A Day Trip to Mae Salong

A Day Trip to Mae Salong

Three days to see and do all the things I wanted to during my recent trip up to Chiang Rai were not nearly enough as I wrote in my previous post. However, I am congratulating myself for taking my last day there to venture outside the city to one of several interesting Hill Tribe villages in the surrounding area. All of these towns/villages would have been more easily accessible if I had a motor bike, but that’s an activity I am not fully qualified for at this time. So instead I chose to get to my destination using the available public transportation which happened to be a local bus and then a songtao. *

Children going to school in a songtao.

Children going to school in a songtao.

Doi* Mai Salong is about 65 km. from Chiang Mai. I took a bus from terminal 1 in Chaing Rai to the town of Mae Chan for about 20 baht (under $1). From there I had to find a songtao that would take me the rest of the way to Mae Salong. The cost of one of these can vary depending upon how many passengers the driver can scare up. After a wait of about 20 minutes, I and the other passenger decided we wanted to get going so paid 240 baht each for the long ride up. I wanted to get there before my day was too far gone so was willing to pay the steep price. I think I overpaid but when this is translated into dollars I paid just over $9 for a 37 km ride uphill all the way on a narrow and very curvy road. To me it was worth it!

Another view from the top.

A view of the countryside from my songtao.

Before setting out, I read up on at least four towns/villages within a day’s journey from Chiang Rai and chose Mae Salong as my destination for these reasons:

  • Mae Salong has a fascinating history which intrigued me. Its origins go back to 1949 after the civil war in China when Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army was driven out of the country forcing him and his followers to take refuge, first in Taiwan, and then to northern Thailand and Burma (Myanmar today). After many years of fighting trying to regain Hunan in southern China from Mao Tse Tung and his communists, Shek and his troops were given asylum by the Thai government in 1961 on the understanding that they would prevent communism from moving into Thailand. This was the beginning of Mae Salong. The fighting continued over the next 20 years resulting not only in the loss of many lives, but also the beginnings of the opium trade for which this area became infamous. Mae Salong today is a series of villages stretched out over Doi Mae Salong, a mountain range reaching up to 1,200m at its highest peak. The main village of Mae Salong is in the centre of about five other villages and is now called Santikhiri aptly named as it means hill of peace. It is now populated by the Chinese soldiers and their families who intermarried into the Aka, Hmong, Lishu, Yeo, and Karen hill tribes who have resided there for centuries making for a colourful and interesting mix of cultures. The King of Thailand has contributed a great deal of time and money to developing alternate sources of income, such as the growing of tea along with other fruits and vegetables to assist farmers to stop relying on opium as their primary cash crop. The Thai government has also tried to help but the people were slow to accept the change. Now with tourism on the rise and further government help, the opium trade is finally starting to take a back seat in the bus that drives the area’s economy.
  • There are at least two large tea plantations which can be visited where you can learn how tea leaves are grown and harvested. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit either, but
    Tea growing on one of the tea plantations.

    Tea growing on one of the tea plantations.

    I did get a good look at them as my songtao wended its way up the steep and twisting road lined with tier upon tier of green tea plants on both sides. What a beautiful site they made! Oolong tea is king here, and you can drink many cups of it as every tea factory in the villages was offering samples.

    Tiers of tea everywhere.

    Tiers of tea everywhere.

  • The cherry blossoms were another draw for me. I wasn’t sure if I would have the good fortune to see any as no one seemed to know whether they were out or not. As luck would have it, I did see the beginnings of them in some places where the sun was the hottest. They were just beginning to appear making a lovely blanket of pink. I was told I was about a week too early this year.
    The first of the cherry blossoms.

    The first of the cherry blossoms.

    A few more blossoms.

    A few more blossoms.

  • The colourful market, located in Sanikhiri, is another ‘must see and do’ because it’s here where you can see some of the women from the various Hill Tribes dressed in their traditional garb. They are there to market their fruit and vegetables as well as their crafts. I do most of my shopping in Chiang Mai where the prices were actually better so didn’t buy any but had fun looking. Most of their crafts end up in the Chiang Mai markets and shops anyway. Chinese foods and products are also readily available in many of the stalls.
    The market in Santikhiri.

    The market in Santikhiri.

    A lady from the Hmong hilltribe.

    A lady from the Hmong hilltribe.

    Wooden gourds? were everywhere.

    Wooden gourds? were everywhere.

  • The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial is another attraction for visitors and another one I didn’t get to see. Better promotion on the part of those working in the tourist industry and a better command of both languages on both sides would have helped me to find this museum. Add to this at least five different Hill Tribe dialects and you have a daunting language barrier to contend with. Having no luck with asking for directions to its location, I gratefully accepted a crude map handed to me by a vendor who spoke a little English. This didn’t help much as most of the wording was in Thai, and when I showed it to any local, they couldn’t read it either. In the end, it was finally another tourist who told me where the Tourist Information office was and suggested I go there for help. But then he added: “It’s closed but maybe it will be open by the time you get there?” If it wasn’t open he then suggested I look for a lady in a green shirt he had met at the market who seemed to be acting as a tour guide. I decided then and there that this was becoming all too complicated. I had enough walking, it was way past lunch time, and I was hungry. Time to look for a place to eat instead of this elusive guide who “perhaps” could tell me how to find the museum.

No doubt I could have benefited from learning a little more about Mae Salong’s colourful past, but in the end I was content to simply spend the time I had wandering around the local school grounds where the classrooms were in separate cabins all nestled in a leafy green environment, walking down the mountain through all the connecting villages snapping pictures, and sipping copious cups of oolong tea before catching the last songtao back into the town of Mae Chan where I could catch my bus back to Chiang Rai.

Entrance to the local school.

Entrance to the local school.

One of the classrooms.

One of the classrooms.

The trip was definitely worthwhile even though I had to forego a visit to a tea plantation and the museum. I know I could have accomplished this if I had taken one of many organized tours offered in Chiang Rai, but I prefer to go at my own speed. Doing it on my own was less expensive but most important, I could absorb more of my surroundings and have the freedom of discovery that I would not have gotten in an organized group. In retrospect, the ideal way to visit Mae Salong would have been to stay overnight and return on the following day which can easily be done. Mae Salong has accommodations ranging from low to higher priced guesthouses along with a few quite luxurious resorts. Restaurants, other than traditional Chinese, are scarce but I did notice a couple of quaint little coffee and bakery cafes. One day to take in all that Mae Salong has to offer on my own relying on local transportation was simply not enough.

Evidence of Chinese culture is prevalent.

Evidence of Chinese culture is prevalent.

Give them credit for trying. One of the few English signs I saw.

Give them credit for trying. One of the few English signs I saw.

 

*Songtao – a covered red truck (for certain areas they may be a different colour) with open windows and seats along both sides for about 10 passengers (comfortably).

*Doi – the Thai word for mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

What About Chiang Rai?

What About Chiang Rai?

Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai? Are they two separate cities or do we just confuse the two for the one which we all know and that is Chiang Mai? To set the record straight, they are definitely two separate cities with many differences. I have been coming to Chiang Mai for eight years but only visited Chiang Rai for the first time last week. So many times I have heard the same refrain: “Why do you want to go way up there? There’s not much to see and do. It’s just a miniature of Chiang Mai as it was 20 plus years ago.”

By not heeding this advice, I believe I just made one of the wisest decisions I could have made to start off this year of 2015. I am so glad I went and only have one regret which is, I wish I had planned to stay longer. Contrary to all the naysayers, I found a thriving little city with plenty of things to see and do, so many in fact that if I had stayed for two weeks instead of three days, I would not have accomplished all I wanted to do.

Because of the pouring rain on the day I left, my bus trip up didn’t get off to a great start. Rain in the midst of winter and the dry season is rare in Thailand, but who knows any more what we are going to get when it comes to the weather? Fortunately, I had an umbrella (lent to me by my wonderful dentist the day before when the rain started) to protect me as I stood on the street outside of Pachkit House where I am staying trying to flag down a songtao (the red trucks which ferry us around Chiang Mai).

Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northernmost city about 200 km. north of Chiang Mai. Northern Thailand is more mountainous so we weren’t too far out of Chiang Mai before the fog set in along with the driving rain. With no prospect of seeing any of the beautiful scenery, there was only one of two things to do and that was to attempt talking to my young Thai seatmate, or sleep. I thought I would first try my luck at conversation fully expecting no positive response other than “No speak English” but was totally taken aback when she replied to my question in almost perfect English that she was a university student on her way to Chiang Rai to participate in a volunteer project for Children’s Day, which was coming up the following day. We ended up talking for most of the  three-hour ride on many topics, an opportunity which seldom happens in Thailand because most Thai have a limited English vocabulary or are too reserved to open themselves up to a foreigner as much as she did. Not only was she articulate but very insightful for a person so young so when we parted ways on our arrival, I couldn’t help feeling I was leaving behind a true friend. This was a wonderful start to my visit to Chiang Rai which continued throughout my stay.

To me one of the most important parts of a trip is the accommodations I find. I was fortunate to find Jansupar Court, a family owned guesthouse near the centre of town with a great atmosphere. The family consisting of mother, father, son, daughter-in-law, and a precocious cat were so very welcoming that when I checked out I felt like I was leaving home. Not only was it good value for the money, but it also had a little bistro which not only provided some really good food, but drinks, including wine at 75 baht a glass, and for breakfast homemade bread and real coffee. You can even get a pretty good cappuccino made by Jiab, the son. For information on Jansupar, you can check out places to stay in Chiang Rai on booking.com.

Jiab with precocious cat.

Jiab with precocious cat.

Another priority of mine is the availability of good eating places and Chiang Rai certainly has its share of those. They know what the tourists want so there is no lack of great coffee shops and bakeries plus authentic Northern Thai food. Aside from my meal at Jansupar ( translates to Moon Woman) which served the best cashew chicken I’ve ever had and the food I picked up from the vendors at the markets, I ate lunches at Yod Doi (translates to high mountain) which was all organic and freshly prepared, and a tasty dinner at Destiny Cafe and Restaurant another great find where the emphasis was on healthy and freshly prepared. For more information on this eating place go to www.tripadvisor.ca – Best places to eat in Chiang Rai. Thai food is good but can be very spicy which for me is fine for awhile but every few days I need a break from it to appease my craving for fresh Western.

However, my piece de resistance was recalling a place called “Melt in Your Mouth” recommended to me by my bus seatmate. She was insistent that I go, but just the name of the place was enough to convince me that this was well worth pursuing. All I knew was that it was somewhere near the river. The Thai are not good at giving directions or following maps so what my seatmate had told me was very vague. Thanks to my unrelenting ‘sweet tooth’ and a helpful TAT (Tourist Authority for Thailand) girl I was able to find it and what a find it was! It is a huge restaurant in a beautiful location on the Kok River, a tributary of the Mekong, and the coconut cake and coffee was ‘melt in your mouth’ delicious. I paid 200 baht ($7.50 Cdn.) for this treat which is expensive for Thai food and those of us on a tight budget, but it was worth every penny. To find out more simply go to www.facebook.com/meltinyourmouthghiangmai

Coconut cake & white coffee from "Melt in Your Mouth".

Coconut cake & white coffee from “Melt in Your Mouth”.

Now that my room and meals were taken care of, I began to plot out what I should try to see in what amounted to just three days. My first day resulted in much walking while trying to orient myself to the layout of the town. For a small town it was quite confusing at first because right in the centre is the famous Clock Tower which forms a round about. Everything seems to radiate out from there so you have to know in which direction north, east, south and west lie. However, my first day was cloudy so I couldn’t use the sun as my guide. The little map given to me by Jiab’s mother wasn’t much help either. Not gifted with a great sense of direction, I often made too many unnecessary steps in the wrong direction. I should mention that the Clock Tower is quite a sight and especially at night when at 7, 8, and 9 o’clock a light show can be viewed accompanied with lovely music. The tower is painted in gold making it beautiful in the daylight as well. It was designed by Thailand’s famous visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat who also designed the famous White Temple, another noted attraction south of Chiang Rai. The tower is dedicated to the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Clock Tower at night.

The Clock Tower at night.

Chiang Rai is one of the oldest cities in Thailand so has several significant wats a visitor should check out. My first visit was to Wat Prah That Doi Cham Thong sitting atop a small hill with a gorgeous view of the city and the river. It was well worth the climb up the long serpent lined stairway.

Stairway to the stupa at Wat Prah That Doi Cham Thong.

Stairway to the stupa at Wat Prah That Doi Cham Thong.

Wat Prah Kaew, Chiang Rai’s most significant wat, was my second choice. It was here around 1434 that the famous Emerald Buddha (since discovered to be jade, not emerald) was discovered when a bolt of lightning hit the chedi housing a large clay Buddha. The lightning split it open to reveal the Emerald Buddha which now resides in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok after being moved around the country and even to Laos because it is such a symbol of dominance. The grounds are forested with many trees, a contemporary Lanna style museum, and a chapel which houses the largest and most beautiful Palava style Buddha image in Thailand.

The chedi where the Emerald Buddha was found.

The chedi where the Emerald Buddha was found.

My third wat visit was Wat Prah Sing which used to house a major Buddha image which is now in Chiang Mai in its sister wat of the same name. It has a Lanna style ubosot with exquisite wooden door panels.

The Ubosot at Wat Prah Sing.

The Ubosot at Wat Pra

It was two years ago when I took a day trip from Chiang Mae up to the Golden Triangle which is the pivotal point for three countries: Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos and the undisputed centre for a once thriving opium trade. Nowadays this area is a major tourist attraction due to its exotic history as well as the controversial White Temple situated about 35 km southwest of Chiang Rai. This modern-day travesty or work of art, depending on how you look at it, is a Buddhist temple (Wat Rong Khun) built and designed by that same Thai artist who designed the Clock Tower. It’s an ongoing project with new buildings being added all the time. I have to admit the the tiny glass mirrors embedded in the pure white of the structures is breathtaking. The murals inside the temple are painted in vivid colours depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and our immortality  with a modern twist showcasing our present day pop culture. You can spot Elvis, Micheal Jackson, and MacDonald’s for example. The theme of the whole complex is about freeing ourselves from rampant consumerism – an appropriate message exemplifying the Buddhist philosophy.

The White Temple

The White Temple

A closer view.

A closer view.

The "Sea of Hands" holding skulls to symbolize our journey from hell to heaven.

The “Sea of Hands” holding skulls to symbolize our journey from hell to heaven.

Like all the cities and towns in Thailand there is always a market or two to take in for the fresh produce, Thai food, crafts, cultural performances, and other sundry items depending upon the kind of market it is. Chiang Rai has its fair share with the most popular being the Saturday Walking Market and lately the Sunday Walking Market which happened to be just down the street from where I was staying. I went to both just to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the never-ending variety of Northern Thai food. I was in for an additional surprise on Saturday at that market when I ran smack dab into the most beautiful display of flowers in the park which bordered the street where the market vendors were displaying their wares. I wandered through the park at dusk and an hour later when it was then dark. The creativity displayed with the lighting and the flowers was outstanding. I discovered that this Flower Festival is an annual event to celebrate the New Year.

Creativity with flowers.

Creativity with flowers.

Some creative lighting.

Some creative lighting.

At the Sunday Market I got a chuckle from what appeared to me to be the main attraction: stall after stall selling woolly hats of all shapes and sizes. The emphasis was definitely on winter which to the Thai is when the temperature at night might dip down to 10 degrees. Those vendors who were selling any kind of warm clothing were far busier than those selling their Hill Tribe crafts. The food vendors were doing a roaring business especially those selling anything hot and spicy, but the biggest surprise for me was those selling insects. Yes, deep-fried crickets, silk worms, and water bugs were being gobbled up by the Thai. I didn’t see any of the few tourists who were there sample them. I also enjoyed watching the cultural shows of dance and music but mostly the families as they went about their shopping.

Winter hats and summer sandals. Something for everyone.

Winter hats and summer sandals. Something for everyone.

The latest fashion in hats for the babies.

The latest fashion in hats for the babies.

A water beetle snack anyone. Very popular with the Thai.

A water beetle snack anyone? Very popular with the Thai.

Since there are so many smaller villages and towns in the province of Chiang Rai which are fairly easily reached in a day’s trip from the city, I decided that my last day would be devoted to visiting one of them. I chose Mea Salong which I will write about in my next post. However, going there meant I had to forfeit seeing a few other sites which I would have loved to have visited, such as the Hilltribe Museum and Cultural Centre, the Chou Fong tea plantation, a visit to the Mineral Water Bath just outside of town, a boat trip along the Mae Kok River, and the Mae Fah Luang Cultural Park. These are my choices for a future trip which will most probably reflect the interest of the 60+ traveller like myself depending on your degree of fitness and thirst for adventure. The the Boomerang Adventure Park, the Black House with its bizarre artifacts, the Singha Park (built by the beer company) will appeal to families since it offers bike riding, animals and oodles of play space, and, of course, numerous long treks to the Hill Tribe villages for an authentic cultural experience will appear to the younger set. Finally, I was told that the golf courses in Chiang Rai are pretty decent, too.

Additional sites to visit are not the only reason Chiang Rai is calling me back. My other considerations are the cooler climate and cleaner air, the manageable size of the city (about 200,000 souls compared to about a million now in Chiang Mai), all the amenities that a tourist or ex-pat would look for, such as good value for accommodations, eating spots, shopping, hospitals, numerous activities, and an active ex-pat association. I should also mention that the ethnic influence of the Chinese who have migrated there from south China and the Hilltribe peoples who live in the area i.e. the Lisu, Aka, Hmong, Yeo, and Karen make for an interesting population and culture. It is what Chiang Mai must have been like before it got over developed and over run with tourists and isn’t that what some of us no matter what our age are still looking for?

 

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A big “thank you” to all my readers and especially those who wrote such encouraging comments. The fact that you take the time to read what I have struggled to write greatly inspires me to continue. Already 2015 is off to a good start with my latest post “A Precious Gift” and there will definitely be more to come. Any suggestions on how I might make this coming year even better are always welcome.

Happy New Year to you all.

A Precious Gift

A Precious Gift

Isn’t it human nature to want to have a day all to yourself where you have not one ‘must do’ to deal with – a day where you can do whatever you want to do? When I am home I often dream of doing this but somehow never get around to it. Even here in Chiang Mai so far away from my home and husband and the responsibilities that come with both, my mind is filled with a myriad of things to do calling for my attention. How is it that we get so programmed into always doing stuff we really don’t want to do resulting in never really fulfilling that dream?

About a week ago on a Sunday, I must confess to waking up feeling a bit lost and even panicky because I didn’t have anything pressing on my ‘to-do’ list. My thoughts went something like this: ” Should I just forget the list and do some sight-seeing? But I’ve seen all those things that tourists are supposed to see!” my mind protested . “Then perhaps I should spend the day reading all those books I never got around to reading at home, but where can I find a quiet place in Chiang Mai to read?” The one thing I was certain of was that I didn’t relish the thought of spending such a beautiful, sunny day in my room! After this brief mind torture, a flash of insight prevailed, and I realized that here was a golden opportunity knocking at my door – a whole day at my disposal to do whatever my heart wished and wherever my feet led me.

I hastily put myself together and flew out the door ready to face the day. At this point, I didn’t have a clue what I would do with this gift of a day just for me, but the one thing I was sure of was that I needed a substantial breakfast. Breakfast up to this point had been juice, yogurt, cereal, and rye bread in my room.

Right away I decided to seek out the restaurant (Good Morning Chiang Mai Coffee) where I breakfasted last year on a Sunday. Back then it inspired me to write a post titled “Sundays in Chiang Mai”. Although their service this time was slow and disorganized because of its popularity with both the back pack and ex-pat crowd and staff that aren’t equipped to handle them, the quality of the food is still there. My appetite was eventually sated by a large french toast with butter and syrup, fruit, and good coffee. By the time I was finished, it was almost noon and beginning to warm up. I left and found my feet taking me to the south gate to take a look around there.  I was impressed at how lovely the fountains in the moat looked. It was at this point I realized what I was going to do with the remainder of my day. I would walk all the way around the moat! This would be long trek but it wasn’t a hot day, so I knew if I was ever to do it then this would be the best time.

I should digress here and give you an idea of how this city is laid out and why the moat that encases the inner city is such an essential part of old and modern day Chiang Mai. This city of now over a million and a half people is composed of the old part or inner city and the newer outlying part spreading in all directions. The inner city where I usually stay and where most tourists congregate is surrounded by a moat and some of the remains of a defensive wall over 700 years old. I read that the moat is about two kilometers all the way around but to me it felt like many more. Here is a map of the inner city.

A map of the inner city and my route from start to finish.

A map of the inner city and my route from start to finish.

In 1296 when the wall and moat were built to keep out the Burmese and Chinese who were the Lanna Kingdom’s greatest enemies, this was an ideal set up to keep the citizens safe. I am not so sure how practical having this moat is today for the traffic in this city. The streets running along both sides of the moat accommodate one-way traffic with turnoffs allowing the traffic to get to the other side. However, the drivers often have to do considerable backtracking to get to their destinations. Since there are no traffic lights, the traffic is always continuous and fast making it hazardous for pedestrians trying to get to the other side. Nonetheless, no one can deny that this moat is what makes Chiang Mai unique. The ‘powers that be’ who run this city know this so maintenance is a top priority. The numerous fountains are nearly always doing a wonderful job of spouting up a lovely spray of water thanks to the pumping stations which seem to be well maintained. Every day the work force can be seen scooping out any debris that accumulates both in and out of the moat. Their efforts do not go unnoticed, especially by visitors like me, and I suspect by most of the locals as it has served them well not only in the past but today as an added tourist attraction.

If you wish to follow me further on my walk around the moat and inner city to get a bird’s eye view of Chiang Mai, then simply click on the first image below. Enjoy your tour!