Thursday, 10 December 2009

Crossing the borders

Leaving Luang Nam Tha turned out to be a little easier than leaving Nong Khiaw. We knew when the mini van was leaving, we just couldn't find anyone who would sell us a ticket! But never fear, in true 'she'll be right mate' Laos style, we turned up at the bus station and someone was waiting there with his mini van and ushered us aboard! Too easy!

The road to the border town of Muang Xai passes through the province of Bokeo where the scenery is gorgeous, all lush green ranges, valleys suffocated by untamed jungle and lots of small villages of bamboo stilt huts lining the roadside. There were some patches of rough road that played havoc with Dave's belly after taking the Pepsi challenge with the Laos chilli pastes the day before but he grinned and bared it.

Once we had crossed the Mekong and into Thailand, we boarded our "express bus" to Chiang Rai. It was amazing to see the difference in development between these two South East Asian neighbours. All of a sudden it was all sealed roads, street lights, large houses - sights we had grown accustomed to not missing in Laos.

Chiang Rai itself is friendly (particularly our slightly crazy, singing hostel owner) but not especially pretty. We checked out the night markets and watched some local entertainment over beers and dinner.

We had a little lie in the next morning despite the local school brass band practicing their scales at 9am! In the afternoon we took another local bus, this time heading north to the border with Myanmar at a town named Mae Sai. The bus itself was teeming with people and Mae Sai is just your typical frontier town with the typical frontier town market - though we did buy rather fetching animal hats to wear this Xmas (a prize to anyone who can guess what animals we each are).

The following day we made the crossing to Myanmar though we almost got ourselves in hot water straight away as we somehow managed to walk straight past the passport checkpoint (they had a curtain covering the door) and so when we realised nobody had checked our documents, we turned back and they showed us the way. Phew!

The Burmese frontier town of Tachilek is also full of the usual guff, with a few special extras like Viagra and Saddam Hussein playing cards! We took a tuktuk to see some local temples and another large gold stupa before skipping back into Thailand to catch a bus and a 'songtheaw' (basically a ute with two long benches in the back that acts as a taxi for smaller destinations) to Mae Salong, a pretty alpine town that sits atop a mountain ridge line and was settled by the Kuomingtang Army after they retreated from China following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Red Army. As a result, the town is just as Chinese as it is Thai, evidenced by the architecture and signage, as well as the faces of the local people themselves.

While in Mae Salong, we walked up the 700+ steps to reach the temple at the top of the hill but opted for a motorbike the next day to explore the local Akha and Laho villages, bounded by tidy tea and coffee plantations. We also visited a weird unfinished tea pot monument that looked like something out of an Alice in Wonderland movie set!

That morning, Dave had got out of bed early to see the sunrise and wander through the small but very interesting morning market where some ladies wore their tribal headresses as they tended their stalls. Watching the deep fried doughballs being prepared and fried was slightly meditative, as was watching the local children kneeling before the monks to offer them donated food and to receive their blessing.

There was also the crazy-cymbal-playing-man who walked through town with his huge bright orange glasses and crashed his cymbals while walking his brightly decorated pony! Maybe all this mountain air was too much for him!

Mr and Mrs T xx

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