Chiang Mai & Northern Laos
Take the train north from Bangkok and Thailand will gradually reveal its different faces in snapshots through the dusty window: the high-rises giving way to slums that crowd the railway line, the hoardes of monkeys clambering over the ruined temples of Lopburi, the northern mountains and rice paddies made golden by the setting sun.
As if this wasn't enough of an introduction to Thailand, a friendly steward stops by periodically with warm rice and a curry whose fire radiates to your very bones.
If you book far enough ahead you can do this journey overnight on one of Thailand's new sleeper trains, but it would be a shame to miss the views.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's second-largest city but feels a world away from the frenetic energy of Bangkok. Host to some of the most beautiful temples and exquisite food in the country, its heart beats at a gentler pace. We're staying five minutes outside the old city, in a homestay run by a German expat and his Thai wife. They bring us round each morning with a gloriously hearty congee (rice porridge) and offer homecooked Thai delicacies in the evening. The neighbourhood streets overflow with lush greenery and bright flowers.
Armed with maybe half a dozen conflicting recommendations from enthusiastic locals, we started exploring Chiang Mai's famous temples. One popular activity is the 'Monk Chat,' an opportunity for the Buddhist monks to improve their English in conversation with tourists. I have two that could hardly contrast more: an intense and somewhat protracted morning lecture about the minutiae of Buddhist precepts, and a rather less penetrating exchange with a 20 year-old monk who admitted he couldn't wait to cast his robes aside and pursue his dream of acting (and meeting girls).
By means of a contrast, we spend the evening at one of Thailand's famous cabaret shows. "Kathoey" transgender performers have been a fixture of Thai culture for generations and part of the country's LGBTQ+ friendly appeal. Though acceptance within Thailand is not universal, in the big cities there is a strong community and an appreciative audience. The show is slick, witty and joyful.
It's New Year's Eve and crowds have started to gather along the banks of Chiang Mai's ancient moat, in anticipation of one of the city's great traditions. Sure enough, the first lanterns soon begin to rise into the clear night sky. By the time the countdown starts, this giant constellation can be seen snaking for miles, carried north by a soft breeze. Locals and tourists alike seem to be held in its spell.
Later that morning we part reluctantly with the sights and smells of Chiang Mai and head towards Laos. Backpackers on a budget often make this journey aboard a two-day "slow boat" along the Mekong, setting sail at the border town of Huay Xai and arriving at Luang Prabang the following evening after a night's accommodation en route. For the short of time or the short of patience, Lao Airlines flies a daily turboprop, taking around an hour.
The least developed of the nations on our journey, Laos is a small, mountainous landlocked country still struggling with the consequences of the "Secret War," the carpet-bombing on an unimaginable scale by US forces during the conflict with Vietnam. It is a communist, one-party state that is nevertheless starting to open up to investment by foreign powers that see its untapped potential. In 2016, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit. Four years later, the wildly expensive Boten-Vientiane railway connected Laos with China by rail for the first time.
After a night in Luang Prabang (more in Part Two), we find ourselves crammed into a minivan for a 3.5 hour journey negotiating the cracks and potholes on the road to Nong Khiaw, a small riverside town nestled among the immense limestone karsts of northern Laos. We break down at one point, but one of the tourists on board, a convivial giant of a man from Switzerland, turns out to be something of an engineer and obligingly wrestles the defective part back into shape.
This part of Laos is craggy and magnificent, sparsely populated, poor. Locals are adapting to a steady increase of tourism since the easing of pandemic restrictions. On our walk through the town we pass a young woman running a currency exchange service from her small flat, some kids playing on the bed in the corner. The town's hotels and bars, each offering some version of the spectacular view over the Nam Ou river, are starting to fill up once more.
You could happily spend a few days here, maybe taking one of the gentler hikes or savouring the views with a Beerlao and some of the fragrant purple sticky rice from the local mountain tribes. Many use Nong Khiaw as a base for one of the many adventurous excursions on offer. For us it's the gateway to the remote village of Muang Ngoy, accessible only by boat and just about as far from Western civilisation as we've ever been.
Information about Muang Ngoy is scarce and accommodation impossible to book ahead of time. We're told to just take the first boat of the day and to talk to the waiting hosts at the pier. I read online that a lady called Nicksa offers waterside bungalows and excellent home-cooked food so I ask around and am introduced. She offers us a choice of simple huts and cooks us a rich and hearty fried rice in the evening.
The next morning we awake at dawn to a strange and unfamiliar soundtrack. The typical Laotian alarm call of crowing roosters is fused with something quite ethereal: the chanting of the monks at alms giving. Even here there is a temple and the daily giving of alms (typically rice) is a solemn part of the villagers' daily ritual.
We try the path that leads to the tiny Ban Na and Huay Bo villages and their rice paddies. As we pass the school we see a group of kids playing outside, one triumphantly holding aloft the body of a snake, dangling between a pair of sticks. My travel companion is distinctly unthrilled by this development and pulls us down a side road, only to find ourselves face to face with a pair of furious-looking water buffalo. We opt to return meekly to the safety of the village and the promise of a cold Beerlao by the river.
We await our return boat and the next steps on our journey: five nights in the magnificent ancient city of Luang Prabang, then into Cambodia to experience the temples of Angkor and southern shores of Kampot and Kep.
If you've made it this far, thank you. I hope you'll return for Part Two. To reward your efforts, I will leave you in the company of these splendid Thai cats:
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