Akha Tribes Woman. The women chew Beetle Nut like the "pan" in India as they believe their black teeth are more attractive to the male tribes...each to their own I guess. At first it appears like they are toothless but actually its just dye.
The follow day’s route brought me through almost pancake flat terrain, negotiating paddy fields and dead snakes on the road. The only dogs on the road were of the flat variety which is one less hazard for the cyclist but a constant reminder that if I don’t pay attention I may be joining them! It was a real pleasure to pass the locals as they were always ready with a smile and a few words of encouragement…well at least I think that’s what they were saying! I always got the impression that the Thais live in the now. You saw them drinking together as soon as work ended perhaps spending half of their day’s salary on one beer alone. This mentality was a refreshing change from India where I was only able to speak to the educated as they were naturally the only people to speak English. They were so concerned about my social status, professional career and matrimonial prospects that the bicycle didn’t quite fit into the plan and the conversation often turned into me defending my expedition and a debate on my sanity. That said they probably had sufficient grounds for the latter question.The Thais however were far more relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the sight of a “farang” on a heavily laden bike and could only wish me well!
Ayuthaya Temple gods.
Classical Sukothai image.
Sukothai was the next city of importance on my trip and ideal timing for a rest day as I had pedalled for 5 consecutive days. It was Thailand's first capital, 'Rising of Happiness' and was the seat of power during the 13th and 14th centuries. I was also interested to discover the most “classic” style of Thai architecture as it was built during the golden age of Thai civilization. The giant Buddha statues that are plastered on every tourist brochure hail from Sukhothai so I thought it was high time I saw a real one. The ruins themselves were 12km outside the city so the following day after another miss at the food stall for breakfast…..I’m really due a hit soon, I headed towards the ruins whizzing past tourists on one gear clunker rental bikes.
On leaving Sukothai I knew mountains awaited me but uncharacteristically I was craving some mountainous terrain. Perhaps I am turning into a real cyclist! I have discovered it’s actually harder, albeit more mentally than physically to keep going on flat terrain as your legs never get the pleasure of a downhill freewheel and to be blunt flat terrain often comes with monotonous landscapes. I was soon to eat my words as the leg crunching commenced but looking back on it, it was worth it with seductive landscape beckoning you further. In the midday sun however they were as appealing as a sauna at which point I took refuge in a roadside tea shop or failing that any form or shade!
Unlike India (sorry for always comparing the two countries but India is hard to shake off) food is not always available every 5 or 10km so I usually take some snacks and provisions just in case. One day without having seen a café for 30km I was glad I had brought my banana leaf parcels. To date they were always filled with sticky rice and barbequed banana which complement each other quite nicely. This time however I was not so lucky as I had purchased 2 parcels of raw bacon fat which after close inspection contained remnants of raw bacon. As I sat dejected looking at my 2 parcels I almost ate them. Why the shopkeeper who was full of smiles at the time of purchase, thought I would enjoy two parcels of raw fat was beyond me. That said the Thais do often eat raw pork and bacon and I have since learnt from ex-pats that most foreigners living here are on worm tablets….comforting thought!
It was with a great sense of achievement that I reached Chiang Mai. I stopped short of the city in a roadside café to replenish my energy levels before I took on the task of searching for a room. The café owner spoke great English as she was married to a Sweede and proceeded to use me as her psychologist as she relayed the sorry tales from her life. She married a Sweede young for money and used him as an escape route from the country life where her mother was a prostitute and her father struggled to pay the bills as an honest road worker. Her watertight plan somehow got foiled when her Sweedish husband asked her to live in Sweeden with her. She tried it for6 months, got homesick “It’s f*&king cold there” an example where research pays off and indeed “it’s not as hot as Spain and other parts of Europe you know”. Being married to a Thai means that the women get 70% of what the husband owned so in the end marriage was a shrewd investment on her part. She then bought a massage parlor in Bangkok which pretty much runs itself leaving her free to be a lady of leisure. I was then introduced to her niece a 22 year old girl who also had very impressive English which she has learned entirely from MTV. Sadly the school of Cable Television does have it’s drawbacks when it comes to a more philosophical conversation but everything is nonetheless “awesome” “wicked” or some times it “blows”. She is also hanging on the tailcoat of her “successful” aunt and is in search of a “farang” white husband. Her flight is booked to Bangkok for next week and I wish her every success!
Chiang Mai is the Bangkok of the north but on a much smaller and laid back scale. It is also a launching pad to the mountains with its main tourist attraction being hiking in the nearby mountains. It was only 3pm when I wheeled into the city but already the hotels and guesthouses were booked out. It seems people take refuge here from the likes of Bangkok yet its not so rural that it doesn’t come with all the tourist luxuries. Fruit shakes and massage parlors are available on ever corner with Pizza restaurants and western style toilets being just as common. The result being that people stay here far longer than intended and accommodation is often booked out. I ended up in my first dormitory since Tibet but really enjoyed the fresh injection of enthusiasm. There was a fellow Irish economic refugee who was going to try her hand at meditation in a monks monastery for a month. A Brazilian banker who cracked, quit his job and has been traveling aimlessly for 2 years….he’s still cracked and more confused than ever. A Dutch alcoholic who had a different schedule to the rest of us using the room as a rehabilitation clinic by day in preparation for yet another night in the town. Friendly chap none the less. Lastly there was an English girl who was doing the “guilt free holiday” as I call it. Paying $3000 to volunteer for 2 weeks in an orphanage in the mountains. “but like it’s good value because I have like air-con and cable tv”….while the orphans live 90 to a room sleeping on bamboo mats.
Whilst in Chaing Mai I realized I was never going to make it to the Burmese border on time and it’s no fun cycling with a deadline on the back of your mind. I decided to head off trekking and whitewater rafting in the mountains for three days instead and then take the bus close to the border. My conscience was clear however as I would be backtracking from the border to Chaing Rai to meet up with an old friend from my English teaching days in Poland.
Guess who wasn't pulling her weight on the raft!
The next three days were pure bliss visiting and staying with hilltribes in the mountains where the usual pedestrian traffic on the streets were replaced by roaming pigs. The treks were interrupted by swimming in waterfalls , white water rafting, elephant riding and dining in local villages on the way. (The best food I’ve had so far in Thialand)There are 7 main tribes in the north of Thialand and on this trip I visited just two. The majority of these tribes are refugees from China and Burma who are highly discriminated by the Thai’s. On the face of it they seem quite happy enjoying a sustainable life in the mountains with the children happily running around playing. The reality however is something different as they are not there by choice. Having been forced to migrate their culture is diluted, they are relying heavily on tourism for income, incest is not uncommon and opium and other narcotics are even more uncommon. Illegal opium growing is definitely on the downturn thanks to initiatives by the much loved king however the draw of this cash crop is too much for many to resist. Children are often sold off to other tribes and some flea to the cities to work as underage prostitutes. It’s not all doom and gloom however and many of the smaller communities have a very intact culture and enjoy a reasonably high quality of life however. I couldn’t help comparing them to the Tibetan nomads and the Roma gypsies in Europe, each of which I find fascinating the more one understands about their culture. I certainly hope to learn more about these hill tribes in Burma and Laos as they have been the most interesting aspect of my journey in Thialand to date.
Local men of the tribal village.