Hill tribes in North Thailand

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We're up early the next day to catch the slow boat to the border, we didn’t quite expect the town to be so alive at 6.30am but a lot of tourists get up to watch the monks’ alms procession and so both locals and tourists are wandering about the town. We get some sandwiches made up and head down to get a seat on the boat.  The boat is a simple wooden long boat with old car seats in them.  This is to be our home for the next ten hours as we cruise very slowly up the river.  The scenery helps us to pass the time as the river water is low and so we can see the sharp rock formations that are usually hidden by water.  We pass simple river communities on our right and what looks like wild jungle on our left and this continues for the whole day.  We also read a lot.  We arrive at Pak Beng at sunset and join the mad scramble to find accommodation for the night, we manage to get a simple basic room in a guesthouse up the hill as all the rooms nearer the river had already been taken.  We search out some food from a nearby restaurant that has the whole family running around in it, including their toddler which they seem to have dressed up as a mini gangster.  He has a marijuana headscarf and is running around giving high fives and showing off his belly, he was more cute than disturbing!

Next day up early again and this time we bump into the monks doing their alms procession.  They walk down the main street and when people offer food to them, the monks chant while the offerer is bent down on the ground.  All a bit strange but at least we saw it without having to get up early especially.  Today is more of the same, another 10 hours on the boat until we reach the border town, Huay Xai. Funnily enough the boat arrives about 20 minutes after the border closes so it’s another night in Laos rather than move on to Thailand.  This town seems to be slowing down, the restaurant we picked only had one girl cooking and serving and she seemed to only have ingredients for a few of the dishes. Given that this was a guide book recommendation we would have thought it would expect some customers!  So it looks like this town will be subject to the same problems of the other riverside towns further south when the friendship bridge opens and lose more business, maybe their slowing down in anticipation of this.

And so we left Laos the next day by taking a 2 minute boat across the border, a very simple end to a very interesting country.

We get a 3hr bus from the border to Chiang Rai in Thailand.  Chiang Rai isn’t as set up for tourists as some places in Thailand but is pleasant enough.  It is good to see somewhere in Thailand which isn’t reliant on tourists and you’ll see more farm equipment shops than tourist shops.  We stay at Orchid Guesthouse and despite being surrounded by 'massage palours’, it is quite a good location for bars, restaurants and night markets.  We then set about trying to work out what to do for the next couple days, we know we want to get into the countryside but not sure how.  We opt for doing it ourselves instead of a tour and arrange to stay at Akha Hill House, 30km out of Chiang Rai and to get picked up tomorrow.        

In the evening we walk around the night market which has some items for sale made by the hill tribes in the surrounding area as well as the usual general stuff and so was interesting to see.  We then went to the local food court for dinner where we managed to get our own BBQ hotpot for $3, we definitely like eating like a local.  We sat in the open air square for a while as there was some live music (albeit pretty poor) and the entertainment got worse when boys dressed as girls came on stage to mime and dance to music.  To be fair they were very pretty boys but it was all a bit strange.  We retreated to a bar in the tourist area and instead watched the many Western expats stroll about with Thai girls on their arm.  Again this is a bit of strange place.

We had an easy day the next day, spending time between cafes before being picked up to go to Akha Hill House.  We were picked up in the back of a pick-up truck where we sat for over an hour, going up and down hills, round windy roads and tried to keep the bags from falling out of the back of the truck when going uphill.  Our accommodation was a basic hut on stilts on the hillside overlooking very green countryside.  This would be an absolute stunning location apart from at this time of the year the farmers are burning the land and so there is a constant haze which spoils the view slightly.  They are campaigning in Thailand for farmers to stop burning as it’s putting off tourists, affects air quality and is a high fire risk to the native forests but there’s no real signs of the government getting involved to stop it.  We’re staying in a hill tribe village and we are greeted to the village by children waving at us while the older women who are working on handicrafts just stop and stare. We have dinner in the restaurant which overlooks another large gorge and waterfall and the whole family helps in running the restaurant.

Next day we have the biggest pancakes ever breakfast and then set out for a walk around the local area.  We walk down to the tea plantation where the plants are set on terraces in the hillside and then continue walking along the road to the next village.  People are friendly and say hello or offer us a lift but as it’s only the start of our walk we decline.  We get to the Hot Springs in the next village but by this point it’s 1pm and far too hot for hot springs and so settle for a cold drink instead.  We then go onto the national park which has more natural hot springs but it’s a bit deserted.  So we continue along the path up to an Akha village.  Akha is the name of a tribe in Northern Thailand.  Most of these tribes use modern dress and lifestyles but would follow certain traditions for special occasions.  We are greeted to the village by a voice shouting hello but we’re not too sure where it’s coming from.  Suddenly two small, old woman arrive in front of us in traditional dress and selling bracelets.  They are so keen to meet us and proud to be from the Akha village that we buy a couple of bracelets.  Unfortunately that’s about all we can do due to the language barrier and so we head on up the hill.  We follow the track up and up until we come to another village that seem slightly bemused (but not unfriendly) by the fact two Westerners are walking about by themselves (I think they would be more used to tour groups).  We manage to check directions with one family before continuing up the hill.  We pick up a dog along the way who seems quite happy to walk with us, and we just hope he’ll be able to find his way back.  We cut across the hill which provide beautiful views over the countryside and end up back at our village.  From here we go to the waterfall (still with dog in tow) to cool off for a bit before heading back to our hut.  We finally lose the dog who seemed to be known in the village so I guess he comes over to visit every so often.

In the evening we have dinner in the restaurant again, I learn a new board game by playing with one of the little girls – not sure how impressed her mum was, I think she was meant to be working! At least she was practising here English!  We also pick up some more bracelets from the local women as it’s good to see that it is actually handmade and made locally for once. 

We’re on the move the next day as we’re conscious our time is running out, but it was a nice spot to relax in and we felt we achieved something by visiting the villages ourselves rather than a tour.  We get our pick up to Chiang Rai.  One of the local woman gives us a plastic chair for the pickup but as soon as we start downhill the chair slides forward and I resort to standing – it’s one way to see the countryside!  We’re dropped off at the bus station and within 20 minutes on a bus to Chiang Mai.  There’s no stopping us now!
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