NORTHERN THAILAND, HILL TRIBE TREKKING AND LONG-NECKED WOMEN

NORTHERN THAILAND

NORTHERN THAILAND is a region of green mountains, misty jungles, fertile valleys, spectacular ruins, colorful hill tribes, and temperatures that are cooler than the rest of country. The people that live here call themselves the khon muang . Their customs, language and clothing differ from those of southern Thailand. They are regarded as more easy-going than southerners ad their dialect is slower than the other three mani dialects. Some of the people that live in northern Thailand belong to ethnic minorities—often called hill tribes because they have traditionally lived in the hills and mountains of the region—such as the Karens, Akha, Lisu, Lao, Meo, Yao and Lahu. The Lua and Lawa are believed to be have originated from this area. The others are originally from Myanmar, Laos and China, where many members of their tribes still live. Roughly eight percent of Thailand’s population is made of hill tribes. The Karen are the largest group.

The northern part of Northern Thailand occupies a section of the Golden Triangle, once one of the world's major opium growing areas. In recent years, the ethnic minorities tribes that have traditionally grown opium as a cash crop here have been convinced to switch to crops like coffee in return for schools and electricity. For those that want to see the Golden Triangle in all its opium-blooming glory will have to look for it in Myanmar and Laos.

Seasons period: 1) Summer – March to April; 2) Rainy – May to October; 3) Winter – November to February; During the winter months, in the mountainous North the temperature is cool enough for the cultivation of fruits such as lychees and strawberries.

The North is mostly mountainous, making the region the origin of streams and rivers in Thailand, including the Chao Phraya River, formed at the convergence of four rivers: the Ping, Wang, Yom, and Nan. With its natural features of high mountains, steep river valleys, and upland areas, summer storms occur quite often. Thes north’s mountains are incised by steep river valleys and upland areas that border the central plain. Traditionally, these natural features made possible several different types of agriculture, including wet-rice farming in the valleys and shifting cultivation in the uplands. The forested mountains also promoted a spirit of regional independence. Forests, including stands of teak and other economically useful hardwoods that once dominated the North and parts of the Northeast, had diminished by the 1980s to 13 million hectares. In 1961 they covered 56 percent of the country, but by the mid-1980s forestland had been reduced to less than 30 percent of Thailand's total area.

The North commands an area covering 169,600 sq km, comprising 17 provinces: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Kamphaeng Phet, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nakhon Sawan, Nan, Phayao, Phetchabun, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Phrae, Sukhothai, Tak, Uthai Thani, and Uttaradit. The Upper North, from Nakhon Sawan up to the boundaries shared with the Union of Myanmar and the Lao PDR, has Chiang Mai as the center, while the Lower North, from Nakhon Sawan down to Sukhothai, has Phitsanulok as the center.

Culture and History of Northern Thailand: Once known as the Lanna Kingdom, northern Thailand was unified into federation of small Thai principalities by King Mengari in the middle of the 13th century. The first Lanna capital was established in Chiang Rai, the second was in Chiang Mai. The kingdom endured until the 16th century. Around the same time Lanna was established, another kingdom was established in Sukhothai in the southern part of northern Thailand when two Thai chief united to overthrow a Khmer overlord, establishing the first truly independent Thai kingdom. Though it lasted less than two centuries, Sukhotai produced extraordinary Buddhist art and architecture, and is credited with creating a unique Thai culture. Lanna means “one million rice fields,” a reference to to the kingdom’s wealth. The Thai government likes to push the idea that Lanna and Sukhothai—the precursor of all Thai civilizations—were closely related but recent historical research suggests that Lanna was linked to Sukhothai about as much as Sweden was to France in the Middle Ages in Mongolia Europe. Other early Thai cultures such as Nan and Chiang Saen—also originate in northern Thailand.

Northerners express their identity by placing distinctive clay water jars in front of their homes, using hill-tribe-style shoulder bags and displaying carved wooden X motifs on the gables of their buildings. Peter Jon Lindberg wrote in Travel and Leisure magazine: “Northern Thailand has long defined itself against the dominant culture of Bangkok and the south. During the 20th century, as Thailand modernized, northern customs, dress, language, and art fell by the wayside. But over the past decade, Chiang Mai has witnessed a resurgence of state-endorsed regional pride. The northern dialect has made a pronounced return. Men, women, and children often dress in traditional clothes on Fridays (Culture Day). Classical dances and folk songs are performed in schools. Architects and interior designers are using northern motifs in new buildings. [Source: Peter Jon Lindberg, Travel and Leisure, April 2005]

So energized is this reclamation of northern culture that observers now speak of a "Lanna revival." The reference is to the Lanna kingdom, which in its heyday...encompassed all of northern Thailand and parts of present-day Laos and Burma (Myanmar). Lanna was really an amalgam of disparate cultures, its ethnic base ranging from Chinese to Indian to tribal Burmese, with spiritual roots in Theravada Buddhism, animism, and Islam. The Lanna alphabet differs from that of modern Thai, just as Lanna cuisine, with its sticky rice and pork sausages, remains distinct from southern Thai cooking. The Chiang Mai staple khao sawy, a blend of Indian-style curry broth and crisp Chinese noodles, testifies to Lanna's hybrid origins.

The finest and most famous festival of the North is the Yi Peng Festival, a celebration of Loy Krathong in Lan Na style, during which large lanterns, like hot-air balloons, are sent tranquilly soaring into the clear full-moon sky, with the belief that the released lanterns take away all troubles in life. The lanterns themselves also display the artistic skills of the residents.

North Thai Art and Architecture: “Yet it was in art and architecture—particularly temple design—that Lanna made its greatest mark,” Lindberg wrote. “Temples in the north are more modest than those in Bangkok, though many boast intricately carved fretwork, mirror-glass mosaics, and gold leaf. Wood is the dominant material; gold is less common here than in the wealthier south. A hallmark of Lanna construction is the cho fa, the V-shaped finial that crowns the apex of a temple's pitched roof. Builders often left ceiling beams exposed to highlight the temple's "honest architecture." Many of the buildings at Dhara Dheviare representative of Lanna style, as are incidental details such as the terra-cotta pots of "drinking water" placed as an offering outside villa gates.

NORTHERN THAI FOOD AND EATING CUSTOMS

Food in Northern Thailand includes both dishes handed down over the generations from the Lanna kingdom and those influenced by its neighbors, especially Myanmar (Burma), and various minority groups that have been living in the area for many years: Tai Yai, Haw Chinese and Tai Lue. The ingredients are found primarily in the local areas, and the varieties depend on the season. One popular meat is pork, because it is easy to find and inexpensive; others are beef, chicken, and duck. Seafood is not popular because of its high price, since the area is far from the sea.

Northerners serve their meals on a raised vessel called "tok." Parties and functions are called "khan tok,” where several small dishes of food are placed on a round, low tray with legs, surrounded by diners who share the food while conversing among themselves. There are various kinds of food on a tok, which come in three different sizes: "khan tok luang" (large tok) is used in northern royal palaces and principal temples; "khan tok ham" (medium-sized tok) is used by large families, and "khan tok noi" (small tok) by small families. Lannastyle khan tok parties have become a very popular tour program that educates tourists about one of the most enjoyable cultural features of the North. A khan tok dinner is a distinctive way to offer a warm welcome to guests, and it is popular at functions to preserve local culture, with participants dressed in local style, as well as demonstrations of local food cooking, and folk entertainment for guests.

Most dishes are eaten with glutinous rice. The flavors are neutral, so none is strongly distinctive but they have a hint of salty, spicy hot, tangy, and sweet notes. They do not use coconut cream or sugar. The dishes are cooked until well done, and fresh vegetables are boiled until tender. Fried dishes are saturated with cooking oil and the most popular condiment used for adding flavor is field crab juice. The spicy curries of Lan Na are made without coconut milk, similar to those in India and Myanmar. If coconut milk is added they call it kaeng kathi (coconut milk soup), which is different from the curry from the central region. The one without coconut milk is called kaeng phet (spicy hot soup).

Food in the northern region is also under the influence of the weather. On chilly days, people warm up with oily dishes like kaeng ong, kaeng hang-le, and fried spicy sausage, sai ua. Ingredients are mostly herbal plants from the valleys and the forests, making up famous dishes like kaeng khae or kaeng yuak, utilizing the inner part of a banana trunk as the main ingredient, or khanom chin nam ngiao, with dried flowers of Bombax ceiba L., or the red silk cotton tree, as the main ingredient. Also famous among northern food is naem, sour preserved pork, a forerunner of food preservation techniques developed from local wisdom.

NORTHERN THAI DISHES

Chiang Mai specialties include spicy sausage and khan toke, an entire dinner comprised of several small dishes, such as curries, crispy fried pork skin, and northern style chili sauces, served with sticky rice on a small round table. Northern Thai dishes often feature nam phrik (a pungent paste with a strong smell made from fermented shrimp paste). Among the some of the popular northern dishes are khao soy (noodles with milky curry sauce, turmeric and nam phrik), khanom jeen (fresh vegetables minced with spices and chilies) and curries such as namya Kati , namya pa , and nam ngiao .

Khao soy resembles fettuccine alfredo. It is made of milky curry sauce, turmeric, and egg noodles, and nam phrik, a pungent mix of fermented shrimp paste and vegetables, was consumed by spreading it onto boiled vegetables. Some visitors detest the dish, which emits a strong, fishy odor. Khan khanoon (spicy jackfruit curry) is served with sticky rice and sai ooa (spicy pork sausages).

Dishes arranged on a tok usually include glutinous rice, spicy dips, like green pepper dip, red pepper dip, and spicy tomato and minced pork dip, and curries, such as Burmese-style bacon curry, mixed vegetable curry, and curry made from kasalong or peep. Other local dishes include fermented pork, northern-style sausages, steamed beef, deep-fried pork rinds, and sauteed pork and vegetables. The cool northern weather is the rationale behind fatty dishes, for they provide plenty of energy to keep people warm; some favorites are spicy tomato and minced pork dip, Burmese-style bacon curry, and northern-style sausages. Vitamins and minerals are obtained from pork sauteed with many types of vegetables.

The Northerners consume sticky rice with various kinds of dips and fresh vegetables. Their spicy soups – not as spicy as those of the Northeast and the South – are made up primarily of local herbs, easily found in the mountainous terrain of the North. A well-known one-dish meal of the North is khao soi, made of yellow noodles, in spicy coconut milk soup, with preserved lettuce and red onion as condiments, yielding a piquant but harmonious taste. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Desserts of the North are normally made of sticky rice, both white and red. In festivals, they make khao taen, a delicacy composed of sticky rice mixed with watermelon juice and then fried, laced with cane syrup. Other desserts include khao tom hua ngok, made of sticky rice steamed with banana and seasoned with shredded coconut cake and sugar, and khanom pat, from rice flour mixed with cane syrup over a fire, and laced with shredded and salted coconut cake. Dried banana is also a famous dessert of the region, due to the abundance of banana plants.

TREKKING IN NORTHERN THAILAND

Hill Tribe and Jungle Trekking in Thailand has become one of the kingdom’s most popular activities, as Thailand’s mountainous north offers spectacular forests with exotic animals and unique tribal communities. Treks are offered by numerous groups in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Tak and other towns and cities in northern Thailand. Nearly every guest-house and hotel in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai will offer single and multi-day treks into the surrounding mountains.

Be aware that the quality of Chaing Mai Trekking tours and the villages they visit vary greatly. Some operators focus on smaller groups and are more concerned about the impact they are having on tribal communities and the environment. Be sure to ask about the level of difficulty of various treks and current weather conditions, as the mountains get considerably colder than most parts of Thailand and appropriate clothing is recommended. It worthwhile doing a little background checking—on the Internet and talking to other travelers— and arranging a trek with a trekking company with a good reputation.

Good treks are led by guides, fluent in English and the hill tribe languages, and who introduce trekkers to the tribes in an intimate yet unobtrusive fashion. Bad treks are led by guides, who don't speak English or the hill tribe languages, and who take visitors to villages in the suburbs of Chiang Mai, where the people quickly throw on their costumes before minibuses arrive at their appointed time, pose for snapshots, and then take the costumes off when the "trekkers" are hustled back into the departing minibuses.

Finding a descent trekking group can sometimes be a hassle but it is worthwhile investing the time to find a good one. Because recommendations in guidebooks quickly go out of date, you are best off asking travelers who have just returned from a trek for their thoughts and recommendations. There are many trekking groups. The Trekking Association of Northern Thailand is an umbrella group for 100 or so different trekking companies.

The treks range in length from one day to several weeks. The longer treks allow visitors to reach the most beautiful spots and unspoiled villages. Most travelers go on three-day-two-night treks or five-day-two-night treks. Trekking on your own is not recommend. You might get lost or stumble accidently on a backwoods heroin lab, whose owners are might take offense to a surprise visit.

The longer treks typically begin with long truck rides into the countryside, followed by guided hiking through moderately challenging terrain, where visitors pass through breathtaking forests of lush greenery filled with Thailand’s unique flora and fauna. An overnight stay in a hill tribe village is a fascinating experience and activities including elephant trekking, bamboo river rafting, and ox cart riding.

A typical $50-per-person, three-day two-night trek usually begins with breakfast at a hotel, followed by a four-hour minibus ride to the trail head and a three or hour walk to the village, where the trekkers spend the night. One the second day the trekkers walk to a village, ride on elephants for a couple of hours, and walk some more to another village to spend the second night. The third day often features a raft ride on a river to the pick up point.

The nights are usually spent in hill tribe village huts and the meals are prepared by the villagers. Porters that accompany the trekkers carry anything that is heavy and most trekkers only carry a small day pack. Before you set out, it is probably a good idea to make sure everyone in your group trek is fit. There is nothing worse than getting stuck with a bunch of complainers. Some of the treks are geared for drug travelers intent on smoking opium or marijuana. Keep that in mind when choosing a trekking company or group of trekkers.

The one- and two-day treks tend to touristy. A $12 one-day trip usually involves a drive to a waterfall and a hill tribe village, and a two hour elephant trek up and down a hill.

The best time for trekking is dry season between November and May, when the rivers are calm enough for raft trips. During the wet season between June to October, the rivers are often too swift for raft trips and the remote jungle trails have lots of leeches. Remember that trekking areas are at higher elevation than most of Thailand. In December, January and February it can get quite cold, especially at night. By the same token, when the weather is hot in the plains, the temperatures are reasonably comfortable in the mountains.

Elephant Treks are highlight of most treks. Trekker usually ride on wooden platforms that are tied to the backs of the elephants, who are amazingly sure footed on the steep, narrow and sometimes slippery trails. The mahouts sit on the elephants neck and guide them by nudging a sensitive area behind their ears with a stick while the trekkers sway back and forth in a firm, steady motion.

Describing an elephant trek Joseph Miel wrote on the New York Times, "The boy driving our three-ton conveyance was barely learners-permit age, he knew what he was doing. On the scariest ascent, he demonstrated this by wisely jumping to safety...we flung to and for at every upward elephant strode, with fear providing the strength that kept our numb hands glued to the plank."

When riding on an elephant you can feel the raised spine and rumbling movement of the shoulder blades. Sometimes elephant people-carrying elephnats in Thailand stop on the trail to snack on leaves and plants and tourist he try to urge them on get a swat from yje trunk and spray of water.

Treks and Hill Tribes: The treks usually stop at villages of two or three of the seven hill tribes found in Northern Thailand. Each tribe has a distinct language, a distinct costume and traditionally has had a distinct role in the opium trade. Some tribes mostly grew it for money; others raise it for their own consumption. These days opium is not as big a part of hill tribe life as it once was.

The Akha, who live mostly around Chiang Rai, are the most colorful tribe and the one that trekkers usually want to see. Ahka women smoke from bongs and wear intricately-woven black costumes and headdresses with yellow, red and white beads. During festivals and tourist visits, they wear heavy silver breast plates, bracelets and earrings as well as headdresses with dangling coins and silver balls.

Lisu women also wear colorful costumes and silver breastplates. The Lisu men use to raise opium for money but didn't smoke it much. The Lahu, on the other hand, raise opium to smoke and many Lahu men still indulge themselves in the drug. The costumes of Lahu women are more subdued than those of other tribes, and the children and men often dress in rags.

Better represented in Laos and Vietnam that Thailand, the Meo (Hmong) wear costumes somewhat similar to the Ahka. The Karens are the largest and least friendly hill tribe. They wear turbans and have raised opium to support insurgency groups battling for an independent state in Burma. The Karen are well known for their ability to handle elephants. Most mahouts (elephant drivers) are Karen. The Yao and Lawa are smallest and lest visited hill tribes.

While some villages have now had more than a decade of contact with visitors, most remote hill tribes still maintain most of their traditional practices and values. It is possible to do a village homestay with a remote hill tribe village or arrange accommodation from a boutique company that provides semi-authentic lodging with more agreeable facilities.

Hill Tribe Etiquette: 1) Many hill tribes fear photography. Don’t photograph anyone or anything without permission first. 2) Show respect towards religious objects and structures. Don’t touch anything or enter or walk through any religious structure unless you are sure it is okay. If in doubt ask. 3) Don’t interfere in rituals in any way. 4) Don’t enter a village house without permission or an invitation. 5) Error on the side of restraint when giving gifts. Gifts of medicine may undermine confidence in traditional medicines. Gift of clothes may encourage them to abandon their traditional clothes.

Two Day Trek Near the Thailand-Myanmar Border: Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, “I eventually found a Chiang Mai company that would take me on a two-day trek to see the Padaung and four other hill tribes; the trip also included a journey on an elephant, a bamboo rafting excursion and an overnight stay in a village. So that's how I found myself on a 90-degree day in July on the outskirts of a jungle in Chiang Dao, about 30 miles south of the Burma-Thailand border. There was lush green vegetation and fields of corn as far as the eye could see, and I expected any moment to see an exotic tribal village emerge in front of me. [Source: Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, August 23, 2009]

Then my guide suddenly stopped, and a look of alarm crept over his face. "Where is the trail?!?" said the guide, Jakrapan Saengpayom, before turning to me. "Do you see it?" I did not. But after another hour plowing through dense brush that left our bodies covered in a nightmarish thorn known as butterfly grass, we arrived at our first village: the home of the Karen tribe, which is also originally from Burma. What exotic sights did we see? Several women in T-shirts and shorts cutting thin strips of wood to make baskets. "They don't like to wear their costumes," Saengpayom told me.

We next headed to see a village of the Lisu, a tribe originally from Tibet that wears heavy, multicolored fabrics, and then the Akha, a tribe whose origins are traced to Mongolia and famed for their headwear of silver jewelry. Several villagers there wore traditional costumes, but most did not.

It was only when we arrived late that afternoon at a Palaung village that we saw nearly everyone wearing traditional garb. Or, more accurately, nearly all the women. One of the striking things about all the hill tribes I saw is that there are elaborate get-ups or anatomical distortions required for women, while the men wear essentially Thai clothes.

The final stop on the visit was an orchid and butterfly farm outside Chiang Dao. The delicate, multicolored creatures would occasionally launch into the air, flying up, up, up until they hit the mesh cages of the farm. Then the butterflies would flutter down to one of the artificial stands and spread their wings. I watched as tourists gaped and snapped pictures of their natural beauty

MAE HONG SON

MAE HONG SON (near the Burmese border and reached by plane or a 245 kilometer road from Chang Mai) is located at a major crossroads used for centuries by opium traders, jade and ruby smugglers and hill tribes that live in the region. Nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by mountain ranges and rain forests, this beautiful little town has several beautiful wats and is often shrouded in mist. Many of the people that live here are Tai or Tai Yai, which are related to the Shan in Shan State across the border in Myanmar, and the Dai in the Yunnan Province of China.

Mae Hong Son has long been isolated from the outside world. For a long time the only roads that reached it were rough and winding and inaccessible in the rainy season. The name of Mae Hong Son refers to the fact that its terrain is highly suitable for the training of elephants. In fact, former governors of Chiang Mai used to organize the rounding up of wild elephants which were then trained in Mae Hong Son before being sent elsewhere for work. Elephants remain an important part of the local culture, and elephant trekking is a popular tourist activity, often combined with overnight hill tribe home stays and river rafting.

Mae Hong Son province features Burmese and Lanna style temples, hot springs, hill tribe villages, trekking, rafting, national parks, and even an annual reggae festival. Daily flights into Mae Hong Son’s small airport have the town much less isolated than it once was. The overland route from Chiang Mai is on a paved road that twists and turns through mountains, forest, agricultural areas, spectacular scenery and hill tribe communities, Those who are susceptible to motion sickness should take medication prior to setting out on the road between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.

Tourist Office and Website: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Mae Hong Son Office, 4 Ratchathamphithak Road, Tambon Chong Kham, Amphoe Mueang, Mae Hong Son, 58000, Tel.+66 5361 2982-3, Fax. +66 5361 2984. E-mail Address: tatmhs@tat.or.th, Website: http://www.tourismthailand.org/maehongson . Accommodation: As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand, Mae Hong Son has a variety of accommodation options from hostels and home stays to romantic boutique resorts and luxury spa retreats.

Sights in Mae Hong Son: Overlooking a small lake encircled by palm groves, Wat Chong Kham is a delightful temple with beautiful white and gold Burmese-style buildings. The main chedis and stupas feature intricate Burmese-style patterns made with precious metals inlaid with colored glass and carved wood. Also located near a lake, Wat Chong Klang contains an interesting collection of 33 wooden figures, representing characters from the Vessantara Jataka, displayed in room covered with painted mirrors.

Activities offered from Mae Hong Son include trekking, white water rafting and exloring caves with enormous stalactites. If you get the chance check out Ginga gala bird dancing, which is often perfromed at local festivals. Treks from Mae Hong Song sometimes cross the border into Burma. They used to pass within view of the home of the infamous Shan warlord and opium king, Khun Sa, who, until his retirement in 1997, controlled much of the Golden Triangle’s opium and heroin trade as well as a large amount of territory in Myanmar. At his peak Khun Sa controlled own 10,000-man army and supplied and education system and hospitals for people in the territory he controlled,

Getting to Mae Hong Son: As a province somewhat off the typical tourist route, Mae Hong Son is best reached by air, though traveling via private car, public bus, or motorbike can be an adventure. The flight are not all that expensive. Once in Mae Hong Son there are local buses, songtaews, and motorbike taxis for trips between provincial towns and to attractions outside of those towns, such as hot springs and waterfalls.

By Air: Thai Airways flies between Bangkok and Mae Hong Son daily. Reservation should be made in advance to guarantee a seat on the once daily flight as the flight connects in Chiang Mai where it picks up more passengers for the shorter, slightly less expensive leg of the trip. Contact Thai Airways at Tel: 0 2280 0060, 0 2628 2000 or call 1566 or visit www.thaiairways.com for current schedule.

By Car: Mae Hong Son is located 924 kilometers from Bangkok. From Chiang Mai you can one take: 1) Route 108 which passes through Hot, Mae Sariang, and Khun Yuam on the way to Mae Hong Son, covering a distance of 349 kilometers; or 2) Route 1095 which passes through Mae Malai and Pai, covering a distance of 245 kilometers. By Bus: Muang Nuea Yan Yon Tour (Tel: (0 2936 3587-8) operates an air-conditioned bus which runs directly from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son every day. The bus departs from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit 2) Bus Terminal at 6pm The trip takes about 17 hours. There are also buses from Chiang Mai. From Chiang Rai you have to pass through Chiang Mai.

Getting Around in Mae Hong Son: Mae Hong Song ‘city’ is a small town that can be explored on foot, though there are many tuk tuks for rides in and around the city. If you wish to visit remote hill-tribe villages, the only way to get to many is on foot. It is best to hire the services of a knowledgeable guide who is familiar with the local weather, terrain, and language rather than try to set out into the wilderness on your own.

Around the province: By Motorbike: Many of the guesthouses in provincial towns rent motorbikes for exploring the areas surrounding the towns, but visitors should be aware of the dangers of doing so. In addition to the occasional scam, foreigners are frequently involved in road accidents and Mae Hong Son features far more dangerous roads than it does first class medical facilities. If you must, ride carefully and wear both a helmet and closed-toed shoes. Motorbikes can be hired for 150-500 baht a day depending on size. By Bicycle: Bicycles can be hired in the provincial capital and in Pai. Simple pushbikes are inexpensive; nicer mountain bikes are a bit more expensive, but better for tackling hills.

By Car: A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for travel into the mountains, where not all roads are sealed. Drivers should exercise extreme caution and watch out for other drivers around blind corners as well as potholes and other adverse road conditions. It should also be noted that only Commercial First Class Insurance provides full coverage on rental cars (as opposed to limited personal or third party only insurance). Most international car rental agencies will offer this insurance (some only for those with a valid international driver’s license) while local companies may or may not. You may wish to request a copy of their insurance policy and ensure that it states "For Commercial Use". Regardless, inspect rental vehicles prior to rental and drive with caution, particularly as traffic in Thailand can be quite confusing, especially the habit of Thai motorcycles drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road.

By Bus, Songtaew, and Motorbike Taxi: Once in Mae Hong Son there are local buses, songtaews, and motorbike taxis for trips between provincial towns and to attractions outside of those towns. If you wish to check out a nearby hot spring or waterfall, a local bus or songtaew going in that direction won’t charge more than 10 or 20 baht per passenger to get you there, while motorbikes, which are the only method of getting to many attractions, will charge you several hundred baht for the convenience of guaranteeing you a ride back.

Pha Bong Hot Spring (10 kilometers from Mae Hong Son on Highway No.108) covers an area of three acres. There are facilities for mineral water bathing. It is open everyday from 8:00am to 5:00pm

Mae Aw (43 kilometers north of Mae Hong Son on a mountain peak at the Myanmar border) is a Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) settlement, one of the last true KMT outposts in Thailand. According to Lonely Planet it is “filled with old renegade fighters, this is now a quiet place with people going about their business, but the scenery on the way up here, and in the town itself, is stunning. The modern Thai name for Mae Aw is Ban Rak Thai (Thai-Loving Village).

Tham Pla – Pha Suea National Park (17 kilometers from Mae Hong Son on Highway 1095, the Mae Hong Son-Pai road) features brooks and cool hilly forests. A special feature is a hollow cave filled with a kind of carp called as Pla Mung or Pla Khang. The fish are not caught as they are believed to belong to the gods. Open everyday from 8:00am - 6:00pm. Namtok Pha Suea waterfall is about 26 kilometers from Mae Hong Son on Route 1095 to Pai (left turn at km. 191) . It is best seen during the late rainy season (August-September). Pang Tong Royal Pavilion is a hilltop pavilion at Ban Mokchampae, some five kilometers beyond Pha Suea Waterfall. It is open every day from 8.30am to 4.30pm.

Pai (160 kilometers from Chiang Mai) is large town offering treks to fairly untouched villages. Nearby is the wonderful Cave Lodge, a sort of budget traveler resort made up off bamboo bungalows situated on a hill above a river. About 15 minutes from the lodge is a spectacular cave that goes right through a large hill. It is possible to climb on platforms within the cave. During the dry season you can float from one side of the cave to the other.

Huai Nam Dang National Park (Mae Hong Son) covers an area of 180 square kilometers in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son Provinces. Most of the area is mountains or forested highlands. Attractions include: Huai Nam Dang Viewpoint or Doi Kiu Lom. The latter overlooks Doi Chiang Dao and is a superb spot to watch the sunrise over misty valleys. To get there, drive along Mae Malai-Pai Road to between km. 65-66, and then take a 6-kilometer access road to the park office. Doi Chang Viewpoint is located 20 kilometers beyond the Huai Nam Dang Viewpoint. Only a four-wheel vehicle can make the trip. Camping is possible, visitors must bring their own tents and food. For more information, Tel: 0 5324 8491, 0 5322 9636, 0 2562 0760 or www.dnp.go.th. Nearby attractions in Mae Hong Son province such as Pong Nam Ron Tha Pai (hot spring) and Namtok Mae Yen (waterfall) are worth visiting.

PADAUNG LONG NECK WOMEN

Long Neck Women can be seen around Mae Hong Son, Huay Puu Kaen and Nao Soi. In Mae Hong Son visitors pay $10 to be driven to a village where they can gawk at and take photographs of long necked woman. In Huay Puu Kaeng long necked women are paid by operators to live in a village on the Pai River that can only be reached by boat. See Hill Tribes.

The Padaung’s famous long-necked women wear brass coils---not rings---around their necks. A symbol of wealth, position and beauty, the coils can stretch their necks over a foot and weigh over 20 pounds According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record for longest neck---15¾ inches--- belonged to a Padaung woman. The Ndebele in South Africa wear rings around their necks. Padaung means “long neck.”

The coils are made from brass and gold alloy. Because long necked women can't lean their head's back, they drink from straws. According to the British journalist J.G. Scott there voices sound "as if they were speaking from the bottom of a well.”

Padaung women might appear to have long necks but this is an optical illusion. As the coils are added they push the collar bone and ribs down, creating the appearance of a longer neck. Actually stretching the neck would result in paralysis and death. Removing the coils does not cause a woman's neck to collapse, although the muscles weaken.

Dr. John Keshishian, an American doctor, wondered what was happening anatomically to elongate the women's neck. Did the wearing of the rings create gaps between women’s vertebrae? And if this was the case was it dangerous? After X-raying several long-necked women in Rangoon he discovered that the neck was not expanding. Rather the chins of the women are pushed up and their collarbones are pushed downwards by the weight of the coils, causing the shoulders to slope.

One woman told the New York Times, “It can be a bit boring and hot and it hurts when you first put it on...When you take off the brass you’re a little dizzy, and for one or two minutes you shouldn’t walk. You feel very light and you have a little headache, like you’ve been wearing a heavy backpack and you suddenly take it off.” The women also wear more brass loops around their legs which weigh up to 30 pounds. These loops force the women to waddle when they walk and sit straight legged.

Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, “Nae Naheng, 52, the matriarch of the family said the Padaung believe that women used to be angels in the past world, and that male hunters used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are never supposed to remove the rings. Naheng said she even sleeps in them and only briefly takes off the rings in the shower. "Once I took them off when I was young, and I felt sick and very sad," she said. "If you do not wear the rings, your soul will get ill and you can die." [Source: Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, August 23, 2009]

” She is also adorned with jewelry and ornaments of which the most outstanding and unusual are the thick rings of bronze around her neck, worn right up to beneath her chin. The rings may appear cumbersome, but the Padaungs believe that beauty lies in a long neck, which is regarded as graceful as a swan's. The tradition of wearing bronze rings round the neck is slowly being discarded but there are still a few who continue to follow this age-old custom.

At about the age of 6, girls are allowed to choose whether or not to put on the rings. Wearers say that they are not uncomfortable, although their weight forces the shoulders down, making the neck look longer. According to the Sydney Morning Herald: “Young girls typically start wearing about 3 1/2 pounds of brass coil around their necks and keep adding weight until they have more than 11 pounds. They also wear coils on their legs. The women said the rings were painful when they were young but don't hurt now at all, and they said there are no health problems associated with wearing them. None of the Padaung I spoke to knew of any story or reason for wearing the rings. It was just a tradition, they said.

"Why do we wear the rings?" said Mamombee, 52, whose neck seemed particularly elongated. "We do it to put on a show for the foreigners and tourists!" I couldn't tell if she was joking. But Mamombee said she doesn't like to remove them except once every three years to clean herself. "I feel bad when I take out the rings," she said. "I look and feel ugly." [Sources: peoplesoftheworld.org; Sydney Morning Herald]

PADAUNG LONG NECK WOMEN CUSTOMS

No one is really sure how the custom evolved. The Kayan have no written language. Even elders don’t know. There are different theories as to how the custom originated. One suggests men put the rings on their women to deter slave traders. Another says the rings protected children from being killed by tigers, which tend to attack at the neck. Other say the custom began as a tribute to a dragon-mother progenitor.According to some people, Padaung women began wearing the coils to protect their necks against tiger attacks and continued wearing them after tigers were no longer a threat because Padaung men found the coils made the women more sexually desirable. Some say the custom have been dreamed up and perpetuated by tour guides. Most agree it is a form of adornment and may have been a way of saving and showing off family wealth. A Paduang woman told National Geographic, "Wearing brass ring around your neck makes you beautiful."

In the old days it was said the women never took the coils off and that if they did the woman's neck would topple over and she would die from suffocation, a punishment sometimes meted out if the woman committed adultery. This seems to have be a myth. These days you often women not wearing their coils and looks as if their neck is no danger of suddenly collapsing. The belief that only girls born under a full moon on Wednesday can wear them also seems to be a myth.

Traditionally, at the age of five the first coils are placed around a young girl's neck by a medicine man who chose the date for this ritual by examining chicken bones. The first set of coils have a break at about the seventh rung above the clavicle to permit head mobility. As the girl grows taller, larger sets of coils replace the outgrown ones.” A little pillow on top of the loops cushions the chin. One 12-year-old girl told the New York Times she started wearing the coils when she was six and had 16 around her neck that cost $160,

The custom is dying out in traditional Pandaung villages in Myanmar, where people are so poor they prefer spend their hard earned money on rice rather than brass, but it is gaining new convert along the Thai border.

PADAUNG LONG NECK WOMEN AND TOURISM IN THAILAND

Several hundred Padaung live along the Thai-Myanmar border. Some fled to Burma to escape war. Most have come to Thailand to make money displaying themselves to gawking tourists. .In Nao Soi and Mae Hong Son Thailand, visitors pay $10 to be driven to a village where they can take photographs of long necked woman. In Huay Puu Kaeng the women are paid by operators ti live in a village on the Pai River that can only be reached by boat. Many foreigners don’t like practice and describe the villages as human zoos, but they visit them anyway.

Some places have become dependent on the women to bring tourist. The chairman of the Mae Hong Son chamber of commerce told the New York Times, “Long-necked Paduang are the star attraction to draw tourist to our province. All tourism-related businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and transportation services would be badly hit if they went away.

The practice has become so lucrative that Padaung women can support large families with their earnings. Many are collaring their daughters not out of respect for traditions but to make money in the future. Buying the coils is regarded as an investment. Parents of girls are often very happy and men like to marry long-necked women because of the money they will bring in.

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times: “As many as ten thousand tourists visit Nai Soi every year to see about 50 long-neck women and girls who pose for photographs and sell postcards, bracelets and souvenirs. They pay 250 baht (about £4) each; Mr Surachai admits to taking up to 150,000 baht a month (£2,400) from the entrance fee. Out of this the women and their families are supplied rice, chilli and cooking oil, and a monthly stipend of 1,500 baht (£24) per set of neck rings. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, April 8, 2008 >>]

Sometimes the coils are placed on girls as young as two. One 8-year-old who refused to wear the coils told AP, “I prefer to be normal. No one can force me to wear the coils, but my friends think they are pretty with the rings around their necks and they also get paid.” In 2007, Lloyd wrote, two Kayan moved to a rival tourist attraction near Chiang Mai, where they were paid more than twice as well. When the news came out local business was outraged, the police were summoned and the Long Neck fugitives were brought back under arrest.

LIFE OF THE PADAUNG LONG NECK WOMEN AND TOURISM

The Padaung women live in special villages in reasonably nice huts. They are paid $20 to $60 a month from the tour company that brings tourists to see them, plus the money they get from tips and selling T-shirts, postcards and souvenirs. Otherwise they live relatively normal lives. In their free time some like to ride around on motorbikes and hunt dragonflies with poles and eat them.

One Padaung woman told AP, “It is not comfortable wearing these coils even while sleeping. But with them we can live in Thailand because they want us to stay this way....Our lives are better here. We prefer to live here rather than being sent back to Myanmar...We want food, clothes and other necessities. This is the only way we can earn money.”

In many cases the women simply go about their daily chores or play volleyball while tourist stare at them and ten ask them for tip or sell souvenirs or other items. Asked how it feels to be stared at one told the New York Times, “At first I felt frightened. I had never seen a Westerner before.” Then she said she got used it. “I’m glad when the tourist come because then we can make money.”

Everyday the women wash their coils with steel wool, and a mixture of lime, straw and tamarind bark. Many speak numerous language and capable of chatting with tourist in English, French, German, Japanese, Thai and even Hebrew.

Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, a village chief named “ Asung said they must wear the dress because of tradition, but he also spoke excitedly about its appeal to tourists and noted that half of the village's income of $30,000 a year comes from tourism. That night an Australian family was paying $15 to sleep in his hut. "He is very worried that visitors will stop coming," my guide, who served as my interpreter, told me as we left and headed to our own hut. As we walked across the village, Asung began broadcasting over loudspeakers: "This is a reminder that all women should wear traditional dress. Some foreigners just came to complain that some women were not wearing their costumes." (We quickly returned to explain to the tribal chief that I was asking questions, not complaining, but, unsurprisingly, he did not issue a correction over the village intercom.) [Source: Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, August 23, 2009 +++]

PADUANG LONG NECKED WOMEN TREK

Describing a trek that climaxed with a trip to a Padaung village Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, In the “morning I scrambled up on an elephant for an hour-long ride that left me sore all over (pachyderms, in case you were wondering, are not ergonomically designed) and a hour-long trip down the Ping River on a bamboo raft precariously held together by strips of rubber tire (I thought all was lost when the raft guide fell into the water after we bumped over some nasty rapids, but he recovered and got us to shore). [Source: Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, August 23, 2009 +++]

“Eventually we arrived at our main destination, the village of the long-necked women. It was off a dirt road, and a man at a booth in the front charged us 300 Thai baht (about $9) a person to enter. It didn't look like a village at all. We were ushered into a 50-square-yard collection of shacks where two dozen Padaung women sat and sewed or tried to sell their wares. There were no men in sight and only a handful of tourists during my two-hour visit. The women were as breathtaking as I imagined. Their heads seem to float ethereally over their bodies. In person they looked less like giraffes than swans, regal and elegant.” +++

PHRAE

PHRAE (23 kilometers from Den Chai Station on the Chiang Mai train line) is a former center of the teak trade. Some old teak houses still remain and teak carving remains a local craft. Phrae is also home to Wat Phra That Cho Hae, a magnificent temple with a 100-foot-high, stepped-pyramid-style chedi covered with gold leaf. Located on top of a hill, the wat gets its name from a kind of material that is wrapped around the chedi during an annual fair held at the temple compound. Phare itself its surrounded by rice fields, canals and wetlands. Kwan Phayao is a large natural lake within the city. Many of the people that live here are Thai Lue, a few of whom still live in traditional stilted houses.

Tourist Office and Website: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Phrae office, Areas of Responsibility: Phrae,Nan,Uttaradit, 34/130-131, Mueang Hid Road, Tambon Nai Mueang, Amphoe Mueang, Phrae., Tel. +66 5452 1118-9, +66 5452 1127, Fax. +66 5452 1119. E-mail Address: tatphrae@tat.or.th, Website: http://www.tourismthailand.org/phrae Accommodation: Phrae has a variety of accommodation options, including guesthouses, modern hotels, and both lodging and camping facilities in the national parks.

Getting to Phrae: As a province somewhat off the typical tourist route, Phrae is best reached via private car or bus. From Bangkok’s Samsen station take a train to Denchai station. Leaving Bangkok around 9 pm, the train arrives at Denchai around 6 or 7 the following morning. From the train station in Denchai a blue songtaew goes to Phrae. By Car: From Bangkok, take Highway No. 1 and Highway No. 11 to Phrae via Nakhon Sawan, Phichit, Phitsanulok and Uttaradit. By Bus: The Transport Co. Ltd. operates regular buses to Phrae at 10am and 10.30pm The buses leave Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit 2) everyday. For more information, call 0 2936 2852-66 or visit www.transport.co.th. Private bus companies also servicing Phrae include Choet Chai Tour (Tel: 0 2936 0199), Phrae Tour (Tel: 0 2936 3720), and Sombat Tour (Tel: 0 2936 2496). By Air: Nok Air International operate seasonal flight between Bangkok and Phrae. The trip takes 40-45 minutes. For more information, contact Call Center 1318 International Call +662-900-9955 or visit www.nokair.com

Mae Yom National Park ( 48 kilometers from Phrae) embraces mountains with deciduous and rich teak forests, probably the densest in the country. Along the Yom River in front of the camping area of the park are the Kaeng Sua Ten rapids, a two-kilometer-long stretch of rock formations and best visited during November-February when the weather is cool and the scenery at its loveliest. Visitors may camp along the river banks. Open everyday from 6.00am - 6:00pm. Contact: P.O. Box 4, Amphoe Song, Phrae, Tel. 0 5455 6537 (VoIP), 0 5462 6770

NAN

NAN (2½ hours from Phrae by bus, 668 kilometers from Bangkok) is a nice town that is a bit difficult to get to so it and doesn’t attract many tourists. Located in the banks of the Nan river, it was once the site of a small kingdom. Up until the 1980s it was s full of bandits and insurgents. Even Thais dared not go there and efforts to build roads were routinely sabotaged. By the early 1990s the Thai army had to gained control of the region and now Nan is promoted officially as one of Thailand’s “remote provinces.”

Wat Phumin, built in 1496 and restored in 1867, houses four large Sukhothai-style seated Buddhas, superbly-carved wooden doors, and a series of interesting murals that show scenes of everyday life in the ancient north. The Nan National Museum contains some artifacts, picture and photographs dealing with Nan history. To east are densely forested hills that reach to the Laos border. Doi Phu Kha National park has several peaks over 2,000 meters. heritage in peace and tranquility. Canned fresh air from Mt. Doi Phu Kha is sold for about $1 a can. The air is captured and sealed at an elevation of 1,200 meters.

Nan province is largely rural and sparsely populated. Many of the people that live there belong to hill tribes such as the Lua, N'tin, and Khamu. Much of Nan is devoted to agriculture, particularly rice and fruit cultivation. Nan features six national parks, including the stunning Doi Phukha National Park, which contains mountains nearly 2,000 meters high. The rich natural beauty of Nan makes it an ideal destination for trekking as the remote province sees far fewer visitors than neighboring Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. If you plan to visit in October, the city comes alive for the annual Nan boat races; try to book your room early!

History of Nan: A quiet and tranquil province, Nan is nestled in a verdant valley in northern Thailand along the border with Laos. Because of its relative proximity to Luang Prabang, the historical capital of the Laotian Lan Xang kingdom, the earliest settlers in the area were Lan Xang’s Laotians, ethnic Tai who are distantly related to the Tai people who settled in central Thailand. These early settlers established themselves around present-day Pua district, which is rich in rock salt deposits, about 700 years ago. The earliest Nan rulers allied themselves with neighboring principalities to establish the kingdom of Lan Na.

The center of power in Nan eventually moved south to the fertile Nan River basin, where the capital of Nan exists to this day. Nan's history, development, and architecture were greatly influenced by various neighboring kingdoms, in particular Sukhothai, which played important political and religious roles in shaping the development of Nan. Over the centuries however, Nan alternated between being an independent principality under the control of Lan Na, Sukhothai, Burma and Siam in that order. In 1558, the town was conquered and depopulated by the Burmese. By the late 18th century Nan forged an alliance with the new Bangkok centered Rattakosin Kingdom and existed as a semi-autonomous kingdom with a line of monarchs that ruled from 1786 until 1931. Today, Nan is still the home of numerous Thai Lue and other hill tribes who retain many of their fascinating customs and traditions.

Tourist Office and Website: 34/130-131, Mueang Hid Road, Tambon Nai Mueang, Amphoe Mueang, Phrae. Tel. 0 5452 1118-9, 0 5452 1127, 0 5452 1119. Accommodation: Nan has a variety of accommodation options, including resorts, guesthouses, hotels, and lodging in the national parks.

Getting to Nan: As a relatively remote province, Nan is best reached via private car or public bus. However, it is possible to take a train or plane to nearby Phrae or Chiang Rai and then a bus to Nan. By Car: From Bangkok, take Highway No. 32 to Nakhon Sawan, Highway No. 117 to Phitsanulok, Highway No. 11 to Amphoe Den Chai, and then Highway No. 101 to Nan via Phrae, a total distance of 668 kilometers. If you have rented a car in Chiang Mai the faster is from Phrae, though the more scenic route goes towards Phayao and then descends into Nan. As roads in the far north are hilly and many are unsealed (off the main roads) it may be preferable to rent a 4x4 if you plan to do any serious exploring on your own.

By Bus: Transport Co. Ltd. operates bus services from Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit 2) to Nan every day. Overnight VIP buses are very comfortable with much leg room and the trip takes about 10 hours to complete. There are also regular buses from Chiang Rai to Nan. Call 0 2936 2852-66 or visit www.transport.co.th for more information. Other private companies include Phrae Tour (Tel: 0 2245 2369), Sombat Tour (Tel: 0 2936 2495-6), and Choetchai Tour (Tel: 0 5471 0362 (Nan Office)). By Air: Nok Mini (nokairlines) offers flight from Bangkok (Don Muang Airport) to Nan 3 flights a day and sevens day a week , more information please visit www.nokair.com . You can also travel from Chiangmai to Nan by Kan airlines, more information please visit www.kanairlines.com

Whitewater Rafting on the Nam Wa River is an exciting activity for tourists who like to shoot many rapids. Rafting can be accompanied by elephant riding. The suitable time for rafting is from September to February. Visitors can contact travel agencies in the town. The routes of rafting are as follows: 1) White-water Rafting along the Middle Part of the Wa River The rapids are of level 3 to 5 difficulty with a length of 100 kilometers. It takes 3 days and 2 nights passing the Doi Phu Kha National Park and the Mae Charim National Park. 2) The Lower Part of the Wa River was originally a transporting route for teakwood, which was illegally cut from the forests in Mae Charim and Wiang Sa districts. The Wa River runs through valley sided by high undulating mountains, There are more than 22 major rapids. The level of difficulty is at level 3 - 5 (level 3 is medium, level 4 is difficult, and level 5 is very difficult). The biggest and the most difficult one is Kaeng Luang. Along some parts of the river are sandy beach where a raft can be stopped and people can swim. Some parts are located near elephant camps where visitors can take an elephant to Ban Hat Rai. The period when the water is the highest is during August. The water is lowest in April. The most suitable time for white-water rafting is from November to January.

Short rafting trips start in Ban Nam Pu, Nam Phang sub-district, Mae Charim district, and end at Ban Hat Rai, San Na Nong sub-district, Wiang Sa district, covering a total distance of 19.2 kilometers and takes 4 hours. If you start in front of the Office of the National Park , the total distance is only 15 kilometers. The mellow bamboo rafting route starts in Ban Nam Wa and ends in Ban Nam Pu, covering a distance of four kilometers in approximately four hours. Contact the Nan Pang Chang Company (Tel. 0 5478 1316), the River Raft Company (Tel. 0 5471 0940, 08 9835 1506) or the Inter Tour (Tel. 0 5471 0195) for information on Wa River rafting and elephant riding.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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