TravelMemories 7: northern Thailand - a succession of green, lively landscapes and mountain tops covered with a blanket of morning mist
I'm afraid. Afraid to forget. In 2014, me and my girlfriend were on a tour around the world for 14 months. While reminiscing about these days, I notice that there are things that I have forgotten. I mix up places or cannot remember the voice and faces of some memorable encounters anymore. I guess my memory's not quite what it used to be. This means that I have to write things down. I want to immortalize a piece of this journey. Later, when I tell my children about how beautiful this world is, I want them to know how I felt at that moment, how I reacted in certain situations. Hence this series around TravelMemories. Not really a classic travel story; rather fragmentary. With the use of memories that come flooding back to me, I try to recall the right feeling of that time. Hopefully, my mind doesn’t fool me.
Thailand is more than the sunny, tourist beaches in the south. Therefore we opted to stay in the north. We were surprised by the beauty of this part of Thailand. Green, lively landscapes with beautiful rice fields were interspersed with mountain tops covered with a blanket of morning mist. A true gift of nature. We also noticed that people in the north of Thailand are a lot more relaxed than in Bangkok - or anywhere else in Thailand. You just have to dive into a random village. Guaranteed to be greeted with a traditional Thai smile and Thai children who shout laughingly "Hellllooooo".
In the year 2014, Myanmar was not long open for tourism yet and we therefore were in doubt to go to this mystical country. Eventually, we heard that it would still be slightly above our budget at that moment. Because we wanted to be at the extreme, northernmost point of Thailand, we decided to go to Mae Sai. The city on the border with Myanmar turned out to be a mix of Chinese, Thai and Burmese shops and there was a cozy atmosphere. With a scooter, we went into the mountains to explore the beautiful views. Of course, we had seriously underestimated the slopes. We were not halfway our trip or my girlfriend already had to go further on foot. Me, in first gear, at a snail's pace, had to go up the mountain alone. I guess that what’s happens when you choose the cheapest option.
Luckily a 4x4 stopped and my girlfriend could catch a ride to the top, laughing when she was passing me and saw me struggle. It was quite remarkable because every few kilometers there was control by the Thai army. The region, known as the 'Golden Triangle' (the border area of Laos-Thailand-Myanmar), still proved to be a hatch for opium. The army men, fresh around the ears, looked strangely when there was no kilo of drugs on the back of the pickup, but a young wench from Belgium.
Panya Project in Mae Taeng
The twin brother of one of our best friends has been living in Thailand for almost two years. He invited us to take part in an introductory course on permaculture, somewhere in the jungle around Mae Taeng. It became an unforgettable ten-day. It is quite challenging to explain in a few sentences what we have learned in the Panya project.
Mud building, Panya project. - Photo source
Permaculture has everything to do with long-term thinking, it is a way of life in which you organize your life in such a way that you can be self-sustaining as much as possible. It covers all aspects of daily life: eg. how can I make biogas with my own food leftovers? How can I purify and reuse my own wastewater? How do I create my own vegetable garden? How do I build my house with natural resources? The nice thing is that is not too touchy-feely for my taste. On paper, it sounds like a hippie theory straight from the seventies, but permaculture offers ready-to-use solutions, even for ordinary people in the city. It is also about personal development, dealing with stress, etc.
It became a very busy course week: we learned how to build with mud bricks, organic gardening, planting trees, ... It was blissful to plod like this!
if you are interested, you can download the book 'Introduction to Permaculture' for free via the open textbook library.
After such an intense week, it was not easy to decide where we would spend our next days. Especially since the Thai New Year had arrived. The Thai celebrated not only the New Year but also the beginning of the rainy season and that meant pure CHAOS. Everyone was on leave for a week and came out on the street to pour liters of water on every passerby. If you were lucky you did not get an ice cube against your head, as they cooled the water bottles with ice. We decided to go into hiding in Pai.
The town itself is pretty touristy so we rented a cozy bamboo bungalow with a view of the rice fields, just outside the center. We discovered a super tasty restaurant 'Charlie & Lek' where they served vegetables tempura with a delicious, intangible sauce! We couldn’t put our finger on it. Only for this restaurant, we stayed for a week in Pai. You must cherish it while you have it.
Surroundings Pai. Photo source
You can say there was enough time for sightseeing: we rented a scooter an drove to a kind of mini grand canyon, a strawberry nursery, a village with Chinese immigrants ...
Another day we walked for hours on end to a waterfall that we never were able to reach. We had to return because we did not have enough water. It’s kind of foolish, but the trip was worth all the trouble! Moreover, are waterfalls not always a bit disappointing?
Mae Hong Son
The 'hustle and bustle' in the center of Mae Hong Son - described in a travel guide - was not really noticeable. We slept at Johnny House, near the local lake. Johnny had not stolen his name. Without any noteworthy introduction, he was bragging about his motorcycle accident in a probably drunken condition. As a result, bone had to be moved from his hip to his leg... He did not do much more than watch TV and command his wife, who was a bit embarrassed. Not exactly our kind of place, so we decided immediately to explore the city. That included an ice-cappuccino, our latest addiction.
Not deterred by the accident of our dear friend Johnny, we were ready the next day for a two-day scooter ride through the mountains and valleys around Mae Hong Son. The area was breathtaking and we were glad that the scooter was strong enough this time. The landscape was a succession of hills and river beds with gradients of over 20%, so it was necessary. Our first stop was the only real mud spa in Thailand (at least according to the only real mud spa itself). We felt like experimenting and decided to try a mud mask. At that time, I had a long beard, so I looked a bit like a third-rate superhero. You can image it was quite difficult to stay serious.
Surroundings Mae Hong Son. Photo source
Half an hour later we drove through endless tea plantations to a village between the hills. It actually looked a bit like Switzerland. We wanted to stay overnight at a local lake where every year Thai tourists enjoy peace and nature. Unfortunately, we apparently arrived in the low season. It looked a bit like a ghost town. All owners were restoring their bungalows (which was also necessary) and not everyone was very keen to give us a place, which was evident from the ridiculously high prices they asked for. Eventually, we found shelter and we could enjoy the sunset.
Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand. Too big to explore on foot, too dangerous to drive through with a scooter. A compromise was the bicycle. The city itself had a historic center surrounded by ramparts. That center was a mix of small streets, numerous temples, cafes and restaurants.
Lured by the music, we ended up at a party in honor of local saints. Typical of their parties is the cacophony of music. There were three groups playing at the same time, supported by gigantic speakers whose volume is as loud as possible. People seem to be in trance, as it were, and dance throughout the afternoon. Nice to see, even though your ears immediately protest at such a production of decibels.
Monk chat. Photo source
During our exploration, we also ended up at a temple where there was a free 'monk chat', a talk session where you can ask lots of questions to the local young monks. Very interesting to do and we learned a lot about their rules, their convictions and Buddhism in general. We were also told that we could take meditation classes in the vicinity of Chiang Mai. Why not?
The course was given by a confused monk with a peculiar style. He was very direct and hard to pin down in a conversation. There was a lot of room to experiment. This freedom is sometimes hard for us Westerners. The day program started at 5 o'clock in the morning. In total more than 6 hours a day we had to meditate, this in complete silence. And that was not the most difficult part: our last meal was served at 11.30 am. After that, only drinking was allowed. My protesting stomach wasn’t happy about that. We stayed there for three days and two nights. That seemed to us enough for a first acquaintance.
Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang. Photo source
On the way to Lampang, we asked the bus driver if he could stop at the Elephant Conservation Center. More than 100 elephants lived here. Most of them ended up in the center after their 'retirement' when it was forbidden to use elephants in the wood industry in the 1990s. They were needed to drag the heavy tree trunks from the jungle to the river. Unfortunately, elephants are still illegally used, which causes some to be in a very bad condition. That is why there is also a hospital in the center, where hurt elephants can be cared for free.
- Banana trees are the largest living grass on this globe.
- With the right pruning and cutting technique, you can ensure that one tree gives more than 120 different types of fruit. For example, you can grow various types of apples and pears on one tree, each of which is ripe at a different time. Handy if you have a small garden.
- You can make a compost heap in just a few days that will heat up your water. Without technical installation, you will have hot water for 3 months. Seen and tested! Important detail: probably only possible in a tropical climate.
- We had an image in our minds of learned, wise monks. Apparently that is not entirely true. You can be a monk in three days. You only need the permission of your parents. You do not have to study, so some monks do not even know much about the rules they have to follow, let alone from the history of Buddhism.
For your information: the photos are not taken by myself. They are especially added to create the right feeling. The source is always mentioned.
Main photo by Waranont (Joe) on Unsplash