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Hill tribes and long knecks
michael and jackie
10/02/2011, thailand

The northern mountains are the home of many hill tribes who traditionally have taken little notice of the modern borders between Thailand, Burma and Laos. We visited two villages near Chiang Rai. The Akha people traditionally lived on opium growing and still have a high rate of addiction. The village we visited charged Europeans for entrance. You pass through an entrance arch marked by a phallic sculpture which aims to keep evil spirits away. The villagers themselves make money from their traditional crafts and dancing. Karen people have also settled here to escape persecution in Burma. The Karens backed the wrong side in the Indo Chinese wars. They are famous for the heavy brass rings Karen women put round their necks. They believe that this makes them more beautiful, and they are generally known as long necks. The village women can still be seen weaving and sewing intricate beautiful shawls and clothes. They are very friendly and invite you to take photos of them showing off with pride their long necks. For a small sum a women sold us a scarf. She told us it had taken her five days to make it by hand. A small school has been established where we met the teacher and her young charges. Even 6 or 7 year old children wear the necklaces so that their necks can grow.

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White temple
michael and jackie
10/02/2011, thailand

The Frank Gehring of Thailand is Chalermchai Kositpipat. Chalermchai is both an artist and an architect. Near Chiang Mai, a remarkable temple is being constructed to his specifications. When completed in 2070 it will consist of 9 buildings. The temples known properly as Wat Rong Khun are designed to be best seen in moonlight. The artist is a devout Buddhist and many of his paintings have Buddhist themes. Inside the walls of the temple reflect some of the contemporary themes in his paintings of the threats to the planet from global warning and war. For example, one mural shows the twin towers burning. The rococo styles of the buildings are quite breathtaking. Amusing eccentricities abound - no parking cones with skulls on them. A magnificent building painted in gold turns out to be the toilets. A sculpture featuring a bottle of whisky is to tell you that the temple is a no alcohol area. People come from all over Thailand to view the temple and the gallery of his paintings.

Interestingly, nearby, a contemporary of Chalermchai regarded as the other leading Thai artist has constructed "the black house" depicting the dark side of humanity. Chiang Rai, a fairly mundane Northern city has developed a reputation as the birthplace for many Thai artists and musicians. perhaps a response to the ordinariness of the town in contrast to the surrounding mountain scenery.

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chiang mai
michael and jackie
09/02/2011, thailand

The drive from Lampang to Chiang Mai is not a long one. The road snakes out of the hills near the elephant camp and drops down to the plains that surround Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city, The approach from the South is through unprepossessing industrial estates and suburbs. Finally we turned off the superhighway and headed East for Boursin and a guest house called the Secret Garden. The road to Boursin is obviously popular with tour buses as there are many large outlets for silverware, brassware and ceramics with large but mostly empty car parks. Boursin is about a mile and a half out of the centre of Chiang Mai and is a centre for umbrella making. Brightly coloured, often gaudy umbrellas decorate the lines of shops devoted to the product. Finding the secret garden proved a mite difficult. The final turning should have been marked by a yellow traffic light. Unfortunately it had been demolished by a truck. Using Sue's phone we called the hotel and were told to follow a red lambretta. Sure enough a classic red lambretta driven by the owner, Peter, piloted us in. The Secret Garden is as the name implied an oasis of tranquility. Peter and his wife, Pai, closed their marionette factory and opened a guest house on the site. Bungalows are placed around ponds and water features, and works of art and sculpture are dotted around everywhere. Peter personally meets all his guests at the airport or station if he can and his wife cooks. The combination of personal interest and beautiful setting is hard to beat.

On the Sunday evening we took a local bus into town to visit the night bazaar. The bus costs 15 baht, ie 30p and is basically a truck with two benches down the side and a low roof. You press a bell when you want to get off. With lots of smiles from the other passengers we managed to spot our destination. The night bazaar sells pretty well everything. Loads of restaurants and food stalls, clothing, DVDs of any movie you care to mention,including new releases, of dubious provenance. We paused for a cocktail at a fancy hotel which turned out to be full of American military. We later found out they were engaged in a wargame with the Thai army. What this involved we didn't find out. But they seemed a bit bizarre in combat fatigues and boots, armed only with attache cases and cocktails.


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Lampang
michael and jackie
08/02/2011, thailand

We arrived by car in Lampang, a business-like Thai town. The centre of town lies along the river /wang. Narrow streets are lined with shops selling every kind of goods imaginable, from dentists chairs to great swathes of silk. The profusion of narrow streets and one way streets caused our Thai driver some difficulty in locating the Riverside Guest House. After three circles we eventually spotted the hotel. Riverside is a traditional teak building built on the side of the river. Small patio areas cascade down to the river with comfortable seating and an honour bar. Our room was a large suite, an outer room and bedroom constructed with dark teak, ventilated by highly efffective fans with shuttered doors. Thai beds tend to be hard and this was no exception but we slept well and were not bothered by mosquitos. Along the river bank numerous stalls were open selling Thai food and other delights. We pushed through the crowds of people, passed some young girls dancing to find the Riverside restaurant where to our delight cocktails were cheap and you could have pizzas as well as Thai food. Sated we returned to the guest house to prepare for elephant country.

North of Lampang the Thai government has established an elephant conservation centre. Elephants became unemployed following the ban on logging in Thailand and now Asian elephants are an endangered species. At the conservation centre elephants are trained in the traditional manner and you can see them bathing and their trainers known as mahouts show the different things the elephants can do. You can do a 3 day training course as a mahout. Although the real mahouts work father and son with an elephant for its life. Elephants retire in their 60s so the father and son provide continuity for the elephant.

We arrived in time to see the elephants heading down to a nearby lake for their daily bath. They carefully lie on their sides so that the Mahouts do not fall off and the mahouts assist in the scrubbing. As they re -emerge the more exuberant elephants squirted water sometimes catching the mahouts.

The elephants then moved off to a small arena, one of them banging a drum in time. In the arena the mahouts and elephants demonstrated their abilities. The elephants respond to small movements or quiet instructions. They are able to pick up their mahout's hat - stack piles of timber, and even draw pictures (with some direction)

The atmosphere was dignified and the elephants seemed happy and unexploited. The money collected from entrance fees is used for elephant conservation.

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Sukhothai
06/02/2011

The great start to our Sukhothai trip continued when we arrived at our delightful and quirky accommodation, the Orchid Hibiscus guest house. We were met by our Italian host Paolo, who very effectively organised our following day of sightseeing around the old ruied city of Sukhothai for us. However, following a very good lunch around the corner, we spent the first day lounging on day beds around the pretty pool. The gardens at the gueshouse are beautiful, with lovely displays of flowers, including orchids, and cages of singing birds. The beds may have been hard, but the ambience was great.

The following day, as directed by Paolo, we got a tuk-tuk at 6am which took us first to a large buddha on the top of a wooded hill outside the city walls. An energetic climb to the top meant that we could observe the statue as the early morning light coloured it and could watch the sun rise over the historic site. (all Buddhas face East)
We then visited a couple of other Wats inside the city walls - it was so good to visit these sites before the tour buses and before it became too hot. Finally, we picked up rented bicyles to cycle home for Paolo's "amazing breakfast". The breakfast consisted of a coconut concoction inside a banana leaf to which we added bananas and wild honeycomb. This was followed by eggs and endless toast topped by the wonderful honey or his "strange pineapple jam".
A siesta round the pool was followed by a Thai massage - a very stretching and pummelling experience - before we headed off late afternoon to cycle around the ruined city and explore more Wats.
All in all a great experience and at a low, low price.

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Sukhothai arrival
06/02/2011

The airport at Sukhothai must be one, if not the most attractive airports in the world. It resembles a cross between a luxury Thai-style hotel and a temple, with pretty gardens and beautiful displays of fresh flowers. Rows of flowers line the runway and pretty carriages take you the short distance to the entrance. You are met by uniformed guards in long socks, white Bombay bloomers and pith hats armed with black truncheons. Their purpose is more to help you with your luggage and find you a cab rather than any security role.

A pleasant drive through fields of tobacco, rice and other crops took us to our guest-house, the Orchid Hibiscus, right on the edge of the old city.


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