Heather's Thairy

Heather's journey to Bangkok, Thailand: a year of adventure!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Chiang Mai Long Weekend: Day One

This past weekend Stephanie, Alisa and I went to Chiang Mai, in the North of Thailand. We had a long weekend from Friday to Monday, with Monday being the observed holiday for the Queen's birthday. The Thais celebrate Mother's Day on the Queen's birthday, so it changes every time there is a new Queen. Father's Day is on the birthday of the King.

We flew out on Friday night after school. Our plane was scheduled to depart at 7 PM, so we got in a cab at about 5:30. We are not too far from the airport so we thought it would be fine...but we were wrong. We arrived at the airport at 6:47 PM. We checked in in a mad rush, ran through the airport (almost losing Steph in the process) and got to the plane in time...to wait for more than half an hour.

Oh well. The time lost on the ground was almost made up in the air, and we were in Chiang Mai around 8:30. We stayed at a nice place called "Happy House", run by a friendly and helpful man who booked us on a trek for Saturday morning.

We decided on the trek that included hot springs, Chiang Rai, the ancient city, lunch, the Golden Triangle, and visits to hill tribes for 1000 baht. We figured it was worth it for a tour that runs from 7 AM to about 8 PM.

The van picked us up bright and early Saturday morning at about 7:10 AM. There were six of us altogether on the trek, which was great because the van seated 9 so there was some extra space. This was a good thing since much of the trek was a driving tour of Northern Thailand- about six or seven hours of driving altogether.

We weren't put off by the driving distance, though: the drive was spectacular. Northern Thailand is very mountainous and lush- the jungle is very dense in some places and we could only imagine what sort of creatures were lurking within.

The landscape reminded me so much of driving through the Rockies...this photo could have been taken somewhere on the TransCanada in B.C. if not for the car driving on the wrong side of the road!

Our first stop was not so much a tour attraction as a pit stop for, as our guide called it, "Toilet and relax", at the Hot Springs. Hot springs are apparently pretty hot in Thailand, hot enough that they are not used for bathing but rather to cook eggs. There were three exposed springs, round pits where merchants are boiling eggs. It wasn't spectacular so I didn't waste space on my camera. Just close your eyes and imagine a hole with water in it. Ahhh...

Our second stop was far more interesting, an ancient temple/city. I can't remember the name. Our guide told us some history about the place, but if you know me you know that I don't listen very well to information so I pretty much forget everything she said. I took some pretty pictures, though...

Thais wrap Buddhist symbols, like the Bodhi tree and the temple ruins, in yellow fabric for luck. The sticks balanced against the tree are another symbol of faith and luck- I suspect that the sticks we saw a while back underneath the large rocks at the waterfalls were of the same nature.

Next on the tour was the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Thailand meet. It was neat to be at the borders but honestly it is not like there are lines painted or anything: the Mekong River seperates Thailand from Burma and Laos, but the landscape on either side is the same so it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins. We were hoping that the three of us could each put a foot over each border and take a picture, but none of us were up to the task of straddling the Mekong.

The Mekong is very wide and was very high, this being rainy season. It is also very dirty looking. It doesn't smell and thankfully there wasn't anything floating in it, but the water is almost opaque, a rusty brown colour. The mud on the mountains is almost red, so the runoff from the rain likely takes soil to the river and colours it reddish brown.

We took a longtail speedboat trip along the Mekong. We went up and down the river for about ten minutes, covering a fair amount of distance. Longtails go VERY fast. I had the best seat on the boat, as evidenced by my being the wettest when we got off.
The boat trip takes passengers to see Burma and Laos. When the boat arrives at the Laos side, you can get out and see Laos for about a half an hour for 20 baht extra. No visa or passport required. I think if you wanted to go beyond the little establishment at the peir you would have to go through some kind of process (read: paying off the men working over there), so we just wandered around a bit and were happy to be able to say "I've been to Laos".

As I said before, the landscape of the surrounding countries is the same as that in Thailand, so I didn't take any pictures of the Laos countryside. I did, however, feel that the following had to be shared.

These are bottles of what the locals and our tour guide called "Snake Whiskey". They are full of REAL scorpions, snakes, insects and a mystery liquid. They call it snake whiskey, I call it bottle full of gross stuff, or "Scam" for short. We didn't buy any.
We did buy some wine from Laos, thinking we shouldn't visit another country and go home empty handed. 50 baht per pretty bottle of neon-coloured liquid which turned out to taste very much like double strength Kool-Aid.

Our final stop before visiting the hill tribes was a city on the border of Thailand and Burma. Again, I cannot remember what it was called, but it was a hilly, beautiful place. We drove through- literally, through- the marketplace to get to a viewpoint, where you could go to the top of a tower and get a 360 degree view of the city and the surrounding area. I may not have actually gone to Burma, but I've seen it!

The viewpoint is guarded by a giant scorpion statue, which our guide told us was built in honour of some important historical figure.

The view from the top of the tower was incredible. The mountains are so beautiful, all misted and green, and the cities below look almost pristine from such a height. One forgets the business and rush of the market and the street when looking down at the land.

We could see the rain coming in from up there; the sky growing dark and the wind getting cold. It is amazing how fast the weather can change here- one minute, it is hotter than anything, the next it is chilly and gusting wind, and then the skies open and buckets of rain fall.

The Burmese Parliament is also easily seen from the height of the tower. At least, that's what we figured this cream-coloured, important looking building is.

In the tower there is a bell, which people ring for luck. We didn't ring it, but one of our companions did. I wonder if he's been lucky since...

After the viewpoint, we drove a bit further to visit two hill tribes. We were pretty excited about this part of the trek, thinking it would be fascinating to see how people live in a tribe in Thailand. It seems so different than how we live, even now that we live in Thailand. When we arrived at the first village, our driver had to maneuver very carefully so as to avoid running over the children than swarmed the van. We were saddened to see that these children were trying to sell us things. We waded through the crowd of children to see some women in the traditional dress of the tribe, to be told by our guide that the women dress up and charge 10 baht for photos. It all seemed terribly staged. There were some shops set up within the village (obviously for passing tour groups) and in one, there was a picture of Hillary Clinton visiting the tribe. I didn't take any pictures. It didn't seem right, even if they had been free. The whole thing seemed fake.

The second tribe was less overt in their self-commercialization, but I still wasn't inclined to take any photos. Alisa told us that to really experience the hill tribe culture, you must go on an overnight trek to live with the people. In an overnight trip, you are taken to a remote location and dropped off, then you hike into the village. The villages that participate in that type of trek are less commercial and are more genuinely interested in introducing people to their way of life, allowing visitors to live as they do.

I was disappointed in our hill tribe visits, not only because I felt that I hadn't seen any genuine culture but also because I suspect that the reason the culture is suppressed or glossed over by commercialism is because people like me sign up for these quick, all-in-one treks. I felt like I had done something wrong, that I had perpetuated the destruction of an ancient way of life.

Overall, though, I was very pleased with the trek. Northern Thailand is so different from the area around Bangkok and the other places I have visited. It is so lush and green and fresh.

After a long drive back, we went to the night market. In Chiang Mai there are two night markets- the regular, every night market, and the Sunday night bazaar. Saturday night we visited the regular market, which was quite extensive, though much of it featured items we have seen again and again at markets. Still, we had a good time and were excited for the next day's itinerary: the Zoo, a cooking course and the Sunday night bazaar.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Chiang Mai Long Weekend!

Until next time,


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