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Getting around

Part 2: Chiang Main + Golden Triangle

10.8: Chiang Mai
Ruen Ariya resort, Mae Rim near Chiang Mai. Today it becomes apparent that we are pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There are several other hotels in the area, but we can't for instance find a restaurant in walking distance of the hotel. Getting to Chiang Mai costs 500 Baht and getting back to the hotel is complicated, because it is difficult to get hold of a real taxi in Chiang Mai. The breakfast is relatively unimpressive.
Weather: overcast the whole day. It rains for many hours between noon and about 6pm.

Today we visit the Maesa elephant camp, which is located just a few km from the hotel. We go there with our new friends, the Chinese family from Lijiang. The hotel transfers us there at no charge. It's very good to go there with the kids, because there is the elephant ride (800 Baht for 30 min. for one elephant carrying either two adults or one adult and two kids, 1200 Baht for one hour).

Then there is the elephant show at 1:30pm, which is very touristy of course (elephants playing football, making paintings and other curious/funny things), but still nice to watch and fun. Then you can walk to the elephant nursery and feed the elephants with bananas and pieces of sugar cane (portion of sugar cane and bananas for 40 Baht). The entry costs 200 Baht for an adult and 120 Baht for a bigger kid (Natasha doesn't pay, Alissia does).

Overall it's the perfect place where to bring the family. Touristy, unreal like hell, but fun and very entertaining, especially for the kids.

At 2:20pm we are outside of the camp and I would like to call the hotel to tell them to pick us up. I can't. Initially there is no network. What kind of useless SIM card did I buy: truemove H SIM card, 3G+, don't buy it if you can avoid it. What use is a mobile network, be it 3G, 4G whatever, if there is no coverage?? Then finally, a bit closer to the road there is suddenly some coverage, but when I call the hotel there is just an automated message in Thai, with no translation into English. Later I'm told it means "there is no money in your phone, put some money into it, otherwise you can't make calls".

Great. I bought the SIM card yesterday, paying 99 Baht for it and would have assumed that there was some limited airtime on it. But no, there is exactly 0 airtime on it. Very, very unusual.

So I'm there, looking for a public telephone (there is none), wondering how to bring back the family to the hotel. I look for a taxi and find none. We are in the middle of the jungle by the way.

Incredible luck, suddenly the hotel minivan shows up and pick us up. What a service. One, no let's say, ten plus-points for the hotel.

At 3pm we have some lunch in the hotel, then the ladies retire and take a rest.

In the evening, a bit after 6pm we drive into Chiang Mai (hotel minivan, charging us 500 Baht). The trip should have taken half an hour (15km distance), but for some reason it takes 45 minutes to get into town, due to the heavy traffic jam.

In the minivan with us is the hotel owner/manager, a pretty and young Thai lady who always smiles and emanates positive energy. Friendliest lady on this planet, they should send her to Syria and the war would soon end.

We are at the Robinson shopping mall in Chiang Mai, which is quite close to the airport. From what I hear this the best&flashiest mall in Chiang Mai. It's nice inside but it's also a bit old. Lots of shops, everything, a food court on the fourth floor.

In this food court we have a delicious dinner, until about 8pm. Excellent foodcourt, cheap, cheap dishes, lots of choice. A pity I can't eat here every day.

Then, after exploring a bit the mall, we take a taxi to the nigtht bazaar. They charge us 120 baht for 3km, which seems expensive. I wonder what it would cost to cover this distance by meter.

The night bazaar area is a textbook example of perfect tourist ghetto. Countless stalls and shops selling tourist junk, souvenirs, counterfeited goods. Hordes of tourists everywhere, you can barely walk. Tuk-tuks everywhere. Lots of restaurants, really a lot. And lots of chaos.

We split here. While the ladies shop around, I enquire about tours to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. The cheapest I find charges 700 baht/person (children pay half) + 1000 Baht for the transfer from our hotel to Chiang Mai and return. Tours leave early (7 - 7:30am).

At 10pm we try to get back to the hotel. No taxi available, only tuk-tuks and kind of converted red pickup trucks with benches in the boots area. Lots of searching, finally we find a taxi which for 600 Baht brings us back to the hotel. We are there at 11pm.

11.8: Chiang Mai
Ruen Ariya resort, Mae Rim near Chiang Mai.
Weather: today is the best weather since we arrived to Chiang Mai. Still overcast with some rain, but in the early afternoon the sky partly opens up and for some time the sun shines through. Then it rains again.

We have breakfast between 9 and 10am, then at 10:40am the hotel car brings us to the orchid farm (entry: 20 Baht). Interesting place where orchids are grown. Many different colours, beautiful orchids. I just wonder what they do with the orchidsm since they do not seem to be selling them, at least not to the tourists.

At 11:40am we drive to the monkey place (entry ticket: 200 Baht). This is sort of a monkey zoo/circus, where monkeys are kept and shows are being run uninterruptedly, one after the other.

Basically it's one monkey with a metal chain secured to the neck, doing different exercises. By the way, this monkey can jump really high, quite impressive. It's just that, well, the place is artificial and touristy like hell and it must not be fun for the monkeys to always have a metal ring around the neck. I don't think it's good for the animals.

Also, there is sort of an enclosure where many monkeys are kept and each monkey is fixed with a neck metal and a 1m long chain to a pole, limiting its movement space to a 1m circle around this pole. I do hope they place these monkeys in a larger cage where they can move freely when the centre closes to tourists.

After the monkey place it's 12:30pm and we drive to the Tiger Kingdom. This is sort of a zoo for tigers, where you can approach tigers, touch them, pat them on the back and take pictures with them. According to the brochure these tigers have been accustomed since birth to live with humans and have been taught that scratching and biting is bad and not allowed. Supposedly they are completely harmless and safe.

I know nothing about tigers, but personally I have some doubts that these tigers are really as tame as pussycats and in any case I wouldn't dare to let my kids get close to these beasts. After all tigers are powerful wild animals and there has been a recent case in south Africa in which a woman was attacked and almost killed by supposedly tame cheetah, while she was playing with the animal and posing with it. To me this Tiger Kingdom is a ticking time bomb - it's just a matter of time until something happens.

In any case, it costs between 500 and 1500+ Baht to play with these tigers, depending on how many tigers you want to play with. So this fun is not cheap either. But hey, if you feel the need to touch a tiger at least once in your life, this place is an option.

We have lunch at the Tiger Kingdom restaurant, having a look at various people playing with tigers. After lunch we return to the hotel and spend the rest of the day there relaxing. I give a call to the Chiang Mai Nice Smile travel agency (one of those with whom I spoke yesterday) and confirm that tomorrow we take the tour to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. They will pick us up tomorrow between 7am and 7:30am.

In the late afternoon we walk to the 7/11 store and buy some food for tomorrow, because tomorrow there won't be time for breakfast. In the evening I finalise my trip until August 17th, booking all flights and hotels until then. Will probably be in Jakarta until August 18th, and after that I have to see what to do and where to go. Probably I'll spend a few days on beautiful islands off the coast of Borneo.

12.8: Chiang Mai -> Chiang Rai -> Golden Triangle -> Chiang Mai
Ruen Ariya resort, Mae Rim near Chiang Mai.
Weather: sunny, mostly blue sky with some variable cloud cover. Best weather so far since we arrived to Chiang Mai. Heavy rain in the evening when we return to Chiang Mai. Quite hot during the day when the sun is shining.

Long day today. I have set the alarm clock to 6am in order to be ready at 7am for the trip to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. In practice I wake up at 5:20am and can't sleep anymore, so at 6am I and the rest of the family officially get up.

At 6:45am the minivan is already here, 15 minutes ahead of time. Luckily we are almost ready. At 6:50am we start the tour.

We have booked a tour with "Chiang Mai Nice Smile travel" (but the minivan is of Gem Travel). 700 Baht for each of the three adults + 2 x 350 Baht for the two kids (kids pay half). To this add 1000 Baht for the transfer to/from Chiang Mai, for a total of 3800 Baht. The tour includes Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle and a number of other stops and the lunch. Not cheap, but this seems to be the price.

At 7:30am we are in Chiang Mai where we pick up the other two tour participants, two young Dutch girls. We also pick up our guide and start driving towards Chiang Rai.

The first stop is at a hot spring located somewhere in the mountains. We reach it at 8:30am, i.e. after one hour of driving. This is sort of a geysir, spitting out hot, sulphureous water, more or less constantly. There is a little bit of pulsation, but otherwise it is a quite constant stream.  Around this hot spring there are tons of shops selling tourist stuff (souvenirs, T-shirt and other nonsense).

We are one of the first tour minivans to reach this place. After us the parking area fills up quickly with minivans of the various tour operators. It would seem that all Golden Triangle tours originating from Chiang Mai stop at this place at this time.

After 20 minutes, i.e. at 8:50am we continue driving towards Chiang Rai, and arrive at 10:10am at the Wat Rong Khun white temple near Chiang Mai. This is a stunningly beautiful white-and-silver colour Buddhist temple, built and still being expanded by a Thai artist. One of the most scenic, if not the most scenic, Thai Buddhist temples I have ever seen. Absulutely beautiful.

Surrounded by a pond, with white-and-silver sculptures on the grass around it. One of a topless lady, quite interesting, it seems Thai people are not embarassed by nudity.

Near the white temple there is another one, this time completely golden, also this beautiful. And another building is currently being added. I have to visit this place again in a few years when all construction is completed.

We spend 40 minutes in this place, then at 10:55am we continue driving. This time the next stop is a place called Golden Triangle which we reach at 12:18pm. This is located on the Mekong river, where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet. As the guide explains we are going to take a boat trip on the Mekong river (300 Baht each, children pay half) of about one hour, get out in Laos for half an hour of shopping, then return to the minibus.

The area is quite interesting. On the opposite side of the Mekong (the Lao one), Chinese investors have leased a patch of land for 99 years and are developing a casino, an airport which will have direct flights from Chiang Mai, and hotels as well I would guess. This is going to be a special economic zone.

At 12:50pm we touch Lao ground without a visa. Supposedly we are on Donesao island (30 baht/adult fee to get here). Basically it's one big market selling tourist stuff. Lots of small kids begging for money. They want your money and make an angry face if you instead give them some food. Things are supposed to be cheaper here than in Thailand, but the prices I see are not exactly low. Perhaps you have to negotiate them down a bit.

It's almost 1:30pm when we cross the Mekong again in the boat. Back in Thailand we get onto the bus and drive to the restaurant where we are going to have lunch.

This is a buffet-type restaurant on the Mekong river. Plenty of food, which is not bad (although I find an ant in my soup). Drinks have to be paid for separately and are not cheap. This restaurant caters basically to the tour groups doing the Golden Triangle tours.

By 2:30pm we are back on the minivan, driving to the next place, the border town of Mae Sai, which we reach after 20 minutes.

Here basically is the border to Myanmar. A visa for Myanmar costs 500 baht according to our guide. I wonder if with this visa you really can really enter Myanmar and travel to wherever you want in Myanmar or if you only may stay in the border area as I have read somewhere on the web.

In any case on the road to the border point there is again a market, actually a very big one. Also here you can find the usual tourist junk stuff, although some items may be interesting. I deposit the ladies in the market and explore a bit the place.

Besides this market and the border gate there is actually nothing to see here, so I finish my exploration after about 10 minutes and join again the ladies. The most interesting thing about Mae Sai is watching the people and cars/trucks/motorcycles crossing the border.

At 3:30pm we leave Mae Sai and drive to the village of the Akha people. It takes a bit over half an hour to reach this place. Here are some authentic looking huts built with natural materials. I wonder if this is some kind of open air museum or if people here really live in houses with roofs made of tree branches in the year 2012. Perhaps this village is made to look cute for the tourists.

Also in the Akha village there are plenty of shops selling tourist stuff. Women dressed in traditional attire. Long neck Karen live in the village on the other side of the river, but our guide tells us that to visit this village you have to pay 300 baht per person. Interesting. Apparently the long neck people are now more clever at marketing their long necks and now charge an entrance fee.

At 4:25pm we start driving back to Chiang Mai. After a couple of short stops along the way we are back in the hotel at 7:45pm. It has been a long day, but a quite interesting one.

13.8: Chiang Mai
Ruen Ariya resort, Mae Rim near Chiang Mai.
Weather: mix of sunny blue sky and some rainfall. Some light rain around 2pm, heavy downpour at 6pm. Mostly sunny however and quite hot under the sun

Day spent relaxing and not doing much, to sort of recharge the batteries after the long and tiring trip of yesterday. In the morning after breakfast we hang around in the hotel, then at 11am I swim with the kids in the pool.

At 1:30pm we drive towards the Tiger Kingdom, not because we want to play with the tigers, but because we'd like to have lunch in the restaurant of the Tiger Kingdom which is better than the one of our hotel.

After lunch the kids play with the waterballs, large and transparent spheres of plastic (2m diameter), with which they can walk over the water. Price is 150 baht for 10 minutes, longer than that makes no sense, because it gets very hot in the spheres after a while under the sun. In fact when Alissia gets out of the sphere her hair is wet of sweat.

After this we drive to the snake place where we are going to watch a show (all the time the hotel driver is driving us around for free in the hotel minivan). The snake place costs 200 baht for an adult and 100 baht for a kid. When we arrive a show is going on, and people are taking photos with a boa snake on their shoulder. Lots of different snakes are used for this show. Most are not poisonous, but at one point they pull out a cobra, play with it for a while, then "milk it" for the poison by letting it bite a plastic glass and extracting the poison. I wonder if there are ever accidents...

After the show we walk a bit arounf the snake place. It's sort of a small zoo, with snakes and other animals (birds, crocodiles, mongooses). The conditions for the animals are quite poor, because the cages are small.

Around 4:30pm we drive back to the hotel, stopping at an ATM to withdraw some cash (large amount possible, I withdraw 17000 baht; perhaps the limit is even higher) and at the 7/11 for some snacks and drinks.

After that we spend the rest of the day in the hotel.

14.8: Chiang Mai -> Kuala Lumpur
Hotel Bary Inn, Nilai (about 15 minutes by car from the LCCT terminal). 180 RM for a small room with A/C, table, LCD TV, water boiler + coffee set, telephone, WLAN (free and fast), attached bathroom with shower (electrical heater system), NO toilet paper... The room price includes the transfer to/from the airport (hourly minibus) and the breakfast. Is it better than the Tune hotel? Yes, but it could be cheaper, at 180 RM is definitely overpriced.
Weather:mostly sunny weather in Chiang Mai, some clouds.

We check out at 11:15am, then drive to Chiang Mai airport. There we leave the luggage in lockers (two lockers at 140 Baht/locker). Then we take a red taxi to the nearby Robinson shopping mall, where we have lunch at 12:30pm. After drinking a weird starfruit juice (feels acid and burning in my throat) I feel bad and need a few hours to recover. I wonder what they put into this starfruit juice.

The flight leaves early at 5pm and arrives in KL early. The plane is about half full. In KL I catch the 9:30pm shuttle and transfer to the hotel. Tomorrow I'll fly to Jakarta.

Copyright 2012 Alfred Molon