After easing through Phuket and bustling through Bangkok, the Northern mountainous jungle villages of Chiang Rai left the friendly smiles of the big cities behind.
My first impression of Chiang Rai? Holy crap! Never before have I felt so optimistically uncomfortable. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting parts of Europe, China and now Thailand, but not until this day have I felt more out of my element.
My friend, Winnie – a feisty Chinese woman from Hong Kong – and I arrived on the only plane at the entire Chiang Rai airport and unloaded right on the tarmac. Once we gathered our shared suitcase, having left the other one in the safe keeping of the Bangkok "luggage leave" due to weight limitations, we bartered a wage with a local taxi driver.
Having encountered many friendly and welcoming Thais so far, I was caught a bit off guard by the apparent annoyance we were causing him with our incorrect pronunciation of our hotel, Wangcome. We were saying “wahn-kum” and apparently the correct sound is “wahn-kohm”... a serious faux-pas, I gathered, by his harsh accusation that I was telling him the name of some other hotel and making his life difficult.
The Loy Kratong festival
Once the confusion was alleviated, we made it safely to our room, dropped our goods and headed straight for the Mae Kok River. We happened to be in Chiang Rai on the first full moon of November, which marks the celebration of Loy Kratong. It is a custom on this day to launch handmade banana leaf boats carrying flowers (mostly orchids), incense and a lit candle on any body of water. People make a wish and/or say a prayer, launch the boat and watch it float away until completely out of sight. If the candle stays lit, your prayer/wish will be answered.
As with every culture, it marks a valid excuse to party. There were rides, live music, food booths with delicacies like seasoned roaches, grasshoppers and grubs – and, of course, beer to wash the scrumptious treats down. Winnie enjoyed a tasty octopus on a stick. I was unable to partake in any of the completely unrecognizable choices; my adventurous streak only goes so far.
It seemed the town’s population of under 25'ers were all present and accounted for and they were able to have a few laughs at our expense.
What we didn't realize until we noticed the pointing and laughing was that we were the only ones drinking our beer out of the "pitcher." In our defense, it was a very large mug – by no means our standard of a pitcher. Since we had turned down the offer for a bucket of ice and plastic cups to water down our already horribly watered-down warm Singha beers, we stood out in the crowd. In fact, we were just two of a mere handful of tourists surrounded by jeering locals. The attitude seemed to be more impatient tolerance than anything else.
Getting out of dodge
The next day, that all changed. We rented a jeep and got the heck out of town. As we pulled away, we got the thumbs-up from one local thinking it was cool that two foreign chicks were braving the roads, but got mostly annoyed "get them off the road" stares and "they're never going to make it" laughter from the rest.
Screw 'em. We're outta here.
We had a handful of maps, each useful in their own way and none useful as one complete source of information. I have to say, at first, driving on the opposite side of the road, on the right side of the car, shifting with my left hand and remembering to look to my right for oncoming traffic, was off-putting. But after a few minutes, I got comfortable and the reality that I was driving a car on the open roads of Thailand set in. I'm driving in Thailand!
Northern Thailand is perfectly picturesque. We drove through small towns on our way to the northernmost point of Thailand, Mae Sai, where you can walk across the border to the neighboring country of Myanmar (that government's instability makes this questionable). We went to Sop Ruak, the location of the tourist-infested Golden Triangle (known for its opium) where you stand on the border of three countries – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
All of these areas, much to our disappointment, were unattractively commercialized with streets full of the same trinkets, clothes and jewelry. You can only look for so long before the novelty completely wares off. We decided this tourist crap was for the… tourists… and went quite literally off the beaten path.
"Real" Northern Thailand at last
What we found was an amazing treasure – a long and windy road that led to a mountaintop temple, Phra That Doi Tung. The landscape reminded me of movies shot in Vietnam: lush green jungles mixed with banana trees, wild poinsettia, ferns, palms, anything tropical, anything green, and a bunch of pine trees for good measure. And to make it even more surreal, a scattered fog dotted the mountaintops, adding that dramatic orchestral underscore to the whole majestic scene.
As we made our way up and around, the views overlooking the rolling mountainsides and bottomless valleys were spectacular. Winnie and I excitedly jumped out to take pictures, leaving the jeep in the middle of the road because there were absolutely no other cars.
The higher we got, the more small villages started to reveal their secret hiding places to us. Real villages – bamboo huts with straw roofs, men walking along the side of the road carrying a stick across their shoulders with huge baskets of who-knows-what carefully balanced on either side, villagers suddenly appearing through a curtain of foliage carrying armfuls of wood and food. Everyone we saw we greeted with a huge smile and a "sowadeeka" hello, to which we got a genuine smile in return – their wrinkled eyes full of heart, their pearly browns showing off a lifetime of never having to sit in a dentist’s chair.
What a relief, people who smile again. Words really can't describe what this drive felt like. I couldn't have been more alive.
After getting inevitably and horribly lost a couple of times, during which we discovered who was better for which job – navigation (me) and driving (Winnie) – we finally found our way through the cover of darkness back to our hotel and were elated with our prowess for having conquered the unknown. High-fives and pop open that bottle of questionable Northern Thai wine to celebrate. Oh wait; we don’t have a corkscrew.
Ask that local tourist-hating bartender who isn’t smiling if we can borrow one. Crap, he says no and shrugs me off like one of the annoying bloodthirsty mosquitos that are devouring my flesh.
Thailand is indeed the heartwarming and enlightening land of smiles… everywhere, it seems, except inside the fun-loving city of Chiang Rai.