It was a tossup between Chiang Rai and Pai, two Northern Thai cities, for a little stopover on the way to Laos. As it was closer to the laos border, and everyone else seemed to be heading for Pai, I decided to go to Chiang Rai. A pretty little bus journey through the hills brought me to a pretty average, not terribly exciting, Thai city. I think the beauty of Chiang Rai lies in the surrounding hills and countryside, but is was chucking down with rain so maybe I did not see this place at its best. Much less touristy than Chiang Mai but still, for me, lacked any special atmosphere.
I considered doing a trek but the non-stop rain put that idea to bed.
A bit over the top for a traffic roundabout?
Instead I went to the hilltribe museum, which was pretty amazing. The exhibits here summarised the unique customs and cultures of the various minority hilltribes around Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, as well as highlighting modern issues that these tribes face. There was a lot of stuff on the importance of opium production in these regions (known as the ‘golden triangle’), and the impact of the tourism boom on diluting out tribal traditions. This all really helped to put my Myanmar hilltribe trek into perspective, really glad I did the trek there, where there are relatively much much fewer visitors.
Many of the minority tribes around Northern Thailand it turns out are actually refugees from Myanmar, escaping the repressive military government. Shockingly, some tribes have actually been ‘imported’ into Thailand as part of a lucrative business to provide a tourist attraction! Some of the common villages visited around Northern Thailand are actually fake villages, basically a business setup to make money from trekkers wanting to visit hilltribe people.
letter to accompany photos I sent to Burma
Many of these ‘imports’ are stuck in these villages unable to move away. This made me sad. Perhaps an obvious example is the long necked Paduang tribe that originated in Myanmar. I saw for myself at Inle lake how the long necked ladies are exploited, stuck in shop windows to drum up trade. Some of these ladies, these ‘tourist attractions’ have been moved to Northern Thailand too so that tourists can see the ‘freaks’ and take their photos. Very upsetting. The visit to the hilltribe museum reminded me of my promise to send the photos I took of the hilltribe people back to Myanmar. I put together a photo album, wrote a quick thankyou note and sent off the parcel to Thet, my trek guide in Myanmar. It felt real strange to be doing this by actual handwritten note and post, but lack of internet in Myanmar meant this was the only way! While I was at it, I sent some postcards home too, just feels more personal and real than email.
Stage at night bazaar
One thing really going for Chiang Rai was the night market. Having been to so many of these now during my time in Asia, i was a bit disappointed with the Chiang mai one, a bit same same. The Chiang Rai night bazaar had a bit of magic though. On a smaller scale than Chiang mai but the difference was the street entertainment. In the centre of the bazaar was a huge ornate terrace surrounded by colourful handicraft stalls and street food vendors. At one end was a big stage, set up in a kind of pretty mock temple, with live music. It was lovely to sit there with a green curry and a beer chang and enjoy the atmosphere.
I spent a couple of days milling around Chiang Rai before catching a local bus, (read as bumpy as hell, cramped as hell, hot as hell, journey from hell) to the town of Chiang Khong, right on the Thai/Laos border.
View across the mekong to Laos from my guesthouse, Chiang Khong
Most people just stay here for one night before crossing the border but for one I was very tired, and two I had an amazing room in a guesthouse overlooking the Mekong river. The view inspired me, i felt relaxed, so I stayed a couple of days. As my tiredness once again eased, I looked over the Mekong river to Laos, and started to feel excitement for the next phase of my journey into Indochina.