Monday, December 17, 2012

Tak and Mae Sot I was In

What do you get when you light a candle in the dark of night? Moths. What do you get when you turn down the temperatures in the north? Thais, and me. December, Thais flock to north in greater numbers than migratory insects. News channels actively encouraged viewers to head there in order to experience the drop in temperatures, Thais chasing winter. Again I have to mention how Thais like to overdress in just moderate temperatures of 18 degrees. I saw people with mink earmuffs on, proof that Thais favor fashion instead of sensibility. This is the reason why if you visit the far northern mountains in December, you think you are in Alaska.

Getting to the Forgotten Land

Instead of heading so far north into Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, there is a province called Mae Sot which I headed to. It’s about 500 km away from Bangkok. I had spoken to a colleague and he told me Mae Sot is a place where Thais had forgotten. Most folks would give this middle earth a miss as it is not on the way en-route over to the far north.

We went on a long weekend, started our journey in the dawn hours when the skies was still dark and blurry, only to realize the blurriness was due to my lack of sleep. Well if you could, go on weekdays in order to avoid the migratory traffic, but I ain’t one of those lucky lot who do not need to worry and work for a living. The drive to Mae Sot was an eternal journey on AH1 (Asian Highway 1) that passed Nakon Sawan before heading west on approach to Tak. I would not recommend one to drive in the dark because of the road conditions around Kamphaeng Phet between Nakon Sawan and Tak. I believe that area is where military tanks are manufactured and does their suspension and terrain track testing. We had to drive slow, I saw inexperience (or stupid) drivers going at ridiculous speeds almost losing grip when their wheels engaged long stretches of trench on the tarmac. Hope the governor there does something to the roads unless his intention is to have his own version of Kamphaeng Grand Canyon Phet. AH1 is the main artery to the north, be advice readers, parts of it is in bad shape so exercise caution.

Now, the fun really begins after Tak towards Mae Sot. Ever watched rally on TV? Well over there you will be in one really. A suitable small to medium size car that allows you to shift gears will be a good idea, unless you want molten brake discs as part of your cars’ permanent feature. Never ending bends, climbs and dips. On third using engine brakes, on fourth cruising and on second overtaking that two carriage truck overloaded with cows on the uphill. I had never heard my 1.5 liter of a Jazz screamed, pleaded for mercy like in Tak before. My seventeen inch rubbers took the brunt of the cornering ordeal, lost a few millimeters they did. The balancing liquid within my ears were stuck to the sides of my brain. The fuel gauge lowered at an incredible rate and I truly regretted not filling up before reaching Tak. Some distance after Kamphaeng Phet, the next petrol station will be in Mae Sot.

Mok Fah Sai

Mok Fah Sai resort is in between Tak and Mae Sot in a village called Mae Lamao. That’s where I stayed. Definitely not a spot well know by foreigners for the two nights there I no see Englishmen speaking the English. There are not many decent resorts in this region for one to choose from and Mok Fah Sai has got to be one of the best. The resort comprises of seventeen units set in an abundance of greenery. It is cozily nestled in the shadows of a great valley. Some of them are well equipped tents with air conditioning and TV that lined along the ever flowing stream. This period of December, waking early to have breakfast among the sea of fog and just enjoying the coolness was itself a remarkable experience. The blanket of fog will rise and reveal the clear blue skies free from pollution after ten in the morning. Unfortunately, that’s when it got really hot. Our room was located up on a hill, right at the fringe of the compound. My waking early to have breakfast at misty dawn of six was partially due to the erroneous roosters that did their constant cock-a-doodle-doo that started at 2 am instead of dawn. Oh so angry… so want to unplug log from house and throw at roosters in the dark.

The resort offered activities such as Jet Ski and ATV. They have a track within for us to stir up a storm of dirt in the petrol driven terrain vehicle. As for jet skiing, I was told we had to embark on a short journey to some pond within the surrounding village. Rafting was also available but December was dry, not much of white water. If one chooses to just relax and laze in the afternoon, one would be indoors with air conditioning on as the temperatures soared to over 30s. And since the nearest Seven Eleven will be 25 km away in Mae Sot, do stock up on snacks and drinks to get the afternoon hours by.

The temperatures started to drop again after four when the sun turned a golden glow. The valley unwound into the shadows of the mountains soon after before the finale of purple twilight with stars flickering on. Those hours were the best times for our massage by the stream, muscles stretched, the soothing sound of water, the gentle conversation so Thai between the masseuses and the patrons. Dinner followed in open air, candle lit tables and the sound of cutlery. Excellent Thai food served, river fish on both dinner nights. The air got heavier as the night grew darker. Smiled, getting cold, the gentle draft present, diners strolled back to their teak bungalows to retire. My hot after dinner coffee bellowed steam, up above the endless void of stars that gleamed.

Things to Do

There is a reason why there is not much of a crowd over in this region. There is simply nothing much to do. Most Thais will head over to Umphang passing Mae Sot to where the majestic Ti Lo Su waterfall is. Done massive research on Google and spoken a plenty to the locals, we drove towards north of Mae Sot to Mae Kasa Hot Springs. The mountain ranges that divided Myanmar and Thailand stretching North to South are bubbling with natural hot springs. Wherever there are hot springs, Thais will boil eggs. This association had been imprinted into their DNA. So like any tourist would, we bought three and slurped them soft boiled eggs dashed with soy sauce after dipping them in the hot water for a few minutes. When the weather is cold, everything will taste great. The steam churned from the hot fountain, the natural streams flowing emitted gentle plumes amidst the cold morning air. For most of our time there, we were just alone and could be doing brave acts such as defecating into the hot springs with no one bothering.

Just driving around among hilly roads we discovered scenic spots. We stepped out to inhale the fresh air and gazed out beyond the massive countryside. On one such spot we did, a truck pulled up next to us. A gentle elderly man thought we were the land buyers he was to meet that day. Found that that we were city folks strange to flowers that grew on sugarcanes, he told us stories of the land. Five years ago a rai would exchange hands for a mere 30,000 Baht. Now it cost half a million. The boom happened within the past two years and plans for resorts were drawn for here and everywhere. He himself, his parcels of land already given some to his three grandsons, was planning for one such on his remaining plots of pristine pastures now sprouting with low income earning sugarcanes. The countryside will change, for better or for worse he will not know.

It was difficult to find a good place to eat, for there was simply none around. We found one just after Mae Sot towards Tak, lurched on high hills next to the main road overlooking the landscape below. At a distance the hazy mountains, in between the farmlands and housing a few. We had Kentucky Fried Fish as recommended, fillets of white river meat. Only the sound of gentle conversation, traffic and exhaust notes not present. A good meal of four dishes for less than 500 Baht.

There are a few hill tribe markets and I think I visited them all. Easily spotted along the roads, they are decorated in bright colored umbrellas sheltering the many peddlers within. Fresh produce from the surrounding at incredibly cheap prices. One could stock up a whole year of salad and fruits. I ain’t no health freak, I prefer the home made thin cut potatoes chips - Lays’ of the hill tribes sprinkled with seaweed, not bad at all.

Mae Sot is the bordering town next to Myanmar, there is a market next to the Friendship Bridge. FYI, all bridges that connect to neighboring countries here in Thailand seemed to be all called Friendship bridges because they are suppose to be friend friend. If Thailand don’t friend one of these countries then maybe they will change name till they friend friend each other again. The friends from friend friend land you can find them in the market selling woodcrafts and jewelries. Some not so pleasant ones operated outside the market will try to friend friend you into buying Viagra, sex toys and “tax exempted” tobacco. Avoid.

We all come to the North for one amazing feature during winter, that is to witness the fog sea they call. One would however do know where to go in order to appreciate the sight. Towards Mae Sot would be the flats. Natural forest had made way for farmlands and fogs do not like them. The fog builds and rises only in the hilly regions towards Tak from Mae Sot. Some driving of 20 km required from our resort in order to reach heights that brought us above the mist to witness the fluffy spectacle of nature. There, sipping espresso at a view point located next to the road, the panoramic sight at eight in the morning I was. Then now in contemplation, if only I had knew of the two nature reserve earlier.

There are two nature reserves further towards Tak. Taksin Maharat National Park would come first. With my lousy Thai I managed to pass of as Thai thus paying the Thai entrance fee, we transverse narrow bridges and roads passed friendly English signs that indicated scenic routes here and there. I was late there in the reserve, no sea of fog. So we decided to visit the famous big tree. 400 meters the sign stated at the parking lot, now how hard can that be. Steep slopes and dangerous stairs all the way down. Finally in the valley we looked up upon a seven hundred year old tree so wide and tall, her name Ton Ka Bak. A small stream flowed nearby, the water crystal clear. The rangers told we can drink from there for it is the source of the rivers, the ground water emanate from underneath, never ending throughout the year. The journey back up, 400 meters in my mind, how hard can that be. My heart pumped more times in that uphill leg compared to what it did in the entire year. Finally in my three days in Mae Sot I broke a sweat… correction, buckets of sweat. Sprawled on the public bench like a dead squid, I would gladly donate money if there is a project there for escalators in nature.

After resurrecting me form the dead squid state, we came out of the park drove a further few kilometers towards the east. Lansang National Park was next. Plenty of waterfalls, plenty of trekking trails. But since my legs were still tentacles attached to my testicles, I had no intention of dissolving them further. We choose the easiest of treks, 150 meters to Lansang Waterfall from the parking lot. Compared to the ordeal before, it was a breeze. We came to the sight of a three level cascades and a small group of teenage youngsters disrupting into all my photographs. Fortunately, they left after a while. Again, we had the whole place to ourselves and we could do brave acts such defecating onto the side rocks beside the falls. Most places of alike I had been, I seen crowds massing in the brown cloudy waters in what appears to be spawning season. But the falls in Tak region are mostly isolated and features amazing water clarity. It’s a place I could gladly swim.

Here I shall end my blog of the Mae Sot experience. Cold winter oh so short they are. The climate is changing, the cold from the north does not descend down into Bangkok as often as it did years back. We need to chase them north.

Bestof2Worlds shares the winter experience in the north east. Read all about it.

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