Today’s tour will take us to visit the Akha and Yao (Mien) Hill Tribes, as well as visiting the Golden Triangle which is the location where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. It is also historically an opium growing region, though only Myanmar is still growing poppies. We booked the tour through Expedia since I am still a little miffed at Viator. Viator did, however, decide to refund our money for the last tour we booked through them. After I lick my wounds for a while, I will probably book with them again. Unfortunately, they are the biggest game in town for tours so it would be very limiting to not use them as a resource. Though they ruled in our favor in our dispute with them, I was not happy with their customer service overall.
Once again, it turned out that the tour would be given with just Clayton and me, as well as a driver and guide. We would be riding in luxury; our driver had a very nice Lexus. Our guide’s name was Sanaey (pronounced Sunny). His English was quite good, though heavily accented. The drive to our first village took about 45 minutes. Along the way, he shared some miscellaneous facts about the area. Chiang Rai is 70% Buddhist. The remaining religions practiced here are Christianity, Animism, and Islam. We have seen a few Christian churches here, but have not noticed any mosques. New Years is celebrated 3 times here (these folks know how to party!) – January 1st, Lunar New Year in February, and again in April (the Shooting Water Festival). There are three seasons here. Winter is the most comfortable and lasts from November-February. March to June is the hot season; June/July to October/November is the wet season (think monsoon). January and February are the best time of year to visit, which is why it is high tourist season.
About a half an hour into the drive, Sunny asked us if we had our passports with us. Say what? There had been no mention of the need for a passport on the tour description and we are not in the habit of carrying them with us unless we know we will need them. We were not crossing any borders, to did not bring them along. He said not to worry, but that there are checkpoints along the road and sometimes cars get stopped. Everyone must have a passport. It would’ve been good to know this ahead of time; it was too late now to turn back to pick them up. So, we just had to hope for the best. We don’t ever want to be featured on the tv show, “Locked Up Abroad”!
We were surprised at how spread out Chiang Rai is. Sunny told us that the city has a population of 60,000 but the region has over a million people. It took quite a while to get out of the city and into rural areas. We passed many rice paddies. The crops had recently been harvested and the fields were now replanted. Not much growth was apparent yet. Unlike southern Thailand, rice is harvested twice yearly here (they get more rain which allows for a second planting). Smaller farms still plant, harvest, and process the rice by hand; larger farms use machinery. As we progressed along the road toward the hills, dogs, cats, and chickens would randomly appear in the road. We didn’t see any, but Sunny claimed that buffalo often will meander across the roads as well. One must constantly be on the lookout for free-range critters here.
Our driver pulled over on the side of a very modern road in the middle of a neighborhood. It was definitely not what I had in my mind for a visit to a hill tribe! The Akha village turned out to be located a short distance off the road. At the entry to every Akha village is a spirit gate. Its purpose is to keep the bad spirits out of the village. To the left of the gate is a female image; to the right are male images. There are also various objects attached to the gate itself. The gate gets replaced yearly, but if someone touches it upon entering the village, it must be torn down and rebuilt.
The round concrete objects pictured below are water tanks. Just past the spirit gate and water tanks was a large swing which is used in the yearly Swing Festival, which takes place in August. We were surprised to notice satellite dishes attached to the bamboo homes. Unlike some hill tribes, the Akha are considered Thai citizens. The Thai government provides the dishes so that communication and education can take place with the tribe. They are taught English and culture via tv. Children attend school elsewhere. Older children work and send 40% of their earnings back to support their younger siblings. There are 162 people that live in the village we visited.
As soon as we passed through the gate, we were approached by women trying to sell us trinkets. They were quite persistent and continued to follow us the entire time we were there. The houses were built of bamboo. This tribe favors two-story homes. The bottom floor is used for keeping animals and working; living takes place on the second story. The flooring needs to be replaced every 10 years; the roof every 2-3 years.
We visited the home of an old woman that was dressed in traditional garb. She had some headdresses laid out; I believe she wanted me to buy one. She put one on my head and agreed to pose for a picture. It is always best to ask first before photographing hill tribe villagers; some believe that having pictures taken takes away a part of their soul. Their clothing is very intricate and colorful. I read at the museum that it can take a year to create each outfit. Sadly, some tourists have offered to buy their clothing off of their backs, and the villagers have done so in order to earn some extra money. The younger people of the village wear western clothes, so the traditional ways of dress may be coming to an end.
Sunny showed us how the people wear baskets to haul produce on their backs. The old woman put on a bamboo cape whose purpose is to repel rain. It was an interesting visit, but I also felt a little awkward. I felt a little weird about visiting her home but now buying any of her goods, but Sunny reassured me that we were not required to do so. Still…
The next house we visited was a one-story home with a dirt floor, though the dirt was very hard-packed. Attached above the door was some type of protection against bad spirits. This family had a refrigerator, tv, and rice cooker, s were living a more modern lifestyle than the woman in the previous home.
The next house was another two-story house. The round objects in the picture are cucumber seeds drying, to be planted during the next planting season. Wood and bamboo were stored below the house for fires. You may notice that the woman’s teeth in the picture are very black. Many villagers chew on betel, which turns their teeth completely black.
Next, we entered a much larger home. A pig had just been butchered (that is pig’s blood in the bowl) and much of the village was at the house helping cook for a big celebration. Children were there as well because there was no school that day. It was “Teacher’s Day”, which is a holiday to honor teachers. Clayton inadvertently caused a moment of hilarity when he hit his head on the roof of the home – everyone cracked up! My guess is that he was the tallest person that had ever set foot there. The couple that owns this home are of mixed backgrounds – he is Akha and she is Thai. There was a picture of Jesus on the wall inside the home and also a Buddhist altar outside, covering both bases.
Sunny took us on a tour of a Yao village. We walked through a few stalls set up to sell trinkets to tourists and then continued through the village school, which was closed for the day. There was a temple on the school grounds that proved that not all temples here are beautiful! Only 6 monks live here in pretty primitive conditions. The houses in the village are made of concrete but have dirt floors. On the hill above the village, a group of men was building the framework for a new school. We visited the home of an older man; he has 5 children but they all now live in Bangkok and send home money to support him.
The Yao used to live a nomadic lifestyle in the hills. They would move every 5 years, for several reasons: running out of water, the land would become less productive because the nutrients had been used up, they were quite dirty and so they would move rather than cleaning up, soil erosion, and their houses would need to be rebuilt because they were made from bamboo. Why rebuild when you can move?
Our next stop was the ancient city of Chiang Saen (750 years old). On the way, we passed many more rice fields. Since they are underwater, there are many snakes (and insects) in the fields. And, there are fish as well! Who knew? The wall around the city was originally 15 meters tall; there was also a moat which was now dry. We stopped at Wat Chedi Luang. I could swear that we visited a temple in Chiang Mai with the same name! We probably did, because Wat = temple, Chedi = pagoda/stupa, and Luang = large! So, it was a big temple with a pagoda. We asked for a toilet break; Sunny agreed but told us he would need 7 minutes. Say what? And, he indeed did need 7 minutes. When he rejoined us, he proudly announced that he was now 2 kg lighter. Something I really didn’t need to know…
We banged the gong three times before entering the temple. He told us that the three gongs meant: the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and the Monks. This is different from what our previous guide told us, but I will go with it because, like all males in Thailand, Sunny had spent time as a monk. Apparently, you can choose how long you want to be a monk. It can be very short term, months, or years. He said he didn’t much enjoy his time as a monk because they only ate once per day. The families of men want them to become monks because it guarantees a good life for the family.
Also, in April of the year a man turns 21, he must report to City Hall. He draws a piece of paper from a box. Thirty percent of the slips of paper are red; the remainder are black. If you draw a red slip, you are conscripted into the army for two years. No one is exempt, but if you are physically disabled, you do not need to serve. Women have no such requirement.
Inside the temple, most of the pillars were modern (many earthquakes here have damaged the temple over the years), but a couple of the original still exists. The mortar in the old pillars is created from sand, sticky rice, and cassava powder. There were a couple of places that people could donate money, based on their animal year (I am a rat; Clayton is a rooster) and based on the day of the week that you were born. Nine is a lucky number in Thailand, so they split the week into 9 days – Sunday and Wednesday each get two (am and pm, depending on when you were born).
There is an area where Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand all meet. This is known as the Golden Triangle. It is an area that is famous for opium growing. The last king of Thailand, Rama IX, stopped the growing of opium in Thailand. The area is now famous for growing Arabica coffee beans. Laos also has stopped the production of opium, but it is still grown in Myanmar. The checkpoints that we passed through on the way to/from the area are mainly to check for two things: opium and people from Myanmar trying to come to Thailand for a better life. So, we didn’t really need our passports after all; the police looked at us and decided we didn’t look like drug smugglers and waved us through each time. We stopped for a few photos and also visited an Opium Museum. In addition to information about opium, there were also displays of various costumes of local hill tribes.
We stopped for an amazing lunch at a restaurant in the countryside. There were a two other “farang” (white foreigner) couples there; one from England and one from Utah. We had an enjoyable lunch chatting with both.
After lunch, we passed by the infamous caves where the soccer team was rescued in 2018. It is now blocked off except for the outer cave for obvious reasons. Sunny told us about special coffee that we could try. They feed raccoons coffee beans. They are excreted, cleaned, and roasted. He also claimed that they did the same with elephants. People are willing to spend big bucks for this stuff.
Our last stop of the day was to visit the border town of Mae Sai. The driver drove us to the border, dropped us off, and then picked us up after Sunny had led us through the markets there. As we approached the border, we saw the most amazing site – from the rear, it looked like a truck completely laden with boxes of goods. As we got closer, it appeared that it was not a truck, it was a tuk-tuk. Imagine how in awe we were when we found that it was not a tuk-tuk at all; it was a woman on foot hauling the pile of boxes! We saw several of these. There is a unique situation at this particular border. For 5 km on either side of the border, people from both countries can cross without any documentation to shop. So, people from the Myanmar side come to the Thai side to purchase food and other necessities and then haul them back to the other side. Sunny said that the store the woman had bought her items at was 2 km from the border crossing. OMG! Some Myanmar people work in Thailand and can go past the 5 km area (kind of like a DMZ), but need proper paperwork to do so.
We noticed that many of the women here had a powder-like substance on their faces. It is known as thanaka and is used to protect against the sun and is made from grinding the bark of the thanaka tree against a small circular slab with some water to make a paste. Sunny also pointed out some large rocks that contained jade and precious stones. Myanmar is rich with gems and minerals, including rubies and sapphires.
There is a bridge between the two immigration stops (Thai and Myanmar). Along the sides of the bridge are flags. Notice that halfway across, the flags change. This is the actual border. People in Thailand drive on the left; Myanmar on the right, so at the halfway point, cars have to cross to the other side of the road.
Many stalls were set up along the street to sell roasted chestnuts. They cook them in large woks with small stones. There were many other food items for sale as well as the usual selection of clothing, and trinkets. This was one of the more enjoyable markets that we have visited, though Sunny set a very brisk pace so there was no dawdling or temptation to stop and buy anything. This stop was by far my favorite of the day. I would’ve insisted on slowing down, but we are going to Myanmar tomorrow, so will have another chance to shop then.
The drive back to Chiang Rai was a little over an hour. I took the opportunity for a power nap to rest up for whatever adventures the evening might hold.