Over the last week or so we have rediscovered the ‘travelling’ aspect of the whole travelling thing. In the last ten days we have visited and explored five cities/towns. A far cry from some of the recent weeks where we’ve spent days not doing too much at all. As I write we are in Kanchanaburi, about 140 miles north west from Bangkok, and in total contradiction from the sentence before we are having a chilled day doing not a whole lot (other than laundry), which gives me a perfect opportunity to catch you up on some of what we’ve been up to!
We start, perhaps unsurpsingly at this point, back North in Chiang Mai, where we had organised a day trip to take us to the nearby city of Chiang Rai. We had debated whether to stay in Chiang Rai for a night or two and explore it at our own pace, but instead settled for a day trip organised by our hostel, which would include travel to and from the city (roughly a three hour drive each way) and take us around the various sights of the city all within one day. Me and Fran and another guest at our hostel who had clearly had the same idea as us were picked up at 7am, and we piled into the back of a small minibus, picked up another three people from the area, and headed north towards Chiang Rai. Enroute we were introduced to our tour guide, a bubbly and energetic woman who introduced herself firstly with a Thai name we had no hope with, then mercifully by her nickname of Sarah.
“I’m going to teach you Thai today!” Sarah informed us, smile stretching ear to ear, and proceeded to give us information on Chiang Rai and the surrounding area, a short history lesson about Thailand in general, and as promised, some useful Thai words and phrases we could use on our travels. Sarah’s energy was initially difficult to reciprocate as we’d only rolled out of bed 30 minutes earlier, but as we woke up a little her positivity made it difficult not to smile. Our first stop on the trip came around an hour in, as we pulled up to a ‘Hot Spring’. The hot spring itself was a very underwhelming small pool of water wrapped in concrete, and the lines of stall and shops lining the road suggested that this stop was little more than an opportunity to hand over some cash to local merchants. We duly obliged; I fuelled up on a cold coffee while Fran decided the most suitable food she could find for breakfast was rainbow coloured ice cream. I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of that at 8am, but she was over the moon.
The next stop was Wat Rong Khun, more commonly known as the White Temple, one of the more famous temples in the country. We pulled up outside, and following Sarah through the gates, were immediately very impressed by the building in front of us. The temple complex is made up of several different buildings (and is actually still under construction,) but our attention was immediately pulled towards the main building, (the Ubosot), and the bridge leading up to it. The Ubosot is created primarily in the style of traditional Thai architecture, with a three tiered roof and abundance of serpent imagery, but then there are a million more intricate details in the design vying for your eye’s attention. The whole thing is painted blindingly white (to represent the purity of Buddha), and has pieces of glass embedded in the plaster, meaning the whole temple glistens and shines magnificently in the sun. There are two bridges that lead into the main temple building, the first of which takes you over an eerie sea of outstretched hands, carved to represent untamed desire and greed, thereby suggesting that the only way to happiness is resisting these desires. Once this bridge is successfully navigated, you’ll arrive at the ‘Gate of Heaven’, which is guarded by two figures, one representing death and the other Rahu (decider of the fate of the dead.) We continued to cross the bridge, (Sarah had warned us it is bad luck to stop or move backwards along the bridge due to the hell-to-heaven journey symbolism, not to mention the guard with a loud speaker sternly urging people to keep moving) but everything is designed with so much detail it’s difficult to keep moving and take everything in.
Therefore we quickly found ourselves into the main hall, which after the grandiose build up actually felt slightly underwhelming, so we found ourselves rather quickly on our way again. I did some reading online after, and began to regret this, as it turns out that there are a lot of small details in the design of this room, such as pop culture references painted into the mural on the walls. We explored the rest of the grounds, which are all similarly detailed and fascinating. I took multiple pictures of a fantastic golden building, moments later realising I’d been taking pictures of what has to be the world’s grandest toilet. (However there is even a story behind this; the white of the temple represents the mind, while the gold of the restroom building represents the body, symbolising how people focus on worldly desires and money, when they should be focusing on the mind instead of those material goods.) All in all, I can’t recommend the White Temple enough. The stories behind the design are hugely interesting, as is the design itself. I could have easily spent hours going over the details of the whole place, and if our day trip had just consisted of a trip to see this temple I would have been quite happy.
However this was just the beginning, so we filed back into the minibus and made our way to the next destination. A short time later we arrived at Baan Dam (The Black House Museum). Baan Dam is a collection of ominously darkly painted buildings stretched over a pretty garden area, which features works by artist Thawan Duchanee, as well as other Thai artists. The Black House is an appropriate name, as everything here feels dark. Most of the exhibitions consist of various parts of dead animals, on occasion the whole animal, but if not then skins, bones, teeth and heads seemed to be the favourites. The whole place echoes with a tribal/Nordic vibe and although all of the animals supposedly died of natural causes, the sense evil hangs over you heavily as you wander around. Considering it is a museum I felt that the place didn’t give me quite enough information about what I was looking at, but I was able to find out that what we were seeing was Thawan Duchanee’s interpretation of Buddhist philosophy. The whole place is intriguing, just because of how creepy and weird it is, but following the trip to the White Temple with a stop off here was a fantastic way to do it, as the stark contrast between the two highlights the individuality of both, especially when you consider that they have been designed with the same Buddhist ideals in mind, just interpretated in two (very) different ways.
After a quick stop for a buffet lunch, our next destination was The Golden Triangle, which is an area in the very north of Thailand where its borders meet those of Myanmar (or Burma) and Laos, an area that has found infamy due to being one of the worlds leading producers of Opium. We arrived to find a fairly small town that had clearly set itself up to take advantage of the tourism in the area, and we were led towards the river, where we were directed onto a boat. The boat made its way onto the Mekong river, and as we made our way across the water a new tour guide took his place at the head of the boat to give us some information about where we were. First of all he pointed out the three separate counties to us from the water, and then directed our attention to another piece of land, called ‘No Mans Land’. This, he explained to us, was a lawless ungoverned area where Opium producers would meet with Chinese traders to sell Opium, which due to a lack of common currency they would buy using gold (hence the name Golden Triangle.) Our new tour guide continued to tell us how due to the lawlessness of the area many people would be killed during the drug trades, and their bodies would be thrown into the river we were currently making our way across. It was all interesting stuff, but don’t come expecting to expereince that lawless, Wild West feel, because it’s nothing like that. What happens is you’re packed onto a boat with 20 other tourists, made to put on a life vest, and hit with a mixture of information and jokes for the duration of the journey which keeps you well away from unthing remotely unsafe.
We continued to make our way up the river with anything of interest being pointed out, including a large number of casinos along the coasts of Myanmar and Laos, which Thai people would visit to use, due to gambling being illegal in Thailand. (Gold star to whoever decided to call a small cluster of casinos along the Laos coast ‘Laos Vegas’). Eventually we docked at a small Laotian island where we were told we’d be given a welcoming gift. We were led to a large tourist market stall where an older woman, not without a hint of crazy behind her eyes, met us with a smile, and beckoned us to gather around a table where she had five large glass jugs laid out on a table. She went on to explain that it is a Laos tradition to make whisky with animals – or parts of animals – fermented in it. The idea behind it is the spirit of the animal infuses in the alcohol, and then passes onto whoever drinks it. For example, the one I was peer pressured into trying (and being the first of the group to try I’ll add) was whisky with a tiger penis fermented in it. The idea behind that one is that it improves performance in the bedroom. I wont go into the results but if that’s not your thing there were many other options; snake, scorpion, lizard, turtle. It didn’t taste of anything other than cheap alcohol, and more importantly when you stop and think about what you’re doing it’s actually pretty horrific (we weren’t given any information regarding where the animals had come from or how they’d died), so it’s not something I’m particularly proud of. The weighing up a new expereince/culture with the moral implications of what you’re doing can be one of the harder parts of travelling, and sadly there’s no definite answer, it’s one of those situations where you have to weigh it up and do whatever sits best with you as an individual.
Following on from that point nicely was our last stop of the day, a trip to visit a long neck village. We’d been interested by the idea of these villages, so we took up the opportunity to try it, especially as visiting them is not something we think we’d be able to do on our own. When we arrived, we found the village (or the part of it we got to see) arranged in one strip, with wooden and straw shacks along each side. At the front of these shacks sat women – we didn’t see any men of the tribe – and as promised, they all had golden rings wrapped around their necks making them appear elongated. The women were selling various trinkets such as cheap pieces of jewellery and cloths. My issue with the situation was that it all felt very forced. The uncomfortable way the women were all sat outside of their shacks waiting for the next bus load of tourists to wander through and snap pictures of them, made it feel like a zoo. The women didn’t seem to mind the tourists there, and I’m sure the opportunity for them to make some money is well received, but we came wanting to expereince something of an authentic Thai tribe, and this did not feel that way at all.
We headed back to Chiang Mai, and the three hour drive gave us an opportunity to reflect on the day, which had been fantastic. Some bits had been better than others, and it was a shame that ended on a bit of a low note, but we had experienced so much, so much of it thoroughly fascinating, that it couldn’t be considered anything other than a success. We did so much that dedicating anything other than a full, detailed post to it just wouldn’t have done the day justice. We ended our day by going out with the new friend from our hostel we’d got to know over the course of the day, and celebrated by going to watch a cabaret show, which was of course fantastic fun, and followed that up with quite a few drinks. We awoke groggy headed the next morning, and packed our bags as it was finally time to leave Chiang Mai for the last time. We were beginning to head down south, to visit the (highly anticipated) islands, but would be stopping at a few places in central Thailand on the way. Sukhothai and it’s ruins was the first stop, which is where I’ll leave it for now. This post has been a bit of a history lesson itself at times, so hopefully it’s been enjoyable, I guess it never hurts to learn right? I’ll hopefully be back in the next few days to let you know how we found Sukhothai, Kanchanaburi, and a few places in between.