Destination of the day: Chiang Khan

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water wheel mayor_3267It being tropical Thailand, somebody has organised a bicycle tour.

Even at 6 AM you can feel the heat. The sky is turning a deeper shade of blue. We collected our bikes at the hospital which seemed appropriate with helmets and bottles of water (to complete the theme we finished at the mortuary and a van with a blue flashing light came to bring us back home).

eoghan master_2881The sense of anticipation was heavy in the air like the humidity, 31 degrees in the tropics on a bicycle with a bell on each side. We had precious little knowledge of what lay ahead of us.

This was going to be experiential, in the way the guys give the PowerPoint presentations about experiential tourism never dreamed of. We set off, the low sun behind us, a long shadow pointing into the corner, into a drain into which the excess water runs during the rainy season.

There are patches of water buffalo dung along the cycle path in the distance the mountains have a green top for the forest and a brown section coming down in streaks like chocolate in a bowl.

eoghan mekong boat_2597Vans, tuk tuks and pickup trucks go whizzing by but what strikes you most is how the colours respond to the low early morning sun.

Later in the day the light will be blinding, so bright that looking and appreciating this countryside becomes more of a task. Now Thailand is delighting and rejoicing in the subtle colours of the morning time.

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Eoghan soldier 001We were back at sunrise the following morning to give sticky rice to the monks and receive their blessing.

The blessing is chanted solemnly, and carries an air of solemnity that affects the whole town. A huge beetle was doing the breast stroke in a puddle, wondering if it would be reincarnated as a monk or an alms giver.

Being a monk is something of a fashion accessory here. Many men have spent a period of their life in a monastery, and others were despatched by disapproving mothers to learn spiritualism as young men.

The first monk, like an advance party, had come through and issued his blessing.

The tourists all hunched, waiting and then nine of them came together.

A woman running back to her mat having taken her photograph now wanted to give the rice. Berobed, barefooted and with short hair.

ghost dance four_3116They came in a crocodile, oldest at the front, the youngest at the back. While the monks have 226 rules to follow, our guides assured us there only five rules for Buddhist lay people.

But they kept forgetting the fifth precept of Buddhism: do not lie, so we cannot even be sure of that.

If north eastern Thailand came with a flavour it would be is that slightly sweet dried coconut, it looks like layers of pasta or soft liquorice when you bite into it, rolled up like petals of flowers, you nibble away.

IMG_2929They brought us to see it being made. The preparation does not add the attraction. An open pot surrounded by flies, if not on the pot, in the vicinity.

You never get to look at food preparation in a developing country. It is just as well.

It does not do justice to the range of amazing local cuisine from the kitchen of the lost world: marinated ant eggs, garlic pork, oyster sauce with dried mushroom, fried bean curd, fried snakehead (a fish) and chicken com yang.

You have not lived until you have tasted rice in a pineapple on the banks of the majestic Mekong, chugging along as if the ancient Lan Chang Kingdom was still extant.

Lana alms giving_2572The locals dispense culinary advice: avoid peeled fruit and salads, buy the whole fruit.

And keep an eye out for reusable plates washed in a bucket of water sitting in 35 degrees.

Thailand’s Deputy tourism Governor Juthaporn Rerngronasa told me in 2011 that her favourite place in the world is Chiang Khan. I could see why.

No greater contrast from the white sand resorts to the south could be found than on these narrow roads.

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On the pagoda outside the ghost temple, the gaily decorated icons look for all the world like something from the other side of the Pacific ocean.

The colours are different and distinct, less glaring than you find elsewhere, a deeper shade of purple a lighter shade of yellow, sky blue as if the ghost decided to support the Dublin football team in a flash of other worldly inspiration.

The heat is so intense it burns the soles of your feet through light shows, and you watch for darker patches of pavement where the sun has not warmed it to hellish intensity.

Every temple becomes a refuge if only because of the heat and the act and art of meditation comes naturally to those who step inside to allow their body escape from the climbing mercury outside.

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In a large dusty courtyard we visited another temple. A funeral was taking place nearby. Long orations and chanting in something like sean-nós.

They had other activities in mind for us. Tourists were being taught to dance and bang a room and dress for a parade, while some bored youths helped them along. Everybody went home. Nobody got hurt. Maybe the art of music or the aesthetic of tourism in Thailand but that was all.

We built Pasat Loy Krohon prayer rafts and lit candles on them and released them into the Mekong.

Our troubles floated away.

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Eoghan Corry flew to Phuket with Etihad Airlines, who fly double daily from Dublin to Abu Dhabi and onwards to 90 international destinations, including Bangkok three times daily. See www.etihad.com or your local travel agent.

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