A travel journal
to Chiang Saen by Alan Ingram
Quote: Accounts and photographs of an overland journey from Bangkok northwards via the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Sukothai and Chiang Mai to reach Chiang Saen at the apex of the infamous Golden Triangle at the three-way border junction with Burma ( Myanmar ) and Laos - the completion of a journey starting in Singapore.
A return leg from Chiang Mai via the remote and unfrequented NW frontier with Burma is included.
The ancient chedis and ruined temples of the old civilizations of Thailand at Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Sukothai.
The splendour and ornate architecture of the ubiquitous Wats ( Thai Buddhist Temples ) - an integral part of Thai culture and society. Many Wats are perched on hilltops ( eg Wat Chom Khiri Nak Phrot in Nakhon Sawan ) affording splendid outlooks over the surrounding countryside.
Haggling for bargains in the crowded night market in the northern capital of Chiang Mai with stalls and shops selling all kinds of handicrafts, clothing and goods ( many counterfeit or pirated ).
The frontier trading towns atmosphere of Mae Sai and Mae Sot on the border with Burma ( Myanmar )
The view of the mighty Maekong River at Chiang Saen at the infamous Golden Triangle and the view across the broad, swift-flowing waters to the jungles of Laos.
tuk-tuks / samlors (3 wheel taxis), Songtheaw (pick-up trucks with bench seats),
Public bus (ordinary and air-con), tourist buses,
NB: Agree all fares beforehand (kee baht? - how much? or raka tau rai? - what's the fare? )
The room price includes morning coffee or tea in the on-site ground floor restaurant ( opposite reception ).
Rooms are tiled and bright with air-conditioning or overhead fan.
Single rooms have a double bed, dressing table and wardrobe with ensuite western-style toilet and shower. Also colour TV.
Exceptional bargain at 190 Bt per night for a single fan room ( April 2001 ).
Conveniently centred near the city centre and railway station, it is within walking distance of the main points of interest - the new landscaped esplanade along the Ping River, Wat Phra Si and the local night market ( main attraction the "Flying Vegetable" ).
The frequent local bus service is the ideal and inexpensive way of getting to and from the out-of-town main bus station.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 25, 2001
Lithai Guest House, Phitsanulok
Chiang Saen, Thailand
Attraction | "Ayutthaya's Historic Temples"
Located in pleasant garden grounds they are distributed over a wide area both within and around the present day city.
Walking or cycling are OK for the sites within the city but some form of mechanised transport - motorbike, samlor / tuk-tuk, or car / taxi is required for the sites around the perimeter. A 1Baht ferry ride is the most convenient way of accessing the magnificent Wat Phanam Choeng to the south of the city across the Pa Sak River.
In a cavalcade of motorbikes I was conducted by Thai friends on an all-day,
circular tour of the widely scattered monuments.
From the top terrace of Phra Khao
Thong ( Golden Mount Chedi ) the flat countryside is dotted everywhere
with tall chedi.
The widespread ruins of the old Royal Temple of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet are dominated by a line of three, giant chedis, typical of the Ayutthaya style,
- sad but
impressive relics of the once illustrious city.
Other temples well worth visiting include:-
Wat Yai Chai Mong Khon - the "Big Temple" with its particularly tall chedi and Wat Phutthaisawan - one of the best preserved and most impressive complexes of prangs and chedi.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
86 Kilometers North Of Bangkok
Ayutthaya, Thailand 13000
+66 35 246 076-7
Escaping the confines of Bangkok I headed North via the ancient capitals of
Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Sukhothai to Chiang Mai - the second city of Thailand and as
distinct from Bangkok as Edinburgh or Glasgow from London.
Sacked, looted and razed by Burmese invaders the historic ruins of the ancient
kingdom of Ayutthaya are confined in the confluence of the Pa Sak River and the
Chao Phraya River some 85Km to the North of Bangkok.
In a cavalcade of motorbikes I was conducted by Thai friends on an all-day,
circular tour of the widely scattered monuments. From the top terrace of Phra Khao
Thong ( Golden Mount Chedi ) we surveyed the flat countryside dotted everywhere
with tall chedi. A line of three, giant chedis, typical of the Ayutthaya style, dominated
the widespread ruins of the old Royal Temple of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet - sad but
impressive relics of the once illustrious city.
Sanuk - the Thai philosophy of enjoying life - prevailed that evening:- five-a-side
football, dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, drinks in a late-night bar with a Thai pop
From Ayutthaya the country road to Lopburi meanders through the extensive rice
paddies and waterways of central Thailand with views of traditional, wooden, farm
buildings and occasional wats.
On a grassy mound near the centre of the old city the archetypal monument of the
12th century Angkor empire of the Khmers is Phra Prang Sam Yot with its three,
massive prangs symbolizing the three Hindu gods of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahmin -
another testimony to ancient invasions repelled by the Thais to maintain their fierce
independence - the only country in the region not to have been colonized by a
European power. However the proud relic seems totally incongruous in its present day
surroundings of busy roads and railway lines.
Continuing through Nakon Sawan, with its predominately Chinese-Thai
population, to the pleasant, riverside, town of Tak I made a day-trip to explore the
extensive ruins at Sukhothai - Thailand's most important historical site where the first
Thai capital was founded in the 13th century.
The ancient Sukhothai ( 'rising of happiness' ) Kingdom is considered to be the
Golden Age of Thai civilization with the most classic of Thai styles. In a picturesque
setting of manicured lawns and lotus-filled ponds and moats there are 198 chedis and
many stately Buddha figures amongst the temple ruins of the old city.
In Tak that evening, out for a stroll along the banks of the Ping River, I had
another unpleasant encounter with local dogs - another major hazard of Thailand - an
estimated 50% being infected with rabies - they seem to have a particular animosity
Chiang Mai ( "New City" ):
Leaving the plains of central Thailand the road from Tak winds through scenic,
forested hills on route via the small, provincial capitals of Lampang and Lamphun to
Chiang Mai - the second city of Thailand and popularly known as "The Rose of the
Situated on the banks of the Ping River many of the city's 300 temples are
confined within a neat square bounded by moats and the partially-restored remains of
the old battlements. As in the other ancient capitals the wats are the main feature of
interest but in Chiang Mai there is a greater architectural variety with northern styles
blended with Burmese influences. The wats are also the the focus of Thai cultural life
- most young men spend at least two years of their lifes training as monks. In rapidly
developing Thailand construction applies not only to roads, buildings and factories
but also to new wats and renovation of old ones.
Based in Roong Ruang hotel near Thae Phae Gate, one of four breaches in the
fortifications, I was conveniently situated both for the street markets and bazaars of
the local Chinatown and the complementary Night Market - the most extensive in
Thailand. Both markets can provide incredible bargains - eg silk shirts for £4 -
provided you know how to haggle. However most of the designer-label goods are
poor quality fakes.
1. Southern Thailand and Bangkok
2. "High Adventure around the World"
Four hours on the new road from Chiang Mai brought me to Chiang Rai, the
quiet capital of the northernmost province of Thailand and the Gateway to the Golden Triangle - only short trips by local bus are required to reach the frontiers with Burma and Laos.
My first foray was to the hill village of Mae Salong at the end of a 36km
undulating, mountain road giving sweeping views over forested hilltops. My fellow passengers in the songthaew were from local hilltribes - Akha, Lisu, Mien, Hmong - the women wearing colourful, embroidered, traditional costume with chunky, silver jewelery but the young men in standard American gear - baseball caps, T-shirts, jeans.
Also living in the small, isolated villages of the region are many migrants from the southern province of Yunnam in nearby China.
While the steep hillsides are unsuitable for most crops they are ideal for opium. However with the introduction of a government crop substitution program of tea, coffee and fruit growing, together with rigorous law enforcement, the opium trade has been pushed across the borders into neighbouring Burma and Laos.
A second foray was to Mae Sai, the northernmost town in Thailand, where the
bridge across the Sai River is one of only two official land crossings into Burma ( but restricted to Thai and Burmese nationals only ). Walking down the single main street there was a real frontier town atmosphere with Burmese men in their longyis mingling with Hmong and Akha women in their hill-tribe dress. The shops were full of Burmese goods:- lacquerware, gems, jade and carved teak.
From Wat Phra That Doi Wao on the hilltop above the town, there was a fine
outlook across the river to the Burmese village of Thachilek and the wooded hillsides beyond.
Enjoying a cha yen ( iced tea ) on the terrace of a riverside restaurant, I watched young Burmese diving in the river to bring up scoopfulls of gravel; boatloads were then punted across to the Thai side - raw material for the contruction boom taking place.
A final foray was to the small town of Chiang Saen on the banks of the mighty
Maekong River where the concrete embankments on the Thai side contrasted with the undeveloped, muddy banks across the broad, swiftly-flowing waters in The People's Democratic Republic of Laos.
It was only a short distance upriver to the small cluster of tourist buildings at Sop Ruak - the official centre of the Golden Triangle at the confluence with the Sai River. Climbing to a wat on a hilltop above the rivers I gazed out into Burma and Laos. Unfortunately at present only locals can cross the borders. In future they may be opened to tourists and a loop through Burma, Southern China and Laos may then become possible.
In any event, for my present trip, I was running out of time ( and money ). Turning South I started on the long return journey to Bangkok and back to Scotland. The thought of leaving tropical Thailand was not appealing - one of the main reasons for coming to SE Asia had been to escape the vicissitudes of the Scottish winter - it was snowing on my arrival in Glasgow.
1. Southern Thailand
2. "High Adventure around the World"
With a sense of relief I re-crossed the ramshackle, wooden bridge over the Nam Moei
back to the safety of Thailand after my brief, unofficial incursion into Burma ( or
Myanmar as it has been re-named by its present military dictatorship ).
I was in the final stage of a journey around the Burmese border of northwestern
Thailand and had taken advantage of an un-manned guardpost to set foot on the other
side of the international boundary on the contested territory of the local Shan opium
war lords and Karen freedom fighters.
Chiang Mai ( "New City" );
From the bustling Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai ( "New City" ), the northern
capital and second city of Thailand, popularly known as "The Rose of the North", a
scenic road wound through low, forested hills to the small, sedate junction town of
Pai amid extensive rice paddies.
Out of town, beyond the tranquil Pai river, a flight of 353 stone steps rising above the
timber shacks of a Karen village gained the gilded chedis of Wat Phra That Mae Yen
for a fine panoramic view of the pleasant valley. In the cool of the evening young men
engaged enthusiastically and acrobatically in Cepak Takraw - a kind of three-a-side
football tennis - one of the national sports of Thailand.
Mae Hong Song:
A further three hours by songthaew ( a truck with two rows of inward facing bench
seats used universally in Thailand for local transport ), along the twisting, switchback
road led to the provincial capital of Mae Hong Song close to neighbouring Burma.
In Chiang Mai posters from the US consulate had warned American nationals against
visiting the area due to concern regarding the activities of the Shan drug lords across
the nearby border but wandering the quiet, sleepy streets there was no obvious sign of
However there is a pronounced Burmese presence in the Thai city with approximately
50% of the population of Shan extraction. A splendid outlook over the compact,
low-rise city with its picturesque Jong Khan lake and ornamental fountain unfolds
from the ornate Burmese-style, Buddhist temple on the hilltop of Doi Kong.
A more comfortable ride by rot meh thammada ( ordinary bus ) on level, but still
winding, well-surfaced roads tracked the border southwards to the large town of Mae
Sariang on the banks of the broad Yuam River.
Mae Sam Laep:
Mists shrouded the paddy fields next morning as I travelled in an over-crowded
songthaew up a rough, dirt track through jungle-clad hills to the frontier village of
Mae Sam Laep on the Salawin River.
Leaving the small cluster of simple, wooden houses a narrow trail followed the edge
of the jungle above the swiftly-flowing river confined between rocky embankments.
Occasional long, open boats with powerful outboards carefully navigated the
treacherous currents and eddies of the turbulent waters. On the far bank were few
signs of habitation - only huge piles of teak logs - the main source of income for the
Karen rebels fighting for their independence. The thump of mortars and the crackle of
small arms reverberated in the distance.
Returning to the village I met some of the young Karen men, conspicuous in their
longyis ( Burmese sarong ) with their teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. One
offered to take me across the river to witness the damage done to his village by
SLORC ( Burmese government ) troops - an invitation I politely declined. Fortunately
it was not until after my visit that a foray across the border was launched against the
An all-day journey on a large songthaew with few other passengers was required for
the longer leg further southwards from Mae Sariang on the recently opened road alongside the border
through flat countryside with isolated villages and several police checkpoints to the major town of Mae Sot. On one stage I had the company of a tough-looking Thai
army ranger complete with M-16 machine carbine.
A real frontier atmosphere pervades the congested, vibrant streets of Mae Sot with its
interesting mix of ethnicities;- Burmese men in their longyis, bearded Indo-Burmese
engaged in the local gems trade, Hmong and Karen women in traditional tribal dress.
Shop signs are in Thai, Burmese, Chinese and English.
In the rambling municipal market I met Rudneh and Moyek, two friendly young
Burmese refugees keen to practise their English. They earned 20 Baht ( approx. 30p )
per day for transporting fruit and vegetables on their bicycle wheelbarrows.
Seven kilometres out of town lies the border along the Moei River ( a tributary of the
Salawin River ) where a new road-bridge is under construction - a link in Asia Route
1 - the planned Pan Asian Highway linking Istanbul to Singapore.
Waving my camera at the Immigration and Customs checkpoint I was allowed
through to the riverbank where a small ferry was busy shuttling a constant stream of
passengers and trade goods across the narrow stretch of sluggish water. Burmese boys
touted cartons of cheap Chinese cigarettes.
On the far side was the village of Myawaddy, the eastern outpost of Burma, with a
fenced compound of thatched-roofed houses. Unfortunately it was out of bounds for
tourists. Lining the Thai side of the river however was an extensive array of stalls
selling Burmese handicrafts:- jade, jewellery, lacquerware, teak carvings.
In the company of villagers returning from shopping in the market at Mae Sot I
travelled by songthaew further south on good roads through extensive rice fields,
lined with palm trees, to Phap Phra before changing to another songthaew and
continuing on a dusty, dirt road to the small cluster of wooden buildings at Waley. A
rough track led down through forest and past an un-manned guardpost to the
tumble-down footbridge spanning the Nam Moei - the headwaters of the River Moei
and no more than a stream - the frontier with Burma.
Three men, bare-chested and bare-foot, clad only in longyis, appeared on the far side
and came across the bridge. Getting only smiles in response to my questions in
English I resorted to my rudimentary Thai:- "Sawat dii khrap" ( Greetings ). " Mai
mee pan hah?", ( No problem? ) I asked gesturing if I could cross.
"Mai mee pan hah", replied one. Indicating that I should follow he led me over the
bridge and pointed to a path through the jungle before returning to his friends.
With some trepidation, feeling like a small boy trespassing in an orchard, I proceeded
cautiously along the path to emerge into a large clearing. On the far side were the
few, primitive huts of the Burmese village of Phalu. Apart from one man lying asleep
there was no sign of life.
Expecting at any moment to be challenged by a squad of armed soldiers bursting
from the jungle I hurriedly took a couple of photos before retreating to the Thai side
of the bridge - but satisfied at having set foot on Burmese territory.
Returning through Waley I noticed a huge lumberyard stacked with teak logs - black
market trade from across the border.
Mawker Refugee Camp:
Waiting at the bus stop were four young men. Unkempt and roughly dressed they
might have been extras as pirates or brigands in a movie.
"Pai nai?", ( Where do you go? ) asked one. "Mae Sot", I replied.
Shortly a pick-up arrived. Ushering me into the priviledged seat in the cab beside the
driver they clambered into the back. A different route from my outward journey was
now taken over a badly-rutted track on hard-baked earth through desolate,
sparsely-vegetated countryside.Suddenly, on rounding a bend, a vast array of
close-packed, thatched-roofed huts appeared - the Mawker Camp for Karen refugees
from the fighting in Burma. A gatehouse and barrier blocked the way. My benefactor
stuck his head through the window.
"Pai nai?", he asked again. "Mae Sot", I again replied. He indicated that I should
change over into a songthaew waiting at the gatehouse. As they drove off into the
camp I returned their waves, gave a thumb's up and shouted, "khawp khun khrap (
thank you ), chok dee ( good luck ) ".
Only once I was sitting aboard the songthaew did I realize that he had been offering
me the opportunity of accompanying them into the camp - one of the many hidden
along the border and unpublicised by the Thai government to avoid attracting the
unwelcome attentions of international aid agencies.
A somewhat hair-raising, high-speed ride by mini-bus down the mountain road from
Mae Sot through forested hills brought me back to familiar surroundings in the small,
provincial capital of Tak on the main highway from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to
terminate my tour of the wild North-West frontier of Thailand.
Part I: Peninsular Malaysia: 1. From Singapore via Johore Bahru and Malacca to Kuala Lumpu
Part II: Peninsular Malaysia: 2. From Kuala Lumpu via the East Coast to Penang and the Thai border.
Part III: Southern Thailand: From the Malaysian border via the SW Coast to Bangkok.
Part IV: Northern Thailand: From Bangkok to the Golden Triangle.