Saturday, December 06, 2014

Riding Laos roads

For our first day's travel in Laos, we headed inland to the northern parts - but we were now driving on the right side of the road rather than the left as in Thailand and other countries we had recently been in. The road was an excellent, winding, country road and our first day's destination was in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle.

The area is very rural and the main enterprise is agriculture. We saw a lot of what Jordan refers to as the Cyclops. It is a farmer's multi-use tractor, for lack of a better word, that consists of 2 wheels side by side, a 1-cylinder diesel, 2 long handlebars, and 1 light at the front giving it the Cyclops feature.

While it is not used in the fields, it is always hooked up to a trailer that the driver sits on while it putts along (also seen in northern parts of Thailand). We see them in the fields, but mostly we see them on the roads carrying all types of cargo for the occasion including family and friends heading in and about the villages and fields.

One-eyed creature

A new farm vehicle sighting that reoccurred with frequency was that of homemade trucks that had the same motor as the 2-wheeled tractors, mounted up front. The top speed seemed slower than a chicken being chased for dinner!

Not a Toyota

Jordan had to keep his eye on the road because you never knew what was around each corner. Once, we saw a huge transport truck that had run away down the hill and met its end crashing into the ditch only to be plagiarized for parts in the days to follow. More common is livestock with no sense of imperativeness, most notably 1 day were 2 young bulls butting it out in the middle of the road oblivious to traffic. Soon to follow were 2 young rams doing the same.

Bulls butting

We eventually settled at the small dusty town of Luang Nam Tha after exploring a remote road to its end up by the border of Myanmar and China where we saw hill tribe villages along the way of pitiful penury, its inhabitants at roadside trying to hawk all sorts of eatables including centipedes and beetles.

The next morning, our plan was to motor to Nong Khiaw where we could take a boat trip up a river to see a traditional village. As we left Luang Nam Tha, we met another biker, Peter, who was headed in the same direction so we decided to ride together. We travel fast and proficiently even though our small bike is loaded and not suited for rough roads, but Pete, with only 1 leg, outperformed us on his more powerful and better built beast.

The road branched and turned very gnarly, reminding us of our driving in the Himalayas of India. It was a gravel mountain road under construction, and big equipment and transport trucks choked us in dust and obscured our vision so passing was a treacherous manoeuvre.

We fared well compared to the villages at roadside. Their hapless homes - not airtight and built mostly of thin bamboo or spaced boards - as well as the vegetation was camouflaged in either the reddish or grey dust giving the scene a dreary monotone.

Dusty dames

Typical bleak scenes were that of residents plodding along packing firewood, children playing in remnants of cement powder, and women squatting while cooking open fires. Until the roads are completed, what choice do they have but to endure it, at the expense of their well being and latent poor health.

Near the end of the day's journey, the road became a welcomed pavement and the sloped mountainside geography gave way to impressive limestone cliffs. It was such a relief to finally arrive at the riverside village of Nong Khiaw and check into a guesthouse and wash all the dirt off!

Riverside village

Thursday, December 04, 2014


As we were in a city of considerable size (Chiang Rai of northern Thailand), we knew we would be able to find a speedometer cable for our motorcycle. After a couple of stops, we found a small shop that quickly installed a new cable and we had them do an oil change too. We were all ready for our 1st visit to the country of  Laos.

Leaving Chiang Rai, we headed north a bit, then east to the northernmost border, crossing into Laos on the other side of the mighty Mekong River. Up till just recently, the crossing was by boat but the new Friendship Bridge IV is now the conduit.

We had some paperwork to do at Customs on the Thai side involving our motorcycle. Then as we were being processed by Immigration for departure, we were informed we were 1 day over our Visa so they issued an overstay penalty of 100,000 Kip each, the current equivalent of $15 Canadian each. Then there was an unofficial bogus escort fee of $15, evidently for bicycles and motorcycles only, for the 2 km passage over to the entry post of Laos (Laos and Lao both rhyme with cow).

Then it was the pleasant Lao officials turn which ended up costing about $110, at least the majority of which we are sure was legitimate.

After about an hour and a half of border processing, it was getting on in the afternoon so we took a hotel for our 1st night in Laos in the riverside town of Houay Xai.

Welcome to Laos

That evening, we ventured out to find dinner and soon found out that, unlike Thailand, almost no one spoke English. We are quasi vegetarians, so we got some giggles from the young girls when Jordan mimed a chicken by flapping his arms and clucking, emphatically saying No, no. The same response when he did the Mooo and the snort of a pig. But they got the message.

But that was what we didn't want. Then we had to convey what we did want. So they took us to the cooler and we pointed out certain vegetables, etc. and then encroached on some other diners and pointed at what would be acceptable. What came was a meal for about 6 people!

We ate what we could, paid about $20 (much more than we had expected), and marked it up to our 1st Laotian food ordering exercise that we would have to fine tune. After that, for quick future reference, Jordan drew pictures of a chicken, a pig, and a cow and put a big X through them. It still brought giggles at times though.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

A Livingstone Moment

We headed out this morning continuing on our motorcycle tour of northern Thailand and today it was to be another loop that deviated from the main highway. It would again take us west, up into the highlands that fringed the Myanmar border, then north, and then back down to Chiang Rai.

Not far off the main highway, our speedometer cable broke. That meant no odometer. We really rely on that to judge distances to town intersections and gas stations. We stopped at a couple of places but no one in this remote area had the needed cable. We would have to wait until we returned to Chiang Rai.

The loop took us up to Fang, then north through Mae Ai and Mae Salong, towns that were developed by a fleeing and displaced Chinese regiment with their families that had escaped a past conflict in China.

The roads were very narrow and so roller coaster steep that going down we had to not only shift down to 1st gear but had to stand hard on front and rear brakes to the heat induced extent that they faded to the point of almost failing.

We spotted a wee sign that said Karen Village and pointed the way up a dirt road. We had been reading up about the Long Neck people who live in these remote villages and it hasn't been without controversy and we had some reservations.

A little about their history. Several hill tribes of Karen people escaped the oppressive suffering inflicted upon then by the Burmese government (now known as Myanmar) by crossing the jungle border into the remote hills of Thailand. The Thai government has been reluctant to give them status and for years they have lived in limbo, eking out an existence in a restricted locale whereas other refugee groups were given status and passports and allowed to move on and prosper with normal opportunities.

Some women of these diffident refugees customarily wore heavy brass coils around their necks. They would start as young as 2, and year by year, the rings would increase. (It is 1 continuous ring, not separate coils.) The result of these heavy rings weighing down on the clavicle would press the ribs together and would give the appearance of a stretched out and lengthened neck.

We were told that the necks are not actually lengthened, they only appear that way. But we saw a postcard of a woman with her coils removed and her neck sure looked very long to us! The coils can weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds)! Yes, it is a myth that their heads would flop over if they removed the rings.

Upon their arrival in Thailand and media exposure, it soon became apparent that tourists were quite amazed at their appearance and wanted to visit and take photos, beginning in 1984.

A little about the controversy. Certain elements in Thailand quickly realized their attraction was a significant value for the tourist industry. Some say the status quo remains unchanged because of the government's agenda to keep a good thing going. It has developed into a tourist trap where fees are charged to enter the village where the predominant experience is the many stalls selling the trinkets and not a view of their everyday life.

So, the question we had was, are these people relegated to a status not unlike exhibits in a zoo for tacky hoards of photo op tourists to pretend they had a Livingstone Moment and did we want to be part of this crass spectacle or would our visit, with financial contribution, be of benefit to them at least for the present day?

We decided to see for ourselves. We drove down the road leading to the village, smiling and nodding at a couple of field workers and they returned a shy smile.

Typical style of hut

We paid the reasonable fee to enter the village but in fact the predominant experience was certainly the avenue of small stalls where girls and women of all ages sold their wares. Almost all wore unique traditional clothing and not all were wearing the neck coils. They also sported many arm and leg bracelets.

We looked at all the wares from each and every stand while trying, unlike some, to show some respect for their dignity in our presence and approach. We tried to interact and converse by hand gestures and smiles praising their work and appearance.

We always asked before taking a photo and they happily and proudly struck a pose. They were delighted to pose with us as well, and we invoked a laugh usually when we asked them to give us a big smile. We willing responded by making a purchase when we saw something we liked.

No coils, but red betel nut teeth!

We were never asked to pay for taking a photo. Items we purchased averaged only 100 Baht ($3 Cdn). Definitely not over priced, we thought, and were as happy to pay as they were to receive. We bought 1 of their lovely scarves that they make by hand (the equivalent of $5) on their looms which they were proficiently working away at.

Beauty rings

Behind the rows of souvenier stalls were their humble homes and further their fields that they cultivate, no doubt returning to once the tourists left. Men were nowhere around.

Where does the entry fee go? There are some who suggest that much of it goes to outsiders who bring in the tourist. We only hope that the women keep all of the money from purchases of their items such as hand-woven scarves, jewellery, clothing, and wooden figures and dolls created with long necks and coils, etc.

It's rumoured that the women take the coils off as soon as the tourists leave. We don't believe this to be true as it quite a process to put them on or remove them and apparently usually only 1 woman in the village is capable of this procedure. On the other hand, we have heard that they are proud of that feature and consider it beautiful. Unnatural you say? Maybe. But aren't high heels for beauty's sake or for that matter tanning, or say breast implants?

So we came away with the matter not quite completely resolved in our minds. Maybe we just have to accept that we can't expect modern times not to have its influence in some cultures, dissolving tradition and originality. Father Time has gone digital and it's naive to believe we can find a Livingstone Moment.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

Not long after we started our day's run heading back towards Chiang Mai (Thailand), we spotted a small roadside machine shop so stopped to see if we could do a fix on our broken luggage rack.

Using the language gap as an excuse to show the man at the shop what was needed, Jordan jumped right into it, virtually doing the work himself with the man's help, cutting, grinding, drilling, and welding small parts that made a latch better than the original plastic one.

After about an hour, job done, the man glad to have helped and probably slightly amused, adamantly refused to take any payment!! After thanking him profusely and a smile and a wave, we were on our way.

In Chiang Mai, we had a little shop install new brake pads because we knew that in the next few weeks the brakes were going to get a hell of a work out. After a quick lunch, we headed north.

After a couple of hours, we were due a rest and found a cafe on the highway in a rural area. There, they not only served coffee, but had plantations and processed it. This reminded us of reading how the government, in an effort to combat the decades old agriculture of illegal drug plants, had implemented a program that gave growers an alternate and legal type of agriculture. The results have been successful so now you can see, for example, acres and acres of fruit orchards and hillsides of tea and coffee plantations.

Direct sales of oranges galore

As the day wore down, we found a delightful new bungalow motel just south of Chiang Rai to rest our weary bones.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Golden colours

We headed out on our motorcycle from Chiang Mai (Thailand) on November 30th to do what is referred to as the Mae Hong Son loop, a picturesque mountain drive to the west skirting the Myanmar border. As we ascended in altitude, there was a noticeable drop in temperature, especially under the shade of the canopied trees and in the shadow of the hills.

Not expecting such cold weather, we brought only light clothes, so by the time we arrived, we were both very chilled. We found a delightful bungalow where a hot shower quickly took the chill away!

Once that part of the body was satisfied, we had to address another part: the growling stomachs. We walked down the hill to the pretty little lake in town passing the side by side Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang Temples on the way. The first has pillars gilded in gold flakes and it houses a huge Buddha with a lap width of almost 5 metres. One end of the lake had busy food and craft vendors and sidewalk eateries. After a bite and some evening shots, it was time to turn in.

Nightly reflections

The next morning, locked and loaded, we wound our way up to the top of a hill for an aerial view photo op of Mae Hong Son below and to see the hilltop temple called Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu Temple - who comes up with these names!

A Wat with a lake view

Before leaving town, we decided to buy windbreaker jackets to protect us from future wind chills that the flying motorcycle gave and to get from the Chamber of Commerce a novelty award certificate stating we successfully drove the road of 1,864 curves!

We backtracked south 60 km from Mae Hong Son to the turn off, then another 25 km past hill and dale speckled with humble agricultural villages, and through some of the most beautiful back country to see the Bua Tong Fields (wild "sunflowers"). We fortunately came at the right time because these flowers only bloom during November and December. They average about 7.5 cm (3 inches) across in size and are more like a big yellow daisy.

Blooming duo

The effort was well worth it upon arrival! The fields painted in yellow were magnificent and stretched over a wide expanse.

Like a yellow carpet

After studying our map we intended a northern route, but we were discovering that the map had many errors and misinformation. The towns were often misplaced and the road conditions and posted signs, as rare as they were, didn't coincide.

Upon reaching a crossroad and conferring with a helpful local, we were left with 2 choices: 1 - taking a dirt/gravel road which we were assured was in very poor shape, or 2 - continuing south and back around to Chiang Mai where we had been 2 days ago. In the waning hours of the day, we realized either way we would be driving at dark so we wisely chose the latter of a less rugged road.

One bonus was it would be mostly on a road we had not yet travelled. This route gave us the most twisty, climbing, narrow road to date. At 1 point after gearing down for a turn, we heard a crash and looked back to see our rear hard-shelled luggage had come off the rack and was sliding down the road!!

Evidently the shaking and bouncing was too much for the plastic latch. We retrieved it in 1 piece albeit scraped and cracked a little, bungied it on as a temporary fix, and got back on the horse and journey.

Once again, as the sun fell, the temperature dropped. But this time, we were cozy in our windbreaker jackets. It was well past dark of the long day by the time we found a motel still a ways south of Chiang Mai.