Hidden depths of Mae Sai

Backpacking Mae Sai

It was as dark as dark could get; totally black; nothing to see but the glowing end of a thick cigar; nothing to hear but the puffing of smoke into the stale air, and the occasional drop of water from the rocks above. Our clothes were covered in mud; they smelled damp, just like our surroundings. We sat, talking in a low tone, as if not to disturb the utter silence that filled the air, discussing our findings, and whether or not we had missed something along the way.

We had been inside for four hours, covering many tunnels, equipped with nothing but two torches and an insatiable appetite for adventure.  We were just outside of Mae Sai, exploring one of Thailand’s biggest caves. When I say we, I mean myself and my newly acquired companion Daniel, some crazy German guy with a growing fascination for local gem stones.

Our journey had some nail biting moments. At one point I lost my balance on a rock, and as I stumbled forwards, the torch slipped from my grasp and smashed open onto the deep layers of rocks below. After transforming myself into Stretch Armstrong, I was luckily able to reach all of the parts, but if not, it would have left us risking the long way back on only one torch.

We had a few scrapes with jagged rocks, a few slips on uneven ground, and even lost our way a few times, but all in all we managed to navigate our way through most of the cave, returning to the exit generally unscathed. Our return to town took us through many military checkpoints where guards looked in bewilderment at our appearance, Daniel more so, as he was virtually brown from his Indiana Jones antics around the cave.

Backpacking Mae Sai

Mae Sai is Thailand’s most Northern point which sits on the border to Myanmar. With the current situation over there, a life in Thailand is far safer, so many are taking the risk of illegally crossing the border in search of a better life, hence the checkpoints. Like any other border town, it thrives in commerce of products “imported” from over the river. Sunglasses; knives; gems; whatever you need, it’s right there, and it’s incredibly cheap. A few hours spent by the river in the evening, and you might get the chance to see some Burmese making the crossing, dressed in suits with their pants rolled up! Or young children fishing for an early dinner with two or three rods out at a time.

Backpacking Mae Sai

With my newly bought pair of “Ray Bans” and my rented motorbike I took off early morning to explore the incredible landscape that surrounded the town. A single road led me alongside the border. On my right were sweeping views of Myanmar partially restricted by a mesh of barbed wire, and to my left stood little cobble stone villages, built on a hillside, overlooking huge limestone cliffs which engulfed them at their base.

Backpacking Mae Sai

After a spot of meditation in a remote temple along the way I finally reached Doi Tung, a small town 20km from Mae Sai whose area covers a series of steep hills. On arrival I visited the most popular attraction which sits high up on the crest of a hill. Buddhist monks sat in meditation chanting in harmony outside the entrance to the temple. I sat surrounded by a lovely smell of incense, writing about my travels for more hours than I can remember.

Backpacking Mae Sai

Afterwards I visited a nearby wildlife sanctuary. An old woman didn’t look too pleased to see me when I pulled up outside the entrance; she nodded her head sideways and continued brushing the leaves. I asked if it was open and she just said “no no no” which I took for “I can’t speak English but will answer no to anything you ask.” With that in mind I continued through the entrance, playing the role of a dumb foreigner. Good job I did; the sanctuary was full of exotic birds and I got to see some I had never seen before, even some that could speak Thai! To my embarrassment, I did find out from a member of staff that it was actually closed but they didn’t seem interested in telling me to leave so I just went about my way with the place all to myself. Sometimes I love being a foreigner.

Backpacking Mae Sai

As the sun made its descent, I made my last stop at the Doi Tung Royal Arbitrary, a magnificent mix of flower arrangements spread out over several hectares. It was the perfect place to spend a late afternoon stroll, surrounded by vibrant colours and tweeting birds. Once again, I was the only person there, so I was welcomed with a beautiful silence that only nature could disturb.

Backpacking Mae Sai

After arriving back in the hostel by nightfall, quite typically, I would be found with a bottle of local Thai beer in one hand and a chess piece in the other, making my next move amidst a cloud of cigar smoke, as battle commenced well into the night. Indiana Jones was no easy opponent.

Join me again in my next post as I prepare to cross the Mekong into Laos in search of more adventure and stunning landscapes. Transport?… an old, rickety wooden boat. After all, what more could a backpacker expect…

Catch you all soon guys,


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