Saturday, 4 February 2012

Chiang Rai: bamboo forests and hill tribes

Elephant trekking in Chiang Rai province. Sadly, having lost a memory card
during the trip, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Where Bangkok is concrete grey, Chiang Rai is red, yellow and green. We landed at sunset at a small airport surrounded by dusty red earth and fields of tall yellow grass translucent in the evening sun. Beyond the fields, green forested hills curved out of the plains like the backs of whales from the ocean. This was the first stop on Joyce and my adventure honeymoon through Laos and Cambodia  - the adventure being admittedly more my idea than hers and obtained against the promise of a future beach holiday. We were in Chiang Rai primarily to reach starting point for our overground journey through Laos, but while we were here we decided to take a few days to see the sights.

For our first day, we hired bikes to ride around town and visit the local temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, originally known as Bamboo Forest Monastery. The forests had long since retreated up the slopes of the nearby hills but the temple remained, now surrounded by market stalls and tuk-tuks. It was still very much lived in and young monks in orange robes roamed the grounds, sweeping the paths clean, reading the daily newspaper or being bussed in and out by song-tau.

There was a museum of artifacts, and I chatted to the monk supervising it (he wouldn't talk to Joyce, as women represent temptation away from monkish pursuits). I told him my name and where I was from. "You speak Thai very well" he said, somewhat overstating the case, before turning to the exhibits. "We have statues of King Rama V and King Rama IX," he said proudly, pointing to two small gold statues, one wearing glasses and the other an impressive moustache. ACS46RPKF7AK

"We also have a tortoise from the Gulf of Thailand," he added, indicating a tall urn which had evidently spent many years under water but was not obviously a member of the turtle family. Something must have been lost in translation. Upstairs, we found several Thai variations on the familiar Chinese dragon, complete with horses' legs and the improbable tail of a whale.

Monks sweeping the path at a temple in Chiang Rai. Photo: Lonely Planet

Afterwards we rode out of town to a viewpoint. We passed through a small village with quiet streets empty of vehicles. Washing hung outside small wooden houses and a cockerel perched on the corner of a roof, red orange and black feathers almost camouflaged against the rusting corrugated iron. Thai flags hung limply outside shacks in the still afternoon heat and palm trees grew in the spaces between homes. Children played in the street outside a small store and I got my picture of the day - an old man sat in a rickshaw taxi smoking a cigarette, his knees pulled up to his chest and his hand and face periodically concealed beneath puffs of smoke, like a mountain behind clouds.

(Sadly, I later lost this photo along with all the others from the first half of the trip when I changed memory cards in Vang Vieng, Laos. I’m left with photos from Joyce’s mobile phone plus those I found browsing for similar shots in the Lonely Planet image archive.)

Take the high road

The next day we booked a trip up into the mountains north of the city to see the hill tribe villages. Our guide, Tukta, was a Thai university student from the south, who was studying eco-tourism. "Chiang Rai is one of the most diverse provinces in Thailand," she told us. "There are over thirty different hill tribes. Some come from Burma, others from China. They all have their own language and customs."

We started with a long-tail boat ride up the Mae Kok river, which curved round in long, lazy arcs past fields of crops. "People here grow tobacco, corn and rice," Tukta said. Occasionally, limestone cliffs rose up from the banks, with bamboo forests on their flanks and small Buddhist shrines on their summits. Fishermen waded through the river, pulling small boats behind them and casting rope nets into the water. Further upstream, elephants waded through the water with tourists on their backs.

We stopped for an elephant ride ourselves, climbing high up a nearby hillside for impressive views across the river and mountains from the added elevation of an elephant's back, then plunging back down (an alarming activity on an elephant) into the muddy river, where large green balls of poo emanated from our mount's backside and sailed nonchalantly past us in the fast-flowing current.

Joyce and me in a longtail boat, in a photo from her mobile phone.
Luckily the Samsung Galaxy takes pretty decent pictures.
After lunch, we began our trek to the hill tribe villages. Climbing through the jungle, we arrived at Lahu village, also the name of the tribe that lived there. We passed tribespeople cutting bamboo and an old woman in a threadbare purple wrap walking a large pig, with a couple of small piglets in a basket on her back. "The tribes here have been converted to Christianity by missionaries but they still believe in ghosts," Tukta said, referring to animist beliefs in the spirits of places and ancestors. "The villagers keep pigs in their houses to sacrifice to the ghosts."

The village itself was along a dirt path going steeply up the mountainside. The houses were all made of wood and bamboo and raised on stilts. The people live upstairs, their animals underneath. There were women and children sitting on the porches outside several houses. "It's Saturday so the women are at home with their children," Tukta said. "During the week, the children are at school and on Sunday everyone goes to church." We stopped to say hello to one family with a curious toddler who attempted to crawl up the hill after us.

The village at the top of the hill was called Akha, again the same name as the tribe that lived there. The Akha originally come from Tibet and Tukta knew some of their language. On the way, she taught us to say hello (udutheungma) and thank you (gheulaheuma). However, when we got there we found the 'village' was a string of souvenir stalls and the tribespeople were only interested in selling us trinkets. Still, although for us it lacked authenticity, for the villagers tourism is a route out of poverty.

On the way back down, we passed the third and final village alongside a tea plantation. Tukta was unsure of the name of this one. "We just call it 'Chinese village'," she said. We saw children playing football in the dusty red earth of the road, while women in traditional conical straw hats moved silently through the plantation picking tea. "They just take the top three leaves from each plant," Tukta explained. "That way, they can harvest once a month."

Hill tribe villagers working at a tea plantation in Chiang Rai province.
Photo: Lonely Planet

Back in Chiang Rai, we packed our bags and got ready for the next stage of our adventure: a three day journey by bus and boat into Laos and down the Mekong river to the old royal capital of Luang Prabang.

Read part two of this blog »

1 comment:

  1. It seems like you really had a great time touring around Chiang Ria, Andy. How long did you stay there? This is one of the places in Thailand wherein I really love to go as well, especially in Tukta. Hmm... I wonder if the government invested in making a tea plantation there, or it is owned by a certain person or family.

    Sabrina Garza