Friday, January 17, 2020

Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai, Hill-Tribe Trekking and the Golden Triangle


During my first trip to Thailand in 2003, which started out in Bangkok, I decided that I wanted to spend at least a little time up in Chiang Mai to be able to sample some of Northern Thailand. We have numerous friends who had visited Chiang Mai and absolutely loved it, given that it is much smaller than Bangkok despite being Thailand's second largest city and, due it being situated in Thailand's mountainous north, enjoys a cooler climate. They had also mentioned how much they enjoyed the northern Thai cuisine, the locally-grown Arabica coffee beans farmed in the surrounding highlands by the numerous ethnic minority hill-tribes that inhabit the region, the impressive variety of handicrafts (a mix of Thai, Burmese and hill-tribe) available at Chiang Mai's famous Night Market, and the array of outdoor activities available to the visitor such as hiking, trekking or traveling by off-road vehicle to visit hill-tribe villages or doing an overnight home stay in one of the villages, elephant riding and bamboo rafting, in addition to day trips by combined car & long-tail boat to visit the infamous Golden Triangle, which is formed by the adjoining borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River.

Located 435 miles north of Bangkok at an elevation of 1020 feet in a region that contains the highest mountains in the country, Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and the capital of Chiang Mai Province. King Mangrai founded Chiang Mai in the year 1296 at the site of an older city of the ethnic Lawa people called Wiang Nopburi. Chiang Mai (which translates to 'New City') succeeded Chiang Rai as the capital of the self-ruling Lan Na Kingdom (also known as the Lanna Kingdom or Lannathai Kingdom) that spanned from the 13th to the 18th century. The city was surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall due to the perceived constant threat of the nearby Taungoo Dynasty of Burma and the armies of the Mongol Empire, which decades earlier had conquered most of Yunnan province, China, and in 1292 overran the bordering Dai kingdom of Chiang Hung. With the decline of the Lan Na Kingdom, Chiang Mai lost importance and was occupied by the Taungoo Dynasty in 1556. Chiang Mai formally became part of the Thonburi Kingdom in 1775 by an agreement after its King Taksin helped drive out the Taungoo Burmese, though Taungoo counterattacks would lead Chiang Mai to be abandoned between 1776 and 1791. In 1791, it was occupied again by Burma's Konbaung Dynasty. The Burma army would later abandon Chiang Mai during the Anglo-Burmese war in 1824, and by 1920 the city was finally occupied by Siam (Thailand). The modern city of Chiang Mai was first established as a sanitary district ('sukhaphiban') in 1915, and then upgraded to a municipality ('thesaban') in 1935.

I had been intrigued with Chiang Mai since back in college, when a Christmas Holiday Fair in the Student Union building had a particular vendor that was selling an impressive variety of handicrafts from Southeast Asia, and from which I would end up buying a hand-carved wooden Hanuman mask from Bali and a carved wood and lacquered Buddhist monk statue from Burma. When I asked the vendor how he came upon the monk statue from Burma, he told me that he purchased it in Chiang Mai from a Burmese family that had come across the border into Thailand to seek out a better life, and that they had sold the monk statue, along with other carvings and handicrafts, to finance their new start. He went on to say that, if one was interest in Southeast Asian handicrafts and the culture of both Thailand and the ethnic minority hill-tribes, then Chiang Mai was definitely the place to visit. Together with what I had read about the hill-tribe cultures in the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai region in the DK travel guide to Thailand (my interest in ethnic minority hill-tribe cultures having already been fostered by a bit of exposure to the Shan and Pa'O ethnic minorities during our prior trip to Burma), I thus decided to give Northern Thailand priority over checking out the popular beaches of Phuket down in the south during my first trip to Thailand.









As covered in my earlier blog post Bangkok's Khaosan Road, and Temple Ruins in Ayutthaya - Part I: A Khaosan Road State of Mind, I was able to find a travel agency on Bangkok's budget backpacker's haven of Khaosan Road called Songserm and the agent there, an attractive Thai girl in perhaps her late 20's named Pinky, was able to book round-trip, 'Second Class Sleeper' night train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, accommodations at Chiang Mai's Top North Hotel, and from a Top North Trekking Tour brochure that she showed me, select and book the '1 NIGHT 2 DAYS TREK INTHANOND AREA' trekking package. It would be a guided group trek of up to 10 people, with the itinerary starting from Chiang Mai with a 1-1/2 hour drive by covered truck to the trekking area, which is located roughly located midway between Chiang Mai and the Burma border within the Doi Inthanond National Park. Following the drive, we would then ride on elephant-back (via the two-person wooden bench platforms chained to the elephant's back known as a 'howdah') for another 1-1/2 hours, followed by a drive to a nearby Karen hill-drive village for lunch. From there, it would be a 3-hour guided trek through jungle and mountain trails to another Karen hill-tribe village, where we would have dinner and spend the night. Day 2 would involve another 3 hours of trekking, followed by a short drive back to the initial Karen village visited for lunch, then one hour of bamboo rafting at a nearby river before the drive back to Chiang Mai. Pinky had next mentioned that Top North Tours has an office in the lobby of the Top North Hotel, and that they offer a number of half-day and full day package tours that could select from and book a day in advance, as she handed me a copy of their Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle brochure. Seeing some interesting full-day and half-day tour options available, I had Pinky revise the hotel booking for one night before the trek and two nights after the trek.
The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit in Bangkok's Chinatown
Hua Lamphong, or Bangkok Train Station, is the main terminal for travel to the northern, eastern and southern parts of Thailand. Open in 1916 and designed by an Italian architect Mario Tamagno in an Italian neo-renaissance style, Hua Lamphong Station is located adjacent to Bangkok's Chinatown. As I had a late morning check-out from the Marco Polo Hostel on Khaosan Road, my budget accommodations for my initial solo stay in Bangkok (and decidedly no-frills, featuring a combined toilet and hand shower stall but lacking both a bathroom sink and a complimentary bath towel, and built close enough to the Susie Pub bar and dance club next door that the windows to my room rattle daily from 7 pm to 2 am), I decided to just strap on my belongings, contained in a smallish backpack and a smaller day pack worn across my chest, and take a tuk-tuk to Chinatown where I would spend the rest of the day and early evening exploring its busy streets, bustling markets and quiet, atmospheric alleys on foot prior to my night train departure for Chiang Mai. One of the very busy tarpaulin-canopied street markets there would turn out to be a challenge to negotiate my way through given the crowded aisles between the vendor stalls and the added bulk of loaded packs on both my back and check. Continuing in the direction of Hua Lamphong station, I made it a point to route myself past Wat Traimit Temple to check out the famous Golden Buddha (officially called the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon). The statue is a solid gold 'Maravijaya Attitude' seated Buddha with a weight of 5.5 tons. At one point in its history, the statue was covered with a layer of stucco and colored glass in an attempt to conceal its true value, remaining in its disguised condition for almost 200 years, though during relocation of the statue in 1955, the plaster was chipped off and the gold revealed. As evening began to fall, I grabbed a plate of pad Thai noodles for dinner at a nearby restaurant, then continued my stroll in the direction of the train station, where I figured I'd have a beer and kill time while waiting for the night train's departure.

After checking the scheduled boarding time at the ticket counter, I took off my two packs and sat down to rest my legs after having walk around Chinatown most of the day. A couple of days earlier, I felt some sniffles coming on that I figured was something minor, though the drainage and congestion had since gotten a bit worse and I was starting to feel a little run-down. I hoped that the severity of the illness wouldn't progress any further with an overnight jungle trek coming up in a couple of days, as I assumed I would be doing a bit of strenuous trekking on mountain trails at higher altitudes. An early middle-aged man that was possibly of Thai-Chinese extraction walked up to me and struck up a conversation. He seemed friendly enough as the conversation went on, at one point suggesting that we go grab a beer. As I had intended to get a beer at the station anyway, I agreed and figured that we could get a couple of beers at the train station's refreshment counter, and grabbed my packs to head in that direction. He then said that he knew of a bar across that street that had cheaper beer, and suggested we go there instead. I figured that if it was just across the street from the station, that I might as well take the local's suggestion and check it out, so we turned to head in the direction of the entrance. As we arrived at the sidewalk, I didn't see any bar or tavern right across the street, and as he saw my look of hesitation he corrected himself and said that it was actually just a ways down the rather dark alley that he pointed towards. Figuring that I was being possibly setup for a scam or a mugging from some of his accomplices waiting in the alley, I told him that I was heading back into the station to get some beers because my train was going to leave in about an hour and that I'd prefer not to leave the station for convenience, and turned to go back inside. He protested that, no, the place that he had in mind was cheaper, and that we should at least go check the place out, and followed me as I continued walking towards the rows of airport-style connected bucket seats. I finally told him that we would either have a beer here inside the station, or there would be no beers. "Okay. Good luck to you...", he said before turning and heading back to the station's entrance to look for another 'farang' (meaning 'foreigner' in Thai but pronounced 'falang', given that native Thai speakers swap the 'L' and 'R' sounds similar to the Japanese) mark or potential victim to scam or rob.

The echoing public address system came to life, first in Thai (prefaced by a melodic "Prote saahh...", or "Attention...") and then in Thai-accented English, that my train to Chiang Mai was about to begin boarding. I walked out to the station's parallel sets of tracks, located my train and made my way over to Car #14, where my lower sleeper berth #22 (formed by folding down the facing back rests of seats #22 and #23) had already been converted into a rather soft but not particularly comfortable bed with white sheets and pillow case and thin wool navy blue blanket, with privacy from the other sleeping passengers across the central aisle provided by a thin sliding navy blue curtain. As my second class train car lacked air conditioning, I was lucky in that the window pane nearest to my head could be slid open for ventilation during the trip north (the temperature that evening was still quite warm and the air humid as I boarded). The upper berth, accessed via a 5-rung steel ladder roughly even with my feet, had no window and a low curved metal ceiling, with an old oscillating fan bolted to the ceiling provided to circulate the warm, humid air for ventilation. The toilet for my car was located behind me at the end of the car, and when flushed drained through a straight section of steel pipe directly onto the track's wooden ties. As I settled into my bed before we departed for Chiang Mai, a male backpacker in perhaps his mid to later twenties dismounted and tossed his pack onto the upper bunk then nimbly climbed up the ladder to get into his bunk, as a couple of middle-aged Thai women continued walking up the aisle with plastic buckets filled with a variety of snacks for sale as soon as he cleared the way for their passage. I slid my window open and up ahead in the distance could hear the low, warbling growl of our idle diesel locomotive beneath the occasional transitory gritty pattering of shoe and flip-flop soles on concrete and fragments of passing conversations in Thai, English and other assorted Western and Eastern languages. Though I had ridden in trains before in both the USA and Europe, in addition to the Shinkansen 'Bullet Train' from Tokyo to Kyoto in Japan, this was to be my first night train trip and I was wondering how much sleep I would actually end up getting on the overnight excursion. (I would later do another night train excursion from Hanoi to the city of Lao Cai in northwestern Vietnam on the border with Yunnan province, China. It would be a bit more upscale relative to the Chiang Mai night train, with private four-person sleeper compartments comprised of two bunk beds separated by a narrow aisle, a single window and a nightstand, with the main aisle running the length of the train car's starboard side.)

After a while, I head a series of distant, reverberant metallic thuds that grew in volume and sharpness as the locomotive slipped its brakes and began to take the slack out of the couplings between the train cars, with our car at last jolted forward with a loud rattling bang, followed by some additional similar loud thuds in decaying volume behind us. The series of thuds and bangs soon repeated and at last began to slowly roll forward as the view of the station out the window started panning to the right, which gave way to generic rail yard scenery illuminated by the jaundiced hues of sodium vapor flood light and, finally, images near and far of suburban Bangkok at night slowly scroll by in passing. I propped the pillow up against the near-vertical backrest/headboard of my seat-cum-bed so that I could still see out the window and, if I were lucky, maybe even start to doze off to sleep. Unfortunately, along with the cool, comforting breeze with the window opened, there was also a fair amount of reflected noise when the train went over a trestle, rolled past some buildings or barrier walls in fairly close proximity, or passed an approaching train on parallel tracks. The Chiang Mai night train was said to be an 'Express Train', which I assumed meant minimal stops along the way, but that would not seem to be the case as we seemed to pull into smaller stations with surprising regularity. I decided to put on my shoes on and use the bathroom before attempting sleep, though as I stood in front of the toilet inside the small plate steel-walled bathroom, the suspension system of my train car and perhaps some minor track warping due to ground settling, the car would suddenly jerk and go into brief side-to-side roll oscillations, making hard to maintain one's standing balance and point of aim while peeing, with the attendant wayward sprinkling. Having finished my business in the rest room, I headed back to my bunk and tried to drift off to sleep. After a while, one becomes desensitized to the varying ambient sounds through the open window (save for the reflected cacophony of going over a trestle) and the slight rocking and bouncing movement of the train car while in motion, and can actually sleep despite the constant stimulus. I would soon learn, though, that during the slowing of the train as it approaches the stations, the reduction of volume or lack of the ambient sounds would be enough to wake me up, and then as I would doze off during the brief station stop, the jolting of the train leaving the station would again wake me up.
Twilight Somewhere in North-Central Thailand from the Chiang Mai Night Train



Somewhere in north-central Thailand, a trestle crossing jarred me awake and I sat up to look out the window and got a glimpse of the dawn sky, which I snapped a photo of. I laid back down and dozed off, and when I awoke and looked out the opened window, the sun was now up though shrouded by gray overcast skies and the train was gradually ascending a shallowly-inclined, curved stretch of track that was flanked on both sides by tall stands of bamboo trees, the overhanging branch tips of which were periodically whipping against the frame of the open window. I looked down onto the bed to see it dotted with a variety of miscellaneous jungle debris in the form of bamboo leaves, small twigs, small unidentifiable specks of organic matter, a small bug that appeared to be dead and two ants, all of which I brushed off my bed and into the aisle. A bit further up up the track, the train slowed to pull into a very small station that was not much more than a small shelter with two benches in a small cleaning with a narrow gravel road leading from the station down into the jungle. The station was empty so the stop there was very brief, and we were soon on our way northward again. About 30 minutes further ahead we stopped at another larger station that appeared to be located in a small town. As we slowed to a stop for what seemed to be a passenger exchange, a Thai man standing on the platform holding the hand of his young son pointed up to me through the window then turn back to look down at his son. "Falang, falang!" ('Foreigner, foreigner!'), he said to him, as the young boy looked up at me with an expression of curiosity and wonder. Sometime before mid morning, two porters walked through the sleeper car to collect and store the bedding and bring the opposing seat backs to their upright position so that the upper bunk passengers could sit for the remainder of the journey. My upper bunk took a seat across from me and we exchanged casual good mornings, after which he soon turned his gaze out the window briefly before turning his head to scan the seats across the aisle and, after finding two empty facing seats a few berths down, opted to occupy one of those seats, thus enabling me to stretch out my legs to beneath the now-vacant opposing seat.
The Chiang Mai Old City Moat


A Section of the Chiang Mai Old City Wall Near the Southeast Corner of the Moat


The train pulled into Chiang Mai Station a bit after 12:30 pm. I mounted my back and smaller forward pack and exited the train, where I was soon met by a driver from Top North Hotel who was holding a standard sized sheet of paper with my name and Top North Hotel handwritten on it. After a brief introduction I loaded my packs in the back seat of his sedan and we got on the road, taking Thanon Charoen Muang (Road) across the Ping River via the Narawat Bridge and winding our way through the city to Thanon Moon Muang (Road), which parallels the eastern flank of the Chiang Mai Old City Moat, where the Top North Hotel is conveniently located a short walk down Moon Muang Road to the Old City Wall's East (Tha Phae) Gate. I check in at the front counter and was greeted by two young and attractive local girls in Thai with respectful 'wai' gestures, and immediately noted the soft, sing-song quality of the female voices in northern Thailand, which speak in a dialect known as 'Kam Meung' where (most-noteworthy) the final syllable spoken seems to be sustained at least twice as long as those spoken by Thai females in central Thailand, ending in a more gradual decay. My driver introduced me to Joy, a bespectacled woman of apparent mixed Thai-Chinese bloodlines in perhaps her 40's, that ran the Top North Travels and Tours office in the corner of the lobby (the driver also made it a point to tell me that she is still single, which caused her to giggle and blush a little) and could help me book some full-day or half-day tours that she could arrange with one day's advanced notice. Joy was also able to confirm that I was booked for the two-day trek with a hill-tribe village overnight stay for tomorrow. I went up to my room to drop off my two backs, unzipping the larger pack and my toiletries bag to get something out of each before exploring the neighborhood around my hotel on foot.
Chiang Mai Old City Wall's East (Tha Phae) Gate Flanking Moon Muang Road
Chiang Mai's Wat Muen Lan

Chiang Mai's Wat Phan On
Chiang Mai's Wat Phan On
Temple Interior at Chiang Mai's Wat Muen Lan
The Chedi at Wat Muen Lan
I walked a short distance up Moon Muang Road from the hotel, stopping briefly to take a photo of the old city wall's east ('Tha Phae') gate opposite Rachadamoen Road. At this point in my first trip to Thailand, I was already reaching the point of temple burnout/Wat overload, having already taken in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, and a number of the city's lesser Wats, chedi's and shrines, plus toured a number of Wat's and temples during a day trip to Ayutthaya (covered in my blog post Bangkok's Khaosan Road, and Temple Ruins in Ayutthaya - Part II: Pom the Khaosan Road Bar Girl & Snake Encounter at Wat Phra Si Sanphet). I knew that I would be scheduling a half-day trip to the hilltop temple of Wat Doi Suthep that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai, and would want to visit Wat Arun (The 'Temple of the Dawn' that sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and is featured on the 100 Thai Baht coin) and Erawan Shrine upon my return to Bangkok, but figured that I should at least swing by Wat Muen Lan and Wat Phan On while here, which were but a short walk away, and take a few photos. The older of the two, Wat Muen Lan, was built in 1459 during the reign of Lanna King Tilokkarat, with Wat Phan On built in 1501 during the reign of the King Mueang Kaeo. Both temples were quiet and peaceful during my visit, with no other tourists in sight at either temple.

Chiang Mai's Wat Sai Moon Myanmar Burmese Temple Entrance Gate
Buddha Statues in Chiang Mai's Wat Sai Moon Myanmar Burmese Temple Shrine


I next decided to walk south along Moon Muang Road to take in views of the old city moat and get familiar with the businesses in the neighborhood, passing an assortment of restaurants and bars (some of which had yet to open for the late afternoon's/evening's business). Further down the street, after rounding the inside southeast corner of the moat which was flanked by some of the ruins of Fort Ka-Tham, Moon Muang Road changed names to become Bumrungbumi Road, and a short distance after passing a short alley I soon came upon an ornate red and gold gate incorporating three gilded Burmese zedi (chedi), protective 'Chinthe' mythical lions and two Burmese Nat spirits as design elements, with Thai & Burmese scripts and 'Wat Sai Moon Myanmar' in English over a driveway between two buildings. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Burmese temple/monastery in Chiang Mai and walked in to have a look around. Entering the main shrine hall, I met a middle-aged Burmese gentleman who was the monastery's attendant (referred to as a 'gupiya' in Burmese, the person is normally the one to prepare and serve the resident monks their early-morning breakfast and late-morning main daily meal, assist with the serving of food offered by donors, and other daily chores and upkeep at the monastery) and was able to chat briefly with him before taking some photos, and learned that there were quite a few Burmese living and working in Chiang Mai. Leaving the monastery, I headed back to the hotel to grab some dinner at a restaurant located between the lobby entrance and Moon Muang Road before going to check out the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

I walked into Happy Restaurant and Bakery and was shown to a table and handed a menu. The first dish that caught my attention was the Chiang Mai Sausage Fried Rice. Figuring I should try something regional, if not distinctly local, I asked the waitress about it and learned that it was special pork sausage using local chilies and spices, and that it was pretty spicy but definitely something I should try while visiting Chiang Mai. The food in northern Thailand reflects more of an influence from northern Burma, Laos, China and the regional hill-tribes. Steamed sticky (glutenous) rice is more prevalent than boiled jasmine rice, and northern Thai cuisine makes more use of pork, wild boar, chicken and freshwater fish and shrimp, given the lack of access to fresh seafood. There is also less use of coconut milk in the curries, except for the spicy Burmese-influenced khao soi noodle dish. Similar to the Burmese 'ohn no khao swe' coconut noodles and somewhat like a Malaysian or Singaporean laksa noodles, it is a soup-like dish made with boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk, which is then topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles and ground chilies fried in oil.The curry is somewhat similar to that of yellow or massaman curry but of a thinner consistency. It is very popular as a street dish eaten by Thai people in northern Thailand, though one might be hard-pressed to find it on the menus of Thai restaurants abroad.   

I opted for of an order of Chiang Mai sausage fried rice and, given that I didn't sleep that well on the night train and needed some perking up, a cup of northern Thai Arabica coffee, which is grown in the region predominantly by the ethnic minority hill-tribes (mainly the Karen and the Akha tribes) as an alternative to cultivating opium poppy (a program that apparently created by the Thai Queen). My cup of 'locally-grown' Arabica was soon to arrive at my table, and it was quite good. It was thankfully a dark roast, with the flavor profile having an earthiness similar to the Burmese Arabica beans that I had tried that were grown in the hills around the former British hill station of Maymyo in Upper Burma. I commented to the waitress during her next pass by my table how much I enjoyed the coffee, and was told that they do sell bags of the whole bean northern Thai Arabica at the gift counter up front, and ended up buying a 1-pound bag to take home. (Back in the States, I would later find an online company called Siam Dreams that sold small bags of French roast whole bean pea berry Thai Arabica coffee from a company in Chiang Mai called Of Asia, which purchased the green beans from the regional hill-tribes and roasted/packaged the beans in-house. Unfortunately, after having purchased several orders, Siam Dreams ran out of stock and was unable to re-order.)  

As I was waiting for my order of Chiang Mai sausage fried rice to arrive, an older, balding and somewhat overweight European guy (perhaps from the Netherlands, as his English seemed to have a distinctly Dutch accent) walked in with a gorgeous, much younger and well-endowed Thai woman in a nice form-fitting dress on his arm. They seemed to be in mid-conversation (likely a contentious one at that) as they strolled past my table. "Look, you call your boss, and you tell him that I refuse to pay that kind of money...", the man said a bit too loudly with irritation in his voice as the Thai woman continued to look straight ahead with an expression of slight embarrassment. I figured that she was some type of escort or perhaps an expensive prostitute that was unwilling to negotiate her price down low enough for the gentleman's budget. My order of Chiang Mai sausage fried rice arrived and it was very good, though definitely on the spicy side, with the sausage flavor profile providing just the right balance of sweet, salty, sour and chili heat, with a nice aromatic finish from the Thai spices used for flavoring. Finished with dinner, I ran up to my room to drop of my whole bean Thai coffee and grab my small pack and a water bottle, then headed down Moon Muang Road towards the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.


Hill-tribe Clothing Vendor Tables at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar


Decorative Glass and Ceramics Vendor Stall


Produce Vendor Stall


Seafood Vendor Stall




Hand-Painted Fans, Similar to the Hand-Painted Umbrellas that Chiang Mai is Known For


Thai & Laotian Fabrics and Mounted Butterflies Vendor at the Night Bazaar 


The Kalare Night Bazaar Food Center and Performing Stage



Traditional Thai Dances Performed to a Live Thai Musical Ensemble



Lisu Hill-Tribe Women Selling Traditional Tribal Clothing
The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is located on the east side of the old walled city and occupies an approximately 1km long stretch of Thanon Changkhlan Road, extending from roughly the intersection with Thapae Road down to below Sridonchai Road. The Night Bazaar is open 365 days a year (regardless of the weather) from dusk till around midnight. As with other night markets in Thailand, the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar offers the visitor an impressive variety of brand name designer goods (both real and, in many cases, fake) in the form of clothing, logo T-shirts, belts, shoes, hand bags, jewelry, sunglasses and watches, in addition to original and pirated DVD's, CD's, video games, karaoke discs and software at very low prices. There is also a similarly-impressive assortment of local Thai goods including clothing, cotton and silk fabrics & traditional handicraft items such as lacquer ware, wood carvings, Celadon ceramic place settings and cookware, Buddha statues, hand-painted umbrellas and fans, and jewelry also at very affordable prices, likely lower than what one would pay in Bangkok. For those intrigued with the ethnic minority hill-tribe cultures, there are plenty of tribal vendor stalls and wandering tribal vendor girls in mostly traditional costume (particularly from the Akha tribe) selling handmade jewelry, tribal clothing, hand-woven fabrics, traditional headpieces and such at the night bazaar, in addition to Burmese vendors selling both Burmese handicrafts and other merchandise. As for food, there are a variety Thai street food vendor stalls in addition to sit-down food centers (some of which offer a stage with traditional cultural performances) and the numerous restaurants, fast food places and Starbucks shops (not to mention the ubiquitous 7-Eleven's) along the length of Thanon Changkhlan Road.

My plan for exploring the Night Bazaar was to start more near the southern end of the vendors and to stroll first up one side of the vendor stalls along Thanon Changkhlan to Thapae Road, and then head back along the stalls on the other side of the road, sidetracking as needed when something caught my eye. As I continued walking parallel to the inside bank of the old city moat, I noticed that a few of the bars along Moon Muang Road had retracted the roll-up doors that separated the open front of the establishment and were now open for the evening's business, and made a mental note to self to select one to check out on the walk back to the hotel later. Just beyond Moon Muang Road Soi 1 (Soi is Thai for a small side street that branches off from a larger road, Soi 1 in this case branching off to the left), I turned right onto one of the short roads that breaks up the otherwise long, unbroken stretches of moat to allow traffic and pedestrians numerous opportunities to get to the other side of the moat, and continued following the moat down its Kotchasarn Road bank. By that time of the evening, the ruins of the 13th century Fort of Ka-Tham brick fortification wall that juts out into the southeast corner of the moat, and the spray of the decorative fountains that had been installed at several locations around the east leg of the moat to make it that much more photogenic, were lit by the yellowish hues of flood lights as I waited for a break in the flow of oncoming cars, tuk-tuks and motor scooters to turn left onto Sridonchai Road for the final leg of the hike to the night bazaar. Upon reaching the corner of Thanon Changkhlan Road, I turned to look up and down the street and, seeing much more activity to the left in the way of crowds and hanging lights illuminating vendor stalls, opted to head north up Thanon Changkhlan.

The night bazaar was decidedly larger and much more crowded than the first night market setup along a closed-off city street that I had attended in Thailand. That one had been in Hua Hin, a quaint seaside town located on the western Gulf of Thailand that, together with the nearby coastal resort city of Cha-Am, are popular with local Thais in the Bangkok area that are looking for a quiet, relaxing beach getaway, without having to contend with the crowds of often-drunk male farang tourists intent on seeking out sensual pleasures with Thai bar girls in places like Patthaya (a.k.a., 'Patpong by the Sea') in the northern Gulf of Thailand, or in the infamous 'walking street' Bangla Road red light district of Patong Beach, in southern Thailand's Phuket. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar definitely had more to offer in the way of Thai and regional hill-tribe traditional crafts, and though I admit that I am not much of a shopper of decorative items, there was an impressive array of high-quality Thai wood carvings and tribal crafts and clothing on display. Of course, the night bazaar has much more than just Thai objects d'art that will look good on one's dining table, wall or nick-knack shelf back home. Much like Bangkok's Khaosan Road, there was no shortage of folding tabletops and wooden boxes full of pirate copies of DVD's and CD's available for cheap, though it is a case of 'buyer beware'. I would later view a copy of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' purchased at a Thai night market, and the quality would suggest that someone had sneaked in a video camera to a first-run movie theater and videotaped the screen under a jacket, with the sound quality being poor, and maybe two-thirds of the screen image captured and slightly off-centered.

One stall that I came across was selling woven tribal sling bags and clothing, with a blue-edged black vest adorned with a row of brass elephant figures and silver studs that kind of came off as 'hill-tribe heavy metal' attire suitable for Rob Halford of Judas Priest. One of the vendor women running the stall was of average Asian height and looked to be Thai-Chinese, but the other woman was short with darker skin and more hill-tribe facial features. I asked her lineage and learned that she was of the Lisu hill-tribe. Based on the design patterns and the colors, it appeared that most of the hill-tribe products available at the night bazaar, much of which was displayed either on squat folding tables that flanked the walkways, or simply atop blankets laid out on the concrete, represented the work of the regional Hmong tribes, which are generally members of the Green Hmong and White Hmong sub-tribes. The six major hill-tribe groups in Thailand are the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong (Miao), Mien (Yao), and Lisu, with the 7th minor group being a smaller population, the Palaung (Padaung) tribe, which mainly migrated across the Thai border to escape war between the Burmese Army and ethnic minority insurgent separatists, and tend to be found near the Burma border. The Palaungs are also know as the 'long-neck Karens' in Thailand as the girls and women wear brass rings around their neck, with additional rings added with age, that compress the collar bones and make it appear that their necks have been stretched. The hill-tribes generally originated in Yunnan province, China, with the Lisu believed to have originated in eastern Tibet even before present Tibetans arrived in the plateau, prior to migrating into northwestern Yunnan and residing there for thousands of years. 

Perhaps the most represented hill-tribe at the night bazaar were the Akha, mainly in the form of petite, aggressive wandering Akha vendor girls hawking handicrafts, jewelry and hill-tribe clothing including the distinctive Akha headdresses that are ornamented with a mix-and-match of hanging coins or small discs stamped from silver, long dangling strings of beaded, multi-color tassels, fuzzy pom-poms, a series of long, necklace-like beaded loops that hang down below the headdress' chin strap and cascade along the chest, and bells that jingle-jangle-jingle when they walk. Perhaps the most annoying product they push and demonstrate ad nauseam are the hollow carved wooden frogs with ridges carved into their back that, when stroked lightly with a wooden dowel, sounds like the croaking of a frog. It was not uncommon for Akha girls in costume to walk up jingling behind and then start stroking their ribbed frog to try to get your attention and maybe generate a sale. It was interesting in that, at one point as I walked down one of the Sois of Thanon Changkhlan Road and at the corner of a small street running parallel to Changkhlan, I saw a stretch white van pull to the curb, and a Middle Eastern man get out of the driver's seat and began talking into his cell phone. As he spoke, he slid back the passenger side door and about 10 petite Akha girls in traditional costume with their hanging boxes of merchandise got out of the van. He appeared to huddle them together to give them their instructions, looking very much the part of a Akha vendor girl 'pimp daddy'.

Periodically, I would pass a vendor stall and hear Burmese spoke, or see a stall selling Burmese tapestries, lacquer ware, woven ethnic Shan sling bags, or Burmese-style Buddha or Nat Spirit statues. I would stop and briefly speak to them in Burmese (much to their surprise), during which they would ask how I learned Burmese and if I had been to Burma yet. I would give them my back story (Burmese wife, two trips to Burma so far at that time), and if they would then ask if I was going there this trip, I would tell them that the rest of the family had traveled onto Burma, but that I was told by family in-country that it would currently not be a good time for me to go given the then-current government situation, and that I should not even attempt to go temporarily across the border to Tachileik if I went to Mae Sai. The reply that I got from them when the question arose was generally, "Thee deh. Dee louh beh." ('I know. That's just the way it is.') One particular Burmese vendor stall had a large selection of Burmese marionette puppets, both function puppets with full sets of strings and sticks to allow the movement of the jointed limbs, and smaller string-less versions of marionettes meant solely for wall-hanging display purposes. I decided to spend a bit of time strolling the aisle of the stall to check out the various puppets display, and had to stop and laugh when I saw one particular pair of puppets. They were worn, antique-looking puppets depicting an old man and woman dressed in traditional age-appropriate clothing and hair styles, with the exposed wooden heads, hands, legs and feet carved and painted to show the wrinkles and mottled skin of elderly people. Where the true Burmese sense of humor came shining through was that the old woman puppet's blouse was opened to reveal a pair of long, saggy wooden breasts ('noh' in Burmese slang) that hung down nearly to her waist with strings attached to each so that the puppeteer could make them jiggle, and the old man puppet's sarong was raised to reveal a wooded engorged penis ('shoo-shoo phin' in kids' Burmese slang, 'shwe pun' or 'lee' in adult Burmese slang), with a string similarly attached so that the puppeteer could give him varying degrees of an erection! 

As I continued up the street, I passed what looked to be some kind of beauty shop or barber shop, with four chairs out front in the covered porch area, three of them occupied by some attractive Thai girls. The girl sitting next to the empty seat made eye contact with me, them motioned with her finger for me to come over and take a seat next to her. Curious as to what this may involve, I walked over and took the available seat as invited. "Hon-neey, this your first trip to Thailand?" When I told her yes, she leaned in a bit closer. "Hon-neey, you want massage?" "What kind of massage?", I asked, prompting her to provide a bit of detail. "I take you to room upstairs. You get naked. I get on top of you and massage you with oil..." Back then, I had yet to try and learn to appreciate a good Asian full-body massage with back walking (though if I had, I would have been able to enjoy them for less than half the price in SE Asia that they cost here in the States at the Asian day spas, in which a one-hour, private room full-body massage can set you back anywhere from USD $30 'to the house' at the inexpensive Chinese places in Little Saigon to USD $65 at some of the Vietnamese and Thai places, excluding tip - USD $20 generally considered the standard for a $40 massage - and any fees for any illicit 'special services' that the masseuse may offer), and as I hadn't showered since before my night train journey, I passed on the massage and received an, "Okay, Hon-neey, that no problem. Good luck to you."

A bit further up Changkhlan Road, I heard what sounded to be a live ensemble playing music on traditional Thai instruments, and following it to its source came upon the Kalare Night Bazaar Food Center's performing stage. As I had already eaten dinner, I decided to hang out for a while to watch the Thai dancers perform and listen to the live music from the five musicians playing on a small riser to the right of the dance stage. Three associated costume changes and different dances later, I moved on and checked out some vendor stalls selling produce and seafood, then continued up to the end of Changkhlan Road at the intersection of Thaphae Road, which is the northern boundary of the night bazaar, before turning around to walk back through the vendor stalls on the opposite side of the street, at perhaps a slightly faster pace now that I had a good feel for the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and what it had to offer, and then retrace my route back to my hotel with a stop for a beer before calling it a night.

Back on my side of the old city moat and strolling up Moon Muang Road, I passed what looked to be some business establishments already closed for the evening that were setback a way from the sidewalk behind a low concrete barrier wall that was about bench-height, and sitting upon it together like maidens in a row were perhaps 12 or 14 Southeast Asian girls (perhaps a mix of Thai, Lao, Burmese and ethnic minority hill-tribe lineages), ranging in age from late-teens to maybe later 20's, dressed in a mix of short dressed and T-shirts and tight faded blue jeans. They were predominately slender and some of them were quite petite, leading me to think of possible Akha or Lisu parentage given their stature. If they had all been dressed similarly or wearing numbered badges, I might assume that I was seeing the service staff of a sizable massage parlor or karaoke bar on their break time, but ended up making the assumption that they were more likely freelance street prostitutes that sit together in numbers for safety reasons given that this particular stretch of Moon Muang Road is dimly-lit in the evening hours. As I slowed to look at them, they turned almost in unison to look at me, I greeted them in Thai. "Sawasdee krep" (the male form of 'Hello') I said to them, but only received a couple of warily and softly-voiced, "Sawasdee kaaahh" (the female form of 'Hello' in the northern Thai female accent) responses in return, followed by some awkward traded gazes save for some faint whispers in undecipherable languages. Wondering if I could manage a photo of the group, I began to take my camera out of my REI cargo pants pocket, but as soon as the girls saw that, in near-unison they all quickly lowered their heads and covered their faces with their palms with extended fingers tightly together to obscure their identities in the photo that was sure to be taken. Seeing their startled response, I quickly put the camera back in the pocket and, facing towards the center of the group of girls, brought my palms and extended thumbs and fingers together (finger tips roughly level with the tip of my nose) to form a respectfully, apologetic 'wai' gesture and said, "Koh tote krep!" ('Sorry!) and continued on my way towards my hotel. 

I considered my options for a night cap from the three possibilities that I had seen not far from the hotel earlier on my way to the Night Bazaar. Option one looked to be a combination restaurant/bar establishment, with a couple of tables occupied by Western male tourists drinking beers visible through the open entrance. Option two was in front of the building containing the first place (and likely associated with it) in the form of an elongated yet shallow, sports stadium snack shack-styled kiosk structure set next to the sidewalk with a narrow bar counter jutting out from beneath the full-length window opening, with a line six empty bar stools available for prospective thirsty passer-by, and a single Thai female bartender/waitress behind the counter cleaning glasses in front of two long shelves amply-stock with a wide variety of spirits framed by a back wall decorated with columns of thin bamboo slats fringed with strings of small multi-color Christmas lights. Option three was  Predator Bar, a place paying homage to the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action flick, with its namesake alien 'hunter of men' statue rendered in welded metal standing in the open front corner of the bar, where through the open roll-up steel door front of the establishment, some casually-dress Thai bar girls standing at the bar or sitting and talking with male customers and a drunken Thai woman in perhaps her late 20's or early to mid-30's seated at the bar talking and laughing perhaps a bit too loudly could be seen, with 70's & 80's classic rock playing at medium volume on the house sound system. I considered my options for another few seconds then went with 'Door Number 3'.
Thom the Bartender (Left) and One of the Bar Girls at Chiang Mai's Predator Bar


Gary, the Owner of Predator Bar, and His Thai Girl Friend Ann
I walked in and headed to the bar, ordering a Singha Beer from the bartender, a Thai girl named Thom that had a decent command of English, was personable and fairly cute. As I sat at the bar and sipped my beer, the drunken and rather loud Thai woman that I had noticed from the sidewalk stood at the bar a few stools to my left and was talking with what turned out to be the bar manager, a middle-aged, somewhat portly Thai woman with her long black hair tied back in a ponytail named Som who leaned forward from behind the bar with a smile that suggested she found the laughter-punctuated conversation pretty entertaining. Sitting on a bar stool to Som's left and also part of the animated conversation was a Thai woman with long, wavy black hair and wearing a cowboy hat. The happily-drunk woman and her Asian cowgirl companion at the bar seemed to be regulars at the bar given the way they interacted with the staff, and also either very close friends or relatives, as the drunk one tended to playfully slap the other across the arm whenever she broke into cackling laughter. To my right, an older guy with a British accent sat at the bar and sipped a bottle of Beer Chang and chatted with a younger guy who leaned over from behind the bar, who I would later learn is Gary, a British ex-pat and the owner of Predator Bar. The loud, drunken woman casually turned her head to visually scan the bar as she talked, and as I came into view she paused and held her alcohol-softened gaze on me, as a smile began to form on her mouth. Okay, I thought to myself, this is about to get interesting.

She walked over to me a bit unsteadily because of the alcohol (which I could smell on her breath) with a big feeling-no-pain smile and introduced herself in Thai-accented English with her somewhat raspy voice seemingly on the verge of breaking into a giggle at any second as Aimee, and then fluidly turned to point to the long-haired Thai girl with the cowboy hat and introduce her as her sister, Cindy, who walked over as if on cue. Aimee was average-looking and a bit full-figured, with permed thin curls dyed dark reddish-brown falling below her shoulders. Cindy was a bit more slender despite having a similar body type and was more attractive, not to mention younger, than Aimee and also had a bubbly, outgoing personality despite being much more sober than her big sister. As we exchanged introduction, a petite older Thai woman selling rose buds came in from the sidewalk and began making the rounds of the male patrons (there were two other spread out among the bar's tables, both talking with bar girls that sat with them), stopping by me first and waiting until we finished our introductions before attempting the sale that I declined. Aimee began asking me the typical opening questions (Where are you from? First time in Thailand? How long here? Where have you gone?), then she leaning in closer, which made the scent of booze on her breath more pronounced, to asked me to buy her a drink. As a courtesy, I agreed and she waved Thom over to order a shot of some creamy, bluish liquor, which Thom poured from the bottle into a small shot glass that she placed on the bar, then lit the surface of the shot with a lighter to produce a low blue flame before sliding closer to Aimee, who first raised it in my direction as a gesture of 'Cheers!', then blew out the flame and shot the contents of the glass down. She then turn towards me and leaned in close with her full lips pursed as if she wanted a kiss. As I was just beginning to tell her that I'm married and would have to pass on any kissing, she saw my lips part and quickly leaned in closer to tightly embrace me and give me an open-mouth deep kiss with tongue, enough so that I could taste some of her blue liquor shot. She tried to prolong the kiss, her tongue probing like a freshwater eel pushing through rice seedling in a paddy field, but I was able to break the lip lock and told her no more kissing because I was married. "Oh, you married, honey? I want you come home and sleep with me tonight, honey." 

The older Thai vendor woman selling roses just happened to be making another sales pass around the bar at that moment, and upon seeing her Aimee flagged her down and said something to her in Thai, causing the woman to stop as Aimee reached down into her bucket and removed a single stemmed rose bud. She turned on her bar stool to again face me, this time hold out the stemmed rose bud. "I you accept this rose, you have to come with me tonight and sleep with me. Okay?", she said with a slight slurring of her speech and her body wavering slightly in her drunkenness. I again tell her that I am married and cannot go home with her. "But I want you sleep with me tonight, honey...", her voice then took on a whiny, pleading quality. I told her no yet again, and she finally seemed to get it, as she handed the vendor woman back her rose stem. I looked like Aimee was about ready to finally call it a night, as she said something to her sister which lead Cindy to take out her cell phone and make a call, presumably on her behalf. Aimee continued talking to her sister and two of the bar girls, which resulted in a bit of drunken laughter on her part that the other ladies joined in on. She then turned her attention back to me, asking me if I will be coming back to Predator Bar tomorrow, to which I responded that I won't as I will be going on an overnight trek tomorrow, but that the following night I might possibly swing by. "Okay, come back and see me when you get back, okay?", she asks me, and I said that I would come in when I return. Cindy had been up by the entrance for some time watching the curb along Moon Muang Road, and at one point yelled back to Aimee that her cab has arrived. We said our goodbyes and she headed out to get into the cab, rolling down the window and yelling something in Thai to Cindy as the car pulled away from the curb.

After Aimee made her exit, I decided that I would have one more beer before calling a night. As I again stepped up to the bar to order, one of the bar girls came up next to me and lightly tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. She was slender and rather tall for a Thai, with her feature (light skin, large dark-brown almond eyes, high cheek bones) suggesting a mix of Thai and Chinese lineages and almost making her look Vietnamese, dressed in tight white jeans and a form-fitting red T-shirt revealing her nice figure, with long black hair gathered back with a clip. She went by the nickname Chai, following the convention that Thai girls tend to adopt or be given a cute single-syllable nickname that they use socially for brevity's sake over their legal given first name, which is always multi-syllable. She had full, sensual lips that her choice of bright red lipstick helped to accentuated, which she held slightly pursed and tended to keep together when she smiled. I thought she perhaps did to convey a subtle sultriness, though when I said something humor that prompted a full-on smile, I noticed that her teeth were somewhat smallish and her gums a bit wide, suggesting that she was self-conscious about her smile. She asked if I could buy her a drinks, so I ordered myself a beer and Chai whatever she was in the mood for, which I recall ended up being a shot of liquor. Thom brought our drinks and we clinked beer bottle to shot glass with a "Choke Dee!" (the common Thai toast of 'Good Luck!'). I stood at the bar to sip my beer and she moved to stand next to me with her arm loosely draped over my shoulder as she took small sips of her shot as we surveyed the scene around the bar while some Rolling Stones played on the sound system.

Another bar girl entered the establishment to start her shift. She was younger than the other girls and quite sexy, with a slim but shapely body and dressed in a mid-drift top, form-fitting shorts and platform sandals. Chai told me that her name is Apple and that she had come in  a bit late today. Chai waved her over and introduced us, with Apple greeting me with a respectful joined palms wai gesture. Chai briefly said something to her in Thai, and then suggested that I should also buy her a drink. I started to think that this farang's generosity was being taken advantage of, but as I had been handed a wad of Thai Baht by my wife prior to her and the others family members leaving for the airport, saying that she would not be needing it while they were in Burma for the next 9 days, and after a couple of beers the Thai Baht did start looking a little bit like 'play money' (at 40 Baht to the USD, a shot of liquor sets me back $1.75), so I said to myself, "Oh, what the Hell...", and bought Apple her shot of choice. "Wow, the guy's buying more drinks. He must be loaded...", the bar owner Gary said with perhaps a little surliness in his voice, to which I just smiled. A bit later, I noticed a few of the bar girls huddled together and alternately chatting among themselves and watching Apple, who had been sitting across from a younger Western guy at a small, round pedestal table in the center of the bar, with his chair pushed back a bit from the table and his legs comfortably apart in a manner that would likely be called 'manspreading' in present-day parlance. He had a bit of a leery expression on his face as he looked Apple up and down, and the bar girls were giggling as they watch him and Apple. Curious, I asked the girls what was going on, to which Chai told me quietly that the guy thinks that Apple is a 'katoey' (ladyboy), and the other girls giggled when she told me that. "Huh? But she's not, or is she?", I asked. "Of course not." one of the other girls said in a low voice, "We just tell him that. Is joke." I would learn during my time in-country that Thai do have a sense of humor, which is part of their concept of 'sanuk', which means to to have a good time, have fun, enjoy oneself, and to derive pleasure and joy from something. I think the guy must have decide to just come out and ask her if she was a katoey, because at one point she got a feigned look of shock on her face, abruptly rose from her chair and positioned herself in front of him, then raised her leg and extended it towards his exposed crotch, pulling her slowed-for-effect mock kick so that the sole of her platform sandal came to a stop a mere inch from contacting with his manhood, which caused a few bar girl to exclaim "Woooaah!" in unison, after which they burst out laughter. The guy's expression was initially one of shock, then changed to brief embarrassment until he realized that he was made the butt of a joke, at which point he opted to join in with the shared laughter.

I would later honor the concept of sanuk when Som stepped out from behind the bar and came over to chat with me. I had the top two buttons of my REI travel shirt undone to allow for ventilation as it had been warm earlier, and Som was intrigued with my long chest hair, which had already gone prematurely gray. She felt comfortable enough with me that she put her hand beneath my shirt and started running her fingers through my chest hair and giving it a little tug now and again, as Thai men are generally not hairy and such thing is a bit of a novelty (the same thing happened years earlier when some young and very surprised Japanese elementary school students in Kyoto started tugging on my exposed arm and chest hair when I showed up to give a brief presentation and practice English with some of the kids during an extracurricular Weekend English Class Party, something I had learned of from a flyer that Kikuko, their teacher, had posted in the Tourist Information Center kiosk near Kyoto Station). "Oooo, I like. I like...", Som said as she continued to run her fingers through my chest hair. She then removed her hand from my shirt, casting her eye down and pointing her finger down at my crotch. "You also gray down there?", she asked. "No. Shaved...", I responded. "Huh?!!!", she exclaimed as she gave me a somewhat startled look of surprise. "Nah, is joke!" I said, which got her cracking up. Unfortunately, Gary was not amused. "Som! Get back behind the bar!", he barked. She complied, shooting him a dirty look and exhaling heavily through her nose as she did. I hoped I didn't get her in to much trouble. Finished my final beer for the night, I bid Chai and the others a good night and walked back to my hotel, happy that I had found a bar to hang out at during the rest of my stay in Chiang Mai.

Back at my hotel room, I shuffled through my luggage to select what I wouldn't need for the overnight trek (toiletries, extra clothing, etc.) so that I could transfer it to a small drawstring bag I had in my pack so that I could leave the items back in the hotel lobby storage room when I vacated my room for one night, instead of having to lug extra weight around on the trek for no good reason. Once that task was done, I was going to take a shower and get a decent night's sleep ahead of the trek, not knowing what kind of sleeping accommodations we would have the following night in the Karen village and the quality of sleep that I would be getting, especially with how bad my cold bug was making me feel. Right before showering (I had already taken my shirt off), I had to get something out of my larger pack, which had been left unzipped on the bed. I plunged my hand into the bag to feel around for the item I needed when I suddenly felt this weird tingling feeling on the back of my fingers, which had started advancing incrementally up my arm. I wasn't sure if it was something like a neurological medical condition I was suddenly experiencing, or if this thing that I felt was actually the start of a heart attack or stroke. The tingling sensation quickly moved up to the top of my shoulder, and as I glanced down at it, I saw a huge, dark brown cockroach staring at me with its wiggling antennae nearly touching my earlobe. "AHHH, F**K ME!!!", I yelled as I tried to swat it with my other hand, but before I could make contact, it jumped off and scurried across the floor in an S-shaped pattern and ran under the dresser. It took a moment for the shock and adrenaline to dissipate, after which I had to laugh at myself over both the situation and my reaction to it. I figured that I might as well do a quick shave before I shower, and grabbed my toiletries bag...which I saw I had also been left partially opened. I thought to myself, 'Well, what are the chances...?' and figured that I'd be cautious and dumped the contents of my toiletries bag on the bed. As bad luck would have it, another huge cockroach emerged from the small pile of toiletry items and jumped off the bed onto the floor, though this time I was able to grab one of my hiking boots and throw it at the cockroach, hitting it on the fly and killing it.

Breakfast in the morning consisted of black coffee and some packages of 7 Eleven's marble pound cake from one of their locations on Moon Muang Road. It's pretty good and had become my go-to 'quick breakfast food on the run' since my stay on Bangkok's Khaosan Road. I was down in the lobby with about 5 minutes to spare and was the only trekking group member from my hotel, and the first passenger in the back of the canopied and benched back of the truck. The driver made a number of turns and within a few minutes pulled into the compound of another hotel where the remaining eight members of the trekking group, all younger than me by at least 10 to 15 years, were waiting together as a with the day packs in hand. We exchanged quick greeting and loaded up, and as we made our way from the vicinity of the Old City out to Route 108, began to fill each other in on our names, where we were from, what our jobs were back home, where we had been traveling, and such. It turned out that we were a mix of Americans, British and Europeans. Two of the younger trekkers were girls from England that had mentioned having too much whiskey the night before, with one claiming to have a bad headache and feeling like she might throw up (I offered her some Tylenol, but she said that she already had some, and thanks.) One  of the couples on the trek was from the Netherlands, where they both worked for IKEA. Another young couple were a bit more adventurous, having previously been in Cambodia where the guy said he was able to fire an RPG-2 anti-tank round for USD $200, and that for another USD $100 they offered to sell him a live water buffalo to use as a target. When I had mentioned that I was an engineer, I was asked if I was the type that drives a train; when I responded that I was a design engineer working in aerospace, the gentleman from the Netherlands got a bit sarcastic, responding ,"Oh, well excuse ME!!!". The drive time to the first leg of our trek was about hour and 15 minutes, with a stop at a roadside produce market with restrooms and some food and snack vendor stalls at the halfway point, sometime after which we turned onto Route 1009 for the drive into the boundaries of the Doi Inthanon National Park.  


Arrival at the Elephant Camp for the First Part of Our Overnight Trek

My View from the Howdah Bench Strapped to the Elephant's Back



The first part of the trek involved riding on elephant-back via a two-person (my paired riding partner turned out to be the blonde British girl in our trekking group) wooden 'howdah' bench seat secured to the back of the elephant via ropes or chains looped around the animal's undercarriage for about 90 minutes, with the 'mahout' elephant driver controlling the elephant through verbal commands backed up by a long stick with a nail driven through one end to prod the elephant when needed, sitting atop its head. The mahouts were members of the Karen hill-tribe, with the spoken commands to the elephants seeming to be given in the Karen language. The riding course took us mainly along a dirt trail that ran in a large, curving loop through a tract of open land, with some of the ride being through the waters of a stream that meandered through the property, as opposed to a one-way excursion that covered some of the distance to the Karen village that we would spend the night in (which I had initially assumed would be the case). We exited our truck and were led in pairs to a wooden platform built around the base of a tree, accessed by some wooden stairs, that was used to get into the elephant-mounted howdah bench. Once everyone in the group was aboard their elephants, we started our ride out into an open field and picked up a dirt trail flanked by trees and large leafy bushes. 

The elephant walked at a fairly slow pace, with the steps causing the howdah bench seat to gently roll or sway from side to side, which is manageable once you get used to it, but could be a challenge if one is prone to motion sickness or vertigo. The howdah bench was wide enough to comfortably seat two people (though when riding elephants in the Hlagaw Wildlife Refuge north of Rangoon, Burma, the howdah can accommodate three adults in a pinch), with each person provided with one hand railing to steady themselves. Riding in an elephant howdah for the first time was an interesting and memorable experience, though it has becoming increasingly frowned upon more recently. Nowadays, there is a heightened awareness of animal cruelty, and two or more people riding in a howdah strapped to an elephant's back is seen as causing the animal undue pain and suffering. As such, tourists in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia are option to instead visit elephant sanctuaries, where injured or illegally-held and mistreated elephants are sent for rehabilitation (which now itself is becoming discouraged, as the elephants may be forced to enter the river when they don't want to in order to give all the visitors a chance to experience bathing an elephant and subsequently posting photos and videos of it on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube), and visitors can experience both feeding the elephants or bathing them in a stream or river, and also learn about elephants and preservation efforts. These sanctuaries do offer the chance to ride the elephants, though only a single rider sitting behind the head of the elephant is allowed to limit the physical impact to the animal. Most people prefer the sanctuary experience to the elephant parks, where the animals are trained to dance, play soccer, paint pictures or do other tricks, which is considered exploitative with some implied cruelty involved in the training. As we rounded a curve in the trail, a Karen or Thai male with a camera shot a photo of each of the pairs of elephant riders and the mahouts.

At one point, our elephant strayed to the edge of the trail and stopped to eat some leaves off one of the bushes, with our mahout letting him eat for a minute as the other elephants slowly lumbered on ahead, and then tapped him with the stick as he barked a short command in the Karen language to the animal that got it moving again. After a stretch, the trail we followed led down a narrow, inclined dirt path into a stream, which pitched the howdah forward and downward and seemed to exaggerate the roll-like, side-to-side swaying, and made it that much more awkward holding on to the hand railing with one hand, and the a water bottle and a camera in the other hand. The added lack of stability made it tougher to shoot photos, though I found that if I looped my right arm around the howdah hand railing and wrap my right leg around the chain and wedge my foot between the chain and the elephant's side and trap my water bottle between my left arm and ribs, I could still manage two hands on the camera for photos and not feel like I was going to slide out of the howdah as we entered the stream. Once down into the stream, our elephant decided to explore the muddy water at the edge of the bank, after which it raised its trunk and curled it back in my direction, choosing that exact moment to either give a small sneeze or an abrupt exhaling through the trunk, speckling my off-white REI shirt with small spots of muddy snot, which would still remain as souvenirs after countless washings.

At the end of our elephant ride, we went back to the wooden platform to dismount our elephants and were then each given small bunches of overripe 'baby bananas' (smaller than the manzano banana variety) to feed the elephants before getting back into the truck to stop by a Karen village for lunch before grabbing our packs and hitting the trail to begin the three-hour hiking portion of our trek. Before we boarded the truck, each one of us was approached in turn by a local woman carrying a stack of photos taken during the ride framed in cardboard overlaid with utilitarian-grade blue Thai silk with white, pink and green flowers drawn on the silk with fabric paints, with the phrase 'Welcome to Chiang Mai' written near the top of the frame. The pictures captured the two elephant riders (in my case, one of the two British girls) and the mahout, with jungle trees and vegetation framed behind the elephant to convey the sense of place. I forget the price (perhaps 200 Baht?), but figured it would make a nice souvenir of the trek. We got back into the rear of the covered truck and back on the road, and shortly arrived at the somewhat modern-looking though still rustic Karen village located right off of the paved road where we would have lunch before starting the hiking portion of the trek. Our lunch, served open-air from a patio table with attached benches, was stir fried chicken with vegetables and combination fried rice, with assorted sliced tropical fruits for dessert and our choice of soft drink. Following the meal and a restroom visits by by the members of the trekking group, we mounted our packs and were introduced to our guide Alex, who spoke English, Thai and a number of regional hill-tribe language including Karen, which is part of the Sino-Tibetan Language Group. Our truck drove off, scheduled to meet us for pickup early afternoon tomorrow at a point somewhere in Doi Inthanon National Park where our trail intersected with a paved road, as Alex had us circle up so he could go over the itinerary for the rest of this day and a good chunk of tomorrow.

The First Ascent on Our Three-Hour Trek to the Karen Hill-Tribe Village

A Brief Stream-Side Rest Break in the Jungle

Passing Through a Bamboo Grove
A Stop at a Waterfall for a Rest or an Optional Swim



Entering Some Rice Paddies En Route to the Karen Village
From the vicinity of the picnic table that we had eaten lunch at, we followed a well-used and compacted dirt foot path that took us between a couple of wood and stucco village homes and along the fringes of a family garden, and then onto a wider dirt road suitable for cars for for some distance. We next turned onto another dirt foot path that took us up a hill planted with vegetables and fruit trees, and further up the hill began to see banana trees and large leafy bushes. "You guys like coffee?", Alex asked, receiving several responses in the affirmative from the group, and an enthusiastic yes from me who happened to be standing next to him. "These bushes...", as he pointed out some near to us, "...are Arabica coffee beans. They plant them around banana trees because they provide a bit of shade for the bushes. You can see the red berries on the bushes?", he said as he picked a few off the nearest bush and slowly swept his open palm around the group so everyone to see them. "These are called coffee cherries, and the coffee beans are inside the cherries." After a brief pause, he said, "Here you go...", and dropped the coffee cherries into my hand before turning and continuing up the steepening dirt foot path. Just before we reached the ridge line we were treated to a nice vista of coffee bushes and banana trees, backed by terraced rice paddies and wooded hills in the distance. Below the ridge the trail descended onto a gravel road shaded by the thickening tree canopy above, which after a while we left for a foot path that took us down into a small draw. 

After a while the trail took us down to a level stretch of terrain that briefly paralleled a stream with a small cascade of white water passing over the rocks, where our guide said we would take a short break, but that there would be a longer break further up the trail where we would have a chance to do some swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall if so desired. I had anticipated, especially with my sinuses beginning to run more frequently, the perspiration from the exertion and the ambient temperature which was still quite warm despite the elevation, that I would be pretty dehydrated, so in the small day pack that I wore across my chest for easy access, I had two 2-liter bottles of water that I sipped from often. Though it was nice to have plenty of water, the added weight did put a little more demand on my legs, especially on the uphill portions of the trail. I was also beginning to start pulling from the toilet paper roll in my pack that had brought from the hotel to blow my nose from time to time. My cold bug had already advanced to the point that I was feeling a little bit run down and slightly feverish. During our time by the stream, I noticed that our guide had a long, narrow cotton scarf (decidedly both longer and more narrow that the traditional 'krama' scarf worn in Cambodia) in a blue plaid pattern around his neck that he had donned before we got on the trail after lunch. He used it to mop the perspiration from his neck and forehead, and then rinsed it in the stream and wrung it out, placing it back on his neck damp so as to help keep his neck cool, which he commented seems to have the effect of making the rest of his body also seem a little bit cooler. I had made a mental note to self to pickup something similar the next time I planned to do any trekking in hot, humid climates. (Of course, I would forget in the spur of the moment run-up to our quickly thrown-together trip to Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo in 2007, where we would do a short trek in Bako National Park in hopes of getting to see some proboscis monkeys, and had neither time during our one day back in Singapore after returning from Bali to look for it before departing for Kuching, Sarawak, nor was I able to find it in Kuching after our arrival, and ended up merely taking a cheap hand towel with me.)

Continuing on after our break, the trail took us through a lush stretch of bamboo trees and then along a long, shallowly-inclined grade via a narrow footpath roughly two-thirds of the way up the side of a steep draw that was dotted with tall, broad-leafed trees which produced a canopy randomly perforated with thin, hazy shafts of midday sunlight through the humid jungle air. I had generally been walking near the front of the group up with the guide, but from time to time had to pause for a bit of nose-blowing and sips of water before catching up with the rest of the group. Up ahead, the trail leveled out and widened a bit, and soon the high-pitched gurgling of flowing water added to the ambient jungle soundscape of leaves softly rustling overhead and the occasional calls of unseen birds and insects, and soon the dulcet, white-noise whooshing sound of a distant waterfall could be heard. Rounding a curve in the trail revealed two rustic, village-like structures with wooden walls and corrugated tin roves, beyond which a short distance off the trail was a picturesque two-tiered cascade waterfall fed by a sizable stream that dropped into a wide pool. Our guide said that we would take a 15-minute break, and anyone who wanted to go in for a swim could do so. Two of the guys and one of the girls in our trekking group opted to go in for a dip, as did our guide while I, having not anticipated that I would be doing any swimming during the trek, did not have a swim suit with me and only one spare pair of underwear, decided to pass and just rest my legs for a bit. Our guide took out a sarong and slipped over his clothes to modestly change into swimming trunks out in the open, and after his dip in the pool below the waterfall, again changed back into his trekking clothes by shrouding his body with his sarong, which he then used to both wring and subsequently swing/spin-dry his swimming trunks. 

We got back on the trail and continued on to the Skor (Blue) Karen hill-tribe village that would provide us with dinner, sleeping accommodations and breakfast prior to either the final day on the trail of a 2-day trek followed by lunch and 1 hour of bamboo rafting before the drive back to Chiang Mai (as seven of us - including myself - had signed up to do), or begin a second day of a 3-day trek further afield and a second night's dinner, accommodation and breakfast in a second village belonging to the White Karen hill-tribe, followed by the third and final inbound day on the trail of trek followed by lunch, bamboo rafting and the drive back to Chiang Mai (of which two of our group had opted for). At one point, the trail came up to the bottom rung of a series of stair-stepped rice paddy terraces that extend up a slope to just below a line of trees in the distance. Our guide led us slowly up the terraces in switch-back fashion, walking back and forth along the tops of the levies that formed the terraced paddies in extended stair-step fashion until we reached the top of the terraces. Once we reached the slope behind the top paddy, along the base of which was a small trough-like stream whose waters filled the top paddy up to the depth of a small notch in the far levy wall, through which a slow stream of water cascaded into the successive stepped paddies below it until the entire terrace had all paddies flooded to the desired levels, our guide led us to a narrow and rutted dirt foot path at the edge of the top paddy that took us uphill for quite some distance, as stretches of open land on the left side of the trail provided passing views of smaller rice paddies and crop fields. After a substantial leg workout and an appreciable gain in elevation that enabled us to begin to seeing some large-leafed teak trees, we at last began to see a combination of both rustic thatched-leaf and corrugated tin peaked rooftops of the lower first homes of the Karen hill-tribe village that would host us for our overnight stay, with our guide telling us that the senior members of the tribe, including the village chief, generally live in the homes on the higher ground of the village's land.  

The Karen Hill-Tribe Village Where We Will Spend the Night
Earthen Steps Leading to One of the Karen Homes
A Karen Hill-Tribe Woman in Traditional Attire
A Karen Woman Carves a Bamboo Bank for Her Son

Our accommodations for the evening were in the lower portion of the village, lying below the level of the trail  on the left side, at the end of a footpath with steps formed into the compacted reddish soil. Our guide led us to where we would have our meals and stay the night, which was a stilted wood-framed structure with thin bamboo slat wall panels framed by bamboo poles, and a sliding entrance door accessed by a three-wrung ladder made of bamboo, with a mosquito net hanging from the low doorway behind the partially opened door. The front of the structure had a covered wooden patio beneath which was a wooded table and benches. There was no electricity in the village that I could see or was aware of, though some of the higher status villagers and perhaps the village school may have had some gas-powered generators, and I learned that candles would be provided before darkness fell to supplement the flashlights that we had brought with us. Our guide instructed us to choose a spot to sleep inside and deposit our backpacks there. He also told us before walking off that there was a shack off the main trail that ran through the village that sold beer, rice wine, bottled water and snacks to enjoy during our stay and outfit ourselves from the trek out in the morning. The sleeping quarters were two rows of full-length, tatami-matted pedestals about the room's central aisle, with the individual sleeping compartments separated by a bamboo wall panels, with each compartment provided with a thin, futon-styled mattress, a fitted and flat sheet, and a mosquito net. I chose the last sleeping compartment on the right side and deposited my backpack and small day-pack, then headed off to use the toilet. It was located at the end of a narrow footpath a short distance down a shallow wooded slope behind our sleeping quarters. It was a small outhouse-styled toilet stall typical of those encountered in rural Southeast Asia, a ceramic Asian 'squatty-potty' set on a low, ceramic-tiled pedestal, with a wicker garbage can next to it for the used toilet paper to be deposited (dirty side-down), a ceramic tile basin fed by a thin, gravity-fed hose attached to a level-type facet with red plastic handled bucket for manually flushing the toilet, a toilet paper roll holder nailed to the unfinished wooden wall, and a bamboo pipe extending from the base of the back of the outhouse a couple of feet further down the slope and disappearing into the ground.

As I headed back up to our sleeping quarters, the other members were sitting around the table in the patio area relaxing, some of them chatting with one another. I retrieved my camera from the pack and strolled over to have a glance around the village in the vicinity of our quarters. Not far from our dinning area was a open-air kitchen prep and storage area consisting of a wooden counter top whose slats were spaced to leave gaps so that the flanges on the coated metal plates and bowls that our meals would be served in could sit inverted at and angle to allow for drainage after washing, a couple of ceramic water pots, and an angled roof above the counter area to protect from the elements. A couple of Karen village woman were seen in the vicinity dressed in tradition costume consisting of a hand-woven pink sarong with horizontal  beige and gray strips, a green blouse with pink binding around the cuffs and a similar stripe down the center, and a wide, hand-woven pink, beige and white patterned belt around the waist and a pink and white head scarf. Often times, a mix of traditional costume elements and T-shirts and other Western clothing, or in some cases (especially with the men and children) full Western clothing without any ethnic Karen elements, were seen worn by the villagers over the course of our stay, which is more likely the norm. Given that we were in a fairly traditional village (as in no paved roads, power lines and satellite dishes on the roofs, at least at that time), there were the typical chickens, cats, dogs and an occasional piglet wandering through the village. The village houses were mainly stilted, with wood frames supporting woven bamboo or cane wall panels and thatched leaf roofs, with some located up short embankments and accessed by compacted earthen steps carved into the hillside, though other houses were fabricated entirely of wood with corrugated tin roofs.

I stopped by one of the village homes where a Karen mother wearing a white head scarf and a printed blue and gray T-shirt over a traditional pink and beige-striped sarong and her son in Western clothes sat near the bottom of the wooded stepladder leading up to the entrance of their stilted home, with the mother carving a slot into a short section of bamboo tube using a black knife. I greeted them in Thai on the assumption that they spoken at least some of the language, and then assumed an 'Asian squat' stance in front of the pair so that I could watch her put the final touches on what appeared to be a bamboo bank for her son. I reaching into the side pocket of my cargo shorts and pulled a few Thai Baht coins, which I showed to the son and then slipped them into the bank's newly-carved slot, causing the son to giggle excitedly at the first deposit being made. The mom then stood and took down from a nail in one of the house's taller stilts a hanging hand-made, red woven Karen shoulder bag with thin vertical yellow-beige strips and about 3 fingers' width of red tassels hanging from the bottom at the front and back corners of the squarish sling bag. She extended the bag to me so that I could examine it, preparing for a sale from one of the recent batch of visiting trekkers. It was very similar in appearance to the ethnic Shan minority of Burma, a version of which is also made by all of Burma's ethnic minorities that inhabit the highland of the country's border regions with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh. I asked her how much, and she answered 500 Baht, which I thought was too much even for something hand-made that I didn't particular want to buy, but figured I could purchase as a gift to give to a family member or close friend back home (500 Baht had previously gotten me two nights' accommodation in the Marcopolo Hostel in the alley off of Bangkok's budget backpackers' ghetto of Khaosan Road). I figured that this is how the Karen villages make their living, by selling hand-made items to visiting trekkers and tourists, and that I shouldn't be too greedy or heartless to turn her done and walk away. With a sigh of resignation, I offered her 400 Baht, which was still far to expensive in my assessment, but at least she and her family would benefit from the sale.

After a bit more strolling, I headed back to join the others at were still relaxing around the table. As I arrived at the table, two of the guys from the trekking group were just returning from the provisions shack with a couple of six packs of Beer Chang. I decided to walk to the shack and see what all they had, and perhaps pick up some bottled water for tomorrow's trek and some rice wine to drink and share with the others tonight. The snack shack was further uphill and on the left at the corner of a foot path that intersected the compacted dirt Main Drag through the village. Standing near the entrance was a slender old Karen auntie that was perhaps in her early 90's wearing a faded flannel shirt over a Karen woman's sarong with a tightly-wrapped multi-colored head scarf smoking tobacco through a small corn cob pipe with an exceedingly long stem. I purchased two large water bottles and one bottle of Thai rice wine, then headed back to rejoin the group. We still had a while to wait before dinner would be cooked and served, so we sat and sipped beer and rice wine and chatted, though conversation soon became increasingly sparse and a sense of boredom seem to envelope the group. I had brought a large bag of beef jerky with me that I had bought at Costco during one of several visits there before the Southeast Asia trip to purchase gifts to give to relatives and family friends there, items such as vitamins, snacks, chocolates and such, with most of it - especially the large bottles of Centrum Silver for the aunties and uncles - destined to accompany my wife, daughter and brother-in-law to Rangoon, Burma. I decided to retrieve the bag and offer some of it to the group. The two British girls and the trekkers from Europe were unfamiliar with it, and upon trying it thought it was interesting and not bad. 

Our guide tended to keep to himself, slowly walking in the vicinity of the adjacent village home that's separated from our quarters and patio by a small open area, while behind him a couple of our Karen hosts work on preparing dinner. One of the trekkers wondered aloud if it was a 'Buddhist thing', leading me to comment that perhaps he was doing some 'mindful walking', a meditation technique practiced by Theravada Buddhists that helps to focus and calm the mind, adding that any physical task involving movements, actions or sensations that one could isolate and focus mindfully on could be a form of insight meditation, even target shooting. "GUNS?!!!", one of the British asked almost in shocked disbelief. "You have GUNS?!!!" "Yes, several...", I replied, adding that even the act of firing a high-powered rifle (thinking particularly of my old WWII Russian military Tula Arm Plant-manufactured surplus Mosin-Nagant M91/30 battle rifle) can be meditative and calming if you can observe and mindfully-note the required actions & efforts, and the resulting sensory events involved in hitting a 5-Minute of Angle hanging steel plate at 100 yards from an offhand standing shooting position employing a 'hasty sling' support technique. That comment earned me some odd looks from the Brits and Europeans. 

After a bit of silence during which the assembled group collectively sat staring down at their beer cans, one of the British girls offered an insightful observation. "It's SO boring here. There's no electricity, no music... I need some music!" "Well, I guess we could always sing karaoke a capella if we're really craving music...", I suggested, to which the question "Can anyone sing?" was voiced by one in the group. Not seeing, nor hearing, any takers in response to the challenge for any performers to step up, I said, "Well, I guess I could give it a try..." I took a deep breath and in my mind envisioned strumming the final G chord of the intro to Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" just before the first verse begins to establish the beat and get into the groove of the song, and then mentally fretted the D chord and went for it. "So, so  you think you can tell. Heaven from Hell-ell-ell. Blue skies from pain..." My fellow trekkers suddenly perked up a bit, with some expressions of mild, pleasant surprise, and one of them commenting in a low voice, "Oh, I guess he can sing." "Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil?" The two British girls, who were both sitting next to me to my right, began nodding their heads in time to the tacit beat. "And did you exchange a walk-on part in a war, for a lead role in a cage?" I paused for 4 beats after the final line of the verse, and then launched into the chorus lyrics, with the two British girls enthusiastically joining in with the harmony, and one of them adding a bit of patio tabletop percussion. "How I wish, How I wish you were here. We're just two lost soles swimming in a fish bowl, year after year..." Following the end of the chorus, a few seconds of silence was broken by some light claps and some head nods of appreciation, though when I inquired, "Whose next?", I got nothing but silence from the group and the distant clucking of free-range village chickens foraging for food in the clearing next to us.

Thankfully, our dinner was ready by about that time. The entree was a Karen stir fried chicken dish (assumed to have been cooked with chicken that had been walking around earlier in the afternoon) and stir fried noodles, with the style of cooking being similar to Thai, though a bit less spicy and sweet than your typical Thai cuisine but still pleasantly aromatic and tasty, with complimentary bottled water to supplement the alcohol that we had already purchased. About the time we finished dinner and the table had been cleared of our plates, the sun was setting and candles were brought out to give us some light in the absence of electricity, and as happens in Southeast Asia, darkness soon followed sunset.

Drinking Beer Chang and Thai Rice Wine By Candlelight in the Karen Village
A Villager Plays a Homemade Harp & Flute, and Sings Karen Songs
After dinner, we continued to chat and sips our beers or, in my case, Thai rice wine in the amber glow of the candles placed around the table, with the smokers in the group lighting up their after-dinner cigarettes. Our guide joined us and said that one of the village men was a musician and would join us shortly to sing and play some traditional Karen music for us. When he showed up, he brought with him a small flute and a homemade harp. The body of the harp appeared to be handmade wooden box whose sides were a bit uneven and out-of-square, giving the body an inward taper draft from top to bottom. A section of cut tree branch with a warped curvature formed the neck of the harp, with the neck joining the body at the top edge of the body. The bridge and the top of the harp's body had been formed from blue-colored metal apparently cut from a large tin food container. The harp had eight strings secured to the tree branch neck via roughly-carved tuning pegs pressed-fit into holes in the neck that appeared to held tuning by virtue of friction between the peg and the neck like a cheap ukulele. He began to play the harp and sing a couple of traditional Karen folk songs, taking sips from his small glass cup of Thai rice wine between songs, and then switched to the flute to play a traditional instrumental piece. By this time, the members of our trekking (myself definitely included), our Karen entertainer and our guide seemed to be enjoying the effects of the Thai beer and wine that had been consumed to this point. The next song to be performed was explained by our guide to be a sad Karen love song, with our performer accompanying himself on the harp, and a couple of times during the song pausing to over-dramatically feign sadly sobbing. 

After that song, our Karen crooner took a break to sip more rice wine and have a smoke, during which he allowed me to try our his harp. I started out by plucking the strings in order to get an idea of the musical scale, but couldn't identify the notes in the scale, then randomly played around with plucking some two and three-note chords, followed by some natural and 'pinch' harmonics that seemed to intrigue the Karen musician. Along with the harp and the flute, he had also brought a small cloth bag with him that he opened and from it handed out a few small whistles carved out of hollow bamboo tubes with a single notch cut into the sidewall near the mouth end to produce a single note when blown through. The whistles made the rounds of the trekking group members, which each one blowing it one or twice and then passing it on to the next person. My increasing level of drunkenness began to inspire my creativity, and when one was passed my way, I had to figure out a way to get more than just the same old note out of the whistle. I found that by partially covering the opened end of the tube opposite the mouthpiece end, I could vary the note to produce a tremolo effect, or even shift the note up in pitch similar to bending a light electric guitar string, and in the extreme case nearly achieve one full octave of pitch change. When I demonstrated the technique to the Karen musician, he started laughing, which encouraged me to try out different melodies with stronger blowing to produce louder and higher-pitched notes, which led to both shared laughter and a clinking and draining of our rice wine glasses.

The arrays of lit candles around the table cast just enough illumination that one of the British girls caught a glimpse of something moving on the table and screamed loudly as she realized that it was a very large spider, causing the other to rise up from their bench seating and lean back from the table in alarm. The Karen musician laughed and calmly reached over the top of the spider and picked it up, suggesting that it was not venomous but causing the girls in the group to squeal, and a, "Whoa, man!" or two from the guys. Our musical host sensed that his holding onto a large spider with his bare hand was making people nervous, so he put the spider on the table and before letting go of it, tilted an empty rice wine glass over his hand and trapped the spider underneath it the instant he let go of it, much to the relief of those around the table. I poured myself a bit more rice wine and was about to play around with the whistle a bit more, but the Karen picked it up with a chuckle and a smile  before I could reach for it, placing it back in the cloth bag with the others that he had collected. The merriment continued for a while until others in the group began to quiet down, and soon stood up in near-unison to head into our sleeping quarters. 

Figuring that it was bedtime, I finished my rice wine and was about to get up to follow the rest of the group, when our guide approached and lightly tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned to look at him, I noticed that he had my two packs in hand. "I see you've had a lot of fun tonight, but you might be a bit noisy when you go to bed and wake the others that are already tired. I think it's better that you sleep over here tonight...", he said, pointing at a stilted, thatched-wall home with an open section of wall facing our patio area on the other side of the small clearing. I had been laughing it up a bit with the Karen performer, and agreed that it would be the courteous thing to do for the benefit of the others in the group, so I agreed and followed him over to the rustic village abode. "You'll sleep here tonight..." he said, pointing to a blanket spread out on the floor comprised of bamboo slats lashed together next to a woven wall panel, with a thin sheet to cover myself with, but no hanging mosquito netting like in the pedestaled communal sleeping quarters that the others were enjoying. Oh well, I thought to myself, this just adds to the 'adventure' aspect of the experience, plus I was already taken the tetracycline-based antibiotic Doxycycline as a malaria prophylaxis, with the drawbacks being photo-phobia, which makes one hypersensitive to the sun's UV rays and can lead to solar dermatitis, and that it kills the good flora in the digestive tract which upsets the stomach and results in loose stools if one can't replace the good flora. The bedding situation was not very comfortable, but I was tired from the day's trekking and fairly drunk from the rice wine, so I was able to fall asleep. I did vaguely remember waking up a few times during the night as a male Karen sleeping on the other side of the woven wall panel snored loudly, though I likely gave out as much, if not more, than I had taken during the night.   

A Karen Village Woman Out and About Before Sunrise
Early Morning Meal Preparation in the Village


An Akha Vendor Woman Visits in the Morning to Sell Handicrafts

A Morning View From the Thatched Hut I Spent the Night In 
A Karen Woman Gives Breakfast Scraps to Some Village Dogs
I awoke sometime just before dawn to the sweet, arid smell of wood smoke and the cracking of kindling burning interlaced with a whispered conversation in the Karen language, the chirp of crickets and the low occasional clucks of village chickens, as the dull amber reflection of the starting fire flickered on the rafters overhead and back-lit the figures of two people squatting in front of it. It seems that my accommodations for the night contained the cook fire that would be used to prepare our breakfast later that morning. I stretched and yawned, greeting my host in Thai as I had not yet learned to speak any words of Karen language. I would later hear one of the male villagers address his son as 'tha', which is Burmese for 'son', and later heard him tell the son, "H'yoh!", as he handed him something, which is Burmese for 'take this!', so I supposed I could have tried speaking Burmese to them given that many (if not most) Karen were refugees that fled fighting between the Burmese Army and separatist Karen rebels. I put on my hiking boots (which I had water sealed before departing for Thailand, thereby removing their ability to allow my feet to breathe in the wet heat that is still encountered in the north, giving them a minor case of heat rash and producing dark spots of seeped perspiration on the top side of my boots) and stepped outside of the hut to have a look around. The early dawn sky provided enough dim illumination that I was able to avoid stubbing my toes on two fuel can-type containers near the entryway, or stepping on a village dogs that were sleeping on the dirt just below the stilted porch of my hut. The dawn sky above the horizon had already begun to transition into a pale blue that revealed some billowing clouds above the mountains in the distance, with a village woman in traditional attire seen to have already starting her day, as two other villagers were seen making their way down the trail in the direction of the rice paddies below the village. I followed the trail through our section of the village to the left and then took the main trail uphill past a couple of rows of rustic houses, seeing a couple more village dogs, chickens and even a young piglet already out and about, before turning around and heading back to the group's accommodations.

Sometime after the sun came up, a few of our trekking group members had risen and taken a seat around our dinning table. I bid them a good morning and was greeting by some mildly surprise looks, with one of them commenting that he didn't think that I would be up and around so early given how much I had to drink the night before (I would say that I was in much better condition than the two British girls appeared to be in after their night of whiskey drinking when we departed Chiang Mai the day before). I explained that my lack of hangover was likely to to my having stuck mainly to rice wine after a beer with dinner, as in my experience one can be drunk as a skunk on sake the night before, yet wake up felling fairly okay the next morning given how the body metabolizes the rice liquor. I had unintentionally discovered this during a trip to Japan years earlier, which was my first trip to Asia that, after having sampled the UK and some of Europe, provided me with those unique first experiences in Asia that, like a gateway drug, would open my eyes to a whole different world and forever enamor and enchant me to the wonders of the exotic Far East.

[Flashback to the Summer of 1987: The trip to Japan had been a bit less than three weeks, and my first solo trip abroad. Armed with one semester of Conversational Japanese 1A, an English-to-Japanese dictionary and a phrase book, I had flown into Narita City's New Tokyo International Airport and the next day took an express train to Tokyo Station and the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. Following a ten-day stay there in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) located south of Gojo Dori between Kyoto's Kamo River and Shirakara Stream that a local Japanese school teacher that I had met named Kikuko told me used to be a Yakuza-run brothel, with a day trip to Nara followed by brief stays in Hakone National Park and the seaside city of Kamakura, after which I had spent five days exploring Tokyo. I had found a 5,000 Yen a night businessmen's hotel near Tokyo's Ikebukudo Station in an area that is a mixed commercial and entertainment district. After a combined dinner of a small order of beef at a cook-it-yourself hibachi restaurant, followed by a Big Mac ('Big-gu Mac-ku') at a nearby McDonald's (which, at the time, was also serving banana milkshakes with a chocolate syrup packet that, when added to the cold shake, forms mini chocolate chips) because I was not satiated from the hibachi dinner, I was in need of a beer before heading back to the businessmen's hotel. Japan was a novelty in that they have vending machines on the sidewalk that dispense cans of beer and sake (there was also one in front of the laundry mat near my hotel that dispensed porno magazines, though I would later learn that they also have vending machines that dispense what are purported to be the previously-worn panties of Japanese schoolgirls, of which a fetish industry exist for). As I stopped at one on the walk back to the hotel, I was approached by an elderly Japanese man who spoke some English and claimed to be a former Japanese merchant marine. He asked if I spoke English, and when I said yes he suggested that we go get a beer together so that he could practice English with me. We ended up at a neighborhood bar that had large woks filled with a savory stew of pork, onions and sliced potatoes, which we sampled along with some large Kirin Beers and pitchers of sake. We ended up being joined by two Japanese businessmen that ate and drank with us. After some time had past, the bar announced that they were closing, and the old marine suggested that we go to a bar across the street on the second floor. The older businessman bowed out as he had already had enough to drink on a weeknight, but the other followed us to the next bar. The old marine bought me some strong cocktail made with shochu, and after a few sips, I felt compelled to put my head down on the table for 'just a second'. I woke up perhaps a couple of hours later to the sound of a Japanese waitress yelling at and attempting to shaking back into consciousness my passed-out businessman drinking buddy who was leaning against the back of the booth. She them turned to me and and told me to leave as the bar was now closed. I told her in broken Japanese that I was going to be ill and went into the bathroom to vomit on all fours on the white-tiled floor that flanked the pedestaled Japanese squatty-potty. As I wiped up any wayward splatters with some toilet paper, the irate Japanese waitress began pounding on the door and yelled at me in rapid-fire Japanese to get out of the bar now. Finally having staggered out of the bathroom and the bar, I turn left instead of right and begin to head upstairs to the floors of apartments above the bar instead of down to the street, which earned me more loud scolding from the pursuing waitress, who grabbed me by the shoulder and with a extended index finger briskly jabbed in the downstairs direction yelled, "You Go Now!!!" To make a long story just a tad bit longer, as I attempt to get back to my hotel I realize that the unique flashing neon signage that I had used as visual way-point references to navigate my way on the outbound trip had by then been turned off by that early hour of the morning, making it that much harder to find my hotel. Ultimately, I begin to see familiar territory in the vicinity of my hotel, including a very slender, middle-aged Japanese (or Korean) prostitute that's become a fixture at a particular corner for the last few nights. The punchline of the story is that, because I had been mainly drinking rice wine or fermented rice-containing liquors over much of the night, I had no hangover or headache the next morning, and was able to meet up with the Taiwanese literature professor that I had met back at my ryokan in Kyoto who was planning on being in Tokyo at the same time as me.]

As breakfast was being prepared for us by some Karen village women, two Akha hill-tribe women walked into our patio area with sling bags over their shoulders filled with Akha handicrafts that they had proceeded to unload and lay out for display on the table for display and hopefully sale. The assortment included woven sling bags embellished with rainbow-colored embroidery and festooned with hanging coins, shell and small curved silver discs, handmade silver jewelry including bracelets, necklaces and large bangles, and a particularly interesting long-stemmed silver pipe with intricate relief work and a bowl whose outside was in the shape of a tribal-looking head. The pipe was very cool and a tempting buy, though I had already spent a lot (in my assessment) on the Karen sling bag, and I wondered if the pipe had ever been used to smoke opium, in which case any residue could get me in very big trouble coming back through Customs. Having made no sales, the Akha ladies backed up their stuff and moved on, after which the trekking group members began to congregate around the now-cleared table. A Karen woman then came and set the table for breakfast, which was then brought to the table soon thereafter and was comprised of eggs scrambled with diced onions & tomatoes with small pieces of stir fried chicken and garnished with diced cilantro, with all the ingredients being very fresh and locally-grown. The scramble eggs were served with jasmine rice and either bottled water or hot boiled water with packets of 3-In-1 coffee mix. The meal was tasty and quite satisfying. After breakfast, we were given some free time to pack our belongings for the trek out and spend the remainder of our stay before resuming the trek exploring more of the village or visiting the snack shack to purchase food, drinks or souvenirs if desired. As I had already stocked up on bottled water for the trek, I wandered through some as-yet unexplored parts of the village to take more photos.

A Stroll Around the Village After Breakfast



Restraining the Family Pigs Without Using a Fence

A Karen Village Girl Hand-Weaving Fabric

I continued up the main trail towards the upper portion (in both elevation and social status) of the village, passing  an assortment of stilted house styles, some of them with simple manual looms set up for weaving, villagers going about their daily routines, lazing village dogs and wandering chickens, some followed by a few chicks. I followed a narrow foot path that led up a low rise off the main trail through the village, which passed between some home compounds where a couple of adult pigs where tethered to tree trunks by single ropes tied around their front legs to keep them from wandering outside the compound, with one of the pigs holding its left front leg at such an odd angle as to suggest that its shoulder had been dislocated. As I continued on my stroll around the village, I came across a Karen girl who was weaving some traditional red and white striped cloth on a minimalist loom consisting of a horizontal wooden rod supported by a simple rectangular bamboo frame located forward of and slightly above her, around which the far end of the warp (vertical) threads were looped, with the near end looped around a shorter wooden rod attached to a cloth belt worn low on the hips below her waist, with the feet of her extended legs pushing against a section of thick wooden dowel that contacted the base of the rectangular bamboo frame. By exerting leg pressure against the wooden dowel, she was able to stretch the warp threads taught at a roughly 25 degree angle above the ground in front of her. Another dowel on top of the warp threads appeared to be attached to a taught cord that ran down between her legs, presumably to another dowel beneath her calves, which enabled her to exert downward pressure to compress the warp threads. Another flat wooden bar with tapered edges was used by the girl to compact the weft (horizontal) threads after she alternately weaved them beneath and above the warp threads by passing them using a wooden shuttle attached to the ends of each the white and red weft threads that she was weaving. It was interesting to watch this 'low tech' weaving technique after having seen more traditional manually-powered and operated mechanical looms being used to weave fabric in the rustic stilted handicraft factories that I had toured the prior year out on Inle Lake in Burma's Shan State, and some years later in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where a Japanese expert in manually-woven textiles setup a center to re-teach local impoverished women the art of traditional Cambodian double-ikat silk weaving, a formerly highly-prized craft that ceased after it was ruled a forbidden practice by the Khmer Rouge. After watching the weaver for a few minutes, I headed back to rejoin the others for the outbound trek.

Passing By the Karen Village School on the Outbound Trek

A Papaya Tree on the Trail

Teak Trees Seen From the Ridge line

Hiking Past Rice Paddies En Route to Meet Our Driver to Complete the Trek and Have Lunch


Returning to our section of the village, I retrieved my two packs (my two water bottles and a supply of toilet paper for periodically blowing my nose, as my sinuses were draining with increasing frequency, going into the smaller day back that I wore on my chest for easy access) from last night's sleeping/cooking hut and put them on, then walked over to the patio of the communal sleeping quarters where the other members of the group were assembling. Our guide soon walked over to us accompanied by a second guide and outlined the schedule for the day, which would involve a three-hour trek taking us first to higher ground, followed by a downhill stretch down into a valley to the pick-up point for the truck for those of us that had opted for the two-day trek, and a bit longer of a trek for the two members of our group that had opted for the three-day trek that included an additional night's accommodation in a second Karen hill-tribe village located further into the Doi Inthanon National Park. Following our rendezvous with the truck, we would be taken back to the same more upscale Karen village where we had lunch the prior day again for lunch before driving to the banks of the Mae Klang River where we would board a bamboo raft for a one-hour trip downstream, after which we would return to Chiang Mai and be dropped off at our respective hotels. We then made our way back onto the main trail that runs through the village, retracing much of the same route that I had taken earlier in the morning. Further up the trail, we passed the village school where the kids (almost exclusively boys) were dressed mainly in traditional red and white striped tops and khaki shorts or black long pants and flip-flops, with an old, beaten up Datsun pickup truck parked near one of the nearby rustic villages homes adjacent to a dirt road that intersected the main trail through the village. Further up the trail, we reached a small ridge line where the trail forked in the vicinity of a couple of wood and thatched wall panel homes, with the left branch of the trail leading downhill and curving to disappear behind a thick grove of trees. Our guide paused at the junction and motioned for us to gather around so that he could say something to the group. He said that most of us had chosen the two-day trek and that we would continue with him along the current trail, and that the two people in our group that had chosen the three-day trek would proceed along the left branch of the trail with the second guide, who would accompany them for the rest of the trek, lunch the following day, the bamboo rafting after lunch and the trip back to Chiang Mai. He did mention, however, that the additional day of trekking at one point involved crossing over a deep gorge via a long and rustic bamboo bridge comprised of a central bamboo beam to walk along with single bamboo handrails on either side, and that the bridge does tend to shake as people cross it. He added that the experience can be scary, especially if one is afraid of heights, and that if someone had an issue with crossing the bridge, they needed to say so now because they would not be able to turn around if they decided after seeing the bridge that they would not be able to cross it. If they decided that they didn't want to attempt the bridge crossing, they could continue with the two-day trekking group and a cost adjustment could be made once they returned to Chiang Mai. It took but a few seconds for both of the trekkers to say that they would pass on the extra day due to the specter of having to deal with crossing the bridge.   

We continued up the trail for a while, then diverted onto a more narrow foot path that took us along a gradual decline beneath the tall tree canopy broken up by small clearings, one of which containing a papaya tree heavily laden with large fruit, and wound its way through raised gnarls of exposed tree roots as we gradually gained elevation. At one point, our guide briefly stopped at a passion fruit vine adjacent to the trail and plucked some ripe fruit off it to pass around so that we could try it if desired, which was very juicy and sugary-sweet, though with a lot of small seeds to contend with. Our guide would again stop us a short distance up the trail to point out a huge spider just off the trail dangling from a large web spanning the branches of two adjacent trees which elicited some exclamations of ewww's and whoah's from the girls and guys in the group, respectively, and whose leg span was at least that of the tips of my thumb and pinkie finger full spread apart. A bit over an hour or so into the trek, the trail took us along a stretch of wide stream or small river whose course over a rocky outcropping created a sizable backwater run that was suitable as swimming hole, which our guide suggested that we stop at for a break, and a swim if we wanted to, before the next portion of the trek that would involve a fair amount of uphill hiking. Again, I passed on the swimming and instead spent the time checking out the surrounds. There was a single wood framed and thatched-wall dwelling near the far bank, with a woman in Karen clothing with a whisk broom in her hand sitting on a large rock and gazing out over the water, apparently taking a break from some household chores. There was a large rock or an exposed rocky outcropping that protruded above the water a ways upstream adjacent to the near bank, and a local girl in a T-shirt and shorts of perhaps seven years of age who may have been either Thai or Karen sat on the large rock playing with something small that she held in her right hand. I decided to walk over for a closer look and saw that she had a small rock in her hand that she was briskly rubbing back and forth across the larger rock that she sat upon, producing a gritty, hollow scratching sound. As I approached, I greeted her in Thai, which caused her to stop rubbing the smaller rock look up at me with a smile, returning the greeting in Thai, then briefly resumed her rubbing of the smaller rock on the large exposed one, occasionally stopping to raise the small rock to her nose and sniff it. She saw me looking on with curiosity, and paused to hold the rock up in my direction, and then made a beckoning gesture as if to invite me to come in closer, before going back to alternately rubbing and sniffing the smaller rock. I stretch my right leg out to rest my foot on the flat surface of the large rock while keeping my left foot on the bank so that I could stay balanced and squatted to get down to her level. With a friendly smile, she handed me the smaller rock and motioned for me to first rub and then stiff it. The friction generated from rubbing the rock generated a little heat, and the resulting aroma that the girl found so enticing was musty and a bit metallic, with a hint of an algae or mildly fishy smell. I thanked her in Thai with a steeped hand wai gesture that she returned, then headed back downstream over to where the other were sitting, and shortly thereafter we got back on our way.

The trail again began to steepen as we gained elevation and started seeing an increased number of tall, broad leaf teak trees, of which we had seen a few in the vicinity of the Karen village we spent the night in. Teak (Tectona grandis) is a large, deciduous tropical hardwood tree species that is native to south and southeast Asia, mainly in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh. The teak tree can grow up to 131 feet tall  and has large, generally teardrop-shaped leaves that have a papery consistency and are often hairy on the lower surface, and can grow up to 9 inches wide and near 18 inches long, with the tree producing small, fragrant white flowers from June to August and globose fruits roughly 1.5 cm in diameter from September to December. Teak's high oil content, high tensile strength and tight grain gives it very good weather resistance, being durable even when not treated with oil or varnish, and its oils are also resistant to termite attacks and damage caused by other insects. Freshly-milled teak wood has a leather-like smell, and is used in the manufacture of outdoor and indoor furniture and boat decks, in addition to cutting boards, indoor flooring, counter tops, a veneer for indoor decorative finishing, carvings and turnings. Many of the decorative wood carvings seen in the Chiang Mai night market, and the handicraft and souvenir shops through much of Thailand and Burma/Myanmar, are fabricated from teak wood. As we trekked among the stands of teak trees, our guide mentioned that resource mismanagement and over-harvesting of the teak, especially of the old growth trees, negatively impact the teak tree populations in Thailand, and that the Thai Queen had started a program to replant teak trees in the growing regions of the country to assure sustainability. 

Further along the trail, we emerged from the tree canopy to follow a stretch of ridge line as we began to feel the rising heat of the late morning sun. Absent the shade of the jungle foliage and the reduced fallen vegetation debris, the trail was dry and perhaps due to a local exposed strata of different soil chemistry, changed in color from the accustomed iron-laden pastel orange soil to more off-white with a more sandy composition, specked with small, silica-like crystals that reflected the sun like tiny bits of broken glass. Once back beneath the tree canopy, we descended along a long, steep grade that gave our knees an extended workout, after which our guide allowed us a short break to rest our legs and have some water. We continued on along a narrow foot path studded with exposed rocks and gnarled tree roots that meandered its way down a wooded slope via a number of switchbacks. By the time we had emerged from the tree cover, some clouds had moved in to take the edge off the heat that had built up over the course of the morning's trek. The foot path soon opened up to a single-lane dirt road, as we strolled past more rice paddies, rustic thatched shelters and rural homes in the distance. We gradually wound our way down into a small valley made up of a patchwork of crop fields and country-style homes, where at last we saw our driver and red truck waiting at the junction with a paved road, dismounted our packs and settled into the truck's bench seats for the drive back to where we had lunch the prior day.


Working Elephants Stroll By as We're Eating Lunch Prior to Bamboo Rafting
Lunch this time was chicken and vegetable stir fried noodle, with a choice of soft drink and tropical fruit for dessert. As we ate lunch, two elephants with their mahouts and loads of corn stalks fastened to their howdah-styled platforms in lieu of passengers emerged from a dirt path perpendicular to the concrete-paved road and walked past us, continuing on to another section of the village. After finishing our meal, those who needed to used the bathroom, and then once everyone was accounted for we loaded into the truck for what turned out to be a 15 to 20-minute drive to the Mae Klang River. We turned left off the paved road onto a gravel road that led down the the river, where we could see three bamboo rafts partially beached on the bank, with with a guide/pilot standing near each raft holding a long bamboo pole. Our guide instructed us to leave our camera and any other devices that could be damaged by water in the car, as the water tends to well up through the gaps between the seven large, lengthwise-oriented bamboo logs that formed the raft, and that it's possible for the riders to fall off the raft and into the water should it inadvertently strike a protruding rock or suddenly run aground on the crest of an unseen shallow in the river. He also mentioned that, unless we were seated on one of the three (forward, mid-raft, and aft) width-wise-oriented bamboo logs which, together with the long, slender rings of cut truck tire tread that acted like giant rubber bands, held the raft together, which would give us some extra elevation above the waterline, the back and side pockets of our shorts and our sandals would definitely be getting wet. This was a disappointment as I was looking forward to getting some photos of the raft trip, though a photo of a similar bamboo raft from the Chiang Mai area found online is included below for reference.


Typical Doi Inthanon Trek Bamboo Raft, Circa 2003 (Photo Source: jetsettingfools.com)

Leaving our cameras and other non-water resistant items behind, we walked with our guide down the gravel path leading to the river's edge and were shown to our assigned bamboo rafts, with me being paired with the couple from the Netherlands. As we waked, he told us that he and our driver would meet us downstream at the pickup point for the drive back to Chiang Mai, and that if we wanted to try our hands at piloting the raft during the trip, to just ask our guide/pilot. When we got to our raft, I boarded first and moved to the front of the raft, with the couple seating themselves in the center portion. Our pilot plunged his long bamboo pole into the water until it hit bottom and, bearing down on it with two firmly-gripped hands and a brief expression of effort on his face, got the passenger-laden raft to slowly drift away from the rocky bank with a gritty rasp both heard and felt through the bamboo logs that held us afloat, then he moved forward to mid-raft to poke his pole near the shoreline to nose us into the current, and then back to the stern of the raft to push us towards the center of the river. With four of us aboard the raft sat a bit low in the water, which as mentioned by our guide caused water to well up between the gaps between the bamboo logs periodically like an artesian spring, with the cooling sensation on the feet amid the heat of the midday sun more comforting than the initial abrupt chill to my er, undercarriage which spanned the gap between two adjacent lengths of bamboo. The river's current alternated between slow and lazy along the lengthy runs of deeper water and the gurgling turbulence of faster waters as we poled towards channels of opportunity through the occasional shallow sections, or narrow passes between sloped strata of exposed bedrock. After a while, the husband of the Netherlands couple asked to take the helm and, with our guide positioning his body to keep the raft floating level as the husband relocated to the back, was handed the bamboo pole by our guide as we continued downstream, with the river's course providing us a mix of direct hazy sun and shade from the tree canopy overhead. We continued down the river for about another 30 or so minutes, with the scenery along the banks drifting lazily by to the gurgling sounds of water lapping up against (and through) the bamboo raft, the rippling of the water's surface and the wake around jutting rocks as we transited some shallows, and the occasional bird call or the shimmering buzz of a cicada somewhere in the trees. Given that our trip down the river was to be about an hour in duration, I figured now would be the time to try my hand at manning the pole and taking the helm of the raft for a little while at least. I turned and asked the Dutch husband if I could try steering the raft for a while, but his response was to merely stared at me silently and allowed a slight smirk of defiance to form across his lips, before casually adverting his gaze downstream vaguely in the direction of the right bank to break eye contact. He had previously, from time to time, copped a bit of an attitude (in my opinion) during my earlier interactions with him, starting with our introductions on the drive over from Chiang Mai the prior day and a few snide comments over the course of the two days and prior evening. The jury was still out at the time as to whether his disposition was merely the 'Ugly American' disdainful attitude that many Europeans and British seem to cop (a vibe I don't tend to encounter in traveling around Asia), or just the guy's personality, but I remained diplomatic and tried to keep things cordial and copacetic. 

[The well-worn trope of the uncouth 'Ugly American' is often bandied about by Europeans and even some Americans (perhaps borne out of 'First World' guilt?) in the course of conversation. When I hear the term 'Ugly American', I tend to think of the hero Homer Atkins from the 1958 novel 'The Ugly American' by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The story takes place in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, said to be in the vicinity of Burma and Thailand. The plot, involving the United States Ambassador, the embassy staff members, and visiting American advisers out in the field at a time when Russia is trying to bring the country under Communist influence, paints a picture of missteps and misplaced priorities in the application of U.S. foreign policy, with the dramatized stories that unfold drawn from factual events that occurred during the authors' time in government service both in Asia and elsewhere. The 'Ugly American' Atkins, an engineer and entrepreneur, is sent to Sarkhan as a technical adviser along with his equally-homely wife Emma. Unlike the other Americans in the country who live in upscale accommodations, associate mainly with other expats and attend the official functions and cocktail parties, Homer and Emma live like the locals in a simple rustic home, shop at the local market and have learned the local language, and truly connecting with the locals they interact with. Homer not only comes up with a simply, economical solution to a problem of a lack of pumps to water the rice paddies using readily-available resources, but creates a manufacturing business owned and staffed by locals, further benefiting the people and gaining more of their respect and admiration.]

I let about five minutes pass and then asked him again nicely if I could try taking the helm for a little while. upon the second request, his wife looked back to shoot him a quick, presumably scornful glance, and with an audible exhale of frustrated resignation said, "Oh, alright..." We carefully moved along opposing edges of the raft to maintain balance, which rocked slightly from side to side in response to our footfalls, with he handing me the angled bamboo pole as we passed, and he took a seat next to his wife and I moved to the back of the raft and our guide stayed at the front. I alternately plunged the bamboo into the water and continued to tentatively extend my arms until the tip of the pole touched bottom, with the grittiness of the tip boring into the gravelly river bottom transmitted along the bamboo pole as vibrations, or an abrupt tap as the tip came to rest against a submerged rock. I then bared my weight against the pole to move the end of the raft in the opposite direction to try to keep us in the deeper water in the center of the river. After a bit of poling, I got the hang of it and we continued on, with one of the other raft in the group ahead of us a little ways downstream. We transited through some shallows that cause the raft to slightly drag along the bottom, requiring more force exerted on the pole to help us along into a deeper run. 

As we drifted on through a calm, slow-flowing portion of the river, the Dutch husband surveyed me with a gaze that hinted of mild derision accompanied by a bit of a snide smirk, which suddenly morphed into more of a grin that suggested that perhaps an idea had just come to mind. He next parted his legs and placed the bottom of his feet flat on the bamboo logs, and extended his arms outward to rest his palms similarly flat on the bamboo logs as the grin increased to a tight-lipped smile as if suggesting that things were about to get real. The guy did have a bit of heft to him, and as he start to quickly lean to the side shift his weight first to the right and then quickly to the left, the raft began to go into roll oscillation of ever-increasing amplitude, causing me to spread my legs and bend my knees so that I could stay upright and lean as required to counter-balance the raft's rocking. Realizing his game of trying to get me to fall of the raft and seeing how much he was enjoying himself given his laughter, I figured that I wouldn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing me end up in the river and became resolved to stay on the raft no matter how much it rocked. Our river guide and raft pilot sat in the center, alternately looking back at me and up front towards him and his wife with a bemused smile. After a bit more rocking, the wife said something presumably in Dutch and of a scolding nature that caused him to stop, though over the five or so minutes that followed he briefly rocked the raft again a couple of times just to show he cared.  

Further downstream, the sound of rippling waters became more apparent and further ahead the river narrowed with a field of rocks sticking above the waterline, and a narrow channel off to the right that formed a shallow C-shaped passage was pointed out by our guide as where I needed to steer through. As we entered the passage, I struggled on the bamboo pole to keep us in the center, but the outer bamboo logs that made up our raft occasional made contact with the rocks, causing the raft to shudder in response. As we were entering the last rocky bend and were just about through the passage, the tip of my pole that was firmly pressed against and exposed rock face just below the waterline must have slipped on a bit of algae, which caused me to nearly fall but, more importantly, caused the raft to suddenly yaw to the left and send the right rear corner of it against the side of the exposed rock. Unfortunately, the large loop of cut truck tire that held the back of the raft together like a giant rubber band was stretched over the tangent of the back of the outside bamboo log that briefly made firm contact with the dry portion of the rock that sat above the waterline, and as the current continued to push us along, the stretched portion of the tire section, which was under considerable tension to be able to hold the raft's bamboo logs together, had begun to peel back off the end of the outer bamboo log.

Just about the time that we clear the rock and moved into the deeper water, the cut section of truck tire thread slipped entirely off the bamboo log and quickly unraveled, which caused the bamboo logs to fan outward to the point where I lost my footholds and plummeted down spread-eagle on the large bamboo log that remained directly between my legs, with the only saving grace being that the water was only deep enough that my feet hit bottom before my crotch hit bamboo, with only and inch or so of clearance to spare (and avoid physical despair of my pair!) Unfortunately, the mid-river, partial disassembly of our raft caught the other aboard completely by surprised, and caused them all to tumble off the raft and into the river. "Ahhh! Bloody American!!!", yelled the Dutch husband, perhaps regretting that he passed me the pole in the first place, with his wife failing to see any humor in what just occurred, though our guide did chuckle when he realized what happened. As the air temperature was still fairly warm, at least the water felt pleasantly cool and refreshing. "Okay, the tire is still attached...", our guide said. "Help me push the raft back to shore and we'll fix it." We pushed the raft to the left bank near where another local guy had been standing, who stepped into the river and waded over to assist us. The water got fairly deep where I was standing, coming up to just above my sternum. With the left side of the raft pinned against the steep dirt bank, we were able to lean inward against the back of the bamboo logs to 'fold the fan back up' while two of the guys stretched the cut tire thread back over the assembled logs, though as I moved to position myself better, my left shin bumped up against the shape edge of an underwater rock, which gave me a nasty scrape that drew a little blood. With the raft back together, we got back underway with our guide back at the helm as we sat slowly drying off in the slight wind-over-deck of our advance and the waning overhead sunlight. At one point, the river got a bit rough as it ran fast and shallow over a rocky step, so our guide had us get off the raft and walk along a short path along the bank that bypassed the section so that the guide could negotiate the passage solo, after which we re-boarded the raft for the final stretch of the river journey.

The others in the group were waiting for us as we pulled up to shore and got off the raft, with the Dutch couple filling them in on my raft-poling mishap being the reason for us arriving late, as the husband shot me a final dirty look for good measure. Before walking back to the truck, a couple of Thai or Karen woman walk up to us carrying some cloth bags. They stopped near our group and took out small white plates that they would scrutinize, then scan our group, and then walk up in turn to each of the group members and show it to them. When they finally walked up to me, I saw that the plate had a thin pink rim around the perimeter and was printed with the words 'Doi Inthanon' along the bottom quadrant, and had a faded, low-quality photo image of our raft on the river printed in the center of the plate. I had no desire to purchase the souvenir plate and did not even inquire about the price, but merely dismissed the offer with a shake of the head and a casual wave of my open palm. We walk over to our waiting truck and loaded up for the drive back to Chiang Mai (I boarded last and got the seat nearest to the open back of the truck, which provided me with a pleasant, cooling breeze), where upon our return we stopped first at the hotel where all of the other members of our trekking group were staying. I stepped out of the truck to give them room to pass, and as they filed out of the truck with their packs, they had begun to talk excitedly among themselves about how they had learned that the Top North Guest House, which was adjacent to the Top North Hotel that I was staying at, had available rooms and offered privileges to use the Top North Hotel's pool, and the rooms were cheaper than the place they were currently staying. Hanging out by the pool was something that they had all excitedly and enthusiastically agreed would be especially good after the trek. Though we had gotten along well enough over the course of the two-day trek (save for the sometimes snide attitude that the Dutch husband copped), I didn't really meaningfully connect with anyone in the group to the point that I wanted to continue hanging out with them, or exchange emails so that I could keep in touch with them later. I decided after returning to the hotel that I'd rather head back to the Predator Bar and hang out with Chai, Thom and even Aimee (if she was there, and perhaps a bit more sober), or explore some other Chiang Mai bars nearby than hang out at Top North's pool with the trekking group members.

Back in my room at Top North, I took a much-needed hot shower (noticing as I got out of the tub/shower stall that yet another large cockroach had been observing me from the corner of the bathroom floor before scurrying through the gap between the door and the floor). I then took the opportunity to hand-washed my mil-surplus 'boonie hat' (khaki tan in color and brimmed, with a multi-looped, elasticized nylon web band sewn above the brim to allow foliage to be plucked from the field and stuck into the loops as camouflage, I had purchased it at an Army/Navy surplus store, and at the outdoor shooting range, people would comment that the loops of the hat would probably accommodate a partial box of 12 or 20 Gauge shot shells) in the sink with powdered detergent, as it was particularly ripe and dirty by that time. Having hung that hat out to dry and thrown on a clean set of clothes, I headed down through the lobby and swung by Happy Restaurant and Bakery for a quick bite to eat as I was still a bit hungry. I selected an order of larb moo, which is a popular dish in northern Thailand - especially in the northeastern Isaan province - which is sort of a 'meat salad' made of minced pork seasoned with fish sauce, or 'nam pla', lime juice, chili flakes, broken and roasted sticky rice for texture, and aromatic herbs like Thai basil, that is normally served with steamed sticky rice. Having finished my larb moo along with some hot jasmine tea, I paid my tab and walk out to the street, turning right to head south on Moon Muang Road to grab a beer at Predator Bar.

It was bordering late afternoon/early evening as I arrived at the bar, and though I did not see (nor hear the loud laughter of) Aimee, her sister Cindy with her now-familiar cowboy hat was seated on a stool at the bar, together with a middle-aged Caucasian man seated further down the bar, Thom pouring drinks behind the bar, and the owner Gary chatting with his girlfriend Ann near the entrance. I stopped by to say a quick hi to Cindy, who recognized me and greeted me with a warm smile, and waved to Thom so that I could order a Beer Chang. I mentioned to Cindy that I figured Aimee would be here, assuming that, like her sister, she was also a regular customer. Cindy said she had not come by yet, but that she could give her a call on her cell. I told that I didn't want to bother her if she had other things to do, but Cindy responded that she wouldn't mind coming down to the bar for a drink and gave her a ring, getting up from her stool to move closure to the entrance to make the call (perhaps to move away from the house speakers or for improved reception?) I moved over a bit and grabbed a stool at the bar near where the middle-aged Caucasian guy was sitting, which at this point Gary was now standing and talking to him from across the bar. "Oh, so there's the guy that was buying drinks for the ladies the other night. I guess he must be flush with cash or something...", Gary said in a British accent tinged with a hint of surly sarcasm. "Nah...," I responded, "Just a 'farang' tourist with some Baht to spare experiencing the Thai bar scene for the first time, and after a few drinks had while sitting with the lovely ladies, the Thai currency starts to seem like play money..." Gary gave a little snort-like chuckle in response to my comment, and given that he was the owner and I would likely make Predator Bar my regular stop for the remainder of my stay in Chiang Mai, I figured I'd buy him a beer to stay in his good graces, to which he grabbed himself a Beer Chang and handed my Baht notes to Thom.

At that moment, the middle-age guy seated near me at the bar leans towards me and asks in a British accent, "So, this is your first trip to Thailand, is it?" His pronunciation of Thailand almost sounded like 'Toy-Land', which for a split-second had me wondering if I was actually hearing an Australian or a New Zealander accent, though as we began to chat I learned that he was in fact from England, and current living as an ex-pat in Thailand. He asked if I was married, to which I responded yes and then related how I had traveled to Thailand my wife, daughter and other family members, but unfortunately I had to remain in Thailand while the others traveled on to Burma due to the current political situation over there based on the recommendation of my in-laws living in Rangoon. When I asked about his marital status, he said that he was divorced, relating that after he and his ex-wife had traveled together to Thailand on holiday, he realized that he would be happier living on his own in the Land of Smiles as a free man, and decided to end his marriage of nearly 27 years and move to Chiang Mai. As I listened to the gentleman's backstory, Chai walked up to join me at the bar, gazing at me with her large, dark brown almond eyes and her full ruby-red lips fixed in a sultry, closed-mouth smile that by then had become what I considered an endearing quality of hers, as she casually draped her right arm my neck. Her arrival inadvertently took my attention away from the middle-aged Brit that had been observing us, and as I turned back to him, he chuckled and asked, "Do you think your marriage is going to survive Toy-Land?". "Yes, it will.", I replied, "I'll allow myself to enjoy their company and attention, and spent some Baht buying them drinks for them because, well, who knows if I'll ever make it back to Thailand after this trip, but that will be it." He paused for a second to consider my response, then replied, "Okay, whatever you say...", the Brit responded with a smile.

I continued to sip my beer and exchange a bit of small talk with Chai for a while when at once I began to hear a now-familiar raspy female voice speaking Thai followed by some hardy, cackling laughter that announced the return of Aimee. She stopped at the far end of the bar near the entrance to talk with her sister, and following what seemed to be but a few sentences they both turned to look at me, with a wide smile of recognition quickly forming on Aimee's face as she made her way excitedly down the bar and I rose from my bar stool to greet her. As she arrived at my spot at the bar, she began to open her arms while moving in closer as if to embrace me in a hug, possibly to be followed by another attempted deep kiss similar to the one she unexpectedly slipped me during my last visit to Predator Bar, even though she appeared to be fairly sober and more in control of herself this time. "Ah, but please no kiss this time, because I don't want you to get sick...", as I started to warn her that I might be contagious with a cold bug that had been brewing since before the trek, which was not only true enough at the time, but also a tactful way to discourage and stave off an unwanted kiss without making her feel rejected and getting her mad. She immediately halted her close approach and took an abrupt step back, her smile replaced by a look of offended shock and sudden anger. "What! You think I'm SICK?!!!", she demanded to know in a harsh, scolding and somewhat raised voice. "No, not that!", I responded. "I had started coming down with a cold before going on my trek, and after I returned I felt even worse. I don't want to give you my cold and make you sick." My explanation seemed to quickly calm her down, and after a second or two her smile slowly return. "Oh, okay. I know what you mean now..." The awkward moment between us thus having been defused, I bought her a drink and we chatted amicably for a bit, thankfully absent the drunken hitting on me and offering me a rose to go home with her this time around, and after a while she took her drink and moved back over to join her sister and a couple of bar girls that she had been talking to.

After Aimee left, Chai again came over and stood next to my bar stool, slipped her left  hand around my waist and leaned in to give me a little hug of (at least feigned) affection. I bought her a drink and casually sipped my beer as a mix of 70's through 90's rock played on the sound system. Thom the bartender and one of the other bar girls came over and had started a conversation with Chai, their soft feminine voices rendered in the melodic and drawn-out Chiang Mai Thai dialect intermingling with, and at times washing over, a Jackson Browne tune. I gave them a quizzical look suggesting that I was a bit curious as to what they were discussing, which Chai picked up on and explained that they were a bit hungry and debating about what they should snack on from one of the nearby eateries on Moon Muang Road. A continued brief exchange in Thai ensued that ended with the word 'roti', though pronounced more like 'row-teee'. "You like row-teee?", Chai asked me. Figuring that they were talking about roti prata, or roti canai, which is like a thin, flaky crepe that is popular in Malaysia, Singapore, India and Burma (whose roti, called palatta, tends to be much thicker given the way they twist and fold over the layers of oiled dough, which makes them much more filling than the Singaporean and Malaysian version), I told her that I do like roti, having eaten them both in Singapore and also subsequently at Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants back home. Chai asked if I wanted to share some roti with them, which I assumed to mean that I would be expected to foot the bill for the order. Figuring that shelling out some additional Baht would at least let me sample the Thai version of roti for the sake of comparison, I agreed to treat the ladies, handing one of the bar girls some Baht notes sufficient to cover the order. When the roti later arrived in a Styrofoam container, I was surprised to see that it  was drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with sugar, whereas in Singapore and Malaysia roti canai is accompanied with a spicy and savory curry dipping sauce, or in the case of Burmese palatta, it is either served whole and topped with chicken or lamb curry, or scissor-cut into small strips or pieces which are placed in a bowl and ladled over with a chicken curry soup. "Thai's like to eat roti sweet like a dessert.", Chai explained. The roti, stacked two high with each layer coated with condensed milk and sugar, was already cut into strips, with each girl grabbing a napkin and a couple of strips from the container and eating them with their fingers (right-hand only, as the left hand is reserved only for unclean tasks in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures). The sweet version of roti was pretty good, and subsequent to my trip to Thailand, whenever I would cook Burmese chicken or lamb curry with Burmese-style roti palatta or Singaporean/Malaysian-style roti canai (of which the Singaporean Spring Home brand is our hands-down favorite, and normally available at most Asian grocery stores in California), I would always save one of the frying pan-griddled roti for dessert, topped with either sweetened condensed milk, granulated sugar or melted dark chocolate and blueberry or cherry preserves. After sampling the Thai roti variant and finishing my beer, I decided to call it an early night and head back to my hotel, as my scheduled Golden Triangle Road Trip the following morning would pretty much occupy the entire day and part of the evening.

Mae Khachan Hot Springs, Our First Stop on the Golden Triangle Day Trip

Cooking Eggs in the 80 Degrees C Hot Springs
Bamboo Shoots Also Cooked in the Hot Springs
In the morning I had a quick bite of breakfast in the form of some slices of marble pound cake and a can of chilled coffee with milk and sugar (a taste first acquired at a local 'kissaten' tea & coffee shop in Kyoto during my years-earlier solo trip to Japan) from the 7-Eleven down the street, after which I headed to Top North's lobby to wait for our van and guide to arrive so we could start our Golden Triangle Day Trip. Three other people who had also signed up for the all-day combined road and boat trip were already there when I arrived shortly before the 8:30 am departure time. One was a solo male travel from Germany and the other two were a middle-aged couple, the husband originally hailing from Taiwan and his wife being an American Caucasian. The husband was quite friendly, bubbly and very talkative, with the wife also friendly but decidedly more reserved than the husband. Right on time, a white van pulled up in front of the hotel and our guide for the day entered the lobby to greet us and confirm with the Top North Travels and Tours representative the number of people for today's tour. As we took our seats in the van, our guide introduced us to our driver and a Thai girl that looked to be in her mid-twenties who was training to be a tour guide and was riding along with us as an observer. 

The first stop on our Golden Triangle Day Trip was the Mae Khachan Hot Springs & Geyser, which is located about 43 miles northeast of Chiang Mai via Route 118 in Chiang Rai province. As we passed the boundary between Chiang Mai province and Chiang Rai province, our route took us through the southern portion of Khun Chae National Park. As the road began to wind its way into the wooded hills and we started to gain a bit of elevation, what looked to be flowering wild orchids were occasionally seen hanging from the lower tree branches just beyond the shoulder of the road beneath the shade of the leafy canopy. I was quite impressed with the quality of the roadway, whose tarmac surface had the appearance of having been recently re-paved with bright lane dividing lines and shoulder lines. During our prior year's trip to Burma, we had traveled by car from Pagan (Bagan) to Naungshwe, on the northeastern shore of Inle Lake in Burma's eastern Shan State. Though the hilly, wooded terrain we had transited through during our ascent into the Shan Plateau was similar to that we were drive through en route to the hot spring, the Burmese road traveled had been poorly-maintained and much rougher, with the thin, well-worn tarmac dotted with potholes and fallen rocks freed from the flanking embankments by the elements over time, and one particular low-lying stretch reduced to bare dirt studded with exposed rocks and thin eroded troughs left by flowing water, perhaps due to a flash flood at some point.

Upon our arrival to Mae Khachan, the first order of business was a needed rest stop. The restrooms we used (at least the Men's Room), while having fully-tiled floors and individual stalls with lockable doors, were 'Thai rustic' in nature with the attendant Asian squatty-potties, waste baskets for used toilet paper and water troughs with handled plastic buckets for bail flushing after one did their business.  In addition to a geyser (which our guide chose not to lead us out to, perhaps because our arrival time did not align with schedule of when the geyser periodically spouts?), Mae Khachan contains three hot spring ponds roughly 3 meters in diameter which were encircled by low rock walls in addition to local sections of metal fencing. The hot springs are said to maintain a water temperature of about 80 degrees C, which is hot enough to boil an egg in roughly three minutes. As we walked around the hot spring pools, there were a couple of Thai women lowering bundles of bamboo shoots and small woven baskets of eggs into the thermal pools with long bamboo poles, presumably to sell to the visiting tourists. The hot springs in the region contain sulfur, magnesium and other natural elements which are beneficial for the skin and blood circulation, and provide relief for aching muscles and the alleviation of stress. Mae Khachan also had foot baths filled with flowing hot spring water as well as a couple of bathing pools for those travelers desiring to soak their bodies in the hot springs to take advantage of its healing properties. As Mae Khachan is a regularly-scheduled stopover on tours to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, there were the expected assortment of eateries and souvenir shops selling local woven cotton garments, wood carvings and such. We spent perhaps twenty minutes or so strolling amid the hot spring pools, after which we got back on the road.

A Young Nursing Mother at an Akha Village Near Chiang Rai
An Akha Girl with the Common 'Hanging Coins' Headdress 
Leaving the Mae Khachan Hot Springs, the next leg of our journey was a roughly 73 mile drive up to the city of Chiang Rai. The route took us first due north along Route 118, providing us with scenery that varied from small, rural towns, crop fields and rice paddies, to stretches of windy roads through wooded hills, and then northeast to merge onto Route 1 on the outskirts of the city. At one point on this leg of the journey, the talkative Taiwanese gentleman with an apparent interest in commercial agricultural spotted some type of orchard just beyond a few warehouse-like buildings in the distance off to the right. "It that a commercial farm out there? Can we pull over so I can take a picture of it?", he asked our guide excitedly, who then exchanged some words with the driver in Thai. As the gentleman snapped a few photos of the distant scene the was likely too far away to reveal any appreciable details when captured with the limited zoom of a point-and-shoot 35mm and viewed as a standard sized photo while asking the guide about what he was seeing, I took a sip from my water bottle and took stock of how many shots I had on my current roll of 35mm and how many rolls I had left in my small sling pack.

Founded by King Mangrai in 1262 and established the capital of the Mangrai Dynasty, though subsequently conquered and ruled by Burma for several hundred years, Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city in Thailand. Chiang Rai is situated at an elevation of 1,280 feet on a flat alluvial plain of the Kok River (a tributary of the Mekong River) between the Daen Lao Range in the north and the Phi Pan Nam Range in the south. A stop in Chiang Rai proper was not on our itinerary, hence our glimpse of the city was limited to a drive-by through the neighborhoods on its fringes en route to an Akha hill-tribe village on the outskirts of the city, which was the next stop on our itinerary. After a few turns onto side roads that took us through increasingly sparse residential neighborhoods of Chiang Rai, we briefly traveled along a rural stretch of recently-paved tarmac and soon pulled over onto a wide dirt shoulder on the right side on the road, beyond which down a short, shallow embankment our destination awaited us. Originating in China, the Akha are an indigenous hill-tribe who live in small villages at higher elevations in the mountains of northern Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, northwestern Vietnam, North East India and Yunnan Province in southwestern China as ethnic minorities. They speak Akha, a tonal language in the Loloish (Yi) branch of the Tibeto-Burman family that is closely related to Lisu hill-tribe language. As a migratory ethnic group, the Akha became established in eastern Burma as early as the 1860's, and first entered Thailand from Burma at the turn of the 20th-century, many having fled the decades-long civil war in Burma. The traditional form of subsistence for the Akha people has been agriculture, growing crops including soybeans and vegetables historically by slash-and-burn farming, with rice (mainly dry-land rice, which depends solely on rainfall for moisture, but also some water paddy field cultivation) being the most significant crop in Akha culture and ritual. Historically, some Akha villages cultivated opium, but that practice has been mostly eradicated by the Thai government and replaced with legitimate crops such as Arabica coffee beans.

Unlike the hillside Karen hill-tribe village that that we had trekked to and spent the night in, this particular Akha hill-tribe village was located in an area that was lacking any hills per se, save for it being situated below the level of the road, and the gradual declining slope leading down into a grove of trees behind the village suggesting a stream bed or a wash nearby. At first glance, as we exited the van and made our way down the short, reddish earthen path leading to the entrance of the village, at one point passing through a wooden rectangular arch that spanned the trail, my initial impression was that it seemed too touristy to be anywhere near authentic. It felt like the low-stilted, bamboo-walled and thatched-roof village homes with narrow verandas mixed with a the odd stilted house fabricated with wood siding and corrugated tin roofs had been disassembled and relocated from their original location and reassembled here for the easy access by visiting tourists. My next thought was that perhaps Akha craftsmen were brought in to recreate an authentic Akha village using traditional materials, tools and methods to showcase Akha culture and provide a quick 'hill-tribe experience' to tourists without any strenuous trekking or off-road vehicle trips involved, much like the Sarawak Cultural Village's recreation of the traditional tribal homes of the various ethnic minority tribes indigenous to Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, which I would subsequently visit with our daughter in 2007. (I would later see a documentary on human trafficking and child prostitution near the Thai-Burma border involving ethnic minority hill-tribe girls from Burma, Thailand, Laos and Yunnan province in southern China coerced or sold into prostitution. In the documentary, some file footage of Hillary Clinton and her entourage visiting an Akha village in Thailand during an official tour of select countries in Southeast Asia was included, and while watching it, I recognize the entrance path that they walked down - as filmed from the village looking up - as the same village that we had visited.) 

The village was comprised of a few rustic homes facing the arriving tourists, with some additional homes behind them that established the village (authentic or not) as a smallish one. To the left of the front-facing homes was a long, thatched roof-coveted patio to the left of the front homes serving as a souvenir shop offering a variety of ornate Akha head dresses festooned with hanging old coins and small silver bangles, shells and beads, and colorful fuzzy pompoms, hand-woven and dark navy blue or black-dye Akha clothing in the former of embroidered jackets, skirts and leggings, jewelry, wood carvings including the hollow wooden frogs with ribbed backs that produce the loud, soon-annoying croaking sound when lightly stroked with a wooden stick (which can be found in abundance at the Chiang Mai Night Market), and such. Most of the villagers seen were petite females, two of which, perhaps their early twenties, were wearing variations of the traditional Akha head dress. One of the women was a young mother with the bottom hem of the printed T-shirt that she wore over a tradition skirt pulled up and rolled into the neckline to expose both her full breasts as she nursed her baby girl. There was old Akha auntie of an undetermined advanced age smoking a pipe, and a young girl in Western clothing sitting near the auntie's side that I assumed to be her granddaughter or perhaps a great granddaughter. The two male Akha villagers seen were a middle-aged man and a young boy in Western clothes. 

Our guide then asked our small group to follow him on decidedly abbreviated tour of the village as our guide-in-training shadowed us within earshot and observed. We were first taken over to near the entrance the village where we had earlier passed through the wooden rectangular arch over the trail, which was made from narrow wooden beams with the top beam long enough to cantilever a ways beyond the vertical beams on both ends, giving it a form like a minimalist interpretation of a Japanese 'Tori gate'. At the base of each gate upright post was a small carved wooden figure of roughly human form staked to the ground (one figure representing male and the other representing female for each gate), positioned just in front of each post as one enters the village. Our guide explained that these wooden figurines are symbolic protective deities meant to guard the village against evil spirits (and bad luck) by keeping them at bey on the far side of the 'spirit gate' that separates the realm of the human from that of the spirits, in line with the Akha's spiritual belief system that mixes animism with ancestor worship. Our guide provided us with some background on the Akha hill-tribe's history and culture, but surprisingly did not take us on a guided walk-through of one of the village homes to point out the noteworthy aspects of Akha traditional houses, domestic life or deeper insights into the culture. This was something I was kind of hoping for, something that had also omitted by our guide during my overnight stay in the Karen village during the two-day trek. Our guide then said that we were free to walk around the village on our own for about 15 minutes, and then meet back up at the van to continue on.

Heading back to the Akha homes at the front of the village, I figured I'd shoot some photos to capture some of the village's local color. The young nursing Akha mother was still holding her suckling baby girl who wore a small, cap-like variant of the Akha headdress, shifting her baby between the two milk-engorged breasts exposed beneath the rolled up and tucked T-shirt as she continued to nurse. Though she was not in full traditional Akha attire, the image of the young hill-tribe mother, holding her baby to her breast and gazing down at her with a sweet smile of love and pride, still conveyed to me a bit of that 'National Geographic' sense of exotic wonder to it, causing me to flash back to my childhood when I would gaze through the pages of old National Geographic magazines with colorized black and white photos, or thumb through boxes loaded with old Viewmaster discs in their paper slip covers and select one to slide into the viewer and flip the lever to advance through the richly-colored images of far-off lands and exotic cultures that I might be able to one day visit for myself. I began to raise the camera in anticipation of asking her (maybe through our guide as a translator if need be, or even merely pointing first to her, and then to my camera with a smile to pantomime my request) if it would be okay if I took a photo of her nursing her baby, though wondering if, should I be given permission to take the photo, the photo developing shop or drug store I take the roll of film to would even print the photo, possibly refusing to print it because the subject matter violates some company guidelines? The nursing Akha girl, seeing me looking in her direction with a camera held in the low-ready position, appeared to become a bit self-conscious and removed the rolled bottom of her T-shirt from the neckline and lowered it to shroud both the breast being suckled and the one at the ready on standby. Seeing a chance for a possible sale, the nursing mother then picked up a few souvenirs in the form of what looked to be swaddled Akha baby dolls at the ends of loops of red and violet strings to make them suitable as hanging decorations. Having watched what would have been a prime photo opportunity quickly devolve into something much less inspiring (and even a bit cheesy) was a real let-down, though I decided to still go ahead and take a photo anyway with a smile so as to be polite, thanking her in Thai afterwards (at that point, the only word or phrase I had learned in the Akha language was 'U-doo tow mah', which is 'Hello', which I had picked up while chatting with some Akha wandering vendor girls down on Bangkok's Khaosan Road.) I turned to notice the Caucasian wife of the Taiwanese gentleman looking down at the LCD preview screen of her digital camera, and walked over to her, commenting that unfortunately I had missed out on a good photo opportunity with the nursing Akha mother. "Actually, I managed to get the shot when she wasn't looking...", she said as she rotated the camera so that I could see the LCD image. It looked as though the Akha mother had sensed that a photo was being taken of her, as her eyes had shifted in the woman's direction although her head had still been angled down towards her baby, and her mouth had transitioned from a motherly smile to a more neutral expression the instant the photo had been taken. It was still a good photo in my opinion, though not exactly the one I had envisioned capturing when I saw the opportunity, and I had to admit that I was a bit jealous that she had captured it and I hadn't.

Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, in the Town of Chiang Saen

Ruins at Wat Phra That Chedi Luang
The Shrine at Wat Phra That Chedi Luang
Our Young Guide-in-Training Enjoys Some Sticky Rice Cooked in Bamboo
Leaving the Akha village, we made our way back out onto Route 1 and continued north as more now-familiar views of rice paddies, rural homes and small hamlets passed by, then exited onto Route 1016 in the vicinity of Thanchanok Village and took a northwesterly heading toward the town of Chiang Saen. Following the Chiang Saen traffic circle (which featured a large statue in the form of a lotus bud culminating in four elephant heads with raised trunks) in a clockwise direction at the intersection with Route 1219 where Route 1016 becomes alternately known as Phaholyothin Road as it enters the town, we shortly arrived at the entrance to Wat Phra That Chedi Luang. Located in Chiang Rai province on the banks of the Mekong River across from the Democratic Republic of Laos, the town of Chiang Saen was founded in 1329 by Saen Phu, who was one of the grandsons of King Mangrai, the ruler that established Chiang Mai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (1296–1558). When the Lanna Kingdom came under Burmese occupation (from the 1558 on), Chiang Saen became a Burmese stronghold, though due to continual wars between the Burmese and the combined Lannanese & Siamese forces, Chiang Saen became completely abandoned during decades leading up to 1800. By 1804 Chiang Saen came under Siamese control after a military conquest, with Siamese King Rama I ordering the destruction of the town with the exception of the religious sites, with all inhabitants forced to relocate. The re-foundation of Chiang Saen occurred in 1881, becoming repopulated due to immigration of settlers from Chiang Mai, Lampang and Lamphun. Located along Route 1290 (Rimkong Road), Chiang Saen Port is the northernmost port in Thailand, and is an important entrepĂ´t for Thailand's trade with the southern provinces of China, Myanmar and Laos on the upper part of Mekong River, with the Kuan Lei Port in China located 265 km upriver, and cargo transported overland out of Chiang Saen Port via Route 1, linked by Routes 1016 and 1290.

The Wat Phra That Chedi Luang stupa is located in the center of old Chiang Saen town. Build in the early 1300's and situated in a peaceful setting amid a shady grove dotted with broad-leaf teak trees, the main chedi reflects the Lanna style and, at a height of 18 meters, is the tallest Buddhist monument in the area in addition to being one of the oldest, with the name Chedi Luang translating to 'large chedi' in Thai. Having withstood invasions, earthquakes and flooding over the years, the remaining stone structures around the base of the chedi were in varying states of ruin that, with some being beneath the shady of the tree canopy, were partially covered in a green veil of moss and creeper vines. The vibe of Chedi Luang reminded me a bit of my visit to Ayutthaya's Wat Si Samphet, where a green tree snake wrapped around a chameleon had fallen out of a tree directly behind me and nearly hit me on the head during a day trip from Bangkok prior to leaving for Chiang Mai (covered in my previous blog post). To the east of the main chedi was the ruins of the Wat's vihara (call a 'wihan' in Thai) temple and monk's quarters structure, of which some sections of red brick wall were still standing, with a pavilion-styled, multi-tiered roofed structure made of wood, large cylindrical teak columns, corrugated tin roofing and hanging tarps erected over the ruins to protect them from the elements. Inside the vihara in front of one of the still-standing brick walls was an altar, upon which was three large gilded seated Buddha statues in a row together with some flower offerings, and behind them a larger main seated Buddha statue. In front of the altar was a shrine with a smaller seated Buddha statue and flowers, and to both sides of it rectangular metal bins filled with sand into which lit incense sticks bundled in groups of three (symbolic of the Three Gems representing the Buddha, the Dharma - meaning the teachings of the Buddha - and the Sangha - meaning the monks) or alternately bundled in groups of nine (symbolic of good luck and considered auspicious in Chinese culture) as offerings of devotion. Our guide briefly spoke about the history of the chedi and vihara, and then gave us some time to wander the grounds on our own to take photos before heading back to the van. While I wait back at the van for the rest of the rest of our group to return, our guide-in-training snacked on some sticky rice steamed inside a length of hollow bamboo stalk. With the return of the others, we exited the Chedi Luang compound and turned right on Route 1016 and, as the Mekong River came into view, turned left on Route 1290 to begin the waterborne leg of our excursion into the Golden Triangle. 

The Chiang Saen Port Landing on the Bank of the Mekong River Across from Laos

Ready to Board a Long-Tail Boat for a Cruise Up the Mekong River to Laos and the Golden Triangle

Arriving at the Dock for Donexao Village, Laos for a 45-Minute Stop at the Market



The Donexao Market, with Bottles of Cobra and Medicinal Herbs Rice Whiskey for Sale

A Lao Vendor Woman Selling Laotian Silk Dresses
Some Vacant Shops in the Donexao Market
A Rustic Village Home Behind the Market

Our van pulled into a parking lot overlooking the Mekong River and came to a stop near a wooden booth flanked by some tall pruned hedges and a few shade trees. We exited the van and cued up at the booth to pay our 300 Baht fee per person for transit by long-tail boat from Chiang Saen to the center of the Golden Triangle, the spot in the river that was said to be precisely where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand came together, with a brief 45-minute stop in the Laotian border village of Donexao, which is an island on the Lao side of the river just off the northern bank of the Mekong. Prior the leaving the lobby of the Top North Hotel earlier that morning, our guide confirmed that we all had either our passports or a photo copy of the passport page with our personal information and validity dates with us, as that would be required to get our temporary entry permit into Laos, which thus eliminated the need for applying for a Lao visa at the embassy in Bangkok beforehand. The downside of the temporary Lao entry was that there would be no entry/exit stamp (nor Lao Embassy visa stamp) on a passport page to show that you had actually visited Laos. When my turn at the window came, I handed over my proof of valid passport and three 100-Baht notes, and received a thin, off-white slip of newsprint-quality paper with a weakly-stamped black ink cartoon depiction of a riverboat and the words 'ME KONG BOAT PASS' to serve as evidence, along with whatever photos I took, that I had actually been to Laos, however so briefly. After we had all paid for our passage, our guide rejoined us and handed us faded red life jackets to put on, then led us over to the inclined ramp that cut a path down the concrete-paved, stair-stepped landing that extended both up and downstream for some distance from where we stood which accommodated the smaller boats that traveled the river. Further upriver in the distance to the left were larger boats that ferried passengers and cargo back and forth between Laos and Thailand, or handled river traffic from further upstream in Burma and China. Our guide then pointed me to my boat, of which I would be the sole passenger along with the pilot, who would sit aft of me with a hand extended behind him on the throttle/extended rudder handle to pivot the Chinese outboard motor's long propeller shaft side-to-side to steer our boat, or push down on said rudder handle to bring the propeller out of the water as needed. Before I boarded the boat, my guide had me hand him my camera so that he could take a picture of me on the Thai side of the Mekong River, with Laos and my boat in the background.

I carefully stepped into my boat, which rocked back in forth in response to my added weight, and settled into the wooden bench seat, placing my small day pack between my legs. The boat sat fairly low in the water, with the slender, pointed bow arching up above the water to block the center of my view. The pilot untied the long-tail boat from the dock and push us away from from it using a wooden pole, causing the boat to move slowly both sideways and backwards as the bow was facing upriver into the oncoming slower current near the bank. With the ignition switch pressed, the small car engine that drove the four-blade propeller at the end of the long submerged shafts coughed and growled to life, causing the surface of the waters aft on the boat to churn slightly as the blades beneath the brown water lazily rotated at idle speed. Pivoting the throttle hand to direct the propeller towards the center of the river and giving it a twist abruptly raised the sound of the motor to an authoritative whining roar, producing a jolt of acceleration and vibrations through the wooden hull and up my legs via the soles of my boots as a fishtail of slightly off-white water froth and spray erupted behind the boat as we quickly got underway, with the pilot steered us towards the center of the river. Once roughly midway between the Thai and Lao banks, the whine of the motor increased in pitch with a corresponding increase in wind-over-deck as the high-pitched hiss of water speeding past the hull grew louder. With our speed bringing the bow of the boat further out of the water and the breeze in the center of the river increasing the height of the ripples on the surface (occasionally producing whitecaps), the front of the boat began to rhythmically porpoise on the water, seemingly rising and floating above the surface for a couple of seconds, followed by a dip ending in a hard slap against the water that was conveyed to the passenger as an abrupt impact, both through the low wooden bench seat and to the lower back through the vertical wooden slats that served as setbacks and structural supports, despite the cushion provided by the life jacket. These cyclical impacts were greatly exaggerated a number of times as we would cross through part of the V-shaped wake of a passing boat, especially if it were a larger one carrying passengers and cargo, with more of our boat coming higher out of the water with a hang time of three to five seconds and the subsequent impacts hard enough to elicit grunts of pain. The riparian scenery that drifted past as we made our way up into the Golden Triangle provided snippets of everyday life along the Mekong: passengers and cargo transiting up and down the river in boats of various types and sizes; farmers tending paddy fields in the shallows along the bank and crop fields further back from the shore backed by rural stilted houses built from bamboo beams, woven cane wall panels and thatched roofs amid large leafy tree and lush foliage; locals fishing at the water's edge with hand lines, long bamboo poles with a length of line, rod and reel or a throwing net on the end of a rope out into the river; people bathing, doing laundry or washing dishes in the river as children swim and frolic nearby, and farmers lead their water buffalo to water.

Further upstream, after we passed a lengthy stretch of shoreline comprised of nearly unbroken tree cover and dense undergrowth and a channel that forked off from the river and coursed into the thick of it, I saw ahead in the distance some open land with a few structures and a number of boats docked at the edge of a shallow embankment. The pilot throttled back to slow our approach as more details revealed themselves as my boat closed in on our interim destination of Donexao, a Laotian island in the Mekong River separated from the shore by a narrow channel, just enough separation that visiting tourist could sample Laos without the added expense and investment of time to apply for and receive an official Laos travel visa. As we came closer, I could see a few Laotian flags flying to let one know which side of the river they were on, and a set of wooden steps leading down from roughly midway up the sloped bank to a small floating wooden dock, adjacent to which some passengers were in the process of climbing out of a tied up long-tail boat, whose propeller dangled above the water on the end of its raised shaft, and onto the dock. After the last of the passengers left the boat, it was cast off and pushed away with the assistance of someone manning the dock as the pilot, once clear of the dock, lowered his propeller beneath the surface, started the engine and cleared the way for us to dock. My pilot maintained just enough throttle to allow us to creep forward against the weak oncoming current adjacent to the bank, and just seconds before the dock-hand had grabbed the bow in preparation to secured us for docking, cut the engine and allowed our waning momentum to bring us within the dock-hand's reach.

Holding onto the side of the boat with my right hand and supporting my weight against the wooden seat with the left hand, I pulled myself out of the low, bent knee sitting position, removing my life jacket and placing it on my seat and grabbed my day back as the dock-hand extended his hand so as to steady me as I carefully stepped out of the boat, which responded with a rock to any movement or shifting of my weight. I headed to the right end of the dock, where a dirt path led past some parked long-tail boats to some steps leading up the short, shallow embankment. At the top of the stairs, a dirt path led to a rectangular grassy area dotted with trees and flanked around its perimeter by a series of veranda-styled vendor stalls made of bamboo and thatched peaked roofs whose facing bamboo beams extended beyond the intersection the the peak to form a V-shape above the crest of the roof. The collection of rustic-looking structures reflective of the old-school Lao/Lana Thai style, most of which seemed to be vacant and one having a crack in its concrete pad flooring repaired as I walked by, made up the Donexao village tourist market. Near the vendor stall closest to the dock was a blue-rimmed rust-hued sign with both Lao and English written in white that read 'Welcome to Laos'. There was another sign near the side entrance to the market in French with white letter on an orange background to let those who speak and read the mother tongue of the former colonial masters (Laos having come under French control in 1893 and became part of Indochina in 1899) that they were presently in the village of Donexao, Bokeo province, in the People's Democratic Republic of Lao. As I was standing by the sign, our guide walked by and asked if I wanted my picture taken in front of it, to which I said yes so as to be able to show that I was there, at least briefly. Most of my time on the island was spent strolling from stall to stall and browsing through what the vendors, all of which were females of varying ages, had to offer. The items for sale included Lao cotton and silk sarongs, folded lengths of hand-woven fabrics with patterns reflecting Lao motifs, various wood carvings including figurines of Lao villagers in traditional rural attire, handmade jewelry, packs of postcards showing a mix of natural scenery, Lao culture in the form of a couple posing in traditional costumes worn for special formal occasions, famous landmarks such as old temples, pagodas and large carved Buddhas, Lao monks walking in line to collect alms from the public and such, sealed cellophane bags containing old Lao currency that no longer had any monetary value (presumably pre-Pathet Lao or French colonial period?) and bottles of the local 'lancau' fermented glutenous rice whiskey. Of course, the most intriguing items were the bottles of high-proof 'sticky rice' moonshine containing a small, coiled cobra with its head and upper body with its hood puffed out in a defensive posture, with a variety of medicinal roots such as ginseng and assorted plant parts included in the bottle to infuse the already potent hooch with added wondrous powers said to improve strength, virility and endurance, with the phrase 'It's good for your manhood' often used to summarize the benefits of the resulting elixir. I had first seen the critter-infused hard liquor during our prior trip to Burma in the form of a bottle of a bottle of rice whiskey containing a black scorpion in a gift shop in suburban Rangoon, and some years later during a trip to northern Vietnam would see a bottle of rice whiskey containing a cobra holding a scorpion in its mouth by the tail. (More recently, I came across a video on YouTube featuring the Donexao market, and at the time of the filming, the travel V-blogger host was able to purchase a shot of cobra rice whiskey, and even a beating cobra heart in a shot of rice whiskey to down, at one of the vendor stalls.) I considered buying a small bottle of Lao cobra whiskey as a souvenir, but wasn't sure if US Customs would allow it through if they deemed a pickled dead cobra an 'Endangered Species', and decided against it. Losing interest in the market and seeing by my watch that it was almost time to head back to the boat, I walked beyond the far end of the market to have a quick look-see, taking a photo of a rustic Lao home before returning to the dock to continue upriver into the infamous Golden Triangle region, which throughout the 1960's to early 1990's supplied most of the world’s heroin, and with the eradication of most of the opium poppies in the region, continues to manufacture (particularly in Burma) and supply the regional illicit drug market with 'yaba' methamphetamine pills.

Burma's Paradise Casino as Viewed from a Long-tail Boat on the Mekong River
A View of the Center of the Golden Triangle From the Thai Side in the Town of Sop Ruak 
Some Lahu Hill-Tribe Girls Pose in Front of the Golden Triangle Sign
Our Buffet Meal in Sop Ruak Before the Drive to Mae Sai on the Burma Border
I slipped my life jacket back on and resumed my extended legs, bent knees position in the low wooden seat of the long-tail boat, and a moment later we were pushed away from the dock and got quickly underway, leaving an arching rooster-tail and a V-shaped trail of white froth on the surface of the Mekong's latte-colored water in our wake. We stayed in the center of the river as we followed its course upstream, then veered to the right to follow the wider part of the river as it forked around a low sandbar ahead. As we rounded the sandbar, the pilot throttled back to just a bit above the long-tail outboard's idle RPM rate until our forward speed was nearly at parity with the opposing current. The pilot then emitted a grunt to get my attention, causing me to look back over my shoulder at him. He then extended his right hand and pointed his index finger towards the far bank off the starboard side of the boat. "Lao...", he said to indicate which country's border I was looking at. "Burma...", he next said as he pointed off the forward port side of the boat. "Thailand...", he finally said as he pointed back off the aft port side of the boat across the sandbar that we had just inched past and to the far bank of the Ruak River, which forms a portion of the border between Burma and Thailand and empties into the Mekong River at the center of the Golden Triangle. He then twisted the throttle as he slewed the long-tail outboard slightly to port, advancing us towards the Burmese side of the Triangle where, some distance back from the bank, a large standing Buddha statue painted gold stood a benevolent and mindful watch over the river. A bit further upriver, the pilot brought us to a near-stop against the current close to the shore for a view of Burma's Paradise Casino, apparently a popular destination for Burmese, Thais and Chinese gamblers. He then goosed the throttle and quickly brought us around in the direction of the Thai side of the Triangle and made a B-line for the landing on the banks of the small Thai town of Sop Ruak, which overlooks the convergence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, and is where we would be having lunch before the drive to the city of Mae Sai on the Thai-Burma border.

Our guide, driver and the other members of the group were waiting at the landing as we docked, and before lunch we were driven a short distance to a Vista point that provided a good view for photos of the center of the Golden Triangle. Our guide in turn took the cameras of each member of our group to snap a picture of each of us standing in front of a hanging rectangular sign that read 'THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE' in both Thai and English, next to which was another sign showing a rather crudely depicted and not-to-scale 'FIVE COUNTRIES TOURIST MAP' (also printed in both Thai and English) that included the 'other triangles' where the borders of Burma, Laos and China come together further up the Mekong River (with an implied river confluence at the border 'triple point' that doesn't quite jive with the present day map, though the borderlines between China and Laos may have changed since the tourist map was created), and further east depicts the point where the borders of China, Laos and Vietnam meet. After my photo beneath the Golden Triangle sign was taken, I moved away so that the others in our group (not to mention the other assembled tourists) could similarly have their pictures taken and positioned myself so that I could snap of photo of three hill-tribe girls, whose bright, colorful traditional costumes that incorporated fluffy pom-poms and dangling pieces of silver jewelry in the headdress suggested that they were members of the Lahu ethnic minority, that were standing in the vicinity of the sign and tourist map. After everyone had finished taking their photos overlooking the center of the Golden Triangle, we boarded our van and drove a short distance further to an open air-styled buffet restaurant housed in a building with a high peaked ceiling whose center support beams were shrouded in what looked to be teak logs that had seemed to have been bored out and turned for skim cutting on a large lathe for decorative purposes. The steam tray offerings for lunch included the standard fare that visiting Westerners would be familiar with from visiting the Thai restaurants in their hometowns and cities, such as pad Thai noodles, green coconut chicken curry, pineapple fried rice, papaya salad and such, though the food was quite good and the table that our small group was directed to afforded a decent view of the Mekong River at the center of the Triangle.

The View of the Daen Lao Mountain Range Along Route 1 Near Mae Sai
Burmese Street Vendors Working Near the Border in Mae Sai

The Mae Sai Customs Checkpoint Near the Burma Border
Following a dessert of sliced tropical fruits, we got back in the van for the drive to Mae Sai, a border city on the bank of the Sai River (which is a tributary of the Ruak River, with the convergence of the two rivers occurring at what appears to be the actual northernmost point of Thailand based on a review of a Google Maps satellite image) across from the Burmese city of Tachileik, and whose claim to fame is containing the northernmost point in Thailand. We pulled onto Route 1290 heading north, briefly shadowing the west bank of the Ruak River before diverting to the northwest of it through some wooded hills that opened up to stretches of rice paddies, crop fields and rural houses broken up by stands of trees, with a backdrop of taller mountains in the distance. As we turned right onto Route 1 (a.k.a., Phahonyothin Road, though also known as Asian Highway 2), which for visiting tourists is the de facto main drag through Mae Sai as it leads to the Thai border checkpoint and the bridge that crosses the Sai River into Burma, the picturesque, serrated ridge-lines of the Daen Lao mountain range's eastern flanks visible from the roadway particularly intrigued the group, with the collective ooh's and aah's evoked prompting our driver to briefly pull to a stop on the shoulder so that we can take a few photos. We followed Route 1, a divided road with the one-way northbound lane on the left side of the median and the southbound lane on the right, in the direction of the border checkpoint building. Spaced at intervals of several blocks along Route 1 / Phahonyothin Road are perpendicular paved turn-outs between the divided road sections that allow U-turns for those needing to change direction in order to get to their desired side-street. In lieu of the numbered 'Soi' naming convention used to designate the side-streets off of the main roads that I had become accustomed to while in Thailand, the smaller side-streets off Route 1 are designated as numbered 'Thetsaban' alleys (e.g., Thetsaban 7 Alley, Thetsaban 22 Alley), with the odd-numbered Thetsaban alleys extending outward from the west (northbound) side of Route 1, and the even-numbered ones extending out from the east (southbound) side. As we approached a point where the divided Route 1 road converges into a single two-way road that extends beneath the upper level of the Thai customs checkpoint building and continues a short distance north to cross the Sai River bridge into Burma, our driver used a turn-out to get us into the southbound lane, where a short distance down the road he took a left on Thetsaban 4 Alley and pulled into the parking lot of Mandalay Co., Ltd., a Burmese-owned jewelry shop.


Burmese Jewelers Working at a Jewelry Shop in Mae Sai


Burma is world-renowned for its high-quality precious gemstones, particularly rubies (including the famed "pigeon's blood" deep bluish-red rubies), sapphires and jade (including imperial jadeite), in addition to its semiprecious stones such as spinel, apatite, scapolite, moonstone, zircon, garnet, iolite and amethyst. The high quality rubies and sapphires are mined from the Mogok Stone Tract, located near the town Mogok in the Mandalay region, which is also the source for much of Burma's semiprecious stones. Jade and imperial jadeite is mostly mined from the hills of Kachin State (province) in Northern Myanmar, with the town of Hpakant being the most famous mining area. Myanmar supplies close to 90% of the world’s rubies, and many fine sapphires, spinels, and jadeite on the market originate from Myanmar as well, with the export of gems constituting a major revenue source for this impoverished country and forming one of its key exports.

We entered the jewelry shop through the side entrance, which opened up into the workshop area of the jewelry shop, and were met by one of the employees, an attractive and slender Burmese girl with long, straight black hair, facial features and a lighter complexion suggestive of possible ethnic Shan or Kachin bloodlines, and wearing a long sleeve white blouse over a stylish silk longyi sarong, who would be giving us a quick tour of the shop. There were four employees working as we passed through, all of them Burmese and wearing at least a thin layer of yellow thanaka powder (the natural Burmese astringent and sunblock made by rubbing a piece of dried thanaka tree branch on a wet grinding stone with a circular trough to collect the resulting paste) on the face or the sides of the neck. The guys were in the process of setting stones into pieces of jewelry, and the girls (perhaps due to an assumed higher degree of patience and attention to detail?) appeared to be lapping and polishing the cut facets on some gemstones secured to some sort of temporary holder substrate so that they could position and push the gemstones against the lapping and polishing wheels. Most of the employees had their legs extended with their bare feet resting elevated beneath their respective work stations, with their flip-flop style sandals sitting on the floor next to them, and not a single pair of shatterproof safety glasses to be seen among the group (which would have been considered a gross violation of the California State Occupational Health and Safety guidelines, I might add). We briefly watched them work and snapped some photos, after which we were led to a room that served as a mini museum-cum-educational center meant to enlighten visitors about Burma's gem resources and industry. In teak wood and glass display cases, samples of the various gemstone that are mined in Burma were exhibited in both raw, as-extracted form as a sectioned piece of parent rock or sediment showing an exposed crystal or strata of the gem, and as a finished cut, faceted and polished gemstone. Also displayed were large monoliths of raw jade in shapes resembling miniature boulders, together with one that had been sectioned and polished, that allowed the visitors to see both the less-than-impressive appearance of the huge pieces of jade as the miners would see it when it's unearthed, and appreciate its crystalline grain structure and stunning beauty, not to mention reinforce its impressive size, after processing. Occupying a sizable chunk of wall opposite the entrance to the display room was a large, hand-painted map of Burma identifying the country's various States or provinces, major cities and towns, and color-coded regions on the map with labeled call-outs to show where the various gemstones and precious minerals are found and mined in the country. We were then welcomed to walk the the front showroom to browse through the jewelry for sale before heading back to the van.

Leaving the Mandalay Co., Ltd. jewelry shop, our driver was able to quickly get over to a nearby turn-out just south of the shop and get us back to the northbound lane, where we soon pulled to a stopped on the left-hand curb near where the two divided lanes of Route 1 converge into one two-way road ahead of the border checkpoint. Before the group exited the van to begin exploring the neighborhood in the vicinity of the said 'Northernmost Point in Thailand', our guide told us that we would have about 20 minutes to walk around before returning to the van for the drive back to Chiang Mai. He next told us that we have the option to pay a roughly 200 Thai Baht fee if we want to cross over into Burma, but he would advise against it as the fee paid wouldn't be worth it as the temporary entry permit processing would require some time, resulting in very little time in-country. The process for a one-day pass for non-Burmese nationals crossing into Myanmar involved Myanmar customs officers in Tachileik confiscating the traveler's passport and issuing a temporary travel permit, which would be exchanged for the traveler's passport upon crossing back into Thailand. The members of the group agreed in unison with grunts and nods of the head that a border crossing wouldn't be worth the time. For me, a lack of time was not the deciding factor, as I had stayed behind in Thailand instead of going onto Burma with the other members of my family at the insistence of my mother-in-law, given the current political situation in Burma, the official sentiment there towards Americans, and family involvement in the National League For Democracy opposition movement. During the run-up to our trip, she had explicitly expressed during an evening phone call with family in Rangoon (made the old school way using a pre-paid phone calling card purchased at one of the nearby mom-and-pop Indian or Filipino grocery stores, where we were told that the particular USD $5 card bought gives the most minutes to Burma, India and Bangladesh after one first dials the company's main number, followed by the 12 or more digit calling card number beneath the opaque silver strip of gum adhesive that must be first scratched off by a coin or house key, followed by the country code, city code, and final the desired local number) that I should not even attempt to go into Burma on a temporary entry permit through one of the official Thai border crossings (Mae Sai in the north, Mae Sot in the central region, and Ranong in the south of Thailand, with the crossing into Burma made by boat). 

[Note: Foreigners living as expats in Thailand on a Tourist Visa may only do so for a continuous period of six months, at which time they must leave Thailand to be able to show the exit stamp from the Kingdom before re-entering the country for another six months. The Mae Sai/Tachileik border crossing was formerly a popular place for expats to do their 'visa runs'. Since the changes in Thai immigration policy in March 2016, crossing this border as a foreign national became highly depended on individual Thai customs officers as they have discretion. Additionally, I had read that visa runs have been no longer available as of May 2016.]

Exiting the van, I walked along the sidewalk in the direction of the border checkpoint building, passing shop fronts of businesses catering to the needs and wants of visiting tourists, with tables, racks and stands loaded with merchandise lining the sidewalk in front of the buildings minded by sales assistants to answer questions of prospective buyers and keep an eye on the merchandise. A sizable portion of the sidewalk associates, nearly all female, were Burmese based both on their features and the circles or rectangular streaks of yellow thanaka powder on their cheeks. Among the gifts and souvenirs for sale were potted artificial plants fashioned from tumbled and polished oval and teardrop-shaped stones secured to wire branches, which I had seen during earlier trips to Burma and figured were likely fabricated there for a very low outlay of money and brought across the border to be sold at a very handsome profit. Some of the Burmese sidewalk vendors would see me browsing through their shop's offerings and ask if there was something that I was interested in, to which I would respond in poorly-pronounced (and incorrectly Romanized here) Burmese, "Kay saw ma'shee bah boo, kyi yon may kyi dah beh." ('No worries, I'm only just looking.') This would generally evoke an expression of initial surprise, followed by a big smile and the question of who taught me to speak Burmese, to which I would respond that I learned it from my wife. In addition to the abundance of Burmese shopkeepers, at least in this section of Mae Sai, I also saw a lot of younger Burmese kids along the sidewalk during my stroll, assuming that some were likely the children of the Burmese shopkeepers. As we had arrived in Mae Sai later in the afternoon, I wondered how many were enrolled in local Thai schools, and because classes had ended for the day, they were free to be out playing or hanging out with friends, and how many were migrants that were not able to afford or attend school, and thus merely hung out on the streets to pass the time during the day. While I was chatting with one of the Burmese shopkeepers, one of the Burmese boys on the street heard me speaking a bit of Burmese, and as I resumed my walk in the direction of the customs checkpoint, he came up to me and asked me if I could give him some 'hmont boe', or snack money. Given that I only had a few larger Baht notes in my pocket, and knew that giving some money to one of the Burmese boys would soon bring others looking for the same sort of charitable offering, or 'dah-nah' as the Burmese Buddhist would call it, I decided to go with something that I had more of and was easier to distribute. I reached into my day pack and retrieved the Costco-sized resealable bag of beef jerky that was still roughly half-full, saying to the boy in Burmese, "Paesan ma'shee bah bu, tah bee may, a'may-tha chout hmont shee bah deh. Sah ma'lah?" ('I don't have money, but I do have a dried beef snack. Do you want to eat some?') "Hoe, sah chin deh." ('Yes, I want to eat some'), the boy replied. I pulled out one of the strips of beef jerky and broke off two pieces about 2 inches long, putting one in my mouth to chew while handing him the other. He put it in his mouth, and as he begin to chew a pleased expression formed across his face. "Sah lo yah lah?" ('Is it good to eat?'), I asked him. "Hoe. A'yah-tha kaun deh!" ('Yes, the flavor is good!'), he replied as he finished chewing. 

Other Burmese kids nearby had apparently been watching our exchange, and when they saw that I had given out something to eat, they began to walk over to see what it was. As I began to break of additional two inch pieces of savory beef jerry and hand them out to the smiling Burmese kids that had assembled around me, I started hearing young, excited voice proclaiming in Burmese how good this snack was, and it was being handed out by a Westerner who can speak some Burmese. At one point, a boy walked up to receive a piece of jerky, and before trying it, held it up to examine it. "Wet-tha chout lah?" ('Is it dried pork?'), he asked. "Wet-tha chout ma'hoe bah bu. A'may-tha chout bor" ('No, it's not dried pork, it's dried beef.'), I replied. He gave me a bit of a quizzical look for a second before asking, "Mus-lin lah?" ('Are you a Muslim?') I guess he figured my choice of beef jerky over pork jerky was do to religious restrictions. Within a short period of time, I had distributed the last of my beef jerky to the Burmese kids, which coincided with a little Burmese boy of perhaps age three or four coming up to me with his hand out. "Bama ma'shee bah bu, coan thwah bee..." ('There's no more left, it's all gone...') His eyes grew big and his expression changed to sadness as his lower lip started to quiver and tears began to form in the corners of his eyes, rolling down his cheeks as he began to softly sob. I felt bad for him so I dug through my day pack and found two Granola bars that I gave to him, which seemed to stop his crying and lift his spirits a bit. With the little Burmese boy's unintended sadness due to an empty bag of beef jerky thus remedied, I turned around and headed back down Route 1 towards the waiting tour van, as our time in Mae Sai had just about run out.

The Cabbages & Condoms Mini Mart on Route 118 That We Stopped At















Our roughly 4 hour and 15 minute excursion from Mae Sai back to Chiang Mai took us south along Route 1 through the city of Chiang Rai, where we then retraced the morning's journey in the opposite direction by getting back on Route 118 south of Chiang Rai, which at its southern end become Kaeonawarat Road and takes one across the Ping River in downtown Chiang Mai via the Nakhon Ping Bridge. Roughly two-thirds of the way from Mae Sai to Chiang Mai, motoring somewhere down Route 118 long after darkness had fallen (sunsets tends to happen pretty quickly in most of Southeast Asia, and as much of our ride back was in darkness, there was not much to see out the window in the rural environs), our guide briefly chatted with our driver in Thai, then announced to us in English that we would be making a brief bathroom stop. We pulled into the parking lot in front of a convenience store that had some other structure behind it suggesting a small restaurant and perhaps an inn. What caused me to chuckle was the name of the market: Cabbages and Condoms Mini Market. The yellow, white & Black English sign with red and blue letters had some Thai characters at the top, with two cartoon condoms with folded arms and smiling faces to the left in the sign's black border, and a winged and smiling Cupid condom with bow and arrow 'shooting its load' into a heart, and a live gecko lounging near-vertically, head-down stuck to the yellow portion of the sign. The interior of the establishment was generic convenience store, albeit with some traditional Thai snacks for sale along with the usual assortment of Western-inspired junk food. After using the rest room (Western urinals and sit-down toilets verses Asian squatty potties), I picked up some junk food items to supplement the remaining Granola bar I had from my pack a while back. I tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to snooze a bit on the last leg of the day's long drive back to the hotel, and as we finally drove back across the Route 118/Kaeonarawat Road bridge, the rippling reflection of Chiang Mai's city lights on the surface of the Ping River as we approached the eastern flank of the old city wall and moat became a much-welcomed sight.

Back at Top North Hotel, I ran up to my room to drop off my day pack and hat, then headed down Moon Muang Road to grab a beer and some conversation at Predator Bar. As I walked in and headed to the bar to order a beer, Chai saw me and came over to join me, again in her preferred attire of tight white cotton pants that hugged the contours of her slender yet shapely lower body, and a red pullover blouse. I ordered a Singha Beer for Chai and myself from Thom, who greeted me with a smile of familiarity from across the bar now that she, and most the other girls there that evening that I could recognize, had now seen me in here three times in the last four nights. Owner Gary seemed to have taken the night off, perhaps to take his Thai girlfriend Ann for a night out on the town, with bar manager Som assuming the helm for that evening, who stopped by to say hi with a somewhat flirtation smile while patting the back of my hand resting on the bar top with her hand a few times. When our beers arrived, Chai and I clanked our bottles together and said, "Choke dee!" (which is a toast in Thai meaning 'Good luck!'), then engaged in a bit of idle chit-chat as we sipped our beers and listened to the classic rock playing on the house sound system, me seated on a bar stool as Chai casually leaned at the bar. She occasional chatted with Thom and the other bar girls that occasionally drifted by and lingered by her side momentarily for a brief exchange in Thai, with their quick chats interrupted a time or two as the girl glanced at me with a sweet smile, then turned back to Chai and continued speaking in Thai with some shared giggles (all in good fun, I assumed).

At one point, Chai leaned across the bar to discuss something in Thai with Thom and Som, during which Naak, a sweet girl with long hair dyed light brown tied back in a single ponytail and her darker skin complexion suggesting she hails from northeastern Thailand, leaning in to listen after greeting me. As the ladies appeared to reach a consensus, Chai turned and told me that they are in need of a snack and that there's a restaurant not far down Moon Muang Road that has really good French fries, and that if I'm buying, one of the girls will walk down to pick up a large order than we can all share. As I was a bit hungry, I agreed and reached into the zippered thigh pocket in my cargo pants to retrieve the suggested amount of Baht to cover the order, and as I was doing buying, Naak agreed to do the flying and pickup the order. While we waited, I ordered another beer for Chai and myself, and as I was feeling a bit tired after the day's road trip, figured I would likely head back to the hotel after finishing my beer and call it an early night. As we were waiting for Naak to return with the fries, I noticed the Chai rubbed the back of her neck from time to time as she by my stool at the bar, and when I asked her about it she said that her neck was a little stiff, but when I suggested she might be more comfortable sitting, she dismissed the suggestion and said she preferred to stand. When Naak returned with the fries in a Styrofoam box, Thom opened it and, after squirting the contents of the ketchup packets into the lid portion of the box, set it on the bar next to where I was sitting along with a small pile of napkins. The girls converged on the fries, in turn grabbing a few and dabbing them in the ketchup before stepping back to let the next girl in. I waited until they all had grabbed some to eat before taking any, and after sampling a few I have to admit that the fries were pretty good. The bar that night was decidedly slower than it had been on my previous visits, and the pleasant beer buzz I had developed by that point combined with the lilting sounds of female Thai voices as the bar girls chatted and sometimes giggled among themselves (especially with the soothing and more melodic Chiang Mai/Northern Thai accent), and the classic rock favorite not heard in a long time that suddenly began to play in the background created the perfect laid back mood for chilling out after being on the road for most of the day. 

Chai again came over my bar stool and, setting her beer on the bar top, reached across casually to draped her arm over my left shoulder as she looked up at me with her sultry almond eyes and endearing closed-mouth smile and gave me an affectionate little hug, to which I slid my right hand down around her slender waist and gave her a little hug and smile in return. She took a sip of her beer, but as she set it back down, she winced a little in discomfort and again rubbed the back of her neck. As she had a habit of giving brief little shoulder massages when she would stand next to me at the bar over my prior visits to Predator Bar, I figured it was time to return the favor. The wicker and cloth-cushioned couch near the right end of the bar was available, so as we finished our beers I suggested we move there so that she would be more comfortable. I had her sit to my right so that I could reach behind and massage her neck with my right hand and she gathered her long hair to one side to give me room to work. As I began to massage her, I could feel some knotted muscles along the sides of her neck. She raised her head a little and, with her eyes closed and lips slightly parted, began to slowly tilted it side-to-side, front-to-back, and right-to-left emitting some low "Aahhhh" sounds as massaged her, and soon felt the muscles begin to relax. 

As I continued to work her neck, the warm, reverb-rich, mildly over-driven intro melody notes rendered from a vintage Fender Stratocaster played through a similarly vintage tube amp that opens Eric Clapton's song 'Wonderful Tonight' began to play over the house speakers, further reinforcing the chill mood of the evening. As the song progressed, my fingers moved from her neck to to her scalp where I massage just above the top of her neck. She slowly started to lower her head as she seemed to become more relaxed, then abruptly yawned and sighed with a slight shake of the head. "This music make me so sleepy...", she said groggily. As the Clapton song approached its final verse, I sung the line, "You look wonderful tonight..." in place of the actual lyrics to her, which caused Chai to chuckle and give me a playful pat on the leg as she turned her head to look at me and smile. I finished massaging her scalp as the final chord of the song faded out, and she thanked me in Thai with a bowed-head wai gesture. As we rose from the couch, I told her that I would be heading back to Bangkok on tomorrow's night train, and would try to swing by the bar before heading out to Chiang Mai Station. I said good night and gave her a respect wai gesture followed by a hug, after which she lingered for an instant and gazed into my eyes with a sweet smile and gave me a wai in return, and then leaned in and to my surprise gave me a light kiss on the lips before we parted. On the way out I said good night and goodbye to Thom, Som and the others, also telling them that I would be leaving Chiang Mai tomorrow evening and thanking them for their hospitality.

As I turn left off of Moon Muang Road and headed towards the Top North Hotel entrance, I heard some traditional Thai instrumental music that sounded similar what is played during a muay Thai kick boxing match (the Burmese have similar music that is played during their traditional leht thwe kick boxing matches) drifting over from next door. My curiosity thus sparked, I reversed course to head to the front of the driveway to get around the stretch of tall wooden fencing and decorative potted bamboos that separated the hotel compound from the source of the Thai music. Down a short alley that lead behind another business establishment that faces Moon Muang Road, I came to the front of what appeared to be a large sports bar called The Australian, and to the left of the aisle that lead from the entrance to the bar counter, near the center of the place beyond some rows of tables and chairs was an elevated muay Thai kick boxing ring. Two fighters, one in red trunks and the other in blue trunks, were in the ring fighting, alternately punching, blocking, dodging and occasionally kicking, with two referees officiating the bout. I didn't recall see anyone at the entrance collecting admission fees or cover charges, nor posted signs advertising such fees, so I walked to the bar to ask about any fees required to watch the fight. A Thai man behind the bar said that normal there is an admission fee, but as this was the last amateur bout of the evening and that they were nearing the end of the second round of a three-round fight, he said that I could watch the rest of the fight without paying the fee. As I was walking over to ringside, a fight official check the elapsed time and clanged the bell announcing the end of the second round as the boxers went to their corners, removed their mouthpieces and were tended to by their assumed managers or provided ringside assistants, with the accompanying traditional fight music quickly potted down. After perhaps a couple of minutes, the bell again rang to announce the start of the final round coincident with the muay Thai music potted back up to volume. The music that accompanies a muay Thai fight, called Sarama, is unique style of improvised Thai instrumental music that is meant to set the tone and atmosphere during the fight, with frenetic, upbeat tempos and rhythmic phrasings used to build excitement for the spectators and encourage the fighters to fight harder. A slower, more stately Ram Muay instrumental music is also played to set the mood for the muay Thai fight's opening ritual. The Ram Muay and Sarama music is traditionally played live in the muay Thai stadiums by an ensemble of four musicians playing a combination of single or multi-reed oboes that produce tinny, nasally tones, drums and a string of small, stacked metallic cymbals.

Both fighters quickly converged from their respective corners and got back into the fray, as padded gloves and raised feet, knees and shins met blocking flesh and gloves with dull, slapping thuds, and thrown punches, kicks, and elbow and knee strikes in the clinches, were punctuated by grunts and harshly-exhaled hisses of the aggressor. Each fighter appeared to connect with at least a couple of good strikes during the round, with the one in the blue trunks with white Thai characters outlined in black appearing to get the upper hand, right up to the point where the slender, somewhat smaller one in the red trunks connected with a spinning back kick that looked to have taken his opponent partially off his feet and knocked him down hard flat on his back against the mat with a resounding thud. One of the referees went down on the mat next to the fallen fighter, and slapped out the cadence of the count on the mat with an opened palm as he shouted the numbers, "Nung! Song! Sam! Seee!" ('One! Two! Three! Four!'), as the dazed kick boxer tentatively raised his head off the mat and shook it slightly to clear the after effects of the blow, then lifted his back up off the mat with lean yet muscular outstretched arms and raised himself to a sitting position as the referee's count reached "Ced!" ('Seven!') Once the downed fighter was back on his feet, the referee shot a quick glance at each fighters, briefly raised his right hand, then abruptly dropped it and shouted a short command in Thai that had both fighters close on one another in defensive stances, bobbing and weaving while separated by roughly the distance of a thrown punch or a medium height kick. After trading a few punches that failed to connect as the opponent quickly dodged sideways and rearward, the bell rang for a final time signaling the end of the final round, which caused the opponents to lower their arms and immediately assume relaxed stances despite still breathing heavily with heaving chests and being drenched in sweat, respectfully wai'ed one another to show appreciation for a good fight, and then stood a couple of paces apart from one another facing in the direction of the fight officials, as they appeared to anxiously await the decision.

The referees in the ring conferred with the official with a pen and clipboard who manned the bell. After a brief discussion involving a review of the clipboard, one of the referees walked over to the two fighters who stood side by side and seemed to review with them the results of the fight sans a microphone that may have benefited the small number of spectators who watch the bout over a bottle of beer or a mixed drink. He then wordlessly announced the winner of the match by raising the gloved left hand of the boxer with the red trunks by the wrist, which the spectators (including myself) acknowledge with a round of scattered applause as the boxers turned and congratulated one another with a brief embrace and mutual pats on the back with gloved hands. The boxers then returned to their corners to exit the boxing ring and, after a quick toweling off and some water, donned neck strap-supported donation collection boxes that were color-coordinated to match their boxing trunks and began to make the rounds of the seated and standing patrons that had watched their fight. Figuring that these amateur kick boxers are likely counting on post-fight tips from spectators for a good portion of their income, I wanted to give both boxers some Bahts, though at that time I only had larger Baht notes with me. 

I walked around the left side of the boxing ring and headed over the bar where a female bartender was doing some tidying up near the shelves of liquor bottles with a 1,000 Baht note in my hand. I waved her over and held the note up so she could see the denomination, and asked if I could break the note so that I could give something to both boxers, requesting five 100's and one 500 Baht notes. She responded that the bar doesn't give change without a purchase, and that I would have to buy either a drink or a snack to get change. I had not intended to hang out at the bar for all that long given that I was tired and had already had a couple of beers, so I ordered a shot of whiskey with rationale that it would take less time to consume that than another beer. She moved a couple of steps down the bar and grabbed a shot glass, then reached down below the bar counter and retrieved a bottle of Whiskey with a pour spout inserted and tipped it to fill the shot glass. She then set the shot glass in front of me at the bar and took my extended 1,000 Baht note, taking it to the register as I downed the shot and placed the empty glass on the bar as I awaited my change. When she returned, I thanked her and stuck the Baht notes in my pocket, and by the time I had walked back to the far side of the boxing ring where the two boxers were making their rounds of the patrons, I was already feeling the effects of the whiskey shot. I went to each boxer in turn and offered them a 100 Baht note with two hands and a slight bow per tradition, with both of them receiving the donation in the same fashion and thanking me in Thai. Having achieved a pretty good buzz by that time, I figured that as long as I was here and my hotel was just next door, I might as well have one more beer before calling it a night, and ordered a bottle of Beer Chang after grabbing a stool at the bar. With the evening's muay Thai bouts over, the bar's sound system had begun playing a rock music mix at a medium background volume level appropriate to a not so busy night. 

The bartender brought my bottle of beer and opened it for me, and I had begun to take sips from it as I listened to the music, though within minutes I became aware of someone walking up behind me. I turned on my bar stool to glance over my right shoulder and saw a petite Akha hill-tribe wandering vendor girl with a small open wooden box supported by two cloth shoulder straps which contained handmade jewelry pieces, woven cloth bracelets and other assorted tribal trinkets for sale. She picked up a couple of jewelry pieces and held it up for me to examine. "You buy? You buy?", she said as she launched into a sales pitch that I had heard many times by that point in my trip, beginning with that first group of transplanted Akha girls (or perhaps local Thai girls wearing a mix of Western clothing and traditional Akha clothing?) that had approach me on Bangkok's Khaosan Road about a week ago. "Oo doo toah mah" ('Hello'), I said to her, which was the only word of Akha language I had learned since coming to Thailand. She showed surprise at hearing hearing me say that, repeating the greeting back to me before getting back to the sales pitch. "You buy? You buy?", she repeated as she selected some other small trinkets for me to look at. "No, thanks. Mai, krep.", I told her in both English and Thai. She gave me a look of disappointment, but wasn't quite ready to move on just yet. "You buy from me?", she repeated. I was again going to tell her no and send her on her way, but then got the idea that it might both funny and entertaining (at least in my then-state of drunkenness) to do something likely unexpected and rare in her experience. "Can I buy you a drink? You want drink?", I said as I pointed in her direction then pantomimed taking a drink from a glass. She had a rather perplexed expression on her face upon hearing the question, but seemed to understand and after a pause for consideration slowly nodded her head in the affirmative. I waved the bartender over and ordered another shot of whiskey as I fished through my cargo pants pocket to extract some Bahts to pay for it. When the shot arrived I passed it to the Akha girl and said, "Choke dee!" ('Cheers!'), though she accepted the glass warily and examined it closely, both with her eyes and also by sniffing the contents. She first glanced up at me with a somewhat apologetic expression, then turned her head to glance over her right shoulder and say something in Thai to someone standing roughly behind me. "She says she can't drink alcohol...", a voice of the as-yet unseen female with a Thai accent said, "she would like to have a Coke instead." The Akha vendor girl then handed me back the glass, and when I turned to place it on the bar I saw that the bartender had stayed to watch my interaction with the vendor girl. I laid some additional Baht on the bar and ordered the Coke that the girl had requested, which was promptly brought out to her and she immediately began sipping on as she turned slowly walked back in the direction of the entrance. 

As she left, I downed the refused shot that I had paid for, which after a few health pulls of my beer bottle that I had taken, went down too smoothly and prompted my resolve to not drink anymore hard liquor that night. "Why did you buy that Akha girl a drink?", asked the girl who had translated the Akha girl's drink preference from Thai to English for my benefit, as she took a seat at the bar stool to the right of mine. She was perhaps a bit below average height for a Thai woman, or maybe her somewhat thickset build made it seem that way, dressed in the trendy faded, simulated threadbare-holed blue jeans tight enough to accentuate her ample curves, with a dark-colored, lightweight jacket that looked kind of retro in style over a printed T-shirt, with her attire conveying a sort of Asian 'hippie chick' vibe in my opinion. She was average-looking, with her jaw a bit on the square side and her facial features and skin tone suggestive of mixed Thai and 'other Asian' bloodlines, and medium-long hair with some brownish streaking and enough of a perm to give it some waviness. "Oh, I don't know. I guess I figured it might make for an interesting encounter, so...why not, ya know?", I said with a little alcohol-induced chuckle. "Well...", she responded.  "I am also Akha, so why don't you buy me a drink, too?" I figured there was a good chance she wasn't really Akha, but just claimed that ethnic heritage in hopes of getting some free drinks out of me. Traveling solo at the time, I was open to any chance for social interaction and conversation with the locals to perhaps gain some additional insights into the culture, plus such moments have the potential to be more memorable or meaningful than simply being able to check off sights on the list of major tourist attractions visited. I was game for whatever this latest local interaction had in store for me. "Yeah, right. I bet you aren't even Akha.", I said with a smile. "No, really I am!", she said, also with the hint of a smile despite the bit of defensiveness in her tone. "Okay...", I challenged her, "If you are Akha, how do you say 'hello' in your Akha language?" Her expression changed to reflect her surprise (and perhaps also a bit of sudden apprehension/anxiety?) at the question I had posed, and there was a noticeable pause as she seemed to consider how she should answer. "Uh...bluh-bu blah-bu?", she tentatively blurted out, likely hoping that I would accept her improvised answer as legit Akha greeting. I tried to stifle my immediate urge to laugh out loud, but failed miserably as a loud involuntary snort gave way to hardy laughter. "Haaah, I knew it!!! 'Hello' is 'Oo doo toah mah', the one and only word of Akha that I learned! What, you don't know your own language!" "Well...", she responded a bit sheepishly, "I don't speak Akha, but I am Akha! Look at my face!". 

Now that she had mentioned it, the squarish jaw, the nose and the eyes were similar to those of the Akha girls and women that I had encountered so far in Thailand. "Okay, I believe that you're Akha. What are you drinking?", I said to her. She asked for a beer, so I bought her a large bottle of Beer Chang and a glass. I filled her glass and she downed it fairly quickly, perhaps trying to make up for getting a late start drinking for the evening, and poured herself a refill. I continued to slowly nurse my beer as we exchanged idle chit-chat, during which I learned that she goes by the monosyllabic nickname Noi and is a semi-regular here despite living a fairly long tuk-tuk ride away, and that she is a casual acquaintance of the owner of the place and many of the staff members. As I shared with her some anecdotes about my experiences in Thailand thus far, I finished off the last of my beer and, seeing that Noi's large bottle had just about run dry, I ordered another large Beer Chang and an extra glass for me (despite having become quite drunk by that point in the evening), to which I poured a few fingers worth of beer for show (and an occasional sip) to be social so that she wouldn't feel like she was drinking alone. As I was recounting the one round of the muay Thai bout that I had seen sans cover charge when I first arrived, Noi seem to suddenly perk up as if an important thought just came to mind. "Ah! Follow me, I want to show you something!" We got up from our stools and she led me past the right end of the bar and over to a wall finished in dark wooden panels, upon which hung a matrix fashion a series of framed photos of what looked to be a lot of gorgeous Thai girls in ornate, frilly showgirl-type costumes. "Beautiful ladies, no?", Noi said as she pointed vaguely to the middle of the center row of photos. "Yes, I would say so.", I responded. A devilish grin formed across her lips as a mischievous gleam seemed develop in her eye. She emphatically shook her head from side to side for dramatic effect. "Uh-uuhh! Katoeys! They are all ladyboys!", she said with a hardy laugh. In a moment of drunken confusion I wondered why a sports bar that hosts amateur muay Thai fights would have pictures of ladyboys on the wall, and Noi appeared to have read my mind. "The owner of the bar is a katoey! He's here tonight. Come, I take you to meet him...", she said and indicated with a beckoning hand gesture that I follow her a section of the bar that was fairly quiet save for a group of people were sitting around some bar tables that had been pushed together to accommodate them. 

As we neared the group, four of them (three ladyboys in drag with makeup that were actually a bit alluring, and one guy who looked a bit effeminate but was wearing gender-appropriate casual) seated at the far end of the table were the first to notice our approach, as the others at the table soon turned their heads to look at us, with some smiles of recognition directed towards Noi. She introduced me to the owner of the bar, who surprisingly was wearing what looked to be an expensive, expertly custom-tailored suit, with professional actor or male model-quality makeup applied over porcelain-smooth skin (I had assumed that a katoey would always be in drag while out in public to showcase how skillfully they could look like a woman, though apparently that's not always the case). I greeted the bar owner in Thai with a respective wai gesture, and did the same to the others at the combined tables, include the three katoeys in full drag and 'war paint' that actually looked like gorgeous Thai women even fairly up-close (at least at my then-level of drunkenness and the somewhat dim bar lighting), who looked on in somewhat wary amusement. I used the standard gender-specific greeting form for male speakers of 'Sawasdee krep', whereas female speakers would use the gender-specific greeting form 'Sawasdee kah' and katoey, being somewhat of a 'third gender', use the hybrid 'gender-fluid'-specific greeting form 'Sawasdee hah' (I'm not sure if Thai lesbians that assume the dominant 'butch' role in their relationship - which are referred to as 'Toms' in Thai society - and wear men's short hairstyles and clothing would also use the 'hah' gender-fluid ending modifier?) Noi spoke briefly with the owner in Thai, then turned to me and said that the owner didn't speak English, so that if I wanted to ask him anything, she would act as a translator. I didn't want to seem unappreciative of her offer to translate any questions for the out-of-drag katoey owner, and figured that the owner was now expecting me to asking him something through Noi, I came up with an off-the-cuff generic question that anyone would likely a ladyboy. "Uh, why does he enjoy dressing up as a woman?" Noi asked the question in Thai, and he reacted by looking up at me with a big smile and laughed softly at my naivety before responding to Noi in Thai. "He say, 'Because it's fun!", Noi said loudly, saying something to the group in Thai as she joined in with their shared laughter at my expense, as the ladyboys across the table smirked and giggle among themselves. By that point, I really had to pee, so I asked the owner in likely poorly-pronounced Thai, "Koh tote, hong naam yu tee nai, krep?" ('Excuse me, where is the restroom'). This generated more laughter from the group, with the owner pointing back to the far right corner of the bar and saying, "Hong nam..." with a chuckle and a thumbs up gesture.

I made my way, albeit a bit unsteadily due to my blood alcohol level at that point, which also imbued the surroundings and activities observed with a sort of dreamlike quality, towards the 'hong naam'. As I neared the entrance to the hallway leading to the men's and women's (and ladyboy's?) rooms, I began to catch the enticing aroma of freshly-cooked Thai food, and a short distance ahead on the right a strolled past the bar's food counter. A couple of patrons were cued in front of the cash register as a Thai woman in a blue apron wearing a hair net to orders, and to the left of the cashier/takeaway counter was the kitchen area that ran along a wall paneled with stainless steel plating adjacent to a row of overhead fume hoods. At the near end of the line, a cook worked over a large wok resting in a ring stand atop a hot burner, whose jet-like flames licked and flared up the sides of its spherical base as steam and smoke from boiling liquids, flash-fried greens, searing protein, rendered fat and added sauces bubbling and reducing as they dripped down the hot wok sidewall rose in a billowing column, punctuated by flashes of yellow-orange flame as wayward droplets of splattered oil auto-ignited in the super-heated air with a low whooshing sound mixed the low roar of the gas flame, the hissing sizzle of cooking food and the metallic scrape, clank and occasional tap of the spatula against the wok. I continued down the hallway and used the restroom, and as I walked back afterwards past the food counter and kitchen area, a glimpse of one of the food counter/kitchen staff nearly stopped me in my tracks for a double-take to confirm that my inebriated eyes were not playing tricks on me, as the evening suddenly took a brief turn for the surreal. The male employee carrying a gray plastic bin of dirty dishes back to the kitchen must have been stricken with microcephaly in his youth, as though his lower head and face were not excessive small for his current adult size, at roughly eyebrow level his forehead sloped back, and the sides and back of his head tapered inward to end in a rounded cone shape at the top of his head, which is colloquially referred to as having a 'pinhead' or 'cone head'. His gait and other body movements did not seem to be greatly affected by his condition, and he seemed to be capable enough for his task at hand, but it was a bit 'sobering' for a fraction of a second as it was the first time that I had seen a person afflicted with such a condition in real life (though I had seen the famous 1932 horror/drama cult film 'Freaks' as part of a double-feature with the film 'Phantasm' at a midnight movie showing in the early 80's, which featured two actors actually afflicted with microcephaly as 'pinheads' in a circus sideshow that featured other actors who were real life human oddities).

I walked back to my bar stool where Noi was sipping her glass of beer while talking to the bartender. When I mentioned that I didn't know the bar sold food, Noi said that the food here was good, and that she was hungry and could go for a snack. By this time I was in need of a little 'alcohol mop', particularly because I had eaten light earlier in the evening, and offered to pickup something for us to split. Again speaking Thai with the bartender, Noi ordered something to be brought over from the kitchen for us to snack on, and we poured beer our glasses from the shared large bottle of Beer Chang (with Noi topping hers off) and exchanged small talk as we waited for our order. When it finally arrived, it seemed to me to be something like a Thai take on Buffalo wings, though sauce-heavy and a bit on the wet-side, incorporating the sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavor combination that features prominently in Thai cuisine with subtle aromatic hints of lemongrass and galanga at the finish. The light snack was quite tasty and very satisfying, in part due to the heightened appetite and sense of taste after a goodly amount of alcohol has been consumed, though perhaps an order of Thai 'drunken noodles' (which doesn't contain noodles, by the way) would have been more appropriate given the state that I (and apparently also Noi) was in by then.

Given the combination of alcohol, chit-chatting with Noi, a varied assortment of rock music, and some late night snacking, I was oblivious to the passage of time, and was taken totally by surprise when the house music abruptly stopped mid-song and the banks of fluorescent lights began to go off in rapid succession, leaving a smattering of dim overhead incandescent bulbs lit so that remaining inebriated patrons could find their way to the front door. "Oh, bar closed now...", Noi commented matter of factually. We both finished what beer remained in our glasses and headed left towards the exit leading to the alley that opens up to Moon Muang Road, where thankfully I would have a fairly short, unsteady walk next door to my hotel. As we arrived at the end of the driveway leading to the lobby of Top North Hotel, I turned to Noi and thanked her for the evening of conversation and drunken companionship, and for introducing me to the sport bar's ladybug owner, adding that it was a pleasure to meet her before bidding her goodnight.

"No...", Noi said, "I stay with you tonight." "Uh, what?", I responded with surprise. "Yes, I stay with you. I sleep in your room tonight. I live far way..." "No...", I protested, "I'm a married man. It's not appropriate for you to spend the night with my in room. There's only one bed..." "No sex, just sleep.", she replied. "No, still not appropriate. Sorry.", I told her. "But I live a long ways away and don't have any money for tuk-tuk. If I can't sleep with you, you have to give me money for tuk-tuk." "Okay... How much is tuk-tuk fare?", I asked with a sigh of resignation. "Uhh...", she paused as she estimated the amount to cover the fare, "Give me 100 Baht." I thought I had a 500 Baht note and a couple of 100's in my pocket, but told her that I was out of cash, and would have to go up to my room to give it to her in Baht coins, not wanting her to see me pull a 100 Baht off a stack of four or so notes. I left her standing in the hotel driveway while I stopped at the front desk to retrieve my room from the smiling receptionist that no doubt knew that I was coming in from a night of drinking, walked slowly and a bit wobbly first to the elevator (with the accelerations and decelerations feeling much more substantial than they normally do), then carefully made my way down the hall to fumble with getting my key in to unlock the door. Thankfully no cockroaches emerged to scurry across the bed as I dumped my toiletries bag to pick out enough Baht coins to pay Noi's tuk-tuk fare home. I exited the lobby and headed up the driveway to hand Noi her coins, which I counted out as I dropped them into her hand. As the last coin dropped, she gazed down at it for about five or so seconds as if she were reconsidering the original requested amount, then looked up at me and said, "Make it 200 Baht..." I protested, saying that we had agreed to the amount and that I had already gone up to my room and back to get it, plus I had treated her to an evening of drinking and a late night snack. She considered my comment for a second, and seemed to agree that what's fair is fair. "Okay...", she said. "And thank you for getting me drunk.", she said as she gazed up into my eyes, then raised up on her toes to give me a quick kiss on the lips before head up Moon Muang Road to hail a tuk-tuk, and I again headed up to my room to sleep off the alcohol and hopefully overcome whatever hangover I'd be left with in the morning before an afternoon half-day excursion to visit a local Hmong hill-tribe village and the mountaintop Doi Suthep Temple.

Suffice it to say, I slept in late and woke up rather hungover the next morning, and even after a shower, strong coffee and a bite to eat I still felt more than a bit under the weather. In the early afternoon, I had scheduled a half-day trip to visit the nearby Doi Pui Hmong hill-tribe village and market located on the slopes of Doi Pui, a mountain that is located in the vicinity of Doi Suthep mountain, which overlooks Chiang Mai, followed by a drive back in the direction of Chiang Mai to visit Wat Phratat Doi Suthep, a famous and spiritually-significant Buddhist Temple located near the summit of Doi Suthep that contains relics of the Buddha, and whose observation deck provides the visitor a panoramic view of of the city of Chiang Mai. Prior to departing for the 1/2-day excursion, I would check out of my hotel room and leave my bags in the lobby's storage room, and in the early evening I would retrieve my bags and be driven to Chiang Mai Station, where I would take the night train back to Bangkok. I packed up my things and made it down to the front desk to check out just minutes ahead of the cut-off time, and with the time I had to kill before returning to the lobby to start the half-day tour, decided to get a bit of fresh air by exploring some of the side streets and alleys off of Moon Muang Road in the vicinity of the hotel.

Baan Doi Pui Hmong Hill-Tribe Village, Near Wat Doi Suthep Temple

               

Hmong Villagers in Traditional Clothing at Baan Doi Pui
The Interior of a Hmong Home, with a Manual Weaving Loom
A Hmong Washing His Uh, Rooster, Assumed to Be a Fighting Cock

                

Vendor Stalls at Baan Doi Pui
When I got back to the Top North lobby, the five other people that had signed up for the tour were there waiting, and within a few minutes a van pulled up out front and our guide came in with a clipboard to confirm everyone on the list was accounted for so we could load into the van and start the tour. The drive to Baan Doi Pui Hmong village and market took roughly an hour, which took us up Moon Muang Road, then left along the northern section of the Chiang Mai city moat and remnants of the old city wall. After a few turns near the northwest corner of the moat we got onto Route 1004, which in the vicinity of the Chiang Mai Zoo narrowed (and Route 1004 took on the alternate name of Sriwichai Alley, or Soi Sriwichai) and led us on a winding course up into the lushly-wooded hills of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (named for the two mountain peaks, Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, that are contained within the park), which was challenging given my still-queasy stomach and headache as my hangover at that point still lingered. During the outbound drive I sat next to Tracy, an American woman who travels to Thailand a lot for business, and during a period of free time decided to flight up to Chiang Mai to do a bit of sightseeing. She was quite outgoing and bubbly, and we had an enjoyable chat. Over the course of conversation, I recounted my time with Noi at the ladyboy kick boxing bar the prior night, which she found entertaining and at times humorous. After I told her about Noi wanting to spend the night with me and my giving her tuk-tuk fare home, she asked if I would also be telling my wife that story when we met back up in Bangkok, I said that I should be able to, as nothing inappropriate went on between us. She humorously suggested that if my wife seemed to be getting upset upon hearing the story, I could always diffuse the situation by simply telling her that Noi turned out to be a ladyboy, a suggestion which caused both of us to chuckle as the others in the tour group looked on with amusement and curiosity. After passing through a couple of roadside hamlets (one located across from the entrance to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, which was roughly at the midpoint of our drive up the mountain to the Hmong village) and gaining altitude via a lot of lushly tree-lined, stomach-turning curves (compounded by sitting nearer to the back of the van), we at last arrived at the Baan Doi Pui Hmong village and market. 

The Hmong hill-tribe are a sub-group of the Miao people of China. Thought to have originated in the Yellow River region of Hebei province, Northern China, over time the Hmong migrated into Southern China with many settling in Yunnan province. Conflict in the southern region between the Hmong and the newly-arrived Han settlers increased during the 18th century under repressive economic and cultural reforms imposed by the Qing Dynasty resulted in further large-scale southward migrations well into the late 19th century, with many Hmong people emigrating into Southeast Asia. Hmong hill-tribes of various sub-groups can be found in Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, with the Blue Hmong and White Hmong being the common sub-groups in Thailand. The Hmong presence in Thailand dates back roughly to the turn of the 20th century when families originally living in Southern China migrated through Laos and Burma, with more Hmong migrating from Laos across the Mekong River following the victory of the Pathet Lao Communists in 1975. Being located on a cleared hillside, the Baan Doi Pui village homes, buildings, vendor stalls and such were generally laid out in stair-step fashion, with the abundance of steps and sloped paved walkways and roads giving visitors exploring the village a good aerobic workout. As the village relies heavily on tourism for income, there was definitely no shortage of gift shops and vendor stalls selling traditional Hmong handicrafts, particularly those selling Hmong clothing embellished with intricate and colorful hand-embroidered patterns in the distinctive Hmong motifs and often decorated with hanging tassels of stringed beads or small shells with old coins at the ends, which are also seen on the ornate traditional Hmong headdresses, often combined with fuzzy, multicolored pom-poms.

Upon our arrival at the village, our first stop was a walk-through of a traditional Hmong home whose construction combined wood framing and walls with herring bone-patterned woven reed wall panels and thatched roofing with an opening beneath the peak of the eve beams to allow for ventilation, which sat on a small rise and was accessed by a short flight of rock and mortar steps. We were free to walk around the house's main room after our guide pointed out and explained some of the basic features of a traditional Hmong home. A few of the family members were home at the time including the elderly matriarch, a Hmong auntie who may have been in her later 90's sleeping curled up on her side in a bed opposite the door (which is considered very bad Feng Shui due to anxiety-provoking negative Chi, or energy flow, if they followed the tenants of the ancient Chinese art of Geomancy, per both the cardinal direct, or compass-based, and the bagua-centric 'Black Hat' sect-based schools of thought, though a crystal hung from the ceiling inside the doorway at the end of 9 inches of red string would have been helpful to mitigate the ill effects) bundled in a blanket, with her long gray hair cascading down messily beneath her knitted yarn cap. Two Hmong kids in Western clothes sat a throw rug on the floor watching cartoons in Thai on a small color TV on a wall shelf unit kitty-corner from the head of auntie's bed on the other side of a narrow hall that led into the kitchen, who seemed to be oblivious to the visitor after they had turned their heads to see who just came through the doorway. In the rear left corner of the main room, opposite the foot of auntie's bed, was a manual wooden-frame loom that one of the occupants used for weaving traditional Hmong fabrics, together with an old-school combination foot treadle/electric motor sewing machine and a folding table with a clear plastic cover over a table cloth (something commonly seen in Asian households through the world). 

After completing our tour of a Hmong home, we had a bit of free time to walk around the village, which was comprised mainly of souvenir shop and vendor stalls, with a few eateries and stores serving the local residents' needs. I took the opportunity to try to capture some of the local color of the village, which included many village women wearing varying degrees of traditional Hmong clothing, a couple of them sitting in front of their shops or stalls hand-stitching or embroidering articles of clothing while awaiting the next day's customer, several vendors who stopped me as I strolled passed their stalls to ask what I might be interested in buying from them for myself or possibly my wife or girlfriend, and in one case a Hmong man in casual Western attire washing his fighting cock at the entrance to an alley. After the assigned free time had elapsed, we headed back to the van and retraced our route in the downhill direction along the ever-curving Soi Sriwichai/Route 1004 as I breathed deeply through my nose to stave off motion sickness and hoped that the drive time would pass quickly. As we were about halfway to the Chiang Mai Zoo entrance at the base of the mountain, our driver slowed going into a right-hand turn and pulled into the left-shoulder car park area for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, dropping us off in the vicinity of a long, tree-lined, red brick staircase with elaborate railings in the form of the bodies of mythical seven-headed Naga serpents at its base that leads visitors and devotees up to the temple's compound at the crest of a hill. Believed to also control rainfall and worshiped during the  annual Thai Songkran Water Festival in mid April, Naga serpents are considered protective entities that guard against evil spirits, and often flank the walls of temples and staircases leading up to them in addition to being incorporated into the carved motifs of roofs, gables, doors and windows. Nagas are significant in both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, with Mucilinda, the King of the Nagas said to have grown multiple heads to be able to shield the Buddha from a thunderstorm.

One of the two Multi-Headed Naga Statues that Flanks the Stairs to Doi Suthep

     


Midway Along the Stairway Leading to Wat Doi Suthep Temple

             

The Interior of the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple Compound
The Gilded Chedi of Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Doi Suthep's Iconic Buddha at the Base of the Chedi 

One of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep's Vihara (Wihan) Temple Buildings
The View of Chiang Mai from the Upper Terrace of Wat Doi Suthep

Leaving Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (often referred to as 'Wat Doi Suthep') is a Theravada Buddhist temple named after the mountain, Doi Suthep, where the Wat is located. It lies 9.3 miles east of Chiang Mai and, being situated at an elevation of 1,073 meters, offers impressive views of the city's downtown. The temple is said to have been founded in 1383 when the first stupa was built, with more holy shrines added over time. The Wat's chedi houses half of Buddha's shoulder bone, with the sacred relic located in the rounded portion of the chedi right above the octagonal redented section and below the ringed section. According to legend, in 1368 King Nu Naone of Lanna (Lan Na) learned that a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai Kingdom claimed to possess the Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone, and requested that the sacred relic be brought to him. The shoulder bone was said to be broken in two during transit, but the king ended up receiving the larger piece of the bone, which he placed on the back of a white elephant and released it into the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep (at that time called Doi Aoy Chang, or 'Sugar Elephant Mountain'), stopped, trumpeted three times, then dropped dead. This was interpreted as an omen, and the king immediately ordered the construction of a temple at the site.

We made our way up the 309-step Naga stairway leading up to the Doi Suthep temple compound, of which the two Naga serpent's long, green and goldenrod-colored scaled bodies topped with a serrated spines along the crests form the railing, with me pausing to take some photos along the way then catching up with the other with a short sprint up the stairs. For those not up to the task of a StairMaster-like workout that the Naga stairs provide, a funicular cable car was also provided as an option for getting to the top. As we entered the temple's outer compound, or 'outer ring' (visitors are allowed to wear shoes or sandals in this portion of the temple grounds, with appropriate attire required to visit the temple, particularly for females, but footwear must be removed before entering the inner temple compound), we began to walk in the prescribed clock-wise direction around the temple complex, passing a statue of a white elephant depicted wearing royal ornamentation with a gilded chedi atop its back, which serves as a monument to the tale of the temple's founding by the trumpeting elephant. I was a bit surprised that the elephant statue was depicted with the trunk hanging down, as in Southeast Asian culture it is generally believed that it is preferable that a statue of an elephant (especially if one is being purchased to display in one's home) have its trunk depicted as raised upward, as that is said to be symbolic of good luck. In addition to the elephant statue, there were a number of Buddha statues around the temple's outer ring, some of which were housed in shrines, in addition to other statues depicting celestial beings, a statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu God widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom, and the obligatory picture of the Thai King and Queen. Similar to other temples in Southeast Asia, Doi Suthep's inner compound (referred to as the 'inner ring') containing the central chedi, ornate tiered peak-roofed vihara (wihan) structures, and its iconic four, multi-tiered gilded umbrellas was encircled by a ring of white stucco walls topped with a peaked, orange-tiled roof, that served as the outer wall for the temple's inner wihans and cloisters, in addition to the covered patios that flanked the central chedi. We headed directly to the nearest entrance to the inner ring, which is located on the north side of the complex.

Removing our shoes and placing them on the provided racks, we entered the inner ring and were immediately treated to a view of the 79 foot-tall gilded main chedi, and then continued our counterclockwise advance around the perimeter of the central chedi. We join the assembled visiting tourists and locals who had come to make offerings, receive blessings from one of the resident monks which was delivered with a spritz of blessed droplets via multiple flicks of a bamboo whisk dipped in a bowl of holy water, apply gold leaf to one of the four multi-tiered gilded umbrellas located at the corners of the chedi's base, to say their prayers or merely sit for a period of meditation in front of the chedi, or alternately before a particular Buddha statue located around the chedi's base to pray for a particular request at the direction of venerable monk or a psychic/astrologer. Just beyond the wihan at the east end of the inner ring, we walk through a cloister whose wall is painted with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha's life, but also including some aspects and symbolism of the Hindu faith. Leaving the cloister, we walked along the covered patio of the southern wall of the inner ring as our guide provides us with some additional history of Doi Suthep and explains the significance of some of what we're seeing, as I occasionally stray from the rest of the group to take photos of the gilded Buddha statues, depicted in the sitting, standing and reclining (the Buddha lying on his side, symbolic of when he was near death) positions, surrounding the chedi, with one of the statues a model of the famous Emerald Buddha housed in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Along the west end of the inner ring we enter the main wihan hall, which dates to the 16 century and contains the large gilded main Buddha image of Doi Suthep, which is surrounded by several smaller yet still impressive Buddha statues. Finished with our tour of the inner ring, we next walked the perimeter of the outer ring to take in the sights, which near the southeast arc includes a cantilevered observation deck about 15 feet above the ground that provides a panoramic view of Chiang Mai.

As we continued our stroll around the outer ring in the direction of the Naga stairway, our guide pointed out a cafe along the periphery with outdoor seating beneath the canopy of some shade trees that he said makes some pretty good waffles and suggested that we stop in for something to eat and drink, saying that we would regroup in about 15 minutes to finish walking the outer ring, then take the stairs back down to the van for the drive back to the hotel to finish the tour. I ordered a waffle and a cup of dark-roasted northern Thai Arabica. The waffle was pretty good, being more in the Belgian-style rather than the Asian-style that incorporates coconut milk and pandan leaf flavoring (I would later come to love the Vietnamese 'banh kep dua sau rieng' coconut, pandan leaf extract and durian waffles). After finishing my snack, I used the remainder of the 15-minute break to take photos, after which we continued in counter-clockwise fashion around the outer ring. We passed some racks of hanging static bells with suspended clappers adjacent to the wall that encircles the inner ring, which in times past were solely used to call the monks and devotees to prayers, or the monks to their twice-daily meals (the 5 am breakfast, the lighter meal of the two which often consisting of either rice porridge with fixings to be added, a hearty soup, fried rice or fried noodles, and a larger 11 am main meal consisting of several appetizers and main entrees, soup and rice, followed by an assortment of desserts, with the general rule being that the monks must finish their main meal by 12 pm, and afterwards are permitted liquids and perhaps a light snack of fruits in the late afternoon.) Presently, there is a common (and popular) misconception by visiting tourists that ringing the temple bells will bring them good luck, with the practicing Buddhists believe that it is auspicious and considered a de facto offering of devotion to ring the bells three time, symbolic of the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha (the 'Dharma'), and the monks who follow the practices of the Buddha to gain enlightenment and one day reach Nirvana. Rounding the southwest corner of the outer ring, we passed the temple's very ornate bell tower featuring an impressive multi-tiered, gilded and multi-colored roof topped with a gilded spire ending in a tiered 'chatra' umbrella similar to that of the central chedi, followed by the outer ring's entrance into the main wihan and, shortly thereafter, the entrance to the Naga stairway leading down to the van that awaited us at the bottom of the hill.

We got back into the van and pulled out onto Soi Sriwichai/Route 1004 for the return drive to the Top North Hotel, which would be the end of our half-day Doi Suthep/Doi Pui excursion. We soon snaked our way through yet another hairpin turn followed by a hard left curve, and shortly our driver began to slow after the road straightened out, bringing us to a near-stop as we entered another curve. Our guide told us the Huai Rap Sadet Waterfall was on the far side of the road just a little ways beyond the curve we were entering, but that we wouldn't be able to stop because of the flow of traffic and the lack of a shoulder alongside our lane. He would have the driver slowly roll by so that we could at least get a short glimpse of it and may take a photo. The view of the falls out the window when there was a break in the flow of cars heading up to Wat Doi Suthep was not very impressive, so our driver did not dwell long before continuing down the winding road and back to the hotel. After a final small-radius left curve and again passing the entrance to the Chiang Mai Zoo, we were thankfully back to driving along predominantly long, straight roads with a handful of slow turns at the intersections to get us back inside the old city wall and moat and finally in front of the Top North Hotel lobby. We exited the van and, after bidding my fellow 1/2-day tourists farewell, went to the front desk to retrieve my bags and wait for my pre-arranged driver that would take me to the Chiang Mai train station, where I would have some time to kill before my 9:50 pm night train departure for Bangkok.

I took a chair in the front of the lobby that afforded a view of the curb in front of the hotel's front doors, and after about 15 minutes, a white sedan pulled up and I vaguely recognized the driver that exited the car as the same one that had picked me up from the train station upon my arrive in Chiang Mai. I grabbed my two bags, the larger pack that I wore on my back and the smaller day pack that I had wore across my chest (a load that I had worn for most of my day spent exploring the main drags, quaint back alleys, open-air street markets and colorful, and at times richly-scented in a challenging sort of way, wet markets of Bangkok's Chinatown prior to my night train departure for Chiang Mai, which proved to be a bit of an awkward setup when negotiating the narrow, crowded aisles between the rows of vendor stalls beneath a patchwork of blandly-colored tarp canopies) and walked out to the car after bidding the front counter staff (which included the presently-available Ann) a respectful, wai gesture-prefaced farewell. The drive from Top North Hotel to the Chiang Mai Railway Station was fairly short, a bit less that 2-1/2 miles, and after about 10 minutes or so I was dropped off at the front of the station. After confirming both the boarding and departure times and track number, realized that I had a bit over three hours to kill before locating and settling into my lower sleeper birth. As I was not far from the old city wall and moat, I figured that I would hail a tuk-tuk and figured I could spend about half that time chatting with Chai (provided she wasn't off this evening) over a beer and something (likely shared among the bar girls) to snack on at Predator Bar. Within a few minutes of reaching the curb, a tuk-tuk rolled to a stop near me, asking the often-heard phrase, "You need tuk-tuk? Where you go?" I reached into my cargo pocket and retrieved the Predator Bar business card to hand him, which he read, appeared to silently mouth the address to himself to commit it to memory as his tuk-tuk's two-stroke engine sputtered at idle tempo, and then handed it back with a quick nod and suggested 40 Bahts for the fare. When I agreed, he motioned for me to get in the back bench seat. He goosed the throttle and we were one our way, following a slightly different course to get to the Ping River bridge as scenes of Chiang Mai in early evening drifted by, until at last the moat and brick vestiges of the old city wall came into view and he soon turned onto Moon Muang Road. The neighborhood by this point in time looked very familiar as he decelerated and began to read the addresses, though as he stopped, both of us were surprised to see that the bar, which lacked any outside signage to indicate its location, had its building-width steel roll-up door in the down positioning, with padlocks closed on both ends of the door driving home the point that the bar was presently closed. "You sure this is right address?", the tuk-tuk driver asked. "It should be, so I guess they're closed today. just take me back to Chiang Mai station, please...", I said in resignation.

Back at the front of train station, I grabbed my packs and exited the tuk-tuk, giving him 80 Bahts for the round-trip and thanking him, then walked to one of the restaurants across the street from the station for dinner, settling on a plate of pad Thai noodles and a Beer Chang. Following the meal, I strolled around the neighborhood surrounding the station for a bit to digest my dinner, then headed back to the station and walked over to the assigned track, where my train was already parked and its cars were being cleaned and prepped for the evening's journey south. I picked up some junk food (including a small bag of the local Lay's Thai Curry Flavor potato chips) and a bottle of drinking water for the trip from a vendor kiosk on the platform adjacent to my train, then took a seat at a nearby bench and pulled my copy of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides' Thailand out of my pack to read up on some additional sights to check out upon returning to Bangkok tomorrow, both solo and when the other family members returned from Burma the following day (Wat Arun was high on the list of things yet to see during this first trip to Thailand...and maybe check out a 'ping pong ball show' in the Patpong red light district?). About 30 minutes before departure, we were allowed to board the train and take our seats (mine being Car 2, Lower Berth, Seat 16). My window was closed when I ducked down to slide into my bed formed by a thin mattress and sheet set laid across the forward-folded backs of two facing seats to gauge how comfortable my bed would be tonight, though given the ambient evening temperature in Chiang Mai in October, the temperature in the non-air conditioned car was quite comfortable, suggesting that I might be able to sleep with the window only slightly cracked open, if not fully-closed, and not be so rudely-awoken by the reflected sound of occasional trestle crossings. Following the series of jerks as the slack was taken out of the car couplings, we began our southbound journey as I laid back and hoped to get a slightly better night's sleep this time around.  


Station Stops in North-Central and Central Thailand





I awoke to the diffused, hazy early-morning sunlight coming through the window somewhere in north central Thailand, feeling decidedly more rested than I did on the northbound overnight trip, and vaguely recall having woken up only briefly perhaps four or five times during the night, with at least one or two times being a short station stop. As with the northbound leg of the journey, I was again seated on the right side of the sleeper car, thus on the return to Bangkok I had a generally westerly view out the window. The early morning scenery alternating between stretches of green rice paddies, farm fields flanking rural homes, and undeveloped grassy flat lands dotted with trees backed by distant mountain ridge line on the horizon, mixed with some towns and small cities that we would occasionally pass through, rolling past their stations' platforms at cruising speed as they were not a scheduled stop on our express route. Again before mid morning, the porters came to collect and store the bedding and bring the opposing seat backs to their upright position so that the upper bunk passengers could sit for the remainder of the journey, though as the bunk above me was unoccupied I had an empty seat to look at until we arrived in Bangkok. Across the aisle, the upper bunk occupant settled into the vacant forward-facing seat. His military bearing, muscular build and closely-cropped hair, together with his features suggesting mixed Arab bloodlines and his government issued-looking, tan khaki pack with what looked to be possibly Hebrew stenciling placed on the rear-facing seat in front of him suggested that he was a young Israeli man who had completed his mandatory military conscription of three years (two years for woman) which all Israelis must serve at the age of 18. After completing their term of service to the country, many choose to travel abroad for an extended period of time before carrying on with their higher education and/or establishing their career path, and I had seen a number of young men of similar appearance and choice of backpack exiting buses and taxis along Bangkok's Khaosan Road, the budget backpacker's haven for inexpensive food, drink, lodging and pirated DVD's and software, among other items. 

Lop Buri Station and a View of Wat Phra Prang Sam Yot
The Monkey Statue at Lop Buri Station
As the train continued further south into central Thailand some distance north of the city of Lop Buri, the profile of the distant mountains gradually tapered away and finally disappeared, leaving the patchwork of rice paddies in varying stages of planting, growth and harvesting, to seemingly extend out to the horizon's edge, with the flooded but as-yet planted paddies mirroring the hazy blue of the morning sky, framed into an array of thinly-bordered rectangles by the low earthen levies that separate the paddies. As the train slowed to pull into the station for a passenger exchange in Old Town region of Lop Buri, a city roughly three hours' drive north of Bangkok that was once part of the Khmer empire and later the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, I was able to step across the aisle to an available window to take in a view of the ruins of Wat Phra Prang Sam Yot, a temple built in the Khmer style featuring three prang towers symbolic of the mythical Mount Meru. Wat Phra Prang Sam Yot is also known as the Monkey Temple, given the large number of famously pesky and often aggressive long-tailed macaques that hangout at the ruins, with their fame resulting in the placement of a large monkey statue on the station's platform.
Rural-Style Homes in Bangkok's Outer Northern Suburbs


As the train rolled through the former capital of Ayutthaya, the temple ruins of which I had toured as a day trip from Bangkok about a week ago, the monotony of the rail excursion was starting to wear on me as the fascination in the procession of ever-changing predominantly rural track-side views of Thailand had lost its novelty and my initial enchantment with the scenery through repetition had waned nearly to the point of boredom (much like the onset of 'temple fatigue'). I was in dire need of a strong cup of coffee, followed by perhaps a plate of noodles or a Thai curry with rice and a beer, once we pulled back into Bangkok's Hua Lamphong station. As we reached the outer fringes of the suburbs surrounding Bangkok, the housing density around the tracks began to increase, though the older homes, stilted above finger-like bodies of water ringed with floating aquatic with banana trees overhanging the banks, with weathered wooden veranda decking, peaked corrugated tin roofs coated with rust, and often times huge ceramic pots adjacent to the homes serving as water storage still conveying a rural, village-like vibe save for some large factories and industrial facilities seen in the distance. Continuing south, the surroundings became more suburban and, as we entered Bangkok proper, soon turned decidedly urban as we rounded a curve and passed Don Mueang International Airport en route to Chinatown. The train slowed as we approached Hua Lamphong Station, with the passing track-side views of buildings and street traffic replace by that of the rail yard's array of switch tracks, side tracks and spur tracks occupied with coupled passenger cars and freight cars staged for later assembly and departure, with a sole railway police officer or soldier walking a patrol of the yard with what looked in passing to be an HK-33 (the scaled-down version of Heckler and Koch G3 select-fire 7.62x51mm NATO battle rifle re-chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO) slung across his chest with the muzzle's flash-hider angled downward and to the left of his left hip towards the ground. As our speed decreased, other passengers began to rise from their seats to retrieve their luggage and place it by their feet or slip on their backpacks, or retrieve their cell phones to let family, friends or others that they were about to pull into the station (the extended family that we were staying with during our time in Thailand gave me a loaner flip phone, which I had yet to use during my excursion north, though after some heavy pulls off my anticipated cup of coffee - preferably from a Black Canyon coffee shop or kiosk if one could be found at or near the station - I would call them to let them know that I had arrived back in Bangkok and would shortly take a cab out to Makro Bang Bon (with Makro being an international brand of warehouse club similar to Costco that was introduced into Thailand in 1988, and Bang Bon being one of Bangkok's 50 districts in the city's southwest region), where they would meet me much closer to home than having to pick me up in Bangkok's Chinatown. Having made the trip by car from Bangkok's outer suburb into the center of the city a few times, and around the city by tuk-tuk several times, I was not looking forward to sitting in heavy traffic, nor at traffic lights that can stay red for more than ten minutes. My time in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand was somewhat brief, but gave me a good sampling of what the region has to offer, and made me want to go back someday to explore more of it, traveling there by air next time being the preference to save on travel time and maximize on touring time, of course.