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The Salween… if the river could talk

Can The Salween ever become a future Peace Park?

Looking down to Mae Sam Laep and across to Myanmar.

Beyond Mae Sariang at the southern part of the Mae Hong Son Loop, you can drive to the end of a road in Thailand- to the village of Mae Sam Laep, with the road ending at the Salween River dividing Thailand and Myanmar.

The source of the Salween is in the Tibetan plateau, flowing through China where it is known as the Nujiang, before entering Myanmar where it is called the Thanlyin.  Passing through Shan and Kayah State gorges, the Salawin, as the Thais know it, forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand for 120km.  Turning back inland into Myanmar, this longest free-flowing river of Southeast Asia finally meets the Andaman Sea at Mawlamyaing (Moulmein) after traveling 2815km from Tibet.

Not many visitors know about this side road trip to Mae Sam Laep, less than 50km from Mae Sariang. But then in former years the road was rough and civil conflict from across Myanmar was spilling over into Thailand not making this place an attraction to tourists.  Now the road is mostly well sealed and in 1,5 hours winding through gorgeous scenery, you can reach Mae Sam Laep, hire a boat for a few hours and explore a bit of this beautiful river.

The Salween supports a biodiversity comparable to the Mekong. Home to 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals, about 7 million people depend on this ecosystem for their livelihoods.

I have always felt intrigued by the Salween since the days reading The Piano Tuner, a story by Daniel Mason about a piano tuner who receives an unusual commission in 1886 from the British War Office to travel to remote jungles of northeast Burma to repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon.

And in Chiang Mai, we learn about the history of the East Borneo Company. Back in 1855, the Bowring Treaty negotiated between the British and Siamese, allowed British traders the rights to log teak wood in Northern Thailand.  The logs were floated down the Salween to reach the sea. Later teak logs would be sent down the Ping River in Chiang Mai for the long journey down to the Chao Phraya and on to Bangkok.  Louis Leonowens, the real son of Anna and the King, had worked for the East Borneo Company in his adult years. The actual plantation house which served as Louis’ residence is now the beautifully restored lounge and dining space at 137 Pillars House Hotel in Chiang Mai.

I finally found a window of time to venture out to Mae Sam Laep. At the end of the rainy season bringing fresh green and higher water levels,  arriving at this border town is like a big window opening up onto a majestic view.

The waterfront is lined with one-storey wooden shop houses trading goods to Karen villagers coming across the river. A path leads down to the harbour and local boatmen quickly approach you offering transportation.

This is not an international border crossing, but a handful of tourists come out to be a part of the flow. Some head upriver to explore the Salawin National Park where you can stay at park ranger accommodations and do some hiking around.  Or, about one hour downriver brings you to the meeting of the Salween and Moei Rivers.

approaching the beach at Sop Moei.

A Buddha statue gracefully sits above looking down on life floating by.

This is where the Salween turns back into Myanmar while the Moei River forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar down to Mae Sot.

On such a peaceful day, one could imagine if only this river could talk…

During World War II, lands of the Shan States east of the Salween were ceded to Thailand creating this natural border for 120km.  Further north, in Yunnan, the Salween ( or the Nujiang)  was crossed by the famous Burma Road built from 1937-39 as a supply route from India to China.  In Yunnan, the Burma Road crossed the Salween via the Huitong Bridge which became the frontline and battle scene between Chinese and Japanese in 1944/45.

The Burma Road began where the railway line ends at Lashio in Shan State, after passing the famous Gokteik viaduct built by the Americans in 1901.   See more on:   Train Journey to Hsipaw

Following World War II and Burma’s independence and eventually the military coup of 1962, this area was thrown into civil conflict for decades fighting over land and rich resources.

In more recent years, there have been a number of proposals to dam this still free-flowing Salween River, both upstream in China and downstream in Myanmar.  A total of 15 hydro power dams are planned.  In Yunnan, the Salween flows through a UNESCO protected area of Three Parallel Rivers originating in Tibet.  This has raised social and environmental concerns and opposition.

The Chinese dam proposal apparently would generate more power than the Three Gorges Dam, which is currently the world’s largest hydro power station. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has issued  warnings against damming in the protected region, so we shall see the outcome.

KESAN – Karen Environmental and Social Action Network is working to improve livelihood security and to gain respect for indigenous people’s knowledge and rights in Karen State of Myanmar, where more than 60 years of civil war, Karen communities have been left impoverished.

The Salween Peace Park is an initiative and vision for a protected area where all livings beings can live peacefully.

Watch this short and touching video:

Learn more on:

Perhaps in a few decades ahead, the road to Mae Sam Laep will be part of a big highway linking Chiang Mai to Mandalay via the Inle Lake area.  While unimaginable future development may mean an end to decades of civil conflict, hopefully enlightened decision making will allow local communities to be empowered to find new prosperity they deserve, while protecting their environment and with the Salween, witness to so much story of mankind, still flowing free to the sea.

For anyone venturing out to Mae Sam Laep, there is a very basic guesthouse in the town called Salween Guesthouse with 3 guestrooms behind a noodle shop for 300 Baht.

But Mae Sariang is a nice quiet base with several small hotels and guesthouses.

The River House Hotel is a charming teakwood house alongside the Yuam River with balconies and a nice deck where you can while the day away.  You can see photos of King Carl Gustav of Sweden and his family who stayed here in 2002.  A sister property and concrete structure called River House Resort is a short walk away where you can make use of their pool.

Local agents in town can arrange drivers and guides to explore Mae Sam Laep and Salawin National Park or find the yellow songtaew local transport by the market shuttling Karen villagers and cargo. The 1,5 hour ride costs 80 Baht.

Sitting on the deck of the River House Hotel, life slows down.
I was re-reading Beyond the Last Village– the passionate story of Alan Rabinowitz of the WCS Wildlife Conservation Society who in the 1990s along with the cooperation of the Myanmar Ministry of Forestry, set out to protect wildlife in the remotest area of northern Kachin State and gaining the approval to establish a national park at the foot of Hkakabo Razi, the highest snow-capped mountain of Southeast Asia in Myanmar at 5889m. It is a mesmerizing book.

Alan notes:
The world stops being a wondrous place only when we stop thinking of it as such….

February 2021 sadly a brutal military coup once again took over Myanmar. It is beyond words the atrocities that are being committed with the outside world not paying much attention.

May the people of Myanmar remain strong and prevail!
May the people be able to again dream to control the wonders of their land…

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