Chris' 1994  R100GS/PD ULTIMATE JOURNEY Erin's 1997  F650

Living a Dream . . . 2 Live-N-Ride

March 8, 2000

Thailand - Our First Look

-- Story by Erin --

Now I know why I like travelling by motorcycle so much.  The car we rented for 4 days with Chris' parents must have been the slowest car in Thailand.  It was plush (a top-of-the-line Crown Royal built in the early 90's, with red velour seat covers and electric windows) but it must have had a Honda scooter engine.  As we drove along the twisty mountain roads in the Golden Triangle we struggled to get the car up each hill and around the switch-backs.  At times we thought we would literally stall the engine and have to push it.  Visions of the "Flintstones" car danced through my head.   Well, at least it had air conditioning!

Before I go any further, let me give you some background and history about the Golden Triangle area of Thailand.  This area is so named because of the triangle that is formed where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet on the Mekong River.  The border with Burma is a particular sensitive area militarily, and there have been many clashes between Burmese and Thai soldiers.  There is also still a thriving business in the illegal trade of opium across these borders so it makes for an exciting place to be!  The GT area is populated by many different people, from exiled Chinese KMT soldiers, to Burmese refugees, to several different hill-tribe cultures.   The variety you see in the faces of people, the clothes and jewelry they wear, the languages they speak, the crops they grow, and the food they make is just amazing.   Other characteristics of this area include the mountainous terrain, the green forests with many waterfalls and rivers, the cool and misty mornings, the elephant training camps and diversity in wildlife. 

Workers picking tea leaves

Although the sky was mostly overcast during our trip we could still see the beauty of the green, jagged mountains (like what I remember seeing in Chinese paintings), small villages with teak houses on stilts, small farming plots with farmers and their water buffalo working the soil.   In each village you find something different.  Everyone is very welcoming and are easy to share a smile and a laugh with you.

Our first stop in the Golden Triangle was Mae Salong.  This small village very near the border with Burma was only recently accessible by paved road and has a lot to offer.  Besides it's beautiful setting near the top of a mountain, it has spectacular views of the tea plantations below it, a great little market filled with hill-tribe handicrafts and herbal medicines, and a huge temple on top of an adjoining mountain.  Mae Salong was originally settled by renegade KMT soldiers from China after they fled the Chinese Revolution in 1949.  Until a few years ago their primary income was derived from the opium trade and cultivation of opium crops.  Now the Thai government has persuaded most of the villagers to switch to growing tea.  The village has basically one road running through it which is barely wide enough for one car to pass at a time.  On either side of the road are numerous tea shops willing to treat you to a tea-tasting in the hopes that you will buy.  We tried out one of these shops and were shown their elaborate and interesting tea brewing method.

The next day we drove further north along the border with Burma to the border town of Mae Sae.  This is the northernmost city in Thailand and it enjoys a thriving tourist and commercial trade business with its neighbor.  There is a legal border crossing here into Burma and many tourists use it as a day-trip to say they've been there.  It is also used by many tourists as a way to renew their free, 30-day Thai visa.  For $5 US one can buy a one-day visa to enter Burma and then get a new Thai visa when they cross back over (in fact, that's what we would later do).   We only stopped briefly here to have lunch on the riverside and walk around the market.  It was a hot day so we jumped back into the Crown Royal with air conditioning and drove off towards Chiang Saen.

Myanmar (Burma)

The drive to Chiang Saen winds through mostly flat farmland along the Sai and Mekong Rivers.  There is so much history surrounding the Mekong River that we wanted to stay near there and see what life is like.   Just before Chiang Saen we saw a sign for the Le Meridien Bonboran Hotel.   Chris' father can't resist taking a look in most upscale hotels so we popped in to get a peak at how the rich travel.  While at the reception desk Chris and his parents were speaking to each other in Hungarian, commenting on the prices and the general looks of the place.  As it happened, the nice receptionist was Romanian and had Hungarian parents.   She politely mentioned that she too speaks Hungarian and there starts the story of how we got to stay in the swanky Bonboran Hotel at a price that was a steal.

View from room -- Myanmar mountains in the background

Actually, it was a real bargain for Chris and I since his parents decided to treat us and pick up the cost of the room.  The hotel really was one of the nicest I've ever stayed in in my life.  With beautiful rooms decorated with local woods and fabrics, set in lush jungle-like forest along the Mekong river, a big swimming pool surrounded by flowering trees, 3 restaurants, fitness center, walking paths, elephant rides, etc., etc., etc.  We thoroughly enjoyed staying there and enjoying it's amenities, however we took our lunch and dinner meals in the village to save money.

The following day we drove just a few kilometers down the road to Sop Ruak.  This little town is also know as "Golden Triangle" because it is here that you can see the actual point at which Burma, Thailand and Laos come to a point on the Mekong.  For the two nights that we stayed in the Bonboran hotel we ate dinner in Sop Ruak at a lovely little family run restaurant set completely outdoors.  They made wonderful noodle soups and fried catfish!  For lunch, we would eat from the many local vendors, like this soup guy.

Noodle soup vendor

Further down the road in Chiang Saen we visited a beautiful Buddhist temple on top of a hill overlooking the Mekong.  At the foot of the temple, Chris and I purchased two small finch-like birds that were in a tiny stick cage.  You see these vendors everywhere.  After you buy them, you make a wish and then set the birds free.  Feeling good about just having released two little creatures free into the world we entered the temple to explore a little.  Most Buddhist temples that we have seen so far are filled with paintings Buddha and Chris' fatheron the walls depicting the life of Buddha, village life and so on.  There are also many Buddha figures around inside the temple, ranging in size from a few centimeters to 10 meters tall.   While in the temple there are many rules of etiquette such as not wearing shoes, wearing appropriate clothing and not pointing your feet at the Buddha figure.  Women are also not allowed in some parts of many temples, although we did see a female monk at this temple.  Women monks are not seen nearly as often as male monks, and they wear white robes in stead of the saffron-colored robes that the men wear.  Not knowing much about the Buddhist religion I venture to guess that these female monks have a similar standing in their religion as nuns do in Catholicism.

On the fourth day we had to drive back to Chiang Mai.  The drive back took us through a national park and some spectacular mountain scenery.  We stopped for lunch at a lovely little resort (Charin Garden) set in beautifully manicured gardens with small A-frame bungalows for guests.  The restaurant is well known (as we discovered!) for their wonderful wide range of pies and desserts.    Yummmmmmy!  Thailand is filled with little jewels to find like this.

Tuesday, February 22nd Chris' Mom and Dad flew back to New York.  It felt like we had just arrived in Thailand and here we were a week later and time for them to leave.  We were sad that they were leaving but we made a promise to try to meet again; maybe in South America.

It was not long though before we had more visitors from "home".  On Wednesday, our good friends Martina and Todd (see the chapter on the wedding in Garmisch, Germany) and Martina's parents, Marlies and Reiner, arrived to spend a few days in the north of Thailand.   It was Reiner's 60th birthday and they decided to spend it in Thailand; Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and down south in Phuket.  Besides eating a lot of good food together and doing some shopping there were two real highlights.  One was a trip we all made together, Martina et. al. in a rented Jeep and us on our motorbikes, to the highest point in Thailand called Doi Inthanon.  This mountain is an easy day-trip from Chiang Mai and takes you through different mountain terrain, twisty roads, hot springs, waterfalls and a beautiful Buddhist temple at the top.  Their rented Jeep must have had the same small engine that our Crown Royal did!  They barely made it up the mountain and even stalled on one of the steep switchbacks.  The road takes you to the highest point in Thailand, 2,565 meters.  We also stopped at Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon, a temple built by the Thai Royal Air Force to commemorate the King's 60th birthday.  It has remarkable views from the top, has some impressive stone artwork, and is surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Stonework on side of temple

The second highlight was Reiner's birthday dinner (there was also a birthday breakfast for him that morning with cake and champagne!)   We went to an elegant restaurant on the river, and as we ate our meal we enjoyed live Thai traditional music and dancing.  The evening was capped off watching the staff light fires under mini hot-air balloons.  These balloons were lit up like big lanterns and when they were full of hot air they were released up into the heavens.   It was something very special to watch as they rose so high in night sky that they became like stars.  Then, alas, the next day it was time for our friends to leave for the south.  Again we said goodbye to our dear friends who we have seen several times on this journey.  It was especially sad because we are not sure when we will see them next.  If my instinct is correct though, we might see them in South America (we hope!).

Martina, Todd, Marlies, und Reiner

After everyone left, I suddenly had this strange feeling of being all alone.  As I reflected on this feeling I realized that we had in fact been traveling with companionship for almost a month and a half.  We had traveled with our friends Tom and Kirsten for about a month and then we flew to Bangkok where we were immediately met by Chris' parents.  Although Chris and I are happy that we have each other, it's incredible how much one still needs social relationships.  Anyway, enough philosophizing.  I'll end this chapter here just because it makes for a good breaking point.  Next chapter will be about our "solo" adventure to a different part of the north, the Mae Hong Son area.

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