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A Season In Mae Hong Son

A Season In Mae Hong Son

Thailand’s "Valley Beyond The Clouds"


By Andrew Forbes

Nowadays it may be difficult to believe, but Siamese officials once dreaded being sent to work in Mae Hong Son, the kingdom's most distant - and until recently most inaccessible - province. On consideration, however, past fears of being sent to "Thailand's Siberia" are easier to understand. Hidden in a long and narrow valley several mountain ranges beyond  Chiang Mai, the region had few attractions and numerous afflictions - endemic malaria, banditry and a plethora of troublesome spirits, to name but a few.

One of the major hazards of a posting to Mae Hong Son was the physical act of getting there. Until the early 20th century, when the northern railway finally reached Chiang Mai, any journey between Bangkok and the ancient Lan Na Kingdom required six weeks to three months of difficult and dangerous travel upriver to Uttaradit - the highest navigable point above Bangkok - and then a long trek, often by elephant back, across, through and around the malarial hills and jungles of the north.

To reach Mae Hong Son was still more difficult, of course. The weary traveller might rest for a few days, or even weeks, in Chiang Mai - but the inevitable continuation of the journey north and west, to the very frontiers of Burma's Shan State, weighed heavily on the mind. Until the Second World War, when an unsurfaced road between the northern capital and Mae Hong Son was first built under Japanese tutelage, no satisfactory land link existed between Chiang Mai and the far Northwest - indeed it was safer, faster, and certainly more convenient to travel to Mae Hong Son by way of British Burma.

And once in Mae Hong Son, what awaited the Siamese administrator was boredom on a good day, danger on a bad; the company of Shan lowlanders speaking a version of Thai all but incomprehensible to the denizens of Bangkok, or hill tribes deemed both barbarous and uncouth... Truly, Mae Hong Son was a punishment posting.

Today, happily, such is no longer the case. Indeed, by a strange quirk of fate, those very qualities which one made Mae Hong Son so feared - tranquillity, morning mists, a varied and diverse population - now combine to make the hidden valley desirable, a veritable Thai Shangri-La.

Ringed by forest-covered hills and mist-enveloped mountains, Mae Hong Son was first established as a permanent settlement in the early 19th century when Phuttawong, Lord of Chiang Mai, ordered an expedition to the Northwest with the aim of capturing wild elephants. The leader of the expedition, Chao Kaew Muang, set up his camp at a favoured spot on the banks of the Pai River. Many elephants were caught and despatched to Chiang Mai, where they were domesticated and pressed into service as beasts of burden.

Meanwhile Chao Kaew Muang's camp prospered, and took on the trappings of permanence. Itinerant Shan tradesmen and Chinese muleteers, attracted by the business to be done in and around the camp, came and settled down. In 1874, though by no means large, Mae Hong Son had achieved sufficient size to be designated a city by the ruler of Chiang Mai. Nineteen years later, in 1893 - prompted, in part, by the British annexation of neighbouring Shan State - the region was made a province by the Siamese Ministry of the Interior, with Mae Hong Son as provincial capital.

Over the intervening century Mae Hong Son has continued to prosper, whilst at the same time remaining delightfully different from the rest of North Thailand. Never really a part of the Chiang Mai-based Lan Na Kingdom, Mae Hong Son has an almost "foreign", exotic charm, redolent of Shan State, Burma, and beyond.

In part this is explicable by the ethnically diverse and culturally fascinating population of the province. As the last northern region to be incorporated into the Thai Kingdom, the combined central and northern Thai element of the population remains a tiny 3%, with the remainder of the inhabitants more or less equally divided between Shan [known also as Tai Yai, or "Greater Tai"] and Hill Peoples such as the Lisu, Lawa, Hmong, Lahu and Karen.

To this already rich ethnic mix may be added less well-known minorities from neighbouring Burma, refugees from ethnic insurgency and repression. Such groups include the colourfully-dressed Palaung, who now boast four settlements in Mae Hong Son Province, and - most extraordinary of all - the Padaung, or Kayan, better known to the outside world by the English translation of their Thai name Kaliang Koh Yao - the "Long-Necked Karen".

Finally, mention should also be made of the ethnic Chinese, usually settlers from nearby Yunnan, who dominate local trade both in Mae Hong Son itself, and in such important regional centres as Mae Sariang, Khun Yuam, and Pai. The wooden, two-storey shop houses characteristic of settlements in Thailand's far northwest owe their origin to this industrious group.

Mae Hong Son is culturally diverse, too. As might be expected in any Thai province outside the Deep South, Buddhism is the predominant religion, and saffron robes are everywhere to be seen. Yet are they really all saffron? A closer inspection confirms that many Mae Hong Son monks wear robes of a darker, ochre hue - the colour of the Burmese Sangha. The temples too are strangely changed, conjuring up images of Shan State, and closer to Mandalay in inspiration than to Chiang Mai.

Islam, too, makes its presence felt in the unexpected shape of a low, green minaret hidden behind wooden shop houses, in the mellifluous call to prayer of the muezzin common to Muslim societies everywhere, and in the startlingly piercing eyes and dark skin of a turbaned, grey-bearded tradesman who would not seem out of place on the Khyber Pass. Here are Bengali merchants, and Chinese Muslim muleteers from the hill regions of Southwest China, all assiduously engrossed in making a living from cross-border trade with neighbouring Burma, local commerce and, increasingly - tourism.

Although still far removed from the established tourist circuit encompassing Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya, Mae Hong Son is a tourist boom town in its own quiet way. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the location itself. Visitors, both Thai and foreign, revel in the clean, clear air; the cool, mist-laden mornings, and the all-encompassing sense of calm and solitude which Mae Hong Son induces. If you are visiting this town from your hotel in Bangkok for a day or two, it is important to look for cheap, eco-friendly car rentals. One of the best parts about vacationing in Asia is you can bargain how much you will pay. This will be an advantage if you plan on hopping around from city to city.

The only time the town seems busy is during the early morning, at market time, when a fascinating range of fresh vegetables and fruit, spices, meats and other household goods are offered for sale at the morning market on Panetawattana Road. Here, too, Burmese cheroots and lungyi [sarongs] jostle for space with Karen shoulder bags, imported Chinese beer and exotic medicines. The market is an excellent place to observe the different national costumes of the various peoples living in Mae Hong Son, as well as to watch the interaction between lowland Thai and Shan, Hill Peoples and ethnic Chinese merchants. But come well-wrapped, at least in the winter months of November to February. Mae Hong Son is chilly during these months, and at times it can be downright cold!

No less interesting and unusual - in Thai terms - are the Buddhist temples of the town. Amongst the most notable is Wat Hua Wiang, a charmingly dilapidated temple built of wood and painted, corrugated iron in the Burmese style, and housing a fine brass seated Buddha: copied from an image in Mandalay. The Mae Hong Son copy was cast in sections in the northern Burmese capital before being transported overland, in colonial times, for final assembly in Thailand.

Another fascinating example of Shan/Burmese Buddhist whimsy is to be found in the twin temples of Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang. Located on the south side of Lake Jong Kham, in the lee of Mae Hong Son Hill, these buildings occupy perhaps the most picturesque site in town. When seen reflected in the waters of the lake, surrounded by a grove of flourishing palms and framed by brightly-coloured bougainvillaea flowers, they make indeed a lovely sight.

On closer inspection, the Burmese architectural influence so apparent from afar is reinforced by a motley collection of wooden figures housed in the viharn of Wat Jong Klang. These statues, numbering thirty three in all, represent figures from the Vessantara Jataka, or Buddha life-cycle stories. They were brought to Mae Hong Son from Burma in 1857, not long after the founding of the town, and form a continuing spiritual link with Thailand's hidden Shan valley and the Burmese Buddhist establishment.

To the west of these temples rises Mae Hong Son Hill, more properly known as Doi Kong Mu. In the early morning, and especially at dawn, this is usually shrouded in mist. By midday, however, the tropical sun will have burned off this veil, even in the depths of winter. From this time on, and especially during the golden light of the setting sun in the late afternoon and early evening, the summit of Doi Kong Mu offers splendid views of lake and temples, town, valley and surrounding mountains.

Excursions from Mae Hong Son: Given the rustic nature of Mae Hong Son town and the undeveloped, pristine state of much of the province, it is hardly surprising that most excursions from the city involve natural destinations. Amongst the most popular are Tham Pla, or Fish Cave, located about 18 kms out of town to the north. Here, in a large rock pool at the head of an underground stream, huge tame fish up to a metre long wait to be fed. Fortunately for the fish, though no doubt to the chagrin of visiting fishermen, the scaly inhabitants of Tham Pla are under the protection of a nearby shrine, and are therefore protected. Fish food can be purchased from the guardian of the shrine, and picnic tables are carefully arranged in and about the grove of trees which marks the pond. Also popular for picnics are the nearby Pha Sua falls.

Visitors interested in Hill Tribe clothing, customs and life styles should proceed further north to the small settlement of Soppong, about 60 kms from Mae Hong Son on the road to Pai. Here many colourful Hill Tribe people can be seen and talked to - especially members of the commercially astute and increasingly wealthy Lisu group. Trekking, too, is a fine way to meet Mae Hong Son's Hill Tribes, and although increasingly professional, the trekking agencies of the province remain refreshingly "untouristed" compared with those operating out of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

For those interested in regional history a visit to Mae Aw, a Hill Tribe village on the Burmese border about 2 hours distant from Mae Hong Son, is well worth the trouble. This remote and isolated settlement is inhabited by a mixture of Hmong hill people and Yunnanese Chinese refugees. The latter, descendants of Kuomintang refugees from Communist China in 1949, have recreated a mirror-image of rural Yunnan deep in the hills of the Thai-Burmese borderlands.

Getting to Mae Hong Son: Today Mae Hong Son is easily accessible from Chiang Mai by well-maintained, sealed roads leading in a loop from Chiang Mai, either to the north-west via Pai, or to the south-west via Mae Sariang. Most visitors to Mae Hong Son by land will choose to complete the loop over a period of several days, perhaps stopping in Pai and Mae Sariang for a night each, as well as devoting two or three days to Mae Hong Song itself.

Alternatively, Thai Airways offer regular flights several times a day between Chiang Mai International Airport and Mae Hong Son for THB 345-00 (US$ 14-00) each way. Flying time is only 35 minutes, and the views are spectacular.

Where to Stay: The Mae Hong Son hotel scene has expanded considerably in recent years, and a wide range of excellent accommodation is now available. Most of the upmarket hotels, including the well-appointed Holiday Inn, the Mae Hong Son resort, and the Mae Hong Son Tara, are located in the southern part of town. By contrast the lower-priced guest houses - of which there are between thirty and forty - tend to be more centrally located, especially in the vicinity of Lake Jong Kham and along Pracha Uthit Road.

Best Time to Visit: The cool season, between approximately November and February, is the most popular. Other months, too, have their attractions however - most notably April, when the Shan ordination ceremony of Poy Sang Long is held. Young Shan boys to be ordained into the monkhood are carried shoulder high, or on pony back, in elaborately decorated costumes and make up, with orchids in their turbans, to represent Prince Siddhartha before his renunciation of worldly goods. Another excellent time to visit the province is in October, when the hills to the south of Mae Hong Son town are iridescent with the translucent flame of golden Bua Tong flowers.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley and Pictures From History - © CPA Media