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.

Mandalay – Markets.

Unfortunately, we missed the Zegyo Market in Mandalay. Call it what you will – over tiredness, too many beers or lost in translation – we just didn’t get there. We did stumble across a small night market on 84th Street, however.

Whilst it is certainly not the same standard of night markets you’d find in Thailand, it did provide some interesting stalls and great people watching (I could win gold for Australia if people watching was an Olympic sport).

Night market on 84th Street, Mandalay
Night market on 84th Street, Mandalay

Markets in Myanmar are a little different to those you’ll come across in Thailand. You still have to duck and weave out of the way of scooters and motorbikes as they come zipping through. What you won’t find is swarms of drunken tourists, arguing over the price of dodgy Fred Perry knock offs. Just as the Shwedagon Pagoda still operates as a tradition place of worship, markets in Myanmar are run by locals, for locals. The fact that they can make money from tourists is a bonus – although you will find with some markets that vendors are setting up typical kitschy tourist stalls.

This night market was small, but stocked a wide and bizarre array of items. Need a Hawaiian shirt for Thingyan (Burmese New Year, like Songkran)? Got it. How about a watch? Would you like some crazy knock off Burmese Army gear with your silk longyi? Among the stalls selling Buddhism amulets and the leather flat shoes that all the locals seem to wear in Myanmar, you’ll find a couple of tables and chairs where a street vendor has set up, selling beers, water and a curious dish that looked like slow cooked pork. Locals zig zagged through the stalls, chattering amongst themselves and weaving through the speeding motorbikes and scooters with ease. I, on the other hand, was busy trying not to get run over, take photos and look at everything all at the same time (I only nearly died under the wheel of a 1970’s model Harley once).

My absolute favourite part of these markets were the book stalls. Big sheets or tarps were spread out on the ground and piles of books were arranged on them. Some stalls laid them out neatly in rows and divided into English and Burmese sections. Others simply tipped the books out of the cart into a pile for people to sort through.

Book stall.
Book stall.

It is definitely worth stopping for a look at these stalls. There are wonderful books to be found, and cheap! I picked up a 1946 copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, still with its original cover, for less than $AUD2. John bought a few books including a collection of Burmese folk tales that had been translated to English.

I bought this book for less than $AUD2.
I bought this book for less than $AUD2.

Two books I looked at for a long time and now wish I had bought were copies of the Fundamental Rules of the Union of Burma, dated 1958 and 1960. For less than $AUD5 each, they’d have made great additions to my already overflowing bookcase. If anyone is in Mandalay and finds them, send them to me!

Books I should have bought!
Books I should have bought!

The streetlights didn’t work the whole time we were in Myanmar, due to power shortages, so stall holders string up little fluoro lights that they run from car batteries. The light isn’t the best so if you want to be able to have a good look at what you’re buying, take a torch with you. Remember to take your patience as well – the true gems are buried beneath piles of other books. Quite often, if you spend a long time looking at one stall, the owner will begin unearthing books they think you may be interested in.

Burmese and English books.
Burmese and English books.

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