Monday, April 8, 2013

The Road to ... Maehongson

A Lisu Child Waits For Her Mother to Complete ATM Transaction In  Soppong

Today I was going to write a blog about the shaving of young boys heads prior to the start of this year's Poi Sang Long Festival in Maehongson.  However a news item this morning persuaded me to write instead a blog about the road, well actually roads, to Maehongson.

Early this morning, a bus from Udonthani, our home town, to Chiang Mai, the jumping off point to Maehongson, ran off the road and over a cliff killing five passengers and injuring 51 others.  It took over two hours for rescuers to commence extracting the people from the wreckage.  In addition to the coincidence of us returning home by way of Chiang Mai , the accident occurred on the route that we drove four years ago to Chiang Mai on our way to Maehongson.

Sadly and unfortunately, tragic bus accidents here in Thailand are all too common.  We used to travel to Bangkok by night bus but after seeing the wreckage of several buses over the past 6 years and reading of many fatal accidents we no longer travel by bus.

Besides the normal risks of badly lighted roads, kamikaze motor-bicyclists  poor lane demarcation  and  vehicles going 30 KPH (20 mph) and vehicles going 110 KPH (66 mph) all sharing the same two lane 90 KPH Max road, travel by bus has additional risks of driver fatigue, improper or non-existent maintenance, speeding, and amphetamine abuse by drivers.

There are many stories about reckless bus drivers.  My favorite is about the bus where the driver would not slow down despite the pleas and screams of the passengers.  He did slow down and drive more safely when one of the passengers, an off duty policeman, walked up to the driver and put a pistol to his head.  Having ridden on many buses and being aware of some other stories about police here, I believe the story.  Perhaps this anecdotal evidence could be used in the USA to resist gun control efforts and encourage "carry and conceal" permits - you never know when you will encounter a berserk bus driver!

For this years trip we decided to go south from our home rather than going west like we did the previous trip and that the buses do.  Our directions to Maehongson were Highway 2, Highway 12, Highway 11, Highway 107 and Highway 1095.  Taking the bus route saves about one hour but adds about 3 more highways and the roads travel through many more villages and shares the narrow roads with more buses.

Both routes take you through national parks where there are warning signs "Watch Out for the Elephant" and graphics indicating elephant crossings.  These warnings are for wild elephants.  We did not see any elephants or any evidence that elephants had used the road recently.  I was definitely not disappointed.  I do not want to encounter a wild elephant along a remote road either in or out of our vehicle.

North of Chiang Mai, you leave Highway 107 and take Highway 1095 to Maehongson. Highway 1095.   Unfortunately we had to drive the roughly 130 km to Pai in the dark and worse yet in the haze created by many fires burning in the forests through which the road twists and turns.  The road is not lighted and in many places there is neither a center line demarcation or demarcation of the road's edges.  Several times, I made right hand turns not confident that the wheels on the far side of the truck were going to remain on the road and not go off into the abyss.  After 15 hours of driving we finally arrived at our hotel in Pai, much to our relief.

Soppong - Lisu women wait for transportation to their village
The next morning with good light and a great night's sleep, we set off on Highway 1095 for Maehongson.  After about two hours, we stopped at the market of Soppong also known as Pangmapha.  The morning market in Soppong is extremely interesting.   Hill tribe peoples of the surrounding area come to sell and buy necessities, foodstuff, and other items need to maintain their lifestyles in the hills.  Lahu, Lishu, Karen, and Shan people commingle along the sides of Highway 1095 each group distinguished by their distinctive clothing and hairstyles. 

Lisu Women Selling Their Goods In Soppong

A Lahu (Masur) Vendor

After taking photographs and purchasing some fruit for the remainder of our journey, we left Soppong behind.  Two hours and many many curves, we finally arrived in Maehongson.

Young Lisu Woman At Family Table in Restaurant

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