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Floating Down the Mekong River

THIS CURRENT COOL SEASON IS an ideal time to push back the frontiers and take a fly-cruise trip to China's Yunnan province exploring some of the recently opened border points in China. The GMS Cluster Travel group has organized a series of such tours for November December until January 31 2005.

The group's founder is Dr. Thanomsak Sereewichayaswat a well establishedveterinarian and agriculturalist from Chiang Rai who has a decade of experiencein pioneering tours of the mighty Mekong river through his family owned Mae SalongTours. Groups or individuals take a Bangkok Airways flight to the Chinese cityof Jinhong for a three day tour of the area bordering Myanmar and culminatingin a spectacular 340 kilometer boat ride along the Mekong back to Chiangsaen.

On arrival at Jinhong we were greeted by a group of dancers and musicians in Tai (Thai) Leu costumes who performed a traditional drum dance to make us feel at home. Our tour guide Mr Tee was an easygoing young man who spoke fluent central and northern Thai and proudly informed us that he was a tourism graduate of Kunming University. He ushered us aboard our bus for the short ride to the Kwang Kwang Hotel "The Sightseeing Hotel" one of the only two four-star establishments in Jinhong. En route Mr Tee taught us some useful phrases in Thai Leu including one we were to hear throughout our trip 6-7-8; six to rise seven to breakfast and eight to board the bus for the tour. I wondered whether we were headed for the Kwang Kwang Hotel or Bang Kwang prison! But our ever-smiling guide soon made it clear that he had no intention of keeping to any such regimented schedule and we exhaled in relief.

The hotel proved to be clean and comfortable. Our guestroom was air conditionedand had twin beds with coconut fibre mattresses excellent for spinal supportand comfort. The bathroom complete with bathtub and shower had guest robesand all the personal toiletries one would expect to find in a four star establishment.Every guest room has tea-making facilities and a color television. However asnew arrivals we were eager to take a window shopping stroll before dinner anddecided that the tea and TV could wait.

Soon we were walking in the shade of giant palm trees along pristine clean sidewalks.The first thing we noticed was the absence of miles of spaghetti strung betweentelegraph poles; all telephone and electric lines are buried underground in Jinhong.There were shops selling everything from precious jade to t-shirts to real leathershoes at 600 Baht per pair. We decided to leave the shopping until after dinner.Back at the hotel a bus was waiting to spirit us off for our evening meal ata restaurant where ate alfresco on the banks of a canal.

We sampled about eight dishes very similar in taste to northern Thai fare and washed down our meal with glasses of cool delicious beer. Suitably fed and watered we returned to the shopping district for some serious bargaining. I spotted some beautiful batik paintings which the salesgirl said cost 50 Yuan each (5.2 Baht to 1 Yuan) I bought three for 20 Yuan apiece after some good natured bargaining. My smug smile disappeared later in the trip when we spotted the same paintings for sale at 15 Yuan; so much for the well-travelled shopper. Some of the girls bought a dozen pairs of anklet nylons for the equivalent of 25 Baht (the price for just one pair in Chiang Mai).

We then browsed around the city's largest department store about the size of the fruit and vegetable section at Carrefour in Chiang Mai. The store boasted an escalator in the same condition as the one at Gaad Luang; a case of see you later escalator. We soon tired of shopping and headed back to the hotel via the Indi-500 race track. Yes use extreme caution when crossing the pristine streets of Jinhong!

Back in our room it was time for a refreshing cup of tea and a scan of the local television channels before turning in for the night. The tea was excellent so were the commercials; all channels are in Chinese. We slept well. At the crack of 6-7-8 the following morning we were up raided the buffet breakfast bar comprising noodles-various boiled rice some local side dishes boiled eggs toast fruit juice and coffee and had boarded the bus for Dai Market at Gunlanba. Gunlanba is a traditional country market selling all manner of fruit and vegetables live chickens pots and pans.

At the next stop a typical Dai village we had computer photos taken with a peacock who looked about as welcoming as the weather. We were very thankful umbrellas were for sale at the Village. When it rains in Yunnan province even Gene Kelly fans stay home. Then it was off for lunch and more lovely beer. We visited the Zhou En Lai Monument and Museum. Back to the hotel where we dried out.

In the evening we dined at another hotel and while some of us paid 500 Baht to watch an optional theatre show the rest returned for an early night. The next morning saw us at the primeval Ranna forest where we saw an animal show a typically ethnic marriage ceremony and a cultural show of local music and dance. We followed this by a cable car ride across the Mekong river to Monkey Mountain before returning to our hotel to check out and head for the boat trip.

Our sleek white vessel cast its moorings and we were soon speeding down the mighty Mekong in air conditioned comfort. The scenery was breathtaking and we enjoyed the comfortable four hour journey to the border post of Dan Guan Lei where we were booked in to spend our last night in China at the Green River Hotel. We disembarked and walked through an overgrown field to the hotel to find that no one on the staff could speak either English or Thai. The hotel itself was a dead ringer for "The Bates Motel" in the film "Psycho"; this was really roughing it folks. An evening stroll through the town brought back memories of another Hollywood epic "Deliverance". The night life in China's last border outpost offered one the choice of noisy Karaoke bars or "beauty parlours"; the walls of the latter adorned with graphic posters depicting a variety of uses for their beds other than a massage or a make-over.

Walking back to the Green River Hotel we saw a large group of young men sporting dyed red hair and sitting astride large motorcycles Hell's Angels-Dan Guan Lei chapter no doubt. After a fitful night's sleep we set off before sunrise for the only food outlet open in town where we breakfasted on congee. On the way back to the hotel we bought some pla tong goh from a street vendor. It was not the best we had tasted and it was cooked in oil resembling that drained from the sump of an aged Chiang Mai tuk tuk. Down at heart? Not a bit of it. We Chiang Mai pioneers are made of steel.

After the quickest checkout in the history of the tourism trade we were once more aboard our trusty riverboat and it was off to the upper triangle on the China Laos Myanmar border. Once again we were enchanted by both the serenity of river travel and the untouched beauty of the countryside. We cruised past Tang Luang the longest gorge then the Myanmar port of Soiei and the Lao port of Xiangkok. We enjoyed a lunchbox on board and continued on our way to Chiangsaen in time to take part in the official opening ceremony of the GMS Cluster group.

We enjoyed our fly-cruise tour (undaunted by the Green River Hotel experience). The boat ride along the Mekong alone made the trip very worthwhile. By the way the Mekong is known in Jinhong as the Lan Chang or "Millions of Elephants". According to folklore a fearsome dragon once dwelt in the waters of the river. One day it ate a baby elephant who had wandered away from his mother. Upon seeing her child devoured the mother elephant raised the alarm. In the blink of an eye millions of enraged elephants converged on the scene and trampled the dragon to death. Yeah right. Well they do drink a lot of beer in Yunan Province.

For booking and rates call GMS Cluster representative ERAWAN P.U.C TOUR 211/14-15 Changklan Rd. opposite Lanna Palace Hotel Tel. 274212-3 Fax. 276548.

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