A trip to Salawin river - the border between Thailand and Myanmar (August 2005)
'WAIT!,' the soldier shouted and took my passport out of the bus and into their tent. Inside the tent were army
and immigration officers. Ten minutes later the same soldier walked into the bus and handed my passport back to me.
Other passengers looked at me with kind of strange expression on their faces.
Two western tourists were reading their guide books as if nothing happened.
The bus groaned and started again.
We had passed Hot, a district an hour drive to the south of Chiang Mai, and were heading toward Mae Sariang - a border
district with Myanmar (Burma) in the southern Mae Hong Son province. The highway check point where passengers' identification
document were inspected was located after Hot.
Roughly a day ago I left my apartment in a small town in southern Belgium to take a train to Paris where I boarded
a flight to Bangkok. Today early morning when I arrived Bangkok airport I walked to the domestic terminal to take
a budget airline flight to Chiang Mai. My brother who lives in Bangkok arranged the ticket-less flight.
As soon as I landed at Chiang Mai airport I took a tuk tuk to Arcade bus station to catch a bus to Mae Sariang.
My brother told me about travelling to border areas with our own country - Myanmar. Passports
will be inspected and that might take time. The two western tourists in the bus were not inspected, I wanted to tell
my brother. But then he must have already knew about this kind of thing.
After four hours on the road the bus pulled into the small bus station in Mae Sariang town at 3 p.m.
I asked the people around where to catch a car to Mae Samleab.
A motorcycle taxi driver sent me there just in time to take
the last pick up truck. After half an hour drive we entered the forested area with fresh air and nature smell.
There were houses of Karen and other tribal people on the way.
- Rice paddy fields and hills along the road from Mae Sariang to Mae Samleab -
Mae Samleab is a village or a small town on the Salawin river bank. It took the pick up truck about
one hour to get there. There are Thai, Karen, Indian, Shan or Thai Yai, and other people living there.
The town lacks electricity, however some houses have own generators. A few houses are fitted with solar
panals to gererate electricity from the sun. Small river which flows into
Salawin river divides the town into two parts. Each part has only one car road built along the river.
School and monastery or temple are on the higher ground, and most of the houses are built on the river bank
with enterances sitting on the curb of the road. On the slope these houses sit on stilts.
What will happen if large trees on the hill fall, or in case of landslide, or river flooding?
I was thinking.
- The bungalow where I stayed a night. These bungalows are located in Mae Samleab station of
Salawin national park - in Mae Samleab town -
From Thailand cargo of many types including these imported from outside Thailand are sent to Myanmar's
Kayah state by boats. The boats would go upstream along the Salawin (Thanlwin in Myanmar language) as far as
Ta Kua Hta on Myanmar side. From there smaller Myanmar boats take the cargo further upstream where Thanlwin
is inside Myanmar. Mae Samleab to Ta Kua Hta could take a day for a boat. The boats would leave Mae Samleab
at about 8 a.m. to arrive Ta Kua Hta at about 5 p.m.
From Myanmar side chillies and few other farm products, and cattles are sent to be sold in Thai side.
Along the river bamboo cut in Myanmar side are floated to Thai side. Bamboo shoots also come from Myanmar side.
Larger boat (see the photo below) are said to be used to carry cattles. Smaller ones are used as ferry boats and
to transport other cargo.
- Larger boats are called catttle boats. They are used to transport cattles such as cows, buffalos and goats from Myanmar.
Smaller ones are ferry boats, charter boats or to carry other cargo -
I then walked to see the houses of the town. There are muslim people, muslim school, shops selling
Indian food, betel nuts, as well as Karen hand made products like blankets, shoulder bags and so on.
After having my breakfast at the same restaurant I packed my bags, paid the room charge and went down to the
boat pier to take
a boat to the north to Tha Ta Fang village where there is another station of the national park. I wanted to do some
nature walk if possible to learn the trail and shoot photos. I also planned to overnight there if there was anything
interesting to spend the time.
I got a place in a small boat carrying few other passengers and some cargo.
The boat left the pier at about 9 a.m.
- A ferry boat infront of our boat. Both sides of the river are steep mountains covered with forest.
In this place Salawin is said to be quite deep. Mae Samleab to the north -
The boat took about 45 minutes to get to Tha Ta Fang station of the national park, where I got off.
The staff at the station were helpful. Though they would not suggest me to do a long walk. I could walk
only to Tha Ta Fang village which is only 15 minutes away and also on the river bank.
There are long trails: one to Mae Sariang that takes two or three days for tourists, and the other one along the
Salawin river back to Mae Samleab. I did not have time to do such walks. There were no brochures, no
maps at the station. They do however have bungalows.
So I walked to Tha Ta Fang village passing rice fields. Tha Ta Fang is mostly Karen of Christian faith.
- National park's Tha Ta Fang station seen from the boat -
In Tha Ta Fang vilalge I talked to an elderly people of 80 something. One of his relatives did
translation. The old man came to the place and started to set up the village with few others.
In the begining there were difficulties due to mistrust, fighting amoung groups.
Now the villagers earn on farming. Currently they do not have electricity, but many houses (of those
who hold Thai citizans) have solar cell panals to produce electricity for lighting.
There is a Church, a primary school in the village.
- Tha Ta Fang village. On the right is the photo taken from the boat. The building on the right of this photo is
a small museum which has a phone -
Going back to Mae Samleab was not so easy. I Had to wait for another boat going down the river to the south.
Fortunately at about 12:30 p.m. one boat appeared from the north and offered me a seat to Mae Samleab.
Back in Mae Samleab I talked to a Karen boat man and decided to go down the river to Baan Sop Moei village
where the Moei river flows into Salawin, and the later goes inside Myanmar.
The Karen boatman, speaking in Myanmar, said there was a resort in Baan Sop Moei to stay overnight. Another day
He could take me to to show Mae La Oon refugee camp which was inside Thailand on the Yuan river.
It was good since I carried some books for giving to children of villages.
But I must rent the whole boat which he offered me what he said was a very good price.
So I had a quick lunch, bought some foodstuff and jumped into the boat. It was 2:30 p.m. Before we left we informed
the village volunteer security team about our travel and where we intended to go.
At about 3:15 p.m. we arrived at Baan Sop Moei and reported to the army port.
Baan Sop Moui villagers are mostly Karen some of whom came from Myanmar. There is an army post where
every Thai boat has to report. In the past, up to about 10 years ago, the boats were allowed to run at night.
Now all the boats on Salawin can run between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. only.
The small resort keeps several wooden guest rooms near the river bank facing Myanmar side.
The toilets and bath rooms are outside.
They arrange meals and drinks for their guests. There is no electricity in the village.
Next day morning we got down into the boat again and went upstream along Moui river (Myanmar name is Thaung Yin river)
which becomes the border between two countries from this point to the south.
Half an hour later we arrived at another river intersection: Moui and Yuan.
Yuan flows into Moui from the north-east. We reported to the security outpost and turn left to go
upstream along Yuan river to get to Mae La Oon camp.
- Farming on hill -
On the way back to Mae Samleab I took this photo of a farm on the Thai side. Karen people
cleared the land and grow mountain rice and vegetables. On the Thai side I also saw
plantation of Teakwood along Salawin river as well as in the hills.