The border at Huay Xai, Laos was hectic with people of all ages crossing from Thailand into Laos. Most people use Thailand as a base and cross over to Laos for a few days. I used my entire one-month visa and felt like I rushed through. After stamping out of Laos I walked down to the river and paid a small boat to ferry me across the Mekong to the Thai side. Visas for Thailand are free for just about everyone and the process was easy. I shared a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled taxi/motorcycle) to the bus station and literally ran and hopped on the bus leaving as I arrived. The bus was almost empty and was hauling no produce or livestock–shocking after one month in Laos.
Two hours later I arrived in Chiang Rai, a city in Northeast Thailand. Most people skip this city but I felt the need to settle down in Thailand and get some Western culture in my system before going any further. Walking from the bus station I stopped and asked a man sitting outside a Belgium restaurant for recommendations on where to stay. He suggested I walk out of the town center to a particular hotel. I found it overpriced and grungy but nearby another hotel which turned out to be great. There was a restaurant and courtyard with tables and hammocks but the best part was the rooms. I stayed in two different rooms–one was a private building with a mirrored vanity decorated with animal heads and rifles. The second had a small gravel patio and huge bunk beds. Both had their own bathrooms with gravel floor and plants growing around the fixtures. Although it might sound strange, I was really happy to be surrounded by decoration. The brightly colored walls were enough to make my day after five months of white walls.
One of my rooms in Chiang Rai–the bed, bathroom and strangely elevated squat toilet.
Chiang Rai was really a culture shock for me. Nobody looked at me. Schoolchildren in scout uniforms walked by me with no expression–I was nothing special there. Although I spent most of my time at the bookstore using my credit card, 7-11 eating a slurpee and Swensons eating double scoops of real ice cream I did see a few wats. The wats in Thailand are similar to Laos but cleaner and, although intricately decorated, very sterile. Better than wat-visits is the night market. Every night a market sets up near the bus station selling mostly tourist souvenirs. However, a large area is set up with chairs and tables where vendors sell pad thai, papaya shakes or seafood. Locals crowd the area and eat with their families while performers danced on stage. Many of the performers were over the top in feathered headdresses and incredible lip syncing. I couldn’t tell if most of them were male or female–Thai men make beautiful women. Someone theorized that we were seeing more talent because so many people had fled the islands after the tsunami and were looking for work in the North. In any case, it was a great excuse for cheap food and free entertainment.
I loved the food and anonymity but after a few days I was itching for some adventure. A man I’d met in Luang Prabang told me about a town named Kengtung in Myanmar where I would find great quality hill tribe handicrafts. Looking on a map, I realized it was accessible from Chiang Rai. My hotel owner told me I didn’t need to arrange a visa in advance and I decided to hop across to Myanmar for a look.