Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

To the Five Ancient Chiangs (13 years too soon, a century too late)

By John Roberts
12 January 2018 06:37:00

It was recently announced that tourism gurus were planning to encourage folks to visit the 5 ancient cities of Lanna influence or the 5 Chiangs - Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai (now in Thailand), Chiang Tung (now Keng Tung in Myanmar), Chiang Rung (now Jing Hong in China) & Chiang Thong (now Luang Prabang in Laos): http://bit.ly/2EAR7FT

It reminded me that, in 2004, a similar plan was hatched and a lucky bunch, myself included, got to travel on a recce.

These were the days before R3A and China's 'belt and road' superhighways when I was not yet an upstanding member of any community, had four elephants to look after and fewer cares.

I thought I'd post my trip diary here, may give some insight into why it has taken 13 years for the plan to be re-tabled!

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A wiser man than I (and despite the odd flash of genius on my part, history holds a few of them) once said that exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.  I would tend to agree, unless, it turns out, the exploring you intend to do happens to be in a large, coil sprung 4WD.

The journey really began, as all good journeys in this part of the world do, with a visit to a temple.  Rush hour Chiang Mai traffic was as good a way to get used to the extra bulk, handling and power of the Discovery and prostrating myself, insence burning and an offering of a small wooden elephant in hand, before the Buddha and a road building monk should bring us all the luck and guidance we needed to travel through four countries, as many border crossings (some of them still officially closed to Westerners) and five ancient cities (Chiangs) in six days without ever leaving the ancient Northern Thai Kingdom of Lanna.

Day 1 – Late start – smoking vehicle – hill tribe 4WD – Bad hotel

Despite having asked for and received the appropriate blessings from the deities, by the time we reached the Mekong for the first time and our first border crossing, things were already going badly and it was looking as though I’d have to return before the adventure really began.

Firstly we’d awoken at the allotted time in Chiang Mai to find that our travelling partners and organisers, the Tourism Authority of Thailand Friendship Autoventure were gathering in a place un-advertised in the programme – they had mentioned this in the briefing but none of our fluent Thai speakers had been there, it was our fault, not theirs but they had left without us.

Luckily the Thai residents were on hand to guide us through the outskirts of Chiang Mai, towards Chiang Rai, with a quick stop to ask the blessings of King Meng Rai the first Lanna King, through Chiang Saen towards Chiang Khong and an eleven O’Clock border crossing and a date with the convoy and the rest of our team.

Big cars with big engines, empty roads in excellent condition as are found throughout Northern Thailand, meant we were making good time.  Weaving through the tall forests and national parks between the two big cities, through the rice plain around Chiang Rai and up into the hilltribe country close to Chiang Khong before disaster struck.

Topping a pass, through a small thatched village, all the dials on my car began to go haywire.  This wasn’t really a problem as my real car has no functioning dials at all so I never know how fast I’m going, how hot the engine is.  However the smoke coming out of the dashboard probably did count as a problem, the small explosion that followed had me on the brakes.  Ten minutes from a ferry deadline with twenty kilometres to go, no choice but to abandon the car, clamber into the second Discovery and get to the ferry.

We arrived at the ‘Gateway to Indochina’ with five minutes to spare; five minutes local time which can be anything from half an hour to three.  This was a stroke of luck as half our team, those rushing up from Bangkok had also not arrived, their driver having opted for the scenic route from the airport.  So we had time to get the smoking vehicle towed to safety, get our group together, panic about a few work and home problems (sick elephants) and even a light lunch before the mobile phone went dead.

The cars were loaded on the gooseneck ferry across the Mekong and we passengers, still smarting at my new designation, climbed on a small covered boat and out across into Huay Xai, Laos and what was supposed to be the start of the adventure – the point of no return.

Believing that you ought to make the best of a bad situation, I toasted my lack of driving duties and first proper border crossing with a lukewarm Beer Laos from the local store.  

Having got all the cars across, various team members shared out between friendly convoy members and comfortably into our own we set off, lead by Khun Payao, the organiser in his little 1 litre Suzuki we lost the little strip of tarmac before we’d noticed there was any and were off through the dust of the only road through the hills.

The next eighty kilometres to eight hours of some of the most amazing scenery, remote villages, slash and burn agriculture and, towards the end, the tantalising forest of the Nam Ha National Protected Area.  It hadn’t rained for a day or two and, though the rice paddies were fresh and emerald green, the road was a dust bowl.  

Of the thirty-six cars that made it across the river, it was only the one containing the mad English folks, farangs, that had the windows open and air-conditioning off.  This was half because we suspected that the a/c was what had blown up the first Disco but there was so much life going on outside that we could bring ourselves to wind up the windows.  We were soon frustrating the convoy planners by stopping to take photos; on a road that sees one or two coal trucks a day thirty six Thai 4WD’s had the villages out for look.

When the straggling car pulled up, full of white faces and cameras, most often the waving stopped and the kids hid behind their parents or disappear behind the vegetation.  After a minute of hiding; when we still hadn’t got out and done whatever it is their parents had threatened them that white men would do to them if they were naughty and didn’t brush their teeth; then the little gap toothed, scruffy faces would pop out to be photographed.

We stopped next to beautiful girls, brightly clad, straining under a load of logs balanced from a strap on their neck or with armfuls of rice.  Curious, they’d peer into the car until a camera was produced and off they’d go, face covered by their hands and giggling coquettishly.  

No time to give chase.  Time and convoy waits for no man and certainly not a car full of dust clad foreigners and this is not a place to get lost.

The road winds its way through the forested hills, the hunter, gathering hill tribe villages, tiny valleys filled with the first crop of the rice season – everywhere, cute, scared little naked babies, beautiful young girls and, the true story of a hard life, everyone over 18 looked aged and wise, skinny and strong as sinew.

We caught up with the convoy in a small, open caste coal mine.  A cold beer and I decided to put on my farang-eating-raw-chilli comedy show for the locals, to make up for thirty six cars of tourists wondering all over their village and taking pictures of their pig pens, their toilets and their small open caste mine.

The road from here on in was slightly less worthy of the name, previously we’d been travelling on a wide thoroughfare carved out of the hillside to get coal to the river – the quickest way to the rest of Laos.  Now we were on village tracks, designed for bullock carts, bicycles and the odd fat chicken.

Around dusk we entered the Nam Ha N.P.A. and the first mature forest we’d seen, areas that haven’t been slashed or burnt, according to friends there are still tigers, elephants, gibbons and wildlife wondering around up there, two day’s walk from the road up towards the Chinese border.  You wouldn’t want to be walking too far on the roads we drove so I can believe there are still relatively in-accessible areas beyond the easy reach of the village hunters with their muzzle loading weapons that looked like they dated from the first time the French appeared in these parts in the late 1800’s.

The pace was slowing as the leaf sprung flashy pick-ups were beginning to feel the day’s driving and darkness fell as we left the NPA, down a watershed and into the rice plains – as we roared through electricity free village after village I couldn’t help wondering what the locals must have thought as we passed, thirty six pairs of blinding headlights, thirty six big engines, one hundred and forty four big tyres kicking up enough dust for a herd of wildebeest, rumbling out of the forest on the Thailand side and on into Laos.

I’d have been relieved to see the red tail lights leave the village and turn the corner into the jungle leaving only a layer of grime, a smell of diesel and a chance for some gossip and speculation amidst the tomorrow’s paddy planting.

There was an edge of village hall chaos when we pulled into Luang Nam Tha, electricity certainly, food and rice wine laid out for us but no-one seemed to know what was going on.  There was a ‘Visit Laos’ video playing on the TV and a booklet of Do’s and Don’ts in the country.

After a day of having the locals stare at us oddly, even the Thais had started and then the farangs from the other cars.  It took until halfway through the meal to work out that there was a dust cloud worthy of an approaching posse accompanying our every movement and that we had taken on enough of the local foundation as to make us look like Apache warriors.  A shower was required. 

…and a shower was one of the many facilities that the Hotel Somboun Something-or-other did not claim.  Blood stains on the floor, purple velur curtains, a pink and chintzy mosquito net, a mattress stuffed with horse hair and rubble, yes, no problem.  Hot or cold running water, sorry.

I was so tired I gave the shower a miss, figuring that any stains I left on the sheets from my dusty body wouldn’t show against the collection already present.

Day 2 – Wake up – Brakes fail – Luang Prabang

Four O’Clock the next morning, the wake-up call of a rough Diesel being pushed, revved into action.  Un-requested 4am wake up for a 7am departure, surely this wasn’t true, plans must have changed again or my Thai is worse than I thought.  By this time the cold water was running again, though not as far as the showerhead – so it was a dipper into the bucket, over the head – all of rural Thailand, indeed, I think most of South East Asia manages to stay clean, vibrant and beautifully clothed.  Don’t know how though, I only managed to scrape off the first layer of dust.

Finished the ablutions and headed to the car to find yesterday's drivers shovelling dust out of the car, joined them in fantasising about room service, telephones, bell boys and curtains – and strangling the wake up call man?  But the coffee was hot and we were all smiling when the sun came up.

I got to do my first driving in Laos and spent a little while driving on both trying to decide which side of the road we should be on, looking for a petrol station while the rest made merit and good karma with out fellow travellers by washing cars.  

We drove around for a while before spotting the Suzuki of the man who planned the trip and booked us into the Death Camp Hotel - tried to raise him on the walkie talkie, no reply.  What else would someone be doing driving around a small town in Northern Laos at six in the morning but looking for petrol?  So, we decided to follow him, the little Suzuki then made a series of funny turns, double backs, shooting up un-paved side streets and across fields – it was just when it looked as though he was trying to lose us that he pulled into the shiniest, poshest looking guest house in town.  

We swore a bit and went to find some petrol, making the most of having one of only three gasoline engines on the whole convoy by driving past the queue for the Diesel straight to the happiest petrol station owner in the Orient, watching the line of cars and already planning his retirement to the Caribbean.

7am rolled around and we jostled for a good position at the front of the convoy – no more dust for us today; driver at the wheel, baguette in hand, trying to find the best start point.  We saw our friends in car 32 shot past us to the front of the queue, suddenly a barrage of outrage came over the walkie talkie, so I tuned it up and tried to listen but it took until 32 came back and took a spot two cars in front of us that it all became clear.

The first example of what would become a morning routine, whatever happened we would leave each stop-over town in number order and, if those in the top ten would have their way we would always travel in number order – 01 on the car door definitely meant first.  They didn’t always get their way, but racing 34 was always called back into line eventually.

Being a British and Kiwi car, however, gave us one major advantage – in preparation for this moment we had all undergone a strict training regime of at least ten years.  Most nights and some days, each of us had indulged in a kind of intensive bladder training involving the imbibing and holding of small amounts of liquid.  

Invariably, ten minutes after each meal stop the convoy would grind to a halt and the contents of each car would pour into the bushes – men on the drivers’ side, ladies cross the road.  Our rigorous training scheme, which had reached a peak in the days before departure, allowed us to employ an advantageous pit stop strategy and grab a few places up the line and even take a few places from the, formidably prepared, top ten cars.

By the time we had reached China, our un-sporting behaviour had come to notice and the pit stops were called on the radio and were compulsory – but in the blissful early days of Laos, we just dropped down a gear and waved to the faces poking out of the bushes.

Getting ahead of the crowd allowed us to stop from time to time, take photos and meet people.  Though the road was now tarmac there was still very little traffic and the people were still glad to meet farangs, it was a Sabai Di? day – Sabai Di? is a rhetorical question in Thai, literally translated it means everything’s great?.

In Laos, it has the same literal meaning but is used as hello.  I like a country where the first thing you do to any stranger is check to make sure everything is just as good as it can be.  The tarmac road meant less dust and so every village we passed through was subjected to us hanging out of the windows waving and screaming Zebedee at the top of our voices.

The reaction was worth it!  Kids came running across paddy fields to greet us; monks double taking and crashing their bicycles; beautiful, shy girls covering their faces and hiding.

Alex invented a wealth distribution process; we’d buy fruit and vegetables from small markets, set up in mountain passes then drive a mile down the road and hand it to a roadside farmer or a girl carrying the night’s firewood in from the forest.

Our only worry was that the girls had been sent to market to sell the week’s stock of cucumbers and were struggling back home having made as much cash as possible.  How on earth would anyone believe that a bloody great Land Rover full of giggling farangs had turned up, screamed Zebedee and handed them a cucumber before roaring off in a cloud of dust before the convoy top ten caught us interacting with the locals.

At some point just outside Udomxai the brakes lost pressure, momentarily, coming back with a pump.  Given that we were driving through mountainous country, at this point back in the convoy but driving with the fun back-markers, this should have been a worrying development, but we're experienced drivers of a million different cars down the years we had it under control.

We did stop in Udomxai to check the things and had Superman in Car 22 have a quick look and remove the other running board – our posh limo was taking a beating and ten years of city maintenance hadn’t prepared even the toughest car for this.  

We were assured that the road to Luang Prabang was flat and that we wouldn’t need brakes; given that Udomxai is on a high plateau, surrounded by forested hills and that Luang Prabang is on the Mekong we sort of doubted this but you can’t beat local knowledge and, thus armed, we set off.

Two mountain ranges and a net loss of some 1500 metres altitude later, at about three in the afternoon, we pulled over for lunch by a sweltering Mekong.  From somewhere they had found that greatest of Mekong delicacies (& an endangered species in the wild – though this was apparently farmed) a steak of Giant Mekong Catfish, the first time I’d tasted this fish that grows to the size of a good sized boat, as there are so few left in the river at large that their fishing is restricted.  Even the farmed fish lived up to it’s reputation – a great shame that this little understood species is being driven to extinction in the wild by population pressure, over fishing and changes in the great river’s ecology bought about by damming and blasting of reefs for unnecessary navigation.

The remaining reefs on the Mekong are hardly explored by science, during the dry season, in certain places the channel is so deep that all the water in the mighty river, a kilometre across up and downstream, is filtered between rocks five metres apart with barely a ripple on the surface.

The giant fish-steak topped off a meal in the finest Laotian traditions and several beer Laos as the longtailed boats roared upstream, an eight hour bone rattling trip to our crossing point of Chiang Khong and Thailand.  All passengers wear crash helmets, ear plugs & life jackets (between two countries where motor-bikes driven by infants in flip-flops will carry up to four people, two chickens and a pig).

Somehow our two day drive seemed much the better option.

We rolled into Luang Prabang, tired, dirty and ready for a rest.  Our Laos hosts had arranged for some sightseeing, the whole excuse for this tour was to familiarize ourselves with the area’s sights so we drove, in convoy, down delightful deserted streets to the Royal Palace, the heart of the town feeling like a quiet little suburb.

The Palace itself impressed me, not by its grandeur, but by its lack of pretension.  It is fairly obvious that the Communist Regime that, even now, is slowly releasing its grip on power but that had, in the early days, allegedly starved the last King to death had been at work.  I doubt that the royal family were great readers of Russian Revolutionary history or kept a portrait on Lenin on the walls.  Even allowing for the guess that much of the nicer furniture will have gone into party’s own hidden palaces, the Palace looked more a rural French farmhouse than the seat of a country’s power.  The décor behind the public areas seemed to befit the wonderful town of Luang Prabang, though the reception rooms were plusher and ceremonial clothing and weapons abounded.

The room containing gifts from various countries was an eye opener with many treasures from around the world giving lie to this small, poor country’s strategic importance in times gone by and the efforts made to win its heart.  Amongst the antique crockery, beautiful silverware, cloths and clothing and an Airfix model of the Apollo 11 landing module from Richard Nixon.

Blinking outside into the hot sunshine we headed for our hotel, only to be told that ‘you haven’t seen Laos until you’ve climbed Phou Si’ the small hill opposite the Palace that dominates the skyline of the town a Wat, viewing area and sacred stones on top.

Realising that I’d be sweating just from the walk up I decided to run the steep, mossy, damp steps to the top.  The stonework was as old as the hill and the top has been a place of pilgrimage as long as the town has been there, the view from the top is impressive and, save for the tin roofs replacing thatch, has changed little from an engraving made by the French expeditions in the 1860’s.  Narrow streets, roofs and compounds peeking through coconut palm leaves and greenery; the Mekong dotted with small craft, dominating the view to West and the green, mist shrouded mountains to the East.  A quiet village sound, gossiping women, playing children, dogs barking and cockerels (working, obviously, on Laos time) heralding the mid-afternoon rose from the country’s second city and a place at peace with itself despite the world outside.

A peace, broken only by the noise of a speed boat on the river and thirty three Thai four-wheel drives starting up and driving away.

By the time I got back down the sacred hill ours was the only car left, half the team sitting in the Guest House named for the hill, drinking a cold beer.  Everyone else, decided they’d sweat just walking up and driven off.

Everyone else including our guide, the only man who knew where the hotel was and, more importantly, who we had already paid for the room.  The rest of the team were still on the hill so I switched on my walkie talkie, joined in a delicious and most welcome beer and waited for them to realise we weren’t there.

Superman turned up in car 22 by the third bottle and lead us to the excellent Grand Luang Prabang hotel.  Excellent by any standards, but considering we’d spent the night before in a death camp, we celebrated by ordering ice and opening a bottle of Vodka – the best part of which seemed to disappear on our patio as the Mekong rolled quietly past and England lost the rugby in dramatic fashion.

The evening rolled into a sultry night and we grabbed a hotel taxi into the town, by now crawling with back-packers searching for poverty line bargains from people with families to keep before heading into the ice cold beer internet cafes to congratulate themselves.  We tracked down the best French restaurant and filled ourselves with exquisite, delicately flavoured foods, washed down with excellent wine which may have been wasted on me due to the taste bud dulling effects of the vodka but the atmosphere soaked through my pores, the heat, the sights and the smells that the memories blurred into one of happiness and a need to stay forever.

I think Luang Prabang’s a bit like that.

Day Three – Sprinting for the border – Car checks in China

By the time the early morning call came, too early, I was back in the room and feeling as though I needed a cold shower, a hot coffee and a big, big breakfast by the Mekong.  The Grand is just the place for that sort of thing & by the time the others arrived – everyone else had worked out that the morning call was coming two hours early, though no-one had worked out why – I was on my third breakfast and fourth coffee whilst Mother River Khong rolled imperiously on, I think she knows a thing or two about hangovers and has seen it all before. 

Given the night’s excesses, today was a convoy day, covering much of the road we did yesterday, all the way to the Chinese border and beyond.

This time they were ready for us, the kids, as we thundered through the villages, ready and waving and car 34 was not going to let its hangover dampen the Sabbai Di’ing.  Seeing the sights for the second time merely strengthened the impressions, smelling the air through the opened window added to and mixed flavours picked up on the previous day’s drive.  

We had to push it as we had a border crossing to catch and no alternative, if we got there late we were sleeping in the cars; pee stops were limited and we were to eat on the run, a wicker basket of sticky rice, a cold, fermented ‘1000 year old’ egg and a strip of dried sausage were handed to each of us at the start – ours went to some kids by the side of the road by the Chinese border after we’d taken advantage of our increased carrying capacity between pee stops to get ahead and chat with the locals in bad Thai, sign language, photography and food.

At least one of the girls photographed in those hills will have a model’s agent searching high and low in the mountains of Laos if we ever show the photograph and give a rough idea of where it was taken.  If the rest of the convoy hadn’t turned up we could have changed her life forever – but maybe she’s happier where she is.  

The catwalks of London are often promised to girls in these hills who get not much further than the streets of Bangkok, despite efforts by all the governments involved, the trade is thriving so, our nameless beauty may be best hiding that beguiling smile in the hills.

On the ‘new’ bit of road, climbing through the forested hills between the Luang Nam Tha turning and the Boken border, we had our first and only casualty.  One of our cars, tired after a day’s straight driving and complacent after a day in which the oncoming traffic had consisted of one or two trucks (one of which, admittedly, had been on its side) and a couple of local, pick-up busses came around the umpteeth hairpin on the climb to the border and hit a truck pretty much head on.

Luckily all the occupants were OK, if a little shocked, and the convoy was organised with tow-home insurance, even in these mountains, so the car was abandoned and on they came.

We all pulled up into the dusty border town of Boken with time to spare, not a border used to many people crossing, let alone this number of cars in one go.  It seemed that the officials were going to have to take some time to let all this excitement settle in and, as with every border, it was only after we’d given up queuing and were halfway through a bowl of kwiteo noodles that they called us on.  We left the noodles and walked into no-mans-land where we were allowed to see that the single track Laos road disappeared, with little fanfare, through a small gap in the hills and into China.

The excitement of walking us out of Laos and getting the cars through had quite tired our bemused customs men but it was a relatively short time spent milling around with the straying buffalo and cattle (Laos or Chinese) before we were allowed into the cars and to drive into the 21st century.

In almost complete contrast to the Laos authorities, it was clear that the Chinese mean this to be a major border crossing within the next few months.  In a valley carved from the earth with a few thatched local houses on the hill-tops wondering what happened, a prefabricated concrete town is built, a large duty free shop and an, as yet un-opened, customs monolith that would not look out of place gracing the New York docks of the early 1900’s welcoming people to the new world.  The whole place looked as though it was set up to handle thousands of travellers an hour.

Consequently, it took us a whole three hours to clear customs.

Passports were stamped little problem; however, following that, every car had to be checked to make sure the registration document tallied with the engine number and the chassis number.  Given that these were, in the main, hired cars so the numbers had to be found under the inch or so of dust and buffalo muck that even the cleanest of cars by now had plastered all through the engine compartment, given that there was one person who had to verify all of this personally (though he did have an umbrella carrying entourage of about fifteen officials who were not allowed to do anything but get in his way), given that the convoy had one Chinese and Thai speaking person who was doing a sterling job of persuading the official that any row of figures was required number and that he should move on to the next car and, finally, given that our translator didn’t speak English so we had to add another and that the registration documents for both cars were still stored comfortably in the blown up Disco three days and two countries away.  

Given all this, it didn’t take too long.  I guess.

As soon as the cars were officially OK’d we were called to a meeting with a terrified Chief of Police for the region, through a translator.  He was terrified because he had obviously once seen the Dukes of Hazzard and the thought of thirty six cars’ worth of decadent foreigners tearing up and down his peaceful country roads had him shaking in his exquisitely polished boots.  

We were given maximum convoy speed, overtaking was to be banned (to the general glee of our friends in the top ten), hazard and headlights were to be on at all times and most importantly there was to be no drinking and driving.  The drivers nodded sagely and clapped him, much to his relief, before emptying the duty-free shop, in which he had chosen to hold his meeting, of whisky and running through the stair-rod rain back to the waiting cars.

It was dusk as we got underway, but even though the villages and the peoples were the same on this side of the border as that, that we had changed country and entered the old Celestial Empire and a new super-state of organised agriculture was immediately obvious.

The roads had not been carved out and hard topped within the last two years, as had been the case until now, the stone causeways and tree lined routes had been there and maintained for centuries – it was the sight of a stone bridge that finally convinced Louis de Carné that he had finally reached China on his trip up the Mekong in the 1860’s.  

Gone were the happily haphazard thatched villages of Northern Laos, here were organized villages of the same architectural style and size but with tin roofs and solar water heaters perched to make the most of the sun (how many of the Laos houses had even cold running water inside the house?  …come to think of it, how of the many hotels?!)

The rice paddies were still there, if a little more organised, but the hillsides were cropped with tea, with rubber plantations, with unknown crops.  Not a square inch was wasted, certainly no random slash and burn – a common feature in Laos - within sight of the road. 

Eventually the beautiful and well organised countryside with its smooth ancient roads gave way to a city of concrete ugliness with bad roads and worse driving.  The city looked as though it had been chipped off the outskirts of a major town elsewhere and dropped from a great height into the beautiful countryside; such was its sudden nastiness and complete lack of reference to the area we had been driving through.

We were running late and so it was decided, having driven past the hotel, to go straight to the food.  A bizarre decision when we were looking at the accommodation slide past in the neon glow but a good one by the time we were sitting at the naughty teenager’s table outside and the food kept coming and the beer kept following.

An even better decision when we got to the hotel.  If the city had been conceived, designed and built elsewhere, delivered in an easy to assemble kit without a booklet on maintenance this was doubly true of the hotel.  It certainly looked close to what you would think an international standard hotel for businessmen ought to look like, though it obviously hadn’t come with vacuum cleaners or, indeed, cleaners of any sort.  The girl at the Front Desk proved adept at hiding behind her counter on the approach of anything resembling a guest and no amount of standing over her, talking to her directly and looking at her could persuade her to acknowledge her own, let alone our, presence.

Fortunately our, ever efficient, tour organisers handed us the key just as we were casting around for a sharp stick with which to prod her; hoping to elicit a reaction if only to prove to ourselves that we existed.

Day Four – Chinese Countryside – Dai Wedding – Primeval Rainforest – Dai Dancing

The alarm calls were before dawn and the sun rose over the city of Mongla revealing the hitherto interesting mosquito breeding facility to once have been a swimming pool, the lobby carpet to be covered in an interesting variety stains (or maybe that was the pattern) and the receptionist to be in almost the same position – though she seemed to have cowered slightly overnight. 

We fired the engines, got into convoy order and no sooner had we left the city boundaries than we were in perfectly beautiful scenery yet again, innocent looking children on bicycles, birds singing, happy little villages – though the people were not instant wavers as in Laos.

There must be a standard textbook to teach the young Yunnan Chinese impeccable Oxbridge English from the 1950’s, the response to seeing foreigners in the car here was more likely to be a crisp ‘Good Afternoon’ or ‘I’m fine; and how are you?’ than the screeched, giggling, waving ‘bye-bye’ that we had become used to.

Pretty countryside gave way to a protected area, that looked as though it was actually protected – at least the forest looked complete but we had no way of telling whether or not it had been hunted out though I saw one ‘lifer’ bird on the side of the road as we worked our way through the forest before emptying out onto a plain of maturing rice fields and flat Buddhist temples.  Stopping for lunch in the heartland of the Dai or Thai Yai people who were the pre-cursor of the Thai races that headed South and eventually created Thailand.

We had a delicious lunch amid their architecture and Superman in 22 bled our brakes for us - another attempt to make them behave though we were getting adept at having the pedal drop to the floor only to work again with the next pump – the watery liquid that spurted out made us feel that, here, in Southern China, with only a set of spanners, a hammer and that’s about it at our disposal, as they had been working more-or-less 90% of the time it probably wasn’t worth playing too much.

The convoy convoyed across town to a ‘typical’ Dai village and exhibition centre where we were treated to a ‘traditional’ mass marriage ceremony where many yellow clad Dai girls chose their future husbands, much to the chagrin of their Thai wives who had also come on the adventure and were left in the crowd sharpening their tongues for back in the car as their husbands danced with their new wives for the day.

Being a hardened student of foreign cultures, none of this faux display, this obvious debasing of a genuine and ancient culture to pander to tourists did not impress me in the slightest.  Particularly as I wasn’t chosen by any of the beautiful girls nor any of the less than beautiful for that matter, my polite but subtle declining technique was not even tested.  

Our guide tried to console me by saying that they found baldness, paunchiness and spectacles attractive as they usually belonged to a wealthy wearer.  Whether it was something our guide said or whether it was just my innate charms as the ‘other man’ I don’t know, but as we were walking out through the ‘Welcome to Thailand’ (& even more bizarre the ‘Elephant Safari, Chiang Mai, Thailand’ t-shirts) several of the recently married girls came and gave me their wedding necklace even as their erstwhile husbands were being quietly beaten up for enjoying the whole thing too much.

Soon we were on the road again heading for our night time stop of Jing Hong, or Chiang Roong in the Thai dialect, capital of the Chinese region of Xishuangbanna, itself a Chinese pronunciation of the Thai name for the ancient Kingdom of Sipsong Panna – 12000 rice fields.  So perhaps the t-shirts aren’t so bizarre; in one sense, and certainly for those trying to attract tourists, from the rest of China, this is the land of the Thais.

Before crossing the Mekong into the city we headed for another of the region’s award winning tourism shows, the bill board advertisements showed a herd of elephants and described it as a Primeval Rainforest Park.  A sign on the entrance road advised us “Get into primeval rainforest park.  Pay attention to Tooting avoid alarm wild animal”, being an elephant, jungle and general primeval forest type of boy I was getting quite excited by this point.  Maybe what I’d heard about the country wasn’t true, maybe I was going to see a genuine conservation effort in action or, at the very least, a safari park.

The busses screaming past our queuing convoy, definitely not paying attention to Tooting, should have told me different.  

What follows is a true account of the Chinese Primeval Rainforest, I only mention this as those of us that were there agreed never to speak of the experience outside our close knit group for fear that no-one would believe us.  I am about to betray that agreement but only because I feel the story must be told.

Arriving at the Primeval Park we left the car in the Primeval Car Park and the first clue that something was amiss would normally be the tiger in a cage the size of, well, the  large tiger.  Alright, this isn’t going to be a piece of untouched rainforest despite the sign not 5m away advertising it as such and the awards (in English) given it for being such.

We climbed on the electric train with the soldier (I know, I know, bare with me) and swerved past the Indian Peafowl and headed up the road, we climbed past the duck pond on a concrete road through a primary growth bamboo forest eventually we reached the top.  Here, having only US dollars and no Chinese language we managed, eventually, to buy enough beer for the money (after my dollars had been stolen several times by the massage pimp) whilst little girls of mixed lineage, in Akha outfits, offered us massages and fruit juice at the behest of the massage pimp whose eagle eye wouldn’t let us tip the girls for the back massage that we enjoyed.  On stage was a caberet hilltribe show of dancers from around China in local costume that had been cut to fit the folie bougere whilst gyrating to synthesizer music composed with supermarkets, aeroplane take off and lifts in mind.  It all ended in another beer and then a daily display of the annual songkran water throwing festival which allegedly originated in these parts, but the non-hilltribe hilltribe costumes got wet and clingy and it was time to head for the train.  

Did I mention the concrete baby in the concrete egg?  No?  Then let’s just pretend I haven’t.

By the time the train got to the bottom of the hill there were children riding on the tiger, the lion was being chased by the alsation, a grotesque bear was being dragged around on its hind legs by a man with a stick through its nose and the monkey was riding the goat along the tightrope.  The audience was clapping, there was no cold beer and it was time to go home. 

We went to the hotel and lay down for a while.

Dinner that night was ten minutes walk from the hotel, through the pouring rain and the puddles, Jing Hong, though obviously still a suburb of Beijing with a several thousand mile commute, is a nicer town than Mengla was.  We were treated to a celebration of true Dai dancing and a town style meal but after the country fare we ate at lunch and the mind-boggling afternoon it may have been lost on us.  I did impress with my Nepali twist on the Dai peacock dance but it didn’t last long.

Walking back to the hotel we found the organisers, a few of the fun back markers and the Chinese tourist authority guides, all tucking into the whisky – still faintly traumatise from the afternoon we felt it wise to join them and allow the Chinese to win back our favour, something they duly did but none of us were entirely sure what happened to the rest of the evening but we all woke up in the right place, those of us that slept, so all was well.

Day Four – Hill Tribe Areas – Border Crossing – Mengla

The next day did not dawn well but managed to dawn well before its time, breakfast was good but the coffee was weak.  The rest of our group had mastered the art of arising just before the convoy lined up and left, I breakfasted again and again with various different convoyers grinning through the fog of a dangerous hangover and hopefully not stinking of whisky.  

By the time the cars pulled out to visit a Buddhist temple that has survived the ravages of the cultural revolution and is currently inhabited by Thai monks, the abbot is a jolly fat fellow in the best tradition and he graciously chanted over us all and brought us luck for the rest of the journey.

We climbed off the Jing Hong rice plain and said goodbye to the Mekong, the next time we’d see it would be as we crested the last rise before we got home.  Climbed into the hills towards the Burmese border, as we got further from the capital and higher into the hills the villages started to take on a different feel.  The agriculture was still organised, but not quite to the same degree, the costumes more colourful and the people more ready to wave; we were moving gradually from the rice plain dwelling Dai lands back into to the hilltribe country.

We stopped at a restaurant, across a bamboo bridge, next to a frothing river and ate boiled potatoes for the first time in a year.

As we neared the border, the hills became steeper, the road windier and the paddy fields smaller.  Official signs began appearing at the side of the road, in almost inverse proportion to the number of Dai and Chinese faces, the whole place had an edge-of-the-empire feel that I suspect it always has had, these hills have belonged to Sipsong Panna, Lanna, Burma and China – perhaps also Britain - but they have always really belonged to these people, whatever colour they were on the map.

The natural forest is mainly gone, replaced with rubber, terraced rice fields cling to steep grades, the people look healthy and happy but have to be constantly reminded they are Chinese.  This would have been prime opium territory until the fairly recent past, so the signs, though we couldn’t read them, may well have been reminding the populace what not to grow as well as urging them to work for a harvest for all.

By the time we reached the Burmese border we were on a high rice plain, this was the border that we knew to be closed to foreigners, the last one we had just suspected.  Luckily it was hot and so, barring the fact that there was a little fuss as to whether we ought to go through in car number order – the top 10 again campaigning to stand outside in the sun while we lower orders held the shade, the man responsible for re-checking the engines and chassis numbers on our cars was apparently easily satisfied than none of us had replaced the engine in our car and we were through relatively quickly.

Not as quickly however as we were into Wa controlled Myanmar, Mengla in Burma, call it what you will.  The closed border guard took our passports and waved us through, this is Mengla boys, anything goes.

Well, that, at least was what the rumours were.  Mengla is the town in Myanmar, controlled by the Red Wa, that bills itself as the Las Vegas of the East, a town just across the border set up to attract Chinese gamblers and adventurers.  The Wa are so sure of the town’s un-beatable combination of gambling, exotic prostitution and no discernable legal code that it has built two massive roads, one through Burma, one through China to facilitate the hordes of would be sinners.

True to form and with a government guide, our first stop in Sin City was a temple, a new and a bit gaudy but a temple none-the-less, our next stop was an Opium museum in filled with grainy photos and reconstructions of the Government (Wa & Rangoon) on the evil poppy growers.  My favourite exhibits were the life size model reconstruction of a rehabilitated drug user and the illuminated sign board with diagrams and instructions (in Burmese & English) on how to make opium from raw poppy.  

Understandably, the museum is particularly hard on the British who, lets face it, did start the whole thing but, despite the grainy photos, the local Government’s track record is not all that crash hot.

The next stop was another newly built Wat (temple). 

You get the picture our local guide was trying to present: We may be making money from every imaginable sin, but at least we’re building temples with some of it.  The logic being, if I have it correct, if we gain enough merit by building temples we may come back as something better able to resist temptation in the next cycle; trying to stop in this life is hopeless so let’s just keep going and build another Wat, Stupa or Chedi if things get too bad.

Build ‘em early, boys, build ‘em early and don’t end up like U Po Kyin.

A general mutiny occurred as we entered our next shiny, new, concrete temple;  we got the picture too, time to head for the hotel, we’ve seen the redemption, now let us see the sin.

I don’t think the Las Vegas of the West is going to be too worried by this little town, not just yet.  Despite the nicely illuminated sign outside the hotel offering “Massage The foot cures Push the oil  CHina Vietnam Russia Young lady” (their capitalisation and punctuation) in three languages and two phone numbers, despite the restaurant at which we saw a pangolin being butchered on the street, despite the one casino that could afford a fountain, laser show and neon there’s not much of a buzz to the town.

Resisting the temptation to push the oil we went to the official dinner, our last night with the convoy, where we were treated to towny but mainly identifiable food – the  pangolin had us worried – and Chinese beer.  Speeches were made, gifts were given (we farangs were given some very nice rucksacks purely for being farang and coming on a mad auto-venture) and after the minor fight on who got to leave China first and stand in the Burmese sunshine the whole evening was pitched as a great farewell.  Though this was never an epic expedition, if you’re going to travel through Four Countries in just under a week, in a car you’ve never seen before, not carrying one of the native tongues or any of the local currency before you start it was generally agreed that you couldn’t really do it with a kinder, more helpful bunch of people.

We were called upon to make a speech and I believe I said as much, though, foolishly I tried some of it in Thai, so I may well have said anything – but the audience cheered, so it must have been something nice.

Dinner was over, speeches made, karaoke started for the brave and we headed to see what this town had to offer at night.  

The main vice preferred by our convoy was shopping and lots of it, though by the time we got to the gold shop, at least one or two had had enough whisky (poured free of charge by the jeweller from a tank containing a rotting bear carcass) to start thinking about the other and at least one had offered to marry the jeweller’s assistant.  Thankfully, having just said nice things in speeches, I don’t think our mob were too adept at sinning.

We bought a casino to a standstill, just by being white and being there, we walked around trying to recognise any of the games being played (one room had chips in the tens of thousands of dollars being bet).  We walked around, standing up straight and trying to look official, until security stopped being discreet and we beat a hasty retreat – in a town without rules, nosey foreigners are not thought of too highly.

Back at the gold shop the Chinese officials from Jing Hong had arrived in their black-tinted, big, ugly Pajero, the bear whisky was going down a treat and they suggested we visit the market.  

We piled into the Pajero, too many of us to close the doors but, with the official plates of big brother next door I don’t suppose that matters, and were deposited in the middle of a whirlwind.  We sat at a table, ordered a beer and watched the masses mill around us – Chinese gamblers tired of sin, Burmese businessmen here to buy and sell, local people always on the outskirts in traditional dress coming and going quietly with produce from the farm or the garden but never quite getting involved; probably wondering what happened to their little border settlement, where did all these people come from with a lifetime’s wealth in a single bet?

We found the girls, hundreds of them, lined up outside their bordellos, faces from across Asia and Asia minor, chatting and giggling away as the limousines and Mercedes minivans pulled up, doors opened, fingers pointed, you, you & you.

This was sin, I guess, but it was someone else’s, we tired early and went home to bed.

Day Five – Endangered food – Deforested Hills – Final Border Crossing – Home

Waking early in the morning to take a walk behind the restaurants, where the menu in all its glory squirmed, cowered, fought its cages and gave up hope.  The more endangered, the more dangerous the better here, but I didn’t feel like breakfast in the car park Royal Burmese Entertainment Plaza (closed but a glimpse at security on the door and a nudge and a wink let on that the entertainment would be of a certain sort).  Fried eggs, coffee and noodles looked fairly safe but all the cages were empty here.

On the way out of town we went to the market again, pick-ups were filled with kitchen utensils, water dispensers, household goods and car parts as our convoyers once more indulged their vice.  We walked around the food and vegetable market, local farmers with their stock, pigs ready for the slaughter, pork ready for the table.

The corner of jungle products from pieces of tiger skin to live lorises, macaques and owls to dried mushrooms and unidentified bones was peopled by the same shy, quiet hill tribe folks, all clad in their traditional garb, be it pure black or be it gaily coloured.  People from villages, hills and jungles a day or more walk from the little piece of concrete suburbia that gambling has bought to this corner of their world.  Always on the outskirts of all the activity, never looking quite part of it, a reminder of a time gone by and of a dwindling stock of wildlife and jungle made me want to discover the hidden valleys and villages from which they came.

How far the jungle had dwindled did not become clear until our, now heavily laden, convoy got underway again.  For this final day we were to have an armed escort, no pee stops were to be allowed outside major towns and no overtaking would be tolerated.

I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the only trees we saw in the Wa and Shan States between Mengla and Keng Tung, from the gambling highway built by the Wa, were the ancestor trees around the villages of emaciated, miserable people.  People whose living, for centuries, would have been hunting and gathering but whose jungle had literally been taken away by the new highway.  Used to seeing the slash and burn agriculture of Northern Thailand and Laos, these hills are truly shocking, the trees are gone, grass has re-grown but precious little else.

The highway winds through the denuded hills, out of Wa controlled areas and onto a section of the road controlled by Rangoon, the armed guard changes but not much else.  The road and the hills are dramatic, now the trees are gone you can see for miles and the road itself is a costly engineering feat but land-slides are already beginning to eat away at it, we met a convoy of official cars heading to Mengla but not much else except, at intervals, villages of people staring mildly back at us, bemused faces wondering how, when and why the modern world came to them and why it had to hit so hard.

Keng Tung looks just like a pretty little Hill Station from the days of the Raj, which, of course, is exactly what it is, or, at least, was.  It is the capital of the Shan States and was used as such by the British who, as well as the opium started the idea of logging, though using more sustainable techniques.  The town felt like nothing had changed since the remaining foreigners were driven out in the 1960’s, the wats were old and beautiful, signs advertised London cigarettes, Parliament Gin, the police – out for the occasion to stop the traffic and whistle us through town – were immaculately turned out, the white bungalows on the lake had mildewed a little, as had the hotel, all that was missing was a maidan and a party of infantry officers practising their polo before retiring to ‘the club’ to curse their posting away from the ‘heart of things’ before competing to woo Mrs Phelp’s niece, the only girl in town, who had been sent out for a season to get ‘a bit of colour’.

The people were smiling and friendly, young novices in orange robes playing marbles, little children stood in their gateways and waved, a Gurung policeman gave an extra sharp salute as the foreigners drove past, Indian ladies peaked out from behind their saris and even our escort of fresh faced small boys with big, nasty looking, guns seemed to be enjoying themselves.  The beer was cold and the food excellent.

We lined up in number order, made another petrol station owner very happy and convoyed out of the town that time, happily, forgot.

Dropping of a plateau and down towards the Mekong rice plains for the fourth time bought us back to reality, the road is still shiny and new and we passed several forced labour crews, guarded by smiling men with machine guns, clearing gutters and digging trenches while the back hoe looked on.

The road levels out in the town of Na Yao and we bid a farewell to the hill country and to our latest armed guard, who, for that section, had seen fit to bring along a grenade launcher.  They were sorry to see us go; the smiling boy with the rocket launcher, standing up in the back of a Toyota pick-up would have been worth a photo and his smile invited one.  But, no matter how broadly they smile, one of the unwritten rules to help you lead a long and healthy life (along with ‘never touch the big red button’ and ‘never attempt to give a speech in a language that is not your own’ (see above)) is never, ever, attempt to take a photo of anyone carrying a rocket launcher, no matter how much it looks as though he’s posing.

The journey to the border and Ta Khi Lek was un-eventful, we got another soldier in trouble with his Sergeant for being too friendly and unofficial with foreigners, we managed to lose the convoy on the outskirts of the border town but, ever friendly, they came and got us without too many dodgy overtaking manoeuvres.

While we waited for customs to work out what to do with us there was time for some last minute bargain hunting in the border market, strategic plans were worked out to get both bargains and people back to Chiang Mai in one piece as the cars were now stuffed to the gunnels.  We retrieved the pieces of our car that had dropped off on the first day’s rugged roads and said our goodbyes before heading, once again, back to the Mekong and sitting, tired, dirty and happy overlooking the big river that had run like a thread through our journey sipping a bottle of excellent wine and not saying very much, each with their thoughts.

 

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