All photos by Chatchai Yimyam
Speaking about Doi Tao, during the old days, most people might think that it was an inaccessible and barren area that took almost 2 hours to travel to by car. However, it might not be like that anymore, why you ask? Thanks to the Thai government’s effort in promoting Doi Tao into a legit tourist destination, many tourism-promotion programs have included Doi Tao as one of their selective tourist destinations, including the Charming Chiang Mai program. Without further ado, let’s get to know more about Doi Tao, shall we?
Trace of the Bygone Days
Originally, the residents of Doi Tai diffusely populated near the sides of Hat Creek and Ping River, particularly dense near the Ping River. At the time, the residents would rely on farming rice and tobacco or domesticating lacs for a living, shipping their products to Tak and Pak Nam Pho.
According to the guide Nan, some said that the pioneers of Doi Tao were remnants of King Naresuan’s army, especially those from the commissariat who were tasked with rice production. Furthermore, most of them might originally come from Suphan Buri, judging from the current Doi Tao folk’s unique accent which is commonly spoken by the people of Suphan Buri. Regardless, the information may not hold much validity since I have never found any reference that supports the idea. However, as for Doi Tao’s commerce in the past, I am convinced that lac was one of the main products of Doi Tao because there is even a local community name Ban Tha Khrang (The Lac Residence), so there might be a large number of lac-farming and trading around here.
For ages, Doi Tao had been part of Hot District, it wasn’t until 1979 that the place got recategorized as a district. The construction of the Bhumibol Dam took place from 1961 to 1964. In 1963, due to the construction of the dam, there was a severe flood in the area, people needed to abandon their homes and evacuate to the place which the government allocated for them, those who were not quick enough paid the price. At the time, the government handed out 400 THB/rai (1600 sqm or approximately 0.4 acres) of land you used to possess to every relocated resident. The rich residents did not contend with the allocated lands since the area was full of sandy soil, making it barren so they moved away. Meanwhile, the poor ones basically had no other choice but to bear with it. Consulted with the local elders, I was able to combine the information from the mural of Ban Mut Ka Tawan Tok at Wat Patchimkaram and their recollection of the place, allowing me to visualize and identify where were the allocated lands and who exactly relocated there.
The murals below display how the residents of Mut Ka Tawan Tok once lived their life.
The List of Villagers and Their Allocated Lands
- Ngiw Thao villagers – Ban Plaeng 4
- Mut Ka Tawan Tok villagers – Ban Plaeng 2
- Mut Ka Tawan Ork villagers – Ban Plaeng 1
- Ban Chang villagers – Ban Plaeng 8
- Ban Nong villagers – Ban Nong Bua Kham (but the local temple was moved to Li, Lamphun District) and Ban Plaeng 5
- Ban Tha Khrang villagers – Pong Thung, Mae Sot, and Ban Sam Lang, Chom Thong District
- Ban Tha Duea villagers – Ban Plaeng 5 and Nong Phak Bung
- Ban Thong Prasart villagers – Ban Thong
- Ban Noi villagers – Ban Plaeng 14
- Ban Na Keng villagers – Ban Huai Hin, Na Kho Ruea, Hot
- Ban An villagers – Ban An Chadsan, Ban An Dong Than, and Ban An Huai Chan Chawa
- Ban Wang Mo villagers – Ban Wang Mo
- Ban Nong I Pum villagers – Huai Sai Laeng and Thung Pong, Hot District
– Boonmee Thawong, the guru of Pong Thung Village
– เล่าขานตำนานดอยเต่า by Wittaya Putthanamaetada, Ph.D.
There are two cetiya (memorials of Buddha) that you can see at Doi Tao Lake, one is Phra That Doi Ruea and another is Phra That Doi Koeng; the latter has been here before the flood, it is practically a symbol of Doi Tao. However, it is quite difficult to reach, so Phra That Doi Ruea was built in the exact image as an alternative.
Speaking about a hard-to-reach place, I was able to visit the Mut Ka Tawan Tok where I could find Ban Doi Luang and Doi Kaew, habitats of Karen people founded over 300 years ago.
Mut Ka subdistrict consists of 5 villages, 3 around Doi Tao area and 2 which you need to cross the Doi Tao Lake, those are Ban Doi Luang and Ban Doi Kaew. In order to cross to the other side, you can use a public vehicle at Ban Tha Bo Rae; Actually, you can drive your car and ship it across the lake with you using a ferry but I don’t recommend this method since navigating through the road can be tough, you absolutely need a local person as the Village Chief Too to guide you. Want to keep in touch with him? Call 09 5221 9678. But if you want to go by yourself, just contact Jay by calling 09 7990 5112, and he will prepare a ferry for a round-trip with 400 THB per car as a fee.
Sightseeing in Mut Ka
Mut Ka was the name of a sunken village which in Thai means “a murder of crows during twilight”, reflecting the nature of this village which also is habituated by a murder of crows that will return to the village during night time. At first, the village was divided into two areas including Mae Ka Don Jai aka. Mut Ka Tawan Ork (the Eastern Mut Ka; situated at the east of Ping River) and Mae Ka Tawan Tok (the Western Mut Ka; situated at the west of Ping River). Nowadays, the Mut Ka Tawan Ork and Mut Ka Tawan Tok have been moved to Ban Plaeng 1 and Ban Plaeng 2 respectively, while Ban Plaeng 4 has been allocated to Ngiw Thao villagers. Hence, taking your vacation to Doi Tao will not only provide you with an opportunity to experience the local culture on the land, but you will also be able to enjoy cruising through the lake, driving off-road to the top of a mountain, and admiring either beautiful sunrise or sunset at the scenic point. Now that you know about the charms of Mut Ka, would you like to occupy yourself here for a bit?
Journey Back to the Mut Ka of the past at Wat Patchimkaram
According to some local elderly, Wat Patchimkaram was originally situated at Mut Ka Tawan Tok. In the afternoon, the temple and cetiya will eventually cast their shadows on the water body which is why it is also known either as Wat Mut Ka Yaeng Ngao (The Crossed-Shadows Temple of Mut Ka) or Wat Cham Pa Yaeng Ngao (The Temple of Crossed Shadow and Champaks) in the เล่าขานตำนานดอยเต่า. The original temple had an exquisite treasure, the Hong Long Rak Pit Thong (golden celestial swan) which is currently enshrined in the new Wat Patchimkaram. Inside the temple, there are several murals displaying the former Mut Ka Tawan Tok constructed from the memory of Boonluen Lerdsuvanphaisal aka. Luen and the life of Mut Ka Tawan Tok before the severe flood.
I had an opportunity to talk with Luen and he said, “I remember that when I was 10, the government officers provided each household with 450 THB per 1 rai (1600 sqm or approximately 0.4 acres) that the household lost. I was too young to heed about how much we gained, but I vividly remember the sight of water rising while some people were harvesting their rice. Some couldn’t make it out in time and died, especially those who were too concerned with their belongings. This mural displayed the appearance of the original village in my recollection.”
With Luen’s instruction, the painter was able to capture most details of the village before the flood into the mural similar to a map. The villagers at the time were very humorous folks, they tended to tease each other by labeling the opposite party with a weird nickname, they didn’t mind nor think of it as a form of bullying at all. I asked Luen if he too also was known once by any weird nickname, he said that there was none at all, he was just beginning his Buddhist monkhood plus he was too young as well.
Learn How to Weave Cotton Fabrics
Come and learn the authentic way of cotton fabric weaving of Ban Plaeng 2, from harvesting cotton to weaving it into a fabric. Although many cotton fabrics were lost due to the severe flood, the local wisdom of cotton fabric weaving remains. Furthermore, the local weaver group has been trying their best to restore the pre-flood textile patterns of Doi Tao aka. Nam Thuam.
Chemical-Free Life at the Local Green Lung
From an originator of the Satu clothing brand, Saksaran Duang- In has opened his house as a learning center, offering lodging for any traveler and space for the locals to hold any activity. He wants the place to be a space for anyone to share their thoughts, their dreams, and live a harmonic life connected with nature by cultivating rice and veggies by themselves. The place also has a café nearby as well.
Boating in the Doi Tao Lake
- Buy some dried fish at Doi Tao Lake also locally known as Tha-Soon.
- Boating in the Doi Tao Lake, admiring the Phra That Doi Koeng, and taking a picture of the sunset while immersing yourself in the life of local fishermen.
Cruising on a ferry to Doi Luang and Doi Kaew
At the heart of Ban Tha Bo Rae, load your car onto the ship and cruise across the lake (don’t forget to contact Jay by phoning 09 7990 5112). Then, admire some beautiful scenery while driving off-load to Doi Luang and Doi Kaew before visiting the Phra That Chom Sati.
Village Deep in the Forest
The Scenery at the viewpoint next to the Chedi Chao Fah Payatham
Deep in the forest, there is an isolated village named Ban Doi Luang that can be dated back to more than 300 years ago. Just as Ban Doi Kaew, even these days, the village still lacks public utilities, especially electricity. The village has been relying on small-scale renewable energies such as solar power and whatnots. Visiting the village is not a trivial feat, you seriously need to hire some experienced locals as a guide. During my ride to the top of Doi Luang so I could admire the 360-view sunset, I was lucky to have an excellent guide as Doi Kaew’s village chief, Tuu.
“Not a single soul wants to reside in this wasteland, just the rain is enough to stop anyone from coming up here. Besides, it appears to be undevelopable as well.” Village Chief Tuu said while effortlessly navigating our car to the top of the mountain.
Why any group of people would decide to live here despite 300 years of isolation and lack of development is beyond my urban-folk rationality.
The Local Coffee Estate
Would you like to harvest some coffee with the local Karen people? During these past few years, Village Chief Tuu has been encouraging the local Karen people to adopt coffee farming as a means to preserve their forest since if the villagers profit from the coffee, they will become motivated to tend their coffee estate, consequently preserving the forest in the process. Fortunately, many estates are growing splendidly so we can expect a very fruitful harvest this year. The height of Doi Luang is perfect for coffee farming, so the coffees produced here are top-notch. To partake in the coffee harvesting, you need to visit the place from December to February.
Pay Homage to Chedi Chao Fah Payatham
The village chief guided us to the end of Doi Tao which connects with Tak’s Sam Ngao District. Here, I found a small chedi (Buddhist stupa) known as Chedi Chao Fah Payatham. Venturing down a bit from the chedi, there is a 360 viewpoint which I sat around for hours while admiring the sunset, the temperature was so low making each breeze bone-chilling. After I took some photos and did other stuff, I came down and stayed the night at the village chief’s house.
Lodging at the Village Chief House
We decided to stay the night at the village chief’s house, there is a yard at the front of the house that was ideal for camping outside while admiring the sunrise. On the other hand, the inside had plenty of free and open space with a total of 5 – 6 blankets to offer, so setting up bedding and sheltering is also an alternative.
As for dinner, Tuu’s mother had prepped us countless Karen dishes, there was some spicy salad dish that I still don’t know what the main veggie called, but I just couldn’t get enough of its alluring sour and savory tastes. Aside from that, there were other dishes like an omelet, some chili pastes, and the remarkably delicious deep-fried hed kradang (a local mushroom species), sipping Tuu’s homebrewed sura khao while having all these dishes warm our body.
We finished drinking around 8 p.m. Seeing the local kids gathered together for a story-time, we thought we might as well join in. The storyteller was a granny named Dok who was blissfully enjoying her session of pipe-smoking. Thanks to her, we were able to learn about stars and other kinds of stuff. She told that whenever we get lost in the wood in the night, we could identify directions by locating the Cassiopeia constellation which sets on the south. Regardless, according to the granny, losing in the wood during day time is likely possible too, especially if you encounter curse plants such as khruea phu ngoen (a plant locally believed to mystically trap people in the wood) and the likes; in this case, you may lift the curse by wearing your shirt inside out. Later, the granny started to point at the constellation which set in the east, explaining that it is the Ursa Major and Chiang Mai is in the same direction it is located. Then, she pointed at a constellation set in the west and called it in Karen tongue which I wasn’t sure what the constellation is generally known in Thai; she explained that Bangkok is situated in the direction.
Because of the lack of electricity, one could perceive constellations easily on Doi Luang. If you are lucky enough, you may spot some shooting stars there as well. After admiring the night sky for a while, we decided to go to bed.
The next morning, greeted with a shining sunrise, we came out to the yard. While I was enjoying my coffee and admiring the scenery, I smelt something nice, it was a combined fragrance from khao lam (sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and takapaw (Karen rice porridge)
Takapaw, A Karen Porridge
Takapaw is an authentic Karen dish that the locals generally have. Each household would have its unique recipe, Tuu family’s recipe was considerably spicy, effectively shielding me from the coldness. The recipe was passed down to Tippawan Ngenyong aka. Som-Oh, Tuu’s little sister by their mother. Since other girls in the house had married into other families, Som-Oh has been handling all the cooking and taking care of her mother despite being the youngest. Som-Oh told me that one of the expected qualities of Karen girls is that you must know how to cook rice, and she had mastered it since grade 5. During her upbringing, after coming back from school, she had to go straight to feed both the chickens and pigs, then checked the amount of water left in their house. Forget to do any of these tasks, and she would get an earful from her mother. Karen girls were expected to handle taking care of their family, especially the elder sister.
For anyone interested in replicating Tuu family’s takapow, here is the recipe.
***Takapow Recipe of Tuu Family***
- Dried chilies
- Smoky-grilled pork
- Cabbage, bamboo shoot, or whatever veggies you like
- Additional aromatic herbs like three-leaf isodon aka. phrak ee luen, betel leaves, or clematis leaves.
- Boil the rice till it becomes soft since mountain rice is relatively harder than its flatland counterparts.
- the dried chilies, garlic, and salt together before adding the mixture into the boiling pot.
- Slice the smoky-grilled pork before adding it into the pot.
- Add your choices of veggies.
- Add the additional aromatic herbs, essentially the phrak ee luen and singed clematis leaves.
The dish is a perfect harmony of salty and spicy, a refreshing dish suitable as a breakfast. Som-Oh said that this dish will be prepped whenever a guest comes to visit. As such, if you ever decide to visit the place, you don’t want to miss this dish out!
The Charm of Doi Kaew
If we shipped our car across the Doi Tao Lake, we would see the old chedi and uncle Berm’s ferry before driving through Doi Kaew to visit Doi Luang. However, we thought that it would be more convenient to follow Tuu, so we didn’t have to go through all that. Although both Doi Luang and Doi Kaew are Karen villages that are not far from each other, each has different things to offer; Doi Luang has a magnificent natural landscape. On the other hand, Doi Kaew offers a more authentic Karen culture.
After I arrived at Doi Kaew, I was impressed by how clean and beautiful the village was. There were small wooden houses scattered in the area, and some of the houses separate the lodging zone and the kitchen into two separate buildings. We arrived in the afternoon which was the usual time for many local housewives to operate their backstrap looms. I asked some locals what were the textile for, they answered it was a folk costume for their children. Nevertheless, I met some organic-textile store which had a very fancy authentic set of cloth. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to take the last set of clothes since they might be someone who needs them more than me.
While I was walking in Doi Kaew Village, I realized that every housewife that I had met on that day seemed to be quite busy; some was prepping food for her chicken by pounding and winnowing their rice, some were harvesting their coffee and sundried it, and some were in the middle of cooking. One particular family caught my attention, they were cooking with their authentic stove; On the top of the stove, there were some fragrant smoky dried chilies and dried tobacco.
After sightseeing around the village, we went to visit Wat Phra Yai. The scenery of Doi Tao from the scenic point was spectacular, it was such a perfect spot to enjoy the sunrise, making me regret not waking up earlier. Any photographer who has a drone would love to try taking a bird’s eye view picture of the scenery here.
Interestingly, many temples in Doi Tao seem to be in an incomplete stage. According to Tuu, one of the major reasons is due to the inaccessibility of Doi Tao. Visiting the place alone is already taxing enough, needless to say how demanding the shipment of building materials is going to be, especially financial-wise. Tuu also mentioned that this was the exact reason why it took years to build the local solar power and other renewable energy systems. Currently, the village still welcomes any donations from outsiders, so you may contact Tuu if you want to support the village.
After we came down from Doi Kaew, we decided to visit uncle Berm and bought some fresh fish back home. All the fish sold here were either acquired from artisanal fishing or traditional domesticating; he mostly sold Thai carps or tilapia.
A Trip to Pong Thung
Pong Thung is a tambon or the subdistrict consists of 11 villages, with one particular village having the exact name as the subdistrict. For ages, the Pong Thung Village has been a residence of Karen, Lawa, and Tai Yuan aka. khon mueang, eventually merging their respective cultures into the current “khon mueang” culture. As such, the journey to Pong Thung was cultural tourism offering visitors like us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture built along with the Mae Tub and Mae Hat reservoirs. Blessed with the two reservoirs, Pong Thung has been spoiled with enormous tasty fish.
Come to Pong Thung and enjoy your slow life, learn some local handicrafts, get to know about Nam Thuam, the lost textile pattern, listen to the southern-accent of northern Thailand, and enjoy some spiritual escape in various local temples which are mostly located on a highland.
Daybreak at Wat Phra Putthabat Tamo
Follow the path of a good Buddhist and pay homage to the sacred temple built by the Karen people’s sheer faith. To make the temple accessible, the local Karen people collaboratively carried a tremendous number of stones, paving over 1700 steps of stairs to the temple.
On this stair, the visitors will be surrounded by a flourishing forest until they reach the top. After reaching the top, if it is in the morning, the visitor may enjoy the sight of a mesmerizing sea of fog or climb further to Doi Ngom, gaining an opportunity to take a 360-degree photo.
Regarding the Wat Phra Putthabat Tamo temple itself, it has a sandstone chedi serving as a tribute to the three great Buddist monks aka. three kruba including Kruba Sri Wichai, Kruba Aphichai Khaopee, and Kruba Chaiya Wongsapattana while having a mandapa with 84 points covered around the temple; it is truly a marvelous sanctuary that took years to complete. Despite its being a Thai Buddhist temple, the place has been a choice of residence for numerous Japanese Buddhist monks during the rainy season.
At the so-called Buddha’s footprint of the place, you can use the local fruit picker in fortune-telling. To do this, you need to focus your mind on what do you desire, then position the fruit picker in the middle and pull the elastic strap with both hands as much as possible. How long you can pull the strap implies whether you will achieve what you do truly desire or not.
Learn How to Make Furniture from Roots
At Rak Mai Ban Mae Bua Cooperative, you will have an opportunity to learn about plant roots and how to process plant roots into furniture.
Learn How to Make Kong Khao (Rice Basket)
At Ban Mae Buan, there was someone I would like to introduce, and his name was Sing-kaew, a master craftsman who excels in making exquisite two-layered rice baskets. He was someone I would describe as the pioneer of Doi Tao’s hipsters. After I went into his house, one of the first things I saw was the master craftsman who was in the middle of a lovey-dovey conversation with his wife while the lady was chilling in her hammock. I viewed them as one of the pioneers of Doi Tao’s hipster subculture. Looking around the house, I saw many worn-out hammocks set up on trees indicating the countless times each has been used for relaxation.
The lady roasted her husband to me, she said the master craftsman had learned the art of basketry from his friends, but that wasn’t the beginning of his madness. There was a time that she was admitted into the hospital for a long period, so her husband had to live alone in the house. With too much free time on his hands, the husband decided to practice crafting rice baskets; he even occasionally brought some of his finished works to sell in the hospital. From that moment onward, Sing-kaew progressively turned into a basketry maniac, dedicating most of his time to basketry and ruining multiple of his fingernails from crafting.
Each of Sing-kaew’s rice-baskets has two layers and is decorated with three different patterns, all of his works have such fine details, making them a perfect organic container for preserving the temperature of the contents inside. Each piece takes two days to make, the small ones are 100 THB and the big ones are 150 THB.
Paddling and Immerse in the Local Fishermen Life at Pha Kap Dam
Pha Kap is what the locals called the Mae Tub reservoir, a reservoir built under King Ram IX’s project as a food source for the Pong Thung people. Behind the dam lies a fantastic scenic point that allows you to admire the sunset while boating.
Pay Homage to the Wat Tha Khrang
Situated on a highland, Pong Thung Village was founded in 1964 during the construction of the Bhumibol Dam. Therefore, it became a choice of destination for immigrants of Ta Khrang who also brought their hometown’s temple, the Ta Khrang Temple with them; the temple has been their sanctuary for ages. Originally, Pong Thung residents were khon mueang aka. Tai Yuan people populating at the side of Ping River, they once relied on lac selling as the main occupation. However, their way of life changed after arriving at Pong Thung, adopting agriculture as their new occupation.
Prepare Some Doi Tao Fish Larb
Some also call the village the Ban Song Nam, a Thai name which means “the village of the two reservoirs”. The villagers have been relying on fishing in both Mae Hat and Mae Tub reservoirs for a living, they will set up their fish trap in the evening and retrieve the fish in the morning so they can sell it in the market. Here, there are two recipes of fish larb; one is larb niaw; a type of raw fish larb seasoned with pla ra and other seasonings, and another is larb fan som which is a larb made by kneading the ground fish with lime juice before seasoning it with larb sauce, both are rare variants of larb that you can easily find in the menu of general Thai dining places.
Sightseeing around the Pong Thung
In this village, there are two markets, one which will open during Wednesday – Saturday, and another which is what the locals would call “ตูบกาด(tub-kad)”, meaning a small-size market; the latter will open daily in every morning and mainly sells dry ingredients for cooking.
Nam Thuam Textile Pattern
As I have mentioned before, the severe flood caused by the construction of Bhumibol Dam devoured numerous things back then, and one of those things was authentic textiles with an exclusive pattern called Nam Thuam. However, filled with determination, some of the locals have been trying their absolute best to restore the lost textiles at Ban San Bo Yen. These locals are called the Sattaya Traditional Nam Thuam Pattern Weaving Group of Doi Tao.
Making a Broom Out of Mountain Date Palm
Mountain date palm aka. Phoenix loureiroi Kunth is a species of palm indigenous to the southern Asia region. The villagers of Pong Thung have been drying the leaves of this particular palm and crafting their blooms for a long time.
Wat Tham Mo
Wat Tham Mo is the name of a glorious dhamma hermitage, there is a cave with a majestic Buddha figure and Buddha and murals portraying Buhhda’s history.
After all the experience I have gained from this trip, my opinion about Doi Tao simply being a wasteland has changed forever, and I’d just visited only two subdistricts of Doi Tao, imagining what kind of wonders I would have experienced if I had explored all regions Doi Tao have to offer. With that in mind, since a lot of us can’t take a trip abroad due to the pandemic, I recommend anyone who wants to escape their daily routine to visit Doi Tao for a change, it is a wondrous place comparable to any global tourist destination.
Ma Kham Wan Restaurant
Aside from relaxing rafting and having meals on a raft, there is another dining opportunity that is a must if you ever visit Doi Tao, I highly recommend the Ma Kham Wan Restaurant. For either fishing or boating enthusiasts, you should visit the place first since the owner here is a guru well-equipped with knowledge about rafting and boating in the area. He even owns a boat exclusively for recreational purposes (not for hire in any circumstance). All the dishes serving here are tang, especially dishes on the fish menu, I strongly insist you should try. Though other menus are not different from the restaurants on flatlands, just the experience of trying local dishes such as variants of Doi Tao spicy salads, fish soup, fried cricket, and fried fish mixed with herbs is worthwhile.