Monday, January 30, 2012

Mae Sariang

January, 2010

...awoke to watch the sun rise over the lake. The wats across the way looked much nicer without the overkill of tacky disco lights and Buddhas with disco halos.

Another early bus, this time bound for Mae Sariang. Unlike the previous two journeys, this time the road was straighter, running through a forest of tall trees. There was only one mountain range to cross, and in the valley below, a very large village fed by the terraced rice. The bus was large, comfy, and nearly empty.

Mae Sariang was another stroll of less than an hour. We had lunch at a very popular restaurant, my beef in tomato sauce unanimously elected the tastiest dish in country. the wat out front was noisy. Farmers shoot bottle rockets into the air to petition the sky gods for rain. The tell-tale Shan silver wedding cakes were here replaced by roofs of gingerbread.

Our Guest House had a riverside balcony, and it beckoned. Yet another day passed nearly horizontal beside water. Goats and cattle grazed on the opposite bank, their caretaker napping in a tree. Buffs waded nosedeep, ears twitching. The sky became mottled with cloud, the sun eventually backlit the jungle in orange. After dark, flashlights appeared, bobbing on the other side of the river: boys night fishing. Deserves a quiet night. The frogs seemed to protest. And my body molded itself to my chair. The backpacker trail has the occasional town conducive to chilling out, a short respite from the rigors of travel. Yet all Thai towns can fit the bill...

...after a few days in the wild west of Thailand, a region of wooden saloons, country BGM, and red dust, we closed the theme by following a river valley that was straight out of New Mexico. It led to a town of Hot, where I craned my neck looking for punnable English signs, but only spotted the "Hot Police Station." Wish I'd seen the firemen. I got greater mirth in a town called "Hang Dong." Arrived midday in Chiang Mai, where we'd spend the next five days...

On the turntable: Generation X, "Kiss Me Deadly"

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mae Hong Song

January, 2010

We easily could've passed more time in Pai, but hurried over to Mae Hong Song to meet up with Dew and Pom, who we hadn't been able to reach by cell (and ultimately wouldn't find). The bus ride was one of those memorable Asian journeys, crammed into the back seat and surrounded by oddly-shaped luggage. The road today was as windy as the day before, below some very impressive peaks. I was entertained by a middle-aged hill tribe couple, who were taking a ride straight out of a slapstick comedy, complete with inadvertent pratfalls. The young girl next to me was browsing a celebrity magazine whose common denominator seemed to be very large breasts, an endowment shared by the reader. The woman beside her was adamant that no one touch her bag, which had been placed on the floor in front of me. After she fell asleep, one young man wound up sprawled across it completely. Being quite close to Burma, we stopped at many check points. At one, the cop threw me a wink and a smile.

Mae Hong Song didn't impress much on first glance, and I began to regret not staying in Pai. Then we came to the lake, which became the focal point of the next couple days. We had a dinner and a breakfast beside it, and on the final morning, I sat on its shore to watch the sun appear behind the high peaks to the east.

The mountains ringing the town were spectacular, stretching over into Burma. We watched the sun drop there from the wat on the hill at the town's center. It seemed like half the town was circumambulating the chedi there, flowers in hand. A monk had climbed up and was unwrapping a piece of broad yellow cloth. Further up, a handful of monks were burning the forest, including the base of one large tree. Smoke form other fires were visible across the landscape, and by springtime, the whole thing would disappear.

We had gone into the mountains earlier in the day, to a long neck Karen village. It was composed of several dozen huts, maybe half having been converted into shops selling the textiles woven here. There was also a Catholic church built by the Koreans, as well as a small school. we spent a great deal of time at the latter, distracting the kids , to the obvious annoyance of the staff. In our party was an actual Korean school teacher, who stepped to the board to give a quick lesson. I always feel slightly uncomfortable in visiting villages, and here especially so. Half of me longed to stare and take photos, and half felt like I was gawking at the handicapped. The Thai government pays the Karen women good money to wear the neck rings, but they have no rights, and must return to their villages at night. Some of them have left the village to refugee camps at the border, populated by 15,000 people and increasing every day with those escaping the fighting across the border. The UN will relocate the lucky ones to European countries.

On the ride back to town, our driver told us that the tourist industry had yet to recover from the 2008 airport closures. He hoped that people will return in a few years. We saw very few, as we rounded out the day visiting Shan style temples done up as silver wedding cakes. The dull light inside the teak structure reflected lazily off the Buddhas.

One theme of our time in Mae Hong Song was a series of amazing meals. I had a wicked Shan curry at Mae Si Bua, followed by a coffee at a nearby cafe, as I perused a magazine about 1960's mods, wishing I could read the Thai characters. At the Salawan River Cafe, the dark interior was of a western saloon, emphasized further by Hank Williams on the speakers. Dogs snoozed in the doorways and Miki slumped against the wall like a pair of gunfighters.

On our final night, coming down the hill on a sunset walk, we found the whole town absolutely throbbing. The town was hosting a huge festival, so we moseyed on down to have a gander. It was more of a carnival, with games and rides. There were quite a few hilltribe people about, including some longneck Karen, who looked completely conspicuous in the crowds. One of them wore a hoody, to blend further. It really looked as if the entire population of Mae Hong Song was here. Most of those back in town were farang. Beside the lakeside wat, a few Thai people released paper lanterns into the sky, which rose to become yellow specks of light mingling with the crescent moon...

On the turntable: Hillstomp, "Darker the Night"

Friday, January 27, 2012

Life in Pai

January, 2010

...took an early minibus to Pai. As the road was quite curvy, none of the luggage could go on top, making for a very crowded ride. Miki and I had chosen seats well, and had a fair amount of space, but personal boundaries meant little as centrifugal forces thrust us against one another through all the turns. The Thai girl in front of us filled a veneer bag with the contents of her stomach.

Pai was a cute little town, very touristic. This had once been a backpack destination, but now fashionable middle-class Thais outnumbered the farang. It seems their numbers overtook that of the 2000 locals. Every single resident appeared to be involved in the tourist trade somehow, every structure in town being a hotel, cafe, or shop. Many of the latter had post boxes from which to send postcards, or those white cement milage signs seen on every Thai road. The town was blessed with natural scenery, of red dirt, and alpine peaks that looked a lot like New Mexico. The trees on those hills were the bare skeletal shapes of winter, but here in the valley all was warm and welcoming. The music overheard, plus the multiple flyers for yoga or similar hippie attractions had great appeal. This was a place that I could happily place a few happy weeks.

We had a stroll around town, taking all of an hour. There was nearly no traffic on the street, until you needed to cross, then a van or a bus would roar out of nowhere. It was my own private "Local Hero" moment. We wound up in hammocks overlooking the river, reading, and dozing. Kids splashed in the water, dodging the bamboo rafts ferrying Thai families downriver. There was a wat on a hill just outside town, but we couldn't be bothered to climb it, preferring instead the view from the hammock. For isn't doing nothing what this town is all about?

In late afternoon, we had a coffee in an adobe colored stucco cafe with colorful window frames that fueled further comparisons with New Mexico. Dinner riverside at sunset rounded out the day.

(Though not quite. Had a beer at an outdoor jazz cub that happened to be closed. The owner told me how Pai had built a bunch of new hotels for the increasing number of Thai tourists. Sadly, they never came...)

On the turntable: "A Dead Band's Party" (Various)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lazing on a Chiang Mai Afternoon

January 2010

Awoke early for the bus to Chiang Mai. Shared a truck with a Swiss teacher who'd made a visa run to Laos. We discussed Thai politics and the expat situation here. This country is very strict on outsiders, apparently worse than Japan, which surprised me. We talked about Burma. He said that the current situation with the Thai king is frightening in that if the military takes over and takes a militaristic stance, it could become another Burma. That country, on the other hand, is slowly changing, prodded by China. The road up to Mengla will always stay open for the flow of goods into Thailand. When I mentioned my talk about Kengtung, he told me of a government clash with the Shan, the fighting going all the way to Tashilek. Some shells had accidentally fallen on Mae Sai, whose residents flew south. The world media had nary a word.

Our bus wound lazily through the hills into Chaing Mai. We spent about 2 1/2 hours at a cafe, reading and having coffee, then went exploring. We visited the city's oldest wat, then walked past the museum and the women's prison to Wat Singh. It was busy on this Sunday, people strolling the buildings, and under the trees that had pithy sayings strung to them. In the shade, and old car sat to be admired. A few blocks up was Chedi Luong, whose massive stone ruin hovered above all but one tree so tall it was out of proportion to the rest. The grounds were packed for the funeral of a famous, high ranking monk. Rows of chairs were lined between the pillars like in a Catholic cathedral. Men in white military uniforms patrolled around. The King's son was due to arrive for the actual funeral service the following day. Before the chedi was a two-story boat with a black elephant on the prow--the monk's vehicle to the next world. His life-like wax figure sat in a smaller boat nearby. The grounds were filled with tables offering free food. We walked and ate, walked and ate.

Out front, the Sunday market was just revving up. We walked a little but I was somewhat burned out. I can only take so much of markets. I did partake of a cheap massage, probably the best of the trip thus far. Afterward, there was a brief moment of panic when I couldn't find my cherish jade necklace, but it eventually turned up. We walked past the string orchestras sitting in the street, along the klong, and through a maze of soi to our room, the cheapest yet in Thailand, and the grottiest--cold water, mosquitos, broken windows. But the comfiest bed made for good sleep.

On the turntable: Van Halen, "Fair Warning"
On the turntable: Willa Cather, "Death Comes for the Archbishop"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Into Burma

January, 2010 run back up to Mae Sai. After changing hotels, we caught the bus back north and slipped over the border. Immigration almost refused the fee, a crisp $20 folded in half, saying it was too old. Tachilek looked little different than the Thai side, only grubbier and less friendly. Our smiles weren't returned, except for one kid and an older man. The tuk-tuk drivers and street vendors were extremely aggresive, falling into step beside you, and not fucking off until the twentieth "No!" The cigarette sellers held up their cartons, thumbs cleverly concealing viagra of dubious effectiveness. The more permanent shops sold the usual tat-- clothes, tea, pirated DVDs. Men of all ages and trades walked around in longyi.

We walked gingerly along the busted concrete crumbling into open sewers. We found a wedding reception in progress, a Toyota out front done up in bows. Up the hill to a massive gold chedi. behind it, two dozen concrete monks formed a conga line behind the Buddha. Miki tried to snap a photo of some Lisu girls, but upon a shouted command from one girl, the rest fell into line behind her, out of camera range. This leader glared at Miki as she passed. The mountains in the distance were dotted with gold gumdrops. We had a goat curry in a grungy basement restaurant, which surprisingly sold Heineken. Then, back to Thailand.

In our truck was a Swiss guy with a guitar. He'd stayed in Burma for 14 days, hanging out with some musicians he'd met on a previous visit, and ringing in the Lisu new year. He said it was a drag to return to his hotel every night, as no private Burmese citizen can host a foreign guest.

Our bus rolled south to Chiang Rai. I was crammed into the seat behind the driver, sitting sideways with my knees straddling the engine block. A young girl was nearly between them, and my left knee was pressed into the flank of her overweight mother who was constantly shifting and fussing with her kids, giving me the feeling of kneeling on a waterbed. A hilltribe man behind me was leaning forward into the seat, obviously motion sick. His bony fingers pressed into my shoulders from his tight grip on the seat. The driver's wife constantly hopped on and off the bus with embarking and disembarking passengers. I wondered at a life spent hanging off a bus all day. We stopped at the drug checkpoint and for the only time out of six checks, I was asked to produce my passport. The cop swaggered down the bus in dark '70's cop shades, looking the baddass. I suppose you have to be a badass to shoot unarmed students and journalists.

Back in Chiang Rai, I changed money, had a quickie massage. On the way back, I watched a Frenchman penetrate the massage gauntlet, dismissing their siren-like calls with a simple tip of the hat. I eventually settled in with a coffee and a book on my patio at Baan Bua. Miki and I walked up to the Saturday night market, where finally got the checked kramas that we'd been searching for since Cambodia. There waas plenty of interesting food, but I was marketed out, so pushed through the old city walls to a place I'd noticed that advertised ravioli at 150 baht. the menu however quoted 250, so I gruffly told the owner that dishonesty was bad business, and walked out. A consolation prize was a Thai shrimp and chili pizza, washed down with a fine German pilsner, served up by a ladyboy waiter.

On the turntable: Treat Her Right, "Treat Her Right"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rai and the Sky

January 15, 2010

...we awoke before dawn to catch the morning market. Over a breakfast of Chinese frybread and hot soymilk we watched the hill people sell their textiles and jewelry. A couple of old monks were on their begging rounds. I waved over a couple of guys I'd seen yesterday, one Japanese and one American. I'd noticed them when they'd arrived since the girl they were traveling with had quickly jumped atop their song taa-ou to get the bags, swinging up one sexy bare leg for leverage.

At 7:30, we climbed into our own song taa-ou with three hairdressers from Bangkok. Our truck twisted and weaved back down the mountain. A gate like a torii arch was an obvious hint of an Akha village below. I smiled at a nearby sign written with, "Agro Tourist Bureau." We stopped at an army checkpoint, its soldiers on the lookout for drugs. Men in uniform were huddled around a pot cooking rice. One soldier strode across the grounds, and I noticed one of the hairdressers nudge another. Miki and I went to see what the soldiers were eating, and they offered us each a rice ball dipped in chili sauce. It was the best rice of the trip. I looked up to notice the hairdressers giggling and filming us from the truck.

We drove for the next hour, picking up passengers along the way. By the time we stopped we had 10 aboard, plus 2 infants. Our connecting truck wasn't carrying quite as many passengers, but was cramped nonetheless. It let us out in Chiang Rai, near Wat Jet Yot, where we grabbed a cheap room at Orchid Guest House. We walked over to Orn bookshop, housed on the second floor of a quiet suburban home. Its layout and stock would rival any used bookstore in a comparably sized college town. After popping into the wat, we walked through town to a restaurant on the western edge, reputed to be the best local food in town. Nothing on the menu appealed, so we ate instead in a quaint cafe nearby. We continued our ramble, no plan in mind.

Near the river, we ran into Thom, a Frenchman we had met in Chiang Saen while we had been sitting in the street waiting for our ride north. He'd invited us to his home to stay, but as his village was 25 km out of town, we begged off. (We were to meet him yet again in front of a bar.) We passed the vocational college, the streets filled with girls in their school uniforms, which included long, hip-hugging sarongs. Nearby was the hilltribe museum, a simple yet informative intro to the subject. A group of tourists there were in the final preparations before setting off on a trek.

After a quick coffee at Cabbages and Condoms downstairs, we walked over to Wat Singh, with its beautifully carved doors and puzzling murals of Krishna. Outside, two cyclo drivers napped in their machines. Down the street we saw a man looking through a broken piece of glass burned black. I suddenly remembered the eclipse. He gave us a peek, the sun with a large chunk bitten out. By the time we got to Wat Phra Kaew, the sky was dimming as if a thunderstorm was rolling in. The temple grounds were lush and shaded, the buildings masterpieces of reddish wood and overlapping roofs. The pieces in the museum were wonderful, and I appreciated the fact that it was free. The real gem was the jade Buddha, housed in a lovely building that had a massive and apparently ancient turtle in its pond. The Buddha itself was magical in the way it captured the green light.

We zigzagged around town, occasionally looking up at the eclipse through my sunglasses lenses smeared with Tiger Balm. Later, I saw a well decorated truck with a half dozen people in the back, driving slowly past the market, speaker blaring, "The end is near! The end is near!" Past the mosque, through the market, and back to the tourist ghetto of Wat Jet Yot.

Miki and I split up, me in search of an imported beer after seeing two Germans enjoying a Weitzen earlier in the day. Afterward, I compared prices at the massage parlors around. In front of one, a sexy middle-aged woman took my arm and tried to pull me inside. Based on how she and the others were (barely) dressed, I suppose they have a more extensive repertoire than the others.

Later, we went to the night market. The food stalls were built around a large courtyard filled with plastic tables and chairs. Over food and a beer, it was a pleasant way to pass a warm summer night in January, under perfect weather. On stage, a musician was playing music that was vaguely Hawai'ian. He was later joined by a second guitarist and a drummer, the latter over-miked and playing a monotonous rhythm on congas with sticks. The singer's way of singing in his native Thai made it sound like the mic had a short. Between sets, a half dozen girls danced in a trad style, their hand swirling and turning to hypnotize, lulling us into peaceful warm places of our own making...

On the turntable: Deep Purple, "Purple Passages"
On the nighttable: Oliver La Farge, Laughing Boy"

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Mae Salong

January 14, 2010

We met a former Thai Air Force officer in a song taa-ou that took us to the bus. The bus, a rickety affair, dropped us at the T-junction in Ban Basang. There were a few song taa-ou there, but none would move until they got 8 passengers. We waited 30 minutes, but no one else showed up. We tried to haggle a price for a private ride, but they pulled out a piece of paper (English only, of course) claiming that they had 'set rates.' I walked to the street to hitch a ride, and the rates became unset immediately.

The road weaved and wound as it climbed to a ridgeline, following it through villages and small towns. In Mae Salong, we grabbed a bungalow and had lunch. From our table, I noted the Thai flags running up the main street, a reminder of who was in charge here, despite the overt Chinese feel. I'd noted similar flags on the border towns of Chian Saen and Mae Sai. There sems to be a strong nationalistic streak running through the Thai gut. In Laos, I rarely saw any flags, subverting the usual chest thumping at which socialist states are so adept. The flags waving throughout Thailand were a constant reminder of whose soil you were on.

We followed the ridge out to the marketplace. Akha and Risa were decked out in their finest, selling silver and textiles, not a word of English pushed past their teeth black with betel. The town's Chinese residents sold tea in more permanent shops standing behind them.

We walked up a road to the tomb of an old KMT general who had led his defeated band here in 1949. The trail became overgrown and laden with leaves, so i grabbed a large stick and tapped the path like a blind man, hoping to scare any poisonous critters away. The trail became paved again at a series of bungalows that were quite the thing 20 years ago. The style of the buildings and the grounds were quite Chinese. The trail led to a set of 718 steps that led to a temple. We arrived sweaty and out of breath at the top to find a young man teasing a dog. Not viciously, but causing it to yelp and snarl. I stared at the man, and he made a gesture with his hand like, "What? Go away!" I said, "You know, that dog is smarter than you, man," which made a woman sitting nearby laugh. We had a short stand-off, Miki and I calling him an idiot, and him glaring, but at least he stopped harassing the dog. Miki and I went into the temple, then heard another yelp. Back outside, I wanted to get the dog away from him, but saw that he wasn't making any contact with the animal, who was now asleep at his feet. Nothing I could do about that.

The view from atop the temple was incredible, with the town stretching away down the ridge, rows of tea climbing the sides. It was Chinese as touted, but was lacking in trash and squat squares of concrete. If only all China could match this. It was more like North Vietnam to me. On the way down we found a smiley, chatty monk sweeping the front walk to his temple with a three meter bamboo broom. Five minutes with him restore my faith in humanity.

We read the afternoon away on the porch of our bungalow, then walked the ridgetop main road through town. Midway down he road was a teahouse, Chinese in look, but made of dark teak, lit by candles. The entire back wall was open to reveal houses on the opposite hillside behind. A wonderful place to read awhile and soak up the view, but unfortunately, closing for the night. Our eventual destination was the Mae Salong Villa and dinner. We sat on the veranda, eating Yunnanese food recommended by the owner. the meal was good if pricey, and tainted somewhat by the owner checking on us every five minutes. Hardly her fault, since we were the only customers at that early hour. Below us, the valley and the villages hanging on the mountainscape disappeared into night...

On the turntable: Blue Oyster Cult, "On your Feet or on Your Knees"

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

To the Line

I walked the dawn streets looking for a place to have breakfast, filing past begging monks. Nothing was open, so I had to satisfy myself with buying bread and coffee at 7-11. I sat eating them on the banks of the Mekong. The sun was just coming out of the Lao jungle, shimmering across the river to me. I took my time here. We'd passed the better part of a week on or beside its waters, and today we'd say goodbye.

An obviously gay couple walked by, the third I'd seen in this small town. Chiang Saen must be on the gay and lesbian travel circuit. There were also some trucks vying to ruin my peaceful morning with their speakers -- one for a group called "Miracle of Life." At eight o'clock sharp, the national anthem came on and moved me along.

We flagged a passing song taa-ou for the ride north. The Golden Triangle refers to this entire area, but the town of Solp Ruak had adopted the name since it sits on the western bank of the Mekong where Thailand, Laos, and Burma come together. I'd debated a quick stop here, but the town was ugly and quite touristy, so was satisfied simply with this quick peek from the back of the truck. We began to take on more passengers now, including a few village folk, three monks, and a Burmese girl with a cosmetic of ground bark on her cheeks who was eating nuts and throwing the shells out onto the road behind us.

Mae Sai wasn't much to look at, but it certainly was bustling. I love borders and I love market towns and this town had all the best qualities of both. A real dream for people watching. Besides the obligatory Chinese, there were the broad faces of Burmese, and the dark skins of those from further west. Tribal people added color in headgear and dress. A few of them were topped with steep-pitched conical hats, balancing baskets filled with nuts across their shoulders. Dozens of vendors roasted chestnuts. I saw more
thanaka, that ground bark paste on faces, especially on the cheeks of poor kids who'd come up to me with hands outstretched upon seeing my white skin. One street kid slept in the doorway of the Thai Airlines office. We walked through the cavernous Chinese market, then down the main drag with its money exchange, gold sellers, and gem shops. In one flashy cafe, three monks sipped coffee. Border guards toting M-16s strolled around looking tough. Atop the hill was Wat Phra That Doi Wau, offering excellent views into Burma. It all looked like one continuous city from up here, except that Burma had quieter streets. Near the wat was a large steel scorpion, supposedly the biggest in Thailand. I still don't know why.

We had lunch at a Burmese Muslim place, hidden down a side alley, which did a good biryani and a nice noodle soup. Later, we did an internet time out, at a shop run by a friendly Burmese guy who spoke quite good Japanese. He'd been here 20 years and told us that the economy here was dying, the death knell being Thailand's decision to change visas from 30 to 15 days. I asked him about travel in Burma, and he suggested I ask at the border.

We were toying with the idea of a trip up to Kengtung, as a kind of visa run, arriving back in Thailand with a new 15 day visa, which would carry us to the day of our flight back to Japan. I approached immigration and asked the woman there about doing a day trip. She was really funny and friendly and told me to simply walk across the border and ask. I gave her my passport and did just that. There were quite a few people sitting on the bridge, including more begging kids. Where did they belong? From here, I could see how close the buildings on both sides were. With a running start and some courage, a person could jump from the rooftop of one country to the next. On the Burmese side, a cop sat in a plastic chair reading a paper in the middle of the road, cars passing on both sides. Vehicles did a do-se-do into the opposite lane. I entered the Burmese immigration office and asked my question. A guy at a desk gestured to a guard who led me into Burma. Inside the tourist office, I found a man writing something on a piece of paper. I asked him if the road to Kengtung was open, and his answer was what was written on the paper: "The military allows people to go to Kengtung only with a guard." I pointed at the paper, and asked, "Hey, are you studying English?" He said, "Yes," and we both laughed. The military. So the situation wasn't political, but some type of unrest. The officer told me that we could take the bus, at a cheaper price that I'd thought. But we'd have to pay the expenses of the guard --salary, room, transport, etc. I thanked him, nodded to my guard, and walked back to Thailand. There was a brief moment of tension when I couldn't present my permit to cross the border, but that was cleared up with a phone call. My five minute foray into Burma ended without incident. I was amazed how relaxed and playful everyone was, far removed from the tense border I'd heard about.

Miki and I spent the rest of the day at Mae Sai Guest House, a group of bungalows on the river. They were perhaps the nicest lodgings of the trip -- walls and floors of woven bamboo with good light and strong hot water. We sat on the veranda and looked at Burma 10 meters away across the river. It felt like nosily spying on neighbors. Life there didn't seem so different from over here. The family 'next door' was busy cleaning its garden. I was annoyed with the way that the patriarch would toss veneer trash bags over the wall into the water. It was funny to see his dog eating the same trash, then be called to be fed up above. A large snake swam from Thailand to the Burmese shore, then returned again. Didn't have the correct visa, I guess.

After dark, dogs on both sides of the border began barking at one another. A drum beat from somewhere off in the hills. From the Burmese side came the sound of voices. Two or three times, the crack of gunfire made me wish I'd paid attention to the design of our bungalow's roof...

On the turntable: Van Halen, "Fair Warning"
On the nighttable:
Wiliam Eastlake, "Lyric of the Circle Heart"

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

Thar be Dragons!



And in those places between...