24 January 2014
We signed up for a tour - Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Chiang Rai being the northernmost large city in Thailand. Our tour was in a van, with a British couple, a German man, six young Chinese people, and us. (One woman who, when Richard got out to let her in, climbed into his seat and refused to move, and started yelling in Chinese - it was quite a drama! He's so tall, he couldn't easily sit anywhere else - someone finally moved so this Chinese drama princess could sit up front, and then we were able to leave.)
We headed north through the hills, winding our way in the early morning haze. It was beautiful, but not easy to photograph. We ended up at some hot springs, which are very hot. As in 80 C - that's almost boiling! Interesting the way it shoots up in a perpetual geyser. And the little shops had beautiful sterling silver figurines, maybe for shrines and temples but they'd be beautiful in a large house. I took photos and had to explain to the sales staff that no, I wasn't buying, I was just admiring.
(We brought snacks - the Koala March cookies are little cookies filled with chocolate, with cute koalas stamped on the front.)
We stopped at the White Temple. This is a relatively new temple, designed and built by a famous Thai artist, who decided to make the temple totally white. (Although it also is inlaid with mirror tiles.) Inside the temple, rather than having paintings and sculpture showing the life of the Buddha, the artwork all portrays modern history and modern culture: Superman, the September 11 catastrophe, and such.
It was a bizarre place. The architecture was Thai gone to extremes - I don't know how else to describe it. There were the usual Thai embellishments but the sweeps turned into sharply exaggerated points, almost like daggers pointing into the sky. Imagine a Disney movie about an evil Thai empress of ice - that's kind of what the White Temple looked like.
But then the bathroom was all in gold - not the interior, but the exterior - gold paint, gold mirror tile, the whole thing looking like it was made of molten real gold. Except I ended up in the traditional Thai bathroom section, meaning you take off your shoes and put on their plastic sandals, and the toilet is the foot-stand-squat-on-the-floor kind of toilet. With an overflowing basin of water to scoop and flush the toilet. So that the entire stall was soaking wet. Uh, yeah. Gold exterior, and flooded squatter on the inside.
Turns out there was a Western toilet section that I didn't find. It wasn't much better, apparently, although not as wet.
So with all that gold, our next stop was the Golden Triangle - the point where the three countries of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) meet along the Mekong River. This area was originally the point where opium dealers would meet on the islands in the river and buy/sell/trade opium, using gold as the currency. Hence the name Golden Triangle.
So we boarded a boat and took a cruise up the river to the islands, and almost to the Myanmar border. Couldn't cross the border, because a passport and visa are required, but we cruised up to the edge of the area.
And of course there's a huge gold coloured Buddha along the way, right near the Thai border. The three countries all assisted financially in putting up this giant Buddha.
Then we turned and headed south along the Mekong. This is the seventh longest river is Asia, and the twelfth longest river in the world, running some 2,700 miles (or 4,350+ kilometers) from the Tibetan plateau to Vietnam, where it empties into the ocean. It goes through China as well as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, connecting all these countries for shipping. HUGE river! It's also home to giant catfish, the kind that weigh some 200 kg (about 450 lbs) - although the best time to catch the giant catfish is in April, when the level of the river is lowest.
We were able to disembark in Laos, at a little village that basically is all one big market for tourists who come on these cruises. We walked around, stretched our legs, looked at a few things. There was a casino not too far away, but not enough time to go check it out.
Then back on our boat, and back south to Thailand.
Although I enjoyed watching these Buddhist acolytes climbing into the small boat, and then helping their older monk teacher in.
We stopped in the town of Maesai (meh-SIGH), the northernmost town in Thailand, right up against the Myanmar border. This town features items made in China and brought down river, so a lot of people shop here for goods that can't be found elsewhere in Thailand.
We found these little arcades off the main road that were just packed with shoppers, food carts, and of course the occasional motorscooter coming through despite the fact that it was mostly pedestrians.
One stand had stuffed animals - so I cuddled with a tiger. There's a place called Tiger Kingdom where people can pay to pose with a tiger, and the tigers are trained to interact with people. But tigers are nocturnal, and not exactly happy to cuddle with people - so while I'd love to hold a live baby tiger, well, I would rather let them run free without me, and I snuggled the toy tiger instead.
Our last stop was at a "traditional" village of hill tribe people. Except it was a group of people from various hill tribes, who wouldn't necessarily live in the same village. It was really more a group of people of various ethnic groups who live there and have small shops to sell their traditional crafts, while wearing traditional clothing, and it's all set up for tourists. Kind of sad, really. Most of the hill tribes are people who came from other countries, where they were not accepted because they were ethnically different from the majority of people. So these various groups of people are essentially exiles living in Thailand, and holding on to their traditional culture. And being exploited by tourists. As I said, sad. But I bought a few little items to try and support the economy, and I took a photo of this young woman who was in her traditional dress. (And I would LOVE to have a jacket like that, but alas, they only seem to come in small sizes because Thai people are fairly small, and the hill tribe people are REALLY small - I mean, some of the older women don't even come up to my shoulder.)
Anyway, it was really an interesting trip, and worth doing. We never would have spent a day visiting two borders and cruising a river otherwise.
Okay, next up - flying to Bangkok. Tomorrow, I promise!