15 September 2008

Letter 3.35

After breakfast, last Thursday, I walked out to the road, and before I could set down my rucksack I picked up a ride north to Thaton, the end of the road, north of Pang. At Thaton the river Kok flows east past Chiang Rai, and into the Mekong. I took a river boat to Chiang Rai, through some swift rapids, past jungle with small tribal villages here and there -- 3 to 10 houses make up a village -- for a 3,5 hour trip.

Chiang Rai, the 3rd largest city in Thailand, is not much more than an overgrown village pumped up with a few government facilities and offices. The main streets are not clogged with cars and motorbikes. A quiet and comfortable provincial place by all appearances. In the morning I took a bus east to Chiang Saen, a 40 mile 2 hour ride to the end of that road.

Chiang Saen is an ancient capital, but today it's just a town at the end of the road at the Mekong River with a few ruins. From there a dirt road parallels the Mekong and I went along it another 7 dusty miles to a village where the Mae Sai River joins the Mekong. Across the Mekong is Laos and across the Mae Sai is Burma -- both of them jungly hilly country. In Laos I could see a village. At night drums summoned the villagers to their nightly indoctrination meeting.

A party of trekkers arrived, with guide, at the same time as I did, to a collection of bamboo shacks that calls itself the Golden Village -- the only place to put up. The trekkers had been out 4 days going cross country to various remote villages. The usual intrepid band of odd travellers one encounters around unlikely bends of the world. That afternoon I joined them in a trek to a Laotian refugee village about 4 miles off, where we net the villagers and had a look around. The people of Chiang Rai, I'd thought, were the most attractive I'd seen in Thailand, but the Laotians were simply beautiful, fine, simple people. we were invited to stop for water at one of the houses, all very spontaneous, and with the guide translating there was a chance to ask them about conditions in Laos, what they've found in Thailand, etc. How they escaped, who they left behind -- it reminded me in many ways of the Tibetan refugees of Nepal, another very beautiful people.

I'm full of disorganized impressions, information, and tales of what is actually going on around here, and it's all quite astounding just how basic and difficult and dangerous a life they lead. (There's quite a bit of guerrilla activity in this area, not to mention out-and-out banditry by heavily armed bandits -- it's not rare for trekking parties to get held up, and once in a while people are killed or disappear.)

We lingered until we had to hurry back to return before dark, for in this neck of the jungle doesn't go about after dark -- there are not only guerrillas and bandits but also government patrols, Thai, Laotian, and Burmese, and one doesn't want to meet any of them. So after a bath in the Mekong -- at this point ¼ mile wide, muddy, and shallow -- we sat around a fire in the evening and swapped tales.

The next day I returned directly to Chiang Mai and then went out to U Mong, an artist colony/temple, where to sit myself for a bit. Galleries of paintings on Buddhist themes, some fine forest walks, and a gibbon who is very friendly and whose best friend is a puppy dog.

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