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 THAILAND ( Prathet Thai - Land of the Free )

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The Wild North-West Frontier of Thailand:

With a sense of relief I re-crossed the ramshackle, wooden bridge over the Nam Moei back to the safety of Thailand after my brief, unofficial incursion into Burma ( or Myanmar as it has been re-named by its present military dictatorship ).

I was in the final stage of a journey around the Burmese border of north-western Thailand and had taken advantage of an un-manned guardpost to set foot on the other side of the international boundary on the contested territory of the local Shan opium war lords and Karen freedom fighters.

Chiang Mai ( New City ):

From the bustling Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai, the northern capital and second city of Thailand, popularly known as "The Rose of the North", a scenic road winds through low, forested hills to the small, sedate junction town of Pai amid extensive rice paddies.

Chedi at Pai




Out of town, beyond the tranquil Pai river, a flight of 353 stone steps rising above the timber shacks of a Karen village gained the gilded chedis of Wat Phra That Mae Yen for a fine panoramic view of the pleasant valley. In the cool of the evening young men engaged enthusiastically and acrobatically in Cepak Takraw - a kind of three-a-side football tennis - one of the national sports of Thailand.

Mae Hong Song:

A further three hours by songthaew ( a truck with two rows of inward facing bench seats used universally in Thailand for local transport ), along the twisting, switchback road leads to the provincial capital of Mae Hong Song close to neighbouring Burma.

Burmese style temple at Mae Hong Song

Burmese style



Mae Hong Song

In Chiang Mai posters from the US consulate had warned American nationals against visiting the area due to concern regarding the activities of the Shan drug lords across the nearby border but wandering the quiet, sleepy streets there was no obvious sign of danger.

Temple at Doi Kong above Mae Hong Song



Doi Kong


Mae Hong Song

However there is a pronounced Burmese presence in the Thai city with approximately 50% of the population of Shan extraction. A splendid outlook over the compact, low-rise city with its picturesque Jong Khan lake and ornamental fountain unfolds from the ornate Burmese-style, Buddhist temple on the hilltop of Doi Kong.

Mae Sariang:

A more comfortable ride by rot meh thammada ( ordinary bus ) on level, but still winding, well-surfaced roads tracked the border southwards to the large town of Mae Sariang on the banks of the broad Yuam River.

Golden Chedi at Mae Sariang

Golden Chedi


Mae Sariang

Mae Sam Laep:

Mists shrouded the paddy fields next morning as I travelled in a small, over-crowded songthaew up a rough, unsurfaced track through jungle-clad hills to the frontier village of Mae Sam Laep on the Salawin River.

Leaving the small cluster of simple, wooden houses a narrow trail followed the edge of the jungle above the swiftly-flowing river confined between rocky embankments. Occasional long, open boats with powerful outboards carefully navigated the treacherous currents and eddies of the turbulent waters. On the far bank were few signs of habitation - only huge piles of teak logs - the main source of income for the Karen rebels fighting for their independence. The thump of mortars and the crackle of small arms reverberated in the distance.

Salawin river frontier with Burma

Salawin River




Returning to the village I met some of the young Karen men, conspicuous in their longyis ( Burmese sarong ) with their teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. One offered to take me across the river to witness the damage done to his village by SLORC ( Burmese government ) troops - an invitation I politely declined. Fortunately it was not until after my visit that a foray across the border into Thailand was launched against the refugees.

Mae Sot :

An all-day journey on a large songthaew with few other passengers was required for the longer leg further southwards on the recently opened road alongside the border through flat countryside with isolated villages and several police checkpoints to the next major town of Mae Sot. On one stage I had the company of a tough-looking Thai army ranger complete with M-16 machine carbine.

A real frontier atmosphere pervades the congested, vibrant streets of Mae Sot with its interesting mix of ethnicities;- Burmese men in their longyis, bearded Indo-Burmese engaged in the local gems trade, Hmong and Karen women in traditional tribal dress. Shop signs are in Thai, Burmese, Chinese and English.

Buddhist shrine in wat in Mae Sot

Buddhist shrine




Mae Sot

In the rambling municipal market I met Rudneh and Moyek, two friendly young Burmese refugees keen to practise their English. They earned 20Baht ( approx. 30p ) per day for transporting fruit and vegetables on their bicycle wheelbarrows.

Rim Moei:

Seven kilometres out of town lies the border along the Moei River ( a tributary of the Salawin River ) where a new road-bridge is under construction - a link in Asia Route 1 - the planned Pan Asian Highway linking Istanbul to Singapore.

Waving my camera at the Immigration and Customs checkpoint I was allowed through to the riverbank where a small ferry was busy shuttling a constant stream of passengers and trade goods across the narrow stretch of sluggish water. Burmese boys touted cartons of cheap Chinese cigarettes.

Ferry across the Moie River from Thailand to Burma

Ferry across

the Moie River




Mae Sot

On the far side was the village of Myawaddy, the eastern outpost of Burma, with a fenced compound of thatched-roofed houses. Unfortunately it was out of bounds for tourists. Lining the Thai side of the river however was an extensive array of stalls selling Burmese handicrafts:- jade, jewellery, lacquerware, teak carvings.


In the company of villagers returning from shopping in the market at Mae Sot I travelled by songthaew further south on good roads through extensive rice fields, lined with palm trees, to Phap Phra before changing to another songthaew and continuing on a dusty, dirt road to the small cluster of wooden buildings at Waley. A rough track led down through forest and past an un-manned guardpost to the tumble-down footbridge spanning the Nam Moei - the headwaters of the River Moei and no more than a stream - the frontier with Burma.

Waley frontier village

Frontier village



Three men, bare-chested and bare-foot, clad only in longyis, appeared on the far side and came across the bridge. Getting only smiles in response to my questions in English I resorted to my rudimentary Thai:- "Sawat dii khrap" ( Greetings ). " Mai mee pan hah?", ( No problem? ) I asked gesturing if I could cross. "Mai mee pan hah", replied one. Indicating that I should follow he led me over the bridge and pointed to a path through the jungle before returning to his friends.

With some trepidation, feeling like a small boy trespassing in an orchard, I proceeded cautiously along the path to emerge into a large clearing. On the far side were the few, primitive huts of the Burmese village of Phalu. Apart from one man lying asleep there was no sign of life.

Burmese village of Phalu

Burmese village



Expecting at any moment to be challenged by a squad of armed soldiers bursting from the jungle I hurriedly took a couple of photos before retreating to the Thai side of the bridge - but satisfied at having set foot on Burmese territory.

Returning through Waley I noticed a huge lumberyard stacked with teak logs - black market trade from across the border.

Mawker Refugee Camp:

Waiting at the bus stop were four young men. Unkempt and roughly dressed they might have been extras as pirates or brigands in a movie.

"Pai nai?", ( Where do you go? ) asked one. "Mae Sot", I replied.

Shortly a pick-up truck arrived. Ushering me into the priviledged seat in the cab beside the driver they clambered into the back. A different route from my outward journey was now taken over a badly-rutted track on hard-baked earth through desolate, sparsely-vegetated countryside.Suddenly, on rounding a bend, a vast array of close-packed, thatched-roofed huts appeared - the Mawker Camp for Karen refugees from the fighting in Burma. A gatehouse and barrier blocked the way. My benefactor stuck his head through the window.

"Pai nai?", he asked again. "Mae Sot", I again replied. He indicated that I should change over into a songthaew waiting at the gatehouse. As they drove off into the camp I returned their waves, gave a thumb's up and shouted, "khawp khun khrap ( thank you ), chok dee ( good luck ) ".

Only once I was sitting aboard the songthaew did I realize that he had been offering me the opportunity of accompanying them into the camp - one of the many hidden along the border and unpublicised by the Thai government to avoid attracting the unwanted attentions of international aid agencies.


A somewhat hair-raising, high-speed ride by mini-bus down the mountain road from Mae Sot through forested hills brought me back to familiar surroundings in the small, provincial capital of Tak on the main highway from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to terminate my tour of the wild North-West frontier of Thailand.


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