There’s a certain special delight in experiencing something So Bad It’s Good, and with that standard that in mind I can give the Ban Mong Doi Pui village a glowing recommendation. Anyone in the Chiang Mai area should make the trip out, preferably on a motorbike, and especially to check out the Hilltribe Museum.
After wading through seas of Chinese tourists and making it up the stairs to check out the emerald buddhas of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, we had a few hours before sunset and our attention was piqued by the “Hmong Village” marked on the map, a few kilometers west of the temple.
And of course the drive itself was just as much a reason to go. We drove through curves and switchbacks, up and down in the hills, with Tarzan-like woody vines mid-air above the road, begging for stupid antics. We were careful, I promise. We blew right past the Bhuping Palace, which looked like a bore from the outside, and I’m sure it was considering what we found at the Hmong Village.
We rolled out of the clutch of the jungle and straight into the main intersection of the village. My immediate reaction was – this is a real village, not a for-show “Tourist Village”. Guys were zipping here and there on scooters, old ladies nattered on concrete stoops, women sold vegetables out of pick-up trucks; and everywhere the corrugated metal, concrete and plastic of pieced-together dwellings with no need for winter insulation.
Yes, people are trying to make money here, but there’s a certain authenticity to it. There’s no song and dance to the consumerism. Along the main street there are stalls selling the same doodads and kitsch found anywhere in Thailand, or indeed, in Southeast Asia. Elephant coin purses, bone necklaces, assorted handbags, wooden toys, the standard kit of a roadside vendor here. We also found for sale, to our chagrin, the same beautiful pointillistically-painted wooden masks we bought for family and friends in Bali last year. Ahh well. If seems artistic and tribal in Indonesia, it’ll seem artistic and tribal in northern Thailand.
A few steps in from the entrance, we grabbed an iced americano from the friendly staff at “Hmong Coffee”. This took the edge off the heat and put a little bounce in our step as we meandered up the hill. The main road was cluttered with shop-fronts seemingly cobbled together as an afterthought, plastic awnings hanging listlessly from metal roofs, and wood shelves blending with the dust of the road. Half of the shops were shuttered; whether it was because we were late or because we’re in a bit of an off-season, we don’t know. Pavement and concrete and corrugated steel were punctuated by the vibrance of children or motorbikes or dogs exploding into the road.
Sometimes simultaneously. A lot of dogs have sustained limb damage here in Thailand, and can be seen limping along after their pack buddies in the always ambiguous “is that someone’s dog or a street dog?” environment of most places in Thailand. Ban Mong Doi Pui was much the same. But we met a dog here with an injury that’s hard to watch; if you’re squeamish, maybe don’t click the video. One of this pup’s hind legs was jammed in an accident, and on her paw was a semi-open wound that left wet marks on the pavement as she walked. Minah’s heart broke; she bought the dog some sausage, and then of course the dog came over hoping for a scooter ride out Hazardville, Thailand. Sorry, pup.
Minah wanted to head back at this point, but I convinced her to explore a bit further, as we’d seen signs for both a waterfall and a museum. And so we went – up a hill following “Hill Tribe Museum” signs, the vendors on the street sensing the futility of trying to make a sale and letting us pass with half-hearted smiles.
There was a unmanned money-box at the entrance of the museum, but we breezed past it, feeling like outlaws, into the museum building, where outlaw-confidence somersaulted into horror-movie spine tingles.
The museum, such as it was, was not lit. There were no lights. It was a barn, and the receding sunlight of the late afternoon crept in through the door and cracks between the walls and the ceiling. The barn was wood and bamboo, beams supporting lines of halved dried bamboo stalks, with more wood beams and dried vegetation comprising the slanted roof. The foundation was messy concrete and stone, and the floor was a pock-marked mix of the same.
The “exhibits” were strewn around the walls and a central wooden table in what might be called disarray, but since they’d been left there untouched for ages, there was a sort of “this is how it all should be” permanence to it. Faded, barely-legible information and photo-boards were hung from beams and propped up against beams. These told a jumbled story of the Hmong and Karen minorities in northern Thailand. Next to these, farm implements and discarded, cobwebbed crockery completed the picture. Basically a barn straight out of Shyamalan’s “The Village” – an absolute delight.
Minah thought I had lost my mind as I moved, slack-jawed, from dusty jug to cow skull to overturned basket to several-sticks-woven-together, taking it all in. A place like this could never have been created intentionally; any attempt to construct, for a movie set for instance, a “creepy old abandoned museum in a barn” would inevitably be too careful, too slick. There’s nothing like the real thing – don’t miss it.
We back-tracked a bit to visit the waterfall – another unexpected pleasure. The surrounding gardens were indeed beautiful, but due to the rainy season the “waterfall” was a mere trickle down a bamboo tube. A very dry dam was just downstream from this tube, and the water there was diverted into this ingenious little janky contraption. Water fall, indeed! For this tourist attraction there was a guy manning the ticket booth, but he was lost in a smartphone game and we squeaked on by, unnoticed except by a couple of village kids who giggled at us as we walked in for free.
After the waterfall it was time to bid the town of Ban Mong Doi Pui a fond farewell. On the motorbike with the setting sun behind us, we wound our way back through the jungle to Chiang Mai, the city of 30,000 temples (so we were told), a city with giant golden Buddhas and stupas poking out from behind the lush gardens of smart little guesthouses, a modern city catering to the tastes of the nouveau riche traveler demanding organic vegan salads, lattes, kombucha, and craft beers. But it’s comforting to know that nestled in the hills of northern Thailand, you can still find unpolished gems like Ban Mong Doi Pui.
It’s over a hundred degrees here in the shade as I write this in Pai, Thailand. I’m wearing nothing but a swimsuit and I’ve got a fan trained on me at a distance of maybe 9 inches. And yet, still sweating. But I’ve got Minah here with me, and a rainbow hammock, and a view of a field with some chilled-out cows munching away and the smokey hills of northern Thailand. Sweaty Paradise? Indeed.