Just trying to fill in some gaps from Thailand, here’s a post I’d been working on just before we left Chiang Mai. Hope you like!
The morning of our visa run started early, and if you know us by now you’d probably gather that we aren’t really ‘morning’ people. The DFSMSdss team back home (Linda especially!) could attest to my absence of morning fondness, or rather, my zombie-like state at 8am. I mean, not even a Venti quad-shot Americano (you know, the kind you chew) could wake me up. Well, at about 6:45am we received our wake up knock. It was the second knock that actually rolled me out of bed. I answered the door and saw a half-frightened, half-about-to-laugh-her-ass-off guesthouse owner as I realized I was answering in my boxers and sporting a ‘fro. Too tired to care, I threw on some shorts, poked G a couple of times and stepped out to the front to wait for our taxi.
Within a couple moments we were whisked away in a typical karaoke minivan en-route to pick up more bleary eyed travelers. Since we had some time before the other group arrived, I ran down to the nearest 7-Eleven to get some morning munchies. By the time I made it outside to the curb a van pulled up, opened its door–in a creepy abduction type way–a tour guide hopped out and proceeded to herd me inside. The door slammed shut, and the van started moving before I was properly seated. It was packed, but not India packed. Apparently in Thailand they observe tourist vehicles’ max-capacity. About 10 minutes in I became severely appreciative of my 3rd row seat. We had many windy roads, and the driver treated traffic rules more like guidelines. They may adhere to max-capacities here, but the drivers are still nuts, or at least ours was.
Our first stop was at the San Kamphaeng hot springs about an hour outside of Chiang Mai (we made it there in about 15 min). The location reminded me of a 2-sided strip-mall, though this one had a hot springs conveniently placed in the center of the dividing road. Our 30 minute stay at the springs didn’t allow for much dillydallying so G and I hopped out of the van in search of food. We found a small place, ordered, and scarfed. As we we waited we watched little old ladies scurry out of vans each carrying a basket of chicken or dove eggs to boil in the steamy water. After eating I had a couple of minutes to indulge my curiosity. It was just enough time to see the sign above the hot springs, smell the sulfur, and bolt before feeling sick from it. We all piled back into the van, and were off to the next site… The WHITE TEMPLE.
It sure looked cool in all the pictures we found online, and it was equally cool when we stood in front of it. The fact that it was a bit overcast didn’t hinder how spectacular it was. You honestly couldn’t stare at it for too long without sunglasses!
As you follow the path to the entrance you are first greeted by an eerie pillar with a platform of red skulls holding a bottle labeled Whiskey.
We were told before we arrived, but here was another indication that alcohol isn’t allowed on the premises. It was a bit fire and brimstone, but cool nonetheless. Past the pillar you could see the sparkling white building surrounded by small man-made ponds with white fish. Naturally, G and I went nuts taking pictures (most unfortunately, except for these few that we’d happened to email to people first, all the photos from this great day were lost in our recent hard drive crash :[ ). Moving along I made my way to the main pathway.
What I saw next was something out of Dante’s Inferno, straight from the 5th Circle. Cement hands reached upward from a shallow pit, and grasped at the sky frozen in time. They were of all shapes and all sizes, and each had their fingers contorted. This was hardly what I was expecting to see outside a Buddhist temple, but being a big Dante fan I thought the depiction was cool. However, while the cement souls shown here were similar to the damned “wrathful and sullen” in the Inferno, the metaphor is quite different. These were the suffering hands stuck in the cycle of rebirth, the worldly beings: us. The bridge that resided over them represented the crossing from that realm into the land of the enlightened: the land of Buddha. The overcast weather only helped to further the illustration. I love symbolism, so this was really awesome to see.
Walking along the bridge to the temple we could pick out many intricate statues. Each had a distinct mouth feature, or expression. The white on white made the statues subtle to see from a distance, but up close they had a character that gave you an indication why, after 13 years, this place is still under construction. After taking multiple close-up pictures we eventually made it to the doorway.
Photos weren’t allowed inside the temple, but I can tell you it was pretty cool. After you walk in and turn around, you see an entrance wall painted with all things Buddhist. The paintings had a very modern flair, and told a story of their own. The mural sported images of Keanu Reeves as Neo, The Enterprise, Darth Vader, and even a depiction of the 9/11 attacks. It was all very strange and artistic, but definitely cool. Having to enter barefoot, and seeing a monk meditating reminded me that this was still a temple. A modern Buddhist Temple. Neat. At about that time I looked at my watch and realized we had only a couple more minutes left. G snapped a few more shots of the cool hands outside for me before we hopped back in the van headed to the Mekong.
We arrived a couple of hours later and were rushed out of the van down a hill to board a long boat with about 15 other people. They don’t waste time in Thailand, so as soon as everybody had boarded, sitting or not, they were on their way. The sound of the wind was broken when our Thai tour guide started talking about the Golden Triangle region. The region itself is no-man’s land, but not because it is off-limits. The piece of land is situated on a flood plain so building there is essentially futile. The land became no-man’s land because none of the three countries surrounding it, Burma, Thailand, or Lao, actually claimed it. That lack of ownership made for unique real estate popular with opium trade (back in the day). Just like now, currency exchange made business difficult so a universal currency, gold in this case, was used, and that’s where the region got its name.
The boat ended up on the Laos side of the river at the completion of our little history session, and we were all ushered off the boat to have a free sampling of cobra, scorpion, or even tiger penis-infused whiskey (apparently the latter “makes you strong man”). G and I politely declined as goosebumps crept up our backs.
We had another 30 minutes to walk around before being taken back to the other side of the river, so we browsed. As time was passing I started feeling a bit un-travelerish by not trying the cobra infused whiskey. Knowing that G had made some friends with her seat buddies on the way out I said “okay, I’ll take a shot if the Kiwis take a shot.” The Kiwis were quickly located, and then presented with the idea. Moments later there were 4 shot glasses held up in the air. We made a quick toast, and then threw them back, surprised with how smooth the whiskey was. Minutes later we were back in our van on the way to the Burmese border.
Why did we go? Well, we had been in Thailand 30 days and we had to get our visas stamped. It was a bit weird to know we were going into Burma, but the time to contemplate the short adventure was over before we could even say bye to Thailand.
G and I handed over our passports to the Thai immigration officers, waited a couple moments and then walked 20 feet to a small building on the other side of the street. Successfully in Burma, along with 5 other folks, we were bunched inside a small 8×8′ room. We each paid 500Baht, had a webcam photo taken, and then walked back across the street to Thailand to fill out our Thai entry cards. It actually took more time to fill out my Thailand entry card than it did to ‘visit’ this other country. Whatever expectations I had of seeing Burmese people were thrown out the window in that 5 minutes we ‘left’ Thailand.
A difference of 20 feet bought us another 15 days. It was a bit of a strange process, but I was excited to have some more time here. So, 3 hours after arriving at the Mekong river, we had successfully visited Laos and Burma, and then made our way back to Thailand (all 20 feet). This wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when traveling to new countries, but hey, at least we know we can get free samples of cobra-infused whiskey in Laos. (Don’t worry, we will be going back to Laos for a longer, real stay soon, too!)