From Chiang Khong I headed to Chiang Rai, a laid back town near the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is the intersection of the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Laos. As I noted in my last post, the Golden Triangle is the place where the opium trade used to boom in SE Asia. Local farmers in the area would grow poppy crop and sell it for both use both in and outside of SE Asia – it used to be a big export crop. To be sure, some of this still goes on. In the Golden Triangle the borders of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are porous and despite the countries’ respective governments’ best efforts, opium is still grown in these countries. Old habits die hard.
Thailand has done the best job of stamping out the opium trade within its borders, primarily through the use of substitution farming. The local villages and farmers that used to make their living growing and selling poppy have now been encouraged (read: forced) to grow and sell crops such as tea, instead. The government subsidizes this substitution farming to make sure the farmers have no incentive to return to their crop of the past. But when the government isn’t looking some of these same farmers are still able to grow a side poppy crop. When there is a demand for drugs, supply will always find a way.
I didn’t make my way to any of the border towns in the Golden Triangle but I did enjoy several nice days in and outside of Chiang Rai.
When I arrived in Chiang Rai my first order of business was to grab some food. The best indicator of a good place to eat is whether there are lots of locals eating there.
And this place was full of them. Though I couldn’t pronounce, let alone read, the name of the restaurant I figured it would be a good bet. I was right. The woman that served me surprised me when she demonstrated a more than basic ability to speak English.
She walked me through some of the different foods she made and I ended up going with white noodle soup with some beef. It was so good that I promised her I would come back for another meal.
Unfortunately I was not able to keep my promise. I did make an attempt though – I came back later that night around 8:15 pm and the restaurant had just closed at 8. Next time. Next time.
My next order of business was to find a guesthouse. I ended up finding a Bob Marley style decorated guesthouse with beds for $5/night that was located very close to Chiang Rai’s golden clock tower, one of the city center’s most impressive monuments.
It is even more impressive at night.
Near my guesthouse a sign promised what I would consider to be a miracle.
My first (and only) night in the guesthouse was not a good one. I had been feeling ill (fever, fatigue, stomach “issues”) so I took it easy my first night in Chiang Rai. Unfortunately the night ended up being somewhat traumatic. This was the only guesthouse I had stayed in SE Asia where there was no ability to lock my door when I was inside the room. It didn’t seem like a big deal and I didn’t think I could get robbed for three reasons. First, when I was inside the room it seemed unlikely someone would try to come in and rob me. Second, the guesthouse seemed to have that peaceful “rasta” vibe, run by a group of hippie dreadlock-haired northern Thai guys. Third, when I went to sleep I shoved my excess money pouch, with passport, under my bed. This would force any would-be thief to go under my bed to retrieve it, which seemed unlikely.
So there was no way I would get robbed, right? Wrong. Around four in the morning I woke up to go to the bathroom only to discover that my sliding glass door was open. I knew I had left it shut when I went to sleep so I immediately panicked and turned on the light. At first glance everything seemed to be in order – laptop, wallet (with all my money), camera, check. But when I checked under my bed my excess money pouch was gone.
Odd – why would a thief have bypassed a wallet, camera, and laptop to go for a money pouch? At that moment I didn’t have time to appreciate the strangeness of the thief’s pickiness because I was too busy panicking – not because of the money that would be lost but because my passport was in that pouch. When I went outside to the hallway I found my pouch lying next to the communal sink.
My passport and most of the money was in the pouch, but a 1,000 Thai Baht bill (approximately $33) had been removed and the remaining money had been placed back in a different spot than I had kept it. I guess my thief was conscientious. He bypassed my openly exposed wallet, camera, and laptop and went for a money pouch under my bed, then only taking the highest denomination bill that I had. I remembered I had told one of the rasta guesthouse operators that I had a money pouch (while I was checking in I had mentioned I needed to go get money from it to pay the deposit) and immediately suspected him.
The most unsettling thing about the entire situation was that someone had tiptoed into my room and gone under my bed while I was asleep to take my money. Not a comforting feeling. I quickly packed up my things and resolved to leave the guesthouse immediately. I went downstairs and explained to one of the rasta guys I had been robbed – I did not try to hide my anger either. I told him I would be bringing the police back the next morning – probably not a good idea at the time. Meanwhile, the guy who worked there and who I was pretty sure had robbed me sat in a dark corner, saying nothing.
I made my way out of the guesthouse onto cold, dark streets – it did not feel safe. Even though I had just been robbed I was starting to think that leaving the guesthouse might not have been the best idea. A lone backpacker on the street at 4 in the morning with no police and no moving vehicles in sight is a very easy target to rob. I mustered some courage and marched on. I went on to check six guesthouses, all of which told me they were full. Out of options, I was forced to go back to the guesthouse that I had just been robbed at and go back to sleep in the room that someone had come into while I was sleeping. Before I got back up to my room I had a weird exchange with the guy who I was pretty sure I had robbed me. Because it was dark and because I was wearing glasses instead of my contacts I couldn’t make out what he was motioning to me but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of “screw you, you can’t prove anything, sleep tight buddy!”
The next morning I didn’t bother getting the police involved. I simply put myself in a more secure hostel that actually had a lock on the door, which is what I should have done in the first place. I guess you get what you pay for. In spite of getting robbed the night before I resolved to have a good day in Chiang Rai. I started the day with a bowl of Chicken Khao Soi at another restaurant that was packed with locals.
At $1 a bowl Chicken Khao Soi, a popular dish in northern Thailand, is a steal and it is delicious to boot – the curry with coconut sauce is honestly addiction. I ended up eating getting the same dish three more times at the same place over the next 48 hours.
I started the day by renting a moto for $5 and heading south of the city. I ended up meeting an Italian girl, Oriana, who had also rented a moto and we decided to explore together. We started out a very relaxed temple that no tourists visit.
The only people we saw were the few monks going about their daily business. Otherwise the place was deserted and very peaceful.
We proceeded down the same road we had started on and ended up diving down a random road that led to the top of a big hill.
We were rewarded with a great view of what we later learned was a golf course under construction.
We relaxed in a gazebo with some wind chimes that overlooked the course and wondered why we were the only ones here.
After strolling through the neatly manicured grounds on top of the hill we assumed we were at some sort of deserted luxury resort.
When we got back to our bikes I realized I had inadvertently locked it. The lock mechanism allows you to cover the moto’s keyhole so a potential thief with a “universal key” can’t access the bike’s keyhole. I was stuck. Not knowing what to do, we wandered a bit farther and found some young guys working on a car while an older man oversaw their labor. I wheeled my bike over to them and the youngest of them, a boy of about nine years, was the only one who knew what to do. On my key a small plastic protrusion could be inserted into part of the lock and twisted to “unlock” the keyhole. Sigh of relief.
The older Thai man introduced himself as “Bob”. When I told him I was from Chicago he told me had lived in Chicago for 26 years and had just recently moved back to Thailand, his homeland. As it turns out this was Bob’s beautiful golf course under construction.
Bob was very pleased to have someone from Chicago on his golf course so he quickly had one of his employees get me and Oriana two cold drinks. He proceeded to show us his luxury home, which overlooked the golf course.
Every room of the house had one wall made entirely of windows – I was getting beautiful views no matter where I was. Bob emphasized to me at least six times that once the course was finished I could come back to Chiang Rai and stay at the house and golf, for free. I knew SE Asians were hospitable but this was unprecedented. He gave me his card and I promised I would return sometime in the next five years. I hope to keep that promise – lets hope he remembers me, maybe I’ll show him the picture. 🙂
After Bob’s grand tour of the course and his house Oriana and I drove farther south and came to a tea farm.
We parked our bikes and relaxed for a bit before the owner kicked us out.
Oriana and I continued on to our eventual destination, Khun Kon waterfall. It is about a two kilometer hike to the falls through bamboo and over several streams that are fed by the waterfall.
Khon Kun is massive – almost 100 meters high and very powerful.
Even 30 meters from the base of the falls mist blasts in every direction – my camera got soaked trying to take a video.
I was soaked as well.
Some braver (younger) men than I were wading in the base of the waterfall. I was impressed – it was very cold water.
Besides the feeling of invincibility that young men are so often (foolishly) empowered by I wondered what could be compelling the guys to do this. The answer should have been obvious enough – the one thing that compels men of all ages to do foolish things. As I hiked back away from the falls I passed four younger girls giggling and watching their young male friends trying to impress them. The things guys do for women….
After the waterfall I continued on my own to see some sights north of town. While attempting to make it to the Huai Mae Sai waterfall I got hopelessly lost but this ended up being a good thing.
Often times the best experiences of my travels occur when I get lost and end up seeing something I never would have seen if I had a GPS guiding me. The first thing I stumbled on was an incredibly large and beautiful temple.
The temple was one of the widest, tallest (9 tiers), and most symmetrical (a decagon) pagodas I’d seen in SE Asia. The temple was clearly new and had just opened in the last couple months. Besides me the majority of the people visiting the new temple were lots of monks!
The temple was so recently built that even after 15 minutes of google searching I was still unable to find out the name of the temple (I failed to record the name while I was there).
Each of the nine levels of the temple had a beautiful wooden Buddhist statue.
The temple was so new that the wooden statutes smelled like they had been freshly carved.
The most impressive wooden statute was the 30 meter high Buddha on the main level. Even though he sat cross-legged his head reached up to the third tier of the temple.
From the top of the temple the view stretched back south towards Chiang Rai.
After I left the temple I continued to try and find the waterfall but somehow ended up down by the Mae Kok River, the river that runs through Chiang Rai.
I was about 15 kilometers west of the city and the views were nice so I decided to stop and relax for a while.
From the bench I spied a terrace by the river on which sat a massive white Buddha.
The terrace overlooked a mini island in the river – this place had a real zen atmosphere.
It was relaxing to sit and listen to the hum of the passing boats.
As I was leaving the river I noticed that I had actually been parked in the field next to the Buddha Images Cave.
The numerous Buddha statues in the cave brought my number for the day up to over 100 – they love their Buddha over here.
A monk sat silently along the cave – I didn’t even notice him till he told me to look up and take notice of the bats chirping in the cove above.
After the Buddha Images Cave I continued north and finally made it to the waterfall I had been attempting to reach, Huai Mae Sai.
Huai Mae Sai is not as big as Khon Kon but it was another relaxing place to sit for a while.
At the trail head for the waterfall a long Indiana-Jones-and-the-Temple-of-Doom style bridge provided a path across the stream flowing from the waterfall.
“He no nuts, he’s crazy!”
Shortly after crossing the bridge (which may have been a bit “nuts” to cross) the trail became overgrown and I turned around. Near the Huai Mae Sai waterfall is the Doi Bo Viewpoint. The drive up to the viewpoint was treacherous on steep, pothole-laden dirt road but my little moto handled it well.
The viewpoint provides a good view over the hills surrounding Chiang Rai.
I was one of very few people on top of the viewpoint.
There was no breeze on the top – just sunshine and the chattering of the Thai people on top of the hill.
I had met some young volunteers by the Huai Mae Sai waterfall that were volunteering at the nearby Lahu hill tribe village. I decided to head down from the viewpoint and check it out.
The village was pretty rudimentary – no running water or electricity in the basic thatched huts that provided the Lahu peoples’ living space.
One of the hill tribe women persuaded me to pay a small fee to see the village’s museum, which depicted the paths that Northern Thailand’s different hill tribes had taken from Myanmar or China.
Most of the Lahu hilltribe villagers are descendants of Chinese people that, between the 14th and 19th centuries, had led wars of resistance against Han and Tai rulers in China. When they lost these wars it was time to get out of China, so they came to northern Thailand.
The woman gave me a tour of the museum and at one point showcased her skill on the tribe’s traditional flute.
I’m not sure whether she was playing a song or just blowing out random notes…
At the end of the tour I asked if I could take a picture of her and what I believed to be her grandson, who had been following us around on the tour. The kid was a bit of a flasher – after several photo attempts I realized I would not be able to get a pic without him showing me the business…
I went towards the back of the village where the volunteers were staying and met the man hosting them. All the volunteers were sleeping on basic roll-up mats on a wooden floor in the hut you see behind him.
A proud father of three with surprisingly good English, he explained to me that the volunteers were helping the village build a new rice farming area about one kilometer from the village.
On my way back to Chiang Rai I stopped by one of the local villages and watched the school children play some of the same running games in the schoolyard that I had played when I was in elementary school.
Some of my favorite experiences while traveling abroad are simply observing children and families doing things that I and my family have done back in the states. I may have been born a world apart from these people but life experience is universal and that is a positive, communal feeling.
On my way back I paused to enjoy the sunset over the fields and reflect on my action packed day.
That night I met Oriana in Chiang Rai’s night bazaar. We headed to a square that was more packed with food vendors than any place I had seen in SE Asia.
One can find just about any type of food in this square – the array was dizzying and delicious.
If anyone left this square hungry it would be their fault and their fault alone. In addition to the sheer volume of food vendors, this square had descriptions of food that were more hopelessly lost in translation than anywhere else I’d seen in SE Asia.
Oriana and I each bought some fried things to share and also shared a “hot pot”. A hot pot is a claypot that they put over coals on your table and then bring you ingredients to throw in. The ingredients must be thrown in a very specific order, starting with an egg. Then follows the lettuce and sprouts and finally the fish or meat to give the stew some muster. It was hot, delicious, and filling.
These girls made my American white-guy-can’t-dance-two-step look pretty bad. On the edge of the night bazaar a woman was selling some small sweet dishes that the locals seemed to be going crazy for.
She was dipping some sort of sweet warm broth into small cups filled with ice cream or other sweets. I went for the ice cream and called it a night.
It was a good way to conclude an action packed day – I had earned it.