If you think you've been there and done that 10 times, here's a little something that might make you feel like a real adventurer and get a better feeling for the locals.
It is the road from Thatorn to the village of Mae Salong or Chiangrai. The route is about 42 kilometers to Mae Salong or 92 kilometers to Chiangrai, and passes dozens of villages of Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Karen, Yao and KMT Chinese people.
Some of the villages are small, native places some kilometers from the main road, and some have paved streets and electricity, but all of them are unique and interesting . There are zeelors that run between Thatorn and Mae Salong, and from there to Chiangrai city. For a more flexible trip, rent a motorcycle or Jeep in Chiangrai and make a two or three days of it before looping back. You can also rent a mountain bike in Thatorn to go riding in this flat area.
Thatorn itself is a major docking point for boats going to Chiangrai. For that reason, many people overlook the sights in town. Thatorn is home to the famous Wat Thatorn, the head temple in the district of Mae Ai . It is also the beginning of a road that runs to Chiangrai through Mae Salong and many Hilltribe villages. Thatorn is located in a bend of the Mae Kok River in the quiet hills of northern Thailand. There are direct buses from Bangkok to Thatorn, as well as from Chiangmai.
Instead of going directly from Thatorn to Chiangrai as soon as you get there, take a day or two and visit some of the friendly Hilltribe villages on the road to Chiangrai. If travelling by water is more your thing, you can catch the boat from a village further along the way, but be sure to buy your ticket in Thatorn first.
The best time to leave Thatorn is around 8 AM to capture the best side of village life along the way. At 8 there will still be people in the village who have not gone to their fields yet, and those that have gone will be your travelling companions in zeelors. Riding in zeelors will help you meet more people and get a better sense of local village life. Renting a mountain bike or motorcycle in Thatorn is another good way to get around, with the advantage that you do not have to wait for a new zeelor or motorcycle taxi to get where you are going.
Heading out of town the first stop along the way is the turnoff to the silk and Sa paper making village of Baan Mai . It is about nine kilometers from Thatorn to the turnoff. To get to the village, take either a zeelor or a motorcycle taxi from the zeelor stop on the highway to the town three kilometers away. If you are on a motorcycle or mountain bike, turn right onto the rough concrete road and travel about three kilometers to the village.
Baan Mai is a Chinese Shan village with several silk weaving houses. There are some very good deals on silk and Sa (mulberry bush) paper here. Most of the people keep their stock in their houses so you have to ask them to see the full selection. The local temple, Wat Mork Cham, is a Burmese Shan style Wat, so it makes an interesting change from the usual.
There are two ways to get back to the main road and continue your trip. There are motorcycle taxis and zeelors that run from Baan Mai to the highway on the paved road, or you can walk two kilometers along a dirt track past a little-known Lahu village. It is a good walk through some picturesque rural scenery, including locals working their rice fields. The road is easily negotiable on foot, by bicycle or by motorcycle.
No matter which way you get to the main road, the next stop is the Akha village at Huai Sala. To get there from the Baan Mai turnoff, ride or drive two kilometers in the same direction until you come to the Huai Sala on the left side of the road. The dirt road from the Lahu village comes out only about 100 meters down the road from the Huai Sala.
Right by the Huai Sala is an Akha village. This particular village is quite touristy, and the people can be a little persuasive. Stop here, though, because it is an interesting village all the same. The people here usually expect to be paid for the privilege of taking their picture. After you get enough of the salespeople here, head off down the road to the Lisu village at Louta.
Louta is one of the more prosperous villages long the way. There is an excellent guest house here run by a Mr. Asa, who also does treks into the more remote areas and villages. To get there, go just one kilometer up the main road from the Huai Sala and you will come to a turnoff. There is a sign in Thai and English that says "Lisu Louta". The 1500 meter road to this village starts is paved. Just look for the signs pointing the way to "Asa's Guest House". Asa is the only guide that many of these villages will allow, so pay a visit to his guest house before setting off. This is a good place to spend the night before continuing your journey.
The next stop along the way is the town of Muang Ngam . To get there, just cross the street from the turnoff to Louta and walk about 100 meters away from Thatorn. Just on the other side of the street is a dirt road that leads to the village of Muang Ngam. This is a Christian Karen village and the villagers are friendlier than most. They are more apt to allow picture taking and watching them work in their traditional costumes. Another ten minute walk along the road takes you to a Buddhist Karen village that is very similar to the first village. In this village there is a secluded guest house owned by a Thai man and his Karen wife. If you stay in the guest house, you will have a good chance of visiting the Yao village not far away.
To get to the Yao village, walk 30 minutes in the direction away from the road. The village will be on your left. It is home to only about six families, so there is a possibility that no one will be home when you get there. The best time to visit is around 6 in the evening, so the best thing to do is stay in the Karen guest house.
From here to the Christian Lahu village of Pa Tai is a 15 minute walk. This is a very developed village with modern stone buildings. A five minute walk down the river and over a hill takes you to another, more traditional Lahu village. To get back to the highway from Pa Tai, you can take a motorcycle taxi over the six kilometers. They may be hard to find, though, so try explaining to one of the villagers and maybe you can get a ride on their motorbike.
Back on the main road, there is a hot spring about 1 kilometer further on towards Mae Salong. It looks like a big resort, and it has covered baths for soaking off the grime and tiredness of a day in the bush. This is a good place to stop for lunch.
The rest of the trip to the Mae Salong turnoff is 15 kilometers, and the way is dotted with Chinese, Shan, and Akha villages. After the turnoff and just seven kilometers from Mae Salong proper there is a Lisu and an Akha village that get very few visitors. To get to them, look for a sign reading "Lisu Handicraft". That is the turnoff, and the village is another kilometer or so. Don't buy handicrafts from the first couple of houses, but go further into the village. After that, go back to the main road to visit the Akha village.
About 1/2 kilometer further on towards Mae Salong is a sign reading "Akha village." Turn right here to see this village. Keep to the right of the fork in the road, and you will come to the top of the village. Many experienced travelers have said that this is one of the best Akha villages in Thailand.
After returning to the main road, you will come to the town of Mae Salong in about 5 kilometers. It is a small, dusty border town that has very little to see. It is interesting as a stopover to Chiangrai, but the massage parlors and Karaoke bars can be a little much, as can accommodation prices. Visit for a few hours, but the scenery is better on the way to Chiangrai.
The best way to get to Chiangrai is through Mae Chan . The scenery is better than the direct route and there are no big tour groups stopping off at villages en masse. To go this way, head back towards Thatorn to the Mae Chan intersection, and flag down a green zeelor to Chiangrai. If you have a motorcycle, just go direct. There are quite a few Akha villages clinging to hillsides in this area that are good for exploring.
To get back to Thatorn from Chiangrai, take the road through Mae Suai. Mae Suai is just South of Chiangrai, and the road from there to Thatorn is a beautiful stretch of undisturbed villages and scenery. The road comes out five kilometers South of Thatorn, so you can drive back or continue your trip by heading South to Chiangmai.
This trip is a great weekender, or take three days and enjoy yourself. At any rate have a great trip, and maybe we'll see you there!