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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Chiang Mai to Laos

THAILAND | Wednesday, 6 February 2008 | Views [6801]

Tue 29th Jan - It rained heavily last night, which was a relief. The first rain i've seen in over 4 months. Something about warmth and rain is very refreshing. I like the feel of Sukhothai and could spend more time here, but I have to move out into Laos by the 7th Feb when my present visa runs out. There is much I want to cover in the north before then, so moving on the Chiang Mai today.

The guidebook doesn't mention it, but there are direct buses from from the old city to Chiang Mai. Nice breakfast at the Kacha resaurant close to the Old Guest House where I have been staying.

The bus stops outside of the 'Ramkhlaeng National Museum' on the main Mu 3 road, and costs 229 baht for the 5 hour journey. If it's busy wih many waiting, then stand further away from the park entrance and wave it down as you stand a better chance of a good seat! Other buses pass here and many of them are not signed as to their desination, so you either get help or wave them down and ask. As it happens, I got help from the lovely owner of he Kacha restaurant, who waited with me. I love this place..... At the same time as we chatted, she was trying to marry me to her friend, who I haven't seen as she was away in own doing the shopping, but sounds a perfect stunner. Within the half hour or so wait, I not only got propositioned on her friend's behalf, but also some work offers such as teaching in the local school, work in the restaurant, a salon and other opportunities. I have been considering all of this lately as I really like this country and could settle here. As i've said previously, many countries yet to visit.

The bus filled up rapidly and was joined by someone nice from switzerland to pass the time. Also, a good opportunity to work on the options for the next few days or so.

The bus go into Chiang Mai at 2pm, so really good time. Had been warned about the red Sawngthaew drivers waiting to pounce. Easy enough to sort out and got a lift into town for 20 baht and dropped right opposite the 'Tha Pae' gate, which is the main central landmark. Straight to the Dalet House and booked in for 1 night at 160 baht for a basic room. Wasting no time as much to do, so off to look at what is available for the next few days or so. Booked a cooking course for day after tomorrow at the Thai master chef school and then went walkabout around the city centre. The main centre is arranged in a square formation with a moat around it and five entry gates (Tha Pae, Chiang Mai, Suanprung, Suan Dok and Chuang Puak). Shortly before entering at the Tha Pae gate I was stopped by a couple of students doing an english assignment, who needed to talk with an english person and record the answers for their teachers. I was happy to oblige, so spent a while with them.

Further on along the Ratchadamnoen road is the lovely 'Wat Pun On'. A superb golden stupa and ornate golden umbrellas. Approached again by another group of three students on an assignment. Getting into this now, so have some answers rehearsed. They are all so lovely and polite, you have to help them.

Bumped into someone I met I Ayuthaya, which was a nice coincidence. Off to the night bazaar on Changklan road later to meet up with another fellow traveller. A really buzzin place. So much good quality stuff at amazing prices. Whatever you would have bought in Bangkok, you can get here for much better prices, plus may other items only available in the north.

Met up with a guy from the UK and off for a drink. Ended up playing a Jenga type game with a couple of girls in one of the local bars for a few hours. Good fun. The same bar happened to have a few ladyboys hanging around (stay well clear!). It was funny when one of them came and stood in front of me and asked if I had any questions. I thought of a few but didn't feel like asking them!

It was now 1am and the streets had almost cleared of the bazaar and were taken over by street sellers and some dropouts. Chiang Mai has a more down to earth feel to it than Bangkok. A place you can warm to.... Admittedly I does have its seedy side, but that's just the way it is.

Wed 30th Jan - Decided to explore the city on foot today instead of hiring a bike, which in hindsight wasn't a good idea, but good exercise.

I think that Chiang Mai must have the highest concentration of Wats in Thailand at over 400 of them apparently. The north of Thailand generally has a different style to the south. Up here 'Lan na Thai' style bears the influences of Burmese and chinese design and I think is the most stunning in appearance.

First stop was the 158 year old 'Wat Phan tao' teak temple. The main hall (Wihãan) is superb with its ornate teak pillars.

Close by is the 'Phra Datu Chedi Luang' complex. At over 600 years old, it is the tallest in the lanna thai region and is an awesome sight. It was believed to have been ruined in a 16th century earthquake, but most is still intact. The emerald buddha statue in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok originally resided here. The four entrances are guarded by mythical serpents called 'Naga'.

On the way eastwards I past another temple at 'Wat Jet lin'. Although as stunning as the rest, the highlight for me was through the grounds and out the back. A buddhist colony  lives on the site in bamboo huts, accessed along a twisted bamboo pathway tha has almost collapsed. The shacks surround a pond area that is old and overgrown, but in the middle of this area it is a haven of peace. Ochre robed clad monks steadily walking through this enclave just seems to epitomise their lifestyle.

On to the perimeter road and followed the moat for a while and back in to the centre to get to the major highlight of the day...'Wat Pra Singh'. Struck very lucky today as it is 'novices' day at this temple. Hundreds of would be monks come here once each year to decide on their path through the buddhist faith and learn from mentors as well as socialise with other monks. Walking in off the street is a major shock to see a sea of orange, yellow, ochre and vermillion clad buddhists (the colour usually indicates the chosen style of buddhism), set against the backdrop of an awesome ornate temple. Multicoloured songthaew, tents displaying beautiful flower arrays, fruit vendors with colouful stalls.....Sensory overload time again! Click click click.... photographer's heaven.

The 14th century temple itself houses the most respected buddha statue in Chiang Mai...the lion buddha. A place to just sit, watch the lovely thai folk in action and soak it up. The 'Land of Smiles' couldn't be a more apt name!

A slight novel thing amused me during my time here... The toilets were playing 'Auld Langs Syne' on Violin.... For those not familiar with this, it is more known in Scotland to be played at New Year celebrations when the clock strikes midnight! Not sure of the connection with a buddhist temple in Thailand?

Went to a couple more sites after this, but to be honest, after the sensory overload experience, I needed a break so hit the internet....that's when it went downhill!

I bought a new iPod recently. Didn't take long for a virus on a rogue PC to strike and somehow cause mayhem. Files replicating like wildfire and generally getting unstable. Sofware that wouldn't then work to correct the sutuation and generally bad internet café PC systems lead to losing my whole collection of music and some other suff plus may hours wasted in the process. Sorry Apple...I now regret having bought an iPod. Frustrated and a few wasted hours later, gave up and consolled myself over a nice Thai green curry and a Singha beer. I could kill the people who write and distribute viruses...scum of society and should be put down.

The 31st Jan - Booked onto a cooking course today at the master thai chef school. Got picked up at 9:30 and taken to the market to look at thai ingredients and how to buy them. A very important issue as there are so many things here that look similar but would affect the outcome of a dish. Plenty of opportunity to taste some new things too. Then it was off to the school In the countryside. Allocated our workstations and off we go....

A really nice menu including a nice Thai soup, Padang curry, sticky rice with mango and spring rolls. Accompanied by three girls from China, Germany and France.

After the course we went off to do some sightseeing around the city together. One of the highlights was going to a 'Monk Chat'. In some temples there is an area where, at certain times of day, you can go and ask questions and generally talk to monks about anything you like. Spent quite a bit of time with  an old monk called 'Marit Yanadharo (Sidha)'.

Had booked myself into a thai cultural show this evening which also included a 'Khantoke' dinner. This is actually the name of the small table the food is served on. Accompanied by a nice selection of northern thai dishes. Waiters kept coming around to re-stock if you need it. Not for me as It's been a bit of an eating day today with the earlier cooking course, so felt a bit stuffed by the end of the meal. The show was in two parts. The first part was performed in the dining hall with seven northern thai dances. Most were performed by girls in traditional costume apart from the sword dance, which was the only male dance. Hand movements play a big part of the Lanna dance style as well as being very graceful and elegant.

The show then moved into a wooden amphitheatre outside. Most of the dances here were performed by hilltribe people along with some of their children. A few really unusual sounding instruments made this very entertaining. One of the pieces amused me as it had a bit of a 'Queen (the band)' we will rock you feel to it!

It's been raining on and off from about mid afternoon and the skies really opened up in the evening. Chiang mai in the rain is a bit different, as with anywhere really. Some of the roads don't seem to cope that well and got flooded easily, so a really wet walk into town after the show with one of the girls from the cooking course and headed for cover. Despite the naff weather, the streets were still full of ladyboys on he prowl. You have to be broad-minded here as you get just about everything you can imagine and their techniques aren't subtle either!

Fri 1st Feb - Wow, another month has passed already. Don't know where January went to? 1st January, I was on the beach in Sri Lanka celebrating new year. My first month in Thailand is zooming ahead and so much still to see. Have been considering extending my visa for another month and don't have many days to sort it out. Will see?

Well, it's chucking it down this morning and rained almost non-stop through the night. Thought about staying indoors out of the rain and decided against it, so went and hired a motorbike for half a day. I'm not the most confident of motorcyclists but it is the cheapest way to get Round if you want to cover a  lot of ground, compared to doing it by Sawngthaew. Got 150cc manual Honda for 120 baht for half a day. Wanted to head up to Doi Suthep. The road signs weren't what I expected but got on the right road eventually. What I hadn't accounted for was the rain coming down in torrents shortly after I got on the bike, and the temperature dropping considerably as I climbed the road up to Doi Suthep.  Plus I could see in the distance the mist getting thicker at the top of the hill.

By the time I had got about two thirds of the way there, I was soaked through and my hands were almost frozen to the handlebars. Decided that this wasn't worth it, so turned around and went to Chiang Mai zoo instead, which is along the same road (100 baht entry for adults). Being such a naff day, It was almost empty. It started off life as a private park, owned by an american missionary. When he died in 1974, it was taken under the control of the Chiang Mai zoological Park Organisation and expended to its present sate.

The rain was beating down now and not much fun, so kept my visit short so didn't see everything.

Sat 2nd Feb - Chiang Mai street parade today that passed where I was staying at about 9am on its way to the south western corner of the city, where there is a flower festival his weekend. Stunning is one word to describe it (I am running out of superlatives to explain this country). It must rate as the most colourful street I have ever seen. The floats were decorated in the most beautiful flower arrangements, as would be expected of the incredibly rich thai culture. The women....well, what can I say....they are stunningly beautiful. They have such perfect features and are so petite.

As my present visa runs out on 7th Feb, I have decided to move on northwards towards the border with Laos and have a few choices. Nowadays I try to make my decisions as late as possible and just see how I feel on the day. So, had breakfast and got the map out and decided to go to 'Tha Ton'. Sounds like a nice place with connections to some other interesting areas. As long as I am at Chiang Kong on 7th Feb to cross into Laos then that will be ok.

There are a few bus terminals in Chiang Mai and buses to Tha Ton leave from Chiang Peuak terminal, on the northern side of the city. Most other buses to important places outside of the region go from the newer Arcade station on the eastern side.

Picked up a standard red Sawngthaew to the bus terminal for 40 baht, which happened to stop right in front of my bus. Perfect timing....the ticket booth is obvious and it cost 90 baht for the journey (bus 54). The only downside was that this was a normal bus with no leg room, so I spent the whole journey with my legs splayed out and hardly any chance to move. There are other option but they are much more expensive and I don't mind, you have to adapt to whatever is available. I meet people who prefer to fly between places instead of using buses. Crazy really. For example, a bus journey costing 150 baht, might cost 2000 to fly! And you have to pay to get to the airport, wait around a lot and then get from the airport the other end. The flight might be quicker, but by the time you add everything together, I don't think you save that much and you miss a lot  by not seeing the country from the ground.

A few stops along the way through wonderful countryside of plantations and paddy fields. The sun is shining today and it's back to normal after yesterday's downpour.

Arrived in Tha Ton about 2ish. The bus stops shortly after the wide bridge that crosses the Mae Nam Kok and the town is small enough to get about as it's just one road with some little side roads. Turning left out of the bus stand onto the main M3 road, the first thing you see is a monumental archway over the road displaying the king and queens picture. Patriotism reigns here as usual. Checked out a few places before settling on Kwan's Guest House on the main road shortly after the bridge for 200 Baht a night. Lovely couple running the place (she thai, he german) and can also organise travel if required. A number of ex-pats frequent this place, so had some interesting conversations about what life is really like here and some hints on how to go about it. It amazes me how cheap you can live here. For example, you can rent a really good 2 bedroom property for a max of 2,000 baht and allow 500 baht for utilities - So about £40GBP a month. That's a twentieth the cost of the UK! and there are work opportunities. The downside about a place like Tha Ton is that It is seasonal and almost shuts down for 6 months of the year when no tourists visit. It is also a bit sleepy and not much going on. The sort of place you retire to. Not ready for that yet and need somewhere with options for a bit more activity.

Wanted to make the most of the lovely weather, so off to explore. This place is small and in a pretty position surrounded by forested hills with temples on top. Along the main road is a decorative archway which leads up the hill to a sequence of buddhist locations that are an absolute must see. All of them are a part of 'Wat Tha Ton'.

Climbing the hill there are seven stages/sights to see to the top. The first is a temple complex with superb views of the surrounding area, and a lovely view north to the burmese border. So many things to see here....a golden stupa, a beautiful thai pagoda with laughing buddha statue - I was lucky that the sky was so blue today that it made for some awesome photographs. Over the edge from here you can access an amazing grotto wih various painted statues that are so cheery they bring a big smile to your face...all set amongst a couple of chinese style pagodas.

Further on up, another temple, a large white sitting buddha overlooking the town, a decorative seven headed golden buddha statue and buddha garden that looks lovely with its weathered statues and colourful shrubs rambling through. The piece de resistance though, is the wat on top of the hill. This is still being built and is unique. A magnificent combination of thai but with multicoloured tired design. I haven't seen anything like it elsewhere in thailand. Even though It isn't finished yet, you can look around inside it up to 5pm. I keep using so many superlatives to explain the sights in Thailand...here I go again....awesome!

About 2 to 3 hours is enough to see all of the parts of this wat complex.

Off for a thai massage ....couldn't miss this at 100 baht for an hour. Lovely thai girl might have had something to do with it too. Got a lesson in thai at the same time. Spent a bit of time with her afterwards...why not? Nice and relaxed and in need of sustainance, so back to the guest house. Met neville, a 78 year old ex-pat from Australia who fell in love with the place and has been for 16 years or so. A lovely guy and great to talk to. He wrote a story which is famous here to the point that it is presented on the Tha Ton information website (www.thaton.info). It is called 'Do Nothing in Tha Ton'. Basically, it is about how you can learn so much about a place, it's people and its culture whilst observing. Most people come here as an overnight stop before heading to Chiang Rai (as I am doing), but there is more to the town than people realise. He had a great one-liner that I thought amusing..... When asked by anyone 'How are you today? His reply is 'Better than you are'!

The girl that owns the guest house (kwan), is a great character and very entertaining to spend an evening talking to. She, like most thai people has a great thirst for life and an infectious happiness. She also supports a local Padai hilltribe village with whatever money she can raise, some of which comes from clients of the guest house. Good end to a great day.

Sun 3rd Feb - Wanted to see one of the hilltribe villages while I was here, so got up early to hire a motorbike to head for the hills. One of the cheapest in town is at the Garden home hotel. 200 baht for a half day. On the way to get the bike I passed old ladies and children dressed in traditional clothing on their way to market with their produce on their heads. Such character in their faces.

There are many different hilltribes in this area, amongst them are Karen, Hmong, Akha, Lisu, Paduang (better known as long-neck Karen - where the women extend their necks over time with metal ringsby compressing heir collarbones) and a subset of the Paduang the long-ear and big ear tribes. Each has is own distinctive dress and lifestyle. The 'Akha' tribe I wanted to see was at Baan Lorcha, about 30 km east of Tha Ton. A fair climb up into the hills and the temperature dropped quite a bit. Greeted at the entrance to the vilage by traditionally dressed girls with ornate head dress and embroidered clothing plus leg covers. The entrance to the village was a bamboo 'Spirit gate' with a rather provocative couple carved In wood to one side. You must not touch this gate as it is sacred and protected by the spirits. The Shaman and males of the tribe make a new gate each year. If you were to touch it, they would have to tear it down and make a new one! Next to the spirit gate is the village swing. This tripod type swing is only used by the women during the celebrations for the rice harvest each year. A welcome dance was laid on for me which was rather sweet. I was the only foreigner there, which made it even more special. Next stop the blacksmith with a very unusual but simple form of bellows for his fire. He was making a new sickle at the time. Life was going on in the village with ladies weaving mats and making new brushes. Was allowed into one of the grass huts to see their living arrangements. Very cosy and organised. It is like travelling back in time many hundreds of years to see them in their traditional dress living in this way....and then....the satellite dish next to the hut! I thought this was funny. Technology meets history in the most unlikely of environments. Many things they do have superstitions attached and that makes it so important that these villages continue. Many people think that they are becoming touristic in order to make money. I agree to a point, but I would rather they survive by whatever method they find necessary than to die out altogether. A leisurely ride back to Tha Ton as the temperature had now warmed a little. My confidence on motorbikes is improving. As I said in Chiang Mai, I'm not a major fan of motorbikes, but they are the cheapest option sometimes, especially for single travellers where you can't always share the cost of better transport with others.

Booked onto a 12 seater longtail boat to Chiang Rai that left from the boat pier at 12:30 (cost 350 Baht). About 3 hours or so for the journey along the Mae Nam Kok. Lovely scenery along the way, with a nice warm breeze as the boat weaved its way. On arrival picked up a Sawngthaew from the boat pier to 'Cha House'. Got a room for 80 baht a night. Not much but it's ok and on-site laundry and facilities for organising sufff.

Plenty of daylight left, so hit the thanons to explore. Chiang Rai isn't that big, so it's easy to do the main center on foot. The odd thing here is that most roads are called thanons on the map I had but are signposted as 'rd'. Is that a sign of the amount of foreigners that come through here?

First stop the Hilltribe museum on Tanarai rd. Entry 50 baht. Well worth it if planning to visit any hilltribe villages afterwards. A video presentation first to describe the various tribes and their history.

As mentioned earlier, there are around nine main tribes in Thailand.....akhla, Lisu, Karen and Paduang originating from Burma. Musser & Hmong from China. Subgroups came through Tibet and Laos there areothers such as the Yao, Palong (only found near Fang), Toi Yai and Shan. At the last census here were abou 950,000 hilltribe people. The Paduang or long-neck Karen people have received much press as they are being exploited, for obvious reasons. A businessman from Burma 'Imported' the women purely for tourism reasons and many of them are not even allowed to leave the confines of the premises they live in! For that reason, the PDA (Population and community Development Association) recommend against tourists visiting this tribe. You do hear another side of this story though, in that the largest settlement of the Padaung people near to Mae Hong Son in the north west has formed its own 'political group' called the KNPP (Karenni National Progressive Party), whose purpose is to break away from Thailand and Myanmar and form an independent state following their deliberate escape from Myanmar due to bad treatment. The story is a complicated one and has many aspects to it.

Many Wats in Chiang Rai worth a visit so I visited a few of them. Very similar to those in Chiang Mai and similary superb in design such as Wat Phra Singh, Wat Jet Yot & Wat Phra Kaew. Some I will return to tomorrow as light is fading now, so not good enough light for taking photographs.

As it was getting dark, it seemed like a good idea to head off to the night markets. Usual array of tasty food on offer (plus the usual less appealing fayre of fried grubs of various descriptions), with some street entertainment as accompaniment.

Wated to find some cheap CDs so went off to the night bazaar off Prasobsuk road. Covers a large area with a few open-air stages with live entertainment. Plenty of restaurants and street food stalls and merchandise of what seemd to be really good quality. Didn't find anywhere to buy CDs though, which surprised me. Anyway, found an area that seemed lively enough to stop for a drink. The entertainment area here seems very contained to a small area of town. Outside of that it is dead.

Have come to the conclusion that I won't be stopping here for very long.

Mon 4th Feb - Where I'm staying is right next to one of the best sights in Chiang Rai city, the Wat Phra Kaew (Formerly known as Wat Phra Yia). It's main claim to fame is that it was the first temple to be home to the 'Emerald Buddha', now located a Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. In 1434 the temple in Chiang Rai got struck by lightening to reveal the emerald buddha statue that had been covered in stucco previously. It was renamed to 'Phra Kaew Marakot' which literally means the emerald buddha. The original statue, which was acually made from jade, has travelled to many places over the years...

Chiang Rai (1391 - 1436), Lampang (1436 - 1468), Chiang Mai (1468 - 1553), Laos (1553 - 1778) and finally Bangkok from 1778 to the present day.....

Have I ever told you that all dates in Thailand are quoted in both the Buddhist calendar as well as the christian one. For example - The year 1434 AD is equivalent to 1977 BE (Buddha Era). The months and days are also different relating to the lunar calendar.

On the same site is a lovely teak and gold temple that is only open on Friday, saturday and sunday, so missed that opportunity. Many other things of interest such as two large ponds full of terrapins.

I had recently bee told about one of the area's 'Must See' sights at 'Wat Rong Khun'. Otherwise called the 'White temple'. Felt like some exercise today, so hired a mountain bike for the day for 50 Baht. It was 80°F! Another one of my great decisions but happy with it as I like the heat... Scorchio!

About 13km cycling south of the city towards Chiang Mai on good roads. First stop was at the junction of Singklai road and the main A2 road to see the statue of King Mengrai, behind the statue is a massive three gold spike monument.

What can I say about Wat Rong Khun....AWESOME!

This place is still being built and is stunning. You won't see another temple like it anywhere in the world...guaranteed. The outside is all white and silver in the most ornate design as expected of Thailand. Set against the pure blue sky, silver fountains and deep green grass was amazing. Click click click....

Inside - well...it blows you away. What it will be like when finished is definitely worth coming back for in the future. The buddha statue is nice, but the mural on the back wall facing the buddha is incredible artistry. What the designer has done is a combination of modern history put into thai cultural scenes. Very clever! For example, there is the New York twin towers of 9/11 being destroyed by dragons and a big monster as the main theme with Bin Laden faintly painted into the pupil of one of its eyes, and George Bush into the other eye. There is modernism in one corner with a pair of converse. Every way you look at it, you see something different.... Space rockets...allsorts. This guy deserves the highest accolade for his artistic skill.

As I said, it isn't finished yet. In the corner of the site are the workshops where the carvers/sculptors are busy at work manufacturing more of the features. I wondered in to have a look and they seemed pleased I did....everyone else thought it wasn't allowed...probably wasn't but nothing lost if you try and get turned away. The skill and technique was very interesting and demonstrated a lot of the design process.

There are other things on-site that are of interest. But once you have been blown away by the main Wat, you need time to recover and take it in, so nothing else can capture your enthusiasm the same.

Great cycle back and took a different route. Was a bit 'Watted out' so didn't do any more and headed back to the Chat Guest house to recover after the 30km round trip.

Walkabout into the Night Bazaar again to find some thai music for my iPod. Surprising how difficult that is here. Loads of thai pop. Try to find some traditional thai music and they look at you as if you're mad.

Got to 11:45 and wasn't tired yet, so decided to hit the streets to see what was going on. Most of Chiang Rai shuts down after about 9:30pm and any activity concentrates around the night bazaar area and a couple of other roads. There had been a festival over the past few days, but it is a fair walk to get to it from where I was staying. There was live music playing so loud though, that you could hear it all over town. Saved my ears from destruction and didn't bother going that way and went to a nice easy listening bar where a local acoustic band was playing.

Tue 5th Feb - Moving onwards today to Chiang Saen in the 'Golden Triangle' area. Made it to the bus station at 9:40 and as is normally my luck, walked straight on to the bus, which departed 10 minutes later. 32 Baht for the 90 minute journey. Very scenic route that passed through paddy field where the women were sowing the rice stalks. The typical photograph with the women with their conical woven hats and emerald green fields.

Checked out a few guest houses and settled at the 'Sa Nae Charn Guest House' on Mu 2 Nong Mood (next tur after Wat Pha Khao Pan) for 200 Baht a night (with hot shower, TV and free coffee). Really clean and friendly owner. Not impressed by the Chiang Sean Guest house. Very run down and pokey rooms and a miserable owner (200 baht for a dorm with no shower or facilities).

Dumped my stuff and off to get a mountain bike for the afternoon. 40 Baht from around the corner.

Headed north to 'Sop Ruak', about 8km or so. This is the 'official' Golden triangle and boy do they monopolise the fact. The reality is that the original golden triangle was a more extensive area covering the opium trade countries. Nowadays, this trade has almost ceased and the golden triangle has now come to mean the area where Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos meet...at the junction of the Nam Rual and Mekong rivers.

On entering Sop Ruak there is no mistaking the tourism stronghold on this place. Buses and sawngthaew line the street adjacent to the Golden Triangle archway. If you can't beat 'em then join 'em. So had my photo taken under the arch for the record!

Further along the road you enter disneyland....sorry, not quite disneyland, but an enormous gold buddha statue along with multicoloured stainles seel and glass ship-like area with big laughing buddha, elephant statues, gold spikes.....big, bold and typical over the top (hence disneyesque) feature. It is actually nice and great for photographs against the deep blue sky of today. There are many points along the waterfront where they depict the map and border areas, so you can easily see where the countries meet. For the purpose of extracting as much cash out of the tourists, you can take a longtail boat ride along the Mekong and sail down the middle of the river on the border line. You can also cross to Laos from here although I gather that only thai people can do this from here, not foreigners?

The street is in full flow here with stalls selling merchandise with influences from all three countries. Nice stuff too. Bought myself a nice pair of casual baggy pants to go with my thai shirt. Cheap at 100 baht!

Next, the 'Opium Museum' across the road. There is another place called the 'Hall of Opium' which is a few kilometres north of town. That one is 200 baht entrance fee. The one in town is 50 baht and you get a free postcard with it.

Opium was the major crop and money earner for the tribes people of this region, until legal issues got in the way and they were forced to stop and move on to other crops such as tobacco...and tourism of course!

A bit about opium.......hey dude, pass me another spliff.....I'm up here glued to the ceiling after the last one and don't wanna come down.....

Opium...for the botanists out there....Papaver Somniferum....literally translated means 'Cause of sleep'....Somni(sleep) + Ferum (cause of)!

Many colours available but the purple one produces the best latex. Beween 3 and 7 days after the last petals have dropped off, the pod is scored to let the latex ooze out. Too deep a cut and the latex goes bad and is ruined, so quite a skilled job to get it right. 3 to 8 pods per plant and each is scored 3 or 4 times. When it dries it can be collected (early to mid-afternoon when the sun is best) to process into the raw opium. This yields 1 Viss (1.6kg) per 3000 pods. The museum shows many variations of design of smoking pipe over the centuries, many very ornate.

The opium smokers even had a special kind of mat to lay on whilst smoking that allowed adequate an flow of air to circulated under their bodies whilst they were spaced out.

In the museum there is also a second floor dedicated to the history of tobacco production in the area as well as the other two main claims to fame of the region. One is the long-necked karen Paduang people as described recently, and the other is the famous Mekong Giant Catfish (Pla Buek). This is the largest freshwater fish in the world and can grow upto 2.5metres long and weigh in at 200 to 300 kg!

Adjacent to the museum is the access steps to the Sop Ruak temple with multi-headed stone serpents guarding the bottom of the steps. Nice temple at the top and worth the climb. A group of thai tourists wanted a couple of other farangs (foreigners) and me to join them for a photo or two. Normal, as we are as much of a tourist attraction in some places as the monuments.

On the ride back to Chiang Saen, I passed many tobacco fields that I hadn't recognised on the way north. Should have spotted the tall green plants with long tubular white/pink flowers as I had grown a dwarf version of ornamental Nicotiana back in the UK many years ago.

Stopped at the market on the main thanon Phanhoyotin where you can buy the usual spread of clothing, dodgy (ie ripped off) CDs and Karaoke VCDs (for 35 Baht you can buy topless thai lady karaoke VCDs....that sounds fun watching the bouncing ball in time with bouncing anatomy!), fresh fruit, fish (some of it still bouncing around on the table in its last throws of life), bowls of fresh shrimp trying to escape and the owners trying to restore order by throwning them back in. The little shrimps ping into the air and it's quite funny to watch!

Off to sit on the waterfront and watch the Mekong flow by and take in some fresh vitamin C from the market then later washed it down with a nice Thai iced coffee in a tranquil café watching the owner prune the plants in his water garden with the precision of someone growing bonsai trees.

Late afternoon, the waterfront starts to come alive as food stalls and massage businesses set up for the evening. What a great location to finish the day with a cheap massage (average 110 Baht for a 1hr thai massage) and follow it with a meal overlooking the Mekong as the sun sets.....now that would be nice and relaxing...... But then I went back to the guest house to get changed and started talking with a couple from Vancouver and the Singaporean co-owner of the guest house, Andrew (chinese name  Chin) and the beer came out and lost a bit of time...

Had to run out later to eat before everything closed. Missed the sunset and the massage places had closed. Such is life....Chiang Saen closes at 8:30pm ish. After that it's dead! :-(

I ate at one of the waterfront stalls where you sit on mats on the pavement around little tables. Got invited to join a thai group to eat, so that was nice and they helped me sort out a nice meal of really spicy morning glory plus painful chillies and chicken (Pad Yod Mala).....flame thrower comes to mind! By the way, for those in the west...you probably didn't realise that you can eat morning glory. I've had it many times here. It's a climbing weed in europe but makes a nice addition to vegetables and can be added to salads.

Slow stroll back to the guest house to re-join Andrew for a chat. This guy has lived.... He is 80ish and was one of the prisoners of war put to work on the Burma-Thailand railway by the japanese (read my blog entry for Kanchanaburi for details). Luckily with his language skills he was made an interpreter soon afterwards. The stories he has to tell are amazing and well worth taking the time to listen to him and ask questions. He also worked on the lesser publicised Sumatra railway. Even his married life has been an adventure, with plenty of stories to tell as his wife is thai. He speaks no thai despite having lived here since the early 1980's, but can speak about seven other languages. His english has an american lilt to it. As is commonly stated in the travel world....Travel is more about the people you meet along the way, and less about the destination. Thailand is a stunning country as I have said so many times. But really makes this country fantastic is the people. I was in a local Wat today and a group of yound buddhist kids about 7 to 10 years old came upto me with such happy faces to say hello. A few minutes with them made the location come alive. You go to eat, and the people want to meet and talk to you. You get on a bus or train and they want to help you.

Wed 6th Feb - Had decided to move one step closer to Laos today and move on to Chiang Khong (visa runs out tomorrow). A tiny place that really only exists as a border crossing place. Sounded simple and had been told that buses and pick-up buses run the route often. Turns out not to be the case. Buses only go at 7:30am ish and the pick-ups don't seem to stop anywhere obvious. Also, the sawngthaew to Chiang Khong stop in a completely different place to the buses (on the waterfront, in front of the market by customs control). They only leave when full and don't go all the way, but stop at 'Haad Bai' about 30km east, costing 40 baht for the 1hr journey. From there another sawngthaew goes to Chiang Khong. Normally it would cost 40 baht if you wait until full, but that never happens other than early in the day, so they want 80 baht instead. A bit of a scam really as the bus when it runs costs 32 baht for the whole journey.

Got dropped right by the immigration/ferry port stop and, as usual there are guys waiting to take you to guest houses.... He one you really want is always closed so they encourage you to go to one they get commission from. I wasn't interested so walked off to go and check out the SP Guest house. Really nice but prices had gone up from wha I had been told, so went and had some lunch instead, and think for a bit. Made the decision to go to Laos today instead as not much to do in Chiang Khong.

First thing...get stamped oit of Thailand at the  border control post, then walk down the hill to the boat landing area. 20 Baht to cross plus 10 bah per bag. Only a couple of minutes to cross the Mae Khong... And you're in Laos at a place called Huay Xai (Pron. wah see). Now for the fun bit... Getting the visa!

It was 1pm and they are on lunch. You don't know that of course as they are sitting there. Fill in the forms (immigration plus arrival/departure form) and provide 1 photograph (2cm x 4cm), passport and the correct fee. This varies with your origin. For UK it is $35 US...or 1,400 baht. Pay in USD as the exchange rate means that 1400 Baht = $40!

I then went off to sort out some accommodation whilst they were processing my visa. Stayed at the BAP Guest House for 200 Baht and 100mtrs from immigration. Back to pick up my visa after waiting for them to finish their lunch. You can get them to work through their lunch if you pay them $1 extra! Visa for 30 days given by default and sorted. Next money....

Had been told tha it was better to use thai baht throughout Laos, although USD is good too. The Laos currency is the 'Kip' and currently £1 = 17,022 kip. 1 Baht = 277 kip. $1 = 9,200 kip. So choose carefully which currency to use. Either way you end up with loads of kip! I changed 2,000 Baht and got 554,000 kip. Notes are in denominations of 2,000, 10,000 and 50,000 so you get a thick wad of money. Change 108 dollars and you are a millionaire! That would be 2cm thick!

Next off to get the ticket for the slow boat to Luang Prabang for tomorrow morning. This is a 30 seater long boat that takes 2 days for the trip, including an overnight stop in Pakbeng. One boat a day leaving between 10:30 and 11am each morning. If you go to the slow boat port about 1km or so north of the town, the ticket wil cost 750 baht. Local agents in Huay Xai charge 800 to 850 for the same ticket, but tha includes getting picked up from your hotel, so worth it. I booked mine at the travel shop on the left at the top of the slope from the ferry.

It is scorchio today but went for a bit of an explore anyway as the town is interesting. Get off the main road into the side streets.

Tags: Sightseeing

 

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