We are in northern Thailand these couple weeks, just about 100 km from the Burmese border. We have spent the last couple days in Chiang Rai after flying into Chiang Mai from Bangkok and taking a 3 hour bus. It is beautiful here. The weather is cooler (80-90 F in the days and down to high 60’s in the evenings), the cuisine is slightly different, and it is a lot more mountainous than southern Thailand, but the people remain the same happy, smiling and appreciative hosts. (We have had the opportunity to meet a number of locals outside of the tourism industry but more on that later).
There are many more tourists, especially Americans, here, than we have been seeing over the last 4 weeks. This area has been a hot spot for years. With Thanksgiving holiday back in the States and the local Loy Krathong festival, it is busy.
It is the first time in over a month that we have had a day or two without a bag to pack, train, bus, flight to catch, or class to attend. The other day, we were both craving a “Sunday” with a late brunch, a couple football games to watch, and a dinner to cook together. We don’t have that yet but we will happily take a lazy day of idling near the Mae Kong river, catching up electronically and exploring some new reads. If we get motivated, we will wander the 2 km into town for some khao soi noodles for lunch.
Chiang Rai feels like a large, country town. It is much quieter and more relaxed than Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, but it still has a population of 200K and is the capital of the Chiang Rai province with 1 million people (10-12% hill tribes). Many shops and restaurants start closing around 9 pm – relatively early for Asia. We found a great place to stay along the Mae Kok river, The Legend (http://thelegend-chiangrai.com/).
We got lucky and arrived during a large and important festival for northern Thailand. The Loy Krathong festival is an annual celebration to give thanks to the Goddess of Water. In addition to markets, temple activity, fireworks and parades, locals float lighted flower boats and launch hot air balloons by the thousands. The Chiang Mai Airport actually stopped flights for an evening due to all of the activity. It has been quite the site to see the hot air balloons lighting up the skies like orange stars. This morning, we took a long boat up the Mae Kok river and saw hundreds of krathongs, the flower boats, still floating downriver – presumably launched miles upstream during the previous evening’s celebrations.
We have been enjoying the northern Thai dishes as well. Of course, the popular pad thai, pad see ew, tom yum soup, and curries are available but two local specialties that we have really enjoyed are the northern sausage and khao soi noodles. The sausage is a spicy blend of pork and local herbs, usually grilled and served with fresh green onions, cucumber, and parsley. The khao soi is a combination of wheat and egg noodles served in a fragrant, rich brown curry sauce with a coconut milk base. Pickled cabbage and shallots are often served on top. We have had it a few times already and really enjoyed it. We loved our bowl at Barrab – super tasty and very casual.
With all the eating, it was time to get back on the bikes so we found a local guide to take us up into the hill country for some mountain biking in the Lamnamkok National Park. We headed out with Tony from LannaTrek who was very knowledgeable about the local fauna and flora as well as the back roads of the area (especially useful for steering away from the illegal opium farmers that do not like visitors), but I think we surprised him when we asked to climb the big 6 km hill.
Our first stop was at a elephant camp where we were asked if we wanted to go for a ride. We both declined. We were not comfortable seeing the chained elephants nervously swaying back and forth waiting for their next ride. These camps, very popular with Chinese and Korean visitors, offer one of the many ethical dilemmas that one can find while traveling throughout the world (we never mentioned the many dogs we saw in Vietnam serving as pets and the main course). These camps provide some sanctuary for the elephants when they are not working and appear to protect them from ivory poachers (although some of the males were missing their tusks). However, observing their behavior and reading the numerous stories of violent behavior between the elephants and their mahouts and tourists, one gets the strong sense that these intelligent animals are not all that happy with their situation.
The biking offered a bit more elevation than we have seen for awhile, but it was on mostly dirt roads winding through tea plantations and national parks with relatively little vehicle traffic. The temperature was cool. Our destination was a waterfall, but it is never about the destination. The ride was fantastic. We bumped into locals preparing a pig for the festival, cycled through an oolong tea plantation, chewed on some local tea leaves (most of the locals do not actually drink it – they chew it while working), and gasped at the giant bamboo, olive (yes olives), and eucalyptus trees. We also grunted up a very steep 6km climb.
Woven bamboo bridges
Woven bamboo bridges
We plan to spend the next couple weeks in northern Thailand with visits to Mae Taeng, Pai, Mae Hong Son and a short overnight in Chiang Mai again to catch up with a friend and fly back to Bangkok before heading to Madrid and then Capetown for the holidays. Stay tuned for more photos and perspective on the region.