Update July 2020: We no longer recommend Thailand as a long-stay destination. See our July 5, 2020 post about changing conditions in this country.
When you are a roving traveler, you quickly learn to embrace the thrill of what may be over the next hill, to enjoy those not-well-known places presenting events you could not foresee. That's what happened to us back in the summer of 2014 as we were driving through Northern Thailand.
Thailand is iconic and presents stunning imagery nationwide. But it can be challenging to find locations offering world-class panoramic views akin to what one might see in countries introducing higher mountain ranges.
To discover our look-see from above, we took off on a road trip from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand due northwest to the area of Fang. From there we followed road signs toward the border with Myanmar.
The Road to Nor Lae
We knew our efforts were paying off as we were ascending twisty, steep, shoulderless mountain roads with treacherous, gravely runoffs cluttered with small herds of buffalo and sheep. At the crest, a Thai Army checkpoint stops all cars.
Usually, Army guards are looking for drug runners, or, those hijacking precious materials such as Rosewood. But they know by looking at us – older westerners in our Thai rental car – that we're not representative of the threats they're looking for, and they wave us to move on. We stop to snap a few photos and to watch Army checkpoint guards shepherd their flocks of chickens into open-air tending baskets.
The views from this area are what we were looking for: panoramic and picturesque. Snagging vistas like this in Thailand is hard. From here, you can gaze into the mountains and valleys of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The Village of Nor Lae
Nor Lae is a small, indigent border town whose inhabitants are of mixed cultural descent. One look at the ladies selling crafts around the village will convince you they are not strictly of Thai heritage.
As you approach the end of the town heading due west, you'll face a fork in the road. To the left, a path uphill leads you to a small Thai Army outpost on the border of Myanmar. No guards stand watch at the entrance checkpoint kiosk. Driving onto the base is a straightforward affair.
On the way up the entrance road on your right side, you'll see a flock of lean-tos with ladies presenting their wares for sale. All items are handmade: tapestries, baskets, dolls, clothing and more. You'll see them using hand tools like those used by their ancestors.
Once you drive into the fort area, you'll notice a helo-port marked by a red X in the center of the small fort parade grounds. Makeshift buildings of bamboo, clay and corrugated steel are in discrete groups to the rear of the fort away from the border. Clay and log bunkers, some with sheets of steel for roofs, and caves dug in the sidewalls, decorate the perimeter. Concertina wire protects the boundary with an ancient, time-tested, companion for defense: sharpened spears of bamboo.
As you scan westward, you can't help notice the border sign in front of you: Ban Nor Lae The Border of Thailand and Myanmar. The posting is in Thai (above) and English (below).
To the left of the sign, you can see a Myanmar military base across the border on an opposite mountain.
Life On the Roof of Thailand
It's difficult to stand here and not bask in the beauty and tranquility of this area. Glorious white puffy clouds beacon the joy of the sun, sky, and earth all in harmony, generating the spirit of a beautiful day during our visit.
Despite the long history of border warfare and conflict between the peoples of Southeast Asia, on the surface, evidence of the peaceful, Buddhist upbringings of the Thai's permeates their society. It is found here too.
Thai's are magnificently civil to a fault. Border guards go about their business without a care in the world. They know our presence here poses no threat.
It's in places like this that you find the genuine people of the world — away from the world of deception, cunning, lying, and manipulation so prevalent elsewhere.
We walk around the fort, along the border fence, and encounter an older man sitting at a padlocked gate. We presume he sits there playing the role of an unofficial guard between the borders.
We have no idea of his nationality. He may be Thai, Burmese or a blood mixture of many origins like many of us. But he smiles, happily, saluting us with his bottle of beer, as we snap pix and shoot video footage of him.
He's the sort of guy like many we've met in the remote mountainous areas around the world. We think we'd enjoy talking to him if we could do so.
We walk back to the compound. After a brief encounter with a corrugated steel outhouse, we're back in our car and on our way off the base.
We stop to look at the crafts the local ladies offer. They are, in and of themselves, iconic and happily allow us to take photos. We didn't have an Instamax printer with us so we could share our pictures with them. So we slip them a few Thai baht, as we did with our new friend at the border, as thanks for posing for our photos.
The images present a story drenched in the history of a dozen generations of aboriginals in this place. Only a lively, impromptu talk with any of them in their language could have enhanced our experience.
This place, and many like it, are representative of the travel experiences we seek and so long for as world rovers. It is here, in somewhat desolate, out-of-the-way places like this, where the real people of the world live, eking out their livelihoods daily as they can, where one gains a down-to-earth perspective about all that goes on in their little part of the world, away from the chaos in their land or elsewhere.\
Harmony Among the Clouds
Ban Nor Lae is to Thais, what rural small-town America is to many in the United States today, outside the gray mass of Washington, D.C., beyond the beltway, where what one does with his or her life matters in the lives of family and friends daily.
Buddha is not a God. He was a man. But the peoples of Southeast Asia celebrate his life with all the trappings of a religion.
Statues of Buddha large and small speckle the landscapes of Southeast Asia. And if it can be said he is somewhere overseeing his flock of followers, it is surely here, where the peoples of diverse mountain hill cultures converge, to live their lives peacefully with one another, among the clouds.
When to go
You can visit Ban Nor Lae any time of year, weathering permitting. There are no shoulders on roads, and gravelly washouts are common in the mountains.
How to get there
Depart from Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. You'll need a rental car. Check out listings on the Thai Rental Car website for Chiang Mai International Airport. You can send them an Email to reserve a car. Their rates are more competitive than the brand name international car rental companies, and their service is excellent.
Thai Rent A Car Corporation Co., Ltd
Tel: (66) 5328 1345 ext. 101
Fax: (66) 5390 4008
Hotline : (66) 87 50 50 50 4
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Take your GPS and save some money. A Garmin NUVI with a full-size SD card slot works well for us. Full-size SD cards are more readily available overseas if you need to shop for them. Cards are available at Amazon.com.