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Northern Thailand, December 2011

February 5th, 2012

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At the beginning of December I joined my wife’s family to northern Thailand; Chang Mai, Chang Rai and Mae Sai. It sounds more exciting that it was. Since it was a packaged tour it was more about shopping than any thing else really. The non-shopping things were mostly not something I would normally do — Elephant show, Monkey show, things like that. Given my stance on animals I would not have gone on this trip at all except that my wife’s whole family goes somewhere every year and we have never joined them. Now that Tori is old enough to go it was more for her than anything else.

The first day we started by visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep [wikipedia.org]. While not the oldest or biggest temple it was at least a working temple and not just a tourist attraction. After the Wat we took a ride further into the hills to visit a Hmong village. Not much to the village mostly just people selling the same crafts and trinkets you could buy most places, only cheaper. They did have a display garden showing a lot of plants that were traditionally grown in the hills — most interesting of all was the small grove of heroin poppies; planted just to show the tourists how heroin is harvested.

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After lunch it was off to the factories; leather, semiprecious stones, paper umbrellas and honey. We didn’t buy much, first day is a bit too soon to spend money. And the factories were not really that interesting anyway.

The second day we visited the Hill Tribe Village, where we saw women from the Karen hill tribes; Long Neck Women are the most famous and the reason everyone goes but we saw a few different traditional outfits. The village is not run by the UN like some of the larger ones, which are really refugee camps. And apparently the UN has warned about the evils of the villages being run as tourist attractions. I don’t know, but the village was a bit sad. The older women seem to be OK or at least resigned to their fate and have not problem with having their photos taken, they will even pose in better places so the light is good. The younger women where more shy. They again the younger women had cell phones and I expect that they know those photos will end up on the internet. The second afternoon was all about not-so-wild animals. Elephants at Mae Taeng Elephant Park. Followed by Monkey and then snake shows and finally tigers (who I think were drugged, as people could pay to sit with the tigers and take photos.)

The third day started early as we joined another tour group and took a large bus to Chang Rai [wikipedia.org], The Golden Triangle and Mae Sai [wikipedia.org]. And on the way we stopped at a hot spring along the highway called Mae Khajan. Where you can buy and boil your own eggs in the hot spring, right after you soak your feet in a less hot part of the spring.

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The only stop in Chang Rai was Wat Rong Khun [wikipedia.org] also known as the White Temple. Rong Khun is modern but it’s stark white exterior is interesting, most Thai temples have a lot of gold but the only part of Rong Khun that is gold is the bathrooms. An interesting juxtaposition. The walls inside the temple are also decorated with all sorts of modern characters on one wall opposite he images of nirvana. All-in-all an interesting place.

The Golden Triangle on the other hand is a tourist trap. The term “Golden Triangle” used to refer to the area centered in Northern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, so called, as I understand it, because the trade in Heroin was only done in gold. Anyway, these days the Thai tourism office has taken the name as it’s own to refer to the place where the Ruak River and the Mekong river come together forming the boarders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. The place is a total trap; just a collection of stalls selling tourist trinkets and bobbles. The government built a large gold buddha to server as the focal point of the shops and restaurants. And you can take a boat trip around the rivers to get close to all three countries. Myanmar’s boarder is dominated by a Thai owned casino and the Lao border is dominated by a Chinese owned casino. But you can’t get to those so easily.

You can however get to Don Sao Island, which is technically in Laos but since it is operated as a tourist trap by the Chinese who have leased all the land up and down the Lao side of the river you don’t need a visa to visit — you don’t even need to show your passport, just pay the toll. There is not much to see on Don Sao island, a few stalls selling things, mostly the same as on the Thai side of the river, but cheaper and some dirty Lao kids playing in between the stalls. Totally not worth the price of the boat ride since you don’t get a stamp in your passport.

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The final stop on the day trip was at Mae Sai. Mae Sai is the northern most point in Thailand, where you can (assuming you have the right visas) walk across a bridge into Myanmar. The size of the street market on the Thai side of the boarder is impressive, stall after stall selling everything you can imagine in a Southeast Asia street market.

On the last day while everyone else slept in I took a ride to one of the markets to see the monks making their rounds to collect offerings for food. I had expected to see the monks walking around and the people giving various offerings. What I saw instead was that the monks just stand around outside the market and people, as they leave the market, buy pre-packaged offering (rice, veggies and a lotus) to give the monks. This makes the whole process seem less exotic and more commercialized. I don’t know why I expected anything different but I did feel a bit disappointed in the end.

All-in-all it was an OK trip. Some interesting things, a lot of things I would not have gone too on my own, and Candice and Tori got to spend time with the extended family on that side. Which was the point. I was not that impressed with what I saw of Northern Thailand, but I guess I should reserve my judgment, maybe if you get off the packaged tour path you can see more really cool stuff.

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