Sick in Mae Hong Son

 

Mae Hong Son

The day I left the Forest Monastery and hitchhiked to Mae Hong Son, my stomach started hurting. Luckily, I got all the way there before I came down with full blown gastroenteritis (yup…stupid ass stomach flu). That being said, I didn’t see a lot of Mae Hong Son. Though, I can tell you this:

1)      There were few tourists – At least, I didn’t see very many. I think Mae Hong Son is a bit off the regular traveler’s route. I like that.

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2)      The food is the best I’ve had in Thailand – At least two meals I had there were the best I have eaten during my month in country.

3)      The surrounding area is beautiful – If I coulda, I woulda rented a motorbike and explored. Oh well… another reason to come back.

 

 

Sorry folks, I don’t have a lot of advice about what to do in Mae Hong Son. I can however, give advice on what to do if you get gastroenteritis (stomach flu) in Thailand:

1)      Go to pharmacy,  buy three days worth of Imodium and something for stomach cramps.

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2)     Buy a bunch of Gatorade and Water.

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3)     Get a room with a bathroom in it (don’t pay more than 300 baht).

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4)     Don’t eat spicy food.

5)     Do get banana smoothies for/with breakfast.

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6)    Wait patiently for the virus to fuck off…

 

 

So, if you are in northern Thailand, and you have the time, check out Mae Hong Son. Don’t get sick on the way, that way you’ll see more than I did! Next stop Chiang Rai!

Wat Pha Tam Wua, The Forest Monastery

 

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I heard about the Forest Monastery from my Slovenian friends I met in Chiang Mai. Having done Vipassana Meditation before, I definitely wanted to do a retreat here in Southeast Asia. And so, whilst in Pai, I caught a bus going to Mae Hong Son and told the driver to drop me off at Wat Pha Tam Wua. About two hours later, the driver came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. The only indicator that I had arrived: a sign by a narrow road leading off into the wooded cliffs. I grabbed my backpacks, marched on a quiet path for 20 minutes, and arrived.

I’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful location to meditate in Asia. The place is nestled in the lush, mountainous forest and hidden away by high cliffs. I got the feeling of sheltered from the world. All over the grounds were ponds, streams, enormous colorful flowers and butterflies.

I jumped right into the mix of things the morning I arrived. They had us do a mix of walking, sitting, lying, and chanting meditation. Silence is optional, and I met some great people chatting during our free time.

Unfortunately, the head monk was away during my stay. Others said that his English was quite good, and that he would have been able to give detailed explanations of the practice and instructions for meditation. That was too bad, I would’ve liked to hear the head monk’s talks. I did like the monk that I met very much though. He was always smiling and jovial. My favorite part was when one night, the fires from the government-sanctioned controlled burning were getting closer to the monastery, he said “fire coming to monastery…you huts bamboo…maybe you be barbecue…hehehe”.

As much as I liked my experience, there were a couple things that I didn’t jive with:

Meals – We only got two vegetarian meals per day, the last one being at 11:00 am. I pretty much went to bed with a rumbly stomach every night.

Chanting – The evening chanting felt quite long. Some of the phrases referred to the Buddha as “the exalted one” and “my only refuge”. I couldn’t connect with this part of the retreat. I did like that the Goenka Vipassana retreats I had done it the US were more secular.

After 3 days, I felt ready to leave. The monk gave me a Buddha necklace pendant that he said would protect me wherever I go. I walked 20 minutes back to the main road and hitch-hiked a ride to Mae Hong Son.

Wat Tam Wua, Forest Monastery

 

 

Exploring Tham Lod Caverns

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My first day in Pai, once again, I rented a motorbike. I went back to my hostel, Pai Circus School, with my new motorbike pondering what to do next. I heard a guy (who I soon learned was Steve from Toronto) giving two girls directions on where to see some elephants and a Jack Sparrow look-alike. I approached to listen in. He said he was going to check out a Buddha atop a hill close by and I asked if I could follow.

What happened next turned out to be the highlight of my stay in Pai. Once at the Buddha, we decided to go see the Tham Lod Caverns some 50 km away through the mountains. This drive was one of the most scenic I’ve ever taken in my life. Steve and I snaked up and down the lush green mountains on our motorbikes taking in the view. Every now and then we’d signal the other to stop for photos. The high mountain tops provided a lot of shade and it was a lot cooler than in town. After the 2 hour drive of a lifetime, we arrived at the Tham Lod Caves. We decided to do a guided tour for 250 baht each. Two Thais with old school lanterns led us onto a bamboo raft and we started onto a stream that runs through the caves. The caves were amazing! They were dark and more expansive than I imagined them to be. We made stops on our rafts and followed the guides on paths that were sometimes not paths at all. I felt bad about the damage we might be doing to the delicate ecosystem down there, and I tried to tread light. Our guides spoke very little English. They would periodically stop, hold up a lantern to a stalagmite or other formation, and say “crocodile”, or “elephant”, indicating what we were looking at looked like a crocodile or elephant. They showed us a 3,000 year-old cave painting of a deer and 2,000 year-old wooden Chinese coffins. All in all they took us through three caves. We got to the third just before sunset, in time to see the bats come out of the cave opening.

The ride back was just as spectacular as the rest of the trip. We dipped, curved and swerved our way through the tall mountains, this time at night. The moon was almost full and illuminated the road just enough to see. Right now is the time when the Thais do their annual controlled burning in the mountains to clear dry brush and at one point we stopped to watch the trees in front of us ablaze. The pearl-necklace of fire on the mountain gave off a dazzling glow. We tried in vain to capture on our cameras what our eyes were seeing.

Finally we got back into town, a little disoriented after the eventful day. I think we both went to our huts to go to sleep rather early, while everyone else at Pai Circus School was just starting the party. A very memorable day indeed.