MAE HONG SON was the original backpackers’ mountain destination, before being usurped by Pai. The city, and province of the same name, is full of mountain beauty and mountain folks from either side of the border.
A number of roads can be combined for the so-called Mae Hong Son loop from Chiang Mai. Dropping down a little further towards Mae Sot is the town of Mae Sariang and Salawin National Park.
Wedged between Burma, and Tak and Chiang Mai provinces, Mae Hong Son is both a city and a province. Long before the cool kids discovered Pai, Mae Hong Son was the it destination for mountains, forests, and hill tribe culture.
The town is centred on Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang, which are on Nong Chong Kham lake.
Ethinc Lahu, Akha, Karen, Shan, Tai, and many more live in town, which is up at the top of some wicked switchback roads.
Chinese immigrants inhabit towns and villages down the border road. Wat To Phae is a mon temple in Khun Yuam town, which has ties to China, as well as Japan's war-time era.
Set by a pleasant stream on the edge of town, and was a gathering place for raft trips to market in days past.
Farming and agriculture are the backbone of the economy in the province, although tourism is also important.
Motorcycling from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son is popular. The term "Mae Hong Son Loop" is used, but there are many choices of roads.
Further south down Route 108, Mae Sariang is a medium sized town, with several interesting temples and markets.
I came to Mae Sariang during Songkran, and after the free-for-all madness of Chiang Mai, it was so much nicer.
I was able to get myself and my bags to my guesthouse dry- which would not have happened in C Mai. I was fair game after that of course!
On my rides outside town, I came across several Songkran parties in villages on the highway.
Traditional elements of the water festival - cleansing the spirit, the body for the new year- were seen.
Uncle Dancing for everyone, from Uncle to Grandma to little kids. Lots of whiskey. Lots of whiskey.
Drink-driving is strngly encouraged. This party was going down at the Highway Police box. Revellers were stopping driving, giving them a drink, and drencing them with water.
I left these parties with streamers, baby powdered face and soaking wet, but thankfully not as drunk as Auntie here.
Like I said, partying on the highway. Now THAT is a car stereo!
Further south from town, there were beautiful fields and hills, gorgeous rural Thai life.
Plenty of buffalos and temples on the road.
The village of Ban Mae Sam Laep is river village on the Salween, at the bottom of Salawin National Park. (That's not the Salween by the way, just the back of some stilt houses!)
For many of the Shan, Karen and other Burmese minorities, this little town is a sanctuary.
However limited opportunities are for the immigrants, options in Burma were worse.
Armed with my memory of what the map looked like, I headed north into the park, planning to follow roads which looped back to Mae Sariang.
I couldn't see the "road" on the other bank, and concluded, correctly, that river was the road.
I saw llittle wildlife, but plenty of forests and villagers. And without those villagers, I'd probably still be lost.
I spent an hour driving with one flat tyre, across rivers, through dirt, along rivers, until I found a village.
As well as patching me up, there were snacks on offer. Eventually, after only a couple of wrong turns, I emerged through the park gates on tarmac.
Because of the Songrkan holiday, I couldn't het a bus out of town towards Bangkok for my flight home.
Step one was songthaew to Tak, maybe 5 hours in the back of this. Fun and games on rural roads for holiday makers, but daily grind for locals. A young lad on this had spent 18 years in a border refugee camp. He was 20.