Thailand’s “Deep North” has a character quite different from the rest of the country. Here the last (or first) rippling foothills of the Himalayas rise up into forested peaks and lush, green valleys. This cooler fertile country was where the ancestors of the modern Thais split apart from their Tai-language relatives, the Lao and the Shans, to move down and settle the central plains.
The North has the distinction then of being both quintessentially Thai, and quite different from the lowland culture it spawned. Although home to the first two great Thai kingdoms, Lanna and Sukothai, the food, architecture and language here have always been heavily influenced by Burma and China.
For centuries the Hui people, Muslims from China, would arrive over the mountains in caravans to trade in the street markets of Chiang Mai. Later, the defeated remnants of the Kuonmintang army retreated here from Mao’s Communists, bringing with them opium cultivation to finance their wars. The deadly heroin trade that sprang up in the “Golden Triangle” between China, Burma and Laos went on to fund a bloody and protracted insurgency by the Shan people too, this time against Myanmar.
But all this gives a misleading impression. Northern Thailand today is peaceful and its cities prosperous. The Thai government has invested – successfully – in introducing new crops to replace the opium poppies and within Thailand’s borders at least, the trade has been consigned to history. The government has also spent money to build roads and universities, and promote tourism. In this last endeavour especially it has been spectacularly successful. With its beautiful scenery and rich history, the North of Thailand has become a major tourist hot spot. Foreigners come to ride elephants and take ethically-questionable “hill tribe treks” while Thais flock there to enjoy the cooler nights and famous local food.
But that is not to say the area has lost its soul.
Pilgrims still visit the glistening hill-top shrines above Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai,and there are still villages where tribal life goes on much as it did. One small group of Karen tribal women still wear the heavy brass necks that elongate their necks to turn them into infamous ‘giraffe women’, while in the deep mountain valleys the nomadic “people of the yellow leaves” still build huts from forest foliage, moving camp whenever the leaves lose their lustre.
And yet there are all the trappings of the modern world too – sex tourism and super-luxurious hotels, street grafitti, good coffee, convenience stores and traffic congestion. It is an interesting stew – and one that Daisuke and I, after so many trips to Bangkok – thought was well overdue for some exploration.