A couple of months ago I struck up a conversation with a young man at Cozy Coffee and Bistro, my home away from home in Chiang Mai. He was surprised to learn that after 18 years of visiting Thailand and more than four years of living here, I still didn’t have a Thai nickname. Chuu Len, as the nicknames are known, are ubiquitous in Thailand. Literally translated as “play names,” absolutely everybody has one. It can take years to learn a Thai person’s real birth name. The young man cocked his head, thought for a moment, and dubbed me Bpùt-sà-baa – Blossom.
Many of my followers will have noticed that I haven’t published anything for quite some time. Other than a trip back to the U.S. to get my Covid vaccinations, I haven’t traveled internationally for almost two years. Initially, I worried that folks would tire of reading about Thailand rather than my normal intrepid journeys around the world. As the months wore on, I became increasingly sedentary and I got a case of the blues. But that day at Cozy Coffee, I took my new nickname as a sign that I needed to snap out of my funk by attending the Bua Thong Flower Festival in Mae Hong Son Province.
The festival lasts for about five weeks each year in November and early December, when Mexican Sunflowers burst into bloom and carpet the hills around the town of Khun Yuam. I convinced a friend to join me and we set out early the next morning on the six hour drive. My driver, Pui, had warned me about the roads between Chiang Mai and Khun Yuam. There are two ways to get there. The southern route is longer but has fewer curves. The shorter northern route famously has 1,864 curves, which are celebrated on T-shirts and bumper stickers for those who manage it.
We took the road less curvy. It didn’t help. An hour from Khun Yuam I told Pui to pull over…quickly! I barely got the car door open before I chucked up every last morsel in my belly. But once my stomach was empty I was fine, so off we went again. Soon, clumps of purple Cosmos were mingling with burnt orange Marigold along the shoulder, while Mexican Sunflowers draped the shoulders of nearby hills like a soft yellow shawl. Native to Latin America and the Caribbean, this Thai sunflower variety is smaller than those cultivated for their seeds. Alternatively known as Bua Thong flowers or Tree Marigolds, the species is said to have been originally brought to Thailand by Christian missionaries.
Thirty minutes later we turned off on the road to Ban Mae U Kho Nuea (Thung Bua Tong Forest Park), where the most magnificent displays are found. We’d chosen the perfect time to visit. I climbed to the viewing platform and turned slowly, scanning the mountainside from its flanks to its tip. Vivid golden-yellow blooms burst in every direction. My gloom evaporated. The blazing yellow sunflowers were the perfect antidote for my blues. And it suddenly occurred to me that my acquaintance at Cozy Cafe had picked the perfect Chuu Len for me – Blossom.
Where to Stay in Khun Yuam during the Bua Thong Flower Festival
During the Bua Thong Flower Festival, be sure to make hotel reservations ahead of time, as accommodations are limited and this is a popular event for Thais. We stayed at MitKhoonyoum Hotel in Khun Yuam, a 30-minute drive from the flower fields. Located in the center of town, it offers simple but clean and well-maintained rooms for about $15 USD per night.
What More to See in Khun Yuam
Also worth visiting in Khun Yuam are Wat Muay Tor (the main Buddhist temple in town) and the Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial Hall. Both tell the story of the unlikely friendship that developed here between local Thais and Japanese soldiers during WWII. Additionally, be sure to stop at the roadside stands that are set up along the route of the Bua Tong fields, as they offer unique arts and craft items as well as fresh farm products.