After scenic Mae Hong Son, I took a Thai Airways flight back to Chiang Mai, once again decided not to stay in the big city, and instead hopped a taxi at the airport for the bus station, and took the air conditioned tour bus to Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost province.
Wednesday, November 9
The bus took three hours, and while the seats were very pretty (photo 24), they were not comfortable for anyone over 5 feet tall.
It got dark way too quickly - I had hoped to get photos entering the city, but it was just too dark. We arrived in Chiang Rai, but not at the bus station. Turns out that what is the bus station by day is a massive market at night. It's about 6 square blocks, separated into two sections. One section is food stands, beer gardens and restaurants, the other is marketplace. It was packed with western tourists.
The last time I was in CR (1989), the market was held once a week, and it was mostly for hills tribes people to come and buy stuff. Now it's every night, and it's hills tribes folks selling their stuff. (photos 25-35)
A little personal CR history. When I was in the Peace Corps, we spent a month in CR finishing up language training and the other people in my group were in teacher training. We were set up at a school which was closed for the summer, except for the practice classes (which they got to inflict on actual students). Since I was not there as a teacher, I had most of the day unsupervised. The Thai staff told me to go out into the town and practice my Thai. So I spent most of a month walking around, hanging out with the townsfolk, flirting, and exploring. It was fun, CR people are very sweet, their accent is softer than Central Thai, and the town was very walkable. During my explorations I found a lovely temple surrounded by a wall about 5 feet high, topped with little statues of praying women in classical Thai costumes. The temple itself was closed, but the compound was open, and when I walked up the steps and looked up, the ceiling was decorated with hand-painted scenes from the Ramayana. I took lots of photos, and in 1989 I returned and made a point of finding this temple and re-photographing it.
We'll get back to this story later.
The market. It's wall to wall hills tribes people selling everything from their own excellent embroidery to tacky made-in-Indonesia/China/Lower Slobovia trinkets. After a walk through the market, I asked at a nearby shop if they knew a good cheap hotel. "Tourist Inn" they said, "just past the Wat (temple)". Tourist Inn was just what I was looking for - a single room, queen bed, fan, western toilet, Thai shower, 200 Baht ($5) a night.
After checking in and dropping off my backpack, I went back to the market, had a Thai Style massage which hurt more than it helped. They usually do. Maybe it's just me, but they always hit my pressure points exactly the way the martial arts books describe. Hunted up dinner and headed back to the hotel. Across the street from the hotel are two European bars, well stocked with European men and Thai women. A bar girl called me over as I was leaving the restaurant, and I shouted to her that she already had two men sitting with her, "what are you, a butterfly?" Butterfly is the 1970's slang for someone who flits from lover to lover. She said "No honey, I'm a helicopter!" The girl next to her said "she's no helicopter, she's a !@#$%^& airport."
Thursday November 10
Up at 6:30, no idea why. I felt rested, so I got up and out and walked towards the market looking for an open tour place. The plan was to find an elephant trek into the hills tribes areas. They are supposed to have these 2-hour rides which get you into the villages where you can meet the tribes people and buy their wares for a lot less than in town.
I found a guy who said he could give me a private 1-day tour to hills tribes villages and an elephant ride for 1800 Baht ($45). So, off to breakfast, then to the hotel, where he picked me up at 9 am.
On the way back to the hotel, I checked out the Wat next door . It turned out to be the temple I had been looking for! They have a new fancier wall, and there is a rather large school on campus, but the paintings are still there - and the temple was open, and I was surprised to see India-style renditions of the Ramayana tale. (photos 36-39 and 49-97)
The first stop was an elephant ride station on the river, run by a Christian sect of hills tribes people, Karen tribe, I think. It was not the trek I had in mind, but it was an hour on an elephant, so I didn't say no. The mahout was about 18 years old, he did a good job, the ride was pleasant. It was very hard to time my photos with the movements of the massive beast, so about 2/3 of what I shot ended up in the recycle bin. (photos 110-161 were taken along the ride). About 45 minutes into the 1-hour trip, the sky opened up, and we were severely rained upon. The mahout handed me an umbrella, which I mostly used to keep the camera dry. We both got pretty wet. After the ride, I bought some bananas and sugar cane and fed one of the elephants (photos 167-172).
It was raining pretty hard, and the driver whisked me out of there, so I did not get a chance to shop (there were lots of things I wanted to look at, but not in the monsoon). Next stop was the village the driver is from. It was a gruesome drive along dirt roads which had been turned into rivers during the extended rainy season, and though they were now relatively dry, they were pretty dangerous to maneuver, since the water had cut deep rivulets into them. We made it okay, though, and luckily did not meet anything larger than a motor scooter coming from the other direction. I wish I had gotten some photos of the road, but none of them came out. Photos 220-221 show the road close to the village, it's in relatively good shape compared to most of what we drove on.
The plan here was to buy some embroidery, and at first there was none in sight. So I took pictures of the large number of butterflies (photos 177-184). A few minutes after we got out of the jeep, a couple of women showed me some trinkets - those good luck braided strings people wear around their wrists and ankles, and I bought a couple. And suddenly there were a dozen women all wanting to sell me the same thing. And within 5 minutes a full-blown market had sprung up around me. The driver finally noticed I wasn't buying anything, and called off the attack. And called in my guide to the waterfalls (photo 199). I think she was 8 years old.
I figured we would walk up some easy path a few hundred yards, and that's how it started out. After a few feet, she hit me up for 10 baht. And did it again after another 10 minutes. She's definitely learned her lessons.
But after 15 minutes of wet, slippery, muddy, increasingly steep trekking, with my Tevas melting as we went, I called a halt, and we turned around and went back - via an even muddier, more slippery path with steeper drops off the edge. We did get close enough to hear the waterfall, but I was not too interested in seeing it.
Next was lunch at the local bamboo bar. I ordered pat thai, and after half an hour someone came out of one of the huts down the road with it. The bar doesn't have a kitchen, someone does the cooking in her home. The food was very bland. While waiting for it, I was sipping a Coke, and when I put it down on the bamboo slat table, it spilled all over me and my camera. Yikes.
Back on the road, we went through some major jungle, and the driver stopped to cut a few pieces of bamboo (photos 224-225) which we took to a restaurant where they would pack it with sticky rice soaked in coconut milk and something sweet. He dropped off the bamboo sections and said he would pick up the finished product later.
This road was even worse than the one to the village, and it brought us to the other side of the river. Photo 237 shows the elephant ride place from the other side.
We got onto paved road again, and stopped in at a hot springs. I had not planned on taking the baths, and was spared the adventure by the fact that they were cleaning the pool. But we did get to see the source of the hot water.
Next on the trek was a long drive on the highway to the outskirts of CR, where a huge temple is being built as a kind of WPA project. The driver was very proud of this program, since it gave lots of people jobs, and it was unique. The temple is white. Thai temples have never been white before. They are usually orange with multi-colored mosaics. But this one is a work of art, conceived by some public-spirited artist/entrepreneur whose photo is all over the place. I personally did not like the white motif, but was impressed with the artistry (photos 249-273).
Back to the hotel at about 4 PM, I changed and then went towards the market, but it wasn't open yet. As I got back to the main drag, I felt I was low on sugar, and it was starting to drizzle, so stopped in at Swensen's for some ice cream. As I walked out, the sky opened up, and it poured as hard as I have ever seen it rain. I parked myself on the steps in front of an empty shop, under its eaves, and read a book until it stopped. There were four or five other people with a similar idea, but quite a number of kids on their way home from school passed us by, looking very bedraggled. While I was there, one of the tuk-tuk drivers asked me if I needed a ride, and I told him I didn't right now, but might need one to the Post Office in the morning. He said to just show up there at 8 am and someone would be around to take me.
One thing about being caught in a tropical storm is your mom won't yell at you for "catching your death of cold". It's still 85-90 degrees out there, and you'll be fine as long as you stay out of air conditioned rooms.
Since I had a couple of hours to kill, I tried two massage places, just to see if anyone knew how to not make it hurt. Nobody did. No more of that experiment for a while, then.
The rain did not close the market the way it did in Mae Hong Son. I had dinner, then spent more $$ than I had planned on hills tribes embroidery, maybe $150 in all. Also got a deal on navy blue frog closure workers' shirts, 4 for 900 Baht. $22 for the bunch, so $5.50 each. They go for at least $20 back home.
About dinner - the Chiang Rai night market is mostly seafood. We're a 20-hour drive from the nearest ocean! Weird. I had squid and fish balls and shrimp balls and freshly roasted cashews.
Back to the hotel, by way of an internet place. Checked my email, but my ISP was acting strange. Any message I would write would time out when I sent it, erasing the whole message and not delivering it anywhere. It also did not save the draft, so I did a lot of writing which was completely lost. I made a promise to change providers when I got back (which I have already done).
Arranged my shopping and laundry into three bags, which I'll mail home in the morning. The plan is to catch the 10:30 am bus to Sukhothai, a day earlier than planned because I'm skipping Chiang Mai.
Friday, November 11
Busy morning. Checked the map, and the PO was only about 6 blocks away, so I walked with my three bags to the PO at 7:45 AM, but the sign said they don't open until 8:30. I explored the big daytime market across the street, looked for a place to eat but there wasn't any. Lots of raw food for sale, but nobody was cooking anything. At the PO I bought three large boxes and their tape-and-string kits, and made up two for me and one for Shaari. One of the items I bought in the night market said "housewarming gift" all over it. The Chiang Rai PO is a lot more advanced than the one in MHS - they had a "take a number" thing set up on a computer, which displayed the next number up on a computer screen, and also a lovely female voice said both the number and the queue to go to. The PO is two levels, you buy the boxes downstairs, but go upstairs to get the customs forms and mail them.
The slow boat boxes cost 2400B ($60) all together, and they said it would be three months before they arrived. But air mail was even more expensive, and would get to me before I was there to pick it up, so....
On the way back to the hotel, my sandals were killing me, that trek to the waterfall had done them in. I stopped off at a shoe store, and paid $10 for a Thai-made pair of sneakers and 50 cents for a pair of socks. I need to get flip-flops or something, because you're always taking your shoes off to go into places here. I threw away the evil Tevas in a roadside garbage can.
Got back to the hotel, packed, checked out and walked to the bus station by 9:30. Bought a ticket on the 10:30 air conditioned bus to Sukhothai and had breakfast - pork something over rice and an orange Fanta soda.
I'll pick up the story in the next installment