And so from Chiangkong on the Laos/Thailand border we set off on the final journey of our 40 day Intrepid tour - a 6 hour private bus trip west to Thailand's second largest city, Chiang Mai. On route we made a couple of interesting stops to break up the journey, the first of which was at the stunning temple of Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai province. Known as the white temple, it is one of the most modern Buddhist temples in Thailand having being built just under ten years ago. From a distance you would have thought you were approaching a Disneyland construction of the snow queen's lair such was the extravagent and brilliantly white design. It looked a tad tacky but at least it was unique - many of the temples here all look the same but this one certainly stood out. In order to make it modern and contemporary, and to appeal to an increasinly secular generation of Thai kids, the interior walls had been decorated with scenes from Star Wars and images of the September 11th terrorist attacks. There were plenty of depictions of hell to scare the kids, and by the temple's entrance there was even a freaky sculpture of withered hands attempting to escape from the underworld. Whether this is enough to convince any kids to behave is another matter.
Secondly, we made a lunch stop at the "condoms and cabbages" charity run restaurant. The money the restaurant raises is used to educate rural people on issues such as contraception and birth control. At the end of every educational meeting the young people of the community are presented with condoms, and so as not to feel left out, the elders are rewarded the rather bizarre gift of a cabbage. The restaurant had a lot of quirky slogans and safe sex posters about and was something a bit different. The highlight for everyone was when our guide came out armed with a box of Asian sized condoms, which made all the lads on tour feel very good about themselves! They really were a lot smaller than their western equivalents and its no wonder all the Asian girls love western men!
We arrived in Chiang Mai at about 3.30pm in the afteroon, and there was still enough time for us to take one last group excursion up to another temple. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is Chiang Mai's most famous temple due to its position atop a mountain overlooking the city. It is also one of the chosen temples where ashes of the Buddha himself are said to be buried, and so it attracts a lot pilgrims. Sadly the temple was being renovated when we were there, but our guide Ae (herself a Buddhist like 95% of Thais) gave us a very educational talk about her religion and the story of the Buddha. She also told us about how every day of the week is represented by a different position, or mood, of Buddha, and every date is represented by a colour. Whatever colour is assigned to your birthday is supposed to be your lucky colour and you are supposed to wear it to bring good luck. Unfortunately my colour was pink, but on the plus side my Buddha position was reclined, much to the envy of everyone else! The reclining Buddha symbolises Buddha at peace after his death and is not a reflection of laziness as many people perceive!
That evening we went out for our final group dinner, though most people were still about the next day. Ae, herself a resident of Chiang Mai, took us to a nice restauarant by the river and I got a really nice duck and longan curry. We then went to a tiny bar which was playing live music, and then to a club. I felt like I was back in England in both as they were so westernised - the only hint you were in Thailand was from the many ladyboys present. It really surprises me how many there are! Thailand is a very liberal country and there is no shortage of people opting for sex change operations. Its surprising how tolerant this society is given the views of neighbouring Asian countries.
In the morning I was up early to get picked up for a day tour into the Chiang Mai countryside. I said goodbye to tour guide Ae when we departed at 8am, which was somehwat sad. Since first meeting us in Hanoi 2 weeks ago she really grew on me, and was probably our most efficient and hardworking guide. Three other people from my Intrepid group accompanied me on the day tour, along with about 12 middle aged people from other hotels, most of whom were German. The tour guide was a young Thai girl, but she reminded me so much of elderly tour guides I've had in the western world. They all have the same crappy sense of humour and make the same old jokes! It was at least quite amusing to hear them from the mouth of a young Thai, and not a grey haired New Zealander.
A rickety minbus drove us about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai and into the lush mountains surrouding the city. We made our first stop at an elephant camp, where we were each treated to a one hour elephant safari. Two people boarded each Indian elephant and sat secured in a chair on the elephant's back. Our guide, who was able to communicate with the elephant using a series of commands, sat straddled on the elephant's neck and directed him. It was a really fun experience to ride the elephant. It was like a slow moving rollercoaster as we wobbled up the steep and unstable hillsides, but it felt a lot safer than my Chilean horse ride! We bought bananas from huts on route to feed the elephant, which meant he continually flapped his trunk over his shoulder and slobbered all over my legs in an attempt to reach them. Our elephant was particularly greedy and was reaching into other people's bags, causing the rider to hit him with a sharp ended stick (apparently they have thick skin). Some tourists were given the opportunity to ride on the elephant's neck, but ours was apparently not trained enough so we stayed safely in our seats. The guide got off on a number of occassions to take pictures though and the beast never misbehaved!
One hour seemed to pass in no time and we were soon disembarking the elephant's where we got on them in order to make room for more tourists. We were then ferried a bit further up the road to the start of our short trekking trail to a well known waterfall in the region. We walked through lush banana plantations overlooking green soya fields, making a stop on the way at another Hmong village. The waterfall, when we got there, was flowing really well and a number of people were swimming despite the cold water temperature. I was not wearing swimming trunks so had to stay on the side, but it was still a nice spot. We then walked a short distance further making another stop at an ethnic minority village - this time one belonging to the Karen people. The Karen women were all hard at work weaving textiles for the tourists as we arrived, and their produce resembled that of the Peruvians in design. They had some really cheap gifts, but as ever I have no room in my bag so had to leave empty handed.
After lunch came the final part of our action packed tour - bamboo rafting. We each boarded the narrow bamboo rafts in groups of 4, and were ferried up the shallow and occassionaly fast flowing river by a guide stood at the front using a long pole to steer. Our guide, I felt, was the least attentive of any, and he repeatedly let the back end (where I was sat) swing wide into tree trunks and rocks. I came really close to being pushed out at one point, which would have been annoying as I had no swimwear on. It was a good job they told us to leave our cameras and wallets in the bus. Water repeatedly lapped over the edge of the raft so my shorts were soaked within minutes. It wasn't until we went over a 5ft waterfall (which broke apart the raft in front of us) that my upper body got wet! Local kids had gathered to watch and laugh the tourists going over the falls. Some people behind really panicked when they saw them, and from the angle the raft went down it guaranteed that you would get soaked! Our raft made it to the end in one piece, unlike the one before us, and from there we boarded the bus back to Chiang Mai.
Saturday evening marked my last meal with people from the tour. Only 2 people left Chiang Mai that day, so most of us were there for our trip to the local Mexican restaurant. I've enjoyed travelling with Intrepid and the people I've met have all been really nice. It'll be strange to travel without them after 40 days, but I now have just under 3 weeks travelling on my own until I join up with my next Intrepid tour group on March 5th.
The first leg of my solo journey was the 12 hour train trip yesterday from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. It was a shame to have to leave Chiang Mai after just 2 nights as there was a lot of outdoor activity opportunities in the area, but I had to come to Bangkok to get my India Visa Application in on time. Chiang Mai seemed like a fairly nice city, though I didn't see much of the place itself. For a city of 1.6 million it didn't feel overly big, and the people there were nicer than those in Bangkok. My train left at 8.45am and for the first 5 hours of the journey I was the only person in my carriage who wasn't part of a German tour group, which was a tad awkward! After they got off it took a while before the carriage filled up again, but by the time we got close to Bangkok every seat was filled. A young Thai man was very interested to talk to me and I chatted to him part of the way. He was in the Thai military and assumed I was a solider as well as I had long sideburns - a sure sign I needed a hair cut! He had worked as a guard at the Thai Embassy in Tokyo but hadn't travelled anywhere else, so was very interested in my travel. The rest of the time I passed by reading the Indian Lonely Planet book I rather stupidly bought on impulse the other day. It was very expensive and is too big, but it entertained me for a few hours and contains a lot of useful information.
On arrival at the station at around 9pm I caught a tuk-tuk to my hotel. I had an argument with the tuk-tuk driver over the price (which you always agree beforehand) and then had to harrass him for change when we got to my hotel. It was very much a fitting welcome back to Bangkok as everyone here will try and rip you off. When I checked into my hotel room I could tell I already smelled of Bangkok. A 5 minute tuk-tuk trip through the pollution is enough to get you stinking here. My hotel is located in Bangkok's modern heart, right by Siam shopping centre. This district of Bangkok is very much a shrine to consumerism, and any first time Laotion visitors would be absolutely blown away by the place. I chose the location as it was a short ride on the sky train away from the India Visa Application Centre, which I visited this morning. I handed in my application as soon as the place opened (I was there 30 minutes early and therefore got to the front of the queue), and they said my passport will be ready on time on Friday at 5pm. The price for the visa was more than 10 pounds what it said on the website. I've no idea why this was, it could just have been the bloke behind the counter ripping me off, but I had to pay it. All in all it cost about 60 pounds. After the visa centre I went for a haircut at a ladies hair salon. It was the first place I came across after spending a while looking and I was happy to go in. All the men's barbers in Asia look dodgy, and I've seen what kind of haircut most men emerge from them with - a bowl cut! The Thai girl cut my hair reasonably well based on a photo I showed her of it short, and I was happy to pay the 6 pound fee, which is probably extortionate for here.
I don't plan on staying in Bangkok until Friday and so will spend the next few days at Kanchanaburi, 3 hours west of here. It is the location of the actual Bridge over the River Kwai and there is a lot of Second World War history there, as well as nice scenery and waterfalls. I catch the train tomorrow morning and will be back in Bangkok on Thursday evening. Thanks for reading. This has been a very long blog but I'm finally up to date!