We were so close, only 13 kilometers from Ban Rak Thai, when my scooter died. An hour before sunset in the mountains of northwest Thailand, it could’ve been an ugly ending for us – two adventurous “Biker Babes” taking a side-trip off the Mae Hong Son Loop. It could’ve been a mess, but instead we were blessed.
My friend Deborah and I began the 5-day trip in Chiang Mai, headed south to Mae Sariang, up to Mae Hong Son followed by a side-trip off the main loop to the Chinese village of Ban Rak Thai. We didn’t quite make it when my scooter died an unexpected death while the other “Babe’s” scooter was on life support, limping up those steep mountain roads.
Our angels appeared a short time later – two young Thai border guards dressed in camouflage uniforms driving a small scooter, followed by a Chinese couple driving a pick-up truck. Together they heaved my very heavy, very dead scooter into the back of the pick-up and threw me into the back seat. We received a military escort into Ban Rak Thai straight to the “mechanic” shop located in some guy’s front yard. His family was eating dinner at their outdoor dining table and offered us some food. This was our introduction to Ban Rak Thai.
Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw) is a mostly undiscovered Chinese village in northwest Thailand right on the Burma border. This traditional Chinese village is made up of descendants of Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers who fled from Communist rule in 1949 and landed in the jungles of Burma. In the early 1960’s, when the Chinese forces invaded Burma in an attempt to crush the KMT, they fled south into Thailand and settled on the border. The Thai government allowed them to stay with the agreement they would protect the Thai border from Communist threats.
We spent only 14 hours in this town but fell in love with it.
Five reasons why once is not enough, and why you really gotta visit Ban Rak Thai soon:
1.) Incredibly kind people – The couple who aided in our rescue also helped us find a hotel and refused to leave us until they were sure we’d be alright. As they said goodbye, I considered giving them some money as a small thank you for their kindness and their time. My friend suggested a gift instead, so I presented the woman with a beautiful sarong I had purchased earlier that day at an ethnic Long Neck tribal village near Mae Hong Son. She was so grateful and gave me a hug. I felt it was the least I could do to repay their incredible kindness to two total strangers. I love moments like that!
2.) An amazing hotel – After our stressful day on the road, we splurged on the nicest room at the best hotel in town – Lee Wine Ruk Thai Resort. Beautiful bungalows set in a hillside tea plantation, we had views of the lakeside village down below and the Burma border on top of a distant hill. Expensive compared to typical Thai prices ($50USD) but well worth the splurge. Fortunately, it was low season and they had plenty of rooms available. During Chinese New Year and other peak season times, book ahead of time by calling or emailing. A Chinese interpreter may be required as English is very limited.
Phone: (+66)89-950-0955, (+66)89-262-1335
3.) Wonderful food – Chasa Ruk Thai Restaurant is set right on the lake and serves surprisingly delicious Yunnan style Chinese food. We were starving after a rough day on the road and were warmly welcomed by the locals with free appetizers of crispy fried cicadas (yeah, those really loud, annoying bugs) and freshly sautéed local mushrooms. The salty, crunchy bugs were a perfect snack paired with an ice-cold Chang beer! We ate the whole bowl of bugs, polished off the mushrooms and then attacked our entrees; fresh fish and an unusually delicious pork omelet. Simple food but amazing!
4.) Fascinating History – One of the local men joined us for the bug appetizers and was the owner of the neighboring museum. When he found out we lived in Taiwan, he was excited to share the history of the village with us, a history which closely parallels Taiwan’s. We promised to return the following day to tour the museum and talk more, communicating through sign language, his limited English, and my friend’s beginner Chinese. But, sadly, our trip was cut short due to scooter issues.
5.) Tea Heaven – Ban Rak Thai is well-known for its local tea plantations and celebrates by holding an annual Tea Tasting Festival in February. Tea plantations dot the hillsides along the road into town. Our favorite hotel is set in the middle of a tea plantation and the wooden shops in the village are lined with locally grown oolong, green, and jasmine tea and offer complimentary tea tasting. I’m a coffee addict but was almost persuaded to switch my addiction after a few hours in this tea heaven!
The following morning we woke up early. Sitting on our patio, we soaked up the views of the sunrise over the Burma border and life in the village below, mist rising off the lake as someone took an early morning swim. Breathing deeply, sipping tea, feeling very zen!
Our zen-bubble was burst a short time later when our “mechanic” arrived with his scooter diagnosis, “Scooter no good.” We had no choice, we were forced deal with the scooter issue in Pai, another larger town about 3 hours away. We hired a local guy with a pickup, threw our scooters into the back and hitched a ride to Pai where we could exchange our scooters. Our brief but blissful Ban Rak Thai experience was over way too soon.
Next week we’re going back…and this time we’ll make it to the Burma border!
(Ban Rak Thai – Even Better the Second Time! – the rest of the story…)