Trekking

 


 

Trekking through the smog David Whitley heads uphill through the smoke near Chiang Rai, and hears some interesting theories about why the air quality in Northern Thailand is particularly bad at the moment.

 

My calves are shrieking at me, but not as much as my back. It has been all uphill for the first hour of what I’d assumed would be a relatively undemanding four hour trek. But the slope isn’t the main villain of the piece – it’s the bamboo. 

 

The panda favourite takes over many of the hillsides near Chiang Rai, and in numerous different varieties. Some grow big and wide, others do their best to make you whimper by forming arches at chest height. Our march up the hill, therefore, isn’t just performed at a pace that’s slightly too military to be a puffing lumber. It is performed at a near permanent ninety degree angle. And that’s just marvellous if you happen to have a backpack on. It seems that bamboo likes nothing better than snagging backpacks. 

 

Our guide, Chai, seems tremendously unperturbed. He’s skipping up the hillside in his torn jeans as if human beings were born to walk at this gradient. He’s also small enough to tackle the overhead menace with a gentle bob. The only time he seems keen on stopping is when he spots a suitable bit of bamboo. He then leaps into the forest, and starts attacking it with the big knife he keeps in a woven sheath by his side. He picks his spot quite deliberately, and hacks at it. It soon becomes clear that it’s all about finding himself a new walking stick that’s just right. 

 

When we stop in a clearing to consume as much water as possible and generally cry mercy to the heavens, he parks himself down at the edge and gets to work on another piece of bamboo. I watch him for a couple of minutes, and curiosity gets the better of me. “What are you making?” I ask. 

 

“Um, I don’t know,” he replies. And then, after a bit of thought, “a toy, a toy”. 

 

He fashions the bamboo with his knife, turning into two parts. One’s a tube, one’s a poking stick with a handle. He dunks some paper in the stream and pushes it through the tube with the bamboo sword. 

 

He then puts some more at the other end, smothers it over, and pushes through with a sharp burst. It makes a popping noise like a gunshot. “See? A toy.” 

 

Before we move on, I’m tempted to take a giant lungful of air. But the air is horrible. The hillsides – the otherwise gorgeous little tribal villages, tea plantations, waterfalls and banana plants we’ll walk past when the path turns less brutal – are all covered in a thick smog. There’s no sun to be seen, just a suffocating greyness that smells and tastes evil until you acclimatise. This often happens between February and April. It’s the time of year when fields and forests are traditionally burned-off, ready for replanting the new season’s crop. 

 

But this year, it is especially bad. There has been talk of evacuating children and the elderly. When we get back to the village we started in, via mountain paths that would otherwise offer a stupendous view, we’re told why. Tom, who has guided for the day before passing on the baton to the spritely Chai for the hard part, reckons that the vast majority of the smog isn’t coming from Thailand, but from neighbouring Myanmar. There are elections there on April 1st, he says, and there has been an uneasy ceasefire that doesn’t fit the pattern of the last few decades. 

 

Myanmar (or Burma for the Daily Telegraph-reading retired colonels out there) isn’t a happy place. Many of the tribal people who live in the hillsides – many from the same tribes that live in Thailand – want nothing to do with the ruling military junta. According to Tom, they’ve fought an unpublicised and largely ineffective war for years in a bid for greater autonomy and independence. Everything’s on hold at the moment, but “we will all know what’s happening on April 2nd” And, crucially, a forest cleared by burning is much easier to fight in than one standing tall and snagging backpacks with bamboo.   

 

More information: Tom runs Eagle Adventure Tour (Thaieageletour.com), and he’s a lovely guy offering plenty of other tour options from Chiang Rai. His real passion is a volunteer run-school (Facebook.com/TomKarenCenter) in his home village, though. Book donations and volunteer English teachers are always greatly appreciated.

 

Temples

 
In the Northern Thai city of Phrae, David Whitley finally discovers away to wander around the wats without being bored

When travelling in Europe, I always tend to skip through the guide book when it starts reeling off lists of churches. Unless the church is truly spectacular, I’m likely to find it monstrously uninteresting. Any city where the only things listed are churches can happily be skipped.

It’s the same thing in South-East Asia. Unless you really, really like temples, once you’ve seen a few, you really don’t need to see any more. Yes, they may all be done in different styles, they may all have different intricate carvings, but if all you’re doing every day is looking around temples because you feel you ought to, then something has gone badly wrong.

South-East Asia’s guilty secret, of course, is that in many towns and cities there is very little to see other than temples. The region simply doesn’t have the wealth of museums and other obvious tourist attractions that the likes of the US and Europe have.

However, just because the only things listed are temples, it doesn’t mean that you have to go and trawl round them all out of a perverse sense of duty. If going round temples bores you, there’s a high chance that you’re going to feel bored going round those temples.
Temple fatigue, wat weariness, call it what you will – you’d really have to be into your south-east Asian religious architecture to not get tired of traipsing round.

I’m a shocker for it. I tend to have no interest in even the most spectacular temples. Give me more than one and I’m yawning. They can be genuinely amazing on a global scale, but it doesn’t take long for them to send me borderline comatose.

But in Phrae, I found the solution. Phrae isn’t really on Thailand’s tourist trail. It’s a bit of a pain in the nuts to get to, you’ll struggle to find any cafés selling banana pancakes, and when you’re wandering around, it’s fairly obvious that you’re the only Western visitor in town.

I’d picked Phrae as a break in the journey on the way to Chiang Rai. It looked amiable enough, and its role as the old centre of Thailand’s teak industry intrigued me. Throw in city walls, a bit of grown-over jungle greenery and some old wooden buildings, and it seemed like an excellent place to mooch around for a day.

But during that mooching, I found myself doing what I thought I’d avoid: I started wandering into the wats. There are more than enough of them in Phrae, some playing the old card, others being made almost entirely of teak or having unusual Buddhas.
To my complete surprise, I found myself genuinely enjoying the experience. I’d take my shoes off, wander in without much prior knowledge of what I was looking at and focus on something I found interesting. That might be the brick stupa at Wat Luang, the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Non or the gorgeous gold patterns on the window shutters at Wat With A Very Long Name (Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang to the connoisseurs.

But the key thing was that there was no pressure. I didn’t have to be in and out within a certain timeframe, I didn’t have any absolute must-sees to tick off. More importantly, I didn’t have anyone else to battle through. Phrae’s temples are lovely and historic, but they don’t get the crowds because it’s off the usual trail. My sole encounter inside one of the temples all afternoon was a monk.

All of this meant that I could wander in and out as I pleased, deciding what I did like and what I didn’t like with impunity. No timescale, no orders to appreciate anything in particular, no-one to get in the way. And, that way, trawling round the temples wasn’t tiresome – it was a genuine pleasure.

 

Chiang Mai

 
David Whitley goes all insomniac on the overnight train from Bangkok, and when he finally gets to sleep, he wishes he hadn’t 
I woke, flustered, to see a twenty-something Thai man in front of me. “Den Chai,” I burbled, still punch-drunk. “Den Chai? Den Chai, yes?”

The man just looked confused, and gingerly stepped away. Other passengers looked at me in mild annoyance. That’s probably because I’d been so far gone that my alarm – a particularly rousing heavy rock number – had been blaring at full blast for ten minutes. Good work, earplugs.

Earplugs are something you’re going to need if you’re even going to consider an overnight train in Thailand. Pinching that eye mask you were given on the flight over is a very good idea too. Trains make some ungodly noises, even if your fellow passengers are being saintly, whilst the corridor lights stay on for safety reasons. Blocking a lot of it out is the key.

It is, of course, possible to just book a seat. Given that the second class sleeper tickets cost roughly as much as a night in a guesthouse would anyway, opting for the cheap-arse alternative would be senselessly tight.

You’ll also probably want a bottom bunk – they’re slightly more expensive, but bigger and a hell of a lot more convenient. The top bunks don’t have windows either, so you’ll not be able to look at the scenery in the morning.

For me, the lack of sleep wasn’t about the sounds or the lights – it was about the motion (albeit with a helpful dose of jetlag thrown in). My body felt like it was constantly being lurched around, jelly-like, as the train wobbled from side to side. Eventually, I just gave up and read until about 3.30am when sleep took over.

My train was heading to Chiang Mai, but I wasn’t. I was due to pull into a place I’d never heard of called Den Chai at 07.11, and from there, I’d got to find my way north by alternative transport. I’d taken the precaution of setting my alarm for 06.50. Hence the panic when it didn’t wake me. I flapped around, saying “Den Chai?” a few more times. No-one could answer. So I grabbed my bags and waited patiently by the exit, hoping the station would arrive. One did, although it was more a slab of concrete next to the tracks. “Den Chai?” I asked the guard. He shook his head.

I waited another half hour and eventually was told to sit down. I kept asking where we were. Were we near Den Chai? The only response was that we were not in Den Chai. Handy – but I kinda wanted to know whether we were on the way or had gone sailing past.

Waking up on a train in a country you’ve never been to before, not knowing where you are, and with the growing fear that you’ve missed your stop is, frankly, a horrible feeling. I was groggy, disorientated and working on the assumption that I had some pretty major plans to rearrange on the hoof. I scoured the guide book. It was fairly irrelevant anyway – there were no signs to cross-reference with out of the window. Just paddy fields and papaya plants. Gorgeous scenery, but not quite what I had in mind.

Minutes turned into hours. I resigned myself. I was going to have to get off in Lampang, have a little cry, then work out what the hell I was going to do. The shacks started emerging on the outskirts of Lampang, urbanisation creeping in as the train started to slow. A conductor came round, comparing names on his sheet to sleeping berths. “Den Chai! Den Chai!” he shouted. I’ve never been so happy to be on a train that’s running two-and-a-half hours late.

For full information on Thailand's train options, and the often ludicrously complex booking systems, the Man In Seat 61's guide (seat61.com/Thailand.htm) should become your instant best friend.

Hill Tribe

 

 

David Whitley plots his course around Thailand, and wishes that visits to hill tribes weren’t part of the mix

 

There are a lot of things that appeal to me about Northern Thailand. I like the idea of trekking in the mountains. I like the idea of riding elephants. I like the idea of boat rides along the Mekong River. I like the idea of learning about the opium trade. And given that I’m going there very soon, I’ve been looking into tours or guides that can help me arrange to do a couple of these things. After all, trekking around without a map isn’t a particularly good idea and I’ve no idea where I’d commandeer an elephant from.

 

However, almost all of the options seem to include something that I’m not at all interested in – visiting hilltribe villages. I’ve no problem with walking through villages, staying or eating in them – they’re as good a place as any for that. What I’m not interested in is visits to such villages being promoted as some sort of cultural experience. That’s blatantly going to mean some poor sod doing a traditional dance whilst women follow you around trying to sell “handicrafts” made from cheap beads.

 

But for many people doing these trips, the chance to meet people from the remote hill tribes will be the main attraction. And I really struggle to understand why. Living in a village that’s not particularly well connected to the world doesn’t necessarily make someone interesting. In fact, there’s a strong chance that their life is going to be incredibly mundane.

 

I grew up in a village. It was really, really dull. I don’t see how transplanting a village to a Thai hillside and filling it with people who have a different ethnicity to most of the Thai population makes it worth seeing.

 

If the sole reason for going there is to say you’ve met someone from a particular tribe, then it’s little more than a slightly sinister trip to a zoo. Any interactions are likely to be highly contrived exercises in small talk that are just awkward for both parties. It’s experiencing a different culture in the same way that eating ready meal pasta is experiencing Italian fine dining.

 

Just because something’s there it doesn’t mean it’s worth seeing. That applies to people as well as places. Everyday life in a Thai hill tribe is no more or less interesting than everyday life in a suburb of Northampton. But neither makes for a good tourist attraction – and that they’re even looked upon as a tourist attraction is somewhat disturbing.

 

Does the idea of visiting remote hill tribes appeal to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

 

Highlights

 

A popular Thai refrain has it that ‘he who sees Bangkok will always return to the City of Angels.’

This tenet could just as easily apply to the country as a whole. Thailand has long held an enviable place as one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations and it is testament to the exoticism, fascination and pure Asian charm that the majority of visitors who come to ‘the land of smiles’ are lured back time and again. Thailand is unique in the region as the only country that has never been occupied by a European colonial power. As a result, its wealth of history has remained ‘undilutedly Thai’ and there is a traditional culture that is hard to match. Yet the infrastructure and public transport system is well-developed and lends itself well to package tourism (or independent travel) to all corners of the country. Travelling overland around Thailand can be time-consuming but, with Thais as travelling companions and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of landscapes to travel through, it is never boring. It is no coincidence that the first stock phrase that travellers pick up in Thailand is mai mee pun hah – no problem!



Bangkok continues to live up to its reputation as one of the most exciting cities in the world but it also makes the perfect launching pad for those in search of the spirit of the Far East. Thailand’s rural north-eastern region sees less tourism than other parts of the country and, for many, remains the most ‘authentically Thai’ but Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle area offer enough adventure for even the most demanding explorer. With 1,700 miles of coastline on two separate oceans (the South China Sea and Indian Ocean) Thailand offers a tropical paradise to suit every taste and budget. Even as the tourist cast-net spreads farther there remain scores of uninhabited jungle islands, deserted beaches and pristine reefs in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Whether you are looking for action and adventure, a chic desert island escape, or pure Far Eastern magic, ‘the land of smiles’ has them all in sufficient abundance to keep you coming back for more.


Top Thailand RTW experiences:

Beach – With 1,700 miles of coastline in two blissfully tropical (and usually tranquil) seas Thailand has the perfect beach to match your tastes. Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui are all-time favourites with the party crowd. Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Lanta are the rising stars but tiny Ko Phi-Phi manages to retain a reputation as a beautiful and laid-back tropical backwater. ‘PP’ as it is affectionately called is small enough so that you can walk from end to end in about 2 hours – over a rainforest ridge that is seemingly worlds away from the busy beach. At the far northern tip of the island is the wonderful stretch of white sand and turquoise water around Cape Lamtong, and one of the last settlements of Chao Ley (‘Sea Gypsies’).

Trekking
 – Chiang Mai is the usual departure point for Thailand’s ‘northern wilderness’ and many visitors combine a beach/island holiday with a trek to visit the hilltribes or to see the famed Golden Triangle. During the high season more accessible valleys can become overrun with tour groups but a knowledgeable and reliable guide can help to assure a level of ‘exclusivity.’ The highlands remain relatively cool (at times nights can be downright chilly) and are ideal for trekking. The Akha hilltribe are perhaps the proudest and most traditional (although the poorest) and a night spent in one of their villages – protected by carved guardians, with genitalia of sufficient size to frighten even the spirits – is a highlight of many visits to Thailand.

Temples – Bangkok’s magnificent Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) are the most iconographic temple complexes in Thailand. Wat Phra Kaew is the site of more than 100 holy buildings and few visitors leave without spending a day exploring the ancient royal and religious neighbourhood that makes up this part of Bangkok. It is said that Thailand has a temple for every face in this land of smiles and, while this might be a slight exaggeration, no matter where you travel you are sure to come across more than a few Buddhas, stupas, prangs (Khmer-style towers) and wats. For something very different in the way of temple visits head to Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery (www.tigertemple.org) which is also a home for orphaned tigers.

City – Once spurned as a sweltering, noisy, over-populated Asian metropolis Bangkok has now taken a place as a thriving and attractive business and leisure capital. The key to a relaxing visit is to avoid the congested roads wherever possible and travel instead by river or along the web of canals. Bangkok’s greatest appeal to western travellers lies perhaps in the reluctance of this modern city to shed its character as the religious and royal heartland of the country. Despite being one of the world’s most exciting cities, with an almost incomparable nightlife, it is a staunchly traditional city. There are countless temples and every workplace (even down to the seediest haunts of the red-light districts) is equipped with a shrine to which workers will always bow at the start of their working day/night.

Elephants – Elephants have always held an immensely important place in Thai tradition. The biggest event on the pachyderm calendar is the re-enactment of the great wild elephant roundup, which takes place in Surin (near the Cambodia border) in November. It features up to 300 immaculately turned out elephants. The highlight is the choreographed battle scene with dozens of fighting elephants saddled with spear-studded howdahs. Kanchanaburi – of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ fame – is the centre for elephant treks and if you want to know more about the well-being and the problems that these gentle giants face in modern day Thailand visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (www.thaielephant.org) near Chiang Mai.

Diving – Similan Islands Marine National Park (www.dnp.go.th) is probably the jewel in Thailand’s submarine crown. The park is made up of nine islands about 50 miles off Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, and is renowned as one of the premier dive-sites on the planet. The coral reefs are among the world’s best but there are also astounding sea mountains and drop-offs, home to everything from the humble sea-cucumber to the awesome whale shark. There are no dive facilities in the park itself but day-trips and multi-day live-aboard expeditions can be arranged with reputable dive-operators on the mainland (or on Phuket).

Shopping
 – Approach the unavoidable bouts of haggling with a smile and good humour and you will realise that Bangkok is a shopper’s dream. With almost a dozen huge malls and super-stores (like MBK, Central World Plaza and Central Chitlom), Bangkok can satisfy the tastes of even the most demanding shopaholic. The Chatuchack Weekend Market though remains the great granddaddy of all markets. You could spend all Saturday exploring and still come across ‘unexplored territory’ on Sunday! For something different take a dawn trip to Damnoen Saduak floating market (about 40 mins from Bangkok). Souvenir stalls are plentiful but take a closer look at the stock and the clientele and it becomes clear that this remains a working local market and a real Thai icon.

Cookery 
– Cooking courses have appeared in pretty much every part of Thailand that boast both hungry tourists and lemongrass. Chiang Mai might well be the capital for courses though (from massage, to Thai language, to kick-boxing). Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (www.thaicookeryschool.com) is the oldest and most established but there are more than a dozen independent cooking schools in Chiang Mai – and many more guesthouses offering this facility. The best courses will often include visits to the local market and even orchards so that you also learn how to choose the best raw material for your culinary masterpieces.

Eco 
– Thailand’s dense population (coupled with decades of refugee arrivals from across the borders) has put great pressure on natural resources. An estimated 28% of the country’s natural forest cover still remains, but logging of natural forest has been banned since 1989 and the government hopes to reforest back to 50% by the middle of this century. Many sensitive tour operators with an eye to sustainable tourism in this beautiful country are working for the benefit of the rural people, wildlife and environment as a whole.

When to go – You can visit Thailand throughout the year: In the south, the climate differs between the eastern and western coasts. The West Coast is more favourable during our winter months and diving and snorkelling here will be at its best during this period. The weather on the East Coast is good for most of the year, with the lowest rainfall in January and February and the highest in November. The two rainy seasons are centred around May and September.

Time difference – GMT +7 hours

International dialling code – 00 66

Language – Basic English is widely spoken around the most touristed areas. An attempt to learn at least the very basics of marketplace Thai can be an immense help…and is always appreciated by the smiling, chatty people you are sure to meet.

Health – A certificate as proof of vaccination for yellow fever is required for visitors who have been in a yellow fever zone within 6 months of entering Thailand. Up to date advice should be sought prior to leaving but other vaccinations recommended by WHO are diphtheria, tetanus, Hep A and B and typhoid. Malaria prophylaxis is also advisable for extended or remote expeditions (though cities and most tourist areas are safe).  

Getting around – You can get internal flights are part of your RTW. As well several no-frills airlines based in Bangkok (now connect almost all parts of Thailand with regular inexpensive flights. Many travellers take advantage of ‘VIP’ night buses (acres of leg-room compensate for the frequently frigid aircom) for long-distance journeys between Bangkok and either the far north or the southern ports (around 10 – 12 hours). Bus or train travel can be figured at about 50p per hour’s travelling time. In the cities the ubiquitous taxis are cheap (if the driver refuses to use the – frequently ‘broken’ – metre haggle hard on his asking price). Three-wheeled tuk-tuks are fun but are often more expensive than taxis…possibly because with kamikaze tuk-tuk drivers at the controls they are able to zip through the rush-hour traffic so much quicker. For short journeys in the rural towns songthaew (‘pickup buses’), moped taxis and cycle rickshaws are often the way to go.

 

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh