Christmas in northern Thailand (and a surprising day trip)

After nineteen hours of travelling (including three flights) we finally arrived in Mae Hong Son in the northwest corner of Thailand.

Our joint love for the country (and southeast Asia in general) is well-known and we had been excitedly talking about this part of the trip from the start. So we had very high hopes for our ten days in this region of the country. As always, the ‘land of smiles’ didn’t let us down…

Mae Hong Son

The climate at this time of year was perfect. Clear blue skies, daytime highs of 25C and cooling down after sunset, led to lovely non-sweaty days, which made for a very nice change.

Lovely green hills surrounded the town and were a beautiful backdrop to the gold temples and serene lake in the centre. Another temple was up a nearby hill were a steep climb led to some sweeping sunset views.

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The town was small and not too Westernised, with the majority of tourists being Thai. This made a nice change and meant we ate very well, in restaurants, and best of all, in the night market which set up every evening around the lake.

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Doughnuts and insects
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Deep fried dried prawns
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Salted grilled red snapper and papaya salad

As well as seeing the town, we had come to visit the surrounding countryside. On our second day we took a small speedboat an hour down the river to visit a Kayan village. The inhabitants are crudely known as ‘long necks’ due to the heavy brass coils the women wear which give the effect of elongating their necks. We strolled the simple wooden village (which seemed light years away from ‘modern’ Mae Hong Son) and bought a handmade sarong from a friendly villager.

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En route to the dock
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Our boatsman
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The quiet river
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The village dock
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The main ‘street’

The next day we hired a guide to drive us to some sights further afield. This was where what should have been a fairly standard tour soon turned into an ‘illegal’ border crossing into Myanmar.

The day started normally with the friendly Thai guide (who had a penchant for singing Ronan Keating songs, a favourite being ‘Sorry’, or more accurately ’Sor-wee’) stopping at a few interesting sights:

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Bamboo bridge
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Lisu tribe village

This area has a real mix of ethnicities with people of Chinese and Burmese origin as well as different highland tribes. So we drove on to a Chinese village on the border (founded by Yunnanese fighters fleeing communism), where we had planned to have some dumplings for lunch; when the guide asked us if we would instead prefer to eat in Myanmar as he knew a ’secret’ way in. He assured us it was safe (“Don’t worry, I have a family too”) and so we agreed.

Next thing we knew, we were pulling up outside a barracks with a gate manned by bored looking armed soldiers. First we toured the barracks, walking through trenches and gun emplacements while the guide pointed out opposing Myanmar army posts in the surrounding hills. Then, after he had had a quick word with the soldiers, we strolled through the gate into no-mans-land and then through another unmanned gate and suddenly we were in Myanmar.

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Trying to smile while hoping we weren’t going to be shot!

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Just over the border

The Burmese village was quite different from most of the ones on the Thai side as it only had dirt roads and most buildings were made of wood. A few locals came and chatted with the guide. We found a simple restaurant and sat down to some tasty noodle soup while the guide explained that the military presence is because the Shan State Army are fighting for freedom and self-determination from the Burmese government.

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On the way back our guide told us about his life and that he had a couple of other roles in the local Thai community. He had started a bank to lend money to other local business and had 2.4m THB (c.£55K) loaned out and led a cooperative to improve the buying power of restaurants in the area.

When we got home to our guesthouse, I was reading our guidebook and noticed it described the border area we had visited as “an occasional conflict zone and an infamous drug smuggling route”. Oops…

Pai

All the buses to Pai were full so our only option was a five hour trip in a songtaew (truck with benches). It was pretty painful but livened up when some travellers who had been staying at a monastery got on. We listened in as they compared experiences (it had been a mainly silent retreat) and talked of sneaking out to eat meat and drink beer.

Arriving in the town was a real shock as it was so much busier than Mae Hong Son with tourists everywhere and a vibe similar to the famous Khao San Road in Bangkok (backpackers in fisherman pants, pancake stalls and tonnes of travel agents). 

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Luckily we quickly escaped the maelstrom with a tuk-tuk ride to a nice hotel we had booked for Christmas. It was the perfect sanctuary.

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Hotel restaurant

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It was probably the nicest hotel we have ever stayed in with the stunning pool and surrounding forested hills. Not to mention the cool antique decor and friendly staff dressed in Santa hats.

The restaurant only served European food, which we initially disappointed about, but it was nice for a change and gave us a reason to whizz into town on the hotel tuk tuk and eat super cheap (70p per dish) stir-fries and salads in non-touristy shacks.

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Cucumber salad
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Fried noodles with egg, greens and soy sauce

On Christmas Day we stayed in the hotel all day, just moving from our room, to the restaurant, to the pool and then the riverside bar. It was bliss.

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Riverside hotel bar

We had grand plans to do a tour of the surrounding area, as there were some interesting sites nearby, but every day we put them off to relax around the pool until it was sadly check-out day and then too late.

Chiang Mai

Our northern trip finished with three nights in the country’s second city, beloved of expats and travel bloggers. We had visited eleven years ago so spent this time wandering the leafy lanes, drinking in some very cool coffee shops and making sure we had eaten all the regions’ staples, before we flew south to the islands.

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Lemongrass deep fried goodness from the market

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Next stop: new year on Ko Lipe with friends

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