30-04-04

PAI


 
From the LP Thailand: "It first appears that there is not a lot to see in Pai, a peaceful crossroads town about halfway between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. But if you stick around a few days ...( you just might find you get what you ... came for ).
 
Joe Cummings, auhor of LP Thailand is very lean in his description of Pai, isn't he? I heard somewhere ... that he likes it around here and is seen in these parts occasionally. Mmmm? Could it be that he is trying to reserve the best morsels for himself? 
 
I first heard of Pai in Varkala. I mentioned to my neighbors at Palm Beach Resort that after the beaches of India I was ready for a change of scenery, and wanted to go to the mountains in Thailand after my friend Mike's wedding in Petchabun. They suggested Chiang Mai and Pai. Mike concurred, but said that I probably would not want to spend more than a few days there. He suggested Mae Hong Son and was right on.
 
So I came to Pai, on my way from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai, thinking I will stay a few days.

 
Coming down from the mountain roads into the Pai valley, one meets Pai, The little town that could. Pai, population 3,000 ( plus the farang tourists ) is indeed little more than a crossroads. Everybody is very laid back here. You've got your main street crossed by market street with most of the restaurants and food tents and then a bunch of guest houses on a few secondary streets and alleys that connect it all. The Pai river bordering town is also very popular with tourists and therefore has a dense concentration of guest houses. When you walk around a bit, it become obvious that tourism is one of the main industries here. An abundance of Thai massage rooms offer traditional Thai-, foot- and oil massage, for 100baht an hour. You see plenty of 'Trek' outfitters on every street, motorcycles and bicycles for rent and of course the ubiquitous Internet rooms.  There is even a small movie house with private screening rooms with TV and DVD player.  
The Beebop and Monkey Magic just outside of town provide live band entertainment and tucked away in a little alley is Edible Jazz Cafe where you can eat and drink and listen to some cool jazz. 
At Mellow Yellow, my favorite bar, I finally got my Guinness, the one I have been craving since that day in September in Pokhara when I saw it on the menu but they were out. To keep the craving, India offered it on several menus as well, but they were always out too. Aah, I relished that Guinness.
At Petit Poulet, in a simply casual but very pleasant decor, with sweet background sounds of Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman or Cat Stevens, Phuy serves great Indian food, for a nice change from the flavors of the daily Thai diet I have been on for a couple of months now.
Crossing the Bridge on the River Pai, I found Sun Hut, my guest house for the month; a number of bungalows and a tree house strewn around a pond stocked with carp; a nice lawn to practice Tai Chi in the early morning; the best pancakes for breakfast and Khao Tom - vegetable rice soup - in the afternoon and a superb library of used books ( two thumbs up for 'Love in times of Cholera' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez' and 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance' by Robert Pirsig and 'Travelers' Tales Thailand' edited by James O'Reilly and Habegger from our very Bay Area. In moments such as these, if I don't want to, I need not leave my guest house, the world will offer itself freely to me to be unmasked...
 
No wonder I stayed here four weeks. But tomorrow, May first, I leave for Chiang Mai.
 

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MAN MADE NAMES ...

....................... to all the animals,
in the beginning, long time ago.
He saw an animal as smooth as glass,

slithering his way through the grass;
saw him disappear by a tree near the lake ...

zeg nekjei miemoatje ...

We're in Pai now. The other morning I came face to face, figure of speech, with that animal as smooth as glass ... it was't too thick and it wasn't too thin ... I did not take a real good look at it, mind you, and he did not wait around to pose for a shot, so I am guessing he was about 2 meter long, all curled up, and about an inch or so diameter, with pretty blue back and it's belly black. I was stepping out of the shower, sliding the curtain to the side, when I noticed the uninvited guest in the opposite corner, about 2 and a half meters away from me. We saw each other at the same time. I jumped and gasped, we had a Mexican standoff for about a second and then he slipped underneath the steps at his side - my only escape out of the room - and I flew up the steps and closed the door behind me ... and that was the last I saw of him. Now, every time I enter the bathroom, I do a careful visual check of the floor before I step down.

Now, the Iguanas and the Geckos, they are another story altogether.


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29-04-04

POM PUUD PAASAA THAI NIT NOY DAI KRAP

I read somewhere ... An American study in the 70's found that Americans were best able to pronounce Thai sentences after consuming one ounce of alcohol.
So excuse me while I log out and go practice my Thai lessons. Mii doem arai ban krap? Is there anything to drink aound here? 
 
While in Mae Hong Son, I found a charming Thai teacher, her name is Nhuy ( my English phonetic spelling ). For two weeks, one hour a day, we covered the three basic topics to help a farang get around Thailand for the next few months: greetings, travelling and FOOD.
 
Khun bog kii mohng laew krap? Zeg ne kjer 'oe loat est?
Pom mai roo krap. Kei der gjein gedach van.


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KAREN WOMEN

Mae Hong Son Trek part 3
 
 
 

 
every picture tells a story ...

After a sleepless night on the hard bamboo floor, the pounding of the mortar ( for the daily fresh rice meal ) signals the beginning of a new day for the Karen. Promptly a chorus of roosters jumps on the rhythm and before long the village is up and about. Good morning, good morning, good ... 
As planned, after breakfast Adina returns to Mae Hong Son with Yosa. Before I go on with Dam and Yansoon, our host and our new porter, the women of the village corner me on the patio displaying their handicraft products. I surrender and buy a beautiful hand stitched sarong from our pipe smoking hostess.
 
 
 


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HOT RATS, HOT MEAT

Mae Hong Son Trek part 4
 
 
 
 
Yansoon and Yansoon display their catch of the night before.
 
The real Yansoon, he who came with us from the Karen village, found yet one more use for bamboo: he placed about 6 traps last night. Before spreading them around the camp, Dam demonstrated the workings of the trap on my finger.  Yansoon proudly showed off his catch in the morning. NO, we did not eat them for breakfast. They were for the village. The meat will be eaten, the skin and bones will be put to animistic ritual use. 
Note that if you click on the picture you will get a better, enlarged view of the catch. 


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CITY OF MISTS

I can see for miles and miles
 
 
 
Mae Hong Son province, on a bad day in the hot season
 
"The Thai call it 'City of Mists' but its proper name is Mae Hong Son.  The capital of Thailand's Northwestern province, 600 km from Bangkok, bordering Myanmar, that boasts the kingdom's most spectacularly rugged domain of densely forested mountains. Only since 1968 has a paved road become its link to Chang Mai and beyond. Mae Hong Son's airfield is the make believe CIA Air base in the movie 'Air America'."
                             ( Robert Anson 'Bridge on the river Pai', Conde Nast Traveler )
 
Hill tribe villagers burn the woods in the hot season to clear the fields for rice culture in the rainy season. According to Dam, the Karen go about it discriminately, showing respect for mother nature, leaving some trees or stumps to allow regeneration. The Hmongs, on the other hand, using the 'slash and burn' practice eradicate the forests ( something that worked when there was more forest and less people ).
 
In addition to the smoke from the burning, the hot season also vaporizes the moisture from the earth. The result is a seasonal blanketing of the area that leaves to your imagination just how spectacular the views must be the rest of the year.  


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06-04-04

BENZIN MAI KRAP?

On the road again, part 2

Sometimes truth comes knocking at your door and you say: "Go away, I am busy looking for truth." And so it goes away. Puzzling.

 

Now, when riding, I don't recommend looking at the concrete under your foot to much, nor for that matter looking at the gorgeous scenery, for right here along these narrow mountain roads, trouble is just waiting for you to make that slightest mistake ( do however keep an eye on the fuel gauge ). 

Pirsig revisited  ... 'I hope later she will see and feel a thing about these 'mountains' I have giving up talking to others about. A thing that exists here because everything else does not and can be noticed because other things are absent. She seems so depressed sometimes by the monotony and boredom of her city life, I thought maybe throughout these endless mountains and valleys she would see a thing that sometimes comes when monotony and boredom are accepted. IT's here, but I have no names for IT.'

So I am rocking and rolling through the hairpin turns going up the mountains and breezing at topspeed of 65mph along the nice long stretches going down the valleys. How does it feeeeeel .... when suddenly I notice the fuel gauge has dropped uncomfortably close to the red section. With quickened pulse, I realize that I have been riding for some time now on this narrow pockmarked road between walls of trees through strange unknown country and a heavy feeling of isolation and solitude sets in.  Haven't seen any villages and traffic has been scarce and fuel is getting very low.

At last I come to a little village and pull over to ask a parked songtaew driver. I realize I forgot to cover in Thai class how to ask for fuel along the road. Pointing to the fuel gauge and the fueltank under the seat I manage to make my needs understood. "Benzin ... something " is the reply. I nod emphatically. He points just around the bend. "Right here?" I reply in a mixture of relief and disbelief. Yeah. I drive on and find the local mom and pop store selling Coke, potato chips and cigarettes and the likes...but they are out of gasoline. Mai mii ( there is none ). 'Where is the nearest benzin?' with more pointing and waving. The man comes to check the fuel gauge, shakes his head, and points to where I come from. 10 'kilo', I understand.

With an eye on the odometer I turn back ... at 10 kilometer, nothing. With stoic determination I think every 'kilo' I am riding is one less to walk to the station. At kilo 11.1, a snackshack and a teenager with a motorcycle in the process of filling up. I have made it. In my Western frame of mind I was looking for a gasstation, but the 'fueldrums' are hiding out of sight in a shed to the side. Fuel is here all along the way, you just gotto ask. 


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ON THE ROAD, again

on your own
with no direction home

like a complete unknown

 
 

 
I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the motorcycle, that it is just after ten in the morning. The wind even at sixty miles an hour is warm and dry as in a sauna, burning the nostrils. When it's this hot at ten, I 'm wondering what it's going to be like in the afternoon.
With just the slightest adaptation to my own circumstances, these are more or less the first lines of Robert Pirsig's 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance', the book I just finished reading. And isn't it funny that I should identify?
 
Thais are farang - friendly*, even the government. In  sharp contrast to my experience at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. In Thailand, with a Visa about to expire, they make it easy for us tourists. Leave the country, even just for an hour, and upon reentry, a new 30 day Visa is  issued, no fee, no questions asked. The other option - if you can call it that - is to visit an immigration office and pay $50 for an extension of 10 days. Well, all right, for some people that probably works just fine.
There are two friendship bridges in these parts of Thailand, opening the Thai-Myanmar border. When these bridges are open [ sometimes during political unrest, not uncommon in Myanmar, they are closed ] farangs can cross into Myanmar for a day, or an hour, and so get a new free Visa upon reentry.

So on Tuesday, two days left on my Visa,  I rent a Honda Dream 125cc and I hit the road for my Visa run. It is a three day enterprise, 800km roundtrip. Day one, Southbound to Mae Sot, 5 km from the border and the friendship bridge to Myawadi, Myanmar. Day two: a layover in Mae Sot with a visit to Myanmar. Day three Northbound for Mae Hong Son again.
 
Pirsig continues ... You see things, riding on a motorcycle, in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car ( or bus or train I might add ) you are always in a compartment and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle that frame is gone. You are completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it any more and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on. It's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime and the whole experience is never removed from immediate consciousness.

*farang: Thai word for foreigner, from 'francais', covering all fair skinned, round eyed foreigners. According to the Thai Nya Phuum: "They are exceedingly tall, hairy and evil smelling. They school their children long and devote their lives to the amassing of richess. Their women, though large and round, are very beautiful. They do not grow rice." When the Thai call you farang, it is not pejorative. They disarm the word with a grin or a giggle. But they remain cautious. The farang does not have the great Thai virtue of 'Jai yen', cool heart. His heart is liable to overheat.  [ Charles Nicholl: Borderlines, Journey in Thailand and Birma ].


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RUN THROUGH THE JUNGLE

Mae Hong Son trek, part two.

I hear the mountains are doing fine,                                                                                                                   morning glory is on the vine

 

Photo: Karen grandmother, wife of the tribal chief

    After a sleepless night on the hard bamboo floor, the pounding of the mortar ( for the daily fresh rice meal ) signals the beginning of a new day for the Karen. Promptly the roosters fall in and before long the village is up and about. Good morning, good morning, good ... As planned, after breakfast Adina returns to Mae Hong Son with Yosa. Before I go on with Dam and Yansoon, our host and our new porter, the women of the village corner me on the patio displaying their handicraft products. I surrender and buy a beautiful hand stitched sarong from our pipe smoking hostess.

Dam knows the jungle like his pocket. As a kid the jungle was his playground. Along the way he points out wild orchids, quinine bark and berries that sub as throat lozenges. He 'demonstrates' how to find and eat the worms found inside the small bamboo. Later, when he hands me my lunch, I carefully check the contents of the fried rice for stray worms. We learn how to recover drinking water form the giant bamboo and the monkey ladder. On our second night, at the jungle hut, built of bamboo, after washing up at the bamboo shower down by the stream, we drink excellent Oolong tea from freshly carved bamboo cups, boil water and cook rice in bamboo and sleep on bamboo floors. Yansoon brought a chicken from the village that he BBQ's and serves with banana-rice soup - eaten with bamboo spoon - and cucumber and tomato salad - finger food. Not bad for a jungle dinner.

"How do you keep the rooster from crowing on Sunday morning? Eat him on Saturday."

In the morning of day two I sprained my ankle. Thanks to the support of great hiking boots I made it to the waterfall where we stop for lunch and afternoon recreation. I have Arnica with me and also apply generous Jin Shin Jyutsu, an ancient Asian healing art I have been studying for several years. From the falls it is less than 30 minutes to the jungle camp. Supported by a bamboo walking stick I make it safely to the camp. I continue with JSJ throughout the evening and night ( I'm not sleeping much on the bamboo floor anyway). By morning my ankle has much improved. After a tasty breakfast of cream of rice with bananas and wild honey I put on my boots and we head out. Fortunately  the trail home is mostly flat through the valleys. We cross refreshing little mountain streams on many occasions and in spite of my initial apprehension I actually enjoy the three hour walk back to the road.

* * * * *

   In light of my experience, I ponder the following words of Robert Pirsig regarding 'the ego climber versus the selfless climber':

   "The ego climber is like an instrument that is out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He is likely to miss a beautiful 'sight on the path'. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he's tired. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions. He talks forever about somewhere else, something else.  He's here but not here. Every step is an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant."


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THE VALLEY BELOW

sunset

in the purple haze of the smokey valley 

hints at mountains unexplored

 

 


 

"The densely forested mountainous province of Mae Hong Son in Northwestern Thailand is a cross roads for ethnic minorities - mostly Karen, Mong, Lisu and Lahu hill tribes - as well as Birmese refugees ( Padaung ) and Shan, believed to be the original population.
The ethnic minorities are often called 'hill tribes', or 'chao khao' ( mountain people ). Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, dress and spiritual beliefs. Most are of semi-nomadic origin, having migrated from Tibet, Myanmar, China or Laos during the past 200 years or so. They are 'fourth world' people, in that they belong neither to the main aligned powers nor to the developing nations. Rather, they have crossed and continue to cross national borders, often fleeing oppression by other cultures, without regard for recent nationhood. Language and culture constitute the borders of their world. Some groups are caught between the 6th and 21st century, while others are gradually being assimilated into modern life."
( based on Lonely Planet )

A visit to these hill tribes then is at the core of trekking in the area. The Padaung villages, with the famous long-necked women are one of the major tourist attractions. I opt for the Karen villages and the trail less trodden.

Namrin tours: "good guide, good food, corny jokes" says the book.
Early Monday morning our party takes off. Dam, our guide, Yosa, our porter, Adina, my trekking companion from Wahington DC and 'the dog' returning to his village. When Dam asks if we have brought a good torch ( flashlight ) in case we meet any tigers in the jungle at night, I am not sure if this is just another one of his jokes.

The trek starts at 'Microwave', a Hmong village named after the tall antennas erected by the army in the vicinity. For Adina it is an inauspicious start: the initial 45 minutes rollercoaster ride in the truck makes her carsick and she loses her breakfast promptly upon arrival.

We proceed at a good pace through the valleys and mountains, following the narrow trails trodden by the tribes themselves on their intervillage visits. In the afternoon the trail opens up to the Karen village where we are guests for the night. No roads here, no electricity. Running water diverted by way of bamboo pipes from a nearby stream. We are welcomed by a zoo of barking dogs, hens, chicks and roosters, pigs and piglets and the buffaloes all roaming throughout the small village.

"Why does the buffalo wear the bell? Because the horn does not work!"

We are exhausted from climbing in the heat. Dam whips up a surprisingly delicious buffet of Thai foods, shared with the eager villagers. For them it is a nice change from their daily rice and chilies according to Dam.

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to and end, but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges; this rock looks loose [...] These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here is where things grow. But of course without the top, you can't have any sides. It's the top that defines the sides. So on we go ... we have a long way to go ... no hurry ... just one step after the next ... " ( Robert Pirsig ' Zen ...' )

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MAE HONG SON

hello cowgirl in the sand
is this place at your command
can I stay here for a while
can I see your sweet sweet smile
 
 
 
 
 
 
Saturday afternoon, after four hours in the aircon bus I step out into a furnace: so this is Mae Hong Son.

Sunday morning, after breakfast, meet the young lady next door: she is at her table outside her room, shuffling a brand new deck of cards. Wants to know if I will play a game with her? ( it's the woman in you that makes you want to play these games ) How could I refuse? Her name is Giti. Turns out her boyfriend, still sleeping, is Belgian too. Small world.

After the game, I go out for lunch, at Lucky Cafe. There I see a poster advertising their Lucky Guest House, just out of town. This could be my lucky day, ay. I go check it out. The place has fallen on hard times. Maybe not my lucky day; or is it? On the way back into town, another place draws my attention, 'Sri Wiang' says a discreet sign in the manicured garden. I walk up to the reception: deserted. Just as I am about to leave, two people drive up on the ubiquitous Honda Dream. "Is this a Guest House?"  It is and it is theirs. A very serendipitous meeting after all. Their best room - 300 baht - is just right. They are Sebastien and Pany. He is French, she is Lao. They just took over the place a week before. This is going to be my home for the coming weeks.

PS: a few days later I heard Lucky Guest House burned down. Who is lucky now?  


 



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THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

well I 've been running down the road
trying to loosen my load
seven women on my mind

 
 
 
 
 
  
Thursday afternoon, back on the bus to Mae Sot. Let me begin by clarifying that I started on this long haul road trip encouraged by the quality of the first bus from Bangkok to Petchabun. Today's mini bus is all together a very different story. The extreme play in the steering sends the bus sort of swerving down the road - bringing to mind my old 1970 Dodge Monaco, we referred to as 'the boat'. Before we leave town, the driver stops at the gas station, not to fill up the tank, rather to top off the radiator ... and we're heading for the scenic moutainroad in that? Hmm. Because the tired old engine allows only a snailspace up hill, the car overheats on the steeper asscents, the driver turns off the airco and we roll down the windows ... and in the meantime the seat of my pants is soaked in sweat from sitting in the frontseat on top of the engine. At one of the roadside stops the driver asks me to keep my foot on the brake, because apparently the parking brake is non existent. 
Of course I am just nitpicking now.
We arrive Mae Sot late afternoon. This is what the LP has to say of this quaint little border town: "Border skirmishes between Myanmar government troops and insurgent hill tribes can send thousands of refugees - and the occasional mortar rocket - across the border, adding to the area's perceived instability." That instability would have something to do with the dwindling cultivating and smuggling of opium in this region so close to the infamous 'Golden Triangle'.
 
Friday
Northbound along the Myanmar border, Mae Sot to Mae Sariang. Mode of transportation, 'songthaew', a pickup truck with two benches bolted in the back and a canvas top. The common way of transportation for the locals. From the start the truck carries a cargo of Birmese cigars, dried peas and dried fish, with small holes poked in the plastic bags. At takeoff, my only company in the back is an old man, turban around his head, chewing betelnut. He makes an attempt at conversation. Since neither of us speaks the other's language, the conversation is short - an inspiration for the man of few words column. All along the scenic mountain road we make frequent stops at the hill tribe villages to pick up and drop off riders in their colorful native garb. Just when I think we're full and not another could possibly fit in, a bunch more jump on at the next stop and we make room somehow to squeeze them in too.
At one moment I find myself in company of a man in an American Army jacket, a relic perhaps of the Vietnam war - "Howard" nametag still attached; another wearing a New York Mets baseball cap and still another sporting a T-Shirt advocating nice change after the Maoists in Nepal.
Suddenly there is a commotion that wakes me from my reverie. Two women reaching for something that must have fallen on the floor: it's a fish my lord, in a flat bed Ford...One of the women is bringing home some fresh, live fish from the market, in a plastic shopping bag, at her feet. Apparently one slippery fish got away ... but wait, what's this, another one on the loose, right here at my feet.
The songthaew does not make the lunch stop I expected - customary for Thailand's long distance bus travel - So I learn to shell sunflower seeds: 'good time pass' and quite nutritious. From now on I won't leave home without them.



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ON THE ROAD


hup on the bus gus
no need to discuss much

 
Wednesday morning I get on the bus: destination Mae Hong Son, the Northeast mountain province. Travelling my style - easy does it - I figure it will take four days, four busrides to get there. 

Wednesday afternoon, Sukhothai, Thailand's Heritage monument. A lovely place to spend an afternoon amidst the ancient Buddhas and stupas. At sunset I get so caught up in the magic of it all I miss the last bus back to town. Thanks to the late running saamlaws - Thailand's three wheeler taxis - I need not walk the 10km back to my guest house, Garden House - where unfortunately the garden has been overrun by the quaint bungalows. This evening I treat myself to my first Thai massage and mmm, this could become a habit.
 



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