Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mae Salong: Just In Time for Tea

"You should go to Mae Salong." said Alberto the Italian as I was fleeing Phuket. "I bought a teapot," he patted his bag which held his newly purchased teapot which was insulated on all sides by large bags of Oolong tea, "you will like it there".
High in the Northern Thailand hills lies the peaceful little Chinese village of Mae Salong. It sits on a ridge just under a high peak, the nose of which is capped by an ornate Chedi. I went up to the Chedi on the advice of a couple of travelers I had just met and joined for coffee. They had been in Mae Salong for a week, and I had only one afternoon and evening there. “What is the best thing to do with one afternoon?” I asked. They glanced at each other and both agreed, “The Chedi”, they said in unison. And so after a bowl of pork noodle soup, I climbed up each of the 700 steps that led the way chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, one word for each step.

Halfway up the steps I was approached and propositioned by a group of relatively harmless young teenage boys who were accosting the town with their Bangkok attitudes. “Thai boys?” said the hotel owner when I told her about it later, “not sound like local boys.” The local boys are all Chinese, of course, and probably have manners. At the top of the steps I was greeted by a Hill Tribe woman, selling her wares in front of the Chedi. She let me know she was the mother of 5, so I felt sorry for her and bought her offerings. I went up into the Chedi and took a good look around at Burma and all of Northern Thailand as well as the birds-eye view of the village and tea plantations of Mae Salong.

It wasn't until midway through the day that I knew I would end up in Mae Salong. I had caught the bus back to Chiang Rai from Chiang Khong, and took a taxi masquerading as a Saengthaew to catch the boat going to Tha Ton. I didn't think I would have time to do both Mae Salong and Tha Ton, and I liked the idea of a boat trip up the river through the countryside, so I chose Tha Ton. However, I had apparently missed the daily boat a half hour earlier, and the other option was to rent a private boat for 2500 baht (about 75 dollars). I didn’t feel like being so extravagant so I huffed and got back into the Saengthaew and told the driver just to take me back to the bus station, I would go to Chiang Mai. He said, “I can take you to Tha Ton”. I turned him down, but the fact that he would drive that far made me think…

“How much for you to drive me up to Mae Salong?” I asked, sticking my head through the back window when the truck had come to a stop. “1500 baht”, he yelled up toward me. “No that’s too much!” I exclaimed, pulling my head back into the truck.

Next stop, “How much you spend?” the driver asked me. “1000 baht,” I answered. “Not enough,” he said, “I have to drive long way, drive back, gas expensive,” he asserted, “1200 baht” (about 35 dollars).

“Ok” I said. “Pull over so I can sit in front.” The driver pulled over and I settled into the front and ate the bananas he offered me as we made our way up the windy road to Mae Salong. The scenery was magnificent and I knew immediately that I was going to wish I could spend more time in those hills. You can get there cheaply if you have time to take the bus and then wait for the public Saengthaew, but I was feeling short of time so this was like a miracle for me. I had only one afternoon in the town, and I wanted to make the most of the time.

When I came down from the Chedi, I walked from one end of town to the other, wandering through the hill tribe market stalls, and the multitude of tea shops before the sun set and I made my way back through the town to my hotel.

The hotel, The Mae Salong Villas, was a red lantern trimmed very ornate Chinese affair with a huge banquet hall. They are a tour group hotel, essentially the only one in town, so they often have a full house. The other options were some inexpensive guesthouses closer in to town, but I decided to splurge my one night in the mountains.

My room had a spectacular view and was as clean as a hospital, and about as warmly appointed, you can’t hand it to the Chinese for their interior decorating skills. The gleaming whiteness of the walls however, made it very easy to hunt and kill the evening mosquitoes, a task I’ve become very good at, occasionally using one hand to grab and squish one right out of the air in one agile movement. This movement has become quite the impresser to those lucky enough to witness it. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thought this activity was cruel.

The banquet hall was crowned at the back by a wall of tea and a facility for tasting. The owners have a tea estate and sell all their own teas at the restaurant. I had a long talk with the owner and found out that the tea is picked by Hill Tribe folks. “They are very clever,” said the owner, “We used to pay salary, but they were very lazy and did not pick enough tea. Then we switched to paying them by weight, and they started picking more stems because stems are heavier. This is a great problem later because we can’t use stems to make the tea. We have to supervise very closely to make sure they pick only leaves.”

Unlike the plantations of India, the workers here are not supplemented beyond their salaries in theory or reality. They get paid for their labors and that is all, and then they go home in the evening, to their Hill Tribe villages. Also unlike India, here, the tea industry seems to be thriving. How do the laborers fare? Good question.

The next morning, after buying much tea, I hopped on the public Saengtaew down to Tha Ton, changed to another one that went to Fang, and hopped on the bus that took me through the sharp pokey mountains down to Chiang Mai where it seems I’ve left a little piece of my heart.

Oh, Alberto, you were right... and I also bought a teapot.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Making it to the Mekong

Where I am now, the Mekong river provides the border of Thailand and Laos, and I am sitting on the porch of my bungalow looking at Laos as occasional boats make their way up or down the river heading to their various destinations. This town is Chiang Khong, a legal border crossing between the two countries therefore making it a backpacker stronghold in Thailand’s North. From here, you can take a boat to China.

Getting here from Chiang Rai was an interesting journey. I arrived in Chiang Rai after a day of delayed plane rides and airport people watching activities. In Chiang Rai I had the late afternoon to explore the bustling downtown area, and the next morning to do an early morning walking tour of the temples. Then I checked out of my hotel and hopped on a bus to Chiang Saen. I got off and the Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for me (as usual) and I asked him if he could take me on a quick tour of Chiang Saen’s ruins and temples because then I wanted to take the Saengthaew to Chiang Khong. It didn’t cost too much and was a lot of fun, and then he dropped me off at the Saengthaew which was about to leave.

A Saengthaew is a small pickup truck that is lined with benches in the back. The Saengthaew was full so I sat in the front squished between the driver and a middle aged Thai woman. Neither of them spoke any English. I listened to them talk trying to pick up the occasional word or so. The Saenghaew was a manual drive truck, therefore I had to keep my knees to the left to avoid getting in the way. I was not comfortable with leaving my backpack with it’s computer occupant on the top of the truck, so it was also squished into the front and on my lap. The scenery was beautiful however, as the truck wound its way along the Mekong. “Aihhoooooga” went the Saengthaew’s bell, letting the driver know that one of the passenger’s wanted off. The Thai woman and I looked at each other and laughed. I was enjoying this ride.

We reached a town that was in the middle of nowhere and the Saengthaew driver pointed to a waiting area and used his hands to tell me that I should wait there for the next Saenghthaew that would take me the rest of the way to Chiang Khong. I waited for about 20 minutes when another Saenghthaew appeared, and he used his sign language to tell me that he wouldn’t be leaving for about an hour and a half.

I went for a walk to find some food, and found a little grocery store where I bought some kind of stale rice cake for 5 baht. I sat at a table in the store and ate the cake and then started looking around the store, I guess it was the town’s grocery store, although it wasn’t much in the way of supplies. The woman who was keeping the store opened up a banana leaf package and ate a little piece of what was inside, some dark sticky rice with coconut on top. She used her hands to invite me to try some. I did and it was delicious, she gave me the rest. Her friend showed up with an orange that she divided up into three parts, which we ate, throwing the seeds off to the side. They taught me a couple of words in Thai, which I promptly forgot.

I said Khorb Kuhn Ka and Sawatdee Ka (Thank you and Good day) to them and waved as I walked off in the direction of a sign in English that said Hand Weavers -->. It took me down a long road past a schoolyard full of Thai children of all ages learning dances and just having fun. The road took a sharp right turn right on the cliff that looked out over the Mekong, so I stopped and enjoyed the view for a minute, noticing a tobacco plantation growing near the river’s edge. I found the weavers studio and went in to find the cutest old ladies wearing delicate turban like hats and sitting at their looms, weaving.

“Sawatdee Ka” I said, holding my hands up in the prayer position and bowing in the traditional Thai manner. “Sawatdee Ka!” They repeated the gesture, bowing twice as deep and laughing, using gestures to invite me in. I took off my shoes and came in, looking at their handiwork and oohing and ahhing. I picked out a couple of things and found that price can be discussed easily without using words. One of the women pointed to the scarf I was eyeing and held up 1 finger. 100 baht. This was something she made herself on the loom. At the beautiful hill tribe embroidered fabric I was eyeing she held up five fingers, 500 baht. I bought them both, I didn’t bother to try to barter. Not so expensive for beautiful things and lovely people. And this place didn’t look to me like it saw much tourist traffic.

After posing for pictures and thank yous and goodbyes, I made my way back to the Saengthaew stand and waited for the truck to leave. It finally left about a half hour after the agreed upon time, and wound it’s way along the Mekong until we got to Chiang Khong, right before dark.

So here I am, enjoying a day off along the Mekong in a sleepy little backpacker stronghold with lovely bungalows that cost only a few dollars a night. The only problem here is Laos. Laos is really loud in the morning, broadcasting Buddhist prayers on the loudspeaker system all day long starting at about 4:00 in the morning.

Day 2

No noise from across the river except a peaceful bell early in this morning. Apparently Buddha Day is over and Laos is back to normal. A stunning sunrise greeted my day, my bungalow faces East.... From my balcony retreat, I could hear the occasional sound of music wafting over from the other side, a drum, a flutish thing, some kind of hammered tonal instrument. Someday I must go there, not this time.

I rented a small motorbike and headed up to a hill tribe village about 8 km outside of town. I didn’t want to take a motorbike, and tried waited almost two hours for a Saengthaew which never appeared. While waiting, several people asked where I was going and made motorbike gestures, pointing at me. I finally succumbed and went to a place where I could rent one, cheap. The shopkeeper gave me a lesson and I learned in five minutes how to drive one. Luckily the roads are easy and other traffic is scarce, which is good because the signs alone are enough to scare one off the road. Obviously I lived to write this blog. Actually, the freedom and the breeze in my face was quite nice...don't tell my father.

I went up to the hill tribe village and found that there really are places that tourists don’t frequent. The scenery of palms, vines and banana trees, giving way to wooden shacks and laundry hang to dry. “Hello” shouted the occasional child practicing English, “Sawatdee Ka” I replied. Smiles, giggles, and the occasional dirty look from the occasional unwelcoming villager. I stopped and had sticky rice in banana leaf at a store, and bought some chili peppers as I had seen many drying in the villages.

I learned on this trip that almost anything wrapped in a banana leaf and sold as food is probably delicious.

I am having a hard time wanting to rip myself away from this bungalow, which comes with it’s own personal cat, albeit a cat with fleas, but a cat never-the-less. And the cat loves me, it can barely get enough of me. As I write this now, from my porch looking over the Mekong, the cat is asleep in the hammock I have recently abandoned.

Tomorrow, a new adventure…I will leave this lovely town by bus and make my way to another place.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Get me the Ph** out of HERE!

Ok, here’s the deal…after spending a delightful week with my son James in Bangkok, I went North to Ayuthaya to see the marvels of the Ancient Kingdom of Siam. Amazing temples, Buddha’s head being enveloped by a tree, ruins of ancient temples with rows of headless Buddhas, stuff like that. Then I intended to go further North, but could not get a ph***n ticket because, as the man at the bus station said “No ticket, because Happy New Year Thailand” (say in Thai English inflection or you totally lose the idea). Apparently all of the Thai people take the rare holiday opportunity to visit their families in the North, and who can blame them? So the wonderful woman at the Baan Lotus Guesthouse, (a wonderful place to stay in Ayuthaya by the way), recommended I go South, to Phuket. Another traveler from the guesthouse, a lovely man from Italy named Alberto who happened to be going to Phuket, and I hopped on the train back to Bangkok and were going to take a train but found out that we could take a pretty cheap flight instead and so hours later, suddenly I was in Phuket. Way down South.

It was dark when we arrived and we took two rooms at the first guesthouse we came across. I was satisfied as it was clean and cheap, even if the showers were not hot. We then, because it seemed Alberto was enamored with the idea, allowed a Tuk Tuk driver to recommend an expensive restaurant by the sea where we went for seafood and wine and ambience. One whopping hell of a commission later, he brought us back toward the hotel where a fell into my room and watched the continuing saga of the devastating news about Benazir Bhutto on BBC news. After spending night after night watching her battle through the last few months while I was traveling around in India, I felt a closeness that I can’t explain. I am really sad to see her struck down. A shining light for Pakistan, and for women of Islam has been darkened. But again…I digress.

In the morning I walked out of my room at 7:30 in the morning to find Alberto standing outside my door about to knock. Primed to go find coffee and then try to make the 8:30 boat to Koh Phi Phi, we both shot out of the hotel and went on the hunt. Not an easy thing to find coffee before 9:00 unless you like Thai coffee. We ended up in a busy Thai food market eating dim sum and drinking Thai Coffee with the locals. That was my favorite moment in all of Phuket. We missed the 8:30 boat as we decided to relax and aim for the 10:00 boat which made for a more relaxing morning.

When we got to the pier we bought tickets to Koh Phi Phi, which left at 11:00 instead of 10:00 so we waited. More and more tourists showed up until it was obvious to me without even going to the island that I was going to really hate it there. This was NOT my scene, young 20 something babes in miniskirts and tattoo covered men with shaved heads, jet setter families with tow heads and golden tans, not a single Thai person to be seen. My stomach began to get tighter and tighter. I’m not the partying kind, I’m more the lying around with a book kind. I’m the 300 baht a night kind, not the 3000 baht a night kind; the only option on Koh Phi Phi. I was obviously about to be with the wrong people. Alberto wanted to go there to say to his friends that he had been there. He was heading out the next day. I thought I wanted to go with him for the same reason, but the more people that showed up, the tighter the knot in my stomach became. The boat was late. I ran back to the reservation booth and cancelled my ticket, apologized to Alberto and kissed him on the cheek, said bye bye and hopped in a taxi back to Phuket town and to the airline ticket office to get tickets North. By tomorrow night, I should be in Chiang Rai, where I really want to be. Temples, mountains, rivers, Thai people. One or two tourists, not BILLIONS.

But since I was in Phuket, I thought that maybe I could find a nice quiet beach for one night. Even if it cost me a little bit more than I’d like to spend.

Um. No. Read my lips, DON’T COME TO PHUKET TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL. If you want this vibe, just go to Venice Beach. Seriously! If you go anywhere, I hear Krabi province has more hope for peace. But even then, really, avoid Thailand at Christmas and New Years. Just don’t come here.

So then, I paid a good deal of money to a taxi man who took me from beach to beach to find a hotel, and every supposedly dreamy beach looked like hell to me. This was from the tsunami of people and development; the other tsunami’s damage is no longer visible. I finally landed in Patong Beach, probably the most chaotic of them all. I Ph***n hate it here. Get me the Ph*** out of here. “Tomorrow morning, first thing,” says the God of the North.

Oh, and by the way, Phuket, in case you didn’t know, is pronounced Pookette.