Death Highway To Umphang

Discussion in 'Western Thailand - Motorbiking Trip Report Forums' started by Rod Page, Jul 10, 2011.

  1. Of all the trips Thailand has to offer, the run down the Thai-Burma border from Mae Sot to Umphang is amongst the best. Its Thailand's ultimate high altitude cruise - a thrilling roller-coaster ride down to Thailand's ultimate isolated spot, a road of some 1219 twists & turns taking you through untouched jungle & magnificent mountain scenery as it follows the Tanon Tongchai mountain range that separates Burma from Thailand.

    First implanted in 1987 'Death Highway' bears witness to the murders of many of its construction workers - 40 in one single massacre - at the hands of a Communist Party of Thailand not wanting to see the road built. More recently the unending number of fatal accidents has confirmed the road's nomenclature - in 1995, 30 teachers died in one bus crash alone. It should come as no surprise that the road has a history of hold-ups & robbery.

    There is ongoing conflict right along this border as Burma's military junta seeks to compel the country's nationalistically minded armed ethnic groups to join a single border guard force. The Karen people & rebel Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) forces bear the brunt of Burma's relentless push; a push which today sees the myriad of ethnic armies along the border recruiting soldiers, & buying arms & ammunition in anticipation of increased Burmese aggression.

    Its some 165kms to Umphang along R1090, the first 20kms of which follow the plains of Mae Sot. Just before this marker there's a turn-off to the border village of Mae Khon Ken, quiet enough nowadays but in 2001 fighting between the Burmese & the DKBA saw mortar shells land in the village. Along the smaller lanes that skirt the border down to Walae you can still see the remaining temporary shelters of some of the almost 20,000 Burmese who only last November fled the fighting, many taking shelter around Wat Huay Mahawong.

    I took the route right at the 20kms marker which overlooks the fertile plains of Mae Sot; I'll take the alternative route on the return home as I enjoy the views on descending:


    On to Saw Oh, a fairly substantial town from where the road continues straight to Umphang, or right (which involves taking a U-turn) along R1206 past a number of waterfalls down through Phop Phra & on to Walae.

    Phop Phra maintains a certain presence. In days gone by, as can be seen in the housing, it was a major centre for illegal logging, both from Burma and also Thailand where hundreds of thousands of trees were reportedly felled.

    Past Phop Phra a small road left leads down to the Karen riverside village of Mae Ook Hu. The villages out this way are very authentic, constructed mostly from local vegetal materials. Visitors are rare out these ways due not just to the isolation but also to the risks associated with ongoing fighting across the border.

    The Nam Moei photographed here at Mae Ook Hu separates Burma from Thailand. The villagers here were collecting shells to cook. At the same time vehicles crossed freely behind them in & out of the two countries with no apparent controls. The footbridge crossing can be seen in the background:


    A closer look at the foot crossing, also in regular use:


    The village alongside the river:


    It is wise to stick to the main route & should you venture from it be alert in the knowledge that the actual border remains disputed to this day. Do not cross over into Burma despite any apparent lack of control; you may well end up in the hands of either the Burmese or the DKBA both of whom would be pleased to extract a large ransom for your release.

    The constant passing of people between Burma & Thailand is explained by the migratory nature of the Karen & of how trade was conducted between the two countries in times gone by. As Burma's military junta increased its hostilities towards ethnic groups living along the border these areas became flourishing black markets, often financing the rebel armies. The obvious ease with which drugs can today pass into Thailand will not be lost on readers.

    It is possible to follow the river down from Mae Ook Hu to Walae. Walae marks the start of a traditional route, for centuries a smuggling route, used by Thais & Karen alike to move between Mae Sot & Umphang. Prior to the construction of R1090 it was the only way to move between Mae sot & Umphang. The route treks some 30kms through Burma via the Burmese village of Pa Toei before returning to Thailand at Nong Luang near Umphang.

    Walae maintains a Thai military presence, at least at the principle crossing point, for just down river a further unmanned crossing is possible. That the un-controlled crossing is in regular use can be seen from the mud on the Burmese side & is no more clearly witnessed than by the fact that the main road into Walae proceeds straight to it whereas the route to the controlled crossing involves a detour!

    The controlled crossing:


    A closer look at the portal on the Burmese side of the river. The flags, though in tatters are not Burmese & I suspect are DKBA flags:


    The uncontrolled crossing just down-river:


    There's a door surrounded by barbed wire with a pad-lock affixed mid-way - one wonders if its ever locked &, if so, when & by whom.

    The Burmese side readily showing the significant useage to which this crossing is put:


    On the Burmese side are the remains of a village, Phalu I believe, raised to the ground in the 1990's by Burmese forces in fighting against the DKBA. Phalu's black market helped fund the Karen National Liberation Army & in the mid 1980's as the Burmese Army advanced aginst the Karen, the Burmese executed 40 'smugglers' in an endeavour to impress upon Phalu natives that such funding was to stop.

    When Phalu fell into Burmese hands, the Burmese also claimed Walae, further illustrating the ongoing dispute between Thailand & Burma over the actual border. Such disputes give rise to on-going tensions of which readers should be aware when venturing into the area. In such a simmering situation 'farang' could well be mistaken for spies or insurgent helping agents. It remains an area faced with constant military overthrows not the least due to the fact of its importance as a major smuggling point - although it was once logs, cigarettes & so on, its now drugs. The constant 'battles', needless to say, keep Thai & tourist levels down.

    (To be continued...................)
  2. Brilliant Rod. Look forward to the rest and pleased to see that you are back in one piece!
  3. Returning to Saw Oh, its from here heading south to Umphang that 'Death Highway' really begins. It was the construction of this stretch that met with such fierce opposition fom Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) guerrilas. It is here following murderous CPT attacks on road workers that the Thai government deployed forces from the staunchly anti-communist KMT to the area to protect workers & to guard the road construction site. That Thailand should seek mercenaries in the form of the KTM to conduct campaigns on its behalf in the more mountainous areas of Thailand comes as no surprise & has been explained in other reports I have written on this forum.

    Some 5kms from Saw Oh lies Nam Tok Pa Charoen, a wonderful '97 tier' waterfall just over half a kilometre in from R1090:


    The road continues along a plateau through or past several Hmong villages before reaching 'Marker km43', the site where the CPT massacred some 40 road workers in a single ambush. I was unable To find (& found it strange not to find anything) to commemorate the massacre.....

    Some 2-3 kms further on the presence of chinese is marked by a small chinese cemetery on your left before the road reaches the multi-ethnic village of Romklao Sahamit with its very chinese entrance; a statement of sorts in such an isolated spot:


    Shortly after Romklao Sahamit there's a control point from where the road starts its ascents & descents, its twists & turns in all its majesty. The road takes you for around 35kms through breathtaking scenery along the Khlongwang Chao, the Khlong Lan & the Mae Wong National Parks. Landslides, fog, & the occassional pothole demand vigilence despite the views constantly pulling your glance aside.

    I attach this photo where we were held pending clearing of the road to confirm just how slippery such surfaces can be:


    Mid-way to Umphang you drop from the heavens past a magnificent patchwork of colour arising from the local crop farming to a valley sheltering the strangely named Romklao 4; strange because you will have seen no indication along your journey as to a Romklao 1,2 or 3. I would glean on my return journey that there was indeed a Romklao 1 - an Hmong village near km39 & that Romklao Sahamit was in fact formerly Romklao 2. Intrigueingly I did not find any indication as to a Romklao 3....?

    I would also determine that 'Romklao' means 'umbrella shade' indicating the townships were established as 'shelters'. The 'chinese' feel to Romklao Sahamit would lead one to believe that the KMT who protected the road builders settled here. In the same thought process it would seem that the mainly Hmong CPT soldiers who surrendered were settled in Romklao 1 & 4.

    I found Romklao 4 to be a good spot to break the journey with a suitable noodle shop, petrol & so on; there's plenty of mountain & jungle behind you, but plenty more lies ahead! In the following photo you can see Romklao 4 in the foreground with the United Nations operated refugee camp of Um Piam in the distance:


    On approaching the camp I sighted a number of people perched above the waters:


    On investigating a monk told me that they were refugees fishing. He added that of the over 20,000 refugees living in the camp most flowed from the relentless attacks of the Burmese junta against the ethnic armies along the border in particular between Mae Sot & Walae.

    I noticed, in particular, a significant number of muslim refugees indicating the 'trading nature' developed over the centuries by many of those living along the border. The following shots show also the christian & buddhist tendancies of refugees.....

    In this shot a Christian Church can be seen in the foreground with a Buddhist pagoda atop the camp.


    There's another, more substantial church in this photo & two further pagodas on the mountain top. I was unable to find a mosque perhaps as the camp faces west.


    From Um Piam the road ascends quickly through a myriad of corners & turns, at times skirting the mountainside offering eerie drops down sheer cliff-faces to streams hundreds of metres below. Fabulous mountain views open up all around, waves of mountains disappear over the horizon, the road gouged from the rock dips & drops, the path seemingly following the mountaintop rather than running through the valleys. Magnificent untouched rainforest, searching views through the trees, a noticeable drop in temperature with the climb. In all its grandeur it demands respect - potholes & the associated gravel lie treacherously placed, the odd truck plying the road takes up all the road to navigate the hairpin corners.

    Three shots to give you a feel for the vistas:




    You pass the Hmong village of Mae Klong Noi before a great descent to the Karen village of Mae Klong Ki where following miles of jungle & hill tops you suddenly burst upon a most scenic cultivated valley alongside the Mae Klong River.

    I took some early morning shots through the fog on the return leg:



    Onwards to Wa Khru Ko another Karen village marking the beginning of the Um Phang Wildlife Sanctuary & the beginning of a wonderful series of limestone karsts, reminiscent in many ways of parts of Laos.

    The school in Wa Khru Ko achieved notoriety throughout Thailand when current headmaster Sompong Muenjit under his pop-star name 'So', moved by the abject poverty of the Karen children attending his school, started recording hit albums as a means to raise money for them.

    The road passes through a string of villages arriving at Mae Khlong & the spirit shrine where horns are sounded to mark a safe trip either way before descending rapidly into Umphang.

    Your arrival in Umphang makes you reflect on the fact that until the completion of R1090 in 1987 there was no vehicular access to Umphang. Prior to the 1970's access was by means of a 4 day trek from Mae Sot following a 30km track through Burma from Walae to Nong Luang. In the mid 1970's a cart-track to transport rice from the fields to Mae Sot had been established on the Thai side of the border & some motorised vehicles started using this track at about the same time. Right through until the completion of the dirt road in 1985 (impassable in the rainy season & only sealed in 1987) people continued to use the track through Burma & indeed did so right up until it was closed by the Burmese Army.

    (To be continued............................)
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  4. That's a great piece Rod. I would like to follow your trail, but on acceptable roads for my Versys. Maybe something for the Fall, so that I am eager to get the end of your story.
  5. Congrats, another brilliant informative report,
  6. (Continuation.....................)

    Umphang is an overgrown but still sleepy Karen village. Records show that it has been in existence for at least 125 years operating as an immigration point for the Burmese - the name Umphang itself derives from the Karen 'umpa' which refers to the bamboo container used by Burmese to store documents. Tourism has yet to take a grip here other than for occasional package tours. There are limited but suitable accommodation & dining options.

    I stayed at Garden Huts run by a wonderfully kind & generous recently widowed woman. Its conveniently situated on the Umphang River diagonally opposite Pa Ni, one of the better eateries in town. Internet is nearby & there's a large supermarket in town stocking your every need. Good coffee is available at the nearby Bankrusun which has plenty of ambience & atmosphere.

    I took the bungalow on the left; 2 double beds, good hot shower, satellite TV (including Aljazeera), next to Nam Umphang to sing you to sleep each night.....:


    The district of Umphang though seemingly offering nothing, at the same time offers everything. Its the largest district in Thailand with the smallest population. It boasts only 5% of flat land & 70% jungle. Surrounded by 6 wildlife sanctauries & 17 national parks, the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Huai Kha Khaeng & Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sactuaries form the largest wildlife corridor & largest water catchment area in SE Asia. Its an area rich in flora & fauna home to 33% of all mammal species in SE Asia, home to 712 species of which 28 are rare or threatened. Its home to elephants, tigers, leopards, gaur, tapir, serow & banteng. The area is one of exceptional natural beauty representing an outstanding example of on-going ecological & biological evolution, & containing significant natural habitat for threatened species.

    There are a number of wonderful excursions to be had out of Umphang:
    R1090 continues south from Umphang crossing Nam Umphang in the direction of Palatha. Some 7-8kms out of Umphang you'll sight Doi Hua Mot (Bald Head Mountain) on your left. Just after the 10km marker there's a small dirt track which takes you up to a stunning viewpoint, a truly amazing vantage spot from which to marvel at the surrounding countryside. You can see R1090 winding its way over the ridges towards Mae Sot, the village of Umphang is laid out below you & there's Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary stretching away through majestic mountains for miles over the horizon. That's Umphang village in the second photo. This is truly one of Thailand's great outlooks:



    Its a mountainous & scenic run down to Karen village of Palatha, some 26kms from Umphang. There are clear records for Palatha showing its existence dating back over 250 years. Up to the beginning of this century elephants were used extensively there, indeed the village had the largest population of domesticated elephants of any village in Thailand. Although the recently installed sealed road has seen the tribesman adapt quickly to more modern forms of farming there are still tell-tale signs of a large elephant community with many verandahs sporting traditional elephant saddles, saddle-cloths & chains.

    Looking back over Palatha:


    The sealed road turns to an all-weather dirt road shortly after Palatha which takes you some 20kms down through an Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary control & on to the Huai Kha Khaeng/Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary complex headquarters. There are a number of minor off-shoots along the way which would clearly provide excellent treking for the more adventurous, but only if you can find a guide, taking you to a couple of Lisu villages, a hot springs, across Nam Sae Pa La, through untouched forest, over Nam Mae La Moong & back over Doi Hua Mot. Regretably today would not be the day!

    Countyside around Palatha:


    At the National Park headquarters you will be stopped & have it politely explained to you that entry into the complex is strictly prohibited in the absence of precise written authorisation from the relevant authorities. The headquarters are sited where formerly there was the large Hmong village of Kha Ngae Khi all sign of which has now vanished. The controversy surrounding ecological impact & land degredation rages in this part of Thailand. Hilltribes, in particular the Hmong whose slash & burn agriculture causes particular concern, have been strategically & extensively re-settled throughout the whole of this most sensitive area.

    (To be continued..................)
  7. (Continuation..........................)

    Another excursion out of Umphang is to head west along R1167 to the border with Burma via the village of Nong Luang. Around 4kms along the road you'll find Tham Ta Ko Bi. As the cave complex here was once used as a hide-out by the CPT (& given how impressed I'd been to see the Lao Prathet's 'cave city' in Vieng Xai, Laos) I rode the 250m to the cave's entrance. It was well worthwhile - the cave follows a long path inwards where the ceiling remains of 'cathedral proportions'. Inside, just out of the dark I passed a colony of bats:


    I continued on into the cave for around 1km before the floor became somewhat wet & muddy; not something I was prepared for on a day set aside for riding:


    It is rumoured the cave is at least 3km long & may even continue right through to Mae Khlong Mai. I retraced my steps marveling at how truly dark it was deep in the depths of a cave before the lights of the entrance again delighted me:


    Just outside the cave a noticed an abundance of vine which those who have read my 'Beyond Sop Moei' report will recognise as having been used to make handles for baskets weaved in the area:


    From the cave I headed out some 10kms or so reaching Nong Luang, a town which has clearly slowed following the closure by Burmese authorities of the traditional trek from Walae covered earlier in this report. From town its just a few kilometres to the border which I found under the control of the Border Patrol Police (BPP), a Thai paramilitary force operating in certain border areas & popularly known as 'dorchodor':


    An excellent bowl of noodles at Nong Luang - I attach a photo as I was amused to find that the other restaurant patrons joined me on seeing the rarity of a 'farang'/D-Tracker in town:


    Retracing the path back some 3kms you'll find R1288 heading south to Poeng Kloeng a little over 60kms further on. This route truly has that 'frontier feeling'. Just before the km19 marker is the turn-off to the famous Nam Tok Thilawsu, Thailand's largest & held to bbe most beautiful falls at 200m in height & 400m wide. The falls are found 25klms in, along a dirt access road. Unfortunately access to the falls for all motorised transport is closed through the rainy season & although the option to walk was presented to me I passed, hardly prepared for such an outing. Rafting in the area is reportedly excellent.

    A further 15kms on & you reach Mae Chan set pleasantly in a most fertile valley. I saw this Karen woman undertaking some sort of work in a dam, simultaneously enjoying a pipe (possibly not clear from the compression):


    At Mae Chan a small road to your right will take you to Nupo Towa, the small Thai village just inside the Thai-Burmese border to where up to 10,000 Karen & Indo-Burmese Muslims (around a quarter were Muslims) fled in 1997 when the Burmese Army & sections of the DKBA attacked the Karen National Liberation Army (KLNA) sympathisers in their villages along the Burmese side of the border. The Burmese burnt their houses & shops to the ground before mining the area to ensure those fleeing would not return. A large refugee camp was established at Nu Po (Karen for 'little lake') further down the road to Poeng Kloeng.

    Continuing south along R1288 you pass through Nu Sae Po, another Karen village, & then tracks right & then left to the interestingly named Karen villages of Ti Jo Si & Ti Po Ji before reaching the refugee camp of Nu Po. There's a market-place of sorts amidst the camp where I saw a packed house, monks & all, watching the soccer. I stopped there on my return, the scene markedly quieter, for a drink - only tea & coffee were on hand & they offered me a Burmese style sweet rice cake of sorts to accompany the tea. The seating is tiny, though sturdy & I grabbed a shot of my host & redently born son together with a Burmese refugee teacher who talked with me at length about life in the camp - he's been there 7 years & fearing phone tapping has had no contact with his family in Burma; it was a reality check when he mentioned how he envied that I was 'so free, able to hop on my bike & simply ride off elsewheres.......'


    An interesting Burmese-style Wat recently constructed within the camp:


    From here the road deteriorated; it was not a track one would wish to take in the advent of further rain. But such conditions were off-set by the wonderful forest & fabulous views over limestone karsts & of Doi Ma Ga Tu, a massive mountain forming part of the border with Burma which with waterfalls cascading down its face accompanies you all the way down to Poeng Kloeng:


    Fifteen to sixteen kilometres before Poeng Kloeng is a track left through Kui Le Tor which will take you down past the break-away Telakhon Rishi Sect (see below) village of Mong Gua. You definitely need a guide for this area as well as the permission of the BPP to ensure its safe from any on-going military conflict. The track will ultimately get you right down to the Three Pagodas Pass but you'll need authorisation to penetrate the Thungyai Naresuan National Park.

    I rode on down to Poeng Kloeng; you know you're nearby on sighting large growths of betel palms which can be found throughout the village itself:


    I was pleased to arrive; the descent had been testing & tiring. Interestingly, here, as all of Umphang district that I visited, people were (unusually for Thais) prepared to openly discuss their pleasure at the election of 'the reds' as they held high hopes that the area, as in the time of Taksin, would again see significant funding, road infrastructure included.

    I headed to the 'end of the road' to take the mandatory photo of the border crossing point:


    My intention was to carry out reconnaisance & find a guide capable of taking me to the Telaskhon Rishi sect village of Lae Tong Khu. The sect is unique in Thailand, part of the Karen tribe driven here by the Burmese. They worship a demigod, a divine rishi, eat only wild animal meat, wear their hair long but in a topknot...... The journey to the village is difficult; the village being well protected by precipices, rivers & so on. Its a potentially dangerous journey given constant border conflicts & its not always clear that the sect will make you welcome on arrival. One must undertake the necessary preparations well in advance including having clearance to enter the area. Anyway, rainy season is not the time to undertake such an adventure & I will return in February.

    With such an adventure ahead there would seem no better time than to sign off on this report.
  8. Excellent report Rod.
    There's a lot of history down that road, and the ride is one of the best.
    ThiLoSu is definitely worth visiting as soon as it reopens after the rainy season, as it is both beautiful & spectacular.
    Though don't go after 11am as the sun is in your eyes & lens.
    Thank you for the research & effort made in writing this report.
  9. Colin - enjoyed revisiting the threads you sent, envious that in times gone by one could carefully ride on across the border. Its different these days - I was warned by a Karen fellow of someone lurking in the shed under the trees when I strolled over the bridge in Walae....'come in spinner'! (Even the gutsy fellows riding between Umphang & the Three Pagodas beat a hasty retreat ex Burma upon receiving news of an approaching Burmese Army).

    Good news is that you can save yourself the 4.5hr climb nowadays taking the track up to Doi Hua good is it up there!

    Met with David U & his Swiss cyclist friend (Alex?) last night. Alex asked if I'd seen any banded krait - Ngoo Sam Lee-um for the Thais; lee-um meaning triangle referring to the snakes trianagular cross-section - in the Tham Tha Ko Bi. Apparently these snakes can grow to 2.5m & there's enough venom in one bite to kill 2 dozen men. The Americans serving in Vietnam exageratingly called it 'the 2 step snake' on the basis that you had 2 steps after it bit you before you croaked.

    Dave then told me of a mate picking up what i assume is Lyssavirus from bats; a disease closely related to rabies resulting in paralysis, delirium, convulsions & ultimately possible death.

    In hindsight I reckon winging over the border is looking an easy option.

    Rhodie - understand you too have many a great adventure to add. Look forward to catching up.
  10. Great write up Rod - I think you've just given me the inspiration for where to head when I get back up to Thailand in October - Do you reckon those roads would be OK on road tyres in the dry season? I really don't fancy hiring a traily to ride all the way down to Mae Sot from ChiangMai...
  11. OB
    I don't think you need worry as the road is good most of the way.
    You can see some images here from a post Marcus made of a trip we made a few years ago.
    We went as you will note in Feb /March when the burning season had begun. Not the best time.
    The only real emb***eration is the park's refusal for bikes to ride to ThiLoSu and the scam of having to rent a local 4x4
    for what was then 1600baht - probably more now.
    You will read in the recent heroic ride of Mike & Robert's that they got through, but don't count on it, and imo you wouldn't really want to ride it on road tyres on a big bike.
    Also do note that if you want photograph the waterfall you really need to be there preferably before 11am.
    And again note it is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Umphang village.
    All the best and enjoy one of Thailand's very best rides.
  12. After some advice regarding this trip, I understand the R1090 is now totally sealed.

    I'm looking at taking an er6-n to Umphnag in late September I know it will be wetseason, so concerned about condition and accessibility of the road, do you think it would be an issue?

    Also whats the situation with fuel and ATMs, I am guessing I would need to fill up at Mae Sot and then Again in Umphnag for the return trip, is there a proper gas station there now and do they have atm's as yet or just bring cash?

  13. Some of this info may help
  14. You can buy fuel for sure in Umphang, no worries. Not sure about an ATM, but they have internet cafe's, so seems like they must have ATMs.
  15. Everything a man could ever want - well almost - is available along the length of the (fully sealed) road.
    Mae pen rai!
  16. So Rod do you think that this is now a dangerous place to go? Whilst I like a bit of adventure, mortars, guns and bombs etc tend to stretch my sense of adventure a bit. We were heading off there today but the forecast is appalling.
  17. NO its not dangerous. R1090 is in fact well removed from any matters that may be concerning you.

    The point is, that as with all things in life, its important to be aware of what is going on around you. If you were considering riding down to see the border, the countryside, the villages & their people you should be aware that:

    - of the 2,400km of border between Thailand & Burma only 58kms has ever been agreed;

    - armed conflict along the Burmese side of the border has been a regular occurence over many years;

    - this very conflict has escalated in recent times as the Burmese Army seeks to compel through force the (nationalistically minded) rebel ethnic armies to join a unified border-control unit;

    - presently, fearing an imminent major offensive from the Burmese, the ethnic armies are recruiting & rearming;

    - the Thai Army has recently conducted certain exercises deemed necessary in the event of conflict flaring on the Burmese side of the border.

    Once again I would not for a minute hesitate going to see this wonderful & interesting part of the world, but be aware of what's happening around you. This is an EXTREMELY pourous border, drug traffiking is rampant, one may even feel tempted at the less/not controlled crossings to just 'pop over for a visit'. In the light of what's currently happening I'd strongly urge against it.

    A recent posting suggests that some are taking certain risks the consequences of which they may not understand.

    Enjoy the trip, its thrilling, fascinating, adventurous & fulfilling.
  18. In all the news surrounding recent developments in Myanmar it may have gone unnoticed by some that there has also been a thawing in the conflict between the Burmese Military Junta & the various Karen ethnic armies operating along the Thai-Burmese border; indeed positive meetings have been taking place between the protagonists.

    Such a situation gives rise to an opportunity to visit the fascinating area which forms the border between Burma & Thailand; an area reflecting the migratory nature of the Karen people, where one can bear witness to how trade was conducted between Thailand & Burma over the centuries, a traditional smuggling route for centuries. A visit to refugee camps in the area would surely be rewarded with the sense of a renewed hope, of rebirth, of regeneration.

    Captain Slash has recently been down that way giving a pictorial account of current road conditions & life in general.

    R1090 calls louder than ever, especially at this time of "Top Ten Road Polls" - this is truly amongst Thailand's best alpine runs; it must have been considered south of 'North Thailand'!
  19. Burma is « in » these days, but before we are allowed on some trails with our « two wheels », your suggestion to drive the border road to Umphang is probably as close as one can get for a poke into the Burmese ethnic problematics. It was a good opportunity the reharse your excellent write-up and a motivation for a promenade.
  20. This article appeared in "The Economist". In my report the village of" Wale" is referred to as "Walae'; its one & the same hamlet.

    I post the article in the hope of encouraging others to explore this most fascinating, history packed area of Thailand. The run offers one of the most exhilarating & certainly spectacular rides in all Thailand.

    A 'Must Do' particularly for those prepared to do a little research as to where their wheels are taking them - there's an untold story around every corner here!

    Myanmar's ethnic armies

    Prince of Wale

    May 23rd 2012, 9:44 by J.A. | WALE

    • <fb:like href="""" ref="scn/fb_ec/prince_of_wale" send="false" layout="button_count" show_faces="false" font="" fb-xfbml-state="rendered" class="fb_edge_widget_with_comment fb_iframe_widget" style="position: relative; display: inline-block; background-image: url(; background-color: transparent; background-position: 51px -343px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">

    FEW foreigners had heard of Na Kham Mwe—a rebel commander also known as “Mr Moustache”—when he seized control of Myawaddy, a border town, the day after the dubious elections Myanmar held in November 2010.

    Today, Na Kham Mwe is counted among Thailand's 25 Most Wanted. Among them, he ranks as the fifth-most-wanted of the alleged drug barons. His rise to infamy is largely due to renewed interest on the part of Thailand's deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, the man charged with fighting his country's perennial variation on “the war on drugs”.

    In his political role, Na Kham Mwe and his followers split from the mainstay of the ethnic Karens' anti-government movement, the Karen National Union (KNU), which is dominated by Christian Karens, in the mid-1990s. They named their splinter group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

    Na Kham Mwe's meteoric rise to notoriety has led to the offer of a 1m-baht ($33,000) reward to anyone who can assist in his capture. There has been a warrant out for his arrest since 2003. But until very recently the Thai authorities had shown little interest in capturing him. (When he was apprehended in 2010, in Chiang Mai, he was quickly released.)

    Since his newfound fame and hugely escalated criminal status, Mr Moustache himself has undergone something of a makeover. When this correspondent last met him, in 2010, Na Kham Mwe wore an old vest and was escorted by a modest handful of heavily armed comrades. Now he conducts press conferences dressed in neat military uniform, with a beret to complement his neatly groomed moustache, and leaves the room surrounded by a guard of honour.

    Na Kham Mwe has responded to his accusers by inviting both Mr Chalerm, a former police chief, and America's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to come and inspect his sovereign patch, a sliver of Myanmar's impoverished Karen state, which shares its eastern border with Thailand. The gesture is regarded as meaningless by the Thais: Na Kham Mwe is suspected of trafficking drugs, not producing them. No inspection of his territory is likely to reveal criminal evidence that could be used against him.

    He protests his innocence and claims that he has not yet been shown any formal charges. Innocent or not, Na Kham Kwe has retaliated against his accusers.
    His men have blocked checkpoints on roads leading into Thailand. He threatens to take further measures—and vows never to surrender, for good measure.

    At a press event on May 10th he mocked Mr Chalerm—the two have taken up a fierce war of words—by calling on him to pursue Thailand's wanted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawtra, the brother of the country's sitting prime minister. “Or does Thai law have no meaning?” he taunted.

    While Na Kham Mwe's relations with Thailand's government have been souring, his relations with Myanmar and its army are more cordial than at any time since 2010. Back then he scuttled a cease-fire with them in 2010, taking issue with the Border Guard Force agreement, a cornerstone to Myanmar's scheme to assimilate the “ethnic” armed groups into the national army.

    At his recent press conference in the dusty Karen hamlet of Wale (pronounced "wall-ay"), the red, green and gold of Myanmar's national flag fluttered next to DBKA and Buddhist banners. Na Kham Mwe's second secretary, Lone Lone, explained the presence of the Myanmar flag as being a matter of “diplomacy”, as if between states. Cease-fire talks have been back on the table since February.

    The DKBA are known to have ties with Myanmar's largest ethnic army, thought to number around 20,000 armed men: the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA are major producers of methamphetamine and also long-time signatories of the a cease-fire with the government. They set up an office in Myawaddy as soon as the DKBA were formed in 1994.

    Neither Thailand's nor Myanmar's government has made much effort to reign in the UWSA. Ko Ko Hlaing, the chief political adviser to Myanmar's president and himself a former military man, is unequivocal about it. He says their ceasefire is reason enough for the army to spare the UWSA from harassment.

    Recently the area around Myawaddy has been flooded with methamphetamine pills, one of Myanmar's most robust export products, known locally as yaba. Most of East Asia is seeing a surge in yaba production, much of it thought to be manufactured in Myanmar. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the number of pills seized annually by law-enforcement agencies across the region rose from some 32m pills in 2008 to 133m in 2010.

    A friend of Na Kham Mwe's says that his relations with the Thai military establishment are likewise doing fine. This friend, a former officer in Thailand's army, now holds a mining concession in Na Kham Mwe's territory. He says that relations are so cordial that Thai officers were willing to negotiate Na Kham Mwe's release three years ago. (In the same account, this friend is the one who drove the moustachioed outlaw from Thailand back to his fief on the Myanmar border.)

    Na Kham Mwe's new enemy, Mr Chalerm, is himself no stranger to controversy. He has strong associations with Thailand's national police force: traditional rivals for power with the army. An analyst in Thailand, who wished to remain anonymous, says putting Mr Chalerm in charge of drugs policy is like “putting a vampire in charge of a blood bank”.

    The former police chief is widely suspected of having underworld connections. The former police chief is widely suspected of having underworld connections. He is alleged to have helped his son go underground while he was wanted for the murder of a police officer at a nightclub in 2001.

    Thus the latest, most hopeful stage in Myanmar's national story is shifting the ground beneath some of the country's seemingly intractable ethnic problems. While armed violence is at an ebb tide along the Karen border, a once-minor warlord is reconstructing himself as an effective demagogue. At the same time he is establishing himself as a player in an unsavoury corner of Thailand's political life.
  21. Wow, so happy this thread got a bump as I'd never seen it.

    One of the most interesting and informative Umphang reports I've ever seen!

    "putting Mr Chalerm in charge of drugs policy is like “putting a vampire in charge of a blood bank”. :lol-sign:
  22. :stupid: [edit: sorry Tony, I thought that I'm with Stupid smilley would come up... still not willing to delete it tho]

    Don't know how I missed this thread before...

    Sounds like another ride to add to my sadly little riding days in Thailand...
  23. Whilst researching that potent concotion of those things that interest me & the potential for adventure I kept coming back to the Telakhon Rishi Sect at Lae Tong Ku. With our departure for Vietnam set for 15th September, 2011, it became 'now or never', come 'high water or hell'.

    The village of Lae Tong Ku lies to the south of Umphang down past Poeng Kloeng. Its home to the Karen Telakhon Rishi Sect, unique in Thailand, who worship a devine rishi who lives in the village amongst them. The sect eat only wild animal meat taken directly from the jungle & are distinguishable in wearing their long hair in topknots. Access to the village is extremely difficult even in the dry season. Given my time constraints & being the wet season, I was compelled to walk in to the village.

    A (Karen) guide is ESSENTIAL for many reasons. The village lies in the World Heritage listed Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sactuary, the largest wildlife corridor in SE Asia, where access is prohibited without a difficult to obtain governmental authorisation; the Thai Army & the Border Patrol Police (BPP) will not be 'happy' either for you to enter the area without first getting their clearance also. The sect is extremely devout & any criticism of their beliefs or obstacles put in its way can meet with violence - as recently as the 1990's the sect was rumoured to have been behind the attack & killing of members of the BPP & forrestry officials trying to enforce hunting restrictions in the area. If that's not enough, tracks in the area are not 'clear' & the jungle is full of tigers, elephants, bears & poisonous snakes.

    My research would indicate that Wachara, the owner of Tamilla GH in Chiang Khong, was probably the first 'outsider' to trek through the area. Christian Goodden holds he was the first farang in the area in the mid 1990's, yet when he tried to return in 2001/2002 he was prevented from doing so by the unstable & highly dangerous situation in the area generated by fighting between the Burmese & rebel ethnic armies. Futhermore his interpreter during his first visit had been murdered within Thailand on the paths Christian had taken supposedly by the Democratic Karen Burmese Army (DKBA). Wachara, an avid & experienced adventurer, reportedly found the trek 'hair-raising' & had often been struck with fear. A slightly different path exists today, but an unwary traveller could quickly find himself over the border in Burma; not a good position in which to find oneself in today's climate of war being waged there between the junta & ethnic rebel armies!

    To be frank, ultimately the only way to proceed is to get access to a good guide & to just set off with total responsibility firmly on your own shoulders; this is not a trip where the normal bounds of preparation can be applied. The trek is an extremely arduous one of only 10kms yet which will take around 4 hours. Carry as little as possible - mosquito repellant, sun cream, water, betadine, diarrhoea tablets, toilet paper, torch.....&, remembering the tribes own diet, take some instant noodles!

    Having just read Brian's useful & informative post - - I have decided to add this to my Umphang post. In reality I had been in touch with Jack concerning my planned visit to Lae Tong Ku & the Telakhon Rishi sect. There was considerable heavy rain in the area at that time, just before I was due to head to Vietnam, making access by foot impossible. Undaunted Jack had organised with the village chief for me to be transported into the village by elephant! Problems with communications, rain & a lack of time meant that I never undertook the trip as planned. I post this piece of information though as a further recommendation for Jack & to show his determination to 'get the job done'.

    I'm adding this to my Umphang report as many will now consider undertaking this trip from north to south & the ride down to Umphang makes simply for a sensational start (or finish) to the adventure.
  24. Resurrecting the topic with this video. Shows organized 4WD expedition to Ban Loe Tong Ku.
    This place has been on my bucket list for a while...went 3 times to Umphang but never managed to come even close. Hopefully next dry season.


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