Chiang Mai's hidden beauty lies in a valley
A LONG and winding road leads from the eastern side of Inthanon Mountain to the western side and the distance has kept Mae Chaem hidden for centuries.
Part of Chiang Mai province, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, Mae Chaem feels like a lost hinterland tucked deep in a valley beyond the high Thanon Thong Chai range.
Folks in the deep valley have Inthanon Mountain - Thailand's highest at 2,565m - to thank or, perhaps, blame for the slow evolution of progress.
Pop, a travel journalist who relocated to Mae Chaem five years ago, says: "Every morning, small bands of monks, novices and children walk across the rice paddy fields to collect alms.
"The temple kids strike the gong to alert the villagers that the monks are heading to their homes so they had better prepare their alms. You hardly see this outside Mae Chaem."
It is possible to reach Mae Chaem by following the road from Hot district but this takes a lot longer than the four-hour drive over the hills and isn't nearly as pleasurable.
But whichever way you go, Mae Chaem is an ideal place to escape the city.
"When I opened a bakery here five years back, the locals were very surprised," says the travel writer turned baker.
"There had never been a bakery in the town and residents wanting a sugary treat would have to wait for deliveries, often stale, from Chiang Mai. The story of my moist chocolate cake has travelled way beyond my bakery to the district's most remote villages."
We visit Mae Chaem in mid-November, though we have to tell Pop that we are not here for his chocolate cake, yummy as it is.
Winter is approaching and the air is already cold. The hidden valley is taking a short break from rice harvesting to mark Chula Krathin - a ceremony celebrating the end of the three-month Buddhist retreat. Here in Mae Chaem, Buddhists traditionally offer the yellow robes to the monks to complete Vassa.
Residents of all ages gather at Wat Baan Tap on the eve of the ceremony, which is a big social event for this small valley. Earlier in the day, they would have gathered the cotton balls from the plants and spun these into yarn. Now, they are busy weaving and dyeing the yellow robe. Lanna folk singers take it in turns to entertain.
Grandmother Chan says: "Chula Krathin is a small and humble rite that demands big faith in Buddhism," as she busies herself behind the spinning wheel.
"The yellow robe - from gathering the cotton to the weaving and dyeing - must be completed within a day."
In Mae Chaem, making a yellow robe within a day is not a problem as everyone grows up with a loom and a spindle. The district is noted for - and has made a fortune from - its cotton sarongs boasting a unique pattern around the hem. The Pha Sin Tin Chok of Mae Chaem are the pride of the valley.
"This pha sin is about 50 years old," says Granny Kaew, her lips firmly gripping a homemade pipe, as she shows me her cotton sarong. "It was handed down from my mother and I will pass it to my grandchild."
Mahatma Gandhi, I conclude, was right: If everyone in the world spun an hour a day, there would be no more wars.
The valley is quiet, pristine and peaceful.
From Wat Baan Tap, we move on to three other temples - Wat Pa Daed, Wat Yang Luang and Wat Phuthaun. Each is quiet and one monk at Wat Pa Daed tells us the most excitement he has witnessed was when someone left poppies in the temple grounds.
The small chapel boasts a superb mural portraying the life of Buddha. The most remarkable scene is the delivery of baby Siddhartha. His mother and the ladies on call are dressed in Mae Chaem sarongs. Established in 1827, the temple is impressive and says a great deal about Mae Chaem itself. The angels, for example, are dressed like the nobility of the Mandalay Court.
But the valley has much more to share with the visitor than just temples. The terraced rice paddy fields and the endless vegetable plots of the highland farms soothe sore eyes and calm stressed minds.
One morning, we wake up earlier than the roosters and brave the winding road to enjoy the sunrise over Mae Chaem valley. We commune with the cows and chickens and enjoy a simple lunch at an unmarked food shack. The lingering scent of freshly cut grass, the cold weather and the rolling marigold fields add to the welcome sense of isolation.
Pin, one of my travel mates, says: "Perhaps we should postpone the flight back to Bangkok. The weather and the place are just too beautiful to leave."
I couldn't agree more. You need a week, at least, to explore the hidden valley of Mae Chaem.
IF YOU GO
Hiring a car at Chiang Mai International Airport is the best way to explore Mae Chaem district.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK