Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The slow road to Thaton - with a longtail boat on the Mae Nam Kok

After spending five days with my sister in Mae Sai (I'm sure she'll post a blog entry about it soon), I arrived in Chiang Rai on Tuesday. I spent the entire day looking at different wats (temples), including the modern but beautiful White Temple, plus the very interesting Hilltribe Museum. In the evening,  I had a look around the night market,  where I met a German couple with which I shared a meal at one of the many small food stalls and many stories.
Having seen most of what Chiang Rai offers yesterday,  I decided to give the bus to Chiang Mai a miss and instead take the slow route by boat to Thaton,  a small village northwest from Chiang Rai. The longtail boat only leaves once a day at 10.30am from the pier 2-3 kilometres outside the city centre. Walking there took a little longer than I had thought it would, and I was surprised to find at least a dozen other Farangs waiting at the pier - on the internet it had sounded like very few ever took this blast in this direction (instead taking it downriver on the way from Chiang Mai). I paid the 350 Baht (a lot more than the bus fare,  but worth it) and soon after,  we were told to board the longtail boat.  There were no seats,  only small cushions,  and we half-lay, half-sat next to each other,  heads and feet alternating. It was not the most comfortable way to travel,  especially when trying to take pictures from this low position. Despite their picturesque look,  longtail boats are quite noisy. With twelve people,  the boat was full and lay deep in the water. From time to time,  especially when passing one of the many rapids,  water sprayed over us. Still,  after leaving the city behind,  we passed through some beautiful landscapes.
After about an hour,  we arrived in Ruammit, a Karen village. They are the only hill tribe that use elephants,  and these are waiting for us to feed them bananas and sugarcane pieces (great feeling to have an elephant nudge you with its trunk to get your attention). It was a very touristy place,  it's main purpose seemed to make money from selling souvenirs and elephant rides.
Our captain had given us ten minutes,  but when I returned to the boat,  my backpack had been loaded into another one. Only two more people (French, who seemed to assume that everyone spoke their language,  including the Thai captain) sat in this new blog at,  and this time, we had proper seats.  From now on,  the nice part of the journey started.  With so few people on board,  we were much faster (and drier) and could move a bit to take pictures.  From time to time,  we passed another village,  often hidden behind trees,  but during most of the journey,  there was nothing but jungle,  hills and the river.
The fresh, humid air carried the aromas of the jungle to us,  sweet and heavy smells of flowers with the occasional whiff of fishy odour. Even when nothing but forest surrounded us, sometimes there were subtle signs of human civilization: a few bamboo stalks bound together, signs carved in river stones,  a small track winding up a hill,  a golden chedi in the distance.
Even though the journey took a total of about four hours (it's a little less downstream), I never got bored and was almost disappointed when we reached the village ofThaton.
There, having found a cheap guest house (Naam Waan, 200 Baht/night), I began the long trek up Wat Thaton. The temple is special in that it stretches of over nine different levels,  each one higher than the next and each of them containing a shrine, Buddha statue,  stupa/chedi or prayer hall. Each level also offers breathtaking views of the plains of Thaton and the mountainous valleys towards Myanmar. According to Lonely Planet,  it's three kilometres from the base to the ninth level,  but because of the often very steep ascents it takes at least an hour to get to the top there.  But it's certainly worth it,  this is probably my favourite temple in Thailand so far. The ninth level is a beautiful white chedi, inside there are hundreds of Buddha statues and other works of Buddhist art. A silver ramp circles up and up, first to a second gallery,  then to an outside viewing platform.  I was lucky in that the sun was just setting,  rewarding me with great light for taking photographs. Up there,  I met a group of Thai soldiers and officers, but otherwise there were almost no people but monks around,  adding to the serene atmosphere. 
I'm thinking of climbing up there again tomorrow morning before soaking in the hot springs near Fang.
The top level chedi
View over Thaton

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