Getting way too comfortable in Chiang Mai, it was time to move on. I headed further North to Chiang Rai via 3rd class bus along with the locals. After a few hours uphill, I was at Chiang Rai. Along the way I had devoured the my 5 large greasy spring rolls I had made earlier in the day, still in awe of how much one can accomplish in a day when all the hours are your own. Also a long the way, something I hadn’t seen in weeks: rain! The high altitude brought wet roads, the sound of slickness, the smell of the air, I realized I missed it.
To my surprise, the Chiang Rai bus station was not packed with aggressive tuk-tuk drivers attacking the disembarcking bus. I was asked rather politely if I needed a ride. Having to run to the 7-11 for some supplies, I denied the offer and had to seek a driver afterwards. Something I have never had to do before in Thailand.
I checked into a great place called Chat House. This kind of guest house is backpacker’s dream. With superfast internet access, very friendly and accommodating staff and a full restaurant with plenty of room to lounge and relax, it is hard to believe the price of 80 baht a night. They also offer trekking and tours and laundry service. My room was cozy and allowed me to catch up on the sleep lost waking a crack of dawn for full day tours the prior two evenings in Chiang Mai.
After finally getting a day to wake up naturally, I emerged from my room for a quick bite before hitting the shared shower facility.. a worthy but often icky endeavor. I ordered cornflakes with banana and soy milk, appreciating each bite and crunch. (Gosh, I miss my flax cereal.) The owner made the rounds to the tables and asked what my day’s travel plans were. The conversation was informative and ended in my hiring private transportation (the man’s brother) for the day as my sightseeing wishes were far too complicated through public transport. The price was right and he was genuinely interested in facilitating a worthwhile day in Chiang Rai, not at all a pressured sales deal.
So my golden chariot would be motorbike and the driver, this man. He was a gracious and patient driver who gave me my space at each location. The first stop was a visit to some hilltribe communities about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. This activity draws in tons of eager tourists and their money, resulting in the relocation of some tribes to new grounds closer to the tourist cities and the environment of the visit to seem intrusive. Although I hate to contribute to that, it was a unique opportunity to see the daily life of these very interesting and colorful tribes people.
The fact that I wasn’t arriving with a busload made me feel a bit better. However, from the look on some of the their faces in my photographs, it is evident the villagers are not content with the constant stream of visitors. I tried to be as polite a guest as I could, asking if it is Ok to photograph and communicating thanks as clearly as possible. The sad truth is that for these villagers, visits from tourists are the main source of income. Their crafts are for sale within the village, as well as in the markets at the main cities they border. There are also many initiatives in place to increase village profit through these sales and decrease those from the production of opium.
The Akha Tribe. There is a very interesting matriarch structure to their tribe. Married women work in the fields while the men stay home and watch the children, make crafts & tools and smoke opium. I think I know some guys who’d love to be Akha men.
My next stop was Wat Rong Khun, a beautifully decorated temple of white and mirror designed by renowned artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Along with this breathtaking structure, the grounds also contained his paintings for sale along with a separate hall of his larger and more intricate canvas paintings (his master works). No photography was allowed within these museums but his work can be seen here, if you’re interested.
Thamptupu was a visit I threw in as we both miscalculated the ease of travel for the original two destinations. Thamptupu is a cavern of Buddhist worship and meditation. My motorbiker joined me in descending into the cave as he was interested to see the holy one within the limestone as well. It was a quick visit that may have not been worth the trek via bicycle (my original plan) as the dirt load leading to it was long and very rocky.
Getting to Houy Keaw waterfall was a strenuous ride uphill, first by bike and then by foot. Climbing up the steep and uneven incline was worth the spectacular view of the falls and the cool mist of the splashing water. The highest viewpoint also contained an area for swimming, already inhabited by 2 middle-aged Europeans and, strangely, a young Thai girl of 10 or 11. She was being tossed and thrown about in the water, much to her and the middle aged man’s glee. Strange.
It was still early after that fourth stop and we were then going to venture to a hit spring that was in the area. It turned out to be closed for cleaning which suited my waning enthusiasm. I was beat. Riding on the back of a motorbike is a full body workout. Fighting to sit straight against the wind’s velocity works the abdomen deeply. Holding the bar behind my seat contracts the delts and pecs. Sustaining a comfortable distance from my driver works the inner thighs. Phew! A Coke sounded refreshing so I had my first one in years.