North Thailand road trip

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2011

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

About three hours of driving lie ahead on the way to Chiang Rai. On the way we make a few stops at the hot-springs, and at the white temple of Wat Rong Khun. Our alarm awakens us around seven in the morning. We have a nice breakfast before we head out into the country side of northern Thailand. The first part of the trip leads through winding mountain roads. After about an hour and a half of uphill and downhill we stop at the hot springs. The site had been converted into a tourist market with all kinds of souvenir sales and such. We send a couple of minutes, making photos of the water shooting out of the rocks and have a sanitary break before we head out again.

The road is a bit less mountainous and along side of the road we see rice fields and tobacco plantations.

Our next stop is the white temple of Wat Rong Khun. This temple is a bit odd. It is build by Chalermchai Kositpipat a famous Thai artist. He made it his life work to complete a Buddhist temple that can measure itself with the Thaj Mahal or the Sagra Familia. He even is training about ninety artists to continue his work after he dies. The temple is all white, except for the lavatory building which is oddly build as a gold temple., There is still some construction going on, but the main building is completed. It is by far not as majestic or imposing as the Thaj or the Sagra Familia. But it is a very pretty temple, and it has some very funny details to it. In the eyes of the demons inside the temple you will find George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden. In front of the building you will find the sculptures demonizing liquor and cigarettes and at the entrance there is a bridge crossing over a sea of hands as if they are reaching out of their graves. In all it has a very Gaudi feel to it.

As we continue onwards we pass through Chiang Rai on our way to the border town Mae Sai. Here we find the border between Myanmar and Thailand. When we arrived the people were preparing for a street market so the streets were about to be blocked. We parked the car a bit further down the road and continued on foot to the border. At the border we got a day visa for a visit to the neighboring town of Tachileik. We had to leave our passports behind at the immigration office and got a temporary visitor card that allowed us in to the country of Myanmar (Burma). The moment you cross into Myanmar you see that this country is far worse off than Thailand. The streets are dusty and dirty, there are hardly any cars moving around. Most of the transportation is by bicycle or moped.

Our driver arranged a tuk tuk for us that drove us around to see three temples in the town of Tachileik. We saw a Chinese temple, the famous gold stupa and a classic Burmese temple, but most of all we saw poverty on the streets that we passed. The Chinese temple was very well taken care of, but the other two were not as well maintained but still pretty in a way. Around the big gold stupa, hordes of kids try to sell you souvenirs to earn a little foreigners money.

A lot of Thai people hop over the border to Myanmar to buy cheap goods like cigarettes, booze and cheap 'made in China' electronics. The border town has a lively market selling all those things and more. Of course being an obvious foreigner, you are harassed by the cigarette sales guys just about every 15 meters you walk. So we did not spend too much time on the market as the merchandise is pretty similar to an average street in Mongkok. But our driver got himself a Chinese DVD player to play bootleg DVDs whilst we were tuk tukking around the town.

The ritual of passing through the border checkpoints reminds Linda of crossing from Macau into China. A lot of formality, men in uniforms, stamps and of course forms. There is a little stream that divides the border town into two parts. It almost feels like you are entering a wealthy civilization when you return back to Thailand. Even though Thailand is by no means a wealthy society, within the south east Asia peninsula, it is remarkably better off than its neighbors. You can see that the wars and communism did not tear this country apart that much, it is a bit like Switzerland in Europe.

We cleared the immigration check, filled in yet another visitor card, and were on our way again, off to our next stop, the golder triangle, the border with Laos. We reach the center of the golden triangle along the Mekong river after driving though a stretch of unpaved roads. Here the rivers form a natural border between Laos and Thailand and Myanmar. It is the heart of the golden but also sort of an anticlimax. Once this area was famous for their opium production. There is no opium any more, at least in the Thai part of the triangle. The police frequently patrols the hills and mountains with helicopters, eliminating opium plantations with an iron fist. But according to our driver, just across the river in Laos, and a bit upstream in Myanmar you can still find plantations hidden deep in the jungle. Now the borders between the tree countries is nothing more than a big tourist trap. Some shiny Buddha statues, elephant statues and a line of tourist shops.

We were offered a ride along the Mekong on a speedboat. We watched these boats for a bit from the shore and figured we would not be entertained by banging around the river in a sort of banana boat so we gave that a pass. Across the river you could see the jungle of Laos, and a few casinos at the shore line. I was wondering, does Stanly Ho know about these, maybe it would be a good place for him to build yet another temple of gambling.

We continued our way onwards stopping at another temple along the river side, the Phra That Doi Pu Khao. The temple was actually the foundation of a very old and ancient temple. On top of this the monks have build a wooden structure to shelter the foundation. The building covered in the woods forms quite an intriguing and serene whole.

We are very much behind on our schedule. We should be arriving back at Chiang Mai around eight. It is now just about six and we are still around three hours from Chiang Mai and still have to go for dinner somewhere. We stop in the town of Chiang Rai, where we find a nice local eatery. Although the place was a local eatery there were quite a few foreigners here. It must be featured in the Lonely Planet or something like that. Luckily the 'backpackers hall of fame' did not affect the quality of the food here.

With our stomach filled we dozed off in the car as our driver drove us back to Chiang Mai. A long journey in the dark, through the pitch black rice fields and over the winding roads of the mountains. We arrived back at the hotel around ten o'clock, and were welcomed by the night guard whom courteously showed us to our room.
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