Returning to Chiangmai from an overnight stay at Mae Salong, three friends and I were driving along Highway 1089 just south of Faang when we spotted a sign to Doi Angkhang (north of Chaipragarn if you drive directly from Chiangmai city to Chiang Dao and Chaipragarn) and on the spur of the moment, decided to take a detour. Having spent the previous day around Doi Chaang Moob, Doi Tung and Doi Mae Salong we were accustomed to the spectacular views but Doi Angkhang is substantially higher than the other three mountains of the north.
We began to ascend a treacherous road fairly overflowing with steep hairpin bends providing a challenge to the driver. The higher we get the valley floor opens out beneath us. We encountered several mudslides that have recently blocked the road and are being dealt with as we slowly pass. Driving through a number of small villages you soon get the feel that you are in a rarely visited part of Thailand and it is not too often that you can say that today.
The first indication that we had reached the highest point was when the road began to descend but we had still not spotted a good viewpoint. Then the trees opened up to our right revealing what appeared to be a small grassy picnic area so we drove beneath a barrier and parked up. We soon realised our mistake upon leaving the car when noticing the large ‘H' painted on the ground for landing helicopters and the camouflage painted buildings opposite. We had in fact pulled in to a small Thai army outpost. A soldier, who we had no doubt woken from his slumber, stumbled out and gave us the once over but did not seem bothered by our presence so we made our way to the edge for a lookout over northern Thailand. Luckily the soldiers had constructed a wooden platform reaching out into the nothingness which made a great place to sit and soak up the views. As a few dark clouds began to gather around us - not above us - we returned to the car.
A little way along the road we saw a sign to a pagoda, 1km, and we decided to follow it. Unfortunately we saw no further signs and were unable to find it. We did spot another sign, however, indicating that the Thai/Myanmar border was also only 1km away. Logic would have told us that we must have been in the vicinity of the border but the presence of the sign suggested that this may be a crossing point and in such an out of the way location we felt the need to investigate.
The road soon entered the small village of Baan Nor Lae where it divided into two and was blocked by barriers overlooked by a Thai army sentry post. We left the car for a walkabout and found several colourfully attired Palong ladies laying out red chillies by the sides of the road to dry in the sun. Surprisingly they were quite happy to be photographed but, equally surprisingly, they would not sell us any of the chillies; it was not clear why.
Along the road we met several other farangs, something we definitely had not expected here. They turned out to be German cyclists undertaking a sponsored ride along the border regions. (Check out www.burmariders.com if you can read German and are interested).
A group of three Burmese Shan people passed laden with shopping and were returning to their village just across the border. The German cyclists were travelling with a cameraman and translator and asked the Burmese and the Thai soldier if it would be possible to accompany them back to their village. To the surprise of all of us there was no objection from any party. Beside the road was a short stretch of bamboo fencing, strung with barbed wire and containing a gate with a ‘no entry' sign affixed. It would have been a simple matter to have walked around the fence but no, the Thai soldier insisted upon unlocking the padlocked gate to allow us entry into no man's land. We followed the Shan through and onto a single dirt track skirting along the top of a deep valley, unsure if this was a good idea or not. After a few hundred yards the locals stopped and indicated a steep path descending to the valley floor. Apparently another 100 yards or so would have brought us to the Burmese military checkpoint and they didn't feel as though we would have been made as welcome by them as we had by the equivalent Thai soldier. Through their interpreter the cyclists conducted a video interview with the one young man. He told us how the Burmese army had burnt his old village in 2002 and taken away a couple of young men. Most people had managed to escape to the forest upon hearing of their approach. They now lived in a new village nearby but, understandably, did not have a good word to say for the Burmese army.
At this point commonsense prevailed and we decided it was in everyones best interest if we did not enter Burma illegally at this place not only possibly endangering ourselves but more likely our Shan companions should we have the misfortune to meet a Burmese army patrol. We bade our new friends a fond farewell and watched them descend into the valley then returned to Thailand. The soldier again insisted upon unlocking the gate, and locking it again behind us. The single soldier was armed with a high calibre rifle but I guess that occasionaly opening the gate was his only interlude from solitary boredom. We in turn said our goodbyes to the cyclists, wishing them well on their arduous journey, and left by car to the small town of Angkhang for a much needed lunch.An interlude of little over an hour just goes to show that with a little effort to get ‘off the beaten track' chance encounters can still lead to the small adventures that make travelling in the north of Thailand so worthwhile.
Copyright © 1995-2014 Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai magazine All rights reserved.