MAE HONG SON (MHS), the provincial capital, sits in the NW corner of Thailand not too far from the Burma (Myanmar) border to its north and west. It takes nearly three hours to drive there from Pai in private car or minivan and at least four hours by public bus. Although I thought it sat north of Pai, it’s actually due west. However, the drive consists of hundreds of curves UP the mountain range going north and then hundreds more curves going south DOWN the mountain range. Throughout the scenic drive, the two lane road moves westward.
My previous time there consisted of a three-hour visit last December to visit the Dept. of Education. So two nights there gave me a good feel for the small city and, best of all, provided the chance to see a natural wonder featured on postcards everywhere in Pai and MHS province: thousands (perhaps millions) of bright yellow Mexican sunflowers dotting huge hillsides about 2 1/2 hours SE of MHS.
MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS came to Thailand courtesy of Catholic missionaries (from Mexico perhaps?). Therefore, my Irish next door neighbors at the guesthouse where I stayed, refused to go see them since they are not indigenous. Luckily, my attitude differed. In fact, I went to MHS specifically with the objective of experiencing this delightful visual spectacle in person.
I approached my goal of witnessing this annual display with very little advanced knowledge. All I knew was that they bloomed from mid November to mid December somewhere south of the city of MHS. Beginning with my first visit to Pai in November, 2009, I had seen beautiful postcards featuring bright yellow blooms against green hillsides with blue skies and shining sun overhead. My excursion differed sightly in that the sun peeked through occasionally while foreboding rain clouds moved closer slowly. Luckily the rain held off until an hour after my big adventure.
THE BIG ADVENTURE consisted of:
1) a ride on the back of a policeman’s motorbike to the bus station on my first afternoon in MHS. I wanted to find out the schedule for the following day and didn’t realize the station was nearly a couple of miles out-of-town. When I inquired at the police station about directions to the bus station, having already walked at least a half mile in the wrong direction, one of the two policemen got up from behind his desk and told me to meet him in the parking lot. So kind!
2) a nearly two-hour bus ride at 8 a.m. the following morning on an old, un=airconditioned bus filled with locals (I was the only Westerner).
3) finding a motorbike taxi to transport me an additional 45 minutes from the bus station in Khun Youm to Tong Buatong where the sunflowers thrive.
4) buying two beautiful hand-woven scarves from Hill Tribe women at the tiny retail area near the sunflower hills.
5) finding and purchasing a FABULOUS handmade fingertip length jacket with gorgeous panels of needlework created by other Hill Tribe women. This was at a small market area that catered to locals mostly and some tourist about 15 minutes from Tong Buatong.
MAE HONG SON, THE CITY, features a few worthwhile sights. First of all, the center of town rings a small man=made lake with a diameter of about 250 yards/meters. My inexpensive guesthouse sat on the edge of the narrow park that surrounds the lake. My Italian CouchSurfing friends, Sabrina and Giovanni, had stayed at Johnne’s House and recommended the guesthouse which worked out well. They spent $5 for a room for two without private bath. I opted for the more expensive option: $10 for a nice enough private room with full bathroom and shower. No TV or AC, amenities that come with most rooms priced $15 to $20.
On the opposite side of the lake from my guesthouse sat one of MHS’ two most famous wats (temples). The other towered above the town above a high hill. I managed to visit both places. Going to/from the bus station we passed another pretty wat.
As found in most Thai cities, MHS had an evening walking street geared toward tourists (mainly) as well as locals. A fair amount of vendors featured food so that’s where I ate each evening. One disappointment (which repeated itself in Chiang Mai with a slight variation) was my attempt at protein to complement the fruit shake. I pointed to a skewer of meat on a little BBQ grill and inquired (in Thai), “Chicken, not pork?) When the proprietor said “chicken” I bought one for 35 cent. After the first bite I spit it out because it was too fatty. So I tried the next piece and discovered the same problem. Turns out it was what my late Cousin Jack called the Pope’s Hat or Bishop’s Hat or something like that===it’s the fatty, triangular piece at the end of the chicken just above the cavity in a whole chicken. I went back to the vendor and bought a BBQ chicken leg for 65 cents. A couple of nights later in CM I made a similar mistake by purchasing a skewer filled with chicken gizzards. Ate half of one and threw out the remainder. Guess it’s safer to stick with tofu when looking for protein!