Chiang Rai Tour – Ban Lorcha

Tourism has long been a major source of revenue for the Thai economy. In the rush to lure and secure more tourism dollars, the development of tourist attractions has, more often than not, been at the expense of local cultures and customs. This makes initiatives like Ban Lorcha all the more important. Under the auspices of PDA, Ban Lorcha is a not for profit initiative which both showcases and preserves Akha hilltribe culture.

Music and dance demonstration from the Akha ladies.
Music and dance demonstration from the Akha ladies.

Ban Lorcha is a small Akha hilltribe village in the mountain ranges of northern Thailand. We paid a small fee (about 50 Baht) which is put back into the Akha community through development funds for health care, orphanages and the elderly. An Akha villager was our tour guide, speaking in Thai, which Ae translated to English for us. Ae explained that several members of the village took it in turns to be the guides, as this gives them am opportunity to start a career in the lucrative tourism industry; and when they earn, their village improves!

An Akha lady demonstrates the weaving of her cloth. This cloth will be dyed black or dark blue, before being embroidered with bright cotton thread.
An Akha lady demonstrates the weaving of her cloth. This cloth will be dyed black or dark blue, before being embroidered with bright cotton thread.

Our guide took us through various parts of village, including demonstrations and participation by other members in the village. We were shown how the Akha trap animals, cast metal items, and build their houses, as well as how they weave, dye and embroider their iconic black clothing. We were also encouraged to participate in a demonstration of Akha music and dance, which brought on a case of the giggles as we were horribly out of time. Stopping by the village gate, the guide explained that the gate held a lot of traditional beliefs. It was believed to ward of negative or bad spirits – a reminder that local spiritual beliefs are just as strong as Buddhism in this region. Symbols are carved into the gate, and the corners feature bundles of carved ‘bats’ with patterns painted on them. The whole thing is decorated with palm fronds woven into chains and pendants. Our guide giggled as she pointed the carved figured beside the gate – a male and a female, both well endowed. The male was even smoking a roughly hewn pipe!

Decorations and carvings on the village gate.
Decorations and carvings on the village gate.

We were even taken through a villagers house. It was much larger than I had expected, but simple; bamboo walls with a high, thatched roof. Inside was dark and dusty – the floor was earth, and in the corner was the kitchen fire. Light crept in through the gaps in the bamboo wall slats. The heat was stifling, and the smoke rose lazily to escape through the gaps between the wall and roof. It was an extremely contrasting scene: pots and pans stacked neatly on the floor and plastic baby bottles were sitting in a plastic dish drainer on a dusty shelf. It was a fascinating look at the living arrangements of those Akha hilltribe villagers who were determined to hang on to their traditional heritage. Some of the other houses in the village were raised high on stilts, and featured satellite dishes!

The Akha house we were allow to tour through.
The Akha house we were allow to tour through.

The tour ends at the small village shop. Here, small items made by villagers are sold and the money invested back into Ban Lorcha. This is not the same mass produced gear sold on Khao San Road. The embroidered bags, purses and cushion covers are beautifully hand made and dyed. I bought two pieces of jewellery made by members of the Akha hilltribe; a black and yellow glass piece, and a red and silver necklace. The shop even sold the embroidered, beaded headdresses worn by Akha women. I wish I had’ve bought one home. My only regret from the trip – not buying one!

Wearing an Akha headdress,
Wearing an Akha headdress,

So.. Ban Lorcha. Should you go?

Yes. While Ban Lorcha is definitely designed for tourists and seems a little forced, but that is the point. It is designed to allow tourists to discover the culture and life of the Akha hilltribe, without enabling widespread destruction and dismantling of the culture, as mass tourism can. The tour through the village is informative and engaging, even if the information boards throughout were faded and dated when we visited. It makes for an easy introduction to hilltribe life, without a homestay in a village (although that is on my list!)

You will find a map of the region surrounding Ban Lorcha on the PDA page, linked in the first paragraph.

IMG_4140

Advertisements

Chiang Rai Tour – Doi Mae Salong

I could write a million words trying to describe Doi Mae Salong. In fact, I have. I’ve filled pages and pages with my chicken scrawl, poured over my photos and videos repeatedly. I even lay down with my head hanging off the couch, tipped upside down, trying to shake the right words out of my ears. Truth be told, I still haven’t quite been able to capture the beauty of Doi Mae Salong. I am kicking myself that I didn’t more photos or video, but we were only there a short period and I was busy basking in all Doi Mae Salong had to over.

This is a town with a rich Yunnan Chinese influence, perched high among the hills of northern Thailand, which is surrounded by vast, sloping fields of tea plantations and where it is common to pass small spirit houses beside the main road and ladies picking fresh tea leaves.

The town itself is built all higgledy piggledy – houses of stucco and brick with clay tile roofs, all nearly built on top of each other. Tiny laneways lead away from the main road, winding their way past houses and shops.

Ehk drove slowly into town as small motorbikes zipped past us. I watched pedestrians make their way along the side of the road; one lady, dressed in bright woven clothing, was carrying a large bag on her head and a small child in a sling on her back. Ae explained she had come in from one of the hill tribe villages to sell her wares at the local market. Life seemed to occur at a leisure pace here. Old ladies sat outside shops, smoking and flashing us toothy grins as we drove past. We passed a small house where a group of men were crowded around a motorbike which seemed to be in a hundred pieces on the floor.

Our accommodation for the night, Baan See See guesthouse, had magnificent views of the town and the mountain range, even in the hot season when the crops are ablaze and the smoke is thick in the air. We arrived just before sundown – beer o’clock! – and made a beeline for the small open bar at the guesthouse. The owner was cheery and very friendly, bringing us the coldest beers from his fridge and glasses of ice (we Australians like our beer in the ridiculous cold temperature range and ordering ice with our beers was usual practice on our trip). As the sun disappeared behind us, gentle bamboo flute tune trickled down the hills, followed by a reading of the daily news in Chinese for residents without televisions or radios. It was so serene; if I was any more relaxed, I’d have been lying down.

The view from our room at dusk.
The view from our room at dusk.

It would have been very easy to sink deep into the old lounges on the balcony at the Baan See See Guesthouse bar and let the cool darkness swallow us, but Ae had organised for us to have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. In Doi Mae Salong, the people rise with the sun and go to bed when it goes down; the local restaurant stayed open especially for us.

The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.
The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.

The restaurant was run by a local family, whose 15 year old daughter waited on our table (the only occupied table in there at that time of night) in her pink and white Hello Kitty slippers. Ae and Ehk ordered the specialty dishes for us to try, including slow cooked leg of pork, stir fried mushrooms, ostrich cooked with black pepper and chilli, steamed buns and umpteen dozen bowls of different chillis and spicy sauces. We ordered enough beer and ice for John, Pat, Ae and I to share (Ehk wasn’t drinking, he was driving) and ate ourselves silly. The food was divine. Ae and Ehk took it in turns to teach us to swear in Thai, and eventually we all were cackling like mad at our own hilarity.

Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).
Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).

Sunrise

Ae told us (warned us perhaps?) that we would have the best view of the sun rising from our balcony at Baan See See. Patrick and John are known to be notorious late risers and I’m quite sure they’re both allergic to morning light, so I made the effort to get up and see the sun rise on my own. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The same music that followed the news broadcast the night before trickled back down the mountains as the sun peeked over the mountain ridge, shortly before 5.30am. Who needs an alarm clock when there’s gentle bamboo flutes tunes floating in through your open window? I sat on the balcony and watched a beautiful sunrise, wrapped in my sarong to keep the cool air off my shoulders.

Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.

Doi Mae Salong Nok – 101 Tea Plantation

After a quick breakfast at Baan See See, we went to visit a tea plantation just outside of town. The 101 Tea Plantation spreads across the hills, neatly terraced tea bushes creating neat lines like the ruled pages of a book. From the tea house, we could see hilltribe ladies working a few hills over, small figures dressed in dark clothes, picking tea furiously.

Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.
Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.

John and I settled in for some tea tasting and a lesson in pouring tea the right way. If I could have taken some of every tea I tried home I would have!

John and I tasting tea.
John and I tasting tea.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.

After tea tasting, Patrick and I bought a tiny tea set, and then we set off for the hilltribes we would be visiting that day. But not without a walk through the local markets, which was wonderful to watch the locals go about their daily life. Kids played in the dirt at the side of the road while mum and dad stood in line for the bank. Shop keepers whistled as they opened up their shops for the morning and hilltribes ladies shuffled along to their stalls in their bright headdresses. I could have sat there and people watched for hours.

One of the shop fronts.
One of the shop fronts. If you couldn’t buy it at this shop, it didn’t exist.

Just before we jumped into the car to head off to Ban Lo Cha, I stopped by the stall of two Akha ladies who we selling handmade jewellery and other items to raise money for their village. I bought three different bracelets, even though the ladies were extremely helpful in finding other matching bracelets. They crowded around, chattering excitedly and Ae translated that I was the first sale of the day (which is lucky in Thai superstition). They happily posed for photos too. I’m not a tall person, and both of these ladies would have tucked under my arm with ease!

These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.
These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.

Doi Mae Salong is a beautiful, little town that is definitely worth a look. It’s very relaxed and laid back, and if you’re sick of the tourist packed beaches, the quiet mountains of north Thailand might be the solution you’re looking for!

Chiang Rai Tour – The Golden Triangle

In far northern reaches of Thailand lies the infamous Golden Triangle. Here, the Ruak River empties into the Mekong, and the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, forming the centrepiece of one of the world’s biggest opium producing regions. In fact, until the 21st century, more than half of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle.

Our visit to the Golden Triangle did not involve opium smugglers, but it did involve a questionably seaworthy boat and a tizzy by yours truly.

Welcome to the Golden Triangle.
Welcome to the Golden Triangle.

Small boat, big boat.

Part of our visit to the Golden Triangle was a trip on the Mekong River across to Donsao, a Laotian island on the river. I was fully prepared for shallow bottom long boats which Patrick and I had been on during a trip to Krabi. I wasn’t very fond of them, but at least this time, I knew what I was in for. Or so I thought.

A similar boat to the first one we got in. This one was zipping along so fast that it was barely touching the water.
A similar boat to the first one we got in. This one was zipping along so fast that it was barely touching the water.

The boat we got in was not so much a shallow bottom long boat, but more of a surf board with a whippersnipper engine for a motor. I instantly hit the brakes. “I don’t really feel comfortable getting in that” I told Patrick. He said I could wait behind, although hesitated before getting in the boat himself. “No, if I don’t go I’ll regret it” I said, and climbed in. We set off and as we picked up speed, waves washed in over the low sides and all over poor John in the front of the boat.

John's view from the front of the boat. Poor bloke got a tad wet! [Photo by John McCormack]
John’s view from the front of the boat. Poor bloke got a tad wet! [Photo by John McCormack]
Big boats zipped by us and as we reached a particularly unsettling part of the river, the engine conked out. I wanted out, immediately. Yes, the river is shallow, but I cannot see the bottom and I don’t know what’s in it. I don’t care how shallow, deep, clear or dirty the water is, I want a bigger boat! We wheeled around and went back to shore for a bigger boat, thank goodness. Poor Ae was terribly apologetic, but I assured him I was okay and would be more comfortable with a bigger boat. We jumped into the boat I was expecting, a blue shallow bottom long boat, and headed off. Much better.

Me, looking much calmer in the blue boat. [Photo by John McCormack]
Me, looking much calmer in the blue boat. [Photo by John McCormack]
Our trip to Donsao was not a simple hop across the river. We zipped up to the point where all three borders met, in the middle of the Mekong. From there, we could see a large casino built on the Myanmar bank of the Mekong. Ae explained to us that one of the past generals of Myanmar had built it to help build business relationships with his buddies.

Casino on the banks of the Mekong in Myanmar.
Casino on the banks of the Mekong in Myanmar.

Welcome to Donsao, where you can buy anything!

I liked Donsao. I will get sneered at for saying that because “it’s not the real Laos”. Well, no it’s not. You don’t get a passport stamp when you arrive and you’re only allowed within a certain area. You pay a small fee of 30 baht per person once you arrive on the island, and are free to wander around the island’s market while your boat driver waits for you at the dock.

I quickly discovered Donsao was akin to my version of heaven. There were handbag vendors everywhere. Hundreds upon hundreds of handbags were laid out for display. Better quality knock offs than the ones you’ll find in Bangkok, these were the creme de la creme of knock of handbags. I, of course, had to buy three. Stop rolling your eyes. Nice, sturdy handbags that are big enough to carry all my stuff and don’t cost an arm and a leg are hard to come across. I took advantage of the situation, and Ae joked with me that I would sink the boat on the way back to Thailand.

Handbag heaven!
Handbag heaven!

You can buy nearly everything on Donsao. John and Pat picked up a Beer Lao each to accompany them on our walk, and I noticed a post box where you could post your Golden Triangle postcards so they would be Laos stamped. I bought three backpack patches (one for Laos, Thailand and Myanmar) and two scarves and Pat hunted through piles of t-shirts to find a different coloured Ralph Lauren polo than the other 29 he already owns. Ae picked a few carton of smokes and a few gifts for his wife and daughters.

One stall owner was intent on showing us her special wares; cobra and tiger whiskey. I kid you not. She also had bottles of scorpion whiskey for sale too. The cobra and tiger whiskeys were stored in enormous glass jars, and ladled out to game customers.

Tiger whiskey on the left, and cobra whiskey on the right. Guess what part of the tiger's anatomy is used in the whiskey...
Tiger whiskey on the left, and cobra whiskey on the right. Guess what part of the tiger’s anatomy is used in the whiskey…

212 House of Opium

After we sped back to Thailand, we popped into 212 House of Opium. This cramped and small museum was absolutely fascinating. It was packed with displays and information about the history of opium trading in the area, as well as opium use, cultivation, ancient opium pipes and weights, rituals and beliefs, and development of laws against opium. It’s 50 baht each, which gets your ticket – a lovely postcard. Attached to the museum is a great little gift shop selling locally made souvenirs.

Chiang Rai Tour – Baan Dam

About 10kms north of Chiang Rai, you’ll find the brainchild of another Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee – Baan Dam (the Black House).

Duchanee, a Chiang Rai native like Kositpipat, has been hard at work on this unique art gallery for 35 years, creating a beautiful complex imbued with his own take on life, death, contemporary culture and the Buddhist religion.

Baan Dam.
Baan Dam.

Coming from Wat Rong Khun, where all the glitters and shines resides, Baan Dam is a stark contrast. It is dark and brooding, with tall teak wood halls accentuated with any number of bones and animal skins. And a rather large python, kept in a flimsy cage.

The biggest teak hall.
The biggest teak hall.

Inside the main teak hall, there are rafters and pillars carved with stunning designs and paintings hanging amongst the bones and animal hides.

Carved pillars.
Carved pillars.
Rafters.
Rafters.

As well as the teak halls, there are rice storage buildings on tall stilts, white igloo shaped buildings and a very high arch shaped building with an enormous wooden door.

Some of the other buildings.
Some of the other buildings.
One of the strange white buildings.
One of the strange white buildings.

Under a tall stilted building, there is a whole elephant skeleton laid out. The skull is enormous, it comes up to my hip at least!

Inside one of the igloo style huts is series of small stools set in a circle around the perimeter of the room. In centre is a huge plush white rug. The whole rooms feels very earthy and serene, despite the stools being made from bull horns.

This is one of the most intriguing and fascinating art galleries I have seen, and it’s development is ongoing. Like Kositpipat’s Wat Rong Khun, the work on this gallery will continue for decades, until Duchanee is satisfied it is complete.

 

 

Chiang Rai Tour – Wat Rong Khun

Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly handle another bloody temple, we arrived at this beauty. A temple like no other we had ever seen.

Wat Rong Khun. The White Temple.

Wat Rong Khun.
Wat Rong Khun.

Designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, work on this temple began in 1996 and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2070. Kositpipat believes that designing and building this Buddhist temple will give him “immortal life”. When finished, the complex will feature nine buildings including the ubosot (chapel), pagoda, hermitage, crematorium, monastery hall, preaching hall, museum, pavilion and rest rooms.

The loos themselves are the shiniest, flashiest loos I’ve ever seen!

"The most elaborate dunny I have ever seen" - John. [Photo by John McCormack.]
“The most elaborate dunny I have ever seen” – John. [Photo by John McCormack.]
From afar, the temple is pristine white, glinting in the bright sunlight. As you get closer, the artist’s style and the temple’s unique features appear.

Wat Rong Khun.
Wat Rong Khun.

For example, this bloke:

Alien... at a Buddhist temple.
Predator… at a Buddhist temple.

Or this guy:

Hanging ornaments.
Hanging ornaments.

Kositpipat depicts the journey to happiness by overcoming cravings with a piece called “Hell”, which you must walk past on your way over the bridge to the ubosot. Hundreds of human hands reach up from what looks like hell, clawing at the air above. Some hands hold bowls, while other grab toward the sky. Some are making what looks like rude hand gestures.

"Hell".
“Hell”.

The inside of the ubosot is festooned with intricate, colourful murals on the walls. These are not the murals you’ll see at most Thai Buddhist temples, however. In addition to paintings of the Buddha smiling serenely down on you, you’ll find pictures of Star Wars droids, Superman and even planes crashing into the World Trade Center. If the Predator statue outside aren’t enough to weird you out, R2D2 sitting beside Buddha should do it for you.

Photos are not allowed inside the ubosot.
Photos are not allowed inside the ubosot.

Visitors to the temple can also contribute a silver leaf to part of the project. The leaves hang from archways and in metal ‘trees’ and according to Ae, once the artist has gathered enough, the leaves will be made into a Buddha. In true tourist style, we were all over this. Names, wishes and all.

Leaves hanging from an archway.
Leaves hanging from an archway.
Hanging my leaf on a tree.
Hanging my leaf on a tree.

More of Kositpipat’s work is displayed in a museum and art gallery within the complex. His paintings are bright and colourful, and very striking. Ae also introduced us to a great nothern Thailand dish – yellow noodles. Hot and spicy, with chunks of chicken swimming in a red broth with yellow noodles. A tiny bit too hot for me, but a delicious dish nonetheless! And you’ll have a real hard time finding it south of Chiang Mai.

Pat, John and I at Wat Rong Khun.
Pat, John and I at Wat Rong Khun.