Northern soul

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Nineteen million tourists visited Thailand last year. They flocked to Bangkok, baked on the beaches and descended on Chiang Mai in record numbers. But few made a beeline for the sleepy town of Tha Ton. Most of those who did caught a boat straight out again.

Wedged into a mountainous corner of the country, Tha Ton sits on the Mae Kok River, which meanders south from Myanmar, a couple of kilometres upstream. A Thai checkpoint lies hidden from view where the valley narrows but cold war analogies are misleading. Border relations are cordial and travel in this part of northern Thailand is perfectly safe, incredibly scenic and immensely rewarding.

Usually little more than a brief stopover for sightseers intent on completing the loop between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai as quickly as possible, Tha Ton reveals its charms to visitors who linger.

Start by huffing and puffing up to Wat Tha Ton temple, where commanding views across the valley give new arrivals an opportunity to get their bearings. Hire a bicycle and pedal through the paddies, citrus orchards and corn fields. The area has bucolic charm by the bucketload.

Before long, though, you might begin to suspect the local town-twinning association has done a deal with Hong Kong. In a region where houses, shops and even temples could do with a lick of paint, the schools all appear rather well maintained. There are concrete playgrounds instead of rectangles of dirt and perhaps a new canteen or library.

Venture onto a campus and you'll be greeted with a smile and invited to look around. It turns out that much of the money and labour for the facilities has been donated by students from Hong Kong. Small wooden signs thank Discovery Bay International School for funding a computer room; West Island School (Pok Fu Lam) for building a smart medical block; and the talented artists from Sha Tin College who painted the playground murals. It's all a little disorienting.

Youthful creativity is one thing, however. Projects also need managers.

Bryan and Rosie Massingham set up the Maekok River Village Resort ( 10 years ago. It was a leap into the unknown for the former English Schools Foundation teachers. Bryan had been bringing his geography students to Tha Ton on field trips for years but their decision to leave a comfortable life in Hong Kong and start anew wasn't taken lightly.

'We handed in our letters of resignation and immediately considered taking them back,' Rosie recalls.

Their plans were ambitious to say the least. The couple wanted to combine a quality tourist resort with an outdoor education centre. The challenges were many; from negotiating to buy a plot of riverfront land to learning Thai. (Both are now fluent). They had to deal with local bureaucracy and train staff, many of whom are hill-tribe people or refugees with little experience of the outside world.

Running two businesses simultaneously requires attention to detail, flexibility and a readiness to multitask. The pair are hands-on with their guests. A typical morning sees Rosie making sure there are enough packed lunches for her history students while Bryan deals sympathetically with an Israeli tourist who says his bed is too hard.

For all the positive feedback on hotel review websites and successful school field trips, it's the community development projects that the Massinghams are most proud of. Modestly they play down their own role in the process.

'The students come with ideas and funds and we help to point them in the right direction,' says Bryan. What the students leave with should not be underestimated, either.

Says King George V teacher Katherine Hodgson, who has led a number of field trips to the centre: 'The opportunity to work with local people challenges the students, taking them out of the comfort zone of Hong Kong. It has not only been beneficial on a personal level but also in the application of learning from the classroom to skills and experiences.'

At the last count, 12,000 students from 105 international schools in 21 countries had stayed at the centre. When they aren't raising money or sinking wells, the youngsters turn their hand to educational tasks.

When I visit, international primary-school children are teaching English using home-made flashcards, which they will donate after the lessons.

Once a year, school principals from across the province are invited to the resort to discuss potential initiatives over lunch. The workshop is well attended; last year, 30 head teachers arrived with their wish lists.

The schools are grateful for help of any kind. Many of their students are from hill tribes and often don't have full Thai citizenship. As a result, access to education and even medical treatment is restricted.

The hill tribes aren't the only ethnic minorities in the district, however.

If Tha Ton is unofficially twinned with Hong Kong, settlements in the nearby hills around Doi Mae Salong are forever tied to the mainland. Flushed out of Yunnan province in 1949, the 14,000-strong 93rd division of the anti-communist Kuomintang army refused to surrender to Mao Zedong's forces. Instead, it fought a rearguard campaign in the jungles of Burma before eventually being granted asylum in Thailand.

The cultivation of opium to fund military operations has long ceased and, these days, the villagers make a living peddling dried fruit and old war stories. Visitors to the Chinese Martyrs Memorial Museum get the chance to sample both.

I leave Tha Ton in a long-tail boat for Chiang Rai, three hours away. Evidently I get off lightly. Says Bryan: 'We usually get students to construct their own bamboo rafts.'

We speed through a green and brown landscape of narrow gorges and broad flat valleys. Fishermen fling their nets into the fast-flowing currents; children lark around with inner tubes and water buffaloes venture unsteadily into the shallows to cool off.

Negotiating a safe passage is no easy task. There are rapids to contend with; malevolent lumps of rock and treacherous sandbanks to avoid. At the village of Ban Ruam Mit, tourists on elephants add a surreal dimension to the aquatic obstacle course.

Chiang Rai is a laid-back town where nothing happens in much of a hurry. The night market lures visitors with brightly coloured tribal garments and a huge outdoor dining area. The informative Hill Tribe Museum is worth a look but it's no substitute for getting out into the highlands for yourself.

Remember to take some flashcards.

Getting there: Thai Airways (www. flies daily from Hong Kong to Bangkok, and from the Thai capital to Chiang Rai.