Sunday, April 13, 2014

More stuff in the North and the last days in Thailand...

After it was clear that Chiang Mai was OK, but by no meanings groundbreaking, it was again time to move on. During my time in Chiang Mai I've heard dozens of backpackers talking about the miracles of Pai, a peaceful town in the countryside 130 kilometers west of Chiang Mai. This small village, surrounded by a dry countryside, earned its name for being a destination for hippies and backpackers looking for «spiritual enlightment» or just a few days of calmness. I was up for the latter, so why not giving it a try?

Pai - A countryside so dry, it could be a desert
In the same minivan I met David, a cool photographer and indie film director from Spain, and together with other Westerners we rode over a indeed winding mountain pass road to Pai. Finally arrived, we discovered a town completely sunken into darkness - one of the common power outages just hit the village. It was funny to see that most of the local Thais were trying to illuminate the main street with small candles, and we first thought the whole thing looked like a ceremony or ritual. Nevertheless we settled ourselves well, and in the next few days we discovered that Pai is a really cool place - way better than Chiang Mai. It's also noteworthy that there were quite some possibilites to escape the flow of Western tourists.

The main street in Pai downtown

Average temperatures were quite «cool»

A huge Buddha watches over the town

The way up there was still under construction

The local dish, Khao Soi, might have been one of the tastiest I've tried in Thailand.

Except for some dry farming fields and houses...

... the landscape is still untouched.

... the most spectacular being the Pai Canyon.
There were also other natural attractions,...

Although it's not the deepest Canyon I've ever seen...
... it was definitely impressive.

Some parts of the «trail» were quite steep

On the way back a friendly farmer offered me some snacks

... was also constructed by the Japs in WW2.

The so called Memorial Bridge near Pai...

In the local Hot Springs bathing is allowed...

... but no to boil eggs. Seriously.

But I still had some time until my Thai Visa would run out, so I advanced further north to Chiang Rai (not to be confused with Chiang Mai). Chiang Rai is an ideal traveller's hub to the border crossings at the Golden Triangle. The city's most iconic monument is by far the bizarre White Temple, Wat Rong Khun.

Why bizarre? While it may look quite ordinary on the first view, it's worth to take a second look at some details...

In front of the temple it seems that...
... all hell breaks loose.

The meaning of all this? Sorry, I'm no artist.

Some temple decorations leave the visitor with the question...

... what the architect was smoking back then.

But the best part was definitely the interior of the temple, of which unfortunately it was forbidden to take photos. Another travel blogger managed to do some photos of the more than abstract wall paintings, and they are really worth to check out:

Otherwise Chiang Rai was quite a sleepy town with not so much to see. As a backpacker I'd say that staying 2 days in this town is more than enough.

This Clock Tower changes its color at night

Even a Tuk-Tuk driver needs his (undeserved?) rest

At least Chiang Rai was quite tourist-free
The local market offered some delicious refreshments

Way more interesting was the actual Golden Triangle, the famous border area between Myanmar/Burma, Thailand and Laos. The mighty Mekong river splits the three countries in a triangular shape, therefore the region's name.

The Memorial Stone at the Golden Triangle

Thailand on the left, Myanmar in the middle and Laos right.

The Golden Triangle also earned an infamous reputation for being one of the biggest opium producing regions in the world, making it also one of Heroin's main sources. While illegal opium production in Thailand allegedly has been stopped, it's believed that in Laos and especially in Myanmar it is still flourishing. At one point in history the Thai government decided to open an opium museum near the Memorial Stone, the so called Hall of Opium. It counts to Thailand's very best museums and I must say I wasn't dissapointed.

The building resembled more a «Jurassic Park» than a museum
A nightmarish tunnel welcomes the visitors

The exhibition featured the history of Opium in Asia...

... as well as tons of instruments for opium smoking.

Some smuggling samples were exhibited too

The traditional method of gaining pure Opium

What I especially liked was that the museum not only covered the ancient and modern history of Opium abuse (for example the Opium wars in China) but also personal tragedies of real Opium/Heroin addicts. The exhibition demonstrated plausibly how Opium was used (and still is used) by politics and criminals to finance their undoings and how the drug itself destroys a human being. Even the CIA involvement inside the whole drug business is credibly explained.

Enough Opium for today, let's go to the mountains. The next destination was Doi Mae Salong, another sleepy town in the northern highlands near Myanmar. A friendly guy in a Pickup truck decided to give me and a three other Thais a ride to that place, as there are almost no public buses and songthaews going to that village.

Doi Mae Salong is famous for being a small community of ethnic Chinese, who originally immigrated from the Yunnan Province (read more below). Since they settled down in Mae Salong they managed to grow huge Oolong tea plantations, which are famous to be as good as authentic Chinese tea.

The view on the tea plantations was astonishing

Is this still Thailand or already China? It's just Mae Salong,...
... famous for its Oolong Tea.

Chinese kitsch is...
... basically omnipresent in this town.

But to learn how those ethnic Chinese came to this particular place in Thailand, it's important to take a look back at modern history (here we go again). Back then in 1949 the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists/KMT (under Chiang Kai-Shek) and the Communists (under Mao Tse-Tung) raged throughout the whole country and lead most nationalist troops into retreat. While the biggest part of the Kuomintang could flee to Taiwan, where they successfully installed their government, another fraction of the nationalist army ended up in Myanmar/Burma. From there the rest of the nationalist army tried to regroup themselves and to start a major counter-offensive against the Communist Chinese in the Yunnan province, all with the support of the CIA who supplied the nationalists with weapons and training. Speaking of Opium again, it was actually the KMT who controlled the majority of the opium production in this area in Burma. With the opium earnings the nationalists hoped to fund their long planned counter-offensive against «Mao's henchmen» in Yunnan.

The retreat of the KMT (red path) from China to Thailand
But things came a bit unexpected for the Kuomintang, as the Burmese Army interpreted the KMT presence in Burma as an illegal invasion of Burmese territory and began to drive the Chinese nationalists out of Burma. So in the 1960s the sad rest of the Kuomintang army once more retreated into south, this time to Thailand..

Kuomintang soldiers, asking with protest signs for international support against the communists.
The ironic part is that during the 1970s the Thai government was fighting against Communist rebels who controlled large parts of Northern Thailand. And what could have been handier for the Thai government than a bunch of war-experienced Kuomintang soldiers who were eager to struggle against communism? Therefore the Thai government not only offered the KMT soldiers refuge, but also the Thai citizenship for each volunteer who fights against Thai communist insurgents! With the help of the nationalist Chinese the Thais were actually able to destroy the communist insurgency, and since then Mae Salong is one refuge village of those very same Kuomintang soldiers from back then!
The battle-proven Kuomintang were a great «help» against the Thai communists
The Thai government equipped the former Chinese nationalists and gave them refuge. Note the Thai king on the right, visiting a wounded soldier!

It was really exciting for me to find out all those details, as suddenly it all made sense to me. The huge production of Opium back then, the outcome of the proxy war between East and West in this region and finally the remaining ethnic Chinese and their tea plantations in Mae Salong. Simply amazing!

In the village nowadays are of course many monuments and buildings commemorating the KMT:

The tomb of General Duan, one of...

... the commanding KMT officers back then.

Back then when he was alive

The Chinese Martyr's Museum, which is also a shrine for the fallen Kuomintang soldiers...
...  who not only fought against the Chinese communists, but also the Burmese Army and finally the Thai communists.

As pretty this place may be - there's an indeed fascinating history behind it!

After Mae Salong I moved along to the Chiang Khong, where I finally made the border crossing to Laos. To put in a nutshell, I experienced 2 excellent months in a beautiful country which is inhabited by awesome people. On the other side it's been a long time since that Thailand was an authentic travel destination, and many things have changed during the last decades (not only to the better, from my point of view and state of knowledge).

But still, if you're willing to travel off the tourist-beaten track, you'll discover some truly wonderful places, just like Mae Salong. And even this town is getting more and more touristic if you wait longer...

See you next time in Laos!

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