The trip to Mae Sot was one of those spur of the moment decisions that can either be disastrous and leave you feeling like a moron for even contemplating going, or as is often the case, they form some of the most enjoyable and rewarding moments of travelling. Certainly our trip to the Myanmar border fell into the latter of these two categories as we got to experience life back to basics in rural Thailand with a great group of people and a fun -if not slightly frustrating at times- construction project.
We went with the intention of staying five nights in a small village just outside Mae Sot right on the border with Myanmar, this was Jane’s hometown (the lovely woman who ran the guesthouse we had been staying in whilst in Bangkok) and our first activity was to meet and greet with her family while enjoying the bemused faces of the locals (reminiscent of the ones in India) as they looked at the four strange white faces from a foreign land. Although surprised everyone was very friendly and clearly found the arrival of our party quite amusing, this is not a sentiment that could be extended to the dogs of the village as they were unsure whether to treat us as intruding humans or something entirely more menacing. Clearly it would take them sometime to adjust to our pale complexions, you’ll be glad to know our canine relations improved and we grew quite attached to the dogs around the building site, and they seemed to like us although I suspect that was due to our liberal approach to slipping them food under the table.
Our first morning was spent figuring out where we would rest our heads for the duration of our stay. The initial house we were planning to stay in had no running water or electricity which ironically was fine for all of us “foreigners” it was Jane that was unsure (perhaps fairly) about going to the toilet in a whole in the ground. We had offers from family members to stay in their houses which were retracted for ambiguous reasons, however from what we understand it would be bad luck for me and Sarah to stay in their house as an unmarried couple. This was the first of many superstitions that we discovered were prevalent in rural Thailand. So it came to be that we would in fact be constructing two houses, the first that had been planned and would eventually constitute the guesthouse, and the second which we started on immediately after arrival, which would serve as our humble abode for the time we stayed.
Building onto the existing structure of an old barn, we were left to construct the walls and floors of our new house which we managed to complete in a day despite to the considerable help of Jane’s two uncles and cousin. For the majority of the day we had the use of only one hammer between four people, the lack of (good) tools was a common problem we encountered during the construction, especially when it came to digging. Once finished we were delighted to sit back with a beer and a BBQ and admire our work, the walls were bamboo, the toilet was a corrugated iron squat and the shower was a pipe on the ground but it was ours and we built it. Earlier in the day we had been invited to a farm about 20km away for a reason that we could not quite figure out as we only stayed for about half an hour but we did cook some very tasty corn on the open fire with the children of the farm. Later on we went to the timber yard to order logs for the guesthouse building. At this point it is worth noting that the main reason me and Sarah came along on the trip was to exercise some of the architecture knowledge we had learned both at uni and briefly in practice back in the UK. Although we spent an inordinate amount of time sketching and calculating it was slightly disheartening that when we were finally ready to order the timber, the decision had been taken out of our hands and “The Uncles” had already made the order for us.
That evening was the first of many spent in the company of Tim, Jane’s cousin who we all grew very fond of. His constant shouts of “Saalah.. You ok?” (Most Thais struggle to pronounce Sarah) mixed in with the copious amounts of alcohol he, and then we consumed meant we were all in for a good time. We ended the evening at Tim’s fathers house that was so close to Myanmar I couldn’t make out if we were actually in Thailand anymore, here we sampled some delicious honey straight off the honeycomb (as per any night out) before heading home via the police checkpoint to meet his friends. The following day we started on the intended construction of the guesthouse, the day consisted of Me, Rene and Thomas digging considerably sized holes in the earth about 60cm down with no more than one digging bar (imagine a long pole tapering down to a point at the end) and a plastic bowl – I told you about the lack of tools. Needless to say it was a long job and by the end of the day it wasn’t just the ground we were standing on that was covered in holes, our hands had taken a beating, particularly mine which would make the rest of the week somewhat difficult. Despite this, we had dug and filled the holes with large tree columns, one of which we felled ourselves using a chainsaw, which promptly stopped working directly afterwards. At this point Co had joined us, a lovely French girl who was Sarah’s partner in digging a huge pit for the toilet that needed to be two metres deep and one wide, and I thought we had it tough. I’m half expecting when we return in three months time to find another poor traveler shoulder depth down in the same hole with their trusty plastic bowl.
The following days followed the same pattern of progress although at times slower thanks to un-avoidable events stopping work; the kings birthday, the day following the full moon? (I’m sure they made this one up just for a rest) but by the time we had all decided we needed a break the walls and half of the roof were up and we were ready to move from our old makeshift home into our new, rather more, makeshift home. Reassuringly Jane had to go to the police to notify them we were moving to the farm because it was dangerously close to the border and Burmese people regularly cross over to steal cars and motorbikes etc. In turn the police had advised Jane to procure a gun for the night and they would be ready to attend to any occurrences, needles to say we all chose from the limited selection of tools and slept with them in our tents, I opted for the trusty crow bar and machete. The same machete that I had the day earlier managed to slice a nice big flap of skin off my leg while trying to stick the blade in some wood, clearly I should stay firmly on the design side of construction. Fortunately Sarah is a talented nurse and she had it cleaned, de-infected and bandaged in no time.
Our final day we travelled in the manor we had travelled all week, in the back of Tim’s trusty pickup, it was novel for the first couple of journeys being out in the open but, as time went on and the journeys got longer the metal flatbed got less comfortable and the roads more bumpy. Our destination was a cave around 20km from the village which turned out to be an amazing experience. Sarah and Co chose to remain in the daylight because they had opted to wear flip flops and we only had one decent head torch between us, so Me, Rene and Thomas headed down into the darkness. Right from the beginning of our descent it was clear that this was not a trip to be taken lightly, apart from our head torches the cave was completely dark, the sort of darkness that you only experience deep underground far beyond the reach of the sun. The correct path was very hard to follow in the darkness and most of the small ladders had seen better days while the wet rocks where treacherous to climb down. We could tell by the sounds of our voices that we were descending through a huge space but only when we paused to take a picture using flash could we appreciate the epic scale of the cavern we found ourselves in, even the powerful flash on our bridge camera could only illuminate a small portion of the space we inhabited. To Thomas’ horror, the ceiling was carpeted with bats, and after a little confusion we discovered that the slightly spongy floor of the cave was also covered completely in bat droppings. We explored as much as we could with the limited power of our head torches before heading back up into the light. There’s something special about catching the first few rays of sunlight after even a short amount of time in complete darkness. After we reached the top we were told that you are supposed to put money in the machine to operate the lights all along the cave which we just assumed weren’t working, and also that the cave was much, much bigger than the area we had explored. Fortunately Me and Sarah are returning to Mae Sot after our tours of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, to enter into Myanmar, and the cave will be high up on the list of things to visit. As Tim and the rest of the Uncles had been drinking all day I was left with the responsibility of driving to the nearby waterfall, I thoroughly enjoyed driving a pick up for the first time.
The waterfall was beautiful and it was nice to relax and do some water acrobatics before our long journey back to Bangkok. We enjoyed being back in the countryside for the week and really only now we are back in Bangkok can we reflect on how much we enjoyed the experience. Our second taste of the city has already proved eventful, and the blog is on its way. we have one further week in the city of angles before heading off to Hua Hin for Christmas.
See photos here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk6dPZPx