Back in Thailand . .

After I’d crossed the Lao/Thai border back into Chiang Khong and boarded the bus headed for Chiang Rai, I contemplated what I’ll miss about Laos . . .
  1. Lao coffee. Both Arabica and Robusta are grown in Laos, on the high flat ground of the Bolivian Plateau, a region which is renowned for producing some of the best and most expensive bean on earth. If you drink it true Lao style, you drink it with sweet (or condensed as we know it) milk in place of milk and sugar. James will agree with me 100%, it’s one of Lao’s true gems . .
  2. Sticky rice and chilli paste.
  3. The absense of 7-11 stores!
  4. The abundance of cats. Laotians respect and love their cats, and unlike their dogs, they won’t be serving cute little kitty up for dinner!
  5. The jovial greeting of “Sabaii-dii” from every Lao child you pass
  6. The remoteness. Places like Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing are (at present) very much unaffected by tourism and remain very rural once you leave the main street(s)

What I definitely won’t miss :

  1. The lack of ATM’s
  2. The lack of street stalls selling ready to eat fresh fruit. This is compensated for by the number of street stalls selling dough-based deep fried sweets, which don’t look as good on the hips as pineapple and papaya!
  3. The currency

Arrival in Chiang Rai

I’m warming to Chiang Rai : I think you have to get to know the place, which I didn’t allow myself time to do the first time around. Whilst wandering Chiang Rai’s streets, I found myself walking down Jet Yot Road and found some lovely eateries (had lunch at Siam Corner) along there, and the road which runs parallel to it, Phahonyothin Road. These two streets are also lined with bars, the Night Bazaar runs off Phahonyothin Road, and the bus station is only a little further. The guesthouses listed in this vicinity are a little more expensive but in retrospect the extra 50-100THB would have been a worthwhile investment.

I walked to Wat Phra Kaew (the city’s most revered temple) in the afternoon. Legend says that in 1434 lightening struck the temple’s stupa, which fell apart to reveal the Phra Kaew Morakot (Emerald Buddha), which is actually made of Jade. After spending some time in Vientiane (Laos), the national talisman is now housed in the temple of the same name, in Bangkok.

Also worthy of a visit is Wat Klang Wiang, which is not only a beautiful temple in itself, but the grounds of the temple are also very serene : there are many colourful flowers and plants and a pond containing turtles and (at least one) catfish!

I continued on to the Hilltribe Museum & Education Centre, primarily as it’s the location of PDA Tours and Travel (all profits from the tours here goes directly to community development projects within the local villages) and I was interested to see if there were any tours woth me sticking around for. Unfortunately the only one running tomorrow, interesting as it sounded, was a tour in which you are driven to and from your destinations. I prefer to be a little closer to the environment I’m surrounded by as well as merely the attractions within in, so it didn’t really appeal to me and my walking shoes.

I did, however, have a look around the museum, which I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone who’s got an interest in the hilltribes, their customs, culture and beliefs. The 6 tribes explored here are Hmong, Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu and Mien. There’s also a large section on the history of the Opium trade, which makes for interesting reading.

In the evening I wandered around the Night Bazaar (which sells a variety of handicarfts, jewelry and clothes, as well as having plenty of food stalls and a large seating area) and ate at a restaurant right opposite called Aye’s. It’s a popular place, has heaps of atmosphere, outdoor and indoor seating areas and very efficient service. It’s also one of the few places open at 7:30am for breakfast (as I discovered the next morning!)

Chiang Rai to Nan

I picked up a book from a second hand bookshop I found last night just off Phahonyothin Road, called “Off The Rails In Phnom Penh” by Amit Gilboa. Informative as they are, the concept of reading my Lonely Planet guides countless times had begun to lose it’s appeal quite a few weeks ago . .

This novel is based on the author’s experiences when he spent some time living in Phnom Penh in 1996/1997. I’m in no doubt that the city has seen a lot of changes in nearly 10 years, but I’ll be interested to learn about the structure of the city and its people before these changes came about, so that I have a means of comparison to use when I visit. I’ll also be interested to learn how, in 1996, Cambodia and its citizens were recovering from the effects of losing between 1 & 2 million, of its population of around 7 million, to starvation, disease, overwork or execution during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Hardest hit were professionals : teachers, doctors, skilled workers, monks and artists – essentially all the people that contemporary Cambodia desperately needed in order to rebuild its shattered economy, society and culture. Even at the time of writing “Off The Rails in Phnom Penh”, the city was still in a state of civil unrest. The author explains how “disconcerting [it was] to have combatants within sight and within gunfire range of [his] porch.”

I had intended for my 250THB purchase to be an intellectual accompaniment to my beer Chang for the next few evenings, however as soon as I opened the first page as the bus pulled out of Chiang Rai bus station, the author – through this fantastic piece of writing – managed to intrigue me, capture my attention and imagination, and pull me directly into the “dark heart of guns, girls and ganja” that is Phnom Penh. Before we even reached Nan, I had read the last page of the novel and I was back on the rails : back to the sounds of a struggling engine, crunching gears, and Thai conversation; back to the sights of the back of a wrinkled blue leather seat stained with stale chewing gum, windows plastered with flamboyant posters illustrating an animated Thai rock band, and glimpses of hills, trees and the odd village we passed through; back to the growing awareness of the fact that I couldn’t feel my arse and my neck hurt due to having my head in a book for the last few hours!

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