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.

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Chiang Rai Tour – The Golden Triangle – Photos

Here’s some more shots of life along the Mekong.

Golden Buddha on the Thai bank of the Mekong River.
Golden Buddha on the Thai bank of the Mekong River.

Me having a stern word to my knees who were trembling after the ride in the tiny surfboard boat. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Me having a stern word to my knees who were trembling after the ride in the tiny surfboard boat. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Floating Laotian petrol station, anyone?
Floating Laotian petrol station, anyone? [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]

Patrick looking smashing in his life jacket.
Patrick looking smashing in his life jacket.
Coba whiskey.
Cobra whiskey.
A fisherman in his tiny fishing canoe.
A fisherman in his tiny fishing canoe.

Fishing shacks on the banks of the Mekong.
Fishing shacks on the banks of the Mekong. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Questionably seaworthy boats.
Questionably seaworthy boats. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Buildings on the Thai side of the Mekong River. Note the large cross on one of them. A banner beneath it read "God loves you".
Buildings on the Thai side of the Mekong River. Note the large cross on one of them. A banner beneath it read “God loves you”. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Map of the Golden Triangle in Thai. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
Map of the Golden Triangle in Thai. [Photo by Patrick Lindsay]
According to John, "ubiquitous tourist shot". [Photo by John McCormack]
According to John, “ubiquitous tourist shot”. [Photo by John McCormack]

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 Mai – Fishy foot spas

After a very busy few days in Myanmar and lots of airport hopping, we were well and truly ready to lay down some roots and have a damn sleep in. Chiang Mai would not be the place for this – not this time around anyway.

We touched down in Chiang Mai at 7.30pm and were due to leave the next morning at 8am, setting off on our three day tour through northern Thailand, meaning we had about 12 hours of down time before things kicked off again.

What to do with those 12 hours? Go to the markets, get stuck into street vendor food and have a really, really hot shower. Mandalay showers were quick and fluctuated between icy cold and scalding hot with amazing speed, forcing you to do what I have dubbed the Mandalay shower tango in and out of the water.

First port of call – fish foot spas. Go, fishies, go! Get that Myanmar grit!

Fish doing their thing.
Fish doing their thing.
Patrick trying not giggle.
Patrick trying not giggle.