By Dej Khiaonarong
Special to The Nation
Well off the beaten track, Umphang lies nestled in the remote mountain forests of northern Thailand and is home to 28,000 people of mainly Karen origin. The few tourists who do visit are drawn by one of Asia’s largest and most beautiful waterfalls, Thi Lor Su, declared part of a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1999.
The road less travelled
Travel to and from this remote district is not easy. Historically, the journey to Umphang from Mae Sot was done by elephant and meant spending several nights in the forest. Today, it takes around 12 hours by road from Bangkok, including the picturesque Sky Highway. With over 1,000 curves and steep climbs, the route can be treacherous. Scheduled flights to the district’s small airport were scrapped due to lack of demand, leaving the Sky Highway effectively the single gateway to Umphang.
While it sees few visitors, residents use it every day for work and to access services. Most of these are in Mae Sot, four hours away by road. Patients who need emergency treatment are ferried by ambulance to Mae Sot, while farmers transport crops such as corn there to sell, though transportation costs eat into their profits.
Signs of modernisation are slowly appearing in the district. In recent years, banks have installed ATMs, and a well-known convenience store has opened for business. Coffee shops have also cropped up in the town, driven by demand from tourists who arrive in the cool season to see the falls. That demand is seasonal, however, and residents still have to rely on low-income farming to make ends meet. Many young residents leave Umphang for large cities like Bangkok and Rayong, hoping to find work to support themselves and their families back home.
Route 1117: a development dilemma
Umphang locals see hope of escape from hardship in an old road, which could be reopened to improve access to the district. Construction of the road started in the late-1970s as part of a government and military effort to combat a communist insurgency in the area. Today, the road is unused and overgrown. Yet Umphang residents say reopening Route 1117 would shorten the journey from Bangkok to Umphang by around five hours, bypassing Mae Sot altogether.
However, the protected status of the wildlife sanctuary it would traverse means that any new road plan would require close scrutiny of its environmental impact. Environmentalists have argued against any new construction, and past administrations have shelved plans to reopen the old road and build the necessary small extension from it to Umphang.
Residents of Umphang, however, are growing impatient after living for decades cut off from medical facilities, education, financial services and trade. Visitors may view the area is a gem of pristine nature, but many locals feel left behind as the rest of the country connects up with the Asean Economic Community and “Thailand 4.0”.
They were offered hope in 2007 when the Cabinet provided guidelines for road construction in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. However, environmentalists have proposed alternative routes to Umphang through Myanmar that would safeguard natural habitat. Yet these routes fail to address the needs of Umphang residents while also raising issues of sovereignty and national security for both countries.
In September 2014, Umphang people spoke for themselves when around 65 per cent of surveyed residents in six sub-districts signed a petition to support the proposal to reopen Route 1117. This move sets the stage for official public hearings on the road, if needed.
The committee campaigning for the road to be reopened will continue its task of creating greater awareness, building support, and eventually realising Route 1117. The challenge ahead is to balance the merits of new roads with sound environmental principles, human rights and development.
Dej Khiaonarong, a resident and former teacher in Umphang, is chairperson of the committee campaigning for Route 1117. He was formerly a diplomat in the United States, China, Poland, Kuwait and Bahrain.