Beyond Sop Moei

Discussion in 'Touring Northern Thailand - Trip Reports Forum' started by Rod Page, Jun 27, 2011.

  1. Given the interest in certain 'characters' of northern Thailand expressed following my report "ON THE TRAIL OF A 'MULE' - A Drug Run Through The Golden Triangle" I've travelled further down the Thai-Burma border from Mae Hong Son through Mae Sariang to the area around Sop Moei to meet a character of a different sort.

    The journey is south of Mae Sariang along R105 via the small village of Sop Moei (intriguingly there's another settlement down by the Salween River that carries the same name - inhabited by the Thai military conducting inspections of traffic passing along the river.)
    From Sop Moei turn west towards the Karen village of Mae Tola, is the only directions I can give you - the area, regretably, lies south of the topography covered in the GTR Mae Hong Son Map & I can not find any indication of this road on any other map I have studied; indeed the area appears as one vast seemingly inaccessible & uninhabited zone. It matters not, however, as it is not possible for tourists, indeed anyone without 'reason', to travel the full length of this road - due to constant unrest, the area is a strictly controlled military zone.

    Views from the access road back over Mae Sariang:


    & across the mountain tops to Burma:


    Almost 60 years ago two American missionaries, a doctor/surgeon & his wife, working in southern Thailand gave birth to a son. Kent Gregory grew up in Thailand before returning to the USA for his secondary & tertiary studies in public health. He met & married a Swedish child-psychologist/ child-maternal health specialist before they returned to Thailand in the mid 1970's determined to apply their skills to the welfare & advancement of the hill-tribe people of northern Thailand.

    They were looking to find a preliterate tribe who'd had little if any contact with westerners & the search led them to a still isolated area along the Thai/Burmese border near Sop Moei. Basically Kent met a by-chance a Burmese man in Mae Sariang who just treked (fled) for many days through the jungle from Burma into Thailand. On the way he had encountered a Karen tribe living near the Salween River where it divides Thailand from Burma. Kent got clear instructions, found a guide & then walked for almost 3 days through the mountains & jungle to find the tribe. He remembers the leopards & hundreds of gibbons he saw, as well as the leaches.

    By 1977 Kent had spent sufficient time amongst this & neighbouring tribes to have become sufficiently fluent in their language to be able to negotiate with village leaders to be able to stay - he actually used a card system to compile a dictionary over several years which unfortunately he did not maintain/publish so that to date still no dictionary exists for these Karen people (the Pwo). The Karen being animists conditioned their agreement on the couples staying on the basis they installed themselves in an abandoned, former village site nearby & not in the existent village.

    The road down took around 4 hours. We moved through other Karen villages & across streams (you can get down as far as where these photos were taken & I anticipate improvements in the road, as a 'Royal Project' has been established just before this crossing):



    We ultimately arrived at this absolutely magnificent corner Kent calls home. It has something, a soul, that springs from it's occupying a former village site using existing access mechanisms, water supply, building materials & so on, transformed through the sheer beauty of the garden that Kent has established over almost 35 years. To be awoken by the 'choir of a 1000 birds' is special. This is not a millionaire's house where money has secured the 'chosen' block & planted out the 'designed' garden; its the 'no choice' block that has been transformed into that of which millionaires dream. The house/s are open in style with large verandahs, built of local teak logged by Kent himself, rooves thatched from local leaves. There is no electricity, no telephones; 'ofuro' style bathrooms. You are in complete tranquility resting at home or walking about the gardens, exploring the surrounding streams, orchards he's planted, rice paddies & so on:





    A 'peculiarity' of the place is the 'visitor's book' - a support beam in the visitors 'hut' photographed here where the King of Sweden, his wife & children signed:


    When Kent & his wife arrived there, their goal was to set up a maternity/child care/nutrition service for neighbouring tribes. It was a difficult task initially with village priests being resistant to such intervention. For many years Kent & his wife moved between what grew to become 17 Karen villages carrying their medical supplies on elephant. There were no roads, no shops; Kent would walk once or twice a month to Mae Sariang, the closest town, a journey of around 80kms, where the rise & fall of the track ensured a walk of 18 hours each way! It was a 'task' despite the spectacularly magnificent scenery afforded across the tops of Thailand & Burma. The elephants would join him in town before returning laddened with supplies (Kent always walked as it was faster than the elephants moved). It was an area not without danger where gunfire eminating from Burma could be heard regularly - Kent told me of a time a guide came by with 2 German & a French treker; they asked for directions to a certain camp where the heads of the Karen armies fighting the Burmese government had installed their families for reasons of safety. Kent advised them of the way to learn later that the guide had been murdered, his body thrown in the river & the trackers returned to their starting point down river!

    During this period they had a daughter, but sadly Kent's wife passed away - a mole was removed but no biopsy was performed which proved fatal. It was not an easy existence for someone widowed early bringing up a young child; indeed he brought up & continues to raise several other Karen children in most cases where a mother dies during child-birth. He also ensures the on-going education of many tribal children who otherwise would not have access to secondary or tertiary education.

    After a period of time Kent realised that despite his efforts & relative success the tribal children still lacked an acceptable level of nutrition. It was apparent to Kent that he had to initiate a commercial system within the villages, something that would generate revenue so as to enable the villagers to purchase the additional nutritional needs of their children. Kent knew that for centuries Karen woman had weaved textiles & the men baskets - 'Sop Moei Arts' was born:

    Weaving baskets (one weaver fled Burma some 17 years ago but still returned from time to time to Burma I was told on insergency missions):


    Some of the products weaved whilst we were there:


    Some baskets are smoked:


    A number of buildings scattered amongst the gardens accommodate the weavers who come from close-by villages, some of whom live on the property. Weaving centres have also been established in several other out-lying villages. Its easy to pass the day amidst the hand-made teak looms watching the women work clad in their finest creations - the patterns & colours tell you a great deal; whether the wearer is married, for example:





    The woman are often tatooed although I don't know the significance. Some smoke hand-made pipes - a great sight:


    We dined one night with one of the women (photographed below), her husband & some of their children - they had 6 children & despite the mother being only 43 her eldest was already 28 years old!


    Food remains traditional - a local vegetable on this occassion mixed with a paste derived from crushed (after boiling) jackfruit seeds mixed with dry fish & chillies; (Kent had prepared an accompanying meal derived from freshly picked bamboo shoots, washed down from coffee grown, roasted & ground on the property).

    Apart from the weavers there are several others at any given time who scour the countryside for various materials required in weaving, for the repair of looms & so on:


    (To be continued.................................)
  2. (Continuation........................)

    Kent & some of the Karen weavers discuss a design to be weaved:


    which is then laid out on the loom in preparation for weaving:


    We walked through neighbouring villages & to the steep hillsides to watch them farm - the climbs & descents will weary you & we marvelled at the way the Karen could carry vegetables, wood or children approximateing their own body weight with ease:


    Some shots of life in Mae Tola:





    The King of Sweden brought his wife & 2 children including his recently married daughter to stay a couple of years ago; a stay outside any duties of state to be simply at ease, away from the normal 'controls' of their life. On one occassion Kent took the family to a near-by authentic Karen village high up in the mountains with a magnificent view over Burma, a trip that necessitated they ride elephants. The tribe had no idea they were coming & clearly no idea as to the identity of their visitors. As the King moved openly & freely amongst the villagers he turned to the Queen & said : 'All my life I've been looking to be able to do this, to spend a day like this'!

    As wonderful as it all is, the reality of living in such isolation was brought home to us during our visit as the uncle of one of Kent's adopted children fell from the top of a coconut tree with a horrible thud. After many hours traversing the worst possible terrain he was found to have fractured his spine.

    A 'road', if you can call it that, was recently cut along the tracks once trodden by Kent. It is not an all-weather road, & is impassable from the end of June through to early October each year. It takes 3.5hrs in the best of times. It is in terrible shape, dangerously slippery & rutted - the King of Sweden actually used this road when he came one December but had to abandon his car en route! More alarming, the fellow who fell from the coconut tree had to be removed from the jungle along this same road - the pain must have been unbearable - before medical transport could be

    There is another absolutely exhileratingly spectacular way back to Mae Sariang - a 3 hour boat trip along 3 separate rivers, through 4 separate 'dont take photos' military check-points (3 Thai & 1 Burmese, although it was maybe the Karen Army given their attire) where you must stop each time & provide full details to the military present.

    Kent would use this route (& still does) when the supplies to be carried were not of a great quantity. If needing to return from the monthly shopping by river Kent would disembark near his home at an 'outpost' from one of the refugee camps usually arriving by 5pm to be met by his elephants to permit an hour for the elephants to walk home. On occassions when he was late, he'd leave his goods with the men who he knew well/found quite charming at the outpost & collect them the next morning by elephant. After many years he learnt that they constituted an assassination squad who would murder & throw into the river all those sent their way as being suspected of spying/infiltrating the refugee camps. By means of background, the Karen army which held out against the Burmese for many years was made up of both Christian & Buddhist Karen; the Christians kept all the important positions to themselves to the extent that in an act of great treachery the Buddhists told the Burmese of the way into the 'stronghold'. The Christians fled & control was handed to the Buddhists.....the Christians remain concerned/paranoid by the possibility of Buddhist infiltration into their (refugee) camps.

    The 'anything but commercial' river landing is at Mae La Oon on the Yuam River, a half an hour ride from Mae Tola:


    Boarding the transport for the run down river:


    Along the way, one has to pass through 2 substantial refugee camps (I understand there are some 70,000 refugees in the area).
    Intriguingly most of the refugees were moved here from areas further north along the border where they'd been used by corrupt officials to move teak illegally ...... the government decided to resolve the problem by moving all the refugees (rather than firing the officials concerned)!
    An interesting fact flowing from settling so many refugees in the area is that Kent & neighbouring hill-tribe villages alike can no longer readily find the previously abundant supply of leaves used for roofing.
    This area is strictly controlled by the military who are unlikely to permit access to other than those living in the area:



    The river journey is unique, probably the best outing I've had in Thailand, descending initially by the Yuam River then along the larger Moei River to where it meets the Salween, the only major waterway in S-E Asia still not damed, giving it a certain majesty, a certain naturalness.

    A photo of the captain/skipper & much-needed foredhand:



    Strangely enough we saw a 'water taxi' providing transport from Burma across to Thailand & return:


    You travel up-stream along the Salween - its is exceptionally turbulent & wide where the waters of the Yuam & Moei moving in one direction meet those of the Salween moving in the opposite direction & the turbulence over the centuries has forced the Salween to literally change course for a moment leaving a sanded area, a bend in the river of rare beauty:


    Disembarkment is at the interestingly set & very isolated riverside town of Mae Sam Lep, highly regarded for its Bangladeshi food provided by numerous refugees from Bangladesh that have settled there. Its then a further hour by 4x4 to Mae Sariang.

    The river access is currently not possible with the sections along the Moei & Yuam rivers having been closed by the Burmese authorities since the recent elections in Burma.

    (The 'side-on' photo which has mysteriously appeared as an annexure is, in fact, of the currently under-construction Wat in Mae Tola).


    Attached files 269300=4060-P7071066.
  3. This is a terrific report Rod and the places one can visit up in these parts seem never ending. Many thanks for posting.
    So much to do..........
  4. Great follow up story Rod, with valuable information and well illustrated. I am still reading from Spain waiting to be ack on these trails :)! cheers Jurgen
  5. Once again Auke has come through with a map; thanks Auke (although it still looks as isolated & inaccessible to me as it did in the riding).

    Hi Rod,

    Awesome trip you made to the Sop Moei area - very interesting to read up on what Kent Gregory has done over there for the people. Must have been a tremendous experience to talk to him & hear first hand how hings developed over time, not only for the people but also for the area & I guess in particular how the influx of a large refugee population has influenced the area & the population.

    You mentioned that you could not find a single map which showed the area in more detail. Looked in my collection of maps & found I had digital copies of the old military maps for that area - see sample of one of the maps which shows Ban To La.


  6. Another exceptional journey and report, Rod. Congratulations on the perseverance and commitment I know is necessary to make the connections and find the locations for such an adventure. You have outdone yourself and others. :thumbup:
  7. Great report and great pics! It is not so easy these days to find the more traditional Karen villages, certainly not close to the big city. When I get back in-country in November I will have to try to stop by on my way to Mae Sot and meet Khun Kent and compare notes on living with the Karen.
  8. A brief follow-up on the condition of the man who fell from a coconut tree as mentioned earlier in this report. The man underwent surgery to implant a metal rod in his back; he now walks with the use of a metal support.

    The Karen, being animists, seek to divine the reason for any such accident, in fact for any major happening - there is an explanation for everything! They use chicken bones for this process. Around 9 months before the man's fall a 17 year old girl had left/dissappeared from the village; she was in fact the niece of the man who fell. It was determined that she had travelled to Bangkok where she had fallen pregnant, given birth before fleeing the hospital as she had her village leaving her baby behind. Shortly thereafter she had reappeared in her village.

    The authorities in Bangkok had traced her back to her village.

    To have had a baby to a man who is not one's husband is taboo to the Karen; such an event can lead to the mother & child concerned being banished from the village. To have the taboo lifted would require the mother to marry the child's father; but this was not possible in this case as the father had proved to be a married man!

    As a consequence, the village priest is further devining what needs to be done - the village is seeking a younger man to marry the girl but without luck to date. Under the circumstances she may still be banished. Additionally the entire village must now undergo a 'cleansing ceremony' involving the slaughter of buffalo or pigs as determined by the village priest.

    It has been deemed by the village priest that it was this series of events that had caused the man's accident.

    I have enquired as to what will be the most likely outcome for the man who fell - is it easy for someone so handicapped to be reinserted into the life in a village so dependant on one's ability to farm, to walk long distances, to carry heavy weights. I have been told he will most likely suicide.

    It makes for reflection.

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