Chiang Rai & Lampang

We left Chiang Mai and headed to Chiang Rai in the north. Chiang Rai has little of the cultural style of Chiang Mai, and it owes its  fame  to a romanticized lore of drug lords and poppies. Heralded as the "Gateway to the Golden Triangle", Chiang Rai was in the past a trade center of the very profitable opium business. That trade, however, has been seriously curtailed in the last quarter century in northern Thailand, and the majority has been pushed across the border into Myanmar and Laos. With stiff enforcement, coupled with Afghanistan picking up much of the slack in the opium trade, Myanmar and Laos have to a large extent switched to the equally profitable methamphetamine market. We would get to see some of the unfortunate effects of this a bit later in northern Laos. As I have mentioned, our visa status had evolved into the use it or lose variety, and although we weren't ready to go into Laos just yet, we had a contact in Chiang Rai that we hoped could give us some current information on crossing the borders with the bikes. Many of the biking web sites we visited talked about the "permission to temporarily export" document, but those situations can change at the whim of border officials.
Unfortunately, our contact in Chiang Rai was away on business so we didn't get to see her. After a couple of nights in Chiang Rai we decided to head down to Lampang and Nan provinces since we would be reentering Thailand from Laos much farther south.

Outside of Chiang Rai the countryside is peaceful and the people extremely friendly. The two women at left were preparing to enter a stream for a bit of fishing, but gladly stopped to pose for us. At right, Karen engages in one of the more stimulating activities in town--haggling over prices at the nightly market. Chiang Rai is also home to an excellent museum about the history and production of opium. A portion of their proceeds goes to projects combating the spread of AIDS.

From Chiang Rai we headed first to Lampang before continuing to Nan Province. The main attractions around Lampang are the the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, and the beautiful Wat Phra That Lampang Luang above. Now I know what you're saying, "...he's not going to drag us through another temple, is he?" But this Wat is kind of special, and after this you can skip the religious iconography if you so desire. (Although you will be missing a meter tall solid gold Buddha later on) The most impressive thing about this wat are the massive teak columns that hold up the multi-tiered roof of the wihaan. The Buddha image inside the mondop at right dates from the 16th century.

The open sided wihaan itself is said to date to the late 15th century making it the oldest wooden structure in all of Thailand. Teak has a natural resistance to moisture and pests, and in the photo below you can see the massive size of the columns. On the Mae Hong Son Loop we had driven through hundreds of miles of teak forests, but nowhere did we encounter trees approaching even half of this girth. I don't believe that these columns could even be duplicated today.

The painted murals that encircle the interior are remarkably well preserved. (above) The day we visited a procession of pilgrims were carrying lengths of fabric to drape the base of the dome of the chedi. (below)

Also near Lampang, we visited the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. The center was established as a facility for Thailand's sick, and often abused elephants. It has become an unfortunate practice in the logging industry around the Burmese border to feed elephants methamphetamine in order to get longer days out of them. Here the elephants display their talents in working with logs (above), painting, and playing the xylophone (below). The proceeds from the twice daily show contributes to their care.

We no more than returned to the hotel after our elephant adventure when a gust of wind in the parking lot embedded something on my eye. After a difficult quest with little in the way of translation, we finally found a hospital that could freeze the eye and remove the foreign object. When we got out of the hospital though, I pulled the clutch lever and felt that disheartening "pop". After some sign language coupled with the one Thai phrase we had learned too well--motorcycle mechanic--the security guards at the hospital signaled for us to wait. After about twenty minutes a man with a motorbike with a younger guy in a sidecar showed up with a universal repair cable. They had us back on the road within ten minutes, and the road service, complete with parts, cost about three dollars.