Racing sunset A Few days in Chiang Mai
On the Mekong, almost to Luang Prabang
Hundreds of miles to the North of Bangkok lay one of the cultural gems of Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai
. Where Bangkok is the flashy and fast paced city firing on all cylinders, Chiang Mai is it’s more authentic and sedate sibling, and the heartbeat of the kingdom in the North. Many travelers make the trip through here to embark on multi day treks to the “remote” hill-tribe villages situated throughout the surrounding mountain ranges.
For me, Chiang Mai was more of a passing through point, with no big activities planned during my two days here. I passed the time by touring the markets, getting ten dollar spa treatments, and zipping around town on my moped. The Old City of Chiang Mai is a square surrounded by moats and remnants of a wall erected to protect from Burmese invasions. Inside the square is a maze of quiet streets, bars and tons of guest houses for travelers like me. On moped, going around the square and along the moat is about two or three miles and feels sort of like being in one of those Indi Go-Cart race tracks at a Mini-Golf course.
Out for a walk
Staying alert, dodging pedestrians, tuk-tuk’s, buses, an occasional dog or goat and myriad other scooters is all part of the game. During my stay in Chiang Mai, I arranged for a two-day tour which would carry me further north to the Golden Triangle and up the Mekong River into Laos. Golden Triangle & the Mekong River
My taxi van arrived to pick me up from the guest house bright and early at seven in the morning. Along for the two day tour would be a couple of Americans (Bill & Tom of San Francisco), two guys from Holland (Geerd & Steffen of Amsterdam & Rotterdam) and a Dutch girl, (Keik). The three hour trip to the Northern most point of Thailand gave us time to get acquainted and exchange our travel stories and experiences thus far. Along the way we stopped at a couple our touristy sites, barely worthy of inclusion here. One the them was a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, which was built about ten years ago and was swarming with Asian tourists. If Liberace had built a temple here, this would have been it. Lot’s of glitz and glamor, but not really for our tastes
The group from Left Bill, Ron, Geerd, Me , Steffen and Kiek at bottom.
so on we went. Further north we reached the border entry point to Myanmar (formerly Burma). I have included the obligatory photo here just to prove I was only a few steps from the border...yippee. This area is basically like the border near the US and Tijuana Mexico; lots of peddlers selling cheap goods, only here it’s on both sides. The Burmese come across for goods they don’t have in Myanmar and visa versa - an international trading outpost of sorts. On down the road about an hour, through remote villages and burning rice fields we reached the legendary Golden Triangle
, the three country border along the Mekong River where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar all come together. This area has been popular as a thriving opium production area, but now mainly serves as a tourist destination. Opium production has been all but stamped out in Thailand, but is still thriving across the river from here in Laos and Myanmar.
Leaving the Golden Triangle, our van driver and guide took us on to a riverfront town called Chiang Saen
. As we pulled into this modest town, the sun was setting along the banks of the quiet Mekong, crowded with nighttime
street market vendors. Chaing Saen would serve as an overnight stop for us before moving on the following morning for Laos. After a clean hot shower (one of the finer things in life on the road), I joined up with the guys from Holland for some dinner on the banks of the Mekong. In this town, it’s a family atmosphere, where little tables situated on wicker mats line the cement promenade along the river bank. We joined the locals in partaking of a curious feast. The tables stood about one foot off the ground, and the Thai people all laughed and giggled at us big tall white people trying to get our legs under the tables. Dinner consisted of a fondue like pot full of boiling hot and sour soup accompanied by a basket of fresh greens, leaves, mushrooms, and other vegetation I didn’t recognize. We also received a plate of raw meat which we were to cook in the boiling stew. Some of the meat parts I won’t explain in detail here, but lets just say we skipped on those pieces. Mekong River to Luang Prabang, Laos
At six o’clock the following morning, we departed under darkness
and fog for the one hour drive to the Mekong river gateway. At the river, we were ferried across onto Laos dry land where our passports and Lao visas awaited us, then onward to our 100 foot long slow boat, for a long & slow ride down to Luang Prabang. The entire day was spent on the river, about twelve hours in total encompassing the break of dawn and arriving into town after dark. The ride was relaxing, peaceful and without boredom for the Mekong river continually unfolded like a beautiful story at every twist and bend. We passed remote villages, fishermen, cattle in the river, kids playing on the shoreline and mile after mile of lush mountains terrain, limestone peaks and forested valleys. About half way through our trip, the guide broke out a cooler full of BeerLao
. BerrLao is largely considered the best tasting beer in Asia, but only widely available in Laos...harder to find elsewhere. It was truly tasty and great after a long day on the river….many more of these to come in the next few days I’m sure!
As we approached our destination, we were treated to a spectacular sunset on the river, with
a huge full moon quickly rising over the mountains on our opposite side. Around seven in the evening, with only the moon lighting the blackened river for the final hour of the trip, we motored into Luang Prabang
. None of us had a place to stay yet, so we all wandered into town lugging our back packs (me proudly sporting the lightest and most compact) and each found our own guest house, nothing costing more than ten dollars a night here.
My first impression of Luang Prabang was something like Lahaina, Maui, but on a smaller, less touristy and more authentic scale. In 1995 UNESCO placed this city on the world heritage site and it is easy to see why. The city is stunning and dreamy with an incredible downtown collection of French Colonial architecture. There are gorgeous mountains providing the backdrop for this town which could be mistaken for a Hollywood movie set. The main streets through town are lined with quaint eateries, bars, (even a winebar), guesthouses and finely manicured Buddhist wats. Unlike many Asian cities, Luang Prabang has managed to retain its unique charm & character amidst the increasing amount of tourism in recent years. One
would hope they can maintain this as tourism will inevitably multiply in the coming years as word gets out, and airline access increases. For me, this is the finest city of the trip so far and I plan on spending a few days here to soak it up. What will I be doing?? hmmm….stay tuned - time for another BeerLao.
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