Craving some authentic Thai-ness, found in limited quantity in larger cities but abundant in small mountain towns, I took off for Mae Salong, a hilly village in the Mae Hong Son province which is primarily Chinese-speaking due to immigration on horseback through Laos. Which also means that there are horses in this Thai town, something not often found as they aren't indigenous to the area. But good for my purposes.
The journey to Mae Salong was one of my favorites thus far. First I took the public bus that goes to Mae Sai along the Burmese border but got off at Ban Basang, a tiny town from which I caught a taxi-bus thing, called a sangthaaw. The others at Ban Basang had been waiting for 45 minutes so as to fill up the sangthaaw with the requisite 7 people for the uphill journey with stunning lookouts over land which will be starkly green once the rains start, but at the moment is a bit brown and tired. The air, however, was unpolluted, such a welcome change from the cities, and I was in the company of two American girls, finding myself almost bothered by their accents and idioms, even though I speak the same way. The town is not much in itself, a hilly main road lined by restaurants, Chinese New Year décor and tiny convenience stores. Us three Americans shacked up at the Golden Dragon, an overpriced but scenic guesthouse run by a Chinese family. Since the area is surrounded by coffee plantations (among other cash crops such as opium) the coffee is superb, though I didn't have any since caffeine makes me ill, and I try to stay away from addictions. Wow that makes me sound so fun doesn't it?
Four of us set out the following morning on a horseback ride through the hills of Mae Salong and to visit some hilltribe villages nearby. A guesthouse organized this trip, and at first misunderstood what we wanted and brought two motorbikes instead. The horses were brought out of a stable between two guesthouses, and they were tiny. I mean, very small horses, and I felt guilty even getting onto my horse, the largest, simply because if I were that size I wouldn't want to carry me around. Emily's horse had a graying mane and a smoker's cough so pathetic I cringed. The saddle, well it was more of two pillows over a piece of leather, from which two metal rings were tied on with lanyard, which also ran through the horses mouth and served for reins. We had two guides, a man about 35 and a young boy, only 12 I would say, who had a bad cough and got sick on the side of the road a few times, but it was hard to convey our concern because they didn't speak English, and I know no Mandarin. The horses preferred to walk right down the middle of the paved road, meaning that trucks and motorbikes dodged us on steep curves and sharp turns, a little stressful and strange in such an unpopulated area. About an hour into the ride, we dismounted and followed the young guide into a hilltribe Akha village, where all the children wore Western style tshirts and shorts. We were lead upstairs to an older couple's home, and were greeted with black teeth smiles and hot tea, roasted peanuts and some grape type fruit served with salt. Having no common language, we did a lot of smiling and nodding, and then the woman brought out handmade bags and bracelets for our perusal. I was the only one to not buy anything, which earned me the scorn of the couple and many forceful gestures and glances. We continued on, the second hour being a pleasant stroll through the greener hills and surrounded by mountains while the sun beat down on our heads, only interrupted by the horses' noble attempts to eat anything along the path before being rushed on by the guides. The last hour and a half, however, was unpleasant and difficult for the horses, as the paved road was almost straight uphill and the heat was building. I was happy to get off the horse and hopefully it was allowed some rest. I'm not sure why I keep choosing to put myself in situations when I know the animals are probably poorly treated and I feel worse in the end for participating in such activities.
I had developed a chest cold, which I think stemmed from entirely too much fun in Pai and Chiang Mai, so the rest of my time in Mae Salong involved resting on my porch, watching families do the laundry amid rooster calls and surrounded by big hills. There were only about six tourists in the town, something I'm glad to have found but I wonder why more travelers don't make it there.
My trip to Chiang Mai was better than the trip up. I took a sangthaaw to the junction at Tha Ton, where I caught another sangthaaw to Fang. I waited for the bus to Chiang Mai in a covered market. I attempted to use my pidgen Thai to talk to some people but conversation lapsed into kind smiles and generous pats on my arm. I love the Thai people, in this case my cheeks weren't actually pinched but I assure you in the last three months my face has seen lots of crab-like action. The bus to Chiang Mai filled up as we went, but no one wanted to sit next to the only farang so I had a seat to myself. I'm not complaining. The scenery was stellar, the atmosphere relaxing, the breeze a godsend, and having a real travel experience with no minibus in sight, priceless.