Chiang Rai’s Deep Countryside

After another day cruising around the city, exploring the tribal market and heading further out of town to hang out in a more local area we decided that that evening we would stay in the hills at a Kamu hill-tribe village.  Recommended to us, it sounded like an ideal few days break in the remote country for the last time before we headed towards home.  We arranged it and booked through the “River Lodge” as their sister hostel we set off, directions in hand and a small bag with what we would need for 2 days.  It quickly became apparent that the directions we were given by the hostel were wrong and we had driven on the wrong side of the river.  Using a poor map from the tourist information that gives little detail we aimed towards a crossing that simply didn’t exist.  We drove through and stopped in a Kamu village, where everyone dressed normally and nothing seemed any different.  We passed an elephant-riding centre where I watched an elephant pull at its chains as Laura asked for directions.  They swayed unhappily much to my dismay and with the new appreciation I had for elephants.  The road had disappeared and the rough mud made us unsure whether we should push on.  We headed back 30 minutes and reached the village that we were sat in before trying to decide the direction.  We asked for directions again, but no one seemed to know where the bridge was to cross the river and everyone was giving conflicting advice.  The scenery and ride was beautiful, as we wound up and down hills, each with a unique view of our surroundings.  Yet when you battle for 2 hours to try and find somewhere it is hard to remain impartial and patient.

After asking numerous people we ended up going a slightly different direction and then were finally directed to the bridge!  We were back on track.  We curved around the high walls of the grey prison and followed the river gratefully on our right hand side this time, following the same path on the other bank and now driving through what we had witnessed a few hours before hand.  The route became more difficult as we branched off the main road and soon became so steep that the bike would not carry both of us.  Such steep roads and changes of gear I was concerned would drain our fuel.  Often we were wailing up the road at 5mph and despite going so slowly I had to focus hard to avoid getting caught in ruts that would send us flying.  The fuel gauge would show nothing and then return to half a tank.  As we had now been driving into the country deeper and deeper for 3 hours now, a petrol station was not likely and being caught out was likely.  Luckily the weather was glorious however and made the country smell more intense and the shade of the trees more welcome.

Rice paddies on impossible slopes glowed green and glimpses of rural life through holes in the tree line came and went as I struggled to minimise fuel consumption.  We climbed the last hill separately as it was a 50 degree incline and I finally skidded to a stop and took off my sweatbox helmet with everyone staring at us looking very confused.  After 4 conversations and arrangements being made the people had no idea we were coming and the price was suddenly a lot different.  The cheapest rooms suddenly didn’t come with a fan either.  The scene was ridiculous as no one was helping just staring at each other, then looking at us pointing to a list of rooms.  After finally getting the staff to call the owner and stupid negotiations that should have been necessary at that point we decided to leave and not stay there at all.  We asked for directions to the waterfall that was close to the hostel however and left our bike there in disbelief at the situation.

The waterfall made up for it though as you had to walk through the village up a ridge and then cut in through vegetation.  Walking alone looking over the vast valley with bamboo hanging overhead and the teeming sounds of the jungle all around.  We slid down large rocks as the sounds of the waterfall became apparent and the humidity level increased.  The falls extended around 20 meters both above and below us.  We stripped off to our swim wear and sunk into the cool pool gazing above and looking at the sky through a break in the canopy created by the waterfall.  It is one of those moments that are epic in retrospect.  We sat in a pool of water, voices drowned out by the crashing water, butterflies and other bugs sung out as we sifted through sand to pick out the fools gold that glistened on the sandy pool bed.  No one was around and we were in the middle of the jungle- alone.  We left as the clouds started to build overhead.  Being caught in a storm on these roads would be impossible, so we hastily made our way back.  Just as we were leaving a guy struggled up the hill and regaled a story reminiscent of ours, about wrong directions, inaccurate information and the mission that ensued.  We bid him good luck and flew down the hill, straining the weak brakes and back through the oolong tea groves we past on our way there.  We asked a mimed to a man who worked on the plantation if we could try some, but he pointed to another house.  This house didn’t have any to drink, just to buy at an inflated price in a packet.  Laura picked her own instead to save for later.

We stopped for fuel and water, but both were charging ridiculous prices (water was set at 7,000 or 56p instead of 3,000 or 24p), simply due to the fact that the few foreigners they see here have no alternative. We decline despite being touch and go on whether we will make it with our sparse fuel.  Despite this concern the way back was easier, with more gradual but longer downhill runs where I turned off the engine completely.  This put us into quiet, slowly bumping our way from hilltop to valley bottom where the rice paddies lay in patchwork, with cloud towers all equal height continuing as far as the eye could see, just like the vegetation on earth.

We did make it back with enough fuel and despite the mission failing we both agreed that it was well worth getting out as far as we did, which we might not have if we didn’t have our steering aim in the first place.

It was our second to last day and so we decided to drive around the coffee shops we had visited, the Internet café and a few local sights that we had learnt about during our stay. Closest to our hostel was a temple that had been struck by lightning that revealed a pure emerald carving of a Buddha.  Now called the Wat of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo), despite the original now residing in Bangkok, it was worthwhile poking your head in, even just for the calming atmosphere that dulls the continuous drone of car traffic.  The paintings on the wall featuring the emerald Buddha are also impressive to see.  We past a truck selling Durian fruit twice and since we had tried every tropical fruit we could get our hands on and yet had avoided this one up until now.  Since it smells like rotting flesh it is perhaps unsurprising.  We headed back for some lunch and after smelling the fruit decided to play a game to decide who ate it, which Laura unfortunately lost.  The fruit tastes as bad as it smells and really is terrible.  There are very few things that we don’t eat, but a fruit that smells this bad and smells like onions, while having the texture of butter just tastes wrong.

We saw there was a lookout point on a tourist map we picked up, next to a golf course and so decided to check it out. It turns out we had driven past it numerous times and seen people drive in.  Yet, as we pulled in and were ordered to stop we grew nervous. We were asked what we were doing there and noticed that everyone dismounted as they drove past the definite check point with military guard, raised barrier and booth.  We showed the map and pointed to the lookout point and with this we were asked for our passports.  This was not good news, as you legally have to carry I.D in Thailand, especially if you are driving and we didn’t have anything.  With this the guard walked off and made a phone call.  After this we were left to stand there. As my impatience grew I asked the guard if we should go, but he ordered us to wait.  Nerves grew further.  The phone rang again and with a few words the receiver was returned.  We were told not to deviate and that we had 30 minutes.  With that we were given a visitors card.

We drove through a golf course with posh looking people having conversations feeling very relieved we were in without incident.  Winding through the trees, past the river and up to the top of a hill we could see over Chiang Rai just as the sun was falling.  Strangely army personnel were walking around when one guy came up to us and asked us why we were there and if we realized it was a restricted military base.  He told us that nobody comes up there and so he was surprised to see us, which made us feel triumphant- here we were again just cruising and ending up in places that are not in the guidebook and people don’t visit.  There was a 3-D model of Chiang Rai and surrounding area that the army used for strategy and even a monument of the head of the army- the revered king of Thailand with his footprint.  A good place to visit, but we didn’t fancy hanging around too long to attract attention.

Our final day we still had the motorbike until 4pm and since our bus was at 5:30 we had time to go exploring.  We had discussed with the managers of Chat House that we needed to learn some of the traditional dishes on the menu, to which they agreed.  We have tried some already and they turned out to be excellent value and now we have compared prices around Chiang Rai realise that the price is good for what you get.  The next morning we relaxed before asking to watch the cooking of two dishes that were quoted to be their favorites and something they cook at home.  We watched them seamlessly and easily whip up two great dishes that we recorded before setting out to find the so-called “Buddha Cave”.  As we have driven around the city and the area around the Buddha caves en route to other out of town destinations we knew where we were going and realized we felt comfortable with Chiang Rai and that we would miss the place.  You are soon in the country and yet the city has pretty much anything you need, from shops to entertainment, sights and more.  Back curving around the imposing, blackened, limestone protrusions, with ridges eroded in vertical lines for the last time.  We had more time and less of a distance to cover, so took in the view as much as possible.  Then the rain started and soaked us through in less than a minute.  We slowed down as the roads filled with water but plowed on until we made it to the Buddha cave and shelter.  No one was around so we stood to wait for the rain to slow before seeing if we could have a look at what the Buddha cave was exactly.  As the deluge settled we saw a monk sat under a shelter, reading scriptures out loud.  We walked around and saw a large Buddha positioned looking out of a black cave a few meters above ground level in one of the limestone mountains.  We climbed the stairs and walked around the dank, wet environment, hollow taps rung out as drips hit numerous buckets littered around the cave and as a handful of cats watched us suspiciously.  Bats flew overhead and since we took our shoes off at the entrance (a necessity for all temples), our feet were covered in acrid bat excrement.

 

 

 

 

 

The cave was situated on the riverbank in the most perfect of settings and we looked down the river as another white Buddha looked out over the river. Walking back the monk we saw encouraged us to visit the cave and when we replied that we had he waved us to follow him into a living room.  Two other monks were sat there and spoke some English.  We sat talking to them about one monk’s tattoos and saw some of the religious artifacts they had, including symbolic knives and crystals. Their Buddhism was influenced by Indian Buddhism and seemed more liberal than traditional Theravada Buddhism typical of the rest of Asia.  We were sad to have this visit cut short, but we needed to pay and catch our bus. We accepted a cotton bracelet as good luck and bowed out, before speeding off back to Chiang Rai for the last time.

The last hours fly by and these were no exception as we picked up some food for the road at the nearby market before waving goodbye to the hostel as we were carried off the Tuk Tuk.  We were sad to be driving down the road in the open sided chugging three-wheeler we have had so many adventures in.  Chiang Rai felt like it could be home for us in the future and offered so much; everything a city has to offer and yet is so close to deep countryside, numerous waterfalls, hot springs, jungle and ethnic minority villages that gives the area diversity, nature and modernity in unison.  We set off as the sun was going down and the mountain ridge was covered perfectly by a line of cloud, increasingly picking up the pink of the sunset, as we drove down roads we had covered in the past week, packed with fond memories.

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