We departed the day after Christmas for a motorbike tour of the “Golden Triangle,” the area of Thailand which borders both Laos and Burma. We took just one bag, rented a bike and headed out of Chiang Rai into what was a strangely drizzly day (dry season?). Gabe did wonderfully handling our first urban highway experience, and we eventually found ourselves on quieter roads. After lunch and obligatory tourist photos at the “Welcome to the Golden Triangle” sign in Sop Ruak (the town where the three countries meet), we pushed on until we arrived in Mae Sai, the northernmost Thai town which sits on the Burmese border.
We had a few drinks and watched the people come and go, wondering if the immigration officials might just let us through “for a quick look.” We decided that was pretty unlikely in a country ruled by a military junta and instead headed down to what might be one of the biggest markets on the planet. We stumbled upon an unmarked antique shop that was just about to shut down, but managed to slip inside before the door went down. What we found inside was essentially a dusty warehouse with absolute mountains of Burmese artifacts, religious items, statues, carvings, thrones, jewelry, swords – you name it. As any true antique store should be, the place was a haphazard cave of a shop with nooks and crannies that would take days to fully explore. Gabe dug out two meter-long dragon carvings, roughly hand-chiseled with faded paint barely clinging onto them, that seemed to have been taken off of some sort of temple. I could tell he was hooked – after getting a price quite (3000 baht apiece), we reluctantly left, Gabe’s mind definitely still on the two items.
That night we had a roaming dinner (this is becoming the norm!) where we simply worked our way down an endless street, lined with food vendors selling everything from Thai to Chinese to Burmese food. Nearly every stall had something new to try, and by the end we were nearly doubled over (but happy!) – neither of us spent over $2 for this gorge-fest.
The next morning we’d hoped to head out early, but ended up waiting around for the antique store to open its door at 8. Eight came, eight went – finally we went upstairs where there was an attached gem shop and were let in downstairs (apparently more of a storeroom than a storefront, which we were luckily enough to have found!). Today the price was 2000 baht, and it took next to no bargaining to agree upon 1000 baht as a final price. The woman and her son helped package them up in mounds of newspaper, plastic and duct tape, then Gabe, myself and his prized dragons got back onto the motorbike and headed out of town…
The drive was incredible. Almost immediately we had a road the width of a sidewalk all to ourselves as it wound around sharp curves and up impossible hills in the misty mountains along the Burmese border. Aside from a few passport checkpoints, we saw almost no one and had hours of breath-taking scenery, giddy at the discovery of a Thailand that has yet to embrace the perils of development. What we thought would be a two hour trip to the town of Mae Salong actually ended up taking over four hours (forgot about those mountains…and missed that last turnoff), but we relished every minute.
We arrived in Mae Salong and were greeted with a quaint, one road town built along the edge of a mountain. This is a major tea-growing region, and every other storefront was a Chinese tea shop. More people speak Chinese in Mae Salong than speak Thai. We checked into a great little guesthouse (there were only a handful) hightailed it for lunch. We had an alright meal at the first place we saw, then spent the afternoon lazing in the sun near a beatiful, peaceful wat. That evening we explored our limited options for dinner – no night market here! -finding empty eatery after empty eatery, all with fairly boring menus. Finally we went up the mountain a bit further, near the day market, and saw a Chinese place absolutely bursting with Asian diners. We knew we’d found our spot and were soon enjoying roasted Yunan duck that was unlike any duck I’ve ever tasted – delicious!
The next morning I had the shortest, yet hardest run of the trip (there are only two directions to run when you’re on top of a mountain, and you can’t go down without coming back up!), then we purchased some breakfast treats in the busy morning market (it began at 4:30 a.m., outside our window) before getting ready to go. We packed our bag, paid the guesthouse, then Gabe got behind the “wheel” while I boarded behind him, clutching the precious dragon cargo. Off we went, coasting straight down the mountain on the sort of road that was created solely for motorcycle travel – scenic, wide, smooth and absolutely traffic-free!
We made it back to Chiang Rai at 11:55, just in time for our 12:00 rental deadline. We retrieved our other bags from our old guesthouse and went straight to the bus station, where we soon found ourselves on a VIP “greenbus” (which was something akin to a spaceship after the buses we’ve been riding for the past month!) to Chiang Mai. It was a sort, ridiculously comfortable trip, and we were in Chiang Mai by 6, having Bangkok flashbacks as we watched the traffic sit, heard the horns honk and fought off the tuktuk touts.
Chiang Mai is actually much less of an assault on the senses than Bangkok is, despite many grating similarities, and it wasn’t much trouble to get a fairly priced ride to a good room and head out for some exploration. Gabe was here back in August and already had his bearings a bit, so we decided to check out the Night Bazaar.
We got sidetracked on the way by an unnamed night market absolutely packed with Thais and farang alike, everyone vying for spots in front of their choice stalls – I’ve never seen so much choice in my life! We gleefully began yet another sampling dinner and brought up a common question once again – how will we eat when we go home?? We did plenty of walking afterwards, which helped, and I got up for a loooong run this morning in order to make room for our full-day Thai cooking course. I won’t go into detail, but it was fabulous and again, all of you will be the ones to benefit when we return home and have a kitchen once more! Check out both of our flickr pages for visual elaboration – we’re off on a bike again tomorrow and will return to Chiang Mai in 2009!