Archive for April, 2011

Chiang Mai to Laos

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

We had just one day in Chiang Mai after our trek and found it rather disappointing. We’d heard about a beautiful city. After a late breakfast we walked into the city and wandered around the south east corner. We covered about a quarter of the city and found a couple of temples and lots of knackered looking concrete buildings. Combined with the little we’d seen of the city outside the moat on the night before our trek the effect was to wonder if we’d come to the same Chiang Mai that other people had raved about.

Easily the best thing about the city for me was a visit to Green Bamboo massage for a full body oil massage. The surroundings were lovely and the staff very attentive. The massage was a bargain too by UK standards – a full hour for just £5.

Based on what we saw in the city and on our trek I think probably the surrounding areas are worth spending a lot more time in, and Chiang Mai itself deserves just a fleeting visit.

Next morning we were picked up in a minibus for the journey to Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the Mekong river border with Laos. On the way we stopped at Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. Unique amongst the temples in Thailand it is covered in white or silver bling and is a striking sight. The decoration is also unique, reflecting the views of the artist who conceived the temple and directs its construction and maintenance. Photos at Flickr.

Chiang Khong is very sleepy and has nothing to recommend it beyond being a border crossing point. We met some new friends at the guesthouse in Chiang Kong. The guesthouse was OK but the manager was a miserable dragon. When we arrived she was arguing with a guest who was refusing to stay there. Thais have a reputation for being non-confrontational and not liking shouting. The manager apparently didn’t know that. She was still Miss Grumpy Shouty when we saw her again a couple of hours later at dinner time and again the next morning when she shooed us away after breakfast to the border crossing point.

In the jungle

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

The plan was to have a day in Chiang Mai before going trekking but when we arrived at BMP Residence they were keen for us to join the group leaving the next morning. Two nights and a day in relatively comfy accommodation after the trek sounded appealing so we agreed. We just had time to drop our bags in our room before the briefing meeting with our guide, Joshua, and our trek mates Julian, Chiraz, Renee and Chiara.

On Thursday morning we checked out, left some laundry at reception, put our bags in the store room, ate breakfast and set off in the back of a pickup for our trek. On the way out of Chiang Mai we passed a big Tesco Lotus store and a Makro. The road gradually got narrower as we left the city and reached the countryside. First stop was a market to buy any last minute essentials. A poncho seemed like it might be useful. A couple of hours after leaving we were definitely in the countryside bumping down a single track road with fields both sides. We passed a handful of low lying rice paddies under irrigation with young rice growing. Most of the paddies won’t have rice in until the rainy season starts in a few weeks time. There were lots of orchards but I couldn’t tell what kind of trees they were. Suddenly the air was full of yellow tissue paper. A few fluttered through the pickup – butterflies!

About two and a half hours after leaving the hotel we reached the start of the trail we’d be trekking. We set off under the full midday sun, following and frequently crossing the path of a small stream. After about half an hour or so we stopped for lunch at a small farm. Cows surrounded our lunch table after we sat down and stared at us inquisitively. It felt like we were the animals in the zoo and they’d come to look at us. One of the calves sucked and licked the salt from a rucksack strap.

After lunch the going got a little harder. Still mostly level but the jungle was a little thicker. A long way from impenetrable rain forest but thick enough to require a bit of concentration on where to place feet or duck branches. Walk or look at the scenery or take photos but not more than one of these safely at a time.

A couple of hours later we were going more uphill with thunder rumbling in the distance and continued that way until we reached the Karen hill tribe village where we’d be spending the night. Big spiders and big plants were the theme for the day so far as I could tell. There are some photos in my RTW2011 set on Flickr. Our accommodation was a dormitory hut on stilts with room for twelve people. Soon after we arrived the rain started and fell for an hour or more. Compare and contrast the accommodation for our hosts and the crazy foreigners: close fitting wood planks and galvanised steel roof versus draughty bamboo walls and leaky leaf roof. The floor in the hut was bamboo matting over bamboo joists. Holes in the matting made some parts of the hut unusable. Actually the roof only leaked in a couple of places, one of them just happened to be directly over Hannah’s sleeping mat. The mosquito nets were doubles so we moved our mats under a free net where the roof wasn’t leaking. Later we discovered the net wasn’t actually big enough to properly enclose two mats so we moved back to our original position and hoped for no more rain. The weather gods were kind and the night stayed dry.

Next morning we did a lot of sitting around twiddling our thumbs before finally setting off at about 10:30, or “9:00-9:30” Thai time. Some of us thought it would have been sensible to leave earlier and not be walking during the hottest part of the day but never mind. We spent the morning going uphill and in the early afternoon we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Joshua picked up the pace a bit which made it a bit too fast for some but was fine for me. We crested the ridge we had been climbing and started downhill, quite steep and a bit slippery in places. The theme for the day was even bigger spiders and waterfalls. We arrived at our overnight stop – a Karen farm – at about 16:00 and it still wasn’t raining. There was a hut where the farmer lived, a dormitory hut for about a dozen people, five huts for two people each and a toilet hut. Hmmm, no shower. But wait! Joshua hurried us into swimming costumes and a hundred metres further along the river to bathe under the waterfall we could hear roaring but hadn’t yet seen. He was keen for us to use the waterfall before the rain started and the river turned muddy. We hadn’t expected that when we set off in the morning. The water was a little cold at first but OK once we got used to it. It was very picturesque and a real pleasure to be in our own little paradise splashing around under the waterfall. We hauled ourselves out to dry out on the warm rocks. Dinner was excellent just as it had been the night before. The weather gods continued to smile on us and there was no rain except a light shower overnight, but it was delivered with a lot of lightning and the rumble of thunder.

On our final morning we set off again after a filling breakfast of boiled eggs, a mountain of toast, butter, jam and tea. Only an hour and a half of walking brought us to a waiting pickup truck and we were ferried to our lunch stop where we were joined by a couple of Brit girls and an American guy. After lunch we did an elephant ride and went bamboo rafting. Two people per elephant and three per raft. Our elephant or it’s mahout seemed to have a bit of an independent mind. While the others stuck to the gentle slopes ours liked to show off how steep a hill it could manage. Songkran was still in the locals’ minds and there was lots of splashing as we passed them on the banks and on rafts. This time we could join in so it was much more fun. Soaked after the rafting we dried off and took about an hour in the pickup to return to Chiang Mai.

Sukhotai

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Another five and a half hours on a bus got us from Ayutthaya to Sukhotai. The tickets have assigned seat numbers but the concept appears foreign to Thais, and recognising and sitting in the correct seat is beyond many of them. The empty seat next to me was occupied by a monk after the first stop. Unusually for a monk he turned out to be very talkative and was a champion fidget. He took a shine to my Kindle and dropped more than one or two hints about me “donating” it to him or swapping it for his mobile phone. Dream on! He was quite interesting though and showed us his photo album. It included photos of him leading a ceremony with all the participants having a cotton thread wrapped around their head and joined to a matrix of threads in the ceiling. There were also photos of his family and of his very intricate tattoos, which he explained were done the traditional way with bamboo and a hammer.  He also told us when we’d reached Sukhotai, which was useful because the bus stations, like everything else are signed in Thai but not English.

I’m not complaining about the lack of English signage; it’s not like Buckingham Palace is signed in Thai, but it does make life a little difficult when you can’t read or speak the local language. I have a feeling things will be worse when I get to China.

The hotel had a driver waiting for us at the bus station – very civilised :-) We had our own little brick built cabin with a galvanised roof and this one had been cleaned. Hannah was happy. After dinner we went and looked for the night market. Maybe we looked in the wrong place, maybe we were too late, but all we found was a food market.

On Tuesday it started raining as we went to breakfast and quickly turned into a torrential downpour which lasted over two hours. So it was almost 11:30 before the driver dropped us at the bus stop for the old city. The bus did a good job of competing with the Ayutthaya “express” train for slowest motorised transport award. It only had two working gears and the driver was reluctant to use the higher one. At the old city we found the usual scam of buy something (entrance to the temple complex – 100 baht) and then buy all the extras (bike hire – 30 baht, bike admission to temple – 10 baht, audio tour – 150 baht, extra if keeping it more than three hours, audio player deposit). The temple complex was apparently built by a better bunch of builders than those at Ayutthaya, many of which were distinctly wonky in a way that simple ransacking wouldn’t have caused. If you can stand more wat photos, they’re at Flickr.

After the temple complex and a late lunch we cycled eight kilometres to Tak in search of, wait for it, yet more wats. We didn’t find them and couldn’t hang around looking for them. We had to head back for the last bus from the old city back to Sukhotai. We returned the bikes at 17:15 in good time for the last bus at 17:30 only to find the driver had thought better of it, and packed up early for the day. We waited with three other tourists until about 17:45 and took a tuk-tuk instead.

Wednesday was another travelling day with a bus ride to Chiang Mai. No chatty monks this time, and also a much less luxurious coach, but it somehow managed to do the journey in only five hours instead of the advertised six.