From Thai outskirts

I've been spending the past two weeks in the remote reaches of northern Thailand, given time to kill before I can activate my Lao visa. I decided on a trip that took me off the tourist trail, something which is fairly hard to do in this country; I saw no other farang (foreigner) for 3 days, an extremely hard feat to have accomplished. The trip swung south-east of Chiang Mai, overnighting at Lampang, Phrae, Nan (which deservedly gets tourists) then north through the outback, camping one night on the front lawn of the Song Khwae police station (the only cooked food sold in the nearby village was from a single street vendor who closed her stand at dark).

After the next 40 km uphill stretch, tired and hungry upon reaching Ban Phang Ma O (ban means village, an classification that seems to have little population requirement) I chanced upon a sign marked 'eco-tourism,' leading me up a rocky road to a resort, in the middle of the middle of no where, with a splendid view. Many 'resorts' in Thailand tend to be for Thais on weekend holidays. They are more expensive, more remote and indeed more Thai than farang-oriented backpacker haunts. Here I stumbled into the annual Christmas retreat of a local NGO, complete with carols in Thai, gift exchange, feast and holiday cheer. This group, affiliated with World Vision, works in rural development, providing education and other services to remote ethnic villages.

The following days I continued on to Thoeng, then to Chiang Rai and north to Mae Sai, at Thailand's very top end. From Mae Sai I've done short excursions to Doi Tung, with its impressive royal villa and gardens, and to Mae Salong, probably the most intriguing place I've found in Thailand. Like Mae Aw, which I visited earlier, Mae Salong was set up by Chinese civil war refugees. This town, however, is vibrant - fascinating. There's a rich mix of and interplay between Chinese, Thai and members of sundry hill tribes. Dwellings along the main street, more appropriately described as the major roller coaster in town, belong to Chinese. At 6 pm everyone is tuned into satellite-beamed Taiwan soap operas. The town market and the hills around town are dominated by traditionally clad, ethnic folk. Thai influence crops up here and there - a public phone, products in shops, chilies in otherwise Chinese food. Adventurous tourists do manage to get here - whatever form of transit, one needs a high threshold for pain, a low one for comfort. Some of the hills, around and through tea plantations (the government-encouraged replacement for opium), are so steep that I could hardly manage to bike more than a few hundred meters without a break. On one occasion - and this was a unique experience never before encountered in 50,000 km or so of cycle touring -- three youngsters, two boys and a girl, aged 7 or 8, at their own initiative took turns and actually pushed the bike from behind as I was struggling to peddle up hill at 4 km/hr. Anyone who says Thais aren't just the kindest folk in the world either has either never left Thailand - or never ever been here! Still off to Laos.

27 December 2002 Mae Sai, Thailand