When Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurian coined the phrase "Eco-tourism" back in 1983, people wrongly assumed it to be a fancy word for backpacking. Certainly ecotourism embraces the desire to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, the scream of a jet-ski, traffic, noise pollution, air pollution, and most of all other tourists; but it is so much more, and tends to attract a different kind of visitor altogether.
Most eco-tourists are people who seek out native lifestyle places to visit; places without all the hi-tech mod cons of the five star hotel circuit; but in an environment that allows them to be at one with nature while not having to spend their nights under the stars, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, or drowned in a tropical downpour. Living in accommodation that is basic, comfortable, and clean, with some of the usual conveniences, along with simple but hearty local food, amid an unspoiled environment, preferably high in the hills is the eco-tourist's version of Shangri-La.
Happily, visitors to Chiang Mai can enjoy just such a holiday at a venue less then fifty miles to the east of the city that can be reached comfortably in under an hour. The hill settlement of Baan Mae Kampong (pronounced as Baan Mae Gumporng) clings to the slopes of the Doi Mon Larn range of hills in the Mae- On district, surrounded by evergreen forests, cascading waterfalls, babbling mountain streams, and fanned by cool breezes the year round. The road to Baan Mae Kampong holds many natural attractions for the visitor, and has several high-quality eco-lodges along the way.
We choose to leave Chiang Mai in mid-morning, driving on the highway toward Chiang Rai. Just passed the Huay Krai Reservoir Royal Project ,we turned right at Baan Pong Din with a small sign that read Hot Springs. The sign to this hot springs is a few kilometers on the left and the sign is small so look carefully.
The sulphur smell in the air lets you know you've reached the spring. The traditional activity for Thai families is to buy a small basket of eggs to cook in the hot springs. But if you don't need the science fair project, take a healthful mineral bath. The local community operates a 4-room concession stand plus there are two bathhouses with new floor tiling. Inside, bathers should shower first, then sit in the hot mineral tubs. There are cold water taps to cool down the bath for those with "thin skin." Westerners should find the bath water temperature just right. The bath is Baht 30 plus towel rental is another Baht 5. It's possible to buy a bar of soap but you may want to bring a light cotton sarong and a long handle shower scrub brush. The ideal sit in the tub is not more than 15 minutes. The heat takes away the body energy so the activity after the mineral bath soak should be light meal and sleep.
About four kilometers up this road, on the left it is a sing to Lanna Princess Report where you can stop for a coffee or continue on this road which is lined with teak trees and bamboo groves. Keep driving for more four kilometers to reach the area of Baan Huay Kaew, there is a tri section with at least ten signs pointing to sight seeing spots while an information office for the Mae Takhrai National Park. After we passed the entrance of the National Park, the first eco-tourism accommodation is the beautiful Tharnthong Lodges, comprising a series of magnificent wooden lodges linked by a walkway, beside a sparkling stream where the proprietors have thoughtfully provided a sandy beach area where guests can picnic in the cool air at 750 meters above sea level. The management can arrange trekking tours for the bold, and traditional Thai massages for the beautiful. David's Kitchen is open serving great Italian food and Thai food for lunch and dinner.
We decided to see the changes on the road leading to Mae Kampong village. After the survey, it was rather dark and we decided to stay at Khun Prommin's cabins. We had a meal of steamed rice with Kai Bai Tong, fresh vegetables with oyster sauce and Thai consomme or "gaeng jued".
To get all the kinks out the body brought on by the drive, we decided to have traditional Thai massage. With the sound of the waterfall, and a few June bugs, we were lulled to sleep and the two hour massage felt so great. The cabin had hot water shower which felt good in the 26 degree centigrade temperature. We retired to enjoy an excellent night's sleep in this highland valley retreat.
We are up with the lark and back on the very steep road up the mountainside towards Baan Mae Kampong, where the village has nestled for more than a century amid densely forested slopes at 1,300 feet above sea level. After breakfast of fried eggs and toast, we made a U - turn and head for the Teen Tok Royal Project where expert advice is on tap to help farmers from the hill villages produce top quality coffee beans, tea, dragon fruit and an array of vegetables; the project also buys the end product from the farmer. The experts are working on a grove of Vanilla bean vines and introducing the growing of passion fruit.
The only road is at an almost impossible angle, we eventually come to the villages that make up Baan Mae Kampong. I say villages plural, because this settlement is divided into three sections, known in ascending order as: Mae Kampong Nok, Mae Kampong Glang, and Mae Kampong Nai. There is a home-stay project in which villagers open their homes to tourists, allowing them to live the life of a hill villager in simple, clean, wooden homes; to eat healthy local fare, and to rise with the dawn and watch the local residents leave home to work on the tea and coffee plantations in the surrounding hills. The home-stay project has successfully been employed in the promotion of environmental understanding, and to educate the denizens of the hamlet in modern conservation techniques, while providing visitors with the hands-on experience of daily life in a hill village.
An upmarket eco-tourism lodge on the fringes of Mae Kampong Glang is the aesthetically pleasing John's Place located between Tharnthong Lodges and Baan Mae Kampong; a venue built with the extensive use of teak and natural stone. Guests can enjoy the accommodation afforded in comfortable and tastefully furnished split-level bungalows; witness displays of traditional music and dance on an elevated terrace, or climb into a lofty tree-house to do a spot of bird watching. The village is unique in many ways, not the least of which is the revenue earned from the sale of electricity to surrounding villages. The idea was suggested by His Majesty King Bhumibol during a visit to Baan Mae Kampong more than twenty years ago. Following the King's advice, the people of the village successfully turned the sale of electricity into a main source of income.
Visitors to Baan Mae Kampong are spoiled for choice: exotic, or plain accommodation, fresh mountain air, cool streams and waterfalls, rock climbing, bird watching , trekking, fabulous food, boundless opportunities for wildlife and nature photography, or simply to kick back after a day in the hills with a cup of freshly brewed Arabica coffee, or local tea, while you or your partner have a traditional Thai massage. The thing about city folks is that we always feel the need to be doing something. In Baan Mae Kampong that stress is removed; even on one overnight stay! Hector Ceballos-Lascurian, the father of eco-tourism, would be delighted.
A circle tour can be made when visitors drive from Baan Huay Kaew Village on Route 1317 via Mae-On and Sankampaeng. Located here is Muang-On Cave at a height of approx. 900 meters on top of a limestone hill. One has to climb up 187 steps then down 132 steps to the bottom of the cave. Leaving Mae-On Cave for Chiang Mai city, visitors will travel through the heart of Sankampaeng, the "Northern Handicraft Capital." Go ahead and empty your pocket book, you won't find this much fun shopping anywhere else.
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