The overnight train journey to Chiang Mai was long and in the main uncomfortable.
The journey was made a little more uncomfortable by the couple that we shared a cabin with. The guy babbled like a small child whenever he opened his mouth and was only pacified when his partner babbled back to him in similar whinging tones or when he was drinking the neat whiskey from the bottle, which he finished around 10am, maybe we were jealous for not having a bottle ourselves.
As we left the hustle of Bangkok, from the Thai villages that populate the countryside, we could see spectacular fireworks and the floating of lanterns for the Loi Krathong festival. " Loi" means float in Thai and a Krathong is a buoyant decoration that is usually made with banana leaves and flowers and have candles in them. The krathongs we saw also had incense sticks and occasionally fruit offerings. The Krathongs are floated on lakes and rivers in their thousands creating a very beautiful spectacle. The festival is both a celebration of the end of the rainy season and for Buddhists for letting go of negativity and hatred. The latter part of the journey took us up and over the highlands of northern Thailand. The views were spectacular with lush tropical jungle and high craggy peaks that were tempered with flat paddy fields and grazing areas for cattle.
A short tuktuk journey from the station and we were at our hotel, we dropped off our bags and went out to explore. Chiang Mai is split between the old and new city. The old city occupies an almost perfect square in the heart of Chiang Mai and its boundaries are marked by a 'river' which is more like a moat on all four sides. We wandered around the quiet back roads where families sat in front of their shop or house engrossed by a blaring tv, few looked up but when they did, we received a good natured smile.
It seemed that on almost every corner there was a wat. They look so amazing with the giant gold buddhas and ornately pointed gables but when the sunlight catches the mirrored glass, they just light up and become like flaming beacons.
We spent an entire day wandering round the wats in Chiang Mai's old city. Every time we thought we'd seen the most spectacular temple, at the next one we'd find something even more incredible. We have also found a love for the little soup shops that line the streets. Basically, you choose your ingredients (a range of veggies and meat), a huge handful of noodles is added and then a boiling broth is poured over the top. The broth has been vegetable based and meat based, and once we add an extra dash of soy sauce and chilli flakes the taste is mind blowing.
I made a small mistake of ordering a soup with fish dumplings instead of fish balls, the dumplings had a filling of fish innards and while not everything we've eaten on our trip has been delicious, this was the first thing that I really struggled to get down and keep down (they had the greasy taste of chewy cod liver oil).
That evening was the final night of the Loi Krathong festival, the roads had been closed off to cars and thousands of people filled the streets to watch the parade through town. Throughout the evening, as well as the floating krathongs that were set adrift in the river, thousands of huge sky lanterns were lit and sent toward the heavens. The Thais write a wish on them before letting them go. The sight of the sky filled with tiny flame-lit dreams and hopes drifting in the thermals was so wonderful, emotional really. Just the sheer spectacle of witnessing such simple joy and celebration touched our hearts and created such a perfect memory of the occasion.
While in the north we couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet some elephants, we had been given the details of a particular ecological and ethically sound company and arranged a 2 day package. Once at the Thai Elephant Home, we were given some brief instructions and got changed into Mahout clothing, then taken out to meet the elephants. A line of 12 elephants greeted us, all with trunks stretched out in front of them reaching for the bananas that they were to be given as a daily treat. As we approached, their trunks stretched that little bit further toward us and their eyes watched as if gauging when to make the grab. As we offered the fruit, the tip of their trunk gently wrapped around the yellow fingers and placed them in their mouths, then like a shot came straight back toward us looking for more. The skin on the trunk was soft and comfortingly warm. The elephants' warm breath smelled sweet and almost herbal and therefore must be good for us. We were shown to our elephant for the day and on we got.
Jan was first to get on her elly, Chumpon (?), a 9 year old male and I rode behind her on Ruby. We sat on their shoulders, hands on the bumps on their heads to steady ourselves our legs dangling behind their ears. We both spent lots of our time scratching the tops of our respective elephant's head, like you would a good dog's. The skin wasn't as hard nor the hair as coarse and rubbery as the temple elephant we'd stroked all those weeks ago in India. The animals moved purposefully and each step seemed to be a considered one, particularly on steep inclines. The animals would turn 45 degrees to the direction we were going in order to get a better view of the trail ahead, then decide on the best course to take. On steep downward slopes our elephants braced their ears against our legs like a safety feature ensuring we didn't topple forward and at the bottom of the slope when we scratched their heads in appreciation, they flapped their ears with seeming happiness.
Our trek bought us to a clearing where we gave the animals a mud bath, one by one they laid down in the black muck and we covered the animal from trunk to tail in the stuff. One particular old girl was enjoying it so much she just dozed off, trunk curled up like a snail shell, the most vulnerable part protected so carefully. The huge stones that were in the mud worked as a exfoliator, and as we slapped the stuff on, she gave one last quick peek to see who was around her, then her eyes rolled back and she was snoring away, sparko.
After a spot of lunch, we were back on the elephants and heading down to the river to wash the mud off, it seemed we both got some on ourselves too. As we headed down, the first signs of rain appeared. The cool breeze and blackened sky were inconsequential. We were in Thailand and on the back of elephants and we were going to get wet anyway. Down in the river, the joy in the elephants behaviour was unmistakable, they rolled and ducked themselves under occasionally coming up with a squeak that sounded more like air being let out of a balloon than an elephant trumpet. We washed just about as much of the mud off as we could, had about 5 minutes longer splashing about, then it was time to make tracks for the home.
On the walk back we were able to buy some sugarcane for the elephants, the ellies knew what was going on. As soon as Jan had the sugary sticks in her possession, Chumphon's trunk came over his head like an inquisitive hand searching for the treat. One at a time she fed the cane to him, the trunk disappeared from view briefly before coming up for more. When the final bit had been taken, the trunk returned into view, sniffing around for more. Jan gently squeezed his trunk to show him that her hands were empty, he seemed to like this and repeatedly brought his trunk up for a squeeze.
The journey back took another 90 mins or so and in that time the heavens opened and the thunder and lightning surrounded us. It was a LONG 90 minutes, even the elephants seemed tired. By the time we got back, we were both suffering. The constant motion of the elephants movements had deadened us from the waist down, we couldn't walk, sit or stand without significant discomfort, in short, we couldn't have stopped a pig in an alley. We decided that a one day experience would probably be sufficient and that evening we headed back to Chiang Mai.
We have yet again fallen in love with a place we were not expecting much from, we read that the main tourist hub in the north was overrun with bars and restaurants pandering to the wants of foreigners and the locals pillaging the natural beauty for a quick buck. But in our eyes we found a largely beautiful city full of life and of course people are trying to make a living if you want a cheap and nasty its here, however if you want ethical and eco friendly you can absolutely get that too.
The people have been wonderful too, so much quicker to smile and like almost everywhere we've seen that a little local language goes a very long way.