Keith and I flew from Siem Riep, Cambodia, back into Thailand with a mission. Our plane landed at 6pm, November 21st, Saturday night in Bangkok, and our mission was to sprint off the plane, breeze through customs, grab our baggage, catch a taxi and then cross the entire city of Bangkok in rush hour traffic with enough time to purchase tickets and catch the 7:30 pm overnight train to the northern city of Chiang Mai. Thankfully, our plane landed on time, and we flew through customs no problem....but that's when the "hurry up and wait" principle was put into full effect as we had to wait an additional finger-drumming and toe-tapping 20 minutes for our bags. Our backpacks finally appeared and we threw them on our backs, sprinted outside, and caught a meter taxi across town. We informed our driver of our mission to catch the 7:30 train, and he accepted the mission with an incredulous shake of his head, and we were off. Lucky for us, our randomly selected driver served us well, and in my opinion he would have fared well as a New York City taxi driver. Plus the planets had aligned that night so that the weekend rush hour traffic was minimal and we arrived at the train station with just minutes to spare- enough time to purchase one of the last tickets available and even grab a convenience store dinner before we hopped on our train.
The fourteen hour overnight train to Chiang Mai cost a bargain 771 Baht...approximately $23 American each. Since we purchased our tickets literally at the last minute, Keith and I were assigned the last available seats- which also meant the less-desirable smaller top bunks at bedtime. Around 9pm, the train service staff broke down our seats and transformed them into bunks, turned down our beds with fresh sheets and dimmed the lights. All that was missing was our sleepy-time lullaby. We discovered that the train was HEAVILY air conditioned, which was a drastic contrast to the thick humid Southeast Asian air we had grown accustomed to. (Even Keith thought it was too cold!) So we shivered alone in each of our top bunks, peering out from behind the bunk's curtains at each other from across the aisle. The next morning after they disassembled our beds, for a couple of extra dollars we were served breakfast. After all of those amazing breakfasts we had in southern Thailand, Keith and I ordered our train breakfast with high expectations... but we were quickly disappointed and underwhelmed with the texture and flavor of our rubber eggs and cardboard toast.
We disembarked from the train and quickly found other backpackers to share a tuk tuk (taxi) ride. Our new friends were from Scotland on extended travel. After a couple of stops comparing hostel possibilities, we all decided on the RCN, just because the hostels were all beginning to blend together as far as price and quality. So for 450 baht (about $13 total) we were spoiled with hot water, t.v. (although we actually prefer no t.v.), refrigerator, A/C, a private very clean room, and unlimited internet in both our room and the lobby. We dropped off our bags and set out to explore the city. The layout of Chiang Mai is interesting as it is considered the capital of Northern Thailand and the older part of the city is a square surrounded by a moat. There are a plethora of incredibly beautiful Buddhist temples throughout Chiang Mai, and even just wandering around we couldn't help but stumble across Wat after Wat to explore.
So I must admit, one of the many things that has been calling me to visit to Thailand is my LOVE affair with Thai food. So one thing I *really* wanted to do while in Chiang Mai was to enroll in one of their famous cooking classes. Chiang Mai is known as THE city in Thailand if you are looking for an overwhelming amount of cooking school options. After comparing several schools' syllabus (menus), my taste buds decided on the Siam Rice Cooking School. Normally it is 800-900 baht, but Keith and I bargained with a local travel agent who we booked a couple of our other adventures with (Keith's mountain biking and our two day mountain/forest hike), so it was a bargain at 600 baht/$18 American.
Almost EVERYTHING is negotiable in Thailand...you almost never actually pay the price you are first quoted! My cooking class included transport to and from the school, a morning trip to the local food market to learn about shopping for Thai ingredients, a full day of class, food supplies, a digital cookbook of recipes of all the dishes you learned to cook and many more recipes, plus you get to eat everything you cook and take home what you can't finish. I didn't realize that I should have starved myself for at least 48 hours prior to class, because by the end of the day, my belly was stuffed WAY beyond my comfort, plus I had enough leftovers for Keith and I to have a hearty dinner each. I got to learn all my favorite Thai dishes: glass noodle salad, basil tofu, papaya salad, learned to make curry from scratch with a mortar and pestle, curry tofu, spicy cashew tofu, soup (a combination of my favorite coconut soup and hot and sour soup), and my FAVORITE dessert mango sticky rice!
I happily discovered that cooking these dishes is actually easy and quick. I spent more time prepping the food than actually cooking it! (And cleaning my dish was even faster LOL!) The only difficulty I had was with making the curry paste from scratch. I found that part to be painfully arduous...after ten minutes of struggling with trying to pulverize several red chilies into paste with a mortar and pestle, my arms were tuckered out. Thankfully my teacher was able to help as "she" had strong man arms and was able to quickly finish pulverizing everything. (NOTE TO SELF: when we get home, blow the dust off that blender!)
The same day I had my cooking class, Keith decided to do some downhill mountain biking...you know, the kind of biking where you must wear body armor since it is basically guaranteed that someone is going over their handle bars. Since I was not direct witness to Keith's biking adventure, I'm going to have him write up this part:
Hi guys, Keith here for the biking interlude.... I signed up with a local company (which was actually owned by an American) that runs tours in the mountains north of Chaing Mai. It was like pulling teeth to find out what the difference was between "Advanced" versus "Extreme" trails, but as it turned out there was only 1 group above intermediate going out that day so we agreed to ride together and pick the trails based on our relative skill levels. I was a little apprehensive at first because our team consisted of: the highly-experienced owner accompanied by 2 other guides, 2 extreme riders from Colorado that ran their own bike shop, and 1 young kid new to riding that turned out to be a rockstar. After a long windy climb loaded with switchbacks in the back of a truck ("traditional Thai style taxi"), waiting for a couple of people to hurl their breakfast, suiting up with full body armor, and a brief safety talk, we headed out for a 2 1/2 hour super fun downhill adventure. The trails were a mixture of rock beds, tree roots, and dirt. The pitch was intense, in some areas about as intense as I'd ever ridden, and in one place I had to push myself beyond anything I'd ridden to date. Although I made it through that section unscathed I was not so lucky on the bottom half.... I could feel myself getting tired and a little numb so needless to say things got a little squirrely and of course I started to make mistakes. I lost the bike 3 or 4 times by the end of the run but thanks to the body armor, helmet, and the leap-frog-over-the-handle-bar move I mastered in California, I was not hurt.
The ride ended in town with lunch and then the scam started.... the ride is advertised as almost full day returning by 4 PMish, but it was now only 1 PM and we were done with the ride. That's when the "deal" was offered.... a second run for 1/2 the price. It may sound like a deal to some, especially now that we're all buddy buddy with the owner and stoked about the killer ride we just finished, but from my perspective we were cut short. Anyway I wanted to ride again so I worked him down to 1/4 the price and we hit another trail. This trail was more super fast rolly polly grass covered roots and small rocks, the tough part was you couldn't see the ground itself because the grass was over the tracks, so anything we hit was mostly surprises. Luckly we had super heavy, long travel downhill bikes so we were able to cruise over it ok. Not the best terrain when you're tired...but good times none the less!!!!
(Hi again, Beth here...) While looking for volunteer opportunities in Chiang Mai, we connected with person through the Couchsurfing community who was an American ex-Buddhist Monk. He told us he had left the monastery to pursue other ambitions, and now has a Thai wife and children and teaches at the local university. We had contacted him through the online Couchsurfing network simply to inquire if he had any leads on where we could help out locally, and to our surprise he invited us to help him teach English to some of his Thai students. So
Keith and I rented bicycles for about $2 a day, donned our helmets, said our prayers, and took to the perilous Thai roads, on our mission to volunteer- hopefully in one piece. One hour later, scratch-free but with fully smogged lungs, we reached our destination...Chiang Mai University. We met up with our new teacher friend and his assistant teacher, and went to the classroom where several students showed up for class. Keith and I attempted to engage these students in basic conversation, but we quickly realized that they could point out a "past participle" with their eyes closed, but couldn't answer a simple question like "where are you from?" It was obvious what they really needed was to engage with more living-breathing-English-speaking people and less textbooks. As the class progressed, the students got their lesson on the basics of "where have you been?" and "what did you see?", and Keith and I got our lesson on "what not to say" and "what not to do". Everyone in class was going around taking turns asking basic travel questions and since we were fresh off the plane from our profound experience in Phomn Pehn, Cambodia, we of course honestly answered "where we had been" and "what we saw" by referencing the S-21 extermination camp prison, and The Killing Fields (from the violent Cambodian government coup in the 1970's). When the word genocide passed our lips, we could see the teacher's eyes getting bigger and bigger, and he quickly changed the topic. We later inquired with a profoundly provocative "HUH???" and learned that in Thailand it was inappropriate to talk about the king, political opinions, and certainly not the "nefarious" Cambodian neighbors. But paradoxically enough, we observed that although it was inappropriate to discuss your opinions on Thai government or the harsh reality of your unpopular neighbor's genocide history as an effective English teaching tool, it was obviously "A-OK" to mention adult topics, such as the female breasts, which were referenced more times than your latest issue of Playboy. The teachers later informed us that it was "normal" in Thailand to do that to "see if the kids are paying attention." (I don't think that technique would go far in the American classrooms these days). But "female anatomy lessons" aside, Keith and I felt that talking with the students one-on-one was truly the most rewarding part of this experience, getting to hear what they could communicate in English of their life story...one student only 17 was already active in the army, another student came from a musical family who practiced together almost everyday.
After English class, our ex-Monk-turned-teacher friend helped us find the tuk tuk stop in front of the University to take us to Wat Phra Doi Suthep hill-top temple. Nine passengers from all around the world poured into the back of the flatbed tuk tuk. After our driver sped up the hair-pinned mountain-side curves as we were white-knuckling the handrail in the back of the tuk tuk, we were dropped us off (slightly nauseous) and we embarked upon our climb up many steps to reach the top.
But with great effort there is great reward, and the hilltop temple and its' view over the city was just awesome. This particular Wat had many interesting buildings to explore, but my favorite part was the mosaic tiled serpent handrail as you climbed the stairway to buddha heaven.
On American Thanksgiving, Keith and I participated in a two day/one night hike with a group of backpackers into the mountains and forests north of Chiang Mai. Our two days were packed with serious mountain hiking, intense white water rafting, an elephant ride, peaceful butterfly farm, tranquil bamboo rafting, sleeping in a tribal village, and -my favorite part- getting to meet the Long-Neck Hill Tribe people of Northern Thailand.
I think that most North Americans have seen a National Geographic picture of these women with elongated necks stretched by golden coiled necklaces. Being a chiropractor, I was both fascinated and perplexed by this cultural tradition. When we went into their village, we could see little girls and older women alike wearing these spring-like necklaces, measured in number of coils according to their age.
A little girl we met was maybe 9 or 10 years old and already had 24 coils. I asked every woman I met "does it hurt?" and "neck pain?" and they all smiled and said "no". I had a hunch that they have been asked these questions before. At this point, I would have LOVED to pull out my doctor's bag, do an exam and take an x-ray to see what's going on in the inside, but all my professional equipment was on the other side of the world at the moment! We learned that they can only remove their neck coils for a couple of minutes every week so that they can clean underneath it. They must even wear their stiff necklaces to bed, with their heads propped up on blocks to stabilize their head and necks while they sleep.
I observed that these women had difficulty with all ranges of motion in their necks since the top coil came up under their jaws and base of their skulls; they had to modify how they moved their entire bodies in order to compensate for their necks' limited movement. I would have stayed there much longer, but as it goes with an organized tour, the time was quickly upon us to move on with the group. Later that day, after a great hike through the mountain wilderness, our trusty guide brought us to the village area where we would be spending our American Thanksgiving.
The only other Americans in our group was a couple from Atlanta, Georgia that took me down memory lane talking about all my old favorite eateries when I used to live in the ATL.
We shared stories about each of our own families' Thanksgiving traditions as we dug in to the Thai meal placed before us consisting of rice, with tofu and mixed vegetables...all of which was delicious.
After dinner, some of our group was recruited by our guide to participate in a little friendly Thai drinking card game that involved flipping a card and assigning sips of beer to an unlucky (or lucky) player. Well, after a couple of games, our tour guide was holding his own ...until he "lost" in dramatic fashion.
As he got up to get another beer for himself, everyone secretly slipped their cards Keith's way, who then flipped the game's final card to reveal 30 sips...which of course all got assigned to our trusty guide. The hooting and hollering and laughing at that point was enough to scare away any lurking predators within a 10 mile radius. To our guide's credit, he was still the first one up the next morning to rally up the troops to get us back onto those hiking trails.
The next day we hit the dusty trail fairly early and we were greeted with more challenging terrain as we hiked through more banana trees, bamboo forest, and thick brush that our guide would chop away with his machete. We finally arrived upon our next "ride"...the pachyderm express. Our elephant had a penchant for going right up to the edge of the river giving us the impression that he was going to jump in with us on his back. His skin on the back of his neck felt tough and leathery, but his ears were velvety to the touch. At the end of our ride, we even got to meet the new addition to the family, baby Dumbo. After our tranquil elephant ride, we hopped on bamboo rafts, taking in the passing scenery as we slowly floated down the river. Bamboo rafts make decent flotation devices, but are definitely not waterproof as we were up to our ankles in water. But we had no complaints since the cool water felt great after our long hike in the Thai heat and humidity. Finally, we ended our great adventure at the white water river with class 3 rapids where we we shuttled up to the top with our rafts behind us. We were given our helmet, lifejackets, paddles, safety instructions in English, and we were off. Our particular river guide was a crack-up, we were convinced that he must have learned how to speak English from a surfer dude.
At the end of our two day mountain adventure, our group's ride back to Chiang Mai dropped Keith and I off just in time for us to catch our transportation to our overnight bus back down to Bangkok. (In Thailand, often times your bus ticket will also include a transport to bring you to the bus terminal). We had heard some negative stories about the overnight buses, but the overnight trains back to Bangkok had all sold out early for that weekend, so we had no choice but to brave the bus. It was here that we met Natalie and Stephen, two awesome adventurers from England close to the end of their year of traveling the world. The bus turned out to be just fine, and we arrived in Bangkok before sunrise. The four of us split a tuk tuk ride to a street lined with hostels just within striking distance to the famous Bangkok backpackers' haven Khao San Road. We settled into the Happy House Hostel, happy with our very clean private room, t.v. (arg!), A/C, and hot water for the big city price of 520 baht per night ($16 American). In between our hostel and Khao San road, are street vendors packed with patrons being served delicious authentic Thai meals for about $1. The American/Canadian dollar will support you for a long time in Northern Thailand.
The next day Keith and I set out on an adventure. We knew we wanted to see the Grand Palace, so we paid special attention to our attire. We were warned by our new English friends Natalie and Stephen and friends of theirs that there is a strict dress code to follow so show up prepared- otherwise you have the option to rent appropriate clothing at the front gate, or be denied entrance. Just the day before they had been turned away and told to go rent clothing if they wanted to enter. Men and women are required to wear pants/skirts of a respectable length, shoulders and arms must be covered, and closed toe shoes or dress shoes only. Once you make it past the fashion police, if you have the time you can spend at least half a day roaming the opulent grounds, and trying to capture it all on your camera. One highlight was the Emerald Buddha located within a gilded shiny bedazzled royal temple called Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is actually made of jasper and is stunning to see up close, or as close as you can get as a commoner. Since this is the most revered Buddhist shrine in all of Thailand, no one is
allowed near the Emerald Buddha except for the king of Thailand, who conducts
rituals at the temple throughout the year. Unfortunately you can't take any photos from within the Wat itself, but you can take advantage of the zoom on your camera and take a picture of the statue through the open door from outside.
Later that day we saw the famous Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok. This Buddha is larger than life...I was maybe the size of Buddha's big toe. This huge golden Buddha is laying on his side with his head propped up in his hand, and then it looks as if the architect threw in a building around him as an afterthought...the ceiling is built juuuuust high enough to fit Buddha's head.
Another day we set out with our new English friends to roam the Chatuchak Weekend Market. At first we tried to take a tuk tuk but seeing that we were travelers, they were trying to overcharge us, but we had asked around and knew what they were trying to do. We found a taxi driver who we negotiated with to make the 45 minute drive out for a couple of dollars each. This open air market is HUGE; if there is an item sold in Thailand, you will find it there. It is arguably the largest market in the world with over 15,000 stalls, with half a million people shopping every weekend. It is broken up into sections- paintings, glass wares, intricate wooden sculptures, antiques, clothing, fake designer goods, any kind of animal under the sun (and moon!...they do sell nocturnal bats if that happens to be on your shopping list), house decorations, shoes, food ...you could spend the entire day and still not see everything offered there. One cultural difference that Keith and I have had to grow accustomed to here in Thailand is how we are supposed to bargain for everything...this practice is a such a big part of everyday life for Thai people. (In the US and Canada, usually the price is the price, unless you're buying a car. Could you imagine going to the cash register at Starbucks and saying "Hey buddy, how about I give you .99 cents for this coffee?") Well, this market is no different...everything is negotiable, and we were taught that the general rule of thumb is try to get them to about half of their first offer.
Our time to depart Thailand (and Southeast Asia) quickly approached. In preparation, we scored our next Lonely Planet "bible" for our upcoming Japan adventure at a road-side used book stand just off of Khao San road...lightly used for a bargain $3 American. On one hand, we were excited to see Japan, and embark upon our next adventure, but on the other hand, leaving Thailand signified the end of two and a half months of travel, and we were really loving the challenges and excitement of exploring Southeast Asia. Keith and I discovered that we kept on having this "problem" with traveling- every place we went to, we loved it, and we wanted to stay longer than our next pre-purchased plane ticket would allow! But there were so many places that we still wanted to experience before we returned home, so before we were even close to ready to go, once again we found ourselves back in Bangkok airport to catch our next flight- this time on November 31st to Tokyo, Japan.