When traveling in Europe I try to blend in as much as possible. Clearly this was not going to be possible in Thailand. Arriving Sunday afternoon hungry and tired, we thought it best to jump into the Thai culture by eating street food for dinner at a nearby weekend night market. Ordering our food through gesturing and fumbling with the Thai baht currency, we had fresh spicy food on a stick served by friendly people all willing to help out. Our Thai experience only got better and better.
The Songkran Water Festival
Unbeknownst to us, we arrived in Chiang Mai at the end of the world’s biggest water and squirt gun fight, the Songkran Festival. As we made our way from the airport to our quaint hotel, we saw young kids squirting one another with squirt guns and teenagers dumping water buckets on others. What a great way to cool off in the heat.
Originally this was a Buddhist Thai New Year’s celebration. The actual dates of the holiday changed with astrological events. It is now celebrated annually from April 13-15. Traditionally, Songkran was politely and symbolically washing off the misfortunes of the past year. Had we done just a little bit of planning and knew what was taking place and the history, we may have been able to join in and enjoy the festivities more. As it was, we followed the directions of the hotel operator and hurried in so we and our suitcases would not get drenched.
Karen Long Neck Villages
After our short ride in from the airport to the Pingviman Hotel, I was convinced I did not wish to rent a car in Thailand. So we were fortunate to meet our great tour guide in the lobby. We only knew him as Lucky 8. He was wearing a t-shirt with the number 8 on the back the day we met him. His company is called ‘Guarantee Great Tours‘ and took us on three separate day trips. We could not have been happier with him and his services.
One of our first tour stops would be to a Karen Long Neck Village. We were very hesitant about this visit. There are less than 50,000 Karen tribal members today. Many fled to Thailand from Burma due to political unrest. However, they are illegal immigrants into Thailand so they do not have access to the typical health and educational services offered to Thai citizens. While their lives are better for fleeing Burma, they are now mostly confined to small rural villages, trying to keep their traditions alive. I was worried we may be visiting a human zoo, gawking at people with elongated necks on display.
We were told our entry fee was a donation to their school, so we went along with that in mind. Upon seeing the school, it appeared not to have been used for a very long time. Admission fees from the tourists and trinket sales are their sole source of income. I never wish to steal a few photos and dart off, so we purchased several items from very grateful vendors. It was still an uneasy visit. The very young children certainly do not have a choice in this body modification process, yet it is their tradition. While I understand children do not have a choice in their family religions or how they are raised, this is a permanent, life altering decision made on their behalf. Their necks are not so much elongated as their collar and shoulder bones are pushed down, permanently.
This young girl below seemed to know that she had to sit at the knitting loom for the tourists viewing, but certainly did not appear to enjoy it. Maybe as any child might do, she was a bit rebellious this day. But I could not help but feel we were at a human zoo at this point.
Since I was busy snapping photos, we felt we should buy some of their trinkets and this young girl thanks us for doing so. You can see the mom in the background and the younger sibling too. These neck contraptions are solid metal and very heavy. The scarf under the neck brace is not for decoration, but rather to protect her skin from the metal.
These lounging men watching TV were along the walking path. Only the women were seen selling goods and making items for sale.
Now for Something Completely Different,
Elephant Poo Paper
How can you pass up a sign like this?
There was an admission charge to go on their tour but we elected not to go in. I’m a better travel follower than a leader. If the rest of my party was excited about it, I would have gladly gone in. However, there only seems to be downside for convincing others to pay for the privilege to see paper products made of elephant poo.
Temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Buddhist temples in Thailand are even more plentiful than churches in Europe. They are magnificent detailed structures, but how many do you need to see? We visited numerous in Chiang Mai and more in Bangkok a week later. Those of you who have read my past blogs know we generally do not opt for the guided tours. It becomes too tedious listening to a guide tell so many facts which are quickly forgotten. All I know is this is a most exquisite beautiful temple. In addition to a tourist destination, Wat Phra is an active shrine and place of worship for the Buddhist people. The lady below is walking around the base with a flower, praying as she goes.
This golden Buddha statue seemed to be carved of translucent stone.
As a respectful place of prayer, I often feel uneasy taking such photographs, but these temples are tourist attractions with admission tickets as well as places of worship.
Goin’ up the Country, Don’t You Want to Go?
Canned Heat – 1968
Each place we had visited so far was crowded with tourists all trying to get a glimpse of this beautiful country. Wishing to see something more unique I told our guide, Lucky 8, that for the following day’s tour I did not want to see a single tourist and did not want to have any admission tickets sold. What a wonderful experience it was. Lucky took me to his hometown village and his wife’s village a couple hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai. We visited a local school where I was quite a curiosity to the children.
We visited the local bank:
Presumably it was the bank manager and assistant who were present. The large white board on the left is the handwritten balance sheet and profit and loss statement for the bank. Of course none of it was legible to me, nor could any detailed explanations be provided.
Lucky and I were the only ones visiting the bank this day. Despite the lack of bank traffic during my visit, clearly they are set up to accommodate a huge influx of customers on some days. Here is the outdoor waiting room.
Lunch with Friends.
We borrowed a three wheeled motorcycle from the bank and drove to the next stop. Lucky had arranged for some friends to serve me lunch. Three main dishes were under the green screen cover and the blue bucket was filled with rice. Lucky had taught me how to roll the rice with one hand and scoop up the various dishes. So I sat down ready to eat… What a slob I was, forgetting to go use the water hose out back to rinse my hands. Now were were all finally ready to eat. I sincerely wish to thank them for their hospitality.
The son was in the process of building his mom a house as you can see from he many bags of cement near the table.
After exchanging many thanks, Lucky and I were off to an unscheduled stop, a Buddhist funeral and cremation. I did not see that one coming… But that is a blog for another time.