The Road Trip Part Two

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Next stop, after 5 hours of more twists and bends and ups and downs, incredibly scenic when we could tear our eyes off the road with danger lurking around every blind corner, almost back to Chiang Mai and then north to Chiang Dao. We had left the Mae Hong Son Loop behind and were now entering the so-called Golden Triangle, formerly infamous for opium, now officially clean and tidy and growing tea. Apparently though, a billion metamphetamine tablets are smuggled into Thailand from factories just over the Burmese border each year, so the name of the game has simply been altered.

In Chiang Dao we stayed at Doi Nest 1, recommended by Peter in Mae Hong Son for its gourmet European and Thai food. A charming place, little bungalows scattered through a garden area. We had planned on one night but stayed two. There was a lovely temple up 520 steps which we climbed in the cool of the evening, enjoying the tranquil views of the misty hills and valleys below. In the top chapel was housed a sort of shrine to a venerated former abbot on the occasion of his 80th birthday. At least I assume he has died since, as display cases in the shrine contained his false teeth, his corning ware dish and his spoon and knife, his straight razor, a toe nail cutting kit, the scales he weighed himself on, an ink imprint of his feet, a few old robes, several photos of him in various meditative poses, and the medical equipment he must have used to keep himself going — an old fashioned mercury blood pressure cuff and an antique stethoscope. We had heard that the monks might chant at 7 but they chose that night to take a break, we heard the gong at 3 am but not much likelihood of us trekking up there at that hour.

We ate an enormous and fabulous European meal the first night, it really was an astonishing restaurant; and some of the best Thai food we’ve had so far the second night in the adjoining Doi 2. They are packed all the time with people who drive up from Chiang Mai for a night or two and to eat at these restaurants. We were lucky to get a bungalow — a gorgeous room for less than $30. We have been eating almost entirely Thai meals for lunch and dinner, and the western meal seemed awfully heavy, though it was delicious. Thailand is not one of those weight loss countries I am afraid. We chose the “Big Eaters” set meal for the Thai dinner as it included several things we had not yet tried, including 2 inventions of the chef, a chatty woman who tried to describe in detail how she made the food. Everything in Thai food is about the balance as Noi taught us: salty, sweet, sour, spicy. I got a lurking whole chili but now I know the sugar trick, it is just a few minutes of pain and doesn’t ruin my taste buds for the meal.

Still more twists and turns as we climbed towards the Burmese border to stop a few kilometres short of the very most northerly part of Thailand in another Kuomintang town called Mae Salang. Beautiful terrain, green jungle and very fertile fields, with tea plantations starting as we neared the end of our journey. Mae Salang is very steep like other hill station towns we have known and loved, and the town is quite different looking from other Thai towns. The Yunnanese influence is very noticeable, apparently the Yunnan dialect of Chinese is the lingua franca, with red lanterns and tea shops abounding. Lots of hill tribe people in the markets including the Akha with their splendid silver head dresses.

The people here are descended from the Kuomintang group that had settled in Burma near the Thai border, and the army became one of the 3 groups running the opium trade and smuggling across the border into Thailand. At that time this area was really remote, just a wild, unregulated place with no road access and no services and the hill tribe people were scratching a living from the hillsides with their slash and burn methods of agriculture.

When Burma began to crack down on the Karens who were trying to get independence for themselves while growing and trading opium, the Chinese group moved into northern Thailand and convinced the Thai government to recognize them as refugees. The Thais did so, in the early 1960’s in hopes of using them as an anti-Communist force and of bringing some organization into the area. The former army specialized in armed mule trains of smugglers and opium transport, and continued in that way for another 20 years. Eventually the government began to establish a presence by bringing in a road and electricity and eventually by introducing alternative forms of agriculture for cash crops to the hill tribe people. Curing their opium addiction was also part of the plan, not easily accomplished of course. Aiding in the agricultural initiatives was the so-called “Princess Mother” the current king’s mother — she was never queen as her husband was not the king, but through various events such as abdication and assassination her second son became the current king. She seems to have been a most industrious person, quite the gardener and always up to good works and the improvement of the people’s minds, bodies and souls. Much revered in Thailand where even yet a 15 year jail sentence can be meted out to anyone overheard to criticize the beloved king. North of Mae Salong (top prize for most bends in a stretch of road for the whole trip) at Doi Tung, we visited the Princess Mother’s villa and gardens, along with a “Hall of Inspiration” filled with tributes to the royal family. She built the villa in Swiss chalet style (she raised her children in Switzerland after her husband died so they would be normal children), all made of recycled wood, very forward looking, with very simple rooms for herself. The whole place was full of her things, including the mystery novels she loved — apparently she always read 3 books at a time, a mystery, something educational, natural history seemed to figure prominently, and something spiritual –as well as the funny little book marks and pot holders she made from needle point and gave people who helped her projects as thank yous. She had alphabets and numbers in both Thai and English carved into the stairwells to educate all who came by and she also did a little gardening each day and lived to be 95. My family members are all nodding their heads now, and saying, “Ah yes, Auntie Lara” as Doug and I did midway through the tour. A further point of similarity — she was the first Thai (the was a commoner, married into the royal family, met her husband while studying abroad) to get a scholarship to study nursing and midwifery overseas. Uncanny?!

Mae Salong was so cute, we could have stayed there longer too. Our hotel was right out of China, though a non-smoking, quieter China, with the exact same furniture we had in every decent hotel room we had in China. Huge spotless room with a whole wall of windows onto the patio overlooking the view with another barely accessible temple above. Oddly lacking in privacy, but oh well. The restaurant served excellent Yunnanese specialties, we had roasted pork, special mushroom, a pork roll — and steamed buns — reawakened our fond memories of the food in China.

With the deadline for returning the truck looming, we tore ourselves away and down the road to Chiang Rai. Second only to leaving a city in a rented car is entering one, especially since we had no directions to the guesthouse, but we made it. So hot here after the relative coolness of the higher areas. We made good use of our last day in the truck, visiting a couple of very interesting sights on the way into the city. One of them, the Wat Rong Khun has to be seen to be believed but fortunately Doug has included two pictures. It is the brainchild of a famous Thai artist, much recognized here and abroad, and responsible for the similarly decorated golden clock tower here in Chiang Rai. He found Buddha after becoming a monk for a period and conceived the idea of this massive confectionary of a wat with its quite surreal decorations including a sea of reaching hands – those poor souls in hell one would assume – surrounding the golum decorated stairs into the main chamber. The inside is decorated with golden murals depicting the wages of sin, various modern film characters (even superman) and a nirvana sort of scene at the top. Marvellously detailed and beautifully executed the whole thing apparently requires extensive cleaning 3 times a year to keep it gleaming. He has barely started his work, plans it be finished in 2070 so has trained a band of acolytes to do the decorative work according to his detailed plans. He has raised a lot of funds so the work can go on after his death. We had quite the drive to get there, and had to agree it was well worth the effort! After resting here in Chiang Rai for the day we are off on a two part bus journey to Nan tomorrow. Kissed the poor truck good-bye this morning. Thanks for persevering this far, greetings to all, your happy travellers, Carol and Doug.

Sent from my iPad

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