In with the old...

Chiang Rai Travel Blog

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Early Wednesday morning we left our rooms at the Indigo Pearl to head off to the airport and begin our journey to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand.  Most of the morning and early afternoon was spent on airplanes or waiting for flights in the airport since we had to transfer through Bangkok to reach our destination.

When we finally arrived at the hotel in Chiang Rai we were welcomed by our first real monsoon storm since our arrival in Thailand.  During lunch we just sat and watched the storm from the patio as it crawled towards us from across the river.  It was one of the most beautiful storms I had seen in quite a while with roaring thunder, blustery wind which blew the heavy rain droplets almost horizontally and some wonderfully fierce lightning striking off in the distance.   We probably sat in the restaurant and watched the storm for about an hour before moving off into the lobby to spend the wet afternoon discussing what we had already seen so far, talking about our plans for the remaining days of the trip and preparing a skit about the Thanksgiving story that we were planning to perform for the children in the Akha villiage that we would be staying at the next day.

Later that evening, after the weather improved, we headed into town and had dinner at a northern-Thai style restaurant with Jim and then spent the rest of the evening wandering around the night market across the street.  Our night was rather short, however, as the rain returned around 9:00 and many of us were beat from the early morning travel.

The next morning we boarded some longboats on the dock near the hotel and began an hour long journey up the Maekok River to the place where we would begin our hike up to the village of Ban Aba.  When we arrived at our destination we were surprised to see a number of large Asian elephants waiting for us along side the river bank ready to take us part way up the mountain side to our destination.  We were somewhat shocked to see them when we arrived because earlier on in Bangkok Jim had done a rather good job of making it seem like he was unable to arrange an elephant ride for us during our visit to Thailand.  However, he did have a trick up his sleve and after a brief orentation about the hill tribes from the organization that ran our trip, we started a two hour long trek up the mountains on the back of an elephant.

The trip was spectacular, a little bumpy and difficult to get used to at first, but once the elephants were off the roads and in their natural element the journey was great.  We traveled through the jungle, passed a number of small villages set up in the hills and watched interestedly as the local villagers collected rice and their other staple crops from the fields around us.  We slowly saw the signs of civilization slip away into the lush green surroundings and were welcomed by an incredible view of the valley around us and the approaching storms as we climbed higher up the hillside.  The elephants worked hard the entire time, each carrying two of us, our baggage and its mahout (trainer) on its back and many of the other students were concerned by the end of our ride that the elephants were suffering too much for the sake of tourism by doing this kind of work.  That would be a subject we would end up debating quite a bit in the following days, but for the time being we were all rather excited that we had the opportunity to experiece the trip through the jungle and see the amazing scenery around us.

The remainder of our journey was to be on foot and take us through two other hill tribe villages and through a national park.  Along the way we stopped at the hill tribe museum in one of the Lahu villages, took a look at some of the traditional tools, toys and other household items that were collected inside and watched a short film on the practices and histories of the tribes that we would be visiting.  Our next stop was at the national park where there was a raging waterfall with an incredibly clear pool at its base that we stopped at to take a swim and wade around in to clean off a bit after hiking and riding through the hot, humid jungle for the past 3 hours.  After that we hiked for another half hour or so to Ban Aba where we would be spending the night with various Akha families and getting an opportunity to witness how they live and learn about the changes that they have been going through as the world around them starts to become more and more modern.

When we first got to the village we were greeted by a number of small children from the ages of about 2-12 at the village school.  We spent the first hour or so at the village playing games with the kids and handing out a number of toys and balloons that we had brought with us for them to play with.  The children were incredibly friendly and it seemed as though each of them would find one or two of us to tag along with for the day while we were there.  Eventually, we split up into our individual houses for dinner and returned to find an incredible, home cooked, authentic Akha meal prepared for us.  Over the course of dinner, Jim, Tom and I sat around and chatted with our host, and two of the representatives from the Mirror Foundation that organized the trip, about the food, the daily lives, and the beliefs of the people that we were visiting.   The conversation was quite interesting and enlightening and said a lot about how the ways of the Akha have changed with the recent generations.  When dinner was finished, we headed up to the village gathering house where the children were once again waiting for us so that we could perform our skit on the Thanksgiving story and the sharing of culture and ideas with new peoples.  They seemed to be quite entertained by our short, mostly wordless performance and were giggling and smiling quite merrily throughout.   Meanwhile, the chief of the village had been sitting off to the side of the room as well, and once our performance was over, he came over and thanked us for our visit and then proceded to tell us about the history of his village over the course of his lifetime.

Up until about 20 years ago, the village had been about 20km farther north in the mountains, but recent Thai laws have forced the Akah and other hill tribes to move closer to the towns.  The Thai government claims that their agricultural practices are destroying the jungles around their villages, but the general feeling is that they really just want to have greater authority over these people who are not officialy Thai citizens, nor recognize the Thai government as their own.  By contrast though, the Thai government has also been taking measures to help the hill tribes out in exchange and provide them with supplies, medicine, and other things that they may need to live more comfortably in their substinance based economy.   However, the Thai government is also "encouraging" the hill tribes to develop and try and integrate into the modern world at a pace that most of the villagers are not exactly comfortable with.  In fact, the chief expressed his fears that with the addition of electricity, television, computers, and other such modern tools in their lives that future generations will forget about their heritage and culture and begin to leave the villages for the nearby cities and towns.  As it stands many teenagers and 20-somethings have been moving to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to find service jobs and try to live the exciting modern life, and the residents of the simple villages in the hills have been gradually dwindling down.  The chief said if he were to receive anything from the Thai government that he would much rather receive livestock and food that they could grow on their own and he would gladly give up everyone of the modern tools that the Thai government had given him and his people to return to the old ways of life.  His statements had quite an impact on me and made me realize just how truly fragile that culture is in this growing, ever-changing and interconnected world, and after we were through speaking with him I felt an even greater desire to find a way to help preserve these dying ways of life after I complete my degree.

As the billions of stars began to appear overhead we concluded our conversation with the chief and joined some of the women of the village around a bonfire that they had built and were treated to a traditional Akha dance.  We joined hands with our hosts and with some of the remaining children and danced in a circle around the fire as the women sang songs from the past days and laughed and giggled as they taught us the steps to their dances.  It was quite a unique experience for us all, but yet one other tradition that is technically dying from the lives of the Akha as well for we were told by our guides that the Akha women only dance like that anymore during the few festival times of the year, and when they have outside visitors come to their village.  The only reason they will dance for the visitors is because those visitors are expected to provide a contribution to the village in return.  Essentially, what this means is that a part of the Akha culture that was once meant to be a meaningful, and important part of life, has been virtually reduced to a commerical gimmick.  While I am very glad I got to be a part of this tradition, I am also sadden by the fact that I have helped to tarnish something that was once so pure.

While the night continued to grow darker we separated into our individual houses and headed off for bed.  On my way back to the house I was staying in, however, I walked past the village shop where one of the few TV's are and noticed that they were watching the US Women's soccer team vs. Brazil in the Gold Medal Olympic Match.  When I stopped for a moment to check the score I was invited by a few of the villagers to sit with them and enjoy the game.  I couldn't help but chuckle inside at this invitation because I seem to find that no matter where I go in the world, soccer always seems to bring people from different places around the world together, even if they don't have much else in common.

Once again, we had another early morning and headed back down the hillside, this time by truck, and back to the Mirror Foundation.  The group stayed for a short while here and wandered around the grounds and purchased a number of items from the shop that were made by the villagers (the proceeds of which go to support the Foundation and the villagers directly as well).  After thanking them for organizing our trip up to Ban Aba, we presented them with the other donation out of the funds we raised and then said our goodbyes.  At that point our group split up, the majority heading off to the Golden Triangle and Opium Museum, but Shannon, Sarah G, Terri and I remaining behind at the Mirror Foundation to spend the day volunteering for them and getting to know more about what they did to help those in need in the area.

The first part of the day was spent weaving thatch roofs for a new culture center that was being built on the Mirror Foundation grounds.  The three girls from the group and I were joined by about 40 other volunteers (almost entirely girls) from Japan, Australia, Canada, the UK, the USA, Korea, Spain and other countries and spent some hours in the sun learning how to make grass roofs.  It wasn't long, however, before I was grabbed by the few men to help them put up the building's foundation, so I spent about two hours of my day with a sledgehammer, driving posts into the ground, and a hammer and nails that I used to connect planks to those posts.

When lunch came around we had an opportunity to speak more with the other volunteers at the foundation and came to find out that a number of them were there volunteering during their holidays from work, or during summer holidays from school.  In addition, they were not only volunteering their free time to help the organization out, but they were also paying the organization to do so since the Mirror Foundation provided them with food and a place to stay while they were helping.  It was interesting to talk to the girls and discover their various reasons for coming to the Mirror Foundation to volunteer and hearing all the other stories about the travels and adventures they had had before and during their stay.  Funny enough, we happened to get a visit from the ice cream man during our lunch break chat, and came to find out that he makes a rather large haul when he drives up to the foundation because so many of the volunteers need a tasty, cool treat after spending the day working in the sweltering, humid heat.

After having an hour or so free time and relaxing, Sarah, Shannon, Teri and I joined about 6 of the other English speaking volunteers and headed back into Chiang Rai to teach English at one of the elementary schools.  We arrived at a classroom filled with students around 10-12 years old who were all anxiously awaiting for us to arrive so they could practice their conversation skills.  When we got to the room we all split off and went and sat with a group of kids and spent the next hour chatting, playing games, and asking questions about one another to encourage the kids to speak English.  While pushing the English language on other cultures is another one of those things I have somewhat of an issue with, I do have to admit that I had a lot of fun with the kids and they seemed to really enjoy themselves as well and feel really good about themselves when they were able to speak successfully.  I suppose if I was doing nothing else then helping them to feel good about learning then I accomplished something good that day.

When we were done at the school, one of the guys from the organization dropped us back off at the hotel and we said goodbuy to the new friends that we had made that day.  We took some time to clean up and chat with the rest of the group about their experiences in the Golden Triangle, before heading into town again for dinner at a restaurant where traditional thai dancers and musicians performed while you ate.  A few of us capped off the night by walking back to the night market and spending some time gathering souvenirs and taking in the full weekend market experience that we were not able to see on the prior rainy night.

This morning we arrived back in Bangkok and have spent most of the day decompressing.  We have plans to head to see some Thai Boxing tonight and are trying to determine what to do during our last few days here as a group.  It's definitely hard to believe that we only have four days left together as a group... time has gone by so incredibly fast.

Anyway, I shall likely have more to report soon as I suspect our last few days will be quite full and interesting...

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Chiang Rai
photo by: Pearl510