Monday, June 15, 2009

Northern Thailand

After Tachilek, the next destinatoin was Chiang Mai. As we left Mae Sai, we discovered an interesting signage just as we left Mae Sai, Golden Triangle. We confirmed its location near Chiang Saen by referring to the Mitsubishi driving map of Thailand. The detour would put us back by 3 hours for Chiang Mai, but we could not resist the temptation and thought that it could be an interesting detour. Given the good road condition in Thailand, we still can arrive Chiang Mai in the evening.

The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is one of Asia's two main illicit opium producing areas. It is an area of around 350,000 square kilometres that overlaps the mountains of four countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. (Other interpretations of the Golden Triangle also include a section of Yunnan Province, China.) Our understanding of the Golden Triangle is the opium growing region covering northern Thailand, eastern Burma and western Laos. It was full of warlords dealing with drugs and highly sensitive and dangerous area . Various government agencies have been highly successful in crop substitution program helping the farmers to grow other crops instead of poppy. The Royal Projects Foundation established by His Majesty King Bhumipol, opium production has largely been eliminated in Thailand. However, across the border in Myanmar, the Shan United Army, which is fighting the central Myanmar government for an independent Shan state, has been accused of funding its war through the sale of opium and heroin.
Hall of opium
About 10 km before Chiang Saem and 1 km before Golden Triangle, a well maintained landscape caught our eyes, the Hall of Opium. Opposite the Hall of Opium, there is Anantara Resort which is a beautifully designed Resort & Spa targeting for the top end market. The room starts from USD200 to USD450 considering now is low season. It was really beyond our budget.

The development of the Hall of Opium is the result of the initiative of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. The museum presents the history of opium and the impacts of illegal drugs, with an information center of research and extension education on opium and other narcotics in the near future. The Hall is 10 km north of Chiang Saen town . The museum is incorporated within the 40-hectare landscape of the Golden Triangle Park. The total size of the exhibition area is about 5,6oo sq. m.

Entrance fee is 300 THB per person. We were the only two visitors at that time. The register showed there were a handful of visitors came earlier. The receptionist led us to the entrance of a tunnel and told us to through the dimly lighted tunnel with images of suffering human and poppy plants to create a mystery moods associated with opium. After the tunnel, introductory display of the opium poppy and its products were presented in the lobby. The staff explained to us how opium production process starting from the poppy. The next section described the development of production, trade and the use of opium in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Then we went through the section of Opium Wars between China and Britain and how British developed their trade route of opium from India to China via Singapore during Sir Stamford Raffles era. We spent more than one hour just to cover the third story. We cut short our visit by walking right through the second story which is about the opium history of Thailand. Neo Chian and I agreed that this is the best of all museums we had visited so far. Now, I have a better idea how opium is produced. For anyone who is around Northern Thailand and have a day to spare, this is a must see destination.

The Golden Triangle of Thailand
1 km away from the Hall of Opium, near a temple with a huge Buddha image facing the Mekong river, turn right up to the top of the hill where it is dubbed by Thailand Tourist Authority as "Golden Triangle". Laos is on the right hand side of the Mekong and Myanmar is in the left side of the Mekong and island in front belongs to Thailand. This is as close as you can get to the point where the border of three countries meet. Although this was not the real Golden Triangle, the view was beautiful and it was worth the detour.
Chiang Mai

The city of Chiang Mai (meaning "new city") was founded in 1296. To protect it against raids from Myanmar, the city was surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall. The city of Chiang Mai has over 300 temples (Wats). Chiang Mai is location about 700 km north of Bangkok. The city stands on the Ping river, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya river..

After visiting the Golden Triangle of Thailand, we headed for Chiang Mai. With the help of Miss G, we got to Chiang Mai about 7.30 pm. and found Royal Peninsula Hotel where we stayed for the next three days. The rate was 900 TBH for a twin room with breakfast, WiFi and underground car park.

The last time I was in Chiang Mei was our honeymoon, 36 years ago. Gemma and I took a package tour to Bangkok and Chiang Mei. (that was all we could afford) The onlething I could remember about Chiang Mei was a temple on the hill with huge number of steps. There was a dragon like creature and its body lined the stair all the way up to the temple. I wanted to re-visit this temple and didn't know the name. What Wat? Luckily, this is listed in the Lonely Planet as the highlight in Chiang Mai.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is about 16 km northwest of Chiang Mai. The entrance was so different from 36 years ago. I remembered a car park right below the steps. Now it was replaced by souvenir and flower stores.It wasn't crowed at all at the time of our visit. Now, the place is so well developed. They even have a cable car station taking you right to the temple area. The dragon like creature is the mythological Nagas, the snake, which is similar to Hinduism. We were told that Hindu uses 5 and 9 heads Naga and Buddhism uses 7 heads Naga. The 306 steps, bordered by the enormous Naga, leads up to the temple. The Nagas are re-constructed and more grand than one I saw 36 years ago. After we got someone to take a picture for both of us, we started climbing up the steps. As usual, Neo Chian reached the temple ahead of me. It was hard work. However, I believed one step forward means one step less to climb. Eventually, I made it to the temple.

Inside the temple is the famous golden Chedi of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The Chedi is 79 feets high and 39 feet across its base and is covered with engraved gold plate. On the platform around the Golden Chedi are four ornamental umbrellas.

This famous temple is very crowded with devotees. We saw many Westerners touring the temple and some were paying their respect to the Buddha. Over the years, this temple has become the International Buddhism Center of Thailand.
The entrance fee was 100 THB per person. On the ticket, it says the proceeds will be used for overhead coats, maintenance of the temple and supporting of education of the poor students. This makes us feel that we are contributing to help a good course.

The Bhubing Palace

After Wat Phrathat Doi SUthep , we drove up higher to look around. Accidentally we saw the Bhubing Palace. The Bhubing Palace is the loyal winter residence in Chiang Mai where the Royal family stays during seasonal visits to the people in northern part of the country. The palace is also the roal guesthouse for prominent State visitors from abroad. Bhubing Palace was built in 1961. The construction started initally with only the royal resident building and the guesthouse. The other buildings were additionally built on later dates.

Ruen Peek Mai (Log Cabin)
is the seasonal residence of Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn and also the royal guesthouse.

The fern garden

The fern garden was started in 1993 when various indigenous varieties of ferns were collected and planted in harmony with the natural surroundings. Some of the ferns are as old as 60-100 years.

Suan Suwaree is a rose garden planted according to the royal instruction of Her Majesty the Queen in 1999. The rose garden was beautiful and full of differnt varieties of roses, red, pink, yellow and white.

Walking around in Chiang Mai

Old city wall and the moat
Tbe Royal Peninsula Hotel is in Central Chiang Mai. The old city was about 10 minutes walk away. Tha Phae Gate is the eastern gateway into the old city of Chiang Mai. The name "tha phae" means "raft landing", and refers to a time when people would arrive in the city of Chiang Mai on raft. In those ancient times, the entire 750 meters of the east side of Chiang Mai was protected by a moat and a wall. Tha Phae Gate was the only entrance, via a bamboo drawbridge, into the city. Today, the drawbridge has been replaced with a causeway. As for the gate itself, it was re-build in 60s. The square in front is the starting point of Sunday Night Market.

The south gate is Chiang Mai gate which is the tarting point of the Saturday night market.

Wat Phra Singh

It is located within the city walls, dates from 1345 and offers an example of classic northern Thai style architecture. It houses the Phra Singh Buddha, a highly venerated figure, transferred here many years ago from Chiang Rai. This temple is one of the most important temples in the city.

The Chicken Rice stall

Not far from Wat Phra Sing, the junction Jhaban/Intawarorot Road, we found a chickren rice stall which can rival the famous Hainanese Chicken rice in Singapore. The chicken rice was not only fragrant but also not oily. The chicken was deboned and served with cucumber. Only thing not the same was the chilly sauce. For a plate of chicken, two plates of rice and two Cokes, it was 90 THB. We enjoyed so much that we went back again before we
traveled to Mae Hong Son. May be we should consider starting a franchise in Singapore.

Ancient Houses of 140 to 150 years old

Along the Ping river on Charoen Prathet Road, there were these gorgeous ancient houses. The sign board indicated that these houses were 140 to 150 years old. Some companies undertook to restore them. As no visitors were allowed, we could only look from the outside. It would be nice if we could enter to have a close look and appreciate the design of the house.

The Chedi Chiang Mai

Located on the bank of Mae Ping River, the Chedi Chiang Mai is an elegant and luxurious resort living within the city. Evey part of the hotel was tastefully done. The room rates starts from USD400. We couldn't afford the room but at least we could have a drink resting our legs. (We have walked quite a few km seeing Wat Phra Singh, Tha Phae Gate, Ping River and Ancient house). We sat at the bar which was a conloniel style buidling, ex-British consolate. We walked through the lobby on our way to the night market, a charming girl was playing the local Thailand music gracefully. It is definitely one of the most stylish hotel in the city.

The Night Markets, walking streets

There are two popular night markets in Chiang mai, namely Saturady Night Market and Sunday night market.

Sunday Night Market stretches from the east Tha Pae Gate square and along most of the Ratchadamnoen Rd. The Sunday market is more popular with the locals and tourists alike. The Ratchadamneon Road is closed from late afternoon to midnight. The whole Ratchadamneon Road and the wats along its length are filled with colourful stalls selling wares from hill-tribe crafts and blinking lights, to wooden bangles and tasty morsels. There are buskers playing music and dance performanance in the middle of the street. There are many food stalls in between where you can sample the local delicatessens.

Saturday Night Market starts from Wualai Road which is opposite the south Chiang Mai gate from 4 pm to midnight. The walking street is closed to traffic. This market sells similar wares as the Sunday market including the buskers. One unique difference is the historic silver ware shops behind the stalls. When you are tiring of walking, you can sit down at one of the roadside foot massage center, 120 THB per hour, watching the world goes by.

Saturday Night Market scenes

Sunday Night Market scenes

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