Friday, January 4, 2008

Touring through northern Thailand

Some random musings post-vacation about northern Thailand:

In lots of places in Asia, you flick on the hotel TV and have a choice of two English-language news channels: CNN or BBC. But in several hotels in Thailand, we got neither.

Instead, hotel guests were offered Al Jazeera in English, and in one case a channel called Russia Today. In one hotel that had both Al Jazeera and CNN, we found ourselves turning from CNN’s endless U.S. election coverage to a wide array of foreign dispatches and debate programs on Al Jazeera.

I was impressed with the level of guests and interview subjects they were getting in this part of the world. One Al Jazeera segment on moderate Islam in Indonesia offered a panel that included Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, one of the brightest lights on Indonesia.
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Foreign tourists aren’t coming to northern Thailand like they used to. We found the once-bustling night market half empty in Chiang Mai, with many booths shuttered.

I heard two explanations. One Italian vendor of antiques said tourists appeared to be frightened by martial law in Thailand, which has been in effect since a military coup 14 months ago or so.

Img_3922 Others cited a different reason, saying that like Laos and Cambodia have turned into big, new tourist draws, and Thai tourism-related businesses are suffering because of it. That may be right. Our family had originally planned to visit northern Laos. We couldn’t find a hotel that had availability, and an illness prevented the trip in the end.

So as we rented scooters and putted around the area, we had much of the place to ourselves.
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If you are thinking of visiting northern Thailand, consider going to Pai, a mountain artists’ community and haven for backpackers and adventurers. It is a four-hour drive northwest of Chiang Mai. We found it a delightful place. The road there has something like 1,000 curves and hairpin turns. There are lots of spectacular views and jungle along the way, as well as numerous hotsprings.

Img_4011 Pronounced “pie,” or maybe more like “bpai,” we made lots of puns en route, figuring that maybe there would be a lot of pilots and pythons and pious people there, and that a Pai pie shop ought to be there, too.

During a one-day raft trip, we saw nary a soul along a huge stretch of river. I got a brief dunking in one set of rapids when the raft seemed to drop out from under me. It was worth every glorious minute.
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Lots of people marvel at the infrastructure of China. But I must say how impressed I am with Thailand’s development. The roads are fantastic. The national parks are first rate (although they charge foreigners about 10 times more than nationals). We found national parks with camping areas, rental bungalows, nicely marked trails and tidy visitors' centers. Thai medical care is also quite good. My 84-year-old mother was along for the trip, and Chiang Mai (where our family lived for 10 years many decades ago, and where I was born) offered excellent medical care when she suddenly felt under the weather.

Unlike the “first world,” doctors in places like Thailand have time to talk with the patients.
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On the way to Thailand, we stopped in Kunming in southern China’s Yunnan Province. We spent a day at the Stone Forest, an amazing area of jutting geological formations. The region used to be under sea millions of years ago. Now the karst formations poke into the air like, well, like trees. I highly recommend a visit. Unlike Thailand, though, the place was thronged with tourists -- all Chinese.

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