“Can you see KL?” a Thai journalist shouts out, as a Malaysian travel writer takes to the skies on a giant wooden swing by the edge of a cliff. Of course, he was just ribbing as there was no way you could see Kuala Lumpur from there, unless you had superpowers. After all, we are on the hilly terrains of Doi Pha Mee (which literally translates as “Bear Mountain”) in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai, Thailand. KL is about 2,000km away.
It’s my turn now. Two village men hoist the swing up and pull back as far as they can. My feet begin to lift off the ground and then, without any warning, the men let go.
The sensation of the cold wind as I swing upwards and forwards, towards the majestic view of the highlands, is pure euphoria. The scenery beyond is one of clear blue skies meeting emerald green slopes. On the horizon, Thailand’s northernmost city comes into view.
People of the hill
The Akha Swing, named after the Akha hill tribe that calls Doi Pha Mee home, is more than just a thrill-seeking instrument. It forms the basis of one of Thailand’s most interesting cultural rituals – the Akha Swing Festival.
Held during the rainy month of August, the festival brings together the community in celebration of the harvest season. It’s also a time for women in the tribe to look for prospective husbands, says our guide Patomporn Pongnin.
“Men show off how strong they are by swinging as hard as they can. The higher the men swing, the better they are as husbands,” Patomporn divulges, amid giggles from some Akha women present at the tour.
During the festival, Akha women are decked in elaborate ornaments and colourful indigenous clothes that they have made.
Patomporn – or Bow as she’s affectionately known – works with Local Alike, a Bangkok-based social enterprise that helps rural communities develop community-based tourism in their respective villages.
This tourism initiative in Doi Pha Mee, which took off in October last year, is certainly something that the villagers are excited to participate in.
In fact, our entourage – comprising participants of the Asean Travel Journo Camp, which is initiated by the Thai Journalists Association and supported by AirAsia – is the first batch of media members to visit the settlement.
For long-time resident Mint Phugsaphantawee, tourist arrivals allow the village to shake off the misconception that comes with the proximity to its border with Myanmar.
“People have this perception that since the village is near the border, it is not safe. But that’s not true. We want to let people know that it is safe to visit our village. Please come join us and experience our way of life,” she implores.
It’s a sincere invitation as, on arrival, we are greeted by bright smiles and a genuine attempt by the villagers to make all guests feel at home.
The folks here are really keen to show off their lifestyle. This is most evident when we make a stop at a workshop to observe the locals weave cloth and make traditional rice cakes.
Here at the little shack, elderly women smile shyly as they show us how to make cotton thread and pound the ingredients for rice cakes.
But if there’s one thing the folks of Doi Pha Mee love to share more than their way of life, it would be the story of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s visit to the village in January 1970. The king passed away in October last year, with Thailand currently observing a one-year mourning period.
Community leader Chanyuth Rungtaweepittayakul recounts how the village used to be a hub for opium cultivation in the late 1960s.
“All that changed when the king visited and brought with him lychee and coffee to grow,” says the man who is referred to as por luang (village head) by the villagers. He adds that many residents wanted to flee from the village back then because it wasn’t safe due to its proximity to the border.
But the monarch managed to convince the villagers to stay and to start planting coffee.
“We have been growing coffee here for almost 50 years now,” the village head says proudly. Today, that legacy stands tall in the form of a two-storey coffee house made of natural materials such as bamboo and attap leaves.
Visitors will find an array of beverages: espresso, latte, cappuccino, mocha and the homegrown brew – Doi Pha Mee coffee. I opt for an iced variation of the local brew, with a dash of coconut.
One sip of the aromatic beverage and I’m thankful that the villagers heeded the late king’s advice.