Another late blog entry...my my, what is the world coming to? I haven't been rushed off my feet this past two weeks either, I've been kicking back and taking things a little slower than usual which has been a welcome change to being constantly busy and moving from place to place.
I'm still in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, and absolutely LOVING IT up here. It's such a ladiback city (feels more like a large town than a city), and as I'm staying further out of town it's less busy and very serene. We are surrounded by lush green mountains, and atop one of them is the beautiful temple Wat Phra Doi Suthep, which has a golden chedi (a big pointy bell-shaped thing) and a lovely pagoda. I went up there last week with two girls - one from a trek I'd been on, and another I met through the guesthouse that the tour was organised by.
Initially, when I first got here, I was a little worried as I had booked my accommodation, flights and trekking in Bangkok and had been told that I'd been susbtantially overcharged for it all. Some people online were saying that 'Unseen Travel' (the name says it all really, doesn't it?) had charged them crazy prices for dirty guesthouses, rubbish trekking and sometimes airport transfers/taxis etc didn't show up. Thankfully my flight here was ok, but I got off the plane expecting no one to be there to collect me. To my surprise there was a guy waiting with a piece of paper with my name on, so I went with him to the guesthouse I had signed up for. When I got there it was all 'ok' - VERY basic, and quite dirty. The fan was thick with dirt and really noisy, the sink had a sign saying 'please do not lean' on it, the tap was broken and the shower was pathetic; there was a wardrobe but the doors were coming off the hinges, and there was no proper security. It felt a bit dodgey, so I had a quiet moment to myself (this was after having a shower in there - I can't make decisions when I'm all hot and sweaty!) and decided I would get a taxi to a guesthouse I had seen on Trip Advisor (such a good website for advice on places you are visiting, would recommend it to anyone). I'm so glad I did. The place I am staying now is called Chaba House and is run by the sweetest man ever - Mr Pathom. He's Thai and lives close by to the guesthouse, but he doesn't do much of the housework etc. He is so helpful and generous; on the first day he took me and two other people round on a quick tour in his car, then took me into town so I could find a bank. His english is amazing and he's always very chatty and can't help you enough. I'm paying 300 baht a night here (around £6) for a lovely spacious room, decorated really nicely with a cute bathroom and separate shower, double bed, fan and a/c, and a computer in my room with free internet (now I feel bad for not updating my blog sooner...)! Plus breakfast is included, which is always delicious and usually consists of something Thai (either fried tofu with noodles/green beans, an omlette etc) with a little bundle of rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in a banana leaf, and two slices of wonderful wholemeal bread that a local english lady makes for Chaba (this morning was walnut bread, so nice). So I think I've done pretty well overall. I feel so safe here, and the staff - both husband and wife - are very friendly and obliging.
Since I'm staying slightly further out of the main old town, I usually hire a bicycle from the guesthouse and ride in which is fun and also cheaper than a red taxi or tuk tuk. A few times I've been caught out by torrential rain showers though and have had to wait it out until I could ride home.
The main town is made up of an old walled 'city' (like I said, it feels more like a big town than a city, as it has a relaxed vibe and is never too busy). Inside the old city they have the main backpacker area, and there are lots of markets and little tricket shops. There are also so many temples here, it's untrue! I've only been to a handful and feel quite bad as I often ride past them on my way to meet someone and then forget which one it is I've ridden past! I went to one yesterday that is only a 10 minute walk away from me, and that is quite impressive as it has some older ruins which are stunning. I'm meeting Rosie, my friend from home, today as she has come up to Chiang Mai to check it out (and see me of course) so I'm hoping she wants to see some temples so that we can do the more toursity things together. I've also found out about the botanical gardens which look amazing, and another garden called DokMai (which means 'flower' in thai) and looks so interesting. Since my writing project at the moment is focusing on the plants of SE Asia, and since I haven't really done much writing/research so far (the botanical gardens in Ho Chi Minh City were deplorable) I ought to get myself there pretty quick!
It's been great to have some more time to myself recently. At the beginning of my trip I was on a three week tour and it was brilliant that everything was organised for me, but it felt a little rushed and didn't give me much room to do my own thing. But since then I feel I've definitely grown in condifence and am not so afraid to venture out on my own to places, especially if it's something I really want to do/see.
Anyway, the trekking (sorry, I do digress from time to time)...it was good. I feel bad saying it wasn't absolutely spectacular, but it was definitely worth doing. We went to the south, and Mr Pathom was telling me that north is apparently more beautiful and scenic than the sough. Oh well. We did about 2-3 hours walking per day (doesn't sound a lot, but when you factor in the heat and the steep inclines we had to traverse, it was pretty hard going). We stopped two nights at different 'villages' - smallholdings consisting of a few wooden huts and around 10-15 people, with banana/lemongrass plantations surrounding them. The people there were friendly and accommodating; they cooked our food and made us feel very welcome. Both villages were next to a river with small waterfalls, so we bathed and swam in them which was fun, although rather cold at times. The last one we went to was the best as it had the fastest current and you could jump in then get carried downstream at quite a pace. Along the way we saw spiders - massive black and yellow ones. About 5 minutes after setting off on our first day one landed on my ankle!! Apparently they weren't poisonous, but they looked deadly and made me shiver all over...ewww.
Our guide, Teak (his Thai name is Noy) was amazingly knowledgeable and told us all about the different trees and what they were used for; he carved some of us walking sticks out of bamboo, but I used mine less for walking and more for whacking insects and cobwebs out of the way! Teak took us to a few waterfalls on the way so we could paddle and cool off. At one of them I asked an american guy, who wasnt paddling himself, to take a photo of me in the waterfall and then put the camera in my shoe when he had done it. After wading up the waterfall and then back down again he came to give me the camera and let go of it before I had hold of it properly, so it fell in the water. Oh dear. I was so [email protected]@SED off, but I was just relieved that it wasn't my fault lol. So unfortunately I haven't got any pics after that, but I met a lovely girl called Amy who took quite a few photos of me so when she emails them through to me I'll put them up. My camera is currently being fixed (should get it back today actually) and only cost my B150 for a repair - around 3 pounds - so it's not too bad.
On the last day of the trekking we did a short walk to a river and then got on bamboo rafts and sailed down to the van to pick us up and take us home. I say 'sailed', but I don't really mean that - it was quite hair-raising at times! We got off at one point and jumped off some rocks into the water (this was before they told us there were biting snakes in the river!!). We all met up later than night for a barbeque at the other guesthouse (the one I refused to stay in) and to say our goodbyes. I got chatting to a lovely French-Canadian girl called Janie who was staying at the guesthouse but hadn't done the trek with us. I've spent the last 6 days with her as she is such easy company and very sweet and funny. She's from Quebec, the french-speaking part of Canada, and she worked in Australia for 6 months prior to coming to Asia so she could brush up on her English. I've been trying to practice my french with her as I want to start learning again when I'm home, so I hope we keep in touch as it will be good to have a french-speaking friend to converse with.
Janie said she wanted to do some meditation while she was here, and I said I wanted to aswell. So we both went on a short two day mini retreat organised by Wat Suan Dok, one of the temples not too far from my guesthouse. We went on the Tuesday at midday, stayed over at the centre and then returned on Wednesday at 2pm (ish), so it was only really two half-days but it was still worthwhile.
When we got there we couldn't speak, and had to get changed into our white clothes. Then we had dinner, which we had to chant over to remind ourselves that food is not for enjoyment but for the nourishment of the body and the prevention of hunger. After that we did some meditation practice, both Samatha (concentration) and Vipassana (insight). Samatha is basically a constant focus on an object, which can be your breathing or a physical object, and the annihilation of all other thoughts. Vipassana is more about acknowledging thoughts when the arise and labelling them as "thinking, thinking, thinking" (we had to chant this in our heads) so that we can begin to see the thought as just a thought and let it go, then return to our breathing. You also have to consider physical pain and discomfort, acknowledging it and labelling it as "pain, pain, pain" then letting it go. The monk who was teaching us did say we could change position if we were too uncomfortable, but we had to tell ourselves we had the intention to move before we started moving.
We also did a walking meditation where you begin just standing still, then move the right foot in rhythm with the words in your head "right goes thus", placing your foot down at the same time as you think the word "thus". Then the same with the left. At first I thought this was a load of rubbish but the last session of walking meditation that we did made me really focused and calm. Some people seem to find it easier to let go of their thoughts when they have something physical to be doing with their body (that's why yoga is so calming for me). During the sitting meditations I have to admit I was beginning to fall asleep and lose concentration, so instead I opened my eyes and focuses my attention on the cross in the tiled floor in front of me. After a minute or so I really began to focus and calmed my mind right down. I tried it again at our last sitting practice, just before we left the centre, and it was quite astonishing the difference that choosing another technique made.
I found the whole not-talking thing weird, and I started laughing when we were all sitting down to a cup of coffee after our last session. It definitely helped though as you can really focus on being 'present' and watching your thoughts as they come and go. Janie found the experience interesting, and we are both going to keep up our own practice for the next few weeks to see if we notice any improvements or changes in our outlook and mentality.
I did a Thai cookery course yesterday which was cool. I got picked up from my guesthouse and taken, along with people from other hotels, to a locall market where were shown all different types of herbs, vegetables and rices. I never realised that Acacia leaves were edible - they call it the 'dog fart' plant as it's meant to smell really bad, but I thought it was ok! They add it to soups and, occasionally, stirfries. Also, the thai name for pumpkin is really rude in english (think of the worst swear word we have and i think you'll know which word i mean...!). We were taken to the cookery school and given our aprons etc. Then we each chose three dishes to make (I chose green curry with tofu, sweet and sour chicken and drunken noodles). We watched the guy make phad thai, then some of the other students made it too. We also watched/help him make spring rolls, tom yam soup and mango with sticky rice (my absolute favourite thing over here) which is basically a type or rice that is really high in starch, so is very sticky, cooked in coconut milk, sugar and salt, and served with mango. Ahh, heaven! At one point we all had to strifry some veg, getting the oil really hot then adding the veg with some water so we got a huge flame. It was such good fun, but I tipped loads of my veg out of the wok for fear of the flames singeing my hair off! Unfortunately I forgot to get the email addresses of the people who were cooking alongside me - they were all really nice, but I also wanted to get a photo emailed from their cameras. No worries, I may do another one with Rosie if she fancies it...you can never learn too much!
So, I'm meeting Rosie today which will be fab. We're just going to meet up for lunch, have a (long overdue) catchup and then decide what we want to do with our time together. I think she wants to do some volunteering at an elephant orphanage, and we will probably do the botanical gardens together which will be an adventure as its a good 40 min drive out of Chiang Mai. I'm going to stay here another week (that'll be three weeks in total I've stayed here!) then head to Pai next Saturday. Pai is a small town northwest of Chiang Mai, nestled in a valley with lush vegetation and mountatins on either side, and lots of waterfalls nearby. Apparently it's very relaxed and a little bit 'hippy', which sounds cool. I've found a 4-day Reiki course up there which sounds awesome, so I'm going to go and do that and get a little more in touch with my inner being...will let you all know how that goes! I'm hoping I will come up with a decision as to where to spend my last few weeks - Laos looks beautiful, and travelling with Rosie would be great fun and a breath of fresh air, but I miss the orphanage in Ho Chi Minh so much and would love to go back. I guess I will have to let the fates decide.
Until next time, Sam x
p.s. will leave you with a little buddhist aphorism to think on..."as the seed, so the fruit".