Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 10. My 35-hour return trip

Four am and I am getting ready to leave Thailand. I will definitely miss this fabulous country and its kind people. People often ask me which is my favorite country, and after dividing it by continents I usually put Vietnam at the top, but Thailand is a very close second. Vietnam is crazy and anything you do is an adventure. Thailand, on the other hand, is just as exotic but everything is easy. It is beautiful, inexpensive, and in a day or two you feel part of the culture. No wonder so many expats have chosen Thailand as the place to live, particularly if you are on a budget. I can see myself living here, and then traveling to the rest of Asia to get the adrenaline flowing.

My flight actually departed at 7 am, and after that I did what DJ has referred to as the Indiana Jones maps. A red arrow from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, a new arrow from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, and then to Ho Chi Minh City, and then to Seoul, and finally across the Pacific to San Francisco (I am not there yet, but that is where I will end). In total I will have 35 hours of travel, including a 10-hour layover in Seoul (which is where I am writing this last entry).

Incheon is the airport of Seoul, and for many reasons is my all time favorite airport. First of all, it is common for Korean airlines to “encourage” you to spend a few hours here, so you take the opportunity to see something of Korea. To further facilitate this introduction, the airport runs free tourist tours that last 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 hours. I took the 5-hour tour to downtown, which included a visit to one of the old, posh neighborhoods, and then a visit to the central market, where we had free time to browse, shop and eat. Of course this implied exchanging a new batch of money (1 US dollar = 1,100 Korean wan), and the eternal quandary on how much to exchange. I wish I had exchanged a bit more, because I saw some cool things in the market, but there is no point regretting a missed shopping opportunity. Lunch was … OK I guess. Our guide had recommended sea weed rice and veggie rolls (actually quite good) and bimbimbap, which is a kind of rice and multi-produce salad combo that was a little too vegetarian for my taste.

Seoul is of course a large, modern, and very organized city. It has beautiful views, but the inhabitants remind me more of the folks in Singapore or Germany, than of the crazies in Vietnam or Mexico. Everything is spotless, people cross the street only when allowed, and everything carries the threat of draconian fines. But they are happy and prosperous, so who can argue with that? (Also, note that Seoul is very close to the border with North Korea, so if certain fat coo-coo decides to shoot a missile, this is the first place that is going to get it (but nobody seems to be particularly paranoid about it).  

The second reason why Incheon is my favorite airport is that they have free showers! For delicious 30 minutes you have a well appointed bathroom all for yourself (and after 24 hours of travel I definitely needed a shower). I am now in clean clothes, waiting for the 10-hour flight to San Francisco. I should try to sleep, but the temptation to watch movies for 10 hours straight may be too hard to beat. My last little bit of R&R before the craziness of the next semester starts!


Thailand 2016 Day 9. The last day

Today was my last day and of course I am running low on money. I had not thought much about it because here there are money exchange kiosks all over the place. Ah, but today is Sunday so none of them are open. Rats!

OK, so I have like 650 baht, which I believe should be enough for breakfast, dinner, and the taxi to the airport. However, that means I have to fill the day with free stuff. OK, walking aimlessly around costs absolutely nothing, so I spent 110 baht in breakfast and then walked to the Ping River people watching around the area of China Town. I found a bookstore, so I spent a good time browsing, and then asked for a Thai bookstore and spent a goodly amount of time there selecting a book for Ronnie (90 baht), so one of these days he can proudly display his international collection of kiddy books.

By midday I felt the time had come to return my scooter to the place I had rented it from. And not a moment too soon, because the engine was beginning to sound a little ragged after my 1,300 km trek (nothing that a tune up could not put aright, so I have no qualms in my conscience). On the way back I did resist the temptation of visiting the dozen of temples that I passed when going back to my hotel, and once there changed into my swimming shorts, grabbed a book from the hotel’s bookshelf, and spent a couple of hours reading in and by the pool. I was totally relaxed. And then I went inside and the nice girl at the reception informed me that the taxi to the airport was going to cost 350 baht, because 5 am is still considered as night duty, and she would have to collect them right away to make the reservation. Damn. Let’s see 650 minus 110 minus 90 minus 350 left me with exactly 100 baht for dinner. I was going to have to be very careful if I wanted dinner tonight.

The moment you know you don’t have money for food is exactly the moment when a terrible hunger gets hold of you. I tried to hang in there, quenching my hunger with tall glasses of water, but to no avail. Finally at 6 pm I couldn’t hold any longer and went hunting for food. I figured my best bet was one of the hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries, where the cook has the pots out for the inspection of whoever feels like lifting the lids. I did exactly that and saw what looked like a tasty stew, and was delighted to know that a bowl would only be 30 baht, but then of course you have to have steamed rice with that, and the specialty of the places seemed to be spicy green papaya salad (one of my absolute favorite Thai dishes) so I had one of those as well. Half way through the meal I had a panic attack, thinking what I would have to do if the tab came to more than 100 baht. Would they accept a few dollars to make up for the deficit? Or maybe I would have to leave my watch as security while I went to beg for a few baht in the street? Well, none of these draconian measures were needed, because the total came to 70 baht. Never has a meal had a better aftertaste!

Thailand 2016 Day 8. Dances With Elephants

It is raining. One of those moderate rains that could go on for hours. But no stinkin’ rain is going to stop me from going to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. So I donned my poncho and backtracked the 40 km to the elephant place. It turns out I was not the only one headed that way; a big truck passed me on the way there, with an elephant taking a ride to The Elephant Hospital. Have you seen a dog enjoying the breeze out of the open window of a car? Well, the same was true for this particular elephant, who was enjoying extending its trunk unto the wind, and flapping his ears in total ecstasy.

Of course I got to the center quite early, so I had the honor of seeing a handful of elephants feeding. Did you know that an Asian elephant needs between 200 and 300 kg of varied grasses, vegetables, and fruits every single day? I am not sure how many elephants are at the conservation center, but I am going to guess about 50, so we are talking about 10 tons of food every day, or about 20 of the little Toyota trucks that I saw driving around piled up with corn, sugar cane, and squash.

After a while several of the elephants, and their mahouts (drivers), came out to greet the few tourists that had collected. There were a couple of large males (you know because they have tusks), any number of females, and at least four little ones. I bought a bundle of sugar cane sticks, which even the little ones crunched in a single bite (elephants have only four molars, two on top and two in the bottom, but they are massive and can easily crunch a measly sugar cane stick). Following the feeding the elephants headed for the water to take a bath. The little ones, like Ronaldito, simply plunged in, completely submerging themselves over and over again. The big guys went at it more slowly, letting their mahouts scrub and massage them, but eventually they too plunged their heads in the water with great gusto. Once everyone was nice and clean they played for a while, trumpeting, showering themselves with their trunks, or taking long drinks. Another interesting factoid about Asian elephants is that they drink about 200 liters per day (African elephants live in much drier climates, so they drink even larger volumes, although they may not necessarily get their fill every day).

We were then treated to a show, where the elephants showed how easily they can drag big logs, and how a well-trained elephant can delicately lift some of the logs, and working with a buddy stack the logs in piles. One of the goals of the Conservation Center is to train young elephants for transportation and logging duty. A trained elephant goes for about 500,000 bahts (about US$ 15,000), just about the price of a truck, so I suspect they don’t get a lot of inquiries.

At some point they asked for a volunteer, so I raised my hand and was chosen to hold the basket into which one of the elephants threw basketballs. I really had to be on my toes, because although the balls came with considerable force, I had to “readjust” the position of the basket to make sure I caught every shot. I was rewarded with two ears of corn to feed the distinguished athlete. They did a couple more tricks to show their incredible precision and care, for example by carefully placing a hat on the head of their mahout, and then did something that totally blew me out of the water: Three easels were brought, each with a blank canvas, and three of the elephants came, took paint brushes in their trunks, and proceeded to draw the most amazing pictures: A pair of elephants in a vast prairie, resting from the blazing sun under a tree with red and yellow blossoms; a plant with red flowers; and another elephant browsing the foliage from a tall tree. What a wonderful display of coordination and memory.

I then went to visit The Elephant Hospital, where farmers can bring their elephants to be treated free of charge. The idea is that, by providing free medical care, farmers come and in the end the overall wellbeing of the Thai elephant benefits. An elephant can live 60 years, but many die much younger because of malnutrition, abuse, lack of veterinary attention, or landmines (I was surprised about the latter, but apparently there was unrest in the 60’s and 70’s and landmines were left behind after the cessation of hostilities). I saw the elephant from the road, being rectally examined by a vet and getting an enema. I should mention here that the whole conservation center, including the hospital, are sponsored by the royal family.

Having satisfied my desire to see and learn about elephants I made my way back to Chiang Mai, where I have found a comfortable 5th-floor hotel room, to make my preparations for the trip back home. I still have all day tomorrow to do stuff, but at this point I have no further plans and may spend the day vegetating or visiting temples. I am highly satisfied with what I have done so far :) 

Thailand 2016 Day 7. Phrae to Lamphun

I left my low class accommodation as early as I could, which put me on the street just shy of 7 am. I have already complained about how nothing is open at 7 am, except for the 7-Eleven and a few market stalls, so I made a bare bones breakfast and sat to wait for something to open. I had two visits I wanted to make, the Pratubjai House and the Vongburi House. Both are listed as being an example of rich houses in North Thailand, and I was curious to see how the other 1% lives. Eventually I learned that they live in enormous houses just because they can, just like some of the farmers in the Central Valley. The Pratjubai House was built out of teak wood between 1972 and 1977; by that time teak trees had been logged practically out of existence, so the owner—Mr. Kitja Chaivannacoopt—simply bought a few old houses, tore them down, and used the teak to build his monstrosity. The house is huge, but it is dark because teak is a dark wood, and the 9 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, and 5 living rooms are crammed with all the stuff the Chaivannacoopt’s accumulated in a lifetime (a timely reminder that I have to get rid of a lot of my accumulated stuff). No, I was not impressed.

The Vongburi house was somewhat different. Also very large, but built in 1987 in a European gingerbread style with much lighter tones. This was the home of the lords of Phrae, and basically consisted of a huge rectangular living room, out of which protruded many small rooms (a little like my own home), two of which were bedrooms, one was the hunting room, another was the reading room, a small one was where the lord and the missus must have seated for tea, and so on. It also has a lot of stuff, but the inhabitants of the house were a bit more selective on the items they collected. I could live on a house like this.

I was not in the best of moods when I finally got on my way, partly because of the crummy hotel, because I had wasted too much time looking at two old houses, because my ant bite was itching, and because there was a drizzle that made the day feel dour. My plan was to make it to Lampang, and from there go visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. I like elephants, so that should cheer me up. Unfortunately the cards were stacked against me, and I got sidetracked first by a sign that promised some caves, and then another that promised to get me to the Lampang Volcano. I think Thais are wonderful people, but they have an evil streak in them that leads them to lure you away from the beaten path with prominent street signs, and once you are in the sticks they “forget” to mark the key intersection and you end in the middle of nowhere. “Oops!”

It was 3 pm by the time I made it to the Elephant Center, and by that time the elephants had already been fed and bathed, and were making their preparations to go to bed. Rats! OK, so I will have to come back tomorrow, but where am I going to sleep. The friendly guys at the center suggested the Riverside Guest House in “Lampo”, which I interpreted as being Lamphun, a good 40 km away and on the other side of a major mountain pass. I was just over the pass when I pondered if “Lampo” could have been their way of saying Lampang, which was by now 30 km the other way. I kept going, but hated those last 35 km as I felt I was simply going to have to undo them tomorrow morning.

I finally got to Lamphun, tired and grumpy, hoping against hope to find the Riverside Guest House. Well, I did find the river, but drew a total blank on the Riverside Guest House. I was getting ready to plunge into the town to look for a hotel, predicting it would be another roach hotel, when like a mirage this little hotel materialized by the river. It was perfect: clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced. The Good Lord looks after us fools after all. After a refreshing pause I went for a peaceful walk along the river, and on my way back I found that farther downstream there was a walking market. Oh, my luck had certainly taken a turn for the best. The market was colorful, not overly crowded, and there were all sorts of good things to eat. I found several stalls selling crickets, grubs, and big roaches, but since I didn’t have anyone to gross out I passed on the insects in favor or a crab dumpling that was totally yummy.

By the hotel there was a small, inviting restaurant, so I decided to treat myself to a good meal. The menu didn’t have pictures, but had English subtitles and a section entitled “We Recommend”. Now, that is something I wish all restaurants did, for then you know you are getting the best of the house. From this select list I chose Ho-Chen Village, which happened to be the most expensive menu item, at US$ 5. Wonder what it will be . . . with great ceremony my waitress brought a small clay brazier filled with glowing coals, atop which sat a bubbling pot of soup. She also brought a big platter of herbs, raw vegetables, mushrooms, and uncooked rice noodles, and a separate platter with thinly sliced beef, pork, tofu, mushrooms, shrimp, calamari, fish, and chicken livers. It was a Thai raclette! You take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and dump it in the bubbling soup, wait for a couple of minutes, and then scoop it into your small bowl (at which time someone else would fix his/her own bowl of goodies, and so on). Since I was alone, I set small submenus of “seafood with tofu”, or “beef with mushrooms” or “chicken livers with noodles”. It was a real fun way to enjoy Thai food :) The day, after all, was a fine one indeed.

Thailand 2016 Day 6. From Pha Yao to Phrae

Not much to report. Pha Yao has a beautiful lakeshore but little else, so after riding up and down the town I decided to head east for a short distance and then follow minor roads south. The day was beautiful, the landscape was gorgeous, and at times I felt I was riding through the French countryside. Add to this the feeling of owning the whole road and you can well understand my satisfaction with the ride. I should add here that honking the claxon is practically unknown here in Thailand, so you can really get high on the landscape and the breeze.

I did stop at a Wildlife Refuge and went for a walk hoping to see tigers and elephants, but the only wildlife I experienced was an ant that bit me on the arm (and wildlife refuge or not I smashed her into a pulp at the same time I hopped in pain).

I have rediscovered the joy of stopping at 7-Eleven here in Asia. You can actually live out of 7-Elevens because they carry hot food, but my current addiction is to their iced coffee, which is only 14 baht (about 35 cents US). Besides, stopping at each 7-Eleven gives me a good excuse to stretch and break the ride into manageable segments.

Eventually I got to Phrae, which I wanted to visit because in the past it was the heart of the teak wood trade, and it is reputed to have very nice architecture. From what I have seen so far the old city must have been tiny, surrounded by the traditional wall, but around it has grown a rather nondescript town of dubious merit. I finally found a hotel, but it is definitely several notches down from any other hotel I have stayed in Thailand. I can only hope there are no bed bugs to make my sleep miserable.

Thailand 2016 Day 5. The Golden Triangle

It has always puzzled me why it is that museums are not open at 7 am. Don’t the tourism authorities realize that daylight is burning?

So I had to wait until 8:30 am for the National Museum in Chiang Saen to open. Fortunately I had sacrified two of my socks (the ones with holes) as towels to clean my motor bike, and by the time the museum opened it was back to its sleek condition.

A very fine museum it is, although when they call it “national” they are of course referring to the time when Chiang Saen was a city state. The museum has a small but interesting collection of Mesolithic and Neolithic implements, and a great collection of stellae documenting the history of the city. A suitable number of artifacts from the 12th to the 18th century are displayed, and then the tenor of the exposition changes to become more ethnographic, with an excellent collection of textiles and every day implements from the many mountain tribes from the surrounding area.

I had vowed not to visit another temple, but I couldn’t resist the ruins of Wat Pa Sak, where besides the foundations of a very large temple complex there is a fabulous chedi still standing. It is all brick work, and hence quite different from the gold and silver temples I have seen so far, but clearly was a grandiose structure in its time. And then there is more of the city wall to follow, and then there is another temple, and then … basta! Clearly I could spend the whole day here, going from one archaeologic site to the other.

My next stop was the epicenter of the Golden Triangle; that is, the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos come together. It is the beautiful confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers but its main claim to fame is its checkered past as one of the main producing areas for opium and heroine. There is no real town here, but its dark history is commemorated by two museums: The House of Opium and the Hall of Opium. The first one is the brain child of a tourist shop and is a little bit dinky. Still, it has samples of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (sorry, Californians, but our golden poppy is not even in the Papaver family), which is a big, purple flower, which after a few days discards its petals and leaves behind a seed pod the size of a lime. The opium-bearing sap is produced by cutting slits lengthwise on the pod, out of which oozes a white sap. The sap is left to harden overnight, and the following morning the brown dried sap is scraped with a curved knife and new slits are cut in. After a dozen slits have been cut the pod is left to dry, and a few hundred seeds are collected from each for planting the following year (the poppy seeds have no opium in them, so those of you that pretend getting high on poppy seed muffins can cut it out).

The scrapings of sap (a tiny fraction of a gram each) are compacted together in the from of 1 kg bricks, with each farmer being able to produce about one brick per acre. The bricks are brought to market, and that is where the fun begins. In the old times the bricks were dissolved in hot water, and filtered through cloth several times. Once clean of impurities the opium soup would be boiled down to form a thick gum, which then rolled into balls and be ready for distribution. At the place of consumption little pieces of the gum would be rolled into a small, pellet size ball, ignited in a small burner, dropped in the bowl of a pipe, and the vapors would be inhaled by the addict, who would typically be laying on his side, with his heels up his buttocks (seems undignified to me, but apparently that was the accepted practice). The small museum ends with an amazing display of scrapers and pipes, and a “tribute” to one of the last drug lords of Thailand, who was still hard at his trade in the 1970’s.

The second museum is called The Hall of Opium, and is the brainchild of the Princess Mother (deceased), who made it a mission to free her people of the addiction to opium (and its derivative heroine). It is a dazzling museum, which you enter through a tunnel where eerie music plays as you pass scenes of the type you would expect at The Gates of Hell. With wonderful displays you are taken through the history of opium (from the Mediterranean to Samarkand to India to China to southeast Asia), the Opium Wars between China and England, the medicinal uses of opium and its derivatives (morphine, laudanum, and heroine), and the nightmarish world of addiction. With remarkable candor the museum retells the story of the exploitation of opium by Thailand for income purposes (the Tax Board was once called the Excise and Opium Board, when 20% of the national income came from the opium trade) until the 1970’s, when Thailand joined the rest of the civilized world by outlawing opium. This is where the Princess Mother (i.e., the mother of the current king) comes in: Aware that the tribes of the north had relied on opium as their sole cash crop, she made sure that extension services were available to help these tribes to diversify their agricultural base, and work hard to provide schools, health facilities, education, and opportunities for the mountain tribes.

Today Myanmar is still an important source of opium gum, with minor quantities being produced by Thailand and Laos (and Mexico, for that matter). The main producer, however, is Afghanistan, which surprised me very much. I cannot imagine a greater difference of climate between the luscious mountains of north Thailand and the bare, rocky canyons of Afghanistan, but Papaver somniferum seems to be a very hardy plant, and as long as there is a rainy season for the initial stages of growth, it does not seem to mind a dry maturation stage. But enough about opium. It was time for me to abandon the highlands and head south, in search for new adventures.

It was a hard slog south. I thought to stop in Chiang Rai, but I had already been there, so I pushed forward the Pha Yao, which turned out to be a pretty town by the shore of large lake that reminded me very much of Chapala or Yuriria in central Mexico. I got here about 6 pm, just in time to book a room in a nice hotel, go for a sunset walk along the lake shore, and eat a very fine catfish dinner.

Thailand 2016 Day 4. From Chiang Rai to Chiang Saen (are all towns here named Chiang something?)

After a very good night spent at Ben Guesthouse, which encompasses two beautiful wood buildings) I went for a spin around the city. The travel guide unenthusiastically listed two museums and any number of temples, but to tell you the truth I am about templed out. But the city is a pleasant one, so I twisted and turned without any plan, until I found myself on route 1173, heading east, and that decided the direction I was to follow for the next couple of days. Today the goal is to go to Chiang Khong, where one can cross into Laos, and from there to Chiang Saen, also at the border between Thailand and Laos.

I traversed the beautiful Waterford Valley, with enormously extensive rice paddy fields, when passing about a kilometer from a small hill from the corner of my eye I caught a sign announcing the …. Forest Park. I blew past it but over the next few hundred meters I tried to reconstruct the part I had missed and came up with the Teak Forest Park. Really? A forest of teak trees? Now, that I had to see, so I made a U-turn and plunged into a narrow concrete alley that after 100 m gave way to a dirt track. At this point I should have turned around, but my curiosity was aroused and I just had to keep going, until I found myself in a mire of mud. I proceeded as cautiously as I could, but at some point I lost my equilibrium and my scooter tipped. I barely had time to put down my foot and avoid a complete tip over, but my whole side was bathed in mud as I tried to place my center of gravity under the scooter and tip it upright. Oh, what a mess. My beautiful scooter was now caked with mud on the right side, not to say anything about my feet and right hand. I did make it to the park, which was a very pretty forest but without a miserable teak tree, and successfully crossed the mire on the way back without mishap, but I felt the most stupid rider on the road (and many expressions of mirth from bystanders did nothing to improve my spirits).

Chiang Khong was nothing special, except perhaps that this is where I first encountered serious mountains and a road in the process of being reconstructed. The mountains are fabulously green, and under the rays of the sun they glimmered like emeralds. Rice is here replaced by corn as the main crop, but in the recent past these mountain valleys were big producers of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Chiang Saen, in contrast, turned out to be quite the precious jewel. First of all I met my old friend, the Mekong River! Yes, the same river that forms a delta at the latitude of Saigon is here an enormously wide river with a lively barge traffic, and no, it does not originate in Cambodia but in the south of Chine, and at this location forms the boundary between Thailand and Laos. I am really surprised that this enormous river does not take a shortcut to the Gulf of Thailand, but rather flows south parallel to the coast all the way to Saigon. I bet it is controlled by a tectonic rift, pretty much the way the Rhine River is in Germany. I need to research this idea further.

The second surprise is that Chiang Saen has a fair amount of history. Going back to the 7th century, the city was its own kingdom, which at various times pledged loyalty to the Thai state to the south or Burma to the south. Today you can see about half of the brick ramparts that protected the city, the moat, and foundations of temples or public buildings scattered throughout the town. The city has a small museum that I shall visit tomorrow, any number of temples (which I will not be visiting tomorrow), and a promenade along the Mekong that is a real treat. I had a delicious dinner of shiitake mushrooms and spicy fried catfish salad on a restaurant overlooking the river, pondering about the many stories this old river could tell.