Patches of fog float atop the mountain range away from rice fields and the village of Ban Santichon in Pai, Mae Hong Son. Illuminated houses can be seen from afar before a thick cloud blankets the village.
On the hilltop known as Yun Lai, a Chinese name which means “cloud coming”, hundreds of visitors await the first ray of light. A few gasp and exclaim “wow” when they see the mist flowing towards the treetops below and then over the Mexican sunflower fields next to where they stand.
“At Yun Lai viewpoint, you can see a sea of fog until late morning,” said a local, who drove me and my friends from the village in his pickup. The ride was about 10 minutes.
At the top, a handful of food stalls are open for morning visitors. The shops are decorated with round, red paper lanterns, resembling those in China. It may be because the locals of Ban Santichon are descendants of immigrants from Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. They speak Thai and Chinese.
The village was once closed to outsiders due to the illegal cultivation of opium and drug trade from the border towns in Myanmar, almost a half-century ago. Due to strong military enforcement and the government’s efforts over the years, the village has been cleared of drugs and opium plantations and has opened its doors to welcome visitors in the last two decades.
Also known as Yunnan Cultural Village, the village is where visitors can observe the hilltribe’s way of life and culture. One of the highlights is Yunnanese food. Visitors can try kha mu (aromatic Chinese-style stewed pork leg) served with mantho (steamed Chinese buns), which can also be deep fried. Another popular dish is black chicken soup, which is made from chickens whose meat and bones are black. In addition, there are shops selling various teas, herbal drinks, handicrafts and embroidery works.
Ban Santichon is about 5km west of Pai, a small tourism-oriented town, in Mae Hong Son. The town was popular with backpackers, but a decade ago it changed rapidly and now there are many choices of accommodation ranging from guesthouses to boutique and luxury hotels.
Pai Walking Street, a well-known attraction, is dotted with pubs and restaurants serving all kinds of Western food. Walking along the street, especially after sunset, reminded me of Bangkok’s Khao San Road mixed with the atmosphere of Hua Hin Walking Street.
During high season, from November to January, the walking street is crowded. A few tourists looked for selfie spots, while others shopped for cheap clothes, like one finds in Bangkok’s Pratunam area.
However, a small group of locals has organised another walking street with the aim to make it an open space for arts.
Known as “Kad Pho” (or Bodhi market), it is in Ban Saeng Thong Wiang Tai, about 1km south of Pai Walking Street. The main entrance is across Tha Na Coffee shop.
The Kad Pho Art Street was officially launched on Nov 26 and is open every Saturday. The atmosphere is less like a walking street and more like a flea market. A few vendors are also musicians, who take turns serenading visitors on an outdoor stage. Stacks of dried rice straws form audience seats.
A shop sells handmade clothes made of hemp, with each cloth having a unique pattern and design, and made by the owner. Prices start at about 2,000 baht. A Western painter offers her wares on a white cloth spread over a footpath next to stalls selling snacks and beer. The Kad Pho Art Street is more of a hangout place than a market.
About 12km south of Pai is Ban Phaem Bok, home to the Tai Yai, an ethnic group from Myanmar, who settled here about 200 years ago. Ban Phaem Bok is along the way to Doi Miang and Doi Thong mountains which overlook Pai.
“For many years, we received nothing but dust from vehicles carrying tourists to Doi Miang and Doi Thong,” said Boonanan Loepho, co-ordinator of Ban Phaem Bok Community-based Tourism Club.
Club members wanted to turn their village into a tourist destination and so they built a bamboo bridge over rice paddies early this year. The aim is to allow monks of Wat Huai Khai Khiri to walk into the village. The bridge shortens the distance by less than half from 2km to only 815m.
The locals called the bridge “Kho Kuso” (kho means bridge and kuso means blessing in the Tai Yai language).
According to Boonanan, the bridge was built in the same style of the famous Su Tong Pae bamboo bridge crossing rice fields in Ban Kung Mai Sak in Mae Hong Son. “We like the idea because the bridge over green or golden rice paddies can be our main attraction,” he said.
A trip to Pai isn’t complete without a visit to Pang Ung, a scenic reservoir, in Muang district of Mae Hong Son. Pang Ung is one of the royal initiative projects of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej to improve the living conditions of hilltribes by turning opium fields and widespread deforestation areas into healthy farmlands. The reservoir is a popular destination in the cool season when a thin mist covers the calm waters just after sunrise.
Visitors to Pang Ung can also extend their visit a little bit further to Pang Tong Royal Project Development Centre, 17km east, and may end the trip at the Phu Klon Country Club Health Mud Spa.