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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Pai is for hippies

I did not eat pie in Pai, but there were plenty of coffee shops that probably offered a decent pie selection. My impression was that Westerners congregated in this small town to drink coffee, have their hair dreadlocked, and go tubing down the river. I did none of these things.

The hipster-hippie hub of the north was chill, sure, but mostly devoid of Thai culture, so I only stayed one night. I did achieve my goal, however: a good sleep, at least compared to how badly I had been sleeping in Chiang Mai.

I took a local bus from Pai to Mae Hong Son town the next morning (both lie in the province of Mae Hong Son). The drive took about four hours, and there were two other farangs on board: one was a Canadian (from Ontario), who told me he'd come to Thailand to meditate and live with monks (although he wasn't a Buddhist). He literally stepped off the bus in the middle of nowhere to walk down a dirt road that eventually led to a temple (supposedly).

The route to Mae Hong Son was a little less winding than that from Chiang Mai to Pai, and the views of the lush green mountains were absolutely stunning. After I arrived at the bus station, I found a guesthouse situated on the lake for 200 baht/night, dropped my bag in my room, and set out to explore the small town by foot.

Nongjongkhum Public Park (view from my guesthouse)

Mae Hong Son was in stark contrast to Pai: this was authentic Thailand. I sighted maybe under ten tourists in all; we were obviously curiosities among the locals, and their eyes followed me as I meandered through the roads near the centre of the town. The surrounding mountains emphasized the remoteness of my location and evoked a feeling of tranquility and solitude.

I met a very interesting and worldly traveler named Chiara, who was also staying at my guesthouse. She told me she was doing the "northern loop" on her own by motorbike: Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, and Mae Sariang—very adventurous given the treacherous mountain roads and unpredictable weather, easily amounting to dangerous driving conditions. I would have continued on with her to Mae Sariang had our timing matched, but we agreed to meet back in Chiang Mai instead.

It was apparent to me that Mae Hong Son was the ideal place to hike, and the few tourism outlets advertised trekking and visiting the hill tribes in the area. The guesthouse owner, a lovely English-speaking Thai woman, informed me that her friend from a nearby Karen tribe village ran his own trekking business.

She phoned this guide, known as "Mr. Pordee," who met me shortly after at the guesthouse to discuss a trek and negotiate a price. His English was fluent and tinged with a hint of a British or Aussie accent that I imagine he picked up from the tourists.

He told me that, normally, groups of people go on his treks and hike over the course of several days. He said we could do one day, but that it would be 20 km (taking 7–8 hours) of "hard trekking." Just him and me. Since it was the rainy (low) season, the frequency of his treks had declined, and he hadn't gone on one in a week (he'd hiked 26 of the 28 days in February). I did a quick Google search to ensure he was legit (I wasn't feeling up to being stranded in the jungle and left to my own devices) and I confirmed with him a few hours later.

After two hours of sleep and a terrible breakfast of banana mini-muffins and sugary cinnamon toast from the market (the restaurant around the corner that I had planned to go to happened to be closed, as it was a Sunday), I was gung-ho. I wore the most sensible clothes I had brought with me (t-shirt, loose khaki pants), tied up my sneakers, and packed my small backpack with a few litres of water and insect repellent (as much as I cringe whenever I apply DEET-containing repellent, the natural stuff with neem oil or whatever alternative is pretty unreliable—I discovered this at the Hill Camp).

At 8 am, I hopped onto the back of his motorbike and we drove through the quiet roads towards the mountains—past the small airport and into a Karen tribe village, which would be our starting point. This village was somewhat modern in the sense that although the tribe lived in bamboo houses, most were dressed in Western-style clothing, and I could see a satellite dish or two. We were briefly joined by a friend of his from Bangkok, who intended to hike his own way on a quest to see wild orchids. I was handed a bamboo walking stick, and we started to move quickly along the river at the base of the mountain.

Now, my hiking experience isn't extensive or diverse: it's been limited to the Canadian Maritimes and a few couple-hour-long trails in Colorado, but I really love doing it and I've had it in my mind to create more opportunities to do so. I love walking in general, and I consider myself to be in very good shape. So, although my experience is limited, I think, by a standard measure of the term, this trek could be described as pretty fucking hard.

Mr. Pordee might as well have been a mountain goat, seriously. He was a stocky, yet deceptively muscular man with calves the size of tree stumps. He moved agilely over the slippery rocks (of course, it had just rained) and without pause. I kept up, maneuvering over the rocks as quickly and carefully as possible, eyes on the area immediately in front of me. Before I knew it, we were knee-deep in water, crossing the rapidly flowing river multiple times, the water up to my thighs at one point.

The river near the beginning of the trek

I was relieved when we actually started to hike up the mountain. The initial climb was extremely steep and we stopped to drink water quickly a few times. There also didn't appear to be an actual path through the jungle (although I'm sure it was apparent to him). We walked through countless obstacles: leeches (a few clinging to my socks and sneakers), poisonous orange mushrooms, fallen trees, dense green foliage and dead leaves from various types of trees and plants, ant hills, prickly bushes, etc.

We could hear the call of gibbons in the distance a few times, but we did not encounter any creatures other than insects and a crab or two near the river. Apparently, Mr. Pordee had run into a king cobra on one of his recent treks; I was relieved (and somewhat disappointed) not to have a similar experience.

A few interesting things happened along the way. We visited a family (relatives of his) who raised livestock on their farm, and I helped the teenaged daughter and her two cute siblings with crossword puzzles (in English) for a few minutes. At another point, we spotted some yellow orchids growing high in a tree; Mr. Pordee hacked off a very long piece of bamboo with his machete to fetch these for his wandering friend. He collected several kinds of orchid during the course of our trek (but the others had not yet bloomed).

We also passed two young men who had literally just slaughtered a wild boar and were in the process of butchering it. I walked ahead a short distance while Mr. Pordee spoke to them (I'm not squeamish, but I also didn't feel the desire to witness it).

View of Mae Hong Son from the top of the mountain, with Myanmar in the distance

A rather disturbing thought struck me at one point during the trek. I had decided not to get the vaccination for Japanese encephalitis (JE) from the travel clinic before I left (although I covered myself for everything else that was recommended). Here I was, walking through a rice field (the type of mosquito that can carry JE tend to breed in rice fields, which the travel clinic had warned me about) on the border of Myanmar during rainy season. The borders of Thailand in general are higher risk for infectious diseases (including malaria and dengue fever, but let's not go there), especially during rainy season, but Myanmar seemed to have the most outbreaks according to Google (yep, I did my research).

If you contract it, the most likely outcome is either that you live with permanent brain damage or you die shortly after (with brain damage). I uttered a silent fuck and vowed to douse myself in an extra coat of DEET during our next water break.

Lunch (mango, lychees, chicken and rice) was eaten at the top of the mountain. I'm sure most people can agree that hiking downhill is tough, and I slipped (pretty gracefully, luckily) a few times; my bamboo walking stick was much more useful for the descent. We ate bananas from a tree once we arrived back to the village, a light rain just beginning. I felt validated when a Karen woman, who had seen us depart for our trek, was impressed with our timing and told Mr. Pordee I was "very fast and strong." We completed the 20 km hike in about 6.5 hours, including stoppage time.

I threw out my clothes, covered in mud, sweat, and insect repellent, after I was dropped off at my guesthouse—I had decided that my clothes were expendable before I came to Thailand. My shoes and feet had been wet the entire day, and one of my socks was partially soaked with blood (I suppose from a leech).

I didn't sleep well that night, partly because my room was under invasion by a variety of insects that emerge during a rainfall. I barricaded the cracks in my door and window as best as I could and "sealed the perimeter" with repellent, but it wasn't entirely effective. At one point, a huge slug was crawling on my door frame, which I assisted outside. A few geckos were also running around my room (but those guys don't bother me).

My thighs felt like someone had hit them with a baseball bat the next day, and I wasn't feeling so hot. Ignoring the fact that I was chronically sleep deprived and had just exerted myself heavily, I Googled "Japanese encephalitis" and read about the initial symptoms. Muscle pain: check. Stiff neck: check. Feeling sick: Oh my God, I'm gonna die.

Partially because I was exhausted and partially because I was paranoid, I decided to take a minivan (5.5 hours as opposed to 8 hours by local bus) back to Chiang Mai instead of heading on to Mae Sariang. The drive wasn't as pleasant this time around, as the van jerked around the curves quickly, and I was in close quarters with a few people who were ill.

Since I hadn't slipped into a coma the day after, I assumed I was going to be okay. This time. I was actually surprised, even though I don't think I was bitten by a mosquito during the trek itself.

I took a day-long cooking course a few days ago, which took place on a farm just outside the city. I picked five dishes to cook from a menu I was given before arriving, and I was given a booklet of recipes to take home. I'm looking forward to using and sharing what I've learned when I'm back in Canada!

Chicken and coconut milk soup (tom kaa gai)

Sweet and sour chicken (left) and red curry with chicken (kaeng phed gai)

I also made pad thai and mango with sticky rice (kao nio ma muang).

On another note, my diet has changed quite a bit since I arrived (Notice the common chicken theme in the above dishes? I was previously vegan and occasionally ate fish). For one, I've been eating foods I'm supposedly allergic/intolerant to on a regular basis: first it was papaya and coffee at the Hill Camp. Another time, I realized my green curry had cashews in it. I was so hungry that I ate every last one of those delicious morsels, feeling rebellious, and again, half-expecting to die.

Confident in my ability to cheat death, I ate almond-containing cookies next (I'm more reactive to almonds than cashews). Nothing I've eaten (with the exception of whatever caused my TD) has seemed to affect me negatively (i.e., no migraine, bloating, itchy throat, etc.). Nothing other than intense satisfaction.

This raises a variety of questions, namely: What the hell am I eating back home? Am I eating different varieties of these foods here? Am I no longer intolerant to them? Should I move to Thailand?!

Now that I'm no longer sick, I'm on a bit of a food rampage again. Current obsessions: fresh coconut milk "ice cream," fried banana chips, and khao soy. I even found frozen mango sticky rice dessert! Must keep up with Muay Thai and trekking. I leave my hotel (and Chiang Mai) on Wednesday, but I'm not exactly sure where I'm heading yet. I'm torn between making my way south by bus/train gradually (Sukhothai first), and joining a few-day-long trek in Laos. The latter would likely mean that I wouldn't go to Cambodia, and I don't think I'm ready to make that decision until closer to my visa expiration.

Southward is very likely going to be my direction on Wednesday morning.

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