Chiang Mai and Doi Inthanon

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June 1st 2007
Published: March 27th 2009
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We arrived in Chiang Mai early Friday morning, June 1, 2007 on the overnight express train from Lopburi. We caught a taxi van to the Amari Rincome Hotel on the western outskirts of town, at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. This was my first visit since 1983, and just like Bangkok, EVERYTHING had changed.

My wife, Linda, and I lived here from February 1974 to July 1975. I was then working for the Defense Department overseeing the construction of the 48 kilometer road to the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, and an 18 building radar station and cantonment area for the Royal Thai Air Force. I had previously surveyed the top of this mountain as a high school senior; working 12 hour days, seven days per week, for six weeks. Our home was at the end of the runway in Chiang Mai, on Soi Sailom (Whispering Breeze Lane) just down the street from the Ricome and Chiang Mai University. The location of our home was ideal in one respect. On Sunday mornings, about 10 AM, a USAF C-130 would fly over our house for a landing. We knew that was our signal to get up, as the mail the plane was bringing would be ready for pickup at the Consulate by the time we got there. Also, with the Ricome nearby, we spent many hours there in the pool and restaurant (a steak dinner was $2.50 which didn't give us much incentive to cook, even though we had a cook). Chiang Mai, in the 70's was a quiet provincial town, with a couple first class hotels, some tourists, but no traffic to speak of. We had a small tight knit international community of missionaries, NGO's/aid workers, U.S. Consulate staff and DEA agents, and a small detachment of U.S. Air Force personnel. Now Chiang Mai had many luxury hotels, three K-12 international schools (before only one K-8 international school), and large gated retirement communities for westerners. The city was over developed and conjested. We drove by where our home had been in a wide open green suburb, and it was gone, replaced by concrete two and three storey buildings. Needless to say, I was not pleased with "progress." There was no Whispering Breeze anymore. However, the Rincome was much the same; thank goodness!

After checking in, we had a swim before lunch at the Lanna Coffee Shop (where Linda and I ate many a steak dinner, and of course, Thai food). Although the last time I visited in 1983, some of the waitresses were still there and remembered us, this was not the case now. After lunch we rented a van and driver to take us to Doi Suthep, the mountain dominating the western horizon. We took the funicular to the temple at the top, from where we had a view over the town and plain. Again, I will let the pictures speak for themselves. Above the temple there is another of the king's palaces, more of a hot season retreat as Chiang Mai and the surrounding area is about 10 degrees cooler than Bangkok, and less humid. After seeing these sights, we headed down the mountain and across Chiang Mai, stopping along the way at several old temples, to the umbrella village of Bo Sang. This village used to be several kilometers out in the country, and was an actual village with huts on stilts with thatched roofs. Now the entire highway is lined with shops on both sides, and the village had been replace by buildings...bummer. We watched the artisans make the painted paper umbrellas, and the kids had their pants painted. That evening we had a dinner cruise on the Ping River. This was a wonderful conclusion for the day.

Saturday, June 2, was our trip to Doi Inthanon. The former two lane asphalt road was now a six lane concrete highway with new developments all the way to Chom Thong, the turn off to Doi Inthanon National Park. At the park entrance they were going to charge the foreign rate of 400 baht ($12) per person, but I explained in Thai that I was born in Thailand and not a foreigner, and furthermore, I had built the road to the top of the mountain. They gave me the Thai rate of 50 baht. It was a beautiful drive; and having built the highway, I remembered every curve and bridge, and change order to the contract for unforeseen conditions such as the spring at kilometer 34 that continued to erode the hillside. We visited a Karen village and waterfalls at kilometer 31 where we used to have our field office. At this point we had to stop construction of the road for several weeks until the hill tribes finished harvesting their poppies for opium. Unfortunately, when we got to the top, it was overcast, raining, and about 58 views and cold!. I showed my kids where I had camped in the dense jungle for six weeks as a high school senior when doing the topographical survey, and where we set up the shower for our once per week shower (Monday noon); and where I had a plywood hut with corregated tin roof when I lived on the mountain during construction of the radar station. I described waking up at 2:30 AM when a D-8 Caterpillar decided to build the road three feet from the side of my hut, and the noise that the rain made falling on the tin roof (Linda happened to be staying with me that week), and the frozen water in the basin next to my cot on December mornings, which I used to wash off before getting dressed. The radar station is still there, but closed to the public (and no pictures). My kids were just amazed at what I had done so many years ago...they were used to seeing me work at a desk. We returned to Chiang Mai, first stopping at the bottom of the mountain at the Mae Klang waterfall for some Thai BBQ'ed chicken/drink and a visit to the falls (while I was working on the road they filmed several movies there; "Hot Potato," a kung fu movie with I believe Chuck Norris, and also "Emanuelle," which was a very different film genre). That evening, instead of going shopping at the Night Market, which is one of the highlights of Chiang Mai, we had a a Khan Toke dinner and Hill Tribes dance show at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Initally, when we lived in Chiang Mai, two of our servants, who were from the Lisu and Lahu hill tribes, had performed in the evenings here. The Border Patrol made them work there, and when they refused, they had to go back to their tribal village in the mountains. One time we went to Europe for vacation for three weeks, and upon our return found that they had planted our front yard with corn. We made them dig it up. Anyway, again, everything had changed. The show was glitzed up for tourists. Costumes were made fancier and more colorful. They had dances which hill tribes had never danced before, but were invented for the tourists. I found his to be a profoundly disturbing change in Thailand...they had invented many new celebrations, ceremonies, dances, traditions, etc. just to please the tourists, but very little was authentic. My favorite two festivals are authentic. Songkran is at the height of the hot season (April), and is a national waterfight with everyone throwing water on each other to wash their sins away...just what you need in the hot season! I happened to be on the mountain at the time, and Linda was driving our Grand Torino (we didn't need theft insurance since it was the only one in Thailand) through town and somehow ended up in the middle of the Songkran parade. I recently saw a commercial on TV that reminded me of her experience. Eveyone thought it was hilarious, and she got wet. The other festival is Loy Kratong, at the time of the harvest moon in November, where people make a paper lotus flower in a coconut shell with a candle in the middle, which they place in a river after the sun goes down and watch as theirs along with hundreds of other floats drift out of sight, along with their sins. This ceremony in the Ping River is an unforgetable sight. The whole river is aflame.

Sunday, June 3, my cousin Larry, who lives in Chiang Mai with his wife Nancy, joined us for a visit to an elephant training camp (i.e., tourist trap). The elephants put on quite a show...playing soccer, playing harmonicas and dancing, painting pictures of flowers and one rather well done self portrait, etc. Following the show Tamara and Rosanna rode an elephant through the jungle for an hour or so. I used to ride water buffalo and elephants as a kid, just because they were there, but there was nothing organized about it. Now it is a major tourist attraction. Oh well. We returned to the Rincome, and Nancy joined us for lunch and a swim at the pool. We checked out about 3 PM and went to the Sunday market on Tha Pae Rd. before going to the train station. Bidding farewell to Larry and Nancy, we caught the overnight express (we used the facilites before getting on the train so we wouldn't need to use those toilets!) at 5:30 PM, arriving in Bangkok at 7 AM the following morning. My brother in law, Steve, was there to meet us, take us to the guest home for quick showers, and then we were off again using the guest home driver and van to go to Petchburi and the beach at Hua Hin...

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