The Bangkok heat and traffic (speak pollution) is sometimes really too much and spending a weekend in cooler northern Thailand seems to be the perfect escape. A place I had wanted to see for a long time is the small town of Mae Hong Son, some 350 km to the west of Chiang Mai, and close to the border of Myanmar.
Mae Hong Son and its surroundings are home to many different hill tribes, such as the Karen and Shan, who run community based eco-friendly resorts and organize shorter and longer treks in the mountain areas. The province of Mae Hong Son is however also known for the many refugees who have fled from Myanmar and who are – after decades – still living in refugee camps along the border. Not much about these refugee camps, or about any of the other refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border is mentioned in the western press, but details can be found on the UNHCR web page.
Together with a Karen guide and a young student studying tourism in Bangkok and who was on an internship in Mae Hong Son, I set out to explore the mountains and the jungle south of Mae Hong Son. It needed a 4WD to reach the remote Karen villages located a long a narrow and winding dirt road, and at one point, even the 4WD could not get any further and we had to go on walking. A local Karen helped us to find our way, up and down the steep hills and through river beds, explained all the edible jungle plants to us and prepared a delicious lunch in the middle of the forest: water from the nearby river, herbs and vegetables collected during our walk, dried meet and some spices, and tea from his own plants, which he had with him in his small backpack. All of it cooked and eaten in newly prepared bamboo dishes!
The friendly Karen communities earn money by guiding people in the forests, by showing them around the villages, and by explaining how local people (at least some) still stick to the traditional way of using wild plants and herbs for cooking and medical purposes, how people grow and harvest vegetables, make baskets, spin cotton, dye with plants and weave, and thatch their roofs with large leaves collected in the forest.
March and April are also the months when local farmers burn vast areas of the forest to obtain more land for cultivation and to get rid of all the fallen leaves. Smoke is in the air almost all day, and fires and burnt surfaces can be seen all over the place. It is however amazing that these fires don’t lead to huge forest fires, but seem to be controlled in one way or other.
A lovely place to stay is Fern Resort, some 10 km south of Mae Hong Son, with good food and friendly staff.