Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mae Aw, Pang Ung, Mae Sariang, & Mae Sot

Sunday I met a dutch guy at breakfast who was thinking of leaving Mae Hong Son for Pai, but I convinced him to rent a motorbike with me (his first time driving one) and head up to the KuoMinTang village of Mae Aw about 45km north of town. The ride up was just as beautiful as the day before. At points it was incredibly steep and I had to put the bike in 1st gear just to putter up the hills at 10km/hr. After about 1hr 45min of riding mostly uphill we finally reach Mae Aw, pretty little village nestled between several mountains.

You can see from the picture I look rediculous because they gave me a helmet too big for my head. I didn't realize this until I looked at this picture.

50 or 60yrs ago Chinese KMT fighters fled here and set up a village close to the Burma border. Now a couple hundred second & third generation chinese live here, but they still speak Mandarin. We ate lunch in a "chinese" restaurant and then one of the girls working there invited us to her place for dessert. I spent about 2hrs talking to her in Chinese. She told me she only finished school through 6th grade because her family didn't have enough money for high school. The village has a Thai school that is free through 6th grade and they set up an after hours chinese school where the kids learn chinese reading/writing. She had worked in Bangkok for 5 years only making about $40 a month and I got the impression her life was pretty difficult. Was really nice just to hang out and get to know a local in their language for the first time in a long time. When we got up to leave we tried to pay for dessert and she wouldn't let us. Made me really want to bum around china where I can speak to locals easily. It's fun travelling around here, but so few people speak english I feel like a voyeur most of the time and can't participate in their daily lives.

She told us we should check out Pang Ung before we head back to Mae Hong Son because it's really beautiful there...we somehow found our way there after biking through several kilometers of forrested country roads...the kind of roads that made me worried we'd accidentally bump into some Burmese heroin smugglers...but it was worth the trip. Can see in the pic above it's a beautiful lake right in the mountains.
Made it back ok and the next morning I woke up and took the bus to Mae Sariang, a small city about 4 hours due south. I didn't know much about the city other than that it's on the way back to Bangkok in the circle I'm making. I found a guesthouse there and met an Austrian guy who had a motorbike so I jumped on the back and we biked around to a couple nearby villages and a beautiful enormous golden Buddha statue on top of a nearby mountain. It was great up there, if this temple was in a big city it would be one of the big attractions in Thailand. I thought it was much better than the famous Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. Also had a great view of the surrounding area.

The only way to head south down to Mae Sot is via songthaew...it is a pickup truck with a covered back and benches installed on the flatbed. Usually they're just for short distances because they're pretty cramped and uncomfortable but I had to take it for 6 hours. Needless to say my ass was raw by the end. The highway followed the Thai / Myanmar border and it was really beautiful...mountains almost the whole way down and for the first time in awhile clear blue skies, I could breath fresh air again...amazing the difference. It seemed like they burned a lot in these areas too but it must have rained recently and swept the smoke away. I read in the paper this morning that there are 565 identified fires in northern Thailand and around 1500 between Thai/Burma/Laos...they claim to be doing something to stop it but I don't see any evidence of that.

The best part about the trip though was that me and an old German guy were the only foreigners on board. It was cool to watch as a cross-section of thai people jumped on and off along the way, I don't know for sure but it looked like a family of ethnically burmese muslims were aboard, a few different hilltribe villagers carrying huge machetes jumped on and off, and some normal looking thai people. The truck stopped at almost every roadside stand and people got off and bought tons of food. The driver and one Thai guy bought about 1 kilo each of maggots, 1 kilo each of snails, and a few others fruits i didn't recognize. They basically bought out every roadside stand along the way.

Finally arrived in Mae Sot and found my way to a hostel after wandering around in the heat for a half hour. As far as I know there isn't much to do here, it is a border town with Myanmar. My plan was to cross over to Myanmar and extend my tourist visa, this will give me a little more flexibility what date I leave thailand. So I took another songthaew to the border, about 6km away. check out of Thailand and walked across the bridge to Burma. I was told it's 500 baht (about $16) or $10 USD to get into Burma, but when I tried to give the guy a $10 bill he refused and said I had to pay 500 baht...of course. I tried arguing but there wasn't really room to seeing that I was standing on the border and not being able to go back to thailand without his stamp.

So I paid the 500 baht and got an hour pass to go into Burma and walk around. I read that Myanmar beer is supposed to be the best in Asia and I haven't seen it in Thailand so I looked for the first bar and sat down to a cold $.70 beer (much cheaper than thailand). It was pretty good, definitely better than the Thai beers.

I went back across the border without a problem, added another 2 weeks to my Thai visa and jumped on a songthaew back to Mae Sot. I got out of the truck and started walking through a busy market, i reach down for my camera to take a picture and realize it's gone. I panicked for a second then ran back to where the truck dropped me off to find my driver...there are 15 other trucks there but my driver is gone. I don't care about the camera so much, but the 200 pictures I've taken...so I run to the nearest songthaew that is filling up to go to the burma border. They don't leave until the truck is full...it still needs about 4 people, i try to pay the guy an extra couple dollars to leave right now pointing to my watch but he doesn't understand and thinks i'm trying to pay him to sit up front and motions for me to just go sit there...so I wait for it to fill up, finally get to the border ready to run around offering a reward for my camera, but i see the original driver standing there and as soon as he sees me he laughs really hard and walks over and grabs my camera. I was so thankful...very close call.


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