Chiang Mai - Thailand (population 174,000)
Chiang Mai old city is situated within the confines of a moat and is still surrounded by the remains of a medieval wall, built over 700 years ago. Within the old city a less hectic way of life is very noticeable, with the nose of mope heads whizzing around being the biggest irritant. Outside the city walls are the main roads and the more modern buildings. Still both sides of the wall are a much welcomed difference to the hectic Bangkok.
On the recommendation of Catherine and Alex I've booked into the Green Tulip guest house (old city). Arriving into Chiang Mai at 10:45 I needed to make a quick dash into the old city to arrive before reception closed. Every taxi (tuk-tuk) had been snatched up and I was left with a Sawngthaew which is like a cattle truck with seats. These a are a cheap and great way to travel some distance, but the only problem is they tend to only leave when they are full and will opt for the most favorable destinations amongst the other passengers.
Being the only passenger on-board I needed to haggle good to get me to the guest house before they closed and a cheap price. Finally I managed to get him down to 70bt (one pound forty five), which was still overpriced ;-) All I can say is thank god for iPhones! I was following his route on the map and ten minutes in and he stopped on a road (still 3km from where I needed to be) and told me we were here. I think he realised that 70bt was not enough for him. I stood my ground even though he was demanding more money. Finally he gave in managed to find the guest house. Greeted by Nine (one of the owners) I was shown to my room and hit the pillow!
In the morning I went about planning my next few days and booked myself on a two day trek into the mountains (1,400bt) and plan to take a cookery class whilst I'm here. With the day free to explore at my leisure I took to the streets in search of yet more temples. The old city is surrounded by a square mote, so it's not that hard to navigate your way around, even for me ;-)
Today I needed to make my first visit to the chemist with a few problems downstairs, which had been persistent for about a week! Being the hyper counteract that I am I thought I would be on the next flight home. Instead I was given some strange black pills and a couple of hours later things seemed back to normal! There was a danger that had this not sorted itself out that I'd become addicted to Dioralyte ;-)
Day two I headed off for my two day trek. Picked up by my guide (aka - Moon Shine), in a Sawngthaew. In addition to myself two English lads staying in the same guest house boarded the Sawngthaew who ended up to be from Brighton and originally Crawley (get me a refund). Nice couple of lads though. A few pick-ups later and we were full (12), with a mixture of English, German, Dutch and Swedish travelers.
I'd been looking forward to this trip and was a little worried that it would be commercial, but it did not disappoint. We started off with a three hour trek through the forest which was hard up-hill work. In between we stopped off for an elephant ride (same same - if not a little inhumane) and continued to a small waterfall.
Moon Shine's common phrase of the day was "Oh my Buda!" and soon enough it became the most common phrase of the whole trek.
Around this time of year they carry out controlled burning of the bamboo forests. The air was filled with a dense fog and the sounds of crackling burning bamboo. At a couple of paths we neutrally had to run through smoldering paths in order to get to where we needed to be.
Continuing up-hill we finally arrived at our night stop. We're staying with a traditional tribe known as The Karen. They are one of the largest of three main tribes in north Thailand and live in the lower hills. Mainly working on crop farming and a little integrated into main stream society, this is one of the wealthiest tribes. However you would not think it. With their own language and way of doing things it was a different world in every sense.
The villagers lived in traditional bamboo shacks and had the very basics in amenities. There was no exception for where we were staying for the night either. It was a large shack raised about three meters from the ground on a hillside. It had three rooms - Kitchen for the staff, a small living quarters which doubled up as the bar and our bedroom (one large room with 12 floor beds). In the center of the building was an open common area which looked out across the hills. The whole construction was made from bamboo and wood. Even the floors where made from bamboo, which baffled me as to how it held our weight.
Our bathroom and toilet was in a hut below the shack. It contained a shower - butt of water and a toilet pan that even the best contortionist could crouch down to. They don't tend to use toilet paper here, so I'd managed to remember to pack this before leaving.
Before being fed for the day some of us took a wonder around the village. We were advised to be respectful and even if felt unwelcome just to smile and continue walking (I've never smiled so much in my life).
Children fascinated by our appearance, traditional tradesmen making tools over hot coles and house wife's going about their daily tasks. It all seemed to alien to me but to them, completely normal.
Dinner was amazing. Don't know what it was but it was great. After a few dinner conversations we were entertained by a couple of the locals and their guitars. Around mid-night we hit the sack for our 8am wakeup call the next day. It was a truly amazing experience. By night you could hear to forests call out as the bamboo continued to smolder.
The next day we were fed and watered in the morning and entertained by one of the locals girls who decided to copy every action we made including a German guy who was carry out is morning stretches.
We headed off again through the forest but this time downhill! We arrived at an amazing waterfall which was where I took my morning shower in subzero temperatures. After another short walk we arrived at the last remaining activity for the trip 'white water rafting'. I've never done this before and opted out in New Zealand. After a short introduction (they don't like going on about rules in Thailand and instead wing it) we were in the water. Loads of fun and would defiantly do this again without question.
After a pad Thai lunch we made the 1 hour trip back to Chiang Mai and said our goodbyes to one another. All in all this was a 9/10 for me.
After a short afternoon powernap I made my way to a local establishment to check out the action. Mainly full of older men and their young thai boys, it was not my thing at all. Got stuck with some t*** from Oz who was soon sent packing to leave me to finish my Vodka and Coke ;-)
Day four and I'm feeling the pain from two days of working muscles that have been enjoying three months off. I'm also feeling a little run down and think Bangkok is catching up with me. Had planned to explore the city more, but instead I'm opting for a relaxed day at the guest house and booked an extra night to ensure I can do everything I want to do. I did manage to make it out for dinner in the evening and enjoyed alfresco street food down on the east side of the city moat. Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow.
Day five and I'm almost back on form after a good night sleep. I've hired a bike for the day and took myself out of the old city to visit the Wot Suan Doc and XXXXX temples. I'd also planned to ride north to the Tribal museum, but after having cycled about 10km I was starting to flag again and decided to head back into the old city. I did find the energy to explore the east side and witnessed the making of a reality TV show where an unexpected girl thinks she is viewing a wedding fair, but only to find out that it's a setup and is proposed to in public. Good fun to watch and the producer had an uncanny resemblance to Darren, but only Asian.
In the evening I went up a notch and treated myself to restaurant dining. I had what was probably the best Pad Thai ever and a large bottle of Chaing. I also spoke to Jenan and Jo today which really made my day to hear familiar voices. Seems I also have a home to go to when I get back to Hove, which is a great weight off my mind (thanks boys).
I stumbled across another special bar this evening which was slightly better than the first and got chatting to two Asian lads, who although were as camp as Christmas and did have a good giggle with them.
Back by 1am and straight to bed - tomorrow I've got a day cooking class at the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School.
Day six and I'm up just in time to catch my 9am Sawngthaew to the cookery school. There are a total of six on the course today and all of us are from the UK and OZ, so it was going to be a good day. Pot (the owner) was our tutor and really made the day a lot of fun, plus we all really did get along well.
We started with a trip to the local food market and learned about the types of ingredients we would be using during the day. However having had a couple of drinks the night before I was not getting along with all the smells ;-0
Once back in the class room we had to pick our menu for the day for which we would be cooking and more importantly eating!
On the menu todayI can hear you thinking "did he really eat all that" and the answer is yes! I've never eaten so much food in six hours. Best of all it was bloody amazing if I do say so myself.
Appitiser - Mango Salad with Fresh Lemon Grass
Soup - Chicken Coconut Soup
Noodles - Fried Noodle Thai Style
Stir Fried Vegetables - Chicken with Cashew Nut
Curry - Red Curry with eggplant
Dessert - Sticky rice with young coconut
The day was really well planned and this was a great setup. I not only used ingredients that I had never heard of before, but we also were taught how to prepare and use them in a fun way. After each course we had the pleasure of sitting down and eating together whilst exchanging travelling stories and thoughts from back home.
I also tried my hand at vegetable carving (which was a much need break from eating) which I will not be demonstrating upon my return. However you can all be sure that Thai will be replacing lasagna the menu when I get back, so stock up on the wine all ;-)
The whole day was spot on and a 10/10 at only 900bt (around 19 quid). Highly recommend this to anyone who visits Chiang Mai.
Day six - I'm taking a bus north through Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, which sits on the boarder or Laos. A six hour bus ride took us past Chiang Rai where we stopped off at the Wat Rong Khun temple.
I thought I'd seen enough of temples until I saw this place. It was amazing! The pictures speak for themselves, but for some reason they are half way down my picture gallary, instead of the end....... Enjoy.
Tomorrow bid farewell to Chiang Mai and temporarily to Thailand as I head up to the border to enter Laos.