Phan to Chiang Mai via Mae Salong Mon 22 December 2008 – Wed 8 January 2009
Having spent a few enforced days in Phan we hadn't actually seen Phan itself as we were stuck in the hospital 7km out on the ring road. It was a pretty nondescript little place -more to pass through than stop at. Andrew was still feeling a bit weak after his time in hospital so we didn't go far but camped that night at the nearby city of Phayao.
Phayao is a pleasant enough city fairly affluent being surrounded by rich agricultural land and having as its centre piece Kwan or Lake Phayao. Few western tourists get here and even fewer stay around ..I think it is too close to the more tempting attractions of the north ..Chiang Mai and the trekking centres.
Lake Phayao was very pretty as the sun set. It is the largest fresh water lake in the north and a big centre for fish farming. We enjoyed fresh fish steamed in lemon grass at a lake front restaurant that evening ..a step up from hospital food!!
We camped right near the river and the next day took in a local Wat - Wat Si Khon Kham ..made famous by its sacred Buddha image a massive gold Buddha which dates from 1491. This figure was originally on the lake's edge and measures 18 m tall and 16 m wide across the lap so it's pretty impressive.
We also went out on the Lake to see a shrine there. It was hard to understand as none of the signs were in English but I think it was the site of an old temple which was reconstructed for the present King's 80th birthday last year and re-opened as a tourist attraction in his honour.
After this we headed on up to Chiang Rai where Champoo -the lady who owns the Fat Free Bikeshop and Bird's Nest guesthouse again made us very welcome. It is a lovely peaceful place -a bit too cool for us to use the pool though the Europeans went in! We spent a quiet few days over Xmas relaxing in Chiang Rai.
We did get to see the Wat Phra Kaew which we missed last time, and took in a couple of other city temples, including one with a huge statue of the old King but mainly we relaxed and did little more than go to the Xmas street fairs.
These were very interesting with lots of street food (Isan sausages everywhere!) as well as local products - from musical instruments to cloth - and even a city centre orchestra.
As it is a bit colder up here it actually felt pretty Xmasy for me!
We next headed on to the hill town of Mae Salang. The drive there was very beautiful, winding through the hills with gorgeous views around every corner. We stopped to buy oranges and saw a stall selling homemade sling shots so obviously as popular here as in Laos!
On the way in we stopped at an Akha fair. This was very touristy but interesting. The Akha were all playing traditional games, playing instruments, swinging on the homemade swing which is something they have in every village.
These swings aren't really a game traditionally but are used for a special yearly ceremony but they'd built a replica. It was full of Thai tourists - but I have to say the atmosphere seemed pleasant the Akha kids seemed happy playing with the Thai kids and they all seemed to be having a good time and happily posing for pictures. Whilst it was a bit touristy as I say, at least it is a way of ensuring that the traditions remain alive and get passed down through the generations.
Mae Salang where we spent the next couple of days was an interesting little town. Due mainly to the time of year it was the first place we'd been where camping was actively promoted - as Thai tourists flock here in the tourist season - so we swiftly found a good camp spot. The town is extremely Chinese - mainly because other than indigenous tribes the population is predominantly from Yunnan and they have retained their traditional customs. They are all descendants of the Kuomintang or KMT army who opposed the communists. They fled to Myanmar and when they were finally forced out of there in 1961 they crossed by pony caravan into this remote area and set up a new village much like what they'd left behind in South China.
Traditionally these people were much involved in the opium trade but latterly this has decreased and the young certainly are becoming more assimilated into mainstream Thai society. They also brought their tea with them and green tea plantations dominate the area. We went for a few tasting you have to smell first from a long narrow glass and then tip the tea into a smaller round one to taste. The style of tea originally hails from Taiwan.
We arrived in time for the yearly blossom tree festival. Whilst we didn't see much blossom there were really interesting displays form the local indigenous people - including Akha, Lisu, Mien and Hmong - who were there to sell their wares. It was absolutely fascinating to see them all in their lovely outfits and again whilst obviously a bit laid on for the tourists the people seemed happy to be there and pleased to pose for photos.
There were ladies selling tea and ornaments everywhere as well as a man making traditional Chinese noodles. Andrew did a fair bit of bargaining !!
From here we headed on towards Doi Tung. The road wound up the hills very attractively. Doi Tung or "flag peak" was once a real hotspot for opium cultivation. This is no longer the case as royal intervention encouraged the people to plant new crops. However there is still apparently a lot of amphetamine smuggling between Thailand and Myanmar here and we were warned not to use the roads after dark or stray far off the beaten track.
The Late -but still very revered - Princess Mother (the King's mother) built her summer palace -the Doi Tung Royal Villa - here as part of the royal program to prevent opium use, as her organic farms helped introduce alternative crops. The area was absolutely swarming with Thai tourists. We had to wear extra clothes -due to the huge respect for all things royal you have to be very covered up here- which is why we look a bit like we're on day release from gaol!!
The queue for the house - again as often with the royals here very Swiss in style- was ludicrous so we didn't bother but we enjoyed the gardens. These were beautifully landscaped containing a wealth of gorgeous flowers.
We have now got to the bottom of the new visa rule. The gen is you get 30 days still on arrival via plane but only 15 days on the border. Had we known we'd have got a 3 month visa in Vientiane the last capital we visited but it took us a bit by surprise. 15 days is a very short time for people driving as we are and we repeatedly will have to rush between borders which seems crazy. With the problems in Bangkok already causing huge losses in tourism revenue to Thailand I really can't see how this new policy will help anyone. Anyway for now we're stuck with it and for this reason we headed back up to Mae Sai on the border and spent New Year s Eve in Myanmar doing a border run. We will write up a new section on Myanmar at a later date. We found a lovely campsite near Doi Tung where we camped each side of this border run. We enjoyed seeing everyone let loose the beautiful lanterns used to celebrate the New Year. They filled the sky and looked lovely though I imagine there were a few accidents around as very drunk people tried to set them free as it looked a bit tricky!
Safely back from Myanmar we drove on. Just out of Chiang Rai we passed a huge geezer - spraying water around in a way which was quite scary as it was at boiling point! We had a look around the markets - a lot of gems - rubies and sapphires from Myanmar as well as wood work and leather goods. We also stopped to see Wat Rong Khun. Whilst we have seen a lot of Wats this one really stood out. Built by Charlermchai Kositpipat a famous young Thai artist, it is largely made out of white glass the white symbolizing Buddha's purity. The main entrance is guarded by demons and surrounded by the souls of the damned. Inside (no photos allowed) are very contemporary paintings -one depicting the twin towers collapse on Sept 11 2001. Construction began 10 years ago and the entire project is going to take at least another 10 years. It really was quite impressive.
Finally on Friday 2 January - a bit behind schedule - we arrived in the beautiful northern city of Chiang Mai.