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Scenic Salween

Mae Hong Son's lesser-known attractions - Mae Sariang and Sop Moei - hold more than a few surprises for visiting tourists

PEERAWAT JARIYASOMBAT

FROM LEFT: Karen students at Ban Sop Moei, most of whom are without citizenship, line up before school; Darkness descends on the confluence of Salween and Moei rivers; A Karen worker relishes ringside view of the scenery cruising the Salween.

Mae Sariang and Sop Moei seem ordinary towns that tourists generally skip on their way to the more famous Mae Hong Son, but if you have visited them you will know they are more than ordinary and might even get to love them.

After struggling to the top of a mountain in Mae Sariang where sits Wat Phra That Chom Mon, I sat admiring the view of a creek winding through paddy fields set in a valley.

The view was breathtaking and I wondered why most tourists chose not to come here. Perhaps the town was too easily accessible, not much of a challenge for those wishing to test their driving skills on more demanding roads typical of other tourist destinations in the North.

I found Mae Sariang a convenient choice. Geographically, it is the gateway to Mae Hong Son to its north, Tha Song Yang in Tak to its south, and the Salween River on the west.

One recent morning I took the local bus to the pier at Ban Mae Samlap, about 40 kilometres from Mae Sariang town, in Sop Moei district by the Salween. It was shivering cold and passengers in the bus were speaking in a language foreign to my ears. It was a funny situation: barring the bus driver and myself, nobody else spoke Thai.

Mae Sariang valley as seen from Wat Chom Mon.

Sop Moei being a border town is also home to ethnic minorities like the Shan, Karen and others who fled Burma and settled down in Thailand. Sitting by the bank of the Salween, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia, Ban Mae Samlap is a hub for refugees and Burmese villagers who travel here by boat to buy groceries, fuel, tools or enjoy beer. Refugee huts pack both sides of the road running through the town.

"Where are you going?", I felt delighted hearing somebody speaking to me in my own language. It was the border patrol policeman.

"Sop Moei" I replied.

Sop Moei is also the point where the Salween and Moei rivers meet to create a vast sandy beach. Over a decade ago I cruised both the rivers and was fascinated by the stunning scenery and untouched nature. Later, fighting between Karen rebels, whose strongholds are on the west bank, and Burmese forces turned the area into a pitched battlefield.

For a long time lately, however, there has been a lull in fighting and I decided the place was now safe enough for a re-visit.

At the pier, a Karen attendant pointed me where to wait for the boat that would take me to Sop Moei. It was hours before the boat showed up but I was glad the wait was over. It was crowded and I found a seat in the back row. Once again, I seemed to be the only Thai passenger.

Karen woman enjoying smoking pipe.

Other passengers seemed equally piqued by my presence, specially when I took out my camera and started clicking it with gay abandon trying to catch the scenery and their faces on film.

I was glad the Salween had changed little; it still looked almost as good as before: calm and extremely picturesque, huge rocks in different formations stood out in the V-shaped valley, the water almost crystal-clear, with lush jungle on both banks and dotted by the occasional hut.

An elderly passenger pointed to me a hut on top of a mountain. The location allowed its occupants a sweeping view of the river and valley. In all probability it was a warning post and so I assumed that the check-point must not be far away.

There are several check-points on the Salween manned by Karen and Thai troops where all boats and their cargo undergo scrutiny.

Before reaching Sop Moei, the boat stopped at the beach by the confluence of the Moei and Salween where all passengers, barring myself and a person who sat in the front row, disembarked. From there we travelled in silence to Sop Moei, where there's a check-point manned by Thais.

"Refugees are not allowed beyond this point. But they try to beat the ban by walking all day by the Moei River back to the camp in Tha Songyang in Tak," said the man in the front row.

He spoke fluent Thai and I was glad to be in his company. His name was Kukiat Panapongpai and he was director of Ban Sop Moei School.

Ban Mae Samlap is the starting point for cruises on the Salween.

"Are you a tourist? If you have trouble, do not hesitate to call me at my school," he offered warmly.

I was really glad for his offer because a few minutes after parting his company, I found myself standing in front of a neglected guesthouse. Dry leaves littered the floor as if nobody had stayed in it for months. Because of the war or what ever the reason, the only tourist accommodation was now off-limits to me. I sought shelter in his school that night.

The school sits in a war-torn Karen village shorn of electricity and tap water, while the nearest public telephone is 60 kilometres away up a dirt trail.

"High-ranking officials don't come here, perhaps they are scared of the war," said Kukiat, pointing to the holes in the walls caused by shrapnel.

The school was an early casualty of war. With a very limited budget, Kukiat sought help from the parents of his students. They assisted him by providing the required manpower.

"The kids are stateless, innocent. The school is their only chance in life, a chance to learn about the world outside and become bona fide citizens."

Next morning, I returned to Mae Sariang and explored another side of Sop Moei, the eastern side or Mae Ngao which is a picture of calm and serenity, as opposed to the west side where villagers live in a state of fear.

A Thai border patrol policeman walks a sandy strip of the the Salween beach at Sop Moei.

During the hour-long journey on Highway 105 from Mae Sariang, I came across less than 20 cars on the road. The area was declared Mae Ngao National Park with the aim to preserve its natural beauty.

The park is named after a river, Mae Ngao, because its water is extremely clear, as evident from the clarity of images reflected off the smooth flowing water. I walked the bank and was amazed by how close it was to the truth. Despite rampant felling of trees, forest encroachment and other illegal activities, the water was so clear that I could see fish swimming deep below the surface.

The other thing that impressed me was the quietness that engulfed the park. The day I was there I had the whole park to myself, and the silence was contagious.

And now over to Mae Sariang that sits somewhere between the latent tension and excitement of Sop Moei and the calm serenity of Mae Ngao.

Mae Sariang has neither boutique resorts for wealthy tourists, chic restaurants nor nightlife, but the town does boast small shops, state offices, guesthouses and exotic temples redolent with Burmese architecture.

What impressed me most was the view. Nestled in a valley nourished by two rivers - Mae Sariang and Yuam - the town is surrounded by farmlands that stretch out in every direction.

Travelling on a motorcycle, I found that the best viewing points were the temples. Mae Sariang has four major temples that sit atop hills: Phra That Chom Chaeng, Chom Kitti, Chom Mon, and Chom Thong.

Chom Mon Temple is the oldest, built in 1392 in Lanna style and renovated several times since, while Wat Chom Thong is the most unique with its giant-size Buddha statue overlooking the town.

Late evening the sky had turned deep blue and I lingered around Wat Chom Thong enjoying the view. As night fell an eerie calm descended. It was time to leave.

MORE INFO

A panoramic sweep of the mountains of Mae Ngao National Park that is endowed with thick forest cover.

- Mae Sariang is 760 kilometres north of Bangkok.

- Sombat Tour operates air-conditioned buses from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son via Mae Sariang. For more information, call 02-570-9030/1 and 02-570-9184.

- Regular buses connect Mae Sariang and Ban Mae Samlap. The fare is 60 baht per person each and it takes an hour either way.

- Boat fare from Ban Mae Samlap to Ban Sop Moei is 100 baht/person. Chartered boats cost 1,200 baht for a round-trip.

- Mae Ngao National Park is 45 kilometres from Mae Sariang town on Highway 105. The park's headquarters is five kilometres off the main road. Its two-bedroom unit is priced 600 baht per night. Bamboo rafting is available for 600-1,000 baht per trip for groups of four persons. Advance booking is recommended. For more information, call 053-683-210.

- River House Resort in Mae Sariang offers the best accommodation in town. Rooms are fitted with TV, air-conditioning, refrigerator and hot shower, and priced 1,700 baht per night, including breakfast. For more information, call 053-683-066.

- Riverhouse Hotel offers rooms with air-con or electric fan and hot shower. Rates range from 550-950 baht per night. For more information, call 053-621-201.

“Oh, the East is East, and the West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
- Rudyard Kipling

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