Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Getting Stuck In (Chiang Rai and Huay Xai)

Good day my sometime friends, it feels like an age since I last sat here and updated this here blog. It has been, I suppose. Where to begin? The beginning always seems like a good place to start so I’ll jump right in.

We arrived in Chiang Rai at a pretty reasonable hour after a beautiful drive through the Thai countryside. Sweeping hills, expansive forests, and tranquil streams lined the sides of the road as we meandered along on the public bus. The long distance public buses in Thailand (specifically travelling from Mai to Rai) are pretty comfortable, and the ride went quite quickly. When we arrived in Chaing Rai we got a cheap songthaew (converted pick-up truck) to the Akha River House which would serve as our accommodation during our stay. The Akha river house is run by inhabitants of the Akha hill tribe who make up a vast percentage of the hill tribe population in Northern Thailand. More on hill tribes later, needless to say our room had a beautiful view over the river, we were basically staying right on top of it.

We settled in and then headed out to explore the city. Chaing Rai was the smallest place we had visited, and you could walk everywhere in town without too much bother. We strolled through a few temples and looked around a Buddhist history museum which used to house the famous emerald Buddha which now belongs in The Grand Palace, Bangkok and then we finally settled down for something to eat. We were tucking into our pad thai and spring rolls when suddenly there was a huge electrical failure and the light started flickering and making rather unnerving noises. We weren’t really in a restaurant but more of a local café (which looks like a small shack with picnic tables underneath), it turns out a man had taken a chainsaw to a tree next to the café and the tree had fallen through a group of electrical wires and onto the side of the shack. We were escorted out of the shack for safety reasons and ate the rest of our food under some wood to the side of the restaurant. The first of many an odd dining experience to come.

That evening we strolled along the river which our guesthouse overlooked and we spotted a restaurant on the other side. It had beautiful views of the river and looked pretty quiet so we headed over the bridge to the other side of the river and towards the bar. I was already suspicious of the place as it had no English and looked a little out of place in the middle of nowhere just outside the city by the river. Usually bars and restaurants in Thailand all seem to be clumped together for convenience. However, in for a penny in for a pound. We took our seats. Nobody spoke a lick of English, luckily the menu had pictures, it felt awkward, like we weren’t welcome, when we looked around we noticed we were the only couple sitting in the restaurant. We further noticed that all of the waitresses were wearing rather revealing clothing, hot pants and the like. They also had name tags on, there were plenty of business men sat around, it clicked that we probably weren’t in a restaurant but at a night entertainment venue for single men. Wink, wink. We were in now though so we leisurely ate our food, paid our bill and got a story to tell out of the whole experience.

The next day we went to an Ostrich Farm on the outskirts of town, not the original plan but the forecast didn’t look great and we needed something to do. The ostrich farm was another odd ball experience, we were shown around by an incredibly short but incredibly happy middle aged lady who tried to persuade us to ride some of her ostriches, we settled for feeding them instead. I’m pretty terrified of large birds with giant beaks, but you try everything right? They snapped away at this repugnant food that we were giving them, their beaks didn’t hurt but they nipped a little. Once the show was over we sat down and had a drink to cool off, the sun had shown its face by this point but we decided to get a tuk-tuk back into town and we ended up checking out the hill tribe museum.

Chaing Rai province is full of hill tribes, our guesthouse was run by a hill tribe and they organised treks up into the hill tribe villages and the museum was an interesting insight into the lives of the tribes people, who are living in a totally different age. As a side note (I’m getting ahead of myself) we actually went to a Hmong hill tribe village today, we didn’t spend long there but it was a depressing sight to behold, you looked inside their homes and it was just a wooden room where families of up to 15 people would sleep, there are children running around the village (like a LOT of children) in dirty clothes or no clothes at all asking for you to buy the bracelets that they had for sale (there is clearly a contraception issue at work here), the average daily income for a family here is about 50p, and it really puts your existence into perspective, I felt sort of guilty walking through the village and gauping at how they live, I felt unwelcome and awkward. The museum tried to explain the complex issues surrounding the hill tribes in Thailand specifically in relation to tourism, how there are major pros and major cons.

The long neck tribes seem to be the best example I can think of off hand. Most long neck tribes inhabit bordering Burma, but a few migrated into Thailand. I say migrated what really seems to happen is that wealthy business men bring them into Thailand and force them to live in hill tribe villages so that tourists can come and take photos with them, they are forced to wear their gold neck rings and are not allowed to leave the villages. They have no rights as they are not Thai citizens and are paid pittance by the owners of the scheme. This is an extreme case, but tales of hill tribes selling their traditional clothes to tourists and the like are common. The museum gave a really balanced view and we spent a long time there learning about the traditions of the hill tribe people.

That night we had dinner at the famous Chaing Rai night bazaar and headed home in the rain. The next day we were up early and caught a more rustic public bus to the Burmese border at Mai Sai. You can hop over the border into Tachelik, Burma here but we decided not to as from the viewpoint looking over the city you could see most of what you could on foot. The two are linked by a bridge and separated by the river that runs beneath it and for the most part that’s all there is to see. It is like many other border towns, there are lots of markets and cheap goods from the other side for sale, so we looked around for a long time and took some photos of bordering Burma. There is still a smuggling problem here specifically with drugs like opium and this is prevalent from the amount of police checks there are on the road to Mai Sai, a few guys even got pulled off of our bus for reasons we couldn’t quite figure out. Another interesting experience.

On our final day in Chaing Rai we went to the famous white temple which may as well be an art exhibition, it truly is like something out of a fairytale, tall gothic white statues and gorgeous sparkling architecture surrounded by a little moat. It’s an attempt by the creator to bring Buddhist architecture into the modern age. You walk over hell to the gate of the temple. Hell is represented by many white hands creeping up from the ground below you, the temple itself is guarded by a statue of death, and once you’re past him you ascend to heaven, the gorgeous temple itself. This place also houses the most luxurious toilets in the world, solid gold temple like structures surrounding the lavatories. My mother would be pleased.

We left Chaing Rai via another public bus which took us to the border town of Chaing Khong where we were crossing the border into Laos. The bus ride was just as pretty as the first and we were excited to be going to a new country. Exiting Thailand was easy, we signed out and handed over our departure cards, we hopped in a boat and five minutes later we were in Laos, we filled out our arrival cards and exchanged our money and we were there, on the street, without a guesthouse or any idea where we were. It was sort of brilliant.

We ended up booking into a cute little guesthouse that was pretty close to the border crossing, I’ll never forget that guesthouse. See, I don’t know quite what it was, but after dinner that night I started feeling a little strange in the belly department, I didn’t think much of it at first but when we got back after hanging out at a cool Lao bar beneath the guesthouse I came over really ill. I was sweating, had a temperature and felt nauseous, I spent most of that evening in the bathroom. Travellers sickness had finally caught up with me. It’s two or three days later now and I’m feeling mostly back to normal again apart from a few rumbles. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience though.

We caught the slowboat from Huay Xai (the border town we were staying in) to Pak Beng (the halfway point between HX and Luang Prabang which would serve as the next major stop on our trip). I was feeling a little better in the morning, my belly had calmed but I still had a fever and a headache, seven hours on a boat wasn’t really what I need but we trekked on. Natalie loved the trip on the boat and undeniably the views were awesome, some of the most beautiful vistas I have ever seen. The Mekong river is pretty muggy but it is surrounded by the most awesome mountains and forests. We would stop off sometimes to let Lao people on and off and it became clear very quickly that we were in a different country.

Laos is one of the poorest counties in the world, and the average Lao earns perhaps $1 a day. There are unexploded mines scattered across much of the country leftover from the US secret war here during the Vietnam war when many Vietnamese fled to these parts, the clean up team suggest that it will take 100 years to declare much of the country safe, luckily we won’t be anywhere near these areas but it’s still an eye opener. The people here are humble and friendly but scarred by their hardships. Children are playing in the river from sun up to sun down as there is no school for them to go to outside of major cities. Here in Luang Prabang things are obviously different and I’m talking about rural Laos here.

It’s an interesting place to be, and a great thing to experience. When we arrived in Pak Beng my head was throbbing and I felt like death warmed up, but after settling into a new guesthouse after being attacked by local kids who wanted nothing more than to get their hands on my packet of crisps, I had some medicine and started to recover. The second day on the river was much more enjoyable as I felt for the most part back to my old self. Natalie said that the second day on the river, “wasn’t as quiet,” hmmmm, I wonder why?

I’ll write about Luang Prabang in my next post, but so far we’re having an amazing time here. It’s a beautiful small town with plenty to see and do, we’ve made some friends here, and we’re going for dinner with some of them tonight. It finally feels like we’re no longer on holiday but that we’re actually vagabonding, taking our time, experiencing things first hand and getting to know people. It feels good to finally be getting stuck into some proper travelling. After all, that’s why we’re here. 

I'll update when I can, the internet here is few and far between. See you on the flipside. 

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