The city has a population of only 200, 952 which is very small compared to Bangkoks 14, million. Even Phnom Penh, where I spend a lot of time is a touch over 2 million. This meant that Chiang Mai was a much quieter and more ordered city.
The weather was very hot for much of our visit reaching 38C / 100F nearly every day. Normally it’s not as hot as this.
The internet is very good, lots of cafes, restaurants, bars and co-working spaces have made the city a popular destination for “digital nomads”. There is a very large ex-pat community who do try to fit in and often learn a fair bit of the Thai language. Personally, I’m terrible at languages; I know 4 Thai words and about 20 Cambodian and I’ve been coming here for 5 years.
Anyway, last Saturday we decided to take a day trip which would take in the White Temple, the Village of the Long Neck Women and the infamous Golden Triangle. A trip covering 900 kilometers of road in a rather uncomfortable minibus.
We set off after meeting our guide at 07:30, a very uncivilized time on a Saturday.
The first stop was a crappy market with hot springs shooting up from the ground. Pity they were in a car park. Weird. I’m not even going to bother you with a photo.
After 10 minutes we all piled back into the bus and headed off to the White Temple
This bizarre-looking white temple located about five km south of Chiang Rai City is the brainchild of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai
Kositpipat. He brings an unconventional approach to temple architecture, fusing elements from his own imagination (white, not gold, as a pure colour to embody the sacredness of temples) with orthodox Buddhist teachings about heaven, hell, karma and earthly sins.
The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolisms, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. You can only enter the ubosot (main chapel) from the front, via the narrow bridge that passes over a pool of upturned, beseeching hands representing suffering souls in hell.
From here, there’s no turning back, as the only way is to ascend ‘heavenwards’ to through the pathway guarded over by demons to the ubosot. Inside, two Buddha images seem to be floating on a lotus pedestal, set against elaborately painted murals in various hues of gold and other colours.
Rather than traditional characters, Chalermchai uses icons from modern culture, such as spaceships, superman, and even Neo from the Matrix movie to tell the stories of the Buddha’s life and his teachings on these murals, creating a rather striking – and lasting – impression upon visitors.
Once again we hit the road we traveled through Chiang Rai and out into the fields which were weaving themselves between hills. Soon we were off the very good highway and into some dirt roads on our way to the village of long neck women. I had seen a few photos of these women and heard stories of why they deform their bodies but was very unsure of how I was feeling about this whole thing.
On one hand it was very voyeuristic tourism at it’s worst and on the other it was a genuine desire to learn about another culture.
We arrived into a dusty, hot, dry parking area and walked a couple of hundred meters to where there were a few dozen thatched roof huts. Each was a primitive shop offering souvenirs of our visit. These items included hand made scarves, hand carved wooden sculptures of the long neck women and other nick knacks. Each shop had a long neck woman in attendance. Some sat just looking at the tourists gawking back at them. Others busied themselves weaving the scarves they offered for sale.
The women ranged in aged from early twenties to one who was 65.
Our guide had told us that from age 5 the females have rings wrapped around their necks. He said the rings were made from one piece of metal and each year they were removed and a new longer one was added as the girl grew. It’s not so much that they make the girls neck longer, but rather, the very heavy weight of the rings forces the body to not grow or maybe get stunted from the weight. Apparently this causes a great deal of medical problems in later life.
At one shop there was a set of rings which I lifted. Even having been forewarned they were heavy I
truthfully was not prepared for how heavy they really were. I would estimate they weighed 6 kilos and this set was of medium size.
The women are, as one would expect, quite incapacitated and cannot perform anything other than light duties.
The alleged reasoning for this terrible deforming of the women is to protect them from tigers. Tigers attack the neck of their prey. These days with the internet reaching even these villagers, less women are going along with this practice and it’s expected in the next 15 years it will have disappeared entirely. Good riddance I say.
We purchased some lovely scarves from one young woman who was very pleasant to speak with and had a lovely smile. I still felt very unhappy about what I had seen and very uneasy in my stomach. Overall I think we were all sad and wanted to get on our way. I’m kind of glad I’ve been there and seen the long neck women for myself but sad that tradition and uneducated superstition has forced these lovely women to have to endure this terrible hardship.
Whether or not anyone should visit the long neck women is debatable, however there is a good article on travelfish here
Funnily enough there were no stragglers when it was time to go. We were all very quiet as we headed north. It was a fair drive but finally we came to the part of the mighty Mekong River where three countries meet.
Most Australians are familiar with the golden triangle as much of the drugs which hit the streets of Australian cities has come from this region in the past. The golden triangle is where Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand meet in a wider context it also includes Vietnam and Cambodia. The area is notorious for opium and cannabis production in truly huge quantities.
A very remote, mountainous region it’s an easy trade to get involved with. Big money and plenty of corruption make it all very viable. The Governments have tried converting the farmers to more socially acceptable crops and there is evidence that has had some impact. There was no evidence to show the drug trade had truly been effected in anyway though
I had always wanted to go to the golden triangle, so now at least it’s off my bucket list. In recent years I read the biography of super dope smuggler Howard Marks called “Mr Nice”, that had fueled my desire to go there. Of course, one cannot see or do much on a one day 900 kilometer tour, so we didn’t see to much at all
opium smoking and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop. There’s even a tiny opium plantation inside! The Hall describes itself as “edutainment”, and indeed this is something of an opium theme park, with the latest in snazzy multimedia exhibits and lots of subtle hectoring about the evils of addiction. To their credit, though, they don’t whitewash Thailand’s own history at all and even the CIA’s exploits are covered in detail.
While we were there we took a boat ride over to Laos which was a bit of fun. Being a super hot day, we felt obligated to have a few bottles of the local brew.
Then on the way back a very courageous young Chinese girl sang a tune for us to keep us all entertained. Very nice.
Then before long it was time for the 450 kilometer ride back to the city of Chiang Mai
It’s been a really nice visit to Norther Thailand and one well worth doing for any traveler.
There is so much to do and see.
So much wonderful local food to taste.
Grab some friends and come on over, we will throw a couple of shrimp on the barbie for you…og wait, yeah that’s a different story.
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