Saturday, September 16, 2006

Akha Hilltribe, The Monkey Cave, Mai Sai, Burma, The Golden Triangle and Chaing Saen

akha hilltribe lady - see how sweet she is!

i'm so tired.. but there is so much to blog about. today i went on a whirlwind tour of a hilltribe village, saw a cave of monkeys (sic), walked over the border into burma, saw the golden triangle, walked around some ancient 12th century lanna buddhist temple ruins and am now throughly knackered... i am so tired i am practically halluncinating.

i organized a one day tour with the place i'm staying here in chaing rai - the 'Boon Bun Dan guest house'. the chap that took me around in his car was the owner: mr. worasuck thacumfoo (what a great name!) he was nice enough but it turned out thatinspite of the fact one of his strong selling points for the tour was that there would be an english speaking guide - he didn't speak to me very much at all. it was still a good tour though.

mr. worasuck thacumfoo (my tour guide/driver)

he started out chatty but after the first hour i was pretty much left to my own devices. the only time mr. thacumfoo spoke was to tell me how long i had at each place (usually an hour) and to answer any questions i had. i did spend over 2 hours in burma though and walked over the border to find mr. thacumfoo patiently waiting for me in his car.

mr. thacumfoo's driving
worasuck thacumfoo had a peculiar way of driving - he would pump his foot on and off the pedal causing it to accelerate and decelerate constantly. perhaps he thought it might save gas? i think the opposite is actually true - travelling at a constant speed conserves gas. or perhaps he was tapping his foot, impatient to get to the next destination... something else he did was use his horn constantly to warn people that he was approaching or passing them. in thai law if some one is killed by a car it is always the person who survives fault even if that person wasn't paying attention.

our first stop was mai chen to visit the 'akha' hill tribe village. as soon as i stepped out of the car i was beseiged by children (many dressed in spiderman t-shirts and some dressed in traditional costumes) demanding money for photographs (and i hadn't even taken any yet!). they followed me around pestering until i relented and took a picture of them. even then they kept asking me for money and demanded that i give them some of the pineapple pieces that mr. thacumfoo had kindly bought for me at the pineapple stall at the side of the road just outside chiang rai. i noted mr. t's disapproval when i gave them some pineapple.

the akha village children

the old ladies in the village were really sweet. they were really little and wearing the traditional costumes. i noticed their teeth were all black and at first i thought they were made of wood but later when i was back in the car with mr. t - i asked him and he informed me that it was because they chewed medicinal plants inorder to protect their teeth from decaying and ever having to visit the dentist.

akha hilltribe lady chopping bamboo

i learned at the hilltribe museum ran by the a thai non profit the PDA in chaing rai that in most hilltribes the women do most of the work- including raising the children, tending to animals, farming and in this case constructing a bamboo fence.

i walked up and down the village, saw some traditional akha grass thatched houses with no windows and a bamboo platform in front of it.

traditional akha house made from grasses and bamboo - the regions natural resources.

the entire road through the village had handicraft stalls either side since tourism is the mainstay of their economy. i looked in a pig pen constructed from bamboo and their were some tiny piglets in the back which the mother pig stood protectively gaurding.

the pig

i saw roosters, hens and baby chickens walking around, a lady chopping bamboo with a huge hatchet and then it was time to go. to really understand their customs you would have to go to a really remote village somewhere and camp out for a long time until you became part of the furniture and could observe and decipher their culture. i have seen a lot of hill tribe people in the various bazaars and markets i've visited around thailand (bangkok, chaing mai and chaing rai) - all selling similar handicraft goods. i bought some embrodied baby carrying slings from a lady in chaing mai - they are very beautiful.

the monkey cave
next we jetted off the the money cave. i asked worasuck to stop on the way so that i could take some pictures of the lush, green rice fields and forest covered, misty mountains in the distance.. he kindly obliged. i also saw rice farmers tilling the soil by hand and picking rice with woven pointed hats.. it was all very picturesque.

farmers tilling the soil

so the monkey cave.. this was a bit of a misnomer.. since all the monkeys were hanging out near the bottom entrance and near the large pond hoping to take advantage of disgarded food from the visitors and the numerous food stalls in the car park. they were quite cute and little monkeys. there were quite a few baby monkeys scampering around - some were still attached to their mothers who watched protectively over them. mr. t pointed up the hill and said that he would see me back at the car in an hour. i looked up at the steps and started to climb them. there were over 200 of them and all green and moss covered and wet. thank goodness i wasn't wearing my pink slippers. speaking of which they have almost come to the end of their lifespan. at least their outdoor lifespan as they are beginning to fall apart around the edges. on the way up i passed some sweaty looking people coming down giving me sympathetic looks!

the steps up to the cave

the cave entrance

the view from the top

i made it to the top only to find out later from mr. t that the monkeys only go up to the cave at night. still it was good exercise and there was a really great lookout point of the surrounding countryside and villages.. you could see for miles. in the cave itself (which was really dark and damp) were really cool natural rock formations , a shrine to buddha and bats.. i was quite nervous at first to go inside because there were all these signs informing visitors to watch their children and that monkeys can be aggressive. my guidebook informed me that they are not dangerous but have been know to get up to mischief such as tugging an unsuspecting tourist's hair.

not wanting to keep mr. thacumfoo waiting i started my decent.. it was a slow process as i didn't want to slip and tumble down the concrete steps. i made it to the bottom and stopped to look in the pond where there were hundreds of large goldfish and catfish swimming in circles. there was also a fish stand where smaller fish could be purchased for releasing into the pond. a thai custom for good luck. i wondered if the big fish would eat the smaller fish?

the fish in the pond

I heard from mr.thacumfoo that catfish can grow gigantic - up to 3ft in length!

The border town of Mai Sai and Burma

After the monkey cave we steamed along to Mai Sai... in my guidebook it said that this town had the feeling of being something of lawless frontier. it's true that i didn't see many thai custom's official stopping people and searching them for drugs.. at least not the tribes people and locals - they tended to go for the richer looking tourists armed with plastic bags containing purchase from market over the border in tachilek. For lunch mr. t. dropped me off at a riverside restaurant where i had a great view of the so-called 'friendship bridge' which runs between thailand and burma (myanmar). i enjoyed sitting there just watching people coming and going across the border. the people crossing the border consisted of both farangs and thai/burmese locals. there were people carrying boxes of electronic goods (mostly going towards burma), many people carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun, a few people carried children in slings, local people carried wicker baskets, sacks of rice and some carried 2 buckets balanced either end of a long pole which rested across their shoulders. with regards to transport - people rode bicycles, others drove mopeds but most people were on foot. people wore a variety of footwear - mostly sandals and flip flops althought there were the occasional high heels.

boxes piled high on a bicycle with thai and burmese letters

many moped taxi drivers waiting for customers at the border

the most northern point of thailand and the gateway to burma

the 'friendship bridge' between thailand and burma

You can see how close the 2 are and how short the border is.

after lunch (i had a thai style omlette) i went off to meet mr. t and he explained to me that i should get some thai baht changed into american dollars (since it would be cheaper to pay in $'s) and took me into a shop selling all kinds of trinkets. the lady in there gave me a really bad exchange rate and i wished i had gone to a bank earlier. i was a little disappointed that mr. t didn't try to negotiate a better rate for me. then he said i needed to make a copy of my passport (to give the burmese authorities) and pointed across the road to a store with a copy sign and told me he would wait near the custom's entrance.

when i got back he actually offered to come with me... but i politely declined as by this time i had got used to doing things on my own and felt that he would be more of a hindrance than a help since he would probably rush me and i wouldn't feel as free to explore... so i bid him farewell and joined the custom's line.

it took about 30 minutes to make it the 70 metre distance across the bridge. (most of the time spent in customs). leaving thailand was simple enough (they just tore out the white departure card and stamped my passport). going though the burmese side was slightly more tricky. it basically involved going into a small office with men in official green uniforms sitting behind a desk counting american dollars handed to them by tourists. i did question the ethics of handing these people money given the human rights issues with the military dictatorship in burma. but i reasoned that i had already supported george bush and tony blair through tax dollars and their tyrannical regime in the middle east. was this any worse? i'm not sure.

the burmese customs officers counting their dollars

anyway, i wasn't that friendly to them and got visibly annoyed because they refused to accept one of the ten $1 bills i had given them because the corner was ever so slightly torn! i had to pay the remainder in thai bhat. then i had to sit behind another desk officiated over by 3 women (also in green uniforms) who took my photograph and printed out the temporary vias (also green). then that was it - i was on my way....

immediately after exiting customs were alot of people sitting on the bridge begging for change and rickshaws laden with all manner of goods. i completed the walk across the bridge and passed under a blue gate with the words: "union of burma" written across it. i was immediately beseiged by burmese tour guides with large boards with photographs and tuk tuk drivers offering to show me around. i declined and headed off down a street towards the countryside...

a member of the burmese military and supporter of the oppressive regime

it was quite a long walk in the heat. on the way i passed different kinds of shops including a tailor who was sewing military uniforms on his foot-powered machine. he kindly let me take his picture.

photograph of the tailor sewing military uniforms

there were brightly painted trucks, children playing in the street wearing 'ultra-man t-shirts' and old men sitting on balconies overlooking the street. there was a little old lady croched down talking to herself and a man who looked worse for wear from some kind of illicit substance. the people in the shops and houses i passed were friendly and curious. as i got towards the end of the street i realised how hot and dizzy i felt so i hailed a moped taxi down and asked him to take me to the other end of the village. he handed me a helmet and off we went. i explained that i just wanted to look around. i'm not sure if he understood but he drove down a side street and dropped me off at a farmer's market.

the farmer's market

fruit seller

rice seller

child in sweetshop

the farmer's market was a joy to walk around. it sold all kinds of local produce from rice, fruits i've never seen before, clothes, household goods. the people were friendly and smiled alot.. i waved and smiled a lot too. as i walked down the street i noticed a temple roof poking up over the roof tops and decided to visit it.

the burmese vihara - mahamyatmuni, tachelek, burma
when i walked inside the grounds there were a few lay people walking around, others just cycling through. there were these 2 intoxicated men stumbling around and sat down under a tree. the temple itself was red/marroon in color and had many chofa's or 'sky tassels' and it the top had about 7 or 8 layers. the slate roof itself was layered. the inside of the temple had a beautiful teak floor and the main 'altar' had 4 buddhas in the middle of the room and was surrounded by ornately carved wood. the roof was held up by large stone pillars each one containing a different painted inscription. the burmese alphabet is very beautiful with many circular shaped letters.

there were a couple of young monks studying on the steps to the bot and they kindly let me take their picture.

young burmese monks studying

a monk later told me that the temple was only about 100 years old and was built on the site of an older temple which was significantly smaller. outside was a stupa and next to it was a bodhi tree from which i collected some leaves. bodhi trees are often planted in the grounds of monasteries because it was the original tree which buddha achieved enlightenment under. the monk i spoke to (who could speak very good english) and whose name was venerable pannananda, pointed to the original doors of the temple and a stack of wood that was being saved in a shed. the doors were huge and in the shape of a mandala constucted from mirror pieces.

the friendly burmese monk who spoke really good english

i asked the english speaking monk where he had learned english and he told me he had gone to study in sri lanka. i also asked him about the military dictatorship and about human rights abuses... he said he didn't know anything about it. he said now burma was very peaceful but also very poor and that the people had no money. i said that i thought communist philosophy where everyone was equal was a nice idea and quite buddhist - but in reality the people in power keep more of the resources for themselves.. and live better than the populace. but this is just speculation on my part... i asked him if under the government people could practice buddhism freely or were monks killed.. he said in the past there were problems but no anymore..
he told me there was no internet access in burma, but people could have mobile phones and he had one himself. i told him i had seen pictures of burma and from what i had seen so far it looked like a beautiful country. it is far less unspoiled than thailand.. there are no western influences since communism would not allow this. i would love to go to pagan to see the ruins.... and see more of it... he told me i should visit chiang tung which was his home town.

i explained to him that my tour guide was waiting for me across the border and that i had to go back. he told me i was welcome to visit again and he explained to me that i could take a bus to the border to a motorbike taxi. it wasn't far at all.. i was just tired... so i opted for a motorbike taxi.. i also liked riding them.. venerable pannananda helped me negotiate a price of 10 baht (they do accept thai baht in burma and also american dollars) and off i went... i felt a deep sense of regret to be leaving such a beautiful country and i hope to be able to return soon.

ethnically, the burmese at least near the border seemed to be a mixture of indian and asian looking. the guide book i had told me many of the stallholders in the tourist market were run by thai people.. (i didn't actually go to this market).

re-entry to thailand
this wasn't too difficult.. i just had to go to walk across the 'friendship bridge' and go to the burmese customs office labelled 'out'. on the burma side i was besieged by children asking for money. at the office - they took the green card and gave me my passport back. i forgot to mention earlier that they keep your passport at the office.. as a gaurantee that you leave! reunited with my passport i walked towards thailand (a mere 40 metres!) across the bridge and joined the queue. ahead of me were 3 israelis, sitting outside the office was a sikh man with a turban who looked at me and said 'very beautiful'!! i got to the customs window and handed them my passport only to realise that i had forgotten to complete the white landing card i last filled out on the plane flying into bangkok. i was directed back to the end of the queue.. i filled on out whilst in line... and the thai customs official smiled sympathathetcially at me as she stamped my passport. the thai customs inspectors i passed after passport control were dressed in camouflage uniforms and gave me a warm smile as i passed them.. no opium here mate!

back on thailand soil i felt like i was coming soon. i don't know why but it always feels somewhat emotional going between counties even if they are only separated by a small river only 40 metres wide.

the golden triangle
i was nervous about seeing thacumfoo again and thought that he might tell me off like my father used to when i was late. i said i was sorry and he just pointed calmly to the car and said 'let's go'. our next stop was the infamous golden triangle..
i asked mr. thacumfoo if he had ever smoked opium - he said that he had but a long time ago.. now in thailand it's illegal, he told me. he said that a lot of it was still grown in burma and is smuggled in along with amphetamines and heroin. opium processed to become heroin is smaller and easier to transport. out of all the thai people i surveyed about smoking opium - only thacumfoo and the burmese shopkeeper confessed to it.

we made it to the triangle half an hour later. it is the place where laos, burma and thailand meet.. looking out from the specially constructed vantage point, i could see thailand to my left, laos to my right and burma was the triangle in the middle. all the countries being separated by the mekong river. mr. t explained that it was possible to take a boat up the mekong river and into china and that it would take 2.5 days. this is definitely something i would love to do in the not so distant future. i saw some trade ships sailing up and down the river going to china according to mr. t.
one had a jcb digger on it and the others some containers. it was a huge river and brown in colour due to the monsoon rains.

at the golden triangle is a huge (70ft) golden buddha which mr. t told me was built to commerate the queen of thailand's birthday. there were children around dressed in hilltribe costume and asking for money for photographs. i actually didn't have any money with me at that point and my camera was full. i did however pat their hats with pom-poms on playfully.. !

chiang saen temple ruins
this was the last stop on the tour.. and was about 30 minutes drive from the triangle. i thought it would be a whole ruined town.. but it turned out to be a small compound of temple ruins built in the 12th century. the main shell of the temple had it's roof rebuilt and was still used as an active temple complete with a resident sangha. it had no walls and rugs on the floor. outside the temple was a beautiful old msos covered brick stupa or chedi and low walls denoting the floor plan of the former monks quarters. next door to the remains was the new monks quarters and a large ceremonial drum and some gongs which i longed to bang. the monk in the burmese temple had been kind enough to let me bang the drum there.

a temple dog barked at me.. and i bowed first to the monks and then jokingly at the dog who thought i was funny. i like the thai sense of humour. the thai people are very playful and love joking around.

after about 40 minutes, mr thacumfoo came and told me we had to go.. and that i could have had longer if i hadn't spent so long in myanmar. i said it was fine.. and off we went for the 1.5 hour trip back to chaing rai.

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