Chiang Khong, Thailand, May 31
Thailand (Part 6)
Chiang Mai's most interesting tourist area lies within the old city section suurounded by a square moat. The eastern side is marked by Tha Phae Gate, around which most backpacker facilities are located. The streets there are lined with many guesthouses, restaurants, Internet cafes, bookstores, and the Chiang Mai specialty, trekking outfits. Many hill tribe minority villages lie throughout the nearby mountainous areas, making Chiang Mai the most popular spot to organize an excursion. We had heard and read that since so many travellers pass through Chiang Mai and undertake treks into the surrounding area, it was cheaper and better to organize a trek from a town somewhere further north or west in the mountains. Since we were planning on going to a northern town called Pai later in the week, we postponed the decision and planned on looking into a trek once we arrived there.
While I spent the day updating our website, Sue had a much more interesting time. Browsing through a local Chiang Mai tourism brochure, she noticed an advertisement for a "group shopping tour" for only 100 baht (US$2.30) per person. She made the call and was informed that the tour was available, but since she was the only participant she would have to pay the "personal shopping tour" price of 200 baht. Sue thought otherwise and in the end spent the day being driven to different local handicraft markets in an air-conditioned car by her own personal chaffeur for the cheaper group tour rate.
As opposed to southern Thailand, the north has a much larger Christian community, as evidenced by the number of churches we observed on the bus ride into town. This morning we attended service at the Christian Fellowship Church which was a short walk from our guesthouse. Although the service was conducted in Thai, headphones were given to foreigners in order to hear an interpreter.
After church we collected our bags from the guesthouse and hired a songthaew to drive us out of the old city to the bus terminal. From there we hopped on a bus for a long and sometimes jolting, but scenic ride up into the mountains to the small town of Pai. It was dark when we arrived and as we got off the bus we were a bit disoriented. There were a few guesthouses in the immediate area, but we had planned on staying at a place called Vandee's because we had read rave reviews of the food and Thai cooking classes they offered. After getting a bit lost and walking a good distance out of the center of town we came to Vandee's only to find it was closed. A girl passing by on a motorbike stopped and told us that the owner was ill and the guesthouse had been closed for a few months. She pointed out a farm stay nearby, but it was too dark and forbidding for us to attempt walking further down the small dirt road. We headed back to town and finally found a good enough place with cheap bungalows. We ditched our gear and headed back to the center of town to have dinner at one of the several backpacker cafes.
Coming to Pai we had designs on doing a two or three day organized trek into the surrounding mountain area to visit some of the local hill tribe vilages, but unfortunately we could not find enough people to form a group for the days we wanted to go (i.e. right away). It was "low season" and the backpacker flow through the area had slowed to a trickle. In addition, our Thai visas would be finished in a few days, so we had to plan carefully to ensure we crossed the border into Laos in time. In the end, after some frustrating option paralysis, we decided to forego the trekking and instead spend the day doing some local sightseeing.
We rented a motorbike in town and early in the afternoon headed out of Pai toward the village of Soppong about forty or fifty kilometers further on into the mountains. There we planned on visiting Tham Lod (Lod Cave). The weather was gorgeous, sunny and cool, and as we drove along the winding mountain road we were treated to some great views of fertile valleys covered with rice paddies and farmland, the huts of small Lisu and Shan hill tribe villages, and looming forest-covered mountains stretching out to the horizon. As we rode higher the air grew even cooler (which was nice) and carried the scent of pine trees. It reminded us a lot of the times we had gone camping at home. And, miraculously, through all of this I only drove off the road one time.
We arrived in Soppong after a couple of hours, stopped for lunch at a small restaurant, and then drove on through the small village down a narrow forest road to the cave entrance. About the same time as we arrived, another couple, Graham and Judith from Australia, also arrived by motorbike. Being the only visitors around, we joined up with them and split the cost of a guide for the cave tour. The tour lasted a couple of hours and consisted of a slightly treacherous walk through a series of large caverns observing various interesting rock formations and the remains of wooden coffins from some prehistoric peoples. Towards the end we had to board a small boat of sorts and be ferried along an underground river in near total darkness to the sunlit exit cave by a little old man who pushed the boat along using a long pole. As we approached the sunlight, hundreds of bats could be seen flapping around in the air near the top of the cavern. It was all quite surreal.
We left Tham Lod late in the afternoon and headed back to Pai. En route the sun went down, making most of the ride a very chilly experience.
We spent the day travelling by bus, first heading south back to Chiang Mai, and then north to the city of Chiang Rai, arriving around 9 o'clock at night. We called one of the guidebook's recommended accomodations, the Ben Guest House, and the owner was kind enough to pick us up from the bus station, saving us the trouble of dealing with local taxis or tuk-tuks.
We settled into our room and then, following the owner's directions, headed back towards the center of town to find the night market. The market was quite large and different from others we had seen in that it was centered around a large stage with live music, a sea of plastic tables and chairs, and surrounded by numerous food and drink vendors. Judging from the signs and posters decorating the walls, the venue was being sposored by a Thai beer company. The place was fairly crowded. We found a table and ordered some pad thai and a beer and relaxed while listening to the guy on stage play his guitar and sing Thai love ballads.
We rented a motorbike from the guesthouse this morning and spent the day checking out the sights in Chiang Rai. Our first stop was the Population and Community Development Association's Hill Tribe Museum. The museum had contained many displays of tribal clothing and daily activities of the local Lahu, Hmong, and Akha peoples, as well as a few photo albums full of pictures of foreigners on guided treks to the hill tribe villages. Chiang Rai province forms the southern part of the infamous 'Golden Triangle' opium producing region and the museum also had a lot of interesting historical information on how opium has been grown and trafficked there. (Illegally, of course.) (The Golden Triangle encompasses the border regions of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos at the confluence of the Sai and Mekong Rivers.)
From the museum we headed to the Buddhist temple of Wat Doi Thang high up on a hill to say hello to the resident monks and check out the view. Next we wandered through the sprawling day market and found some fantastic banana bread (only 10 baht per loaf!) In the evening we visited the night market again for dinner and also did a bit of shopping, picking up some beautiful tablecloths handmade by a woman of the Hmong hill tribe.
Since we now only had two days left on our Thailand visas, we decided to make the most of our time and take a quick trip to the mountainous region in the northernmost part of the country. We considered going to see the actual 'Golden Triangle' town of Sop Ruak, but the guidebook described the area as more of a tourist trap than a place of intrigue. We also thought about crossing the border into Myanmar (and back) to get our Thai visas renewed for another thirty days, but we learned that the border was closed indefinitely due to recent gun battles between Myanmese Shan State insurgents and Thai and Myanmese military troops. That was just as well since we were already running way behind schedule and were anxious to move on to Laos. In the end we decided to ride by motorbike into the mountains to the town of Mae Salong, spend the day and stay overnight, then return the following day to Chiang Rai and continue on to Laos.
This turned out to be a great choice. After consulting the guidebook and making a call to a guesthouse in Mae Salong, we learned that one day horseriding treks were available, so we stowed our big backpacks in Chiang Rai and headed out early in the morning.
The ride to Mae Salong was spectacular. We rode north on a highway for about forty kilometers and then turned off onto a smaller road which wound it's way into the mountains, affording views of fertile valleys, small villages, and scenic vistas. And I managed to stay on the road the whole time.
After more than two hours of riding we cruised down the main street in Mae Salong and found our way to the Shin Sane Guest House. The owner, a pleasant middle-aged woman, showed us to our small bungalow and then made us a tasty lunch while we waited for the horses and guide for our trek to arrive.
After lunch we mounted up and our guide, Asa, led us away. Now I don't know anything about riding horses, but I'm pretty sure my horse was a few sizes too small for me. He was more like a really big dog. I thought he might break when I climbed aboard. He didn't seem bothered, however. In fact, he didn't seem too interested in our little trek either and Asa (who was walking behind us) spent a good deal of time hissing, groaning, and swatting my horse to keep him from stopping to chomp on any available vegetation. I called my horse 'Hungry' while Sue's we named 'Lazy' because he was constantly falling behind.
Anyway, we felt like quite a spectacle as Asa led us down the road. Picture big, goofy white man and his sidekick wife atop tiny apathetic horses being paraded through the town. There was no hiding from the absurdity of it all and the local people, especially the children, affirmed this through their gestures and laughter.
After passing by a large school where we were a big hit with the children out playing on recess, we mercifully turned down a rough dirt road and headed out of town. We rode amongst tea and coffee plantations and through a forest where occasional clearings gave pretty views of the surrounding rolling hills. Asa, who spoke very little English, was from the Akha hill tribe and after an hour or so we arrived at the village where he had been born. We dismounted and he led us through the village to his parents' home. His father was a small, friendly, wizened old man with laughing eyes who spoke little but nodded a lot. His mother was a big matriarchical old woman with a loud, strong voice. She obviously ran the show. We greeted his parents, who spoke no English at all, and they invited us in to sit with them on the floor and offered us some tea from an ancient-looking pot. Sue shot me a look and I knew what she was thinking; it would be rude for us not to accept, but was the water safe for us to drink? The tea was poured and since it was boiling hot, I figured it was worth a try. I also considered the tea probably came from the surrounding plantations, so was likely be fresh and natural. I took a sip as everyone watched expectantly. The tea tasted like liquid body odor mixed with a dash of mud. I swallowed and smiled, making the appropriate universal yummy gestures and nodding approval to Sue. She took her obligatory sip and gave me another look which said "you will be finishing this for me, dear." Asa's parents nodded and smiled and seemed quite pleased. His mother said something to us which we obviously couldn't understand, but my guess is that it was something like "Goes down like angry bees, don't it?!"
We made a few attempts at conversation with Asa's mother doing most of the talking and Sue and I doing most of the nodding and smiling. After a few minutes she went into another room and returned shortly with a plastic bag. She dumped the contents on the floor in front of us and began showing us various tribal handicrafts. We immediately understood that she was selling these items and that this special bag of goodies was reserved for visitors such as ourselves. Fearing her wrath, we picked out some small bracelets while managing to gracefully avoid the big ticket items she was pushing such as traditional Akha women's leg coverings.
While Sue and I were sifting through a pile of bracelets under the close supervision of Asa's mother, his father pulled out a small clay jar. He removed the lid and I saw that it was filled with a white powder. I instantly assumed it was opium (or heroin) and was a bit shocked to think that getting zonked after tea and trinket sales was the normal order of events when entertaining guests in an Akha household. Asa's father then produced a small green leaf and something which resembled a large acorn and I realized what he was doing. The white powder was not opium but limestone chalk. He was preparing to chew some "betelnut". This habit, mostly relegated these days to the older generation in Southeast Asia, involves wrapping pieces of areca nut and some powdered lime inside a leaf of the betel vine and then popping the whole thing into the mouth for a chew. The result is a bunch of dark red juice, which stains the teeth black over time, and an allegedly mellow high. My guess is that it probably works as Asa's father spent the rest of our visit sitting quietly in the corner with a toothless grin.
After spending more than an hour visiting with Asa's parents and exhausting all possibilities of communication through pointing, we roused Asa and headed back to the road. We again mounted our tiny but trusty steeds and were off. Asa led us through some more scenic areas and past another large village (this one of the Lahu tribe). At one point Sue and Lazy had fallen way behind Hungry and I and Asa was walking behind them providing motivation with a series of disturbing grunts and groans. Off to the side of the road was a clearing where a dog was trotting ahead of an old man. I didn't think anything of it, but the dog must have spooked Hungry because he gave an uncharacteristically sudden lurch which completely took me by surprise. The next thing I knew, I was lying partly on the ground with my shoulder and elbow in the mud but the rest of my body held up in the air by my right foot which was still stuck in the stirrup. Thankfully, Hungry did not bolt at this point but instead regained his composure. Asa and Sue of course had not seen the dog before all this happened so to them I just appeared to have a fit of uncoordination and fell of my horse. Asa ran up to help me get my foot unstuck, but not before Sue, seeing that I was not seriously injured, had a good laugh and snapped a photo. The dog and the old man continued on their way. They seemed amused as well.
We rode on into the small village of Ban Klang where we stopped to rest for a while and watch a herd of smiling schoolchildren pack themselves into the back of their pick-up truck schoolbus. Late in the afternoon we rode back into Mae Salong and up the main road where we received several offers to have a smoke from the pipes of several friendly folks gathered on the front porches of various shops and houses. (And this time I'm guessing it was the opium...)
Back at the guest house we enjoyed a delicious meal of pork curry, mushrooms in oyster sauce, and a banana pancake for dessert. After the sun went down it became refreshingly cool, even cold. It was a nice change. Tired from the long day, we turned in early only to be kept up for another hour by two Chinese businessmen sitting on the porch of the bungalow across from ours talking really, really loudly about a whole lot of nothing.
We rose early for breakfast and then rode back down out of the mountains to Chiang Rai beneath the clear blue skies of a glorious morning. After picking up our backpacks and some laundry we had left to be washed, we returned our rented motorbike and headed over to the bus station for a three hour ride to the border town of Chiang Khong. Crossing into Laos from there would involve a ferry ride across the Mekong River and as it was late in the afternoon on the last day of our Thai visa's validity, we hustled down to the riverbank. Over the road leading to the river was a wooden archway which read "Gate to Indo-China". Just beofre it were a few booths which appeared to be ticket counters. Sue tossed some money onto the counter and asked "Two, please!" The uniformed man on the other side promptly tossed her money back with obvious disgust and demanded our passports. He was the immigration officer, not the ferry ticket salesperson. From his reaction, we concluded that he must get that a lot...
After receiving our exit stamps we walked on through the gateway down to the "pier" - a few wooden longtail boats pulled up onto the muddy riverbank. Along with a handful of other foreigners heading over to Laos, we climbed into one of the boats, paid the 20 baht fee, and a few minutes later were crossing the fast-flowing muddy waters of the vast Mekong River.
Cybermonks, Chiang Mai
Motorbike ride from Pai to Soppong
Hill tribe church, Soppong
Entrance to Than Nam Lod, Soppong
Sue watching out for bats inside Than Nam Lod, Soppong
Exit from Than Nam Lod, Soppong
Very happening spirit house, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, Chang Rai
Well-visited shrine, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, Chiang Rai
Big Buddha, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, Chiang Rai
Sweeping up after the elephants, Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong, Chiang Rai
Looking down over Mae Salong
Wat on the hill above Mae Salong
Sue preparing to ride, Mae Salong
Dave falling off his horse, Mae Salong
Hill tribe farms, Mae Salong
"Silly tourist, taking pictures of a water buffalo...", Mae Salong
Akha village (1), Mae Salong
Akha village (2), Mae Salong
Akha village (3), Mae Salong
Akha village (4), Mae Salong
Akha village (5), Mae Salong
Akha village (6), Mae Salong
Sue, Asa, and Asa's parents in their house in the Akha village, Mae Salong
Dave and Asa's father, Akha village, Mae Salong
Asa and Sue on the trail to the Lahu village, Mae Salong
Lahu village (1), Mae Salong
Lahu village (2), Mae Salong
After school, Ban Klang
School bus, Ban Klang
"LET ME CLEAR MY THROAT!!!" (Ban Klang)
Backpacks on the bus to Chiang Kong
"Gate to Indo-China", Crossing from Thailand into Laos, Chiang Khong