Aladdin and the hilltop of giant phallusses in fancy scarves
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Vern: The bus stations in South East Asia never seem to be conveniently located, so with each arrival in a new town comes a frustrating stand-off between us and a tuk-tuk (or sawngthaew or minibus) driver who is attempting to charge the same amount we paid for a three hour bus strip, for a 10 minute ride into the centre of town. The solution we've learnt is to climb on a vehicle full of locals and only pay what they pay, but it isn't always easy to get a spot: while OUR ideal is to be the only two caucasians on a bench full of Asians, the worst thing for a local would be to be the only Asian among all foreigners 'cause then she might get ripped off along with the rest of us! This time we had to wait 20 minutes for our sawngthaew to fill up with locals before we were quoted a fair price and made it into the city.
We haven't been booking guesthouses online in Asia, because the number of places which exist generally vastly exceeds the number with online booking facilities. Chiang Rai, however, was the first place where several places were full and we found ourselves pushing past and racing other backpackers for the last rooms left in affordable places. We're quite good at this though (pushing, shoving and biting is of course all required to capture a spot on the London Underground) and thus secured a spotless room in a quiet hotel. The room was however the size of an oven, and the only piece of furniture was futon which felt as if it was actually just a cement slab wrapped in scented sheets, but at least we were out of the rat race.
At dusk, the sounds and smells of the Night Bazaar plucked us from our little room and set us down in a crowded stall-lined alley filled with locals and foreigners browsing nick-nacks and knock-offs. As we strolled about, a teenager wearing a fez, a waistcoat and harem pants (distinguishable only from lice-invested hippy travellers who dress in the same garb because he was Thai) caught our eye and suggested in simple learnt English that if we weren't doing anything later we should come and watch his play. He pointed down to the end of the alley. We headed there soon after and found a large square full of picnic furniture facing a lit stage dressed with an Aladdin backdrop. Andrea was thrilled - she has the entire Aladdin soundtrack on her iPod, and longs for her own magic carpet!
There are about thirty different food stalls on each side of the square, so we visited several of these and assembled a feast of fruit shakes, beer, stir-fries and vegetable tempura, then settled in for an evening's entertainment. It turned out to be the Chinese and English classes at the state university putting on a multi-lingual extravaganza. The pre-show started with a band singing pop-songs in English, with us, the only two in a 300-strong audience, recognising the songs and singing along. Following this, the Chinese class put on a bizarre sketch which seemed and sounded like an acrobatic magic show being rewound. Finally, 'Arabian Nights' started playing and a cast full of kids in sparkling waste-coats and baggy pants took the stage. It was a rather short rendition of the Middle Eastern fairytale (so short, in fact, that Aladdin only got a chance to cast two of his three wishes) and a few scripted gags were flat because the emphasis was put on the wrong words, but they made up for it with enthusiasm and physical humour (Genie was a fat Thai kid painted blue!) It was a lot of fun and soon these tri-lingual kids will be a force to be reckoned with in the New World Order.
We started the next day going native with Khao Sou noodle soup (garnished with deep-fried noodles) for breakfast, then tried the local coffee (which tastes like all coffee) and then set off sightseeing.
First photo-stop was a big gold Laughing Buddha seemingly designed by the Family Guy animation team, then it was on to some more religious stuff.
"Excuse me, what temple is this?" I asked a security guard outside a large complex probably already sufficiently guarded by Golden Dragons.
"What? F*ck you!"
Oh my! What had I done to offend him, I checked to see that I wasn't pointing my feet at him (a big no-no round here). Nor was I accidentally standing on money (which is actually illegal as it bares the king's face). Either way Thai people are not known to be confrontational. What was his problem?!
"Wat Phra Kaew. Yes. The Wat with Emerald Buddha. You know?"
"Oh right," - OOOOHH - ,"thank you sir."
Wat Phra Kaew had a lion's share of golden Buddhas, golden dragon staircases and golden err.. lions, plus an emerald Buddha in a room plastered with back-lit green tiles (that would look great in a night-club) but it was the turtle pond which captivated us. Andrea and I can spend ages watching animals, putting words in their mouths (in this case, in Grandpa voices) and ad libbing whole melodramas, and this is what we did while we watched two turtles scrap lethargically over a spot in the sun. Unsurprisingly, this ended in a stalemate and once we'd run out of reptilian retorts we moved on.
We climbed up Doi Thong to see a hilltop full of concrete phalluses dressed in brightly coloured scarves - resembling a garden party for stone penises - and standing on a platform of concentric circles. Apparently these represent the position of the moon and planets and earth and stuff and one is built with the inauguration of each new town. Not really worth the climb though, and our hike wasn't without further peculiarities - a seedy man keen to show us a phallus of his own was sitting pantsless on a curb playing with an Andrex puppy; and when we walked past a rough dwelling perched on the hillside, we noticed a discarded pistol in the mailbox. Perhaps it's a cry for help?
Andrea's back was aching (likely something to do with the stone slab on which we slept) and she treated herself to a Thai massage which she described as merciless kneading and prodding, without oils, by a woman beset on cracking every joint in her body.
That night at the Bazaar, we were entertained by Balinese performers and ubër-cool she-ninjas who danced about wielding samurai swords. We copied the majority of patrons and for dinner ordered a steam boat: meat strips, cabbage, spring onions, glass noodles and an egg are delivered raw to the table along with a clay-pot of savoury soup boiling over red coals, and you mix it all up and boil it all up just how you like it. But even that wasn't novel enough so on the side we picked at deep-fried grub-worms and crickets. Crispy and covered in a spray-on MSG-sauce, they weren't bad at all.
It happened to be beloved King Bhumibol's birthday and midway through our meal the lights went out, we stood, and yellow candles were lit and handed out while all sang (or mimed in our case) the national anthem followed by a folksy tune which we figured to be 'Happy Birthday' and then chanting which was probably "Long Live the King!" And long live creative Thai cooking!