Our return to Chiang Mai after the Village has the unexpected hiccup of Chris and Eh Paw needing to leave Anderson and Sabine and I at a little pizza place owned by his friend so they can return to the village to pick up Chris’s glasses. Boo. We have already left later than we anticipated – Eh Paw runs at a break neck pace but is always a few hours behind. Now we are an hour out of the village so the return to get the glasses will be a two hour affair. Hanging at the pizza joint isn’t all bad – there is wifi for Anderson and a couple of young girls to play with Sabine. Eh Paw’s friend Jeung is, not surprisingly, super generous and ushers Sabine into his little flat adjacent to the outdoor pizza parlour to play with his daughter and her friend. The pizza parlour is actually his front yard – paved over and dotted with chairs and benches made from wooden pallets – it’s hipster at it’s most uncomfortable. But even more fortuitous than being left at a hipster pizza joint are the two women who pop in for a pizza and invite me to join them for a beer. Aahhhh some adult conversation in my mother tongue where I do not worry too much about inadvertently offending anyone – well no more than usual. Gael is from China – she has a farm! She is a force of joy – hopping up to make her own pizza (turns out she knows the owners as well) and throwing the dough around. Her friend Liz is Australian with a head of wiry curls and many many opinions. Liz explains that the air quality this year is the worst it has ever been. Which explains my sore chest and throat. Chris has been fighting a cold for the last week or so and we thought it was being made worse by the smoke in the air as well as sitting indoors with a wood burning fire. Apparently there is a law against burning after March 1 but it is largely ignored and almost never enforced against large corporations who can make “donations” to government and regulatory officials. Liz is also worried about a military coup happening after the election on the 24th and declares us very smart for leaving before the election happens. I’m thinking Liz might be a valuable employee in my new company – Watch out for that Spoon – disaster preparedness. It’s a good thing that Chris and Eh Paw return before I get completely saturated in conspiracy theories and the inevitable downfall of the world listening to Liz’s ideas. We collect the kids and finish the journey back to Chiang Mai. Eh Paw drops us off at a hotel that he has chosen for us near the bus station – we are taking the bus to Chiang Rai in the morning to meet our tour that will take us on the slow boat on the Mekong. We have a family room with a shared bathroom – not ideal since we are filthy from being in the dusty village and not showering for three days. It’s a room with two bunkbeds which is perfect because no fights over the top bunk. Everyone is in really good spirits and Anderson says that the village has been his favourite part of the trip so far. Aside from the jaunt down to the end of the hall to pee in the middle of the night – it’s a fairly comfortable sleep.
In the morning I’m feeling pretty positive about our time in the village and it’s impact on Anderson so I’m extra disappointed and sad when he pulls a classic self entered tantrum before we even get to the bus. He wants pizza – but a specific stuffed crust pizza from a chain company here and it’s 40 minutes from the hotel so it makes no sense. It goes on and on and on. Then there is a delay at the bus station and we are all getting a little antsy to just get moving. Finally we get on our bus – Chris sprang for the VIP bus with extra legroom which would have been lovely however we are pretty sure that this isn’t that bus. The seats are also tipped forward a little bit so we keep sliding out of them. I’m not kidding – every few minutes you had to hitch yourself back up to a sitting position. But the kids are plugged in and quiet so I can just watch the country roll on by. The smoke is obscuring the mountains and the road is under construction so it’s a bumpy ride made more exciting with the slippy seats. The construction ends as we get into farmland – verdant fields each one with a small thatched huts in the centre for shelter. The smoke is making the sun appear like a glowy red ball. Into Chiang Rai the smoke intensifies and I’m having flashbacks to Doomsday Liz. Our hotel is a five minute walk from the train station so we hoof it over to find our huge family room on the 5th floor! Not surprisingly there is an other burst of anger and annoyance as we are heading out for dinner – over – and I’m not joking – how we – the parents – have made Anderson wait. I can’t even. We are barely even able to get him back on track with stuffed crust pizza for dinner. I wonder if anything from the trip will sink into his consciousness – he continues to dwell on stuff – what he is getting – what he wants – what he perceives as Sabine getting more than him – what his friends might or might not be getting – just stuff.
In the morning we are picked up by our tour and treated to a very comfortable van taxi with non slippy seats and air conditioning. We will make two stops before we get to the border.
The first stop is at the White Temple. We have been skipping the temples to avoid embarrassing meltdowns in places of worship and also because we know they won’t be that interesting for the kids. The White temple is glorious – glowing so bright and white you almost have to avert your eyes. There is a wall that seems to be depicting the dangers and evils of western society. It is the back wall inside the actual temple facing the Buddha. The back walls depicts the farthest you can be from enlightenment – at least that is what I could glean from the cartoonish pictures of star trec, Jessica Rabbit, Keanu Reeves in his Matrix getup and even Micheal Jackson mid hoo hoo grab. Then if you follow the walls around and toward the Buddha they become lighter and there are fewer images-more people floating in boats eyes forward carrying lotus flowers until we get to Buddha who has almost nothing around him just golden light and his peaceful expression. Through the temple and out into a courtyard we find a chance to write down a wish – you can buy a stamped Tin ornament to write your wish on and they are hung clustered together along the surrounding the temple – it’s quite beautiful. Anderson writes a wish for his friend to recover from cancer. This makes me cry – for the beautiful boy who is fighting for his life and for my boy who isn’t as self centred as he has been behaving. I guess I am putting too much pressure on us all for this trip to be a life altering experience. For it to somehow erase the rampant consumerism and me – isms of western culture. As we walk past all the venders to the luxurious air conditioned van the duality, of what I want and how we live, practically hits me over the head.
Next we visit the Opium Museum which, surprise!, actually turns out to be a huge highlight and throughly enjoyable and enlightening. We definitely would not have chosen to go if it wasn’t included in our pick up and border transfer.
Back in the village we had started to learn about the initiative to end the growth of poppies in Thailand by the King’s mother and we had even seen examples of it with the villages that we visited. But this was a perfectly laid out journey through the growth and use and trade of opium over centuries. It was interactive and save for some very preachy anti drug messages at the end was so eye opening. Plus it was simple enough for Anderson to follow. Sabine on the other hand would probably have more enjoyed actually taking opium – and the truth of our journey with age difference rears it’s head.
Next it’s to the edge of the Mekong River where we can see Burma and Laos while standing in Thailand. We get the classic picture with feet and squinty eyes under the Golden triangle arch- no Sabine because she is done from the opium experience and wants only to stay in the van and to watch the screen.
Then we get to the border crossing and then the fun really begins. We need to purchase visas with American dollars (one of our American hundred dollar bills has a small tear and it is not accepted – thank goodness we have an other one) and we need to have our pictures taken because somehow we have lost the ones we had done on Koh Phagnan. There is a giant cockroach on the wall and a small girl who we think is the daughter of the cleaners because she keeps taking chips from the kids and throwing them on the ground then pointing and yelling HA! It’s kind of funny but in the stress of trying to get the documents and filing done along with our kids being right on the cusp of full nuclear meltdown its humour is getting overshadowed. Finally a full hour and half after arriving at the border we are across – all we have to do is get a taxi to our hotel. Chris is toying with the idea of walking because he booked a hotel close to the customs building. But I veto that and veto the bargaining to save two dollars on the ride. We pay the little transport officer and we get a driver and load our things and then wait. It turns out it’s dinner time and the drivers won’t get their money until the transport officer finishes eating. He is sitting beside our taxi on a small patch of grass around a makeshift table with a small homemade bbq beside the coals ashy and white but a plums of smoke still rising and surrounding the five or six small fish on top. There is a basket of sticky rice and bowl of chilies that they are dipping the sticky rice into and the transport officer is pouring and drinking whisky from the cut off top of a Pepsi bottle. Of course I begin to video the scene and I am quickly cut off because there is a customs officer there as well. We wait for about thirty minutes – at this point we have lost the kids entirely and pretty much ourselves as well. Chris and I are repeating the mantra just go with the flow. Finally our driver pushes away from the plastic table on the patch of grass and collects his money from the transport officer and we are off. It turns out to be at least a half hour drive to the main strip and we make a few stops to drop some others off along the way.
We arrive to find a very worn looking guesthouse packed between more worn looking guest houses across from Hot Wire Bar and a few convenience type stores. Their displays of whisky and cigarette prominent. Home Pho guesthouse reminds me of the first pension I stayed at in Barcelona about a quarter of a century ago. There is no one at the front desk no little bell to ring – only a phone number but we don’t have SIM cards for our phones yet. Luckily a woman comes down the stairs – she is a guest but she has a phone and in ten minutes a small very pale very, thin man appears. He wears vintage goggles – the kind that drivers in the 1900’s wore racing around in convertibles or motorbikes with thick black frames tight to the face. He wears a baseball cap over dyed orange hair. Our room is pretty bleak but its clean and we are done for the day.
Our super budget accommodations do not include breakfast so we pop across the street – along with a couple of chickens (chickens crossing the road which makes the kids laugh). Here we get to experience one happy consequence of French colonialism – baguettes!!! Oh baby it is so wonderful to tear into some chewy toasty hot buttery bread after two months of rice and noodles.
Over baguette and instant coffee (hey we can’t have all the treats all the time) I start to panic that we have made a very poor choice – the boat is not going to be comfortable – there will be epic whining and we will be trapped with people or more accurately people will be trapped with us. Our taxi arrives and there is a couple from the Netherlands already on board and thankfully they start to distract the kids with questions.
The boat turns out to be amazing and made even more amazing by the fact that we have thirteen people in our group on a boat that is meant for forty. It is called a slow boat but it moves much faster than I anticipated. The Mekong is wide and seems flat and serene but once you are right on top of it you can see how swiftly the water is moving and catch the eddys and whirlpools. Its’ dark khaki green colour makes it look dirty but supposedly it’s very clean from being fed by glaciers high in the Himalayas. It is so peaceful floating along watching water buffalo and little villages on the banks – the air is smokey and mountains are slightly obscured but it is still beautiful. It must be spectacular when it’s not the burning season. We pass smaller long boats that are ferries for Laos not tourists as well as even bigger long boats with two story structures on them and they are for cars and trucks. Today there is one stop at a village. We are immediately overwhelmed by children with their arms outstretched with bracelets, bags and scarves to sell. The kids follow us up and into the village. It’s unbelievably hot – Anderson lasts about 15 minutes before returning to the boat. Chris, as usual, carries Sabine as we wander the dusty dirt roads like the pied piper with a motley mini crew trailing us. We let Sabine buy a purse – it’s dirty and made from scraps of fabric the stitching crooked and uneven but she loves it for its sparkly strap. The couple from the Netherlands tell us that buying from the kids encourages them to stay out of school so that makes me feel bad. The guide tells us that school costs money and is only available for the first few grades in the village – if the kids want to continue they need to move and pay to go to school in a bigger village. It certainly doesn’t seem like there are any kids in school they all seem to be following behind us. There is a sweet boy who is pulling a homemade truck on a string. The houses are not raised and many of them have thatched roofs that need to be redone after every rainy season. I can not even image a few days in this heat and dust but to contemplate what the mud bath of the rainy season must be like is even worse. No one is wearing tribal clothing – no skirts or woven shirts like in the Karen Villages. The younger children do not wear pants or bottoms of any kind. I assume this is because they do not have diapers. This experience feels a lot like we are gawking and taking pictures in a zoo. That’s why we buy the dusty misshapen purse. I wonder why they don’t try to sell us cold drinks? There is electricity and people have motorbikes – it’s not totally isolated. The kids follow us back to the boat where many jump into the river and wave and yell goodbye as the boat pulls back into the current. The rest of the day is more watching water buffalo and small fishing boats, that remind of blades of grass slicing through the water with slightly upturned bows and sterns, carrying one or two men with long bamboo poles.
We arrive at Prekbang around 4 and after a ten minute walk straight uphill we arrive at our guest house – where we are greeted with cold clothes and a fresh lemonade. Man the villagers could do a brisk business in cold clothes and fresh lemonade. Next up a trip to the local market and it really was local and authentic – blocks of chocolate cooked with sugar cane (Anderson bought and tried and it was a definite thumbs down), fermented buffalo skin usually eaten when drinking whisky – and I’m talking lots and lots and lots of skin at every stall, wild dog leg with paw and skin still on and all manner of leafy greens, giant squash, roasted purple and white sweet potatoes, beautiful chilies and home made chili pastes. Next up drinks with our little boat crew – it was so much fun to talk to other adults. We all split up for dinner with us hauling kids back to the hotel for a quick bite and bed.
In the morning we were woken by the sound of trumpeting elephants. For reals!! We rushed out to our little terrace over looking the river and on the opposite bank were two elephants having a grand ole splash down time – kicking water at each other and spraying water all about. Glorious. Quick breakfast where I slathered my eggs and baguette with the homemade chili paste I had bought at the market. Sooo good.
I was so happy to board the boat again. Slow boat with almost no one on it is definitely my favourite way to travel from city to city. You feel connected to everything, its quiet and peaceful and there is lovely chatting and reading and card playing. For the first half hour or so I sat at the front of the boat – outside and alone on a little bench facing the altar on the bow of the boat. Then I was joined by Sabine who snuggled right in. It was perfection – with mist rising off the water and the quiet chill of the morning – then our guide kicked it up a notch by bringing us a blanket. We stayed wrapped together watching the banks roll by for almost half an hour (then the three year old needed to move). But it was perfect while it lasted. There is a stop at an other village where we are greeted again by hordes of children pushing things into our faces. We walk up into the village and this one has a temple and some monks – it is a weavers village so the street is lined with women selling their beautiful woven scarves, some are even sitting at their looms weaving. We move through the village set up to sell us as many scarves as it possibly can. Everyone calls out as we walk past – it’s not pleasant even though all the women are. Chris whispers to me that they should be selling lemonade or chilled coconuts – again the heat is intense and this village seems much more well off than the one yesterday. It still feels not nice – that is the best way to describe it. Not that the people are not nice but just the experience of traipsing past people’s work choosing to buy it or not – like choosing to validate it. What would be something better to be done to have these people make money from the hordes of tourists that must march up the banks of their river. Chris and I buy a few scarves and a blanket – we spend time talking the women as best we can – well you know Chris loves practicing his charades. Through open doors we see the floors are tiled and there are fridges inside so maybe they are doing well.
Back on the boat and the kids are rangy – they need to run and burn off steam so instead they turn on each other. It is starting to get to that embarrassing stage where you have asked in your best “parenting for other adults” voice to please pipe down and they just blatantly ignore you. They are in between having fun with each other and starting a full on war. Just teetering there one little push or bump away from it all ending in tears. Traveling with children is a real lesson in compassion, grace and letting go. Everyday there is conflict – not unlike getting the family out the door in the morning but now we do not have any clear ends – there is no break or that sense of accomplishment when you arrive at school on time. Every moment of grace – when the kids are happy or demonstrably learning and taking in the world around them is immediately followed with a display of selfishness or petulance.
Luckily we get to our next stop on the river. A cave filled with statues of Buddha that was a sacred place for people to worship over 450 years ago and was rediscovered in 2004. Inside there are over three hundred Buddha statues. It is now guarded by people from the local village. There are kids selling all of the things – most notably baby birds in bamboo cages. There is beer available and hot food too. Despite the over abundance of sellers it is an interesting sight. The couple from Netherland deploy their drone instead of walking up to see the cave. They have already explained that they like their creature comforts and dislike walking. The walk/ Chris carrying Sabine is a nice little break that manages to put off the inevitable meltdown.
When we arrive in Lunag Prebang in the evening I am sad to get off the boat – it was such an incredible way to travel.