Pictureperfect mountain vistas set Mae Chaem apart. PHOTO/VOPASIA NIYAMBHA
There are places with a special magic, and the mystique of Mae Chaem in Chiang Mai begins with its unforgettable serenity. It's the old world, still moving at a leisurely pace.
A chill encloses the threedecadeold Mae Chaem Hotel even with all the windows shut. Outside, people huddle around bonfires. At dawn the monks shudder in saffron as they lace the lanes between rice paddies to collect alms while schoolchildren dart past in thick coats.
The mountains won't let go of your attention, though - the range that includes soaring Doi Inthanon on one side and the peaks of Mae Hong Son on the other. The horizon is gorgeous in gradated shades of green.
There are temples everywhere, characteristic in red, gold and black. At Wat Putta En, holy water flows from the ground, collected every few days for the monks' residence as well as by the local citizenry.
Wat Gong Ghan is where they observe Songkran each year. The mural in the main hall tells the story of a village called Gong Ghan, where Chiang Mai nobles discovered a large Buddha statue in the 19th century and erected a temple named Sri Muang Ma.
The statue is still there, now painted gold. I sit before it and contemplate the seeming smile on the lips, which are oddly red, as are those of the whiteandyellow lions that guard the hall's entrance.
All of the temple sculpture has the same ethnic flourishes, including austere curves in the timber and concrete. The purity of the local craftsmanship extends to the wonderful murals.
Things get more sophisticated at Wat Prao Noom, whose principal hall is stunning with its black and gold decoration.
The area is lively during the rainy season, when tourists flow in to see the beautiful rice fields preparing for harvest. I arrive just as the rains cease and the paddies are magnificently gilded, shimmering at sunset. It doesn't take an artist to appreciate the beauty borne of natural light and colour.
The rice fields are emptied one by one as the crop is harvested. The cycle of life is being cocked for renewal.
Year round, though, the elderly residents of Ban Tong Fai assemble beneath wooden houses on stilts and weave teen jok, the indigenous cloth of Mae Chaem.
The village is just across a small bridge over the Mae Chaem River. Almost every house has its own stock of yarn, and everyone has known since childhood how to use a loom. The fabrics they make are sold at two shops in the village, Dara Textiles and Prapaphan, and the district textile centre in Ban Pa Dad.
The young man handing out free maps at Muang Chaem Post - Mae Cham's only café (and postcard shop) - says there are fewer visitors this winter.
Regardless, the map proves to be an excellent guide for those who do come, and the young man is a fine photographer: Those are his pictures of the area's scenic spots on the postcards.
His map leads me to Wat Yang Luang, another striking temple, where the Jula Katin celebration is held at the end of Buddhist Lent each year, the district's most important religious festival.
I'm moving on to Mae Sariang, but I turn around for a final breathtaking glimpse. Wat Bantub, off in the distance, marks the village. Mae Chaem looks from here like some mysterious hamlet enfolded in high mountains. People hear about its beauty, but only a few seize the chance to visit.
The high, lonely roadMae Chaem district is about 120 kilometres south of downtown Chiang Mai. Follow Route 108 and turn right on Route 1009 when you reach Chom Thong district. The ribbon of high, paved road passes Mount Inthanon.
"City cars" can handle the terrain, but drivers need to be careful on mountain roads. And make sure everything's in good working order first, because the gas stations and repair shops are far apart.
There are plenty of side trips along the way. Check out the agricultural projects founded under the patronage of His Majesty the King.
Turn to "Check In" on Page B2 and discover the best place to stay in Mae Chaem.