We were ready to check out of our guesthouse when, following the owner’s advice, we decided to change our plans. In the end, we rented a motorbike in Chiang Rai to do a 400km loop with it. This little trip lasted 4 days and a half and is definitely one of the highlights of our stay in Thailand.
J-1 Chiang Rai to Mae Salong
We left one of our bags at the guesthouse, rented a semi-automatic motorbike and took the road around midday. On the way we stopped to visit the “Black House”, a delirious art exhibition/museum by local artist Thawan Duchanee. For 50 years, he worked on this sort of peaceful garden compound full of temple-like houses with a very dark and macabre atmosphere (weird sculptures, bones, skulls, bear and crocodile skins, etc…). Very interesting to see but very hard to describe 🙂
We also visited a tea plantation before arriving to the town of Mae Salong, perched in the mountains, where many inhabitants have origins in Yunnan (China). We slept in a quaint little guesthouse with a view on the mountains and the tea plantations (once opium plantations).
J-2 Mae Salong to Chiang Saen
The longest day of this loop ! We followed the Myanmar/Thailand border and its breathtaking views most of the day (apart from an hour of being lost on the dirt roads in the mountains). We stopped at the royal gardens in Doi Tung, which was a worthy stop along the route, and at the “Golden Triangle” which deserves 6min30 at the most.
Along the road, we passed several checkpoints maintained by the Thai army. Only once did a soldier ask us to stop, to ask a few questions and let us go through 2 minutes later (without even looking at our passports). Our last stop for the day, Chiang Saen, was a very pleasant town to stay at as it is a small city bordering the Mekong where people are all smiling and where there is practically no tourist !
J-3 Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong
In the morning, just before we left Chiang Saen and as we were visiting a temple, a Buddhist monk came to us to talk for a bit. He was very nice, and made a lot of efforts to communicate in English. We talk about everything, and of a few teachings of Buddha of course, his speech consisting most of time in metaphors.
The road was very easy that day (no slopes with 20% grade), and we arrived early in Chiang Khong (mostly a temporary stop for people about to cross over to Laos). Because we’re annoying when it comes to choosing where to sleep and most of the budget guesthouses were full, it took us before we decided to go at Sophaphan’s guesthouse. The rooms there are a bit rustic, sure, but the house/museum all in teak with direct view on the Mekong is simply beautiful. Luckily for us, we were alone in the guesthouse that night, and Sophaphan spent a long time chatting with us. She is very funny and has lots of stories to tell ! If one day you pass by Chiang Khong, you should try to stay at RuanThai Sophaphan Guesthouse.
J-4 Chiang Khong to Phu Chi Fa
We did most of the distance between the two in the morning, under the sun and on beautiful mountain roads that had just been renovated, with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. At some point along the road, we saw a sign for a nearby viewpoint (sorry we can’t remember the name), and decided to go check it out. This turned out to be great idea as we arrived at this remote little viewpoint which offered great views of the Mekong and where we seemed to be the only westerners in a while. The people there were very surprised to see us, and asked several times how did we hear about the place (one guy working on nearby constructions even offered us oranges !).
We arrived in Phu Chi Fa early afternoon, dropped our bags in a bright pink little bungalow, and got some rest in preparation for the next day. The Phu Chi Fa mountain (or Phu Chee Fah, you see both spellings around town) is a popular weekend destination for Thai people, but only few westerners come to see it. It is mostly known for its amazing sunrises above a sea of clouds in the dry season. We set up the alarm clock for 5.30am and went to bed early to make sure we wouldn’t miss that !
J-5 Phu Chi Fa to Chiang Rai
In order to reach the viewpoint to admire the sunset properly, you first need to drive the motorcycle 15 minutes in the dark on 25% grade slopes with more potholes per square-foot than the surface of the moon (and we didn’t even fall). After that, it’s a 30 minutes walk to reach the top, during which you will see children in traditional costumes, shivering and with sleepy-eyes, singing traditional songs to try to earn a bit of money under the surveillance of their parents (whom are all wrapped in thick blankets). Once at the top, we were ready to capture this natural phenomenon, surrounded by hundreds of Thai tourists with their cameras out. We had never seen anything like this, and the photos are probably more eloquent than our words.
The way back towards Chiang Rai turned out to be fairly uninteresting apart from a few nice little mountain villages. Pierre and Karine, that we had met in Sukhothai, were passing by Chiang Rai that evening and we spent the evening together, finishing nicely this little escapade.
We took the bus the next day to go Chiang Mai, the famous northern Thai city praised by so many travellers. Very quickly after our arrival, we were disappointed and realized this city did not correspond to what we were looking for. It is absolutely filled with backpackers, to the point that everything in the city revolves around them, and every shop tries to cater to their needs. We were expecting nice markets full of local hand-crafted stuff, and we found the same T-shirts and trinkets you can get in Camden in London.
To have something to do and because we really love good food, we took part in a cooking class (Sammy’s organic cooking class). It started really well in the morning with a visit to a local market, explanations and descriptions of all the herbs and spices used in Thai cuisine, we prepared our curry paste, prepared 4 other dishes, and got to eat all of that (it was delicious). In the afternoon, on the other hand, we had 1 hour and ½ of “siesta” in hammocks (sure it’s always nice, but not when you’re paying for a cooking class), and stirred 2 already cut and prepared desserts before eating them at lightning speed and being rushed out the door. In the end we had a good time, but considering the rave reviews we had seen on tripadvisor, we were expecting a little bit more than that.
On our last day in town, we finally admitted to ourselves that Chiang Mai wasn’t without charm, with its beautiful active temples and its nice little streets. You just need to accept what kind of city it is, that there will be many tourists and that the old city is not exactly representative of what Thailand is.
After a night in the sleeper train to Bangkok that was seriously comfy (the best sleeper train we’ve ever taken), we arrived at 5 in the morning. Our goal for the day, wait down-town before taking our plane to Yangon (which was achieved by lying in the grass in one of the rare parks of the city). At 9pm the 1st of February we took off for Myanmar.