White-water, or rather, brown-water rafting was the order of today. Picked up in a jeep early in the morning and driven to base camp, where we were briefed by Guy, a friendly Frenchman and the man in charge of the company – and given equipment. We drove to the starting point some 90 minutes from camp, a place where the river ran particularly quickly, and carried the big rafts to the riverside, before getting in one by one. Our team on the raft consisted of one French guy, an Indian-American from New York and a nice American couple from ‘Phili’. Our raft guide was Bu, a local who spoke good English.
The river was muddy and not so tough to navigate, but the difficulty picked up a bit when we hit the wider Pai river, and we hit some mildly exhilarating Class III rapids, much to the excitement of Bu, as it meant his crew were a little happier, as Class III is what we’d all been promised. We had a lunchbreak in the raft by a waterfall we stopped at, then an easy paddle to base. It was a fun ride, nice to get out, see the river and the beautiful scenery.
From the base, Vero and I got a car to Mae Hong Son, a very good decision, as it’s only 20 mins from the raft camp. We’d arranged this earlier, and had brought all our luggage with us. The car took us into Mae Hong Son centre, a very quiet little place built around Nong Jong Khan lake and temple. It sits at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains that make up the Thailand Burma border. As a result it boasts Thailand and Burmese influences, especially in the architecture. I was enamoured immediately, and, seeing the lovely green rice terraces in the hills around, decided that there was where I wanted to stay – up in the hills instead of in the town. The driver of the car we were in knew of a place or two, and he headed up one of the roads , curving beautifully around providing stunning vistas, and, after around 10 minutes we came to a little place called Gims Resort. Finally, a place I’d imagined staying in here in beautiful northern Thailand. The place was understated elegance, a collection of lovingly appointed villas, each with spotlessly clean bathrooms, living area, bedroom, and balcony wooden veranda replete with hammocks, deckchairs and potted plants and offering views of the local rice field, which a farmer wearing a conical straw hat was inspecting his crops in. The only sound was the birds and the insects. I felt like I’d found paradise. Gim himself was here to show us around, a long-haired hippy, and a very friendly Thai. I took the room without hesitation.
Gim drove us to town where we rented a motorbike, and from here we sped straight off to the ‘Summit of Serenity’ at Wat Phrathat Doi Gongmoo, accessible by a steep asphalt road. The views over the town and of the surrounding hills were incredible in this peaceful place, and I felt an air or peace and serenity I hadn’t experienced for a while. Even the views around Pai paled into insignificance next to the beauty of this place. We met a group of monks on the way down at another temple, and they invited us to sit with them and have a chat. They were very friendly, as indeed I found everyone here. The Shan people make up the majority of the population here, and they are very welcoming. We headed to the lake in the middle of town, and had a lovely meal overlooking the wat. There was a small night market here, where we bought a scarf and some flip-flops. The town had an air of peacefulness, a quiet buzz of a little market town. Not many tourists were here, as Mae Hong Son is located in the most forested and mountainous province in Thailand, and is not so easy to get to. It’s a fascinating little place, and far removed from any Thailand I’ve ever known. Perhaps it’s Mae Hong Son’s mountainous borders with Myanmar and the ethnic mix of; Burmese,Thai,Shan,Muslims and hilltribe minorities all living harmoniously together that creates an interesting blend of cultures evident in the architecture, food and way people dress that is special.
One thing here that is reassuringly Thailand though, is the 7-11 store. We stopped to get some beers, and bought things for breakfast to enjoy on the veranda in the morning. Then we rode back to the resort, up and around the dark village streets into the hills. I opened the balcony doors and we sat on the loungers outside listening to the melody of sounds created by thousands of insects and amphibians living in the paddy fields. The bull frogs were especially loud, but not unpleasantly so. The sound willed me quickly to sleep. I’ve rarely experienced such a nice, relaxed feeling. It’s the simple things that can give you the most pleasure, and simplicity and pleasure are two things Mae Hong Son has in spades.