North of Thailand and Cambodia

{This was an email I sent out to my contacts on my first trip to Asia in 2002}

its been awhile since the last update and a lot has happened.. i’ll try to fit in as much as possible..

we left our little place in koh samui a few days before our lease was up to meet some friends of ours in the very north of thailand, chiang rai. they were in thailand for a few days and we had fun with them. we went up to the golden triangle, which is the spot where myanmar (burma), laos and thailand meet at the mekong river. we crossed the border into myanmar (somewhat illegally, they didn’t stamp our passports, and we didn’t get a visa) for the day and did some shopping in a little border town. we also checked out a great flower show, which was all orchids, some amazing flowers! of course there was also some partying in the evening with a beauty pageant and some traditional thai dancing.

we we invited to go out to eat with our friend’s family. it was really nuts to eat with so many thai people. there were maybe 15 people and 50 plates on the table. we went to a restaurant over the kok river, where the kitchen was on one side of the river and the restaurant was on the other. they had two little raft boats that would cross the river with the food (and the dirty plates). it was a flurry of passing plates and so much food!

while out to eat we met a family member of our friend, i think a nephew or something, who invited us to go to “poo chee fah” with him and his friends the next day. poo chee fah is basically a small mountain that you can climb to the top of with an amazing view once you get there.

we’d heard how cool poo chee fah (lit: mountain pointing to heaven) is, so we happily agreed to go. he picked us up the next day in his pickup with his girlfriend and her sister. (25, 25 and 21 years old – i think). we stopped at a market and they picked up a bunch (tons) of pre made food in little plastic bags. we bought a pineapple.

we then had dinner. we were the lone foreigners among maybe 10 thais. all of them could speak a few words in english, and 2 of them knew more, and our host knew the most. (enough to translate what we would say for the rest of the group). on a picnic table outside we emptied all the little plastic bags out onto plates and began eating. thais normally eat with a fork and spoon — no chopsticks here. they eat with the spoon, and load the food onto the spoon with the fork. its considered rude to put a fork in your mouth here.

in the north there is also another method, and that is sticky rice. sticky rice is not average japanese sushi rice, its super super sticky, like glue. its moldable, you could make a sculpture with it. in any case, its done like this: pull off a bit of sticky rice with your hand, form it into a ball, squish it up so its a solid mass, and dip it into the bowls of food, then eat.

our hosts then informed us that they’d wake us up at 5 am the next morning. we thought they were joking. at 4:45am we found out they were definitely not joking. we then proceeded to hike up this mountain trail through the jungle in the middle of the night with a flashlight. after about an hour’s walk, we get to the top of this mountain, right as there is a little bit of light starting to show, and watched the sunrise. we were greeted by stares and giggles by the groups of thais that were already up there, maybe 60 in all. its a popular activity for people to watch the sunrise up there, and we went on a buddhist national holiday, so people had the day off to go play in the park. as the token farang, we got our pictures taken by random people, had kids running up to us and saying “hello!” giggling and running away, and had our every move watched like we were in a zoo. a very strange feeling.

after we watched the sunrise we hiked down (and hitched a ride on the back of a pickup truck with the park rangers) and drove off to a waterfall and had lunch. they ordered som tom jeh for me, and proceeded to watch and test how the farang dealt with spicy food (just fine thank you very much). very amusing.

i really liked hanging out with our thai friends, it was the first time we could really hang out with kids our age. there was a lot of joking around and making fun of people in a kind way, very fun. they liked to practice their english a bit with us, and one of the jokes was to say “thank you ka”, and “hello ka”. (in thai, you end each sentence with “ka” if you are female, and “krup” if you are male).

a few days later we went on a jungle trek (hike) to visit hilltribes and check out the jungle. it was for two days, one night. our guide, simon (he pronounced it seeMUN) was great. it cost 30$ and we slept in his house, and his wife cooked for us.

hilltribes are small groups of village people who have their own culture different from thais. there are many scattered around thailand, myanmar, laos, vietnam and china. we visited the akha, karen, and lahu peoples, all of whom have their own language, culture, and belief systems.

jungle trekking is pretty popular now in northern thailand. you spend all day walking through trails to get to various things in the jungle. our trip stopped by a few villages, rice fields, a hot spring, and a waterfall. at night we stayed in simon’s house, and played cards with him. there were two other people in our group, a couple from canada who we really enjoyed the company of. we will meet up with them in a week or so when we all happen to be in the south of thailand. they’re in burma now, and are travelling the world over a 9 month period.

i guess in the morning before we woke up one of simon’s neighbors got into an argument. the wife had woken up to finding out that her husband had sold the family pig the night before to go out drinking. when she found out, they got into a very loud argument (which apparently is not something uncommon to the two) and marched off down the street together to get a divorce.

we flew back to bangkok and then off to cambodia for four days. we decided to go visit the ancient city ruins of angkor wat. the city was built between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, and left to rot around the 1600’s. the jungle took over and for three hundred years was allowed to cover all the structures with vines and trees. now they’ve gone in and cut back the jungle and cleared out all the land mines and are charging tourists US $20 a day to go take pictures of it.

cambodia was really difficult to take, a real eye opener for me. i hated it and loved it at the same time.

everywhere you go you are harassed. every person you pass wants to somehow get money off of you. children beg, parents wait across the street, they figure the kids will have better luck. one legged men on crutches, mine victims, follow you around. people with mental illnesses walking down the street muttering to themselves. filthy children everywhere, wearing tattered clothing. but the smiles! the children were so genuine! waving at us, huge smiles, hellos.

everyone has a scam. the guesthouse called a taxi driver that had been recommended to us, and told us he was busy for the next three days and recommended another driver. we said sure, trusting the woman. funny how he was busy for three days, and we left three days later. we found out later they get commission from drivers – and our driver was not one of their “preferred drivers”. they said we needed a guide, so a guide showed up, asking for money to show us around. we declined, he left. he was back again when we got back that evening, asking if we’d changed our mind. it was really eye opening to see people so desperate to make money. our taxi driver from the airport was waiting for us the next morning asking us if we’d like his services all day, he’d give us a deal.

the prices were really high for southeast asia, aimed at package tourists. people would wait outside the temples and say, “cold drink madam!” one quoted me a dollar for a can of tea that you can buy in a store for 10c. children follow you around trying to sell you postcards or flutes or little buddha amulets. their mothers trying to sell you scarves or drinks. children follow you around the temples telling you random bits of information about the temples then demand you give them money. the scamming starts early, 8 year olds would easily lie to us to try to get money.

the local currency is the riel, but they use US currency. everywhere. it is really strange to be so far away from the U.S., geographically and culturally, and have people use dollars. whats even stranger is watching the tourists go to the exchange booth and get dollars, and use them while on their trip. imagine older japanese people paying for dinner, while in asia, in US money! we went to the exchange booth to convert baht to riel to have them tell us they do not even have riel, they only give out US money.

the amount of violence was appalling. i saw many examples of kids whacking each other, whacking their parents, beating each other up, etc. one group of kids followed us around a temple came at us and were really really angry with us for not giving them money. (we even offered to give them some money but they said it was not enough). the level of anger really shocked me, coming from someone so young. lots of pent up anger and frustration. understandable, considering what’s happened here.

it would have been a pretty sad trip if we had not met our friend san pork. pork is a taxi driver — well a fashioned taxi type thing. its more like a 2 person chariot that hooks onto the back of a motorbike. we hired him to take us to a temple and really liked him, so we hired him all day the next day to take us on his “grand tour”.

we had told him about our tour guide experience, so he surprised us the next day by bringing along a tape player with a tape of angkor wat history that he played for us. our free tour guide he said.

imagine for a minute going down a road in the back of a chariot rickshaw type thing attached to a motorbike blaring angkor wat history in english with villagers walking and riding bikes and motorbikes around you. imagine the looks you’d get. everyone was laughing – it was great.

he took us to some pretty far away and deserted temples, and he was a great guide. he was really friendly and real and we enjoyed his company. we took him out to eat last night after our trip, and he freaked out about the cost of his $3 dish. we told him about the west, explained what it was like to have four seasons, what the cold is like, what snow is like, the concept of ice skating… what are subways… how there are no chickens running around everywhere in new york. he told us about getting malaria when he worked for the UN as a radio operator by the thai border. (how he saved up enough money for his motorbike). he told us about his country, and what it is like to live there, and how he really wants to come to the west to visit.

on a positive note, it is getting better, each year is farther away from the madness that was cambodia in the 70’s and 80’s. more and more landmines are removed with the help of the US and england. (apparently the world superpowers can do positive things as well). but i do think it will take generations before cambodia is healed. pork tells us each year is better than the last, that it has come very far since he was a child under the khmer rouge regime. unfortunately, the khmer rouge is still a heavy force in cambodia, still fully tangled into the government, and people are predicting a huge problem in the next election in a few years… i hope nothing happens..

in any case, we fed children, we avoided scams, we even fixed computers at an internet cafe. we didn’t get hit by any moving transportation, and didn’t step on a landmine or get malaria. i definitely suggest going to check out angkor, it was amazing.

im currently in hong kong. its a really great city. im at an internet cafe / gaming room at 4 in the morning and there are at least twenty kids here playing games like quake, diablo 2, and what else. there is one of these on every block.

i will write more about HK and send some HK pictures soon. tomorrow i leave and head back to bangkok to meet my friend, then we’re all heading south for some diving!

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