Thursday, February 22, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Northern Thailand day trip

On our trip we've tried to keep a balance between doing backpacker stuff (staying in hostels, visiting web cafés, drinking beer, swapping anecdotes and eating in Pizza Hut), doing tourist stuff (being transported around and shown things), and doing cultural immersion stuff (just being in a place meeting the locals, eating what they eat and catching their buses). The variety has been good.

Today was definitely a tourist stuff day. We had signed up for a day trip to see some of the sights of Northern Thailand on our way to the Laos border. At 07:00 we were sitting outside the Seven Suns guest house with our bag waiting for our pick up. When it arrived, our guide jumped out and crossed the road to meet us. She was slim, with long hair and lots of makeup, but she had very broad shoulders. We don't think she has always been a woman. She also had the most annoyingly loud voice, especially if you were directly behind her in the MPV. But we couldn't fault her enthusiasm—at seven in the morning she still managed to make us feel that ours was the first tour she had ever hosted.

Boiling eggs in the hot springs [Enlarge]

It was going to be a long journey from Chiang Mai to our next overnight stop at Chiang Saen, and our itinerary showed that we had a lot of places to visit en route. Clearly we would not be pausing for long at each place. Thailand's roads were a model of modernity and civilised behaviour after our experience of driving in India, and it wasn't long before we made our first stop at some hot springs. Walking around the site it seemed that hot water and tourist stalls sprung from the ground in equal measure. A strong smell of sulphur hung in the air. Apart from shopping for all the usual tat (who on earth ever buys this stuff?) the big attraction here seemed to be eating boiled eggs cooked by nature in the bubbling pools. We didn't see many eggs being sold, although hundreds were being boiled by the local ladies in little baskets lowered on hooks into the shallow water. We preferred to buy a coffee and slice of cake from one of the stalls, after which we spent a baht in what must have been a contender for the world's cleanest public toilet—you had to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers to get in!

Monks at the Wat Rong Khun (white temple) [Enlarge]

Our next destination was the brand new, kitsch glitterball of a temple that is Wat Rong Khun. Buddhist temple architecture always makes a garish statement, but Wat Rong Khun takes things a stage further. The entire building is brilliant white, with tiny mirrored tiles embedded in it to add extra sparkle. It has been designed by a renowned Thai artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, and he is financing its construction himself. A combination of cash flow problems and micro-management mean that the first of nine planned buildings has taken nine years to complete, and the bizarre murals showing stills from Hollywood movies that decorate the walls inside still aren't quite done. When it's finsihed Chalermchai Kositpipat intends to dedicate his masterpiece to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. If they get a move on with the construction it could be ready for his 150th birthday in 2077.

At least he would if he could get the lid unscrewed. At the wild monkey cave near Chiang Rai. [IMG_1090]
Even a monkey can taste the difference [Enlarge]

We paused next at what our lady guide called the Monkey and Fish Caves. Outside the mouths of these caves, semi-wild monkeys hang around waiting to be fed bananas and peanuts by the tourists. Sometimes if the tourists are not too forthcoming they jump on them and help themselves. There is a small, fairy-light adorned temple there too, which they have free reign over. They seem to also like posing to have their photos taken. At this strange place you can also (for a fee, of course) set an eel free, or maybe a bird, to carry your worries away. There must have been more significance to this place than our guide told us—she was a bit vague on cultural and historic detail.

After checking for monkeys on our backs we got back in the MPV and hurried to a lunch stop nearby. As we pulled in to a large restaurant car park full of coaches, our minds were cast back to our tour of Turkey, when these lunch stops always consisted of dodgy mass-produced buffets. Yes, this one was a buffet, but it certainly wasn't dodgy or mass-produced. The food was excellent, drinks were included (unlike in Turkey where they charge you the price of a three course meal for a can of Pepsi) and the smiley staff kept encouraging us to go back for more. And Glenn found a new benchmark for pudding excellence. Dessert consisted of large and small sago (tapioca) pearls, jellied fruity bits and strange green caterpillar-like objects (Glenn didn't think they were actually caterpillars, but even if they were, he said they sure tasted good), all floating in warm sweet coconut milk and set off by some ice cubes. Thai desserts you either love or you hate, and this one was surely the exemplar of its class.

We had a chance to talk to the other members of our group over lunch, who by chance were all long-term travellers like ourselves—two other Brits, one French-Canadian (with a hyphen) and one French/Canadian (with a slash). The shortest duration out of all our trips was three months, and the guy doing this trip said it was so nice to be at a table where he isn't the longest-term traveller for a change!

The most northerly town in Thailand, Mae Sai. [IMG_1096]
Myanmar / Thailand border bridge [Enlarge]

After finishing off lunch with some jasmine tea, we hopped back in the MPV and headed to Mae Sai, the most northerly town in Thailand and also the site of a bridge marking the border crossing with Myanmar (Burma). We're not sure why we were taken there. The only reason to visit, other than making the crossing into Myanmar, seems to be to buy the counterfeit goods which are shipped down the Mehkong from China, and then fill the stalls that line Mae Sai's main street. We watched a constant stream of local people walking across the bridge in both directions, either armed with empty shopping bags, or laden down with full ones. It seemed that both the Thais and the Burmese were finding that there were good deals to be made across the water. If we had been in Mae Sai for longer we would have liked to cross into Myanmar just for the hell of it, but we didn't have time.

So called after the opium smuggling trade at this point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. [IMG_1100]
Golden Triangle [Enlarge]

Next we came to the Golden Triangle. After a bad experience in our most recent visit to a Golden Triangle, in India, we were keen to see what this one had to offer. Fact of the day: there are twenty Golden Triangles in the world [source: Wikipedia]. This particular one is located at the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet at the confluence of the Mehkong and Ruak rivers. The 'golden' refers to the lucrative opium trade which has been carried on there for the best part of a century. These days it's more of a tourist site and we all posed for the obligatory group photo under the Golden Triangle sign.

Giant gold Buddha statue [Enlarge]

In the town of Sop Ruak itself, there was a choice to visit the Opium Museum or to look around the river front. We weren't too bothered about the museum so we went to see the giant gold Buddha and watch the mad, mad speedboats tear up and down the Mehkong.

There was just one final stop to make, at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen, an old temple with parts dating back to the thirteenth century. We were all weary from our whistlestop tour so we were very glad when we were dropped at the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel, our home until the morning. After a welcome drink we were left in the capable hands of the hotel and our tour guide returned with her MPV to Chiang Mai. We all handed over our passports and 36 US dollars each, with the promise that we would see get them back next morning all visa'd up and ready to go. Funny that the first time we ever use a US banknote should be in Thailand! Considering the actual visa costs 35 dollars and the hotel was getting just one dollar for their efforts, we thought this was good value if it ensured a hassle-free crossing. They even photocopied the photos out of our passport so we didn't have to provide one of our own. We have another early start tomorrow: we're leaving the hotel at 06:15 for the hour-long journey to the border.

All our photos from the day are here.

Map of Day 090

Day 090
Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.