Koh Chang to Bangkok to Chiang Mai (Day 139 to 157)
Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand
Just like on Koh Rong in Cambodia, we seemed to have difficult time leaving our second island of the trip and so after our previous instalment, we lazed around on Koh Chang for a further four days. Along with the standard island life of eating noodle soups and relaxing, we embarked on another fishing & snorkeling trip with Anniina, whom we met on Koh Rong & her friend Betty, along with Shaun's ex-workmate Melissa & her husband Jay. We'd already visited a few islands, but as the scenery around the marine park is amazing, it was well worth a third trip.
This time we were on a much bigger boat with lots more customers, so the six of us decided to commandeer the top deck and spent most of the day baking in the heat. When we arrived at the first snorkelling spot, Shaun's face literally lit up as he finally got the permission to jump off the top deck into the turquoise sea, something he'd been longing to do since Ha Long Bay in Vietnam; I simply couldn't watch. The fishing wasn't as good this time round, but with a few catches, including one which Shaun managed to hook from the fish's belly, we weren't too disappointed.
With a few more days of bucket cocktails with friends, games of pool, tasty burritos and the compulsory beers at our guest house/mexican restaurant Barrio Bonito, we had time to start thinking about the next leg of our journey. We had heard a few whispers about the Thai New Year travels, which eventually turned into warnings of yet more chaos on the train & accommodation front. After our experiences in China we weren't willing to leave anything to chance and quickly booked what seemed the last available beds on the sleeping train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. We also sorted our transport to Bangkok with the same lady as all our boat trips and our returning custom landed us a free noodle soup lunch, which was too spicy for the Thai lady, but somehow we managed it with no issue; she was pretty impressed!
Another matter that we had started mulling over was the looming ocean between South East Asia and Australia. We'd heard of 'match-making websites' for boat owners and potential crew members finding each other, as well as kind freight companies that might be able to accomodate a few foot passagers on their huge cargo ships. So with a glimmer of hope of a small chance we might make it over the deep blue without flying, we sent off a dozen or so enquiries and went about dreaming of an ocean voyage.
Back in Koh Chang, we said our goodbyes to all friends we'd made on Lonely Beach over the last few weeks, all of which made us feel extremely welcome and like part of the furniture. On the morning of our departure, the rain was pouring down as we clambered on to the back of a shabby old minibus and hoped the journey to Bangkok would be as advised - around 6 hours in total. We were looking forward to getting to the capital to meet up with friends; my friend Joel who I knew from Finland and now studies in Bangkok and Shaun's friend Eleanor from Manchester, who'd be travelling with us for just over a week. Our hopes of a smooth journey turned into a nightmare; the driver drove like a lunatic over a million bumps which I think he did deliberately, just to see us bouncing around on the sweaty backseat. Finally in Bangkok after about 9 hours (and we were thinking the Thai roads were an improvement!), we were dropped off near Khao San Road (the western party central of the capital). After brief glances, we were happy that we were residing elsewhere.
In order to get to our guesthouse, it meant battling against the notorious Bangkok traffic in a taxi, followed by a journey on the impressive Skytrain network. The traffic lived up to it's reputation, as it took an hour to complete the mere 4.5km journey (under 3 miles to you Brits) and then a further 30 minutes on the Skytrain itself. Therefore, we finally arrived at our guesthouse completely exhausted at around 6.30pm.
As advised by all the reviews of the guesthouse, Joy - the owner of U-Baan, was extremely friendly and welcoming. Situated in the backstreets of a residential area, she regularly invites guests out for dinner in the local restaurants (the rustic plastic table and chairs type) or street stalls. We accepted her invitation that very night but at this point Shaun started to feel unwell. He only managed a quarter of his plate of fried noodles as his whole body stared to burn up, so we had to quickly make our way back and try sleep it off in our air-conditioned room.
Shaun seemed to get worse during the next few days with fever, nausea & sickness, loss of appetite and excessive sweating through the night. So although it's an unavoidable part of a long-term travelling, those few days don't really make for very good writing. We didn't leave the room much, I fetched food, Shaun had to force the food down, we slept and played cards. That's about all that happened, along with a trek to the other side of Bangkok to reserve a room at another, more central place for us and Eleanor, but we quickly returned as soon as it was booked as Shaun rapidly deteriorated once we hit the Bangkok heat. Thankfully, Joy had arranged so that we could stay in our private room for the whole three nights, even though she was fully booked and on the last two nights we were supposed to be in a 3 bed dorm; she was truly an angel.
The day we had move hostels, Shaun felt a little better after food and we made our way across the city on the Skytrain. We checked in our new room and as we waited for Eleanor and Joel, we got chatting to Atiqah, a girl from Singapore travelling with her mum. Both Eleanor and Joel arrived safely and we chilled with a few beers together, but Shaun, although sober, felt bad again in the evening and so had to admit defeat and go to bed early. The rest of us ventured into Bangkok streets for a few drinks and barbequed chicken sticks.
Shaun's health was up and down again over the next 24 hours and we started to seriously consider a visit to a clinic or hospital, but as our train to Chiang Mai was leaving the next afternoon, we were running short on time. As the day went on we all realised he'd have to be seen by a professional and as he felt worse during dinner, Eleanor and Atiqah kindly walked around in the evening and found a huge international hospital for us to go to before our train the next day. It was clear the illness was getting to him mentally too, so we decided that even if it would cost us a fortune to see someone, no price would be too high to get him back to his old self again.
In the morning we were up early, checked out, said goodbyes to Atiqah and flagged a taxi to take us to the hospital. I think this part of Shaun's illness was the best for all of us, because to say we were impressed with the hospital and the service is a huge understatement. Shaun was checked in, shown to the right waiting room and seen by an extremely helpful and knowledgeable doctor in under an hour! As he started describing his symptoms and moved onto itchy hands, the lady nodded knowingly and simply said "You have dengue fever, but its on it's way out". He was lucky I guess, as the fever state can last up to two weeks and can develop into something more serious. So with the advice to avoid alcohol for a further four days and to drink Gatorade and take paracetamol (there is nothing else for it and definitely no jab), we proceeded to the cashier nervous what the bill would be. But with our wallet only 22GBP (26 Euro) lighter and a massive weight of Shaun's shoulders, we were all feeling at ease and happy to be boarding our overnight train to Chiang Mai.
The train was a rustic, older train but still, a train, which Shaun and I were ecstatic about after all the horror rides on coaches and minibuses. Eleanor and I bought a few beers from the pestering vendors, Shaun was intent on waiting the four days before drinking again though. The journey was pleasant, we admired the views of the countryside and mountains through the open windows and as the attendants made the beds for us around 8pm, we started turning in for the night. To add insult to injury, Shaun's window would not shut properly and as the darkness decended, so did an army of bugs on his lower bunk bed. I think at this point he felt that the whole world was against him, but Eleanor and I couldn't help but giggle (sorry Shaun). We eventually managed to fix his window by stuffing the blanket in between the shutter, so we were all finally tucked up in our beds, however I was waiting for sleep that never came.
I woke up from a early-hour doze at around 6am, thinking we'd be arriving around 6.15 as per the itinerary. But at 6.30, as we appeared to be nowhere near, all of us just snoozed and waited. We finally pulled onto a station at 8am, this station, however, was not Chiang Mai, but the town before. None of us had a clue why, but we were ushered onto buses heading to our correct destination. Having learnt from the past we just went with it and true to their word, we arrived in Chiang Mai an hour later, only about 4 hours behind schedule; not bad for South East Asia.
A taxi driver got us to our hostel and after booking a visit to the Tiger Kingdom with him the next day, we took the rest of the day very easy by the pool of our guesthouse, gathering energy for the main reason we'd come to the city; the best Songkran (Thai New Year) celebrations in Thailand - four days of water-fighting mayhem like nothing else on this planet!
The Tiger Kingdom experience the following day was amazing, and well worth the extra money we paid to see the smallest (2-4 months), the small (4-8 months) and the biggest (up to 2 years) tigers they had. You literally cuddle up to them, as they are hand-reared from birth so they are used to humans and from what we could tell, are not drugged. We did, however, find out later that the place only has a licence as a restaurant, not a zoo and that there had been some reported attacks when it first opened in 2008! Meh, we are in Thailand after all...
Afterwards, our taxi driver dropped us off to a bizarre place called Monkey School where apparently monkeys are taught to help farmers. However, what we experienced was a monkey parade from your wildest nightmares; monkeys lifting weights, selling flowers and counting maths, all the while the loudest trance/dance music was blaring from the speakers - surreal. Perplexed, we returned to the city, sorted out our journey to Laos, a jungle zipline activity for the following day and most importantly, our 'supersoaker' waterguns ready for the New Year festival. After tucking in to some rather impressive burrito's and nacho chips, we turned in early ready for our activity day, which started with an elephant ride, following with bamboo rafting and zip-lining through the tree tops, which was great fun, concluding with a swim in a small waterfall.
Back at our hostel, the day took a worrying turn as we turned on the news, there had been an earthquake near Indonesia in the same area as 2004, causing alarms for tsunami in the area, including Southern Thailand. As we both assured our worried parents we were nowhere near the coast, the warnings were thankfully lifted and it all seemed just a scare. Relieved, we headed for one last dry night of our stay in Chiang Mai and after a tasty dinner, we fell asleep happy in knowing we did not have to be up early again the next day.
The first day of the water festival things seemed to start slowly. We walked out to get lunch armed with our garishly coloured guns under our arms and only had a few buckets of water thrown on us. After our lunch of the best fruit salad in town, we walked around taking in the atmosphere, everyone from young to old was getting in the spirit of things, smiling and laughing soaked from head to toe in mostly ice-cold water. We thought to ourselves of how this would not happen back home without it escalating to a nasty riot of massive proportions. Appropriately wet, we stopped at a bar to celebrate the end of Shaun's sobriety. Funnily enough, the two weeks must have taken it's toll on him as he merrily announced a feeling of tipsy-ness after only one bottle.
We took it relatively easy that night, realising that the biggest celebrations were yet to come and the following two days did not disappoint. We bravely walked into the town full of merry revellers soaking other passers-by whether they be on foot, bikes, tuktuks or on the back of pick-up trucks. The experience was like nothing else, there were thousands of people on the streets partying, stages of dancers, foam cannons and hose pipes, all the while getting pelted with water (again stressing it was mainly freezing cold) from all angles. Dripping wet, we carried on the shenanigans until early evening and we could not stop laughing at the whole mayhem that was the Songkran Festival. It was definitely one of the top experiences of our trip so far!
To top off our stay in Chiang Mai, we had a great last night at a pub chatting and watching Man City beat Norwich with George & Laura, a lovely Norwich fan couple (who must have not enjoyed the game as much though seeing as though City won 6-1). Having enjoyed perhaps a few too many beers ahead of our day of travelling, we returned to the hostel for the final sleep.
The morning came too early as expected and with slightly fuzzy heads (nothing as bad as have been on some of our previous travelling days) we said our goodbyes to Eleanor who was flying back to Bangkok to meet her boyfriend James for a short island escape. However during the night she had learnt the that he wasn't allowed on his flight due to minimal water-damage on his passport, so as we parted ways, it was looking touch-and-go as to whether he'd get a new passport in time for the next flight (we're pleased to report that James did arrive two days later and the lovebirds are currently enjoying Koh Chang).
Feeling nervous about boarding another minibus, we waited and waited, until finally we were picked up an hour behind schedule. As we were driven through the narrow streets back and fowards piling more and more people on, we both felt so hot and claustrophobic, which led to Shaun throwing up on the side of the road. Not a great start to a long day. Slowly feeling better, we drove and drove on the winding mountain streets, stopped along the way for way too many times and eventually arrived in a border town of Chiang Khong close to the Laos border, which itself was in full swing of the water festival. Tired and not in the mood of getting soaked once more after we were dropped at the not-so-impressive guesthouse included in the price of our tickets, we scurried to the nearest spot for lunch and back. The rest of night we spent in our half-house like room playing cards.
Having travelled for over five months now and certainly after Shaun's illness we had both started longing for our own place in Australia with the normal home comforts. So we were falling asleep on our dodgy mattresses dreaming of nights in, watching films and cooking our own dinners, but at the back our minds was the reality of perhaps the most gruelling over-land travel ahead of us the next day. However, there was also the excitement of yet another new country, with more culture and foods to enjoy so it's fair to say that at this point that we're definitely experiencing mixed feelings about the remainder of our travels in Asia. Thankfully, with all her travelling experience, Eleanor left us with some words of wisdom which will surely carry us through; Simply for us not to wish anything away, as no doubt we'll soon be longing for this lifestyle, especially if we end up in 9-5 jobs in Melbourne. Thanks El!