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The Hidden Valley of the Seven Wats

Mae Chaem is one of those “on-the-way-to” towns. The traveler pulls in, looks around, decides nothing is happening, and drives out the other end. He’s “on his way” to Mae Hong Sorn. Or Pai. Or Doi Inthanon. Or the Hot-Mae Sarieng-Ob Luang Gorge triangle.

It’s easy to understand. On first encounter, Mae Chaem appears to be a town in the throes of becoming…something. For the moment, however, it is happy being what it is: a farming community in a lush valley. There are no sidewalks, no traffic lights, and the few streetlights are fluorescent tubes hanging from an electric pole. But the visitor who pauses for a bit discovers that there’s a lot more going on than is evident at first glance.

Just over two hours drive from Chiang Mai, Mae Chaem is a hub with spokes leading to Chiang Mai via Doi Inthanon, Pai, Mae Hong Sorn, Mae Sarieng, Hot, and link towns along the rectangular highway route that frames the valley. Exploring it requires a car or a motorbike (rentable in town) and some guidance since there aren’t a lot of signs. But it is worth the effort.

The ground zero, as it were, is the T-junction in the middle of town. The long stroke to the west links with Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai, and Hot. The left half of the crossbar goes to nearby villages. The right goes to Khun Yuam.

It’s primary attraction is its setting. Endless fields of rice stairstep up to the slopes of the green mountains in which the town is nestled. The valley is sliced by a winding Mae Chaem River that flows from the slopes of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, which is clearly visible from the town. The town rests on its banks.

What a bit of poking around will unveil

Besides scenery it offers seven beautiful wats, a bustling morning market, some unique ancient crafts, a quiet paddle down the Mae Chaem River, nearby waterfalls, a relaxing soak in a hot springs, and a village massage.

Mae Chaem is, first and foremost, about rice, thick stands of it. And vegetables. Visiting around the planting or harvesting season is to see the townspeople at their best, chatting and laughing as they go about the timeless tasks associated with cultivation. They are farmers and proud of it, farm folk with no desire or need to impress anyone. No fancy clothes, no spiffing up for outsiders. This, for many travelers, is its beauty.

That is evident in its midtown morning market. It begins early, at 3 a.m.; by 6 a.m. everyone has packed up and gone home. In it, one gains an appreciation of the vast array of produce the valley grows. It also teems with Karen tribesmen who form a large portion of the valley’s population.

In the post-rice season, the villagers pursue several crafts for which they have become renowned. At Ban Fai Thong, just southwest of the town, weavers produce distinctive teenjok, the finely-detailed decorative fabric that hems the bottom of pasin (sarongs) that the women wear. The diamond shapes in predominantly reds and yellows are unique to Mae Chaem.

In nearby Ban Thap, near Wat Ban Thap, craftsmen produce Pin Thong Luang, the brass hairpins with which women fix their hair into buns on festive occasions. To the northwest near Wat Kong Kan, villagers in Soon Duan Ru Hom Kram Fai Phrak Mai grow the leaves they use to dye thread indigo to produce the moh hom shirts worn by farmers and fashionable outsiders.

The valley’s culture has been long in the brewing. The town sits on an ancient trade route between Chiang Mai and Burma. Elephants, horses, and bullocks carried salt and mieng (fermented tea) to Burma, and iron tools like knives, jop (hodags), and plows, as well as clothing and household utensils back. As a result, many Burmese cultural influences can be see in the galae (crossed boards on the roof gable), recipes, Burmese-style wats and images, and songs the villagers sing.

The Seven Beauties

It is in seven wats that one finds Mae Chaem artistry at its best. Very often, Thai traditional architecture doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. From a distance, it impresses because it is golden and glittery, but up close, it is less than stellar art. Mae Chaem’s wats and monuments do pass close inspection, testament to a pride of execution among the artisans who created it. Moreover, the setting is often as brilliant as the gem. Thus, one finds beautiful wats on the shores of seas of rice, or beneath the spreading boughs of tall trees. The courtyards are often a charming jumble of buildings with everything on small, human scale, not grand, souring edifices.

Mae Chaem’s wats occur in clusters. On the southwestern edge of town are two of the best. Inside the gate of Wat Yang Luang, one is greeted by larger-than-life paintings of Buddha and two disciples on the viharn (assembly hall) wall. The wat is a revelation—it doesn’t even appear in the guidebooks—as much for its beauty as for its siting amidst rice fields stretching to the distant hills. Doors richly decorated with mythical animals lead to the interior with its large Buddha image. Step behind the image and discover, on the right, a white stone Buddha said to be 500 years old and, adjacent to it, a wall painting in white on black of a seated Buddha. On the left side of the main image is a lovely bronze image of a standing Buddha.

Close by, Wat Pa Daed, comprises a set of interesting buildings, each unique, but it is inside that its true beauty is revealed. Covering the walls are marvelous scenes of everyday life rendered in muted colors: plowing, harvesting, processions, palace life.

Across the river to the west is Wat Ban Thap. Its viharn wall is marked by a somewhat garish Buddha done in green mosaics, but move beyond it to a newish chedi marked with the 12 astrological signs rendered in aluminum and beautifully executed. Further on is an ubolsot (ordination hall) and at the end of the compound is a stairway leading into vast rice fields, its stairway guarded by superbly-detailed nak (guardian serpents).

The morning bintabaht (alms rounds) here includes a feature not found elsewhere. In addition to the young monks bearing their alms bowls, a monk carries a pair of circular wire baskets slung from a bamboo pole. On each basket are 10 shallow bowls. Villagers pour messy curries into them and avoid having to put them in plastic bags and place them atop the clean rice in the alms bowls. Eminently practical and emblematic of the valley villagers’ admirable pragmatism.

Three of the wats lie farther north of Wat Ban Thap, also on the west side of the river. Wat Phrao Noom is the most modern of the group. Its walls are covered in richly-detailed carvings of Buddhist figures. In contrast to the black lac with gold found in many wats, these are rendered in gold leaf on a chocolate brown background.

Wat Phuttha Eoen (Buddha-En on the sign) was built in 1868 and includes a feature not seen elsewhere: a bot nam, or ubolsot that rests on wooden piles in a lotus-filled pond. Especially attractive are the teal nak running along its baseboards. Next to the road, a spring provides drinking water. Inside the main viharn are murals depicting the Chadok (Last 10 lives of the Buddha before he reached enlightenment. Many lovely dtung (narrow woven, embroidered banners) associated with Lanna (northern) culture hang from the ceiling. The interior is low and dark like most Lanna wats. It also features some interesting old elephants and other lacquer decorations on the stout tree-trunk pillars holding up the portico.

Four kilometers farther up the road Wat Kong Kan. Built in 1431 by the rulers of Chiang Mai, Phrae, and Chiang Saen, the presiding Buddha image in the ubolsot is perhaps the most representative of the Mae Chaem style. The murals are of local life rather than the traditional life and previous incarnations of the Buddha. On the back wall is an exact depiction of the wat, the parishioners, and the Buddha image of this little sub-village. Like many Lanna wats (but not that many here) the prime decorative colors are red and gold.

Leave the compound and cross a bamboo bridge and then a swaying suspension bridge over the Mae Chaem River. Climb a hill to a golden chedi, and enjoy a spectacular view of the town and the layered mountains beyond.

The final wat, Wat Jiang, is situated 1.6 km. north of the “T” and is marked by huge twinned singto (lions) at the front gate. It’s primary claim to fame is an unusual hexagonal chedi.

Other attractions

There are other cultural attractions. At 8 a.m. each Friday, after the morning assembly in the courtyard, the students at Rongrian Muang Dek primary school (behind the PTT station) practice traditional arts. The girls perform the Fone Lep (fingernail dance). Nearby, younger boys practice traditional martial arts while the older ones pursue ritualized sword fighting. Behind the school, kindergarten children dance and sing. The program lasts 30-45 minutes and visitors are welcome to observe these ancient arts.

A small museum at Wat Bupparam just up the street interesting farm implements, opium tools, and old guns. Among the oddities is a collection of canteens left behind by Japanese soldiers who briefly occupied Mae Chaem during World War II.

Nature Ventures

Mae Chaem is also about enjoying natural beauty to the fullest. Boating along the Mae Chaem river is one option. Bamboo rafting is offered year-round as is rowboats or triyaks in the company of a local guide. The craft take one into a countryside characterized by villages, tall elephant grass, clean water, and an almost complete absence of garbage. The lack of development is evident in that one arrives in the town with virtually no prelude to the buildings to come, nature extending right to its doorstep. Boating and cycling opportunities are also available at Suan Pa Mae Chaem (see below)

Some 36 km. down the highway to Hot (H 1088) are (appropriately enough), the Nam Phu Lon Thepparom hot springs. It costs 200 baht for the privilege of breathing the sulfuric aromas wafting up from the springs. Most enticing is the modern spa where 50 baht buys 20 minutes of relaxing hot spring bathing in one of 10 small enclosures (warning: silver jewelry worn into the bath will tarnish; gold is OK.) Very relaxing. A few km. farther on is the impressive Ob Luang Gorge, Thailand’s Grand Canyon.

Falls and more falls

Highway 1192 to Doi Inthanon National Park through which one must pass to-from Chiang Mai are four waterfalls. Nearly 17 km. from Mae Chaem are the first two. Two km. down the hill is Huai Sai Leuang (on the right), a lovely two-stage falls; camping sites and bungalows are available. Straight on is Mae Pan Falls, a 500-meter walk down a steep trail.

Farther down the Doi Inthanon Road Chiang Mai-Mae Chaem is the more spectacular Wachirathan Falls. Mae Ya Falls is on the right, 4 km. just before reaching H 108.

The Essence of Mae Chaem

Despite the wealth of activities, for many people, it is the valley’s tranquility that will appeal. In a sense, the “nothing is happening” is part of the town’s charm. Try these scents: air freighted with the breath of jasmine, the heady scent of just-cut rice, drying sheds for onion and garlic, the smoke of straw fires in the evening. Add to it the friendliness of the townspeople, also evident in the water jars (nam jai) at wats and in front of many houses for thirsty passersby to imbibe. One breathes deeply the valley’s bucolic atmosphere and is refreshed.

Particulars:

Accommodations

Navasoung Resort on the edge of the valley and off Highway 1192 from Doi Inthanon comprises a group of bungalows and its own restaurant. An ideal home base for exploration.

Mae Chaem Hotel in the middle of town offers both traditional hotel accommodation and bungalows.

At Mae Khampaw’s homestay (081 024-4828) just up the road from V postcard, a room is 100 baht per night. In a village setting, quiet, and surrounded by nice people representative of the valley’s population. No restaurant facilities. Ask Mae Kampraw to make a refreshing Nam Dok Anchan drink from the blue gentian flowers growing on her front fence. The deep blue liquid magically turns a bright purple when lime juice is squeezed into it. Ask here or at Navasoung about a very relaxing “jap sen” Nuat Tan Boron (massage), massage for 1 hour (100 baht).

Farther afield. Nearly 30 km. down the Hot highway (H 1088) is Suan Pa Mae Chaem which includes a resort operated by the government’s Forest Industry Organization. Twenty-five bungalows are available at prices ranging from 500 to 1,200 baht. At the top end of the range, literally, is a charming tree house. The camping fee is quite reasonable; the complex can also provide tents. There is no entrance fee. The website is www.fio.co.th. The reservations phone number in Chiang Mai is 053 249-349. They can also arrange food. They offer one-hour kayak trips for 300 baht and rent cycles for use on their own bike trail.

Restaurants

The best restaurants are located on the Inthanon Road halfway between the roundabout and the intersection of the Hot-Inthanon roads south of the town. There is also an excellent guay tiew (noodle) shop on the main road opposite Mae Chaem Hotel and its branch in town on H 1192 opposite the PTT gas station.

Transportation

It is probably best to hire a van and driver in Chiang Mai (arrange pick-up at the end of your stay). Rent 150 c.c. Honda motorbikes at Pongwadee in front of the Mae Chaem Hotel on the main street. 250 baht/day.

Boating on the Mae Chaem river

Bamboo rafting: Year-round, any time of day. Ring Khun Ot at 081 023-9358. You need to find your own way to Mae Na Jon, 26 km. north of Mae Chaem. The two-hour journey costs 400 baht for a 4-person raft.

Rowboat or Triyak: Contact Nui at 081 882-8521 to arrange a 1.5 hour paddle for 600 baht for two person sharing a kayak, 400 baht for one.

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