On top of the world

The vista from the top of Doi Pui Luang is breathtaking – getting there via lesser-known routes makes it even more rewarding

I was feeling high. And it wasn't just because I was 1,731m above sea level. It was also because the air was so fresh and the view so mesmerising. Surrounding me was an endless sea of mountains, the bell-shaped peak of Doi Pui Luang upon which I stood rising above them all.

On Doi Pui Luang, no matter in which direction you look, you’ll find yourself surrounded by mountains all the way to the horizon. In the morning after enjoying the sunrise from our campsite, Song (pictured) led us to this clifftop a 10-minute-walk away. From there, we could see a sea of fog in the distance.

Sharing the magic moment with me were my friends Tui and Ae, and Suthee, our Karen guide. Suthee led us here via a hiking trail from his village, Ban Huai Hi, at the foot of the mountain. There were no other visitors that evening. We had the entire mountain, which felt like the entire world, all to ourselves.

After sunset, we walked down from the summit to a nearby spot where we'd set up camp. Under a big bright moon, we could navigate our way down the slope without the aid of a torch. However, the strong moonlight also meant that our chances of enjoying a starry night were slim. The temperature was also dropping so quickly that, after an hour of chat by the campfire we rushed to the comfort and warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.

As I was about to fall asleep, I heard somebody approaching our camp. I recognised the voice: it was Song, Suthee's uncle, who we'd met in the village. He helped arrange for Suthee to act as our guide and porter, and said he'd follow us after he'd finished his work. I thought he was only saying that to be friendly. But here he was, even though it's insane to walk in the forest alone at night. I went out of my tent to say hello.

Except for the steep beginning, the 2km-long trail up Doi Pui Luang was not difficult, and most definitely worth it for the splendid vista at the top.

Song seemed very fresh, not what you'd expect of a 55-year-old who's just hiked up a mountain. "It's like my backyard," he shrugged. "I just want to make sure everybody is OK."

The next morning, after a simple breakfast, Song guided us to a clifftop not far away. From there, we could clearly see the unique shape of Doi Pui Luang's. We could also see a sea of fog covering a nearby valley. Along the way, we admired the highland plants which don't grow at lower altitudes.

Song was full of surprises. Later in the morning, as we climbed down the mountain, Song carried the big rucksack, with all the tents tied to it. Like us, Suthee walked down with minimum load. Despite his age and small frame, his uncle was very strong.

Back in Ban Huai Hi, Suthee's wife had prepared for us a tasty traditional Karen meal. Then, after a brief tour of the village, we said goodbye and continued along the mountain road to Galyani Vadhana (formerly known as Wat Chan) and Samoeng districts of Chiang Mai. It was the first time in years that we'd followed this remote route and we were somewhat disappointed to discover that, although the forest on both sides of the road was still in good condition, the section between Wat Chan and Samoeng is now well paved -- no longer quite so much fun for mountain bike freaks like us. (See map for a better picture of the route.)

We discovered the same thing along another route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Khun Yuam. The former dirt track between Mae Wang and the royal agricultural research centre at Khun Wang has likewise been paved. Elsewhere, the road between Mae Chon Luang, a similar research facility nearby, and Ban Mae Na Chon was smoother than before but still dirt. This path is mostly downhill and so still great for mountain biking.

Still, for this trip, the unforgettable view from the top of Doi Pui Luang remains the highlight. It's really one of those places that you can never visit too many times.

That night, under the light of a Moon that was very bright and seemed very close, we had some tea by a small campfire. Suthee, our young Karen guide, brought along bamboo cups and a kettle made by drilling a hole into a section of bamboo pole, which I thought was amazing. Suthee told me that the water inside the bamboo kettle can be boiled several times before the fire burns too deep into the wood.

Chiang Mai Royal Agricultural Research Centre (Khun Wang) is one of the best sites to see the blossoms of nang phya suea khrong (Himalayan wild cherry), which bloom in their full glory at this time of year. At the centre, a legacy of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, you can also learn about several colder-climate plants and fruit trees, from peach, plum and orange to macadamia and coffee. The old picture of the beloved monarch was taken at the centre on Feb 18, 1982.

The town of Khun Yuam has several attractions, one of them being a World War II-related museum. The Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial focuses on the close relationship between locals and Japanese troops on their way into what was then Burma. Locals provided help to the Japanese troops when they were defeated in battles and had to retreat from the other side of the border. This old photograph, one of many at the museum, presents a lesser-known side of the great war.

Towards the top of the mountain, there are no tall trees. Although the soil is hard and lacks nutrients, many varieties of plants thrive. I suggested to our guide that a clear walking path be marked in this zone to help protect these high-altitude plants from the boots of careless hikers.

The Karen villagers of Ban Huai Hi at the foot of Doi Pui Luang are proud of their culture. Women still wear traditional costumes which they make themselves. According to Karen tradition, clothing is a way to identify a woman’s marital status. Married women wear clothes that are more colourful, with more elaborate patterns.

For those who don’t wish to camp on Doi Pui Luang, a homestay with a local family in Ban Huai Hi is an interesting option. Apart from getting first-hand experience of the Karen way of life, you’ll also get to enjoy traditional food such as khao buea, boiled rice mixed with seasonal vegetables. It reminded me of risotto.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve travelled along the mountain roads that run between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son a few times. These days many of them are paved, except for a few sections, such as the direct link between Khun Wang and Ban Mae Na Chon and the road between Ban Huai Hi and Ban Huai Tong. (In the map on page 1, these dirt tracks are represented as dashed lines, the former the lower one and the latter the upper one). On this trip, my friends and I brought along our mountain bikes. Knowing that one day the dirt surface will be covered with asphalt or concrete, we wanted to ride these tracks through the scenic forests while we still could. If you’re a cyclist, I recommend that you enjoy some of these epic rides while the trails are still in mountain-bike-friendly condition.

TRAVEL INFO

  • The access road to Ban Huai Hi, the Karen village that is the gateway to Doi Pui Luang, splits off Road 108 at a point about 6km south of Mae Hong Son town and about 80km north of Khun Yuam.
  • Much of this 26km section of the winding mountain road, which continues all the way to Ban Wat Chan and Samoeng in Chiang Mai, is still unpaved but good enough for motorcycles and pickups or other vehicles with ample ground clearance. In case you do not have such transportation, a shuttle between the beginning of the access road and the village can be arranged.
  • Call Song Kwangtoo on 085-712-3316.

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