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Phrao

  • The entire region of northern Thailand from Tak to Mae Sai and Nan is separated by range after range of largely unpopulated hills, most running due north-south, and each girding a verdant, fertile valley the home of the Khon Muang. Some valleys are more familiar than others, of course. Chiang Mai, for example, is certainly better-known than Nan. Yet first impressions can be misleading. Near its northernmost point the Vale of Chiang Mai is bisected by a rocky outcrop of hills dominated by the jagged peak of Doi Pha Sam Sao. To the west of this range lies Chiang Dao and the road to Fang a route frequented by those heading for Doi Mae Salong, or those intent on rafting the Kok River to Chiang Rai. To the east, however narrow, isolated, and all but unvisited by outsiders lies the hidden valley of Phrao. 
  • Phrao was not always hidden, of course, though it has always been well off the beaten track. But since the construction of the Mae Ngad Dam, close by the small junction town of Mae Taeng, some twenty five years ago, Phrao really has been physically cut off from the main Vale of Chiang Mai. Today it is hidden behind a broad stretch of water which entirely blocks the valley mouth, and those wishing to travel to Phrao from Mae Taeng must take a long-tailed ferry boat from the head of the dam. Alternatively, they can take a long and winding diversionary road through the foothills to the east. There is no direct road link via the fertile lowland plain.
  • All of which begs the question, why travel to Phrao in the first place? True, there are no historic monuments, no city walls or archaic temples. Yet sites such as these exist in plenty in Chiang Mai and in nearby Lamphun. Instead the "hidden valley" offers a chance to see a piece of rural northern Thailand as it once was pristine, unspoiled, and as traditional as you are likely to find at the end of the 20th century.
  • There are two roads to Phrao from Chiang Mai. The first, and most direct, is Provincial Highway 1001, which runs north from the new superhighway past Mae Jo University. Following the less-developed, east bank of the Ping River, this well-surfaced route runs due north for about thirty kilometres. It then turns sharply to the east and climbs into the range of hills separating the lowlands of Chiang Mai from those of northern Lampang. Instead of crossing this range, however, the road turns sharply to the north once again, descending rapidly into the Vale of Phrao at the small Hamlet of Ban Pa Ha. This is the route followed by the regular bus service from Chiang Mai's Chang Puak station.
  • A second, less direct way to reach Phrao is by taking National Highway 107 north from Chiang Mai towards Fang. After forty kilometres a metalled road leads east from the small town of Mae Taeng to the foot of the Mae Ngad Dam once the entrance to the Vale of Phrao, now blocked by a massive earth fill dam. The road passes beneath the face of the dam and terminates in a dusty parking area beside the Mae Ngad Reservoir. This artificial lake extends about four kilometres up the valley, edged by high jungle-covered hills. There are a number of small restaurants by the lakeside, and regular boats carry people up river to the Manohra Guest House, a popular destination where visitors stay overnight in floating bamboo huts. Additional boats some of the fast, long-tailed variety, others more sedate vessels are available for joy riding, exploring the limits of the lake, and fishing trips.
  • The traveller to Phrao, whether arriving by land or by water, is immediately struck by the richness and fertility of the isolated, narrow region. Throughout its full length of about fifty kilometres, the valley is hemmed in by hills to the west and the east, culminating in a dead end at Ban Huai San, by the headwaters of the Mae Ngad, in the north.
  • The first village of any size is Ban Huai Sai, or "Sandy Stream", a peaceful settlement rarely visited by outsiders. Here the local people make a good living from the lush tobacco and rice crops sustained by the fertile fields of the valley floor. Sao muang pale skinned northern girls sit gracefully by a handful of roadside stalls, selling lychees and strawberries when in season, to passing farmers and motorists. 
  • At the small, well-maintained temple of Wat Ban Huai Sai saffron robed monks water potted plants and tend to their kitchen garden as the sun drops towards the forest-clad peaks in the west. A novice monk sits contemplatively on the stoop of an elaborately carved temple doorway, clearly appreciative of the rays of the falling sun it can get chilly in these northern regions after nightfall, even during the summer months. Life is tranquil and undisturbed, and whilst these days the average Huai Sai farmer is more likely to drive an i-taen, a small motorised trailer, than a buffalo, he is unlikely to suffer from traffic-related stress. The increasingly congested streets of Chiang Mai are distant, and Bangkok seems far away indeed.