Sunday, June 29, 2014

Golden Triangle and Missed Bus

Leaving Chiang Mai we took a bus farther north up to Chiang Rai. I was expecting Chiang Rai to be similar to Chiang Mai and to have a similar feel to it. Unfortunately, I didn't like Chiang Rai at all. I may be a bit biased too, the first thing Alyssa and I did was try to find affordable food for lunch which proved to be one of the more difficult endeavors we've embarked on in Thailand! The street carts were few and far between and the restaurants were closed until 5. It felt like the town was closed until the evening! It's hard to find a place enjoyable when you're struggling to find food. We did eventually find some rather over priced food, don't worry we're not even close to going hungry here!

After we wandered over to the Hill tribe Museum. It didn't allow any pictures to be taken, I'll try to keep this short and sweet since I don't have anything to keep this section of the post interesting! The Hill tribe museum focuses on educating the general public on the Hill Tribes instead of participating in the focus to educate and make tourist a attraction out of the tribes. The Hill tribes, or mountain people, are the various tribal people who live in the mountains of the northwest of Thailand, Laos, and Burma. There are 6 major tribes: Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lisu, and the two tribes we visited, the Lahu and Akha. Preferring to live in the mountains, 1,000 meters above sea level. They all have their own particular style of dress, language, culture, and art.

The struggle with the hill tribes and the Thai government is something I still don't quite understand. Many of the tribes are indigenous populations that have migrated into Thailand from China, Tibet, and Burma. As I mentioned in the post on jungle trekking the Thai government has been relocating the tribes to lowland areas (because the government claims that the tribes are contributing to deforestation) and giving them land to farm; however, generally this land is unsuitable for farming. The population of the Hill tribes in Thailand is estimated at around 1.2 million, less than half of which are registered as Thai citizens even though most were born in the country!

The museum explained that in the early 1990's the Ministry for Education set up guidelines for integrating the ethnic minorities into the Thai schools; however, other than setting up those guidelines nothing else was done. Many schools still don't accept hill tribe children and when they do they don't have any support set up to help with the language, cultural differences, or costs. There is also extreme poverty throughout many of the hill tribes so many of the children are forced to work, often peddling goods to tourists.

Here's a picture, so this post isn't too boring, of Alyssa brushing her teeth with a tiny toothbrush! 

Restricted freedom of movement is also an issue:
"Movement of non-citizens within certain areas is allowed but if they are found outside of these areas they face instant arrest. In hospitals, non-registered members of the tribes are often refused health care."

It's sad how quickly these indigenous populations are used for tourism when they're not even recognized as citizens. While walking through Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai there are many signs advertising trips to see an authentic long-neck Karen tribe. (The tribe that wear rings around their neck to 'elongate' their necks). However, with a little digging you'll find that this is far from an authentic village. The women are forced to wear their rings and live in this village to make money. If they refuse to wear the rings they are kicked out and not paid. Many of the women depend on the meager pay to feed their families.

After the museum Alyssa and I hopped onto another bus to meet Naomi and Ryan in a little village farther north where they were staying with a friend. We enjoyed an incredible home cooked meal and afterwards played many rounds of the board game Resistance that resembled a popular field game, Mafia. Out of the 4 rounds we played I was the 'bad guy' 3 times! It was exhausting and fun! Alyssa and I will be looking for it on Amazon so we can bring the game to our house! The next morning we left for the Golden Triangle!

On the bus to the Golden Triangle a police officer sat down next to Alyssa and began to interview her. I say interview because he was basically practicing his English with her by asking questions such as, "Do you like movies?" Any time he didn't know how to say something he would turn to a girl across the bus from him to ask her to translate. Then he asked Alyssa for her phone number! This sign seemed appropriate!

The Golden Triangle is the area where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet. The US government coined  this term in a memo about the Opium trade throughout the world. It is still one of Asia's two main opium producing areas. The area encompasses almost 400,000 square miles, it covers the mountains of Thailand, Burma, and Laos. We checked out a museum in the area called the Hall of Opium that Alyssa and I both agree is one of the best museums we've ever been to! It was very educational about the history of Opium while remaining interactive so as not to be boring everyone to tears! I could probably write an entire blog post about this museum, but CNN Travel does it much better. If you're interested check out this article:

We also learned a lot about how the Hill tribes were often used to grow and harvest large quantities
because of their location in the mountains. The Hill tribes have been using Opium for medicinal purposes for centuries. The Golden Triangle actually produced most of the world's heroin until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world's largest producer.
China is really necessary on this map. 

The picture version

The real life version

The Golden Triangle has some strange monuments that have popped up for the tourists. 

After we were done Alyssa and I began looking for a songthaew that would take us to Chiang Saen where we would catch a bus back to Chiang Rai. After 15 minutes of walking, a Tuk-Tuk stopped to pick us up. When we told him we wanted to go to the bus stop he informed us that we had missed the last bus by 30 minutes! Luckily we hadn't booked a room yet in Chiang Rai and we had our packs with us so we asked him to drop us off in Chiang Saen so we could find a hostel for the night. One of the better choices we've made yet! We found a nice clean room in a guest house run by an incredibly friendly older man. He was very helpful in getting us a map and making sure we knew what time the bus would be coming the next day! Chiang Saen is great little town with crumbling old defensive walls similar to those of Chiang Mai. The town was also captured by the Burmese at one point and was abandoned for over 100 years! The town seems to still be trying to regain its footing. I was surprised with how well they treated us as tourists, it almost felt as though people were tripping over themselves to help us! Chiang Saen is only 10km from the Golden Triangle but it seems that tourists chose Chiang Rai as their jumping off point and only use this small town as a point to grab a tuk-tuk or songthaew to take them that last couple kilometers. I would recommend Chiang Saen over Chiang Rai in a heartbeat!

The motorcycle Tuk-Tuk

Looking for dinner we found a row of street carts lined up along the Mekong River, with small tables (similar to coffee tables) set up with straw mats on the ground on either side for sitting. As we stopped to look at a menu a few people called over to us, "Sit down! Sit down!" So we did. One of the men, Pong, who had been calling for us to sit down ran over to see what we would like to eat. At the time I assumed to worked there but we later learned that he did not and was just excited to help 2 white girls order some food! There was some confusion when he was asking if we wanted something, Alyssa and I absolutely could not understand what he was saying and he clearly didn't know another way to say it. So he grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the cart and put a pinch of rice into my hand. Ah Rice! Yes, okay!

Everyone eating along the river

Alyssa and I eating our meal

The food was delicious, we enjoyed eating our dinner while looking across the river to Laos. While in the middle of eating the man came back over again to make sure we were enjoying our food and to bring us a liter of Pepsi! We invited him and his friends to come join us. Pong and his brother (I don't remember his name) were from China, though spoke Thai, and the woman they were with (whose name I also don't remember) was from Thailand.
Alyssa and our new friend Pong

They practiced their English with us as we repeated the only Thai words we knew, they seemed to appreciate that we knew the word for bathroom. Thanks Naomi! It's exhausting to try to have a conversation when you can't understand what others are saying and they can't understand you! Alyssa and I spent a decent amount of time saying "I don't know" and smiling, there was a lot of smiling! After a while the woman called someone on her phone and next thing we knew there was another man, a small boy, and a 20yr old girl joining us at our table! Alyssa and I began to look for a polite way to dip out and head somewhere to find ice cream when Pong suddenly got into his car and left. The woman told us that he had gone to buy a New Years lantern for us. I'm not sure what they're actually called but they're the lanterns that get sent off New Year's Eve for good luck. We couldn't leave yet! Sure enough he came back with 3 lanterns. They helped us each with one of them and then had us work together to send off the third. It was an incredible experience that we will never be able to appropriately recreate. We did eventually bow out, politely, and stopped at a 7 Eleven to buy ice cream. A great ending to a perfectly unexpected night.

Pong and his brother

Alyssa and their friend 

Alyssa and I with the 3rd lantern

Pong kept saying, "Go KEEEE" which is actually more efficient than "Cheese!"

The next day we made it back to Chiang Rai and decided to splurge on a hotel with air conditioning and a tv! We laid around in bed most of the day and watched movies, it was exactly what we needed! We eventually ventured out to the night bazaar and shared a hot pot while watching a lady boy comedian jump around on stage singing and dancing making everyone around us laugh! Something Alyssa and I say regularly. . . "I wish I knew Thai"

Our fancy pants hotel room! With the beds adorably pushed together. 
Hot Pot for dinner, reminded me of college!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Don't Eat The Customers, Tiger!

On our last day in Chiang Mai, before heading up north to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, Alyssa and I went to visit the Tiger Kingdom. After the feelings of uneasiness that accompanied riding the elephants we gave hard thought to whether we truly wanted to go see the Tigers.

When researching information about tigers in Chiang Mai we came across two different establishments that allow you to touch and get close to tigers. Unfortunately one of the places, Tiger Temple, has been accused of maltreatment towards the tigers. Tiger Kingdom on the other hand received rave reviews. I was incredibly excited to get up close and personal with the tigers, and also hoping that I wouldn't regret it later.

There are leaves at the end of that stick that have both of these cats' attention

To be able to get into the tiger cages you pay for packages based on the size of the tigers. Since the packages are pricey Alyssa and I knew we only wanted to pay for one package. We struggled deciding between the biggest tigers or the smallest ones. Eventually, we decided on the smallest, the baby tigers. Before going into the park we milled about in the lobby and watched the biggest tigers in their cage. Two of them were up walking around and playing with the trainers and each other. Watching them play I was reminded of how similar they are to house cats. Until I caught sight of the size of their massive paws!


Before going in with the tigers we were instructed to wash our hands and to change into the same rubber slippers that the trainers wear. We were reminded to not use the flash on our cameras, always approach from behind, not to play rough with the tigers, and to avoid their heads and front paws. We had a trainer assigned to us the entire time we were in the enclosure, to keep both us and the tigers safe. I was surprised at how little the trainers had to protect themselves with, they only used a small stick to rap the tigers on the nose when they were doing something 'wrong'. It was explained that the tigers learn at a young age that the stick is unpleasant and to obey the trainer. With the larger tigers the stick doesn't touch them at all, the trainer need only to hit the stick on the ground and the tiger will quit the undesired behavior.

Checking for a heartbeat. 

This tiger walked right on over to Alyssa! 

Tiger Pillow

Right after this picture was taken the tiger made a sudden movement towards Alyssa, the trainer said, "Don't eat the customers, Tiger!"

Yes. Please don't eat us. 

The trainer often instructed us into poses with the tiger, joking about tiger pillows and telling us to lay on the tigers. I wasn't totally comfortable with how much the tigers were poked and prodded when they were clearly trying to take a nap. While leaving Tiger Kingdom a FAQ posting caught my eye. One of the questions: Why do the trainers/photographers wake the tigers up from their sleep to have their pictures taken?
Answer: Because without customers the tigers would starve.
It went on to explain in more detail that generally the customer gets what they want. But that short answer was enough for me. It was frustrating to remember that when uncomfortable with things that are happening around me I have a voice. Hopefully next time I'll speak up and let the trainer know I am content to let the tigers sleep.

The kids are as interested in the baby tiger as he is in them

Pure fear on their faces

When back at our hostel I began talking with an older man from Australia. When I mentioned we had gone to Tiger Kingdom he asked me what I thought of it. I'm not sure what I said but it was rather noncommittal because I was interested in what he had to say about it.  "I have some sad news for you. Those tigers are drugged". Now this wasn't the first time I've heard this allegation, it seems that all of the wild animal exhibits get people that are convinced the animals are drugged because of how docile they appear. Tiger Kingdom has many postings on the walls of the lobby that say things like "Tigers Don't Need Drugs". They explain that tigers generally sleep around 15-20 hours a day. We saw a great deal of sleeping tigers and also a few awake and clearly looking to play. I wish I could say for certain whether or not the tigers are drugged. . . my gut says no.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Cock, No Thailand

The second night of our jungle trek Chat starting telling us about The badass King Naresuan the Great, also known as the Black Prince. This legend is quite fantastical so of course is to be taken with a grain of salt. It shows how fiercely the Thai people love their Royal Party.

In the 1560's the King of Burma invaded Thailand, murdered the Thai army, conquered the capitol, pillaged villages, and took the Prince Naresuan back to Burma as a prisoner. Prince Naresuan grew up alongside the Burmese royalty, effectively learning all of their strategies and constantly feuding with the Burmese Crown Prince who was about his age. Eventually after about 7 years of being held hostage, Prince Naresuan was permitted to go back to Thailand in exchange for his sister.

Prince Naresuan bid his time pretending to be in line with the Burmese King's wishes. Until he came face to face with the young Burmese Crown Prince that he had fought with so often before. This is where it gets good! Legend has it that they wagered a bet, the Capitol of Ayutthaya would be freed if Naresuans's rooster won in a cockfight with the young Burmese prince's rooster. Of course, the Burmese prince's rooster was left fighting for his life and Naresuan's rooster was victorious! The Capitol was freed and the Burmese Prince was humiliated. Naresuan declared Thailand's independence almost immediately.  Under the command of now King Naresuan the Thai army fought off 5 separate invasions between 1584-1593.

In January of 1593 the two young princes, now Kings of their lands, met again during the largest Burmese invasion ever assembled. The Burmese King wasn't leaving until he had killed King Naresuan, and the battle quickly began to turn against the Thais. At this point King Naresuan came charging out and smashing into enemy lines on a gigantic elephant! The King of Burma just happened to be seated a top his own terrifying war elephant! The two kings each told their armies to stand back, this battle would be fought to the death by the Kings!

The Kings climbed onto the animals' heads as the elephants charged each other, tusks crashing together. Of course they both had huge swords and while the elephants fought for dominance they engaged in a sword fight. . . on top of charging war elephants! One false move would result in death, by sword or trampling. King Naresuan's elephant suddenly gained the upper hand by driving it's tusks up and over the Burmese elephant's. Naresuan took full advantage of this moment and brought his sword crashing down on the King of Burma's right collarbone. . . slicing the King completely in half all the way down to his left hip. Naresuan grabbed the now excessively bloody head and mounted it on top of his own elephant. The Burmese army immediately turned and ran for the hills. Thailand was free.

King Naresuan continued to fight for Thailand by reuniting cities, conquering Cambodia, and even invading Burma. He has a national holiday, elephant duel day, in January to celebrate his greatness as a Thai hero.

Chat ended this story by saying, "No cock, no Thailand". Yep. No big deal.

Roosters and elephants in honor of King Naresuan the Great

Jungle Trekking

One of the first things we did in Chiang Mai was sign up for a jungle trek. The jungle trek business is absolutely massive in northern Thailand, there are so many options it makes your head spin! Ultimately we signed up for a 2 night 3 day trek that had a smorgasbord of activities, two hill tribe villages, hiking, elephants, cooking class, two waterfalls, white water rafting, and bamboo rafting. Honestly, it sounded too good to be true. We've been learning to not set our expectations too high, we're trying to be present and enjoy the ride instead of always looking forward to the destination. Luckily we had an absolute blast and the trek exceeded our expectations!

Our group!
 Scotland: 2, England: 1, Germany: 1, France: 1, USA: 3

Sitting around a market eating fruit before heading off

Alyssa and I were picked up at our guest house around 9:30 the first morning and we quickly met the other people we would be on the trek with. David, from France, had previously been working in New Zealand to make money for traveling Southeast Asia for a few months. He learned English while living and working in New Zealand! Three girls from the United Kingdom, Corrie, Darcy, and Hazel, who had just finished their final exams at university in Scotland, when we met them they were still awaiting their results. Happy to say they passed their exams and are now doctors! David, from Germany, is 19 years old. He's traveling for an unspecified amount of time, shooting for at least a year. While in Nepal he had done a 10 day silent meditation retreat focusing on meditation, lightness, and simplicity. Kevin, from the United States, was the only one from our group that joined Alyssa and I for the 2 nights. The rest of the group had chosen only 1 night. Kevin is a teacher in Denver who works all year and then spends his entire summer traveling, next year he's looking at Japan! Our first stop was an Akha hill tribe village where we ate lunch and began our trek.

Our lunch, wrapped in banana leaves


Banana trees

Bee hives for honey

The hill tribes used to use a slash and burn technique for agriculture, leaving a place before the resources are depleted. The Thai government, concerned that these techniques are environmentally destructive, has stepped in to control the land use. Every family is given a plot of land big enough for them to farm for their families, they do not pay taxes for this land. If a family needs more land, as the family grows bigger, they can apply to the government and get more land granted to them. This sounds great on paper; however, it ties these migratory people to one place and contributes to the absolute depletion of natural resources.

Banana trees
Land is so heavily used causing these trees to continue to grow smaller and smaller 

Akha houses

Posing together with packs on gets difficult sometimes 

After lunch we started off on our hike, straight up a mountain. The hike was more strenuous than any of us had thought, no one struggled too much but it definitely would have been a tough hike for anyone not used to physical activity. Our guide Chat was always bouncing around in front digging up bamboo roots, picking mushrooms, or joking and laughing with us. Luckily we brought along bug spray because we were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes! During one break Chat watched us swatting at them and joked "The like the white people!" followed by "the little ones have malaria". We all froze and looked at each other in that 'did he just say what I think he said?' way. I looked it up. . . malaria symptoms may present themselves anytime from 7 days to 1 year later. Yikes.

"Looook I can spin aroouund" 

Chat smoking and being a nut

Not as thick as I was expecting, still beautiful 

Alyssa and Chat 

After hiking to the top of the mountain we took a short break before hiking straight down the other side! Down was more difficult than going up because the hill was so steep, it was hard to go too fast without sliding down on your butt. At a particularly muddy spot Alyssa chose to squat down and go for a controlled slide. It was not an easy hike! It was worth it though, at the bottom of the mountain, along the river, sat the elephant camp. We put our stuff down in the area we would be sleeping and got ready for the elephants!

The area was absolutely gorgeous! 

7 Eleven in the jungle!

Where we slept

As we got ready to go see the elephants Corrie, Hazel, and Darcy updated us on the status of  elephants in Thailand. They had visited an elephant conservation center a couple days earlier and weren't too thrilled about the prospect of riding the elephants.

Elephants were revered in Thailand for centuries, it's apparent from the many elephant statues throughout the country. Just a hundred years ago there were more than 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Now it's estimated that there are only 3,500-5,000 left due to many factors including the ivory trade and forest reduction. At the time Elephants were domesticated for work and warfare, they were valuable as a form of livestock until floods in the early 1900's caused the cancellation of logging and thus putting thousands of elephants and the mahout, who own and work with them, out of work. Elephants then began being used for tourism, unfortunately the elephants are often drugged, mistreated, forced to work long hours, and given a poor diet. We were told that elephants are happy when they're flapping their ears and wagging their tails . . . the entire time we were riding the elephants we were looking for signs that they were happy and constantly trying to justify it to ourselves. Overall, the elephants seemed to be taken care of since they are the source of money for the elephant camp, and it's in their best interest to keep them healthy. It saddens me that for many animals that are nearing extinction it's safer for them to be in captivity than to be in the wild. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I regret riding the elephants, it was really cool, I just wish we would have made time for the Elephant Conservation Center. Hopefully as tourists we can start to educate ourselves more often and exacerbate the problem less.

The little dog in the corner is my favorite dog in Thailand (so far)

Feeding the elephant bananas

Getting ready to feed him a banana. .   With my mouth 

The mouth is huge!

Alyssa and I on the elephant 

Helping to bath the elephants

Yep, it's the rainy season

Once it stopped raining we were told we were going to have a cooking lesson! We were all herded into a tiny kitchen as our guide began to give us all small jobs to do, chopping garlic, stirring vegetables, and generally trying to stay out of the way. It was a quite funny cooking lesson, mostly because it involved laughing at Chat not actually learning how to cook. We didn't care, it was a blast and the food tasted amazing! Once again I was reminded of all of the food regulations in the States. None of us had washed our hands, we were all in bare feet, food was being kept on the floor, and a lovable dog, who has probably never seen a bath, was in the middle of everything constantly.

Making curry!

Alyssa couldn't seem to stir the vegetables in the way Chat was telling her to. He corrected her technique multiple times! 

Our guide, Chat, was a bit eccentric to say the least, we grew to love him but it was a bit off putting at first. It seemed that everywhere we went there were multiple dogs running around that immediately flocked to him. He would flip the dog over and pretend to cut the head off talking about how he was going to barbecue the dog for dinner. The dogs loved it! After dinner our group was sitting around talking when a little girl came up to us and immediately started putting my hair in a ponytail for me. As she got more and more of our attention she started to sing to us about ladyboys, to the tune of lion king! Then her younger brother joined us and began stealing our playing cards and trying to take my camera. They were cute and had no boundaries!

Fixing my hair for me

"Ladyboy laaadybooooy"

The next day after breakfast we drove to a waterfall. At first it seemed rather disappointing because of its small size. Chat told me to jump into the pool of water at the bottom so I hesitant,y lowered myself in until I couldn't touch the bottom. The water was cool and clear, though at first I kept my head above water because all I could think of were brain eating amebas!


Soon Chat was calling to Alyssa and I to come up to the top of the waterfall and slide down. We didn't think he was being serious so we went to the top to call his bluff, expecting him to say 'silly tourists! You can't slide down this!'. He was quite serious. So after much hemming and hawing. . . 
We did it!

After the waterfall our group split up. The one nighters went on to rafting and then back to a Chiang Mai. As Kevin, Alyssa, and I continued hiking, again straight up a mountain. This time our destination was a Lahu hill tribe village. Positioned right on top of the mountain with gorgeous views all around! As soon as we got into the village some of the women offered us Lahu full body massages for 150 baht that we quickly agreed to do. After the massages we wandered around the village checking out the area. It was a beautiful and quiet agricultural village that depends a lot on tourists to supplement their income. 

View from the porch of where we were staying

Clouds often covered the nearby mountains

Kevin standing in the doorway of our hut, looming out at the view

Showing Kevin how to knock avocados out of the tree

Local one room school house

Playing soccer! The boys immediately recruited Kevin but didn't want Alyssa or I. 

The next day we hiked back down the mountain to yet another waterfall, this one was much more touristy and therefore crowded. I didn't even end up taking pictures. After the waterfall we went white water rafting! Our guide on the raft was one of the same guys who worked with the elephants. Jack of all trades, eh? He would only tell us when to paddle forward and when to stop. At one point he motioned to Alyssa that if you fall out of the raft you'll probably knock out some teeth. Which didn't instill much confidence in us! When going into rapids he would scream "forward!" with a touch of panic at the end every time! He did us well! We all stayed in the raft and as a reward we got to keep all of our teeth. It was an absolute blast! Then we hopped onto a bamboo raft for a very brief time before we were off the river and eating lunch. We all agreed that the tour was a smashing success that exceeded our, admittedly meager expectations. 

Playing kick the can after school in Chiang Mai