Wet, Wild and Wonderful Songkran

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Cave Lodge

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

As we sit here in an air-con internet cafe typing this travelogue, the traffic outside is at a standstill yet teeming with activity. We're near Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai, and this is the last day of the Songkran Festival, Thai New Year. For three straight days, everyone has been out in droves dousing each other with water. While the tamer folks will sprinkle you as you walk by, most enjoy pouring a bucket of water down your back or shooting you with a super soaker. The streets are crammed with pickup trucks delibrately inching their way along as 10-15 people in the back pour buckets of water on those along the street. But don't feel sorry for those walking on the street as the city is surrounded by a moat, and the moat water keeps them armed with buckets of water to throw right back.

Foreigners (farang in Thai) seem especially targeted during Songkran, which means Andy has been getting at least two buckets of water for every one thrown on Jill. But at least they're polite about it. Some recent Songkran greetings: Welcome to Thailand! SPLASH! Happy New Year! SPLASH! Hello, how are you? SPLASH!

The Songkran festivities started as soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai. We attended the opening ceremony at Buon Mot Park, which featured traditional Thai dancing and women dressed in elaborate costumes from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Myanmar. We'd return to Chiang Mai for more Songkran fun, but first we headed six hours northwest to Soppong.

Soppong is a small town between Mae Hong Song and Pai. It sits in the mountains alongside the Lang River, which makes it a peaceful, relaxing getaway from Chiang Mai. There are also far fewer tourists than in Mae Hong Song or Pai, and it has pleasant riverside guesthouses and good eats. We wanted to ride an elephant, which couldn't be arranged in Soppong. A local expat recommended staying at the Cave Lodge, which was about 20 minutes away by motorcycle taxi. We checked into one of Cave Lodge's wooden bungalows, all of which have a view of the mountains, and you can probably hear the river down below in t he rainy season. The Lodge also had a great open-air common area where you could relax in the shade, play ping pong, and talk to other travellers. Many people make their way to Cave Lodge to explore the many caves nearby (hence the name). We were at Cave Lodge to ride an elephant, which couldn't be arranged there either.

The next day, we walked uphill for an hour on a dusty, hot road toward Muong Paem, where we were assured there would be elephants. Luckily, fellow Cave Lodgers Annette and Ian drove by in their jeep and we hitched a ride into town. When we arrived, all the signs were in Thai and nobody seemed to indicate elephants were nearby. Some of the local boys went and fetched Jai, the only man in town who could speak English. This began our day of adventure.

Jai informed us that we'd have to wait an hour to ride an elephant as the elephants were out working (logging trees, building a house, or some other, I'm sure, more worthwhile activity than schlepping around tourists), and they'd have to be brought into town, fed, cleaned and rested. He suggested we explore a nearby cave while we wait. Not seeing an air-conditioned Starbucks nearby, we concurred. The four of us followed Jai on an hour trek into the mountains past dried-out rice paddies, fish farms, and fallen trees. We finally made it to the cave entrance, which was a half-size wooden door. It would take all of Jill's courage to go through this door because it and its surrounding walls and floor were covered with hundreds of long-legged spiders. It was a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie or Arachnaphobia.

Once inside, we had to walk on our haunches for about 10 steps before the cave was large enough for us to stand. Having survived the spiders and the narrow tunnel, we next encountered finger-sized centipedes crawling on the cave floor. After all of this, we were quite calm 45-minutes into the cave when Jai's torch burned out and we had to rely on our Hanoi-purchased flashlight to get us out. The cave itself was worth the journey. You'll have to see it for yourself.

When we returned to the village, our elephants were ready. We climbed a platform and stepped on the elephant's head to get into our wooden seats secured on its back. Sensing that we were first-timers, our elephant greeted us with a few thunderous sneezes, spraying us with elephant snot. The best part of riding an elephant is the view. Looking across the landscape above the bushes and trees gives you a new perspective as if you're seeing the area for the first time. Unfortunately, we didn't get any great pictures of us on the elephant but we were able to snap a few good ones of Ian and Annettte on the elephant behind us (here's the free exposure for the 100 baht we still owe you, Annette!). As our elephant ambled through a scenic mountain stream, we rocked with each step. After an hour, we disembarked and followed t wo young men to the Lang River. They would take us by bamboo raft back to Cave Lodge.

The bamboo raft was six bamboo poles tied together. One man stood in the front and one stood in the back. We stood in the middle and tried to keep our balance with the help of a pole sticking up. They used long, thin bamboo poles to steer and push us along. The river was so low that we scraped the river bottom at times and one of the guys had to get out and push us through. We passed women fishing with nets, children swimming, and boys facedown in the water looking for tiny fish to catch. Although we returned to the Cave Lodge sweaty and tired, it was the perfect ending to our day of adventures in northernThailand.

We returned to Chiang Mai on April 9 rested and ready to eat. Before leaving, we had enrolled in an intensive five-day course at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, one of many cooking schools in the tourist hub. The classes were held at the owner's house in an affluent suburb of Chiang Mai. We watched and learned from a master chef and then tried our own hand. The six dishes we made each day were simply delicious (even Andy's) with unique blends of sweet, sour, salty and, of course, spicy! We made soups and salads, stir-fried vegetables, and prepared tasty desserts wth fresh fruits and coconut milk. We also learned how to make curry paste, a few tricks in vegetable carving, and how to identify many Thai ingredients. We'll try a few dishes at home like the Clear Soup with Minced Pork, Spicy Glass Noodle Salad, and Fried Fish with Chili and Basil. Others like Steamed Fish in Banana Leaf and Chiang Mai Curry with Chicken, we'll leave to the experts and order at restaurants. But we certainly leave with a greater appreciation for Thai cooking!

Tomorrow we leave for the beaches in southern Thailand. It's scorching hot all over Southeast Asia and we've just about had it with crowded cities. Believe it or not, traveling for extended periods of time is tiring and every now and then we need a vacation from the vacation. For example, when we first got to Chiang Mai we spent a day at an upscale shopping mall and treated ourselves to lunch at Pizza Hut and a movie. We almost forgot wewere overseas until the lights came on after the movie and we followed all the Thai people out of the theater!

Anyway, we've gotten entirely too dry sitting in the internet cafe for the past three hours. Time to get back outside and dump a bucket of cold water on a complete stranger, smile and say "Happy New Year!"
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