Thailand - Our
-- 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 on 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
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
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
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.