วันพฤหัสบดีที่ 8 เมษายน พ.ศ. 2553

over the hill and far away

Romantically dubbed "The Land in the Mists", Mae Hong Son is Thailand's northwest frontier— it is as far as you can get from the nation's urban hurly-burly

NOT SO LONG AGO, UNTIL AS RECENTLY as the 1930s, you had to ride an elephant to get there – across rugged mountains and through dense forests. Only when an airstrip and the first sealed road were built in the 1960s did the provincial capital stop being a real struggle to reach. Mac Hong Son is Thailand's most inaccessible province, such that until relatively recently it was a kind of Siberia for miscreant government officials who had blotted their copybooks elsewhere; the dreaded message would arrive "You are transferred to Mae Hong Son." Today, with several daily flights from Thailand's northern "capital" Chiang Mai and numerous connections from there to Bangkok, that's not so much of a punishment. For
tourists, it's sheer delight easy access to a sleepy valley in the mountainous Burmese borderlands where modern creature comforts nevertheless ewait.
Four elements combine to give Mae Hong Son its unique'character: mountains, mists, forests and Burma. No other Thai province has so much mountainous terrain or such extremes of temperature and none so much Burmese influence. The result is the distinctive images of silvery multi-tiered temple roofs shrouded in morning mists against forested mountain backdrops. Add colourfui hill tribe peoples, working elephants, fast-flowing rivers, huge caves and high waterfalls and you have a potent touristic brew.
Mae Hong Son town actually began in the 1830s as an elephant corral for the Prince of Chiang Mai, who lived four weeks trek away to the east in his city palace. Up until 1775 the area had been Burmese. In their late 18th century resurgence, the Thais took the faraway territory into the national fold and made it an official province in 1893, but it remains a
place apart in many respects. Ethnically

in particular, Mae Hong Son is a land apart, for only a small percentage of the population are standard ethnic Thai. The vast majority are either Shan or hill tribes. The Shan, also known as Thai Yai, are close cousins of the Thai who are far more numerous across the border in the Shan States of Burma; the Shan are reckoned to make up half of Mae Hong Son's population. The diverse hill tribes are almost as numerous: these are migrant Tibeto-Chinese peoples unrelated to the Thais, mostly of the Karen, Hmong, Lisu and Lahu tribes. The Shan are valley farmers, the tribals are usually slash-and-burn hill farmers.
Mae Hong Son, the provincial capital, is a Thai Yai town and a pleasure in itself – beautiful temples, a serene lake, misty mornings, green hills all around. Two spots draw all visitors. One is Chong Kham Lake --- once the elephant bathing place, now the focus of a peaceful town centre park – with the white and gold stupa of VVat Chong Kiang and the silvery filigree-tiered roofs of Wat Chong Kharn, side by side, reflected in the waters. Within the temples, which date from the 19th century and occupy a common compound, the chief attraction is a collection of antique wooden figures, some as taltAis one metre, brought from Burma in,1857 and depicting Jataka Charaters from stories of the Buddha's previous. lives.The other musl-see is the hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, which overlooks the town from a couple of hundred metres up and affords magnificent panoramic views. A winding road leads up to it for the motor-borne while energetic pilgrims can climb the steep path arid steps leading from the town below. From the summit, there are views of the mountain ranges stretching far away into the hazy blue distance and a precipitous view down to thetoy-like town in the toy-like town in the valley. Two titax.i'lihi whitewashed stupas, bells tinkling in tir wind atop their gold-tipped spires, foci, the focus of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. Erected side by side along with a chapel containing a revered white alabaster Buddha image, the stupas attract many Buddhist pilgrims who ritually circle them holding offerings. Until mid-morning, mists swirl around the temple structures and statues -- Buddha images and singha mythological lion figures – which eerily vanish within the passing clouds, then reappear in brilliant sunlight.Mae Hong Son is the market centre for the whole province and it is at its liveliest in the early morning. The funky, fresh produce market features cheroot-smoking women vendors and colourfully garbed hill tribe customers and sells exotica like porcupine meat and fresh strawberries, which in Thailand only grow in the far north. The town is relaxed and agreeable, with an extraordinary setting for a Thai provincial capital, nestled in a mountain hollow. In recent years, it has gained many a hotel, restaurant and pub, catering to a tourist boom, but the old heart of this overgrown village, Chong Kham Lake and its surroundings, remains beautifully calm – apart from some dubious music at night coming from

a couple of open-sided restaurants. At dusk, a colourful night market sets up on the lakeside road, selling ethnic clothing, textiles and souvenirs. In front of the old temples, food stalls offer a huge variety of delicacies for consumption sitting cross-legged on reed mats at low tables set out on the grassy verge beside the lake. For sophisticates, who might have feared caffeine cold turkey in this neck of the backwoods, there's even a little cafe offering cappuccino, frappuccino, latte and the like. Coffee culture has now reached its outer Thai limits.
But the real treats of Mae Hong Son – for anyone with the least modicum of adventurous spirit – are the terrific variety of excursions that can be made into the little developed hinterland, which includes vast swathes of splendidly primeval rainforest coating a wild mountainscape.
Remote as it is, Mae Hong Son province offers a wide spectrum of trips in transport to suit all tastes, from tour minibus to self-drive jeep or motorbike. Simpler modes get you really close -- down and dirty even – to the land: trail-biking along distant tracks, trekking to hill tribe villages, rafting down rivers, elephant-back expeditions. For touring this exhilarating landscape, the ideal compromise between ease and involvement is a motorbike, easily hired in the town. The glory of Mae Hong Son these days is that its largely wild landscape is now threaded with sealed roads – never so wide as to spoil the environment, but of excellent surface quality. On a motorbike, the roads are a magic carpet into the back of beyond, the wind in your hair, the forest aromas in your nostrils.Take the west first. It's logical
Burma lies that way and borders exert a magnetic effect, the pull of the exotic, the lure of the forbidden. Just south of the town. a road leads across the Pai River and soon dives into dense forest. Up hill and down dale, the two-lane blacktop twists and turns through a lush green environment, sometimes dipping to a ford where a shallow stream ripples across the way. Suddenly, a yellow sign says: 'Elephant Ahead, Do Not Sound Horn". It can, we can't, is evidently the rule. This forewarns drivers of the base camp for elephant treks: starting from here, two up on a topless howdah, trekkers lurch and sway through the foliage on the ship of the jungle. The great mammal used to haul heavy logs through here; perhaps tourists are preferable, if it could but say.
Eventually the excellent road emerges from tree cover and ends up at the village of Huay Sua Tao created by Karen refugees from Burma in the early 1990s, a rambling wood-built settlement in a narrow valley surrounded by steep, densely forested hills. Here some of the women and girls belonging to the Kayan sub-group have numerous highly-polished brass rings fixed around their necks, elongating them `in accordance with a traditional tribal concept of beauty; perpetuating the custom mostly for financial reasons, the women earn considerable income for the community through the fees charged to non-Thai tourists for entry to their part of the village.
Now let's head north from town, the most spectacular way. This is Highway 1095 to Chiang Mai, completed only in the 1980s. a great mountain ride that might at times fool you that you were in the Rockies if it weren't for the daytime heat. It climbs over rocky forested ridges, dips into deep
green valleys el soya bean fields, soars again Into bille Clad mountains, winds down lnto villages thatched with great thick tongtotri3g leaves, An adventure road, recently converted from a dirt track to a good blacktop, leads off due north to Mae Aw. a Chinese. Kuomintang (KMT) border village founded by remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist Army in 1950 after they were chased out of China by Mao Zedong's victorious communists. Tea is a major crop, KMT tea, it you will, in this atmospheric frontier settlement with Chinese characteristics. On the steep and tortuous route, with many spectacular views, a sidetrack goes to the wild crashing waters of Pha
Sua Falls.
And then there's the south road, Highway 108. This winds down the Pai Valley and then ever upwards into forested highlands, with a spectacular viewpoint around Km 17 looking east where the Mae Samat stream cuts a ravine between thickly wooded mountains about 1,500 metres high.
At about Km 30, an eastward road leads steeply upwards, hairpinning and soaring to the high point of Microwave Mountain, named not for handy ovens but a
television relay station on the summit, under which shelters a Hmong hill
tribe village. Children in black trimmed­with-red clothing and cockerels coloured likewise scuff around in the bare soil. The far views across desolate mountains are breathtaking.
In Mae Hong Son, there's a lot to thank the telecommunications industry for. Even better than Microwave Mountain is what shall be dubbed "Transmitter Peak". On the westward road to Ban Nai Soi, another Karen "Longneck" border village, a turnoff leads towards a great forested hill, then proceeds to mount it. Winding ever upward in low gear, dodging pot-holes, wondering how far this extraordinary route can possibly go, and why, you eventually reach two summits capped with transmitters. All around is a magnificent panoply of forested mountains, a 360-degree vision of wild natural beauty, and you seem to be at the very culmination.The combination of a distinctive culture, a multitude of active diversions, largely unspoilt natural splendour and a stimulating climate marks Mae Hong Son out on the Thai tourist map. Long hidden away in Thailand's far northwest corner, Mae Hong Son has emerged to the wider world, but kept its otherworldliness.