Greetings from Chiang Rai! Four days ago in Luang Prabang we took a slow boat to Houay Xai, a little town on the Mekong, across the river from Thailand. The trip lasted two days but we enjoyed some stunning and unspoiled scenery along the way (pictures coming soon), and it gave us a chance to catch up on our reading and our future travel plans. We spent the first night in Pak Beng, mid-way between Luang Prabang and Houay Xay. We left the boat, took a room in a guesthouse, and jumped back in the boat the morning after. At the end of the second day we arrived in Houay Xay but because it was too late, the border crossing was closed, and we had to stay overnight. Finally the day after we crossed the Mekong (and the border), got to Chiang Kong, cleared the customs and entered Thailand with a free 15-day stay permit. The thing is we should have arranged a visa beforehand, if we wanted a longer permit. But because we didn’t do so, we’ll have to sort out a visa extension in Chiang Mai, in a few days time, or leave the country briefly and re-enter at some stage (we are seriously considering going to Burma for a week, as Air Asia’s fares are very cheap at the moment). If we re-enter through the airport, as opposed to overland as we did, we would be granted a free 30 day visa.
Baan Warabordee – Our accommodation
In Chiang Kong we managed to take a bus to Chiang Rai, where we arrived two hours later. We got us a nice guesthouse called Baan Warabordee, which is down a quiet secondary road, but within walking distance from where the action is. Maybe not the cheapest accommodation we’ve found so far (500 bahts, about 12 euros) but the standard is excellent and eating out here is so cheap that it compensates for the extra amount we’re spending for the accommodation.
The night market
One of the things that we’ve loved since the very beginning is the night market. There is a big square at the back of it, with a bunch of food stalls and tables. At one end of the square there’s a stage where dance shows and concerts are performed.
The food is gorgeous, and as we said, extremely cheap – yesterday we had dinner with 60 bahts for both of us (the equivalent of 1.40€) 🙂
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
If you thought of religious art and architecture as a quite conservative form of expression, characterised by the re-iteration of a limited number of relevant, holy icons and symbols, you’ll feel a sense of displacement when you get into the white temple. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the designer of this unconventional religious building, has managed to mix Buddhist and secular references in the mural painting inside the Buddha abode. Don’t be surprised to find graphical representations of Superman, Batman, Spider-man, planes crashing on the twin towers, Pandora’s green Na’vis from Avatar and much more, in the context of a wider metaphor, with an image of Mara (a demon in the Buddhist tradition) in the background (Read more on this temple on wikipedia.)
Here are a few photos I’ve taken today. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures inside the abode but you can take pictures outside.
Responsible Hill-tribes treks – our experience and some tips
Chiang Rai is a very ethnically diverse province, with a number of hill-tribes living in the area. The tourism industry benefits from the presence of these tribes and expectedly the hill-tribe trek is a popular product, provided both by agencies and hotels/guesthouses. The problem is that not many of those who provide these tours are really concerned with giving back to these minorities. However there are some organizations who share part of their profits with the tribes, and engage in development projects aimed at improving the tribes conditions, while maintaining and preserving their traditions. One of these organization is Natural Focus, about which we found out through our lonely planet guide. Today we met Poo (please resist the temptation of making easy jokes!), who is Natural Focus’ project coordinator – he seems to be a very nice guy and what’s more important he’s very flexible. We agreed a one-night, two-day program with him, and tomorrow we’ll go to a Akha village, where we will stay overnight. The program includes staying with a Akha family, having a cultural exchange, and learning to cook a typical Akha lunch. We’re expecting a very exciting two days, and we’re sure we’ll be able to take one or two nice pictures 🙂 Another eco-tour organizations to look for in Chiang Rai is PDA. We visited their Hill-Tribe Museum yesterday and found it extremely informative and interesting. PDA also offers a range of tours and programs and, as a NGO, is involved in various community development initiatives including anti-human trafficking projects and AIDS education (read more on their website here).
The controversial long-neck Karen Padaung, or the human zoo
A few months before the trip we came across a documentary about this supposed ethnic group, whose women use to wear a neck coil that over time extends their neck. As we got curious about this unusual, picturesque thing, we thought we’d visit their village once in this area. However we changed our mind yesterday during our visit to the Hill-Tribe museum. As we asked the staff, we were told that these people, referred to as long-neck Karen, or Karen Padaung (sometimes written as Padong), are just Burmese refugees who were hired by a businessman and used as a human zoo type of tourist attraction. Tourists visiting the long-neck Karen village pay a fee, a part of which (maybe a thin part) goes to the villagers. Tour guides use to tell tourists that Karen Padaung people rely on farming for their living, but – we learned – there is no evidence of farming activities in the village or around, and it is quite likely that their only income comes from tourism (e.g. the fees I was talking about above and the sales of crafts). Someone says that, on a positive note, these Karen live in better conditions than most refugees, which may be true, however the Thai government doesn’t recognize them as Thai citizens, it tolerates their presence, but doesn’t allow them to move out of their area. Also, BBC news reported some times ago that some of these people were offered the possibility to move to other countries including New Zealand but the Thai government didn’t allow them to leave. Well… for us this was enough information to decide to boycott this type of tourism. Maybe we’re overreacting, but the idea of visiting a human zoo where people are not allowed to leave and decide what type of life they should be living, makes both of us uncomfortable. To see some images of long-neck women click here. Also, here is that short news video from the BBC news website I was mentioning above (if the video doesn’t start, then click ‘launch on a stand alone player’, or click here and open with your default media player).
That’s it for now. We’re looking forward to taking the tour with Poo tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some pictures of the Akha soon – and a recipe. Keep in touch!