|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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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