Slight change of plan (again!) – We decided to hire a 4x4 and travel up to the most northern point of Thailand for a few days. We could have opted for tours to the area but it sounded a bit rushed and very long days on a minibus. The last 2 days in Chiang Mai, it rained almost constantly – the locals said it was unusual and was probably due to the earthquake/ tsunami in Japan shifting the weather. But, on the day we had our car, the sun was shining in full glory again!
Half way up to Chiang Rai (where we had booked a hotel for 4 nights) we stopped off at Chiang Dao Caves. There was a warning not to wander off in the caves alone as you could get lost so we just took the main route into the cave. We were the only ones in there and it was quite eerie in places and the temperature changed from cool to stuffy as we ambled through the dark abyss. It only took about 40 minutes and we were off again along the road north. The rest of the journey was through some winding roads that tested Waffles nerves at times but we arrived at our hotel at about 5.30 before the sun went down and was quite an enjoyable drive.
The hotel was a little out of the town close to a golf course and was set around a large pond which had all kinds of wildlife habituating there as well – We saw a snake swimming in the water and at night a frog chorus sounded constantly. We also had a gecko in our room that chirped up every now and then – never realised they could make such a loud noise! Unfortunately, there was also an ants nest behind the toilet roll holder so every night it was alive with masses of little black ants all over the toilet paper – horrible! Apart from that though the room was beautiful overlooking the pond with a large balcony and equally large rooms.
The next day we set off to the highest point in the mountains to see where a Chinese community have settled and grow tea there. The roads were even more winding than the day before and was very hair-raising at times but very exhilarating. Passing field after field of tea bushes lined uniformly next to rice paddy fields and forested areas, we finally reached the town. Perched higher up was a pagoda overlooking the town, but that looked a little too inaccessible for us to see so we settled for a nice cup of tea in one of the tea rooms. There was a market in the main square for the local tribes to sell their crafts and they were very persistent in showing us all the stuff they had – one after the other but were not too willing
to let me take their photos. It also had food stalls filled with some unusual shaped vegetables and huge bags of tea. We later found loads of people walking towards this town to drop off huge sacks of tea leaves that they had picked during the day so that they could be spread out for drying. I pretended to pick some tea for a photo in a large plantation, there was a strange warning sign saying something about being numb if you pick the tips which we couldn't work out! After the Chinese
town we carried on along the road to Thaton – a small town next to the River Kok which had some pretty buildings and a lovely view down river but not really much else so we moved on (it was also getting late and we didn’t want to be driving in the dark along these sharp bends back down the mountains). As the sun went down, shadows formed across the valleys making for some stunning pictures but most of the roads were too narrow to stop. Waffle was quite tired after a full days driving as I was too scared to get behind the wheel so we headed for a food hall for some very cheap food and then back to our hotel for a couple of tequilas and off to bed.
Another full days driving in the area took us to the most northern point of Thailand to Mae Sai, a border crossing to Myanmar (formally known as Burma)
with streets lined with markets and bazaars. We could have crossed the border but they take your passports off you and you can only really visit the local market town selling pretty much the same as on the Thai side so we thought it was a waste of money and didn’t want any problems getting back into Thailand as the Burmese authority are quite
ruthless and stroppy apparently! We did however manage to buy some old Burmese stuff including a wooden set of opium scales with brass elephants for weights which look really
cool. We drove along the border to the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong River. This was a bit of a tourist trap and we thought it was a bit cheesy to be honest. Onwards we went and the tarmac road turned into a familiar orange dusty track like we saw in Cambodia, leading to Chiang Saen. This is an ancient Mekong town dotted with old walls and stupas etc – the drive there was fun, especially in a 4x4 so Waffle felt like he was off-roading and loved it.
We had heard that there are some interesting villages in the north such as the 'long-necked Karen tribe’ but up until now they had eluded us. We did get to see another elephant sanctuary on our travels but I really wanted to see these tribes but every place where we thought they were – we were confronted with just modern day villagers until our last day – we hit the jackpot! We drove to some villages that had all the tribes we had heard about – the Akha tribe with elaborate silver
headgear who performed a music show just for us with bamboo tubes banging on the ground in unison, the Yao tribe who also had a performance for us in the form of a dance stomping around a pole, and the ones I really was looking forward to seeing, the Palong and long-neck Karen tribes. The women in these tribes put brass rings around their necks, legs and arms from the age of about 5 or 6 to give the appearance of
elongated necks which is said to be extremely beautiful. A full neck ring can weigh as much as 4.5kg – wow, thats heavy! Contrary to how it looks, the rings don’t actually stretch the necks but it deforms the collarbone as they increase the height of the rings
through the years. They were very photogenic and posed freely for photos especially the children. Three small kids were fighting when we passed them until they saw the camera
and then quickly turned to me and smiled like they were best of friends.
The day before our visa expired we headed back off to Chiang Mai for our flight to Singapore the following day. On the way back we visited Wat Rong Khun, an unusual modern temple made completely in white and small mosaic mirrors which sparkled in the sun. It was very ornate and had ponds in front of it with
coordinating white fish. It had some very unique sculptures around it such as the Predator from the movies popping out of the grass, skulls hanging from the trees and a pool of hands reaching out to the skies – it all looked very quirky and a bit devilish. Inside there was a mural that was just as peculiar, we saw Spiderman, Superman, aliens in spaceships and burning skyscrapers, not sure how these relate to Buddhism but it was very interesting all the same.
Finally, just before we arrived back in Chiang Mai we stopped off at the Tiger Kingdom. We got to sit with some young tigers and watched them play around us. A couple of times they got a bit naughty and tried to nip at Waffles legs and my camera but the trainer kept them in order. We had the choice of being in with different size tigers but we opted for the ‘small’ ones (not the smallest though, we chose ones that were 6 months old). Although they were small compared to the adult ones
they were still intimidating when they walked behind – their teeth and claws could still do a bit of damage if they wanted to. We were glad we went in with those as the medium and large ones were playing up and the people who had chose to see them were
looking quite scared pinned up against the fence while the trainers tried to control them. We got to have a good rub of their bellies without fear of getting our heads ripped off! (seriously though, we got the best deal because they were more playful).
Another long day in all but hiring the car for a few days was well worth it. We had the car until this morning so it saved us paying for a taxi to the airport as well. I
am just writing this blog now sitting on the plane heading to Singapore with Air Asia. We are going to stay there for 2 days and then we have another flight straight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia (once we are settled in our hotel I will upload)...
It is only Au Revoir to Thailand as we are coming back after Malaysia to see Southern Thailand for a couple of weeks.