Chiangmai to Chiangrai and
Everything in Between
The North of Thailand has opened up considerably over the past few years and now the travellers' options in seeking out some heretofore inaccessible areas have increased tremendously. This is mainly a result of the completion of Highway 1234, through the mountains that form Thailand's border with Burma, between Thaton in Chiangmai Province and Mae Chan in Chiangrai. This highway links the lush beauty of northern Chiangmai with the more settled towns of northern Chiangrai and it takes us through the nomadic mountains that are home to most of Thailand's hill tribes. As often happens when a central transportation link is developed, in northern Thailand the building of the smooth and safe Highway 1234 has subsequently resulted in the more recent development of many of the areas adjacent to and flowing into this link. These include the town of Fang, the village of Mae Ai, the old town of Thaton, the mountain village of Mae Salong, and many smaller and newer settlements that have sprung up quite quickly in the general vicinity.
From July 1992, when Highway 1234 was completed, to the present, the northern frontier area of Thailand has witnessed both a rapid growth in resident population and a tourist boom that has made Chiangrai a major northern destination in the North. The advantage to travellers, who most often begin their northern travels in Chiangmai, is a much enhanced choice of routes, sightseeing activities and recreation, and access to once forbidding terrain.
The greater choice of routes is probably the most pronounced benefit to travellers. Now, a trip due north up Highway 107 from Chiangmai to Chiang Dao is just the beginning of a sweep that allows enjoyable and relatively comfortable visits to all areas of the upper North. Chiang Dao of course, is the site of the famous Hot Springs, Waterfalls, Caves, and Elephant Camps that have attracted visitors for years. The Caves are a major attraction because they date from prehistoric times and interred within are ancient drawings and writings of the early Southeast Asian Cave Men. The Hot Springs and Waterfalls are part of the natural beauty this part of the North has been endowed with; and the Elephant Camp gives us an opportunity to witness the common means of log hauling and other mountain forest work that is an inherent part of northern Thailand.
Farther north along Highway 107 we travel through gradually rising hills and pass through plains of rice fields until we reach the town of Fang. Fang is an old trading town that has been rapidly modernized in recent years due to the roadways opened for commercial transport South to Chiangmai. The population of Fang is a broad representation of Thai, Shan, Han and Haw Chinese, and all of Thailand's various hill tribes, and the town continues to attract all of these ethnic groups as Fang is the major funnel from the northern edge.
Just a few miles beyond Fang we reach the village of Mae Ai, a more traditional northern Thai town that is predominantly a center for the areas farmers. Mae Ai is small. The majority of the area's rural population lives in smaller villages adjacent to family rice and vegetable plots within a 10-kilometer radius of Mae Ai. These farmers converge on Mae Ai daily as the town is both a commercial way-station for local farmers and a transit point for movement of goods on to the larger town of Fang. Mae Ai too is growing, and what was before a separate and distinct village from Baan Thaton, the northernmost town in Chiangmai Province now quickly merges with Thaton on the road north. As we leave Mae Ai for Thaton, is therefore wise to keep our eyes open.The distance now between the two towns is only about five kilometers.
Thaton is an idyllic spot and one we might choose to stay overnight. It's a town that lies along both sides of the Mae Kok River as it enters Thailand from Myanmar; and because of this we have some of northern Chiangmai's most beautiful sights. The mountains rise up on all sides, leaving us in a protected valley. We have the three massive Buddhist sculptures of Thaton gazing down on this valley, and at us; and we have the pleasure of the forests, mountains and river all in one.
Thaton was once half in Burma, half in Thailand; and the river itself formed the dividing line where Burmese, Shan and Thais exchanged goods for shipment down the Mae Kok River to Chiangrai. This was achieved by a boat service that was started for commerce but that now serves a broader tourist purpose in ferrying people down the Mae Kok River to various stages along the jungle-clad river and ultimately to Chiangrai itself.
Our stay in Thaton can take us Into the very close but still remote Burma border area on the north, on Various treks in the Thaton vicinity where old Shan villages still retain their mountain-forest lifestyle, and to a variety of hill tribe villages also in the area.
Beyond Thaton we will travel deep into the mountains that form Thailand's border with Myanmar by taking advantage of the newest highway in the North Highway 1234. This is the main link we mentioned above, and it is well worth traversing; for along this highway, from Thaton to Mae Chan, we will see and experience the mountain life that has come to form such an integral part of northern Thailand's frontier populations and mountain economy. Indeed it has been a recent influx of all the hill tribes of many Burmese and of some Burmese-Chinese that has made the completion of Highway 1234 not only a convenience for us in our travels but an essential economic artery for the various ethnic rural mountain farmers of Chiangrai Province.
Along Highway 1234 we will see new towns that have sprouted up to accommodate the growing population. This area has also, consequently, grown rapidly also in agriculture and we'll see a wide variety of temperate climate fruit and vegetables growing off to the sides of the highway. Occasionally, we'll also pass a Chinese Buddhist temple. This should not surprise us, for this mountain area is very much Chinese and even four of the six hill tribe groups adhere at least partially to some aspects of Chinese tradition.
Our main destination on the highway is Doi Mae Salong, which is about halfway between Thaton and Mae Chan. Mae Salong Village is an old Han Chinese village built in the 1930's and 1940's as an outpost for the Second World War. Today it's a thriving mountain village that is home to people of Han Chinese, Shan, and Burmese ancestry, and the entire surrounding mountain areas are home to Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Yao hill tribes. This diversity of people makes Mae Salong now a broadly cosmopolitan area with harmonious cultural tolerance and competitive economic interplay of farm products and people. For us as travellers it offers a beautiful mountain setting and an aura that is so distinctive that it cannot be forgotten. Mae Salong and the surrounding areas along Highway 1234 all the way to Mae Chan indeed representative of what northern Chiangrai Province has become.
The final stretch of Highway 1234 takes us directly to Pazang on Highway 110 between Chiangrai and Mae Sai. From Pazang, Mae Sai is all easy 30-minute drive north, Mae Chan is a 5-minute drive south; and Chiangrai City is about 3 5 kilometers away, to the south. Our trip takes us to Mae Chan, a large town and a traditional trading center for hill tribe crops and products on the Chiangrai route.