Back to the basics
Once a war zone, Nan's border district of Thung Chang is now a place where you can enjoy peaceful rural life, pristine nature, tangy tangerine and geisha coffee
published : 2 Jan 2020 at 04:01
newspaper section: Life
On the breezy top of the limestone cliff on the east side of Doi Pha Phueng, 1,600m above sea level, I zipped up my jacket and let the sights and sounds of the natural surroundings soak in. Before me was a sea of forest-clad mountains, bathed in the warm rays of the morning Sun. The air was filled with blissful silence, with faint songs from invisible birds occasionally seeping in from the canopy below.
Half-a-century ago, when Thailand was at war with Communist insurgents, it was a different world around here. Thung Chang, this northern district of Nan province near the Thai-Lao border, was among the areas with the heaviest fighting. The forests were teeming with armed men and women ready to kill anyone with different political ideologies. Blasts of gunfire and bombs echoed in the mountains. Bullets and grenades could come from anywhere.
In that kind of situation, I don't think I would dare sit in the open like this. Perhaps I wouldn't even have had the courage to set foot in this part of the country.
But in late 1967, the year the first armed clash between the government forces and the Communist guerrillas happened in Thung Chang, the first in the North, 18 months after similar violence began in the Northeast, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej came all the way to this troubled area to provide moral and other forms of support to the local people and servicemen. Despite the obvious danger, he returned to Thung Chang several times in the following years, sometimes with HM Queen Sirikit. Prior to one of his visits, a site on his itinerary was attacked by the insurgents. Still, the king refused to change his original plan.
To make a long story short, Thailand managed to survive the 60s and the 70s without falling under Communism like some of our immediate neighbours, thanks to everybody involved, many of whom paid with their lives. I hope the country will see no more civil war. I hope we learned some lessons from what happened in the past.
A strong breeze slapped me in the face, bringing my thoughts back to the present. This part of Nan is such a peaceful and charming place. The forest to the east of Doi Pha Phueng is now protected as Doi Phu Kha National Park. In the mountains to the west, meanwhile, are reserved forests as well as the fruit orchards and coffee plantations of Ban Mani Phruek, where high-quality arabica beans are produced.
The Sun was getting higher and stronger. It's time for me to leave the mountaintop and go have a drink at one of the coffee shops in the village.
- Thung Chang is 93km north of Nan city, which is about an hour and 20 minutes by plane from Bangkok. You can take a bus from downtown Nan to Thung Chang, but it is more convenient to rent a car or hire a van, so you can drop by anywhere you wish.
- The road up Doi Pha Phueng is not good for city cars. You can hire a pickup from nearby Ban Mani Phruek. Call the village's tourism group at 063-562-6696 or 062-248-5018.
- In case you're interested in exploring Thung Chang's mountains on a bicycle or experiencing a rural homestay and farming, contact Pinyo Jindachart via Facebook.
With such a vista of surrounding mountains, Doi Pha Phueng can easily reconnect you with nature. (Photo by Kajondej Thongmee)
Every March, people from surrounding areas flock to Thung Chang to appreciate the brightly coloured blooms of the yellow trumpet trees (Tabebuia chrysantha) in Ban Thung Sun, less than 8km from the district's downtown area. The trees stand in large number on private property. The owner opens the gate to visitors during the blossoming period, which lasts about a week. (Photo: Pinyo Jindachart)
On the top of Doi Pha Phueng, no less refreshing than the scenery are the various wildflowers. The most abundant during my visit in late November was aen-aa khon (Osbeckia stellata). The species is pretty common in mountainous areas. Yet its purplish-pink petals and bright yellow stamens never fail to delight me.
The hilltribe community of Ban Mani Phruek, the gateway to Doi Pha Phueng, is home to the Hmong and Lua people. The village is well known among true coffee connoisseurs because it is a source of premium arabica coffee beans. A number of arabica varieties are grown here, such as typica, catimor and geisha. The last is the most prized of all. At Ban Mani Phruek, a 100g pack of roasted geisha beans costs around 450 baht. The price may almost double if you buy it elsewhere. By the way, the cat shown in the picture was a receptionist of a coffee shop in the mountain village. After leaving my table, it took a break and enjoyed a nap in the late-morning Sun.
Hidden in the mountains of Thung Chang district are double- and single-tracks with magnificent scenery. Two-time national downhill mountain biking champ Pinyo Jindachart, who now lives in this part of Nan, guided me on one of his favourite routes. We started from Ban Pang Kae, not far from Ban Mani Phruek, and biked to Wat Thung Phueng near the Thung Chang town centre on the low land. The temple houses a 700-year-old Buddha image in its ordination hall.
In memory of the civilians, policemen and soldiers who sacrificed their lives in this part of Nan during the years of the war against Communist insurgents, this monument in Thung Chang was opened by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and HM Queen Sirikit on Feb 10, 1976. On one of the king's previous visits during the height of the war, he was told that there were injured soldiers stranded in the mountains because no vehicle was available to bring them out. The king immediately sent one of the helicopters in his entourage to pick up the four wounded men and take them to the hospital. About 300m from the monument is a museum that displays photographs taken from the battlefields, as well as weapons and other items used by the warriors of both sides. It's a pity the museum is poorly maintained. (Photos: Kajondej Thongmee)
Among the variety of Thung Chang's farm produce, the si thong tangerine seems to be what the locals are most proud of. Every December, the district holds the Som Si Thong fair that features beautiful processions and sales of the tangerine and other local goodies. The fruit will still be available for the next few weeks. (Photo: Pinyo Jindachart)
Nestled in the mountainous terrain flanking both sides of Highway 1080 that runs past Thung Chang towards the Thai-Lao border further north are stations of several agencies set up to take care of forest conservation and improve the hilltribe villagers' livelihood. Some, such as the development project at Ban Pang Kae, which was initiated by King Bhumibol to make sure former Communist insurgents managed to make a happy and sustainable living, also offer bungalows and camping areas. A few others, like Huai Sa Taeng and Nam Sot watershed management units, were unmanned. The latter has obviously been abandoned for a long time.
Unlike in the city, rural people do not need to buy everything. For example, bamboo, which can be collected from the wild, can be used for so many purposes, from making fences, furniture and fishing tools and various household items to food. Like people in other parts of the Kingdom, villagers in Thung Chang know how to preserve bamboo shoots for a rainy day and use the plant's hollow stems for making khao lam (sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and cooked in bamboo). But unlike in other parts, the khao lam of Thung Chang is very long, almost a metre.
With a firm belief that sustainable farming would be the best way to go, over a year ago Pinyo Jindachart, seen in the photo wearing a black hat, and his family left Bangkok to settle down in Thung Chang, his wife's home village. The rambutan and banana trees they had planted a few years earlier before moving are already yielding fruit. Pinyo also turned a part of the family's paddy field into chemical-free vegetable plots so that his children can have fresh, safe food for every meal. Asked how he managed to get all the farm work done (the rice field alone requires a lot of labour during planting and harvest time), Pinyo explained that unlike in much of the country, in Thung Chang the ao raeng tradition (called long khaek in the Central region) is still practised. Rice farmers team up to work in a member's rice field one day and move on together to do the same job on the land of another member the next. With everybody helping one another, sapling planting or harvesting can be done quickly and without the need to hire workers. (Photos: Pinyo Jindachart)
This facility, run by a group of villagers, sits near the town of Thung Chang. It is where local farmers, Pinyo included, sell their bananas. Here, the fruit is sliced and deep-fried. The chips, called kluai brake taek (failed brake banana), is a snack that is hard to stop eating. The chips are transported to buyers in Bangkok and other places across the nation who repackage it under their own brands. Who knows — your favourite banana chip could have been made in Thung Chang.