Adventures Around Northern Thailand ↣ Part 4
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
A remote homestay, teaching English and camping in the jungles of Mae Hong Son
After a very nauseating - albeit scenic - drive from Pai through the mountains, we arrived at the namesake of the province and the famous route: Mae Hong Son! The town didn't consist of much aside from some beautiful temples and local shops. However, what was so unique was the strong Burmese influence resulting from being just over the hill from the border. Temples were vastly different from the Thai temples we'd seen along our travels, from the different materials used to the domes of the structures. Though I have yet to go to Burma I got a nice taste! Not only was the architecture Thai-Burmese - the food was too! We ate delicious Burmese inspired meals- while some were similar to the Thai dishes we'd been eating, the flavors and spices varied the dishes immensely. It was absolutely drool-worthy!
We came to Mae Hong Son for two reasons: to stay with a local hill tribe for a few days and to trek overnight deep in the jungle. We managed to find two men happy to host us: Ten and his father in law, Ben. Ten drove out to our hut where we stayed the first night, and after explaining to him what we were interested in we crafted a plan for our few days together! Ten and Ben lived in Tomato Village, which is comprised of five different hill tribes whose homes are clustered together but share a community. It so happened Ben and Ten ran an English school on their property for the village children and invited us to teach there on our final night. The plan was perfect: three days of trekking, two nights sleeping in the village, and one night camping in the jungle!
The next morning Ten picked us up and gave us a personal tour of Mae Hong Son. He brought us to a temple atop a hill, and looking out over Mae Hong Son and the surrounds talked to us about the area. He was a wealth of information - he spoke to us about the ever changing climate, the history of different tribes settling within the hills, the major farming industry there, and how the province had changed over the years. We absorbed as much as possible while taking in the vast scene before us that we were about to delve into! Next Ten took us to another temple towering over bright sunflower fields. The different structures were adorned with thousands of wooden prayers notes. As they blew and clapped together in the wind it was as if you could hear the prayers those thousands had hung with hope. As we walked around Ten was by our side readily answering our questions. Before departing, we stopped by a booth where local schoolchildren were selling snacks. Ten bought some food for us to cook that night, then we were off to begin our trek to Tomato Village!
Ten dropped us off with Uncle Ben atop a hill, and we set about applying bug spray and readying our daypacks. Ben, who must have been in his mid sixties, was dressed in dress pants and a button down. I was a stark contrast, dressed in my North Face hiking pants! Ready, I looked into the jungle - but where was the trail? Oh right - we were in the wilderness. Ben whipped out his machete and in we went!
Just minutes in, and I was covered head to toe with jungle. Spiky plants clung to my pants, shirt - even my hair! I glanced at Adam, who had just a few thorns stuck to his shoe. That pretty much summed us up as individuals! After hacking through vines, thorny plants and fallen trees, we took a break on a nearby log. Ready for some healthy snacks and water, I was surprised to see Ben whip out a cigar and a Coke.
Our other guide grabbed some bamboo and within minutes carved a pipe for us to load tobacco into. As we passed around the pipe Ben shared stories of his past. He told us what it was like growing up in Burma, from crossing the border thirty years ago to how appreciative he is of his fulfilling life with his family in Thailand. I picked up Ben’s machete with curiosity and he taught me how to use it - though he didn’t seem to want to surrender it to me just yet!
After our smoking break, we hiked a few more hours to the crest of a hill where we took in a birds eye view of Tomato Village. We rested our legs on the ground and feasted on bags of rice and meat under the sun. Eventually, we descended the hills under a canopy of banana trees into Ben’s garden. Once he fed his pigs, cats and dogs, he gave us a tour of the various fruits and vegetables he grew - none familiar and most certainly exotic!
Next to Ben’s home, we stayed in the most simple hut yet - a bamboo structure with some blankets on the floor. The toilet was attached to Ben’s home, which was just a hole in the ground. After a day of hiking I was anxious for a shower. The sun had set and the hills were overcome with dry, cool evening air. Unfortunately, a steaming shower did not await - but there was a room with a bucket and ladle. Finding the dim light, I made the mistake of looking around the tiny room: spiders of various sizes were hanging out on the walls and the ceiling. Mustering serious courage (spiders are one of my only two fears in life!), I peeled off my dirty clothes, grabbed the bar of soap and ladled the chilly water onto my already chilled body.
With a sense of serious accomplishment, I bundled up and followed my nose to the sitting area for one of the best meals of my life! Ben’s wife cooked five amazing dishes. Pork is the most commonly used meat in their region, and she seasoned and cooked it to utter perfection! Various local vegetables coupled with exotic spices I’d never known existed created a medley of flavors and textures in the soups and salads she served. Scooping the different foods atop of my rice, I moaned with every forkful - I was in heaven!
The next morning we set off for our overnight in the jungle. We trekked through a wide variety of landscapes: from pine forests to tropical forest, over streams and across open land where cows and horses roamed freely. Ready for lunch, we stopped at a clearing that provided us rocks to rest upon. Grabbing some sticks of bamboo, Ben and his friend used their machete to make us all spoons with expertise. I watched, incredulously, as they skillfully carved. Moments later, I eagerly scooped mouthfuls of rice and meat into my mouth using the tools from the jungle.
Throughout our trek, Ben gathered bamboo of various varieties (there are over 10,000 species!) and swiftly crafted cups, utensils - even shot glasses! - for our evening of camping. We passed fields burning - slash and burn farming is widely utilized in the region - and fantastic flora.
Immense clusters of bamboo towered over our heads, over 50 feet tall. Eventually we reached our camping spot for the evening! After a refreshing bath in the stream nearby (if you ever want to feel truly liberated, try being naked in the jungle!) I smothered myself with bug spray. Although there weren’t really mosquitoes around I wasn’t taking any chances! We now had an impressive collection of cookware: all carved from bamboo, there were tubes filled with water from the stream leaning over the fire to boil.
Bamboo split open to use as serving trays laid on the ground next to carved bowls, cups and utensils. We prepared dinner together: water was poured over various vegetables and meat, then left to boil in a bamboo tube, leaning fireside to make soup. Skewers of pork, chicken, sausage and hot dogs hovered over the open fire, slowly cooking. I scooped handfuls of rice onto banana leaves, wrapped them with string and inserted them into another water filled bamboo tube to cook the rice. Ben grabbed a bamboo jug by the handy handle he’d carved and poured some boiling water to make tea. Admiring the cute little bamboo shot glasses (my favorite souvenir!) I poured us all moonshine shots and we feasted! The meat was incredible - although it wasn’t seasoned, it was cooked over an open fire to smokey perfection.
Seemingly suddenly, the night enveloped the jungle. Bamboo lanterns were quickly carved, the candles inside providing a lovely ambiance. We listened to the sounds of animals we couldn’t see - only hear. Fireflies sparkled around us and stars peaked through the canopy above us. Of all the camping I’ve done, this was certainly the most unique experience! Utilizing our surroundings to get us through the trek made me feel much more connected to the jungle. Maybe next time we’ll step it up and hunt instead of bring meat...well, maybe! Completely in our element, Adam and I sat fireside in utter relaxation.
The next morning, we feasted on leftovers then began our third day of trekking. We passed a cinnamon tree, carved a piece off and chewed on it - quite zesty! It was the most challenging day of hiking yet - up steep dirt hills to the top of a mountain which would yield a spectacular view! My feet constantly slipped along the dirt and rocks, and with each step I climbed I dug my heels in for traction. I’d long ago given up on pinching off the spiky globs that had been attacking me for days - I accepted them as part of my outfit now. Thorns stung my legs through my pants. Their vines entangled me, resulting in having to pause and free myself from their grasp. Roots and fallen trees were everywhere so we were constantly minding our footing. The jungle was a natural obstacle course - though I wouldn’t be crossing the finish line without a few penalties it seemed! After a few hours we left the cool canopy and were above tree line, nearing the summit. The landscape morphed from jungle to massive boulders, and we climbed higher and higher until finally we reached the summit! We beheld a panoramic view - endless miles of hills stretching from Thailand to Burma. We watched Bald eagles soar above the treetops while bees and butterflies fluttered around us. Victory!
An hour into our descent, we walked through a massive area covered by banana trees. The tropical leaves provided generous shade and a beautiful reminder of what an exotic location we were in. Soon thereafter the jungle grew very dense. While the machete was constantly utilized the past few days, our pace had dramatically slowed. Instead of a steady, albeit sometimes slow walk, due to clearing, we were now fully stopped while Ben cut through thick plants to create a path. There was some chatter up ahead between our two guides, but the growth was so thick I couldn’t even make out their words. Every thirty seconds or so the path was cleared a little more for us to venture through, though we still had to spread the towering plants and grass, parting the strong growth with our arms. It was like a wall of jungle in front of our faces. Looking down, I realized I couldn’t even see my feet! Feeling my way blindly, I could tell I was balancing on a log, the massive fallen tree feeling round under my hiking sandals. Mustering depleting energy, I continued to spread apart the tangle of giant weeds, absentmindedly wondering how many spiders were chillin’ inside before quickly shutting out those dangerous thoughts! After escaping the seemingly impenetrable jungle, it opened up again and we were back to hopping over streams and climbing over rocks. Later Adam asked me if I was scared or worried when we got lost, and I looked at him with confusion. I thought that was just part of the experience, Ben giving us a true adventure through the jungle! I guess the saying is true: ignorance is bliss!
We approached an orange farm and were greeted by children and dogs. The family that owned the land invited us to use their home to cook lunch and have a rest. Their home was a simple hut - half the room was elevated bamboo to sleep on, the other half a cooking area.
Using the farm’s freshly grown cabbage, we reheated our rice and meat and feasted with our trusty bamboo dining sets! The family gifted us fresh oranges and sugarcane, and we set off towards Tomato Village - we had a class to teach that night!
After another bucket shower, we feasted one last night on an incredible home cooked meal, which included an orgasmic soup using flowers Ben found along our trek. I would return in a heartbeat just for some cooking lessons! As the sun set, adorable Thai children began arriving. We were very excited to meet the children Ten and Ben had filled our days raving about. Their passion for enriching young lives was obvious.
Their idea was simple: teach the children basic English so they can work, for example, as a trekking guide. Grammar could come later - but let’s get them speaking about things they encounter in their daily lives so they can at least converse. The kids were polite, friendly and curious, questioning us about our lives in the States and the U.K.
After talking with them about different sports and activities, we helped them all write a few sentences about their lives which they then presented to their classmates. Finally, a riveting few rounds of hangman finished up the lesson!
The time we spent in Mae Hong Son was massively rewarding. We gained a wealth of knowledge about a myriad of things: We got great insight into the daily lives of various tribes living together in harmony, living off the beautiful land they were lucky to call home. We got a taste of a much simpler life, no frills living, yet comfortable enough. Instantly we were at ease, partaking with them in their unhurried way, slowing down and appreciating small moments together. Laughter, gratitude and endearing generosity filled our days. Relaxed conversation over whiskey and tea led to peaceful reflection in the evenings. And just like any other culture, one thing was abundantly clear: family, friends and children are the most important things in life.