June 2024

Back to the Land of the Thais


After our “adventure” with the Gibbons experience, there was only one thing we wanted to do – chill out. But, the small town which was the jumping-off spot for the Gibbons Experience, Huay Xi, was just a little too chilled out for us (i.e., extremely boring and nowhere and nothing to do to relax), and we really didn’t feel like wasting another day there. So, despite the turmoil in Thailand, we opted to cross the Mekong and head into Thailand.

Leaving Laos

We’ve spoken at length before about the laid-back nature of the Lao people, but here we experienced the ultimate example of what it is like to travel Laos. Thinking that the ferry crossing into Thailand would disembark from the same pier that we arrived from Luang Prabang, we walked about two kilometres down to that pier in the sweltering heat, only to be dumbfounded by the lack of signs. There was a customs office and a ticket booth, but nobody seemed to want to help us. We headed into the customs office, where we found a customs officer sleeping, and he really didn’t want to be woken up as he ignored our polite attempts to get his attention. Finally we found someone to ask, and they informed us that we were in the wrong place. The real pier turned out to be about 20m away from our hotel, we discovered after grudgingly paying for a tuk-tuk to take us back that way (it took us 20 minutes just to FIND a tuk-tuk – Kenna finally had to play the damsel in distress card for a dude to notice, and he offered to take us in his VAN – he wasn’t even a tuk-tuk driver!). Now, in every country we’ve been in besides Laos, the front desk is almost nosy about what you are doing and where you are going. Literally, every place we’ve stayed in in Asia has asked us where we are headed everytime we leave the hotel. It isn’t to be nosy – most of the time they want to be the ones to sell you a boat ticket or a tuk-tuk and every so often they just want to be as helpful as possible. Not in Laos. They didn’t even ask us where we were headed when we checked out…and Scott even asked if the ferry crossing to Thailand was at the pier, to which we simply received a barely noticeable nod. In all our time in Laos, we really couldn’t figure out if this continual indifference we received was a dis-interest in the tourism industry, a disdain for tourists in general, a language barrier, or just the un-assuming personality of the Lao people.

Anyway, we took a 45-second ferry across the Mekong and entered into Thailand, and immediately noticed a difference. You could almost call it culture shock. “Hello, mister, you need visa? Come here!” Well thank you! Well, now, how do we get to the bus station to get to Chiang Rai? “Sah wah dee khrap, bus station?? I take you!” Wow, yeah I did need to go there. We arrive, and see a fruit stand and start buying some mangosteens, when a woman comes up and asks, “Hello, Chiang Rai? You take this bus over there – it leaves in 15 minutes.” Wow, these people are mind readers! That, or every farang takes the same route… in any case, and we’ve said it before, we love Thailand. Coming here from Laos was almost like entering a first world country. Ugly but effective marketing signs, efficient transportation, people always asking you if you need a tuk-tuk, we almost missed this. And the friendly and ubiquitous logo for 7/11, always there to help you buy water or food for local prices without having to barter – I never thought I’d be so happy to see a multinational logo.

Chiang Rai

The Thai market in Chiang Rai

The Thai market in Chiang Rai

After a fairly pleasant and cheap local bus ride to Chiang Rai, we found a lovely and cheap hotel to check into and do nothing. A/C, TV, free coffee, all for $11/night, what else could you need? So we did nothing. We laid in the hotel room, took care of some business, watched some TV, and finally headed down to the local night market for some food.

The night market was interesting – there were actually two eating venues, one, a touristy restaurant, and the other, a place with many stalls all selling different types of food, most without English signs. Feeling adventurous, we headed to the local market and sampled a bunch of food by pointing.

Trouble in Bangkok

The following morning, expecting another lazy day, we flipped on the TV to see what was happening in Bangkok, which was not good news. The Thai government had started taking out the red shirt protesters in Bangkok, and there was a lot of bloodshed. We have been anxiously watching the news on Thailand for the better part of two months, making sure that it would be safe for us to re-enter the country, and as luck would have it, the day after we enter into Thailand, the government says enough is enough and starts shooting… The timing could not have been more perfect! Not only that, but, fearing rioting, the government has placed a curfew on all the northern provinces, including us. Great!

Condoms and Hill Tribes

We tried to forget about it, telling ourselves that it was highly unlikely that anything would actually happen in this sleepy town. We headed out for lunch to a place called “Cabbages and Condoms,” a pretty unique restaurant that supports family planning. The description said that “condoms appeared in many unique places,” so we were expecting to find them in our cutlery, our bill, maybe even our food… “Mmmm that calamari is really chewy. Hey, wait a second….” It was actually fairly disappointing though, there were only condoms on the walls and the food was mediocre.

Cabbages and Condoms

Cabbages and Condoms

However, they did give us a couple of free passes to the hill tribe museum next door, which we thought we’d check out. Pretty much the only interesting thing to do in Chiang Rai is to go visit hill tribes, and we were considering doing a tour, so why not learn about them first? We’re glad we did, because we really wanted to go see the Karen Long Neck hill tribes, but apparently they’re actually just a serious tourist trap. These poor people are actually imported from their war-torn home of Burma, and are forced to work in contrived villages built exclusively for tourists. If they don’t wear their neck rings, they don’t get paid, and since only the women wear the rings, only the women get paid. They aren’t official Thai citizens, so they aren’t allowed to travel anywhere, and have no benefits of being in Thai society, so they are effectively in prisons of tourism. Not only that, but in the villages, all they do is sell paraphernalia that isn’t even produced in the villages themselves, there is no seeing the culture or the indigenous environment. Further, the hill tribe museum only touted one visiting one Lisu village with which they were working in partnership with – it is the only village that is undergoing a sustainable eco-tourism project whereby they actually see some of the money that is being paid by the tourists, and is only being visited about once per week. Reading up on all this information pretty much convinced us that we’d be better off not doing a hill tribe tour, and reinforced how important it is to do serious research before booking ANY trip to ensure you aren’t backing some horrible inhumane operation.

On the way home, Kenna decided she’d like a foot massage. She headed to a few of the places by our hotel (of which there were probably about half a dozen lined in a row), but oddly, they didn’t seem interested in her. She went to one parlour and knocked on the door, only to be greeted by a fat Thai man, half naked, doing up his pants and telling her to go away. Clearly these weren’t your average massage parlours. I, on the other hand, was seemingly irresistible – every time I passed them without Kenna, they would literally grab my arm and try to pull me into their massage parlour. Nice, to be wanted, but that’s a bit extreme. I guess in Muslim countries, women need a male escort; in Thailand, single males need a female escort. It took a little while, but we began to realize hat these places were not massage parlours at all… especially since they seemed to be all but dead during the day, but flowing with provocatively dressed women at night…

A few hours later, we headed into the night market again, looking for deals and food. We found a great restaurant with two really excellent guitar players playing in the center of the market, and sat and enjoyed the food. Here, we randomly ran into a couple who had been going on the Gibbon’s Experience the day we were leaving. Kenna approached the girl and asked if she had just come back from the Gibbon’s. The girl said yes in a suspicious way…and then exclaimed “oh, you were the girl that was in really rough shape with the blood everywhere! You really scared us for our trip!” I guess they had a better time than us – it didn’t rain at all so the leeches were minimal and they weren’t afraid of their tree house plummeting to the ground. We shared some stories of our experiences and sat down to eat. However, a few minutes into our meal, at about 9:00, the guitarists started packing up hurriedly and a very nervous Thai woman came on the mic, saying essentially “I hope you’ve heard of the curfew in all the northern provinces, that includes us, and I’m sorry but you all have to head back to your homes within 30 minutes.” Oh…. not good….

This pretty much sums up our time in Chiang Rai - keeping up with the news in Bangkok with NewsAsia and online

This pretty much sums up our time in Chiang Rai - keeping up with the news in Bangkok with NewsAsia and online

So, we headed back to our hotel and sat on the tube wondering what was happening. Obviously, we were a little worried… our state was under curfew, so what did that mean? Were there soldiers or police squads that were waiting to be deployed all around town? Would we have to leave Thailand? We were planning on going to Chiang Mai the next day, but would that be safe? Sleep didn’t come easily that night, as we were worried about all these things. Compounding it, there was a motorbike that constantly drove up and down the street outside our hotel – was this the army moving in? Or was this just some idiot disobeying the curfew to pop wheelies in the deserted street? In the end it turned out to be the latter, but it worried us nonetheless.

The next day, we had planned on going to Chiang Mai, but opted against it due to safety concerns. So again, we did nothing. Again, Kenna wanted a foot massage. We had seem some fairly legit places in our wanderings of the town, so we headed for one of those, and she finally got what she was looking for, with no happy ending. Again, we retired early to deal with the curfew.

Finally, the next morning, we decided to brave it and head to Chiang Mai. Though there were reports of bombings and grenades in Chiang Mai, we decided that it was probably isolated and wouldn’t continue, and if it was really bad we’d leave immediately and head to Pai. The bus ride was probably the nicest bus we’ve ever had – for $5, it was comfortable, with A/C, and lots of snacks and bathroom breaks. Oh it’s so nice to be back in Thailand.

Given all the craziness going on in the North, we were really close to grabbing a flight back to Phuket in the south. It would be really nice to leave Thailand with its beaches on our minds, and a great way to end the trip. But then we’d miss lots of cool things in the north… so we opted to stay in Chiang Mai.

Our pool in Chiang Mai

Our pool in Chiang Mai

The hotel we ended up staying at had a pool – not quite the ocean, but nice for lounging around at anyway. Plus, it seemed that things had really cooled down with the Red Shirts – the news had nothing new to report and all the Thai people we talked to seemed very happy and convinced that the trouble was over.

The Cooking Course

The following day, we spent the day lounging at the pool, walking around, and in the evening, we finally managed to accomplish one of our most highly-anticipated goals of the trip – a Thai cooking course. Thai is pretty much our favourite food, and we really missed it while in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. And the cooking course we did delivered! First, we chose our meals, and headed to the local market to actually buy our produce and ingredients for the meal (in previous courses, we visited the market but just window-shopped). Another indication of how advanced Thailand is – the market was clean and didn’t smell disgusting! Though there was still meat laying everywhere, there were motorized fly swatters. And our teacher was awesome – she told us how to pick out the produce and named everything for us. This again was way better than ever before.

Kenna cookin' up some good Thai home cookin'

Kenna whipping up some good Thai home cookin'

We arrived at our instructor’s home, in an obviously affluent area of Chiang Mai. It had a very professional kitchen built in the back yard, where every student could have their own wok. Unlike some of our other courses, the instructor actually watched us cook and helped us along the way – none of this demonstration crap where you glaze over and remember nothing. And most of our meals turned out really well – some of them were actually the best of the dishes we’d ever tasted. We’re stoked to try our hand at cooking these dishes when we get back home!

And now, we’re again lounging at the pool, waiting for a bus to take us to Pai. Pai is a really small town and supposedly teeming with hippies, but many people we’ve talked to said it was their favourite place in Thailand. After the islands and Koh Phi Phi, I can’t see how, but hey, we’ll see!

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