Last on our tour is Laos and Burma. As we’ve come to expect, we start the second morning of the tour waiting for our intrepid guide and driver to return from their cheap Thai breakfast. We’re then taken to a ‘western’ restaurant where Cha sits and watches as we shovel down some toast and jam before starting day two of the tour. He decides to start the day with our boat trip along the Mekong River. Typically it’s a chilly overcast day making the journey a little on the cold side. We’re getting a boat from the small town of Sop Ruak in the Golden Triangle, right beside the large Chiang Saen Buddha. The Golden Triangle is the name given to the opium-growing area where the rivers Mekong and Ruak meet, neatly providing natural borders for Burma, Thailand and Laos. The speed boat first takes us up the river to stop along the Burmese side where a large casino entices gamblers into the region. Turning, we return back along the far side of the river passing the new casino being built in Laos and continuing on down between Thailand and Laos to the border village of Don Sao where you can enter Laos for a small fee.
The boat pulls up below the most rickety and unstable wooden steps you can imagine. We’ve technically just arrived in Laos. In reality the village is just rows of stalls with tourist souvenirs for sale or the option of sending someone a postcard ‘from Laos’. We take a look at the goods on offer, including jars of whisky containing coiled snakes (snake whiskey), before Cha finishes haggling to see if he can get some cheap cigarettes. To see the real Laos you’d have to go farther than this but it does at least confirm that the tourist traps in Laos are exactly the same as the ones in Thailand. We look back across the water to Thailand and the restaurant where we ate the previous night. Then it’s back to speeding along the Mekong River all the way back to Sop Ruak, slowing to view the fishing shacks and the massive Chiang Saen Buddha seated in a large boat beside the river. The river is an impressive natural barrier, surprisingly wide in parts. I’d love to take the same route by boat at sunset in the evening.
The next part of the tour has us heading to Mae Sai at the Thailand-Myanamar border. Cha tries to interest us in viewing yet more souvenirs in the busy market at the border. As I hang back to take a shot of the towering arches of the Burmese Immigration, inspiration strikes and he sends us off to take a look across the river at Burma while he continues to negotiate for more fruit and hot chestnuts. We skirt along the edge of the immigration point past more stalls to reach the sign proclaiming the ‘north most of Thailand’. At times the dodgy English only enhances the experience. Here you can look across the Ruak river to Burmese land. It’s possible to cross the border at Mae Sai into Burma but it’s relatively expensive for the privilege of walking across a bridge to see the exact same stalls. We’re already quite clear on Cha’s opinion of the unfriendly and inconsiderate Burmese. One of his tales has him at a temple in Burma with a tour group when the armed soldiers threaten to arrest him for being an ‘illegal tour guide’ before demanding a large sum of money. Apparently once a wallet was produced they disappeared off to divide the contents while telling the group to get out of sight immediately. We decide we’re not interested enough to watch him squirm at the thought of having to accompany us across.
Our next stop is an impromptu one. Cha offers to show us some monkeys at a temple and it sounds a lot better to us than visiting more markets and watching him browse. We’re not quite sure what to expect other than something about thousands of monkeys. We pull in at one of the numerous holy temples, Wadthampla Maesai Chiengrai – this one at the foot of the mountains nearby. Some visitors are already on a bridge over the fish pond contentedly feeding the fish. Of the monkeys, we can spot some small figures clinging to the rock face high above us. This isn’t quite the thousands of monkeys flocking about that Cha had promised us. Not to be put completely to shame, he commandeers some of the bread for the fish and flings it about the ground. According to the woman he speaks to only the smallest group of macaque monkeys is in the area today. The sight of the scattered bread is enough to entice them closer. They come swarming down the rocks, clinging to vines and tree branches to keep themselves from falling too far. They aren’t quite the winged monkeys of the Wizard of Oz, but watching the mountain face writhe as it teems with small bodies rapidly getting closer to us, I’m feeling glad this is the smaller group. You’d be sorely tempted to run the other way at the sight of the promised thousands nimbly rushing towards you.
Soon we find ourselves over-run with monkeys rushing about to gather up as much bread as they can before pausing to sit there eating it, suspiciously eyeing anyone that gets too close. A mother preens her young baby on the top of the temple in front of us, not venturing too close to the humans, but letting it dangle itself by its tail in a manner that would terrify a human parent. The others grab what they can without taking their eyes off us. As the food diminishes, so too does the number of monkeys. With great agility they make their way back up into the heights in leaps and bounds until only the sharp movement of tree branches above us betray their passage. From time to time one will slip and hurtle towards the ground until it grasps a passing branch and hauls itself back up, unconcerned about its close brush with death. A couple of monkeys remain at the side of the pond jealously regarding the tourists tossing handfuls of bread to the many fish in the pond. We’re careful not to get between them and any food. These little guys look cute, but I wouldn’t fancy getting into a scrap with them after seeing them slap each other about. When we’ve had our fill of monkey business we continue on to Chiang Rai.