Sunday, February 17, 2019

Strawberry Season in Samoeng

                                                                     by Jim Goodman

flowering trees along the Samoeng Road, late winter
       One of the pleasures of living in Chiang Mai is its proximity to fine rural scenery.  Although it is Thailand’s second largest city, it is much smaller than the capital Bangkok.  Its urban area, where traffic congestion can be heavy at certain hours, is not very extensive.  From central Bangkok to any direction you have to drive over two hours before you see a farm, much less a hill.  In Chiang Mai, on a motorbike, even in rush hour, you can reach rural areas in thirty minutes.
       Motorcycle excursions outside Chiang Mai are best in the cool dry months of December through February.  The skies are usually clear, as is the air, temperatures moderate and it rarely rains.  And in late winter, flowers bloom on the trees along the roads.  My own favorite this time of year is a round-trip journey to Samoeng, the Strawberry Capital of the North, about 50 km southwest of Chiang Mai.
strawberry bushes in Samoeng district
glass chedis at Fondcome Meditation Center
       Travelers usually associate the town with the Samoeng Loop, a motorcycle journey that starts from Mae Rim, 20 km north of Chiang Mai.  This route turns west at Mae Rim and then passes several well-advertised tourist attractions like the Snake Farm to watch the cobra show, the Tiger Camp to pose with your arm around a drugged tiger, the Elephant Sanctuary to watch elephants play soccer and paint pictures and then ride one of them, and the Botanical Garden with its flower displays.
fanciful elephant at Fibermaker Chiang Mai
       Soon after that the road goes up and down hills so steep you can’t get out of first gear going up and have to ride the brakes going down.  Forests on each side of the road block any views.  Five km above Samoeng is a junction with a turn right to the town and a turn left back to Chiang Mai.  The return to Chiang Mai is the best part of the route and after doing the full loop my future excursions just covered the route to Samoeng and back.
       Winter is also strawberry season and Samoeng district is famous for them.  It’s not the only place in the north that grows them, but Samoeng strawberries have the best reputation.  To promote the industry, the district authorities from 2001 organized an annual Strawberry Festival in February.  The dates change every year and do not depend on the lunar calendar, but the program is essentially the same.
Fiberware Chiang Mai sculpture
       Vendors set up booths selling all kinds of agricultural products, not only strawberries, jam and juice, but also various kinds of herbal and fruit drinks.  The Saturday of the schedule features a procession that includes flower-bedecked floats, with a strong strawberry decorative motif, the local school’s marching band, ladies in traditional clothing bearing baskets of strawberries and even a troupe of women wearing dresses shaped like strawberries.  In addition, of course, there is a beauty contest to pick Miss Strawberry. 
       From the center of Chiang Mai you drive south along the canal road and go about ten km to the Samoeng intersection and turn right (west).  After passing through a large village, after 2.5 km you come to the first big strawberry field, though there won’t be any more until the outskirts of Samoeng, another 38 km away.  From here on, though, the hills are closer, settlements sparse and forests abundant.
Royal Train Garden Resort
       Just another half kilometer past the strawberry farm, next to a creek flanked by a high wooded hill, is the Fondcome Meditation Center.  Clients can rent lodging here for as long as they choose and receive instructions on techniques.  A few more of these centers lie on the way to Samoeng, usually as part of a temple compound.  The Fondcome Center doesn’t have a proper temple, but does feature a pair of unusual glass chedis.
       A short distance further is one of the most interesting factories in the region, called Fibermaker Chiang Mai.  Among other things, it produces large scale, imaginative fiber sculptures like gigantic crocodiles and hybrid creatures like an elephant with four tusks, a fish tail and a pair of dragon wings.  If you’re looking for a ferocious sculpture to adorn your front yard and scare or amuse your neighbors, this is the place to have it made.
Wat Sri Muang Pong
       Continuing another kilometer you see a road sign announcing a railway crossing.  The actual north-south railway line is well east of here, but the sign is a subtle advertisement, referring to the Royal Train Garden Resort just ahead, which has a train engine and car on a track in its entrance courtyard.  This is the first of several high-end resorts along the road to Samoeng, sited in pleasant, tranquil rural surroundings, embellished by fancy flower gardens, with lodging, like at the Royal Train, often in individual, elegant, traditional style teakwood stilted houses.
       Two km past this resort is the village of Ban Pong, notable for its magnificent temple   The main assembly hall, ordination building and compound gate are in the best northern Thai style, with connected sloping roofs and gilded nagas on the corners.  In the yard in front are message signs in Thai and English with maxims like “Luxurious living turns one into a millionaire on loans” and “To live on what you have is better than live in luxury by installment.”
compound Wat Sri Muang Pong, lying a little off the road.
classic stilted house on the Samoeng Road
       On top of the forested hill behind the compound stands a very ornate white chedi, dominating the landscape.  Like the buildings in the compound, the chedi is relatively new.  But it was built on top of a much older, smaller chedi and curious visitors can take a ride up the dirt road to the summit and take a look at the original chedi inside the new one.
       After Ban Pong the road starts rolling through the hills.  Some of it runs through tracts of forest and in late winter trees along the road blossom, mostly with yellow flowers and occasionally white or red ones.  Even those without flowers can be impressive, such as huge banyan trees along the road.  In the open spaces in between stand more resorts and big restaurants, as well as some wonderful individual traditional Thai houses.

another example of a classic style home 
       About 22 km from Sanoeng lies Ban Kao Dua, the largest village on the route.  A few roadside restaurants here offer a great view down of the village and its many examples of big, classic, upper class Thai houses.  Kao Dua is the site of the American Pacific International School, established in 1997, with a curriculum for grades one through twelve.  The school has over a hundred students, from America and other countries.  About forty reside on campus and the rest commute from Chiang Mai.
       From the roadside restaurants the campus buildings are hardly noticeable.  But besides the big traditional Thai houses, one building does stand out, because it is so anomalous here.  This is the Hillsborough Hotel, with its gray, rural English manor architecture, quite in contrast to everything else in Ban Kao Dua.  No doubt set up to compete with the resorts in the area, it has very English-style rooms, garden, fountains, a small pool, a restaurant and coffee shop with English-style dishes on the menu. 
a mighty banyan tree on the main road
       Oddly though, no one on the staff speaks any English.  It doesn’t seem to draw a lot of business.  Perhaps it attracts Thais who want to experience something exotic (non-Thai) without having to go to another country.  It’s hard to think of foreigners wanting to spend time in lovely rural northern Thailand staying in something resembling home, when they have so many options of lodging in an environment more authentically local.
       Carrying on past Ban Kao Dua the same pleasant scenery persists of shallow valleys, bound by forested hills, themselves backed by higher mountains.  The road makes moderate ascents and descents, sometimes in the forest, sometimes passing cleared areas with more resorts, hamlets and temples.  A royal rose garden lies just off the main road a few km past Kao Dua.  And a roadside temple in a valley further on features a five-tiered, very narrow chedi unlike any other in the district.
Ban Kao Dua
       From this spot the road ascends again into the forest and you soon see signs warning to beware of elephants on the road.  An unpaved road to the north marks the way to the village hosting the Karen Tribe Native Elephants.  In northern Thailand the Karen minority was traditionally the people involved with training and handling elephants.  In the past, their main work was hauling timber out of the forests.  Logging has been banned for quite some time, which left elephants without a job.  Nowadays the animals mainly reside in tourist camps, both for riding and for non-riding experiences.
       Chiang Mai province has many such elephant camps.  Folks at Karen Tribe Native Elephants try to offer a different elephant experience program by limiting the size of the group so that each individual has his or her own elephant.  The Karen hosts first introduce their guests to their respective elephants, then instruct them how to behave with it, hang out with it in the mud baths the beasts like so much, learn how to wash it, feed it and mount it for a bareback ride through the jungle to the Samoeng road.
Hillsborough Hotel
unusual chedi on the route
       Guests can stay overnight with Karen families if they like.  Village Karens in the north tend to be very traditional and this place is no exception.  Women still use old-fashioned backstrap looms to make cloth and men weave baskets from split bamboo.  Both sexes dress in traditional garments.  In fact, they ask their guests to don Karen shirts while they are around the elephants.  It’s a security precaution, to make the elephants think the strangers are Karens, whom the elephants have been trained to respect as their masters.
white flowers along the road in late winter
Karen-owned elephants near the Samoeng Road
       Continuing past the turnoff to the elephant camp the road soon begins descending to the Samoeng valley, beginning with a very serpentine section until the junction with the road to Mae Rim.  The next five km are less winding and just a gradual downhill ride.  The road ends at a t-junction at the beginning of the town.  A right turn here goes into the small suburbs, while to the left is the business section, such as it is, and the main part of town.
the attractive hotel in Samoeng
       Samoeng proper is not a great deal bigger than Ban Kao Dua.  What makes it a town and not a village is the presence of a police station, district administration buildings and central covered market (and a 7/11).  It has several Lanna-style houses, but nothing as attractive as some of the ones on the road back to Chiang Mai.  The best is the Samoeng Hotel, a little past the market, its buildings in a style that seems half-Lanna, half-rural German.  Sculptured steles stand in the yard, some with Hindu imagery.
       Aside from the days of the Strawberry Festival, Samoeng is a very quiet town.  Occasionally hill people like Lisu, Karen or Hmong might turn up in the market, but the town’s tranquility is the main draw for overnight visitors.  Besides the hotel, the other overnight option is in one of the simple lodges at Wongwan Farm, the biggest strawberry plantation in the district.
       The farm lies near the southern end of Samoeng, a little off the main road, with a view of the mountains you just descended to the east.  There’s a nice stilted restaurant to the right, a row of several lodges to the left, and a big strawberry patch in the middle.  You can purchase packets of the plump, richly red, juicy strawberries the district is famous for and enjoy them back in the city.  Relaxing here with a tall, cold strawberry shake makes a fitting climax to a ride that, while still enjoyable any time of year, is always best in strawberry season.

Wongwan Strawberry Farm, Samoeng
                                                                        * * *


No comments:

Post a Comment