Revisiting North Thailand Part 1: “route 118” To Chiang Saen

Discussion in 'Touring Northern Thailand - Trip Reports Forum' started by Jurgen, Jan 18, 2017.

  1. Jurgen

    Jurgen Moderator

    Oct 23, 2009
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    #1 Jurgen, Jan 18, 2017
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2017
    1 TG100 arrival
    2 A dangerous road
    3 Nang Kaew
    4 Pong Nam Ron hotsprings
    5 Mae Kachan
    6 Pong Nok – Hmong village
    7 Mae Suai and Charin backery
    8 The White Temple
    9 Another road and the Singa park


    The following series of “trip reports” could be tagged #TBT (Throwback Thursday) if they were published on Instagram; they reserve a large place to nostalgia and to North Thailand’s souvenirs dating nearly thirty years back. It is a truism to say that the region has changed; many things, from the quality of the roads to the houses’ construction in small villages, from the tourist attractions to their numbers and the origin of visitors, are very different nowadays. However, and despite all the developments, I still experience the same kindness and joviality from the north Thailand dwellers. Twenty-seven years later, I was delighted to meeting many people that I had photographed during my first visits; they were always cheerful when I handed them pictures from themselves or, sometimes, from family members who had already passed away.

    An Akha lady with her portrait picture taken twenty-seven years earlier.

    In Northern Thailand, not all roads lead to Rome, but many itineraries start in Chiang Mai, an obvious touristic hub. The region offers a wealth of attractions and a fabulous network of scenic and well paved links. A Gt-Rider “Golden Triangle” map is a compelling strolling companion [1] and plenty of fancy itineraries are portrayed in numerous “trip reports” on the website and in its forums. For this particular series of stories, however, I did not follow a classic modern loop, as my aim was to revisit places along an itinerary that I had completed twice, in the years 1989 and 1990, comfortably installed in a “Diethelm Travel” minibus. The five days North Thailand excursion was a favourite at that time, and there were few alternatives to this “classic” itinerary through the Golden Triangle region.

    Today, many modern asphalted trails can be chosen by people crisscrossing North Thailand; my intention, with these write-ups, is mainly to highlight destinations, with a glance into their past, while enticing travellers to be on the road and visit them again.

    1. TG100 arrival

    But where is TG100? On Sunday, 12 March 1989, I landed in Chiangmai airport with this iconic first morning flight, from Thai Airways International, a newly merged airline, incorporating the domestic Thai Airways Company. It was my second visit to Thailand and to the North, an already booming touristic destination. Twenty-seven years later, TG100 has disappeared from the airport information screens, now cluttered with all sort of domestic and international departures and arrivals, from a bunch of (mostly low cost) companies.


    Nowadays, Chiangmai airport has doubled its buildings size and decupled its traffic, Don Muang, the original Bangkok airport, became a “budget line” hub, replaced in its primary role by the tentacular Suvarnabuhumi airport.



    Security scanners, Mac Do and other Burger Kings, Chiangmai airport was not left behind modern developments


    I am not bemoaning about the good old times, but I am still nostalgic of TG 100, my usual link, in the early morning hours, from my beloved Don Muang airport, to Thailand’s North.

    2. A dangerous road

    All vintage pictures published hereafter (decorated with a border to highlight them) were taken during my March 1989 and July 1990 North Thailand trips. As I have intermingled these illustrations, they might have been taken, indifferently, during my first or second trip.

    This is how “Diethelm Travel’s” flyer described the trip’s first part (in their 1989 and 1990 documents) [2]:

    Depart from Chiang Mai by private car/minibuses for Chiang Rai via Wiang Pa Pao. En Route visit the hot springs and a Meo and Karen village near Mae Kachan.

    A minibus expected us on the eastern airport exit, the only one at that time, and we lost no time to cross the Northern capital as traffic was not yet a major hindrance, even without the modern ringroads. After the Bangkok frenzy, the “Rose of The North” felt rather sleepy, a drowsiness that we probably shared on our seats. I have no souvenirs nor pictures from the tour’s first stretch, others than a journey on a small road, through jungle forests.

    Nowadays, after an acrobatic or circular trip through the centre, for about ten to fifteen kilometres, the four lanes Route 118 drives visitor to Doi Saket, where a sacred gulden hillside temple (Wat Phrathat Doi Saket) watches over the speeding cars.

    Wat Phrathat Doi Saket

    Wat Phrathat Doi Saket in the afternoon light.

    The next stretch is, nowadays, one of Thailand’s most treacherous road [3]. In December 2016, speed cameras where installed to curb the casualties along this trail. The speed is limited to 80 km per hour, and, sometimes, even down to 40 km, while many double lines also restrict overtaking; till now these signalisations were merrily ignored; double lines being only a double waste of paint and the celerity being mostly limited by the vehicle’s horsepower.

    Route 118, uphill after Doi Saket.

    About forty kilometres, from Sansai intersection, an infamous sharp curve is nicknamed “one hundred corpses” by locals [3].

    The sharp curve nicknamed “one hundred corpses”, just before the intersection with Route 1252.

    Spirit houses are built in remembrance of lost lives in a sharp curve nicknamed “one hundred corpses”.

    Many road scars and frequent accidents can be witnessed along this deadly path, were speed and ruthless driving are aggravated by a winding trail and an often-slippery surface.


    Protection wall destroyed by a “jumping” lorry.

    Accidents of all type of vehicles are frequent sights along Route 118.

    The warning from a former graphic billboard (at Doi Nang Kaew hill) has now been replaced with speed cameras, and I feel that more vehicles respect the eighty-kilometre limitation, to avoid the one thousand Thai Bath fine (30 US $). In January 2017, however, the New Year road casualties have not yet regressed.

    The former “graphic” billboards warning about Route 118’s dangers in the Doi Nang Kaew sector.

    3. Nang Kaew

    Uphill, at the border with Wiang Papao district and the entrance to Chiang Rai province, many drivers happily “sound their horns”, a devotion sign when passing “Nang Kaew’s shrine”. Over the years, the place was moved from the road’s rim and is now curtained by trees, making it a less obvious spot. Horning is in fact prohibited and, while the sounds seem less frenetic and less frequent these days, uninformed travellers might still be surprised by the noise. This spot is about fifty-three kilometres away, from the departure at Sansai intersection.

    The shrine some years ago, close to the road.

    Written in tai, the signboard means “do not horn”.

    The Nang Kaew legend, narrated by locals, has several variations. One of them tells the story of a young Burmese lady, seduced by a Thai man who promised to return to marry her. After waiting desperately for her lover, she went on a journey to look for him. Exhausted, she passed away as she wandered through the hill which, today, marks the limit of Chiangrai and Chiangmai provinces. The phallic offerings are meant to bring her solace and, in return, grant fertility and other supplicants’ wishes.


    This is how Gehan Wijeyewardene describes the shrine of princess Chao Nang Keo Hi Luang, in short “Nang Keo [5]:

    “(Nang Keo) … is a fertility deity to whom phallic objects are offered. The road, upgraded in the late 1970s, was an old caravan route. Since the new road was built, the shrines, which were situated in a grove slightly below the crown of the hill, have been dominated by a new Buddha image. More recently, they have been moved away from the road so as not to catch the attention of tourists. Supplicants must now remove their offerings once they have performed the ritual”.

    Nang Kaew’s image, inside her shrine

    Phallic symbol offerings near to Nang Keaw’s shrine

    4. Pong Nam Ron hotsprings

    After passing Khun Jae National Park’s entrance, the landscape opens again to some flatland, a place with bubbling water spurting out of the earth. This is “Pong Nam Ron” hotspring the first possible pit stop, in the 80s, fifty kilometres after Doi Saket.

    A romantic setup of wooden barracks, along the Mae Lao river, was an attraction for foreign and local travellers. Small wells dug out of the earth and filled by boiling water served to cook tiny eggs sold on the spot.

    The hotspring in 1979, the first attraction and pit stop on Route 118 after Doi Saket.

    Pong Nam Ron, in the 80s locals and foreign visitors stopped to experience the hot water.

    Wooden shacks were erected next to the Mae Lao river rim.

    Locals using the warm water, I am not sure wat they were doing!

    Over the years, the wooden barracks, near to the river’s rim, on the road’s south side, were abandoned in favour of new concrete constructions on the North. As the Mae Lao river’s bed was diverted, to protect the site from inundations, water is no longer flowing near to the former touristic place.

    The abandoned “hotspa” on the river’s rim (south of the road)

    The former touristic spot, along the road’s south side. The place became a muddy slum, covered with vegetation, after the river’s bed was diverted.

    A new hot water and geyser attraction, with restaurants and shops catering to an increased flow of Thai and foreign visitors, was set up on the road’s north rim. It includes a large mock up temple building, which, till now, and after far more than a decade, is still not finished nor opened to the public. Originally, the three pagoda architecture was meant to be a jewelry shop, but outcry about the similitude with a Khmer sanctuary, or just the lack of money to finish it, has frozen the construction.

    The new north rim hotspring attraction (before the latest south road upgrade).

    At times, monks walk on alms rounds through Nam Pong Ron’s neighbourhood, allowing residents to make good deeds.

    With time passing, the impressive concrete blocks begin to look genuinely old.

    Even so the new north-side geyser attraction was not overcrowded, the whole “Pong Nam Ron” hotspring place was again updated. This included new constructions on the North and a totally redesigned south rim, comprising eateries, shops, gardens and two geysers.

    Pong Nam Ron with recent developments, both on the north and south sides

    Boiling eggs is still a travellers’ entertainment, in competition, however, with a plethora of shopping activities.

    New hotsprings on the road’s south rim.

    5. Mae Kachan

    Further down Route 118, the journey passes “Buak Khon” hamlet, known for its basketry and handmade “tiger grass” brooms. Since forever, at least when the upgraded road provided traffic and business opportunities, roadside stalls are selling these prized items.

    Roadside stalls selling basketry in the year 2000 (photo courtesy and copyright Fai Kuntawong)

    Route 118 in Buak Khon in the year 1996 (photo courtesy and copyright Fai Kuntawong)

    Route 118 in Buak Khon in the year 1998 (photo courtesy and copyright Fai Kuntawong

    Nowadays, many stalls still sell handmade straw and bamboo products along this sector. A new large market, featuring different facilities and shops, is also aiming to become a stop-off point for travellers heading back toward Chiangmai.

    A road stall selling brooms and woodenware

    All along its itinerary, Route 118 still features many two lanes stretches; it has, however, already encroached on its rims to cut three, four or even more paths. Broader links, particularly highways with a central protection wall, normally reduce the number of casualties, but, between Chiangmai and Chiangrai, the diversity of trails, combining speeding sections with narrow two lane parts, is a curse which contributes to its danger.

    Route 118 passing “Bua Khon” and “Mae Chedi”

    The city of Mae Kachan is just 77 kilometres away from Chiangmai’s outskirt, the Route 118’s beginning.

    Thailand has more than forty thousand temples; many of these buildings are not only parish assembly points, but attractions for local travellers and even for tourists. This is the case along Route 118 with several religious constructions well worth a visit. I have already mentioned Wat Phra Tad Doi Saket; my next highlight is Wat Mon Pra Jao Lai (the many Buddha mountain). Erected on a hill, north of Mae Kachan it is a regional landmark, particularly pleasant when it is glittering in the sunset light.

    Wat Mon Pra Jao Lai

    Wat Mon Pra Jao Lai chedi

    It is worth to climb the hill and to enjoy the panoramic view over the Mae Lao valley lowland.

    The view from Wat Mon Pra Jao Lai

    With clear weather the view from Wat Mon Pra Jao Lai is gorgeous

    Wiang Pa Pao, the next large agglomeration, is twenty kilometres away from Mae Kachan; these are the two only cities along Route 118, after Doi Saket.

    6. Pong Nok – Hmong village

    The travel program promised a visit to a Hmong (Meo) village after Mae Kachan. My researches, along this stretch have led me to Pong Nock, located twenty-six kilometres further up road. This hamlet has obviously changed a lot over the years; it is now made from mostly concrete houses. The dwellers confirmed that, in the past, tourist tours frequently stopped for a visit.

    I went through my whole collection of North Thailand pictures and printed out frames of places that I could not yet allocate. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to depict Pong Nok village and their inhabitants. It is unlikely that I shun shooting pictures from that dwelling; maybe the tour skipped it, to save time on this, quite long, itinerary.

    Pong Nok houses are nowadays mostly built with bricks, but the village is still home to lovely Hmong people, sometime even partially dressed with traditional clothing.

    Travellers speeding along route 118 have no time to visit remote places like Pong Nok and, to regain some of the nomad’s business, a Hmong market was recently opened, slightly up-road from the village. The project is slowly growing with more and more stalls selling vegetables, food and cloth.

    The newly installed “Hmong Market” along Route 118, just after the intersection with Pong Nok village.

    Traditional way of life, like rice pounding is also showcased in the “Hmong Market” – In the picture, corn is pounded as food for chicken and pigs.

    Corn hull separation with a traditional winnowing basket.

    Gentle Hmong people selling vegetables at the “Hmong Market”.

    A smiling Hmong lady at the new market along Route 118.

    7. Mae Suai and Charin backery

    Travellers without a vehicle are not let alone along Route 118 which is well deserved by all type of public transportations, like the comfortable “Green Line” coaches, smaller local buses and yellow songtaew (“double line seaters” taxis).

    Space is well used on the yellow “double line seaters” (Song Taew)

    The small taxi can be overloaded on peak days and during rush hours.

    Depending on the season various kinds of fruits are sold along the road, particularly in the Mae Suai sector. According to local accounts, lovely vendors operate roadside stands for an opportunity to meet passer-byes and increased their chances to find a suitable husband.

    Roadside stall selling grilled sweet corn sticks and seasonal fruits

    A “compulsory” stopover, particularly for sweet lovers, is the iconic “Charin Garden Resort”, a site which exists, in its actual setting, since about twenty years. Before that, it was a rose garden with a stall serving noodle dishes and Nescafe. After spending time in America, to learn about pastry, the owner’s mother came back to produce the arguably best cakes in the North, a fame still unchallenged these days.

    “Charin Garden Resort” a relaxing “sweet spot”.

    Charin Backery, arguably the best pastries in the North, since more than twenty years.

    8. The “White Temple”

    Route 118 joins National Highway 1 (Phahonyothin Road) in Mae Lao (Ban Mai). A couple of kilometres further, a famous attraction, one of Chiang Rai’s landmarks, lures visitors with another compulsory pit-stop, it is “Wat Ron Khun”, one more temple, and another important site to visit. The privately-owned compound combines a Buddhist sanctuary with an art exhibition, showcasing the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the proprietor and designer. As the temple opened in 1997, we had no chance to visit it, even if we took that road to pass Chiangrai, in 1989.

    The main building is the ubosot; badly damaged, on 5th May 2014, by an earthquake, it was finally repaired , as the structures remained unharmed.

    “Red sins” contrast with the mostly white buildings representing the purity of the Buddha and of the mind.

    A small lake, crossed by a bridge, mirrors the main temple.

    As an important Chiang Rai’s attraction, the temple, nowadays, welcomes cohorts of visitors

    The bridge to the ubosot, over the lake, crosses from the cycle of death to the liberation from desire and to Nirvana.

    A meeting with a “makeshift” Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple’s owner and designer.

    9. Another road and the Singa park

    I am unsure about our itinerary, twenty-seven years ago, to cross Chiang Rai. It was maybe not along “Highway 1” and could, alternatively, be on Route 1211, a more appealing trail through the “backland”, passing a couple of villages and the Rai Boonrawd Singha Park.

    This extensive farmland compound is another important attraction in Chiangrai. It takes time to tour the entire park’s surrounding and to enjoy the sight of animals and cultures on display. This can be done walking, on bicycles or with the park’s dedicated trolleys. For casual visitors, a, cum Singha lion, selfy is a must.

    Taking the Singha lion in the picture.

    Fun is everywhere when taking pictures of the Singha lion.



    The complete “Revisiting North Thailand” story is divided in seven (separately published) chapters:

    1 “Route 118” to Chiang Saen
    2 Golden Triangle nostalgia
    3 Doi Thung, the “Flag Mountain”
    4 Akha hilltribes and Mai Sai border
    5 Cruising the Kok river
    6 Hmong Lodge, a mountain dweling
    7 Chiangmai culture and handicrafts

    [1] GT –Rider maps :
    [2] Diethelm travel (thailand) ltd
    [3] accessed 31 December 2016
    One Dead, Four Injured in Collision
    [4] Gehan Wijeyewardene
    in: Natioanl Identity and its Defenders – Thailand Today
    Edited by Graig J. Reynolds
    chapter 6: The Frontiers of Thailand
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  2. Rod Page

    Rod Page Ol'Timer

    Jan 7, 2010
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    A wonderful report as always Jurgen backed by the most interesting of photos. Thanks for taking me back & for reminding me of the 'kindness & joviality' of the people of the north.
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  3. Goran Phuket

    Goran Phuket Ol'Timer

    Apr 2, 2008
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    Jurgen's legendary reports...great stuff.
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  4. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    Mar 30, 2010
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    Brilliant Jurgen..
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  5. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator
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    Jan 16, 2003
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    Great stuff Jurgen.
    I love these historical reports on GTR because it certainly brings back memories for me too.

    The Hot Springs art Mae Kachan

    plus a reminder of that danger zone on R118 coming down the mountain on the Mae Kachan side.
    I've done it twice now!
    Ooops done it yet again - another spill

    And a reminder how good Charin Resort is & how long we have been served by this fabulous bakery.

    Please keep em coming.
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