Bangkok and Chiang Mai

Here it is. The final update from our travels which is rather overdue, I admit, but since we’ve been home I have been using my time effectively: to sulk.

The last update took us up until we arrived in Chiang Mai. The coffee shop owner of the little place next door to our hostel was incredibly helpful for the entire time we stayed there. He arranged all of our transport and got us great deals on everything we booked through him. On our first day in Chiang Mai, it just so happened to be the 10th annual National Elephant Day. Mr. Coffee Shop insisted we had to go up and see the elephants right that day and he organised the tuk tuk for us. We woke Gem up from her post over-night train nap and rushed her into the coffee shop for one of their iced chocolate drinks.

Elephants in Chiang Mai

Elephants in Chiang Mai

The Tuk Tuk driver took us all the way up the mountain to the Government Elephant Camp. As there were celebrations that day it was free entry -Woo! – and we went straight in. Alan and Gem got some Bananas to feed the elephants with and we wandered around the farm-type place meeting the elephants that were around. Each elephant has it’s own trainer and they seem to have pretty good relationships between them. They said we could pose with the elephants, which is where we got the pictures of me with a trunk around my neck, Alan with a trunk in his ear and Gem having a hat put on her head.

The main feature of the celebrations is a giant elephant buffet. Very long tables are laid out and piled high with all of the elephant’s favourite foods. There are also many little market stalls selling food, drinks and souvenirs for people. We grabbed some bits to eat, including little omelette looking things cooked over a fire in a banana leaf boat. The first few bites were lovely and we all enjoyed it… until I found the little maggoty things in it. They were supposed to be there, apparently a standard element of the dish, but that was it for the omelette and we all felt a bit sick afterwards.

We stayed to see a little of the show, but it wasn’t too exciting, so we found our driver again and set off for the tiger kingdom. I was a little sceptical about going to see the tigers from some of the stories I’d heard. Apparently there are two different places where you can visit the tigers. One is just outside Bangkok and has much larger tigers. The theory is that the tigers are calmed by the monk’s presence which stops them attacking the people. The upshot of this is that there are many a backpackers pictures which show them literally laying all over a very large tiger while the animal barely moves. It seems pretty apparent that these tigers must have been sedated to be this docile. So that’s the Tiger Temple. But we went to the Tiger Kingdom, in Chiang Mai. I can vouch for the fact that these tigers are most definitely not sedated. We chose to touch the medium sized tigers. None of us were brave enough to go in with the big ones. We were led down to the tiger enclosures, getting a bit nervous now, where we were instructed to read the sign entitled “Do the tigers bite?”. In short the answer was, “Yes”. So we had to make sure to keep our hands away from the tiger’s head and face and to listen to the trainers at all times. Because we wanted to keep all of our fingers, this seemed like reasonable advice.

Tiger Kingdom

Tiger Kingdom

To stroke, they were very much just big cats. Although, anytime they moved we all jumped out of our skins. At one point one of the tigers Alan was stroking sneezed and he jumped backwards in terror! When our 15 minutes was up we took some time looking around the rest of the kingdom, including the two baby lion cubs who were being cleaned with a wet wipe before a good wrestle.

That night we made our way to the Chiang Mai night bazaar which takes place every night. It’s a sprawling mix of market stalls, shops and food stalls. We walked around as much of it as we could that first night but ended up going back again the following night to see the rest.

The following morning we were off to our cooking school. The bus picked us up and drove literally round the corner before chucking us out at the local market. Here we were taught what to look for when shopping at the market, how you can tell if the produce is fresh and what some of the crazier looking veggies are. We also found out that the little meat balls which Gem and Alan had eaten in some of their soup could possibly have contained snake or dog! They weren’t too impressed at the news. We were then given our options for what we could learn to cook. The three of us made sure we were all cooking different things so that we got to try everything.

The bus took us on to the cooking school, which was really a large cleared out garage fitted out with 20 or 30 cooking stations. We were taught how to make Tom Yum (Hot and Spicy thai soup), Panang Curry, spring rolls (from scratch), stir fried vegetables, sweet and sour, papaya salad, pad thai and sticky rice with mango. And then the best bit was the end where we were able to eat everything we’d made. It was a veritable feast!

Thai cooking school

Thai cooking school

Our evening was filled with the excitement of doing a much needed laundry session. All of the hostels offer a laundry service, but none of us particular liked them doing our laundry for us. However, near our hostel in Chiang Mai we found an outdoor laundry place which was pretty much coin-operated washing machines and tumble driers out on the street. So that worked nicely for us.

The following day we moved hostels. We really hadn’t gotten on too well with the Thai Thai kitchen so we moved two doors down to M.D House which had a pool, free internet, private ensuites etc etc.

Our travel agent man arranged another tuk tuk for us, this time to Chiang Mai zoo. We’d heard really good things about the place and I was especially excited because they had a special Panda enclosure.

The zoo itself was enormous. We’d laughed at the idea of having to double the price of our entry ticket to get the bus around the park. But it turns out it probably would have been a good idea as we ended up walking literally miles to try and see everything. We were a bit disappointed with parts of the zoo as many of the enclosures and the animals in them seemed badly cared for. However, the highlight for me was definitely seeing the Pandas. I could have stood there in awe all day if Gem and Alan hadn’t had to drag me away. I got a lot of Panda pictures!

Pandas at Chiang Mai zoo

Pandas at Chiang Mai zoo

From the zoo we could pick up another Tuk Tuk to take us up the mountain to Doi Sutep, one of the most well known temples in Chiang Mai. We cheated and paid the 40p for the cable car to the top of the temple – avoiding the 300 or so steps to the top. The temple itself, while very beautiful, felt very commercial. All aspects of it seemed to be about encouraging people to donate money. Our favourite spot was looking out away from the temple over the view of Chiang Mai and the monk’s gardens. That felt incredibly peaceful and much more spiritual than any of the gaudy gold buildings.

Once we were back at the hostel we tried to go for a swim only to discover the pool was absolutely freezing! It was the kind of temperature we really would have appreciated in Bangkok, but Chiang Mai was already a whole lot cooler. So instead we rested before going out to the night market. Again, the Chiang Mai night market was something I’d heard about before leaving home and once you’ve seen it you’ll understand why. It goes on forever. Along one road it’s estimated to run about five kilometers but it also extends off every side row and into every available square.

When we first left the hostel we saw a bunch of flying bugs surrounding the light from the streetlights but we didn’t think too much of it. But as we got the the market, and every stall had their fluorescent lights on, the bugs were swarming everywhere. They were covering the products for sale, our clothes and getting in our hair. Market sellers were turning off their lights until a potential customer came near and then as soon as it was on again the bugs would swarm. It made any shopping impossible so we decided to bail out and go for some dinner. We hid in the Mexican restaurant for a while, and luckily by the time we came out the bugs had mostly started to die. I’m not sure what kind of flying bug it was, but it seemed that they all seemed to hatch on this one night, fly around together for a while and then die. Which, happily for us, meant we were free to do lots of souvenir shopping.

To finish off our evening we took full advantage of the foot massages available everywhere in the market. Very relaxing apart from the bit where they bring our something like a pencil and rub it really hard down the side of your foot! Gem was sitting next to me squealing most of the time! But I think she enjoyed it really.

To finish off our time in Chiang Mai we took one of the highly recommended treks. Ours was just a one day one due to the lack of time we had left. But we still managed to fit loads into one day. Our first stop was the butterfly and orchid farm; interesting, but only really needed the 15 minutes we were there. And afterwards we were off to the drop off point for the white water rafting.

There wasn’t a whole bunch of white water on the route they’d chosen for us. In fact, there wasn’t a whole bunch of water at all. But we made our way down, while having orders barked at us by our thai guide. “Faster, Faster!!. Harder, Harder!!” My favourite though was the order to “Wiggle!” which was shouted at us when the boat had become jammed between rocks (there really was not enough water for this) and we had to wiggle ourselves back and forth to try to free it. Hysterical enough on its own, but even more so with the crowd of locals looking on from the riverbank.

But of course we made it to the bottom of the route, jumped out of the boat, refused the offer of a framed photograph someone had taken of us further up the river and jumped into the bus towards lunch. Lunch was a plentiful Thai buffet with the added bonus of getting to watch the trainers trying to wash their elephants as we ate. The trainers and elephant clearly have pretty close bonds and enjoy playing around. They try to wash the elephants by riding them in to the river and having the elephant roll over slowly to get washed while they stay on the part of the elephant which is still out of the water. Except one of the elephants found it really funny to just roll his trainer straight into the water, time and time again. The guy kept having to clamber back onto the elephant as all the trainers (and I’m sure the elephants) were laughing at him.

Elephant riding

Elephant riding

After lunch we were loaded onto our elephant for a short trek. We asked if it was possible to take the three of us on one elephant, rather than the normal pair. Which is how Alan ended up in the enviable position: straddling the elephant’s neck. The trainer just hopped on with us to make the river crossings. Otherwise he walked along behind us constantly singing and talking to the elephant. Ours was clearly an older guy (the elephant) who knew the ropes and was quiet happy to wander along the route, stopping every now and then to grab a particularly tasty looking bit of branch. When we came to the river crossing, the trainer called over to the elephant, saying something we obviously didn’t understand, causing the ele to stop, turn back towards him and bends his head down so that the trainer could climb up onto his head. Then he said something else and the elephant moved off to cross the river. I’d never known that elephants would respond to voice commands.

After the ele trek we walked a small way to visit a hill tribe. Apparently, they were originally from Burma and there are now thousands of tribal members from the same area living in Thailand. I think, they are reliant on tourists to bring any money into the villages and as such they have their sales technique well practiced. The first hut had a little boy of about 2 or 3 who was absolutely gorgeous (he’s in the pictures) and handed out bangles to every person as the came in. Then asked for 10Baht. At that point, it really is impossible to say no. One of the families offered for us to have a look inside their hut. While pretty basic (woven walls and thatched roves, mats on the floor to sleep and an open fire to cook) I was surprised to see electrical sockets on the wall.

Our next activity on the whistle-stop tour was bamboo rafting down the river. Again we asked if the three of us could stay together so we ended up having five passengers on our raft. Too many as it turned out as our feet were permanently submerged and we ran aground many times.

Our last stop was a visit with the Long-Necks and the Big-Ears; two tribes who live together and again, rely purely on tourism to bring in money. The long necks have the metal rings put around their necks every year from the ages of six to twenty two. This stretches their necks and crushes their collarbones to make the neck appear longer until they can spend no less than an hour a day without the rings as their spines are no longer strong enough to support their heads. This visit felt very strange. While you’re aware that you’ve been invited in as a paying customer, there is a certain feeling of ‘human zoo’ about it all. Something that bothered me immensely is that it’s only the women who are expected to undertake this practice. The men we saw in the village seemed to be comfortably living off the business that the women bring in through, what seemed to me, like suffering. None of the girls I tried to speak to seemed at all happy and even as I asked them for a photo, all I got was a slightly vacant stare towards the lens.

Long-neck tribe

Long-neck tribe

The Big Ears seemed generally happier, but their adornment of large rings through stretched holes in their ears is not such a discomfort. They certainly showed Alan a little something. There’s was nothing more than a smirk when we pointed at the holes in his ears.
One of my favourite photos from the whole trip is of the girl from the big ear tribe playing with her baby nephew.

Big ears

Big ears

To finish off our visit to Chiang Mai we celebrated St.Paddy’s night in an Irish pub surrounded by Irish people, with an Irish band playing Scottish songs. And that was it, back on the night train down to Bangkok for the last three days of our trip.
The train journey was so rocky the three of us hardly got any sleep so we arrived very tired and rather crabby at 8am to our hostel finding out we had to wait until 2pm to check in. So we spent an hour of it online to find that Jordi was actually in Bangkok staying in the same street as us. So we got in touch with him and managed to find him. It was lovely to see him again, as last time was a very tired, drunken goodbye on the morning after the full moon party when we weren’t sure if we’d see them again.

So it turned out that he was staying with Raffa – one of the other guys from the full moon party group – and that Raffa hadn’t come home the previous night. In Jordi’s way of speaking, he’d “Got Lost”…
But the problem was that raffa was due to fly back to Switzerland that night and so Jordi had to check them out of their hotel room. Which was a bit tricky when he’d still not shown up at midday. We decided Jordi would come stay with us and Raffa could just pick up his bags when he returned.

We carried on with our plans to go to MBK, one of the biggest shopping centres in the southern hemisphere and were starting to get really worried about what had happened to Raffa until he called at 2pm saying he was fine and just leaving the girls house. What cheek!

Anyway, MBK was horrible. Too many shops selling all the same stuff in an overwhelmingly tacky way. In our sleep deprived state it was just more than we could take. We got a cab home and all three of us fell asleep on the journey. Jordi by this point had gone off for more shopping with another girl he’d met. We calmed ourselves down after MBK with a bit of Khao San road market shopping and then retired for a very early night.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

Our next day was a quiet one, soaking up some Bangkok atmosphere and eating very cheap food, in preparation for the big night ahead. Some of Gem’s friends from uni were out in Thailand and we’d made plans to meet them and have a proper night out. With Jordi and Raffa (and Raffa’s new girl) we were all set. Raffa was still there at this point because he’d extended his flight home for the 5th time!

Before meeting the others Gem, Alan and I decided on a cheap market stall dinner (25Baht or 50p for a giant Pad Thai) eaten at one of the makeshift bars with a 50baht beer. Then on to another bar for some buy one get one free buckets. Only £4 will get you two buckets with a 35cl bottle of Sangsom, red bull and sprite in each one. So needless to say, when Ed, Rob and Co’ and then the full moon boys showed up we were rather happy and encouraged them to get buckets too. Ed decided he wanted to try a grasshopper from the little market stall that had pulled up, so he bought two and Gem tried one. Tastes like Bacon fat she says. Once that started it was a short conversation to Alan saying “If I buy you a scorpion, will you eat it?”. Which Gem agreed to, although regretted afterwards!

Our next bar has to be my favourite bar that we’ve found anywhere in the world. It’s an old Shell Petrol Station which in the evenings has tables and chairs put out and a little bar wheeled in. They sell their cocktails in half tanks and full tanks. They even have a play station set up which the boys spent the rest of the night playing.
And finally we ended up in ‘The Club’. Jordi even managed to pick up two girls while we were walking towards the club!

Some Mexican food, a little pizza and a quick walk home to sleep.

We all woke up with stinking hangovers, but none as bad as Jordi’s. He was still being sick in the toilet of burger king as we waited for the Thai girl from the night before to meet us so that we could go to the market.

Chatuchak market had been recommended to us by Jeff back in Malaysia and I can honestly say it is the biggest market I have ever seen. It is it’s own little village and actually sells everything. Anything you can think of. They’ll have it in at least two colours.

Unfortunately, what with the heat the hangover and a pressing feeling that we needed to pack to go home the following day we didn’t spend long enough there to see much of it. But you could spend days wandering around it and still not see it all.

Our evening was taken up with the practicalities of packing, getting some dinner and enjoying a couple of last night drinks. We had to say goodbye to Jordi and Raffa and then try and get ourselves some sleep.

Gem’s bus left at 6 the next morning so we were up to see her off. Alan and I spent the rest of the morning getting some breakfast and having a final little wander before we had to get our own bus to the airport.

Our flight home was uneventful. Apart from a little geeky excitement about being on a brand new airbus A380 and a crazy woman next to me whose first words were “I’m going to smother that crying baby”.

But we arrived, rather tired and very cold, to be met by my mum.

And so now we’re home, and have been for 3 weeks.

I think it’s one of the toughest parts of travelling, to come home. Nothing much has changed and it takes less than a day to get back into feeling like you’ve never left. The novelty of being able to brush your teeth with tap water, sleep in your own bed and make a cheese and pickle sandwich are short lasting. And of course the nastiness of reality sets in with Jury service and job hunting. But you do get to see the people you love every day, or speak on the phone to those you can’t see. You can stop worrying about how you’re going to make it to the next place and where you’re going to sleep for the night.

For us, we’ve decided that England is not the place we want to be in the near future and so our next plan is to apply for a two-year working holiday visa in New Zealand to see how we like it there.

But this is certainly not it for the travelling, and I hope to have many adventures to write about in the future. And of course, I’d love to hear about any of your adventures.

Thanks for reading.

Sarah (And Alan)

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