Marathon Drive to the North of Thailand
17 October Thru 25 October
(Please not the weird food cravings. I was ‘late’ but in denial)
Most people from Bangkok either fly or ride the train to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. They have their chauffeur drive separately because Chiang Mai is a major shopping city for handicrafts, woodcarvings, textiles and baskets. This leaves a car free to be filled with packages. We decided to leave very, very early and sleep in the backseat while our chauffeur drove what we expected to be about an 8 hour trip. The main attraction for me was going north to cool mountain weather. I really haven’t wanted to acquire ANYTHING since packing up the house alone earlier this year. Even in a tiny Dutch house, 10 years of accumulation adds up.
It wasn’t the high season hadn’t started yet because the monsoon was technically not yet over but this was the only week that Al could squeeze in a vacation.
5 1/2 hours after leaving home we stopped at a temple in Nakorn Nayak. It was a Saturday, so there were lots of visitors to the Wat(a Thai Temple). Some were bowing to the golden Buddha statue holding sticks of smoking incense. The respectful form of greeting in Thailand is the ‘wai’. You put your hands up like you are going to blow your nose and bow a little. Other visitors were shaking wooden cans with numbered sticks in them. One of the sticks would pop up and that would be the number of fortune paper they could pick up elsewhere.
Before lunch we stopped at Sukothai, an old historical city. All that remains of the old city are extensive ruins. We clambered around some terra cotta brick temples in a park. Many Buddha’s sat in alcoves with just the pointy headdress poking out the top. Other German, Belgian and Portuguese tourists were viewing the park by bus and bicycle. It was not cooler yet. In fact it was still uncomfortably hot. I don’t know how the bicycle tourists stood the stifling heat. We partook of some ‘fast food’ at the park, dried beef, chicken fried rice and ‘practiced’ handicraft shopping around the few stalls by the open air eating area. The typical eating arrangement in Thailand is the ‘food court’ which is just a bunch stalls selling various kinds of goodies.
Al’s secretary had given us a discount coupon for a resort hotel in Chiang Mai. We were not too disappointed when we found out that it was full because it was also under restoration. My map (Nancy Chandler’s 12th edition) showed a teak-hut bungalow hotel not too far out of the city so we headed that way. Please note our driver is a CB radio addict (probably from years on the road) and he was querying over the radio for directions. Al and I were looking at the map, where the hotel was OBVIOUSLY to the south of the city and the driver headed east and then north. Al bullied him into the passenger seat and I navigated. It was getting dark and we were tired and impatient.
Chiang Mai Riverside Villa is hands down the most romantic and primitive place where we have EVER stayed. We checked in and sent the driver off to find a guesthouse for himself. Al’s company sets a per diem for driver’s when they take you on vacation so that they can stay and eat comfortably. After hanging out in the room awhile- Al had brought his computer helicopter simulator to play with on his laptop while I poked Kleenex in the holes in the screens so more bugs couldn’t get into our room. This was pretty silly considering the huge gaps in the floorboards- We made our way across extensive dock walkways to the open air restaurant. An unusually marked tortoiseshell cat snuggled up to me and we enjoyed a very high quality dinner starting with a spicy seafood salad, the sour part of the salad was quite complex because of the addition of tamarind. Northern food is supposed to be more sour than Bangkok food. In Bangkok it is reputed that they add palm sugar to EVERYTHING. New age Chinese music was piped through the whole complex adding to the exotic charm.
Our driver could not believe we were staying; a) in such a mosquito infested dump b) so far away from the city. I guess romance is in the eye of the beholder. We tried to talk him into taking a holiday in the city and leaving us to our own devices but he would have none of that. He was here to protect us (from ourselves?) and would feel he’d neglected his duties by not going with us. We would have really like the privacy but what can you do?
After a wonderful night, with the fan running the whole time and a mosquito coil burning most of the night; Note our bed or pallet had a mosquito net we woke refreshed with not one mosquito bite. Breakfast was included with the room. Our host pressed us into ordering yet another of his lemongrass and something else tea concoctions. We munched our toast and fruit looking out into a bright and beautiful day. Al had really hoped the night before that we would enjoy some rain but no luck. There was a tiny bit of lightening at dusk but it petered out pretty quickly.
On Sunday we started shopping. There are many craft villages in the environs of Chiang Mai but we decided to start with a road that could be called ‘factory row’. Before lunch we hit a Bronze and Jade place, a huge teak furniture shop, a ceramic factory specializing in Celadon and a cotton textile store. Lunch was at an unremarkable tourist place. The cotton shop had huge ‘fixed price’ signs so I did not even bother looking.
Tired of shopping we headed off to explore a nearby cave. It sounded good to me because caves are usually cool. We walked up and up a marigold lined stairway with a huge serpent design banister. A man rented us a flashlight and we started down, down many steps to the floor of the cave. Big Buddha statues sat in lit alcoves. The walls were very smooth and the stalactites & mites seemed very old and worn down. Our driver tried his CB radio in the cave but could not get any reception even with his oversized antenna.
One scenic drive to the south of Chiang Mai is said to be cooler because it is more mountainous. We headed that way and towards two bungalow resorts marked on my map. As they both charged admission to their park like grounds we persevered on to another resort we kept seeing signs for. Belle Villa is run by RCI and has an English village feel to it. Stunning mountain views are everywhere you look. We could see a storm rolling in behind the hills but it never really made it to us. At dinner Allan told the waiter (in Thai!) that he really liked very spicy food. I ordered a ceasar salad. We both were happy. The next morning we enjoyed a very English breakfast and then headed off on the scenic (and hopefully cool) drive. Getting to Samerng was more than half the fun and we careened through windy jungle sided roads. We lunched at an absolutely wonderful bungalow resort. They had a tropical mountain garden to one side and real honest to god working waterfall to the other.
I insisted that we stop at a butterfly and orchid farm. Al wasn’t really sold on the idea until he saw a tank full of live scorpions. A little old man waved me over and pointed out a very ugly caterpillar. It looked like what as a child I called ‘tobacco worms’ but without the multicolored knobs. Then the old man picked up three huge moths and set them on my shirt.
The Lonely Planet guidebook went on and on about a restaurant called JJ’s so we went there for chocolate cake at tea time. Bakery items are hard to come by in this part of the world and it seems that Chiang Mai has more than it’s share of good western food. But maybe because of it’s size it is just easier to seek out. After being restored by our tea we made our way towards the market area. On the way we found a ‘beanie gecko’ store, a hemp clothing shop and much much more. The prices were so incredibly low that it was hard to want to bargain but of course that is part of the fun and we would never want to offend any shopkeepers by breaking with protocol.
Exhausted by shopping and cheered by the site of a sidewalk café we stopped for a drink at dusk. Little girls in ethnic costumes were trying to ply their wares on the street corner. The silver studded headdresses looked incredibly hot to me. I do understand sacrificing comfort for fashion but this was definitely over the top. An Australian couple beside us struck up a conversation. At first I was suspicious of all their questions but it turned out they were psychologists (he for a prison, she for juvenile delinquents) and they were very curious about our expat life style. It never occurred to us that we were interesting for this fact alone. Everyone we know is an expat and so it doesn’t seem very remarkable to us. Although we do turn to each other a lot when wonderful things happen (which they do A LOT) and say ‘What have we done to deserve all this?’ It’s like getting something for free, we certainly don’t feel like we’ve earned it.
Remarkably at the restaurant we chose we met our host from the Chiang Mai Riverside Villa. He had fed us so well before that we just went with his recommendation. Evidently he works at the teak hut place only on the weekends and the rest of the week he’s at this restaurant.
The next morning we headed towards the ‘baskets’ of Hang Dong after withdrawing the maximum from our account at an ATM. We were relying solely on our Nancy Chandler map now since experience had told us we could trust it but ended up in ‘Ban Tawhi’ a wood carving village instead of the basket place. I have never seen my husband in such a buying frenzy before. Soon all of our small Baht bills were gone and I was waiting in the car with the air conditioning on while Al took the driver to buy a little teak spirit house. It would not fit in the car and would have to be shipped. Stuff was so cheap it was very hard not to buy things. This is the kind of thing that you find at Pottery Barn. One shop had wonderful antique Burmese gongs but all the good ones were sold. We have a perfect place on our house for one but it will just have to wait.
I really wanted salty French fries for lunch so we made our way to an Irish place recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. The food was not disappointing. Before setting off on route #118 to Chiang Rai (another city about 3 hours to the north) we bought a king size quilt we had seen earlier and decided we really had to have. Route #118 is the ‘short cut’ to Chiang Rai as there is a more scenic road as well. I woke up after my post lunch nap in the car to a road lined with basket shops. True to my nature I walked along and fell in love with the most expensive US12.50 (and beautiful!) one in the place. The guy would not bargain, I think probably because I was so obviously rich since I was traveling with my chauffeur. So it is not true that if you speak Thai the price goes down. When we stopped to get gas Al got his usual ice cream bar. It looked really good to me so I asked for one too. He said, ‘maybe you are pregnant. You never eat ice cream.’
After trying a couple of hotels in Chiang Rai we settled on a nondescript place. Chiang Rai is very small and quiet so we walked to a restaurant mentioned in the tourist literature. We got a little lost and met up with some another English speaking tourist who was also lost. She was very young and her head was shaved bald. She was dressed entirely in black. She tried to show us where she thought we were on our map. After turning the map right side up I convinced her as to our location. We finally found ‘The Golden Triangle Inn’ which turned out also had accommodation. The English language menu had a terrific explanation of a Thai meal. Most of the other tables seemed to be full of small tour groups.
After reading about Hill Tribes in the Insight Guide I did not wish to visit any. I am sure that such a trip would rile my barely concealed outrage at exploitation of indigenous people. But that is what you do in Northern Thailand and Al and the driver wanted to go.
Wednesday morning Al received a fax from his secretary at the hotel that outlined the rules for a car rally we were participating in the following weekend. The rules were in Thai and the driver was given instructions to translate them. As he was feeling a little car sick (Al was driving today and the chauffeur was in the back seat reading) the translation would have to wait. Al wanted to go to a remote mountain village known for it’s Chinese inhabitants. Some Chinese fled to this Thai village after the communists took over China. The drive was more scenic mountain ways. The village was a dusty collection of shops selling dried cherries, preserved fruits and teas. As soon as we parked two adorable little boys pressed their noses against my car window and started begging. The prices were even more unbelievable low than before. Prematurely aged women kept dragging me to their stalls or asking me to pay them for having my picture taken with them. I couldn’t bring myself to bargain for anything. When I bought some tea I thought the lady said 400 baht so I countered with 300. Luckily the driver was there so he said the price is 40 baht (US 1) so I just paid. It is probably about one kilo of loose tea. We refused samples of the brewed tea for hygiene reason but could not resist the preserved sour fruit samples.
We made it to the most northern city in Thailand for lunch. There was a border crossing to Burma here. We couldn’t find anything resembling a restaurant -just the usual assortment of noodle carts and vats of breaded and deep fried insects. Finally we spied a covered place by the river where we sat and watched first a man and then a snake swim across the muddy brown river. Now it was my turn to go into a buying frenzy. The sidewalks are lined with stalls that sell loose ‘gems’. I thought I would risk buying a small sapphire for US20 or so. If it turned out to be cut glass I would still have a pretty stone. When the lady started the bidding at US7.25 I decided to buy a pretty green stone as well. Who knows what it really is? I’ll have them mounted as soon as I can find a jeweler I can trust. That probably won’t be until Christmas in the US.
After leaving Mae Sai and the Burmese border we took a leisurely drive back towards Chang Rai. This route took us to through the Golden Triangle once noted for its opium and heroine production. However, the Thai government has successfully eradicated the production of opium by getting the hill tribes to grow alternative crops which still managed to provide a reasonable income. An impressive part of the drive was a journey along the Mekong River with Laos on the opposing riverbank. Even here far from the sea the river is very broad and quite majestic.
We had seen a resort on the way about 1 hour south of Chiang Rai and decided to get a head start on our way home by staying there that night. Al was at the wheel and the driver was trying again to read the map (not a strong point for Thais) but finally we arrived at the resort. It was very nice but all we really needed was a clean and comfortable bed. We took a dip in the pool despite the chilly air before heading to the resort’s one restaurant. Very tired we decided to be lazy and order the buffet. Big mistake. There was a very small selection and it was cold. Since the buffet was only US3.50 (and we were crazy foreigners anyway) we ordered chef salads that had an interesting and quirky Asian interpretation –sliced hot dogs (!) I wanted a chocolaty gooey dessert but they brought the bill when we asked for the menu again. So we gave up.
The driver was unable to find a room for the night so he had slept in the car. So Al drove and let him sleep in the back. Before nodding off he said ‘don’t you want to take the pretty way?’ Of course. Always. It turned out to be a four hour trip over rudimentary roads through breathtaking scenery. The driver woke up and turned on his CB and began crunching chips noisily behind us.
Back at Chiang Mai I wanted some more salty French fries at McDonalds. There was great people watching at McDonalds in Chiang Mai. We decided the two beautiful scantily clad girls were speaking Hebrew and Al decided then and there that one day he would like to visit Israel.
We hit a few more shops on factory row, more Celedon and antiques. And then went to an umbrella and fan making village. It was very touristy and we were very tired. Although the last pottery shop we went to had lots of large, unusual & beautiful pieces. And I manage to buy four yards of hand loomed lime green cotton with a pastel diamond pattern in it. The driver had called and made a tentative reservation at yet another teak house hotel for us. We were heading towards it when he said, ‘Why waste your money? Let’s drive home tonight.’ That would give us Friday free before starting the car rally early Saturday morning. This gave us a perfect excuse to visit Auchan (they have Carrefour’s in Bangkok but we haven’t seen this particular French supermarche by us) to stock up on car food.
The first part of the drive was pretty slow and awful. The road was only two lanes and under construction most of the way. And full of very big truck trailers which had to be passed. Al said the only time he had been as terrified was on the incredibly fast night sailboat race crossing he made of the English Channel where the rail was buried under water most of the time. But eventually the road turned into a divided highway and we got home four hours earlier than expected.
Our maid managed to wash all of our laundry. We packed again to leave early the next morning on a car rally organized by Allan’s personnel department. One might question the sanity of participating in a car rally beginning in Bangkok — with the terrible reputation traffic has here and all. Well the driving was not the insane part. The rally was organized into several timed legs where we had to search for spray painted letters on trees or fence posts at certain mile markers. That we could do. But on the legs with questions in Thai we were hopeless –even though we had the driver and Al’s secretary along. The secretary has a very excitable personality and well, the driver had to drive. 200 participants in 50 cars stopped for lunch at one Esso gas station. I can only describe the food as ‘trough’ quality. The rally ended in a golf resort (here I use the word loosely) in Kanchaniburi. I took a nap by the pool while Al played 9 holes of golf with his secretary. The awards dinner went on interminably. We found out we placed 37th due mostly to our inability to answer riddles in Thai. Go figure. That night we had our own little cabin with the hardest bed either of us has ever experienced (and remember we’ve travelled in Germany).
The next morning we had an early tee time. Al bought more golf balls-good ones for him, old used ones for me. So for the entire morning we enjoyed the decadent luxury of riding around in a golf cart with our two caddies. We took the cooler from the car so if it was a hole without a snack bar we still could have a cold drink if we wanted. I played most of the holes. Trying to hit the ball off of uneven grass is very different than swinging at it on Astroturf over concrete with the highest rubber (learning) tee imaginable — like I do at the driving range. I had a couple of good shots but still have a ways to good. Sand and water don’t really intimidate me but when I stare at a 300 yard fairway I get very very nervous.
Once again life with Allan proves to be ‘not boring’. He’s off to the Philippines and I am going to try and take it easy for awhile.