After a 12 hour over-night bus journey from the Northern Bus Terminal (Morchid) we arrived at Thailand’s northern most district of Mae Sai, in Chiang Rai province. Once upon a time this place was a backpackers’ haven with a wide selection of groovy guesthouses and meeting places to gather and swap information on travel in the area. Those were the days however when travel to Burma was really restricted and one as a Caucasian really only had the choice of popping over the border on a day pass. Since Burma has opened the border, it really does look like no-one can be bothered stopping over in Mae Sai these days and the area which was once the Khao San Road of the north is dying a quick death.
A huge guesthouse once known as the Mae Sai Plaza Guesthouse set on the hills overlooking Burma has been shut down for a couple of years and the place is now a complete eye-sore – looks like a perfect location for a Thai horror movie. Quite a pity, as that this gaff used to be always packed out with banana-pancake scoffing travelers. The last time I stayed in Mae Sai in 2000, I stayed at the friendly Northern Guesthouse – again another victim of the demise of Mae Sai it now resembles a crocodile swamp. We did find one decent new place along the river called the Yee Sun Hotel with rooms with all the basic mods and cons for 400 baht a night. But again the place, unlike guesthouses, looks to cater more towards tourists or ex-pats on holiday.
I still like Mae Sai and besides a larger market knocking off all the latest imported Chinese technology, the town hasn’t really changed that much. It is also a great place for day trips around the area. The wife had an old friend of hers living in Mae Sai, so typical Thai-style we were waltzed around to as many attractions as possible within the space of….the first day.
On the second day, the wife and I set out on our own for Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang. Richard our Webmaster blogger has just written up a series of blogs on the area so I don’t wish to go into too much detail. I asked the friendly Farang proprietor of the Monkey Island restaurant/tour company next to where we were staying on details of the best way of traveling up to Doi Tung and he advised that I rent a bike. Actually a pretty plausible recommendation, but I was afraid to embarrass myself with the truth about my horrific motorbike skills and decided to do the wise thing and get there by public transport instead.
(The Princess Mother with her children: King Ananda, Princess Galyani and King Bhumibol)
Now, there are plenty of songthaews (local transport type taxis) willing to take you on a half day tour of Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang from Mae Sai market at around 1,000 baht. We decided that it was pretty pointless taking one from there when we could hire the same thing at half the price from the Doi Tung intersection. So, we just took a public bus 20 km out of Mae Sai and asked the driver to drop us off at the turning for Doi Tung. As planned, there were songthaews waiting to charge 500 baht for a half day tour.
Sadly the morning we went, the place was really misty and views from the top of Doi Tung were almost non-existent. Right at the top of the mountain we paid respects at Wat Phra That (Doi Tung Temple) before heading for Mae Fae Luang. I really loved the Doi Tung Royal Villa which belonged to the Late Princess Mother. A very tasteful home with stunning views, the tourist is able to get a first hand view of how the Princess Mother lived such a humble life surrounded by the thing she loved most – nature. Peeping through the windows, you can view everything from her dinner table, book selection, personal photographs and even her bed. Great value at something like 70 baht to get in.
I really appreciated the Princess Mother Commemorative Hall too, which gives the lowdown on all the HRH’s projects and whole walls full of old photographs of the royal family which I had never seen before. Sadly though, most tourists seemed to be more interested in just seeing the Royal Villa and Gardens and it looked liked me and the wife were the only ones who made the effort to go that afternoon. Mae Fah Luang Gardens are nice and well worth a visit but be warned that if you go to a place like this with a Thai girl she will have you posing for a photo at every single flower on offer
After spending 2 nights in Mae Sai, it was my decision this time, to take us up to Mae Salong and the home of the Thai-Chinese KMT. Now, I have always loved Mae Salong and the place hasn’t changed in the slightest since my last visit there. Leaving Mae Sai we just took a bus heading south and again just informed the driver the to let us off at the turning for Mae Salong. What I wasn’t expecting though (besides a monk) was a complete lack of passengers waiting to take the songthaew up. Sat around for an hour waiting for at least one more person, we just simply gave up and paid the full hire fee up to Mae Salong which was like 400 baht.
Shin Sane Guesthouse may not have the best value accommodation in Mae Salong, but it’s still the place to stay for information, food or a beer. In fact, after 7 o’clock it seemed like the only place still open. Just before heading up to Mae Salong I had received an e-mail from the Editor at The Nation newspaper advising me to add/edit some things to the Soap Operas article (previous blog) I had submitted. To my dismay however I found that Mae Salong did not have a single public computer with Internet access and so I was forced to cut short my trip to just the one night and head to Chiang Rai town.
Will be continued….