I just returned from four-day weekend because Monday and Tuesday were Arsarnha Bucha Day and Buddhist Lent. I headed for Chiang Rai, a Northern province.
First stop, the white temple or Wat Rong Kuhn. It was designed by an artist, Chalermchai Kositpipa, and it is a fascinating wonderland of bizarre and beautiful sculpture. Think highly stylized Buddhist art meets Salvador Dali. Everything is white, or white-washed inlaid with mirrored porcelain chips.
Destination: Mae Salong. This is a Chinese village perched in the northern hills of Chiang Rai.
It was settled here by Chinese anti-communist soldiers when fighting raged in the hillsides in the 1950′s. They first settled in Burma but then moved to Mae Salong, where they were granted citizenship. It is interesting to me that the Chinese forces basically defeated the communists and the Thai government had little involvement from the standpoint of soldiers. U.S. supported the anti-communist effort. The Thais owe freedom, perhaps, to these resilient Chinese people. Yet, their descendants, the hill tribe people who live here now have no civil rights. They were granted permission to live in Thailand but they are not recognized as citizens of the Thailand. This is one of the more disheartening truths of “Amazing” Thailand. In the past and present too, the Thai government called on other nations or organizations to help them. They even had support from Taiwan for higher education services. However, Thai government and King did provide economic infrastructure to help hill tribes wean themselves away from growing and selling opium, which was the cash crop of the 60′s and 70′s. Now, as far as the eye can see, the hills are covered with tea, corn, coffee, mango, berries and many other fruit and veges, you cannot see from the road.
The different hill tribes, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, may live close to each other but their live in their own villages. They are all descendants of minority indigenous Chinese and Burmese people.
This is an agricultural Shangri-La.
Sure there are tea shops and open markets selling hill tribe crafts and clothing.
But, I did not want to leave. If I could, I would live here for a year. It is breathtakingly beautiful at every turn, and there area lot of those. It is quiet and serene.
I immediately connected with the “place” and felt at home. Yen sabai. It is naturally cooler here, and it reminds me of home. The hills are amazing.
Rolling. Steep. The Views. Stunning. Rice terraced high in the hill sides. Corn grows right up the side of the road. I have spend two days walking around the villages and it is a total workout. There are 718 steps that lead to a temple on top of a mountain. I was the only one there. Most foreigners are here on tours it seems, so I see few walking like me, instead they get in and out of their mini-tour vans. It is hard though and perhaps a little dangerous on the roads, there are no shoulders. The streets are not really made for people walking, though the locals walk the roads regularly.
I arrived around 6pm. After unpacking in my room I head for the temple on the hill above me. It is 718 steps. It is dusk and the idea of seeing the mountain views at twilight compel me. I easily find the road and start the journey. I am alone. It is quiet and refreshing after several hours of bus and truck travel. I detour to explore a lovely Mechi temple and grounds. I enter through a cascading canopy of white and yellow tubular flowers. The yellow blooms are intoxicating. The white blooms, a foil.
Here I find such good light for a photo or should I say, for wrinkles, which seem to have left my face. I move on to find the steps. The steps are through a thick jungle, mossy, wet. I am in love with the moss. I still have good light once I reach the top. Good.
I will stretch tonight for those calves will be hurting. I skip down the steps off to a dinner of Chinese Yunnan pork and rice. It is delicious. It is spicy but with flavors I do not recognize.
The rolling hills of Mae Saelong will get you in shape. My legs were sore after three days of walking the hills. I see hill tribe women, elders trekking along, not a single tired breath. They are strong, independent, no walking sticks. Everyone, unless they are on motorcycles, and there are plenty of them, walks. I visit the morning market for some hot soybean milk and Chinese donuts.
Not really donuts because they are more like deep fried fingers, which are not sweet, but a bit salty. They are called bah torng goh. I like them. They must be soooo fattening. Everyone I see this morning has a cup of hot soybean milk in their hand and they are dunking the “fingers” in the milk. Fresh soy milk from soybeans grown right here. So good! Everything you eat is grown right here. It has to be. Nearly two hours from Chiang Rai.
The owner of the bungalow I stayed at handed me a hand-written map, poorly copied, yet I could make out the 10 kilometer walk to four different kind hill tribes in the area. My journey began when I decided not to go on the five-hour “horseback” trek to neighboring hill tribe villages. Good choice. I met two American guys who work in Cambodia for Human Rights Fairness (addressing hill tribe rights) who did go on the horse trip only to stoop halfway through. Apparently, the two young adult men, didn’t like the idea of being led by the reins on “smallish” horses, by a man in flip flops. I am so glad I decided to walk the route. On the walk, it was quiet and pleasant, cool, with a breeze, the air was clean. Except of the motorcycles whizzing by, I was alone. If you are on a motorcycle people ride fast. It is as if they are all training for the grand prix of motorcycle races. It felt so good to be walking and soaking up the views and the environment.
There was an old sign in Chinese and overgrown steps leading somewhere, I took them. A small memorial. Moss, deliciously frosts the plants and ground in many places. Again, I feel at home.
I approached a sign for the first village, turned on small dirt road and immediately felt intrusive.
The simple and impoverished lifestyle was shocking. I took photographs of the daily lives of the people. They are the Lahu. Then I realized, they enjoyed it.
They smiled and greeted me. Most of the children were shy. I ventured further and with each step I was lead to more discoveries and kinship.
I reached out to people. If they gave me a smile or a hello, I stayed with them for a while, got their picture. Told them they were beautiful or handsome. I made small talk, which is the only talk I can make in Thai. One teenage boy told me he spoke, Thai, Lathu and English. He did not speak Chinese. I guess that makes sense. He told me to keep walking, which was now a dirt path and that people were preparing for a tamboon. This means people were preparing for a temple offering, in this case, the next morning.
As soon as I walked into the gathering, I see the women, weaving plastic string around their gifts to hang on the bamboo pole. These are basic gifts for the Buddhist monks: toothpaste, deodorant and other toiletries. Money is also affixed to decorative bamboo sticks. In turn, the monks provide their spiritual teachings and are the foundation for the people’s spiritual lives.
People (and their loved ones who have passed on) earn merit for their generosity to the monks.
There are welcoming gestures for me to sit down and everyone seems excited to see me. I get the feeling no white people walk this far into the village. Then, they shuttle me into an area when more women are cooking food and men are making beautiful decorative bamboo skewers, that later would be affixed with the financial offerings. It appears, part of their creation is made from a fried flour to look like the petals of a flower. I see a pea, or bean that serves as the flower center. Awesome. I have never seen this. The men are making the decorations. I also see older brothers and men carrying the little boys on their backs. So far, I have only seen women do this.
I am taken in by an out-going elder man. I would describe him as frisky. He reminds me of an amalgam of men I have known. Including my grandfathers. He has a playful and cheerful attitude. His voice bounces. His body bounces. He comes over to me and talks excitedly and raising his hands. I have a short movie of him playing the drums on my Youtube video channel.
The women ask if I have eaten, and before I can answer, I am served a big bowl of noodle soup with all sorts of ingredients. It is spicy and the women laugh when I sputter and say, “pedt,” or spicy. I eat the whole bowl though. It tastes different from the Thai noodle soup. The noodles and broth are different.
One woman seems to be in charge. She is lovely and wiry with muscles. She talks loudly. She is lauding over the soup cooking in the huge pot. Soon, everyone from the village will come to get a bowl. I am served before everyone else and am honored.
This is the kind of hospitality I see over and over again in Thailand. Before I finish the bowl it starts to pour buckets of rain. It pours for an hour, or more. I stay. It is rainy season and I have an umbrella. Rain is dripping from the holes in the tarp canopy but it is holding and most people stay or run to a nearby. Then I go inside a small shack, where the men are making bamboo poles for the money. Others, are sitting and smoking.
No one was drinking alcohol. I think energy drinks may have been a replacement on this Buddhist lent weekend. It is time for me to leave, the rain is now a soft drizzle. I said thank you and goodbye. I follow the now muddy path that they say will lead me to the temple on the hill. I am excited about this because the temple has a huge white Mechi (female monk) statue and another under its own temple. The path is steep and I am headed down hill.
I step on the side grass to avoid slipping. My hiking legs appear and they know what to do. I pass through gorgeous scenery. Tea plants at my fingertips. I see another steep yet paved path up to the temple.
As I hike I feel my butt muscles. I think to myself how strong everyone is that lives here. No wonder the women have such beautiful bodies, including their butts. In general, Thai women do not have butts. Many are tiny, fragile beauties. Some of these hill tribe women are bigger boned, strong as well as beautiful.
I am at the bottom of the last steps going up to the chedi and temple. I see a small nen, young monk, prancing his way down the steps carrying a silver umbrella. He follows the path I just walked up and does not see me. His maroon robes and hat are a striking colors. His smallness conjures an image of a elf skipping merrily down slippery steep steps.
The chedi, temple statues are beautiful. I find a monk’s quarters, I think, and just looking at it brings me peace. I pour water over my muddy feet.
I depart for the temple at 6:30am and pass many people dressed up and carrying flowers, food and other respectful offerings for the Buddha. They are going in the opposite direction so I imagine they are headed for the other temple. The one I climbed 718 steps to reach Sunday night. The views there are breathtaking you can see above the clouds. I am at the temple at 7am as told to arrive, Yet, I should have known not to rush but instead to slowly drink my soy milk and eat my little chinese “fingers.” Instead, I drank and noshed while I walked. It’s Thai Time! Which really means be there an hour and a half later than the spoken time.
It has rained. I take pictures.
The temple has many new elements I have never seen before. The horses, the interesting guillotine shaped gong.
I see people on the road I recognize from the day before. They yell hello and smile wide. Then I see my favorite old man.
People make offerings of wild flowers, grasses, slices of fruit, presented beautifully on banana leaves or baskets. People are walking around the chedi, another act of devotion.
A woman hands me three incense sticks and three candles. I light the incense, the candles. Incense goes in the pot, candles go on the tray. Earlier, at the chedi, people were getting the wat ready, putting the tamboon money on the bamboo trees sticks. I wanted to contribute so I tell one man who is helping that I want to hai (give) to the tamboon. He nods and puts the money in his pocket. Huh? I don’t say anything. I should have given it to the other man who I met yesterday because this guy, who knows what his plans are. I turn it over and let it go.
inside, sticky rice with peanuts, beautifully wrapped in corn husk leaf
Walking back, I buy bracelets made by Lishu, an ethnic Burmese tribe, from the girls I meet on the road.
There are vegetable gourds, beans and belts for sale.
Walking back from everywhere, I notice young men getting their hair cut in a salon. Detour. I approach and smile, make small talk.
They ask me where I am from. I am from America. Only teenage boys are getting their hair cut. I have seen this attention to hair by the young Hmong hill tribe men in Pua.
The Thais wear their hair much more traditional. Everyone else, it seems, wears their hair longer. They love their hair and it looks good. It reminds me of the 60‘s. Almost all have long bangs that are swept across the face and the rest of the hair in a style in what only can be described as a shag with benefits. I had a shag in 8th grade. The next day I notice a similar ritual going on. About four men stand over the guy in the chair, gesturing and talking about what should happen to the hair next. Shave the head here, leave a little long hair here, and a wisp there. It is creative expression for the young men, with a touch of “catch a girl” potion.
Mae Salong has a mosque. I never knew there were Chinese Muslim. I also popped into a Baptist Church, where teenagers and little children were singing upbeat hymns, I am guessing about Jesus, in Thai. I followed some Akha hill tribe people going into a building under construction. I wondered in they were going to work in their indigenous clothes. I had to climb up a wooden plate and step over scaffolding.
There were going to some meeting in one of the unfinished rooms. I said hello. One woman gave me a card for her Akha homestay. I will check it out. Next time.
Shin Shan guesthouse, where I stayed
I have 20 minutes to pack before the song taro (truck taxi) arrives to head back to Chiang Rai. The ride back is beautiful with more stunning views and endless hills covered with tea and villages perched high among them. I spend most of my time talking to the interesting Americans in the vehicle. One young women in her 20’s teaches at an International School in Bangkok. She has 10 primary age students in her class. She teaches all subjects and they are all angels. Her students come from all over the world. She is paid well and loves it. Her friend works in her family’s line of business, “jewelry” in a jewelry high tower in the Silom District. She, Jewish, said she didn’t like Israel because the people were rude. The others are a family from California. The husband and wife, she Taiwanese and he, American, are nearing the end of their one year journey around the world. Their two lovely grown children have joined them on this leg, as they have joined them at other pivotal points. They love that there parents pulled up stakes and left on this journey. We talk about everything. How, anyone can get a job teaching English, if you are white and can speak English. The international school teacher says she was asked to sing a children’s song in her interview. You’re hired. It didn’t hurt that she has big blue eyes, blond hair and a huge beautiful smile.
Chinese Martyr Memorial museum
On the way home in Chiang Rai, I stopped at Wat Phra Kaew and its many beautiful temples and museum. Photos you will have to find on my Facebook page, along with the wonderful video of the elder playing the drums.