The Hiding Village Thoed Thai
Well hidden it is too, tucked away in the mountains some 24 sinuous kilometres from Mae Salong, 13 kilometres from the Burmese border and rarely seen by anyone until they built the road that led into the town in the mid ’90s. Thoed Thai, formerly called ‘Hin Taek’ (a ‘broken stone’ was found in the Mae Kham river when the village was discovered), is something of a Thai oddity; it’s a unique, remote – in many senses of the word – and sometimes fantastical place that is a veritable marketplace of cultures, religions and languages that have traded and lived alongside each other since the birth of the town (the Shan have been in Thoed Thai for over 100 years, and according to anthropologists the first Akha village in northern Thailand was near Thoed Thai in 1903). Even though officially and inextricably Thai, Thoed Thai lacks Thainess and retains, unlike most other multi-ethnic Thai towns, the cultural roots of its various ethnic groups. You might hear Yunnanese being spoken on one street corner and Akha on the next; you may even hear Thai being spoken with a Chinese accent, while physically, sartorially, the people of the town, without much effort, embrace eclecticism. Most of the residents are of Shan extraction, a large percentage are Yunnanese, and then there are Akha, Palong, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Wa hill tribes. We were told that even with such a diversity of people with varying beliefs and cultural praxes, the town’s residents live side by side in symbiotic harmony. Testament to this might be the fact that a mosque, church, Thai wat and Chinese temple are all within walking distance of each other. A local resident told us how the army had brought Thai Muslims from the south on a two week Busman’s holiday so they might see how well Thoed Thai’s ethnic groups get along.
The Wild East
Imagine one of those strip towns from a spaghetti western but replace the saloon with a dim, fairy light speckled karaoke bar; when you ride into town the locals busy at work stop for a moment to look at the strange looking foreigners. Thoed Thai is very much off the beaten track and sees hardly any tourism; perhaps most outsiders that visit are Chinese tourists – seeking a traditional China that is fast disappearing – and Taiwanese missionaries promoting the bible. In the past the town was a Shan trading hub where people would come from all over Shan state, Laos and the surrounding mountains. With their long cattle trains they would come to trade all sorts of goods – from salt and dry food to tobacco – with each other and traders from other parts of Thailand. People settled there and lived in virtual obscurity – the nickname of the town was always Baan Lap Lay (Hiding Village) – until one man made it (in)famous.
Khun Sa, known to the CIA as the Opium King, known to other detractors as the Prince of Death, and to his followers as a hero, a freedom fighter and a loving father of thousands, was at one time the most wanted man in the world – to the CIA. In the ’70s Khun Sa decided to make his headquarters in the little trading hub of Thoed Thai. According to one local resident Khun Sa did much for the town, building schools, hospitals, water and electricity supplies, temples, religious sites and sporting areas. A resident informed us that Khun Sa was a sociable man who could regularly be seen down at the market; he was known for his kindness, not for his drug trafficking acumen. The money he made from opium, it is said, was to fortify his Shan United Army (SUA) and fight the encroaching Burmese in an effort to attain autonomy for the Shan State. Khun Sa made the then Hin Taek his HQ until 1982, when Prem Tinsulanonda came to power and after much American insistence, the Thai army tried to run Khun Sa out of town. The first attempt was a failure, but on the second attempt, with the help of the air force bombing Khun Sa’s well protected camp, he was run out of town for good (this ‘shoot-out’ was big news at the time and made CNN headlines as well as an article in Time). Khun Sa died in 2007 from complications due to diabetes, but his legacy, his heroism, still stirs the people of Shan State and northern Thailand, especially in Baan Hin Taek (the Thai government ordered the name changed after Kun Sa’s retreat _ the new name means ‘Honour of Thailand’). His HQ is now a museum where you can see where he lived, read about him, and view some of his tools, costumes and instruments. Better still, talk to locals about Khun Sa as many would see him around town on a regular basis and some knew him personally.
The panoramas around Mae Salong and Thoed Thai are some of the best scenery you will find in Thailand, and you will no doubt be impressed enough to stop every five minutes to take a picture if you take the time to do a bit of exploring. The Rimtaan guesthouse, one of only three places to stay in Thoed Thai is both very comfortable and an attractive resort that is nicely landscaped and flanked by the river. The owner, who goes by the name of John, is fluent in 6 languages (including English) and is a local historian who seems to know just about everyone. John will make sure you know where to explore and he can also hire you bicycles and motorbikes, while horse treks can be arranged if notice is given. Just a short ride from the centre of town you can be in hill tribe villages where western faces have hardly ever been seen: this is Thailand unspoiled, un-exploited, virtually unheard of.
Wat Kha Kao is the home of a giant bronze Buddha, while Wat Kha Kam is also a very attractive temple where you can talk to the monks and learn something about the history of Thoed Thai. Both places are best seen at sunrise, especially in the winter months when fog settles on the town in the morning. You should wake up at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. and find the morning market, just off the main drag; here you will see the town’s cultural diversity in full flower. Akin to Ascot on racing day, but with much less money spent, hats seem to be at the height of fashion and you will witness perhaps some of most unique head gear you’ve ever seen. The local traders, though friendly, are not so used to outside visitors and most likely won’t speak any English, possibly even Thai, but that shouldn’t stop you from purchasing a pig’s heart. For photographers the morning market is a delight, with the street running east-west and the early morning golden rays of the sun shining perfectly down the centre of the road and market.
Other activities are trekking, camping and visiting the tea plantations. This can all be arranged with a guide. Ask at Rimtaan.
Unsurprisingly, as most of the town is at the market before sunrise, the nightlife in Thoed Thai is not as grandiose as the scenery. However, there are some karaoke bars on the main street where you can sing a song _ the presence of a foreigner seems to get the locals excited. We weren’t quite sure of the ‘modus operandi’ of some of the local karaoke places, though they were far from smutty or aggressive. The main drag does have one ‘trendy’ looking place called Soom Hua which was opened by doctors and nurses from the local hospital who wanted a place where they could hang out together. Young locals meet here regularly for a knees-up and seem more than happy to chat with foreigners.
The best time for a trip would be in winter though the hot season is also a good time to visit. In Hua Mae Kham, during the first week of November they have the sunflower festival and mixed hill tribe festival. Also on 7th December at the end of this year you can see the Shan New Year festival. From Thoed Thai you can travel 13 kilometres to Mae Moh on the Burma border, or 30 kilometres to Hua Mae Kham, further on, also on the border. You can also link up with Doi Tung via Huai Mu on an extremely tight, steep, twisting, narrow asphalt road.
Getting to Thoed Thai
It’s not difficult to find, just perhaps hard to reach. You can either drive down the Chiang Mai-Fang Road and then follow the road from Fang to Mae Salong and then on to Thoed Thai or you can follow the Chiang Rai Road and go to Mae Chan, then on to Thoed Thai. The roads are spectacular once you get within 60 kilometres of Thoed Thai though don’t try going at night and be careful if on a bike. Big bikes are recommended over small ones but ride with caution. We came across a bike fatality on the way.
We used the GT Rider Golden Triangle guide map to get there and there’s no doubt this map is the best one for exploring the top north and finding all the secrets of the Golden Triangle.
Rimtaan guesthouse, 15 Moo 1, Thoed Thai Tel: 053 730 209 or call John 081 950 8151 (to be sure, reserve your bungalows. Some are large sharing, some are next to the river that runs at the back of the resort).
Price: 300-400 baht night.