Turning full circle

Its people witnessed the Land of the Rising Sun in full retreat; now, almost seven decades later, this frontier outpost attracts another influx, this time triggered by a bloom some associate with Japan

Khun Yuam is a sleepy amphur in Mae Hong Son province that hasn't seen a great deal of excitement since the end of World War II. Right on the border with Myanmar's Shan State is the hamlet of Ban Huay Ton Noon. From there it's only 30km inland to the district capital, also called Khun Yuam, and this was the same route taken for centuries by invading armies, loggers, seasonal farm labourers and merchants carrying goods back and forth on carts drawn by teams of oxen.

Mexican sunflowers on the slopes of Doi Mae U Khor. This eye-catching foreign intruder covers the meadows of Mae Hong Son with a carpet of yellows and oranges for a whole month every year, beginning in mid-November.

By mid-November, most of the valleys east of Khun Yuam town gradually turn a uniform yellowish-orange as Mexican tournesols blanket the landscape with their showy displays. A member of the Asteraceae family, this tall plant is also variously known as the Japanese sunflower and the Nitobe chrysanthemum. It is not native to this region and nobody is quite sure how it got to these parts, but it spreads quickly, is difficult to eradicate and local farmers have not yet found any commercial use for it, although it is grown elsewhere to improve infertile soil and for its medicinal benefits.

The provincial authorities have found a way of exploiting this handsome weed, however, and for several decades now have been organising festivals to coincide with the period the sunflowers are in full bloom. And the tourists do come, in droves, by the busload, but after they've snapped their fill of photos, they rush onwards to the next must-see on their itinerary. The few outsiders who do linger a little longer, though, enjoy getting acquainted with this charming neighbourhood which is rich in history and traditions, its residents carrying on the customs of their forebears with pride.

Like Mae Hong Son town, Khun Yuam was originally settled by Shan people whose migrated from Myanmar some 150 years ago. Rich in teak forests, the area was a magnet for foreign logging interests, with one firm in particular dominating the scene. Founded by the six Wallace brothers from Scotland in the 1840s and originally based in Bombay (now Mumbai), the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation moved into the area in 1901 and stayed until 1939 when the threat of a Japanese invasion forced a suspension of commercial operations.

This Shan (Tai Yai) lady from Muang Pon, a village south of Khun Yuam town, is wearing a kup Tai, a traditional Shan hat made from woven strips of bamboo.

The Imperial Japanese Army eventually landed on our shores in December 1941 and requested passage through Thai territory to facilitate their military campaigns against the British colonies of Malaya and Burma. While Kanchanaburi province was selected as the starting point for the construction of a railway to Burma to carry Japanese troops for the planned invasion of British India in 1944, Khun Yuam district was chosen as the transit point for the transportation by road of war materiel for the massive assault.

The torpid country town on the banks of the Yuam River turned into a hive of activity, practically overnight, as Japanese officers hired gangs of labourers from Mae Hong Son and nearby provinces to upgrade what was then a very basic trail into a surfaced road capable of bearing heavy motorised vehicles. Some sections of that thoroughfare have survived to the present day and now form part of Highway 1095 which links Mae Hong Son via Pai to Mae Taeng district in Chiang Mai.

The influx of Japanese contracts and personnel caused a boom in the local economy, with merchants in Khun Yuam doing a thriving business, selling food and other necessities to the soldiers. According to exhibits in a museum in the town, partly funded by a grant from the Japanese government, some 6,000 Japanese troops were stationed there by early 1942. The very first to arrive were surveyors, an army corps of engineers and a quartermaster's unit tasked with sourcing food supplies.

The soldiers were on their best behaviour, having been expressly warned against getting into arguments with the local population. Relations between them and the townspeople were quite good, apparently, and several of the relationships that developed between Japanese men and Thai ladies eventually led to marriage.

One of the most memorable liaisons was between Kaew Chandhasima, daughter of a local elephant owner, and a Japanese soldier who first met her as a result of a business deal. Friendship turned to love, they wed, she gave birth to two sons and the couple continued living together even after the formal surrender of Japanese forces in Thailand.

The soldier was subsequently arrested and was due to be repatriated, but managed to escape before he could be deported. He was shot while fleeing, however, and later died of his wounds, although his Thai family did not learn of his fate until several years later. Kaew Chandhasima continued living in Khun Yuam and in the decades that followed was often visited by Japanese tourists who came to town.

Japan formally surrendered on Aug 15, 1945, and there was heavy loss of life during the retreat from Burma. More than 270,000 soldiers passed through Khun Yuam on their way homewards, many suffering from exhaustion and tropical diseases. The locals took care of the wounded and sick and buried the dead, many being interred near Wat Muay Tor.

With the end of hostilities, tranquillity returned to this bucolic corner of Mae Hong Son and while tourists now flock here every year to gaze at the fields of sunflowers, few are interested in exploring this sleepy little town. The converse of this benign neglect is that in the midst of a fast-changing world Khun Yuam has been able to preserve its inimitable character and atmosphere. Roaming through this overgrown village (population circa 4,000) reminds me of Mae Hong Son town a few decades ago before the tourist boom drastically altered that provincial capital. People still walk the streets here wearing the traditional Shan hat, the kub Tai, cook Shan cuisine and are energetic in their support of their local temple.

For a total immersion in the Shan (aka Tai Yai) lifestyle, visit Muang Pon, a village 12km south of Khun Yuam. Here most of the residents continue to enjoy a very self-sufficient existence, farming rice, soya beans and seasonal vegetables. Handicrafts remain very much a part of daily life. Wander around and you will come across people sitting in front of their houses busy weaving baskets and trays from strips of bamboo, creating elaborate paper decorations embellished with age-old motifs for some religious ceremony or fashioning fabric into traditional Tai Yai attire.

If you hang around in Muang Pon or happen to visit at the right time, you might get a chance to take part in one of the local festivals. Given their solid faith in Buddhism and love of tradition, the people of Muang Pon seem to hold a celebration of some sort practically every month to mark some Buddhist holy day or other auspicious occasion.

It may be just another sleepy backwoods town, but stick around long enough and you'll find the place working its subtle magic on you, charming you in ways no big city ever could.

The construction of the Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial Hall in Khun Yuam was subsidised by a grant from the Japanese government. Exhibits on display here include equipment and personal belongings abandoned by the retreating Imperial Japanese Army such as vehicles, weapons, tools and cooking utensils. This is a very good place to learn about the town’s history and the role it played during the latter stages of World War II. The hall also has a permanent exhibition on the art and traditions of the Shan (Tai Yai) people who still comprise a majority of the town’s population. Lots of venerable old wooden shophouses survive in the town itself which once boasted the only cinema in the entire province. This building has since been converted into an hotel called the Mitr Khun Yuam.

The grave of a Japanese soldier in Khun Yuam. Many others can be found around the town. It is estimated that some 7,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives during the retreat from Burma. So many perished along the route that entered Thailand via Khun Yuam district that the Japanese nicknamed it ‘‘The Road of White Bones’’.

Prior to the advent of sealed roads, the merchants of Khun Yuam used to have rafts made to transport their goods southwards along the Yuam River to Mae Sariang, hence the name given to a local temple, Wat To Phae — ‘‘the temple where rafts are built’’. This compound was used as a temporary military headquarters by the Japanese during their retreat from Burma in 1945. The Japanese also produced Thai banknotes here which were used to pay Thai labourers for their services. (The outbreak of World War II caused an interruption in the supply of Thai banknotes which up to then had been printed in England by Thomas De La Rue & Co Ltd. The Thai government requested the Japanese military authorities to make up the shortfall by printing banknotes for use here.)

The 56th Battalion of the Imperial Japanese Army set up their HQ in the grounds of Wat Muay Tor. Here, too, was sited a Japanese military hospital (No.105). Most of the patients who died were buried on land to the west of the main temple building. In 1978, 613 human skeletons were uncovered in this area; they were later reinterred following the holding of a Buddhist funeral ceremony.

Mae Surin Waterfall is tucked away in a deep valley, a short drive from an area famous for its sunflower-carpeted meadows to which tourists flock during the cool season to pose for photos and enjoy the scenery. The waterfall is around 80m high.

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