Monday 10 January 2011

Pink elephants on the Kok River

"The skipper of the boat only has one arm. And one eye," says Roger, an American I'd met in Chiang Rai through a mutual friend. "Oh, and he's running late because he's been up at the Lahu village smoking opium all night."

Is it too late to back out??? Unfortunately I've already committed to a day trip on Roger's long-tail boat buzzing up the 130km Kok River from Chiang Rai city past Thaton on the Burma border. There's no going back now ...

The Kok River (no sniggering please) is flowing pretty strongly as we load essential supplies (life jackets, Doritos and a bottle of Penfold's Bin 2 shiraz) onto 'The Royal Princess'. The pointy-as-a-pencil vessel is so named because the Royal daughter did in fact cruise on this very boat many years ago. Roger shows me photos. Since then it was allowed to fall into disrepair and was rotting away in a garage until Roger espied it, bought it, and restored it.

It is now resplendent in the colours of the Thai flag, and back to original condition. All with the exception of the original seat and cushion which now serves as an altar in the skipper Sadek's house and is resolutely not for sale.

Throw cushions serve to pad the basic wooden benches as the 2.5 litre Toyota 16-valve donk drives us throatily upstream.

The countryside, primary jungle and teak forest for the most part, is the kind of wild countryside preferred by Hollywood directors looking for a Vietnam War movie location. After an hour we are heading for what look like half-submerged grey rocks. Lookout Sadek! On closer inspection they're half-submerged elephants.(I wonder if Sadek is seeing them as grey or pink ones?)

Many tourists to Chiang Rai come to this elephant camp at the Karen tribal village of Ruammit. Here they used to work the elephants in logging the forests. Now the elephants contentedly splash around in the water, lugging tourists -- whose weight they hardly feel -- along on their backs.

The second part of most tourists' day-trip is usually to the waterfalls and hot springs, which appear soon on our left, where you can enjoy some natural hydrotherapy, a massage, and a meal.

A meal of a different sort is being prepared just around the corner. A group of villagers have a dog spit-roasting over a fire. Jing jing! None for me thanks, I'll just, er, nibble on these Doritos.

We do however pull up at a bridge for lunch, and Sadek adeptly hops out, pulls the boat in, and secures it with a rope and several knots, all with his one good arm. The beef noodles run us 25 baht a bowl and should be Michelin-rated.

We pass the village where Sadek passed the previous night so blissfully. There are other small Akkha and Lahu villages. The water gets choppier. Some serious rapids froth with fury. Sadek picks his line (which is better than picking his nose, I guess).

Burmese-style temple on the river bank
Wow! A massive 3-pointed Burmese style temple looms out of the jungle. Bamboo, kingfishers and water buffalo aplenty mark our passage westward to the rather quaint town of Thaton.

Here, the Thaton Chalet hotel adjacent the big bridge looks more like a slice of Cambridge. And a rather eccentric Kiwi schoolteacher sells ice-creams at a cafe. Oranges and mangoes from nearby farms are presented for sale in stall after stall.

An incredible number of behemoth Buddhist figures and intricate temples and stupas dot the looming mountains. About a kilometre further there is a simple rope strung across the river. "Antalai! Antalai!" calls out border guard Det Nong from the shore. Danger! Danger!

We have reached the 3km No Man's Land which marks the border between Thailand and Burma. We're tempted to go further but are not permitted to pass. "Boom, boom, boom!" Det Nong graphically illustrates machine gun fire if we push on further. I spy a Burmese army post on the hilltop nearby.

Sagely, we go ashore, and savour the Bin 2 while marvelling that here we are at the very end of Thailand, where the Kok River has its source in the turbulent Shan States beyond.

A great day trip, with great wildlife and a few hairy moments. But all in all, pretty armless. Sorry, harmless.

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