Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Two weeks in Thailand: Part 2 Chiang mai

I didn't sleep that well on the train to Chiang mai and woke up just before dawn, I thought it would give me a perfect opportunity to get some nice photos of dramatic jungle scenes out of the train window. Unfortunately, the landscape was not particularly amazing and most of it was more scrubby bushland than the pristine jungle I had hoped for. We arrived in chiang mai around 10 a.m. after eating a truly awful breakfast on the train. We were a little bleary eyed and confused but eventually worked out the way to get around in Chiang Mai is to get in the back of a pick-up truck with benches on the sides, or songthaew as they are called. These pick up trucks act something like a cross between a taxi and a bus. They drive around looking for fares and when they find one they try to pick up other people going in the same direction along the route. It's a good system that makes it cheap and easy to get around in Chiang Mai (one ride pretty much anywhere in town costs around 20 Baht or just under 50p).

Sophie waking up in our cramped first class cabin.

Some little station we passed through.

The back door of the train was left wide open while we were moving!

Finally we've arrived, Chiang mai station.

Our favorite mode of transport in Thailand, the trusty Chiang Mai songthaew. They could fit around 8 passengers inside on the benches plus 2 or more standing on the back clinging onto the bars.

So we found a songthaew and it delivered us, quickly, easily and cheaply to our hostel, such a difference to Bangkok! We had arrived a little early for our room so we had to kill a bit of time chilling out in the lobby and Facebook messaging my sister, who lives in Chiang Mai, to say we'd arrived. The hostel we were staying at was called MD house and it was absolutely lovely, cheap, great location within the walls of the Old Town, loads of facilities including computers, free wifi, gym, a massive free breakfast, laundry and a penis shaped swimming pool. Yes, you did read that correctly, a penis shaped swimming pool!

MD House's infamous phallic inspired swimming pool!

Once we'd got settled into our room, we decided to take a look around Chiang Mai. We strolled around with no particular aim in mind, just getting lost and looking round whatever temples we found and there were plenty to explore. Chiang mai is a much smaller city than Bangkok as although it's Thailand's second city it is apparently around 50 times smaller than Bangkok is so strolling round and getting lost is not a problem. We spent our afternoon sightseeing around the old town and we also got interviewed by some Thai high school kids for their tourism homework assignment.

One of the first sights we saw, the three kings that unified the ancient Lanna kingdom of which Chiang Mai was the capital.
Part of the moat that totally encircled the old city part of Chiang Mai.

Buddha surrounded by flowers.

A monk doing a bit of house keeping at a temple.

Chiang Mai temple building.

Old fashioned bicycle taxis were still quite popular in Chiang Mai.

Another one of the many temples in Chiang Mai's old town.

Someone's mom apparently!

Wat Chiedi Man, probably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai, once Chiang Mai's tallest building it used to be home to the Emerald Buddha we saw at Bangkok's Grand Palace.

The high school boys who interviewed us for their homework assignment.

Some really cool alien and predator sculptures made of old motorbike parts.

A really lovely Buddha carving.
Within the grounds of one of the temples was a Monk Chat area where you could go to speak to a monk about any topic you fancied. The idea of this is to help people understand more about Buddhism or about monk's lives or their perspectives on things and to help the monks to improve their English. We weren't brave enough to go speak to them though and ran away!

A Buddhist funeral procession. There were a couple of guys who had the job of carrying long poles with hooks on that they used to move the overhead wires and cables out of the way so the tall, golden structure they were carrying as part of the procession could get down the street.

After looking at a few temples, we met up with my sister and spent the evening checking out her local bar in the new town and a nearby restaurant where we had some delicious northern Thai style food, including a delicious marinaded chicken thing, tasty exploding catfish and some lovely pork. Full and a little drunk on the local cheap rum we eventually called it a night and caught a songthaew back to the hostel.

View from inside a songthaew.

The next day we hand arranged to meet my sister for lunch and then go to see elephants and tigers at a nearby sanctuary, so we filled the morning with a bit more wandering and looking at temples. We visited one big temple where there was a five-a-side football game going on, watched intently and cheered loudly by hundreds of monks. I've never seen such a big crowd watching a five-a-side game! After watching the football we met my sister and her boyfriend for a lunch of a Chiang mai speciality called khao soy, a delicious yellow curry topped with deep fried noodles. After eating we went off to try to hire a scooter to drive up to the place with the elephants and tigers, unfortunately the place we'd planned to get the scooter from had run out so we had a bit of a search and eventually found a place on the side of a very busy road, not the ideal place to learn to ride, so we eneded up a bit delayed and stressed. By the time we got on the road it was too late to go to the elepant place so, since we already had the scooter we decided to ride up to Doi Suthep, a temple on a hill overlooking Chiang Mai. The temple was very beautiful and the views over Chiang Mai were stunning but it was pretty crowded up there so we didn't stay too long. After the temple we headed back into the city and ended the day with a delicious pizza dinner.
Orange robed monks watching the match.

A young monk chats on his mobile phone while watching the footy.
Doi Suthep really was very impressive.
A very pretty green but apparently not emerald Buddha (The actual emerald buddah isn't made of emerald either, it's jade).

Doi Suthep temple had some serious bling going on, there was so much gold it was almost painful to look at.

More bling at Doi Suthep.

Some bell bling at Doi Suthep.

The temple had stunning views back over the city. It's on the tallest mountain near to Chiang Mai.

The next day was one of our favorite days in Thailand. We had signed up to do a day long cooking course at the Baan Thai cooking school. The course was so much fun. We booked online the day before then got picked up from our hostel in the morning and delivered to the school where we learned to cook six different dishes each. The day started with some Thai snacks and fresh fruit while we had a question and answer session about Thai food and Thai cooking with out instructor. We then went out to the market where we picked up the things we needed for the day and learnt about lots of interesting Thai ingredients. We then returned to the school and spent the rest of the day cooking up and eating 6 different Thai dishes. It was exactly how cooking should be i.e. like it is on the TV when they have lots of little bowls with all the ingredients in and you just tip them in one by one and cook them up. No boring prep work or washing up, just nice and easy cooking and eating. At the end of the day, we left with a little recipe booklet and practical knowledge on how to cook pad thai, kao soy, penang curry, chicken with cashew nuts, mango and sticky rice and many, many others.

At the market getting minced coconut for making coconut milk.

Crazy array of different fruit and veg available at the market.

Our little group on our return from the market

Me cooking up some pad thai

Sophie pounding the dressing for papaya salad.

Tom yum soup, yum yum! This was probably the second most common dish we saw on menus in Thailand after Pad Thai. It's a spicy soup with lots of chilli, lemongrass, Kaffir lime and galangal (a type of ginger) and usually prawns or sometimes chicken in.

Sophie's penang curry was so delicious she couldn't wait for me to take a photo before she started eating it!

Khao soy, probably our favorite dish of the day!

Water chestnuts in coconut milk, my dessert which I somehow just about found room for! The water chestnuts get their red colour from the grenadine they had been soaked in.

We spent the evening hanging out with my sister at various bars, unfortunately there seemed to be some kind of crack down on bars being open late and most things were closing up around midnight or before though we managed to find places open a bit later. We ended the night in style with a toastie from 7-11, that's right 7-11 in Thailand has toastie machines and they can make a cheese toastie for you at any time, awesome! Korean 7-11s take note!

Me, Sophie and my sister in the back of a very windy tuk tuk.

A pretty good covers band playing at a trendy "hi-so" (high society) bar we went to.

The nest day we woke up a little late from the drinking the previous night and I only just got down in time for breakfast, Sophie was still sleeping so I had a double breakfast :). We had planned to have another attempt at getting to see elephants and tigers today but because we got up late we didn't really have time, so instead we went looking at a tour to book on to the next day and eventually we found a place offering a one day tour for the bargain price of only 700 baht. Having finally made a definite arrangment for seeing some elephants (the trek included elephant riding) we needed to find something to do for the rest of the day, so we decided to visit Warorot Market in Chiang Mai's China Town. Chiang Mai's Chinese market is a little bit outside the old town but still walking distance from our hostel, and it's the place to go to buy pretty much anything disgusting or weird. While we were there we saw fried insects, live turtles, fake designer gear and whole pigs heads, all with rats happily scurrying around under people's feet.

The traditional gate to the Chinese market.

Live baby turtles, I don't think they're pets.

Crispy fried insects anyone?

How about a whole pig's head?

I think i'd prefer some of these delicious looking dragon fruit.

Or some pretty pumpkins.

Finally we found a less smelly part of the market!

After the wonders of the Chinese market we made our way out of town to the Chiang Mai reggae festival which was being held nearby. Actually, it was the Pai raggae festival, but it had outgrown its roots in the small hippy town of Pai so this year it was being held near Chiang Mai. There was a free songthaew bus service laid on from the city so we caught that up there. It turned out to be a pretty long journey so we didn't get there until quite late, which was a shame because it would have been a perfect place to spend a chilled out afternoon. Still we had fun, but didn't really get into it because we didn't realise how far from town it was or how late it went on and we had to be ready to get on the tour at 8:30 the next day, so the 610 baht we paid to get in turned out to be a bit of a waste, especially as they cheeky bugers then charged to use the toilets inside the festival. So like boring peoiple we ended up leaving early and going back to Chiang Mai, where we had the most delicious dinner at a little cafe before collapsing into bed.

The main (only) stage of the festival.

Chiang Mai day five and we were finally off to see the elephants! We got picked up by minibus around 8:30 and gradually collected the rest of our tour group, which consisted of 1 Dutch guy, a German couple, 2 Chinese girls and 3 Americans. We drove for about an hour south out of Chiang Mai eventually arriving at the elephant camp. When we arrived we briefly met our elephants and were sold some bunches of bananas to feed them, then we climbed onto a big platform where we could get on to our elephants. The first part of the ride was the scariest when we went down a very steep hill, but after that it was all quite tranquil. The elephants were suprisingly nimble, managing to squeeze throught trails no wider than one of their feet. As we went along there were platforms here and there hawking more bananas to keep your elephant happy and boy did they love those bananas! They elephant would curl its trunk up above its head and you'd put a banana on the end of its trunk, it would then whisk the banana quicky away and throw it into its mouth. Now and then I'd give our elephant two bananas at once as a special treat and it would always thank me by blowing me a big blast of air from its trunk! About halfway round the circuit our mahout (elephant trainer) asked if we wanted to ride on the head where he'd been riding, I said sure but Sophie stayed in the seat on the back. It was pretty fun up there, more steady than the seat and the skin wasn't as hard and bristley as I'd expected. It was a bit scary when I realised that our mahout wasn't getting back on but leaving us to ride solo, but it was all fine apart from my legs getting beaten by flapping ears!

Happy elephant!

Scoffing yet another banana!

The platform we boarded from.
An American couple we met riding their elephant with the jungle behind.

After the elephant riding the next stage of the trek was a visit to some tribal villages and a walk through the jungle. The tribal villages are mostly home to refuguees from Burma who are basicly allowed to live in Thailand so long as they put up with tourists like us coming and gawping at them. The actual villages were more like markets really with a lot of stalls and little girls shouting "Hello five baht" as they tried to flog bracelets. Through the trees at the back of the village you could spot the villager's real homes with satelite dishes, but they had wooden huts for show out the front.

The wooden huts of the first tribal village we were taken to.

"Hello, five baht."

Woman at work weaving.
And standing with the finished products, agreeing a price with some of the Americans.

The old and new, wooden shacks out the front, and satellite dishes out the back.

While the girls were hard at work selling bracelets in the village the boys were just playing in the river - "fishing" apparently!

After the village we walked alongside a river for about 30 minutes until we arrived at a beatutiful waterfall. Some people swam in the water but we just took some photos because the water was very cold. We just took photos and hung out in a cafe with some very cute dogs. At the end of the hike we came to another tribal village which again was more like a market and Sophie bought a wooden catapult, unfortunately one of the Americans got in first and brought the one with a handle carved into the shape of a penis!

Korea's rice fields were still frozen solid at this point so it was nice to see some sun drenched ones again.

View over the hills.

A somewhat rickety looking bridge.

Cold but beautiful waterfall in the middle of the jungle.
Close up of the waterfall.

Possibly the cutest two puppies in all of Asia, begging for crisps from Sophie.

A rather rural petrol station with hand operated pumps opposite where we stopped for lunch.

After the hike we came to the last stage of our trek, a bamboo raft trip down the river. The bamboo rafting was fun but the rafts floated pretty low in the water so we got very wet bums as we spent most of the time sat in an inch or two of water. The raft ride was very sedate and the only time the waters got a little bit rough we were told to get off and walk along the bank for about 100 meters while our guides piloted the rafts through the rougher water. Towards the end of the ride we passed a spot which seemed a popular picnic spot for Thai toursits and got involved in a waterfight with some very cute little boys. We then sadly came to the end of our little trek,which all in all had been a great fun day. Our guide had been friendly and helpful, the activities had been fun, the elephants seemed happy and well looked after and we'd even got a tasty lunch included in the price, considering it was the cheapest tour we'd seen I think we got a very good deal. We spent our final evening in Chiang Mai hanging out with my sister, we ate some rather greasy Indian curry together then said our farewells. To finish it off, that night we went to the Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Market to buy some cheap gifts to keep our Korean co-workers happy. It was absolutely rammed with people but we did get a good haul of nice little trinkets and it was fun to look round, with all sorts of arts and crafts on sale and plenty of cheerful buskers and more serious musicians to liven things up.

Our raft guides were quite young!

The guide took the raft down some rapids while we walked alongside.
The rapids weren't that bad - I reckon we could have all made it together!

Sophie and the Chinese girls on their raft.
A line of blind Thai guitarists raising some cash at the Sunday Walking Street market.
One of the stalls that intrigued us was this one which sold hand made wooden spinning top toys that made a high pitched whistling noise as they spun round.

On our last morning in Chiang Mai, the until then perfect MD house let us down by serving us a breakfast of stone cold ham and eggs and when we complained only replacing half of it. Still we got it sorted in the end and it was a small blip in an otherwise perfect stay. We took a taxi to the air port and boarded a flight to our next destination, Phuket- Thailand's tropical island paradise!


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