Saturday, December 27, 2014

Passage northwards

Poor Sea Turtle had been either anchored or moored in Chalong Bay of Phuket Island since our arrival in Thailand August 1, 2014. We were definitely getting the urge to be out on the water again after all of our air and land travels lately.

We finally departed our anchorage on December 24th for an Andaman Sea island called Koh Phayam which is up the west coast of Thailand across from Myanmar (formerly Burma). We were in no rush so decided not to do "overnighters".

It was a great start. We sailed right off our anchor and all the way to a quiet night stop off a beach about 500 m south of Naithon Beach (N08°01.601' E098°16.606') were we had a peaceful night. (FYI - Koh or Ko in Thai means island.)

Our only problem: the fridge stopped working. We did not want to turn around and return to Phuket and continued with hopes of finding ice along the way.

We left bright and early December 25th sailing again until the winds died mid-morning and we reluctantly resorted to the purr of the motor. A couple of hours later, we stopped at a port town where the navy has a post and where we could buy some ice. We experienced some non-typical Thai hospitality when our first greeting was from a scowling longtail boater who made rude gestures as he decided we were in his path, even though we were there first.

Our next greeting was from a very rude "gentleman" in charge at a tourist excursion facility ashore instructing us to move our dinghy immediately from the dock area where we had tied even though we had been given permission to park there by a worker.

Jordan said we would only be 10 minutes as all we needed was some ice. He continued to be rude saying no and to move now. So Jordan left to move the dinghy while I waited. The man then yelled out to me saying to never park there again. I angrily told him that we would never be back so not to worry about it. He graciously replied "Good."

Wow, what an introduction to a new town on Christmas Day. We quickly walked into town, bought several bags of ice, and left immediately, bidding good riddance, and sailed north.

We anchored for the night along a shoreline at N08°43.200' E098°13.466'.

Our next day was uneventful as we motored with no wind and we anchored on the back side of Ko Ra in a slight drizzle as we watched several fishboats heading out for their nightly catch (N09°14.433' E098°18.795').

In the morning, we once again motored as no wind, arriving at our destination of Ko Phayam on December 27th (N09°45.598' E098°24.242'). It was exciting to see several other sailboats at the same anchorage, some that we knew. It had been a long time since we had that ideal cruising venue.

Another beautiful sunset

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Home again

With a visit to Cambodia foiled, we decided to make the long run home (Phuket Thailand) and leave a visit to Cambodia for another trip, maybe to coincide with a future necessary Visa run. So we first had to retrace our Laos path heading back north, before heading for Chong Mek (about 80 km east of Ubon Ratchathani), the nearest border crossing back into Thailand.

It felt good to be back in Thailand where we find it more comfortable. Thai food is better any maybe even a little cheaper, the people are super friendly (it's known as The Land of 1,000 Smiles), and more English is spoken.

Our route heading south in Thailand had us staying at Chok Chai, passing through Bangkok to cute Hua Hin where we have stayed previously, and at a quiet beach bungalow just past Chompson. The roads had several fully loaded trucks carrying sugar cane.

A lot of sweetness

After 27 days on the road travelling through all parts north in Thailand and the whole length of Laos, we made it back to Chalong Bay of Phuket Island on December 20th where Sea Turtle, our mobile ocean home, welcomed us back on board.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

CAMBODIA?

Today we were really excited about crossing into another country that neither of us had ever been to before: Cambodia. So we were shocked when we were about to exit Laos and a Lao border guard stated that we would not be able to take our motorcycle into Cambodia!

From what we read and heard, we thought he might be mistaken so Jordan decided to walk across the border to talk with the Cambodian Customs to get it from the horse's mouth. We were informed that if we didn't have a pre-approval certificate to allow the vehicle to enter, which was only attainable at the Customs office in the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh, then we could not enter with the motorcycle.

He said we would have to bus 12 hours to Phnom Penh, go through the process of getting the necessary vehicle entry approval documentation (and he couldn't say how long that would take), and then return with it to then be allowed to enter. That was not an option for us, so searching for a solution or a caveat, Jordan argued that we own the motorcycle and we have all the papers as proof, but that was immaterial. They were all very pleasant about it and matter of fact, but the laws were clear to them.

It was very discouraging to have to turn around (it was a simple U-turn as we had not checked out of Laos) and head back about 150 km to the town of Paksan that we had been at 3 days ago.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Scary ferry

Have you ever taken a mode of transportation that you have been just a little bit leery of? Well, we encountered such a situation in southern Laos when we decided to cross the Mekong River to Khong Island - 1 of 4,000 river islands!

Upon arriving late in the afternoon to a riverside village, we could see the island that we wanted to go to across the waters. There, a man approached quickly and said that he could take us and the motorcycle over to Khong. He directed Jordan to drive the motorcycle to the river's edge and then across a precarious wooden gangplank onto his twin-hulled tiny boat, the condition of which matched the plank!

Would the gangplank and the boat's deck boards hold the weight? The owner exuded great confidence, so as directed, Jordan eased the bike onboard. Once secure, we shoved off for the trip across the mild waters towards the setting sun.

Mekong ferry

On arrival, the fare was paid, then Jordan made his disembarkment across the gangplank, and keeping his revs and momentum up, climbed the short steep path up to the road. Only 3 of the 4,000 islands are permanently inhabited with Khong being the largest at 8 km by 17 km. There was a good variety of suitable guesthouses so we had a quick check-in.

Balcony view of the Mekong

Khong may be the largest of the islands but there is very little to do except chill out. It was a nice break from constant motorcycle riding.

The morning sunrise added a tranquil glow to a serene river setting with the early morning fishermen.

Early morning on the Mekong

After breakfast, we checked out and did a tour around the Island on its rough, narrow roads. Once again, our rear luggage carrier made a getaway, jumping off its rack and crashing to the road. We found a little shop, and after some drilling and extra bolting, had the latch secure.

We discovered there is a new bridge from the south end of the Island back to the mainland of Laos but we were glad that we took the alternate/original way on the scary ferry. It was much more of an adventure than a boring bridge!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

To southern Laos

Leaving Phonsavan (Laos) again on our motorcycle, we backtracked westward before turning south towards Vang Vieng, our day's destination. As we started our descent out of the high mountain area, we passed a group of monolithic mountains that are synonymous with quintessential Asian scenery.

Lofty peaks

We passed a number of other adventure bikers this day, many who rent bikes in the capital and head up through the area.

Eventually we entered a scenic fertile valley nutured by a lazy river and framed by large limestone mountains where we found Vang Vieng. The more active and energetic traveller favours this place for its river kayaking, trekking, and caving activities in the immediate area.

Languorous valley

The following few days in Laos presented us less noteworthy experiences as we continued our southerly travels towards Cambodia.

Our advance and ride into the capital of Laos, Vientiane, was from the north and it was a dirty, dusty approach. The north sector seemed to be more industrial and roadwork and many of the offshoot roads presented bare red dirt surfaces that created a gritty atmosphere. There were a few scenes of culture once in the area, like the riverfront esplanade and the replica of sorts of the Arc de Triomphe of Paris which is called the Patuxai.

Copycat arch

In our old Lonely Planet guide, we had read about a remote wild elephant observation tower facilitated by a humble village, so we deviated to find the experience. Expecting to find groups of like minded, we hardly found anyone around, villagers or otherwise.

So we ventured off the beaten path, past the sign that ominously read Enter at own risk to find the tower in the jungle. The trail soon morphed into an intrepid adventure of wit, will, and endurance. We got lost in valley deep rutted trails, crossing creeks and playing chicken with a herd of water buffalo before finally beating a defeated retreat back to the village with only a couple of battle scars to our iron horse.

Retreating buffalo

Back at the village, we finally found someone who spoke enough broken English to inform us No elephants now. Gone, one month ago. Dry season, gone way back to jungle.

(Later that evening, with the help of the internet, we discovered more accurately that in fact NO elephants have been sighted in that area since 2010. Apparently there was a confrontation between a marauding elephant and villagers resulting in 1 villager dead, and in retaliation, a dead elephant. Needless to say, the elephants moved on at the detriment of tourist income to the residents. So much for depending on out of date books for possible activities.)

We continued on the road from the capital, following the Mekong River south which for the most part formed the natural Thai/Laos border. Now in the lower altitude regions, the land and roads became flat and monotonous.

The farther south we went, we noticed a dried out and scrubby land where it appeared the locals had forsaken their rice paddies in exchange for cattle that wandered in abundance unhindered on road and properties. Besides dodging potholes, we were now dodging cowpies. As well as all the new members of the animal kingdom! Calves, chicks, kids (baby goats - not children), small puppies, and even little kittens - all adorably cute. At 1 point, we also tried to avoid a cloud of butterflies that suddenly appeared from out of nowhere directly into our path.

Occasionally the roadside vendor stands broke the scenery. Oranges 1 day stacked high like pyramids on table after table, another day was bananas, then dried fish, then watermelons. Everyone had the same, how can they sell all their wares when they all have the same and are all right next to each other?

We spotted 1 banana seller who also had a couple of pineapples so we stopped for a small bunch of bananas and a pineapple which we ate right on the spot (as everyone else tried to sell us more of their product!) The sweet juicy pineapple was the best we have ever tasted!

1 of many stands

Ordering food at roadside eateries was always a challenge. Most times we settled for soup. One lady was a happy vendor and quizzed us on how to pronounce in English the different denominations of Lao currency as she wrote out our slow verbal pronunciation. As we departed, she jovially blew us a kiss. Not a Lao expression but no doubt something she learned from a previous foreigner.

A few areas in southern Laos were covered in unsightly garbage all along the roadside ditches and right next to towns. This was something we never noticed in northern Laos.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Plain of Jars

From Luang Prabang (Laos), we headed east on our motorcycle to see the curious ancient relics known as the Plain of Jars which reminded us of the mysterious Easter Island stone statues.

The first half of our day's travel there was in beautiful high altitude mountains, and in spots, we climbed right up into the clouds...it was a biker's dream ride!

Mountain mist

Eventually the road and land settled into an easy, flat, high altitude plain of rolling hills hills and grasslands. Chilled, we were happy to check into our dibs for a nice hot shower.

We spent the first part of the next morning bouncing over very rough and dusty dirt roads getting to 3 sites where the megalith stone jars sit, frozen in a mute stance as they have been for many hundreds of years.

Site 1

Site 2

Site 3

During the US war in neighbouring Vietnam, the conflict crossed the border into Laos. For a period of 9 years, the US dropped an average of a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes for 24 hours per day in Laos. There were at least 270 million cluster bomblets dropped as part of the bombing but 80 million failed to detonate.

We were in an area that received the most concentrated bombing and the effects are still seen today. MAG is just 1 of many entities whose mission is clearing land of UXO (unexploded ordinances) that plague the land. By 1 estimate, at the rate of clearing it will take 300 years to complete. Bomb craters were visible as we walked the site. (Yes, this site was cleared and safe of UXOs as indicated within the MAG markers.)

Mines Advisory Group

Huge bomb crater

Anthropologists agree that in all probability the jars served as vessels for the placement of deceased. It is possible that any lids made were of perishable materials as very few have been found; stone discs have been found but are believed to be grave markers.

That's all well and good, but Jordan has his own hypothesis:
It actually was a failed, unperfected, entrepreneurial venture many many years ahead of its time. It was an endeavour to make culverts. But the entrepreneur not only didn't do a thorough market study that would have told him that there was no market for the product, but he also hadn't perfected the "culvert". That came many years later when they realized culverts must be open at both ends. I formed this hypothesis (that I will present to the Society of Anthropologists soon) when quite by chance we came upon this scene in a field... 

Modern day Plain of Jars

You be the judge.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Luang Prabang

Our next destination: Luang Prabang (Laos). After backtracking westward a bit on our motorcycle, we turned and headed south until we met up again with the mighty Mekong River.

Luang Prabang's popularity as a tourist destination has grown since obtaining a UNESCO heritage classification, and for good reason. Perched on the banks of the Mekong, its quaint centre has a European charm left over from the French occupation. Sidewalk cafes and boutique shops encourage leisurely stroll.

Downtown day scene

Come evening, back alleys come alive with a salmagundi of food vendors; elbow-to-elbow hungry buyers jockey for the night's tasty delights.

The evening hails an end to normal traffic on the main street as well and it is hastily transformed into a crafts and wares region with a myriad of vendors.

The following morning, we visited the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum (formerly the Royal Palace), where there is a very elaborate Royal Temple. I tried to snap a photo of the inside of it, but was told that no photos were allowed, except for the outside of the Temple. We also walked through the Museum and had to turn in our camera as again no photos were allowed.

Royal Temple

We continued to the much glorified Tam Ting Caves that hang on limestone cliffs that rise right out of the Mekong. Access was through the Village of Pak Ou, 20 km upstream from Luang Prabang. Most tourists take boats from town for the upstream trip arriving right at the caves. But having our own ride, we drove up to the Village of Pak Ou and then hired a small river boat to take us across to the caves.

The caves' attraction are their 4,000 Buddha figures that have been placed there over many years by various Buddhist visitants of all status from humble to royal. Placed in almost every available perch of the upper cave and lower cave, the figures gaze out towards the Mekong and range in size from thimble to more than human.

Silhouette

Bunch of Buddhas

On the way back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at Whiskey Village. There, the locals have been making whiskey and wines from rice, and in more recent years, have found a market for their spirits with the tourists. "Creatively" presented, some bottles have creepy crawlies pickled in the firewater, other bottles have a hand wicker coat.

Whiskey still

Also, many of the villagers had row upon row of hand- and machine-made scarves, blankets, table covers, handbags, etc. Overwhelming. TOO much to choose from.

Drying dyed yarn

With a little daylight time left, we squeezed in 1 more site, Kouang Si Waterfall. We weren't expecting much but as we started up the trail that wound through the jungle trees, we were pleasantly surprised to see picturesque streams and pools of turquoise waters that cascaded in steps as far as up as we could see. Continuing up, we were met with a magical serendipitous moment as we came face to face with an amazing fairy tale worthy waterfall.

Waterwheel fall

Fairy tale fall

We finished the day by again joining the evening throngs strolling the vendor stalls in town centre.

Busy day and evening...off to slumber...

Sunday, December 07, 2014

River trip

The agenda for the day that separated our 2 nights at Nong Khiaw (Laos) included a 1-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River to check out the riverside village of Muang Ngoi Neua. We were told there was no road to the village so we could not take our motorcycle there. (We later discovered a dirt road in was almost complete.)

There was a flotilla of long, narrow, motorized riverboats that carried tourists, trekkers, and village people and cargo to various points up river. We crowded in with them to find a hard uncomfortable wood seat for the mostly mellow trip up the river with towering karst mountains as a backdrop to the first village about 15 km upstream.

Blue barge...

...beautiful backdrop

Along the way, we saw a smattering of inhabitants, their kids, some naked, using the banks and river as their playground. Sharing the scene were the occasional herds of water buffalo, some wallowing in the water like a Turkish bath.

Arriving at Muang Ngoi Neua, the boat pilot squeezed his way in to the docking area amongst all the other boats and we all hatched for our village experience. Up the long set of concrete stairs we climbed expecting to find a traditional village atmosphere. But we were quite surprised and disappointed to find what was once no doubt a somewhat undiscovered hamlet was now a well developed village of many guesthouses, restaurants and bars, and small shops catering to the ever increasing world traveller.

Muang Ngoi received permanent electricity as of April 2013 (compared to only 3 hours per evening) and they were embracing the benefit of it heartily. Houses were built of concrete or solid looking wood with only a few of bamboo. The lanes were dirt, shared by pedestrians, carts, and the odd scooter. That will soon change when the road in is completed.

Village dwelling

We waited till 14:00 to buy tickets for the return boat trip from the closed shop when we heard boats leaving (scheduled to leave at 15:00). Just then the ticket man showed up and said sorry, no more boats except a private charter and wanted to sell us tickets at 3 times the regular rate.

Jordan saw another boat coming down river so ignored the opportunist and we hoofed it to the wharf. We asked the pilot for a seat over the objections of the opportunist who followed but Jordan kept a barrier between him and the pilot till we made a deal and payment which was actually less than the prescribed rate.

All in all, it was a novel experience and we made the best of it even if it wasn't what we had been looking for. Again, as we should expect, the tentacles of the modern world are reaching further and further into the backwaters of remoteness and the inhabitants are embracing it, for better or worse.

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

LAOS

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.