Nong Khai to Chiang Rai - Friday 5 - Tuesday 23 December 2008

Nong Khai the Thai side of the Mekong River is a fairly prosperous town having done well out of its excellent location as a centre for international trade. It retains a nice old Mekong river charm ..but we swiftly felt we were back in Thailand ..the quality of the roads being suberb and life just felt more fast paced than in Laos. NK is famous for the Naga Fireballs or mysterious balls of fire that float over the Mekong ..only in October though so we missed it ..but we saw the statue of the Naga or serpent who legend has it is responsible. The other boring theory is that methane gas is responsible.

We had a quick look around NK, .having a delicious lunch off a street stall.. a sort of very thin omelet stuffed with bean sprouts and minced pork… or Kha Nom Bueng - as a charming lady we met told us. One worth writing down ..but it might be a local specialty as we haven't seen it since. Next day we drove on following the course of the Mekong a beautiful drive.

We snagged a couple of really good camps spots looking up the river. A small is great to be back in Thailand from the point of view of ease of finding camping areas. Whilst everyone in Laos was very friendly and welcoming a few times people didn't want us to park or were uncomfortable with it ..maybe it is because they don't camp much and tourism is still relatively new here (18 years since it first opened its doors) or as the war can still be remembered by most people  they are concerned for your safety. In Thailand people are very welcoming and open to the idea of camping we have camped at restaurants, wats, kindergardens and various other establishments and they generally seem really pleased to have us.

The road was lovely winding along the river with views of Laos across the water. We arrived on the King's birthday..and it was another huge reminder of an important aspect of Thailand …the enormous esteem in which the King is held. This year was  the first time in 60 years that he has reigned that  his Majesty didn't mark the occasion with a speech to his people.. something which has come to be a bit of a tradition. This upset many Thais to the point of weeping. The official reason was that he has a throat infection - but the feeling is that after all the recent political troubles he's not sure quite what to say! Either way the decorations, pictures and shrines in front of the majority of homes and businesses show the esteem in which he is held by the Thai people.

Driving along we saw a sign in English for fresh coffee along the way, and decided to pull off for a short break. What an experience! The charming host ..who lived in England for many years and spoke better English than us- was an architect and a Doctor of Music. Returning to his native Thailand he had bought up a large track of land and built several beautiful homes - one a perfect replica of a Tuscan villa . Set in beautifully landscaped gardens it was all quite stunning. The central house has a coffee shop and huge music room with a piano and stage, and he holds workshops there for professional musicians. It was a real shock to find it all there in the Thai countryside.    One little town we passed through had a penchant for fancy hedge cutting (topiary I think!) and there was a huge park full of all sorts - dinosaurs, dolphins , even a kangaroo aswell as my favourite the full scale Thai boxing match.

We drove on along the river to our next stop Chiang Khan. This is a beautiful little spot on the river with lovely water and mountain (across to Laos) views and beautiful old traditional wooden houses. We stopped off there for a day's r & r, and just relaxed. It was very like Laos. The surrounding area and large town of Loei is famous for making cotton quilts. As we had been a bit chilly in the northern Laos part of the trip we invested in 2 new ones to keep us warm when we hit colder climes. Andrew actually finds his far too hot now, but I have assured him it'll definitely come in when we hit the UK!! The ladies who make the quilts ( 2 sisters and a mother) had a family business which has  been up and running for generations  and they did a great job!

We drove on taking the road south away from the river to Lom Sak. This very scenic area is seen as a sort of Thai Switzerland - the King having been raised in Switzerland it is often mentioned here many hills resorts are called the Swiss Lodge or some such thing! - and it seemed to be a big tourist area but mainly for Thais. We saw few farangs and we (or more particularly the car to be honest!) were often a big attraction with people lining up to take pictures!

The area has a few   slightly tacky Asian tourist attractions like Coffee Hill -where there is a scenic look out complete with swing where you can get your picture taken. It is all a bit over the top for Western tastes I think. The area was once a communist stronghold ..we had wondered  about this - whether communism ever took hold in Thailand when all the neighbouring countries fell- and obviously they did have a red movement  though it was swiftly put down. We saw the weapons Museum ...complete with guns helicopter (Andrew's favourite!) and bunkers at what once was the Communist HQ. No signs or info in English so that's about all we learnt!

We headed east along highway 12 to Phitsanulok which was a lovely drive with waterfalls all the way. Phitsanulok was a large bustling City set on the river Mae Nam Nan. We found a camp spot right on the river ..amazingly close to the town centre but  still fairly quiet. It is famous for its Wat - Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat - and we had a look round prior to enjoying a Thai massage at the temple.

We then headed to the Buddha Casting Foundry. This was a fascinating look at how Buddha images are cast -the old fashioned way- prior to being covered in gold leaf and sent all over Thailand.  It was amazing how much work was involved. Going to the "Birds of Thailand" exhibition next door was a decision which was almost a fatal mistake for me!!!  We weren't sure whether to go in ..neither of us are keen on birds in cages .. but the birds did look beautiful - no cameras allowed you'll have to take our word for it but there were some gorgeous specimens we've never seen   in the wild- so we went in. I just glanced down and right next to me was a huge green and brown snake. It all happened very fast ..Andrew screamed at me I ran and the bloody thing chased after me jaw extended snapping at my heels! It missed me by millimeters. After that we lost interest in the birds a bit and just had a quick nervous look around!! We left Phitsanulok ..driving out past their cool golden elephant roundabout.

Next we drove on to Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai historical parks. These 2 towns about 60kms apart date from the same era and contain amazing examples of the architecture of  the Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai period of around the 13th & 14th centuries. Sukhothai was in fact the first 

 capital of Siam.

In both locations we lucked out to get wonderful camping spots - one in a central Wat and one on the river inside the park. We spent a couple of days taking in the buildings. Built within moats and originally constructed out of volcanic rock it was quite impressive an Angkor Wat on a small scale.

A lot of reconstruction work has been carried out by the University Art Department and many of the Buddhas and elephants are reconstructed into their former glory.

There were numerous examples of the lotus bud architecture which typify the Sukhothai period.

Si Satchanalai particularly is also famous for its pottery and the remains of many kilns can be seen. We met a family still continuing in the tradition today making and selling lovely pottery. We were amazed that we had never heard of this area, as it is pretty impressive  like I said in its way it is a little Angkor Wat and certainly worth a visit.

We ran into a touring group of monks who had come to bless one of the towers ..or some such thing. There was much chanting and waving of incense. They were very interested in our journey and through their driver who worked as a guide and spoke English they invited us to go and stay at their Wat which would have been great but we were heading north to Chiang Rai.

The road north continued to be scenic and grew increasingly colder! We hit Chiang Rai -the north most city of Thailand - just as it was getting dusk and were lucky to find a good parking spot across the river just out of town.

Chiang Rai is marketed as the gateway to the Golden Triangle - and we were heading in that direction. It is apparently not as colourful (or as touristy) as Chiang Mai which we have yet to visit. It seemed pretty busy to us but we are real country bumpkins now!  It is much cooler up here - the markets are full to bursting point of fresh vegetables - the city has  quite a nice centre with an ornate golden clock which was a gift to the King's mother from a famous Thai architect/sculptor, and another large statue of the former King they're equally keen on the royals up here!

There is also a huge night bazaar with all manner of local handicrafts for sale. We saw a wat - Wat Phra Singh -a 14th century temple in the traditional north Thai wooden structure. We loved  the "No Killing" sign - right next to "No Smoking"!   We managed to miss the most important wat in the city Wat Phra Kaew….we broke for lunch and forgot to go back ..there's always next time!


The nearby Hill Tribes' Museum  was really interesting giving a wealth of information about Thailand's many indigenous tribes. Some of these seem to have a bit of a rough time of it often not being recognized as Thai citizens and so living in a sort of limbo land with no rights. The Thai government is nervous of granting citizenship to tribes people - as it may open a flood gate of people from Myanmar and Laos - as the tribes range between the 3 countries irrespective of borders so it is a hard one to police. The situation is now much improved in no small part due to the focus placed on this area by tourism and the resulting attention which has embarrassed the Thai authorities.

We met a very nice Thai lady who runs cycling tours as a spin off from her cycling shop - Fat Free Cycling.  She also has a little guesthouse -the Birds Nest - which is lovely and peaceful and she kindly invited us to stay there a night. She also had Wi-Fi so I carried on updating the web …it is a bit of a mission trying to get all the pictures on is often incredibly slow a single picture taking several minutes- so it is taking time getting through the back log!! Still struggling through the  pictures for the Laos section so keep checking if you're interested.

Next day 16 December was my birthday!!   and after a nice breakfast we headed north to the golden triangle. This area was named by the CIA and describes the triangle made by the borders of Myanmar Thailand and Laos at the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Ruak rivers. The gold refers to the huge amount of money here as this area was long a major world centre for the production and smuggling of opium. On the way we had a look at the town of Mae Sai. It was a busy trading centre and had a bit of the "wild west" feel which seems to belong to border towns. Though we were unable to take the car we could have entered Myanmar from here for up to 15 days. We were going to do so but in the end didn't. The law has recently changed and returning to Thailand from here you only get a 15 day visa -actually the immigration officer we spoke to was adamant that this was now the case for all ports of entry to Thailand….surely this can't be right??... at the time of typing we can't confirm either way. More importantly there were very strict restrictions on where you could go once you entered there are concerns about troops being built up in the area due to the ongoing trouble with the rebel Karen tribes. We saw a few coach loads of Thai army going through the border certainly. In short we decided to forget Myanmar on this occasion and go in on a future trip when we can have more of a look around.

As I mentioned it was my birthday so we decided to go out for a nice dinner. To this end we drove up to the Ananatara Resort which proved to be a very good decision. This luxury resort combines exquisite luxury  and a superb restaurant with an elephant camp. John Roberts the English (from Devon) Director  of Elephants (cool title!!) was really great and allowed us to camp  at the elephant camp. There are real problems faced in Thailand by elephants and their handlers (or mahouts) as due to the downturn in logging work these creatures and their mahouts   are sadly often unemployed and forced to come to the cities and make a living walking the elephants around the city and  selling vegetables to the tourists to feed them. It isn't really a good life for the elephants and a few have died of traffic accidents or disease. The elephant camp centre relocates these elephants, their mahouts and families  and gives them the chance to lead a new life in the resort.

Next to the  camp which contains 30 odd elephants there is a nice village where the mahouts and their families live. Guests can take a mahout course and actually learn how to "drive" these amazing animals. There were several families there when we visited and the kids certainly loved every minute of this unique experience. Camping out in the elephant camp was an amazing experience - our coolest camp spot so far- and we'd really recommend the resort as a luxury place to stay. We also met 2 Sydney based vet students -Ally and Marny - out doing some very different work experience and we enjoyed a dinner out with them and John.  Thanks again to John the whole thing (including an amazing dinner in the hotel's restaurant) made my birthday very memorable. We include both the resort website and another site which details some of the work done with the elephants for your information. 

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the elephants we did the "touristy" bit in the golden triangle. We took in the Opium Museum -a really interesting look into the history of this powerful drug. The colonial powers certainly didn't come out of it too well fact the Dutch actually taught the Chinese to smoke with a pipe! The British used the drug  to control the Burmese and actually encouraged its use. In the museum we learnt that in 1868 Mr C R Wright was responsible for creating heroin as known today from raw opium. Wonder if it's any relation to Spud??

We went to the boat dock presided over by a huge golden Buddha and took the obligatory boat trip. Starting in Thailand you drive up the river to the site of a luxury resort complex and casino ..which is actually Myanmar but you can't get off there unless you're staying (very expensive) and it  wouldn't feel a very Burmese experience if you did!-   You then go to Laos on the opposite bank where you can get off for a little market with some overpriced Laos  goods. Further up the river -240km is the  Chinese border. All a bit for the tourists as I say but an interesting last view of the Mekong for us after following it through 4 countries.

So, on 18 December we left the golden triangle and after a final night in Chiang Rai headed back down intending to go to Chiang Mai. Unfortunately we didn't make it too far! - at about 40 km down the highway  Andrew started to feel ill. He started shaking badly and we pulled off when we saw the sign to Phan Hospital. Blood tests confirmed his malaria has come back, and to date (Monday 22 December) we have been staying there - in a VIP suite this time so we get a private room with a bed for me - albeit a narrow one! The diagnosis is that the malaria lay dormant in Andrew's liver as he was not given the correct drug to completely kill it ..maybe they don't have this drug in Laos. After a few late nights we were both tired and run down ..I have got a bad cold ..but for Andrew the malaria came back. He is now feeling much better but we have resolved to take it much easier so sadly we won't rush to get down to Margi's for Xmas but will relax up here for a few more days. The service here is very good though the hospital is stuck out on the highway so not as easy as in Pakse to get to town. Andrew is fed but I have to fend for myself so one of the nurses kindly took me to Tesco to stock up!! The hospital food is a bit mixed to say the least (e.g.) cold fried eggs ..(like out of the fridge cold not just cooled) with ketchup, and 2 cold hard  donuts with butter and sugar for breakfast ….ummmm!!!  I took pity on him and hunted down some yogurt and cereal! Anyway I guess that's pretty much the standard  of hospital food the world over and here we do have our own room and a TV..though it's only in Thai!

So as at Tuesday 23 December we plan to head back to Chiang Rai when Andrew is up to it as we rushed our trip somewhat and missed quite a bit. In a few more days we'll then begin a more leisurely drive across to Chiang Mai. Never a dull moment!!

Hope you all have a wonderful festive season!!!!