Singapore's Thanksgiving extravaganza was a nice break from life on the road, but as all good things it was over way too quickly and we found ourselves up early on Monday morning to catch a taxi to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok. We decided on making it a grueling day and just busting it all the way up to Chiang Mai in one push...easy enough to write that sentence, but in reality it's a long trip. After landing in Bangkok we took the subway across town and found the train station where we boarded our overnight train without incident for a scheduled 2:30pm departure. Now, it must be noted that both of us managed to pick up a little bug in Singers and so were both feeling below average with slight coughs, sniffles and the like and so the prospect of spending the night on a train was unappealing, to say the least, but such is life. To compound this feeling of dread was the fact that we got the older, slower and non air-conditioned train as the newer, faster and cooled train had sold out. In any case we pulled out of Bangkok at about 3:00 which is 'on-time' in this part of the world and immediately chugged north. Now, the floods in Thailand have been well publicized, and although the main center of Bangkok managed to avoid the worst of it, the same cannot be said about the area's directly north which we were now rolling through. We got some photos of some of the flooded areas, but wow, it was a site to be seen as people canoed down streets and waded through or drove SUVs through a meter or more of water. The towns had been forced onto high areas and people are living in make shift structures, often right along the train tracks as the tracks managed to stay out of the water, although in some areas; just barely. It put's things into perspective very quickly; it's hard to feel sorry for yourself for having a little cold and not having A/C on your train when you see first hand what a real tragedy looks like. Bless those people and I hope the recovery is swift.
On we chugged through the saturated land and the sun eventually set which provided a dramatic scene over the wet landscape. As darkness descended, we realized the worst thing about not having A/C on a train, and that is that the windows are always open...now this is pleasant in the afternoon heat, but when it get's dark the heat does not subside much and the open windows allow for millions of bugs to fly unimpeded into the carriage and onto your face. Eventually they mainly congregate by the lights, one of which was quite literally 2 feet from where my head was supposed to be as I slept that night. Still, as I say, I had it good compared to some people so the comment regarding the bugs should be taken as a bit of detail and not a complaint. For dinner we ate 'cup o' noodles' but as the only warm water we could find was more 'tepid' then 'hot', the noodles were a bit crunchier than other ramen feasts I have enjoyed in life. We played some cards for a bit trying to avoid the inevitable act of crawling into our beds, but at last we retired where we got as comfy as possible and faded into a restless sleep.
It was a long one, but the night passed... eventually... and before too long the morning sun was streaming in through the windows and the northern Thai landscape was before us.
We pulled into town at about 7:30am (about 17 hours on the train if you're counting) and disembarked and walked bleary eyed and haggardly out into Chiang Mai to hail a tùk-tùk (3 wheeled open air taxi with a reputation for being driven by shady types) to our guest house. The thing about the early arrival which can make the fact you slept on a train even worse, is that you can rarely check into any accommodation until noon or later and so are forced to drop bags and wander town like a zombie for several hours until your room is available. And so we did.
Chiang Mai's old town is a walled and moated 1.5km square and our guesthouse, the incomparable, Junior House was located in the North East corner easy walking distance to most of the sites. Under suggestion from Jeff, the extremely helpful owner of Junior House we headed out to a few markets just on the other side of the East wall to grab some food and orientate ourselves to the town a little. As most markets in SE Asia these were interesting; full of exotic sights and smells. We passed the morning and eventually got an early lunch before heading back to Junior House, getting our room and promptly crashing out for a well needed nap. That evening we wandered back towards where we had been earlier to grab dinner at a burrito (!) shop we'd seen before but which had been closed and to check out the night markets. Can I just say that after 5 weeks of solid Thai cuisine the sight of a burrito shop was enough to bring a tear to my Californian eye. What's more is that they give you free, fresh tortilla chips and salsa and the burritos themselves were actually pretty good! They'd go broke in the Mission, of course, but for Chiang Mai, Thailand they're doing just fine!! The night markets were cool, more hand crafts and jewelry than fruit, squid jerky and deep fried bugs which were plentiful in the markets earlier in the day.
In the morning we rented a motor scooter to take on Chiang Mai on two wheels (that is scooter number 4 for the trip if you're keeping score at home). We headed out of town and into the hills to check out the main temple attraction in the area: Wat Doi Suthep. The ride up was great, especially once we got out of town. I can see why people at home like to drive their motorcycles through the mountains. The temple itself is a beauty. It's perched on a hill with views back down to the city and is entered through a long set of stairs with dragon ornamentation. We spent a few hours wandering and snapping photos before cruising further up the hill to the Winter Palace of the King, but we were turned away for wearing shorts...oh well. The other site just out of town is a lake called Huay Tung Thao which we hit next. It's a sleepy little placed lined with a few restaurants that offer little huts on the lake to enjoy a meal. We drove around the lake and then picked a hut of our own and had a great little, late lunch. Very cool spot!
After cruising back into town we found ourselves in Chiang Mai commute traffic. I'm glad we'd had a few days practice on a motor scooter by that point cuz this was the most hectic driving yet. We stopped off at a mall to pick up an iPad charger as ours went MIA in Singers and while at the mall G spotted a fun looking ice cream treat. It's basically a small balloon like rubber container filled with ice cream which you eat by slicing a small whole in the "nipple". Strange Japanese invention. She got a berry yogurt flavor which was great. The sales lady pointed out that they also had 2-100% fruit flavors; mango and the vaunted Durian fruit. I was feeling adventurous so got the Durian. This is the fruit that is not allowed in some public places because it is so pungent... and I can attest to the fact that it's smell is not the only thing that is pungent...it tastes awful! Imagine the taste of onions, eggs and dirty socks blended together; you're getting close. I could only stomach a few tastes: each one was progressively worse. I don't think it would have been physically possible for me to eat it all.
Once we'd recovered from the durian encounter we found ourway to what would become our favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai- Blue Diamond Kitchen. This place was awesome! Gina got a huge salad with avocado and tofu and washed it down with a kombucha tea; she was in heaven. They have a great bakery there as well and had all sorts of delectable goodies for dessert that did not include Durien fruit; pumpkin pie and carrot cake to name but 2.
The next day we kept the bike and had planned to cruise out to a National Park, but we miscalculated the distance and our morning workout took longer then we planned so ended up just cruising around town and handling a few errands. The workout is worth mentioning because it took place in a gym under the CM stadium that looked like it was from 1927. The machines were rusty, old contraptions that had been jerry rigged countless times in their life and everything squeaked loudly... it's the type of place that makes you glad to have had a tetanus shot recently. But, what do you expect for $1/ person. We only went to the gym the once but did jog their track on several mornings.
That evening we met up with, Phai, a friend of my friend Linda's fiancé; if you can follow that. She's a local and grad student at CM Uni and was sweet enough to take us out for a great Thai dinner with her BF and a few other friends. Thanks Phai! Great to meet you!
Friday ended up being a HUGE day for us; we booked the full day 'sampler' tour which included an Elephant ride, hike through the jungle to a waterfall, whitewater rafting, bamboo raft rafting, and a visit to a local hill tribe village. There are so many things to do in and around Chiang Mai we felt it was a good way to get a little of everything.
The Elephant ride was a trip, but we ended up with mixed feelings. On the one hand it's a thrill to be up close and personal with such a large and majestic creature. The thrill extends to the fact that you are a cool 15 feet off the deck while riding and a tumble from up there would do some real damage. But, on the other hand we couldn't help but feel a little bad for the elephants. All day walking around with tourists on their back just so we could snap a few pictures and have a cool story to tell. And, although they appeared to be pretty well taken care of, well, you never really know. They did wear chains and they are 'steered' with a large metal hook that the driver uses to get the animals attention and keep it moving. Like I said; mixed feelings, but in the end G fell in love with our elephant "Satong" and fed him 4 big bushels of bananas which they both appeared to enjoy very much.
Next we piled back into the pick up truck and headed further up the road to a village where we got out and plunged into the jungle along a well trodden track and with the leadership of our guide, Muk. Muk is kind of a badass; I wouldn't go so far as to call him the Thai Bear Grylls, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch. He said he can survive in the jungle for days with nothing more then a knife... and I, for one, believe him. He paused the hike from time to time to point out various herbs and other jungle edibles. After about a hour of hiking we ended up at a sweet jungle waterfall which we frolicked in for a while. Swimming in jungle waterfalls just doesn't get old! An Argentinean dude on our trip made the plunge in bright pink underwear that had a rainbow waist band...which is something.
After our walk back we headed down the road to the whitewater rafting spot. Now those of you who have followed this blog in detail will know that we also whitewater rafted back in July in Tennessee. There you go through a full 45 minute safety briefing before you hit the water; not so in Thailand!! It was maybe 45 seconds; basically they hand you a paddle, life jacket and helmet and tell you to hold on tight! The rapids were bigger then I expected and our guide wasn't the most experienced... We bounced off pretty much every rock from start to finish and even got hung up twice, but we made it in one piece and it was actually alot of fun. We got to a spot in the river where we pulled over and they had us jump onto these long bamboo traditional Thai rafts as part 2 of the white water adventure. Thankfully the river was calm for this stretch. I was selected to steer our raft with a 20 foot long bamboo stick. Not bragging, but we beat the other guys by a good distance.
After changing into dry clothes we hopped into the truck for one last stop; the local hill tribe village. This was a bit strange. The local old ladies are dressed up in beautiful traditional dress and have their little stands set up where they aggressively try to get you to buy something from them. I bought a sling shot made of wood and a huge rubber band for 100 baht off one lady, only to see another guy on the trip buy one from a different lady for 50 baht. What a sucker I am, but after closer inspection mine is a far superior tool.
During the ride back we made plans with some of the other people on the tour who we'd been friendly with to grab dinner and a few beers and so we took Doug, Sean, Clare, Jo and her mute Scottish boyfriend, where else, Blue Diamond. They loved it!! We had a fun night with them and made plans to swap photos and catch up on Facebook which we have done. Good to finally meet some cool people on this trip!
We took Saturday pretty easy. Bummed around town and had a frustrating Internet session trying to get some photos online. We had an early dinner and as we ate there was a huge parade that rolled past to celebrate the King's birthday. It made for good entertainment.
That evening we met up with our friends from Australia Chris and Christy who had just got into town that afternoon after their own overnight trip up from Bangkok. They were in Chiang Mai doing some research for the new business that they have started and it worked out that we were both in Chiang Mai for about 24 hours which was great. We passed the evening swapping travel stories and hearing all about their new business. Good times!
In the morning we met with Chris and Chrissy for a late breakfast and then rolled over to the markets for a spin through. As it was our last few hours in Thailand and we had a rough journey ahead of us that evening we figured it was a good idea to enjoy one last Thai massage. And, for our last meal in Chiang Mai? Well, we wanted to show Chris and Chrissy our burrito spot so figured one last stop into our spot 'El Diablo' was in order. This one however we washed down with a pitcher of Margaritas, a little something to add to the relaxation session and prep us for the journey into Laos.
We bid our friends good bye and made plans to meet in Cambodia if the timing worked and made our way back to our guest house to await pick up for Laos.
5 nights in Chiang Mai makes it the longest stop in Asia so far, and well worth it! It could have been several more; Chiang Mai is just that good.