My friend Deborah and I fell in love with Ban Rak Thai last year during our brief 14-hour layover. Unfortunate scooter issues during our first trip into this magical village cut our time short, and we left in a pick-up truck with our dead scooters in the back.
We decided to try again and planned an even longer Mae Hong Son loop scooter trip over Chinese New Year. This year, we vowed, there would be no unexpected crashes in moss-covered streams and no unfortunate mechanical issues on remote mountain roads. (Thank God for Travel Insurance through World Nomads!) Nothing would keep us from getting the full Ban Rak Thai experience this time.
And then, about 30 minutes into the trip, barely outside of Chiang Mai we had our first “unfortunate” incident – a police checkpoint! A gang of Thai cops pulled us over and demanded our licenses. My guy was not at all impressed when I handed over my US passport, Taiwan residency card, and Minnesota driver’s license. He fined me 500 baht for being too stupid to actually pack my International Driver’s license on this trip. As I was handing over my money, he laughed at my stupidity, shook my hand, and told me to have a great trip. Nice guy.
Travel tip: if you have an International Driver’s License, bring it with you on any international trips when you plan to rent a vehicle. Don’t be like me.
A few days later (day 5 of our 10-day scooter trip) we found ourselves climbing the mountain road toward Ban Rak Thai, having flashbacks to the last time we traveled that road. Once safely over the pass, we cruised down the steep hills into town, on a beautiful northern Thailand winter day.
Ban Rak Thai was even better than I had remembered, postcard perfect. Possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, or at least in the top 5.
What is there to do in a small Chinese village on the Thai/Burma border for a few days?
Here are a few suggestions:
1.) Catch the sunrise. Like me, Ban Rak Thai wakes up slowly. The sun creeps in from Burma and crawls over the mountains. Watch the mist rising off the lake as you sip a cup of hot coffee from your patio in the middle of a tea plantation. And then pour another cup.
2.) Breathe. Relax. Walk around the lake, and then sit. The view of the lake changes depending on the time of day and your vantage point. In the morning, the view from restaurant row is stunning. Later in the day, as the sun is starting to set, the reflection off the lake is magical from the opposite side.
3.) Visit the history museum and talk to Mr. Jata. We met Mr. Jata last year when we stopped by his lakeside restaurant and he offered us some fried bugs to snack on. He doesn’t speak much English, but when he found out we’re from Taiwan, he was eager to share his Ban Rak Thai history book which was translated into English. Mr. Jata is a former Kuomintang (KMT) soldier who personally funded the museum, dedicated to telling the village’s interesting history and keeping the story alive. He is a very generous host, offering tea and whatever appetizers (fried bugs?) he happens to have on hand.
4.) Hike to Burma. Mr. Jata’s book mentioned that the Burma border is only a 20 minute walk from town. In order to save time, I decided to try to drive it. Big mistake. The road is nothing more than a bumpy hiking trail, so I gave up, parked my scooter and hiked the rest of the way.
Approaching the top of the hill, I caught a glimpse of a large red bar indicating the Thai-Burma border. As I walked closer, I noticed the bar was up and the guard shack was empty. Lunch time? Shift change? I didn’t know but figured it was a good time to slip through “Checkpoint Charlie” and have a look at Burma.
So, I walked right past the shack, the barbed wire, the open gate, and kept on walking. It was a beautiful day for a hike, so I hiked down into a valley, certain that I’d run into a border guard of some kind and would be escorted back into Thailand. But there was no one, not one human being in sight, so I kept walking. The only life form I saw was a mangy dog, who just snarled and kept walking toward Thailand.
Eventually, I turned around and hiked back up the steep hill toward Thailand, wondering what would happen if there actually WAS a border guard in the shack this time. Would I be thrown into a Burmese prison camp? Deported to the US? But again, no guard in the shack and the border gate was wide open. So I quietly slipped back into the country. No one even noticed I was gone.
(FYI – there is another Burma border checkpoint near Ban Rak Thai that actually does have armed border guards. I was refused entry with my US passport.)
5.) Coffee with Kai. Stop by the hospital for coffee with Kai, the English speaking nurse. I was exploring the village area by scooter and stumbled into a parking lot with a nondescript building overlooking the lake. I was drawn to it by the beautiful garden and view of the town below.
“Welcome! Come and have some coffee!” a friendly voice called out.
I approached him and asked if this was a restaurant. He laughed explaining that it was the village hospital he’s the nurse. He and one other nurse are the only real medical help in the entire area. Kai is also a historian for the village and was so excited about my genuine interest in the village history. I spent over an hour hanging out with Kai, sitting around his plastic table in the driveway of the hospital.
He served me coffee, biscuits, fruit, candy, and stories. And another amazing view!
6.) Wine tasting and tea tasting. Ban Rak Thai is well-known for its tea plantations – our hotel is set in the middle of one. Wooden tea shops line the main street selling all kinds of tea, tea cups, tea sets, tea pots, and t-shirts. The village is also becoming known for their wine production, so we decided to do a little wine tasting before buying. Unfortunately, it was pretty disgusting. Plum sweet, plum dry, pineapple sweet, all of them had a very vinegary taste and one sip was all I could handle. My advice: stick to the tea tasting.
I was also intrigued by the mud-hut B&Bs lining the lake, very small and very basic but all with amazing views. Someday, I’ll go back for a lot longer, rent a hut, sit on a dock, sip tea and write stories. Someday…