By Al Lim, Yale-NUS ’19 – See bio
I love the terribly misspelled words. I love the slow 3G service. I love the little squatting toilets on the ground. I love the spider bites, the mosquito bites and the fire ant bites. This is not sarcasm. This was a trade: sacrificing a tiny few to receive an unforgettable and invaluable experience.
This is why I love Mae Hong Son.
I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a weekend in the mountains of northern Thailand. On top of that, I was welcomed by the greatest host family around. As my ex-coworker was going home to work as a lawyer for the Thai government, I jumped at the opportunity to visit.
Getting to Mae Hong Son is a little tricky. You pick either flying in a 10-person aircraft or going by van. Cost-wise, the van ride is 250 Baht (10 SGD) and the flight is about 1,500 Baht (60 SGD). The only downside to the van is the 1,864 curves in the road to get there… more curves than the average belly dancer. I decided to do both for experience’s sake.
After popping some Dramamine, putting a patch on my belly button and stuffing my nose full of traditional Thai smelling salts, I was knocked out and essentially woke up in Mae Hong Son… not too bad.
A quick flash through the highlights of my weekend:
Wat Chong Klang and Wat Chong Kham. These wats (temples) are adjacent to each other and are one of the central tourist attractions in Mae Hong Son. They are located on Chong Kham lake and Walking Street (a stretch where local artisans gather to sell their wares at night).
Wat Chong Kham is technically the oldest wat in Mae Hong Son, founded by the Shan ruler Phaya Singhanataraj. It was rebuilt in the 1970’s after it burnt down. One of the outstanding features of this Wat is the large “viharn” with a seven-layer “pyatthat.”
Trip to the Bua Tong Field in Doi Mae U-Ko. This was one of those moments when you just stand there and admire nature. The beads of sweat rolling into your eyes after walking up hundreds of steps were nothing compared to the fields of yellow that stretched on and on. Definitely a great time for cam-whoring!
These “Dok Bua Tong (Golden Lotus Flowers)” are actually Tithonia Diversifolia, otherwise known as Mexican sunflowers. They bloom around November and December and turn the mountainside into an ocean of yellow. These flowers are native to Central America and eastern Mexico and were planted by missionaries around seventy years ago. It is no wonder that it is the provincial flower of Mae Hong Son.
Visiting Karen Hill Tribe. It is not every day that you get to see the long-necked people of the Karen Hill Tribe. One of them surprised me by speaking Chinese really well, and she said that many people can also speak Japanese due to the influx of tourism.
The long-necked people of the Karen Hill Tribe are actually from a subgroup called the Padaung. I’m sure many people have heard of them from documentaries or various other media through the years. I first saw them in my living room about ten years ago. I sort of shivered on the inside and felt my neck when I saw the length of those rings, and I decided then that I would go to see for myself one day! I got to tick that one off my bucket list.
So what’s the deal with the brass neck rings? Legend has it that the brass neck rings serve as protection from tiger bites (maybe ghost tigers?). Another theory is that they make the women unattractive and thus safe from slave traders. Others hypothesise that they serve as a sign of great beauty within the tribe and help to attract better suitors.
No, their necks aren’t technically that long. If they were, they’d be dead. What happens is that the rings push down on the clavicle (collar-bone) and the upper ribs. This compression turns the clavicle into part of the neck.
Today, many of the Karen Hill Tribe villages serve as tourist attractions. Tour buses drive through crazy terrain to get there so tourists can squander their money on souvenirs. There is some controversy regarding the exploitation of the villages as a human zoo. However, I would say that the villages initiated by opening up to the tour companies, and many of the people depend on the income from tourism for their livelihoods. It can also open them up to the world, as I saw clearly in one of the girls typing on a laptop.
The “big-ears” are another unusual aspect of Karen culture. From a young age, the Karens start enlarging their ears through the gradual process of stuffing them with twigs or various articles. Some women wear giant earrings, and many tourists have to be reminded to look out for them instead of staring at the ear holes.
Wat Phra Tat Doi Kong Mu. This is one of the icons of Mae Hong Son. The oldest landmark in Mae Hong Son, the temple overlooks the city on Doi (hill) Kong Mu, giving breathtaking views while offering some of the best architecture around. There are two chedi (the giant thing with points) in Burmese-style. One was built in 1860 and contains the relics of Phra Moggalana (one of Buddha’s disciples). The other chedi was built in 1874 by the first governor of Mae Hong Son, Phraya Singhanat Raja.
My visit was perfectly timed, as I got to be there during the Loy Krathong Festival (Yi Peng in the North). They had Thai dances, Thai Yai plays and numerous other performances. As a Christian, I was oblivious to half of what everything meant, and I’m sure many Buddhists would be able to enlighten you further on the symbolism and importance of Loy Krathong in Thailand. But we did release balloons.
As with all places and times, we have to move on… but that does not make this chapter insignificant. If life is a book, this was a chapter in bold.