Two days in Pai & goodbye in Chiang Mai

The way to Pai turned into a race, as I felt like riding and only made a few stops. The scooter I had was going fine though sometimes lacked a little power in the hills. When you go to Pai from Chiang Mai (c120km) you are looking at some serious serpentine action. In total 762 turns. Really good fun though dangerous for the inexperienced rider. At least the roads are pretty decent.

I arrived in the dark, checked in (Chill Lom house … recommended) and went on to the market. Pai has a wonderful walking street with some of the best food I had during my time in Thailand. There are many westerners, but the chilled kind and hence with good vibes. Also the food is a bit adopted to the visitors unlike anywhere else I had been (like Burrito, falafel, garlic bread etc), but a welcome change from Pad Thai and chicken curry. Really enjoyable. I had bacon & cheese toasty, fresh strawberries and avocado, delicious chicken BBQ and fried potato (similar to what I ate in Koh Phangan). A face massage for dessert (at least no questions about happy ending though 1h face massage is excessive!). I decided to stay two nights, which was certainly one of the easier decisions in my life.

Hanging out in Pai: Daytime activities are plentiful in Pai though I couldn’t do more temples. Instead, I headed for the Pie canyon to do some hiking (advanced stuff and in places very steep & dangerous) and the Pie hinterland (a bridge built through rice fields that is pretty scenic). On my way back into Pie i stopped at a cafe (‘coffee in love‘) where they offer you egg chair type seating and chatted away with Laetitia from Switzerland. Nice to chat … time went by so quickly …

Naturally, I found myself at the night market again for dinner and met Viking from Iceland (now that’s a first down here). We got on well instantly and spent the best part of the night together. He has been here for a few month already and trains muay thai in Pai. He loves it totally and will stay for a long time he says (funded by renting his Reykjavik apartment). We visited some bars a bit outside the centre (sunset & paradise) though didn’t quite find what we were looking for. At midnight, Pai shuts down and only Don’t Cry bar (right across the bridge towards the east of Pie) is still opened. Many people headed that way while we went back into town where I met another Saxon fellow though arguably pretty wasted already (he had some serious problems locating his scooter). Time for bed.

Chiang Mai: I wasn’t too much in a rush in the morning to get back to Chiang Mai, but the scooter was due back by 5pm. The ride was swift and I made it in about two hours (120km … not bad) taking in the scenery a last time. In Chiang Mai I did the last two temples i could stomach (see here for a more complete list of the vast amount of temples you can see here) before taking an enjoyable stroll through the 3D illusions venue ‘art in paradise’ …. unusual, fun, recommended (there are other outlets such as in Bangkok etc). For the evening it was reunion time with Gav (who made his way here after Koh Tao) and Valentine (who I met in Khao SokKhao Sok). And of course, it wouldn’t be a hostel if there weren’t new people … like Kaya (Holland) and Charles (England). It would be fair to say that we turned the night into day (Yellow bar and Spicy club) at the expense of a timely departure on my side next morning. But no regrets … great last night. Thanks guys!

Bye, bye Thailand … and khob khun krap for everything! 

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Northern Thailand: Doi Tung, Doi Salong & Chiang Rai

It was sheer fun to ride across the hilly North of Thailand after I left the Golden Triangle. Really wished I had allocated a bit more time up here than just this one week. Before Thailand I hadn’t been riding a scooter since I criss-crossed Zansibar after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro more than 10y ago. The windy roads, scenic views and picturesque temples are really fun (though I have hit my limits when it comes to temples … same stuff that you get with churches when you travel Italy or Spain). I was also lucky with the weather, as it didn’t rain once.

Doi Tung: It was really more the way there that I enjoyed. The temple was average and, unfortunately, I was too late to visit the Doi Tung royal villa and its gardens. Accommodation options turned out pretty lights in the hills (well going by booking.com) and so I headed to Mae Chan for the evening with its night market (where I am still not sure if I had mat balls in my beef soup or bull testicles for dinner). Similar to Chiang Saen, i was one of the very few tourists in town and enjoyed a few beers with live music to round off a great day out.

Doi Salong: Doi Salong was only an hours ride away. Scenery galore again. However, first I needed to make my Skype appointment with Daria for my weekly Russian session. This grammar stuff still bugs me. But such is life. We actually spent a fair bit talking English as I reported my insights from the ‘hall of opium’. Highlight in this pretty mountain village are the hill top temples, of which I saw a few. Great views included!

Chiang Rai: By nightfall I was already in Chiang Rai. Very laid back place I have to say. I was pretty hungry and made my way to the night market. In this region it was popular to make your own soup. You order a base soup (normal or spicy) and vegetable as well meat/seafood ingredients. Put all into the pot and wait 5min while watching some Thai dancing on the stage. Great atmosphere here and alto there were significantly more tourists than the last few days, it was nowhere the commercial, beach tourist type atmosphere of South Thailand. People were friendly.

On my way home i watched some Thaiboxing with locals in a hotel lobby before I spent a good part of the evening talking to Kristina and Stefan in a pretty awesome reggae bar. Kristina moved to Chiang Rai from Berlin, studies Thai and aims to work here as English teacher. Stefan from Dortmund used to work in IT and now travels already for 11 month. He isn’t tired just yet. Awesome evening. 

The next morning I dedicated to so e sightseeing. Chiang Rai offers three main attractions other than its tranquility and the night market – a white temple, a blue temple and a black house. 

  • Black House: The latter is the 50y+ work of local artist Thawan Duchanee. He is a painter and sculpturer that created this folk park (some 40 houses, loads of collected items like animal bones, skins etc) to preserve history and as a source of inspiration for his own work.  
  • White temple (Wat Rong Khun): Again, created by an artist (Chalermchai Kositpipat) who mostly funded it with his own money. At 40m THB (about 1m EUR in todays terms) a good effort though still work in progress with wikipedia saying that it might not be finished before 2070!
  • Blue temple: Created by locals and also still being constructed. Similar to white temple, a welcome difference to the typical temple appearance. 

Well, must be off. 300km+ to Pai are waiting.

Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history

The golden triangle is only a few km away from Chiang Saen and close by is the highly interesting museum ‘hall of opium’ where I learned so much about the opium trade, its impact on geopolitical history and how London was #1 dealer! Did you know the German company Bayer gave Heroin its name? I didn’t. Ahh yes … I was also pleased to find a decent pizza place (Mekong Pizza) that offers thin & crisp pepperoni pizza (some 300THB, but worth it) – a welcome break from padthai!

What is the Golden Triangle? There are many golden triangles in the world, usually where three countries intersect as is the case here (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar). The golden triangle here where the Mekong and Ruak rivers confluence, however, became famous due to its significance for global opium production and trade. Whike no longer the top producer (Afghanisthan takes the top spot by some margin), it remains the second largest opiate growing area (>100,000ha) globally and a source of opiate/heroin supply for China & SE Asia.

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The hall of opium – great museum! The hall of opium is part of a wider effort of the Mae Fah Luang foundation to foster social development, social entrepreneurship and education. Having been initiated by her Royal Highness the Princess Mother it stands under the patronage of the Royal family. I have to admit that I learned a great deal. I won’t go into all the details, but a few interesting facts:

  • UK was #1 opium dealer: It was mainly the UK that led the global trade in opium in the 18th & 19th century growing it in India and exporting it to China. The British East India company was the key player in the trade (taken from the Portuguese). Opium sales finally balanced the chronic trade imbalance created by western demand for Chinese produce such as silk, porcellain and tea (rather than paying with silver/gold). Eventually opium related taxes/revenues contributed vast amounts to government budgets (10%ish for global powers, 20-25% for Asian countries like Thailand).
  • Singapore & Hong Kong born out of opium while imperial China fell: Modern Singapore was founded 1819 by the British. The development of Singapore is closely related to the evolution of the opium trade as a key trading post for the UK in Asia. Likewise, Hong Kong was secured for the British after the Chinese lost the first opium war. As so often in history, this large pot of money is worth fighting for, but I leave these facts to wikipedia. Fact is, China had a huge drug problem. By 1838 an estimated 4-12m (of 360m) inhabitants were addicted and imports huge. Eventually, the Qing dynasty and with it 2,000 years of dynasticn rule collapsed as a result of opium trade and the subsequent wars, which forced opium imports & adverse trade deals on this large country. The century of humiuliation for China (as it is still taught in Chinese schools today) had begun.

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  • Heroin … a non addicitve replacement for morphine? Heroin (then still called diamorphine) was dicovered by the British chemist C.R. Alder Wright in 1874. However, it was the German pharma company Bayer that suggested Heroin could be used as a non-addictive substitute for morphine (morphine addiction was widespread then including famous people like US president Benjamin Franklin). Heroin was actually up to 2,5x more potent than morphine and was named “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong”. It was available over the counter for many years.

Phayao & Chiang Saen: Temples, freedom and a Thai style night out

I left the temple about 9am, Ajahn & his friend left me pretty inspired. Next stop Phayao … some 200km away. It was still a bit chilly (well, it is winter after all … also in Thailand), but the scenery made up for it. I was on some sort of highway and the road was actually really decent. Much better than what I’d come across on Koh Phangan. 

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There was an abundance of possible stops on the way including many temples, waterfalls or simply nice views of the often hilly and always green Thai country side. The kilometres were just flying past me and the little 125ccm beast was using up the petrol pretty quickly. The tank is small (c4l) and I had to get petrol 4x on my 380km tour today. But that basically meant 4x 100THB … so EUR11 all in. Not too bad. 

Once in Phayao i was one of only a handful of tourists. The first thing that you’ll find is the lake. The largest in Northern Thailand. I stopped to take a picture of the double dragons (Kwan Phayao) and returned later for lunch and a peep at the island not too far off the shore line with the sunken temple (though I skipped having myself rowed over). My research suggested one temple in the city to visit (Wat Khomkam), which had the largest Buddha statue I’d set yet. Pretty impressive. 

Afterwards, I visited Wat Analayo located some 10km outside Phayao city. Its a nice climb up the stairs decorated as large the dragon tails. Up on the hill are temples galore! And more huge statues. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Best temple yet. And some nice villages to pass through on the way back to Phayao. Loving the freedom on the bike. Every bit of it.

After lunch I felt like using the time on the bike a little more and listened to Spanish podcasts … advanced level and hence not easy, but I got the gist of it. In theory i wanted to stop at Phu Sang national park on my way to Chiang Saen though the late time meant I skipped it and head straight for the town close to the golden triangle. As the sun set, I kept on stopping to take in the scenery. Amazing. Rice fields, mountains, clouds, the sun … you name it. Freedom again. The most important thing in my life was abundant here!

Eventually I made it to Chiang Saen following the mighty Mekong river for the last kilometers with Laos situated on the other side. Check in to the hotel was quick and off I went to downtown. I figured the 6am start, begging with the monks & 380km ride deserved at least one beers and helped myself at the first 7Eleven I came across. Then dinner at the market (pork noodle soup … delicious) and I felt already much more energised.

The Mekong River

The Mekong is one of the items on my bucket list. I would love to paddle it all the way from its source on the Tibetan plateau all the 4,350km to its delta in Vietnam. Its the 12th longest river in the world and fascinates me. But this has to wait.Different to other rivers I intend to paddle (like the Yukon), this one is considered one of the wildest in the world, has rapids and waterfalls and is not so straightforward to navigate. Depending on dry and wet season, the river can actually change flow direction in the golden triangle area.

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On the way in to Chiang Saen I had spotted two bars, a bit outside the centre, and decided to have a look after dinner. It was Friday after all. Both had life music (either Thai or english cover) and not one tourist (at the market I saw maybe 7-8 foreigners). After some time listening to an amazing singer in the first bar, I moved over and got in touch with a few locals though with little english skills. We could talk football at least as my chelsea shirt gave me away. Turned out to be a fun night and also the first time i really felt to hang out with locals. Thanks to DJ Em Harry for giving me a lift home. 

Gone begging. For food. With a monk.

If there is one issue I have with Thailand then it is how little one feels integrated here. It’s like tourists and locals don’t mix at all. Culture, but probably more language present a huge barrier. That is in stark difference to my experience in Colombia where a 3w language course kick started a pretty local experience. But as so often in life, things can change rather rapidly … and that’s what happened to me in my first day in Chiang Mai.

But first things first. After few goodbye words to Team Kiel, I had a pleasant and on-time journey from Khao Sok to Surat Thani airport. In fact, I arrived so early that i couldn’t even check-in my bag yet. Big mistake as it turned out, as by the time I queued up again, all the full moon party goers had returned from Koh Phangan (well, those that were able to move). Anyway, by 3.30pm I was already way up North in Chiang Mai.

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Chiang Mai felt different right away … ahh yes, the beach tourists have no reason to come here. Closest beach is more than 500km away and in Myanmar. Perfect. I shared a cab with two israeli women into town in order to pick-up a scooter for the ‘Northern loop’ I had put together in the morning. Since Mango bike rental (1,100-1,200 per week for 125ccm scooter) didn’t have any left, I went to Bikki bikes around the corner. THB1,500 for 6 days. Hardly a steal, but that’s life. What was more annoying is that the bloke tried to give me a really shitty bike. Tachometer suggested ‘only 700km’ … until l got on it and found that the tachometer didn’t work (hence the 700km). Engine didn’t have much juice either. I swapped it, with no pushback, for a better bike. Hope all goes well since they now have my passport and scams are common I read. I will find soon enough.

Indicative schedule – 1,000km of Northern Thailand

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Once I was on the road it felt awesome. First stop was the Bo Sang, a suburb of Chiang Mai. Here they produce the most incredible and colourful umbrellas. Unfortunately I arrived a touch too late to witness the manufacturing process for myself. After that I had no clue, no booking … just the general direction of Phayao some 220km away.

The first rice fields and mountain ranges came into sight and so did a buddha statue some 35km outside Chiang Mai. I stopped to take a picture. A monk approached me and to my surprise spoke english. Initially i was inclined to continue, but then I figured i can’t miss out on one of the few english speaking Thai’s. So I stayed.

Who is this monk?

His name is Ajahn and he is 69y (looking 50 tops!). He is in charge a buddhist temple, be it a very modern one that looks like a meditation center, and lives here for the past year. His past is rather colourful. More recently he was a teacher in Malaysia including the art of Qi Gong (check here on youtube). But why did he turn monk? As he told me, it was only after he had a stint as a communist who was fighting the government more than 30y ago. Once amnesty for the rebels was granted, and considering his mum’s wishes, he turned monk at basically about my age. He has remained since and looked pretty happy about that decision.

Back to last night. Ajahn showed my around the property (quite big with many different houses & lots of plants) and teaching me quite a few things there, including his view that he sees the German culture (esp. philosophy) as quite similar to Buddhism (he has got a long-term German student who has now finally relocated to Thailand). For anyone interested to meet him too, just facebook him.

Buddhism in one chart byu Ajahn (I refrain from explaining it here)

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We also met the only other person living there. He is a carpenter and left his past life behind him (unsuccessful marriage as i understood) to grow food to feed people for free. Ajahn met him on one of his ‘begging’ trips and now they are some sort of shared household whereby the monk retains his status (e.g. he always eats first).

6 elements of Buddhism: earth, fire, water, wind, space and consciousness.

After dinner i quickly washed the dishes and then the carpenter (whose name i sadly forgot) took me to the hot springs nearby in his slightly outdated yet functioning car. There were three different pools with warm to very hot water. We opted for the latter and washed us using a large & small bowl. You can’t sit in the pools as they aren’t very deep and muddy at the bottom (worthy of some construction effort in my view … a la Iceland or Hungary). It didn’t need much to fall asleep also given first time normal temperatures and much less humidity. I didn’t even mind the little visitor.

Going begging in Chiang Mai

The next morning started bright and early at 5.45am (4am for the monk who has his first meditation session at 4.30am). We had two eggs each for breakfast, which the carpenter had boiled in the hot spring. As you can imagine, the water we also used for washing wasn’t that hot and the eggs still pretty liquid (but no problems for the stomach).

Afterwards we drove to town for the daily food collection. We visited small stalls, the market of the suburb and shops/restaurants. All the people were prepared and had a little bag with food handy. He knows his sheep and doesn’t ask random people. Once handed over to the monk, he gave them a blessing and shared his teaching of how to live good buddhist life … a long and happy life and apparently also wishes good looks. Learning to give is a very important part of that teaching.

The tall blond guy following him caused some excitement and he explained that I am German who stayed with him. Felt really part of the whole experience. Quite amazing. We got loads of food … basically filling a large shopping bag (which i gladly carried) including anything from rice to vegetables and drinks. This will be the three meals for the two guys (for me just breakfast).

Once home, the monk eats first while the carpenter and myself we cleaned up leafs and burnt them. And then it was already time to say goodbye. What a wonderful experience. Will keep me thinking for a while and is, after my Islamic experience in Bahrrain, yet another religion that I understand very little (well, now a little more).

Thank you both for everything. And of course, see you another time!