Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Day Trek to the Summit of Big Thumb of Pang Mapha in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

The hill side was thick with fallen dried leaves. The trail we were following up this mountain disappeared many meters behind us. At this point, we were really just winging it. Unsuccessfully, I might add. A couple of steps climbing up the hill and we slide down taking dried leaves, twigs, branches, and rocks with us. Not pleasant.

I looked back through a clearing in the tree line and see more hills, thick with the semi-temperate forests of this far Himalayan foothill. I had given up on the idea that we would be able to finish this day trek. It was getting late after all. So I just entertained myself with the thought that being so close to the Myanmar border, we might have already crossed it.

Of course, not that day. That afternoon, we were still trying to summit one of the many limestone karst hills of Pang Mapha in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. They called it Big Thumb.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Pang Mapha's Big Thumb sticking out like a sore, well, thumb. Views from up there, well, you'll see.

Thailand: Big Thumb, Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son
More semi-temperate forests. Could we have crossed the Myanmar border already?

Mae Hong Son is a province in Northern Thailand, a few hours from Chiang Mai, the country's de facto northern capital city. I came here seeking a few days of retreat from the just commenced high tourist season in Thailand. I was not expecting much, but as it went in these types of situations, you get more than you bargained for. Lucky for me, it was in the best way possible.

That day, a few new friends and I were doing a day trek of a tall natural tower called Big Thumb. The hill, vertical near its summit, was made of limestone karst, the kind you see in many parts of Southeast Asia and China.

Big Thumb was easy to spot from many parts in the area. It literally sticks out like a sore thumb from the Pang Mapha countryside. The problem was, in order to scale it, we needed proper maps. What we had were sketches. Cross the field here, climb over the fence there, pass by a backyard, and scale up the hill. With instructions like these, it was unsurprising that we were going nowhere.

Thailand: Big Thumb, Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son
Figuring out instructions from a rough sketch. This is going to be an interesting day.

Thailand: Big Thumb, Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son
After trespassing a local's backyard, we knew we were going the right way. The sketch told us so!

Thailand: Big Thumb, Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son
The rocky, loose soil was covered with fallen dried leaves on the way up.

When the last of us have slid down the side of the mountain trying to climb it, we decided to give up and head down. But the mountain had other plans.

Just then, we encountered a local resident. He was gathering firewood up on the same hill. Through the language barrier, we were able to communicate where we wanted to go. So he pointed us to the right direction.

Back down the mountain.

Alrighty then! Back down the mountain we wearily went. The thing was, the local's lead was correct. Back down the mountain, we saw the proper trail, and it was clear, and easier to follow than we expected.

Of course, that was until we came up to the actual limestone karst tower, which was vertical. Like face-to-the-wall vertical. Have I mentioned how pointed these limestone karst towers are? Also, we had no equipment with us. No guide either. And yeah, it was getting dark.

But hey, we spent the entire day getting here. We couldn't turn back now. So we climbed gradually, slowly. Scratch your elbow here, wave off a few cobwebs there. Easy.

In the end, things lined up perfectly. We got to the summit marked by the flag of Thailand. At the horizon, the sun was starting to disappear rendering the hills and valleys in soft sunset lights. Totally worth the effort.

Thailand: Big Thumb, Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son
Views from the summit of Big Thumb. And just in time for the sunset.

When it came to travel, I noticed that I tended to like nature and adventure best. Standing there at the top of Big Thumb seeing the sunset, Pang Mapha delivered generously.

What is the best day trek you have done in your travels?

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