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!

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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 – 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.

More of Mandalay

I must admit, I had high expectations for Mandalay. Everything that I’d read and seen told me it would be spectacular. Perhaps I got caught up in the romance of it. Whatever it was, it meant I was left slightly disappointed by Mandalay.

It was dirty and smoggy, very spread out, choked with traffic and overwhelmingly noisy. We were there two days and the power didn’t work once; generators ran continuously and some places were selective about what they powered from the generators. We were all exhausted by this point of our trip (and Pat and I ended up with a small bout of food poisoning from some dodgy milk) too, which added to our disappointment.

However, Mandalay has plenty to do. You really need more than two days there – we wrote a list of our “must sees” over beers and sun set gazing at the Shwe Taung Tan restuarant, which changed rapidly when we discovered there was a football game on the next day. We hired an air conditioned car and driver for the day for 45,000 kyat ($AUD50).

Shwenandaw Monastery

Stairway to the monastery.
Stairway to the monastery.

A truly amazing structure, even if the creaks are a little unsettling. The Shwenandaw Monastery was built by King Mindon in the 19th century and was once a part of the original Mandalay palace. After King Mindon died (allegedly inside this very monastery), King Thibaw had it moved from the palace to it’s current resting place. The original palace has since burned down and been hastily reconstructed. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only remaining piece of the original Mandalay Palace.

The entire monastery is made of teak wood and would have been completely covered with gold once upon a time. The intricate carvings are still there, although some are damaged. Women are not allowed within a certain section of the monastery, but we were free to take photos throughout the building.

Shwenandaw Monastery.
Shwenandaw Monastery.
Remains of the gold coating.
Remains of the gold coating.
Carvings along the outside of the monastery.
Carvings along the outside of the monastery.
Inside Shwenandaw Monastery.
Inside Shwenandaw Monastery.
Ceiling.
Ceiling.

Kuthodaw Paya

Kuthodaw Paya is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each housed in its own little white stupa. The slabs layout the complete 15 books of the Tripitaka. King Mindon once hired a team of 2400 monks to read the entire set out in a continuous relay. It took them 6 months to finish.

Some of Kuthodaw Paya's 729 small white stupas.
Some of Kuthodaw Paya’s 729 small white stupas.

It’s quite difficult to gain an understand of the size of the complex from the ground.¬† It sprawls out in all directions for what feels like miles! I was forever getting left behind by Patrick and John, because I got distracted by just about everything.

Scale model of the paya which helps give you a sense of the size of it.
Scale model of the paya which helps give you a sense of the size of it.

Everything  was peaceful inside the walls of the paya. The pagoda itself glittered in the hot sun and we were sure to stick to the white marble path in an attempt to stop the soles of our feet burning. Monks and other worshippers wandered through the complex around us, leaving incense and green banana arrangements at planetary posts.

The pagoda.
The pagoda.

While we walked around the pagoda, local teenage girls and young monks came running up to us giggling and asking for photos. We obliged. This had me confused for the longest time, because we were really nothing special. Just foreigners, staring in open-mouthed awe at the glittering pagoda and the hundreds of small white stupas. When we met up with our Burmese friends Carlos and Shiba in Bangkok, they explained it to us. According to them, having your photo taken with foreigners in Myanmar is very exciting and something to brag about. People will often hang these photos on the wall of their houses so they can tell all their friends and visitors about the time they had their photo taken with the foreigners. Little bit humbling, I thought! There are now four monks and five teenage girls running around with our photos in Mandalay.

This beautiful tree is over 180 years old!
This beautiful tree is over 180 years old!

Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill sticks out like a sore thumb on the Mandalay horizon. Several temples and monasteries are nestled amongst the scrub, with some of the most famous Mandalay temples perched on the top. Spectacularly lit at night, this 230m high hill is a thriving and busy place of worship and tourist markets.

We took our car up to the top, but you can walk up (if you, I recommend having your head read… the heat in Mandalay was immense, the last thing I’d want to do is climb a whole lot of stairs to the top of the hill). At the start of the main walkway up, two enormous lions stand either side of the walkway.

Patrick in front of the huge lions.
Patrick in front of the huge lions.

The view from the top was… hazy. But that was partly due to the time of year we were visiting (in April, farmers clear land by setting it alight; the smoke haze is very thick). You could imagine Mandalay sprawling out before you, in all its hustling and bustling glory.

The view from part way up the hill.
The view from part way up the hill.

At the very top of the hill, you must pay a small fee to be allowed to take photos. The very top of the hill is crowned by a large temple, and I am unsure whether the camera fee went to the temple or the government. I didn’t pay it and vowed to remember the view.

The top of the staircase up the hill. The beginning was down at the giant lions.
The top of the staircase up the hill. The beginning was down at the giant lions.

The markets near the temples at the top of the hill were a curious mix of local needs and tourist trinkets – all without the shouting touts that we’d grown accustom to in Bangkok. Some women were selling t-shirts, lacquerware and hats, while others were busy crouching over pots on the fire, stirring madly or chopping furiously. The scent of sandalwood incense mixed with the aroma of chillis and garlic, and women scalded children for running down the stairs or throwing rice at each other. As with all of Mandalay, the top of the hill was the same chaotic and noisy. You couldn’t escape the hubbub, even when you were on top of the hill.

Colours of the one of the temples on Mandalay Hill.
Colours of the one of the temples on Mandalay Hill.

Mahamuni Paya

Mahamuni Paya houses a four meter high golden Buddha statue, decorated with precious gems. Locals believe it to be nearly 2000 years old. However, Mahamuni Paya differs from other temples. Women are not allowed to touch the statue, or even pray inside the main hall. Men and women are separated, with women relegated to the sides and far back of the worship hall, and can only view the statue via television screens. Men prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha image and apply gold leaf to it. In fact, so much gold leaf has been applied over the years that the gold is six inches thick.

Women praying at Mahamuni Paya.
Women praying at Mahamuni Paya.

Mahamuni Paya is the cause of some controversy. Lord Buddha never taught segregation like this, and many women believe the time has come for equality.

Men applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue.
Men applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue.

I wasn’t too fussed with the Buddha statue – the segregation thing put me off a little bit. However, Mahamuni Paya houses six bronze statues that started their life in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Two of the bronze statues.
Two of the bronze statues.

Originally the spoils of war, these Khmer statues were taken from Angkor Wat to Ayutthaya by the Siamese in 1431. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1564, and took the statues back to Myanmar (then Burma). After a spate of internal wars, these six statues were brought to Mandalay. There were up to thirty statues at one point, but King Thibaw melted many down to cast cannons for his palace. These six are the only remaining statues today.

Locals believe the statues hold healing powers and by making offerings to the statues and rubbing their hands over the affected area on the statue, they will be cured.

Giant pillars of one of the halls.
Giant pillars of one of the halls.

Gold Pounder’s District

The famous gold leaf applied to so many of the Buddhist statues in Myanmar is pounded out by hand, here in Mandalay. It was a fascinating look at the industry, where men worked furiously, pounding the gold into gossamer thin sheets and women sliced and packed the gold leaf into neat packets with painstaking precision and patience.

Ladies packaging the gold leaf.
Ladies packaging the gold leaf.

The staff showed us around the workshop and explained the process to us. There are also lots of stunning gold souvenirs available – I bought a small “gold leaf”, an actual leaf coated with gold. We also left small tips in the bowls placed in front of the gold pounders.

Gold being pounded into thin sheets.
Gold being pounded into thin sheets.
Gold sheets.
Gold sheets.

Jade Market

I didn’t get any photos of this place, but if you thought the car horns of Yangon were noisy, wait until you get near the jade polishers at the jade market. This dirty, pokey open air market makes for an intriguing visit.

Some stalls sell dirty great hunks of raw jade, whilst others will cut slices or chunks off for you. Along one side, jade shops flourish, selling polished jade jewellery. Shop owners laze on collapsing couches, smoking cheroots through PVC bongs (not even kidding!) and watching shop assistants play an odd version of backgammon.

I bought a small jade buddha pendant, which they threaded on to a cord for me to wear.

Some sections of the “walkway” – again, you are sharing this space with speeding scooters and motorbikes – become boggy from the water used to wash the jade as it is polished. Watch where you step, or you’ll end up sinking to your knees in smelly mud!