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Photo Essay — North of Northern Vietnam

Traveling around Northern Vietnam winter 2018-19, last of the three part posts.

North Vietnam is mountainous forested eastbound extension of Himalayan ranges that protrude deep into Southeast Asia. For many years now it has fascinated me, and been prowling region in neighboring Thailand [1], [2], and Burma [1], [2], [3]. Region was for a long seen by foreigners as difficult and even dangerous backyard. French geographic surveys, colonial administrators and Christian missionaries gradually begun entering and recording the area at the turn of 20th century. Only after conflicts died down and road networks improve during the last decades of century, it gradually started to open up for wider world.

Found useful summary of hill tribes people living in Southeast Asia (source bellow):

long before there was a Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Thailand, there have been people of distinctly different cultures living in the mountainous areas that make up those borders today.

Each group has a separate culture and speaks mutually unintelligible languages. What the different people do share is a probable origin to both their language and their animistic/elder-worship religions.

Each of the peoples’ languages originate in the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group, so they share some phonology.

All of these aspects make the Hill Tribe languages similar to the roots of Thai, Burmese, Khmer and Laos, but the differences are much greater. Most importantly, none of the Hill Tribe peoples have an authentic alphabet (many of their languages have now been romanised). This oral tradition was an isolating factor during the important intermingling periods of the previous millennia that brought together the different peoples who make up the Southeast Asian Peninsula. While the lowlanders were homogenising, intermarrying and strengthening bonds through blending language and culture (perhaps most importantly the acceptance of Buddhism), the highlanders kept apart, not only from the mass of people, but from each other as well.

Source: link.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is popular for doing treks and visiting local villages. Scooters are plenty for rent in tourist agencies downtown. Weather in Sa Pa changes constantly and now in winter its been quite foggy for several days on row. Views in mountain sides down to valleys are great, rice terraces add their own flavor into mix. Its easy to go also to Fansipan, the highest mountain of Vietnam at over 3000 meters with stunning views (first 3 photos in this post are all taken in Fansipan). There is modern funicular taking visitors all the way to the top, a trip that in earlier would have been exhausting endeavor can now be done in half a day.


Sa Pa youth in town square.


Hmong people. Both men and women wear black dress that can be recognized easily.

Sa Pa population census was done ten years ago, which recorded 52899 people living in the region. From this 52% were Hmong (including sub groups), 23% Dao, Kinh 18%, Tay 5%, Giay 1%, Phu La 1%. Due to their isolation, tribes managed to preserve their culture, language, arts and traditions, while modern times entered populous lower lands.


Dao women wearing red head scarf.


Selfie time while heading to Fansipan mountain.


Sa Pa in the mist. In winter time mist often covers the region for several days. Best time to visit Sa Pa is on spring when weather is clear, and rice fields are on fresh green. A lot has been done to improve infrastructure in region, but at my time of visit late 2018, roads were often still in poor condition.


Sa Pa town at night, seen from Fansipan mountain.


Rice terraces in Sa Pa.

Cao Bang. Roads on border town are dusty, heavy traffic keep it in air. Many people still do “honest manual work” and families have first babies in their twenties. Vietnam is a young nation, even compared to some neighbors like Thailand and China. Arriving for first time to remote town, at sunset just as light dims and stores close. Not knowing where to sleep, or indeed where exactly are the hotels and hostels. Just as bus nears, blue dot on a mobile map is moving painfully slow and at the same time too fast. It’s getting cold, smell of burning firewood is flowing low and traffic lights are peering through it. Then, after arriving and finding a place for the night, a sense humble gratitude. Opening the bed with thick blankets, getting ready for asleep and watching river Song behind the window. It is coming across the border from China. Tomorrow watching the scene the magic is gone, but least for a while it’s still there.


Cao Bang region: Ban Gioc waterfall is shared by Vietnam (left side of photo) and China (right bank).


Nguom Ngao cave is another natural wonder near Ban Giog waterfall, both can be visited easily in a same trip.

To the low lands: Cat Ba Island and Hua Long Bay. Cat Ba island is holiday island, only half an hour speed boat from Haiphong so its with easy reach from Hanoi as well. Island has large natural park isolated from traffic, but main attraction is close proximity Hua Long Bay, with its magnificent limestone rocks and isles, in various shapes and sizes. Most tourist visit Hua Long Bay using package tour and stay overnight in a boat cabin. Cat Ba is another good alternative, if feeling like visiting places on own pace and sleeping in hotel room. Island has good infrastructure and plentiful accommodation in different price ranges. Winter time is not warm, actually sea water felt warmer than air above it.


View from Hua Long Bay and Cat Ba island.


Monkey business, Hua Long Bay.

Ninh Binh is often called Hua Long Bay on land, with high steep karst formations, caves carved by the water, and fantastic natural scenery. There are some historic sights for instance Bai Dinh temple complex.


Low lands in Ninh Binh. It is sometimes called “Hua Long Bay on-land”.


Bai Dinh complex in Ninh Binh.

Temple has new large section with impressive architecture, but behind are the caves from where it all begun.

Vietnam’s culture, traditions and fortunes through the history are heavily influenced by one direction: China in the north. For a full millennia, Annam (Vietnam’s earlier name) was a Chinese province. Even during the independence, rulers often chose to show respect and nominal vassalage to Chinese emperor, just not to give him funny ideas such as sending new occupying army south. Mongols tried to conquer Vietnam on three occasions (AD 1258, 1285, and 1287–88), but jungle warfare in tropics was too much for even Mongol warriors and campaigns ended badly for them. Champa culture in southern side of the tall country differs ethnically from north, and was more connected to Khmer’s in Cambodia as well as Javanese and seaborne cultures of Southeast Asia.


Viet youth.


St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi downtown around Christmas time.


Famous Turtle Tower, in Hoan Kiem lake. Hanoi downtown.


Young students often circle the Hoan Kiem lake next to Hanoi old quarters. They approach foreigners to practice their English skills.


Rainy day in Hanoi downtown.

Hanoi. Old town of Hanoi still has its charm, with its bustling markets, street vendors and side streets, small shops, old French colonial buildings. Vietnamese have quick eyes, paying a shop or cafe they somehow always manage to gauge notes in my wallet in a second and telling me which notes to use. Living costs in Vietnam is still bellow Thailand for instance. I visited Hanoi 2012, and while city obviously has developed fast during this time, street scenes do not differ much to 2019. Most rapid pace of change occurred 1986 and afterwards (Doi Moi reforms).


Scenes from Hanoi downtown.

Downtown is photogenic spot, with always something new to observe.


Sa Pa valley view from Fansipan at sunset.

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Seasons of Southeast Asia – in Orwells Words

This post quotes George Orwell describing Northern Burma where he lived in late 1920’s. His lively description applies through the region, for example to North Thailand where I live. Am generalising title as Seasons of Southeast Asia. Quotes are from Orwell’s book Burmese Days, first published in 1934. Photos are mine from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos in between 2012-2015.


Main waterways of the region. Mekong above and Irrawaddy bellow.

“Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October.”

“The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them—honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold.”


Winter clothes have their use. Chiangmai, North Thailand.

“In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”


Temples mountains. Chiangmai above, Mandalay bellow.

Burmese History in Chiangmai

Arrived few days ago to Myanmar (Burma) and am working on material about that. But this post is about Chiangmai in Thailand (Siam). Was surprised to learn about my old home town being part of both countries over the course of history.

History in brief

Visitors of today in north Thailand probably come across the term Lanna or Lan Na. Lanna was independent medieval Tai kingdom (Tai are people speaking same family of languages, Thai being someone from Thailand). Lanna capital moved few times, but eventually Chiangmai, the New City, was founded 1296 by King Mengrai.


Lanna mural in temple wall in Nan

Perhaps not as many are aware for over 200 year Burmese influence. Burmese rule in the region started 1558 when King Bayinnaung occupied Lanna and subdue it to his vassalage. Many other kingdoms would follow, eventually Bayinnaung’s empire would stretch from modern day Bangladesh to Cambodia, see: map.

Andrew Forbes & David Henley, The Khon Muang: People and Principalities of Northern Thailand:

Unlike the Siamese of central Thailand, the people of Lan Na do not retain bitter memories of the Burmese conquest. Judging by the histories, when a suzerain was just and his rule generous, the Khon Muang (Lanna people) would support him even against Siamese

Burmese and Siamese main battle tanks in action

Later, continuous conflicts would empty Burmese war chest, resulting a heavy taxation and worsening relations. Burmese lost control entirely when Lanna rose to revolt with the help of Siamese 1775. Independence wasn’t to be anymore, and Burmese were replaced by Siamese with Bangkok as their new capital.

So if Burmese had over 200 years of influence in Chiangmai, they must have left a mark that is still recognisable? Both countries are Theravada Buddhist countries, and if people loved to do something in the old times, they loved to build religious buildings. In Chiangmai, people built stupas (chedi), temples and monasteries (wat), and city said to have almost as many of them as 50-times bigger Bangkok.

After a bit of research, I jumped on a scooter and drove to the city to find about its Burmese connection.

Wat Myanmar, south-east corner of old city – I cruise to the yard early, before monks alms walk had begun. Pack of wat dogs (monks pet them, but don’t really train them to behave) started getting territorial. Luckily someone at temple was also awake and sweeping the yard. He hushed the dogs silent. Wat is fine example of a 19th century Burmese temple which would not look out of place in Mandalay. It is mainly associated with the lowland Burman tradition in the city, and pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon can be seen on the walls.

Time seems to have frozen in Wat Myanmar

Wat Ku Tao. Remains of Tharawadi Min, the Burmese Prince of Chiangmai and son of Bayinnaung. In 1607 the Prince died after a reign of nearly twenty-eight years, his ashes are said to be buried in Wat Ku Tao.

In Wat Ku Tao

Kawila’s lions, Khuang Singh, or “Place of Lions”. This was erected by Chao Kavila at the end of the 18th century, when rebuilding of depopulated city had started. Some say lions are symbol of power designed to overawe the armies of Burma, in case they choose to try occupation again. Superstition played big part in everyones lives during those years, but would two stone lions really stop an army is everyone to judge by themselves. Lucky for lions, their test never came: by early 19th century Burmese threat in the region disappeared, when it in turn end up being occupied by the British Indian Empire.

“Chedi Khao”, or “White Chedi” is on the bank of the river Ping. It is a round-base cone shaped chedi, 6 meters wide ad 8 meters high. The body is covered with smooth cement with no decorative patterns. It is painted in white.

Legend was told that once a Burmese King led his troops to surround the city and challenged the ruler of Chiang Mai to bring the best diver to compete with the Burmese. His deal was if the Chiang Mai diver could stay under water longer than his, he and his army would return home. “Lung Piang” an old man volunteered to compete and the ruler of Chiang Mai accepted him. The two rulers agreed to hold the competition near the area where the chedi is situated now. They had two poles posted in the river at a distance. When the two army commanders were seated and the divers waited at the post, the generals signaled for the contestants to start diving. So much time passed and the people started to feel uneasy. Finally one of the divers came up to breath. He was the Burmese representative. The people on the Chiang Mai side were relieved and waited for their hero to come up to declare victory. Time passed; so long that it was clear that Chiang Mai had won the victory so the ruler sent his men down to tell the old man. The men returned and reported that Lung Piang could not return. He had sacrificed himself for the city. He tied himself to the post and was drowned in the river. As a monument for his bravery, the ruler commanded a chedi to be built at the Ping River bank.

(from link)

Warorot Market near White Chedi, by the river Ping. Visitor can try a Burmese cheroot from market supplies. Here too one may find a wide selection of lungyi—sarongs—from Mandalay, Lashio and even Mytkyina. There are also fresh/dried fruit, vegetables, flowers, butchery and bakery items, herbs, condiments, clothing, shoes, cosmetics, jewellery, lacquerware, silks, hemps, handicrafts, ceramics, wood carvings, beauty supplies, household appliances, electronic gadgets, sunglasses, watches, souvenirs, fireworks…

Large Warorot market hall

Best Sai Oua, or northern Thai sausage can be found from Warorot Market

Ps. my Burmese Days (and Thai) are over now, and am moving Europe. I lived over two years in Chiangmai and will definitely want to go back one day. The region has its unique qualities that am already missing. Different that of south Thailand or Bangkok region for instance.

Songkran Ride: Mae Hong Son loop

Mae Hong Son loop is name for set of scenic serpentine roads crossing hills and valleys of north west corner of Thailand. Loop starts and ends to Chiangmai, the second largest city after capital Bangkok. There are several route options one can choose. This link describes the loop more in detail. I followed Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang route with a friend year ago, but switched Mae Sariang this time to Mae Chaem. This turned out to be good idea as views were better and could more easily visit Doi Ithanon, the highest point in the country. Edit: Ha Giang Loop in northern Vietnam is similar riding experience and highly recommended!

Route as my phone recorded it (for some reason Google had determined farthest distance being 88.095 miles. Route in total is about 500-600km)

Infrastructure is well developed and guesthouses can easily be found all along the route. And, occasionally fascinating restaurant or coffee shop too. These services are best in Pai and Mae Hong Son, but are not nonexistent elsewhere either. Compared to its neighbours, Thailand have had more time and better resources to improve its road network. For most part road was in good condition. Driving style is “interesting” to be put mildly. Car drivers generally consider bikers as their inferiors, that stay away and give way when needed. This can be seen especially on big highways, but sometimes on smaller roads as well. After 10am to around 4pm, especially now when rain season had not started yet, sun can be tormenting. Good sun glasses and lotion are a must!


What is Songkran, is best illustrated with photos 🙂

Am big camera and photo nut and would normally take real camera with me. But as it was Songkran, the Thai new year, the water splashing is guaranteed everywhere from big cities to small roads in the middle of nowhere. So decided to keep electronics at minimum, and just use smartphone for everything. Same device is invaluable these days with maps, routes and location tracking. And searching information about guesthouses.

For the transport, chose my 150cc Honda PCX. Its not torque oozing touring bike, but rather just a big scooter. I found it enough for one person to pull up the mountains. Tank is big enough for about one to two hundred kilometres, while the engine is not as thirsty as in bigger bikes. Compartment under the seat takes helmet plus stuff such as clothes, sandals etc. Dedicated box behind the seat wound improve the storage abilities even further. I tried 300cc “jumbo scooter” Honda Forza few months ago, and for two persons would not choose anything smaller in Mae Hong Son. Many locals and tourists alike wont care, and storm around with their 110cc Scoopy’s and Fino’s. Going by car would obviously be safest, and with aircon, one does not have to care about scorching sun. But because road is so curvy, one has to have a good stomach. Knowing breaking techniques is also mandatory, as overheated breaks loose their grip. Least on personal preference, good curvy roads on nice warm weather are so much more enjoyable on two wheels that decision was easy.

Region is Himalayan foothills that span across North Burma, Thailand, Laos and Yunnan in South China. Region was largely unknown to the world until 19th century, and plurality of ethnics that populate region is stunning. Different hill tribes live in countryside, their remote villages can be accessed by hiring a local travel agent or self-searching the information. I did three village trips to Kayan (Karenni) villages. They are also known as “long neck women”, because of their custom for women to wear brass rings around their neck. There are several theories why this became to be. One is that rings were intended to make women look less attractive, for raiding parties from neighbouring tribes. Other is that rings were intended as protection against tigers, the beast biting to neck of its prey. Third is that they were meant as protection against evil spirits. Am sure there is also fourth and fifth theory at least. Before there were any border demarcated between Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand), hill tribes moved freely in the region and Thailand has its own ethnic minorities. But today most Kayan people here are refugees from purges by military junta in neighbouring Burma.

Huai Sua Tao is most easily found and accessible, south west from Mae Hong Son centre. Only about 20-30 minutes drive. Its also smallest and most touristy, entry fee is 250 Thai Baht at the time of writing. Women are selling souvenirs for visitors.

Second village is more genuine, and north west of Mae Hong Son centre called Ban Nai Soi. Drive there takes bit of road manoeuvring skill. Road is usable only with dirt bikes during monsoon season. Some locals felt even surprised me showing up one late afternoon.

The best experience was to village of Nam Phiang Din, further south west from first village. It stands beside river Mae Pai that crosses the border nearby. To visit the village, one has to cross the river with help of locals. Entry costs 200 Baht plus 20 Baht for the boat men. Village is biggest than two earlier, has genuine feel in it. People are doing other things there, rather than just wait tourists to show up. Dogs seemed to roam everywhere, which at night time can a surprise. Children were playing on mud streets, adults minding their businesses such as fixing boats, carrying fire wood and caring their young ones. Chicken and pigs were doodling about as well. This meditating place would be good choice, when wanting to escape hectic city life for a moment.

While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, work of Christian missionaries in 19th century can still be seen in hill tribes

Had strong rain shower when heading up to Doi Ithanon, as last part of my trip. While feeling wet and cold, rain also cleared temples from tourists and had nice moments reading about Buddha in silence.