Stickman Readers' Submissions February 28th, 2006

Delightful Northern Thailand 11 – Books, Maps, Mae Fah Luang

By Hans Meier

If you ask me how we research all the side trips on our Tour de North, I recommend Oliver Hargreave's "Exploring Chiang Mai".

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— Book Center —

Hargreave's picture-heavy book (500 Baht) boasts an overload of pretty layout, stunning feathered photos and boxed texts on yellow background, but also the best detailed maps for national parks and scenic areas as far as 100 or 200 kilometers out of Chiang Mai – mostly in Chiang Mai province, plus Pai. Should you look for that resort in the 1000 – 2500 Baht bracket that pipes hot spring water into your bungalow bathtub, check Oliver's useful index. He also typed the road guides you get if you rent a car from Budget.

Our favorite map is Berndtson & Berndtson's laminated "Thailand North". The scale of 1:750.000 seems disappointingly coarse, but inside there are more detailed area maps such as for the Golden Triangle. Even after weeks of heavy use and random folding, the map doesn't show one crack. On top of that, around the Myanmar border this German-made map has routes which are not revealed by locally produced maps – and what's more interesting than a road which local authorities want to hide? We'll explore one of that secret pistes in the next part about Ang Khang.

Just for the triangle of Doi Inthanon, Pai and Mae Hong Son, with Chiang Mai town in the middle, you should also get yourself "Mae Hong Son – The Loop" (1:375.000). This map targets motor bikers and features two different categories of dirt roads; it falls apart if you look at it twice.

Should you buy your personal guide book library locally, look no further than to the

Suriwongse Book Center on Chiang Mai's Sri Donchai road. The have a fantastic collection of guidebooks and very helpful staff.

Of course they also sell Lonely Planet's "Thailand" guidebook. All in all this is of great help in Northern Thailand, even though the book and its head writer, Joe Cummings, are often mocked at by the elite of Thailand travelers. For me, Joe Cummings changed my life by opening my eyes to the hidden wonders of Thailand, Thai people and Thai lifestyle; with his extremely usable "Thai Phrase Book" (Lonely Planet, 4th edition) he gave me access to the hearts of Thai people.

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But as of the 5th edition, the "Thai Phrase Book" no longer came from Joe. And his influence on the "Thailand" guidebook waned as well: Around the ninth edition of Lonely Planet's "Thailand", the volume not only slimmed down from 1000 to about 800 pages. Joe Cummings also passed parts of the writing job to other authors with names such as Becca Blond. Immediately, sections covered by his colleagues lost in quality, just read the blahblah about the southern gulf coast. Still Joe oversees the whole fat Thailand guide book, and with its northern Thailand hotel reviews alone the book is worth its price. (We did not use the Lonely Planet dedicated to Northern Thailand only.)

— Doi Tung —

And now, after the ten-minute-trip to Myanmar and the gain of a new Thai tourist visa at Mae Sai, we turn to our Berndtson & Berndtson map and the Lonely Planet guide to leave Mae Sai by its western back door.

The map shows a small, high, winding road scratching along the Myanmar border. Just our kind of road. To get onto this road, we follow the Mae Sai city map in Lonely Planet's "Thailand" guide: on Phahonyotin road, we navigate the Suzuki into narrow soi 7. We pass a cluster of barber shops and assorted small businesses, until we finally reach the countryside.

Only to be stopped by a military checkpoint, the first of many more in the next days. We don't know if we may pass through and what the requirements could be. Do we look like Shan State independence fighters?

At this one we perform a variation of the game that worked in Thai national parks: I produce my passport with the brand new tourist visa from Mae Sai. Norah, my non-Thai ASEAN lover, plays the sweet sleeping Thai lady.

The soldier returns the passport to me. He doesn't ask for Norah's document, instead steps back a few centimeters. Can we go now? Or what? I point to our direction and smile askingly at the soldier. He doesn't react, only steps back three more centimeters. May we continue or not? Hesitatingly I step onto the accelerator and let the car roll beyond the checkpoint. We are not yet shot at. A look in the rear mirror – no more soldier to be seen. It seems we are accepted.

The road quickly winds into higher reaches and has good mountain and village views. Some serious climbs take us into a delightful forest and finally to Wat Prathat Doi Tung. Highlight here are invitingly shady picnic benches with great countryside views, where we process the first few kilos of Norah's Mae Sai fruit shopping orgy. Happy Thai tourists keep ringing the voluminous prayer bells for fun.

A bit of Suzuki Vitara hill hopping, all on very good roads, takes us to the top of Doi Tung. I must confess, when I first read "Doi Tung" on a fancy coffee shop in Bangkok's Sanam Luang tourist bazaar a year ago, I believed it was a Vietnamese business (I only knew "Doi Moi"); I had been impressed a little later that the Vietnamese seemingly managed to open another impressive coffee outlet on Chiang Mai's Chang Klan road. Actually, Doi Tung is a northern Thai mountain top and a coffee brand grown around that mountain. At their booth near the Doi Tung parking lot we settle for a much-needed shot of caffeine.

The Princess Mother, the mother of HM King Bumibhol, has built herself a swanky Swiss chalet up on Doi Tung. According to the books, it was calculated that local hill tribes, once graced with the Royal presence, would discontinue their opium businesses. To visit the villa, we first have to check-in our shoes which move into a plastic bag, then into a box. After that we may walk into the generous building with it's good views and inviting, sparsely decorated rooms all decked out in wood. The free-floating guides and caretakers here show that kind of pride, bordering arrogance, that is so prevalent in Bangkok's tourable palaces and mansions as well.

From her balcony, the Princess Mother enjoyed a delightful view of Mae Fah Luang show garden, built by her. The flower arrangements are not as monotonous and sterile as in Puping or other Royal places in the North, but here there is too much of decorum, complete with complicated, overtly well-kempt flower ornaments, tiny artificial hot springs, a tiny orchid house and lots of educational bushes – bonsai mentality throughout. We finally settle in what looks like a designer's vision of a rice field shelter, to unpack another fruitload from Mae Sai. Mae Fah Luang garden definitely is a good picnic place.

Stickman's thoughts:

Another excellent series from, ummm, errr, Hans!

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