Thursday 8th November 2012
30.10.2012 - 26.11.2012 29 °C
We get up at 6.30 as the guide we had booked was coming to collect us at 8.00. Rather a shock system! The large dining room is full of people already and 5 large coaches are waiting in the car park. Charlie our guide is waiting for us. He is a very smiley young man aged 31. His story is amazing - he was born into the Lahu hill tribe, and lived in a mud hat with no running water. His family grew opium and his father still smokes it every day. He could see that education was going to be his only wait out and went to school from 8 to 15 when he got into trouble but as a bright student he was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to boarding school where he studied Thai, English including Shakespeare and appeared in Hamlet! He spoke really good English and knew a lot about our history and current affairs, was mad on English soccer and was a really interesting guy to spend the day with.
We left Chiang Rai which is situated in a river valley and started climbing eventually turning off the main road onto a dirt track and came across a group of wooden shacks. This was the first of the two hill tribes we visited today. The way they lived was completely humbling although there were beautiful views. One of the women proudly showed us her kitchen which consisted of mud floor and 2 metal bowls. There was some kindling to one side and a grate where she cooked. I did not take photos with the iPad as it felt too flash in these humble surroundings. We bought some embroidered bracelets and a bag one of the girls had embroidered. There was a shop that sold a few simple items but basically most things they grew themselves. There was a list of rules on the side of one of the houses and although their life must be incredibly hard going there on a lovely sunny day you couldn't help thinking there were attractive sides to it. The second hill tribe we visited had electricity and one of the houses had a simple tv so they are not cut off from the outside world.
Our next stop was Mae Salong where the hillsides were covered with either coffee or tea plants. This is a town like no other in Thailand. Until the 1980's when the road was built it was virtually cut off from the outside world. The people are all of Chinese descent and until relatively recently relied solely on opium growing for income. This of course has now been banned by the Thai authorities so the king supported projects for coffee and tea growing instead. We had a coffee in a simple coffee shop overlooking the steep hillsides. Coffee was delicious and we could hear gibbons calling to each other. Our next stop was a tea tasting area. We tried 4 different teas and bought some herbal tea that promised to reduced blood pressure, high cholesterol, cure diabetes and cancer! We are gullible! We then stopped at the side of the road so our guide could buy fresh vegetables and wild herbs for his mother in law whom he lives with (along with his second wife and son!). We then had lunch in a simple roadside eating place(restaurant it was not!) but the food was good. We are yet to have a bad meal here. The next stop was the Queen Mother's summer villa and Doi Tung the garden project she started to encourage the locals to stop growing opium and to grow a wide variety of plants such as rubber trees, teak, and various flowers. The views were spectacular of the nearby Burmese mountains. On the other side of which we were told opium poppies are still being cultivated. Hence the regular police checkpoints to try and control movement of opium and heroin.The villa was a mixture of Thai Lanna style and Swiss chalet as the family also lived in Lausanne! The queen didn't have to negotiate the twisty roads as there was also a helicopter pad.
Next stop was the golden triangle. It was quite awe inspiring to finally see the mighty Mekong river where the countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. We visited an opium museum where we learnt about how it originated from Cyprus and saw how the locals cultivated it. The fields are certainly beautiful when in flower. Lastly we visited Mai Saen and its ancient temples dating back to the first century.
We got back to the hotel at 6pm - it had been a long but interesting day. We treated ourselves to a foot massage and then had a simple meal where wifi was on offer.