Last year, my friend Deborah and I spent only 14 hours in Ban Rak Thai but it was love at first sight! Our original plan was to spend a few days exploring this magical village on the Thai/Burma border, but travel doesn’t always go according to plan. Unfortunate scooter issues cut our time short and we left the village in a pick-up truck with our dead scooters in the back.
We decided to try again and planned an extended Mae Hong Son loop scooter trip over Chinese New Year. This time, we vowed, there would be no unexpected crashes in moss-covered streams or unfortunate mechanical issues on remote mountain roads. Nothing would keep us from getting the full Ban Rak Thai experience this time around!
The Unfortunate Incident
Unfortunately, about 30 minutes into the trip, barely outside of Chiang Mai we have our first “unfortunate” incident – a police checkpoint! A gang of Thai cops pull us over and demand our licenses. My cop is not at all impressed when I hand over my US passport, Taiwan residency card, and Minnesota driver’s license. He fines me 500 baht for being too stupid to actually pack my International Driver’s license on this trip. I hand him my wad of baht as he laughs at my stupidity. Then he shakes my hand and wishes me a pleasant journey!
Halfway through our 10-day scooter adventure, we find ourselves climbing the mountain road toward Ban Rak Thai, having flashbacks to the last time we traveled this road. Once safely over the mountain pass, we cruise down the steep hill into town on a beautiful northern Thailand winter day.
Amazingly, Ban Rak Thai is even better than the photographs in my memory – it’s postcard perfect. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, or at least in the top five!
How do you make the most of a few days in beautiful Ban Rak Thai?
1.) Catch the sunrise
Just like me, Ban Rak Thai wakes up slowly as 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. And then pour yourself another cup.
Our favorite hotel in Ban Rak Thai is the Lee Wine Ruk Thai Resort, set in the middle of a tea plantation. The bungalows are quaint, cute, and very comfortable. The views from the patio are amazing!
The prices at Lee Wine Ruk Thai are slightly higher than most hotels in Thailand, but the splurge is well worth it! Check Booking.com for current rates.
2.) Breathe & Relax
Walk around the lake and then sit and relax. The view of the lake changes depending on the time of day and your vantage point. In the morning, the view from the restaurant row area is stunning. Later in the day, as the sun is starting to set, the reflection of the lake is magical from the opposite side of the lake. Explore and enjoy!
3.) Visit Mr. Jata’s History Museum
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. 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 mentions that the Burma border is only a 20-minute walk from town. Sounds intriguing! In order to save some time, I attempt to drive it. Big mistake! The road to the border is nothing more than a bumpy hiking trail, so I give up, park my scooter and hike the rest of the way.
Approaching the top of the hill, I catch a glimpse of a large red and white security bar indicating the Thai-Burma border. As I walk closer, I notice the bar is up and the guard shack empty. Lunchtime? Shift change? I don’t know but figure it’s a perfect time to slip through “Checkpoint Charlie” and have a look at Burma.
So, I walk right past the shack, the barbed wire, and the open gate and I keep on walking. It’s a beautiful day for a hike, so I hike down into a valley feeling fairly certain that I’ll run into a border guard of some kind and be escorted back into Thailand. But there is no one, not one human being in sight, so I keep walking. The only life form I encounter is a mangy dog who just snarls and keeps on walking toward Thailand.
Eventually, I turn around and hike back up the steep hill toward Thailand, briefly wondering what might happen if there actually IS a border guard in the shack this time. Will I be thrown into a Burmese prison camp? Deported to the US? But again, I find no guard in the shack and the border gate is wide open. So I quietly slip 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. They wouldn’t let me cross with my US passport.)
5.) Sip Coffee with Kai
As I explore the village area by scooter, I stumble into a parking lot with a nondescript building overlooking the lake. The building is surrounded by a beautiful garden and has an amazing view of the town below.
“Welcome! Come and have some coffee!” a friendly voice calls out to me.
I approach this friendly stranger and ask if this non-descript building is a restaurant. He laughs and explains that it’s 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 is excited about my genuine interest in the village history. I spend over an hour hanging out with Kai, sitting around his plastic table in the driveway of the hospital.
He serves me coffee, biscuits, and other snacks while he shares interesting stories of village life along with his amazing view!
6.) Enjoy the wine and tea tasting
Ban Rak Thai is well-known for its tea plantations. Our hotel, The Lee Wine Ruk Thai Resort, is set in the middle of a tea plantation. Wooden tea shops line the main street selling all kinds of tea, tea cups, tea sets, teapots, 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’s pretty disgusting. Plum sweet wine, plum dry wine, pineapple sweet wine – all of them had a very vinegary taste and one sip was enough for me. (My advice: stick to the tea tasting.)
Opposite the tea shops and restaurants, the lake is lined with mud-hut style B&Bs, very small and very basic with amazing lake views. I dream that someday I’ll go back to Ban Rak Thai for a much longer stay. In this dream, I rent a mud hut, sit on the dock, sip the local tea and write travel stories. And maybe I’ll even invite Kai and Mr. Jata over for dinner!
Have you visited Ban Rak Thai? Any other tips or advice?