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The Charms of Mae Sariang - From South to North in Mae Hong Son province.

The Provincial Administration and Tourism Authority of Thailand's (TAT) Northern Region # 1 is waking up the public to the serene and beautiful province of Mae Hong Sorn. The editors were invited to be their guests to see first hand new sights in the travel promotion of this part of the northern region.

Day One :

After gathering in front of TAT's Chiangmai office, we headed off for Mae Sariang, the second largest city in Mae Hong Sorn. Our journey began by heading south (from Airport Plaza) along the highway through Hang Dong, San Patong and Jom Thong. The Ping River valley falls away on the left. About 63 kilometers south of Chiangmai on the road to Jom Thong and Hord, one hillside is covered with a number of large Buddha images in several poses. The view reminds me of Pilgrim's Hill where devotees would visit to pay respect to each statue. In addition to the original Baan Rai Pai Ngarm, natural cotton weaving village, is a new center at kilometer 69 marker south of the city.

The Hord Resort is about 5 kilometers south of the Hord intersection. Here is a beautiful wide view of the river, while, another 8 kilometers is a picturesque picnic meeting point. Hord is so near to Mae Hong Sorn Province (but still within Chiangmai Province). A Hilltribe presence was apparent at the market stalls lining the street offering the usual wares plus, baskets of "roll-your-own" tobacco.

Turn right at Hord Clock Tower roundabout (Route 108); the road meanders through Orb Luang National Park. Orb Luang gorge is on the right at Kilometer 80 and, if you haven't time to go into the Park, a glimpse of the river and gorge cleft can be viewed a few hundred meters beyond the park entrance.

In Mae Haw, at Km.84 marker about 18 kilometers before Mae Sariang, a social and welfare center has been constructed. At 1,100 meters, its the highest spot in Mae Sariang. The village is known for growing Arabica coffee beans and tamarind fruit. The area has caves and waterfall. Many hilltribes make their livelihood from agriculture in this area. For years the village did not draw tourists but now a Tribal Culture Center is open to the public and identifies the five tribes of the area, their respective dress and house styles.

Mae Sariang, is a pleasant, easygoing riverside town with a few restaurants, shops and two Shan-style temples. The Shan-style Museum and Exhibition Hall houses local artifacts and OTOP products. Mae Sariang is quite laid-back; its citizens take pride in their temples and Buddhist festivals.

There are four revered temples, "Wat Prathart", denoting they are believed to have Buddha's relics in the top part of pagoda - Wat Prathart Jom Jaeng, Wat Prathart Jom Thong, Wat Prathart Jom Kitti, and Wat Prathart Jom Morn. Before going to the first national park during our trip, we visited the first two Wat Prathart mentioned above - Wat Jom Kitti and Wat Jom Morn. We were impressed with local artists who painted those beautiful murals of Lord Buddha's lives. We were quite honored to be greeted by the local village council. After Mae Sariang we headed toward the deep south of Mae Hong Sorn during that afternoon - Sob Moei District. Fifteen kilometers away from the district office is Mae Ngao National Park that covers south of Mae Hong Sorn and north of Tak Provinces. It is very green landscape and we really enjoyed bamboo rafting for 30 minutes. After the very damaging flood of three years ago, the fish are only now seen swimming in the river. Each Saturday and Sunday many local residents come to enjoy the water sport.

Our group left Mae Ngao National Park for another national park - Loom Naam Kong National Park. The former name of Salaween National Park was changed in July 2006 as local residents have called "Naam Kong" for generations. About 8 kilometers west from the city of Mae Sariang, we arrived in the evening at the office of Loom Naam Kong that hosted us for one night stay. This national park does not provide accommodation or facilities, but visitors can contact the office for camping site. We stayed at the national park's cabin that has 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms which were cooled by fan. Big fluffy towels were provided.

Later, in the City of Mae Sariang the local subdistrict municipal council hosted the welcome Khantoke Dinner party for us. We appreciated their efforts and hard work.

Day Two:

It was early morning but already hot at 38 C. Anyhow we enjoyed the breakfast of rice porridge in the park's simple canteen. After the breakfast, we hurried to watch the procession of Poy Sang Long Festival a grand Shan-style ceremony when novices are initiated into monkhood. This was a warm up before the ceremony in Mae Hong Sorn city. It was a thrill to see the 80 Buad Loog Kaew ornately outfitted early in the morning. Senior men danced with the grandsons on their shoulders. These boys will attend the short courses of teaching and practice of Buddhism philosophy.

Loom Naam Kong National Park is another popular attraction on the "Big Teak Trail" adventure are the giant teak trees so stout that it takes eight men linking hands to encircle its trunk. The area is rich in flora and fauna, and its best visited in the wet season when the waterfalls are in full flow and the wild flowers are blooming. Mae Saam Laeb is a village on the Salaween or Naam Kong, 46 kilometers west away from the city of Mae Sariang

An amazing site is the simple bamboo buildings edging the narrow road for at least one kilometer at the edge over the river. Lining the lane were mostly mini stores selling dry goods. Standing around were villagers of all ages and many military dressed in uniforms of all colors. High on the other side of the river flew the flag of the "Union of Myanmar". To board the boat we walked through soft white sand for about 300 meters. On board, I prayed not to see any bodies floating in the river. The feeling of isolation, remoteness and insecurity ran through my mind. We were travelling slowly and could be an easy target.

On the wide river, we passed huge boulders and wandering caribou. Not any sounds or suspicious moves occurred during the boat ride. Off the boat again, we walked in the soft sand to the meeting point for lunch. The area looked pristine and not touristy at all. The Thai Police, Border Patrol and Volunteer Rangers with all their paraphernalia are travelling along with us.

A local office informed us that the split of the KNY and Kariang Buddhist about 15 years ago brought a halt to any and all prosperity in this village. Back then a very prosperous furniture production center operated. Not far from here is a large waterfall similar to Tilor Jar is a natural attraction. South of the village is the Mae Naam Maei. Many boats sailed to Mae Sot but all that has stopped now.

After our box lunch in the deserted guest house, we walked through the village. It's quiet and secure. The officials are hoping to promote homestay. There are 15 rooms in the village. We walked through the village with no one around. A 6 pm curfew is now enforced. All people must stay inside the houses. Boats are not allowed to stop at the pier after 5 pm.

On the return cruise, a huge strong wind came down and the canvas of the boat was torn away. It waved about madly. I dreaded the thought of being baked in the hot sun. The men in the group scrambled to tie it back down. And a cool shade was restored.

That night dinner during a meal at the Intira Restaurant , our hosts urged us to return to join in the festive "Awk Pansa" celebration in Mae Sariang. Other activities are tenting and cycling popular in October, November and December on Mae Naam Yuam. I look forward to returning to visit the lovely city.

We enjoyed a very comfortable stay at the River House Hotel. Each room has a lovely terrace facing the small river. The room interior has beautiful wood and cool air conditioning.

-- To be Continued in the Next Issue --

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