A Hidden Gem In Thailand – The City of Three Mists

A Hidden Gem In Thailand – The City of Three Mists | Destinations presents Travel 2021
A Hidden Gem In Thailand – The City of Three Mists | Destinations presents Travel 2021
Kav Dadfar takes us on an unforgettable, off-the-beaten-track adventure through an area of Thailand rarely visited by tourists. 
My machete-wielding guide suddenly came to a halt. “Listen. Can you hear the baboons?”. The valley erupted with the high-pitched shrieks of what sounded like a thousand monkeys. It was almost as if they were warning us not to come any closer. It was with good reason as we were deep in the heart of the North West jungles of Thailand. 

As I rested my weary legs from the arduous hike of the past 3 days, I imagined myself as Percy Fawcett or other famous explorers of yesteryear on the trail of a lost city. Whilst this relatively unspoilt province of Thailand known as Mae Hong Son isn’t exactly lost, it is a place where few tourists ever visit. 
 

3 days earlier…
My journey had begun three days earlier in a place known as “the city of three mists”. Nestled in a valley and guarded by high mountains on all side, Mae Hong Son is covered by mist in the mornings for most of the year. Once only accessible by a harrowing drive down a narrow mountainous road, this small city is still relatively removed from the rest of Thailand even with the addition of an airport a few years earlier. 

It is easy to see why this remote province away from the glitz and glamour of the resorts that dot the islands in the South will appeal to travellers. Besides the rugged and unspoilt terrain, it is an ethnically diverse region which is home to many hill tribes such as Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Liwa and Pa-O and many more who migrated and settled in the mountains centuries ago.

I had been wanting to come here ever since my first trip to Thailand over 10 years ago. But as I stepped out of the airport it dawned on me how different this place was to the rest of Thailand.

 

That organised chaos and ear-piercing noise that greets you in most Thai cities is eerily absent here. As is the ever-reliable army of tuk-tuks and taxis. But the one thing that is the same wherever you travel to in Thailand is “local help”. This is why this amazing country is known as the “land of a thousand smiles”. Over the years I have encountered so many examples of the famous Thai hospitality that it should not have come as any surprise when a local woman approached me to help. After learning of my predicament and poor planning, she promptly called a friend who arrived with his tuk-tuk to take me to my hotel.

Mae Hong Son Centre
The centre of Mae Hong Son is the epitome of the word “picture-perfect”. The beautiful temple of Wat Chong Klang sits beside a mirror-like lake that reflects everything from the temple to the heavens above. To add to the mysterious setting, the whole city is surrounded by fortress-like mountains on all sides. In the evenings, the road on one side of the lake transforms into a street food haven complete with mats on the floor and tables offering the authentic Thai lakeside dining experience.

 

 I met my guide in one of the few local bars along the lake. The local band vigorously playing through their renditions of western songs – it was now the turn of “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. Mr Chan who was to be my guide went through the plan for the next 3 days. My journey would take me through Namtok Mae Surin National Park by 4X4 before hiking to a local village to spend the night. The next two days would see us trek through the impenetrable jungle, stopping at local villages before hiking over a high mountain pass to descend to our final stop – the small village of Ban Huay Pom Fat.

Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu
My guide along with Osu (my porter) and Tan our driver for the first day were due to pick me up at 9 am. But before I headed into the jungle, I wanted to pay a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple – a 150-year-old shrine that sits on top of a mountain like a beacon overlooking the city. The two Burmese-style Chedis were built in 1860 and 1874. The older and larger of the two was built by Burmese migrants and contains the relics of Phra Maha Mok Kallana Thera – an important monk and one of the disciples of the Buddha.

Having learned from my airport mishap the day before, I had pre-arranged a tuk-tuk to drive me to the top for sunrise. For those who are not afraid of steps and have iron-man levels of endurance, the alternative route is to climb up the steep calf-burning steps to the temple from the town.

 


I watched the sun edge its way above the horizon, illuminating the layers of mountains and burning through the mist. A monk from the temple joined me. No words were spoken but we both sat admiring the majestic view before us.
 

Heading into the jungle
By the time I made it back down, my guide and crew were already waiting for me. We drove south through Namtok Mae Surin national park until we reached the small village of Ban Huay Hee. With a population of approximately 100 people from the Karen tribe, this village is famous for Padhi Saju’s organic coffee. Mr Chan explained that his coffee is so famous in these parts that people from other villages travel miles on foot for a taste.

 

As the day progressed, we travelled further into the hills and jungles. We passed local villages before arriving at our destination for the night. A Lisu village of around 60 people. Mr Chan jumped out of the pick-up truck with the zeal of a teenager to say hello to the Laosai family who he had known for 35 years. This is a part of the world that is beyond mobile phones and the internet. In fact, the last time this village had outside visitors was two years prior to my visit. I was again relying on that famous Thai hospitality for a place to spend the night.
 

As Mr Chan and Osu prepared dinner, I began to get a better sense of life in these parts of rural Thailand. The Laosai family were a grandfather in his 70s and his wife Maad. They had been married for 18 years after she escaped brutal treatment in neighbouring Myanmar. His grandson who had recently turned 21 also lived on the farm and now tended to most of the day-to-day chores.

Their farm mainly produced corn which was dried out in the searing sun before being crushed by driving a pickup truck over them. It would then be sold as animal feed as far as 100 kilometres away in Chiang Mai. The main house was a simple wooden structure with a fire used for cooking and keeping warm in the middle of the house. There were three simple mattresses around the room whilst the storage room – which was to be my bedroom for the night had room for a further two people.

 

Our hearty dinner consisted of green curry, stir-fry aubergine and beef, deep-fried catfish and vegetables. All prepared by Mr Chan and Osu over the open fire. As we all sat nursing our food hangovers, we somehow managed to muddle through conversations with the aid of Mr Chan translating. 

Early wake-up call
I was woken from my deep sleep by the resident rooster at 3 am. As I stumbled out of bed and into the open, everyone was already awake and beginning their day’s chores reminding me that the day starts early on a farm. Maad had already built a bonfire of biblical proportions to burn all the corn leaves that had been plucked by hand the day before.

 

After breakfast we embarked on day 2 of our journey which would involve a 15-kilometre hike through dense jungle. Our next stop for the night was a Karen village high in the mountains. Mr Chan and Osu walked ahead clearing the path and pointing out the variety of different flora and insects including the occasional funnel web spider, which I had a privilege of meeting in my abode the night before.

The impenetrable jungle
The thing that became clear was how much pride Mr Chan took in the countryside. His incredible encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, its wildlife and plants offered a welcome distraction from the scorching heat of the day. He and his team actively try to maintain and clear paths for their guided tours because as he explained, “this isn’t somewhere that the Thai government can reach and maintain, so it’s down to us”.

Soon we had reached the base of the valley where the shade from the jungle canopy offered a welcome relief. But as we forced our way ahead, this unforgiving jungle began to close its doors. Mr Chan explained that it had been a few years since he had come through this trail and so the dense bushes had closed the way completely. He and Osu hacked away with their machetes clearing enough of an opening for us to squeeze through.

 

We continued our journey through rice terraces that had long been harvested. They were now just playgrounds for the buffalos. Every village we passed we were offered tea and Mr Chan and Osu chatted warmly with old friends.

Our stop for the second night was the Nu Kai family whose small farm housed buffalo, pigs, chicken, two dogs and 7 cats who seemed to continuously taunt the dogs because of their privileged access of being allowed in the house. As I sat eating dinner with Mr Chan, Osu and the family whom I was invited to stay with, I began to appreciate the closeness of these remote local communities.

 


I was told of a local woman who lived in the village who was now too old and weak to work on her farm. So, the whole community made time to tend to her work as well as their own. The sense of closeness is what allows these small villages to survive in such difficult conditions. The conversation and laughter continued with the occasional smile flashing my way by my hosts to ensure I did not feel left out.

That night, as I lay on my mattress looking out of my window into the darkness of the jungle, listening to chorus of weird and wonderful sounds, I was already feeling sad that my journey would soon end.

 

The final leg
“Now the hard work starts” Mr Chan had told me in the morning as we began our final day’s hike. A couple of hours into the walk and I was already beginning to understand what he meant. We were crossing over a high mountain pass and down to the village of Ban Huay Pom Fat where our transport awaited us. The 15-kilometre walk involved trekking through the jungle, crossing small streams and navigating on narrow ledges on steep gradient hills. None of which was appealing after the previous two day’s excursions.

Occasionally we would see a patch of land that had been cleared for farming by a village but was now abandoned. Mr Chan explained that this sustainable farming method ensured the survival of the jungle for future generations. Rather than completely damaging the land through excessive farming in the same place, villagers would move their farms to a different location every few years to allow for the regeneration of the previous area. He pointed out previous farms which were now completely regrown as part of the jungle.

 

We continued our journey through the day and after 3 days and over 50 kilometres we came to within an hour of our finishing line. As we sat relaxing by a stream and cooling off in the cold flowing water, I began to feel a sense of sadness. The jokes we had shared. The stories I had been told. The sumptuous food that Mr Chan and Osu had prepared and the families that had been so welcoming, would all soon be a distant memory. The chorus of baboon chants would fade, and I would hear that infamous ding from my phone. I had not found a lost city, but I had found something equally memorable and beautiful.

This piece was written by Kav Dadfar, co-founder of That Wild Idea  and JRNY Travel Magazine. 
 

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