(Note: Bangkok was the "hub city" for our 10-month Asian trip; we came and went from it 7 times)
The city offers many forms of
transport. Ferries on the river were crowded,
but as easy to catch as a bus on a street corner. They roar in, people hop
off/on and the ferries take off again - all in a matter of seconds. We loved zooming along the breezy
We did the usual tourist things in
This busy and fascinating, congested and frantic city is a mixture of traditional and modern. Ancient ways pop up unexpectedly. In front of the modern Sogo shopping center is an elaborate spirit house where local people line up to make offerings of incense, fruit and flowers, or pay money for the release of caged birds. In the background, elaborately coiffed and costumed women perform traditional Thai dances. A major park is filled with businessmen hurrying to work, joggers in Nikes and large groups of elderly people doing Tai Ch'i. The Muay Thai (kickboxing) matches were a first (and probably last) for us. As bloody and controversial as the matches were, the crowd of about 3,000 men (virtually no women attended) put on the most amazing performance. Before the last round of each match, the men (there were almost no women) stood to place their bets with others in the crowd. With arms stretched toward the ceiling they chanted a raspy, guttural "yabadabadaba" and with fingers extended and waving, signaled their quite substantial bets. The incredible pitch of excitement, a near-hysterical frenzy, was comparable to the scene in the film The Deer Hunter when the crowd placed bets on Christopher Walken as he played Russian roulette.
CHALIANG, SI SATCHANALAI & SUKHOTHAI
Instead of going directly from the
Sukhothai airport to the Sukhothai ruins, we continued on by local
bus to a small hotel near the ruins at Chaliang and Si Satchanalai. These two
15th century wat (Buddhist temple) complexes caught our imagination
because they've been left more or less in a ruined state. We wandered all
alone among the silent, lichen-covered sculptures.
We wandered all alone among the silent, lichen-covered sculptures.
Lou climbed the narrow brick steps to the top of the Chaliang wat (below), without
realizing how steep and crumbly they were. He peered from the top in
consternation before slowly edging down again and was glad to return to the
ground in one piece.
Old Sukhothai was Thailand's first capital and is one of the pre-eminent archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Sukhothai is to Thailand what Angkor is to Cambodia, Borobudur to Indonesia and Bagan to Myanmar. Spread out over 70 square kilometers, Sukhothai consists of dozens of restored temples, palaces, Khmer prangs, gigantic Buddha images and a fine museum. We biked through them all (except the museum.) While Sukhothai is impressive, we had a better time at Si Satchanalai and Chaliang because they have not been as restored. The Thai cultural ministry has come under heavy criticism from international art historians and archaeologists for inauthentic restoration of Sukhothai. It put incongruous new heads on old sculptures, reconstructed whole sections of temples and - in some cases - actually moved ancient temples to create more efficient visitor movement through the park!
The northern city of Chiang Mai
charmed us into three visits.
The first trip was mainly for handicraft shopping and cooking school; the second
was to prepare for hill-tribe trekking and the third was to take part in the annual Loi Kratong (Festival of Lights)
after our trek.
after our trek.
is a shopper's paradise. Our wallets suffered great damage here, as we succumbed
to every temptation - from ancient Yao masks and paintings to silver jewelry and
hand-dyed textiles. For an account of our shopping binge, see
SHOPPING which also describes three days
at the delightful
Chiang Mai is a major base for trekking in hill-tribe country, where several minority peoples live. Our trek near here was less adventurous than the trek we did in Nepal, although it did have its x-rated moments. Through a Chiang Mai tour agent, we found a guide with lots of local knowledge and a good command of English. He hired a porter to carry our gear and food, and the four of us went on a six-day trek into a hill-tribe area three hours southwest of Chiang Mai. (The man on the right was our guide, Wimarn; on the left, our porter La.)
At first, the trail was gentle, rising past terraced rice fields ripening in the sun. Soon the path became steeper and wound through hills covered with jungle growth that reminded us of Hawaii. Scattered amongst unfamiliar greenery we spotted ferns, ginger, orchids, and banana and koa trees. After a couple of hours we reached the Hmong village of Hua Yen. The ancestors of these people came to this area from Laos 180 years ago, fleeing from persecution in southwestern China. The Hmong, one of several minority hill-tribes living in Thailand, are among those who raise (very few, nowadays) opium poppies in addition to rice and other food crops. Hua Yen is a poor village. The homes are single-room wooden structures with packed clay floors and thatched or rusty metal roofs. Cooking is done over an open fire in the smoky living space; the sleeping area is typically a raised wooden or bamboo platform. There is no electricity, water is piped from a stream into a faucet set between the houses and there is a single outhouse for the village.
The nights on this trek were surprisingly cold - dipping into the mid-forties. We couldn't cuddle to keep warm, even though our fleece-lined sleep-sacks zip together, because our mosquito nets are single-bed size. We realized later that the malarial mosquitoes were cowering from the cold and never showed up, so we might as well have dropped the nets and zipped our bags together. In spite of the cold and our need to rotate like fowls on a spit due to the very hard floor, we awoke refreshed and ready to hit the trail.
The next night was spent in the Karen village of Little Mae Mu - a sharp contrast to the Hmong village we'd just left. The ramshackle Hmong homes were built close to the ground and the village was rather messy, but the Karen live in neatly-maintained pole houses with pigs, chickens and water buffalo living underneath.
Our camp on the third night was idyllic - two thatched huts in a bamboo grove on the banks of the Mae Mu River. One hut was a cooking shed, the other a long bunkhouse open at both ends. Between them was a rustic table perched just above the river. Our guides prepared several excellent Thai dishes over an open fire, while we bathed in the stream near a small waterfall. Later, the sound of rushing rapids lulled us to sleep in our bamboo hut.
During breakfast, three elephants - a mother, child and auntie - lumbered into camp. We watched the adults confidently ford the stream, while the nervous baby hesitantly crashed around in the bushes and finally slid down a low mud bank into the water to catch up with its mama. The two sisters knelt at the water's edge for a bath and back scrub by their mahouts (elephant handlers). Then the two young men saddled their beasts with layers of felt, burlap and bark matting and lashed a howdah (a bamboo throne-chair) on each one. The mahouts sat atop the elephants' heads and we climbed aboard our howdahs behind them. Joan rode auntie, Lou rode mama and baby stayed real close. Our guide and porter followed along on foot and were soon out of sight behind us. Some of the terrain was incredibly steep and on the down slopes we hung on tightly because the howdahs had no bars across their fronts, and the lurching motion threatened to hurl us over the elephants' heads with each step. After a few minutes of white-knuckled descent, we began moving up a hill and our struggle to stay on board eased.
We quickly learned that this wasn't so much a ride for us as a breakfast stroll for the elephants. At our rate of progress, it would have taken Hannibal a hundred years to cross the Alps. For every careful, trunk-measured step, the elephants hauled in three trunks-full of bamboo leaves. (At this point, before he even had time to review input-output theory, economist Lou empirically derived another travel maxim: Always ride the lead elephant! Joan's elephant repeatedly plopped steaming piles of manure right in front of his.)
Attempting to walk after two hours of riding an elephant is not easy, but we managed to hike for a couple of hours to the Karen village of Hoi Cow Leap. Tired and grimy, we were directed to a place to shower below the village, where a bamboo trough channels stream water into a shallow, sandy-bottomed pool. Lou went down to bathe first. When Joan arrived a few minutes later, she was surprised to see several village teenagers giggling helplessly on the other side of a very sudsy, very naked Lou. The trail from the rice fields ran right through the stream next to the shower. Having read that Westerners affront local customs by bathing nude, Joan called to Lou: "Turn around!" Not about to be told what to do, Lou calmly continued to wash his hair. Eventually, the young man and four young women skittered past him, averting their eyes and giggling even louder.
After dinner, we spent time with villager Naw Pae in her pole house. Along one side of the single room was a large, dirt-filled fire bed. Posts at the four corners supported a soot-blackened woven mat above the fire for drying rice and tobacco. A couple of pillows and dirty quilts were the only furnishings. Naw Pae smoked a pipe filled with home-grown tobacco as we chatted with her through our guides' interpretation.
Next morning the trail led down through deeply eroded ruts of red clay similar to those on the Kauai trail from Kokee down to Nualolo, and the clicking birds sounded like Hawaii's shama thrushes. We were jolted out of memory and back to Thailand whenever gibbons howled in the nearby trees or huge elephant footprints appeared in the trail. Soon we found ourselves well off the path. Naw Pae's husband Pati Moi was leading us to the next village, but he was more focused on foraging. Along the way, he gave us bits of wild plants to taste - berries, guava, purply-black pole beans and lemon verbena. He also gathered some medicinal herbs and a few spindly spiders to mash and apply to wounds.
In the afternoon, Pati led us for another couple of hours - sometimes on hands and knees - through a dense thicket and a giant bamboo forest to the Karen village of Mae Son Ga Thai. We spent the night here in the home of old Mugha ("Auntie") and her son. In the terraced fields below the house we could see a family harvesting rice in the late afternoon sun. The parents gathered enormous sheaves of rice stalks and hauled them to a tarpaulin, where their five-year-old son threshed the rice by slamming the sheaves onto a board. While falling asleep that night, we could hear the father threshing by firelight down in the field. Around 4:00 in the morning, someone began working the treadle-powered husking machine under the house. The rice farmers work almost around the clock at harvest time. A village elder told us the harvest had been a good one. There would be more than enough bags of rice to feed the village for the next year. Family wealth here is not measured by bank accounts or government assistance, but by the number of bags of rice under one's roof. Before we left, Mugha's nephew brought out fabrics she had hand-woven on a primitive folding loom. These brilliant orange, red and purple fabrics are used for the traditional striped skirts that Karen women wear. To Mugha's delight, we purchased two pieces of fabric for a modest sum. Cash is hard to come by in this remote community, which exists primarily on subsistence farming and a bit of barter.
The next day's hike was a tough one for Joan. First she slid off a mossy rock while attempting to cross a river and landed in swirling water up to her waist. Next she crashed through a dilapidated bamboo bridge into a ravine. Then she bashed her head on a bough hanging over the trail. Finally, she stumbled over a root and sat down hard on the path. All this bumbling set her off on gales of laughter - so her companions weren't worried that she'd hurt herself.
On our last night we stayed in another Karen village, Big Mae Mu, filled with beasts of all kinds. We especially enjoyed a litter of ten tiny piglets and a herd of charming water buffalo. That evening, we sat around the hearth drinking homemade rice whiskey with our host family.
The trek ended at the Mae Mu River, where - with some help from a rafter - we pretended to be Huck Finns as we poled our way downstream on a long bamboo raft. Cool water swirled over our bare feet as we poled along - a fine finish to a good trek.
The festival of Loi Kratong is held annually to honor and placate the god of water. For three nights during the November full moon there are processions, fireworks and the release of thousands of tiny candle-lit boats and hundreds of hot air balloons. Most of the balloons are large (3x6 feet) cylindrical constructions of white rice paper. At the open lower end there is a small, cord-suspended vessel of kerosene. When lit and released, the balloons rise rapidly into the black night like glowing fireflies. Most of the balloons float for an hour or more; others streak to the ground in spectacular flameouts.
We began our evening with a walk
across Narawat bridge and found the perfect place for dinner - the outdoor
Gallery Restaurant sitting in a lantern-lit garden on the edge of the
Walking home, we were alarmed
at the reckless abandon with which kids were setting off fireworks. Worse still
were the flaming balloons streaking to the ground. The next day we learned that
one of these had ignited and destroyed an entire city block of homes between
the Market and the
From Thailand we flew to CAMBODIA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: Thailand (Lonely Planet)
Holiday Mansion Hotel, 53 Wireless
Road This bland business hotel was our "home
away from home." We stored our excess luggage here, chatted with the
friendly English-speaking staff, indulged in croissants and good coffee at the
Starbucks down the street, watched CNN and luxuriated in air conditioned
comfort. Lou bargained the posted rate down to $30/night without breakfast for
our large double room with bathroom, daily newspaper, color television. The hotel is well-located near a Skytrain stop, stores and
Restaurants: Our favorite was Baan Kanitha II - sister to the Thai restaurant voted best in Bangkok three years in a row. 49 Soi ruam Ruddee 2 Ploenjit Rd. matrix.bangkokpost.co.th/entertainment/restaurants/review.php?id=35 Also good: Lemongrass (Thai), Le Dalat (Vietnamese), Rang Mahal (up-scale Indian with great views, live music) and the 19th century Author’s Lounge at the Oriental Hotel for high tea.
SI SATCHANALAI: Wang Yom Resort, $30/private cottage in a large garden, breakfast included.
CHIANG MAI: Galare Guest House. $21/double with bathroom, air conditioning and t.v. (The low season rate is $16.) This is a quiet, comfortable garden hotel in a good location along the river. (053) 81 8887
TREKKING: Lonely Planet's Thailand has useful information on trekking, including a warning to avoid over-trekked regions, where rampant tourism is adversely affecting the lives of the hill-tribes. Many three-day "treks" advertised throughout Chiang Mai are really just packaged, herded quick-trips in the company of lots of other tourists. We were glad not to have seen other Westerners during our trek. After all, it's easier to pretend you're an intrepid explorer if you aren't jammed cheek-to-jowl with other tourists! And it's easier on the landscape and the local folks, too.
Riverside Tours in Chiang Mai charged $210 for our six-day trek, which included our excellent guide Wimarn, permits and all food, lodging and transportation for two people. We chose not to carry all our personal gear, so the porter cost an additional $30. (We tipped Wimarn $50 - he was an excellent cook, a good trail companion and a helpful interpreter of local culture - and gave La $15.) The elephant ride and the bamboo rafting were an additional $12.50 each for both of us. firstname.lastname@example.org Or, contact freelance guide Wimarn Luseeda directly: Ph: (053) 27 8859
Before trekking, we visited the fascinating Tribal Museum on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, to better understand the hill-tribes. www.wcities.com/en/record/,233635/421/record.html
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com