November 21, 2001

Night Rider

I have been asked to describe a 'day in the life' of a traveller. Tuesday
was a good day, so without further introduction, here goes. This is quite
long, maybe someday I'll come up with an edited version.

I woke up in the morning and had a bowl of porridge. Most guest houses have
'western breakfasts', and since Thailand is in the middle of a cold snap
(~5-10 degrees at night, sometimes only getting up into the low 20s during
they day), this sounded like the thing to try. Oatmeal and milk and
bananas, why not

Since riding a motorbike was easy enough, I decided after breakfast to rent
the Honda Dream for another day and ride up to Mae Salong, a chinese town in
the mountains. I headed off around 10:30 AM, late as usual. About half an
hour up the main route (rt. 1) from Chiang Rai is Mae Chan, a moderate sized
town at the intersection of a bunch of roads. After looping around parts of
the town a few times, I parked the bike to look around the market.
Practically every road in the center of town is marked with do not enter
8:00 - 18:00 signs, but clearly that's not the case. Perhaps it's for trucks
or something. Anyway, there are few or no tourists in Mae Chan, and I
couldn't even find anything for lunch as all the stalls in the market were
noodle soup shops, and that's not what I wanted. So I grabbed a quick snack
and went onwards.From Mae Chan towards the mountains is a typical 2 lane
Thai highway. Almost no traffic, excellent road conditions, villiages every
once in a while. At the junction between the road southwest to Tha Ton and
north to Mae Salong is a police checkpoint, with the police sitting back and
doing nothing as normal. This is also where the road really turns uphill,
steeply, up a ridge for a few miles. For some reason, the road here doesn't
follow a valley but goes up and over several ridges, which is extremely
beautful but slightly disconcerting. After 13 more kilometers, I reached the
edge of Mae Salong with the gas needle at E. I slowly went through town 'til
encountering a 'gas station', rural Thai style-- three big barells of gas
(91, 95, and diesel) with glass jars, a pump to fill the jar, and a hose. In
Thai places with wooden houses, it's often attached to the edge of a shop in
a small shed; in this case it was at the end of a chinese style shophouse
with nothing except some laundry in the room.

Mae Salong is a strange town. It's trying to be a tourist town, and gets a
fair number of tourists. But there is no tourist info there. Not even a map
on a sign, and it's a pretty big town, mostly since it's strung over a few
ridgetops. It's a Chinese town founded by Kuminotang refugees who fled from
China during the revolution, were in Burma for a while and then decamped to
Thailand. Now they mostly grow tea, and there are tea factories and stores
throughout. On one end of town is a market, and as the only westerner there
the hilltribe people (likely Ahka) descended on me to buy trinkets. I found
a Chinese restaurant (surprise!) and had fried mushrooms for lunch. The
restaurant was empty, as was most every place in town. Perhaps it's because
there are roughly half the number of tourists travelling right now, or
perhaps it was just late. But the food was fine, and part way through a
group of people (locals?) drove up and had lunch. They were counting money
before hand, I didn't watch so I have no idea how much or what they did with
it, but it's the second time in two days that the restaurants I chose seem
to be good business dealing spots.

After lunch I tried to go up to the temple, but the road was closed for
construction. After a bit of wandering in the town I picked a random road
up, up the hill, and ended up at the bottom of the temple complex and
clumbed the steps (only 350 meters... up stairs) to find the top part...
under construction and not very interesting, but worth the view. Down below
I could see two giant teapots being built, and set off to find them.

The teapots weren't too hard to find. Go through the town, turn left on a
paved road towards the end of town, go as far down hill as possible (keep
going 100m up hill and you'll reach a church, the missionaries are extremely
active in the north of Thailand), and bear left onto the dirt road. I
stopped, wondering about my ability to ride downhill in the dirt, and some
guy in a pickup encouraged me to go on. (The bike didn't worry me, it's the
standard form of transport in Thailand, even on unbelievable dirt roads with
multiple passengers.) So down I went to, I don't know, let's call it Chai
Land. A bunch of guys told me to follow them. One was apparently the
designer of the project, and I don't know who the other three were--maybe
the father of one and a helper or two. One of them spoke some english and
tried to describe the project--two sprouting teapots. A great wall of
Thailand (same as the great wall of China). Some map of the world. (Maybe
inside the teapots? Maybe ouside? Maybe on the hill just below? I couldn't
figure it out.) After a while, they invited me for something. For tea I
thought, and we all piled into the pickup and went further down the hill.

Steeply. The road here was recently cut by bulldozer, with a 15' cut on one
side and a drop on the other, and occasional switchbacks requiring reverse.
Down we went for 10 minutes to a dead end at the bank of a small stream. Uh
oh, what had I gotten myself into? I didn't think anything bad was going to
happen, but they sure picked a good spot to do it. Even if I was alone while
they went off somewhere else it would be at least an hour hiking back up to
my bike. But really they just wanted to show me the stream, and tell me that
they wanted to send tourists down it in some sort of boat. I wouldn't even
want to go down the stream in a kayak, but hey, this is Thailand and their
idea of reasonable transportation is not the same as in the west.

After some more pictures, we turned around and went further down the road
we'd been travelling, across to the other side of the valley and half way up
the other side to a tea nursery. If you look at the fields you'll notice
areas covered in netting, and that's what they are. The plants here were
about a year old, and worth about 5 baht each. Apparently they want to bring
tourists to the nursery on horseback. Which would certainly be far less
scary than on the pickup. I'm not sure if the old guy had been on the first
(new) part of the road before, he certainly seemed scared enough. For that
matter, I think the 'designer' was giving a tour of something to the other
people too, when they weren't talking on the phone. At this point I
commented on the height of the sun (3:30 in fhe afternoon, sundown at 5:30
and total darkness by 6), and we headed back. Well, I think we would have
anyway. From here the roads were older and slightly less scary, and we wound
our way through the tea plantation back to the teapots.

Thus ended the tea tour, and off I went down the mountain. I wish I had time
to take more pictures, it's quite a stunning ride. They were actually
stopping people at the police checkpoint at the intersection on the way back
(a different but similar) road, they waved me to someone who presumably
spoke english, so looked at me and waved me on. Checkpoints scare me because
I might not have a proper license, and my passport (techinally required) was
held in exchange for the bike. But really they are no big deal, the Thai are
unfaillingly friendly once you get away from tourist scam land.

Back in Mae Chan, I followed some bikes down what really did appear to be a
one way street leading to a night market. Much more food variety here, but I
didn't have much time and just bought some satay (which is actually not that
common), ate it, and got back on the road. This avoided riding at dusk and
splattering too many insects. Back in the dark to Chiang Rai and the guest
house.

Of course the day's not over yet. I headed off to the night market in search
of Americans. (It's thanksgiving today and I still haven't found any other
than a big group which was staying in my guest house for a bit.Yesterday I
went to the American University Associaten (mostly an english language
school) and their staff consists of an irishman and two canadians)).
Anyway, of course didn't find any there, but ended up staying the evening
with a group of Thai people and one english man. Was fed various local
specialties--bamboo borer, silk worms, grasshopper. Can't say I particularly
like any of them.

Well that's enough for now. Happy Thanksgiving!

--Matthew

P.S. - I returned the to Mae Salong with some others to see the teapot progress the following April. The teapots were painted gold and silver, and I exchanged construction pictures for some tea.

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Posted by MBlain at November 21, 2001 12:00 AM
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