GO WEST !
The Province of Mae Hong Sorn
Lots of visitors fly to and from the provincial capital, Mae Hong Sorn City but as I recently discovered, a tour through the province could be a really interesting mini-adventure. A few free days, and a car, gave me the opportunity to explore something of North Thailand's "Wild West" (although it's no longer "wild" as it used to be) so if you have taken a motor-cycle or car rental, then follow my tracks through the province of Mae Hong Sorn. The main roads are good, though twisty, well sign posted and there is plenty to enjoy.
My journey began by heading south (from Airport Plaza) along the Hang Dong, San Patong road. There's not a lot of interest on this section until it begins to climb after the town of Jom Thong. The Ping River valley falls away on the left and a huge Buddha image glittered from a distant hilltop. Hord is the next town on the route and here I stopped for a surprisingly good coffee. Hord is close to Mae Hong Sorn Province (but still within Chiangmai Province) and a Hilltribe presence was apparent. Market stalls lined the street selling the usual wares plus, as I discovered, baskets of "roll-your-own" tobacco. An ancient Hilltribe lady, handsomely turbaned and sucking contentedly on a clay pipe, was hunkered down beside the stall. A few baht were exchanged for a photo and a betel-nut smile!
Turn right at Hord Clock Tower roundabout (route 108); the road meanders through Orb Luang National Park. Orb Luang Gorge is on the right 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 past the Park entrance. I was soon at the "frontier" line between Chiangmai/Mae Hong Sorn Provinces (a "Welcome" sign told me so!) and I was amazed to see dozens of trucks, stacked high with thousands of cabbages, presumably enroute to Chiangmai markets. What does Chiangmai do with all those cabbages?
This is now real Hilltribe country mostly Karen with a sprinkling of Lisu, Shan and Lahu. Steep hillsides to the left and right are terraced for cultivation and, at the village of Gong Loi, houses seemed to teeter on the edge of nothingness. How they cling there is to defy gravity! Which reminds me; there is a "Miracle Hill" on this road. A large, black on yellow sign (but in Thai) advises that your car will be miraculously drawn up the hill without aid of its engine. Care to try it? Fool that I am, I did! I stopped the car, turned off the engine, released the brakes and my car rolled back down the hill! Shades of Scotland's Electric Brae!
Mae Sariang is the second largest town in Mae Hong Sorn Province (after Mae Hong Sorn City) and it is here that the main road sweeps sharply north. The road almost bypasses the town so take a side-street (left at the hospital) to get "downtown". It's a quiet, laid-back town with a couple of Burmese style temples that are worth a look. To the author's certain knowledge, Mae Sariang has also a single set of traffic lights which he failed to see at the time! Not far to the west of Mae Sariang lies the Salaween National Park and the Myanmar (Burma) border at Mae Saam Laeb. Local tour guides will be happy to offer travel and trekking advice for the area.
Continuing north, the road passes through areas that used to be heavily timbered. Unfortunately they have suffered extensively from logging plus "slash-and-burn" highland farming techniques. Teak logging is now illegal and H.M. King Bhumibol and the Department of Forests has sponsored education programmes to help the highland peoples avoid the latter. But it will be some time before the forests are restored to the richness they once had.
The small town of Mae La-noy slipped past and the road, more straight now and running almost parallel to the Myanmar borderline, eventually drops in to the larger township of Khun Yuam. The ride to Khun Yuam had taken me a gentle six hours, stopping here and there along the way, so I decided this would be my overnight stop.
Khun Yuam is a pleasant little town; there's not a lot to see but it does offer a "watering-hole" for the traveller. There are several choices of guesthouse accommodation so I found one, which suited me and, later, discovered the Krua Peek Mai Restaurant that served up a tasty variety of meat and vegetable dishes. I particularly enjoyed the grilled chicken!
At the restaurant I caught up with Khun Nat who is of the Karen Tribe and a science graduate of Chiangmai University. Khun Nat was teaching at Khun Yuam Vitaya (High School) and, much against my better instincts, persuaded me to address his first class of the following morning. However, it was fun and I hope the gathering of senior pupils enjoyed it as much as I did. For me it was humbling and heartwarming to be with so many young tribal scholars eagerly learning English and something of the world beyond Mae Hong Sorn Province.
Another "discovery" I made in Khun Yuam that morning was the local museum. It's small, very interesting and dedicated to the collective memories of the local people when their township played "host" to the Imperial Japanese Army during World War 2. But that's another story (see separate article) as is the continuation of this Mae Hong Sorn excursion (see next issue). In the meantime, don't hesitate to make and enjoy this journey for yourself.