Death Highway to Umphang—fifty miles through the clouds

A sea of mist around one of the highests points of Highway 1090.Rich in natural attractions — including the Thi Lo Su waterfall, often praised as Southeast Asia’s most beautiful — Umphang in southern Tak has become a popular destination for both Thai and foreign tourists. This large, isolated district spread along the Burmese border, was a notorious trouble spot in the 1980s, till the area was pacified during the construction of a 164-kilometre-long asphalt road, Highway 1090, linking it with Mae Sot, Tak’s second city.

It is a challenging, three-to-four-hour ride from Mae Sot to Umphang, but there is so much of interest along the route that it is worth spending another four or five hours on sightseeing. Over the course of many motorbike trips, I have fallen in love with its mountain vistas and the dense jungles it traverses. So far, I have survived my passion for the ‘Death Highway’. Given its annual death toll of fifty plus — a bus crash in 1995 killing 25 teachers from Bangkok setting a grim record — it is recognized as one of the country’s most accident prone roads. Its countless sharp curves and steep slopes can be treacherous, as the mist and clouds at the higher elevations are often thick, so consequently many of the bends become wet and slippery. What’s more, besides the occasional dare devils — in particular drivers of speeding pick-ups and larger trucks in a hurry to get their loads of agricultural produce to the markets in the lowland — there is the lack of experience on mountain roads of the Bangkok tourists driving their fourwheel drives or minibuses in the mountains to contend with.

monument

The memorial at the beginning of Highway 1090.

In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the construction of this road through a ‘pink zone’ infested with communist insurgents also claimed many lives, which was when it first gained the sobriquet of ‘Death Highway’. Due to the high incidence of traffic fatalities since, the name endures in popular usage.

It begins just a few kilometres east of Mae Sot, where it branches off Highway 105 from Tak to Mae Sariang. Nearby is a monument commemorating the victims of the insurgency, many of them slain during the construction of the road to Umphang.

Its first stretch  — four lanes wide with rather heavy traffic — passes through villages, rice fields and swamps, and past small agro-industrial plants. Some of the fields are planted with sugar cane, which is harvested in December by labourers from Burma, many of them in longyi (sarongs), their faces daubed with sandalwood paste.

Burmese cutting the sugar canes.

You may also spot plantations of beans, chilis, tomatoes, cucumbers and various other vegetables, but past KM 17, after the highway has crossed into Phop Phra district and climbs steadily into the undulating hills, these will begin to predominate. The slopes are cultivated as far as the eye can see, except to your right where the fields end below the steep mountains that form the border with Burma. Irrigation is by means of thousands of sprinklers. In the morning, truckloads of Burmese workers deploy into the fields. There are also the occasional teak and eucalyptus plantations, and even some recent plots with young rubber trees. An especially striking sight are the extensive rose gardens. The blooms grown here are sold in markets throughout the kingdom.

Farmers going to their fields.

Farmers going to their fields.

At KM 37, a turn-off leads to the Pha Charoen Falls. It’s less than a kilometre to the entrance, and — big surprise — admittance is free for all, despite its location within a national park. The falls are dramatic, while from there you can climb a stairway of 97 steps that eventually lead to a forest with impressive bamboo groves and giant strangler figs.

Equally scenic, but more remote, are the Pa Wai Falls. To get there, turn off at KM 41 and follow Rural Highway 4017 through the undulating, completely deforested hills planted with maize or chilis. A left fork leads to the edge of dense forest and the picturesque Hmong village of Pa Wai. Past this, the asphalt road ends at the falls, which flows over low stages amidst lush forest. A branch of the stream plunges into a sinkhole in a rock to re-emerge some fifty metres below. A rather large cave is hidden in this limestone formation, but is inaccessible, except for thousands of bats which fly out of it at dusk.

Burmese labourers in the rose gardens.

Burmese labourers in the rose gardens.

Back at the fork, you can continue along the rural highway, as it loops back to the main road. You will pass the large Hmong settlement of Ban Pa Kha Mai, surrounded by fields planted with potatoes. The road becomes a laterite track until the Hmong-village Ban Pa Kha Kao, but thereafter is asphalt again until K 48 of Highway 1090, where it ends. Altogether, the loop is ten kilometres long, and much of the land along the route has been distributed to hill tribes in a sprawling resettlement scheme.

In the late 1970s, a Thai Army camp was at KM 46, while the notorious Krathing Daeng — a right-wing paramilitary organization — was stationed at KM 48. Their duty was to protect the workers employed in the construction of the highway. Ambushes by rebellious Hmong from the surrounding mountains were common — one of their attacks even claimed the lives of thirty workers. Many of the men serving in the defense force in this dangerous backwater were Lahu illegal immigrants fleeing the civil war in Burma.

Sunflowers.

Sunflowers.

They had been promised 20 rai of land on completion of their service. After the successful suppression of the insurgency (still remembered by some Lahu as their ‘victory over the Hmong’), both these Lahu, and, from 1987, Hmong from villages in the Huai Kha Kaeng – Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary were relocated along the road between KM 45 and KM 48. Additionally, hundreds of Lisu from Umphang province were resettled in this area, described by one contemporary observer as ‘analogous to an American Indian reserve’.

Even two decades later, the multi-ethnic character of the settlement is still evident. Beside large Hmong, Lahu and Lisu communities, there are also a number of Akha and Yao living here. Many of the tribesmen still wear their traditional costumes.

The scenic Pha Charoen waterfall at KM37.

Pha Charoen Falls.

In the meantime, the land has often changed hands. As its quality was rather poor, and the water supply insufficient, many of the newcomers sold their plots and moved elsewhere. Following a textbook example of capitalist development, much of the land now is owned by a few rich Sino-Thai, while the cheap labour is supplied by around one thousand ‘illegals’ from Burma. Local hill tribe residents rent out accommodation to this foreign work force. It is interesting to look around in Ban Rom Kla Sahamit (the official name of the settlement at KM 48), but do not expect a picturesque hill tribe village. Most dwellings are concrete and fenced off, while the layout of the place is a rectangular grid of lanes.

Continuing on Highway 1090, once past a check-point at KM 49, the road climbs steeply into the mountains. After a kilometre or so, you catch a last glimpse of the extensive agricultural resettlement area below. For the following 80 kilometres, the highway is at an elevation between 900 and 1345 metres above sea level, probably the longest trajectory at that height in Thailand.

Hmong farmers growing patatoes near Ban Pa Kha Mai.

Hmong farmers growing potatoes near Ban Pa Kha Mai.

There is dense forest along the road, yet the results of former slash and burn agriculture are also evident. Quite remarkable are the numerous Livistona palms among the forest cover. At KM 59 and 62 you will cross the Huai Nam Rin, a stream that flows into the Moei, a major tributary of the Salween. The road then winds through impressive evergreen forest. You may spot an occasional hill tribe hunter with the skim long barrel of his muzzle-loaded gun aimed aloft at a bird. Yet also here, some mountain slopes have been deforested, as between KM 74 and 75, and are now partly replanted with pine. Even beyond the tourist high season (November – January), traffic is relatively heavy, including trucks heavily laden with cabbages or maize.

Pa Wai Falls.

Pa Wai Falls.

Past KM 80, all the forest has been cleared for agriculture, amd mostly planted with cabbages. Sad as this may be from a environmental point of view, the undulating patchwork of different shades of green and pale blue beneath an impressively clouded sky is a delight to the eye.

At KM 84, you reach the large Hmong village of Rom Klao, where you can finally refuel your vehicle. Continuing for two kilometres, the Highways Department station with its sanitary facilities, about halfway between Mae Sot and Umphang, is a popular place for a break. The food stalls offer Nescafé, instant noodles, poached eggs, and roasted pork or chicken wings. On the road again, and crossing into Umphang district, you will spot the Umpiam refugee camp (KM 88) to your left, its hundreds of small thatched bamboo huts tightly clustered on the mountain slopes. Many of the refugees from Myanmar are Karen.

KM 84.

KM 84.

Cabbage fields around Ban Rom Klao.

Cabbage fields around Ban Rom Klao.

Harvesting cabbages.

Harvesting cabbages.

Cabbage fields predominate again, succeeded by increasingly large stretches of trees until, at last, at KM 99, you enter an extensive evergreen forest. I am lucky never to have witnessed an accident on the Death Highway, but once on this stretch, I noticed a Hmong villager performing a rite at the roadside. I stopped to watch him offering a live chicken, an egg and some rice, while he was chanting. He afterwards explained to me that it was to honour the local spirit residing here, because his son –then still recovering in Umphang hospital — had crashed his motorbike at that spot.

The thatched bamboe houses of the large Burmese refugee camp at KM 88.

The thatched bamboo huts of Umpiam refugee camp.

Twice the road crosses the Huai Mae Klong, a tributary of the Mae Klong, water that will eventually flow into the Gulf of Thailand. The forest abounds in wildlife.

While the road steadily climbs to its highest spot (1345 metres) at KM 114, he forest becomes ever denser. You will see many tree ferns (Cyathea spec.), while at sites often exposed to the thick mists, the branches of gnarled trees are completely covered with moss, ferns, and orchids. Mountain hawk eagles (Spizaetus nipalensis), with their conspicuous erectile crest, often rest in the tree tops, and it is not uncommon to get a glimpse of a large yellow-throated marter (Martis flavigula) crossing the road.

Damp forest past Ban Rom Klao.

Damp forest past Ban Rom Klao.

The highest spot of Highway 1090.

The highest spot of Highway 1090.

Dense forest with tree ferns.

Dense forest with tree ferns.

If you fancy to stroll in this damp ecosystem, park your vehicle on a straight stretch of the road, so that speeding trucks will not crash into it.

The croaking of the many frogs living on the dank forest floor, might seem like vocal appetizers to attract the big-eyed bamboo snakes (Pseudoxenodon macrops) preying on them — were snakes not completely deaf.

Flowewring tree in the forest.

An eye-catching flowering tree in the forest.

A stretch of Highway 1090 that will be loved by speeding motor fans.

A stretch of Highway 1090 that will be loved by speeding motor fans.

Past KM 114, the road gradually descends, and at KM 128, rather abruptly, the forest becomes more open with many low trees of the oak family, and a sparser undergrowth. A viewpoint with excellent vistas of the valley below is a good place to make another stop. Many locals do so, to wai or make offerings in front of two brightly painted concrete spirit houses.

Descending for another five kilometres trough mixed oak and pine forest and thick bamboo groves, you will eventually get to the Mae Klong River, and after crossing it, enter the Karen village of Mae Klong Khi (KM 133). It is a rather large settlement, but life is still traditional and many women wear their colourful Karen costumes. Past this village, the road winds through relative flat agricultural land. Here, most workers in the fields are local Karens. The high level of mechanization is quite surprising — everywhere in the fields and back yards and on the road you see tractors. Rice and maize are the dominant crops.

Ma Klong River.

Mae Klong River.

Except for a few stretches where the road crosses low hills covered with dry dipterocarp or pine forest, or passes impressive and limestone outcrops, the land is mainly agricultural with numerous Karen villages straddling the road until KM 161, where you enter Umphang.

Here a turn-off leads to the Thi Lo Su Falls, some 30 kilometres to the southwest. Highway 1090 continues to the centre of Umphang. On your right is the shrine of Chao Pho Phawo,  the highly venerated tutelary spirit of the Tak region; local vehicle drivers invariably show their respect by sounding their horns in salute while passing by.

Rice and corn fields abound after descending to Umphang.

Umphang Valley.

At KM 164, Highway 1090 seems to get lost in the network of lanes of Umphang’s ‘town centre’, but actually, the lane that crosses the Umphang stream at the edge of the town, continues as Highway 1090 to the entrance of the Huai Kha Kaeng – Thung Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. There, as a laterite road, it eventually ends.

But the “highway to Umphang”, well, just ends in Umphang. There is plenty of accommodation in and around the little town, some of the more attractive places are near the bridge where the highway crosses the Umphang stream.

©Sjon Hauser: text, pictures and maps (This story was first published in Guidelines Chiang Mai, March 2008, p.62-64) Practicalities:

During the rainy season of 2011 many stretches of the highway between Umpiam and Mae Klong Khi were severly deteriorated. Most have now (July 2012) been repaired and are excellent asphalt road, however, on a few short stretches work is still going on.

During the weekends and holidays, especially in the cold season, Umphang can be crowded with visitors, most of them tourists from Central Thailand. Many resorts and guesthouses will be fully booked. Otherwise it is usually a quiet place and after 21.00 PM virtually deserted.

map UmphangKhrua Klang Doi restaurant at the western edge of town (see map) is a good place for dinner. Opposite Garden Huts, on the other side of the road and the brook, is a nice restaurant with a balcony over the stream (not on the map). Friendly service and good food. Paula’s Corner was beside the temple and served pizzas, but the last closure (August 2013) seems to be rather permanent. The first 7Eleven shop of Umphang opened recently (May 2013) almost next door.

No direct link to Khlong Lan

There is no road cutting through the mountains east of town and linking Umphang to Khlong Lan in Kamphaeng Phet province. Yet, such a ghost road exists in a number of maps. Many years ago, construction of a direct link was started from the Khlong Lan side (Highway 1117), but the project was abolished as it led to rampant deforestation in the Mae Wong National Park.

For sale Nipaporn Thaworn, the 70-year old owner of Umphang’s lovely Garden Huts (also called Boonyaporn Resort), wants to sell her place to retire in a small home. Garden Huts is located along Huai Umphang (Umphang stream, see map). It has 30 rooms on 3 rai (about 12 acre) land. Price: 12 million baht. See: www.boonyapornresort.com