White water and white knuckles!

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After conking out at the river camp we headed onwards to our date with adventure! White water rafting on the river, something I have never done before, so why not try it in the middle of nowhere with relatively little health and safety . . .

We are now back down the mountain, having steadily descended the day before and we’re heading to the river.

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On route we spot more elephants (always exciting) and a large discarded snake skin (not so cool – for me anyway)

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Bit more of a scamble, a nice little beach and then we arrive riverside.

DSCF0167 All looking rather sedate and lovely at the moment.  .. .

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Then we’re helmet on, quick demo of how to hold a paddle and what to do if we tip out of the boat, then we’re off!

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Not too sure about it all to be honest . . .

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Although I am not initially sure about the whole idea (as evidenced by the face above) I am soon overtaken by an adrenaline fuelled competitive streak that sees me force our boat of four, into a race with all other boats (with more people in them!) and we win!!!

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After that we have a gentle float on a bamboo raft to finish off the day, before heading back to Chiang Mai.

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By the way, here’s how cool we looked from the shore!!

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Elephant riding!

In an unheard of move, I made the decision to take me and the man on a three day trekking trip while in Thailand. This included elephant riding, white water rafting and a short bamboo raft trip too.

We booked before we left home with Travel Hub. A company I can highly recommend, three days, including all activities, two nights accommodation in hill tribe huts and food, came to an incredibly cheap £60 for the two of us.

The trip would take us into the Mae Taeng area to the North East of Chaing Mai. A relatively unspoilt spot that would take us into the jungle and almost 1,200 metres above sea level for our first night’s stay!

Day one, we’re picked up from our hotel in an open backed jeep and meet, for the first time, our slightly crazy guide Abba and his “son”, a tiny squirrel that lives on his shoulder.

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After picking up the rest of our small trekking team – two French, two French Canadians and a Glaswegian – we headed for our first stop. Elephants!

Now I’ve never actually ridden a elephant before, and was not entirely sure whether I wanted to. There is always the worry that they may be ill treated.

However, our majestic beasts looked very well cared for and seemed quite content to plod along, with the occasional banana as motivation.

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They really are enormous animals, even though I’ve seen them on TV, it still doesn’t prepare you for the reality of their scale! We had to climb up steps into a wooden hut on stilts and then onto our leviathan ride.

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Here we are, resplendent on our grey wrinkly stead!!! With their long eyelashes and lined faces, they seem like world weary old people who have seen a fair few excitable tourists come and go.

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Now it wasn’t exactly a comfortable ride! Perched on our tiny little seats, with only a very low rail to stop us from dropping off the edge, we rolled from side to side with every ponderous step!

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Here’s some of the stunning scenery we meandered past at a leisurely pace.

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Banana plants in the foreground really made you feel tropical, while the hills in the distance hint at the walking yet to come.

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We had to cling on for dear life as our ponderous steads plodded onwards and if our ride had decided to make a break for it we would have been pretty much stuffed!

As it was we reached the end of our half hour ride relatively unscathed, although there was a unsettling moment when we had to go down a rather steep slope and we very nearly shot over the elephants head as we went down!

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Even although I am above the wrinkly one I am slightly wary, hence the delicate little pat I bestow upon it and the slightly manic grin

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They are very special creatures though, for all my joking. I rank them alongside unicorns and yetis – they are almost unbelievable! You have to pinch yourself to realise that you are actually standing next to one.

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Next up a hair raising river crossing and we start the hike . . . .

Long neck Karen

Lastly on our jam packed day trip of Chiang Rai and northern Thailand is one of the more controversial elements of the trip. A visit to the Long Necked Karen tribe. These people fled from Burma in the 1980s and 1990s due to the military regime.

This is some thing that on one hand I desperately wanted to see because of the interesting characteristics and distinctive look of the tribe.

However on the other hand I have heard that it is little more than a human zoo with the people basically unable to leave due to their refugee status and money making potential.

We decided, in the end to visit and see for ourselves.

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The light was beginning to fade as we entered the village and the rain was setting in, so the ladies had all retired inside their wooden huts and donned jumpers and sweaters.

However, their distinctive neck ornamentation is still very much in evidence. Here are some of the tribal elders, including the woman with the most rings in the village.

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Women of the Long neck Karen or Padaung tribe begin wearing rings around the age of five.

They are not, as I originally thought, individual rings, but actually one long length of wire that is carefully coiled around the neck.

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Over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage.

The neck itself is not lengthened; the appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle. They also sometimes wear coils on their legs, just below the knees.

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There has been concern about the treatment of these tribes in Northern Thailand due to refusal to allow the registered  refugees to take up offers of resettlement in developing countries.

The tribes have made a lot of money for unscrupulous business men who charge people to visit the villages. I believe the resettlement policy is being relaxed and some people have since  left for other countries.

I did feel uncomfortable visiting the village I have to admit. The women seemed unhappy at having to spin and smile for tourists.

They seemed like bright butterflies trapped in a scenic cage. It may have been the end of a long day for them, or it might have hinted at a deeper unease.

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Mae Sai, as far north as you go

Mae Sai is the northernmost district of Chiang Rai and indeed Thailand. The town of Mae Sai is a major border crossing between Thailand and Burma.

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We were able to see the border, tantalisingly close, just a five minute walk across a bridge! As it was, here’s the nearest we got to the enigmatic country of Myanmar.

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Of course, there were also markets to be explored, but we only had a very short time before we headed off again, so here’s a whistlestop tour!

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I am always intrigued by the boxes, bags and packets of dried seeds, mushrooms and other exotic edibles.

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There’s always an elephant somewhere!

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As well as vendors carrying goods  . . .

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And here’s a few more stall holders. Some looking happier than others

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. . . . . apologies for the brevity of the post!

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Golden Triangle

After ooohing and ahhhhing at the White Temple (and having to be bodily dragged away from it) we headed onto the area known as the Golden Triangle.

It’s where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Historically the Golden Triangle has been an area well-known for the growing of opium, and apparently the name comes from a US State Department memo about the practice.

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Most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer.

We hopped on a boat to do a brief exploration of the area, which to be honest is a tiny bit boring!! The highlight for me was nipping across to a small island named Don Sao, belonging to Laos and getting a faux stamp in my passport (hey, I was in Laos, albeit for half an hour!)

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Got a picture of me next to another country sign? Check!!

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Here’s a few unfortunate animals in jars – snake, scorpion and gecko whisky. Blah!

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Not sure these would get through customs to be honest!

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Here’s the Laos immigration official giving me my faux stamp! (loving the beer bottle next to him)

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Next up we get as far North as its possible to go in Thailand. and more markets.

Fantasy at Wat Rong Khun

Next up is the treat I had been waiting for . . .  . Wat Rong Khun – better known to tourists as the White Temple.

It’s a modern, unconventional Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai that simmers in the sunlight as if it’s made of snow.

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I first heard about the temple during my first visit to Thailand about four years ago but didn’t have chance to see it.

Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997 this is no traditional temple. It’s decorated with murals of modern day superheros, villains and events such as superman, Bin Laden, the burning trade towers and other iconic modern day images.

The perils of booze are advertised in the most terrifying way ever while shrunken heads of Pinhead and other monsters swing in the breeze. Meanwhile Predator attempts to extricate itself from the ground much to the terror of small children.

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It’s a fairy tale, sugar spun white confection of weirdness with a dark under belly.

Much of the temple’s messages refer to escaping earthly desires and greed and moving towards the sublime through Buddhist teachings. To physically demonstrate this you have to cross a sea of beseeching hands in purgatory, over the bridge to nirvana.

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Departing from the usual gold of traditional Thai temples, Chalermchai chose to construct the temple in white, representing the purity of Lord Buddha. The results seem like surreal scenes moulded out of cake icing!

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The twinkling mirrors embedded in the structure reflect the sunlight, reminding visitors of Buddha’s wisdom shining out across the world. (Plus some rather creepy demons coming at you too!)

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Another interesting feature of the temple are the intricate, beautiful prayer trees that are made up of thousands of delicate metallic chimes with wishes and hopes written on them.

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The temple shimmers under the blue skies. An other worldly vision of loveliness.

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While most of the temple is white, the designer chose to make the toilet block gold! It’s all to do with people and their worldly desires and needs! (Not sure what colour the actual loo roll was!)

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Hot springs and heading north.

Another of our day trips from Chiang Mai was a visit to the most Northern most point of Thailand – Mae Sai, via the Golden Triangle – comprising Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

First up is a whistle stop tour of one of the Chiang Rai hot springs (and by goodness these were HOT!)

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You can buy eggs to literally boil in their steamy depths! Hence the pained grimaces on our faces!

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There’s a distinctly eggy / sulphur smell in the air when you get close to the geyser.

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Next up we headed to Wat Rong Khun, the incredible, blinding, all white temple that I have been wanting to see for years! Expect A LOT of photos!

Thai Temple architecture

Here’s a final look at the colourful joy that is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. So let’s take yet another look at some of the sparkly gold, red, green and blue decorations.

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In the guise of this blog being semi educational (and not just LOADS of my holiday snaps!!) here’s a bit of a breakneck tour about some of the most commonly occuring elements of Thai temple architecture for you.

Buddhist temples in Thailand are known as wats meaning ‘an enclosure’. A temple has an enclosing wall that divides the secular and the spiritual worlds.

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Multiple roof tiers are an important, instantly recognisable element of the Thai temple – above is a typical example. Two or three tiers are most often used, but some royal temples have four.

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Most decorations are attached to the bargeboard – the long, thin panel on the edge of the roof at the gable ends.The decorative structure is called the lamyong. Above to the right is a spectacular shiny example.

The lamyong is made into a undulating shape evoking the serpentine nāga. Its blade-like end, called bai raka, are apparently suggestive of the feathers of Garuda – a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

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During the 10th century, Thai Theravada Buddhism and Hindu cultures merged, and Hindu elements were introduced into Thai iconography which is why you’ll see a mixture of both.

Popular figures include the four-armed figure of Vishnu; the garuda – half man, half bird; the eight-armed Shiva; elephant-headed Ganesh; the nāga, which appears as a snake, dragon or cobra; and the ghost-banishing giant Yaksha.

An example of a Yaksha is below and is a common, colourful theme in Thai temple architecture. You can see huge, epic versions in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

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Below you can also see a pair of golden Apsara, another frequent decorative motif. These are the female spirits of the clouds and waters who appear in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

They specialise in dancing and can be found decorating temples in countries such as Cambodia and India.

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Doi Suthep is an astonishing temple complex, perched high on the mountain side. Its site was established, according to legend, by a white elephant, bearing a sacred relic of Buddha, choosing the site.

Whatever the reason it is a cornucopia of architecture, colour and glitz. With delicate detailing covering every inch of the buildings.

It’s a temple lovers dream! Here’s some pics of the gorgeous detailing, including a replica of the original Emerald Buddha that used to be housed in the temple.

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As you wander the temple complex you’ll come across lots of unusual and eye catching details. The central chedi is a blindingly gorgeous sight.

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It’s surrounded by other beautiful details such as red and gold patterned wood

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There are also prayer bells where people write their heartfelt wishes on the delicate dangling decorations.

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The temple complex is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu mythology so you’ll see a variety of different religious iconology.

Below are temple offerings of money, a Hindu multi armed Ganesh style god and a large prayer gong.

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The temple relies on donations in order to keep going and to help the monks who live there all year round. So you’ll find plenty of places to place your spare change.

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These range from delicate silver cups to adorable mini monks!

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These pair have more than a passing resemblance to my erstwhile travelling companion . .

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Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a Theravada Buddhist temple perched high on a mountain side .

The temple is often referred to as “Doi Suthep” although this is actually the name of the mountain it is located on. The temple is about nine miles out of Chiang Mai and it’s a sacred site to many Thai people.

To reach the temple you have to take an incredibly steep, winding mountain track with amazing views as it’s about 3,500 feet above sea level .

Then you can either climb up the 306 steps to reach the temple or whizz up in a tram . . . here’s the ornate Naga steps

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The temple is stuffed to the gills with gaudy, glittering ornamentation, from towering demons to a sacred jackfruit tree wrapped in colourful cloth to pay tribute to the spirits.

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According to legend a relic, believed to be part of Buddha’s shoulder bone, was put on the back of a white elephant which was released in the jungle.

The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep, at the time called Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain), trumpeted three times before kneeling. It was interpreted as a sign and King Nu Naone ordered the construction of a temple at the site.

One of the main sights is the blinding, glittering golden Pagoda of the Holy Relic that houses the relic of Buddha. Worshippers circle the pagoda to pay their respects.

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A white elephant statue, the symbol of the elephant who carried the Buddha’s relic to the hilltop, guards the pagoda and welcomes the visitors. You can see it below, along with the sacred jackfruit tree, wrapped in colourful cloth.

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Because there’s so much to see. I’ll continue in another post!