After a dizzying ascent into the clouds shrouding Doi Inthanon mountain, we took a sharp left and dived hood-first into the Mae Chaem valley; crawling around hairpin bends, slicing through plush greeneries and drinking in heart-stirring views.
Mae Chaem is charming; a one-karaoke-bar town with beautiful temples, some lovingly restored by our personal guide for the journey, Ajarn Vithi Phanichphant of Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, who kindly invited us to explore the mountains beyond Doi Inthanon, and some of their hidden spiritual secrets. After a night of singing along in hard-core kam muang with the crowd at the local karaoke bar, walking around the quiet courtyard of Wat Pa Daet at dawn and taking a meditative moment in its beautifully decorated viharn, was a tranquil start to the hectic day to come. We endured a breakfast of sticky rice, buffalo bits, fermented pork and other unmentionables – or rather unquestionables – before heading into the mountains towards Baan Pae, 50 kilometres beyond.
The air cooled, the road dipped, cleaved, bumped and at times dropped off, and the rough sienna hued drive was lined with perkily-facing-the-sun and waving-in-the-wind bua thong Mexican sunflowers. This is a predominantly Lua area, indigenous inhabitants of Chiang Mai, whose presence predate any of Lanna’s ancient cities. They are distinctive in appearance and have their own culture, religious beliefs, language and traditions. There are also villages of Karen, Lisu and other hill people dotted around. It is tough going, but as we rounded a corner, a good hour or so after leaving Mae Chaem in a cloud of dust, we faced one of the most incongruous sights we had ever seen. A massive Catholic church and matching buildings dotting a hillside.
St. Joseph Mae Chaem in Baan Din Khao is run by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres who have been doing missionary work in Thailand since 1898. This 50 million baht school boards nearly 300 Karen and Lisu children – though interestingly none from the animist and shamanistic Lua villages – and comprises five levels including rooms for staff, dorms for children, a library, class rooms, music room and other facilities. Though there is no electricity available, the solar panels provide enough for minimum light at night and bare necessities (though sadly when we called for more information two weeks later, we were told that the panels had been stolen). The accompanying church, perched on a hilltop commanding sweeping views of the valley below apparently is supposed to be kept hush hush, and though there are rumours that it cost up to 10s of millions of baht to build, the nuns are at great pains to explain that most of its costs were donated, and it belongs to the village, being separate from the actual school. Apparently the church has received some criticism and the nuns were quite clear that it was not part of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres’s project. The forestry department donated the land for a 30 year lease for these properties and the hard working nuns and volunteers from abroad, apart from teaching, also help villagers on matters of health and hygiene, as well as acting as a social centre. The church, which comes with steeples, bells, a massive granite alter, and stained glass, is attended by the children every day before school, as well as neighbouring villagers for Sunday mass.
Following our curious photographer’s naughty tug on the rope and the bell’s loud chime, we decided it was time to head further into the hills. As our ears popped with the altitude, and we wended our way along mountains which were not made to be carved into roads, we came across a charming little church at Baan Hoh, this Trinity Church, while a poverty-stricken cousin to our previous cathedral-like church was adorable and, while closed during the week, was lovingly cared for and maintained.
A good hour later we finally stopped and Ajarn Vithi excitedly led us down a path into the jungle. After visiting a temple, a large church and a petite church, this was the moment when I felt the spine tingle. An Avatar-esque banyan tree with its labyrinth of roots shooting into the ground, stood silently in the jungle acting as sentinel for the Lua village of Mae Pae, whose entrance it guards. A small offering of woven baskets laid respectfully by one of its roots, but apart from that, there wasn’t sign of a human hand in sight. A nearby tree, dotted with hundreds of old and new bee hives, hummed with noise, but somehow this giant banyan felt silent and serene. We walked amongst the roots, we sat on a bough, we stared up at its branches and finally made our way back to our truck to head home. Rustling through the bush, we nearly bumped into a Lua man, Uncle Duang, who was off hunting birds and picking chili. At 66 years old, he was proud to show us his traditional tattoos which were made when he was 14 by a travelling tattoo artist, a common trade in those days. He told us that his village, which is guarded by the Banyan tree, are animists and though they have taken on some Buddhist beliefs, have resisted any missionary endeavours to convert.
The entire drive from Mae Chaem to the tree and back, with Kodak moment photo stops, was around five hours, though would have been more enjoyable with more time. It is a beautiful and fascinating part of Chiang Mai and if you have time, we highly recommend that you simply get into a four wheel vehicle and explore.