On the contrary to Laos, Thailand was a country I had heard a lot about. "The beaches are over-rated, everyone gets scammed, you'll get robbed on public transport, the people are just out to make money off you, it's not all that…" After hearing these amazing things, I can't say I was too excited about our trip but Thailand is all people talk about on the road so I needed to see it for myself.
After an exhausting journey through northern Laos we crossed the border by boat and we were there. A minivan collected us to take us through the winding roads of northern Thailand to Chiang Mai. As we were driving along I was getting a bit edgy, the driver appeared to be continually driving on the wrong side of the road but finally we arrived, hot, stinky and very tired. The journey from start to finish had taken the best part of 24 hours. We treated ourselves to air con, a swimming pool and more importantly a McDonalds. I had been craving McDonalds since leaving Malaysia as there are none in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and it lived up to the expectations although every one since has tasted like cardboard. By the way, I also found out that they drive on the left in Thailand
Chiang Mai is a town steeped in history and there were so many temples it became overwhelming. The old square is surrounded by a wall built 700 years ago to keep out Burmese invaders and parts of the wall are still standing though in most places they have merely been renovated in true Thai style, red brick alongside the old brick, they haven't even tried to make it look original. We spent an afternoon wandering around the old city and popping in and out of the beautiful temples. Of course we had to move rooms from the posh AC hotel because at £8 it was far too expensive. That evening we went to the night market, something Chiang Mai is famous for and I can see why. I ended up spending a small Thai fortune and loved every minute of it, we even went back on our last night.
Upon arriving in Thailand I had grand plans for the 15 nights that the land border crossing permitted us and we were intending to go to 2 other towns in the north before venturing south. That just never happened and we got stuck in Chiang Mai. Having been so profusely warned about the Thai's need to rip you off, when I booked us on to 2 tours I became over the top obsessed by wanting to get a good deal. One tour was to a wonderful place called Jumbo elephant camp and I found out that the two other guys on our tour had paid 1500 baht each. We'd paid 700 baht so I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself.
The Jumbo tour consisted of visiting an orchid farm, very random, and then continuing on to an elephant camp. Our tour guide had told us that there had been huge storms and downpours all across north Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, I love how we just missed another disaster. The elephant camp looks after 6 elephants rescued from the logging industry, the oldest was 49 and the youngest was 12. I was a bit disturbed by the behaviour of the youngest elephant, she seemed agitated and was almost rocking back and forth. Before I had even asked, the guide told us that until elephants have mated for the first time their ears and tails stay small so they move about constantly to avoid the flies because their in-built fly swats aren't up to the job. I was obviously concerned that the elephants were being used as part of the tourist trade, which could be deemed as bad as being used for logging. However, I was assured that each elephant works for no more than 5 hours per day 4 days a week and, given that they eat 200kg per day and the cheapest priced food is 600 baht (£12) per day, I was convinced that perhaps they somehow needed to earn their keep as they could not be introduced into the wild at such a late stage in their lives.
One thing that the camp can do to make money is to sell the elephant's poo. There is a massive elephant camp not far from Bangkok and when the residents realised how much poo was ending up in the river where many of the locals collect water, they needed to come up with a plan to deal with the poo. The idea that won was to make paper from elephant poo. Because elephants only have one intestine and what they east is mostly hay, it is easy to see why this worked so well. At the end of our tour we were lucky enough to visit the elephant poo factory and I bought a crap photo frame!
The time we spent at the camp was not just about learning about the elephants, we also learnt how a mahout (an elephant handler) can work with the elephants to make them walk wherever they need them to and we were able to have a go. It was very uncomfortable and tiring. Elephants don't like the back of their ears to be touched so if you sit on the neck with your feet dangling forward then you can easily nudge their ears, this makes them go forward. The elephants had also been trained the meaning of the words for turn, stop, back and forward, they knew when to sit or bow and even bend their knee so you could climb up. After our riding we got into the muddy elephant swimming pool and washed them which they seemed to love almost as much as us.
The other tour that we did was called the Flight of the Gibbon and consisted of 22 zip lines running through the forest canopy. The longest was 800m and you travel up to 80 kmph, it was awesome fun. The guys were great and messed around with us making each zip fun by pushing us or pretending that we shouldn't be going when we were ok to go. It was a great day, again at a bargain price.
After 5 days in Chiang Mai we finally forced ourselves to leave and travel on the overnight train in economy with fan and no AC, it was nothing like as lovely as the train in Vietnam but we got to Bangkok just in time for a connecting train to take us down the coast to Hua Hin. Incidentally Adam bought a coffee for more than the train ticket cost for our 3 hour journey, unbelievable.
Hua Hin is on the north west gulf coast and is predominantly filled with expats and tourists. This was exactly the reason we were going, to be tourists visiting expats. The owner of Adam's old local pub had moved out to Thailand a number of years ago and we found the time to visit him in his new bar and small hotel above. We stayed in his hotel visiting the beach in the day and drinking by night. We were really winding down finally and were getting ready for our last stop in Bangkok. However this army of Angels that seemed to have been following us on our journey were to be put to one final test. The election was taking place 5 days before our flight home and riots or a military coup were expected. Last time such a thing happened both Bangkok and Phuket airports were closed for 2 weeks. Unbelievably, or believably when you consider our luck, the opposition gained power and the military let them, this was one of very few peaceful elections in the Thai democratic history. The Angels were still on our side.
I really didn't know what to expect from Bangkok. The journey back from Hua Hin took us into a different side of Bangkok from when we had passed through on our way south, and the slums, poverty and proximity of people to the passing train was another shocker for me. At one point I was trying to look out of the window and quickly withdrew my head for fear of it being taken off by a building. We stayed on the street next to the Khao San Road which is infamously a party street for backpackers and tourists, and that it was. However it wasn't as loud as I was expecting and I really enjoyed it. We visited a couple of very large shopping malls, and a stunning temple which housed a 46m long and 15m high reclining Buddha, they don't go too OTT with these things in Thailand. As luck would have it Paul and Ayumi who we lived with in New Zealand and who we pretty much started our trip with were in Bangkok so it was fitting that on our last night we met up to share stories, a drink and a big hug.
Our journey was over, it was time to go home, the plane was ready and although slightly delayed all was on track. How did I feel after all this time? I have no idea. I was excited to be going home to be with the people who I love most and seeing the world I had left behind but I was so fearful of how that world might look having seen so many wonderful and diverse things during my 14 months away. The truth is, none of that mattered because as Maya Angelou so wonderfully put it "I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself."