It’s an interesting time to be in Thailand, a country that is still in deep mourning for its beloved King. We knew that a number of festivals, concerts and the famous Ko Phangan Full Moon Party had all been cancelled (none of which really impacted us), but we weren’t too sure what the day-to-day mood would be like. The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Chiang Khong were the black and white ribbons on the gates and entranceway of almost every public building. There were also heaps of large billboards, including some high-tech digital ones, depicting the King throughout his life – playing an instrument, with his family, as a young man overseas and meeting various dignitaries. There are shrines to the King on almost every street corner (I’m not sure whether that’s typical or not), and the clothing stores have almost exclusively black and white clothes in the window. Aside from all of that, everything feels very much like business as usual from a tourist’s perspective.
Our first night in Thailand was spent in Chiang Khong, a border town where people typically only stay on their way to/from Laos. There’s not a great deal to do there, so we took the opportunity to take care of a bit of life admin – currency exchange, new SIM card and a bit of grocery shopping. We were up bright and early the next day for our first experience with the Thai bus service. After our experience in Laos, I can honestly say that the bus to Chiang Rai was a pleasure. It was a massive old red school bus, full of rust and with no AC, but we flew through the countryside with the windows down and the doors wide open and it was awesome. The roads here are in much better condition as well, which meant I didn’t have to spend the entire 3 hour journey wishing I’d worn a sports bra. All in all, a very nice trip.
Chiang Rai isn’t exactly a place brimming with must-see attractions, but we wanted to stop here before reaching Chiang Mai, and to use it as the base for an overnight bike trip. It’s a pleasant enough place, and we spent our first night at the night market eating big plates of greasy tempura and mystery meat (“I think it’s pork”, “nah, it’s definitely chicken – look at the texture”, “oh hang on, you’re right, I think it is chicken”, “but it tastes like pork” . . . .). We took a quick spin round the shops, added to the souvenir collection, and retreated back to our guesthouse. Our guesthouse was really great – it used to be a kindergarten and the owners have left lots of the original fittings and decorations, so that it has a very cool retro school-house feel. There are still old desks and chairs, height charts on the walls, building blocks etc. It was definitely a find!
It was time to hit the road on Thursday. We had originally wanted to hire out a couple of motorbikes, but we were tackling a fairly hilly ride and thought that a manual motorbike might add to what was already going to be a bit of a challenge. In the end, we hired a couple of Honda Clicks 125cc – Campbell’s patriotic black and white, and mine a very racey electric pink. To make up for our lack of gears and horsepower, we selected the 2 most badass helmets from the shop, and we were off. The bikes took a little getting used to, as did the Thai traffic and the fact that we were back to driving on the same side of the road as home.
Our destination was the hillside town of Doi Mae Salong. Doi Mae Salong has an interesting history – it was originally settled in the 1960s by soldiers from the Yunnan province in Southern China, following their defeat in the Chinese civil war. As a result, the town feels more Chinese than it does Thai – most street signs are written in both languages, but the culture and cuisine remains primarily Yunnanese. One of the best things we have ever eaten was this braised pork leg with steamed buns for lunch. We ate it so quickly, (a) because it was delicious; and (b) because we were both secretly gutted we had to share, so it was a bit of race to see who could hoover the most. The highlight would had to have been the steam buns though – such a nice change from boring old rice which, let’s be honest, is just a super bland vehicle for getting other more delicious things into your mouth. These buns were the business!
Overtime, Doi Mae Salong became known the epicentre of opium trade in the golden triangle (the area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect) and has a fairly shady reputation that it’s now trying to shed. The Government has poured money into agricultural initiatives , including tea farming, to move the locals away from opium poppies. That took, and the region is now famous for making some of the best quality tea in South East Asia. The surrounding countryside is dedicated to tea estates, and tea shops and tea tasting are the main things enticing tourists to visit. We’re not actually into tea, but the ride to Doi Mae Salong promised amazing countryside, great views, and a few interesting things to see on the way. We visited a beautiful remote temple covered in wind chimes and bells, an unusual health retreat with a manmade geyser, and then climbed all the way up to Wat Santikhiri (elevation 1,367m). There were times when we weren’t sure that the Clicks had it in them, but they had way more guts than we’d given them credit for. They were absolute troopers and we hooned up and down the hills with no drama at all.
One night in Doi Mae Salong was plenty, so we made our way back to Chiang Rai this morning (clocking up 300 km) and headed straight through town to see Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. The Temple is a little bit of a mystery, mainly because it’s not actually a religious temple, but a private art exhibition put together by a very unusual Chiang Rai local – there are actually cardboard cut-outs of the man around the Temple where he’s fist pumping and posing like a motivational speaker. The whole thing is weird, but the Temple itself is actually pretty special. As the name suggests, it’s entirely white and accented with lots of silver and mirrored glass tiles. In addition to traditional Buddhist imagery, the artist has also used pop culture references and there are model heads of The Terminator, Spiderman and Wolverine hanging from the trees. There’s also a disturbing installation of thousands of hands that reach desperately up from the ground as you cross the bridge into the Temple. Like I said, weird. Don’t forget your sunnies if you ever plan on paying a visit – the glare from this place will make your eyes bleed.
Tomorrow we’re headed for Chiang Mai, where we’ll have one night in town before heading out to the Elephant Nature Park to volunteer for a week in the dog rescue centre. There are over 400 dogs at the Park who need their shit shovelled, ticks removed and bellies scratched. We’re not entirely sure what to expect, but we’re excited to be spending a week giving something back (especially after a year of taking care of number 1), and being able to show a little kindness to some pups in need. However it pans out, you can guarantee it will be totally different to anything we have ever done before. Here’s to new experiences, and all of that!