we arrived back in familiar Bangkok.
Spending only one night in Bangkok the next evening we settled into our First Class compartment on the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Having taken the train before we had soon organized a Thai supper from the attendant and had our bunk beds made up. Nowhere near as gentle as the Trans-Siberian Express we once again find ourselves lulled to sleep as we lurched and rocked through darkened countryside.
Awoken somewhat early by a shuddering stop we were soon to learn from our carriage attendant that there had been ‘an accident’ and we would not be able to continue to Chiang Mai by train. Which is why at 6am in the morning we found ourselves heading back towards Bangkok and the nearest station that could accommodate our train. We were never to find out what kind of ‘accident’ occurred. As there was no mention in the national press it could not have been serious. However, with the huge amount of flooding affecting this area of Thailand currently something monsoon related would not be a surprise.
At some small, typically desolate station we jostled for the brightly colored double decker buses waiting to transport us the remaining couple of hundred miles to Chiang Mai. Arriving late, but at least arriving some four hours later we were back in Chiang Mai. Familiar with the city we took a before reminder tour before picking up our rental car. The little Honda Civic that we were given was to see us through the mountains of northern Thailand, along the Thai-Burmese border and back to Bangkok a week or so later. This would be our last adventure of our nine month trip. No formal schedule or plan just a general idea of where we wanted to go.
Our first destination was the lovely, laid back mountainous town of Pai. Nestled near the Huay Nam Dang National Park Pai proved a delightful town some three hours drive from Chiang Mai past numerous coffee stores, rainforest flora and fauna and steep winding curves (there are some 796 between Chiang Mai and Pai).
Recovered from the journey we were quick to explore the small town packed with small bars, restaurants, massage emporiums and boutique shops. This being the wet season the town was decidedly quiet. A few stores were closed until October, most just appeared accepting of the small volume of visitors.
Driving into the outskirts of the town we soon located hot springs, available for bathing and the surprising local transport. Exiting one corner we nearly bumped into a lumbering elephant. With a mahout on his back a refreshing afternoon dip in the brown and engorged ‘Mae Nam Pai’ river was calling. Passing slowly one was reminded of those inconsiderate drivers that speed past horses and their riders. I doubt many would want to upset the elephant. The awesome power and might in their massive body was all too apparent to see. Passing further along the road we came across a number of elephant camps where for a small fee one could ride with the elephants and help with the daily bathing, feeding or general exercise.
Thoroughly enjoying the town we spent three days exploring Pai. At night a small unpressured night market appeared. Unlike Bangkok and Chiang Mai we were not continuously cajoled into buying with the legendary ‘just looking’ phrase. Prices here were realistic allowing every purchase to include a gentle barter rather than the hard bargaining that is often required in more tourist dense towns.
Outside of shopping Trey found an excellent massage school that would happily work on her back, whilst I undertook a relaxing foot massage. So good was the masseuse that Trey had to return two days running, for therapeutic reasons you understand.
Slightly sad to be leaving it was a wet morning that saw us hit the road for Mae Sot. Our long day began with the scenic, mountainous road to Mae Hong Son. Within kissing distance of Burma over 1,800 curves of the road finally saw us arrive in the town early morning. Stopping briefly to stretch our legs a variety of village tours, visa runs and river trips were on offer. Yet, with little time to spare a brief walk up the main street gave us a view of this quiet Thai town. With little tourist appeal in the town we were soon back on the road heading south now through Khun Yuam and Mae Sariang and other sparsely populated, frequently barely distinguished from the mountainous vegetation towns and villages.
For much of our drive during the day the roads ensured a modest speed. Steep corners and random potholes ensured we maintained focus. Rarely did the road surface allow any attempt at speed, indeed it was some 3 hours into the journey before we reached 100kms an hour and that was for barely a few minutes. With the wet season upon mudslides and flooding were also a concern. Frequently, we could see rainwater washing over muddy cliff faces but fortunately we were never affected. Yet, whilst the number of vehicles on the road were limited the high percentage of off road equipped vehicles was a little disconcerting for travelers in a very low riding Honda Civic. Relief came periodically as we met ‘normal’ saloon cars. With only one road in the area surely this meant that it was passable.
In Mae Sariang a missed road sign saw us drive an extra thirty minutes before the next road sign helped identify our mistake. Just what we needed! Fortunately, the further south we drove the better the roads. Some seven hours after leaving Pai we finally found ourselves on straight, relatively fast roads. Yet, dusk was falling as finally arrived in Mae Sot. Our three hundred mile journey from Pai had taken over nine hours. With no desire to tour the town in search of accommodation we checked in at the first relatively pleasant looking hotel that we came upon. Subsequent reading of the Lonely Planet guide was to identify our chosen hotel as the ‘fanciest’ in Mae Sot for it had both swimming pool and tennis courts – neither of which we utilized.
Our whole purpose staying in Mae Sot was to sample a restaurant, that we had been assured of by a friend who knows Thailand better than most, was the best in the country. Khao-Mao Khao-Fang a restaurant that offered gentrified jungle dining easily lived up to this billing. Designed by a Thai botanist, chandeliers are replaced with hanging vines, orchids and plenty of water. With an interesting Thai menu are travel tired taste buds were more than ready for the delicacies they had to offer – yellow curry with roti, rice crackers with red curry pork and pork with garlic. Reflecting on these dishes my mouth still waters. With aplomb this was easily the best meal we had eaten on our trip to date. Our only problem were the gargantuan mosquitoes that tried to obtain their own evening feast from ourselves. Yet, this dining experience certainly lived up to our expectations. Remote and time consuming it maybe. Worth the trip? Definitely.
The next morning we explored all that Mae Sot had to offer, outside of its excellent restaurant. As a border crossing point to Burma there is a strong ethnic mix – Burmese men in their longyi, Hmong and Karen women in traditional hill-tribe dress, bearded Muslims and a variety of travelers exploring the area or focused on their brief ‘Visa run’. The river border post is much the same as any border post in Thailand. An indoor market supplies a variety of Thai and Burmese goods whist the requisite barbed wire tries to ensure that residents of both countries do not move too freely across the Thai-Burmese Friendship Bridge.
With Trey’s passport away on its own Indian Visa obtaining holiday in Bangkok crossing the border into Burma is not an option. Across the river Myawadi does not appear a particularly inviting Burmese town. So, with little reason to stay another night in Mae Sot, well apart from to dine at Khao-Mao we decide to continue our journey south. Depending on traffic we should be able to reach Bangkok or at least Ayutthaya before night fall.
Once we cross through Lan Sang National Park the winding, pot-holed roads that we have become used to transform into the virtually smooth national highway 1 – the main road between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Finally able to travel at speed the miles are soon ‘eaten up’. It is not until we reach Nakhon Sawan that the flooding in central Thailand that we have been reading about affects us. Attempting to follow the ring road around the city we are stopped by flood waters that have inundated the dual carriageway, to such an extent that children are now swimming in the outside lane.
Further along the main highway the extent of the flooding becomes apparent. Vast flood plains present themselves for mile upon mile. Once habitable housing is now virtually submerged. On the sides of the road the results of the flooding are most visible. Hastily erected plastic roofed shelters house entire families and the remnants of their worldly possessions. Yet, in Thailand devastated flooding such as this is almost expected. Whilst the human tragedy we are seeing is an important feature on the local news none of the international news channel that we have access to make any mention of it.
By mid afternoon we were approaching Bangkok. With no detailed map and our geography of the city based on public transport and walking navigating to a hotel (for we did not have one booked) proved to be an interesting challenge. As anyone who has ever visited Bangkok knows the roads are replete with all manner of motorized vehicle at all hours of the day. Approaching at rush hour this was sure to be the case. Cars, trucks, scooters and buses jostled for position on the roads. Yet, as is often the case an turning off the freeway prematurely we accidentally found a road that followed the overhead tracks of the BTS. Knowing this train network intimately navigating through the city by following this easily identifiable landmark allowed us to found our preferred hotel without significant issue – if one does not mention driving the wrong way down a closed off street an issue.
The flooding that we had seen in central Thailand was clearly following us. Raised boards and sandbags were being positioned all along the Chao Phraya river. Yet for us they would not impact. With the final few days of our nine months of travel spent busily doing nothing much it was all too soon time to leave.
For Trey she would head on the overnight train to Vientiane, Laos for myself it would be a return to a cold and wet England. Yet, what memories we would have. Frolicking on the golden sands of south Pacific islands, crossing continents by train, over-landing through southeast Asia and of course having the luxury to take ones time and enjoy the new found places we were exploring. Ready to return to ‘normalcy’ it would not take long for ‘normal’ life to feel all too boring and a return to the hardships of long-term travel to call. As it was, for now, a cup of tea and a little gentle reflection was required. Fortunately, the butler at our hotel could accommodate a request for tea and biscuits. Oh the privations of international travel!