The Cook, The Trek, His Ladyboy and Her Scooter
Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
74Trip End Oct 22, 2004
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9.20am and another sweaty palmed take-off as 200 passengers will the aircraft off the ground. Why we're flying 35,000 miles around the world, I'll never know.
50 minutes later and we'd touched down in Chiang Mai, and, after a quick phone call to our next port of call, The Eagle House's own van arrived and took us the short distance to Chiang Mai's Old Town.
First impressions of Eagle House were good. Run by an Anglo-Thai partnership of Pon and Annette, it was centrally located and surrounded with shops, restaurants and bars. The reception was in a courtyard where table and chairs were dotted around, and overlooking this were the rooms. Our room, again, was pretty horrible, with a mattress about one inch thick, a leaking wash basin and a window that wouldn't shut properly, but what do you expect for only £4 per night?
After dumping our rucsacs, off we went to explore the Old Town, which measured about two square miles and was surrounded by a square moat and a busy square ring road (this was one square town)
The locals were visibly darker-skinned and more Tibetan looking than their compatriots down south as we were very near the Laos and Myanmar borders. Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai had it's fair share of Western/Thai relationships and mine and Soph's early warning alert system was working down to a tee.
'Hallo Hallo' for male and female liaisons; and
'Oi Oi' for male on male shenanigans.
This was usually followed with Navy-like directional commands, for example:
'Oi Oi at eleven o'clock'. Honestly, the fun you can have with it is immeasurable.
Soph then came across an open-air massage tent and plumped for an hour long foot massage for the princely sum of £1.30. Afterwards we explored a little more until we'd got our bearings.
At mealtimes, to order food, you'd tell reception what you'd like and then write it in your own room book, where they'd add it all up when you checked out. This was all very quaint and trusting, so at one dinner I ordered the Lobster Thermidor with a timbale of Beluga caviar and truffles all washed down with a bottle of Cristale champagne and a soupcon of Courvoisier and in our room book I wrote 'Two of toast and a cup of tea'
At lunch we pondered over what trek we'd do and settled for a 3 day/2 nighter in the Doi Inthanon National Park which would leave the following morning, and that evening at 6.30pm we were summoned to the briefing.
We were greeted by our guide 'Rin', a trainee monk turned local rock star turned tourist guide, I kid you not, and in turn we'd introduce ourselves like a trekkers-anonymous meeting. First off was a German lady with an unpronounceable name, whose husband 'Conrad' couldn't make the briefing, then it was our turn and finally a couple more German women with equally unpronounceable names. It was a 4-2 victory for Germany, sweet revenge for '66.
Ran briefed us on what we should take and what to expect. Sleeping bags were then issued to everyone except 'wife-of-Conrad' who had their own.
We then headed out to dinner at 'The Wok', recommended by all the guides. We ordered 'the usual', tongue-blistering red curry for yours truly and a less intense green curry for the brunette. The food was cheap and delicious and was only disrupted by a subtle nerve-gas which swept through the open-air restaurant leaving everyone coughing their gizzards up.
The restaurant also ran a renowned cookery school and we booked a one-day course for the following Wednesday when we'd returned from the trek.
After dinner we headed out of the Old Town to the Night Bazaar, a 7pm till midnight market of everything under the sun. The walkway between the stalls measured about 2 feet wide and after battling a few hundred meters we did a U-turn and headed home in the back of a tut-tut.
9am, and it was the first day of the trek and after some vigorous Germanic hand-shaking, we piled into the back of the pick-up truck. Already in the back was a late arrival who had arrived in Chiang Mai last night after a 12 hour train trip from Bangkok (proper backpacker, unlike us). His name was 'Dereck', he sounded American but it would be too dangerous to guess, and it turned out to be a good decision as he was Canadian, phew. Another English speaker, just what we needed to even things out a bit. But with all due respect (although not too much mind you), our friendly Sauerkrauts weren't sour at all and made every effort to speak English.
En route we stopped off at a market where Ran did all the food shopping for the next three days and the rest of us were allowed to wander off and buy woolies for ourselves and toys for any hill tribe children we'd meet
After a two hour drive we stopped at some old caves (we just can't get enough old caves on our travels) and with hired powerful torches we shuffled through pitch-black bat-infested caverns and carved 'G 4 S' on 15 trillion year old walls. Back in the fresh air and lunch was served. Pad Thai, which are egg-fried noodles, wrapped in a banana leaf and tied together with a plant stem. This was delicious simple food in stylish, practical packaging and I'll be selling the idea to Pret-A-Manger on my return.
Another hours drive and it was drop-off time, where we'd say good-bye to our driver and don our backpacks. A nice one and a half hour trek would ease us into the swing of things.
Conrad und frau were kitted up in all the latest gear, they were obviously trek-vets, complete with their own sleeping-bags and walking-poles. The two younger frauleins were less geared-up and Dereck, who was built like a lumberjack could have worn anything, nothing was going to get in his way.
Our food would be carried by a local villager who strapped the 300-kilo of provisions to his head which explained why he was vertically challenged
After 90 minutes of not too strenuous plodding we arrived at our first hill tribe, the not very exotically named 'Karen' tribe. We were due a spot of elephant riding, but apparently the elephants had bolted earlier in the day so some locals were sent out to round them up. This left us with an hour to spare so we ourselves were rounded up and given a tour of the village.
Their village consisted of expertly constructed wooden chalets that wouldn't have looked out of place on the slopes of Klosters, a little shop selling sweets and crisps and the school at the top of the hill was a well maintained comprehensive complete with football pitch and volleyball court which was head and shoulders better than my old secondary. Dogs and chickens strolled around as if they owned the joint and pigs strained at leashes beneath the stilted houses. Locals wandered around busying themselves doing nothing and children posed expertly for our photo opportunities.
I couldn't help thinking the village was some kind of facade knocked up for the benefits of trekkers with hired amateur Thai actors jetted in from Bangkok to play the roles of the locals, but try as I could, the make-up room was nowhere to be found.
Finally the elephants, who were luckily useless at hide-and-seek were led into town. Onto the first elephant leapt me and Soph, sorry, onto the first elephant stumbled me and Soph.
Off we all pounded in our three elephant convoy with Rin and three locals who spoke fluent Elephantese, and after an hours elephanting it was time to fall off and don our flip-flops for another half hour walk which would include traversing about six streams. All the Deutsche-Trekkers frog-marched in their state-of-the-art sports sandals, Dereck skipped along in his chunky flip-flops (then again he would have found it a breeze in five-inch stilettos and a feather boa) and us two Gross-Bretagnes tripped along in 99p flip-flops, with mine giving up the ghost and disintegrating with a hundred yards to go.
Halfway across one of the streams, the sleeping-bag of one of the German girls managed to unravel itself from it's securing knot and sploshed into the water at which point her fellow frau let out a cry of 'SCHEISSE' which echoed through the valley disturbing a thousand birds of paradise into a frenzied flurry. A classic Germanic moment.
We had finally reached our second village of the day perched high up a hill, our resting place for the night
Soon we were mobbed by village children selling bracelets and necklaces made from bits of string and shells. Soph succumbed to a necklace and I opted for a pretty little bracelet adorned with tiny white shells. My transformation into 'Globe-trotting Backpacker Man' had reached stage one with my newly acquired girly wrist thingy. Stage two will require me to grow strange facial hair and stage three is the tester, a tattoo of some obscure symbol. I'll keep you posted.
After a scrummy meal of green curry, tofu chop suey, veggie soup and rice it was down to the camp-fire for ghost stories, as you do. There were no showers here and the toilet was a hole in the ground so, an hour later, chilled to the bone with scary yarns but counter-balanced with third-degree burns to our feet we retired to bed.
With one side of the dorm open to the elements and gaps in the wooden floor we were braced for a chilly night, chilly night being the understatement of the year as we shivered in our flimsy sleeping bags all night on the hardwood floor that was our mattress.
We awoke at about 7am to the sound of, not a cockerell, but of a hard-as-nails German girl exclaiming how warm she was last night, the flash kraut.
After breakfast it was time to give out some toys we had brought to the local kiddies, which they proceeded to dismantle and break before we set off again.
Today would sort out the men (Germans) from the boys (Brits) with a tough three hour trek through the undulating Thai jungle. We set off at 9.30am at a stiff pace we were never going to sustain, but sustain it we did with some real Anglo-German-Canadian teamwork and with just a couple of water stops in soaring temperatures we reached our lunch shack at 12.30pm.
My body was crying out for large donner kebab and chips but lunch consisted of vegetable rice and fruit, certain death was on the cards, especially when I slipped my foot into my shoe again only to find a wasp in there savouring my rancid fumes. It's last dying act as he was crushed by my heel was to inject me with the last drops of his venom. He died a happy little insect.
The last leg of the day and one and a half hours of jungle trail led us down to a stream where a creaky wooden bridge took us to our next identikit wooden dorm. This dorm was equipped with large square mossy-nets and so partitioned the area into small semi-private rooms.
Arriving at 3pm, Rin informed us that our early arrival meant we had set a new course record. High-fives were the order of the day but quickly banished as there was only one Canadian in the group, and the rest of us Europeans would have just high-fived clean air.
With the group looking like coal-miners, the stream looked too inviting to resist and everyone headed down for a scrub-down in the icy water.
After a few beers it was dinner of sweet & sour vegetables and rice where we all sat looking very pleased with ourselves.
The camp-fire was now being stoked and coaxed into action, and word on the undergrowth was that Rin's guitar had made it's way to base camp. A traditional night of ging-gang-goolying around the camp-fire was on the cards.
As night drew in the guitar was let loose and Rin broke into chorus. He was a competent guitarist but it soon became clear he wasn't the lead singer in his four-man beat-combo. A barely recognisable version of a Clapton weepie strained from his larynx, it would be no match for my dulcet Sinatra-esque tones. But my warblings would have to be kept under wraps as he didn't know any of Frankie-boy's work. Shame.
My chance then came as he passed his guitar over to me. I knelt it on my knee and positioned my hands on the strings in a Mark King Level 42 styley. Dragging my bitten fingernails over the strings, I asked my fellow campers:
'Name that tune.'
In the distance a lead balloon crashed to the ground as my attempted quip went sailing over their heads.
After a few polite giggles I launched into some Mantovani classical guitar, entertaining the crowd with my dancing fingers as I flicked at the strings with some ruthless plucking. As I finished my piece the crowd sat in stunned silence, they had obviously enjoyed it.
The night ended with a chat about the state of the German economy which well and truly signalled beddy-byes.
The last day of the trek began on water as we boarded two 20 foot long bamboo rafts (not another rafting story I hear you all say), our rucsacs being kept elevated and dry by an improvised bamboo tripod.
The leading raft contained a local steerer and paddler at the front, followed by Conrad who had the rucsac steadying duties, behind Conrad was his wifey, then came Soph and finally bringing up the rear complete with ten foot pole was me, God help 'em.
Raft two had another local expert as the front paddler, with the German girls coming in at zwei and drei, then came Dereck with polesman Rin behind him.
So off we all pootled at a very steady pace admiring the scenery, while being lulled into the usual false sense of security. For a couple of old pros like ourselves this was a gentle punt in a gentle river in gentle Cambridge.
The first mini-rapid approached and was tackled with aplomb, everyone still on two feet. A few more came and went, photos were taken and pleasantries exchanged. The water consistently a foot deep all the way and at times when we were grounded on submerged rocks, the front polesman and I would have to get our feet wet to shift the raft with sheer brute force (don't laugh).
After a few close scrapes with some hidden rocks our sense of security vanished as we rammed head on into a camouflaged boulder, at which point we all jolted forward six foot onto our hands and knees. When I say we all shot forward I mean all of us except Conrad who was holding onto the rucsacs and our driver who saw it coming and got into a crash position, the English for 'Blooming Nora, bloody great rock approaching' escaping his vocabulary at the last moment.
Me and Soph emerged unscathed but Conrad's wife had a couple of nice bruises on her kneecaps. We waited for Conrad to offer his position of safety to her but he wasn't giving it up for anything, the ungentlemanly sweinhund.
All this didn't go unnoticed by the following raft as their plan to send us down first as guinea pigs worked a treat. I turned around for a good giggle as they came to Breaknee Creek but everyone had learnt quick and had positioned themselves on all fours keeping their centre of gravity low, again I say everyone, but once again there was an exception to the rule, a certain beef-cake named Dereck who was obviously Toronto log-rolling champion again this year as he stood at ease with hands in pockets admiring the jungle foliage. When everyone around him was diving around like Italian footballers, he came over all Stuart Pearcey and didn't budge an inch. He was fast becoming my hero.
We hoped our little head-on was a blip and resumed our statuesque poses as obviously lightening doesn't strike twice, but strike it did with increased hydro-electricity.
A good eight feet dive this time, well worth a nine point eight from any judge. I jumped to my feet as any bloke would with a 'didn't hurt' look across my whimpering face and blood trickling down from my knee, Soph dragged herself to her feet and revealed a couple of knobbly-knees with the makings of bruises erupting on them, but Conrad's poor old BMW (Bruised Married Woman) looked like a post-Tyson fight survivor, with a grazed cheek, bruised hand and bloodied knees, but with full quota of ears.
We all waited for Herr Conrad to finally swap positions with his long-suffering lady wife, but no change.
This was turning out to be a real white-knuckle/red-knee ride and we thought back to our previous rafting experience in Sri Lanka, where we were kitted out in crash helmets and life-jackets and how we could have done with them here. But finally our one and a half hours of bone-breaking fun was over as we hit dry land and the injured were administered yellow antiseptic to their wounds. The local oarsmen were then given their tips. I gave them a tip alright: 'Keep away from blimming rocks next time'. That should do it.
Our last half hours trekking led to our waiting van which took us to a plain local cafÈ for a lunch of plain noodles that was just plain unsatisfying.
It was now time to set off back to Chiang Mai, via the highest point in Thailand, where a couple of immaculate temples sat. The highlight of the stop-off being the silver tiles on one of the temple walls being the exact same ones used in our old bathroom (available from Italian Bisazza mosaics at Worlds End Tiles, Battersea, at a small fortune a square foot), in front of which Soph duly obliged with 18 different poses for the camera.
We were now well and truly ready for home and a nice seven hour foot massage but they hadn't done with us yet, a waterfall awaited.
We came, we saw, we left.
One hours drive and we were back to civilisation, and as we drove into the gravelled driveway a welcoming party cheered, tickertape cascaded from every balcony and the mayor of Chiang Mai stood on a red velvet podium with medals in hand.
Then the delirium that was my hunger shook me from my daydreaming as we trudged into an empty courtyard, said our goodbyes to our fellow survivors and went up to our £4 a night hovel.
Down to the local massage parlour we sloped, a couple of hunchbacks from Notre-Dame, and into the establishment we crawled, unveiling our gangrenous pied-a-terres to the disgust of the head masseuse who looked at them like an art teacher who's best student had just sketched some gentalia.
Oh, how we could have done with Fergie's old squeeze (not that Fergie), John Bryan that is, to give us a good old-fashioned toe-sucking, although in retrospect I would have settled for Sir Alex and his hair-drying gob.
After reviving our plates of meat we headed off to a swanky eatery on the edge of town called 'Home'. Nice food, nice ambience and nice all-girl pop group going through their paces at the end of the bar, niiiiiiice.
We had good intentions this morning of backpacking the one mile across town to our next destination, The Red Hibiscus Guesthouse, after all, we could tackle anything now, but on checking out, a free transfer was offered and gratefully accepted.
The Red Hibiscus Guesthouse was every bit as nice as the name suggested and our room was clean and our bed was soft, everything the Eagle House wasn't, and worth every penny at £10 a night.
The rest of the day was spent chilling and reading as we were still getting over trek-lag, with the added thought of slaving over a hot stove awaiting us the next day.
A 20 minute walk through the Old Town took us to our 10am appointment with some cooking utensils at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School run for ten years by another Anglo-Thai partnership of Sompon and Elizabeth Nabnian. We wouldn't be needing a packed lunch at this school though, as on the menu today would be six dishes: Panaeng Curry with Pork; Chiang Mai Curry with Chicken; Fried Fish with Chilli and Basil; Sweet and Sour Vegetables; Spicy Glass Noodle Salad and finally Black Sticky Rice Pudding and we'd have to eat every dish as it was cooked. Pukka.
Before any food could be burnt or digits sliced off, a large group of about 30 people of all nationalities, genders and ages were sat around a table to be shown how to prepare and make a Red Curry Paste. Each ingredient had to be chopped and sliced in their own particular way, and after half an hours preparation the mixture was put into a pestle and mortared into a paste (or is that put into a mortar and pestled into a paste?).
After the demonstration we were shown to our individual cooking stations while staff flitted around with bowls of ingredients for the students. Our first task was to make the curry paste ourselves but between the demo and my chopping board my mind went blank (no jokes) and for the next hour I had one eye on Soph's technique and one on my own, and when it came to the 15 minute grinding session (again, no jokes), my own mixture had the added tasty bonus of half a litre of freshly dripped forehead sweat that gave it its own salty tang.
Over the next five hours, our teacher 'Miaou', would first demonstrate how things should be done, making it look far too easy, then it'd be our turns to bodge each of the five main dishes with varying degrees of success and once cooked, retire to the tables to force feed ourselves.
We left school at 4pm very full and very proud of ourselves that we actually completed a cookery course, but no-ones mums were there to pick us up so cranes were laid on to lift the bloated students into waiting tuk-tuks.
Not a spring roll passed our lips for the rest of the day.
Today we'd hire our first moped, and expecting a basic scooter with throttle and brakes I was surprised to see it had four gears and a foot brake which was all new to me. But after a few laps of the block everything clicked into place and we were ready to hit the mean streets of Chiang Mai and beyond, looking as cool as you could possibly look on a 150cc motorbike with shopping basket on the front.
Our day on the road took in the sights of Mae Rim, 20km north, then back via the Mae Ping river to Wat Prasingh, the main temple of Chiang Mai and a dinner on the outskirts of town at the guide book recommended Whole Earth, where I proceeded to get a chicken bone stuck in my wind-pipe, whereupon my life then flashed before my eyes in ten seconds flat (it's been that interesting). A tracheotomy beckoned as the bone subsequently stayed wedged for the next two weeks before finally dislodging itself. (Note to myself: Teach Soph The Heimlich Manouevre).
Tomorrow we'd be heading into the unknown, leaving for Vietnam, a country I hadn't visited since '68 on my tour of duty. I'd waited 35 long hard years for this and there were still scores to be settled and ghosts to be buried. My sanity had been left in shreds on the paddy fields of 'Nam waiting for the fateful day I could come back and face my demons again.
On that chilling note . . . so long.
Gary the Galloping Gourmet and Sophie Craddock