Our journey northward continued after our wonderful week in Chiang Mai with Allyson and Caryl. Only a couple days after their departure from Thailand, we caught a bus to Mae Sai, the northernmost point in the country. Most people don’t usually make Mae Sai more than a quick stop-over while continuing a tour of the Golden Triangle or making a border/visa run into Myanmar. But we had reason to stick around for a couple days. One of our lovely hosts in Germany (back in March 2013) was now living and teaching in this town of Mae Sai. Julie and her mom Sabine, “mama Handy”, had been our very first hosts in Germany in their quaint hometown of Baden Baden. (Yes, the world if very small. It wasn’t the first or the last time we crossed paths with CS connections and other friends we had met on the road prior in our trip.) With Julie’s perfect instructions we arrived easily at the hotel she had arranged for us to stay at, The Hug Residences, just a five minute walk from her. For 400 baht a night (roughly $12), this place was much more than we were expecting, very modern, with a private en suite, large closet, television (which we never used), and a HUGE room. While it was just on the borderline of the town, it was in walking distance from Julie, which was exactly what we wanted.
Saunas and Soccer Games
Julie had been living in Mai Sae now for just about seven months. She had come to Thailand as a part of a program run by a German organization called Hope for Life (Hoffnung für das Leben) that sent roughly twenty youth to this area of Thailand each year to act as English teachers. The group all lived in a large co-op style home that reminded us very much of an apartment building you may see in Isla Vista near UC Santa Barbara. It was somewhat of a dormitory set up, as 19 Germans around ages 18-20 lived in and shared different rooms, and perpendicular to the two-story building was a covered open kitchen and dining room space with an enormous table made from one slab of wood. The large building was set back from the main road by a couple hundred meters, placing it in a peaceful location amidst a small cornfield. And although it was a mid-sized two-story, twelve room building; it looks much larger in contrast to the small village huts that lie behind it. This contrast repeated itself along the small back street that led to the house: new big buildings being put in, with shanty-like bamboo and thatched-roof houses in their shadows. But Julie’s place was modest and put to good use. Having access to a kitchen (and after discovering that avocados were available in these parts of the country) we spent one afternoon making Julie and some of her housemates one of our favorite dishes: guacamole! We paired this with a side of stir fried eggplant and veggies (we couldn’t resist buying more fresh veggies at the market) and had ourselves a little lunch-in one afternoon.
We continued to mix in these little moments of spending time with the young teachers between visiting local sites. Having already been in the country for a few months, she had a small routine down and knew the town quite well. She had even purchased a scooter with her friend, so they could use it to get around more easily. This came in handy on our first evening in town when Julia invited us to join her for a Thai-Boxing class at the local gym (where she and the other German teachers had a membership). Not having rented a scooter yet we all crammed onto her’s and buzzed across town to the new and modern gym. It was odd to be in a gym as neither of us had set foot in one for almost a full year at that point. We got on the elliptical machines and warmed up before the class was going to start, only it never did. The staff said the instructor would be arriving twenty minutes late, then thirty minutes later they said it would be another ten, then another ten after that — but that time never came. The instructor never showed up, and being in Thailand everyone just rolled with the punches and didn’t bat an eye. We were a bit disappointed at first but this all changed as soon as we stepped into the sauna facilities. You give us a sauna in any weather conditions and a majority of the time you will have a very happy Ben and Amanda. But you give us a sauna with the airs are icey cold (and yes, it was COLD when we were there, at night it would get to about 4ºC or 40ºF) and you will pretty much win us over for the entire week. All that time we were supposed to be Thai-Boxing we made up for in the sauna, not wanting to leave the comforting warmth that sank deep down to our bones. This sauna time combined with a little workout time made the visit to the gym a success for us, even if we didn’t get to perfect our Thai Boxing skills.
The following night we joined the group in attending a local club soccer game. One of the Germans was the star farang player on the local Mai Sae soccer club team. The group often came out to support him at the local games, and again we were invited to come along. He had recently been bumped up a league to a more competitive group and this would be the first night playing with the new team. So once again with both of us on the back of her scooter, we headed off to the part of town where there was a large outdoor turf field. Right away we noticed the ambiance when we first pulled up. Dozens of people were hanging out and watching from on their scooters and motorbikes, and there was an announcer for the matchup giving a play by play, with a really loud techno-dance beat repeating in the background. There was a motorcycle food stand there as well of course. We opted to get a beer and a Mama Noodles from the concession stand instead. As for the game itself, it was funny to see the German out on the field with all the Thai players: the only one with his shirt tucked in we noticed. The game was about 45 minutes in total, and by the end we were ready to move on, as it was really cold. Even the German friends on the sidelines agreed it was too cold to be out, and the girls that had come from the gym with wet hair had already left. We decided to do a post game slumber party back at Julie’s house where we all snuggled under blankets and watched The Bodyguard. Always a great follow-up to Thai soccer games.[xyz-ihs snippet=”Party-Music-at-Mae-Sai-soccer-games”]
Exploring Mae Sai
While Julia worked during the days we took some time to check out the town of Mae Sai. The town itself isn’t really a ‘hot-spot’ on the tourist trail other than perhaps to have been in the northern most part of Thailand. After a day of walking about the streets we could understand why. There wasn’t all that much to do in the town itself and being small it really only took one day to see. Wat Phra That Wai Dao is one of the main highlights and is probably the most visited ‘site’ of the town. We even saw a group of Burmese visiting the wat when we were there. Built on a small hill up a steep staircase, the wat overlooks Mae Sai and Tachileik (the border town on the Myanmar side). The wat itself was interesting, with a nice mix of small statues for different deities that came from Hindi, Buddhist, and Chinese religions. Besides the temples it is hard to miss seeing the monument to King Naresuan (a Lanna king famous for beating back several Burmese invasions) which is a giant black scorpion statue brandishing its claws towards Tachileik. Nearby the statue there are several lookout points where you can catch a glimpse of Myanmar. Conveniently placed, several benches overlooking the border crossing are “sponsored by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency,” and we even spotted a sign in the bathroom with a US hotline phone number to call to report any drug smuggling in the area. What country are we in again? On the way down we opted to walk the road rather than take the staircase that we had ascended in coming up to the temple. We found the road offered lots more variety of unique and artistic decor. We took some time to enjoy this as we descended back into town. At the base of this wat and all along the streets and allies within 500 meters of the border you will find vendors of all sorts. The food market is always in full swing as well, selling more than the usual findings in most Thai markets, probably since it was on the border region of Myanmar. Despite there being ‘borders’ between some of these countries the locals still live as they have for many years — belonging more to their tribe of the region rather than Myanmar or Laos or Thailand. With this you will find that the culture can seem completely different from other parts of the nation you are in and at times be somewhat of a mix between the various ‘nations’.
We took a couple minutes to walk up to the edge of the border crossing and watch the chaos, and then sat for a moment at this northernmost part of Thailand and just took in the happenings around us before we trotted back a few kilometers south toward our hotel. On our way back, we decided to stop for dinner at a nearby local spot Julia had recommended to us. She had recommended a couple of dishes and mentioned that her friend had also advised her that the fish was good. Winging it, we went with the advice and ordered the fish along with one of our favorites, a Tom Yum soup. The soup came out first and was very large, and then the fish came out shortly after. It was grilled on a BBQ, fully intact, and smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce filled with hot chili, garlic and parsley. We had been expecting a fish ‘dish’, not the entire fish. But we went with the flow and started to chow down on the very large meal in front of us. It ended up being fantastic and not nearly as spicy as at first appearance. After having completed another day of exploration (and roughly 10 kilometers of walking) we were quite satisfied with the hearty meal.
Motorbiking the Thai-Burma Border
The highlight of our time in Mae Sai had to be taking a motorbike along the border with Thailand and Myanmar. Since we had the scooter rented for a couple days to visit Julie’s school and other sites that surrounded the town, we decided to take advantage of our downtime and do a scenic afternoon scooter loop. We had mapped the route out roughly online and saved photos of the map as basic guidelines. The directions seemed pretty simple. First we headed straight up the main road until just before the passport control point and the bridge connecting Myanmar and Thailand. From there we headed west up the hill and past the Wat Phra That Wai Dao (which we had seen the day before). This would be the one road we would follow for the following 20km. It was not far up the hill past the wat before we encountered our first security checkpoint. They stopped us wanting to know where we planned on going. When we explained our mapped out scooter loop plans they looked a bit concerned. The military guard took a couple minutes to look at the scooter and told us it was a very very steep way up the road. After reassuring them we would go slowly, they let us pass through. Fortunately Ben had gotten the 150cc scooter, as we needed every cubic centilitre available to handle the roads. At some points, one side of the road would be completely washed out or overgrown, yet the dividing line would be perfectly intact, which made for a very funny ‘2-way traffic’ road. We went up along the ridge for about 20 minutes before seeing the next checkpoint. We figured they had radioed ahead that a couple of farangs were on a bike, because this time they lifted the roadblock as we pulled up without any questions. Further along, we stopped to check out a vista point, where some children were getting dropped off the back of a truck, apparently right from school. This village was high up in the mountains, and the children were happy to see some foreigners, as they probably did not get many visitors up there. After each turn and hill we would putter up, we always felt it wouldn’t get any higher. We were wrong. Just when we thought we had reached the top point on the route we would turn a corner and ascend another couple hundred meters. As we gained elevation we noticed farmers in the traditional triangular hats picking a crop from a small bush. When we stopped and looked closer, we realised the plant was coffee. We grabbed and opened up a couple of the red beans and sure enough, you could see the distinct bean shape inside. The farmers were growing the coffee beans on the sides of the hills in patches that were small and appeared almost to be wild. Ten feet away, on the other side of the road, the ridge ended and the mountain sloped down dramatically into Myanmar. We could see for miles beyond where we were allowed to pass. It was truly breathtaking and magical on all 360 degrees around us.
The final border checkpoint we passed was complete with camouflaged bunkers and a huge flag of Thailand. It was becoming apparent that the Thais are very concerned about this border with Myanmar, and with good reason. In 1985 the United States CIA sent out a memo referring to the rampant opium and heroin (the difference is the condition of the substance) smuggling and running in the area between then Burma, Thailand, and Laos–referring to it as the “Golden Triangle.” The name has stuck ever since. While Thailand and Laos have done an effective job of eliminating poppy plants and getting the farmers to grow different crops, opium production in Myanmar is actually at a multi-year high in the region. This is also a considerable part of why tourists can only go 15km by land into the country after crossing the border at Mai Sae. By this point we had reached the pinnacle of the mountain. The temperatures had been low down in the valley, but up in the high elevations of the mountains they were absolutely freezing. We rode downhill for a short while before having to stop to warm up our faces from the ice cold wind chill. Here we grabbed a hot coffee and tea and enjoyed the view overlooking the valley below for one last time before heading down the mountain as slowly and safely as possible. It took about an hour to get down the windy roads. By the time we reached the main road at the bottom, the sun had set and the chill factor had set in for the evening. It had been an amazing ride, but now it was time to get our layers on and bury ourselves under a couple of warm blankets for the night!
Monkeys at Wat Tham Pla
We happened to be visiting Julie the week national tests were being taken at the schools. This was an advantage to us because she had a bit more free time than usual since the students were testing instead of attending normal classes. Together we spent a morning exploring some of the areas a bit more outside the town limits of Mai Sae. Wat Tham Pla had been on her lists of places to see. Even though it was only a few kilometers outside of Mae Sai, she hadn’t yet visited the grounds, so this was a perfect place for us to start. When we arrived, we were greeted by a series of warnings on what to do and what not to do concerning the monkeys. This gave us a good indication of what we could expect after crossing into the wat grounds; which apparently was that monkeys would take everything from bananas to babies. Monkeys have never been our favorite animals. While they can be cute they are more often annoying and somewhat vicious. It probably didn’t help that collectively we had decided to buy some bananas to feed the monkeys shortly after entering the wat area. We stationed ourselves for the feeding near a large tree, from which there was hanging a large oblong metal structure that looked like it belonged at a construction site. The monkeys would make a bee-line from the top of the tree down the dangling metal frame to get a banana from us before scrambling back to the structure to enjoy their treat. A few of the monkeys began to get a bit aggressive. At this point the ladies who had sold us the bananas had to shake a stick or bang it against the ground to keep the monkeys in check. We were going with the theory that by feeding the monkeys first they would be full and happy and thus leave us alone. Well, the theory didn’t really work. The monkeys continued to follow us, make noises and surround us in groups. Despite this we managed to explore the grounds safely with the help of a large stick in our hands.
The grounds were fairly large (as many wat grounds are) with the typical mix of random animals. While the monkeys dominated the scene, there were also some stray dogs, a lake full of catfish (which were very easy to see in the clear waters), and a large fenced off area with a few alligators (a first for any of the wats we had seen). There were lots of little caves which one could explore here. All of them had buddhas to which one could make an offering and a prayer. We also found a trail that led up the center of a limestone ravine to the top of a hill with a viewpoint. Between the caves, there were a few odd figurines in a metal cage, and on the other side of the path to the cave there were papier-mâché-looking in equally strange scenes. We still have no clue what this was about, but later we saw that the figurines in the cage were actually a form of entertainment: if you put a few baht into a coin slot below the cage, the cage would blast party music, and the papier-mâché looking figures would come to life like puppets, appearing to be singing and performing a local pop song. It was slightly strange to us and the placement of these figurines and form of entertainment at the base of a small temple in a cave was bewildering. Just beyond this more recent addition to the wat grounds there was a large old stupa covered in moss. Hopefully by now you are getting a small picture in your head of the juxtaposed scenes at this wat, which made it unique for just that reason. Nothing quite seemed to fit together, however there was something about the place that made it interesting. We enjoyed our visit to Wat Tham Pla and found that it was a very beautiful area. Perhaps the strangeness of it added a bit to it’s beauty for us as well.
Local Thai School Visit
After our visit to Wat Tham Pla, Julia offered to have us come by her school (named Num Cham) to see the kids and where she worked. Amanda was especially excited to see the local children. No matter where we go we have found that having a chance to interact with local youth gives us a warmth and excitement that often isn’t matched when meeting adults. Julie had planned our visit to be just after the lunch hour when the children were out playing before they returned to classes. This was a perfect timing for us because we had a chance to interact with the kids and also not become a distraction while they were trying to study for their national tests. We were not let down by the greeting we received from the kids. The children draped all over Julia when they saw her, hugging and parading around her. We were given just as much attention as the children yelled out the few sentences in English they knew and shrieked in delight while gathering around us. The smiles the children gave us (even when it was through cavity-ridden teeth) could light up the night. As soon as we pulled out our camera there was no end to their glee and excitement. We managed to capture a bit of the energy and smiles of the children before showing them the photos. One thing we have learned about taking photos with children is that they absolutely love to see themselves in the photo after the moment is captured. As they peer into the screen of the camera they usually giggle and start rambling on with each other in their local language. After our great reception from the children, we went to explore the school. Julia showed us the classroom she taught in, and where the local English teacher would sit (or sometimes sleep) at his desk while she tried to teach the children the basics of English. While she put forward her best effort everyday, she doubted there was much retention. Next we were introduced to the school master. He was a bit shy (probably in part because his English was not very good) but he was kind, and he insisted that we eat lunch at the school. We sat in the large (and now very empty, since lunch had ended) cafeteria and had a little of the mass-produced pad thai lunch that was left over. Upon finishing, we heard the children’s free time end, marked by a song playing over the loudspeaker about brushing one’s teeth (we were told this since the song was in Thai). All the children went to brush their teeth, we then witnessed what was probably the most remarkable thing all day. Now that the children had fueled up from lunch, been running around to play, and had brushed their teeth, it was time to meditate. Another song indicated the beginning of meditation time and all the children (from 5 to 13 years old) sat silently still for several minutes to meditate before classes began again. I think we can all appreciate how impressive this is knowing how much energy kids can have and how hard it can be to get even one child to sit still for ten minutes; and this was over one hundred children.
Sky and Maya’s Village
After spending a few days with Julie in Mae Sai, we started to make our way in the direction of Chiang Rai. We had heard some good things about Chiang Rai and had also connected with an eccentric ex-pat on CouchSurfing that lived in a village roughly 40km north of the town. Sky (this is the name of our CS host) had welcomed us into his home with detailed instructions on how to get there. It was a good thing he had been so detailed as his home was located a bit off the main road in the small village of Ban Pasangnoi. Although he forgot to mention that the times (5 minutes down the road you will see a temple on your left) were based on the assumption that we had a car, which we didn’t. Despite this, we managed to walk the distance from the main road through two villages to find his house without incident. When we arrived Sky seemed to be out.
The home was open and there was only a local hill-tribe woman there working in the garden. Her English wasn’t so great but she did know “Sky”, just as many of the other neighbors knew this word and name as well. After the thirty minute walk we were happy to set our backpacks down and wait in the garden with the dog and cat. A short time later, Sky arrived on his motorbike, dressed in local garb, and a bandana controlling his shaggy white hair. Sky is a US native, who was born in Colorado, but lived much of his adult life in Bethel, Alaska. He also spent a significant portion of the 70’s in San Francisco on Haight Street. The easiest way to describe Sky is to call him a “Dead Head” (Grateful Dead), but really he’s a Rolling Stones guy, with the red tongue and lips tattoo on his shoulder being the giveaway. About 15 years ago he found himself in this small village in need of a place to stay. He was directed to the only person in the area that spoke English (which happened to be another foreigner) who was able to offer him a bed. Two years later he was in the area again and had the opportunity to buy the very home of the person he had stayed with before. As Sky likes to put it; the house found him. Currently he was working on an organic garden in the back, as well as completing a large pond which would irrigate the gardens. He lived on his own (with Maya the cat), but hosted many couchsurfers, and previously had hosted WWOOFers as well. When we arrived he was doing a cleanse from alcohol, and we were just fine with that. His space was like a little retreat. While simple, the home was in a very peaceful area. He had provided us with self drawn maps of the village area as well as the larger surrounding area that we could explore via motorbike. When we weren’t relaxing at what we now call Sky and Maya’s paradise, we were walking through the local nature around his home or exploring some of the further to reach spots with the motorbike he rented to us. We shared home cooked vegetarian meals, spent some time around a night bonfire, and even had the chance to release some fears in a Chinese sky lantern together. As is mostly the case, it is these shared experiences and connections with others that really bring an element of magic to our adventures.
Chiang Rai: The Black House
We ended up doing a day-trip to Chiang Rai from Sky’s home. This seemed to be the simplest thing and was easily doable as it was only about an hour via scooter to reach the city. We had two main attractions on our list to see: the well known White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the lesser known but still popular Black House (Baan Dam).
Baan Dam, AKA The Black House, is a series of temple-inspired structures built close together on a compound by a student of the famous Thai architect Chalermchai Kositpipat who built the White Temple. As the name suggests, nearly most buildings are painted black, and there is an extremely morbid touch to everything, aside from the very virile wood carvings of the male phallus. I am sure if any of us lived near the home of the architect before he had created the Black House, we would have thought he was a dangerous person, deranged, and sexually frustrated– and this may all be true. But, among the twenty-some odd buildings that comprise the Black House complex, there is a uniformly intriguing and dark–yet impressive and cohesive theme. Most of the items look like they either came from Game of Thrones, or inspired those who designed the set.
We probably had two favorite rooms, aside from the odd, spaceship looking building that was closed off. The first was a circular dome that contained about 25 chairs, made exclusively of bone, tusks, and leather hides. The chairs were in a circle along the edge of the building, with reptile carcasses in the center. The next most interesting spaces to us were the bathrooms. Just as we were arriving via scooter, Ben had to go to the bathroom. We opted to go in and check out the area first, as we were excited to see it, but then the urge overwhelmed Ben. So he took off to find the bathroom near the parking lot. While he was gone, Amanda found another bathroom — one of the structures. And yes, the bathroom was fully functioning and open to visitors. If the room itself wasn’t bizarre enough, the handle for the door was a wooden penis, ensuring you got the full experience both entering and exiting your bathroom. You can easily spend several hours at the Black House, as we did. We also had an unexpected treat when we were drawn to a group of people centered around a monk. The monk was, as it turned out, petting an enormous snake. The snake, which may have been a boa (we really don’t know our snakes well) was enormous, at least 12 feet long. After seeing the monk wasn’t killed while petting the snake, Ben joined in and petted the snake as well. Between the black painted decor, bones everywhere and skinned animals, the place showed a streak of goth in the architect, and increased our curiosity in what we were to see next when we visited the White Temple.
Chiang Rai: The White Temple
From the Black House, we rode south, quickly passing through the actual city of Chiang Rai. We were not too interested in visiting the city itself after a few reviews from people we had met on the road, so we headed directly to White Temple about 10 km south of the city. Not having a functioning speedometer or anything that would indicate how far south we had traveled (yes — we are in Southeast Asia, remember? The rules are: there are no rules. And the probability of things being a bit broken is high) we began to doubt ourselves. Stopping to ask for directions we noticed that there were some tasty noodles being served at the tiny local shop. The staff was so friendly and helpful with reinsuring us the temple was only one kilometer more down the road, and the smell of the noodles was so good that we couldn’t resist having a quick bite before continuing onward. With bellies full of noodle soup and smiles on our faces we continued on. Just as the staff had told us, the temple was not far down the road.
Unlike the Black House, it was not hard to spot the White Temple from the main road. The White Temple is a major tourist attraction, and we immediately felt the difference in the atmosphere as we approached. All the buildings that lie between the White Temple and the freeway have been built to attract the many tourists (both foreign and local) that visit this temple everyday. We tried to brush off the Disneyland-like atmosphere surrounding the White Temple and go in with a clear mind. This temple is definitely a work of art and incredible, as touristy as it may be. It was hard to tell if the temple was trying to be taken seriously, sending a different sort of message or if it was more a large kind of art piece. We were befuddled when we saw an image of The Predator as we walked along the path to enter. As you enter you understand the reason for it’s name — it is incredibly gaudy and blindingly white, with tiny mirrors along the edges to make it glimmer in the omnipresent Thailand sun. The entryway has you walk along a faux moat, walking over the hands of forsaken souls, that appear to be begging for a second chance at life. Once inside, the scene changes dramatically. The interior is very simple, as far as temples go. There is one room, and it has almost no physical decor aside from a buddha at the front. The walls, however, are bright orange, and are covered with pop-culture imagery. Mighty Mouse, Star Wars, McDonalds, the Simpsons, and who knows what else are depicted in a wall-to-wall mural on the bright orange background. How does this relate to buddhism? We couldn’t give you a direct answer. Do locals come to visit the White Temple? Yes, but not in the capacity of a temple, as it would be nearly impossible to pray here due to the flood of tourists taking pictures, and bizarre, unholy images everywhere inside. All the same, we had been recommended to visit this spot, and we are glad we did. While it may look like a frosted cake the attraction is free and we saw it as a large work of art, which has gained the rightfully earned attention over the years. Like anything that is interesting to see, soon enough it won’t be a secret anymore and dealing with the large groups of visitors is something you have to take in stride.
Motorbike along the Laos Border of the Golden Triangle
After several hours of exploring the Black House and the White Temple, we still had plenty of daylight left and wanted to explore the area some more. As we had mentioned above, the Golden Triangle is a famous region in Southeast Asia, and not all of its fame is opium-related infamy. As we discovered from riding along the border with Myanmar just a couple days before, the scenery is amazing in this region. Sky had given us a hand-drawn map of the area, and some recommendations. We now took his advice and went toward the Lao border for an afternoon ride and a chance to get off the main highway road. It took us about an hour of riding from the White Temple into the countryside, but the roads were empty and it was just the two of us on a scooter in green and golden fields. Unlike our ride along the border with Myanmar, the areas we rode through that afternoon did not have any monstrous hills. There are some rolling hills and small villages that would occasionally pop up along the road. This was probably for the best since the hill climbing on these little scooters can take much longer than expected. After a couple hours on the bike we made a stop near a bridge over the meandering Kok River. Happy to stretch and be off the scooter for a bit we took some time to meditate and enjoy the sun and solitude of the riverside. Watching a woman in her traditional pointed conical hat work in the adjacent field ,we soaked in what we thought would be our last day here in the north of Thailand.