Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mae Salong and Chiang Rai

The road goes that way.
The next morning, we headed for Mae Salong. It's a small town that sits on a ridge in the mountains north of Chiang Mai with an interesting history. It was settled by the KMT (the founders of Taiwan) after the communist revolution in China. The KMT originally fled to Burma but were forced into Thailand between 50 and 60 years ago. They apparently were involved in the opium trade for years, but the Thai government implemented “retraining” programs to introduce different and legal crops, and now the area is known for its tea and coffee plantations and its mushrooms. The Chinese influence is still very apparent in the language and the food of the area.

We got a bit of a slow start, since I for one, had a bit too much to drink last night and woke up feeling really awful. After a bout of dry heaves followed by a bunch of water and some aspirin, I reentered the realm of the living. Good companions and conversation make it too easy to say yes to one more round. On the way out of Chiang Mai, we rode to a bakery for the flakiest, warm croissants we've had in a loooong time, which was just the jumpstart we needed. 

Rice paddy with a temple in the distance
The first hour of the ride was all city and suburban driving, through the continuous string of businesses and homes on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Once we got a little farther out, the roads started their twists and turns into the hills. As we neared Mae Salong, they got even crazier, with such tight hairpin curves and steep elevation changes that we struggled to keep it at 10 mph in first gear. Every time I shifted into second, the motor slowed and sounded like it was just going to go kaput in the middle of a climb. We made it to town and found a bungalow for the night. Once settled, we did our usual walk around the area to get acquainted. The hills were incredibly steep! After sundown, we headed out to find some dinner and ended up at a small restaurant with a very Chinese menu, where tables of patrons and the restaurant owners were all captivated by English premier league football (Man City vs. Liverpool, I think) on the TV in the corner.

Mae Salong morning market
In the morning we awoke early in order to go to the local market, which reputedly bustles between 6:00 and 8:00 am with activity from the hill tribes in the area. It wasn't as big as I imagined, but it was interesting to see. Vendors sold very different produce- leafy greens, bags of flower petals, pumpkins, herbs, and fresh tofu of varying textures. We bought some fresh donut sticks (no sugar, just piping hot, fried dough), a watermelon, and some mangoes and returned to our bungalow porch to enjoy them for breakfast. After we'd eaten and packed our bikes, we headed for Chiang Rai, which is only about 30 miles away.

Monks collecting alms at the morning market
To get out of Mae Salong, we took the shorter route (by roughly a mile) that the GPS gave to the main road. It started out as a lane and a half wide concrete road that was smooth, but soon, the pavement began to crumble. Then, we began our descent (fasten your seatbelt- if you have one) and the road surface turned into a series of rutted, dirt gulleys that resembled very deep wide whale corduroy that curled around the mountain at what seemed to be a 40 degree angle. I was actually terrified. At the top of one section, I stopped and put my feet down while holding onto the front brake lever in a white-knuckled death grip. One brake was insufficient to keep me from sliding downward, but my brain wouldn't let me take my right foot off the ground to apply the much-needed rear brake because I was afraid of losing my balance if I did. Finally, common sense won the battle, and my brain lifted my foot onto the brake pedal, which allowed me to let go of the front brake and slowly creep down the grade. By the time I reached the safety of leveler ground, my knees and elbows were shaky, and I had the same adrenaline rush of seeing a highway patrol car with its lights flashing behind suddenly pass me and pull over someone else (not that I ever exceed the legal posted speed limit). Once the rush subsided, we hit the highway for the short ride to Chiang Rai, passing rice paddies and pineapple stand after pineapple stand along the way (heaps of fresh pineapples smell so incredibly good!). 

Wat Phra Kaew
We spent two days in Chiang Rai, taking advantage of internet access to do some final research on our upcoming border crossing into Laos, and catching up on many days of blogging (smack my hand. I will do a better job of keeping up to date). We spent several days in the area when we were here two years ago, riding our rented motorbike and touring the sights. We did return to Wat Phra Kaew though, which is an absolutely beautiful teak temple surrounded by gardens that would rival those of many botanical gardens. The temple is famous for being the place where the Emerald Buddha was discovered. Apparently in the 14th century, lightning struck the chedi, revealing a plaster Buddha statue. During a cleaning, the plaster started crumbling, revealing the emerald one inside. The Emerald Buddha now lives at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, after moving many times over the last six centuries, and a slightly smaller and much newer one resides in Chiang Rai. We enjoyed the museum and strolling the grounds, and since we're still trying to come up with a post-trip plan, spent some time talking over several possibilities. 

artery clogging manna from pig heaven!
Oh, and we ate. The absolute best thing about Chiang Rai is a restaurant on Thanon Phahonyothin, on the west side of the road, with no English signage, where all the waitresses wear red aprons, and they serve the most heavenly pork on the planet (and we've eaten a lot of pork in a lot of places around the globe). They only serve lunch, so make sure you get there before 2:00pm, earlier if possible, because they run out of perfectly roasted or barbequed pork. We enjoyed it so much the first day that we returned for another dreamy round of roast pork and sausages with rice the next afternoon. 

1 comment:

  1. Just gave you the Liebster Award, for being a great small blog that I follow.