We wake to find the skies are still overcast, but decide to head out to the Sukhothai historical park, the walled old capital city of Siam. It is filled with ancient Wats dating back to the mid 13th century and remains of the old Kingdom. The dynasty lasted for 200 years and a great civilization was formed in Sukhothai, architecture consisting of brick and decorated in stucco and wood, a culmination of ancient influences and traditions.
The park is quiet today, just a couple of people wandering around, we feel like we are destroying the peace as we drive our 4×4 through! The remains of the kingdom are set within a perfectly manicured and tranquil park, and we imagine it would be a good place to while away some time if the sun was shining. There are huge Buddha sculptures sitting regally everywhere and Wats-ancient temples, topped with conical spires reflected in pink lotus ponds outside them.
After exploring the park, we head towards Chang Mai, driving through lush green valleys, forests and small villages for miles on end. Once in the hills we see hundreds of policemen lining the roads; we are not sure what’s going on but every, say 200 metres there are 3 or 4 standing around.
We reach Chang Mai with ease; we find a nice guest house down a side-road, within walking distance of the old town and night market. In the evening we take a walk into the night market area where we get the ubiquitous green curry, pad thai and pineapple fried rice!
19th March – Mae Hong Son Loop
After a hearty breakfast, we set off on our journey on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a famous motorcycle route, a 1000km circular route passing through the rugged north-west province before looping back to Chang Mai. It is known as the road of 1000 hairpin bends, although it’s thought there are actually 1864! The area is the least populated area in Thailand, parts of it right on the edge of the Burmese border. Highlights of the route include the stunning scenery, waterfalls and long-necked people of the hill tribes.
Our first stop is the Doi Inthanon National park and the Mae Ya waterfall, just off the main route, to Thailands highest peak and several other falls. We take a stroll along the river bank, and find ourselves in awe at a truly beautiful fall of white cascading water flowing down 30 tiers, at 280m. The waterfalls are stunning, and to top it off we are the only ones here and have the whole place to ourselves. We relax, lazing on the rocks taking in the scenery before heading back on the tourist loop and onto the next set of falls.
Next is the Klang waterfalls, which is again completely deserted. Then onto the Wachiratan falls, a powerful torrent of white water falling from a height of 50 metres. On the way in, we see bus loads of tourists leaving so when we get there, it’s pretty quiet. We decide to take the steep climb to the top of the falls for the views down.
After the falls we head to Thailands highest spot at 2500m; the roads are long and extremely steep, with many cars along route, stopping to let their engines cool down. Once at the top the views are unimpressive, it’s little bit of a disappointment.
We head back down the mountain to continue along the loop, although we seem to take a wrong turn and end up driving along single tracked roads for many miles. We don’t mind too much as the scenery is fantastic. We end coming out just above Mae La Noi.
It’s a long drive on the loop, it feels more like a race-track course, one bend after the other. Finally arriving in town pretty late, we find a cheap room at Friends House and take a walk out for dinner. Martin goes for spicy Thai sausage and I go for a red curry. Later we try a banana roti from a street-side stall.
In the morning we set off for Ban Nai Soi in search of the long-necked Kayan people. On route we get a little lost as there don’t seem to be many sign posts, so ask for directions (which are slightly ambiguous) and end up driving around in a circle. Eventually we find the village down a dusty dirt track. There is an entry fee of 250B each. We seem to be the only tourists here and also seem to be on the edge of the Burmese border.
In the tiny quiet village consisting of a few basic wooden and bamboo huts, women and girls with golden brass coils around their necks are sitting around. All of them have small stalls selling post cards and jewellery and we buy something small in exchange for a photo. At one stall, I find myself being dressed up in the traditional clothing of coil, headscarf and tunic before having a chance to protest! The coil is really heavy; it depresses the collarbone and rib cage, causing the neck to have a stretched appearance. The villagers have refugee status, but the old tradition has helped to bring tourism and an income which they would not otherwise have.
Next is the fish caves, a garden area with a stream running through filled with large numbers of large blue and golden carp up to 1m long. The cave is at the top of the walkway, all the fish congregating in one area down a hole through the cave.
We drive to Tham Lot cave, a 100 mile drive; we are a bit confused as all the signs say Tham Lod but follow them anyway. Once we get to the cave, we pay 550B for a guide, boat, and gas lamp. The lady behind then grabs a lantern and asks us to follow her. In the spirit of promoting eco-tourism in the area, all of the guides employed here are from local Shan villages. We walk down a red mud track to the entrance of a huge cave. As we get onto a tiny bamboo raft and are slowly pulled into the darkness, a huge flock of swifts fly out of the cave. The raftsman takes us to Column cave, so called due to the columns of rock so huge we can’t see where they end. Walking a distance over a jagged floor of rocks, we come to a steep and narrow set of stairs which lead to the Doll cave. There is a pre-historic cave painting of a hunter and deer and many others which have faded over time. Reaching the coffin cave, we take the river downstream to another cave opening. This time a huge group of bats are flying directly over our heads, their high-pitched noise filling the cave. Large carp follow the raft in the shallow waters, lit up by our guides lantern. We continue up some even more steep and narrow steps, our guide pointing out coffin boxes made out of teak which are over 3000 years old.
After visting the cave, we decide to continue all the way to Changmai, completing the loop in just under 2 days.
It’s a short drive away to Tiger Kingdom for the experience of a life-time; a chance to get up close with the awesome big cats. We are given a choice between the smallest, medium or the largest, and eventually decide to pay both the smallest and the biggest a visit. The species of tiger here is Indo-Chinese, native to Thailand, but they are also found elsewhere in SE Asia. On entering we are instructed: ‘don’t touch the tigers on the head, and if you think they will bite, push them away, don’t let them bite you’!!! Not quite knowing what to expect, we are led into an enclosure with three baby tigers along with their handlers. We lay eyes on our first tiger, Euro, a sleepy relaxed and cool 3month old! As would be the case in the wild, they prefer to lie around and sleep off the midday heat, and he is certainly demonstrating that today! He is beautiful and so tame, with perfectly soft fur. We are allowed to put our heads right on top of him and can even hear his heart beating. Wow-it’s such an incredible feeling! His eyes and nose are twitching slightly and the handlers explain that he is dreaming! His body feels really warm, a result of a core body temperature of 39 degrees. Next is the gorgeous 4month old Mimi, who is more awake and playful, quite an achievement, taking into consideration that tigers like to sleep for 18 hours a day! She seems to be perfectly content and happy, greatly enjoying Martin rubbing her tummy, even rolling over for him! As all the tigers in the sanctuary are raised from birth, they are used to human contact and want affection. It is a truly amazing experience to be able to get so close and both of us are reluctant to leave!
Feeling exhilarated from the experience, we are next led to the biggest of the big cats enclosure. They are a lot bigger than the comparatively small cute ones we have just left behind and are naturally a bit apprehensive about going in. Just by looking at them, we guess they would easily weigh over three times the size of us. First up is Bubba, a huge adolescent male, at 18 months old, weighing close to 200 kg. He is lying on his side and we are not sure if it would be such a good idea to disturb him mid slumber! But the decision is made for us as we are directed to firmly rub him. Apparently too soft a rub and it feels more like a tickle, which the tigers don’t like! Wow, he definitely is huge and his sheer strength and power don’t escape me. Images of wild life programmes where the tigers skilfully take down their prey also run through my mind! I lean against him, rubbing his tummy, he doesn’t seem to mind…
The handlers only have small sticks which if needed for safety reasons, would be used to hit the tiger on the nose. We prayed there wouldn’t be any need for them this afternoon! Next up is the beautiful Lucky Day who is up, playful, energetic, and inquisitive, all of her attention focused on the coconut being kicked by her handler from one side to the other. She is so engrossed that she walks straight into a tree trunk, suddenly bounding back, and making us jump up too! All of that excitement is enough for one afternoon, so she decides to sit back down again. It is such an amazing feeling to have contact with these majestic animals, and one which we never dreamed of doing in our lifetimes! Endangered species status means that the solely public supported kingdom will help towards the conservation of the awesome big cat.
We head 200 miles for Laos, country number 25, arriving in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Lao border in the late afternoon. We decide to try and cross the border straight away as this would save us quite a lot of time not having to stay on the Thai side for the evening.
We have to take a ferry over, crossing the Mekong River as the sun is beginning to set, with great views of Thailand to our left and Laos to our right. The small ferry appears to be struggling with the weight of the vehicles, sinking slightly. Staff members use pumps to remove the excess water and we start to move off, water still coming onto the deck; luckily the views are suitably distracting!
After waiting half an hour the ferry is full and ready to leave. With it being fully loaded the deck is a mere 6 inches off the water. As the ferry battles against the currents travelling up stream, water continues to flow over the top of the front platform, although the staff don’t seem to be worried at all!
The only way to cross the border is by ferry; we had heard if you turn up at the wrong time or even after 9am you would have to pay $100 to cross. Despite being the first vehicle there, the fee is 1000B, and we are told that the price is always the same for a 4×4.
To exit the country we needed to get our passports stamped out by immigration and then have customs clear the car, which took a matter of minutes.
On arrival in Laos, we head up steps the on the right hand side to customs (there’s a sign on the right hand sign halfway up the hill). At the time customs seemed to be having a break playing bowls, so we politely interrupt them to get our carnet stamped.
We then head 500m down the road to the passenger port to apply for our visas on arrival at immigration, the cost is $36 each.
We find a small guesthouse just over the river and head down the road to Bar How for a green/red curry and some drinks. There is a small girl sleeping on some cushions next to us and we wonder how she manages to be sound asleep through the loud music and chatter in the bar!
I have a brief encounter with a Canadian couple travelling overland on motorbikes who tell me they’ve had one or two crashes in India too!
Leaving the bar, walking down the road, it is strangely quiet, just a few locals having their dinner outside.
Martin & Nicole