Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Low Grade Failure, High Grade Success

Whenever we travel, we tend to try to optimize every opportunity, to see and do as many things as possible in one go. We don’t fly to the Thai embassy in Denver or LA, we make a roadtrip loop through the Southwestern US. If we are leaving a region, we fly out of a different country than the one we entered through. Having a layover, why not make it a three-day mini-vacation? 

So when we go on day and weekend excursions in and around Chiang Rai province, of course we do the same thing. Why drive to Phu Chi Fah on any old weekend when you can go there during their annual flower festival?

Phu Chi Fah Forest Park is renowned for its stunning morning and evening views across Thailand and into Laos, offering hikers the chance to witness sunrise from high above a sea of mist and cloud. Once a year, the Dok Sieo Flower Festival takes place within the park. Boasting blooming trees of white and pink flowers, hill tribe handicrafts and beauty pageants, and the general Thai carnival assortment of food and music, this seemed like an ideal way to make the most of a five-hour roundtrip drive.

After two and a half hours on our motorbike, from the low-lying lands around Chiang Rai, over hills and valleys, finally climbing up one of Thailand’s highest mountains, we hit the turnoff to the Forest Park. And ran smack into the flower festival traffic.

Filling a two-lane mountain road with three lanes of traffic, cars were trying to move in both directions simultaneously. All the while, motorbikes weaved and snaked between the cars, narrowly missing bumpers and mirrors. The car-packed road wound around and off into the distance, disappearing around a curve, assuring us that this was not a mere bottleneck but a gridlock lasting for miles.

All this over some flowers.

Defeated and deflated, sore and tired, we turned around to head home. After refueling our poor bodies on soup, applying more sunscreen, and consulting our handy roadmap, we were on our way to loop back to Chiang Rai. Rather than simply doubling back, we figured a nice jaunt through some Thai countryside was in order.

Now, if you ever find yourself driving through the mountains and think to yourself, “boy, isn’t that mountain in our way?” one of two outcomes will probably come about. Option one, the road you are following will ascend gently back and forth to summit the mountain, possibly even circumnavigating it entirely. Option two, the road will go straight up and over said mountain. As an American, I tend to assume the first option will come to fruition.

But in Thailand, up and over you go. So up we went. And up. And up.


Interesting thing about Thailand: apparently, if you ascend at such a steep angle, hairpin-turning in first gear consistently for what feels like ages, you might end up at high enough elevation to be driving through a pine forest along the crest of said mountain. Didn't see that one coming.

Of course, the post-pine descent was just as abrupt, straight down the other side, back to the familiar terrain of completely flat corn fields, billowing banana leaves, towering palms, and blindingly-green rice paddies dotted with jutting limestone monoliths.

Very odd feeling, that is. To do something so brief, surreal, and intense, so unlike what you had initially intended to do at all, only to find yourself suddenly back in your regular environs. A bit like waking from a dream. 

Though not quite the optimized two days in the mountains at a flower festival I envisioned, such an experience, so out-of-the-blue, is never for naught. I suppose that sometimes optimization is for fools and the universe will remind you that it's the journey that counts more than the destination. And every now and then, your destination ends up being purely journey, followed by some intense napping. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mae Salong: Chinese and Cherry Blossoms

Northern Thailand is full of tiny, out-of-the-way towns and villages, sprinkled with various minority groups and hilltribes. Among these groups of not-quite-Thai Thais, the mountain-top town of Mae Salong, tucked away on winding, hilly roads, has its own unique story.

In addition to the standard fare, Mae Salong is home to a population of former soldiers from the Yunnan area of China. As Nationalists refusing to surrender to the Communist Chinese, these soldiers fled overland through Burma. Various shifts in politics led to thousands entering Thailand in the early 1960s. Eventually, as they stood at the ready to defend themselves against a potential attack by Chinese communists, the soldiers were granted Thai citizenship in exchange for agreeing to fight Thailand’s communist insurgencies of the 1970s and to forego opium production for growing oolong tea.  

These days, the remaining population of resettled Yunnanese is small, certainly smaller than the population of Thais and Akha. Most of the Chinese influence can be seen in the numerous shops peddling tea and various herbs, the restaurants claiming authentic Yunnanese cuisine, and the Chinese Martyrs’ Museum on the outskirts of town.  

The town hosts a Cherry Blossom Festival each winter, with flowers blooming during late December and early January. Unfortunately, we managed to miss the majority of the blooms by about a week, finding only sprinklings of pink and white still clinging to some trees.

Like much of the world, what was once unique is now mostly a tourist trap. Vendors all sell similar wares – teas, jewelry, paintings, handbags, shoes, herbs – each stall mirroring the previous. The Yunnanese food was overpriced by Thai standards (and similar dishes can be found sold in many Chinese-run restaurants within Chiang Rai city).

There were several redeeming factors, of course. The drive, though a grueling three and a half hours roundtrip on a motorbike, was made up of breathtaking views. And the town itself, despite any flaws, sits on top of the world, serene.