Song of the day: Paper Planes by M.I.A.
“I fly like paper, get high like planes, If you catch me on the border I got visas in my name…We pack ’em and deliver like UPS Trucks…”
Today we have been to another country, drank whiskey containing a tiger’s appendage, been present at the smuggling of substances over the Thai-Laos border, and stared at intricate Buddhist wall paintings of Freddy Kruger, Michael Jackson and Batman.
It all started at seven this morning when we were picked up by the tour minibus. Our guide introduced himself as “Banana”. He explained that our simplistic western tongues couldn’t wrap themselves round his full name in Thai, so it would be far easier for all parties if we just referred to him as a yellow fruit. Fair enough mate. After doing the rounds to pick up everybody from the hotels we drove to Chiang Rai, about a two and a half hour drive. Our first stop was Wat Rong Khun – the White Temple. I know what you’re thinking – “This couple are a pair of religious nuts” and I will admit that we’ve visited some kind of temple pretty much every day since we arrived in Thailand. But they’re all so unique and impressive in their own right.
The White Temple in particular is unlike any other temple in Thailand, and probably the world. It was designed and built by a bloke called Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is a legendary Thai artist. This bloke has some serious talent and has become something of a national treasure in his native land. The story goes that the previous temple on this site was falling to bits, so Kositpipat dug into his own pocket to fund a revamp. So far he has spent 40 million baht of his own dosh on designing and building the most unbelievably beautiful and random Buddhist temple around. Entry to the temple is free to the public all year round, but Kositpipat does have a bit of an ulterior motive for his generosity – he sees the temple as his offering to Lord Buddha, and reckons that in return he will be granted eternal life.
To enter the temple itself you must walk over a bridge that spans what is supposed to be a representation of “hell”. Hell is symbolised by hundreds of tortured-looking faces, hands and torsos moulded out of clay writhing around in a large pit. Countless outstretched grey hands reach up towards the bridge that you’re standing on, whilst a bloke with a megaphone keeps shouting “Keep moving! Don’t stop!” to anybody who attempts to take a selfie. I don’t think the bloke is part of the Temple decoration but he does do a very good job of making hell seem authentic.
After crossing the bridge over hell you enter the main chamber of the temple, which is supposed to represent heaven. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in here but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that among the typical Buddhist images painted on the wall were Freddy Kruger, the masked man out of the Saw movie franchise, and Michael Jackson. It seems that the higher you looked on the walls there were more representations of heaven, and towards the floor were images from hell. Michael Jackson was striking his famous Moonwalker pose at the same lowly level as Freddy Kruger. Now, I’m not going to get into a “did he/didn’t he” debate about Michael Jackson here, but it struck me as a bit harsh to cast him into the flames of hell for all eternity. There were no signs of Hitler, or other notable nasties from history, yet Jackson managed to make the wall of shame.
Apparently The White Temple won’t be finished until around 2070, and we only had a forty minute stop. There was a Chinese couple on our tour however, that seemed intent on sticking around to see the place finished. We were sat in the bus with the rest of our tour group for fifty minutes awaiting their return, before Banana gave up on them. He slid the minibus door shut, waved majestically at the Temple and uttered the immortal words: “Bye bye, China”.
Our next stop was a Karen hilltribe village, where we were supposed to see the genuine culture of the “longnecks”. The villages near the Myanmar border are infamous for being set up just for the benefit of tourists, practicing in human trafficking and forced labour, so we sat this one out. It was far more entertaining to hear Banana locked in an argument over the phone with the Chinese gentleman who had been left forty minutes down the road. “I said ten past the eleven! Ten past! You told me you speak English. You no speak English!” After a lengthy debate Banana told the gentleman that the rest of the tour group would not want them onboard anyway as they had messed us about so much, so we would pick them back up at about half past five when we were heading back to Chiang Mai.
We drove for another hour and had lunch before pulling up at a jetty alongside the mighty Mekong river. The Mekong is the lifeblood for many of the people who live in South-East Asia. It starts somewhere in the Tibetan foothills and meanders it’s way down through China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos before pouring out of the Mekong Deltas in Vietnam, and into the South China Sea. The Golden Triangle is a point on the River Mekong where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all meet. Part of the reason the triangle is referred to as “golden” is because of the amount of money and conraband that passed through here during the height of the opium trade. The authorities have cracked down on opium growing in the last few decades, but I’d hazard a guess that there’s still plenty of it going on, as I am about to allude to.
We boarded an old wooden boat that took us out into the middle of the river, whilst a Thai lad who spoke excellent english told us about the Golden Triangle through an incredibly loud tannoy that was situated just above Hollie’s ear. We sailed to a point in the river where he pointed left, to Myanmar, right, to Laos, and behind us to Thailand, where we had just come from. He then pointed out four different casinos the size of shopping malls on various banks of the river. Owing to the fact that the Golden Triangle is the point at which three countries meet, there is a bit of confusion about what laws apply to where and things like that. As a result a slightly dodgy, duty-free kind of zone exists on all borders, referred to as the “Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone”. Apparently people come from all over the world to enjoy the relaxed gambling rules that exist in this small haven from the authorities.
We were supposed to be docking at the Laos side of the river for half an hour. We did, but not before returning to the Thai jetty that we had started our voyage from. The lad on the tannoy announced “Ladies and gentleman I’m sorry we had a small problem but it’s okay now.” The small “problem” appeared to be two blokes who had been waiting on the jetty, each carrying a large whicker basket wrapped in newspaper and banana leaves. We don’t know who they were and what they were carrying, but if it was smuggling, they weren’t particularly subtle about what they were doing.
We traversed the river again and landed in Laos. The two blokes got off with their baskets and we went in the opposite direction to a small market. Banana, in his infinite wisdom, had arranged for us to try some Laotian whiskey for free. He had promised this treat for us first thing in the morning, and all day I had wondered what might make the whiskey unique to Laos. My question was answered with one look at the array of bottles laid out on the table. Each of them had some kind of pickled jungle creature in them. There was a bottle with a gecko, a bottle with a scorpion, a bottle with a dead cobra and a bottle with a non-descript piece of what looked like liver in it. Hollie politely declined to sample but curiosity got the better of me. Banana asked me what my tipple of choice was and I said something along the lines of “Why, I’ll take a measure of your finest dead snake liquor sir”. However, due to some dreadful breakdown in communication he scooped a ladle of the liquid in the bottle next door to the snake into a shot glass for me. I necked it. It was dreadful. As I asked what it was through gritted teeth he laughed and said “Organ of a tiger”. “Oh. Which organ, Banana?” “One that the man has but the lady doesn’t”. For all of the effort we went to to avoid mistreating elephants and tribespeople, I’d managed to drink a shot of whiskey which contained the penis of an endangered animal. If we’re speaking in Buddhist terms here, my karma levels must have shot through the floor – I’m definately coming back as an ant. Oh wait, I ate some of those! Baaad karma. I’m going to be a flea in the next life.
We were back in Chiang Mai at half eight, after going to pick the Chinese couple up on the way back and finding that they had already gone back in a taxi. It was a long day but probably worth it for the White Temple alone. The Golden Triangle felt like a huge sleazefest, but it was quite interesting to be at the point where three countries meet. Tomorrow night we are finally going to witness some Muay Thai boxing.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour.
Love Tommy and Hollie x