Monday, April 20, 2015

One Day in Chiang Rai

My sister, who fairly accurately believes that this blog is basically just for her, a belief rooted in the comments section, told me to just skip Thailand as it's been too long and while I'm trying to catch up I'll forget the details of Vietnam, where I am now, and will be forever behind. The fear here is sub-par writing and boring posts. She has a point, and I have noticed a bit of a decline in my writing, but I can't just skip one of the most beautiful countries of my trip. I started writing various observations more frequently and I promise that my posts will eventually catch up to me geographically speaking and hopefully you won't be too bored in the mean time. With all that said, onward to Thailand!

I did a quick stint in Chiang Rai before meeting up with people I know and love in Bangkok (not Shanghai, as for some strange reason I kept calling know, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, makes sense, right? Okay, maybe this heat is finally getting to me.) I wanted to cover as much ground as possible in one day, and the easiest way to do that was a guided tour, so while I usually prefer to go on my own and beat the crowds I signed up for the tour offered by my hotel and I don't regret it one bit. The night before the tour I did a walk around the city on my own, just to get a feel for my first stop in Thailand. I grabbed a tall glass of Thai Iced Coffee (or just Iced Coffee I guess...I mean it's not as critical to state the location as when ordering a Car Bomb in Ireland) and enjoyed the view of the Clock Tower from the comfy, air conditioned cafe facing the roundabout it was in the center of. 

So shiny!

Having absorbed as much cool air and caffeine as possible, I made my way to the Great Memorial of King Meng Rai. There were a few locals praying and leaving offerings at the site, but it wasn't crowded for a change and there was a small park behind it with lovely topiary bushes.  

Look, an elephant!

And, of course, there were at least a dozen Wats around town to add to my list. Not sure if I've mentioned this before, but while they're still quite beautiful, and no two are the same, I'm getting a bit watted out. I no longer bother to keep straight which one is which, and I hope you'll forgive me. A Wat by any other name would still smell like feet and incense. I think that's what Shakespeare said, right? 

Eventually I grabbed dinner at Condoms and Cabbages (okay food, really fun decor, great mission), and headed back to the hotel, or more importantly the pool at the hotel. Located in the shade for the whole day, the water was nice and cool...and salty? I told my dad later that night on the phone that either it was fancy and filled with salted sea water, or the salt came from the sweat and tears of the tourists of the past. At that point I honestly didn't care, it felt awesome.

Bright and early the next morning a lovely air-conditioned bus picked me up with a surprisingly small number of other people and off we went to the White Temple ahead of schedule. Admission to the temple is free, but no one can put the price on the therapy you'll need when you dream of it years later. This temple is actually an art installation and not an actual place of worship, but from far away there's enough symbolism and it looks so much like a Wat that some people keep getting confused. If you want to know more there are thousands of pages online that talk about the mission of the artist working on this "piece", but I can tell you that it's currently not finished, that this guy is obsessed with listing out all the various temptations and sins of human kind, even if he claims that he's doing it to tell people to rise above it all, and if you don't look too close at some fairly obscene or twisted elements, it's quite beautiful. Even the pond out front isn't filled with just regular koi, but is also home to some kind of black bottom sucker kind of fish. A kind of a ying and yang effect I guess?

Tiny monks in training with camera phones? At a non-temple? 

Ah, here we have the public toilets. Nope, not kidding. Someone took the 
slang term "throne" quite literally. 

As the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and his team toil over at the White Temple, one of his students decided to break away and build his own project, the Black House (kind of misleading as it actually consists of at least a dozen houses...and some where the word "house" is stretching it). Everything here is black, or gives off a sinister vibe, and there's a definite affinity for animal pelts, skeletons, bones, skins all turned into furniture or art. Also, there's a very sad looking giant black anaconda in a small cage. And also an owl. 

I know it's abstract, but it vaguely reminds me of the pink elephants from
Dumbo's lucid dream. Or tiny sea lion embryos. This place is weird. 

You think that's enough skulls? No, I think there's room for one more. 

The owl was alive and not terribly happy in the light of day. 

Perfect dome for a seance...or where the unholy hoard will rise up from. 

Despite the persisting creep factor, I actually really liked his paintings. 

And this guy doesn't look like he wants to eat my soul either. 

Thoroughly weirded out in a way a Columbia Student could milk all the way to a Doctorate, we headed out for a place I wasn't so sure I was terribly comfortable with. Whether or not to visit the Karen tribe village, or the Longneck people, is a matter of a lot of debate on the interwebs. Originally from Burma/SE China, these people left their homes or were brought into Thailand hoping to escape the violence and brutality, only to find themselves in what some people call people zoos. Not being granted actual Thai citizenship, these villagers live on government sponsored land and can't really leave. The admission you pay goes to the government as a land tax/rent, so they only money they make is off of the handiwork they sell to tourists and by seeking donations for putting on shows as soon as a tourist is in sight. If you don't go, they don't make money, but if you go, you support the whole setup. It was part of my trip, so I went, but while the people are lovely and unique, you can't get a sense of their culture by visiting them like this. When I wondered off the beaten path to try and get a few candid shots of their actual lives, I felt like an intruder. 

An image that shows what happens to a woman's neck when the rings are
added. Unlike the rumor, their necks don't stretch, their shoulders get
pushed way down. They also started adding rings to their 
arms and legs for decoration, but this is more recent.

The musical number the villagers perform lacks life as 
this is no longer done for themselves, but for tips. 

The woman on the right is also on the photo on the left. She's been
weaving scarves here in this village for a long time. 

A girl is showing off a baby chick to a curious baby and some kids,
while I get a glare from the mother for intruding. 

She was quietly singing and playing the reed, but stopped as soon as she
saw me and posed for a photo as someone used to these kinds of interruptions. 

I kind of high-tailed it out of the village pretty fast, got a cold bottle of water and waited for the rest of my group back by the van. It's hard to be torn between the photographer instinct to capture these beautiful people and their culture on film, and the humane instinct to just leave them alone to live their lives. Luckily the next stop involved monkeys and lots of stairs, so my mind moved on to easier pursuits.

At the top of the staircase was a cave temple, but it was fairly unremarkable.

Why not?

Go home monkey, you're drunk.

We also coasted along the northernmost edge of Thailand and waved to Burma. Oh, and while we were taking pictures of the border our tour guide smuggled a couple of girls who'd overstayed their visas over the border. I guess the Burmese come to Thailand for shopping all the time and when they overstay, they use tour buses to get back as they're not checked very often at this border. I'm telling you, I did ALL THE THINGS!!! Okay, so I wasn't actually there and I didn't know what happened until it was over, but still.

A bit further down the road is the Golden Triangle! Which isn't really golden and is actually filled with so many statues that it almost looks like a mini golf park. The Golden Triangle is a spot of land where the borders of Burma, Lao and Thailand all come to a point and you can see all three from this one spot. Lao also put up a casino on their side since gambling is illegal in Thailand and Burma...I hear it's pretty popular.

So many things with a Buddha on top!

Before hitting the Opium Museum for a few hits of history we visited one more Wat. 

Just a bunch of happy coconuts hanging around

A bus of tourists unloaded just in front of us when we got to the museum, so it was fairly cramped once we got in there, but still fairly interesting. The museum talked about how poppy was grown and processed, as well as all the paraphernalia involved. I also learned that the word bong is actually a Thai word given to the first bamboo bongs. Knowledge!

Upstairs, just next to an extensive collection of opium pipes and weights was a kids corner. Still not sure what that was all about, but I was the only one weirded out by it. Meanwhile just at the entrance a man was quietly sitting and carving beautiful soap flowers. Not too bad for my first taste of Thailand!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Waterfall and Night Market in Luang Prabang

Its been a bit quiet here for a bit as I was soaking up as much sister/cousin time as I could in Thailand, but now I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, the journey to Luang Prabang came first. I decided to skip the night bus this time and take the just as long daytime bus instead. The road was just as broken up and just as twisty and turney, but this time I could see the gorgeous mountainside vistas on either side of the road and even with three of my poor travel companions puking their guts out into plastic bags, I was much happier on this ride than both of the previous ones. 

This is only slightly exaggerated by the panoramic shot...the roads were 
mostly all just like this one

The town itself was pretty cute, full of shops and cafes and wats, of course. I don't really agree that it's the apex of authenticity, what with all the french fries and tourist shops and tuk tuk touts, but it did have a very chill vibe and was a nice place to relax. 

Not sure if the kitty came to worship or be worshiped

Marigold cones are sold everywhere in the market and make lovely
offerings at temples throughout the city

"Oh, please, do come in!" <- even the cats are touts

You can cross the bridge in dry season...but there's not much on the other side

It's a jackfruit...I promise...why are you giggling?

The very best part of this town is actually what lies outside of it. I skipped the overpriced and overbooked tour, woke up early, rented a motorbike and drove out of town to the nearby waterfall for a dip. The Kuang Si waterfalls drop straight down dozens of meters before lazily tumbling down from pastel blue pool to pool. The water is crystal clear and you can swim in almost all of the pools (one was considered a sacred site), which I most certainly made sure to do. The cool clear water was amazing!

Back in town there were more Wats to visit and more importantly the night market! Amazing food prepared right there on the street in front of you for practically pennies! I skipped most of the touristy tshirt stalls and headed straight for the food.

Amazing coconut pancake thingies. I could have eaten dozens of these babies!

Piles of freshly cooked food served buffet style, for a dollar a bowl!

Freshly grilled fishies!


And if you're not terribly hungry, maybe you had the wrong toast at breakfast?

Handmade paper shop

How's about some rice?

Or how about creepy crawlies steeped in local fungus whiskey? No thanks!!!

See? They're pets not food!

Amazing fruit is everywhere!

Paper umbrellas are one of the local crafts...but they don't hold up in the rain

Who knew there were TWO colors of water buffalo?
Ebony and Ivory indeed!

Can't beat this view for a "sundowner" <- local nickname for happy hour

Yep. Crocodile pate. Authentic French. Uhuh.

This town is bananas!!!