Fascinating and off the beaten track
Published/Last edited or updated: 8th March, 2019
Thoed Thai (previously known as Hin Taek) is another of northern Thailand’s remote spots with a former bad boy reputation and a new fluffy appellation.
Now officially renamed Thoed Thai, meaning Honour Thai, the old name Hin Taek translates as the less cringe-worthy Broken Rock. Like nearby Mae Salong, renamed Santikhiri, the new title has failed to stick and while road signs and most maps use Thoed Thai, to residents it will always be Hin Taek. For nearly 10 years this was the home and headquarters of Khun Sa: drug lord or freedom fighter, opium king or heroic Shan nationalist depending on your point of view. Back in the day, this head of an estimated private army of up to 20,000 was, in the view of the CIA, the most wanted man in the world.
According to local history, the town was originally founded by Akha migrants from Shan State, who settled in the valley in 1903, making it the first recognised Akha settlement in Thailand. These days, it’s mainly inhabited by a mixture of Shan and Yunnanese—survivors and descendants of the KMT—while the surrounding hills are home to Akha, Lisu and Lahu ethnic groups. The community contains Protestant and Catholic churches, Chinese temples, Thai/Shan wats and a mosque. Indeed according to local lore, the Thai government once brought up a group of community leaders from the country’s troubled deep south to show them how such a mix of people could live together so harmoniously.
Khun Sa himself was forced back over the Burmese border after Thai army assaults in 1982, but his shadow still looms large over Hin Taek. Many older residents remember this, by all accounts, gregarious character who was often seen strolling around the market chatting with locals and who financed and constructed schools, housing, clinics and roads for the townsfolk.
Drug lord or freedom fighter—or most likely both—he may have been the CIA and DEA’s most wanted but to locals he was Uncle Sa. Today Hin Taek or Thoed Thai is best known tourism-wise for its Khun Sa Museum established in his old headquarters on the edge of town. This small compound, up a short side track behind the town market, recently suffered flood damage as well as having been bombed by the Thai air force in the early 1980s. These days the main problem is simple neglect as roofs deteriorate, damp encourages mould and moss on the walls, and termites and insects proliferate.
Sadly we’re inclined to say if you don’t visit this museum soon then there won’t be much left to see. To the Thai authorities it’s a part of history perhaps best left forgotten while the town’s newer generation, who never got to wave at Khun Sa in the market, are far more interested in Facebook, Man United and the latest model scooter to bother about irrelevant things such as history.
It seems to be older residents who now care for the site but more as a shrine than museum as such and they’re the ones who carry out a minimum of maintenance and place offerings and incense at the foot of images. Thoed Thai is a very remote destination, they don’t get many visitors and when we visited there was no curator or ticket vendor but just an old woman sweeping the road in front.
The dilapidated museum has photos, maps and some English-language information and while several buildings are kept locked, a couple of exhibition rooms ought to be open if they haven’t collapsed by the time you get there. The best maintained rooms are Khun Sa’s small office and bedroom. The original bed sheets are there—just covered with a plastic dust sheet—and his old Shan United Army uniform hangs on the wall although we’re not sure the toothbrush genuinely belonged to him. A life size wax dummy of the man sits behind his office desk smoking a cheroot, exaggerating the already creepy feel to the site. When we were there was no other sign of life in the whole place and we do confess to actually having said, “Sawadee, khrap!” to the remarkably life-like dummy on first glimpse.)
It’s only going to take 20 minutes or so for a visit, even if you read everything there is in English, but anyone with a minimal interest in the area’s colourful, and still recent, history ought to find it fascinating. It was after all Khun Sa who did more than anyone else to create the infamy of the Golden Triangle. In theory the museum is open daily, 08:00-17:00, and there may be a small entrance fee to pay during high season.
Back in town, the excellent morning market, open from daybreak to later morning, caters to a large swathe of villages from the surrounding border mountains. The small town is split in two sections by the Kham River and the market, plus most of the town’s facilities such as ATMs, cafes, noodle shops and convenience stores are located in the north section. Songthaews connecting Hin Taek to the outside world leave from the main street outside the market.
There is a rather large police station at the entrance to town on the left, and the best guesthouse, Rimtaan, is also at the entrance to town on the left.
The colourful market and highly unusual museum aside, there isn’t much else to see in town, but you can explore to the north where sealed Route 4032 continues through the mountains along the border. Plenty more great scenery and villages lie waiting to be discovered. Rest assured if there are any border issues at the time of your visit, the police and army checkpoints won’t let you go any further. The owner at Rimtaan Guesthouse is a very knowledgeable source of information on the area so can provide suggestions and advice.
Very, very few foreign visitors make it up here—all the more reason to come check it out.
As far as public transport goes, blue songthaews in the centre of town outside the morning market leave regularly throughout daylight hours for Mae Chan, costing 60 baht. Connecting with Mae Salong, you would need to alight at the Sam Yaek checkpoint and T-junction 12 kilometres south and wait for a green songthaew. For Chiang Rai, change at Mae Chan.
Sealed Highway 4032 to the border at Mae Mob some 15 kilometres north is in good condition as is 3051 linking the town to the 1234 but the 1334 which cuts directly to Mae Fah Luang from just south of Thoed Thai is not. On a past trip, we were advised, by locals and army, to return to the Mae Salong-Mae Chan highway and take Route 1338 leading north instead. This is a very scenic and generally well-surfaced, if slightly torturous, mountain road which eventually comes out at Doi Tung and the Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens.
For the museum, head into the centre of Thoed Thai on Route 3051 and look out for English language signs on your right. The turn off for Khun Sa's camp is just after the PT petrol station and just east of the morning market. From here a rough but partially sealed lane leads some 500m up a wooded hill-side. Any problems then we’d suggest popping into Rim Taan for a coffee and they’ll gladly provide directions as well as other suggestions on what to see while you’re up there.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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