The next town of any size west of Pai is about two hours of twists and hairpins farther. To get to Soppong, or Pangmapha as it is also known, one either gets a seat in a minivan heading for Mae Hong Son, or jumps on the local bus. The first bus comes through about 10:30 am and the other at about 1:30 pm. Well, that is the theory.
Throughout the rural areas, buses come by at vaguely predictable times. The locals will know the usual range:
If the bus is empty, it will be early.
If the bus is full, it will be late.
If the bus breaks, it will not come.
[sign by reception at Cave Lodge]
When I hurried to catch the first bus that morning, from Pai to Soppong, I did not know that the afternoon bus would not come. Really narrows the options when there are only two buses and the minivan seats are already all booked. It was good, as it turned out, to have got myself ready in time to get the earlier bus.
Not that there wouldn’t have been options:
-organize a share taxi
-accept a kind offer of a ride/hitchhike
-take it as a sign from the gods and stay in Pai
The last one, though, would have been unfortunate as it turned out that the once weekly market in Soppong was early the next morning.
The fan buses have windows and doors open. Once we left the Pai River valley and began climbing, the road started its writhing. At the end of one tight swingabout, the plastic fork flew off my take-away breakfast and headed straight for the open door. It stopped just short of exiting, and I kept better track of all my loose objects after that.
The bus stops in Soppong in front of the market about two hours from Pai. It has dropped off and picked up people at villages along the way, but only here does it have any kind of scheduled stop. Before continuing on, it waits a bit while the driver takes his break. Over the next two days, I note the range of times to prepare for my eventual departure, onward to Mae Hong Son, though as it turns out my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants style means that I never actually board that onward leg.
In Soppong there are a few special accommodation options overlooking the Lang River and I have called ahead and organized a river-front room. It feels like time to spoil myself a bit with something a little special. But there is something wrong with me.
The room is really nice. The bed is amazing – fabulous mattress, smooth sheets, a down quilt for the chilly nights. There is a jug to boil water for coffee, plus the makings . There is a little refrigerator which as usual barely works. It is completely full with overpriced drinks and snacks which I promptly remove to safekeeping.
The bathroom is great. There is ample hot water with excellent pressure, and it is partially open air which I really like. The furnishings in every room are different, and all have interesting character. You can hear the river from the open window. Adjacent is a large deck high over the river, with mats and tables, available for all guests to use. Levels drape down the slope twice making many quiet little view spots.
The only downside turns out to be inadequate sound insulation between this room and the next. Though this is not so rare, I find that my neighbors are talking and moving furniture at 1 am and that one of them snores loudly. Blessedly there is no TV and there is wifi. In the end, the luxuries are nice, the location is sweet, but I am as happy, or in truth happier, with something basic.
As much as I have enjoyed it all, apart from the night noise, I find that I am ready to move on after two nights. Ready to move on from the town but not ready, it turns out, to leave the area. On my third morning I pack up and walk to the bus stop in time for the morning run on to Mae Hong Son, but as I walk I decide on an alternate plan.
I go a little past the bus stop to where there are moto drivers waiting. The accepted fare up the hill 10 km to Cave Lodge is 70 baht. As small as Soppong is, I crave something smaller yet. I will spend the next five nights on a mat in a six bed mixed dorm, next to a window with no glass, again above the Lang River but upstream, just before the river cuts through the Tham Lod cave.
I will love this place – the freedom, the naturalness, the quiet, the darkness, the distant screams of the gibbons in the morning forest. Even after five nights, I will not want to leave.