After taking the ferry from Kho Phi Ph, we stopped off in Kamala Beach, an hour north of Phuket, for a couple of nights, before heading for northern Thailand. It is a nice long beach - but covered entirely in lounge chairs, sun-shades and several thousand instances of caucasian flesh of all shades, from pallid white to lobster red to well-done.
The vast majority were middle-aged northern Europeans and Russians who spent all day sun-bathing on the beach and the evenings in the main street, which was a strip of bars, restaurants, small hotels and tailors who produce custom suits in 24 hrs.
Kamala also seemed to be a popular place for European men in their 60's to spend time with their young Thai girlfriends or wives.
We flew North for a couple of hours to get to Chiang Mai, which was very different - plenty of tourists in the old centre part of town, but with more of a back-packer/ outdoor adventure crowd.
We arrived on a Sunday, just in time for the regular Sunday night market. All the roads in the center of old Chiang Mai were closed to traffic and thousands of vendors set up their stalls. It starts as soon as it gets dark. Soon the streets were packed with streams of people - foreign and Thai tourists as well as locals - slowly working their way past the stalls and bargaining with the vendors. There were many musicians, ranging from 6 year old girls singing Western pop to elderly blind couples playing traditional instruments.
Some of the clothing, jewelry and nicknacks were really good - many selling for a small fraction of Western prices.
We walked for hours, stopping to explore the spectacular temples, whose grounds are opened up for the market. The lights, candles and shrines around the very old temples, where the mainly young monks walked quickly around or carried out their devotions, made for a tremendous atmosphere. We finally sat down at a bar for beers and to eat street vendor food and people watch.
Incidentally, our digestive systems all seemed to have survived the street food so far - which has been far better than the restaurant next to where we were staying, which was horrific - quite possibly the worst food I have ever encountered anywhere. Overall though, the food has been very good, particularly the green and red curries. There have also been a few real culinary surprises - the pizza and french fries have been consistently great!
We explored some of Chiang Mai by tuk-tuk one afternoon. There was just about room for 3 in the back - which meant I ended up sitting on the battery next to the driver, trying to hold onto anything I could while we overtook a line of traffic on the wrong side of the road, swerving between motor-bikes and trucks, my protruding limbs almost brushing people as we buzzed past. The Verver women really enjoyed it - Krista wishing she had my more exciting seat. I thought it was great - but couldn't help visualising how to roll and avoid breaking too many bones and being squished by traffic in the event I was flung out.
We visited many temples in Chiang Mai - which are everywhere. Most are many centuries old and still stunning; maintained, we assume, by the monks who are often evident. Some of the temples, hidden away behind storefronts, were closed and their courtyards used as parking lots. Even then they were still strikingly beautiful from the outside.
So far it has been noticeable that all the visitors, Westerners and Asians, have been very respectful and maintained the atmosphere of the temples.
Despite the variety of incredibly ornate temple designs and buddha statues, I think we have all realised that the initial impact wears off fairly fast and it is already becoming harder to really appreciate what we are seeing.
Although Chiang Mai has many tourist visitors, it is still primarily a working town. This adds to the attraction - creating an interesting mix of cultures. Near where we are staying it seems there are also a fair number of North Americans and Europeans - (including Brits, who I am pretty sure still prefer not to be considered real Europeans) - who live here long-term. Most seem to be at various stages of drop-out from their previous or regular lives.
Our last full day in Chiang Mai was a memorable one. We spent the day with elephants. Each of us had our own to feed, wash, ride and play with in a river pool. There is a fair bit of concern about the treatment of domestic elephants in Northern Thailand - but the people in the place we went to seemed to make a lot of effort to look after their 28 elephants. They all seemed happy and healthy.
The farm was recommended by friends in Vancouver and it really was amazing - including the initial visual as we arrived early in the morning in a very pretty valley, still misty and smoky, to see the elephants dotted among the trees near the small thatched huts the mahoud elephant trainers lived in with their families.
We rode the elephants bare-back up and down steep luxuriant trails, across streams and by waterfalls in the bamboo and teak forest. We spent the first few hours getting mutually comfortable with our elephants by feeding, brushing, washing and scrubbing them in a shallow river. We learned to mount them and off we went, sitting just behind their heads, our legs tucked behind their ears.
Mine was a 32 year old female and quite big, which meant the view from on top was a little nervous-making at first. However, it surprised me how quickly I became comfortable, even when going up and down steep and narrow trails with big drop-offs inches away. There is something very unique about spending time seated within inches of the brain of a very large and powerful animal as it takes you through the tropical forest. Elephants were described by one of the farm owners as being mind readers able to communicate without sound - and I understood why.
After an hour or so of riding we arrived at a natural pool in a large stream where the elephants played and we had lunch. Then some of us joined the elephants in the pool, sitting or standing on their backs while they lay down almost completely submerged in the water. I tried to ignore the extremely large elephant patties that floated by at times, before the mahout (trainer/guides) scooped them up to take back as fertiliser. It was quite an experience - being very aware that if your elephant chose to roll over on the pool bottom while you were on top you could be held and crushed underwater very easily.
We returned by road - a surreal experience as the 4 of us on our elephants happily loped down the windy road with the occasional truck or motor-bike puttering by us.
We next drove North East for a day through Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, a small town on the edge of the Mekong River, directly across from Yuen Xei in Laos. The hotel on the river we were meant to stay in was full - so we ended up in the least pleasant place Sue and I have stayed in - ever. Krista pointed out that we were being a bit fussy, it was not too bad, relative to some things - but as a German women commented to us - she had stayed in the same place 25 years ago and nothing had since changed - nor been decorated or cleaned. It was pretty skuzzy - it smelt bad and you really did not want to touch anything, including the floor (check the photo of the delightful bathroom). We finally got to use our bed-bug guards and sleeping bag sheets and pillow covers.
So that's it from Thailand - next update will be from Laos..........