The early morning rays of the sun are barely creeping through my apartment window when my alarm buzzes.
Time to get up.
It’s a Saturday, and I am awake at 6 a.m. for a good reason: I am going on my first journey outside of Chiang Mai. Today, I’m hopping into a Top North minivan along with two friends, and heading out for a 13-hour tour of the Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle (Myanmar and Laos) area. You can book a Chiang Mai hotel and start the tour from this city like me.
We hop into our van, which is filled with other travelers, and begin our journey.
The first stop, around 8 a.m., is a hot spring about 45 minutes outside of town. In my mind, I envision a bubbling, sulfur brook surrounded by lush jungle vegetation.
It is nothing like that. Not even remotely.
Instead, there are two little areas with water, both not natural-looking at all. Essentially, a large tourist area has been created around these two warm waters, which are now manicured and contained in stone casings. Around the hot springs are little huts hawking everything from food and coffee to T-shirts, bags, and other random souvenirs. It’s a well-done tourist trap with some water features. That’s it.
Fortunately, the hot springs aren’t really on my radar in terms of things I want to see. What I care about is the next stop: the White Temple, or Wat Ron Khung.
The intricate temple began construction in 1997 and is still a work-in-progress today. Created by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is designed to be open to all and to symbolize the passage into heaven, including passing through hell. The details here are breathtaking — from the twirls of smoke on the “no smoking” signs to the hands reaching up from the pits of hell as visitors walk across a white bridge towards the temple.
Even inside the temple, which was under construction when I visited, details abound. The murals, which have sparked some debate, further show heaven and hell, tying the concept to today and news of the world. Painted on the walls is the tragic 9/11, Superman and more.
We stand, silent, taking in these images for a moment before we notice a wax monk sitting at the head of the room.
But, it seems to fit with everything else.
The next stop for us is the Karen hill tribe village.
After what seems like forever in the van, we head off the main road and down a windy path to a village with one dirt road. Only, it isn’t really a village at all. It’s more like some huts with villagers selling their goods, encouraging us to buy, buy, buy.
I don’t even take my camera out when we visit the long neck tribe. It just feels like we are exploiting them as they sit there, brass encircling their necks, arms, knees, and smiling for photos. Our guide even pulls out a picture showing us what they look like when they sleep.
I’m not impressed.
In fact, if there was one aspect of the trip I would skip, it would be this. I know there are other ways to support hill tribes and simply heading to a remote spot where they set up shop and are on display for tourists isn’t my idea of how it should be done.
“I hate this,” I whisper to my friend as some of our tour group stops to take photos with the token twins in the tribe. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
My friend nods her head, rolls her eyes and together, we walk back across the rickety bamboo bridge to where a litter of puppies are curled up.
Yeah, we’d rather play with puppies than “ooh” and “ahh” at hill tribe people who essentially are a tourist attraction.
After we don’t buy anything at the “village,” we journey onward to the Golden Triangle. What used to be vast opium fields, today the area is simply where three countries — Thailand, Myanmar and Laos — converge.
Its got casinos, huge golden buddhas and a quick boat tour that has a stop on an island in Laos where people can drink Laos beer, try the whisky with dead animals in it, or shop for “genuine fakes.”
We hand over our boat ticket and when we get back on the boat, the ticket is returned with a Laos stamp on it.
Again, not impressed. But, the boat ride is nice and I love the idea of straddling three different countries at once.
Finally, we head to Mesai on the border of Myanmar. Typically, this is where people who need to do border runs head to get their stamp in and out. We are given one whole hour (compared to the 30 minutes we normally have at each spot) to shop (of course). But, its sweltering hot and the shops are all offering the same goods for the same prices.
It’s nearly 4:30 p.m. when we finally head back towards Chiang Mai from the Chiang Rai region. We’ve got a four-plus hour drive back to the city and the rain clouds are hovering. Eventually, they give way to thunderstorms, which at least lull me to sleep for a quick bit.
By the time we get back to Chiang Mai, I’m well-rested (hey, there were ample opportunities to nap in the van during the 14-hour day) and a bit disappointed in the experience.
The bottom line: I would not do the tour again. While the tour guide is great, the tour itself if lacking. It seems there are plenty of tour operators all offering the same itinerary. But, not enough time is given at the various places to explore. And, most of the time is spent on the bus. I’d prefer to head simply to Chiang Rai for two days and explore the area that way, instead of being ushered around with time limits and extensive periods sitting on a bus.