A look of panic could be seen just behind Ae’s smile. She tried hard to keep calm, but you could tell something was wrong. It was 8am and we were sitting on a charming yard in front of a mist-laden lake in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand. What on earth could she be so stressed about?
I thought my request for breakfast had been simple enough, but here was Ae, positively fretting.
‘OK, breakfast, no problem,’ Ae had said, followed by a pause. ‘Do you want toast?’
‘Ah, yes that would be great, thanks.’
A long silence, as Ae began to weigh up the options, and then she dropped the breakfast bombshell.
‘I’m so sorry. We only have ends.’
‘Yes, we only have the ends of breads left’.
Realising she meant the crusts, and that offering such a thing to me was the cause of her dilemma, showed just how Mae Hong Son simply touches the parts other resorts can’t reach.
Set in the extreme north-west of Thailand, the 100km drive from Pai is through sweeping mountains with hairpin, 40-degree turns every hundred metres or so. It’s no surprise that few make it to this frontier town on the Burmese border.
I checked in to the Piya Guesthouse, a charming place next to a temple and the evening walking street. Big room, free wifi, and coffee on tap for 600 baht.
Mae Hong Son is one of those towns where you just want to walk around. Locals smile and nod politely, the restaurants serve superb northern food and if you want to cross the street, cars will even stop for you (an unthinkable sin in Bangkok).
True, there isn’t much to see here, but that really is the point. If you want to see a truly relaxed town, then this is it.
A couple of spots just out of town are also worth making the effort to reach. Baan Rak Thai is a Chinese village perched on a hill within touching distance of the Burmese border. Most frontier towns are modest collections of wooden shacks with the occasional cockerel or goat wandering about. But Baan Rak Thai is no normal frontier town. This C-shaped settlement curves its way around a reservoir and its residents hold firmly to their Chinese heritage.
The community fled Yunnan in 1949 and ended up here. The Thai government let them stay in return for help with patrolling the troublesome Burmese border. They also helped in the fight against the opium trade by taking on men loyal to infamous drugs lord Khun Sa. Today things are more peaceful, though areas near the border are still rumoured to be drug routes.
Residents sell tea collected from the surrounding fields and several restaurants offer Chinese and local dishes, such as the excellent tea leaves salad.
Much closer to Mae Hong Son is the Fish Cave. Set in large forested grounds, the cave is a mere 2 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep, yet its apparently sacred fish ensure a regular flow of visitors. A stream runs under nearby rocks and at a small opening, it’s possible to see the carp-like fish which hover waiting for scraps to pass by. That’s the cave in question and it really doesn’t take much time to appreciate. The grounds, however, are much more attractive and are beautifully maintained.