Northern Thailand: Amid temples, travellers and hill tribes of The Golden Triangle.
This article is part of a diary based travelogue from a six month journey in 1985 to several countries in East and South East Asia: Japan, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Saturday 1.6.1985, Bangkok – Chiang Mai
I took bus #64 up to the Northern Bus Terminal. Buses are very cheap here, only two baht even if you stay on the bus for an hour or more. The traffic is slow though and one does not get very far in an hour. I bought a ticket on the cheapest mode of transportation to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, a non-air-con bus. It cost me 133 baht (about five dollars US given a rate of 27:1).
The bus I ended up in was however for some reason air-conditioned, so I was not forced to use the natural mode of opening windows. On the other hand, the driver seemed unable to regulate the flow of air, only on/off. It was cold, and I caught a cold as well.
I was not sure about which guesthouse I would be going to, but there were people at the station more than helpful at leading me to their particular place. I received free transportation to:
- CHIANG MAN GUEST HOUSE, between Moon Muang Road and Chiang Man Wat. I got a good room with a fan, double bed and shower/toilet. The price was 40 baht. It would have cost 60 baht for two people. Nice people, a small restaurant good for breakfast. Trekking service.
Sunday 2.6.1985, Chiang Mai
Today I walked around town. The central part is lined by a square moat. There are both inside and outside the moat plenty of “Wats”, Thai Buddhist temples. In one of them I got in contact with a “temple boy” as he called himself. He lived there for free and ate free food given to him by the monks and others. The monks in their turn had received the food from devout Thais. He invited me to lunch and I accepted. We even exchanged addresses.
Later I walked down to the Youth Hostel which was supposed to offer trekking services, as was dozens of other places in the city. Trekking among the hill tribes is very popular.
I signed in for a four days, three nights trek for 650 baht (24 USD), all inclusive. This was a good price, and the trek was recommended by many.
At my guesthouse I met a Canadian named Ross. By coincidence he was going on the same trip. We left to dine at the Daret Restaurant on Moon Muang Road, a popular hangout among travellers. We also rented motorbikes for the next day, only 80 baht for the whole day apart from petrol.
Monday 3.6.1985 – Chiang Mai
We picked up the bikes (Honda 110cc) and drove up to a training centre for working elephants. It was quite interesting, but hardly worth the 40 baht entrance fee.
Back on the motorbikes we drove up to a hill top temple called Doi Suthep. On the way back we dropped by the Tribal Research Center to read up on them before the trek. The exhibition on the mountain tribes was good.
On the other side of Chiang Mai we found a village producing painted umbrellas of silk and paper, and another village where they produce silk. We had a lot of driving that day and felt quite sore when returning back home again.
I went in the evening to an information meeting in the Youth Hostel but had heard most of it before. We were given backpacks, a field bottle and a blanket. Those items and personal things was all we needed to take along. Food and stuff would be carried by a trekking porter.
I had an expensive dinner (50 baht) with ice-cream for dessert. Finally I arranged with the guesthouse to leave my bag there and lock my passport and money in their safe.
Tuesday 4.6.1985 – Friday 7.6.1985, Trekking in the Golden Triangle
The eight in the trekking group consisted of Canadians, two British and me. We also had a guide and two porters. After a three hour drive from Chiang Mai we arrived at the departing point, already a long way from the beaten track. The village was inhabited by of Red Karen and Kuomintang-Chinese.
There are in Northern Thailand around six hill tribes, either from Sino-Tibetan ancestry or Tibetan-Burmese. The first group build their houses on the ground, the others on pillars.
Thai authorities are trying to bring these traditional “wild” tribes under control, amongst others by the use of schools. It is not easy. The same goes for the opium growing so widespread here in the Golden Triangle. Many of the tribes hide their plants here and there both for sale and own consummation.
I heard that 30 % of them were addicted. Our guide told us that monks striving for Nirvana and peace in mind, smoke opium to forget about women and sex. He had himself been an apprentice for eight years and monk for five years.
The Karen people make up more than half this rural population. They were the ones we met most of this first day. From the first moment we noticed that it was the villages and their inhabitants that were most the interesting part of this trek.
During these days we saw little sun, only half an hour at the departure and arrival points. We had rains and grey weather for the most part. That made the paths slippery, and given the hilly terrain one easily realises that the speed was slow and troublesome. Luckily I avoided falls.
The leeches were thriving of course. For a long time I seemed to be avoiding them but unfortunately I also got my fair share of these grey three centimetre long worm-like insects.
Not all in the group was in equally good condition as I and a couple others. And no chain is stronger than its weakest link. The guide informed us that our speed was below average. Luckily we at times split in two groups, one for the fast and fit who would like to take detours and experience more of the scenery and villages. The others moved slowly forward taking shortcuts.
We had our meals in the cabins of the locals. The food was carried and prepared by our guide and the porters. The salary for the porters was two baht (or five?) per kilo per 25 kilometres. (27 baht to a USD.)
Two of the members had rented an elephant for 55 USD a day. It looked so uncomfortable that it could hardly be worth the money.
We made around 10 km a day and walked for 4-6 hours. Some in the group tried to smoke opium. Ten pipes at five baht each were enough to get high. None in my group actually succeeded in that respect.
Letter to my family
With donuts and Coke in a double bed in a single room in a guest house in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, 7.6.1985.
I guess it is about time to tell a little about my adventures in Thailand. They stretch from the sunny warm beaches in the south, via Sodom and Gomorrah in Bangkok to a mountain hike and primitive tribes here in the North.
After the unhappy, long, boring and futile stay in Kuala Lumpur I was so annoyed that I jumped over a beautiful pearl of an island in the north of Malaysia plus another one of the same kind in south-western Thailand. Instead I went straight to another little, pleasant island on the east coast. This island is very popular among us so-called travellers or globetrotters. That’s quite right as well. In contrast to the two other islands the beaches of Koh Samui are not lined with luxury hotels, discos and that kind, but of small huts.
I rented one of those for less than a dollar a night, and slept there for five nights. There I relaxed on the beach and heard coco nuts fall to the ground with deep thumps after being provoked by 20 metre long bamboo sticks. I rented a Suzuki 125cc and went on an exploration trip around the island. There is not really that much to tell, I didn’t do much. And that was lovely!
Phase 2 of my Thailand visit was Bangkok. There I was for two nights and did practically no sightseeing. I’m going back there for a ticket hunt in not so many days, so I’ll save it till then. What I did was pick up mail (amongst others two from you, thank you), phone home, and collect money at the embassy. They came the day after I told mother, 15,200 baht. Thanks a lot for the help! It was good to get that matter behind me, I felt a lot better when it was settled.
I felt so well that in the evening I wanted to go and see some Thai-boxing. The entrance ticket was however too expensive so a German and I instead went to two small streets. They are not just any streets; together they make up Bangkok’s notorious/famous pleasure quarter.
We wanted of course to find out what this was, so among all the similar offers we got and the places there were we picked a place with happy hour beer, and a cover charge of a dollar, about the cheapest. There we met clinging girls, dancers with or without bikini plus a live show.
The show consisted of various acts performed by the girls with their noblest genital parts as the focal point. Exactly what we saw is not something to elaborate on. But if you are curious I can give you an example: Try blowing a whistle with your pussy (sorry for the language). I felt it was silly and sickening, and left early.
Phase 3 in my adventure starts in Chiang Mai in the north. I travelled the city and the area on foot and on a rented motorbike. I saw several Buddhist temples and an elephant school. The elephants learn how to carry and stack timber.
Much of the reason why northern Thailand is popular among both package and cultural tourists (like me) is that there are a number of hill tribes. They live far from civilisation, and are largely untouched by the hustle and bustle in the surrounding world. All that is to the joy of those who bother hike a few hours in bushes and scrub to get to their villages.
Here they live on planting rice and vegetables in a subsistence economy. More known in the surrounding world is their cultivation of a very special plant, the opium poppy. (I guess you have heard of the Golden Triangle which covers the border areas of Thailand, Burma and Laos?)
The authorities in this country have done a lot to end this. But the tribes find their ways. For instance the Shan tribe in Burma has its own army. And when you hear that 30 % of the tribe people here in Thailand are dependent on the substance (something I can bear witness to), and that Buddhist monks too smoke opium to ease their meditation and release their thoughts on women and sex (like a guy with thirteen years of experience in those circles told me), then one realises that the authorities are not facing an easy task.
In any case I joined one of the many agencies that arrange treks into the wilderness. The local Youth Hostel was responsible for this one and the price of about 24 USD for four days, three nights was including transport, food, and room for the night in the private bamboo/tree houses of the locals, guide and people carrying our luggage. Those who wanted could pay an additional seven dollars to hump on an elephant for a day. Two in my group of eight did that.
As this is the beginning of the rainy season we hardly saw any sunshine. Instead we noticed the rain which not only made us wet, but also the paths. They became fairly slippery and the terrain is of the steep up-and-down type. The leeches were having a good time. So was I, much because I had the physical conditions for it. Not everyone was in the shape I was in, but we had a good time all of us.
That was especially true when we came to a village. In them there was so much to see and experience that I believe all the pictures I took will have to tell what I can’t express here. Wait and see.
We came back this evening. I’m moving further north and aim at shooting a few pictures across the border to both Burma and Laos before I return south to Bangkok again. By now the donuts and the Coke are long gone, and the same with the date on page one of this letter. I want to go to sleep, so therefore….
….hugs from me.
Saturday 8.6.1985, Chiang Mai
Didn’t do much but processed some films.
The introduction to this journey to East and South East Asia.
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