Travels without a Plan #20

Northern Thailand
After the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it was definately time to move on. For all its hectic-ness, Bangkok is a great town, and it’s a place that you know that people who are coming to SE Asia will visit. Therefore, it wasn’t a huge surprise that I bumped into an ex-Sydney housemate who I haven’t seen for 8 months. Obviously, a few beers were sunk to mark the occasion.

With a cheap coach trip to Chiang Mai (Thailand’s second city), along with a group of Brits I met on the coach it was decided that we all wanted to do a cooking course. It was a great day, held in a local’s house. Firstly it was a trip to the markets to see all the fresh ingredients, taste some herbs and generally get into the Thai way of doing things. People then chose their favourite dish, we had six in all, and the day was spent preparing, cooking and then devouring the results with great suggestions from Meow our teacher. My favourite had to be the Red Curry (paste prepared from scratch), Papaya Salad and Sticky Rice with Mango. All in all a great day, where eating all the time didn’t make you feel too guilty.

All throughout my time in Asia, many people have suggested that I would love a place in far the far North West, 25km from the border of Burma (Myanmar) called Pia (pronounced Pie), a small town that is really starting to attract visitors by its laid back environment and beautiful scenery. I can’t say that I was disappointed, it really was an idyllic place, in surroundings that really have not changed much in generations.

It is when you are in environments like this that you realize how adaptive the Thais are. Amazing buildings, huts, restaurants etc, all made of the most basic material imaginable. I have never really spent much time in/on Bamboo before, but I’m really starting to appreciate how versatile the material is!!

The whole area around Pia is beautiful, with hot springs, waterfalls, an amazing Buddhist monastery (Wat Mae Yen) on the side of the mountain overlooking the whole of the valley. During sun rise/set the monks play their prayers over a loud speaker system which gives the whole scene a real serene feeling. 55km out of town are the Tham Lot caves, which many people believe are the biggest cave systems in South East Asia, and home to tens of thousands of bats and swifts that leave and arrive at sun rise/set. Stunning.

Despite the beauty of the area, it is also in a constant state of awareness and alert, the most recent incident happening only a few weeks ago when Burmese and Thai forces exchanged gun and artillery fire over the issue of Political Refugees seeking asylum in Thailand and the supply of Opium and other illegal narcotics (there had been talk that Chiang Mai would be closed to tourists!!).

Despite the Thais and Burmese being geographical neighbours, they have never, throughout their long histories, been on the best of terms. This issue is never far away, with police and army checkpoints scattered on the road on the way to Pia. When driving around the area on bikes, it was not unusual to see groups of armed soldiers out doing exercises (however, they were all happy to wave and shout greetings at us!!).

After four nights in Pia, living very cheaply, (60 Baht for a hut, 63 Baht to the pound), it was time to move on. My visa for Thailand runs out on March 30th. So it was onto a packed public bus that I stepped in for the journey back to Chiang Mai. So packed in fact, that I spent the four hours standing up, with little more than 4 inches to put my feet, hanging on for dear life as the bus swung around some of the most extreme corners I have ever witnessed (the drops were, high, steep and rocky). However, in these situations it’s amazing the comfort levels you can achieve, and I feel proud to say that I managed about five minutes sleep!!!

Then from Chiang Mai it was another four hours in a minivan, to get to the border town of Chiang Khong. I’m staying in a really nice guesthouse, with views over the mighty Mekong River (my first sight of it) and Laos is so close, it almost feels as if you could reach out and touch it.

I cross into Laos tomorrow, catch the slow boat down the Mekong for two days where my first stop will be Luang Prabang, old Laos capital and UNESCO World Heritage site, with all its Wats and French colonial architecture. Then onto the capital Vientiane, before heading to the south for the area that is known as Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don), before looping back up back to the Northern provinces. I have met so many people who have been to Laos recently and most of them agree that Laos is by far their favourite country in SE Asia, I may end up here a month and cut my time in Vietnam!!!

Depending on Internet access/costs in Laos, this may be my last update for some time. Next time I write will probably be somewhere in Vietnam, it all depends.

***NOTE***

Anyone wanting to get into Laos, you must have a visa, before you cross. You are no longer able to get them at the border. Getting them processed here in Chiang Khong is expensive, so do it in Chiang Mai or Bangkok before you arrive!!!

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