Home > Travel > Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand

Tuesday April 11th, 2000 to Monday April 17th, 2000

Heading North

Travel in Thailand never seems to be easy; just when you think that everything is going smoothly it all manages to blow up in your face. We were going to use the 5 day Songkhran holiday to tour northern Thailand by car (the only reasonable way of doing so, due to the remoteness of some of our destinations). We were all packed, I had picked up the rental car, and Noah was able to get off work on time. I set off to pick Noah up from work and discovered that as part of the Songkhran celebration right-hand turns had been temporarily outlawed in Bangkok, and there were police at every intersection enforcing this rule. 2 very frustrating hours later, having finally blazed a circuitous route to Noah's office, I arrived to pick him up. Not only had he been standing there for 2 hours, he could actually see the building from which I had set out two hours previously (it was about 1km away). Finally, much later than we had hoped, we set out from Bangkok. We drove for five hours, and then stayed the first night in Nakhon Sawan, said to be a rather unfriendly city by both Thais and farangs(?) (though we didn't notice any particular unpleasantness).

Waterfall, Taksin Maharat National Park, Thailand

There isn't much to see in Nakhon Sawan, so we got up and out at a fairly decent time the next morning. It was speedy going and nice weather to drive in. We soon left Thailand's main north/south highway for a side road which brought us into increasingly mountainous terrain and much cooler temperatures than one generally finds on the plains below (Nakhon Sawan apparently has the highest average temperature of any town in Thailand—maybe that's why the locals are so famously unfriendly). We decided to stop at Taksin Maharat National Park to see "the big tree" and a water fall tucked in the bottom of a small canyon. The steep dirt road in the park also gave Noah a (much anticipated) chance to test the 4 wheel drive capabilities of our Suzuki Caribian. A few km up the road from the park we stopped at what appeared to be a fairly authentic hill tribe(?) market. There were very few customers there at the time, which gave the vendors plenty of opportunity to gawk at the farang freak show. The market featured both food (fruit, vegetables, grains) and some hill tribe handicrafts, including some amazing embroidery. We bought some wild rice and some peaches: mmmmm! They were the first peaches I had seen in Thailand, and I had recently been thinking how tasty one would be. I gave Noah the green one, and enjoyed my ripe one.

Mae Sot

We finally made it to Mae Sot in the early evening, and, after a few bad directions on my part, we found a guest house that was pretty cheap and pretty basic: mats on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. Damp, noisy, and uncomfortable, we soon wished that we had spent a few extra baht(?) on a reasonable guesthouse.

We spent a couple of (wet) hours walking around Mae Sot, and enjoying some tasty Indian Muslim food in a small restaurant across from the town mosque: samosas, chicken curry, and roti (oh so greasy but oh so good). Mae Sot is an interesting place for a number of reasons. It lies on what is ostensibly the Pan-Asian highway, which, were all the intervening borders open, would link Istanbul (Turkey) to Singapore. Although the Pan-Asian has no practical meaning, it is an apt metaphor for Mae Sot itself. Situated less than 10km from the Myanmar border, the town boasts large Thai, Burmese, Indian, and Chinese populations, and many local hill tribe people (generally Hmong and Karen people) use it as a base for trading. The distance of Mae Sot from the central Thai government in Bangkok and its proximity to a part of Myanmar that has hosted armed conflict on and off for several decades have helped Mae Sot to develop a reputation as a lawless place ruled more by criminal organizations than by central government (the police force being the largest and most powerful of these organizations). We didn't encounter anything to suggest that Mae Sot was any less civilized than any other Thai town of its size, however.


Looking for someone to soak in northern Thailand

The next day, April 13, was the official beginning of Sonkhran, the Thai new year celebration. The previous day I had picked up a water gun at a gas station in order to participate in the festivities. An ancient tradition of celebrating the new year by sprinkling water over the hands of priests and elders as a sign of respect has gradually evolved into a 5 day, country-wide water fight. People are driven around standing in the backs of pick-up trucks, armed with huge oil barrels full of water, soaking people as they drive past. In addition to the roving bands of water thugs, one has to watch out for the road side attackers, often small children who run into the road in an effort to ensure that they hit their targets. In small villages one frequently comes across road blocks; once a vehicle is stopped, the attackers try to open the doors in order to thoroughly soak everything inside. The attackers' enthusiasm is no less on day 5 than on day 1, but by then we were a wee bit tired of being wet, so the water gun went away and the doors stayed locked.

The Border

The Thailand-Myanmar border, near Mae Sot, Thailand

We left Mae Sot fairly early on the first morning of Songkhran and headed to the Myanmar border a few km away. Burmese, Chinese, Karen, Hmong, and Thai vendors all use the border market to sell their wares, which range from teak furniture, gems, and traditional woven fabrics to illegal tobacco and alcohol. We parked the car and took a wee jaunt around in order to check out the market and get a good look at Myanmar (from which we were separated by only a small, shallow river). After finding a few good bargains at the market (a traditional laquered box and some fabric) we walked down behind the market to the river for a closer look at one of the world's most oppressed countries. Aside from the hawkers who refused to believe that we didn't want a few cartons of cigarettes and large bottles of Jack Daniel's, we didn't experience any difficulties around the border, although a certain tension was evident in the way many people spoke and acted.

We managed to make it around the market and back to the car without getting terribly wet; just as we were getting into the car, however, a kid dumped some water down my back. I calmly whipped out my handy-dandy water gun and used his own water to fill it up and soaked him. He was rather surprized at the farang counter-attack and I was rather pleased with myself for not having gotten too wet. The whole Songkhran experience is a lot more fun if one can return fire.

Along the Border

A valley in northern Thailand

We left the Mae Sot area and headed north, parallel to the border, and into the mountains. We were heading for Mae Hong Son a few hundred kilometres away, but the truly exciting part of the day would be the trip itself rather than the destination. Only in the last ten years or so has the road along the border been sealed, and only within the last 3 or 4 has it been deemed safe enough for travel (the region of Myanmar across the border is the scene of on-going insurrection by Karen guerrillas, and the conflict occasionally crosses the border—the taking of 750 hostages at a hospital in western Thailand in January 2000 is one example). We passed through a checkpoint manned by heavily armed Thai soldiers and headed into extremely rough terrain, where the road is little more than a series of hairpin turns (we later calculated our average speed to have been about 30km/h). Adding to the fun was the fact that the road occasionally disappears, having collapsed over the encroaching cliff; usually these spots are marked by an oil barrel placed on whatever happens to be left of the road.

For several hours we travelled in virtual solitude, seeing no signs of habitation and very few other vehicles on the road. The barren mountain scenery was quite impressive, however, and we were a little disappointed when we eventually began to see signs of the outskirts of Mae Sariang, the half-way point of our trip to Mae Hong Son, and the point of our re-entry into civilization.

Mae Sariang

We stopped for gas in Mae Sariang, but not for lunch. Food was becoming a bit of an issue during the trip because our Thai is limited and we were far enough from the beaten track to render very slim our chances of coming across an English menu. The only thing that we knew how to order and could be sure that the restaurant would have was fried rice. Fried rice is good but is often extremely greasy, thus eating it more than twice/day can be fairly unpleasant. Having already had our fill of fried rice for the day, and having failed to locate a restaurant with an English menu in Mae Sariang, we gave up and headed on to Mae Hong Son. I was getting a little grumpy by this point as a result of the nauseating combination of hunger and the still-twisty, hilly road, but the scenery remained quite incredible and it would have been a lovely ride had it not been for my car sickness.

Mae Hong Son

A Shan chedi, Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Around dusk we pulled into Mae Hong Son and found a relatively cheap place to stay. Mae Hong Son is far more touristed than our stops to that point had been (accessible from a different direction than that from which we had come), and after such a lonely drive it was a bit of a shock to see pasty white (or beet red) tourists walking around in herds. We avoided the soaking stations (most of which had either been packed up for the evening or were manned by people far too drunk to hit their marks) and we made our way to the Fern Restaurant where we enjoyed some excellent and much-anticipated northern Thai food.

The next morning we headed up the nearby hill to Wat(?) Phra That Doi Kong Mu, a hilltop wat that overlooks Mae Hong Son (Doi means hill or mountain, so Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu means "Wat Phra That on the hill Kong Mu"). The wat is in the Shan style, and the 2 large gleaming white stupas(?) enshrine the ashes of 19th cenury monks from Myanmar's Shan state.

Tham Lot

Tham Lot, near Soppong, Thailand

We grabbed some breakfast at a deserted café on our way out of Mae Hong Son and headed east toward Tham Lot, a large limestone cave with a river running through it. The cave is incredible, featuring monstrously large stalagmites and stalactites (some of which meet to form enormous pillars), huge caverns, strangely shaped rocks that look amazingly like such thing as crocodiles and demons, walls studded with crystals that glitter in the lantern light, and a truly overpowering aroma of guano. We also saw a few prehistoric wooden coffins of somewhat dubious authenticity that are said to have been found in the cave.

As we were getting ready to leave the park in which the cave is situated, we made a discovery about Songkhran: we knew that most Thais love to soak one another; what we didn't know was that they derive even more pleasure from soaking unsuspecting farangs. Though I was not actually unsuspecting, I did get very wet, ambushed by three kids on my way back to the car. We had made the mistake of parking directly in from of the water tap, which provided unlimited ammunition, and I was soon drenched. Not to be outdone, I fetched my water gun from the car and a battle ensued (much to the delight of spectators in the nearby restaurant). Following 15min of these kids and I standing across the water tap from each another unloading our guns into to each others' faces, I got bored and made a bid for the car.

The trip through the nearby village and back to the main road was also entertaining, as there were road blocks set up every 10m where people tried to convince us to unlock the doors and let them soak us. At one point an extremely drunk person got a little nasty and stood in from of the car demanding that we open the doors. He was creepy, and he kept staring at me until his Thai friends became embarrassed and literally shoved him out of the way to let us by.

After the water blockades, we came across a legitimate military checkpoint manned by friendly soldiers with large guns. We were coming from the direction of the Myanmar border, so I had to hop out of the car to sign some kind of registration form. 5 or 6 soldiers took advantage of the opportunity to practise their English in order to help me fill in the form. When I came to the "Occupation" section, the dude in charge pointed at the box and said "toulist." I explained to him that I was a teacher in Thailand. He replied "toulist." He had a big gun, so I wrote "tourist."

Tha Thon

The rest of day was spent winding through the mountains, engaging in water skirmishes along the way. It rained on and off, which made the road a little slippery, but gave us another chance to feel cool 4-wheel drive style. We had hoped to stay the night in Mae Salong but it soon became obvious that we were going to be too late to make the slightly dicey trip back up to the border (where Mae Salong is located) before dark. We settled for Tha Thon, a small town on the Kok river. We splurged (about US$10) on very nice place that had lovely bamboo bungalows set in a very green place along the river. Dinner was eaten at a restaurant on the banks of the river, where we ordered way too much food.

Mae Salong

We set for Mae Salong fairly early the next morning. Mae Salong (officially called Santikhiri) is a small mountain village originally settled by the renegade Kuomintang (KMT) 93rd Regiment, which fled China following the 1949 Chinese revolution. Noah has become slightly obsessed with all things Chinese, and Mae Salong's colourful history made it a much anticipated destination.

Grazing on the outskirts of Mae Salong, Thailand

The Yunnanese KMT and their families have long resisted attempts by the Thai government to integrate them into the Thai nation, and until recently they were heavily involved in the opium trade (Mae Salong is deep inside the infamous "Golden Triangle," where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet). For decades much of the opium production in the region was overseen by Khun Sa, a half-Chinese, half-Shan warlord who split from the KMT to form his own Shan United Army (SUA) in the 1960s. In the early 1980s Khun Sa was driven out of Thailand and into Myanmar; since then Thai efforts to repatriate the residents of Mae Salong have enjoyed some moderate success. Part of the Thai government effort has involved crop substitution, and the poppy crops are gradually being replaced by tea, coffee, corn, and fruit. Despite the government's best attempts, however, the town has retained a strong Chinese culture, and is said to be unlike anywhere else in Thailand. Incidentally, the Thai government officially changed the name of the town to Santikhiri ("Hill of Peace") as part of its attempt to integrate the residents into the Thai nation; the town is still commonly known as Mae Salong.

Mae Salong is located near the top of a mountain on a narrow, winding road. When we arrived the town's justly famous market was in full swing; specialising in a variety of teas, Chinese herbal medicines, and coffee, the market also features a few hill tribe handicraft stands. The local corn whiskey is apparently in high demand, despite (or perhaps because of) the pickled centipede that comes in each bottle. When one thinks of pickled animals in alcohol, one generally thinks of the small worm at the bottom of a bottle of tequila. The concept is similar in Mae Salong, only instead of a 4-5cm worm, these bottles contain a member of the scorpion family roughly the size of a small child's forearm; they literally have to bend and twist the centipedes to make them fit into the bottles, and the bottles aren't small. We decided to skip the whiskey, but we picked up a variety of teas, some tiger balm, some fresh honey (honeycomb included), and some dried fruit.

Heading East

Changing weather in northern Thailand

After a lunch of Mae Salong's famous Yunnanese rice noodles and spicy chicken curry, we left the town and were winding our way back down the mountain when a one-eyed toothless old man flagged us down for a ride. He had what appeared to be all his worldly possessions packed in a plastic bag. Although we couldn't quite make out where he was going, there was only one road, so he climbed in; I offered him a plum, but he good-naturedly declined by pointing to his lack of teeth. He was with us for the hour-long trip to Chiang Rai, at which point, not being able to make any sense of what he was saying, we located a man who spoke both English and Thai at a hotel. We soon discovered that part of the reason we could not figure out where the old guy was going was the fact that he was not actually speaking Thai (whether he spoke Yunnanese or a hill tribe dialect we're not sure). After a lengthy, stilted, and rather repetitive conversation, we eventually deduced that he wanted to go to Bangkok. What he was going to do there I don't know: he was old, didn't speak Thai, had little money, and might never have been out of his village before. To Bangkok he wanted to go, however, so we took him to the bus station, bought him a ticket, found him seat right beside his platform, and said goodbye. We were a little concerned about what he was going to do when he got there, but we decided that it wasn't up to us to decide what he could and couldn't do. We kept imagining his family asking the kids where grandpa was, and them replying that he had jumped in a car with some farangs and taken off.

After a brief stop for food in Chiang Rai (with a population of nearly 40 000, it seemed enormous after our three days in the remote northwest) we continued our loop by heading southeast toward Nan. The scenery on the way was beautiful, but very different from what we had encountered in the northwest. The mountains east of Chiang Rai are a little smaller than those to the west, and rather than jungle, they are generally covered in grass and scrub.


After a brief stop in the Thai Lü village of Nong Bua, home to a famous wat, we arrived in Nan in the early evening. A small, relatively unvisited town not far from the Lao border, Nan figures prominently throughout much of Thai history (and also boasts several prehistoric sites); the people of the town are very aware and proud of their history. After unwittingly spending the night in an "hourly rate" hotel (we figured it out when we had a good look at the dresser), we got some rather tasty jók (rice porridge) for breakfast and headed to the local museum. We learned about the local hill tribe people (who continue to live amazingly primitive lives - moreso even than hill tribe people in other parts of Thailand), and we examined countless Buddha images representative of a variety of historical styles (we never figured out how to differentiate them). After a long visit to the museum, we checked out a few of the local wats and then headed out on our almost wild goose chase for weird sand formations.

Sao Din

Sao Din, Thailand

The Lonely Planet mentions a place called Sao Din ("Earth Pillars"), a 3.2 hectare park featuring an erosional phenomenon found in few places in the world. The guide book implies that it is only a few km off the main road, even going so far as to suggest that it might be visited from Nan by bicycle. We felt sorry for anyone who took that advice and set out for Sao Din on a rented bike, because we finally found it more than 60km away. The site was interesting, but not interesting enough to justify the 2hr detour when we were already looking at a good 8hr drive to get home. Some consolation was chanced upon when I caught Noah standing in the shade of a conical pillar waving his arms about doing his best Jabba the Hutt impression.

Phrae and the Home Stretch

Though Noah had another day off, I had to be back at work the next morning and we were still several hundred km north of Bangkok. We stopped in Phrae long enough to find the market and purchase Noah a traditional indigo Thai work shirt; these shirts, which originated in Phrae, are worn by labourers around the country. After that it was just the long stretch home. About 200km outside of Bangkok, in the pouring rain, at 1am, we hit a bumper to bumper traffic that lasted all the way into the city. Many Thais from the country work in Bangkok, and they all go home for Songkhran; at the end of Songkhran, therefore, traffic heading toward the city from all directions in insane. We finally made it home around 5am just in time for me to check my email and get ready for work. Noah went to bed just as I was heading out the door to catch the bus.

More information about Thailand is available on the About Thailand page; you might want to have a look at it if you haven't already.

You might wish to look at the Northern Thailand photos in the photo album.

More information about Northern Thailand:

Also in this section