Thailand Pt 2: Hephalumps & Opium Fields

(We’re visiting Thailand in 3 separate chunks. You can read about our visit to Bangkok & The Death Railway: Part 1 here or Myanmar, from which we arrived for Thailand Pt 2, here).

Bagan and Myanmar may have been Grant’s most anticipated destination, but Kate’s dreams lie just across the boarder. Flying to Northern Thailand’s historical capital of Chiang Mai we didn’t linger in the city, instead heading immediately out and into the surrounding mountainous jungle.

Back when this journey was in the infancy of its planning stage we cruised the top AirBnB listings in almost all of the countries we’d planned to visit. For various reasons, mostly a lack of understanding of the destinations on our part, we had not stayed at a single one of those February planning dream destinations. That streak ended when we arrived at Chai Lai Orchid, a jungle lodge situated along a perfect mountain stream.

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But it wasn’t bamboo huts, idyllic mountain streams, or the dense surrounding jungle that brought us here. The real attraction are the neighbors.

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Chai Lai is a mission focused lodge with two areas of focus. The first initiative, Daughters Rising, wasn’t the reason we’d chosen to stay there but it immediately struck a chord. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees have fled into Northern Thailand in the face of genocide. Chai Lai is working to employ some of those refugees, mainly women, teach them English and tourism industry skills for employment, and give them an avenue in which to sell their traditional wares like textiles. We were so happy to be greeted by friendly Mingalabas again!

Area two is improving the daily lives of their gentle giant neighbors. Animal tourism in Thailand has a history fraught with seedy practices. Stories of abuse, drugging, and general neglect abound. But with little to no wild land available to Thailand’s elephants and a huge chunk of Thais and refugees alike making a living off the industry, improving, not eliminating the industry is the optimal scenario for animals and humans alike. Chai Lai joins a growing number of lodges and tour companies demanding improved conditions for the animals to which they introduce their clients. They’re also raising funds to rent the entire resident herd for 6-months to show the current owner how responsible tourism can still be profitable tourism. You can read all about it and if so inclined, help the cause here.

We arrived in the late afternoon and were immediately greeted by the newest addition to the family and a recent internet sensation.

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Only a month old she was already playful and tagging along for short jungle walks with her momma and mahout (caretaker/trainer). Additionally, while you may come for the big animals, Chai Lai is also home to some pretty adorable pint-sized ones.

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Watado doesn’t sit still long, but Kate spent most of the night playing with the dozen friendly cats running around as well.

Mountain jungles make for great sleep-in locations. Cool mornings last near to midday and it makes for wonderful coffee sipping conditions. So we did just that before finally setting off for a hike up the local stream midday.

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The walk conveniently ended near one of the half-dozen riverside BBQ stands which grill up tasty chicken quarters and banana leaf wrapped pork chunks. All, naturally, washed down with nearly frozen Chang beer.

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The morning was leisurely, but afternoon was show time. We’d come to Chai Lai for some one-on-one time with the elephants and here we were.

First, we each got our own steed. No chair rides here at Chai Lai; beyond being hard on the elephants the training process for them to accept the chair is no bueno man. So, straight on top you go.

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We also had a third pint-sized companion (okay, a hefalump pint).

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Saddled up we took the whole family for an hour long walk through the jungle.

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As any parent knows, when the kids go for a walk in the jungle, they tend to come back pretty dirty. So, it was bath time upon our return.

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Grant’s elephant was in front, happily soaking in the water, just kind of chilling. When a ruckus started behind him.

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“What’s going on back there!” he says. Well, Kate’s elephant and our little companion decided to have a bit more fun in the water. They created their own jacuzzi!

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After getting out of bath time it was off for feedings. We finished out the daylight with our pachyderm pals, fed them sugar cane and corn stalks and generally enjoyed their curious but gentle company.

After re-showering ourselves we returned to the lodge for more fun traveler friend time. We met Ryan & Leanne from England who’d just set off on their own whirlwind world tour and Tylar & Rita, both having escaped for a two week holiday from their consulting gigs in the states. Stories, drinks, and another bar closed; just another day in the life of backpacking Southeast Asia with more friends with which to share our adventures.

We concluded our final 36-hours at Chai Lai with lots of lounging about, feeding of elephants and an enjoyable bamboo rafting trip down our resident mountain stream.


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Heading down the next morning we shared a ride and lunch with Tylar and Rita before sending them off to the airport. We then settled into what we hoped would be an interesting and relaxing three days in the backpacker paradise of Chiang Mai – or at least such was its reputation.

For weeks we’d heard about the glory of Chiang Mai. When we’d profess our love for Bangkok most backpackers (who’d inevitably stayed in the heart of touristy Bangkok) would bemoan the big city’s craziness and say how much more they enjoyed the “chill vibe” of Chiang Mai. While it’s fair to say we enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, we were less enthusiastic than the majority.

Leaving our room right as the golden hour set in we headed across the street to Wat Phra Singh. The temples glowed in the fading sun and Chiang Mai was off to a solid start.

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Interesting tidbit. In Buddhism the only building allowed to be build high up off the ground is the library. This one is from the 14th century.

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Out for our evening stroll following the temples we ran into our new friends from Chai Lai, Ryan & Leanne. They’d been unexpectedly held over an extra night, so off it was to dinner and drinks. We added Spencer, an American solo traveler to the clan for the evening.

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The totality of the next two days can be summed up pretty succinctly. We wandered the streets of Chiang Mai, visited temples, ate delicious soup noodles, hung out with a fellow Missouri/Los Angeles hybrid (Hey Meredith!), and strolled the bazaars of the city.

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Outside the city walls lies the sprawling Warorot Market. Home to three floors on three city blocks of cheap Chinese ripoffs of every western brand imaginable, a wholesale food section, a food court, and much much more.

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In the food court wait these lovely ladies serving breaded and deep fried pork belly (among other carnivorous cravings). That kids, is heaven on a plate.

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That kids, is not. Eels alive in the bucket is a Southeast Asian market specialty… they, like snakes, just ain’t natural.

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We ended at a the flower market, which helped to wash the gross off our eel run-in.

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All told we saw everything from wholesale to retail and “fell of the back off a truck” specials. While it was a highlight of our visit, we can’t really recommend buying those cheap knockoffs.  Grant’s backpack has had a few tears for some time, but last week developed one in a critical area. So, being a good cheap-o, he picked up a knockoff backpack at the market.  After packing it the first time, the zipper pulled right off in his hands. Doh.

Not pictured from our time in the city is Chiang Mai’s famous Sunday Night Market which might very possibly the most over-hyped event we’ve encountered yet. The streets of the old city are closed to vehicles and merchants of every imaginable tourist trinket covered a dozen or more square blocks. From fanny packs to baggy elephant pants the streets overflow with kitsch and a suffocating mass of humanity. Nothing felt original or authentic about it in any way.

This is somewhat indicative of our overall feelings on Chiang Mai. Its charm as a big city that thinks it’s a little town is undeniable. But as western influence overruns it, that charm has rapidly faded. Caucasians far outnumber Thais on the streets. Western food eateries outnumber Asian cuisine. Seemingly every business within three miles of the city center is tourist-focused.

We’ll freely admit this has a lot to do with our having stayed in the heart of touristy Chiang Mai, the Old City. When we ventured to the furthest walkable reaches we started to see the veneer fade. Much like tourists who stay near Khao San Road in Bangkok, it’s hard to have an authentic experience when you surround yourself with infrastructure entirely built for tourists. Those that speak ill of Bangkok and proclaim the glories of the north may be making the same mistake we did in Chiang Mai by, intentionally or not, surrounding themselves with an artificial version of their host city.

With the city wearing thin on us we opted to spend our last day and a half in country three hours north in Chiang Rai. More precisely, we ventured three hours north to Chiang Rai via bus, dropped our bags off at a hostel, and were headed even further north on a motor scooter into the heart of The Golden Triangle, Mae Salong.

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The Golden Triangle was once one of the world’s two largest producers of opium (along with its cousin, The Golden Crescent, centered in Afghanistan). Spanning the northern reaches of Thailand, Laos, & Myanmar the area was a governmental no-man’s land for decades. For Thailand’s part, the area was held by militant Chinese rebels who fled the country following the communist takeover in 1949. In recent decades the Thais reasserted their control over the region by striking a bargain with the fighters. The rebels agreed to cease aggression against Thai Government representatives, help in the fight against Thailand’s own communist insurgency, and cease their opium production. In return they received Thai citizenship and billions of dollars in aide and expertise towards launching what is now a booming oolong tea industry.

The results have been nearly unimaginably positive. What was once a lawless area covered in opium poppy is now an up and coming travel destination with what is widely considered to be some of the best oolong tea in the world. The culture is colored with a beautiful mix of Chinese and Thai culture made all the more unique by the fact an overwhelming number of the Chinese immigrants were some variety of religious minority as well. The resulting cultural melting pot is intoxicating.

We visited a Thai Tea House and lingered over a delicious pot of oolong and candied fruits, ate delicious noodles at an Islamic Chinese restaurant (second best noodle soup to Shan Noodles we’ve had), and wandered down dirt roads among millions of tea plants.

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Our visit concluded on a chance encounter with the owner of this slice of heaven. Through a lot of Kate’s expert pantomiming and a little Google Translate we had an interesting exchange of Mandarin & English. The fellow had come to Thailand 50-years ago with his parents and upon settling in Chinese rebel held territory, thrived. He now owns the sprawling tea plantation and had workers hard at renovations clearly aimed at reopening facilities for visitors that previous owners had allowed to fall into disrepair. We were assured the golden tea pot is safe and getting fresh coat of paint as well. All of this started with the international sign of friendship, the sharing of food, this time a white pomegranate.

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We stopped off for one last treat, pineapples harvested that morning. Little tiny grenade pineapples that taste like piña colada right off the plant. Thailand, you’ve been holding out on the world.

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Back in Chiang Rai for dinner we had 24-hours to make our way to the border town for our next adventure. We ate a delicious dinner with a hilarious local couple. She serves drinks, he cooks, and they laugh the whole night through. All at a restaurant tucked into a back street with no name.

The next day was full of those less than glamorous travel duties. We had that backpack to repair, a pair of Kate’s pants that needed some attention from a tailor, and more anti-malarial pills to obtain. The joys of travel. That absorbed all of our free time right up until our bus ride to Chiang Khong which lies in the northeastern corner of Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Huay Xai, Laos. The ride was a last long look at the stunning natural beauty of the north; traveling through rice paddies, wheat fields, and beautiful people going about their simple beautiful lives.

We made Chang Khong an hour before sunset which we enjoyed with a nice long stroll around town. That night, under a supermoon, over more noodles, more travel friends (An awesome family proving all that “you can’t travel with kids” malarkey to be just that. Waco, Mila, & Jet, you’re an inspiration!) and one last Thai sunset we said goodbye again to the country stealing our hearts.

From the Thai shore, overlooking the Mekong River towards Laos:

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The next morning we crossed into Laos and boarded the boat on which this piece is being written, deep in the jungle on the Mekong River, for a two day trip to Luang Prabang. If you’re reading this… we made it 🙂

(Note from after the fact: So, about that “we made it”…)

Saa-wa-tee from Laos!

Mr. & Mrs. Trading Paradises

Written at 19.828428, 101.487208

Filed From: Luang Prabang, Laos.

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