Just spent 10 days cruising through northern Thailand - 2300klms through some great spots, wonderful scenery, & with not a cop or radar in sight - a reconnaisance trip to determine to where we wish to return!
Headed north-west from Chiang Mai to Doi Ang Khang - Thailand's "Little Switzerland" - 1300m above sea level, right on the border with Burma. We took the back roads through Arunothai & Tham Ngop; through 3 separate armed border controls, past many an isolated tribal village & surrounded by some great scenery. Stopped at Tham Ngop & by sheer chance ran into General Lee's daughter! General Lee headed the KMT who fought Mao/the communists in China before loosing & fleeing ultimately to Thailand. He set up camp permanently in Tham Ngop & his daughter kindly took us on a tour (not open to the public) through the wonderful mud-brick home he'd built, the officers barracks & so on. Having studied in the USA, she gave us a most informative run-down & the place which is full of history. Incredible to imagine life out/up there in the mountains, donkies/ponies still in use - it remains very wild, very isolated, very beautiful.
On to Doi Ang Khang which with its cool year round climate it grows many of the vegies, fruit & flowers normally found in more temperate climates. Production takes place surrounded by a magnificent garden. A market place full of weird & wonderful things, though we were more taken by the 40 degree Lychee schnaps on offer! This is a good spot to 'chill'.
Nearby are several tribal villages, notably those of the Lahu & Palong tribes. The Palong village - Nor Lae - is right on the border where a Thai military outpost faces off against two Burmese army posts. We had hoped to descend to Fang from Nor Lae but the border patrol guards stopped us saying the road descended at around 40 degrees & was in such poor condition that there was no way we would make it! We took the more 'traditional' route down past Fang to Tha Ton, a great little spot on the Mae Nam Kok River, which serves as a launching pad for visits to certain hill-tribes & various river/rapids adventures. Stayed at, yes, Riverview! Great spot on the river with views over the buddhas & magnificently lit chedi for which Tha Ton is known. A visit to the chedi is well worth it given the spectacular view & the wonderful collection of Buddhas sent from throughout the world.
Away early the next morning, we headed up (& up!) to Doi Mae Salong, the most Chinese of Thai towns! Steep & very chinese - more TVs here are tuned into Honk Kong than Bangkok! Surrounded by scenic tea plantations, its a great base from which to explore (off-road bike only) some very remote areas along the Burmese border (take a guide as its easy to cross into Burma/end up in prison) & very remote (mostly Akha) hill-tribes.
We were looking forward to our next destination, the mighty Mekong River, & what a river it is! Cruised into (14th century) Chiang Saen & headed straight for the river. How moving is it to see the Mekong & at a point where the three countries of Thailand, Burma & Laos merge as the river flows down from China. With the massage facilities set-up riverside who could resist - a massage watching the sun set over Laos as the cargo boats from China float by is special. On to the Anantara for a beer & to enquire when the King's Cup Elephant Polo would be staged, then lunch overlooking the river before heading down-stream to an isolated resort - Rai Saeng Arun - for the night. This is a great spot on the Mekong - fabulous/interesting accommodation (way up on bamboo clad mountains, right over the Mekong, or amidst rice paddies, or in/over wonderful ponds....). There's a full-on organic garden & the associated top tucker. We saw photos of where the river rises to in the rainy season - freaky!
Headed south along the river to Chiang Khong - great run with no other traffic, no houses, the best river scenery, just Laos opposite. One can cross into Laos from here - by sandpan which is much fun!
From Chiang Khong we headed back up through the mountains (yep, & the corners) to Phucheefha by now understanding why northern Thailand is regarded as THE BEST motor bike cruising in the world. Phucheefha is not in Lonely Planet, etc (its kept by the Thais for Thais) but, what a spot! Its this mountain/sheer cliff miles up above everything looking out over the valleys of Laos. Its magic. The big buzz is to be there for sunrise, to see the oceans of cloud below you with the peaks of mountains peering through & watch it all slowly unfold to reveal Laos.
Accommodation is limited to A-frames but who cares, sunsets are RED like you've never seen, kids from the tribes come to dance by your room, the monks pass by to receive alms, blessing believers....its a good feeling. We were up at 5am, 8 degrees at the park entrance/probably 5 less on mountain top. Thais of all ages make the climb - kids in their fulll-on tribal colours, barefooted & lightly clad monks with an amazing resilience to the cold.........This is a great & truly unique experience.
Cruised on to Nan feeling great! Went past one 'resort' that was so well located - way up high with a view out over these limestone tors protruding from no-where, a lake in the background. We were taken aback, then left pondering as the hill-tribe couple managing the place continued quietly smoking their opium pipes whilst we cruised about the place.
Fairly stuffed we decided to rest up in Nan for 2 nights. Away from the beaten tourist track, Nan is a quiet, rural affair, great markets; nice (human) feeling & great value. There are some wonderful trips to be found in the surrounding area.
We decided to make the dash to Phitsanulok. Rice paddies; you said rice paddies!!!!! Long, but easy run, we again decided to stay 2 nights. Not many get to Phitsanulok but there's a couple of 'must do's' there. The Chinnarat Buddha is there - even if you are not into temple touring this one is awe inspiring; built in 1357 its the 2nd most venerated Buddha in Thailand; one has to be moved on seeing this one. You should also check out the factory where they make buddahs for all over Thailand. For the less cultured the 'Flying Vegetable Restaurant' is a must - this resto wacks up a vegie concoction in a wok before the chef, looking in the opposite direction, flings it, maybe 20m through the air, to customers waiting atop a clapped out van....or, if you prefer to remain seated, to waiters who catch it on plates to serve you. Very performance orientated, this is a total buzz!
We also rushed along the 'green route' towards Lam Sak - a great outing with incredible views. There's one 'off the track' place, Tab Berk, the site of an Hmong tribe village, where everyone should go!
We were off again for Sukhothai & Si Satchanalai-Chaliang, two UNESCO projects restoring what remains of buildings from the 11th-14th centuries when Sukhothai was the capital & Thailand in its golden age. This is truly a marvel!
Onwards up to Phayao & pigged out by the lake. Not a tourist destination, its a good spot to stroll along the promenade lake-side.
Next day on up to Chiang Rai. How good is the Wat Rong Khun!!!!!!!!! Chalernchai Kositpipat, a renowned Thai artist, decided at 40 years of age he'd devote the rest of his life (& millions of $s) to building this temple white & sparkles with clear mirrored chips. Whereas most temples have centuries of history, CK started this one in 1997. Its AMAZING; instead of traditional Buddha life scenarios, this is full of contemporary scenes, from the moment you cross the bridge (of rebirth) surrounded by 100's of grabbing arms symbolising greed & desire, past figurines symbolising the downfall flowing from lust, to paintings in the temple of planes held by demon-like creatures crashing into the twin towers....CK estimates the whole project will take around 70 years to complete & has trained up an army of followers who he supports totally & who assist him & will finish the work for him once he dies. You have to read CK's reasoning behind all this; far too much to cover here.
Chiang Rai has plenty going on, but this is already too long. We're safely back home, readying ourselves for a myriad of festivals just around the corner.