Andrea: Waking up on the train was great! We had the lush country whizzing past our windows, a good night's sleep behind us and a bed full of bugs. Yes, a bed full of bugs!
To provide just a little inkling of how bizarre this was I shall try to explain the situation through the art of rhyme:
"The Asian train passed green plains and rained insects down on my terrain."
(Did that help at all?)
Vern was originally jealous of my window-side bottom bunk as he had the top fan-cooled bed (and they turned off the fans only 3 hours after departing) but now he just laughed as I formed an understanding of what had transpired in the night. Blood and tiny bug carcasses covered my tiny sleeper bed and the carnage only increased as I tried to brush them off. Suddenly Vern's bed was looking like the winner and I climbed into his top bunk to read my book and avoid the devastation.
We arrived two hours later than scheduled and chose the first guest house who offered us a free ride from the train station. Although we could lie down in a bed and sleep on the train, unlike our usual vertical sleep on buses, we were so drained from the trip when we arrived. We ate some street vendor food for dinner--a couple veggie dishes and a delicious sausage that was packed with Thai herbs and spices, including lemon grass--and went to bed early.
The next day we hit the ground running thanks to a few iced coffees and sweet market treats for breakfast. Wat Phra Singh temple was first on the list of sights. It was established in 1345 and it houses Chiang Mai's revered Buddha image, Phra Singh. Unfortunately, Phra Singh blended in with the other gilded Buddha statues so he wasn't our main focal point. The complex featured many gold dragons and a few smaller temples in which to pray. Walking around to another building we saw a man paying for a cup of water, then strapping the water to a pulley system, then pulling the rope to slam the cup of water against the side of the building. All it needed was the loud exclamation of 'Oompah!' and it would have been a great party! It was very interesting to watch and the man looked happy so we all left satisfied. We strolled through the gardens and discovered wise messages on the trees from Buddhist sayings. Some were very profound, some lost a little in translation and the best message of all was a sign nailed to a tree advertising fruit shakes across the street that were the cheapest in town!
We furthered our temple trek by hailing a sawngthaew up the hill to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the north's most sacred temples. The site was 'chosen' by a white elephant carrying an honored buddha relic on its back. The elephant turned around three times, stomped its feet and lay down and died. (Similar to Vern's rendition of my haggling technique, with which I can proudly say knocked off 50 baht from the price of our sawngthaew.) We climbed the 360 steps, lined by a ceramic-tiled 'naga', or mythical serpent creature (or dragon to you or me), to get to the temple. It was absolutely packed with people--both tourists and worshippers. Each smaller temple was seen from the floor, shuffling around on our knees as instructed by the signs. Only foreigners had to pay to get in and we could see why: every Thai person there was constantly digging in their pockets and stuffing the contents into the donation boxes. I guess they figured it was the only way to get donations from non Buddhists! Very clever plan! The complex was full of life with the devout circling a square-shaped bell tower that resembled a mineret singing lyrics from laminated sheets, kids in costume beating drums and ringing bells and monks chanting into microphones that gave them Radiohead voices. It was almost overwhelming, but good to see a temple buzzing with activity. We've heard that when monks die they place them in a meditative position in the temple for a few days. I have to say that we've seen so many monks in meditative states that it was hard to tell if they were breathing! But this temple was full of beating hearts...and drums. Back at our sawngthaew our driver was having a nap in the back and was rested for our ride back down. He took advantage of rush our and made several pick ups along the way, filling the back of the truck to the brim.
This made me feel less guilty about the haggling! Back in town we found our high street had come to life with street stalls running entire restaurants from one wok. We each had delicious, made-from-scratch red curries for only $1 each! They were great, but I knew we were in trouble when I got the hot food hiccups from my dish that was touted as 'minimum spicy' and Vern's was coming as 'medium spicy'! We survived the meal and ended with $.30 pancakes to smother the fires.
The plan for our last day in Chiang Mai was to go to the elephant park. We walked the entire city to find the sawngthaew pickup for the park, only to find out the pickup point had moved 3km across town. We were short on time anyway because I had a cooking class to attend at 4:30 so we decided we'd see the elephants elsewhere and continued exploring the town on foot. (A lot of our blogs end this way. Perhaps we should just stop making plans altogether!)
Back at the guest house I was waiting for my pickup to the class when a scooter pulled up next to us.
'Cooking?' the girl asked.
So there began my first motorbike ride in Thailand. It was short and uneventful, but I still got a kick out of my organised transport being a motorbike. I was the last to arrive in class and we sat on the floor next to a table seating eight people. 'So, did anyone else get picked up on a motorbike?' I asked curiously as I envisioned 8 moto-taxis zooming around town. 'No,' was the answer they all gave, followed by tales of their air-conditioned buses. I thought my way was more authentic anyway.
Introductions followed with us all having to say our name, where we're from and our favorite Thai food. The first American guy, Art, answered the first two flawlessly but came apart on the third: 'Art. From San Francisco. I don't know. Pad Thai? I don't eat a lot of Thai food.' To which the seven remaining people all simultaneously thought, 'So why choose a Thai cooking course?!?' but we just smiled politely instead. I couldn't choose just one so I just said everything my row had said before me. I always have trouble choosing favorites when it comes to food. Our group was four Americans, two Australians and two Canadians so the conversation flowed freely. We took a market trip first and our teacher held up 3 different kinds of chilli and helped us pick the hottest one. Apparently the hottest is called 'Mouse s*** Chilli' (I kid you not; it's in my recipe book!). Those are the smallest chillis. I kept imagining myself walking into Tesco asking for them when I wanted to make a green curry and wondering what I would come out with! I don't think the chillis benefit from the same marketing team as Luwak coffee (see the Ubud, Bali blog for more on that!) else they may have spun a yarn about how these chillis were the finest in the world because they've fermented in a mouse's stomach. After learning about all the ingredients we would be using it was back to the kitchen. I learned how to make Pad Thai, spicy papaya salad, coconut soup and a Thai green curry. Much to my delight, each dish took only about 5-15 minutes to make. Also delightful, was that we used a pestel and mortar for a few of the dishes and I've been trying to convince Vern to let me get one! We made our own curry paste which did take a long time and a lot of pounding into the mortar, but well worth it in the end. Each dish turned out great and I bagged them all up to bring home for Vern to try, mostly to enhance the case for the pestel and mortar.