The most modern enclave in Mae Hong Son could at best be considered a quaint, sleepy corner by city folk. Yet at the heart of this remote border township which edges Myanmar is a vibrant living culture that gives a new meaning to the word "museum".
A large Buddha image made of woven bamboo strips at Wat Jong Klang temple in Mae Hong Son where many ancient Tai-style objects are kept. PHOTOS BY NITTAYA NATTAYAI
A sign - "Welcome to Baan Boran (old house)" - on the wall of a house in Muang district greets visitors to an ethnic Tai-style teak home owned by 70-year-old Vatana Kaveevat that conjures up a bygone era of colonial era Southeast Asia.
The physical structure of the house is made even more fascinating by the story that goes with it.
More than a century ago, Ms Vatana's grandparents made their life here in Mae Hong Son. Her grandfather traded timber, a commodity the province has in abundance, with the Bombay Wood Co in Myanmar.
In World War II, her house was rented by Japanese soldiers on their way to occupy Myanmar.
"My house was built in the traditional architectural style of Myanmar mixed with that of Tai," she said.
Tai is an ethnic population from Shan State of Myanmar and its culture and architectural influence are commonplace in Mae Hong Son.
"The wall panels of the house are carved and perforated in a traditional style for natural ventilation," Ms Vatana explained.
The houses of other Tai people in the neighbourhood are also built in this style, with leaves of the pluang tree used for the roofs.
The people, their way of life and the houses they live in have a rich and vibrant history. Together, they represent a vital ingredient for cultural preservation that provides a fundamental basis for the "living museum" concept.
The living museum is a theme for projects to promote the preservation of local cultures in Mae Hong Son sponsored by the Thailand Research Fund (TRF).
A hall inside Wat Jong Klang stores antique items. Located near the Jong Kham lake, the temple houses Tai-style glass paintings and old wood carvings.
Ms Vatana's house is one of 10 registered with the Old House Conservation Club, jointly formed by a group of Tai ethnic people, the Muang municipality and a team of TRF researchers under what was formerly named the "Mae Hong Son Living Museum" project.
Suthep Nutsruang, the former municipal mayor who played a key role in creating the living museum coordination centre, said the project aims to preserve the way of life of ethnic Tai residents, who constitute more than 50% of the municipality's population, their culture, arts, beliefs and traditions. The coordination centre is the old Expressway Transportation Organisation of Thailand's Mae Hong Son office.
He said the centre is the living room for the town.
It is where visitors receive information about the town, its history and culture, said Mr Suthep.
But for the project to work, visitors must be able to witness the culture in action - that is to visit the residents' houses with a guided tour provided by the owners themselves.
Ms Vatana's house occupies 173-square wah of land in tambon Jong Kham of Muang municipality. It was built during the reign of King Rama V, or around 1886, the oldest ethnic Tai-style house in the district.
Household items passed down through the generations, including a mirror and a mortar, are still used by her family today.
Pictures of her ancestors in Tai costumes hang on the walls. Old books, written in striking Tai characters, are kept under the Buddha altar, or kheng para.
In one corner of the house, visitors are shown a wooden gun stand in near-perfect condition.
The stand belonged to her timber trader grandfather. In the old days, with Mae Hong Son being an off the beaten-track province, people acquired firearms to protect themselves against bandits.
During World War II, a Japanese soldier etched on the wooden floor words in Japanese meaning "big sun". It is still visible to this day.
Boonlert Wirattanaporn, 83, a folk wisdom scholar and president of the Old House Conservation Club, said traditional ceremonies and religious beliefs bind people together.
A ceremony typical of the Tai tradition is the Poi Sanglong, the elaborate ordination of young novice monks.
Mr Boonlert is the master of Tai ceremonies and cooking. He owns a two-storey wooden house on Singhanat Bamrung Road.
The house, built in 1927, is still in perfect condition. The staircase is in distinct Tai-style design.
The Tai-style viharn at Wat Hua Wiang, where the renowned Phra Chao Para Lakheng Buddha image, a replica of an image in Myanmar, is kept.
As his house is located in the landmark area of the town, several people have eyed his property and hope that Mr Boonlert might put it on the market. Despite handsome offers, he has deflected all pressure to sell.
"One foreigner offered me 20 million baht, but I declined. I want to preserve my house for future generations," he said.
Saowanee Wannasiri, 71, owner of Yodkham-Ruenkaew herbal product shop on Singhanat Bamrung Road, said her parents bought the Tai-style house where she now runs the shop from a Myanmar man for 5,000 baht back in 1893.
Her father was half Indian-Portuguese while her mother was ethnic Tai. Her family sold clothes and salt at the house when she was young, she recalled.
Ms Saowanee said she left her native Mae Hong Son to work in Bangkok for 41 years before returning home four years ago.
She used her savings to repair the house, which had become dilapidated after her sister-in-law who was taking care of it fell ill. The house had been unoccupied for five or six years before she returned.
After the repairs, several people showed interest in buying the house, but she turned down all offers.
"I love my house and my Tai culture very much. I will not leave my house or sell it," she said.
The walls are decorated with pictures of the past. A walk into the homage centre of the house reveals a Buddha alter.
She proudly showed visitors an umbrella that she had received from Her Majesty the Queen during a royal visit to Muang district in 1960.
Poon Thiengburanathum, of Chiang Mai University's engineering faculty and lead researcher of the living museum project, said his team found the municipality residents were mostly of ethnic Tai origin.
The majority of them were determined to keep their culture alive and not let the cultural and natural environments fall into decay from an influx of tourists, which is what Pai township has experienced.
He said the Pai case raises the question of whether Muang district can withstand outside intrusions that are detrimental to cultural survival.
"During our data collection, we found that there is no lack of culture in Muang district. Tai culture has been deeply rooted among the ethnic people in this municipal area," Mr Poon said.
The town's management dominated a recent forum joined by provincial authorities, the Muang municipality, community leaders and the research team.
The forum found Mae Hong Son residents were aware of the value of their traditions, local wisdom, beliefs and rituals, he said.
Pakorn Jeenakham, the Muang municipal mayor, said how to conserve their culture to benefit the locals was widely discussed.
He explained the living museum concept was subject to various interpretations. After a debate, the stakeholders agreed on their definition of a living museum.
It means locals can lead a normal life and the entire municipal area would become a museum; all residents are like staff giving information to visitors, Mr Pakorn said.
"The living museum acts as a catalyst for conservation. It helps people realise the importance of their cultural roots.
"The living museum project has been warmly received by the locals," said the mayor.
In the future, the municipality will seek the promotion of indigenous arts and folk music. Funds to run the living museum coordinating centre will also be sought, he said.
At present, municipal staff are assigned to work at the centre whose finances are wholly covered by the municipality.
Silaporn Buasai, deputy director of the TRF, suggested children should have a role in the project by documenting their family stories.
Authorities should organise a writing contest for children on cultural preservation, she said.
Pracha Taerat, chief inspector-general at the Interior Ministry, said ethnic cultural conservation should be included in the province's development plan so funding could be set aside.
He said it had been noted that tourism attractions in places like Pai district, Phuket, Pattaya and Samui generated huge profits for outside investors. Unlike those areas, Muang district of Mae Hong Son has been spared environmental destruction from rapid tourism development. This is largely because the town, nestled in a deep valley surrounded by mountain ranges, is more inaccessible.
Vorapoj Karnkhonsue, of Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna's Faculty of Art and Architect and a key member of the living museum scheme, said the project has been fairly successful as community leaders and local residents participated in its activities.
Sookchai Chalermponevonggul, 38, a Tai dialect expert and teacher at Hongsonsuksa School, said he has taught students at his school to learn how to write and read Tai.
He has been running a free elective course in the Tai dialect since 2002. The course attracts 40-50 students, aged between 15 and 17, a year. He learned Tai from his elder brother who was a monk.
"Local people from all walks of life in the municipality want to preserve the Tai culture and traditions. We are proud of our culture," he said.
Vatana Kaveevat shows an old book written in the Tai script, kept under the Buddha altar, or kheng para, in her wood house.
Old pictures depicting the way of life of ethnic Tai are displayed on the wall of the Mae Hong Son Living Museum coordination centre.
A bird’s eye view of Mae Hong Son Muang municipality from the hilltop of Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu.
Lanterns and household utensils passed down through the generations are displayed in the house owned by folk wisdom scholar Boonlert Wirattanaporn.
Tai history goes back 200 years
The Mae Hong Son living museum project helps conserve the life and traditions of the Tai ethnic group in the province's central Muang district.
It covers the entire municipal area of six square kilometres, former municipal mayor Suthep Nutsruang said.
The way of life of ethnic Tai or Tai Yai people, their wooden houses with Tai architecture, culture, history, traditions, language, food, arts and local beliefs are at the heart of the Mae Hong Son living museum.
Ancestors of the Tai people from Myanmar settled in Mae Hong Son more than 200 years ago.
About the author
Writer: Nittaya Nattayai