We end our visit to the elephant camp in Chiang Dao with lunch on the banks of the river Ping. In a spacious restaurant area we’re served up a generous meal of spring rolls, rice and a couple of chicken dishes. We’re encouraged to order extra portions but are struggling to eat what’s already in front of us. This meal sets us up for the two hour journey through the green mountains and valleys of Thailand up to Thaton. Being on the roads in Thailand is quite an experience. The definition here of politely overtaking would be classed as dangerous and reckless driving in many countries. Thai drivers are incredibly impatient and will overtake so long as they think there’ll be a half inch to spare on each side. Our driver Jon is displaying some hint of self-preservation which is more than can be said for a lot of the other drivers speeding and swerving along roads with dips and turns that prevent you seeing more than a few metres ahead.
You can’t even get a 1.3 litre engine over here and they don’t get penalised with heavy taxes for choosing larger engines. As a result they’re all bombing around in souped up trucks or vans. Ours is a fairly new grey van with tinted windows and air conditioning that we don’t really need as the sun disappears and the skies turn grey with cloud. Brodie reclines all the way back and takes a nap while I try and ignore all the near misses occurring around me and focus instead on the scenery. The hills and valleys are dense with lush green vegetation. The flat plains contain farms – plenty of rice paddys with a layer of straw protecting the crop from the heat of the sun. Small groups of Thai people tend the fields, often clustered at one of the huts built to shade them from the heat on their breaks. From time to time we pass small villages which have a mix of shacks or sheds and western-style buildings that look palatial in comparison. According to Cha this area was practically a wilderness 30 years ago. Times have changed. Temples and shrines spring up randomly in the middle of squalor.
While Christianity has grown large numbers of churches across Europe, the ratio of temples and shrines here is far greater. A lot of daily Buddhist worship is based around merits. There’s a wealth of these ornate shrines and temples with an abundant supply of donations in every corner of the land. Those who choose the vocation of training to become a monk benefit from some truly beautiful surroundings in which to meditate. The larger temples out in the countryside tend to be in particularly scenic areas that themselves would be enough to inspire many to divine contemplation. While Catholic churches and schools back in Ireland are struggling to maintain their buildings and the numbers of new initiates sharply dwindle, the buddhist temples are thriving in comparison. The colourful robes of the novices and monks can be seen in almost every place we visit.
We arrive at Wat Tha Thon, a temple on a hill which gives us a view down into a valley and across the Ruak river. The shifting border with Burma is currently based at the mountains behind the far bank which is part of Thailand. We’re supposed to take a long-tailed boat along the river for an hour but a landslide has obliterated the dock we were to arrive at and Cha is getting twitchy about extending the boat trip and having to travel the roads in the dark. We agree to move on and drive to our next stop which is a horrifically touristy village hosting the products of a number of the hill tribes. There are three tribes represented in this village – Akha, Parlong Big-Eared and the most well-known tribe in the area, the Karen or Padaung Longnecked. While we stroll through the stalls offering the same goods over and over we get some history about the tribes from Cha. Most of them were brought over here from Burma – often purely as tourist attractions, sometimes crossing as refugees. We see a mix of clothing ranging from traditional attire to a young boy running about in a spiderman suit. Most wear a strange mix of the old and new which doesn’t add much authenticity to what is essentially a large tourist trap.
We get a good look at the women and young girls from the Longnecked tribe sporting the heavy brass rings around their necks, arms and legs. While this is their tradition and they’re happy to display what they’re wearing, it’s disturbing to see what feels strongly like self-mutilation applied to children too young to make an informed decision. Their necks do not actually get any longer – the weight of the heavy rings distorts their back and shoulders, constantly pulling the bones down until the wearer has an unnatural looking extended neck and compressed ribs. According to Cha the tradition originates from a legend involving a tiger and these rings were to protect against tiger bites. There seem to be wide-ranging beliefs as to the real reason but you have to wonder how much of the present day tradition stems from attracting tourism. There are many day tours that exist solely to bring foreigners to view villages that could easily be described as zoos, parading their occupants around to be photographed. This is one part of the tour I could have done without. It’s very unclear whether tourism is ultimately helping or hindering these people.
From the village we continue along the old opium smuggling route through to Mae Chan. Cha describes how different touring this area was 30 years ago. According to him the roads were almost non-existent and armed guards had to be hired to travel ahead and behind the van to protect against the Burmese drug smugglers. A strict policy of looking the other way when encountering smugglers had to be adhered to even with armed protection. We can only wonder at what kind of people wanted to undertake such dangerous tours until Cha goes on to describe the extremely cheap drugs available in the area at the time at a level of detail that implies he was no stranger to that kind of transaction. No doubt some of his experiences back then explain his aversion to going into Burma and his obvious nervousness as it gets darker on the roads. (That or he’s also worried about encountering the other maniac Thai drivers without the benefit of daylight).
We stop off at yet another temple to see the large golden statues of Buddha in the fading light before arriving into Chiang Saen for a quick look around the local market. We watch as Cha makes his purchases of vegetables and other unidentifiable items. He then takes us to a restaurant as he has decided that the fee for the boat trip we didn’t take will be used to treat us to dinner. We’re seated in a large, empty restaurant looking out over the Mekong River and across to Laos on the far bank. Cha assists us with choosing three dishes and ordering from the staff. Bizarrely he then sits and watches as we eat our dinner. One minute he’s waxing lyrical about one of his interests, the next he’ll be practically shovelling food onto our plates, almost into our mouths at one point. Then he finds another topic that interests him and will stall our departure until he’s finished his tale. We figure poor Jon out in the van is probably well used to this by now.
Now that it’s completely dark the tour is finished for the day. We take a short drive to the Golden Triangle area where we’ve opted to stay in the same local accommodation as our guide. Cha keeps changing his mind about our morning departure time but finally settles on 8am. Our bungalow lodge is nice and spacious but it’s a little too authentic during the night as dogs howl miserably until the cocks start crowing from 5 until 7am. As always, there’s one solitary mosquito making its rounds about the room. After hearing the familiar whine I’m unable to get to sleep without keeping covered as much as possible. Brodie does his usual trick of kicking off all covers once he’s hot. By morning he’s added to his collection of angry red insect bites.