Tuesday 13 July 2010

The Real Amazing Thailand ... not on the tourist map.

Every now and again in a traveller's life there's a day that stands out as a 'real' travel experience, because it's not scripted, not planned, completely spontaneous and utterly authentic. I was about to have one of those days as we continued our motor bike tour of northern Thailand ...

Phil and I fired up the motorcycles after a photo opportunity at the huge golden Buddha who sits serenely on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle. The plan was now to follow the Mekong River around as we tracked east on the 4007, keeping the mighty muddy river on our left. Its levels fluctuate vastly depending on the season, and now it was over 7m deep, considered a level at which it gets 'interesting' as it churns its way across from Yunnan all the way up in China through the Indochina countries to finally disgorge itself in Vietnam.

Before too long we were passing through Chiang Khong, the well known border town where backpackers and 'visa runners' gorge noodles and hop on ferries across to Laos. Every now and again the ridge would rise, and the jungle would open itself up to a wondrous view of the river, with boats fast and slow playing their trade against the current, and the Laos jungle holding tightly onto whatever secrets it keeps.

We picked up the 1155 and tracked the Mekong a little more until we came to a T-junction near Wiang Kaen (the eastern most district of Chiang Rai province). I turned right. But after 100 metres, I pulled over. Something didn't feel right. Should we have gone left? (The signage in Thai offered no clue, of course! One squiggle pretty much looks like another.)

We U-turned then found the road getting smaller and smaller until we came across a very sleepy village. This was definitely not the right road either. What the ... ?

I pulled up outside a house/shed to consult my map. No sooner had I switched off the ignition than there was a beaming Thai face right next to me, offering a glass of whiskey. I beamed and declined with thanks. It was not quite 11am. By the time Phil had pulled up, this guy was pointing across to this shaded carport-like shed where I could see about half a dozen of his mates sitting in a circle, with several bottles of Sam Song Whiskey in front of them.

They motioned us to join them. We exchanged greetings. With sign language and my sketchy Thai I tried to signal where we were supposed to be going. They laughed. Have a drink, they said. Phil is a teetotaller, so I had to take one for the team. I can't stand bloody whiskey. Not even at night. Aaargh! NASA would be interested in this stuff. Have another they insisted.

These guys were local pomelo farmers, finished their morning shift. Sitting around on the dirt floor, slicing, dicing, cubing, and julienning vegetables all to go into a huge pot for lunch. I hadn't even noticed till then, all their womenfolk were sitting off to the side, gas-bagging, while the men prepared the food. This is apparently very common in northern Thailand rural areas (much like an Aussie BBQ really.)

Have another drink. Hahaha. There was no taking 'no' for an answer because they didn't even ask the question, just topped up the glass. And topped it up, and topped it up.

They started handing around some spicy minced pork while the main dish was boiling off on a little fire nearby. One of the guys lifted the lid, and -- oh my god! -- it was like something from Lord of the Rings. A flaming pig's head smiled at me from the bottom of the pot. I mean a whole damn head, ears, snout and all. I swear it winked at me. Jing jing!

Stay for lunch they said. Well, yeah OK, why not? After all the sun was belting down and this was so pleasant to be spending a really fun time trying to negotiate across cultures with uproarious results, whatever was said or charaded.

Then these hard young men did something truly touching. A couple of them went out, grabbed some cardboard sheets, and covered our motor bikes with them so they wouldn't get too hot. A caring gesture.

Soon after, a 4WD pulled up, and a most glamourous leggy lass sidled out. One of the guys' sister, who ran a flower market in Chiang Mai. Suddenly it was Phil, and not the pig in the pot, who was all ears! Within a few minutes he was announcing that they would be getting married. Uproarious laughter from the gang.

Lunch was not too soon, and the pork, vegetables, rice and soup went down a treat. 'Drink more whiss-a-key, Khun Stu.' One more for the team.. Aaargh!

As the heat of the day pounded on the roof, and the humidity reached triple if not quadruple figures, I could feel my energy sapping. Someone had turned up the gravity. Phil was still fine-tuning the wedding details in his inimitable gregarious style; he was doing fine with the ladies.

In a moment of clarity I realised we had a lot of kilometres yet to go. We had to get out of here while I was still able. I went to slip some money to our gracious host (a nominal sum just to cover the whiss-a-key and the food, not a big showy farang amount). It was summarily declined.No, wouldn't hear of it. This was not about money it was about friendship. 'Thailand Australia friends, number one.' We made our excuses and left, to a big farewell of waves and laughs.

While the details of that day are not so clear, thanks to the Sang Som, I'll always remember it. I'm ashamed to say the whiskey wiped the guys' names from my memory. And Phil I'm sure still dreams about whats-her-name. But I'll never forget the day I took a wrong turn and discovered the real Amazing Thailand.

I've marked it on my GPS.

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