Category Archives: Road Trips

Mae Sai Border Town

Thailand’s Northern-most district is Mae Sai in Chiang Rai Province. It is about 60 kilometers north of the provincial capital and has easy access along the main highway. The most notable landmark is this tall building which houses the Thai immigration. It is easy to find as there is basically only one road in Mae Sai. On the other side of the building is a bridge that crosses the river that acts as a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar. These people are in a kind of no-mans-land. They have already passed through Burmese Immigration and are on their way into Thailand.

I have been to Mae Sai a couple of times and each time it has been as a day trip from Chiang Rai which is only 90 minutes away on the main highway. If you don’t have your own transport you can easily come here by one of the frequent buses. There isn’t a lot to do in Mae Sai other than shopping. There are a number of market stalls both down the main road and also on the side streets. I think the prices on the smaller roads are probably better. However, they all seem to be selling the same things such as tea, dried fruit, handicraft, jewellery and electronic goods.

It is possible for you to cross the bridge into the Burmese border town of Tachileik. However, the border is sometimes temporarily closed if there is trouble along the volatile border. If you want to cross and already have a Thai visa, then make sure that you get a re-entry permit. This costs 1,000 baht which is why I didn’t cross on my recent trip. On the Burmese side you have to pay 500 Baht or $10. They will keep your passport while you explore the town. If you don’t have a Thai visa when you come back they will stamp 15 days in your passport for free.

It is possible to use Mae Sai as a base while you explore this region. There are number of reasonably priced hotels here. From Mae Sai there is easy access to the mountains of Doi Tung and the Mae Fah Luang Gardens, the Golden Triangle along the Maeklong River and also the historical ruins of Chiang Saen. From your hotel you can arrange one day tours if you don’t have your own transport. It is also possible to go on boat tours along the Maeklong. Despite border troubles at times, Mae Sai town itself is safe for tourists. A few days after I was here, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck less than 100 kms north of the town damaging some old buildings and killing one woman. Fortunately this doesn’t happen often.

Map showing location of Mae Sai in Chiang Rai Province:

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Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai

There is a remote community in the mountains of Northern Thailand that is home to hilltribe villages, tea plantations and the so-called “lost army” of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division. It is called Santikhiri (Hill of Peace) though most people still refer to this town by its old name of Mae Salong. It is a popular destination for both Thai and foreign tourists who come to enjoy the cool mountain air, relax in one of the many tea shops and also to learn about the rich and varied culture of the groups that live here.

Doi Mae Salong was settled by the Kuomintang (KMT) after they fled mainland China during the aftermath of the revolution there in 1949. Their influence can be seen even today with many shop signs in Chinese and the shopkeepers talking to each other in Chinese. This is the tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen who was the most important person of the Chinese settlement. The KMT originally moved to Burma’s Shan State but they were eventually pushed towards Thailand. In 1961 Tuan led 4,000 of his troops to Mae Salong.

Today there aren’t too many people left of the original army though their descendents remain. We felt lucky to be able to meet up with General Lue Ye-tien, who was Tuan’s right-hand man. He is a very active 94 year old who still remembers the march to Thailand and the subsequent battles. The troubles for the KMT weren’t over once they reached Thailand. The Thai authorities agreed for them to stay if they in return helped fight the communist insurgents.

They fought many battles in the region with the bloodiest campaign being launched in December 1970 and lasting five years. Over 1,000 people lost their lives in this conflict. The final battle was in Phetchaburi Province in 1981. Finally, in 1982 these soldiers were able to retire and return to a normal life in Mae Salong. In gratitude to their help in putting down the Communists, the Thai government gave them all citizenship. The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum has many pictures and a lot of information about the Chinese community here and the battles that the KMT fought.

On one of the hills overlooking Mae Salong is this beautiful pagoda called Srinakarin Sathit Maha Santakhiri. It was completed in 1996 and dedicated to H.M. The King’s late Mother who had such an important influence over the lives of the hilltribes in this area. The pagoda is built in Lanna style and is about 30 meters high. There are four Buddha images, one on each side facing the four points of the compass. You can come up here by car or walk the 700 steps from Wat Santakhiri. There are some wonderful views from the pagoda. It is apparently a great place to view the sunrise.

I first visited Mae Salong about five years ago when I drove along the scenic mountain roads from Chiang Mai. This time I came from Chiang Rai which is more convenient. As it is a good road many people just come for the day though it is worth staying overnight if not longer. I am told that even in the height of summer, during April, the mountains remain cool at night and that there are only 3-4 days when both day and night are hot. Mae Salong is popular for Thai people who come in December just so that they can experience freezing weather. Although we had good views on this trip in March, when I last came in April 2006 we couldn’t see much due to a combination of mist and smog from burning crops.

In town we stopped at one of the many shops that were selling tea leaves and dried fruit. We couldn’t come all this way without buying some souvenirs for people back home. The shopkeeper was quite keen for us to taste everything, not only the different teas but also the fruit. I have never drunk so many different varieties of tea in my life. I ended up buying several packets of tea as well as some beautifully designed tea mugs that had strainers and a lid. I also bought some of the dried fruit. During our trip we also visited a tea factory which I will tell you about later.

Map showing location of Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai Province, Northern Thailand.

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Nakhon Sawan Lookout Tower

Nakhon Sawan Province is in the North of Thailand about 240 kilometers north of Bangkok. It is important as it is regarded as the source for the Chao Phraya River which flows all the way south to Bangkok and out into the Gulf of Thailand. One of the latest attractions in the city is the Nakhon Sawan Tower which gives some fine views of the surrounding countryside.

The Nakhon Sawan Tower was completed on 19th August 2008 at an estimated cost of 52.7 million Baht. It is 32 meters high which is the equivalent of a ten storey building. In comparison the Banharn-Jamsai Tower in Suphanburi is 123 meters high. However, the tower in Nakhon Sawan has an advantage as it is built on the top of a hill.

Nakhon Sawan Tower is on Khiriwong Temple Hill overlooking the city. This is the location for the famous Phra Chula Manee Golden Pagoda which you can see in this picture. In the distance you can also see the Nan, Ping, Wang and Yom Rivers which merge together to form the Chao Phraya River. This is the most important waterway in Thailand.

On the first floor of the tower there is the information center and ticket office. The tower is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Fridays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the weekend. Ticket price is 20 baht for adults and 10 baht for children. On upper floors there are OTOP shops selling locally made products and a restaurant. The viewing platform is on the 10th floor where there are telescopes available.

Thai Shadow Puppet Museum

In the old days, before movies and T.V. soap operas, people were entertained with Nang Talung. This is the art of shadow puppets that first became popular in Southern Thailand two or three generations ago. It has since spread to other parts of Thailand, like the north-east, but many people still see it as an art form from the south. Unfortunately it is very rare to be able to see a shadow puppet show these days. Movies and T.V. shows are the preferred form of entertainment these days. However, during my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was lucky enough to be able to watch three shadow puppet shows.

Thailand’s most famous shadow puppet master is Mr. Suchart Sapsin. He has been making puppets and putting on performances since he was a teenager. He is now 72 years old and has been named a national artist of Thailand. In 1985, he said that he had a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform for H.M. The King. Apparently the performance greatly impressed the King and he thanked Suchart for keeping the ancient folk art alive in these modern times. “He also asked me not to hold back my knowledge and skill, and that I should pass it on to the next generation.” Suchart went on to say that “it was then that I decided to build a museum”.

The Shadow Puppet Museum, or “Ban Nang Talung Suchart Supsin” in Thai, is located in the same compound as his family home in Nakhon Si Thammarat. It is only a short ten minute walk from the famous pagoda at Wat Phra Mahathat. The museum is open every day and has no admission price. However, near the entrance there is a small shop selling genuine puppets and it is appreciated if you buy something or at least make a donation for the upkeep of the museum. Suchart’s son is now involved in the running of the museum so at least the shadow puppets will last another generation at least.

The museum itself is on the second floor of an old wooden building built on stilts. Here you will find a large collection of artefacts which trace the history of shadow puppets back more than 200 years. As well as a large collection of puppets, there  are also the different musical instruments that are used during the performance. In the old days they didn’t have any electricity so they had to use a lantern which is now on show here. Not all of the items on display have English labels, but they have produced a couple of excellent brochures in English which will help guide you to understand what you are looking at.

Downstairs we had a chance to see how they made the shadow puppets. These are made from buffalo or cow hide which are treated and then dried on a frame for three days. Once ready, the design is drawn on the leather and then small intricate tools are used to cut out the shapes. A basic puppet could take 3 or 4 hours to complete. But more complicated designs will take days if not weeks to complete. Once the puppet is finished, they are then painted using black, green, red and yellow colours. Bamboo sticks are then fastened to the puppets. Some only need 2 or 3 sticks but others need more as they will move things like eyebrows and tongues.

While we were there we were very fortunate to be given a performance by Suchart himself. These are not regular shows. If you want to see a shadow puppet show you would need to telephone in advance to make an appointment. Suchart operated all of the puppets himself and also did the different voices. However, there was one other person that provided the music and sound effects. It was actually really good as he managed to blend an ancient art form with modern contemporary issues. In the show that we watched some of the props included mobile phones, motorbikes and airplanes. It was a really good show and we all enjoyed it immensely.

I have posted more pictures on my Facebook Page.

The Shadow Puppet Museum can be found at 110/18 Si Thammarat Road, Soi 3. For further information, please call 07 534 6394.

Kayaking and Pink Dolphins

Probably one of the best ways to see dolphins close up in Thailand is by kayak. During my recent trip to Nakhon Si Thamarat Province, I joined Khanom Fishing & Tour for their one day tour called “Conserving Dolphins, Conserving Khanom Environment”. They operate out of Khanom which is a district at the northern end of the province. Our boat ride along the coastline took us close to the ferries that were heading out to Koh Samui. I am told that if you catch one of these ferries then you have a good chance of spotting some dolphins.

Our trip started at Thong Nian where we boarded the tour boat. Our guide for the day was “Uncle Daeng” a charismatic guy who used to be a park ranger. His knowledge of the area is extensive and he told us not only about the views from the boat but also of his days as a ranger when he used to track poachers. Most of the beaches along this coastline were deserted though in a few places there was evidence of bungalows and resorts being built. However, we were told that most of this area is going to be protected as it is part of the newly created Hat Khanom – Mu Ko Thale Tai National Park.

The coastline is a mixture of lush forests, limestone mountains and mangrove forests. Uncle Daeng told us that on one of his tours he takes tourists to Khao Wang Cave which has some beautiful stalactites and stalagmites as well as some amazing rock formations. During our boat ride he took us past a series of limestone rock formations which have been nicknamed “Pancake Rock”. Long ago these used to be on the seabed when alternate layers of hard and soft sediments were piled on top of each other. Later, when they were forced to the surface, the wind and rain helped to erode the softer rock leaving these formations.

During the boat ride, there was a lookout on duty the whole time trying to spot the dolphins. Whenever we passed a fishing boat they slowed down so that they could ask the fishermen if they had seen any dolphins today. We were in luck. Some had been spotted further up the coastline. About 20 minutes later we saw the fin of our first dolphin. They surfaced for only a few seconds before going back under. This of course made it very difficult to get any pictures. These weren’t dolphins like at Safari World in Bangkok. These ones don’t pose for pictures so I ended up with a dozen photos of an empty sea and a few shots of fins!

Although these humpback dolphins are native to this area and can be seen year round, they are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling. Despite the fact that they can live up to 60 years of age, an increasing number of dead dolphins have been found. Some of them had obviously been hurt by fishing nets from the bigger boats. Uncle Daeng told us that Khanom Fishing & Tour were working with the local community to help safeguard the dolphins. A series of buoys have been set up to mark the feeding ground of the dolphins so that fishing boats know to stay away. During the tour Uncle Daeng took us to a cove where he showed us how to plant sea grass which is their way of giving back to the environment.

To be completely  environmentally friendly, it is probably not a good idea to chase the dolphins in big boats. That is why we also went kayaking. This was great fun though maybe a little hot in the mid-day sun. We explored a number of different areas including a small rock island where a hermit monk used to live. The day long tour costs 1,200 baht for adults and 800 baht for childred aged 4-9. They also do free pick-up from your hotel and lunch is included. More details can be found on Khanom Fishing & Tour’s website. The map below shows the area where we explored by boat and kayak. More photos can be seen on my Facebook page.

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