Riding the Samoeng Loop in 1886


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a distinguished British scholar and diplomat, known chiefly as a Japanologist, who mid-way through his career, after 21 years service in Japan, was transferred to Siam and served as a diplomat in Bangkok from1884-87. During this period, toward the end of 1886, he travelled on diplomatic business to Chiang Mai, the first senior British diplomat so to do, and left an articulate and entertaining record of his experiences – though he remains relatively silent about the political reasons for his journey .

He is chatty and informative about the social side of his visit to Chiang Mai, however, and made a point of visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before enquiring as to the ‘best excursion to be made in the immediate neighbourhood’. It appears that things have not changed all that greatly in the intervening 125 years, as Satow was advised – probably by Chao Inthawichayanon, the amiable ruler of Chiang Mai from1873-96 – to make a circuit of Doi Suthep by way of the small settlement of Ban Samoeng.

Satow accepted, but since at that time there were no roads, just rough jungle tracks, he set out to make the journey by foot, horse and elephant back. In his account, despite the absence of a surfaced road, many of the streams, hills and hamlets that Satow visited are still readily identifiable today.

On January 21, 1886, he and his party, which included Dr Marion Cheek of the American Presbyterian Mission, set out on horseback, accompanied by around a dozen elephants and sufficient supplies for several days. In addition to this: ‘There were of course a crowd of followers on foot, besides the cook, servants, grooms, and mahouts’, while Satow himself was riding one of Chao Inthawichayanon’s best and largest elephants.

‘Leaving the Pratu Suan Dok about eleven, we struck at once into a track leading across the parched rice-fields to the south-west, and in about half an hour's time reached the village of Phong Noi on a streamlet called the Huai Sai. Beyond this we crossed undulating stony ground covered with thin forest, and came down upon the Huai Mae Hia. Across the stream rises precipitously a pretty wooded hill named Doi Kham, on which the sun shone brilliantly, lighting up the scarlet tints of the dead foliage’.

The party had their lunch at Ban Phon, and then pressed on through a ‘shaded, rocky gorge’ – no doubt In the vicinity of Huai Sieo where even today a ‘beware elephants’ sign stands by the road – before reaching the hamlet of Mae Ha at 5.30 in the evening. Here they decided to stay overnight at the local temple. ‘Howdahs were taken off, and the elephants turned out to feed, while the natives lighted fires all round to cook their rice and to lie by during the night’.

On the next day, January 22, the party started on foot at 8.30am and climbed a steep slope to the summit of Doi Nyung [?]. Here they waited for their baggage train of horses and elephants to catch up with them, enjoying clear views across part of the Chiang Mai plain. ‘Then we had to lunch and smoke a cigar, so that it was one o'clock before we were again under way. By this time every one of the party had walked quite enough for one day, and we got into our howdahs, the sole merit of which, in my opinion at least, is that they make you so uncomfortable that in a short time you feel going on foot to be less fatiguing’.

By the second evening they had reached Ban Samoeng, where they again put up for the night in the local temple. Satow notes that at the time Samoeng had 87 houses and a population of around 500 people, mostly of Tai Lu or Tai Khun origin, making it the largest settlement on the Doi Suthep circuit, just as it remains today.

The next morning was spent exploring the forests around Samoeng, and investigating the teak business – almost certainly one of the main reasons that Satow had been despatched from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the first place. ‘We spent the morning in visiting a teak forest about three miles up the valley. The walk thither was delightful, now alongside the clear fresh stream, now by a path over some projecting bluff under a brilliant sky. A cool breeze and the sight of tall pine-trees fringing a hill about three hundred feet above us contributed to elate the spirits of the party… At last we came to a spot where some eight hundred massive logs, many of them over three feet in diameter and thirty five feet in length, were lying densely packed in the narrow bed of the stream, their lower surfaces just wetted by the flowing current’.

Satow adds percipiently: ‘There are of course no laws or customs having the conservation of the forests for their object, and in a few years more all the timber that is worth cutting will have been exhausted’. In this context it is interesting to note, however, that Chao Inthawichayanon developed an interest in the preservation of northern Thai teak forests, and that when he died in 1897, he ordered that his reliquary should be built at the summit of Doi Luang, which was subsequently renamed Doi Inthanon in his honour.

Satow’s party departed Samoeng for the return journey to Chiang Mai at 8am on January 24, 1886. ‘We left Ban Huai Samoeng… and continuing to mount upwards, we reached, after travelling an hour and a half, a small clearing laid out in rice-fields by a colony of Lu from Ban Samoeng. The rice-fields which lay in the immediate neighbourhood of the cottages had just been prepared for sowing, and the soil seemed a rich black loam. Under a shed some of the women were engaged in weaving white cotton cloth in a loom which consisted of little more than four posts held together by a slight framework…

‘Another half hour's toil brought us to the summit of the pass. Just below grew at least two species of oak and a tall lily, bearing large ripe capsules. A knoll on the right seemed to invite us to climb a little further, and in ten minutes more we were rewarded by a magnificent view of mountains on every side, and of Doi Suthep rising high above… We quitted this delightful spot at a quarter to three. The path at first winds round the top of a pine-clad spur stretching towards Doi Suthep, and then plunges down a steep declivity in a N.E. direction, bringing us to the hamlet of Pong Yaeng. Just at the bottom of the hill we passed a plantation of mieng or Lao tea…The Laos do not drink the infusion, but prepare the leaf for chewing by burying it in pits, and it is one of their indispensable luxuries’.

‘The village of Pong Yaeng is situated in an extensive amphitheatre surrounded by hills, and having for its area a series of terraced rice-fields rising from the centre. Here three brooks unite to form the Mae Sa… As usual, we put up at the village temple, and passed the evening sitting round a wood fire, smoking and drinking whiskey punch by moonlight’. On the next day they again set off early on their descent into the Mae Sa Valley.

In Satow’s day there were no snake farms or bungee jumps, it is true, but: ‘It was a pleasant walk, continually descending by a rocky path, and generally in sight of the roaring torrent. We rested half an hour at a romantic spot where a fallen trunk formed a natural bridge, near a pool that filled us with regret at not having our towels with us. Shortly afterwards we forded the stream, which having now descended nearly to the level of the plain, was taking its ease under overhanging branches’.

On this, the last night of their excursion, they pitched camp near a small hamlet called Ban Kata [?] near the edge of the cultivated plain, choosing to stay in tents instead of the local temple. ‘A capital spot was found in a grove, and while we made ourselves comfortable in the shade, the Lao guides busied themselves with the construction of a bamboo bathing-house out in the stream, so that we could enjoy a bath in the clear cool running water’.

From Ban Kata it was just ‘ten or twelve miles’ back to Chiang Mai, which the party reached quite early the next day. Satow notes that: ‘Having hurt my side by falling over a log a couple of days before, I had to have recourse to my elephant, and as it was a level road, and the mahout probably was willing to get home as quickly as possible, he urged the animal to its utmost speed, so that we actually covered the distance in three hours and a half. This, you will perceive, gives him a maximum rate of 2.85 or 3.42 miles an hour according as you take the lesser or greater estimate of the distance; and he is one of the largest elephants owned by the chief [Chao Inthawichayanon]. Slow and steady should therefore be the motto of the traveller by this kind of conveyance’.

Text by Andrew Forbes, images by David Henley. © CPA Media, 2009
Website: www.cpamedia.com

Thank you Andrew for the text & permission to post on GT Rider.