Our 19-day stay in Thailand began with a crazy, 15-hour overnight bus from Luang Prabang, Laos to the border town of Huay Xai. The bus stopped nearly every hour to let the engine cool and crawled down hills at a walkable pace to ensure the brakes wouldn’t overheat. We sat in the front row of the bus with a terrifying view of what was unfolding on the road in front of us. Once at the border, leaving Laos was a much smoother experience than our previous interaction with Laotian immigration. A quick boat ride took us across the river to Thailand where we caught a ~2 hour minibus to Chiang Rai.
We had arranged to stay at Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai, a collection of bungalows about 45 minutes outside of town. Nok, the wife in the husband and wife team that run Bamboo Nest, met us in the city. On our way out of town, she made multiple stops for for ice, bread, produce, etc. The ride was relatively straightforward until about 5km from the Nest where the dirt roads became terrifyingly uneven and the truck struggled its way up incredibly steep inclines inches from sharp drop-offs. When we arrived at the property, the tense drive seemed well worth it. Our thatched roof bungalow sat on the side of a hill overlooking rice paddies and mountains as far as the eye could see. With a hammock offering the views at Bamboo Nest, the modern amenities available at more conventional hotels suddenly seemed unnecessary.
For our second and third days in Chiang Rai, we scheduled a 2-day trek exploring the area around Bamboo Nest. Noi, Nok’s husband, led us through the jungle, hacking a path with his machete as we went. Noi is maybe 100lbs at most with energy and enthusiasm that far outweigh his size. He has amazing English, loved sharing information about the plants/animals/people we encountered along the way, and filled the silence with a series of noises and songs. His dog Khaw (pronounced “how”, Thai for white) accompanied us the whole way. He was the most well-behaved dog we’d ever seen. As we entered each village, the locals dog would bark and growl, but Khaw calmly strutted along our side, never making a sound. If Noi asked him to stay, he’d remain there until instructed to come. At one point, Noi forgot about Khaw until after about 5 minutes hiking beyond our last stop. He turned around and called to Khaw across a wide valley and a few minutes later the dog rushed up to join us.
The first day of our trek was hot. The sun was relentless and for much of the walk, a path was no where to be found. In the thick of the jungle, Noi pointed out poisonous caterpillars and massive ants as the mosquitoes kept up their typical assault on Ting. Needless to say, conditions were less than comfortable. We brought two big bottles of water but blew through those in no time. None of the villages we stopped in had refrigeration or bottled water. Noi worried that their well water might be contaminated with parasites that would make us sick. Luckily, when we stopped in a Lahu (a hill tribe of Tibetan descent) village for a lunch of some sticky rice cooked in bamboo and veggies Noi had scavenged along the way, we were able to send someone on a motorbike to fetch water from another nearby village. We got 4 more huge bottles but as the day wore on, it was unclear when we’d next have access to clean water and our new stash didn’t seem like enough for the rest of the 2-day trek. There’s nothing better than pacing your drinking when its nearly 100 degrees in the Thai jungle…
Exhausted, we reached a village in the early evening where Noi claimed we’d spend the night. He said he was the only person who ever brought foreigners through the village and that he hadn’t visited in over a year. He set out to find a place for us to stay while we sat with Khaw and watched him be rejected at house after house. Finally, we were taken in by an old friend of Noi’s. His wife and daughter had left him a few months earlier and Noi worried that he just sat at home and smoked opium all day. Regardless, he was eager to take us in and proved to be a great host. We explored the village a bit and met some of the local children before eating dinner by candlelight (no electricity). We were all ready to pass out for the night when Ting spotted a huge spider, 2-3 inches in diameter, directly above our bed. Ting is crack to the bugs of Southeast Asia. Fearing some horrific poison spider bite emergency, several hours walk from any paved road let alone medical facilities, we asked Noi to deal with the giant spider. He calmly poked it out of sight mere inches from where it originally sat. Problem solved…
The second day of the trek was much less strenuous than the first. We made our way through a few more Lahu villages until we reached a boat that took us down river to a traditional Akha village. The Ahka people are a nomadic tribe also originally from Tibet. Through the centuries they have migrated south and many of the Akha in Thailand settled in their current villages after fleeing the decades of civil war and unrest in Burma. Some of the Akha women maintain their traditional way of dress and almost all maintain the questionable dental hygiene practice of chewing betel nut and limestone paste wrapped in clove leaves. What little of their teeth isn’t ground away after years of chewing this combination is stained a deep blackish red by the betel nut. Although many of the hill tribes descend from the same area, it is remarkable how different they are and how they have preserved their unique ways of life over the centuries. Learning about their culture and traditions never gets old for us.
After day one, we were happy to take it easy and just enjoy the sights. After a boat ride, an elephant ride, a long walk, and a ride in the back of a pick-up truck, we finally made it back to Bamboo Nest. We enjoyed another sunset from our hammock, ate dinner, and passed out.
On our third day, we checked into a guesthouse in the heart of the city. The place had two pet rabbits that roamed freely and were as eager to be petted as any puppy. We spent the night exploring Chiang Rai. We wandered through the night market and ate traditional Northern Thai food at a restaurant called Barrab. Our favorite dish was khao soi, a combination of crispy egg noodles and boiled rice noodles served with a curry sauce.
The next day we rented a motorbike with plans to take a few day trips to sights near Chiang Rai. In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road. It took literally one turn for Eric to drive on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. After a few minor adjustments, everything was straightened out and the rest of our driving went without a hitch. The first day of our rental we drove about 65km north to the border with Myanmar. The trip would allow us a quick look at Myanmar and give us the chance to renew our Thai visas so they’d last for the rest of our stay in Thailand. Once across the border, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around to a few local attractions: a Shan meditation temple, Shwedagon pagoda where we were led in a prayer ceremony, and a “gem” market. We were dropped off back at the border crossing and had about an hour to explore a nearby market that seemed like an even faker version of the all-too-familiar Shanghai fake market. Overall, we enjoyed Myanmar and found the people incredibly friendly.
The next day we rode our bike to Mae Salong, a village high in the mountainous region northwest of Chiang Mai. The village is home to a Chinese Kuomintang refugee community, originally settled by the troops of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division who refused to surrender after the Communist victory in 1949. Instead, they fought their way out of China and into Burma where they lived/hid in the jungles until granted asylum in Thailand. Once the epicenter of the opium trade, the poppy fields have since been replaced by fields of tea. The village felt like a return to China. Most of the residents spoke Chinese and all of the street signs/business names were written in Chinese characters. The villagers are originally from Yunnan province in Southwest China and are proud of their Chinese heritage. The children of the Chinese families attend the government run Thai language school until 3pm and then attend the community organized Chinese language school until 8pm. We spoke to one Thai-born Chinese man who’s father had been a soldier with the 93rd division. He explained to us that after the war, his father was not permitted to return to China for many years. Now he can travel to China freely to visit family and holds a Thai, Chinese, and Taiwanese passport. It’s worth mentioning that the man we spoke to had excellent spoken Mandarin with little discernible accent. The rest of the day we ate some delicious Yunnanese noodles, visited a chedi dedicated the king’s mother, and zipped around the beautiful scenery as we got more confident taking hairpin turns on the motorbike.
On our final morning in Chiang Rai, we visited Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), an intricate all-white wat with much darker imagery than a typical wat. Construction began in 1996 and will finish sometime around 2070. Unfortunately, the sky was completely overcast that day and we arrived before the wat even opened. Few things are less impressive in theory than a closed, incomplete all-white building against an all-white sky. Nevertheless, the wat was a great last stop to cap off an amazing time in Chiang Rai.