Northern Thailand

Mar 1 - 10

We spent nearly two weeks back in Bangkok, not resting but trying to edit down the four hours of video tape we'd taken so far into a more watchable 20 minutes. It was a short learning process but a long hard slog to make just the most basic film but the end result was watchable and mildly interesting for our families, who hadn't seen us for four months, if not the wider public.

Cooped up in Sawasdee Khaosan Inn during the day, we dragged ourselves away from the computer screen in the evenings to sample some of the delights of Bangkok and to avoid others:
  1. Watched the fantastic Lord of the Rings on the big screen
  2. Walked around the infamous Patpong area, a strange mix of touristy market stalls and go-go bars where the touts don't show you the cocktail or dinner menu but the tricks menu with items such as the ping-pong ball trick
  3. Enjoyed the best burger in Asia at Henry J Beans Bar and Grill
  4. Boogied with the locals at the Hard Rock Cafe (Bon Jovi to Chilli Peppers to Thrash Metal)
  5. Had a big scare one night when we went for dinner and found that the bar wasn't serving alcohol because it was Buddhist Day!!! (fortunately not observed at every bar! But most wouldn't serve beer.)

I had my fourth rabies jab whilst we were in Bangkok. A quick trip down to the Seventh Day Adventist Mission Hospital, 650 baht, and no sterotpyical doctors. The best thing was finding out that I'd lost 10kgs of weight since leaving home (1 ½ stone for those not yet metricised) - must be all those missed meals, and walking everywhere! Only one more jab to go.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand but nowhere near as big or busy as Bangkok. It's very peaceful and is known for the night markets and the huge density of temples. Hmmm - temples that's one thing we had managed to avoid since arriving in Thailand in November. It was now March so as we walked past Wat Chiang Man our consciences wouldn't let us put off going inside a Thai temple any longer so we ducked in for a quick look. Like most Wats it's actually a complex of buildings with an impressive main temple and various smaller but just as ornate outer buildings. Wat Chiang Man was a good temple to visit as it has two claims to fame: it is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, built by the founder of the town, King Mengrai, in 1296 and it houses the famous Crystal Buddha, a very small buddha almost hidden by it's case which was shuttled back and forth between Siam and Laos for many years while they fought over ownership. All temples in Thailand advertise themselves by the buddha they contain and you can't walk down the street in Bangkok without tuk-tuk drivers shouting at you, 'Emerald Buddha, Big Buddha, Golden Buddha, Reclining Buddha'. We would see them all before we left Thailand for the final time....

In the evening we wandered around the night markets and then went to listen to some live music at one of the riverside bars. The night markets are where interesting hill tribe crafts and the usual tourist tat can be bought at a more reasonable price than in Bangkok. Of course you still have to bargain hard which we aren't very good at. We think we've got a wonderful deal if we get the price down a third whereas we should probably only be paying a third of the original price. When a pair of chopsticks is 15p it's difficult to think you've been ripped off.

The music we went to see was OK, but the headline set of the night had a real tendency to add five minute guitar solos into the middle of classic tracks that could really do without them, then they invited a guest guitarist onto stage who had to go one better and add 10 minute solos to the middle and the end of each track. Boring. So we left about midnight (a flight to catch the next morning anyway, so probably not too bad a decision.)

Mae Hong Son

The flight we took from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son was the shortest (25 minutes) and cheapest (under 15) ever and there was stunning mountain scenery as we went further north. However, Richard wasn't impressed with Chiang Mai airport domestic departures, dreaming of a MacDonalds breakfast all we could get was a mediocre coffee. It was the worst airport we've been to for shops and restaurants - it didn't have any. Really none - and we'd made the mistake of getting there far too early. So crap coffee and a couple of chocolate bars had to do for breakfast and lunch. Add to that the fact that it was the day of the first Grand Prix of the season, and we were missing it stuck in an airport lounge and Richard was not amused....

Mae Hong Son is at the far north of Thailand, almost on the Burmese border and there are a lot of hill tribes in the area made up of refugees, mainly from Burma. Some of the hill tribes will let tourists stay with them so quite a lot of people do organised treks through the hills stopping overnight with different hill tribes. We'd heard horror stories from some very fit people who had found the trek incredibly difficult so I wasn't confident I'd be fit enough to go up and down hills all day. Also we didn't feel comfortable about staying with a hill tribe and imposing even though we knew that they would make some money from the tour. We decided to go on a day tour around the sights instead. The hotel room we stayed in here deserves a mention because it was freezing. It gets pretty cold in the hills and I hadn't noticed that the wooden house we were staying in didn't have any glass in the windows, just a mosquito net. Well, you wouldn't think that you needed to check that the room had windows in a hotel would you? Brrrrr....

Driving around the hills the scenery was lovely. First stop, Tham Pla National Park where the main attraction is some big blue carp which live in a cave and like to sit in the current! Honestly, anything can be a tourist attraction in Thailand.

Hmong village, Mae Hong Son The first hill tribe village we visited was a Hmong village. The Hmong were originally from Southern China and have been in Thailand for generations but do not have citizenship. We read in the papers that recently many children from different hill tribes have been trying to get Thai citizenship but at the moment they are refugees with few rights which doesn't seem fair when they have lived in Thailand for generations. Apparently the Hmong people are good businesspeople and quite wealthy but they are determined to preserve their culture and animist religion so they live very simply in basic huts with mud floors. Although our guide seemed to have a good relationship with the villagers we still felt like intruders as we traipsed through their backyards to poke our noses around their front doors and peer into their living rooms.

Lake, Mae Hong Son The next village we visited was a Shan village which was part of a development project. Although Thailand is strictly anti-drugs some of the hill tribes are allowed to grow and use opium because it is so deeply a part of some hill tribes culture showing that there is at least one concession made by Thailand to these people. Village number three was also a Shan village renowned for it's green tea which was very aromatic and refreshing. Here the people got on with their business and didn't seem bothered by our presence. We even spent a few baht on the local raffle tempted by the exciting prizes we could win: a kitchen clock, some noodles and a bottle of beer. Unfortunately we didn't win anything which was maybe a blessing because I'm not sure we could have fitted the kitchen clock into our backpacks - we already have a kettle, mugs, tea, coffee, sugar, coffee-mate, a big bottle of baileys and other comforts weighing us down - all essential, of course. However, we set our guide off on a small but obsessive gambling spree. She bought one ticket then another.... finally stopping when she still hadn't won with 20 tickets.

Pha Sua waterfall was lovely but there wasn't enough water for it to be very powerfull as it was the dry season. A waterfall without any water as our guide called it. Right the way around Asia we are going to see waterfalls without much water because we planned our trip to hit most of the dry seasons because it is so much more pleasant to travel during the dry season. Oh well, maybe a trip to Vic Falls or Niagara in a year or so.

Mada, Mae Hong Son Long Neck girls, Mae Hong Son

The last village on the trip was the one we felt most uncomfortable walking around. Two manned barriers kept the displaced people of Ban Nai Soi from the outside world. At first we thought maybe the barriers kept tourists out until they paid but then we realised that the barriers actually kept the war displaced refugees in. Ban Nai Soi is two villages side by side: the Long Neck and Long Earred Karen. Pretty obvious who belongs to which tribe and unsurprising that it is only the women that start with the hoops around their neck or earrings in their ears at the age of five and slowly add more or make them bigger until their bodies are deformed. This in itself is the choice of the people but the village seems to exist soley for tourism now. There is the entrance fee and then nearly every hut has a stall selling postcards, keyrings and pencils all with pictures of the women on them. Our guide told us that apart from the possibility that the traditions are just carried on for tourists, another explanation is that the men in the village are worried that the women will try to leave the village and marry outside the community but the thought that their long-necks would be seen as odd prevents them. It is difficult not to stare because they do look so different with their heads seemingly disconected from their bodies and you wonder how it feels and if it is uncomfortable or debilitating at all. It was interesting to hear what the long neck women had to say. They told us that they don't feel pity for themselves as they think the gold rings (actually a coil and nowadays made of brass) make them very beautiful and they do, they are very beautiful women as you can see in the pictures.

The girls put on their first ring at five years old, nowadays it is only those born on special days such as the full moon so not every girl. A 'ring' is added every year so each year the coil is replaced with a longer one until they reach the full coil which weighs five pounds. Although those with very long necks look awkward they say that it doesn't affect their abilities or mobility or bother them because they get used to it over the years. The coils are only taken off if a woman is very sick or having a baby and this must be done by a doctor as the neck is very fragile. The ribs and bones in the neck and back are deformed and the muscles in the neck are weak so that the windpipe could easily crush without the coil on. A woman is buried with the coil on.

We found the women friendly and very happy to talk or be photographed but we still felt like we were in a theme park or zoo. We won't be going to see any more hill tribe or other villages. The tour was as well done as it could be and our guide had good relationships with the villagers but you couldn't get around the fact that you were crashing into people's lives.

Pai

On the bus back to Chiang Mai we stopped for a few days in a place called Pai which has grown from a village into a tourist town, being halfway on the bus route from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai lots of people stop for a night to break the journey around the winding mountain roads. It's a touristy place but it's a great place to chill as it has a slow pace and beautiful scenery. We spent our days relaxing and the nights on the town.

Elephant ride, Pai Elephant ride, Pai

We went on an elephant ride and it was one of those times which are awful and terrifying when you do them but great to think you've done it. We rode our elephant (Phnom) bare back so there was nothing to hold onto. She went up and down steep slopes and we felt that we would fall over the top of her head or slide off down her back. All she seemed interested in was eating every bush so we stopped every couple of feet for her to have a munch. The best bit of the ride was when the elephants took us for a walk through the river and then went for a swim with us still on their backs. Some people were thrown off their elephant but we just about managed to stay on. We got soaked as Phnom filled her trunk and threw it back over us but that was the least of our worries. Can you imagine your terror as your elephant tries to throw you from her back into a river which has numerous huge, fresh elephant turds in it - I've never screamed so loud!!! The next day we felt like we had either done some strenuous inner thigh and buttock exercises for five hours or straddled a very wide, fully grown elephant for an hour and a half.

Pai is a nice place to hang out drinking fruit shakes and eating good food. Having said that Richard had a steak which had been peppered to within an inch of its life - unedible even for me and then there was the place that brought my starter (soup) and main course (vegetables and rice) together so I had to eat the main course first because the soup was hotter. Getting your meal at the same time as your dining companion has been a virtual imposibility in Thailand so getting two courses at the same time was surprising. Usually if you order two things from the menu they'll arrive 20 minutes apart. If it says omelette and chips on the menu then you're ok but if you order omelette from the eggs section and chips from side orders then nine times out of ten you won't get them together. On the bright side we found a great place run by a Frenchman where Richard asked for the best steak in the house and the owner told him that he'd been to Chiang Mai to buy steak but there wasn't really much call for it with backpackers because it was so expensive but he did have this one really good piece - it was really good but I'm sure the owner thought he was having that prime piece of beef in a day or two because nobody would order it - you could see the passion he felt for that bit of meat when he spoke about how good it was. He also added coconut milk to the Green Chicken Curry for me because it is usually too spicy for me. I think it must have something addictive in it because I get this urge to order it and each time I have it is too spicy for me to eat half of it.

Pai is also great for relaxing either by the outdoor swimming pool which becomes a kicking club in the evening or lying on one of the wooden platforms under the shade of the trees by the gently rippling river, just reading or chatting or dozing......so peaceful.

I know we talk about good live bands a lot but there is one in Pai that really deserves a mention only we don't know the name of the band. They played at the Bebop every other night and there, there was a man that could really sing the blues. When he sang Mannish Boy.........

Another night in Chiang Mai

We spent another Saturday night in Chiang Mai trying out another of the riverside bars - this one was actually called The Riverside and had another band on - this one much better than the previous weeks. The bar was packed out with locals rather than tourists so we must have come to the right place. The next day we flew to Luang Prabang in Laos, this time going through Chiang Mai International Departures which was worse than the domestic departure area as you couldn't even buy a coffee or bottle of water - just a bottle of vodka from the duty free shop - we didn't. We flew in a little prop plane which only held about eighty people and was a lot more unstable on landing than most planes - being small it got a lot closer to the ground than big 737's and the like so it felt that you were approaching the runaway far too fast. Richard is still moaning about the dents my fingernails made in his hands.

Onto Laos


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