On arrival at Chiang Rai International Airport there is an immediate feeling of life having suddenly slowed down a cog or two. Being my first visit to the north of the country I feel I have finally discovered the famous Thai smile and much written about ‘mai pen rai’ attitude. Even the young soldiers in full military fatigues and armed with automatic weapons have an easy going air about them. My ipod, set to random shuffle, is somewhat appropriately playing U2’s Beautiful Day.
Recently I was shafted good and proper in an elaborate airport taxi scam in Kuala Lumpur and vowed never to let myself fall prey to such tactics again. So when I’m told that there is no option other than a 200baht ‘limousine’ ride for the 8km into town I shoulder my bag and march off to the road beyond the airport thinking that I’d rather walk it than get fleeced. My stubbornness soon pays off as the moment I’m out of the gates a guy in a van pulls up and offers to take me to town for 100baht.
He drops me at ST Motorcycle on Banphaprakan Road where I get a new 250cc all terrain 6 speed Honda for the inflated price of 700baht a day. By 9.30am I’m on the open road in the direction of Mai Sai and the Burmese border. Red earth, rice paddies and grazing buffalo are plentiful along the road and the scenery just gets better the further I go. The open road, clean air and the natural environment make a welcome break from Bangkok’s metropolitan madness. I have a late breakfast of somtam, sticky rice and gai yang at a small roadside restaurant about 19km outside Mai Sai. The staff are inquisitive about what I am doing and where I am going and exceptionally friendly. I just know that I will enjoy my few days in this area.
Mai Sai is not much to look at; a cluster of grubby looking concrete shop houses and street stalls with the border crossing into Burma located, dominantly, at the far end of the main street. The border is busy and is clearly very much used for local commerce. Burmese and Thai traders come and go with goods stacked on their backs, carried on bicycles and samlor, motorbikes and pick-ups.
Just as I think I’m going to get through the vehicle channel on the bike I’m fished out by a smiling soldier and reluctantly have to leave it with the tourist police. On the Burmese side I’m issued with a receipt for my passport, which will be retained and stamped whilst I’m away. The Burmese border town of Thakhilek is even drearier in appearance than Mai Sai and evidently less developed. Wandering through the streets I come across the rather plush Allure Resort and head in to use the bathroom facilities. Inside there is a casino full of slot machines all geared to take Thai baht and there is no shortage of day-tripping Thais happy to pay to watch the reels spin.
I don’t want to spend the day travelling further into Burma and can find very little to hold my attention in Thakilek so I stop for a coffee at a quaint little street café before heading back to the border. I order a cup of black coffee which arrives in a glass and thick with condensed milk, accompanied by the obligatory complimentary hot green tea and a selection of savoury buns and cigarettes on a sale or return basis. The furnishings are all miniature, the kind you might find in a kindergarten, and there are plastic spittoons full of the discarded remnants of chewed betel by every table. The waitresses are pleasant and welcoming and waft around the customers with grace and efficiency. All the Burmese here seem to speak Thai and accept Thai Baht. My coffee and two cigarettes (not that I would normally smoke) cost 15baht.
Returning across the border is a painless experience and it suddenly occurs to me that my first impression of this part of the country was right. Everyone here seems so much happier and easy going; surprisingly even the passport control guys have a smile and a few words. In the no-man’s land of the bridge between the two border posts there is a collection of women and children sat around begging for money. They are bedraggled and filthy and at the same time pleasant and not pushy. A young girl of about three or four skips along beside me asking for ‘sam baht, sam baht ka’ in unclear Thai with a smile that would melt the stoniest of hearts. She’s grimy and wearing a filthy little dress that could have been a nice party frock in its former life. Normally I wouldn’t give money to beggars but looking at this poor little thing, not much older than my own daughter back in Bangkok I couldn’t resist and handed over the three baht she was asking for. Her eyes lit up and she thanked me and scampered back to her mother with the good news.
I head out on the road to Chiang Saen through no end of rice paddies, the smell of fires smouldering almost everywhere. Just before the Golden Triangle I pull in to the Hall of Opium, a museum dedicated to the history of the drug that this area is so famous for. It’s a large modern building and very impressive. At 300baht entrance (200baht for Thais) it’s a bit steep and I challenge the staff about the two tier pricing. The first girl looks embarrassed and can’t think of anything to say when her more talkative side-kick steps in, and with more than a dollop of sarcasm asks if I pay tax and if I am Thai and goes on to say this is Thailand etc etc. I point out that Thais don’t pay tax in other countries but still pay the same rate as the locals. She shrugs her shoulders and asks for my 300baht. This turns out to be my only negative experience throughout the trip and is actually quite amusing. The museum is well laid out and very informative, the only downside being the rather one sided picture of history that is presented. But despite that and the extortionate entrance fee it is well worth a visit.
A short ride down the road is the Golden Triangle. This is basically a collection of street stalls selling hill tribe goodies at the point of confluence between the Mekong and Ruak rivers, where Loas, Burma and Thailand actually meet, creating a triangle. The golden bit comes from the lucrative production of opium once ubiquitous in this area. The village is actually called Sop Ruak but all the maps have it listed as Golden Triangle, which obviously has better tourist pulling clout than Sop Ruak. The place is positively teeming with tourists foreign and local, mixed with groups of hill tribe kids dressed in colourful traditional dress, licking ice creams and smiling for pictures. The other dominant feature, apart from the river and neighbouring countries, is the large golden Buddha statue, perched high above the road by the side of the river.
Further down the road, about 10km or so is, Chiang Saen. Much older than Mae Sai, Chiang Saen has a lot more character and various ancient ruins for viewing. The sun is starting to go very low and I want to get back to Chiang Rai to find some accommodation, via Chiang Saen Lake, so I more or less just drive through Chaing Saen, stopping very briefly for a look at Wat Chedi Luang. It looks like a good place to spend a night and I make a mental note to return. A few km out of Chiang Saen on the road to Mae Chan is the lake. I don’t really know why I make the effort to go there except that it is a peaceful spot to stop for a drink and to get off the bike and stretch my legs. Back in Chiang Rai I blindly cruise the streets on the bike looking for accommodation and for some daft reason settle on a grubby place called the
Krung Tong Hotel just off Banphaprakan Road. It’s more of a cheap and aged apartment block than hotel and I get a very basic room with ‘en-suite’ and a fan for 270baht. The shower is filthy and has evidence of previous guests encrusted on the walls, the mattress feels like solid teak and the pillow feels as though it’s been stuffed with granite. However, it seems a good idea at the time and isn’t too expensive.
Having not eaten since the morning I gorge myself on Thai food just around the corner from the hotel and set off to wander the Chiang Rai nightlife. In the centre there is a really good night bazaar that is definitely worth a wander, even if you’re not interested in buying anything. I weave in and out of the rows of stalls and open fronted shops free from the usual hard sell you get in Bangkok. The main focus of the bazaar seems to be handicrafts and there’s an abundance of wooden ornaments and ceramics for sale plus clothes, food, cloth, and the usual array of weaponry available in most Thai tourist areas. There are also several stalls with artists prepared to sketch your portrait for a reasonable amount of cash, and given the quality of what they are producing it seems like a bargain.
Not far from the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is the main drinking area and I wander past numerous pubs with pool tables and TVs, restaurants and massage parlours. There is also a small section devoted to go-go bars and what looks like pick up joints. Not being a regular frequenter of this kind of establishment I decide to have a quick beer in one and see what the more seedier side of Chiang Rai nightlife is like. I wander in to a go-go bar with the rather unimaginative name of, The Go-Go Bar, perch myself on a seat as close to the door as possible and order a Heineken. It’s a narrow bar with mirrored walls, neon and ultra-violet lighting and a small stage at one corner of the far end where a young woman in bra and knickers with a wisp of black lace tied around her waist is shuffling nonchalantly between two stainless steel polls to the Crazy Frog’s rendition of Axel F. She looks happy enough but would never win any dancing awards. Five minutes later and she’s replaced by another young woman who strips to bra and knickers and ties on her bit of lace and begins her little shuffle. The clientele is mainly Thai, with the exception of one foreigner who is holding court with three of the women, who appear to be genuinely hanging on his every word. Nobody approaches me or tries to talk to me and I’m left alone to drink my beer in peace and watch the ‘show’. Maybe I’m too smelly from my day on the bike or maybe the fact that my trainers, normally beaten-up and dirty, have come to life and started to glow radiantly in the ultra-violet light.
Sunday morning and it’s an early start. I walk the early morning streets and watch the town come to life. Monks are in abundance collecting charitable offerings from merit making locals. The early morning fruit and veg market is in full swing and doing a brisk trade with its sellers’ wares laid out on stalls and on the streets. Near the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is Doi Chaang coffee shop. I take a seat on the terrace and order coffee and a pancake whilst trying to decide on my route for the day. The local Doi Chaang coffee is definitely worth a try.
By 9am I’m on the road again, speeding along the main road towards Mae Chan feeling more confident with the bike and fast becoming addicted to the idea of exploring on two wheels. Just the other side of Mae Chan I hang a left onto the 1130 road and follow a series of windy roads indirectly up Doi Tung towards Phrathat Doi Tung. On the way I stop in an area completely devoid of all signs of life and rest. The scenery is truly stunning and the almost heavenly silence is broken only by the occasional and unmistakable sound of gunfire in the distance, a reminder that the Burmese border is close by.
The temple is bursting with Thai and what sounds like Chinese people, praying, making merit, banging on bells and walking around the Lanna style chedis that are said to date back to 911AD.
I assume that the view from here would normally be breathtaking but today there is a haze that restricts visibility to about 1 or 2 km so there is not a lot to see.
From the temple my exact route is hazy as the map I have is not concise enough to cover the small roads I end up on, so I just push on and on as the roads get narrower. I aim towards Mae Fah Luang and turn right onto the 1334 and then take several turns and go down some very narrow roads. I ride through hill tribe villages where children wave frantically and try to run alongside my bike, shouting and laughing, and mothers holding babies smile. I decide not to stop and take pictures. I know that most people do and I’m sure these people are quite happy with this but I always feel it is a bit voyeuristic and feel uncomfortable with the idea of treating someone’s home as and way of life as a museum.
At one point I realise that I’ve not seen a living soul for half an hour or more and the roads are becoming poorer in quality and less travelled. Eventually I come to a military check point on a dusty road near the Thai/Burma border where I’m stopped by a soldier with a semi-automatic rifle. He’s young and actually seems more nervous of me than I of him. He can’t speak English and asks questions in Thai; most of which I can understand. I return several questions about why he is there and about Burma etc and take the opportunity for a rest and drink of water. He’s quite friendly and lets me take some photos and seems quite happy for some company; I can’t imagine he sees an awful lot of people during his average day. Whilst I’m stretching my legs and drinking, his phone rings and he’s questioned about my presence. He then asks to see my passport. Taking it into his little hut he fingers through the pages looking for I don’t know what and it seems apparent that he can’t actually read what he’s looking at. Even so he finds the passport number and jots it down. The barrier is lifted and I’m allowed to continue with my journey.
I continue on for quite some time and eventually the roads start to get better again. At one point whilst winding my way through a series of very sharp hairpin bends I have my first, and hopefully only, fall. I take the bend too sharp, lose control and go flying. The bike has minimal damage and I’m just slightly bruised and grazed. I pick the bike up again and I’m thankful that there was no one here to witness my idiocy. But then I realise that if I had been more seriously injured I could have lay there for a long time before being found. Having a mobile is good I guess but useless if you don’t know where you are.
From then on I take more care and start to worry about the damage to the fairing on the bike. The bike is presumably an import job and therefore difficult and pricey to repair. Will I be faced with a huge bill back at ST Motorcycle? Eventually I get out onto better roads and find road signs I recognise and get back to the Mae Chan/Mae Sai road. My concerns are unfounded, as when I return the bike the woman in charge looks at the damage, makes a call and says, ‘mai pen rai ka’.
There are many things to see and do in and around Chiang Rai and I’m sure you could spend a weekend in Chaing Rai alone, before even thinking of venturing further afield and, if the signs are to be believed, it even boasts its very own beach. There are guesthouses and hotels in far better positions than the one I stayed at and a plethora of tours available. If I was to go again I would definitely stay further out in a more remote area and maybe spend longer, exploring the whole region by bike.
As for my thoughts on Chiang Rai and its people. Just great. They have a wonderful attitude towards life and a splendidly cheery disposition. The tuk-tuk driver who took me to the airport in the evening epitomised the Chaing Rai way beautifully. I asked him if he would take me to the airport and he replied ‘Yes, ok. But slooowly na, no hurry’, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of Chaing Rai on the way.