Thailand – End of Paradise

Any serious hero setting out on an epic quest will find the going easier if he is equipped with an awesome weapon like a magical sword to aid him in his quest. King Arthur had Excalibur, the Wizard Gandalf had Glamdring, Emperor Elric had Stormbringer and even Frodo the hobbit had Sting. They are particularly useful when it comes to dispatching fearsome beasts and so it came to pass that we found ourselves in need of such a weapon on this great ride east. So far, our mighty journey had taken us from our lush homelands and cozy castles of Europe, across the arid wastelands of the Turks and the Persians. Then on around the great sub-continent, home of the illustrious Indian and now we are immersed in the jungled terrain of Siam. It was here, after many arduous episodes that we sought and gained entry to the legendary Temple of Tesco, where in Aisle Three we found our awesome weapon; Mozgrim; legendary eater of a thousand Culicidaen souls. We had but to part with the equivalent of four of our pounds to acquire this omnipotent foil, then wait for nightfall for the battle to begin.

One of the most horrible things inflicted on anyone who has ever travelled is having a good night’s sleep broken by the high pitch bizz-bizz-buzz of a Mosquito in your ear. A violent leap out of bead as if suddenly shocked by electricity, all the lights on and then a furtive but inevitably useless search for the intruder. Or if you do espy the little monster there is but the flimsiest of chances to squish him with a single handclap, knowing that if you miss he will somehow turn sideways in midair and simply disappear. Then a gritty-eyed return to bed, quaking beneath the sheets knowing, nay certain, that a restless night is due to follow with the certainty of a welter of red bites in the morning that will itch for days to come. I am pleased to tell you that the balance of battle has changed with the appropriation of Mozgrim; an electrified tennis racquet shaped ‘thingy’ that turns avian insects to smoke upon contact. Oh the joy! nay the ecstasy! of such an outcome is utterly delicious and I have been known to break out into the ‘underpants war-dance’ in celebration of a successful combat.

Our slouch in comfy loafers through Southern Thailand (see last post) has continued to progress at the pace of the flyby of a pair of butterflies let loose on a lush garden. We are quite simply travelling through one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. We followed the road south from Kanchanaburi and then rode west and inland through a landscape of hanging mountains that led us to the spectacular Khao Sok National Park. Again that chlorophyllic overdose of palm and fern on the senses as riotous explosions of dense jungle foliage threatened to engulf the road. We bunked up near the gate of the park and set out early the following morning for a 7km jungle hike up through the park to reach our goal for the day a small waterfall. The first half was easy to follow, ambling along a wide dirt road that ascended the banks of a fast flowing river, taking us into a shady wonderland of dense bamboo forest. Along the way a kaleidoscope of butterflies flitted through flecks of sunlight that had managed to penetrate the canopy. Off to our left we could hear the gentle rush of the river providing a telltale landmark should we happen to stray off the path whilst overhead our progress was carefully monitored by a troop of Dusky Langurs, silently peering at the intruders into their domain. These monkeys have a most peculiar visage with little white rings circling around black marble eyes, giving them the appearance of being somewhat mildly annoyed.

At a place called Bang Hua Rad we had to check in with a ranger station before continuing on to the second half of the trail. Signs at the ranger post advised taking a guide beyond this point but the guidebooks had assured us that the trail was well marked, easy to follow and a guide was not really necessary. We crossed a small river and proceeded along a narrowing jungle trail that quickly reduced to little more than an animal track, delving into dense jungle alive with the buzzing and chirping of insects. The trees above were so interwoven that they blotted out most of the light and it was hard to discern the exact position of the sun in the afternoon sky. The path split into three… which way to go? The right soon petered out into the forest so we took the left that led us to the riverbank after which, path and river diverged again. The comforting backdrop of river burble was now our only means of orientation. The path split and split again repeatedly and I began to wonder if we would ever find any waterfall. After about an hour on increasingly divergent trails we came once again upon the river only to find the way ahead well and truly barred by dense undergrowth and a sinking feeling began that we were now ensnared at a dead-end in a vast jungle maze. The canopy parted enough to let us see the sky above the river and to our dismay we set eyes upon a fuzzy blanket of dismal grey cloud. As we were taking stock of our whereabouts, the first spit-spots of what was soon to be a monsoon outburst splattered on the leaves around us; we decided to retreat.

What followed was a hateful period of being totally lost. We retraced our steps back along the path but quickly became confused after the first few intersections. The rain by now was hammering down and the jungle floor quickly flooded so we could no longer see the path as we splish-sploshed through a soupy carpet of leaves and twigs. We were rapidly soaked to the skin in spite of donning our waterproof jackets yet were grateful that we had brought these as they kept us warm; it’s incredible how quickly your body loses heat when it gets continually wet. To compound things, the roar of the downpour was absolutely deafening so we lost the reference sound of the river. The hike now degenerated into a horrible exercise in disorientation as we tramped around looking for some sign of a way out. I recognised a half chewed mango on the floor but had it been on our left or our right when we came through? Eventually we bumped into a couple of French guys with a local guide. “You guys going back?” we asked… “Mind if we tag along?” When we met them we were actually heading the wrong way, walking further into the jungle…

The rain brought one advantage in that it cleared the air for the following day when we awoke to blue skies stuffed with billowy white clouds that made our trip to see the vast expanse of Chiew Lan Lake all the more spectacular. The lake was formed in 1982 by the construction of Rajjaprapha Dam, a hydroelectric project that also aids flood control. The entire Khao Sok National Park encompasses a vast wonderland of Karst mountainscape, pointy peaks that rise right out of the ground all draped in a soft texture of velvety jungle that draws the eye in and can hold your very soul in rapture for hours on end. If they ever made a live action version of the movie ‘Avatar’ then surely this would be the location for it. Flooding a section of such terrain, as at Chiew Lan Lake, has made one of the most beautiful paradises on this planet. We spent three hours up front in a long-tail boat zooming amongst gigantic sunken limestone peaks not knowing which way to turn for the best photo shots. And paradise is the word for the rest of our time in Thailand. Bounty-bar beaches, if you remember the old TV ads, on the islands of Phuket and Ko Lanta. A short stay in Phang Nga with another boat trip through fabulous mangrove swamps to see the island location from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. A week in a shack just off the beach in Krabi… We found what was perhaps the quintessential hub of all beauty in Southern Thailand when we abandoned the bikes and sailed to the twin islands of Ko Phi Phi for a couple of days. At this point I’ll just let the photography take over as words fail me here to describe the staggering beauty of that place.

We are now well and truly travelling in the monsoon season, which means more rain but if you check out the photogallery it also makes for spectacular skyscapes and the wet lends a certain extra luminance to everything. This plus the fact that we are well and truly off-season also gives us relatively empty landscapes and heavily discounted accommodation. We could have stayed in Thailand forever but time and more importantly, our visas, were running out. It was time to make plans for Malaysia, next country on our trip. Sadly too, as we left Thailand, the country was effectively closing the door after us. Last year saw a notable increase in Chinese motor-tourists visiting Buddhist shrines in Thailand after transiting through Laos. Thailand has a poor road safety record and this peaked after a number of incidents with Chinese drivers, several of which resulted in fatal road traffic accidents involving Thai nationals. In response the Thai Department of Land Transport (DLT) issued a new decree at the end of July 2016 requiring all foreign vehicle owners to apply for a permit well in advance of their intended visit. There is also a requirement to obtain a letter of authenticity from your local embassy, basically guaranteeing that you are who you say you are, ignoring the fact that this is the role of a passport.

We were fortunate enough to have re-entered Thailand only days before the new legislation came into effect but we corresponded with a number of Swiss and Australian bikers who were effectively stranded in Myanmar / Laos / Cambodia / Malaysia and had to act as guinea pigs to negotiate the new rules. One affected overlander, Lawrence Michel, set up the Facebook page “Thailand – New regulation affecting overland travellers”. Lawrence flew from Cambodia to Bangkok, personally met with the DLT to plead on behalf of all overlanders and involved his Swiss Embassy. He then created a guidebook document on the new process. The rules have been slightly relaxed but the outcome is still a complicated entry procedure with a couple of tour companies jumping on the bandwagon to make a few quid from processing the new permits. The new process is already having a marked effect on tourism in Northern Thailand with small businesses reportedly closing down at the Laos border crossing at Chiang Khong, which has become a ghost town since the new rules came into effect. Thailand may reconsider the rules, so expect further revisions… Just to compound things, we heard that Laos have introduced a similar system and Myanmar, where a tour guide is already mandated for overlanding vehicles, have just announced that all overlanders must enter and leave by the same border crossing (i.e. if you enter from India you have to go back to India!). If not revised soon, these new legislations will effectively kill all vehicle overlanding in SE Asia as overlanders will simply ship directly from India / Nepal to Malaysia. This is a tragedy as some of the finest overlanding routes on the planet are being denied to responsible overlanders through senseless legislation. We feel really privileged to have travelled these roads and hope that the SE Asian countries can sort this out for all future overlanders otherwise this is surely the end of a little piece of paradise.

To view the photogallery for this post please click on the link: Thailand – End of Paradise

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Heaven and Hell in Southern Thailand

The pace of our travels has turned to a delightful treaclish trudge; we’re back in Thailand. Normally our travel environments insist on a rugged attire of clumpity biking or hiking boots. Thailand is like travelling in slippers or, at the very least, a pair of well-worn, comfy loafers. Easy rides on silky roads take you effortlessly to backdrops of beautiful scenery; all you have to do along the way is let your jaw drop at the appropriate sights and these come plenty and often. Evenings bring mouthwatering dinners, bowls full of strange, exotic yet refreshing ingredients all simply cooked and dished. Afterwards a pew on the veranda as a Phuket sunset slides down over a rim of Sang Som rum sloshed with ice and lime. We could stay here a very long time…

So a year on the road and we get to celebrate our travel anniversary through the medium of mundane admin. Insurances and carnets need renewal and, to top it all, our credit cards expire just when we need them. Time to go to Bangkok… Even riding the big city in Thailand is easy. Other road users drive sedately and are generally courteous and well behaved; just slot in and make your way through the congestion. It is congested; traffic lights can sit on red for three or four whole minutes pacing journeys across town at inchworm rate. We hole up in the grandly titled Marvin Suites in the Sathon district surrounded by skyscrapers but at the heart of where we need to be with easy access to the Skytrain, river ferries and close to BKK BMW where Maggie’s bike undergoes surgery for new steering head bearings. While we are there we have the brake fluid changed on both bikes and the mechanic discovers tiny micro-cracks in my rear brake disc. I knew the discs were worn but now we really have to replace them. BKK can only order BMW parts from Europe at £1,000 for the four discs plus a four-week delivery time. Once again Motobins come to our rescue and get us two sets of Brembo discs shipped to us by Fed-Ex in four-days all for less than £400. Emergency over, thanks to great service from the team in Spalding!

A river taxi drops us in old Bangkok where we visit the Grand Palace and several grandiose Wats and on a Sunday we mooch the sprawl of Chatuchak market with over 8000 stalls. We also take time to extend our visas / bike permits for another month to cover the ride south to Malaysia. We say a sad farewell to the lovely staff in the Marvin Suites, one of those places where the overall package of accommodation, location, staff, service and indeed price comes to much more than the sum of the individual parts.

5th July marked the actual anniversary of our first year on the road and, to commence our great ride south, we headed north for a short hop to the ruins of Ayutthaya. From the 14th to 18th centuries Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam until it was sacked and demolished by invading Burmese.   Today remnants of palaces and temples adorn parkland interspersed through the little town of Ayutthaya itself and we planned to explore these on bicycles rented from our hotel. We unpacked our bikes at the Old Palace Resort into a cool, shady room set amidst jungly gardens, a marked contrast to our previous city digs and thought no more than of showering and finding a decent place to celebrate our anniversary. At check in, Kittiya, the graceful young receptionist, handed me back the bulk of our hotel bill… “For your charity. Cancer Research? Please we’d like to make a donation…” This was the first spontaneous reaction we’d had to the ‘Cancer Research UK’ stickers that adorn our bikes on the entire trip. To say we were both pole-axed by this kindness occurring, of all days, on our anniversary is something of an understatement.

From Ayutthaya we rode west to Kanchanaburi and a riverside halt on the Khwae Noi River, site of the infamous bridge, made famous by the 1957 David Lean epic Bridge over the River Kwai. Although several spans were demolished by allied bombing in WW2 they were rebuilt and the bridge is still there today. It is a humble black metal structure supported on a series of several concrete pylons and certainly not as imposing as the one in the movie (which was actually filmed in Sri Lanka). The bridge was appropriated from Java by the Japanese who dismantled it and rebuilt it here as part of the vitally strategic link to join the Thai and Burmese rail networks. Before the war Britain, who at that time controlled Burma and Malaya, worked with the Thais to contemplate such a link. Traversing the 400km gap between the two railways would entail cutting a trail and laying new track through mountainous and remote virgin jungle country. Experts reckoned it would take a minimum of six-years to accomplish so the idea was abandoned.

In 1942 the Japanese steamrollered right through SE Asia, landing troops in Thailand (who declared war on the allies) and routing British and Commonwealth forces in Malaysia and Burma including the surrender of 120,000 troops at Singapore, the single biggest disaster in the history of British arms. As we learned on our earlier visit to Kohima and Imphal, the next step was the invasion of India but the springboard for this was at the end of a long tenuous supply trail running through Burma into Thailand / Malaysia and from there back across the sea to Japan. By late 1942 the allies controlled most of the seaways and the air across the Pacific so Japanese supplies had to be routed through Thailand and up into Burma; that rail link now became vitally important. Japanese engineers dug out the old Thai / British plans. Heavy machinery was simply unavailable but there was an abundance of manual labour in the form of POWs and conscripted natives. The entire 415 km link would be completed in eighteen months, a fantastic achievement until the cost in human lives is evaluated.

Today the Death Railway Museum overlooks the main Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Kanchanaburi. It is a fitting and moving tribute to the fallen. There are not that many artifacts in cabinets just a few metal rail ties and recovered teak sleepers but then again it’s not that sort of museum.   Instead the story of the railway is explained; why it was built, the engineering marvel that it is and then that terrible, terrible cost all paid for in human lives. From a labour force of some 70,000 POWs employed, some 7000 British, 3000 Australians and 3000 Dutch perished to a combination of disease, malnutrition, overwork and bestial brutality at the hands of their Japanese and Korean captors. The dead lie outside the museum in the tranquil lawns of the war cemetery. Add to this the even more horrific tally of Rǒmusha: Burmese, Malay and Indian labourers (mostly Tamils who had worked the rubber plantations in Malaya) equally brutally worked to death in their droves (an estimated 90,000 perished) and all but forgotten to the world outside the museum.

A few days later we travelled out to visit one of the darkest sections in the history of the whole line; Hellfire Pass. Another museum, another memorial; this time dedicated to the POWs who died making the railway cutting here. The line was worked on from both Burmese and Thai ends and every now and again progress would stall at some natural obstacle. Trestle bridges were used to span gullies, based on a design from a US American Civil War engineering manual. Instead of tunnels, which required elaborate machinery to construct that was unavailable, cuttings were excavated through entire mountains by hand. Hellfire Pass was such a cutting and when the POWs arrived they looked incredulously at the sheer wall of jungle-covered mountain barring the way. It was a task seemingly worthy of Sisyphus himself. The bush was cleared and teams then set to excavate the cutting by means of a hammer and tap routine. One guy would hold a metal chisel and his mate would hammer it into the rock. After each blow the chisel would be turned and the next blow struck. This continued until a depth of around one metre was punched, into which a stick of dynamite would be inserted to blow out the rocks. The rubble would be cleared and progress made until solid rock again stopped play. All of this labour conducted on a diet of much less than 2000 calories a day consisting of watery rice gruel sometimes with maggoty meat or fish.

Aside from the memorial museum this entire section of the railway has been preserved as a 3.5km hiking trail starting with a hike through Hellfire Pass itself. It took its name from the ‘Speedo’ period when the Japanese engineers supervising the line introduced round the clock working, the evening shift illuminated by torches and flares such that the workings resembled a facet of hell itself. We walked mutely through the pass allowing our fingertips to brush the hacked out walls and noting the chisel marks; testament to the graft of the fallen. Overhead, sunlight filtered through the jungle canopy of lush bamboos and tree ferns to a soundtrack of whoops and whistles from the indigenous wildlife. We walked for three hours to the end of the trail and back providing lunch for voracious mosquitos. It was the start of the rainy season and the fetid air was earthy and dank, making for a somewhat uncomfortable hike. Yet we were doing this in modern outdoor clothing in stout hiking boots protected by sun-cream and insect repellant; what must it have been like for the POWs, whose uniforms and boots had rotted away to the point where many went barefoot and were clad only in a Jap Nappy loincloth? The museum provides a free audio guide and along the way we learned the stories of how places like Hellfire Pass, Hammer and Tap Cutting, Seven Metre Embankment and Hintok Cutting were carved in blood. Many Australians died in Hellfire Pass itself and perhaps the most poignant memory of the day was the poem ‘Mates’ by survivor Duncan Butler. I’d like to share it here…

I’ve travelled down some lonely roads,
Both crooked tracks and straight.
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed,
Summed up in one word … “Mate”.

I’m thinking back across the years,
(a thing I do of late)
An’ this word sticks between me ears; 
You’ve got to have a “Mate”.

Someone who’ll take you as you are, 
Regardless of your state,
An’ stand as firm as Ayres Rock 
Because ‘e is your mate.

Me mind goes back to ’42,
To slavery and ‘ate,
When man’s one chance to stay alive
Depended on ‘is Mate.

With bamboo for a billy-can
An’ bamboo for a plate.
A bamboo paradise for bugs
Was bed for me and “Mate”.

You’d slip and slither through the mud
And curse your rotten fate,
But then you’d ‘ear a quiet word:
“Don’t drop your bundle Mate.”

And though it’s all so long ago,
This truth I ‘ave to state:
A man don’t know what lonely means
Til ‘e has lost his “Mate”.

If there’s a life that follers this,
If there’s a Golden Gate,
The welcome I just want to ‘ear
Is just, “Good on y’ Mate.”

An’ so to all that ask me why
We keep these special dates,
Like “Anzac Day” … I answer:
“WHY!? – We’re thinking of our Mates.”

An’ when I’ve left the driver’s seat,
An’ handed in me plates,
I’ll tell ol’ Peter at the door,
“I’ve come to join me Mates.”

We got back on the bikes and rode back to town in part appreciative of the sacrifice that these men made that we might be living the way we do today, in part sad at the way our world is heading. Sometimes it seems that we never really learn any lessons from all that cruelty and hardship. Would that we could exchange every bit of that hellish history for the heavenly geography around us and appreciate this world together for the paradise it really is.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Heaven and Hell in Southern Thailand

1864, 762…

For over six months now, since we left Armenia, our motorcycling has been handicapped by one form of restriction or other. In Iran we needed a guide to pass through. In Dubai, as non-residents, we couldn’t get bike insurance with severe penalties likely if caught riding without. In India we needed more than one pair of eyes in the back of our heads to survive the crazy driving there, where every ride involved crazy combat to survive the roads and Myanmar required what proved to be a final flurry of guides. We left Myanmar with their big Water Festival party in full flow and suddenly found ourselves at the end of an easy-going border transaction in a new land that was at once a pool of calm, order and tranquility, a place we could at last ride free of all these bindings: Thailand. They even drive on the left here, just like at home and just like they’re supposed to in India (but everyone drives where they like).

With free and painless border transactions concluded quickly, we tottered into the city of Mae Sot, greeted by a huge Tesco store, the first supermarket we’ve seen since Dubai nearly six months ago, and checked in to a small hotel to plan the next portion of our ride east… Our biggest problem lies in the fact that our arrival into South East Asia, coincides with that of the monsoon season with its potentially calamitous rains. While it will not rain everywhere all the time, there are certain places that need to be avoided at peak rainy season so we needed some time to plan accordingly. Looking at the maps a tour of North Thailand, followed by an excursion into Laos, then Vietnam (if we can access on our bikes without a guide) followed by Cambodia and then a run through southern Thailand would take us to Malaysia and from there, Indonesia…

So, with outline planning complete, first stop on this new leg of our journey; Northern Thailand. I expect you’ll be wondering what the numbers in the title of this posting are all about and I will explain all that in a minute so please bear with me. Our first port of call was a visit to the ancient ruins at Sukhothai and we checked in to the Thai, Thai, Sukhothai guesthouse, a delightful accommodation offering outstanding hospitality, where we took a couple of bicycles to explore the nearby archaeology. Whilst not so grand or extensive as those in Bagan in Mynamar, they were nonetheless glorious; a collection of ancient Wats (temples) set in luscious parkland, the whole set being devoid of any other tourists given the lateness of the season. Sukhothai was also our first real introduction to Thai night markets (it is too hot to hold these during the day) where we were blown away by the mouthwatering platters of food on offer for not a lot of money.

Our arrival in Thailand coincided with rising temperatures, a precursor to the monsoon. We have grown accustomed to living under sunny blue skies with 30°C+ showing on the mercury, more or less since leaving home last July but in Myanmar the thermometer began creeping towards the high end of the thirties. Now in Thailand it climbed into the mid-forties. In fact Sukhothai would reach 47°C making it the 10th hottest city on the planet. Factor in humidity and that is damned hot. We’ve ridden in Southern Europe and the Americas in high summer where it feels like a hair-dryer is blowing in your face. Now in Thailand the heat blast felt like we were riding into the mouth of an open furnace. This required us to modify our daily routine, to rise at 5:30 and get any riding or sightseeing over before early afternoon when a nap in a chill room is in order to escape the most vicious heat of the day followed by another foray in the early evening before a slightly later dinner.

From Sukhothai we took a short ride north to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. Most of the highlights are contained within the old walled city making it a lovely place to wander around with some beautiful Wats, all so different again from our Myanmar experience. We took a day-trip out on a breathtaking twisty road to visit Wat Doi Suthep, set high on a forested mountain overlooking the city. Whilst the views were obscured by haze, the ride was amazing yet it was but a ‘single olive’ for an appetizer for the star motorcycling attraction in Northern Thailand; the Mae Hong Song Loop. Starting in Chiang Mai ‘the Loop’ is a series of winding, twisting roads that roll and frolic for some 375-miles through a handful of highlands circling around northwest Thailand. There are two roads; Highway 108 running from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang and on to Mae Hong Song itself and, from that point, the 1095 that runs to the hippy-chic mountain town of Pai and on back into Chiang Mai.

We dumped a lot of our kit at our Chiang Mai hotel to lighten the bikes and set off for a five-day wonder ride that goes down as one of the top rides on the planet! 375-miles? Sounds like you could run it in a single day? Factor in that scorching heat (albeit tempered now by a little dose of altitude) and then the sheer number of curves on these roller coaster roads and it is at this point where those numbers in the title of this posting come into the equation… From Mae Hong Song to Pai alone there are 1864 bends in the road. 762? The number of bends from Pai to Chiang Mai and this is all verified, not by us counting them as we rode them, but from the T-Shirts we bought along the way proudly announcing these tremendous tallies that don’t even consider the first two days on the ride to Mai Sariang and on from there to Mae Hong Song on highways that sport similar statistics.

These numbers equally tally the number of grins experienced by a rider encountering such a nirvana. The icing on the cake was the fact that we were off-season so the roads were empty. The substrate is excellent too, a few pot holes here and there but not enough to spoil play. All of this taken amidst a world of jungle whizzing by with explosions of banana trees, monster bamboos and giant tree ferns lining the way like supporters waving and cheering you on through a mental green grand-prix. And the influx of all that green… it certainly fires happiness receptors in the brain and at the end of each day we arrived at our destinations in a state of mild euphoria, elated and sated by the ride, knowing that tomorrow would probably be even better.

Accommodations and food in Thailand are some of the best (and cheapest) we’ve had to date on this ride east and the best of the best were to be found in Chiang Rai, our next destination on our exploration of Northern Thailand. The ride out from Chiang Mai on newly serviced bikes following our jungle GP was made remarkable by the flowers we saw along the way. Now I’m not talking your humble garden flora nor indeed even a hedgerow in full bloom. I’m talking huge flowering trees the likes of which we’ve never beheld, canopies of colour resplendently forming a gorgeous topiary of tunnels along the highway. There were blushes of pinks and purples dangling from trees I haven’t yet identified and then the eye-catching drapes of yellow cascading from Cassia Fistula, also known as the ‘Golden Shower Tree’, whose blossom we learned is the national flower of Thailand. But what really stole the show (and made everything else look positively ordinary) were the many and fine examples of Delonix Regia or ‘Flame Trees’ so called from the gushy conflagration of vivid red blooms cascading from every limb that set the landscape alight with their colour.

Chiang Rai is home to the utterly spectacular Wat Rong Khun or ‘White Temple’. This is a modern temple built by a local artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat. He funded the project entirely with his own money to build a complex for learning and meditation such that all people might gain benefit from Buddhist teachings. In return he hopes that the project will grant him immortal life. It is an ongoing project that was recently hampered when a lot of the structures were damaged by an earthquake in 2014. The current estimated completion date is now 2070.

The complex is centred on a huge temple, the Ubosot, a stark-white building frosted with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the exterior surfaces. It has a typical Thai temple roof with upswept ridgelines and it all has a somewhat Disneyesque appearance like a stage set for a live version of ‘Frozen’. The approach is no less amazing; a pool of grey outstretched hands, including animal and alien claws, that are supposed to represent the flaws of desire and appear as a sort of purgatorial holding tank that must be crossed to gain a fine crystalline bridge that leads on to the Ubosot itself, set on a small lake. Other jaw-droppingly beautiful white buildings populate the ground interspersed with several golden edifices, the largest of which is a representation of worldly desires and wealth, material possessions and property. It is in fact the most ornate toilet you are ever likely to see! In amongst all of this are images from modern sci-fi movies including a Terminator, half a Predator and a sort of Transformer robot character sat on a park bench inviting you to have your photo taken in the empty seat beside him. It might sound like it has the potential to be just so tacky if the concept wasn’t so brilliantly executed and we both ended our visit astonished that artists can still make something so beautiful in these modern times.

We parted Chiang Rai for a short ride to see the ‘Golden Triangle’, nowadays the area at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers and the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all come together. Up to the end of the 20th Century the area was infamous as the place of origin for the majority of the world’s heroin. This is mostly a thing of the past as anti-drugs campaigns, especially in Thailand and Myanmar have severely reduced the opium poppy trade in the area, which is instead being cultivated as a tourist destination. From Chiang Saen, our last stop in Northern Thailand, we visited the nearby ‘Hall of Opium’ a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of Opium from its first uses as a local herbal tonic and pain-killer to the modern cash-crop basis for refined illegal products that have been the scourge of our modern society. The museum was built as part of the rejuvenation of the area and was sponsored by the king of Thailand’s late mother in an attempt to explain the biology, history and legacy of the opium trade. Opium is an unusual subject and slightly uncomfortable one for a museum but a fascinating story well told and one that needs more telling so we can understand where some of our modern problems originated.

It’s hard to contemplate how the want of a simple cup of tea could have put one of the largest nations on earth into the grip of a lethal drug habit but in a nutshell that is the story of how opium took it’s place in world history. By the mid-1800’s tea drinking had become all the rage and the demand generated a huge trade. The problem was that all of the tea at that time came from one place; China and the sources were heavily protected to maintain a monopoly on the trade. The East India Company realised that they had an abundance of a commodity that the Chinese desperately wanted; opium, grown in India and hence a lucrative trade network was established selling opium for tea. The effect on the Chinese populace was horrific. Statistics in the museum told how in this heyday one in every 30 people in China was an opium addict! In time this would lead to the famous Opium Wars with China as leaders there tried to banish the import of the drug. But the English wanted their cuppas, the East India Company wanted balanced books so gunboats were sent in to enforce the trade in a black episode of the story of British colonialism.   In the end tea plants were found in Assam and Darjeeling and buds were allegedly stolen from China to establish other plantations in places like Ceylon so the trade moved on. The museum also told the history of opium since then and the refinement of heroin and the massive impact this has had on all societies with many harrowing stories to underline this.

The clock was ticking on our first Thai visas and it was time to cross the mighty Mekong for the next installment of out travels in SE Asia… Laos; would we love it or loathe it?

For the photogallery for this post please click on the following link: Northern Thailand