Right, before it gets to February I really ought to actually write about my six-day New Year celebration in the gorgeous Northern city of Chiang Mai.
Being all the way in the North meant a very long train journey up there on the night of the 29th, leaving at 9.30pm from the neighbouring province, and arriving there at 7.30am!! Even though I booked way back in mid-November the only space available wasn't even a sleeper but a second-class fan seat. At the time I was all like 'yeah that'll be fine, I can rough it a bit', but I swiftly changed my mind when I sat down on possibly the most uncomfortable seat imaginable (think: metal frame with a thin layer of weird-textured grey fabric stretched over it), which didn't recline properly, and where the fold-away table on back of the seat infront fell down everytime the person sitting there so much as breathed. On top of all that it was an aisle seat so I didn't even have a window to rest my sleepy head on. Small mercies that when the ticket man came round he moved me to the seat in front next to the window where I had two seats. This only lasted until the next station when a guy got on who proceeded to, as guys do, stretch out and make himself comfy. In the interim I shared the seats with a few mysterious looking bugs. Tried to distract myself from them by reading my book, although about 20 mins into the journey they turned every single light off, without warning, so I was left scrabbling around trying to put it back in my bag. I don't think overnight trains were ever intended to be slept upon. I imagine it's like travelling in a horse-cart over a seventeenth century cobble road; bumpy is an understatement. The train also never stays at a consistent speed so randomly grinds to an unexpected bumpy halt in the middle of nowhere. If I had managed to get at least a few winks in the wee small hours they were soon interrupted when the lights were switched back on... at 5am!! So, all in all, not the most pleasant means of transport, I tried to block from my mind of thoughts of the return journey.
Felt pretty special getting off the train and seeing my name being held up on a sheet of my guesthouses' paper. Swish! (Am expecting the same thing when I get out of arrivals at Heathrow by the way!) Was grateful to arrive at the guesthouse and managed to resist going straight to sleep. Instead a few of us (the early arrivals) decided to be cultural and do our own walking tour of some of the many many temples which were scattered across the old city, which I have to say are among the most impressive I've seen (and I've seen a hell of a lot of temples in the last few months!) In the process of sight-seeing got another patch of crazy sunburn, on the opposite side to the original Koh Chang one. Continuing my western-cheese-binge I had four-cheese gnocchi that evening to fuel me for going around the chaotic night bazaar, picked up lots of bits 'n pieces so expect some very tacky souvenirs, hehe!
New Years Eve: went on a trip organised by the guesthouse to an orchid farm (national flower of Thailand), a few hilltribe villages (Palong, Akha, Lisu and White Karen), where we were literally pounced upon and chased up the street to buy things, then we lunched at the Chiang Dao cave before going in. It was much better experience to my earlier cave expedition in Saraburi (less ducking and diving, more people, no bats, lights!) The trip was rounded off with a visit to the Long Neck Karen. I did feel a bit weird visiting hilltribe people in their villages, it feels like a circus attraction, but as many of them are refugees they can't leave to sell their wares so they need the tourism, so we were told. It was intesting to learn about their traditions though.. they believe having long necks makes them more attractive to men so they start putting the rings on at age five and add more coils every three years until they end up weighing around 5kgs. New Years Eve day-time activities make a nice change from last year when I was doing a 5000 word essay for my MA until about 6pm before heading up to London.
Had just enough time upon getting back to the guesthouse to tart myself up in my lovely yellow dress, which I'd chosen especially for my New Year celebrations, and slap some slap on. There was a group of about nine of us and after lots of wandering around we decided on an Italian restaurant where we proceeded to have the most comical meal ever. I swear the waitress didn't know what was on the menu, or heard a word of Italian, even the word 'spaghetti'! We asked for a litre of house white which, half hour later after the waitress had run across the road to an unknown destination, turned up in what appeared to be a vase and was no where remotely near the volume asked for (but still charged the same!) I thought I'd play it safe and stick with pizza... four cheese, of course... whilst some of the others ended up with the wrong order (garlic bread instead of bruschetta?!) All our food arrived at different times, and half of us were almost finished (having wisely been told not to wait) when the others were told the pasta they requested wasn't available. So an Italian restaurant with no wine or pasta?!
After our random (but still cheap - less than 40 quid for us all) meal we headed to John's Place where we chose to see in New Year from the rooftop bar which had a great view over the square. It was already busy up there but all of a sudden tables and chairs for us appeared from nowhere upon instruction from the head dude and the drinks started flowing. Very much flowing. I started with a classic pina colada which was followed by beer, gin and tonic (how very British!), vodka, think there may have been some tequila thrown in at some point too. The clock struck twelve (seven hours before home, which felt strange), vodka shots were consumed, and then we saw the most incredible fireworks display ever, which broke up the sky with the most amazing colours and patterns, in between the thousands of lanterns which had been let up and away. Tried in vain to remember the words to Auld Langs Syne, then accepted it wasn't going to happen and decided instead that a New Years drink was in order... so I, appropriately, ordered a Mai Thai as my first cocktail of the New Year, seeing as I was in Thailand for it after all.
You'll have to wait until tomorrow for the next installment with the rest of our New Years Eve adventures and the remainder of my trip, partly because my fingers are aching and partly because I'm about to run out of internet time as I've got carried away and written far too much :P! To be continued.....
After spending another hour or so on John's roof we decided on a change of scene. We'd heard word of a 'clubbing street' but all we remembered was that the name of one of the places was called Warm-Up. With that little piece of knowledge we hailed a songthaew (basically an opened-back truck with tarp over it) Had some reservations about whether he actually knew where he was taking us, but happily munching on rotees (incredible pancakes) and singing Madonna in the back we didn't worry about a thing. We did end up at the right place, which was a very 'Thai' open-air-bar-club, complete with water features. Stayed there til about 3ish when they started chucking out, drinking icy cold beer, chatting and dancing with a half-thai-half-Oz dude and his mates from down under. The night was still young and a Thai guy called Arm, yes Arm, said there was another club open called Discovery 'round the corner' which stayed open until dawn. So into two tuk-tuks we piled, squeezing four into a space just comfortable for two, and we were off again to yet another unknown destination. Discovery was a pretty classy club... on the top of a multi-storey carpark and played some good, very loud, music. It's deffo where all the cool kids hang out and was great to sit there people watching. By 4.30 some of us were flagging and decided to head back. New Year's Eve lived up to all expectations and has taken it's place as the Best One Ever! Great city to see it in, great bars, great clubs, great drink, and great company (although I'll admit that we did find one girl a bit wearing owing to the fact she starts and ends every sentence with 'ummmm yeah really totally yay seriously like agreed yeah ummmm yay', as well as having spontaneous outburst of just saying 'yay'... no follow-up!)
Much to my surprise I didn't feel too bad on New Year's Day, in fact I felt pretty damn good, and was up and about by 11am. Decided to take the day easy, so lunched on cheese sandwiches then went for a massage at a place opened by women who'd left the local women's prison, thought it was good to support them, and I don't think it's a high-security prison so not like I was putting my back in the hands of a hardened ex-crim. It was a very traditional Thai massage which meant having my limbs contorted and pummelled, so not quite so relaxing as my Christmas Day experience (particularly as the woman getting a massage behind the curtain next to me was snoring), but still felt a lot better and loose-limbed afterwards, and for three quid for an hour I can hardly complain. Afterwards we found a little place selling cheesecake so I had a big slice of blueberry, which was delish. Then we perused the stalls at the market before heading back to get ready for dinner. It really was a day all about the food, as usual. Found a cute French-Italian restaurant at the end of a very seedy looking street. Much better service than the previous night and we all got the right order at the same time, bonus. I had spaghetti with pesto (spelt pisso or something like that, so I was dubious), toms, and, true to form, cheese - goat's cheese this time. It was a lovely day, and dinner, to start 2009 with. Didn't stay out late as many were still recovering from the night before, and we had an early start the next morning for our tour to Chiang Rai.
(Would like to add here that I spent my hour lunch-break completing the rest of this entry and then forgot to save it before closing the window. I've had to sit here for ten minutes calming down/trying not to be angry/kick computer/cry before trying again!)
We were outside waiting for our mini-van to turn up at 7am, and seeing as we were so far North it was a bit more nippy than I'm used to, I had to wear my shrug. The six of us who went weren't too talkative at that time in the morning and the first hour was spent with each of us trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in whilst the van hurtled around the windy mountain roads. The first stop was a natural hot spring, which smelt of rotten eggs because of the sulphur, which didn't help to the nausea we all felt from a combination of tiredness and bad driving. I had a feeling the rest of the day wasn't going to go super smoothly when the 'Guide' merely left us there with no explanation about where we were and just said to meet back at the van in half hour. This gave us enough time for the others to grab coffees and we slowly reached a level of awakeness. When we got back in the van Mr 'Guide' told us 'you have choice.' The itinerary said we would go to an ancient city but he tried very hard to sell us the idea that Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) was better and all the ones in the ancient city were pretty much the same as what we'd see in Chiang Mai. White Temple it was then. It looked like a wedding cake and was very very different to what's the norm for temples, so was interesting to see. Once more were were greeted back at the van to 'you have choice.' He basically told us that when we go to our next stop, the Golden Triangle (where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar), we could go on a boat ride to Laos. This was actually on offer from our guesthouse as a different tour altogether and we'd chosen not to spend the extra baht just to step foot into Laos. He kept pushing it, saying if we stayed at the border they'd be nothing to do ('no shops'), but we said a firm no. When we got to a carpark at the Golden Triangle he just left us there, no indication of which direction to go to the viewing point, and said to meet them there in 45mins. We went off in what appeared a good direction, through the many food stalls and shops (liar!) and grabbed a snack, then found the viewing points. Headed back to the spot right in time, only to wait there for an hour. When he got back, with only a shrug of the shoulders by way of apology, he got in a huff that some of the others had gone back to look around and we couldn't get hold of them straight away. Lunch near the Myanmar border was the next point of call, although as it was almost 3pm by this point we were grateful for having stopped for a bite when we got there. Seeing as we were already running an hour plus late we seemed to spend far too much time hanging around after our buffet (a random mix of thai and western food). The post-lunch sights included the Myanmar border, at the Northern-most point of Thailand, and two hill tribe villages. Mr 'Guide' told us that we didn't have time to do everything and the other half of the tour, Thai people, wanted to go shopping instead. We stood our ground and said we'd rather stick to the itinerary we'd paid for. When he explained this to the rest of the group, accompanied by shrugging shoulders, one of the women who spoke Thai said she really thought we shouldn't miss out on seeing the border as it was a highlight... so it seems there was some miscommunication as they wanted to go there, and he told us they wanted to go shopping. In the end, after yet more shrugging and assertions of 'you not complain to tour company if we late', we agreed to fit it all in. So after a brief stop at the border, far too much time shopping (bought a bag I saw for half the price the following day at the night bazaar!), and a night-time visit to a village where we couldn't see a thing, we started the arduous three hour journey back to Chiang Mai. We finally arrived two hours late at 11.15pm, which I'm pretty sure was not so much to do with our 15min detour to the village but more to do with his shockingly poor time-keeping skills at the GT. Although the places we saw were great, I think it's pretty safe to say we had the worse tour-guide imaginable. Was well in need of a drink by the time we got back so met up with a guy who was also on the same teaching programme. Ordered my classic pina colada, and I should have known that after such a shambles of a day it was destined not to end well. They put lemon juice in what was supposed to be a tropical coconutty cocktail!! But I did win at Connect Four, which helped make me feel ever so slightly better.
The next day I did the cookery course my parentals had let me choose as an xmas pressie. It was at a lovely little organic farm, and we started the day off at the local market where we were told all about the different produce, and then we had a tour around the farm, were told about the different herbs and spices they grow, and then were shown how to make various types of rice. Having missed cooking so much I was in my element. Made friends with an awesome couple from Essex though who are travelling for two years, lucky. First of all I made my own yellow Thai curry paste, and then yellow Thai curry, as well as coconut chicken soup and som tam (spicy papaya salad), which we ate at lunch. Then after our leisurely and very yummy lunch I made pad thai and mango with stick rice, which is my all-time fave Thai dessert and I'm just praying the local Thai import shop sells sticky rice steamers so I can recreate its scrumptiousness. I had to take a doggy-bag home with the som tam and pad thai as quite literally couldn't fit another morsel in. When we got back I went for a mooch to the park in the opposite corner of the old city. I miss having somewhere green to sit so thought it'd be nice to go there and write out some of the postcards I'd been accumulating. Although it was very beautiful I didn't stay for long as was being attacked by mosquitos. I also had a feeling of overwhelming guilt for accidentally kicking a puppy... totally not my fault as it just came to play by my feet whilst I was strolling along with map in hand... I didn't hurt it but it let out such a cute little yelp that everytime I saw it after that I felt like a terrible person. Couldn't face eating my left-overs until nearly 9pm, so a few of us sat at a table in the square watching Thai dancing on the stage which had been set up for the week-long New Year celebrations. Then we went for another jaunt around the night bazaar where I picked up lots more souvenirs. Rounded off the last night in Chiang Mai with one final cocktail... a pink margarita, so me!
There were only two of us left come the Sunday as we both had overnight trips back to Saraburi, on bus and train, so we decided to make the most of it by fitting in all the things there were left to do. Hired a truck from the guesthouse (and driver, don't worry I wasn't let loose on the roads myself) and he took us to some silk and umbrella workshops, which Chiang Mai is famous for, and then to Wat Phra Doi Suthep which is at the top of a mountain. Had a good work-out climbing the 300 steps up there, and down again, and then remembered what a friend had said about a hidden escalator. By the time we'd got back it was time for some food fuelling in preparation for the gruelling journey home. One last peruse around the market, although no further purchases were made owing to the fact my bag was now doubley-expanded, and then it was time to head off to our respective stations. I was at the train station an hour or so early and used the time to finally write some postcards, and to contemplate what I thought would be a hellish journey back.
In fact, the train ride home was no way near as bad as the one there. Window seat, which was marginally more comfortable, only one bug, and they served dinner and kept the lights on til 10.30, which gave me time to read my book at last. I'd purposely worn myself out in the day in the hope it'd help me sleep, which seemed to have worked. But I did wake up about 4.30am convinced I'd miss the Lopburi stop, they don't give any announcements so it's a case of straining to look out the window and look for something familiar. I arrived at 6.40am, an hour and 20mins before I was supposed to be at school in Saraburi, 40mins away, eek. Jeab (my honourary Thai mum) had insisted that her friend who travelled from Lopburi to Saraburi every morning would pick me up. I phoned to let her know I'd arrived and waited... and waited... and waited until gone 8am. By this time I was pretty annoyed as I could have got to the bus station, bussed in, and been in time for school, but instead I was sat at the train station with every motorbike and rickshaw driver in the province coming up to see if I wanted a ride... which after the first dozen times got quite wearing. When Jeab's friend finally rocked up, he just stood and looked at me for a few minutes, and then said Saraburi, as if I should have realised who he was automatically amid the hoards of other Thai men asking if I wanted a lift somewhere. I know I should be grateful, and Jeab's heart was in the right place, but 50b poorer (the bus is almost half, blatant overcharging going on) and two hours late for school I decided that in future I can manage my own travel arrangements. Rant over!
Five hours of lessons later I was one very tired bunny, it took all my energy just to unpack my bulging bag and remember who I'd bought various things for before I collapsed into a very happy sleep.
Train journey there: 1/10 (1 because they provided a clean blanket), back: 5/10 (blanket plus dinner, fewer bugs, but still uncomfy and bumpy); guesthouse: 7/10 (noisy, shower over the toilet making it an act of contortion to wash my hair, and too many hairs from previous guests on the floor, eiuuuw); tour to Chiang Rai: 3/10 ('Guide', need I say more?); food: 10/10 (cheeeeese); drink: 9/10 (would be more but for dodgy lemon pina colada); New Year: 10/10 (best ever); Chiang Mai: 10/10 (incredible city, want to live there).