CHIANG RAI: THAI HIGHLANDS
Periodically, I will post content from my old blog with two purposes; to give my content new life, and to capture my growth as a traveller and creator.
Written on December 24th, 2013 on a bus traveling between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
It’s taken a while, but I am finally starting to feel like less of a foreigner when I walk around Ho Chi Minh City. Surroundings that were at first so strange have become familiar. A language that is so complex is beginning to make sense for me. Vietnamese food, once a novelty, is now a staple. I cherish that familiarity. It means something to me that I can expatriate myself and blend in (somewhat) to my new home.
In Chiang Rai, I immediately felt foreign again. We were a short sky hop from Saigon, and a few latitudes north, but the chill went right to our bones on that first night. We bundled up and went to discover the town. We didn’t know where to go. We were under dressed and underprepared for the cold. The city seemed void of visitors. It was almost like I forgot what it felt like to be a foreigner in Asia. I didn’t see any of those famous Thai smiles. We walked and walked around the tiny town, adorned with several gaudy wats (temples) in the typical Thai style.
We found what we were looking for. Walking Street: one kilometre of vendors selling their unique and wonderful goods. Everyone was going about their business. They wore coats with fur linings, mittens, boots, everything. Cowering from the cold. They were busy setting up their pop up shops perfectly. Arranging jewelry, frying shrimps, displaying handicrafts, flipping pancakes and smoothing t-shirts. Hard at work, I realized. We were in it, in their world. Not in a world made for tourists, but for them. We were just a very small part of it. This realization was good for me and as we made our way slowly down the market, I noticed many Thai smiles returning my own.
We nibbled on many mini street side meals. Small stuffed pancakes, hearty green curry, meat on a stick. The options were vast, including crickets and worms flash fried with salt; overwhelmingly popular with the locals. Boutique clothing stores showed off their creativity and craftspeople displayed their talents and aesthetics. Second hand warm clothing was for sale everywhere. The market was booming, full of locals making their way down either side of this neatly organized stream. It was fascinating to watch and easily the most amazing market we have ever been to. It transported me from an expat frame of mind to one of a traveler, ready to discover something new.
Our next two days were spent doing just that. We spent one night in the hilly jungle of northern Thailand, trekking through incredibly idyllic landscapes and learning about the lifestyles of the past from an awesome guide.
Jay is someone you meet and immediately feel comfortable around. He is a member of this Akha ethnic group, one of southeast Asia’s hill tribe minorities. With a Chinese father, he has a face that you just can’t place by looking at him. Add in he fact that he’s 6 feet tall and you have one unique Thai man. This is the guy who helped us navigate the jungle.
Our initial trek brought us uphill for a few hours to a clearing which had an open air hut protected by a simple banana leaf roof. Home for the night. The guides immediately got to work on dinner; they collected some large bamboo, cutting it into multiple sizes. The bamboo became chopsticks, cups, bowls, pots, skewers and spits. The result was a feast spread out on a banana leaf table on the ground of the clearing. We fuelled up with vegetable and coconut soup, grilled pork belly and a fresh chilli sauce. Amazing, simple, delicious, wholesome… We devoured it.
It got us through the next morning. We cringed our way out of bed (meaning a hard bamboo floor), massaging our sore muscles. We had a bamboo breakfast of toast, sweet sticky rice and fruit. What lied ahead was a day’s walk full of tea plantations, rolling green hills, a cascading waterfall and even a snake. It was a rewarding trek.
Chiang Rai took me by surprise. We considered not going there. “What can we do there that we can’t do in Chiang Mai?” Don’t skip it. You’ll be missing out on its raw beauty, refreshingly chilly nights and unique marketplace vendors. It’s a whole other side of Thailand.