Saturday, 16 May 2009

Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

Our last days in Chiang Mai seemed to have passed in a blur.  Some of our time was spent investigating the best route into Laos and we decided, with the help of Mr Koko of the Chiang Mai TIC travel agency, that the most practical way to travel would be North to Chiang Khong by minibus and then down the Mekong River by slow boat as far as Luang Prabang.  In all the journey would take three days, one on the minibus and then two on the slow boat heading west to the former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.  

Mr Koko had done the journey personally, was enthusiastic and came across as a reliable and trustworthy source of information which can be as refreshing as a swim to the traveller. He was full of useful tips such as don’t get the cheapest room in Pakbeng “like I did - it had rats, all night I could hear them crawling around the room” and to take some cards and a MP3 player.  “The first few hours on the boat” he explained “are great. Mountains! The River! The jungle!! But after the first four hours you start going crazy. Take cards!” In retrospect Mr Koko was a very good source of information and he was right in pretty much everything he told us.  He was especially right about Pakbeng, a one horse town of thieves and braggarts if first impressions are anything to go by. To coin a Tom Waits album name, the term Beggars, Bastards and Brawlers
comes to mind.

Koko also advised us on taking a zip line adventure day. Nipun had been reading up on the “Flight of the Gibbon,” a New Zealand Company that had put zip lines into an area of the jungle that allowed you to whiz your way across the valleys and forests. Again Mr Koko had an enthusiastic opinion and pointed us in the direction of a new company called Jungle Flight.  Unbeknown to us this venture had been recently set up by Songpram, the same man behind the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Songpram is a really amiable and affable man who had been on the Flight of the Gibbon adventure course and found it wanting for one reason or another. Being an entrepreneurial soul (and egged on by his young son who thought this would be better than any jungle gym) within six months he had found himself a place in the jungle, investors and builders prepared to work through the Chiang Mai rainy season. Within eight months (and after much alleged intimidation and nastiness from some of his competitors) he and the investors were open for business.  

The course  is set deep in the jungle with a verdant forest on all sides. The hills and valleys are dramatic and one of the cable lines spans close on 300 metres. You are harnessed onto the cable and then launch yourself across the jungle and above deep valleys with trees arching up beneath you.  As much as anything the setting makes the day worthwhile, whilst the white knuckled, adrenaline charged rides across the jungle merely add to the adventure of the day.  We were lucky enough to be there on the day when there was a PR Agency doing a brochure and as such we tried out a whole new section of the course and then were treated to as much lunch as we could possibly eat. 

The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was spent fairly lazily, meandering through the markets, eating and enjoying a stress free travel schedule for a few days. We met a young monk, Nan, who maintained that he’d like some help with his English so we spent a few hours with him on various days. Despite bringing his text books to each informal lesson Nan studiously avoided his text books, his delectation was to talk and try out new catch phrases that he had learnt. So it was “By all means I can do that” and “It would be to my advantage to do this” for three days. What did strike me about Nan was his enthusiasm to chat in English, he had only been learning for two years and a lot of his English was self taught. He was half way through a text book that fell outside of his work requirement and that in itself is admirable. Whilst he could not have been more than eighteen he had been a monk for six years and a novice for two. The monasteries afforded him a living in Chiang Mai and a chance to gain an education. How different was his attitude to the peitit bourgeois that we were as kids.

And then we were on the road again. Driving out of Chiang Mai I was struck by how much I liked this town and I felt a little sad to be leaving it behind. Generally the people were polite and friendly, the roads were well maintained and lined with flowers and trees and as we drove through the suburbs there were ubiquitous markets and Wats that glowed with colour. In a chaotic contradiction of all this order the phone lines above consisted of massed, indistinguishable cables and occasional street kids patrolled the traffic lights selling strings of white flower necklaces to anyone who would take one. Five uneventful hours later we were further up North on the border with Laos at Chiang Khong. The Mekong River was a ten minute walk from our guest house and we spent the evening watching the sunset over the river as longboats lazily docked around us. The next morning we were up well in advance of dawn to photograph sunrise. The sun rose and it was beautiful. I would love to include some of these pictures of that sparkling dawn here, but in a moment of utter genius I formatted the memory card without having put them onto the laptop.  I was tired and multi tasking. Poor excuse I know but there we go. Given we were up at five thirty you have very little idea of just how annoyed I am. 

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