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March 21, 2005

What we've been up to

I've finally got the entire last batch of photos up, and I guess it's time for a quick update to let you all know where we've been.

After leaving Kanchanaburi, we went to Ayuthayya, which was the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. There are a bunch of temple ruins around the town, but none of them are in very good condition because the Burmese destroyed the city in the 18th century. Ayuthayya is at the meeting point of three different rivers, so the old city is actually an island between the rivers. The city has the dubious distinction of being the mangy dog capital of Thailand. I thought that India had easily won the "Worst dogs of Asia" award, but after visiting Ayuthayya, I think that Thailand gets the gold. Every time we left or returned to our room, we had to pass through a gauntlet of zombie dogs straight out of "Resident Evil".

We then went to Sukothai, which was the capital of the Sukothai kingdom, which Thais consider to be the first true "Thai" kingdom. Unlike Ayuthayya where the ruins are scattered throughout town, all the ruins in Sukothai are enclosed within a huge, nicely landscaped archaeological park. This makes it much easier to bicycle around without having to worry about getting run over. Though the ruins here were never destroyed by the Burmese, they haven't done too well in the face of the Thailand Fine Arts Departments "restoration" efforts. I'm not totally against restoration work at archaelogical sites -- India's Archaelogy Survey, for example, has done a great job with India's monuments -- but in Sukothai, all the poured-concrete garudas and elephants are a bit too much . . .

By this time we realized that there was no way that 30 days would be long enough in Thailand. Luckily, it's simple to just leave the country and then get a new 30 day visa stamp. The nearest land border crossing is the Burma border near Mae Sot, so we went to Mae Sot. Mae Sot itself doesn't have much to recommend it to the traveller, but if you need to go on a visa run, it is an interesting town. There's a huge Burmese influence in the area -- all the signs are in Burmese, guys in towns are wearing longyis, women wear that yellow paste on their face that they wear in Burma. Apparently before the current "Thailand-Myanmar Friendship Bridge" was built, it was a fairly lawless town, with lots of gem, teak, and drug smuggling through the area. These days it seems to be pretty tame though. We were excited about being able to go back to Burma, even if was only for a couple hours, but the Burmese town across the river, Myawaddy was disappointing. It was really dirty and dusty, with lots of sleazy looking guys with giant sunglasses and too much hair pomade strolling around.

We were only going to stay for one day (in order to cross the border and come back for our visa), but the guest house owner talked us into doing a one day sightseeing trip with another couple staying at the guesthouse. This turned out to be a lot of fun. We went to a big cave (which I can't remember the name of), which took a couple of hours to hike all the way through. In the US, a cave this cool would have lots of railings and walkways, maybe handicapped ramps, decent lighting, "DONT TOUCH" signs, etc. Luckily, Thailand doesn't have all the burdensome safety regulations that we have at home, so we were just able to wander freely through the cave with our guide. There were nearly 10 major caves, and lots of bats.

After the cave, we went to the Highland Farm gibbon sanctuary. They're an organization that rescues gibbons (and some monkeys) that have been abandoned by their owners. People think it's really cute to buy a baby gibbon as a pet, but once they grown into a full-size screeching ape with giant fangs, it's not so fun anymore, and the abandon the gibbon. There are also some gibbons that were given up by zoos. One of the apes had lost a couple of limbs in an accident, and so the Bangkok zoo wanted to get rid of her because "Nobody wants to look at a crippled ape".

Next stop was going to be Chiang Mai. We decided to go the "back way", and go through the hills along the border up to Mae Salit and Mae Sariang before going to Chiang Mai. It was a long, dusty, bumpy ride in a songthaew (pickup truck with two facing rows of benches in the back, used for public transportation). Nothing much to see -- except for miles and miles of refugee camps filled with Burmese refugees. Most of them are Karens (one of the largest "hill tribe" groups in Burma and Thailand) who fled Burma because of the oppresion of minorities by the military there as well as ongoing fighting between Karen insurgents and the Burmese army.

The guesthouse in Mae Salit was probably the grossest place we've stayed in Thailand. There's a fine line between "rustic" and "squalid", and Mae Salit Guesthouse had crossed that line. Unfortunately the last songthaew to Mae Sariang had already gone, so we were stuck there for the night. It turned out not being that bad -- the man who runs the guesthouse is a really nice Karen guy who left Burma after the 1988 "Karen Revolution". Lets just say he needs to pay a little more attention to cleaning and maintenance!

The next day we took another crowded dusty songthaew up to Mae Sariang, where we were luckily able to connect immediately with a bus to Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is a fine place, though I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn't in bed with food poisoning for four days . . .

After hanging around Chaing Mai a little longer than planned, we just needed to get away for a couple days and so went to Pai. Pai is an interesting little town. There's little of inherent interest there, but it has turned into a big budget traveller's hangout. There's also a lot of scary looking burnout types there, both farang and Thai. Dirty middle-aged American hippy to dirty middle-aged Thai hippy: "Yeah man, you know the Doors? Yeah, the Doors? Man, they OPENED for my band!" The countryside around Pai is really beautiful for going on short hikes. It would probably be nice for longer hikes too during the cool season, but it's too damned hot right now!

We're back in Chaing Mai right now plotting our next move. Probably will go to Laos, but we need to figure out the easiest route to get there. I think I've written more than enough for now!

Posted by Jason on March 21, 2005 03:36 AM
Category: Thailand

Enjoyed your highly descriptive comments on Thailand. It's sad to probably see those dirty middle-aged American hippies running around. They are most likely a product of my generation, coming out of the 60's. Thanks again for all the safe and let the fun continue!

Posted by: Kraston & Alice on March 21, 2005 11:08 AM

That was a very colorful entry. Possibly my favorite so far.

"People think it's really cute to buy a baby gibbon as a pet, but once they grow into a full-size screeching ape with giant fangs, it's not so fun anymore..."

That was pretty funny to me.


Posted by: Cousin Holly on March 21, 2005 11:53 PM

It sounds like you guys are having a blast. Have a "Happy Easter"! -- James

Posted by: James Hu on March 25, 2005 10:28 AM

Reading this makes me want to go to Thailand!

PS-My cousin's husband drives a songthaew near Kalasin! :)

Posted by: Cousin Holly's Friend, Mulysa :) on March 28, 2005 07:44 PM

Thailand is a fantastic place to visit -- it's the ultimate budget destination!

Posted by: Cathy on April 1, 2005 11:49 PM
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