“Mummeeeee, let me in now!!” Lucy was hoping urgently from foot to foot.”What’s the matter I thought you were going to the loo,” I replied.
“I can’t it’s full of millions of monster moths – and they are all LOOKING at me!” Reassuring her that moths are quite harmless and then told her off for exaggerating as surely there couldn’t be that many moths, I marched her back to the campsite toilet before it was too late. Only to find I was entering a Lepidopterists dream, the walls were covered with massive hand-sized Lyssa Zampa moths interspersed with hundreds of smaller moths of different types. I was detracted from my marvelling by the wriggling beside me. Quickly hustling Lucy into a stall, she was alarmed to find many more moths on the back of the door. “Poor moths, they were having a nice sleep when some rude people interrupted them by having a noisy wee,” I tried telling her, it seemed to do the trick. Once relieved we tiptoed out, “Sorry for disturbing your nap,” whispered Lucy.
We were up in the mountains of Northern Thailand north-west of Chiang Mai on Route 1095, which supposedly has 1864 bends. As we slowly ground our way up the steep hills, we marvelled at the jungle drenched slopes around us. It was slow going but a beautiful drive, the road might have been steep and winding but it was well built and wide enough. By late afternoon we had had assented to 1700m and turned off to an even steeper narrow road into Huai Nam Dang National Park, where 6km in we found the most beautiful campsite we had come across in SE Asia. Suspended above the clouds at the top of a forest ridge, the small flat fields for tents stretched out both sides below us all had perfect views of the heavily forested hills below us. We parked under a tree in an empty parking lot, with a gorgeous view below us. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped. This is one of the park’s unique selling points, it a chance for low land Thais to experience the proper cold. They loved it, buying woolly hats from the little stalls and taking grinning selfies bundled up in layers with their stocking-clad feet stuffed awkwardly in their flip-flops. “Oooo, it’s so cold!” we were gleefully told, repeatedly. You could rent tents, sleeping bags and mats and the campsite was gearing up for the start of the holiday season, when it can take 900 people. But for now, it was peaceful with just a few Thai tourists . Steve cooked tea outside in t-shirt and shorts (he is from the North-East, after all) before the girls joyfully snuggled under their duvets for the night.
Earlier in the day we had stopped on our way out of Chiang Mai at an area where there were a variety of attractions to chose from: “Monkey School” and “Tiger Kingdom”…..mmm, cruel; “Snake farm” – too scary; “Orchid and Butterfly Gurdens” – not this time. I know: “Poo Poo Elephant Paper” – perfect (remember we are travelling with an 8 year old whose humour is all toilet related). So we went off to learn how to make paper from elephant poo….and we loved it, even Steve. The paper we helped make came out surprisingly well and totally non-smelly. The girls then spent half and hour decorating poo poo notebooks with a variety of designs – happy family.
We had planned on leaving the campsite at Huai Nam Dang the next afternoon after a walk but it was just too nice to leave. We were far too aware that it might be one of the last “proper” campsites until we get to Europe and that we’d be looking back at it wistfully over the next few months. We had a couple of charming walks along the paths to viewpoints and accidentally we wandered into the garden of one of the Royal Princess’s Palaces. A charming Swiss chalet style building in need of a lick of paint. It was a bit like wandering into Balmoral’s gardens but as there was no one around and the garden gate was wide open, we thought it must be ok. Later, the girls then took a picnic down to the camping field below us to enjoy one of their long and complicated secret imagination games.
Fully rested and refreshed, we continued along past the town’s of Pai and Mae Hong Son, where we swung into a tiny road past tiny farms and splashed through many stream crossings. We were on our way to a small village out in the forest, where some refugees from Myanmar’s brutal military regime have lived since the early 90’s. Unable to work legally in Thailand, the village supports itself by charging visitors a fee to take a look around – the draw: the part of the ladies’s traditional dress includes brass rings around their necks. Sometimes known in English as Karen longnecks, the rings press down the ribcage, so their necks appear elongated. We were fascinated to see such an extreme form of traditional dress and the villagers need an income source. The villages are not without their controversy but to be honest for us, it wasn’t much different from any rural tourist market we’ve seen all over SE Asia. As we walked over the small bamboo bridge into the main part of the village, the girls were delighted to see an elephant resting in the stream below. In the village, the famed long necked ladies were selling handwoven scarves and trinkets in a small market in amongst the houses. We were almost the only tourists there and the ladies were smilingly welcoming and happy to pose for photos. We bought a new sarong and the girls spent their pocket money – “human zoo” we didn’t think so.
Route 1095, continued through the hills with lovely pristine forest either side, interspersed with the odd hill tribe village strung along the road. We wanted to stop in the middle of the afternoon, so the girls could do their daily 2 hours of school but came across nowhere suitable. This side of Mae Hong Song, any signs in English had run out but eventually I saw one on a sign with one English word “birdwatching”, I jumped out to ask at a forestry commission building if they had a campsite or somewhere to stop, all through sign language. It transpired that yes they did , 4 “something” along the small road. Thankfully, it turned out the 4 “something” was kilometres and the small wildlife centre did have a campsite. Unfortunately it also had a low boom gate but they were happy for us to park for the night in the quiet lay-by opposite. The reservoir inside was a pretty spot and the guard was pleased to practice his English with us.
We were looking forward to our last night in a proper campsite in the hills at Ob Luang National Park. We had read it was a delightful spot beside a river, so made good time to get there early afternoon so we could enjoy it. We were greeted at the gate but 3 totally inebriated gentlemen : the caretaker, the gatekeeper and another employee. No, we couldn’t stay; yes, we could; quite a bit of shouting at us; one guy trying to get into the trucks lockers; then jumping up to try and get into the cab; eventually yes we could stay but only beside the road and that will be 300 baht to even look at it. At that point the glorious campsite we could see a glimpse of just beyond the gate became less attractive. So we got back on the road, a couple of hours later I saw a road down to a lake and we checked it out for a spot for the night. It turned out the lake had shrunk to the point that the tourist complex built for lake-side fun with a big carpark, Buddhist temple, toilets and a few stalls selling smoked fish was now 500m from the actual lake, it turned out to be a perfect spot for the night with just a few people coming down in the early evening and morning to walk their dogs.
Bad hair days are part of the course when you are overlanding but it got to the point when I could take it no longer. It was all my own fault I was too lazy to get it done in Chiang Mai and now we were in the middle of nowhere with nothing but fish stalls around and it was driving me crazy. So I asked Steve to lop at least 10cm off my straggly locks, unsurprisingly in the interests of marital harmony he refused. So it was up to Alisha to take up the crazed mummy gauntlet. She gamely took on the challenge and did a good job, not bad for an 11 year old who had never cut hair before, now at least it isn’t so tangly.
The ancient Royal Thai city of Sukhothai is stuffed full of magnificent ruins; wonderful wats and ancient artefacts and we were looking forward to a day of cultural musings. That’s not quite how the day panned out, the toilet developed a strange noise and aroma overnight. Before we had even brushed our teeth Steve and I had our heads down examining the truck’s sewage system. We are getting better at sorting technical problems with the truck but we had a very low starting point. We bought a new truck because we knew we were technically incompetent and Bocklet did a fantastic job making the truck to their high specifications but after nearly 3 1/2 years of hard travel it is starting to show some wear and tear. If we were in Europe we could just pop it back to Germany for a quick overhaul but on the road its up to us to fix it or find someone who can, not easy with such specific equipment. A couple of weeks ago it was the hot water system, so we are getting used to cold showers, and now the loo looks like it requires new seals and someone competent to fit them. I had seen a camping portapotty in one of the big hardware stores earlier in Thailand, so we spent the rest of the morning trawling New Sukhothai to find one as a back up. We don’t want to lose our ability to camp almost anywhere and with 2 kids, having a toilet onboard is very important to us. Hopefully it stays in its box in the back unused. Finally after lunch we could at last enjoy the beautiful ruins of Sukhothai.
Our camping spot outside Sukhothai was one of the most perfect we have had, our own personal ancient Chedi. Just outside town amongst the rice fields, with so many amazing Wats nearby it was rather overlooked by visitors and we had the place completely to ourselves for both nights.
The road to the Myanmar border twisted through the mountains. Before we left Thailand I wanted just one last Thai meal, so we arranged it that we would arrive in the border town of Mae Sot in time for lunch. We pulled into the best restaurant in town, according to our guidebook. We took one look and quickly dived into the back to change into smarter clothes, one advantage to driving around with your wardrobe in the back. The food was delicious and we left with tingling tastebuds. That night we spent beside a lake, ready to make an early start for the border in the morning. Myanmar our 32nd country on this trip and the first one we’ve needed to be escorted across, it should be interesting.