Chiang Rai International Balloon Fiesta

From the White Temple south of Chiang Rai we travelled with Suzannah and James across country to Singha Park to visit the International Balloon Fiesta. We hadn’t been able to get much information about the Fiesta other than there was an evening event so we had not much idea of when to arrive. We were dropped at the entrance to the park mid afternoon and it’s a huge area so we had quite a long walk but it was delightful with the first section passing through colorful gardens.

By then streams of cars were entering the park and when we finally arrived at the venue for the balloons we found a huge area set up for a concert surrounded by food and other stalls. After wandering around there we headed to the top of a small rise overlooking a lake. A couple of balloons and baskets were on the grass so we settled down on the hillside to wait for the action.

To our absolute delight we found ourselves in the middle of the action. About thirty balloons were brought into the area and as soon they had sufficient space they were spread out onto the grass and inflated, initially with a large fan and then with the gas burner. Ground crew would help keep them in place until they were fully inflated and then, with the pilot on board and keeping gas topped up as necessary they would be dragged and floated to the end of the lake up wind of a series of rafts on the lake. More balloons would then have room to be inflated and follow in due course.

It was all seemed pretty chaotic and we sure wouldn’t be allowed to be that close to all the action in western countries. The pilots were in competition to drop balls or rings into targets on the rafts as they floated over so most of them stayed low and then were dragged back to the starting point for another attempt. Some escaped and floated high above the others, we couldn’t see where they ended up. Others didn’t even make it to the starting point as the balloons were so crowded they couldn’t move.

It was a wonderful spectacle and we took hundreds of photos as we watched with delight. An hour after it started the competition ended and the balloons were deflated. They would be back morning and evening for the next three days so hopefully those that hasn’t been able to get to the starting point would have more luck later. We skipped the concert and headed back to town with Suzannah and James to share an Indian meal, a change from the Thai food we’ve been eating since we arrived in Thailand.


Chiang Rai; The White, The Blue and The Black

On our second day in Chiang Rai Suzannah and James suggested we share a songthaew to visit Wat Rong Kung, better known as the White Temple and then to travel to Singha Park, the site for the annual International Balloon Fiesta.

The White Temple was built by the artist Ajarm Chalermchai who wanted to build the most beautiful temple in the world. It is an amazing spectacle, completely over the top and packed with tourists but still a must see place. Macabre sculptures of demons and other creatures, skulls and outstretched hands represent evil which is left behind when you enter the temple. The temple is white and includes many small mirrors and these represent purity and wisdom. The inside of the temple (no photography allowed unfortunately) is also amazing with beautiful paintings and an enormous Buddha.

Leaving the temple there are more amazing buildings and structures to wander around including a hall which looks as though it belongs on the top tier of a wedding cake and a gold building which is the most amazing toilet block I’ve ever seen.

Adjacent to the temple grounds there is a collection of original art work by Ajarm Chalermchai and it was fascinating, and also far less crowded. He is certainly an extremely talented artist and he was also responsible for the ornate clock tower in town we had dined beside the previous night. Photos of the Balloon Fiesta, and there are lots, are in a separate post.

On our final day in town Paul and I took a tuk tuk for a visit to two other major attractions near the city. The first was Wat Rong Seua Ten, better known as the Blue Temple. It was built by Phuttha Kabkae, a protege of Ajarm Chalermchai. While it’s not as large and glitzy as the White Temple we preferred this one, the blue’s were beautiful, the art-work fascinating, we were allowed to take photos inside the temple, and, much to our relief it was nowhere near as crowded.

From there we went further out of town to Baandam Museum. In Thai ‘baan’ means home our house and ‘dam’ means Black so of course it is simply called the ‘Black House’. It is a collection of buildings scattered around a garden and was created by Thawan Duchanee, an internationally acclaimed Thai artist. It’s another crowded tourist attraction and we filed through the first building and around several others. The buildings and carved wooden decorations are magnificent and interesting and the few art works we saw were also excellent but the collection of animal bones, skins and horns and quite a few of the abstract sculptures were less intriguing.

Perhaps we’d just had too many wonderful experiences in the past couple of days but we cut our visit short and returned to town to continue with our journey.

Chiang Rai City

After our wonderful trip down the river from Tha Ton we spent a busy three days and nights in the city of Chiang Rai. There was plenty to see in town and we took a couple of trips out of town to see some amazing sites. We took so many photos we’ve spread them over three blog posts.

After spending our first night in town in a guest house near Suzannah and James we decided we preferred a more central location and shifted the next morning. On our way to our new guest house we passed the local market. The flower displays were great with lots of flowers, possibly more than usual because it is almost Valentine’s day.

Most of the market stalls are inside a building and there we find fresh produce plus spices, freshly shredded coconut and meat. The meat looks very fresh but not sure how I’d cook the pig’s head.

Chiang Rai is not as attractive as Chiang Mai, it lacks the concentration of old buildings and the laneways we explored in the Chiang Mai ‘old town’. We found a few interesting buildings but also some dank places and the partly finished concrete bus station looks as though work has stalled permanently.

Paul’s iPad needed repair so we went to a huge shopping centre and waited while the repairs were completed. The ground floor had a large supermarket plus a huge food court with a wonderful array of food so it was easy to fill in the time. The oysters, soft shelled crabs and the bugs looked inviting but we chose some of the delicious Thai sausage flavored with coriander, garlic and chili. Sorry, no pictures, we ate it all too quickly.

The night market was much smaller than in Chiang Mai, easier to get around but without the same buzz and atmosphere. Instead of eating there we wandered through the streets to the clock tower and found a small place on the side of the road so we could watch the light show which happens three times each evening.

We joined up with Suzannah and James the next day to share a songthaew 15km south of town to visit Wat Rong Kung, more often simply called the White Temple and later we went to the International Balloon Fiesta. We took so many photos at each of these places they need a blog post each and our visits the next day to the Blue Temple and Black House will be included.

When all our sight seeing in Chiang Rai was complete our friendly tuk tuk driver dropped us off at the bus station, we picked up our luggage and cooled down with a delicious mango smoothie and some coconut and choc chip ice cream and waited for our pick-up for our visit into the country to the ‘Bamboo Nest’.

Mae Salong

Mae Salong Morning Market

Mae Salong sits high in the north west hills of Thailand very close to the border with Burma. It was settled by remnants of the Chinese army escaping after the Chinese civil war and many of the current inhabitants are descended from the Chinese soldiers. It’s only a short songthaew ride from the Mud House at Hloyo and we arrive mid morning, just in time for an excellent coffee from one of the numerous coffee shops in town. This area was in the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ and the source of opium but nowadays the hillsides crops are cherry orchards, oranges, delicious coffee and in particular oolong tea.

Mmmm, wonderful coffee in Mae Salong

We are opposite the hill tribe market and we take a look at the multi coloured craft work but space restricts our opportunity to buy. Some of the stall holders are dressed in their traditional Akha clothing and hope we will purchase from them in exchange for taking their photo. Stalls opposite sell dried beans, nuts, spices and much more providing another splash of colour.

The centre of the town is a kilometre or so further along, an easy walk with our backpacks, and it gives us a chance to check out the buildings. We find a guest house with well priced rooms which are spotless, comfortable and have a balcony overlooking the lower part of the town. After settling in we continue our walk along the very quiet main road and find a restaurant for lunch. We fancy some chicken and it is no problem for the restaurant owner to cross the road to a stall barbecuing delicious chickens and include it in our meal.


Wat Santikhiri sits high on the hillside above the town centre. There are 718 steps to the base of the temple and although we climbed higher to the temple above Tha Ton it was spread over many levels and much of the climb was up a track or road so it gave us ample opportunity to rest. We decide we’ve seen lots of temples and will see lots more so we admire this one from afar rather than tackling the steep climb.

Next morning we visit the small morning market. It’s mainly used by locals buying their fresh produce and after a delicious breakfast (more rice soup for me) we wander around taking in the colourful and lively scene.

More wandering around including a return visit to the hill tribe market fills in the rest of the day and we catch another songthaew in the morning to return to Tha Ton to continue our journey.

A Ride in a Long-Tail Boat

Our trip in a long-tail boat from The Ton to Chiang Rai, Thailand

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After two coffees each in the bakery in Mae Salong we stand on the street waiting for the first yellow songthaew of the day to take us down to Tha Ton in time to catch the 12:30pm boat to Chiang Rai.

To our slight consternation the yellow songthaew never arrives. Eventually a green songthaew stops and we decide to take that part way down the road, knowing we will have to switch to a yellow one later. Twenty minutes down the road we stop to pick up James and Suzannah, a couple from Gympie, Australia, who we had first met just as we were leaving the Akha Mud House in Hloyo. Our travel plans for the next few days roughly matched and we agreed that travelling together to Chiang Rai would give us the minimum of four people required for the ‘once-a-day’ public boat so we made our plans.

After a brief pause for James and Suzannah to clamber aboard we continue down the road. Ten minutes later we reach the little ‘bus station’ at the next intersection and are pleased to see a yellow songthaew waiting which will mean we can continue our journey to Tha Ton with very little delay. It isn’t long before we are there. We enjoy the short walk across the bridge and along the river to the waiting boats.

After some discussion about the merits of taking the public boat or hiring one which will make a few stops on the way down river we opt for the private hire. As luck would have it a young Italian couple stroll up at that point and they are quickly inveigled into joining us by James, which gives us all a slightly less expensive ticket, plus the few stops along the way and a chance to meet someone new. After a quick coffee we are back to board the boat and we are on our way. As we leave we pass the Guest House where we stayed in The Ton

To begin with the river takes broad turns through the fertile plains just south of Tha Ton. We see many different types of crops as we pass by the irrigated fields including maize, sugar cane, and rice. In places the river is gradually eroding the banks and in others it is depositing tons of sand. In a few spots there are dredges at work to keep the river navigable and to collect sand for building. Even so, some parts of the river are obviously pretty shallow. The chap steering the boat does a great job of sticking to the deeper channels … albeit with just one eye! In the shallower stretches he has to lift the propeller out of the water and we glide over the sandy bottom. With seven of us in the boat, plus luggage, the water is only inches from the top of the gunwales.

Up ahead we can see that the river is going to pass between a range of hills. It isn’t long before we reach the first hills and the river narrows and we are making our way between rock-lined passages. The scenery is great and the jungle comes right down to the water’s edge. Our redoubtable captain now has the challenge of steering his way through several small rapids and rougher water. Sitting in the front as we are we cop a soaking a few times. But it’s a warm day and this is great fun.

We are still within the range of hills when we make our first stop at a village and we can stretch our legs.

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Some of the scenes along the Kok River

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Our second stop is at a national park and we take a small walk to see the hot springs (56 degrees Centigrade).

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As we make our way down the river we enjoy the scenery and the sights.

Our last stop enroute is for a very tasty lunch in a small town not far north of Chiang Rai.

We are surprised when we are dropped off just short of Chiang Rai and there is a songthaew waiting to take us into the city. We had expected to be dropped much closer but we go along with it and after dropping the Italian couple at the bus station we are soon at the place where James and Suzannah are staying. There is no room for us but we quickly find something nearby but our room won’t be ready for thirty minutes. We head back to meet James and Suzannah and have a beer with them and make arrangements to meet for dinner.

James and Suzannah are great travellers as well and you can follow them on their Facebook Page and Blog

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Our thoughts now are that we will move to a place slightly closer to the city centre tomorrow and then figure out what we would like to see in Chiang Rai.

Hloyo, an Akha Village in Northern Thailand

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Akha Mud-House

We leave Tha Ton around 11am and travel east for about an hour in a small village bus called a songthaew which cost us 50 Baht each … roughly AU$2. We are heading for a small village high up in the hills of northern Thailand called Hloyo.

Leaving Tha Ton the road runs east alongside the Kok river for a while before it turns north east and starts climbing. The songthaew stops every now and then for people to hop off or on. It isn’t long before we reach the turn off to the Thai/Chinese community called Mae Salong. About ten minutes later we reach our drop-off point to Hloyo and the Akha Mud House where we will be staying. The driver offers to take us one kilometre up the very steep hill for an extra 50 Baht each. It is well worth it! None of the other passengers seem to mind the short detour.

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Hloyo, an Akha Village

Hloyo is situated in the infamous ‘golden triangle’, once the centre of the opium trade in this region. A very narrow road winds its way up the hillside to the top of the village. You can imagine how difficult travel would have been back in the days before sealed roads … and how easy it would have been to evade police and army patrols. Even today there are a myriad jungle trails through the hills and valleys.

One of the first things to catch our eye as we arrive is the sight of still-green broom heads placed out in the sun to dry. The making of broom heads from the narrow leaves of reeds collected along the rivers seems to be a common occupation here. In one spot a ten metre stretch of the road is largely taken up by broom heads only just leaving enough room for our songthaew to get by. Later we see people turning, rolling and shaking the raw broom heads to make sure they thoroughly dry out. (When we get to Mae Salong we see plenty of them for sale in the markets.)

Before we explore further we need to check into our room. Ten years in the making, the Mud House was built by Yohun, the young and energetic leader of this community. During the building stage he worked in the tourism industry in Chiang Rai to earn money to fund his dream. He now runs it with the assistance of his sister and his parents. His mother does an amazing job cooking the meals … amongst other things. We start taking a closer look as we are led to the room where we will be staying.

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Akha Mud-House construction

The buildings are constructed of rammed earth (a beautiful rich red brown ‘mud’ colour) and old glass bottles. Walkways, stairs and ramps are all made from bamboo. In fact they make almost anything out of bamboo, including all the bowls and dishes for food, cups for tea and the pedestals for the wash basin in the bathroom.

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Bamboo Construction at Akha Mud-House

Two young children demonstrate their skills on bamboo stilts while we are waiting the reception area. We are also introduced to Rambo the dog who, we find out later, makes it his job to escort guests around the village.

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Bamboo Stilt Walking is second nature

Yohun is one of those people who is constantly on the go and his mind never stops. He spent a period studying agriculture in Israel before working in Chiang Rai. Apart from the time he devotes to serving his community he is working flat out to extend the number and type of rooms on offer. He is building a ‘chalet’ set in the jungle hundreds of metres away from the village where guests can truly enjoy the isolation in this fairly remote place. At the same time he is building some open-roofed rooms so that guests can enjoy watching the stars whilst lying in bed. I’m not sure what will happen when it rains.

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Our room at the Akha Mud-House

After we have deposited our bags in the room we decide to explore some of the village. Yohun tells me that people here live into their eighties and nineties but many young people leave the village to work in the bigger towns and cities. I read somewhere that the Akha people migrated to this area around the beginning of the 20th Century to escape persecution in China. This village was settled about 80 years ago and Yohun is their tenth leader.

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Strolling around with Rambo the one-eared dog

Hloyo village scenes

We buy some mountain bananas from an elderly woman. When I pay her I spot her husband sitting inside by the cooking hearth and I ask if I can take some photos. He and a few others that we saw in this area eat betel ‘nuts’ which stain their teeth and gums a dark red colour. The betel nut can be consumed dried, fresh or wrapped up in a package known as a quid. Although the exact preparation varies across countries and cultures, the quid is usually a mixture of slaked lime, a betel leaf and flavourings such as cardamom, cinnamon and tobacco. Apparently eating a betel nut is akin to drinking six cups of coffee and its long-term use can lead to oral cancer.

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Old Akha Man in Hloyo

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Kitchen hearth in Hloyo

Almost all the villagers grow their own produce and the food we eat is cooked from the freshest ingredients you could imagine. On our first night we agree to have the traditional Akha feast which Yohun’s mother cooks for us and we are overcome with the variety of flavours of the dishes. It was wonderful.

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Akha Banquet at Akha Mud-House

In the morning we eat rice soup, a deliciously light broth with fragrant herbs which Julie declares is her new ‘favourite breakfast’. They also grow their own coffee at the Mud House and we thoroughly a cup or two each morning.

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Drying coffee beans in Hloyo

Our room faces the morning sun and a long, deep green valley stretching towards the distant mountain ranges which merge into the sky delineated only by the faintest blue, mauve and grey outlines. Far below us the river glints between the steep sides of the valley.

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Sunrise at Akha Mud-House

At night the bamboo walkways are lined by lights and the rooms nestle into the shadows on the hillside … all is quiet apart from the few burst of conversation and laughter from the villagers.

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Akha Mud-House at dusk

It gets quite cool here in so we request an extra blanket and we are quite cosy within the thick mud walls. In the summer it gets as hot as 35 degrees Centigrade, and I imagine that the mud walls keep the rooms fairly cool.

Another current project, the Akha Museum is under construction.

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Museum (WIP) at the Akha Mud-House

This is the kitchen where Yohun’s mother prepares such delightful meals.

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Kitchen at Akha Mud-House

At work in the kitchen

The jungle track which leads to the new ‘jungle chalet’ which was under construction when we were there.

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Jungle track leading from Hloyo

Boys playing games on their mobile phones

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Boys playing on their phones in Hloyo Village

Village recycle centre. Glass bottles are used in the construction of the Mud House.

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Recycling Centre

Akha woman in traditional dress

Our next stop is Mae Salong, just twenty minutes up the road from Hloyo. We are catching another songthaew to get there and Yohun offers us a lift down to the road. As we are saying goodbye to Yohun and his family we meet James and Suzannah, fellow Australians, who are in the area. We will catch up with them later in our travels.

Tha Ton

Early morning mist in Tha Ton

From Chiang Mai we headed for the hills on a big orange bus. There were a few tourists on board but it was mainly used by locals travelling to the large town of Fang while a few up-country locals and one other westerner were travelling like us to its final destination of Tha Ton. Seats which we thought the right size for two were actually meant for three but we were lucky, or looked too big, and had one to ourselves. Those trying to fit three to a seat often ended up sitting on the edge of a seat or standing in the narrow walkway. Apart from that it was fine with open windows and fans to keep us cool and rural scenery to watch which kept us occupied through the four hour trip.

Tha Ton is a small country town near the border of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and is a huge change of pace from Chiang Mai. It has one main road and straddles the Kok River.  We stayed in a comfortable guest house beside the river for a couple nights and soon had our favourite places to visit for our meals and for coffee, revisiting a few of them several times. We loved the atmosphere of the town and the friendliness of the local people. It was a peaceful stay except for the evening Karaoke across the river from our guest house. Paul enjoyed the early morning mist for some atmospheric photography.

Worth a visit is Wat Tha Ton, a temple which stretches up the hill beside the town. It is set over ten levels and we huffed and puffed our way right up to the top. We had plenty of reasons to stop along the way to look at amazing buildings and the statues at various levels as well as the fabulous views to the valleys and river below. We could even see the Thai army emplacement on distant hill tops which looked out over the border with Myanmar. The many coloured temple at the top contained an eclectic collection of statues.

From Tha Ton we headed further into the hills and into the area previously known as the infamous Golden Triangle, the area near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos which used to be the major opium trafficking route but is now a great area for tea and coffee.


Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand, is a fascinating city with lots to see and experience. With only three days in the city we barely scratched the surface but we arrived in time to catch the annual flower festival, visited some of the seemingly unending temples in the city, explored up and down busy streets and quiet laneways in the old town, wandered through a bustling night market and also much quieter local fresh food markets, took an excellent cooking class and ate lots and lots of delicious food. Hopefully the many kilometres we walked balanced out the calories we ate.

We missed the grand parade of flowers but the displays in the gardens were fantastic and although the flowers on the floats lined up nearby were starting to wilt they were still very impressive.

The main streets in the old town are busy and have lots of cars to dodge but the lane ways are delightful to walk along and the motor bike riders are not too numerous to become a problem. The red songthaews ferry people around the city for 30 baht ($1.20) provided you are heading in the same direction they are. There are new hotels going up in any available space and quite a lot of the temples are being renovated using the typical asian style of scaffolding.

We did a cooking class with the delightful Yui, a fount of information and practical advice and the dishes we prepared were delicious. After a visit to the market with Yui we left with a cook book so hopefully we can reproduce the tastes.

Chiang Mai is particularly noted for its dish of Khao Soi and one of the places which had the best review for the dish was a tiny open area on the northern edge of the old town. The reviews were right, it was excellent and it is no wonder all the tables were filled and people were lining up.

We couldn’t possibly count the temples in the old city and didn’t get to see any of the interesting sounding temples in the surrounding areas. The old temples which are often at the side of the new bright and fancy temples were fascinating. To properly see most of the temples and to avoid overload we would need to stay weeks and visit just one or two a day.

There are night markets every night but Saturday and Sunday have their own special night markets and we arrived in time for the Sunday session. The market covered at least two kilometres in the old town and all of it was packed with visitors, both local and international. Lots of craft work was offered and some delicious food. Some of the stalls and eating areas were even in temple grounds, a good way to see the temples lit up at night.

The fresh food markets were more our speed, we always try to visit them even if we can’t buy the produce. We even caught a performance in one morning market, an elderly lady singing with her husband accompanying her to the delight of the stall holders nearby.

Chiang Mai was a great introduction to northern Thailand but now we are headed for smaller places so we can get away from the crowds, see more of the country and visit some of the hill tribes.