Tales from the Potting Shed. A Journey to North West Thailand.
The Journey To Mae Hong Sorn
North West Thailand is a remarkable place and no small wonder then that we return to it time and again. It's stunning mountain peaks and scenery are nothing short of inspirational.
My husband and I have lived in the opposite corner of Thailand, in the South East, for nearly three years now and often wondered if we’ve made a poor choice of place to settle. We both love the North West with an illogical passion. It calls us back time upon time and there is no resisting its call. The only reason we chose the south was its proximity to the international airport. Should the need arise to go home quickly, we could easily access it. But logically, we could from the north too. The journey from Mae Hong Sorn to Suvarnabhumi Airport takes probably the same time as to go by road from our house when you include the 3 hour wait prior to your flight at the actual airport. But that’s another story and one that will be remedied in the course of time.
My last trip to this exquisite corner of the globe was taken last year ( and no, I haven’t been this year and I’m suffering severe withdrawal symptoms because of it)! I had the greatest pleasure in introducing the area to my sister-in-law Sue, her husband Ken and their good friend Jan, and what a time we had!
The happy trio had come to Thailand for the very first time at the insistence of both us and Sue’s son (and our nephew) Charles. Top of the list of ‘things to do before we die’ was Pang Ma Pha in the Mae Hong Sorn Province of Thailand, and a visit to Charles’ old friend John Spies at Cave Lodge.
The first part of their holiday was spent with us here in Sattahip, where we visited some of the local attractions such as Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Gardens, which, blissfully is only about 2 miles from our home. Then they journeyed on to visit the wonderful attractions to be found in Bangkok – the old temples, Palaces, markets, shops and of course, the floating markets. It was here that the girls had the most brilliant time having clothes tailored for them from luxurious Thai silk. Sue said it was bliss to have clothes that actually fitted her for the first time in her life – she’s a petite lady of seven and a half stone, so in an ever burgeoning British population, something of a rarity. They then went off to Chiang Mai for several days for more site seeing and cultural experiences and I caught them up on the last leg of their Thailand trip at the airport there.
It seems strange to use an airport rather as one uses a bus station, but that’s what we did and they joined me for the 16.15 plane for Mae Hong Sorn. I was as excited as a child going on holiday, I so adore this part of the world; it always seems like coming home! And to share it with people that I’ve known for so long seemed a real privilege. I wanted them to be as excited as me; I wanted them to feel the magic of the mountains as we flew over them. I wanted them to imagine those early explorers and plant hunters like Frank Kingdom Ward hacking their way through mountain passes and finding the incredibly beautiful plants that adorn Western gardens today. The thoughts made me tingle with anticipation and I just wanted to be there. Much of the magic for me is knowing that these mountains, stretching upwards from Kanchanaburi in the West of Thailand, are the gateway to the Himalayas. Looking northward and westward, you know that Ladakh, Hunza, Burma, Yunnan, Tibet, Nepal, Kashmir and many other countries are strung out along this mountainous backbone of Asia. It fills me with awe and wonder and I would welcome the opportunity to see just a little of its life and cultures.
Mae Hong Sorn
The actual journey takes just 35 minutes, but if you can get a window seat it’s the most magical 35 minutes you’ll ever experience! As we took off into the mountains we craned our necks to see the landscape unfolding below and were rewarded by a patchwork of river valleys, weathered mountains, every shade of green as patches of trees and fields appeared and disappeared beneath us. It was awe-inspiring and I hoped that my companions would feel the same. The short journey doesn’t necessitate the pilot taking the plane to more than 11,000 feet, so the view was even more spectacular. The cloud cover was virtually non existent so there was nothing to spoil our view. The gods of the mountains had indeed been kind to us that day.
The drop into the airport at Mae Hong Sorn is a bumpy, turbulent descent between lofty mountains into the valley. But the landing was easy and we were quickly disgorged onto the tarmac and ushered into the lounge. Then off to collect our circling luggage and out to find out waiting taxi. Sue had had the good sense to order it when booking the hotel. The ride through the town to our hotel evoked memories of my last visit just a year previously. Each shop and temple was deeply etched in my mind as we drove past. We were soon at the hotel, and looking at an enchanting old place that was reminiscent of more elegant times. The dark wood was ancient, the décor was modern and the place looked comfortable and inviting. We were escorted to our rooms by the courteous porter who quietly waited for his tip whilst we dumped bags and baggage on the beautiful beds. The people of the north are very different from the south, and another reason for me to love this area so much. There’s nothing of the brashness of Bangkok, Chon Buri and Pattaya, it’s replaced instead by the gentle charm of a people more closely related to the Burmese than any other people. It feels as if you’ve gone back in time some 50 years, to a world long forgotten in the West. Long may it remain that way.
We spent a delightful evening in this old place after first visiting the street stalls and markets along the roads and in the town itself. The walk around the hotel was interesting and to sit comfortably on cushioned wooden settee chatting idly with a drink was heaven indeed. Everything about the hotel was charming apart from the drains which seeped its own odour through the pavement cracks as we made our weary way to our beds. The air conditioning too was ancient and cranky and kept poor Ken awake half the night he told us the following morning.
Breakfast was an early affair as we had our taxi coming at 8 and the mountain air was chilly – not a condition I was used to these days. The journey to Pang Ma Pha was a good 2 or more hours along a very winding mountain road, but that journey in itself was again perfect. Just to be able to see the scenery we’d witnessed the day before from the air gave it all a different dimension in time and space and we marvelled at every turn of the journey. We stopped at a particularly spectacular mountain viewing platform for a coffee and comfort break. Fatal! out came an ancient and bent old lady, regaled in her tribal finery and bearing all sort of locally made treasures. We bought some of course, at vastly inflated prices no doubt, but she grinned happily, showing her red mouth and worn down stumps of teeth, the product of years of chewing betel nut to ward off hunger pangs, and a normal habit for these hardy mountain people.
The scenery was nothing short of spectacular every inch of the way to Pang Ma Pha and onwards to Cave Lodge. I will never tire of that journey; it’s truly breathtaking in every sense of the word. The mountains, the passes, the little villages and schools, the people and markets; the trees and rivers; everything that makes this part of Thailand so unique.
We arrived by lunchtime, eyes staring and hungry as village kids, and were warmly greeted by the local dogs, fellow Lodgers and some of the staff. The old place hadn’t changed; all was still intact and sacred (to me that is). I scrutinized my companions surreptitiously to see if they were suitably impressed. After all, it wasn’t the usual place to take your middle aged friends and I was a little anxious to see their reaction to their rooms. But they seemed to be caught up in the enchantment of the moment. The place wasn’t the best place to take Ken, he’d recently had a knee operation and was walking with a stiff gait, but he never once complained at the steep steps to and from his cottage, or rather ‘potting sheds’ as Jan so appropriately named them once we’d been safely delivered. No detrimental term I hasten to add, we’re all madly keen gardeners and our potting sheds at home are our sanctuaries, each and every one of us. So it was a name of great fondness and homely.
The Lodge is a well established place started by John Spies somewhere back in the ‘70’s for mountaineering enthusiasts, walkers, bird lovers, trekkers, cavers and people that enjoy that type of activity. It has always been a great success and most people come by word of mouth from other enthusiastic friends and relatives, as did we. There seems no age barrier with the people that come to Cave Lodge. If you close your eyes and listen to the conversations you would have no idea if the people talking were 16 or 60. It just appeals to people with the same interests and age is no barrier. The very fact that its so inexpensive too, appeals. The food is always freshly cooked and you can get a meal of any sorts throughout the day. I think they do finish at 8, but by that time its dark anyway and people are happily tired and ready for a yarn or two over a beer.
The sprawling buildings of the Lodge range across a high river bank on the side of the village and leading down to a river. The village itself is large and comprises hill tribe people from the Shan tribes. Many of these people have been here forever, but the problems in neighbouring Burma have seen an influx of desperate people over the last 25 years or so and the Thais in the inimitable manner have given them homes and land to live on. It’s a lovely village with the old style houses made of wood with gardens filled with flowers, tall trees, fruit trees and vegetables. Under many of the houses or to the side are pens of large and small black pigs, and many people keep buffalo too. We were privileged indeed to be invited into one of these when we were there. It belonged to our guide Pat and was a wonderful experience. It’s not changed since the days when Frank Kingdom Ward, the plant hunter, was describing the dwellings in the early part of last century. I’m not sure how the old folk get on in such situations if all the houses are like Pats. The steps up to the house were steep indeed and none too safe either.
The Lodge has expanded over the years into the garden and down the bank towards the river. Visitors and villagers alike have helped construct the cabins and house into almost a mini village in its own right. The cabins range from the 2 bed to the 8 bed, with a large dormitory for the less well off and more hardy young back-packers. The hub of the Lodge is the kitchen and common room, a marvellous and balmy place constructed mainly of wood, much weathered, rustic and warn to the colour of walnut and ebony in places. It feels so warm and welcoming. The houses are solidly constructed and have stood the test of time in the inclement weather this mountainous region is annually prone to. Below the Lodge is the river, which in full spate, comes up almost to the lowest bungalow and is fast and dangerous. But we were there at the end of the dry season and the river was running ankle deep at a sedate pace. It was hard to envisage it as the raging torrent that had dispatched the new concrete bridge like matchwood just a few years previously. Its never been replaced either. Today the village children fished and swam in its gentle shallows whilst the stocky buffaloes and scrawny cows enjoyed its pleasantly cool depths in the late afternoon sun.
The remainder of that first day was given over to meeting our fellow ‘adventurers’, talking, planning, eating and drinking the delicious local coffee. The age range of the other people ranged from a young boy of 9 with his mother; through the 20’s and 30’s and onward to Ken and me, probably the oldest trekkers there but not willing to admit it too loudly.
Before the sun set behind the magnificent mountain backdrop and the shadows grew too long we explored a little around our new home. It was breathtaking, not just for the radiance of the scenery but for the clean, crisp air that seemed to magnify every woodland scent and imprint it clearly in your mind. The mountain air was heady and induced a trance like state somewhere between reality and total disbelief. It was wonderful! We trekked down the steep steps to bed feeling elated and somewhat bewildered I think that we’d made it here. We looked forward to tomorrow with the anticipation born of the sure knowledge that we were in a place closer to heaven than most of us had been ever. 5 days just was not going to be enough. But never mind, that meant we would have to return and that was another delicious thought altogether!
Up at sunrise after a deep and untroubled sleep in our ‘potting sheds’. Our waking had been heralded by a myriad of different bird songs and the screeches of distant monkeys. It was wonderful to look out from our balcony to the mist over the river and breath deeply of the cool air. We’d certainly needed the quilts and blankets on the beds too, it was chilly in these deceptive mountains after the heat of the day.
Mountain Trekking and Caving, North Thailand
Trekking and Caving
We climbed the steep steps to the kitchen following the wonderful aroma of fresh coffee like hounds on the scent of the fox! Pat, our intrepid guide, was there and waiting for us with our packed lunches already on the table. I could feel the questions of my friends that went unspoken – who ever thought we’d be eating fried rice with veggies out of a plastic bag? But I knew how delicious it all tasted after half a days trekking up here. And the home made cakes I could have devoured there and then, but resisted the temptation and ate a good, conventional breakfast instead. We took plenty of water, dehydration was too easy to underestimate.
We set off across the river and headed for the distant mountains up a steep and winding path. Our trek that day was about 15 miles up mountains, through forests and crossing the river at various points as we progressed. The scenery grew more stunning as the day went on and each time we stopped for a drink or for our lunch, we held our breath at the sheer beauty of the place. Each view, each step, each turn presented ever more heart-stopping panoramas.
Pat took our pace and matched it. There was never any haste and this only served to enhance our delight. The most incongruous part of that journey was Pat and his mobile phone. In this wonderful and peaceful setting it didn’t seem at all out of place for him to be chatting away for 10 minutes on his mobile. But one call caused him some concern and it transpired that a friend had been killed in a motorcycle accident and it was he who had been nominated to sort the funeral ‘wake’. An intense affair that could go on for several days until all of the dead man’s family and friends had gathered from all corners of the mountains, to send the unfortunate man off.
Apparently this time is an irreverent party time with everyone getting rather drunk until such times as all are assembled. Not only does the crowd get inebriated, but it’s a fine opportunity to gamble. And gamble they do, often losing many weeks of hard earned cash in the process.
But this did not detract from the trek, but rather gave us an insight into the lives of these amazing and resilient people. This was further enhanced by our eventual arrival in a Shan village. We were warmly welcomed and sat in the local shop where drinks appeared from a very modern looking refrigerator. But this was merely a ploy to get us to linger awhile. Within minutes of our arrival, we were surrounded by colourful villagers, mainly women, laden down with locally made handicrafts of the most astonishing colours and designs. There were jackets and shawls; blankets and bags of every size; shirts, skirts, purses, headscarves, head dresses of beads and shells; belts and various other interesting items made of bamboo or wood. These were all carefully laid out on equally colourful blankets and we were invited to peruse them at our leisure. They were a merry bunch, with sparkling eyes and saucy grins. Unbelievable, the prices were fair and not extortionate as so often happens. We were mindful that we still had a good way to walk so couldn’t buy too much. We chose with care, forgoing the enticing bamboo items, but still managing to buy bags, shawls, scarves, purses and belts enough to stock a small shop. We were euphorically happy and so too were the assembled ladies as we bid them a fond adieu with promises of a return some day. I nearly returned with an overlarge buffalo, being silly enough to jokingly ask the price of the gentle creatures chewing the cud in the garden opposite. 700 baht I was told, but here the others took over and dragged me off down the road and back to the Lodge.
Before our arrival though, we had time to visit Pat’s house and feed his chicken, ducks and cat. The house had a view to die for across the valley amidst trees and a vegetable garden that was the envy of all of us. The garden was huge and I know Pat would have loved to have had that dear old buffalo for company, not to mention the milk and maybe a calf or two in the following years.
The following days went by so quickly, it seemed we’d hardly arrived when we had to set off back to our respective homes. Each day was different, with caves to explore, mountains to climb, rivers to cross and fresh air to breathe. Our dreams were filled with caves, exiting bats, half a million swifts on the wing; rocks; muddy chasms, dark and deep cave systems; damp earthy odours; large spiders; delightful children; wonderful companions; exotic plants; the gentle clacking of the bamboo groves; beetles; cobwebs; scented trees; unknown and unidentifiable noises; amazing rock formations; stalactites and ‘mites and most of all, a wonderful deep sense of belonging to nature.
Life will never be quite the same for any of us that took that journey and I feel privileged to have shared this with my good friends and companions. We promised John that we would return and he signed a draft copy of his book (still not published I hear today) for me.
The call of the ‘Potting Sheds’ rings forever in our subconscious and we will go back.