Mae Sariang, a hidden gem in North Thailand

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Savvy travelers are well aware that while tourist hotspots offer a known value of interest, spoiled by mass tourism to a lesser or greater degree. Off the beaten track locations come in two varieties: ordinary backwaters with the untouched local culture but nothing much to see, and true hidden gems. The latter is rare, and such secrets are shared between explorers over a beer when they come to some metropolitan area for refueling. Mae Sariang in North Thailand is definitely one of those: it has more to offer than any promoted destination in the country, something for everyone. Waterfalls and caves for great for nature lovers, as well as good jungle trekking. Sunflower fields are ideal for landscape photographers and refugee camps for photojournalists. A variety of temples and old wooden houses in the historical center can be explored by culture and architecture scholars. And finally, the perfect chill ambiance of a small riverside Asian town is refreshing for anyone tired of chasing culture, nature and architecture. The place is simply idyllic.

Refugee camps

© Istock/think4photop

On the other side of the border, in Myanmar, the territory mainly belongs to the Karen tribe. Or so they think – the Burmese government seems to have a different outlook. Such conflict of opinions has led to a prolonged dispute, where most arguments are explosive, high-velocity or incendiary. The Karen, however resilient, have no realistic chance to repel the regular army, and every so often, another wave of refugees floods this part of Thailand. Refugee camps now line the roads north and south of Mae Sariang. Some of them are off-limits to foreigners, some welcome tourists. Mae Lama Luang camp, for example, can usually be visited without a prior appointment. The camps resemble an average Burmese tribal village – rows of bamboo and attapa huts, hanging electric wires, no plumbing. Most have received some help from various NGOs and charity funds – such as computers for schools (built by the Thai government). 

Culture attractions

© Istock/tumdee

The old center of Mae Sariang has been only slightly renovated, and many old teakwood houses are still standing. This used to be the region’s specialty. Nowadays, with teak logging banned entirely in Thailand and highly restricted in neighboring Myanmar, modern housing replaces the old wooden buildings at a terrible speed. Only a few sanctuaries like this provide a glimpse at the traditional architectural styles. Other than a walk in the center and perhaps a visit to the farmers’ market, the main cultural sights, like everywhere in Thailand, are Buddhist temples. Wat Tham Phra Boran is set in a cave, with Buddha statues hiding in natural grottoes and behind stalagmites. Wat Phra That Chom Mon is typical for this part of the country – a Lanna-style temple with tall columns in the elongated prayer hall and jataka frescoes. Wood is again commonly used in construction. Wat Phra That Chom Kitti and Wat Phra That Chom Thong are more modern, but both stand on hilltops with commanding views. 

Nature attractions

© Istock/tampatra

Mae Sariang is surrounded by landscapes of exceptional beauty, and its middle-of-nowhere location ensures most of them remain unspoiled. The typical hilly terrain of North Thailand provides plenty of sheer drops for waterfalls. The most popular of those, and probably the most beautiful, too, is Mae Sawan Noi Waterfall, a sequence of seven cascades sheltered by jungle canopies. Caves are even more plentiful. Kaew Komol Cave is claimed to be the loveliest in the area and the entire country: its walls are covered in glittering calcite crystals, making it look like a cavern in an iceberg. Salawin National Park nearby encompasses a large stretch of protected mountain forest, not very well explored and potentially harboring a few undiscovered species of animals (plus lots of properly discovered flora and fauna). Trekking is possible either independently or with the help of park rangers. Boating on the Salawin River is offered as well. One exceptional nature attraction, a seasonal hidden gem, is the Thung Bua Tong flower field. Bright yellow Thai sunflowers (a different plant from a sunflower in the west but similar in appearance) bloom in November, covering the slopes of rolling hills. Finally, Mae Um Long Luang hot spring has been developed, that is defaced and turned into a sort of outdoor sauna, but it is still good for a relaxing hot bath. 

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