Doi Angkhang really is at the precipice of a wild frontier. I discovered this when our press trip rolled up at an army lookout point somewhere on the roof of Thailand, and there before us was the sweeping hermit-like expanse of Myanmar. Only a small saddle separated us from the their red flagged post, but beyond that lay a cavernous valley and manifold ranges of wild untouched mountains. They seemed dark, moody and shadowed and I could see no villages or roads, not even a tell-tale whisp of smoke. I realised then that getting to this point from the Myanmar side could take you weeks, if you were allowed to penetrate the area at all. This was, without doubt, the end of the road as far as civilisation was concerned in this region.
Minutes before we had passed through a rare Palong village. If real estate here was based on views they’d all be millionaires, but on these mountains value lies with culitvatable land. Anywhere there is a ridge suitable for agriculture you can spot these colourful hilltribe folk bent double over their vegetable gardens, or in their small orchids. In decades past they may have been idly sitting about waiting for the poppy blossoming season, but opium hasn’t been seen much in these parts for more than 30 years. In fact the area is now famous as the flagship of the highly successful King’s Project to replace opium production with sustainable and lawful agricultural alternatives.
Doi Angkhang is described as Thailand’s ‘Little Switzerland’ and it’s not difficult to imagine why. This mountainous cluster of peaks and valleys sits at 1500m above sea level, enjoys a cool climate year-round and offers brilliant views wherever you look. Since drug barons and pockets of communist insurgents were expunged from the area a decade ago it has become steadily more popular, especially with Thai tourists. Now it has a reputation for some of the most rugged scenery and steepest roads in the North, and it occupies one of the Kingdom’s most remote corners - in a bulge along the Northern border.
Taking it’s name from the bowl (ang) shaped valley set among a vague circle of summits, Doi Angkhang is a three hour drive North of Chiang Mai through the pretty Chiang Dao area. It is promoted now as an eco-tourism destination, less so for its ecology but more for the economic aspect of the programs which have offered upliftment to the variety of hilltribes living there. None-the-less it remains a pristine wilderness with very little commerical development, and a number of interesting attractions and activities. To the foreign visitor it offers a unique and accessible window into a seldom seen world of rural southeast Asia.
Most of the area is under the administration of the Royal Angkhang Project. And they welcome visitors to witness the results of their efforts to preserve the natural environment and improve the livelyhood of the locals. When the project kicked off in 1969 much of the hillsides were depleted of forest. Illegal logging and forest clearing for poppy fields had left the landscape barren and susceptible to erosion, as well as severe wind conditions. However, a patient re-aforestation programme, employing local labour, has returned the forest to its original canopy — albiet with a number of foreign species. Our guide was quick to point out that these were carefully selected to maximize growth and protection while minimising the impact of change to the eco-system. Today a nature reserve is demarcated above the Angkhang Resort, which include nature trails and good biking routes. Bird watching is also being promoted, with more than 1000 species recorded in the area.
The resort itself, owned by the Project but managed by the Amari group, offers very comfortable cabins and has been specifically designed as a low impact development. It uses local materials, such as teak, carefully manages its waste disposal and draws much of its workforce from the local communities. They provide tours of the local projects, trips to the border post and lookout points, and a number of activities, including trekking and mule riding.
Anxious to show us the success of the Royal Project, our hosts dragged us off to a Musor (also known as Lahu) hilltribe village. While the village was still very primitive and poor, the next generation of this community were being trained as ‘future guides’ and were clearly enjoying their school activities. Judging by the number of tour groups stomping through their classrooms each week, they were getting some good hands-on experience with outsiders. Apart from the grubby uniforms (the scout outfits had been supplied by the governement) and dilapidated facilities, the school rooms weren’t too dissimilar to classrooms I’ve previously taught in in Chiang Mai.
The kids sang us songs and demonstrated their cadet drill. On the walls were newspaper cuttings of ‘Euro 2004’, with a ubiquitous Beckham poster. Of the 300 students (ranging in age from 5 — 15) almost half walked the three kilometres back and forth from the the nearby Palong village every day. Their parents spend their days tending small plots loaned to them by the government and sell some of the produce at a market in the valley, from where it finds its way to Fang and other nearby towns.
Meanwhile a handful of the kids’ grandmothers loitered menacingly outside the school desperate to sell us handmade jewellery. Even up here in the mountains some things never change, and for a minute there I thought I was in Chiang Mai’s night market. “Haaarshhip (50) Baht” one muttered with a hint of intoxication as she pressed a handful of cheap silver bangles into my chest. She struck a macabre image with her toothless mouth blood red from betel nut. As the only foreigner on the trip I remained her focus, and she relented only briefly to spit out a gobfull of red saliva. The effects of tourism here were obvious.
We moved on to wander among their weather beaten bamboo longhouses scattered among the mud. Piglets, dogs and chickens trotted about aimlessly, but it was the incredible views of the Fang valley that kept distracting us all. Visiting these villages creates somewhat of a human zoo, and even my Thai colleagues from the city seemed fascinated by this completely unfamiliar ethnic group. However, the locals seemed unperturbed, even welcoming of the ever increasing number of outsiders that had found their way up here.
In all there are four different hilltribes settled on Doi Angkhang, including the Lahu, Palong, Thai Yai (Shan) and Jin Haw, and each have a unique dress and customs. The Jin haw (galloping Chinese), for instance, migrated from China during the cultural revolution and originally came as maruding horseman. The Palong, whose village abuts the border army post, are a rare minority group whose numbers in Thailand are less than 2000. They arrived as recently as 1984 as refugees from Myanmar and were quickly settled, perhaps to provide a buffer against further arrivals.
These villages are the lucky ones, for this area has been the showcase of the King’s Project and they have experienced few of the delays and hurdles that others have encountered in receiving full rights and recognition as Thai citizens.
Down in the Angkhang valley is the Royal Project centre which is a visitor’s locus point and final destination along this rollercoaster road. At the headquarters there are several hectares of magnificent gardens that roll off the mountainside with a colourful arrangment of rhodedendrons and azaleas as well as an ‘English Rose’ garden. The fresh mountain climate and orderly gardens is more reminiscent of Europe and there is a terrace restaurant catering to visitors.
Down in the valley you can also visit the green houses and orchids of the project, a veritable salad bowl of produce tended by employees from the nearby villages. These vegetables and fruits — which include peaches, persimmons, strawberries and kiwi fruit — are sold nationwide under the brand Doi Kham. There is also a magnificent nursery and sculptured arrangement of domestic plants and shrubs, housed under an enormous greenhouse. Also in the valley is a village with a few handicraft vendors and a modest guesthouse. Spending a night or two up here in the fresh cool air, away from the tourist development seen elsewhere in and around Chiang Mai is rewarding. The area is accessible year round with good roads and fantastic scenery.
It seems so strange that a day earlier we had been in bustling Chiang Mai. Even the trekking routes are no longer considered adventurous and remote. But out here on Doi Angkhang, where Thailand’s tourist laden attractions come to an end, you can really feel like you are gazing out into the an uninhabited and untouched wilderness.
Published At : http://www.1stopchiangmai.com