Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Stuck" in Chiang Mai

Nathan had read that applying for our Chinese visa was a bit easier if we did it in Chiang Mai rather than Bangkok- mostly due to the vastly reduced number of applicants.  That worked out nicely- since we were heading north and Chiang Mai was a city that we were looking forward to seeing.  From Ayutthaya, we took the overnight sleeper car arriving around 8 am.  The next day we set off to find the consulate office but it was closed up.  Apparently the hours are only 9-11:30.

We knew that we needed a few things for the visa like passport-sized photos, copies of our passport as well as a copy of our Thailand visa.  The following day, we went with everything we thought we needed, passed through the consulate security and picked up the application.  At that point, it was around 9 and we had just over two hours to complete the application and pull together the remaining items that were needed.  Thankfully, we found a coffee shop just next door to the consulate that had wifi- so we got to work on the remaining items.  We needed hotel reservations (along with the addresses and phone numbers for each location) and confirmation of our flight ticket into China.  I got to work on the reservations and Nate started researching flights that we could book and then cancel with no associated fee (since we really don't know exactly where and when we want to fly in).  We were short on time since the visa office would close soon.  We ran back to the office once we had everything we needed- but by then the office was full of people also racing against the looming deadline.  We took our number and waited- as we watched the time close in on 11:30...  With a few minutes to spare- we were called.  Our efforts were rejected- they need printed copies (which we had assumed but hoped that passing my tablet to the agent with the confirmations would work).  So, we returned on Monday.  This time, with printouts of our reservations.  Our applications were accepted for review!

The processing time is four full days unless you pay to expedite it.  The base cost is already very expensive at $150 so we chose the slower/cheapest option.  Unfortunately, your passport is part of the application process, so we were without them while awaiting approval.  In Thailand- and many other countries- you need your passport in order to make train reservations or to check into hotels- so we were "stuck" in lovely Chiang Mai for a few more days.  I extended our hotel reservation at Montrara Happy House which is a great little place just outside of the old city wall (the Tha Phae Gate- photo above) which is about $20 a night.  

I had really wanted to go further north into the mountains to visit Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle border area and the Mekong River for a couple of days.  Without our passports, that wasn't an option- so we signed up for a full-day tour.  We generally try and avoid tours because they are often an expensive way to do something that we can figure out on our own.  That and you're often shuttled to one tourist trap after the next- but in this case- we needed a tour to get there and for $30, it was a good deal. 

Here's the tour explanation and map. 

We saw that the first stop was at a hot springs so the night before- I set aside my bathing suit and towel.  Nate and I laughed because it's so hot in Thailand- that we couldn't picture lounging in the hot spring when it's 95 outside.  I laugh now that I had pictured the hotspring as a rural, undeveloped hot spring that somehow only our tour guide knew about.  As we pulled into what seemed to be the local county fair- I realized that we had reached the hot springs.  Rows and rows of tour vans crowded the parking lot with probably 80-100 sales stalls circling the lot.  Where was the hot spring? Oh- I guess this is it.  Just deep enough for your foot- swimsuits optional.  

Next we went to the Buddhist temple Wat Rong Khun or the "white temple" just outside of Chiang Rai.  This is a new construction which started in 1996 and is still on-going with an expected completion date of 2070.  It looks like something that should be in a  movie set.  

We were not allowed to take photos within the temple but there is a mural within with scenes of the twin towers burning, Michael Jackson in a Jetsons-like spacecraft, Hello Kitty, Angry Bird and many other contemporary pop-culture icons.  I think the premise being that if we are preoccupied with these modern distractions that we'll be grabbed by the hands from hell and demons that are reaching for us at the temple entrance.

Next- after a long lecture by our tour guide on the Golden's Triangle's opium, heroin and marijuana trade- we arrived at the Mekong River which separates Thailand, Laos and Burma.  We took a boat ride and were shown Opium Island where opium was sold along with the large casinos that stand in both Burma and Laos- attracting Thai people and tourists over the border since the casinos are illegal in Thailand.  I hadn't expected this- I was hoping to see locals fishing and living on the river.  While there was some of this- it was minimal.

One of the casinos.

We only saw a few boats on the Mekong.  We saw two boats like the one below.  These carry about 40 people from China on a two day trip.  Rooms are created within the boat by the sheets that you see hanging.  

Next we stopped on the Laos side- at a tourist market which was some type of special economic zone since we still used Thai baht there.  I was nervous about going because we didn't have our passport but our guide assured us that our photocopies would be fine.  The market's main specialty was whiskey which was immediately offered to us by our guide when we got off the boat.  I was open to it until I saw the ingredients...

Here's our guide showing the options which included: tiger penis, snake, scorpion or ginkgo infused whiskey.

Nate wasn't scared off.  He tried the ginkgo first and said it was very similar to moonshine.  Then he was feeling adventurous and tried the tiger penis whiskey.  I was thankful to capture the tasting in the below photos.  His expression in the second is perfect!

After the whiskey tasting we wandered around and checked out the opium pipes until it was time to get ferried back across the river.

Our next stop was the Thailand-Burma border- where we saw this marker, snapped a few photos of Burma and then hopped back in out crowded shuttle bus.

Looking into Burma.

There were three benches at the border- that all read the same message-

Our final stop was at the "long neck" tribe.  This is actually the Kayan tribe (of the Karen people), originally from Burma but are now refugees living on the border.  They are not permited to work within Thailand but have been allowed to set up a commercial village to sell their crafts.  The brass neck rings are only worn by the women- who start at age five.  As women age, they upgrade to longer coils.  These brass coils are incredibly heavy.  Rather than stretching the neck- the coils are so heavy that they cause the collarbone to collapse under the weight, making th neck look longer. 

Here are some photos walking into the tribal area.

Kayan women selling their crafts.

A young girl- already with quite a long coil.

An older woman with a much longer coil.

Now with our Chinese visa in hand- we are heading back to Bangkok to meet up with some friends!

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