Date: December 20th - December 23rd
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
After a comfortable, short, flight and a quick visit to the information office Karen and I found ourselves, lonely planet in hand, gazing down a narrow street bristling with activity in the heart of Chiang Mai, located in Northern Thailand. Within a minute we decided to flag any reviews that may be on offer from lonely planet and instead chose a guesthouse based on our own instinct and judgement...or maybe lack thereof.
I'm not boasting or anything but lets just say we should be Jedi masters with the kind of judgement we had!! The place we chose cost all of $5 a night, for the two of us, and just happened to be run by maybe the nicest lady in all of Chiang Mai!! It was a sick set up. They had scooters for rent ten steps away, a Thai massage centre, and if we should so feel in need of a blowout story one night on the diesel then there was also a tattoo parlour...(don't worry mum this did not get used).
We wasted no time and were off to explore the delights of Chiang Mai. First stop was one of the "big three" temples, or 'Wat's' as they are known in Thailand. I'm not sure what blew me away more, the fact that this particular Wat was just randomly placed on a not so busy road, the fact that they're were so few tourists compared with Bangkok, or the actual splendid ness of the Wat itself. For the sake of wanting to sound "cultured" lets just say it was the latter. I really liked seeing the massive concrete elephants at the base of one massive chedi (dome/sphere thing) thing falling to bits, it really helped to give a feel to just how old everything is.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was next on the tourist list for us, and we most definitely were flying the tourist flag as high as possible... I love to wear my camera proudly round my neck, and combo that with the white flesh we were sporting, thanks to Japan in winter, and you get some idea of how touristy we looked, well I looked at least. I think these reasons alone are the main factor in why my negotiating for the next half hour was so unsuccessful. The taxi drivers just wouldn't have a bar of how much I thought we should be able to head 15km our of town for... and trying my best to be a hardened Thailand traveller I wasn't budging either. Resulted in a number of, "no way too expensive, we take other taxi!" and then walking off waiting for the guy to call us back any second, but instead him just driving off, sort of moments. Just as I was about to crack and pay whatever price the next guy suggested we found our man! He offered to take us up there, wait for a couple of hours while we looked around and then give us a ride back, all for cheaper than I had been bargaining for previously! Although at first we were slightly apprehensive after the scams they have running in Bangkok we were quickly relieved to see a massive sign on the wall boasting the same prices he had quoted us. We must have walked into the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep taxi car park or something?! Luck you say.. I think not!... pure instinct more like it... the things that a Jedi is made of.
The temple was dazzlingly beautiful and spectacular. It was situated at the top of a couple of hundred steps on a hill that offered a great look out over the entire city. There were so many things to be blown away by, the masses of bells to ring, the view, the humble monks everywhere, the designs of the buildings, the colourful flowers in bloom, but none more impressive than the central chedi (sphere) of the temple. It was simply breath taking. It's sad the photos of it do absolutely no justice to its massiveness and just amazingly bright goldenness. It simply just glowed. Around its perimeter there were candles, Buddha's, gold statues, and rooms with shrines set up. In one room there was a monk who we kneeled in front of. He said a number of prayers and kept spraying some sort of holy water on us (was actually quite a lot now I think of it... far more than everyone else?!...). Then he tied some thick white string around my right wrist for good luck, and cut of some string for me to do the same to Karen's wrist. He couldn't tie hers because monks can't touch females. The whole event was highly moving and I really felt quite in awe sitting in the monk's presence like that. It was a very surreal experience.
I think my respect for the monks went from highest point to lowest point within about five minutes. Karen and I were walking along a path in quiet reflection of the intense experience with the monk. It just so happens that the path had just been washed and I happen to be wearing my jandals that are super slippery in the wet. Pretty much I slipped very obviously but managed to use my ninja skills to regain my balance, I took another step and slip again, out come the ninja skills for a second time, and then to complete the graceless walk I was doing, I slipped and regained my balance a third and final time. By this stage Karen was having a little chuckle to herself... which quickly turned into full on laughter for about five minutes when she realises some young monks had witnessed the entire thing and were cracking up at me!! Monks laughing at me!! She thought, and still thinks it's the funniest thing ever... I think they're all immature and do not wish to discuss the matter further.
That night we went to the night bazaar to check out the various authentic items for sale and get a bite to eat. The coolest thing we saw was a load of artists who were painting pictures in black and white that were direct copies of photos. The quality though was insane! Some of the paintings looked like actual photographs (that's right I just called a photo a photograph... how old school is that!).
On Wednesday we did a day tour. First stop was elephant riding for an hour. Was loads of fun, even if somewhat uncomfortable after the initial excitement had worn off. Also there were loads of itchy bite type things which is never fun. However, was great to be on an elephant riding up some steep hills through trees and other foliage. Our 'ele' just plodded along at a steady pace and kept sticking her trunk back for us to give her a banana or sugar cane. We even did a little river crossing and when we got back to the start we got to see and "play with" a baby elephant, who was surprisingly strong, as Karen and the bruises on her leg can testify!
Next stop was the White Karen hill tribe (I kid you not, this was their name). Pretty much in Northern Thailand there were loads of different tribes who lived self sufficiently in the hills for thousands of years and, while most have since come down and joined the cities and towns in more modern style living, some have remained for the sole purpose that if they stay there get to make money of tourists coming to look at how they "live". Though obviously a bit of a con it was interesting nonetheless. Also got to see inside one of their huts they sleep in. Would probably have been more uplifting and authentic had there not been new scooters parked up round the back of the huts... oh well.
After a long spray of insect repellent we were ready for the next leg of our tour, a visit to a waterfall. It was fun getting into the "bush" of Thailand and our guide was really cool. No snake or monkey sightings unfortunately, though we did see some water buffalo, and exciting... some cows! Wow. The waterfall was very cool and was a nice little break before heading off to the next hill tribe village.
The second hill tribe lived in a very different set up. While the first tribe live on grassy areas in round huts on the ground the second tribe live on virtual mud and in square huts raised up a level on stilts. Most families also own a pig or two tied up below the hut. Our guide informed us that one purpose of this was if snakes come for a sneaky look they go for the pig and not the people. We saw a number of ladies hand making silk scarves, while the guys just lay around heavily smoking tobacco. Apparently the guys do sometimes do a lot of hard work... though I'm dubious!
We had a lunch stop at a side of the road, open restaurant, which, god bless them, had live chickens roaming around, jumping on the tables and things... we all had an uncomfortable "bird flu...bird flu... bird flu...bird flu" chanting in our heads... while we ate our chicken and rice they had cooked for us! One of the guys on our tour informed us that before he left the states he had read on a departmental website a warning to those going to Thailand to just make sure they didn't eat food around live chickens... blowout!
The final leg of our tour was a ride on a bamboo raft down a very low-grade river. Was loads of fun and very peaceful to be just cruising past the countryside in relative silence. We even came went past some elephants at one point who were just chilling on a large embankment. There were a couple of scares where occasionally the guy at the back of the raft almost got knocked in by rocks jutting out too far (to be honest I wasn't holding my breath.. I wanted him in... he was a knob).
After a hot shower, some dinner and a soothing foot massage I managed to convince Karen the thing we needed next was a scooter! While I can obviously understand her apprehension... I have only ridden scooters a handful of times, never with someone on the back, never at night, and the streets of Levin definitely don't match up to the "no traffic rules" madness of Chiang Mai.... I was confident it would be sweet. Sweet isn't the word, the scooter we got was soooo much fun it should be illegal. We were out for ages just riding different streets getting lost, finding ourselves, then getting lost again. We were literally gagging for it.
The funniest thing was when we went to hire it. Being sensible Angus I had brought over my international drivers licence for such occasion however the extensiveness of their questioning went like this.
"Hi, we'd like to hire a scooter please"
"Yeah sure, you must return with full tank though"
"Sure that's fine. What do you need to see"
"You have passport? Must return with full tank"
"Here you go, yes full tank no problem"
At this stage I write my name down and where I was staying (directly over the road).
"I keep your passport as deposit. Remember you must return with full tank"
"Mmhmm, sure, full tank. How much?"
"180Bhat ($5) for 24 hours, but you have to return with full tank, Ok?"
"Yes that's fine" hand over the money.
After looking at the cover of my passport "which side of road you drive on in New Zealand?"
"On the left just like here."
"Oh you be fine then. Be careful and don't go fast. Here are the keys. Don't forget the full tank"
"Thanks, no I will go slowly (lasted all of two minutes) and I'll remember the petrol (will you STOP going on about that!!)."
And that was basically that. All she wanted to know was which side of the road we drive on in NZ. Didn't even ask if I can ride a scooter, or maybe, if I have a drivers licence!! Brilliant.
The following morning we put the scooter, or as we called her, Mio, and all of her 120hp too good work speeding us all over Chiang Mai to various temples. We visited the two remaining big ones first up. The cultured side of me (what little there is) feels rather guilty though, as there we were checking out these amazingly old buildings, one of which had been damaged in an earthquake in the 1300's, and all we can think about is getting back onto Mio and zipping over town somewhere else... zip zip zipping is all we wanted to do!
Next stop for Mio and us was the out of town Chiang Mai Zoo. Was immense fun cruising with the locals along some of the main roads heading out of town. At the various traffic lights we'd get to roll through the gaps of the other cars and up to the front with the other scooters. Set, ready and GO we would be off, weaving in and out of them racing for our place at the front! God it was fun.
So anyway the zoo was brilliant fun. They had pretty much every animal we could have wanted to see, hippos, rhinos, all the big cats, crocs, elephants, everything. But to top it all of by a clear mile was something neither of us had seen before. Giant pandas! The Chiang Mai zoo had been given a couple of pandas from china a year or some before and so had erected a massive fortress of a home for them. Was out of it how high level the security for them was. Not only did you have to pay extra money once in the zoo just to see them but you then had to walk down all sorts of paths, step through some anti germ wash like at the swimming pools, and even then there was a guy at the door to stop people taking any food or drink in. I saw a mother of four get stopped and forced to hand over her bottle of water! While we were there we got to see them feeding. They were so amazing to watch. They just chilled out right in front of us and chowed down on some wood. Was great to be in the presence of 'the' famous animal in the fight for endangered species. It sent shivers down me to think of the disruption man has caused to so many species. I really hope something can be done to save them and the many other species in danger. It was crazy but of all the amazing man made things we saw in Chiang Mai, and Thailand in fact, none was more impressive, or caused Karen and I to take more photos, than those minutes standing in front of two Giant Pandas.
While at the zoo some monks again provided a memorable moment. This time they were not laughing at me but in fact taking photos of Karen! We were just walking down a path when we saw a group of kid monks walking towards us. One had a digital camera in his hand and after I had walked past I turned to see him snapping a quick photo of Karen with her unaware. Then they looked and saw me noticing them and quickly hustled off in a fit of giggles. Dodgy little monks!!
The next 24 hours were not fun to say the least, especially for Karen (she soon after actually cut off her "good luck" string bracelet from the monk!!). Shortly after returning to our guest house Karen was sick... then sick again.. then again and again and again. About 12 times in all, due to food poisoning from a place just up the road. Needless to say we stayed in that night and for the next day. We flagged our booked flight down south, instead opting to hole up and let Karen recover. I felt so bad, and the darling she is, even tried to get up in the morning and tell me she was good to fly and tried to start packing her bag! I wasn't having a bar of it and obviously just forced her back to bed, where she then confessed how sick, sore, and exhausted she actually felt and was just trying to be brave for me. God I love her.
24 hours after she had begun to be sick we ventured out for some fresh air. We went to a crazy golf place, for both of our first experience at true "crazy" golf. It was lots of fun, and quick nice to get my arse handed to me in the second game!
That night was understandably quiet as we stayed local to our guesthouse and just tried to get Karen to eat a little to get her strength back. Actually watched the end of 'Love Actually' that was playing on projector in a bar. Was a bit of a wake up call to remember that it was in fact almost Christmas and the next morning would in fact be Christmas Eve. While it obviously wasn't felling Christmassy at all, sitting in a bar in Thailand will do that, I afforded myself a wee smile thinking of what was, unknowingly to Karen, going to happen on the big day! :-)