Wednesday we went on our first tour group outing. We felt like were caving in to the tourism system, but it was fantastic! Our “bus” turned out to be a van of 8, plus driver and guide. We went with 4 Spaniards and 2 Germans living in Argentina and currently traveling the world. This couple had come from Europe and Africa, and after Thailand were heading to the Phillipines, Hawaii, and LA before going home. Everyone was friendly, interesting, respectful – nothing like the ugliness of American tourism stereotypes. And of course, being foreigners together breeds camaraderie like no other. Our guide, Piak (“small” in Thai), was very kind, authoritative, and knowledgeable. When he spoke, you listened, even though his accent was thick and we only understood half of what he was saying. He provided great background on culture, environmental history, and the tribe people.
(our fun tour group, with guide Piak on the far right. Awesome photo taken by Javier.)
We drove up the highest mountain in Thailand, which is also the southernmost peak of the Himalayas, Doi Inthanon. Yes, that's right, we have stood on the Himalayas!!! It was a long ride, about 2 hours, but beautiful and a way to see the surrounding countryside. Plus we got to hear about Egypt, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa from our world-traveling companions. We stopped at 2 gorgeous waterfalls, and got to hike about a bit at the first one. I had an “I can't believe this” moment looking around at the Thai jungle surrounding us. It’s pretty amazing – hopefully the photos do it justice but I am guessing they won't, as everything is SO huge, SO green, SO lush, etc. Oddly though, it was very quiet - not what I expected of the jungle. There were no bird calls at all. We would find out why a little later.
(rainy season makes for great water falls!)
(so green! so lush! so amazing! still hot and humid! hence my football stance...no touching anything!)
We also stopped on the way up to visit a hill tribe. We discerned from Piak (we think) that they were Burmese, not Chinese, descent, and called the White Karen. They live in simple houses on stilts (the Chinese groups live at ground level). This village was small, around 96 people. They grow rice (for food, not market), but since that is a once- a year harvest, they remain poor and the government has had problems with them killing too many wild animals in the forests for food.
(rice fields adjacent to the White Karan village)
The new government program has many tribes growing coffee for income, which is much more sustainable. As always, stray dogs were everywhere, looking happily (and mysteriously) well fed. The women also weave beautiful clothing for selling to tourists. The old school house was converted into a weaving room and store, as the children now go to a larger school set up by the Queen for the area. From what we could understand of our guide, the unmarried women wear white - married women can wear varied colors. The men, married and single, wear red shirts. The white clothes for the unmarried women give the White Karen their name (there are also Blue Karen, who we did not see, and Paduang Karen, or long necks, who we saw earlier in the trip).
(older White Karen woman smoking and weaving. )
We got to tour the village, walking amongst homes and pig crap, laundry and weaving, rice fields and coffee bushes. It was beautiful – breathtaking landscape, and incredibly muddy and humble. We wanted to buy some coffee beans but were out of small bills (the atms dispense 1000 baht notes, which are mostly useless as small businesses and vendors can't make change – something costing 400 baht is expensive!).
(Karen women weaving beautiful fabric)
(thai composting system and distinctive Karen style house stilts)
Next we had a bland, tourist-oriented lunch at the forestry headquarters, with a half dozen other groups just like us. The place was crawling with starving kittens – the first actual hungry strays we have seen. No dogs there either, quite the anomaly. Despite lunch being bland, we did have a nice ginger soup and fried fish. The fish was very mild, which meant I could enjoy it. Also, the bathrooms on the mountain were very rustic – squat toilets (which are quite easy to use actually) with no TP (we brought our own on the flight but left it in the room!) and instead a bucket of water with a ladel – which I never figured out how to use. It was a lot of camping-style potties for me and tons of hand sanitizer!
After lunch we drove to the top of the mountain, passing some water buffalo and more stray dogs on the roadside, then made the very short hike from the parking lot to the actual peak of Doi Inthanon. We had passed through the lower levels of jungle (the lowest elevation had bamboo and banana, then came pine trees –suprisingly – mixed with a lot of tropical plants, and now at the top were in primeval forest).
The trees here were hundreds, maybe thousands of years old, and there was moss and dense fog everywhere. We had left tropical rainforest and entered into temperate rainforest – very similar to the pacific northwest of the US. It was cold – down to 55 degrees, and misty. They don’t get snow but the weather does drop to the low 30’s in winter – the mountain is at over 8,400 feet in elevation.
(foggy, mossy, cold forest!)
On the way back down we stopped at a farmer’s market for government-sponsored farms for Chinese descendent tribes, Hmong among them. These groups created problems for the government by clear-cutting the forest to grow opium plantations. Now they are paid to grow vegetables sustainably.
We also stopped at the relatively new stupas honoring the current kind and queen. We finally got clarification (sort of): a wat is a temple, a chedi is a monument (in general), a pagoda is a monument to a god or Buddha, and a stupa is a monument to a human – we think! These stupas were built in the 1980’s for the king’s birthday, and have a distinctly 80’s style of architecture.
(modern King's temple shrouded in fog - like SF!)
They were not particularly interesting – the appeal being the thai love of the king and queen – but they did contain murals of the life of Buddha that reminded us of some of the beliefs and myths that we had learned in high school. Some of the scenes we had never heard about, and some were very strange, depicting battles and hell in gorish detail. There is nothing written about the king or queen themselves, as Thai only commemorate those who have passed on, not the living. The café there also had excellent snacks: Kit Kats, Mentos, Pocki, and a mixed nut bag of cashews and macadamia nuts seasoned with nori and wasabi. Sometimes it’s fun to be a tourist!
(murals helped us remember the story of the life of Buddha. Here he is able to walk as a newborn child, and for his first 7 steps, lotus flowers spring up to protect his feet.)
The ride home gave us more views of the valley around Chiang Mai, and we successfully avoided the pouring rain we had woken up to. In the morning we had found more rain than we could navigate through, and had gone on quite the romp to cross a busy street (Ty says he almost died) to the locals’ market in search of an umbrella. We passed all kinds of raw meat, underwear, snacks, toiletries, and fruit – the kind of market diversity you only find in asian markets back home, and finally snagged a children’s umbrella and a slicker. We left the umbrella on the tour bus, but missing the rain for the day up on the mountain and returning to a valley sparkling in sunlight and absent humidity was worth it!
(Ty loved Javier's shirt and decided we should go to the Night Bazaar to find one to bring home)
After a good rest at the guest house, we ventured out to the Night Bazaar – different entirely than the night market from earlier in the week. The Night Bazaar is every night and much larger, in a more modern part of town. The goods are different too, although there is overlap. This is much more urban, with more variety and less charm – but still interesting in its own way. We bought several gifts there, and wandered around being amazed. Despite a good exchange rate, gifts aren't as cheap or as interesting as I expected. Every 5 stalls are the same things – the thai style pants and shirts, the wooden frogs (although those are very cute!), the horribly cheesy and mostly inappropriate or fake brand name T shirts, the embroidered bags and scarves, and fake Tiffany jewelry and sunglasses. We did find some good interesting gifts, but it took work!
(The Night Bazaar is very different than our earlier market)
We also had fantastic Indian food – the best veggie samosas I've ever had, and a fully-leaded coke, which neither of us have had in years. Since its not high-fructose corn syrup here, it was much tastier than at home.
(mmm Indian food!)
(I hate coke at home but this was tasty! It might have been the busy day - anything would have been tasty!)
The Night Bazaar fills a covered parking lot (not as seedy as it sounds), and spills out onto the streets in either direction in make-shift stalls with plastic sheets overhead. We were very impressed with the thorough overlapping of our makeshift roof when we (and dozens of other tourists and vendors) were caught in the largest downpour yet – the goods and people stayed dry and the rain was funneled out to intersections across the plastic sheeting.
(rain does not stop shopping!)
We also saw our second elephant in public here – the first was wandering down the street near our hotel, this was a pretty young one presumably begging with its owner at the Bazaar. We were busy buying Ty a shirt and by the time we were done, they were gone. The shirt was a great find though- Ty had bought a very similar style shirt at Banana Republic at home for $50 for the beach wedding – this one we got for $8! We got to practice bargaining a little, but we are both pretty uncomfortable with it and so not very good at it. I find it easiest not to barter on the first item but to ask what deal they can give me for two instead. Ty has tried valiantly to barter with several transit guys and been rebuffed every time. Ah well, the original price is usually only about $1 more than what we were trying to bargain for anyhow.
(rain is really starting to pick up now - hard to bargain at this point!)
This was also our most interesting (read: wild) night of transportation. On the way to the Night Bazaar, a decent trek from our lodging (at least by tuk tuk mileage), we had a crazy driver, plus evening traffic. We also got onto larger streets than we are used to in our old part of town – which is plenty busy and chaotic, but much tighter quarters. It is pretty amazing to be half an arms length from other scooters and drivers – I really enjoy it actually. I wish you could see more out the sides – we have to crane our necks back or under the tuk tuk covering to see anything besides knees and elbows.
On the way home, we caught a tuk tuk in the downpour, and had a fantastically wet and crazy ride home. The streets were flooded – in some places up to our feet inside the tuk tuk, plus rain was pouring down all around us. One side of the tuk tuk had plastic sheeting so we did stay pretty dry. I think I laughed the whole way home, what fun!
Once we got back, soaking wet (our legs from the tuk tuk, our backs from dashing around the uncovered areas of the bazaar), we took showers and settled in with our first Thai beer, a giant bottle of Chang Beer – which I liked more than I expected too, for a light beer. The storm raged all night, lighting and thunder shaking the buildings, and non-stop rain for hours. Despite the crazy wiring, building contraptions, and other about-to-fall-apart features of an old asian town, we had not a flicker of lights or loss of our precious A/C the whole night.