That old rocky road
Riding the trail that connects civilisation to the legendary former mine now known as Glennis's Homestay
Half-a-century ago, a young Australian woman came to Thailand with her Thai fiancé. They got married in Bangkok, where she worked as a teacher, while he started a bustling tin mine deep in the forest on the border of what is now Myanmar. In those days it took five hours just to travel from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, then 12 hours from there to a town in Thong Pha Phum called Tha Khanun, and another 12 to reach Pilok, where the mine was located.
Over three decades ago, due to plunging tin prices, the mine, where over 600 men and women worked around the clock in three shifts, had to cease operation. A few years later the husband fell victim to cancer. Before he passed away, his wife promised him she would take good care of his former mine and the remaining workers, whom he regarded as family. She kept her word and moved from Bangkok to Pilok. These days, at the age of 79, she still lives there, in the forest home full of fond memories of her beloved husband.Some of you may know that this is the story of Glennis and Somsak Setabandhu. Over the past many years, Auntie Glennis -- or Pa Glen, as she is widely known by Thai travellers -- has turned the former site of Somsak Mining into a famous homestay service that still sustains the families of the few remaining former miners.
Apart from the true love that Pa Glen has for her late husband, there's at least one other thing that has not changed with time: the off-road track that links the old mine site in the forest to the main road. It's the combination of the couple's fascinating story, the old mine's remote location and difficult access that gives Glennis' Homestay -- still called Somsak Mining by many -- its legendary status.
Despite having been to Pilok a couple of times before, it was only recently that I got to visit Somsak Mining. That's because this time I went in the dry season. Without deep mud, my mountain bike could easily go wherever a 4x4 pickup could.
With signs being put up along the way banning non-off-road vehicles, the dusty track lives up to its reputation. The surface is full of loose rocks, making steep sections even more challenging.
My ride buddy and I were lucky enough to meet Pa Glen in person. The auntie is a very kind and friendly lady. She speaks Thai fluently and is in apparent good health. She no longer bakes her famous home-made cakes, but has left the task to the wife of one of her former workers who lives in Pilok.
Pa Glen's only guest that day was a young Western tourist who ignored the warning signs and drove a normal pickup to the old mine. The guy was waiting for somebody from Pilok to come and help get him and his rental vehicle out of the forest.
After a brief chat with Pa Glen, we continued deeper into the wild to Chet Mit waterfall. This part of the trail is not much used, so it is narrower and even more fun to ride. Along the way, there was a deserted camp for mine workers. I couldn't help but imagine how busy it must have been in its heyday.
We managed to ride back out of the forest well before darkness fell, in time to drop by at the house in Pilok where the cakes are now made. With my leftover latte from that morning, the carrot and banana cakes I tried made a sweet ending to our awesome day of biking.
Well, see you here again next Thursday. Until then, if you have questions, news or biking insights you wish to share, please feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Freewheel Bangkok community page on Facebook.
Pongpet Mekloy is the Bangkok Post's travel editor and a mountain-bike freak.
Trail to Glennis’ Homestay (former Somsak Mining site)
GPS co-ordinates: 14º39'16.49" N 98º24'11.04" E
Trail condition: Rough, rough mountain road.
Distance: From the main road to the homestay, about 5km. To continue to the Chet Mit Waterfall, the extended part is more than twice as long.
Getting there: Thong Pha Phum is 145km from downtown Kanchanaburi. From Thong Pha Phum to Pilok and Ban E-tong on the border, it's almost 70km. The off-road track to Glennis' Homestay can be found 3km before the border town.
Parking: If your vehicle is a 4x4 and you have a capable driver, you can park at the homestay. Otherwise, you can leave it at Pilok police station or Thong Pha Phum national park. The first is a few hundred metres further up the main road from the beginning of the off-road track that leads to the old Somsak mine, while the latter is 4.5km before you reach the track.
Food & drinks: The trail runs through the wilderness. Make sure you bring enough supplies.
What your family can enjoy while waiting: The peaceful natural surroundings.
Accommodation: The three-day/two-night package at Glennis' Homestay is priced at 1,400 baht per head on weekdays and 1,600 at weekends. The rates are inclusive of 4x4 transportation between Pilok and the homestay, three meals a day, plus a barbecue party and all-you-can-eat cake buffet. Alternatively, you can stay in Ban E-tong, where several guesthouses are available. The national park also offers camping grounds, bungalows and treehouses.
Local contact: Visit the Somsak Mining page on Facebook, or call 089-161-1212 or 081-325-9471.