In this part of the world, Doi Ang Khang is a mere baby at 1,928 metres -- it's the 15th highest peak in Thailand -- but when you’re climbing up it on a motorbike it doesn’t feel like it! Its jagged peaks do rise abruptly from the Fang River Valley, increasing the sense of height, while to the west the slopes drop off more gradually to Burma’s Shan State.
The mountain is best known for a large Royal Agricultural Project, though for years Ang Khang was more infamous than famous as an off-limits battle ground between Kuomintang and Shan Army forces for control over the lucrative opium trade. Indeed when Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej first visited the region, presumably scouting for his Royal Project, he had to be deposited directly on the summit by helicopter as the surrounding hills were under control of the warlords.
Nowadays all’s generally calm — other than occasional cross-border spillage from fighting between the Shan and Burmese army or shoot outs between Thai border patrol and drug smugglers — so Doi Ang Khang has become a popular tourist destination. The scenery is spectacular, the hills home to Lahu and Palaung people, many of whom wear beautiful traditional dress, and the fascinating Agricultural Project Station makes for a great visit. There is also the well known and well organised Angkhang Nature Resort, a sumptuous resort built on a former poppy plantation, plus some cheaper accommodation options in neighbouring Ban Khum.
The tiny village, forming the summit’s focal point, is located in a narrow valley with the Nature Resort and Royal Project located within a short walk. Ban Khum is an old Kuomintang (KMT) settlement, with a still very Chinese feel to it. It has a small souvenir market, ATM, grocery stores, bottled petrol, police box, Chinese cafe and the obligatory tea tasting shop. During high season the villagers also run short mule treks in a loop around the village and Project.
The Royal Project was set up in 1969 with the aims of pacifying the area — or at least the summit, since fighting between the KMT and Shan Army in surrounding areas continued for many years afterwards — and providing locals with alternatives to poppy growing. Despite the Project’s official blurb this can not have been easy!
The sprawling Agricultural Station today is a fascinating place to visit, with plenty of bilingual information, well marked roads and trails, masses of things to see and of course fine coffee shops and cafes. There’s a rose garden; temperate fruit orchards, bonsai house, a rhododendron and azalia forest, all laid out amid landscaped gardens.
It’s a huge area to visit and if you’ve arrived by hired transport from Fang or Chiang Dao your best bet would be to try and obtain a bicycle which, at least in theory, should be available for rent at the entrance.
The Clubhouse Restaurant is tempting with a decidedly British hill-station feel of comfy sofas around a large fireplace. (They grow strawberries up here, but we’re not sure if they make scones.) The food is very good, using lots of organic produce from the Project, and it’s not extortionately priced. The adjoining coffee shop and bakery, with a pleasant wooden deck and great view, also serves locally sourced tea and coffee. (The coffee was the best brew we’d drunk in a long time and rinsed down the hot carrot cake very nicely thank you!)
It’s a fascinating, as well as scenic spot, with the cool mountain air conducive to hiking. Another pleasant surprise was the flat 50 baht per person entry fee — no two-tier pricing here as this is a royal project and not run by the national parks department.
The Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang: Ban Khum; T: (053) 450 107-9; F: (053) 450 106; www.angkhangstation.com; open daily 09:00-17:00.
If you continue through the project, the rear exit road leads up to a couple of interesting hilltribe villages: Khop Dong, a very traditional Black Lahu village, and Nor Lae, a Palaung village. Both are signposted and well worth a visit while you’re up here. Most of the women in Nor Lae wear brightly coloured, traditional Palaung costumes and there’s a couple of noodle shops plus a souvenir stall selling local embroidery. A handicraft Centre was under construction when we visited in mid-2015. At the end of the village is an army post after which it’s the border. These Palaung, refugees from Burma, now live just 100 metres inside Thailand. At Nor Lae a road to the right leads down the mountain to Fang but it is in bad condition, extremely steep and we strongly advise against using it.
Which brings us on to getting there. The main access road is Route 1249 leading off Route 107 around 18 kilometres south of Fang, just before you reach the busy town of Chai Prakarn. The road passes through farmland before beginning a very steep 12 kilometre ascent to an army checkpoint and T-junction near the mountain’s summit. The road is in good condition but not one for inexperienced riders if you’re travelling under your own steam. (Remember getting up is one thing: getting down another!) At this T-junction, which also provides stupendous views back down below, the right fork continues to Ang Khang while Route 1340 leads off left down the mountain to Arunothai and Chiang Dao, with an alternative loop back round to Chai Prakarn.
Just past the viewpoint and checkpoint is a forestry department campsite on the right. Views are again magnificent but facilities are rather basic, though we did visit during low season. After that there’s an army base and helipad before the road forks again. Left takes you down hill to the Nature Resort, Royal Project and Ban Khum, while straight on leads along a ridge to the two just-mentioned hilltribe villages. At the right time of year, rhododendrons bloom along the roadside and this area is popular with birdwatchers.
A less steep, but longer, way down is provided by Route 1340 back at the army checkpoint. This winds its way south through awesome scenery and a series of remote, old KMT villages. These are very traditional Yunnanese-style settlements. Many younger people have left but you’ll still see old KMT soldiers leaning on fence posts, puffing on cigarettes, with Chinese opera wafting out of windows. We’d swear the acrid smoke of opium still lingers, impregnated into the brick and wood walls.
Indeed one of these villages, Tham Ngop, was the headquarters of General Li Wen Huan and the 3rd Regiment of the old KMT 93rd division, the so-called Lost Army. These troops refused to surrender to the Communist Chinese after being on the losing end of the civil war in 1950 and fled on foot over the mountains, via Burma to northern Thailand, where the Thai government permitted them to remain on condition that they aided in the fight against communist insurgents. After 11 years of roaming the mountains General Li lead his weary troops and camp followers to Ang Khang where they established the villages you can now see on the southern and eastern slopes. (Other KMT regiments from the 93rd settled in or near places like Mae Salong, Pai, Arunothai, and Mae Hong Son. In total, there is though to be more than 60 KMT villages in these border areas.
With so many heavily armed KMT and Shan forces in these hills, it was actually one of the Thai border regions with the fewest insurgency problems, so both the KMT and Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army spent most of the time fighting each other for control over the Golden Triangle’s opium trade instead. These days General Li’s former HQ still exists in Tham Ngop and has been converted into the Tham Ngop Inn. Unfortunately the Inn is only open between November and March, so we were unable to check out this intriguing spot.
Continuing past Tham Ngop you’ll reach Sinchai, another Chinese village, with another fork in the road and military checkpoint. There’s also a grocery store selling overpriced bottles of petrol, and a noodle stand. Straight on 14 kilometres down the mountain you’ll get to Arunothai, while a left turn winds down to Chai Prakarn and the main highway some 12 kilometres distant. Despite the road being only partially sealed, it’s a much gentler slope, and equally scenic, if you’re on a bike. Total distance from the first checkpoint on Ang Khang to the highway is 25.5 kilometres direct or via Sinchai is 41.
Before hitting the main highway you pass through another large KMT village, Ban Mai Bong Nua, which houses the grave and memorial to General Li Wen Huan himself. This large village is a completely unreconstructed KTM village, with South Chinese-style houses surrounded by walled courtyards and not a tea-tasting or souvenir shop in sight. From Chai Prakarn back to Fang is around 25 kilometres.
This is an absolutely brilliant trip and close enough to Fang to be easily managed in a day. If you have the time, it’s well worth pushing on to Arunothai on the far side of the massif from where you can go on south to Chiang Dao or west to Wiang Haeng — a wonderful and little visited part of the country.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 9th October, 2016.