Delightful Northern Thailand (3) West And South Of Inthanon
By Hans Meier
Heading west from the summit of Doi Inthanon's, the road suddenly gets smallish, crackling and winding. Bend after bend, we slalom through delightful breezy pine forests down towards Chem river valley. The view goes back to Inthanon's impressively towering ridges; many a time we see the two chedis, which were built in honour of Thailand's Royal Couple, distantly shimmering in haze. And as so often in northern Thailand: we are not overwhelmed, but a very delightful trip it is; I am glad I finally managed to overcome my usual Thai travel scheme of Isaan, Bangkok and beaches.
All the way from the Chiang Mai riverside through highway 108 up to Thailand's highest trash dump on Doi Inthanon, the roads have been broad, well-paved and lightly traveled; you could land your brand new A380 about anywhere. Cruising had been smooth as silk
This changes rapidly on tiny highway 1192 down to Mae Chem. Now, oncoming traffic may cause hectic maneuvering, with me of course not have a clue about all those buttons and controls of our 4WD automatic tin brick. Find parking only for a short picture stop can be tedious.
Finally, after hours of tiresome, but scenic cranking, we are out of the woods and into the valley. We pass a few rolling hills scattered with non-descript farms and villages, until we finally roll
— INTO MAE CHEM —
But then, the first entry into town proves to be the most stressful riding so far.
The 2005 national elections are just a few weeks ahead. The road leading to the town center is blocked with three open trucks full of Taksin supporters. They drive at about 5 mph, and you can't pass here.
Loudspeakers are piled onto the open cargo platforms, where elated Taksin fans dance to luuk thung country pop sung by – my beloved Chintara! Does she know how her music is used up here in the north?! Helplessly we stare through our windscreen, listen to crackling blasting Thai country rock including Chintara's signature "ah-ah-ah-ah-ahahahaha", and watch the Thaksinites partying on the cargo beds. The immediate association I have is that of sick replica of carnival in Salvador da Bahia.
Finally we reach the town center, where after Doi Inthanon we have to stock up on supplies. It's quite a narrow place, and parking is a problem again. I could park right in front of a shop garage, but then our car brick would block a business from
public view; I am shy to do that. Another good parking would be in front of the administration building, right next to the market hall. But that's not possible for two reasons:
1) That inviting parking space is clearly marked as "parking prohibited".
2) That inviting prohibited parking space has just been parked full by the Taksin supporters' convoy.
After heaving the usual tons of fruit, yoghurt and drinking water into rot Vitara (orange juice is difficult here), we start to discover
— MAE CHEM TOWN —
Information about places to stay is thin. Mae Chem has a brief appearance in guidebooks dedicated to Northern Thailand. But just like Phetchaboon, Nakhon Sawan, Saraburi or other dusty backwaters, this market town didn't make it into Lonely Planet's fat "Thailand" guide.
First we check a bungalow resort on the outskirts of town. – "Oh, this I don't like", states my Norah. – I am glad we agree one more time, by now I sense a very deep understanding between Norah and me; maybe this could lead to a more permanent settlement later on? Just like me, I reckon, Norah doesn't like the bungalow place because it's dusty and shadowless, and the restaurant sits right on the noisy street.
"So why you don't like it", I ask her? – "I don't like the blue window frames here!"
Fortunately, in the next village out of town, Sounga Resort has plastered a steep hill with a mix of tiny wooden bungalows, delightful flowery bushes and small winding paths. We get a diminutive, clean bungalow. Our rinky-dink wooden terrace has views back to the impressive Inthanon ridge and to a host of other montagna. Are the pagodas shimmering there again? No, this cannot be. Or can it?
At 700 Baht, our bungalow has a fan, but no air-con. This area is quite hot! After the chilly-chilly Inthanon nights, we unwind on the terrace until after midnight, soaking up the flow of warm air and listen to the cicadas' endless tunes. A few bushes spread their aromatic flowers right onto our terrace. In the dancing lights of our candles, my romantic Norah's eyes show *that glow* again.
The place has few customers, and the lady requires us to pre-order dinner and to even agree on the dinner time. I really hate to tie myself like that on vacation, but we have to do it more often in smaller places across the area. Of course I don't want them to wait for us all night – and then maybe we don't show up. In Mae Chem town we didn't spot any delightful restaurant, mostly soup carts only; so we finally agree to have dinner at the resort every night.
In that restaurant, though, you can't stick to your favorite table: When we come for breakfast in the morning, we still see what we scattered of our dinner on the previous night. Fortunately, there are many tables and few customers.
Mae Chem sports lovely rice- and veggie-growing country all around, and along Chem river that is mostly flat. It would be the greatest place for easy slow-paced bicycle outings, and like so often on our tour I regret we didn't bring decent bicycles from Chiang Mai. But in Pai or the Ang Khang area, at least rotten bicycles can be rented; Mae Chem has nothing! On our strolls through the quiet streets we don't even see a bicycle shop; we ask market people, and they don't know of bicycle shops. We do some delightful back roads by car, but it's just not the same – we want bicycles.
Mae Chem is such a remote place, after all: If you draw a line on the map, it seems only about 85 kilometers far from Chiang Mai. But should you wish to actually see the capital, you have to make it up and down Doi Inthanon, a huge detour with about 150 kilometers. Our talkative resort manageress informs: "There is nothing here. Only when we started the resorted nine years ago, the very first bank opened in Mae Chem." And so she says: "No, we don't rent bicycles. Nobody else does. There is not even one bicycle shop in Mae Chem; forget it." So we forget about bicycles; only when we finally leave town towards Mae Hong Son, Norah does notice two bicycle shops.
Still we put the car to good use, because south of Mae Chem we want to see
— HOT SPRINGS AND RIVERSIDES —
Rot Vitara rovers through undulating hills with the odd couple of trees on top. For a moment it reminds me of the Tuscany, but then – this here is too barren, not enchanted. We pass a few poorish villages; the kids watch us with interest, and the dogs sleep in the middle of the road, so empty is this area.
Norah has many firsts on this trip that really excite her: She sees her first tea, oranges and strawberries actually growing in the field. Another premiere are hot springs.
We turn right at Thepanom (does that mean guardian angel, Stick?). We even bought towels in Mae Chem, but when we reach the springs, there is no bathing: Some bathrooms are just being built out of thick concrete. All we can see now are a few muddy bubbly pools in an open, hot steppe.
Interestedly for once, Norah squats down next to the biggest bubble. Then a white minivan stops by and discards a group of French tourists who all block their views with big video cameras. By accident, one meandering Frenchman, with a monstrous Panasonic nailed to his face, almost kicks my unsuspecting Norah into the steaming pool! This does not deter her. But when suddenly the wind turns, she gets a good noseful of hot springs steam scented with rotten eggs and vomit; hastily Norah retreats back to the car – "too hot, darling!"
Tephanom is a disappointment, soon we head further south. If you are into casual hot springs bathing and not in the Rocky Mountains, but in Thailand, you better try Pai (a whole different story http://www.stickmanbangkok.com/Reader/reader1687.htm). And also for sheer hot springs sightseeing without any dip, there are better options than Thepanom: The discerning Stickman reader who yawned at Yellowstone Park may well snooze over Thepanom.
Road 1008 keeps us southbound. There a several signs in mostly Thai, with the popular "Ecotourism" being the only English word I remember. Here and there in lose forest we see tent camps right next to the road. I'd love to know where these sign lead to, but except for "Pepsi" I can't read any Thai script. Norah, my bronze Indochinese lover, does read at least some Thai, especially when checking fruit prices or menus; but she never manages to decipher signs leading to boring waterfalls or tiring "nature walks". "How can I read Thai, my darling?!?" Oh yes.
At a T-junction we turn east. The landscape narrows, and we enter Ob Luang national park. Here Chem river is squeezed through a mildly picturesque gorge, before further east it joins forces with Ping River coming from Chiang Mai, which south of Nakhon Sawan somehow transforms into Chao Phraya river for the final leg to Bangkok, Samut Prakan and the Gulf of Siam. This I lecture to Norah. She replies: "You think we find toilet somewhere, my darling?"
Ob Luang national park is just another mellow drive-in river beach with a few "nature walks" of district park quality thrown in. At least, the semi-shadowy river beach makes for a good picnic. We have the essentials in the trunk: the picnic mat, a knife, a ton of biscuits and fruit, drinking water – "oh, and chili salt!!!" (that's Norah). So we spend a relaxing afternoon by the riverside.
At sunset hour we steer back to Mae Chem. Quite close to town, the landscape is so dreamy that we stop the car simply between the rice fields on open country. Between the palm trees lining the paddies you see the farmers' wooden houses. We hear a few children playing there. On the narrow elevated trail that leads through the fields, two orange-clads monks balance towards a distant pagoda. All that under the blue-red-violet sunset sky of provincial northern Thailand. It's a place to achieve peace of mind for a moment.
I knee down, to snap a panoramic picture with rice seedlings stretching into the foreground, above the setting sun. The camera is almost on ground level. On the monitor appears a discarded crumpled empty plastic bottle of fertilizer.