I bought myself a buggy over the weekend. Her name is Fondue as her previous owner was Swiss and she is third-…even possibly fourth-hand. She is a tough old bird with few frills, but gets me to all sorts of spots my city Honda Jazz can’t reach.
As one does with a new toy, I immediately headed up into the hills in search of adventure. Without a map or an idea of where we were, going a friend and I set off Sunday afternoon for some off-road exploration.
Mae Sa Valley is spectacular at this time of the year. The Mae Sa River gushing and threatening to overflow at a moment’s notice looks like a dramatically frothy and churning snake which accompanies the road as we drive further and further up the valley. As we neared the Mon Jam turnoff, clouds cascaded down mountain peaks like slow-mo waterfalls, pooling as lakes in little vales and basins, making for a moody and dramatic backdrop to the fecund forest that appears to be dripping with life.
Wanting to avoid any roads, we simply pointed Fondue down a dirt track and wished for the best.
As we continued up and down sienna-coloured dirt tracks, villagers waving and giving us thumbs up, we passed waterfalls, roaming elephants, charming cafes and adorable moonshine shacks. It was all rather idyllic.
While from a distance the mountains appear to be impenetrable, in actual fact, the Suthep-Pui National Park is a patchwork of dirt tracks and trails, used by residents of the many villages who have traversed the mountainscape for generations.
And so it was that we came across a group of local off-road bikers who had stopped for a rest and asked them if they had any recommendations for us. We were told that we must visit Buak Jan, which I had never heard of.
Wending our way around the mountains, we soon drove past a small Hmong Village with waving children, slumbering dogs and chickens with death wishes, eventually seeing a jumble of domed tents and some charming straw huts up in the distance.
And so it was that a mud-splattered few hundred metres later, with Fondue straining her machine-muscles, she valiantly dragged myself and a similarly hefty friend up to a lofty mountain peak.
Fondue safely parked, we walked a minute or two before finding a spot on a bamboo deck to sit, gazing at a 270 degree vista of Chiang Mai city in the distance and nothing but undulating mountains as far as the eyes can see. A cold Leo in hand, the cool wind in my hair and I was blissed out.
An enterprising local couple who used to have an export shop in Chatuchak Market in Bangkok before the pandemic trotted up to say hello and told us that they had returned to their villageat the start of the outbreak with an idea of helping their fellow villagers. They decided to invest their life savings into this project, initially to much ridicule and doubt from their friends.
“People in the village thought we were crazy,” said Pan, the wife and owner of Buerkjunt Camping Farm [we prefer our spelling for the location]. “They all said that no one would want to come here because everyone knew Mon Jam so why would they bother coming further up here. They really didn’t understand at all why we thought this could work. But we persevered and we are now getting visitors from all over Thailand every day.”
Buerkjunt Camping Farm charges 1,999 baht for two people for one night in one of their tented domes. This comes with a moo kata bbq grill supper a deux. Pan also said that 50 baht from each guest goes into a village fund, its use to be decided upon by the entire village.
“What we are doing here is for our own people,” she explained. “We will be offering jungle experiences for guests who wish to go hunting and gathering with our men. Our elderly ladies will be teaching our traditional weaving and waxing skills. We will be having cooking classes taught by our housewives and many cultural activities which we are helping our fellow villagers to set up so that they too can earn an income from tourists.”
The views speak for themselves and the concept is sound. I did plead with Pan and her husband to please keep their promise to maintain the beauty of the area and care for the environment – both nodding vigorously and promising to do their best.
Fingers crossed this doesn’t turn into the mess that became Mon Jam and that the business owners, the villagers as well as the tourists realise what a treasure they have in this truly spectacular spot.
As the sun began to lower somewhere in the distant horizon, we made our way back to Fondue, hopped in, waved Pan and her man good bye and meandered our way down the muddy tracks back home.
It really was rather glorious.