Friday, February 10, 2006

Wed 8th Feb, Mae Salong

This morning I fell in love with the town of Thaton. I went to a wee roadside stall for a breakfast of coffee and American-style pancake, with which I sampled loads of the lady's home-made jams. I got chatting to a German who lives there for 3 months a year, who recommended a walk up to the temple, so I did.

It was exhausting, but absolutely amazing. Because it is in such a beautiful, popular location it gets lots of donations from rich Thais from Chiang Mai and Bangkok. And also, according to the German, one of the top monks in Thailand lives here - apparently he's rather irreverently called the Hi Fi monk due to his un-Buddhist love for the best hifi equipment. So all this money has led to a big complex of buddhas, temples, stupas and accommodation for themany monks, spreading up the hill.

The view, even from the first wat, was amazing - the low morning sun over the paddy fields and river, the low cloud. After half an hour of walking through all this up the steep hill I came to a massive new stupa they were building - the beautiful colourful patterns and gold bands shining in the sun. They were playing Buddhist music (tibetan). Below me the cloud was blowing up the steep forested valley past the tiny huts of the hill tribe villages in Burma, over the ridge, and down to Thaton. It was so, so, beautiful. It really moved me. I'm sure I have seen more beautiful places in my life, but something about the context, the timing, the music, my emotional state, my conscioussness, made that a very special moment.

From there I descended to the misty ridge to see the final site - a standing gold Buddha. I returned to the stupa, where I got chatting to teh guy who was doing the aluminium sculpting on it. As I went back down the mountain I stopped at the main Wat area for one last look at the view, and got chatting to a young monk, who asked if I would help him withi his English studies. So for half an hour or so we went through his textbook, me correcting his pronunciation (and the occasional mistake in the textbook!) He was really interesting to chat to.

Then I headed back to Thaton for a second breakfast of scrambled eggs, and hit the road at 10.30.

The ride ambled pleasantly along the valley for 15 miles or so through the orange groves (stopped for some freshly squeezed), then I hit thi hills. I tired myself out a bit on the first one in my stubborness, so stopped at a village that was being run as some sort of ethical community tourist project. I got a guided tour, but it all felt a bit staged - the "village blacksmith" who'd clearly just lit the fire moments before, the three pristinely dressed women playing music and dancing around a log, etc. But it was interesting, even if only to see an attempt at ethical tourism. But the craft shop was brilliant. I ended up buying two beautiful handwoven cushion covers with embroidered geometcial designs. I found it funny that I bought them - I had cushions as decorations.

I struggled to find a veggie lunch anywhere along the road, so ended up with junkfood.
The last 10 miles or so were really tough - v. steep - lots of 1st gear, lots of pushing. Took almost 2 hours. But very pretty to be in the mountains again.

Eventually reached Mae Salong - a very long straggling village. It's Yuannanese (Chineese). I'm staying at a friendly, beautiful, and ridiculously cheap guesthouse (Shinsane) for 50 B! Had a hot shower, then chatted to a friendly Israeli guy who'd passed me pushing my bike earlier. He's been travelling in Burma and loved it. I took a walk to one of the many tea shops and drank tea with a group of old ladies. The ritual was interesting. They put the leaves in a small pot, add boiling water, and drain straight away into a glass jug, which is used to fill teh tall thin china cups and the small round cups to preheat them. The second fill of the pot is then poured into the jug, and into the tall thin cups, which we then pour into the round ones, and sniff at the empty tall ones, and then drink from the round ones. The pot is repeatedly filled and poured into the jug, which is used for constant top ups. Very delicious. It was the family's freshest tea - just ready that day.

I asked if I could buy some, but a customer had already tried it and bought the entire batch. I got chatting to the owner, and was asking him about his plantation and business, so he took me out the back and talked me through the process. They pick the leaves and put them in the hhot sun forfive minutes to ferment, then bake them, tuble them, compress them, tumble, compress, etc, then dry them in hot blown air. All this taking a day or so. And then it'sready to be drunk! He took me onto the roof of his house to show me his fields on the mountainside above and below. They also make soy sauce the traditional way, and were drying the beans on the roof.

I went back to the guesthouse for a delicious meal of fried mushrooms and veg done in northern Thai style, then chatted to the Israeli guy again and we went for some food at a place claiming to be vegetarian, but wasn't particularly. He got me very enthused about cycling in Mongolia... So the list is now New Zealand, Nepal, Laos, Iran, Indonesia, and now Mongolia.

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