In the morning we head for Doi Gong Mu temple, a local landmark overlooking this small municipality and its airport. Tradition has it that visitors should walk around the chedi in a clockwise direction just once, and to strike one beat on the temple drum. There is a notice on the guardrail, announcing that all who have driven the 1,864 bends in the road between Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Sorn can collect certificates of achievement from the local Chamber of Commerce.
At an hour long meeting with Governor Direk Gawngleeb, and local officials, namely, the City Mayor, Vocational College Director, Regional Secondary Education Director of Mae Hong Son was broadcast live led by a moderator on the local radio station in the morning. We discovered that the drive between Mae Hong Son and Pai comprises no fewer than 2,732 curves to be negotiated, and we wonder what we will receive for this achievement. Governor Direk believes that bends in the road serve only to throw fellow travellers ever closer together, and advises every Thai to make a pilgrimage to Mae Hong Sorn before they die (hopefully not on one of those bends in the road!). This province is the only one in the Kingdom to have eight of its districts acting as buffer-zones between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). A mere ten percent of the province terrain is inhabited, owing to the densely forested mountains, and has earned Mae Hong Sorn the sobriquet of "The Siberia of Thailand." Throughout this press conference several interesting topics were discussed and concluded.
Another site popular with the tourist is Taam Lod (Lord), one of the longest limestone caves in Southeast Asia. One team of researchers recently entered this labyrinth at nine in the morning, and emerged at ten thirty that night. Gas lanterns and guides are mandatory, and can be hired at the entrance. Inside the main chamber there are several other chambers reachable by ladders. Boatmen await the visitor, and for a small fee will take them across the many streams crossing the main waterway inside.
Mae Hong Sorn is following the government project aimed at making Thailand the "Kitchen of the World" through organic farming. Although the province has an abundance of fruit and vegetable, coffee is the number one product, due mainly to the mountainous terrain rising 1,300 msl. Coffee beans fail to properly develop at altitudes of less than 1,000 meters. Every official proudly boasts Internationally acclaimed Starbucks purchases coffee beans from this area.
There are two refugee camps in the city, housing a total of seventy thousand inmates, bearing testament to a tough policy against slash-and-burn farming, and the possession and use of illegal contraband, including drugs. At the city's prison, where the majority of inmates have been jailed for drug offences, a rehabilitation program is in operation, teaching inmates, in the final year of their incarceration, to learn the art of organic farming as a means to finding honest employment upon their release.
On a brighter note, education is high on the agenda of the city fathers, with satellites being used to reach students living in remote areas. Solar cells have been installed in rural areas allowing for not only schoolchildren, but their parents to receive teaching on subjects ranging from the Thai language, to farming.
On the road again, we visit Baan Paang Mu, an OTOP village famous for the production of sesame seed oil products for health. Mae Hong Sorn has the ideal weather and soil for the cultivation of sesame seed oil, and in a good year, up to 900 kilograms is produced annually.
This is followed by a visit to the Royal Project of Highland Agriculture at Huay Makhua Sohm. The success of Doi Angkhang project inspires the hilltribes and villagers to make a way of life that maintains the forest. Several attractive research gardens are devoted to vegetables, fruits, and decorative plants suitable for the highland area. Also raising animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs and sheep are studied there.
Our first stop in the morning is at the Royal Folk Art and Handicraft Center close to our hotel, where we saw some fine examples of traditional clothing, weaving, ironwork, silvermaking and basketry. The construction and layout of this 3-storey center is the finest in the country. More than 100 persons receive training to produce the best quality of products in the four workshops: Silk and cotton weaving, wicker furniture making, silver and gold work and bamboo weaving techniques. A mini museum on the second floor provides in-depth knowledge about the hilltribes living in the Mae Hong Sorn Province. Students are welcome to use the resource books within the library to prepare reports and gather statistics.
We moved on to walk through the Taam Pla (fish cave) at the Phasua Waterfall National Park, a beautiful park with a stream running through the grounds. The local people must like to spend the weekends picnicking at this spot. A fine example of Thai Yai or Shan ethnic group architecture is a two storey rustic log cabin. We dreamed of having enough time to overnight in this setting. Star watching is a popular winter activity from October to February. During the day, birdwatching is another intriguing activity from November to March.
En route to Pai we stopped for a coffee at a charming inn near Baan Pang Paek, and then stretch our legs before continuing on our way. Pai is a wonderfully restful town, surrounded by verdant hills and moving at a pace the rest of the country once enjoyed. Many guesthouses warmly welcome longstay visitors. The owners will happily arranged treks into the hills to visit the many hill tribe villages. Another site to see out of town is Tha Pai Hot Springs in a well kept public park about 8 kms southeast of the town, while for the more hardy, a white-water rafting trip between Pai and Mae Hong Sorn. Lately, a plan for small aircraft flying between Chiang Mai and Pai has been announced.
While in Pai, the District Chief, Mr. Jamlong Nain taem, showed us a video of the damage caused by last years floods in the area, and explained the repair work being carried out. A coffee break turned into a somtam snack break when the district chief invited us to the popular shop "Somtam nah Ampur". We arrived home in Chiang Mai in the evening, tired but full of happy memories of our trip.
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