Chiang Mai - back to some culture

Trip Start Aug 28, 2012
Trip End Aug 26, 2013

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Flag of Thailand  , Chiang Mai Province,
Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was long but beautiful. After sleeping at the airport overnight we stupidly didn't factor morning rush hour into our taxi ride from the airport to the main train station. So we were getting a bit anxious when at 8.20am we were sat in stationary traffic on an express way, hoping to catch a train that left at 8.30am and there was no station in sight! I was kicking myself that, bearing in mind that we could have left the airport hours ago, we were now on the verge of missing our connection.

Luckily 'Thai time' was on our side and despite us running like crazy people into the station at 8.32am the train didn't even arrive at the platform until 8.45!! And even then it wasn't anything special. The carriage was basic, the seats moved about on their brackets and the AC didn't work properly. However, on the plus side we got free food and drinks (cake, rice/noodles and tofu , tea/coffee/squash) and there was a plug socket to charge phones and laptop.

After a late start It then took 15 hours rather than the advertised 12 to get to our destination but luckily the scenery made up for it. And we didn't have to do anything except for preventing extreme boredom!

We were heading to the north of Thailand and we passed through wide open landscapes of paddy fields full of storks or cranes, we saw ladies drying chillies on the train tracks, houses on stilts to protect against flooding and even a field of giant plastic dinosaurs!! Once the sun went down (along with the temperature thank goodness) we were treated to a light show. Separate pockets of cloud in clear skies were being lit up by lightning within them. I'd never seen that before and it was impressive but also should have given us a heads up on the weather we might face!

Arriving late at SK House 1 in the old city we were happy with the standard of accomodation and got to sleep. There was a swimming pool with our name on it ready for the morning.

After waking earlier than expected we switched rooms to save some money (paying £5 between us rather than £7!) and set off to explore the area. We also wanted to check out prices for some of the local attractions as well as a potential volunteering opportunity with elephants.

By the end of day 1 we had found a fantastic local market area (new denim shorts purchased to replace a pair I've just chucked), had booked ourselves a tuk tuk to go and see tigers the following morning and had slightly fallen in love with the laid back atmosphere and Thai charm of Chiang Mai.

Later that afternoon we returned to our place and I got chatting to a lovely Irish girl who'd locked herself out of her room. (this would be the first of three times she'd achieve this!!). Christine invited us for dinner with her close friend Tom (that she was travelling with) and another French girl she knew called Audrey. So that night we ventured further into the old city with our new mates and tucked into Italian before getting an early night. The food was so good!

But we couldn't wait for the next morning. Tigers!! Christine joined us and at 9am on Friday morning the three of us were off to Tiger Kingdom. It's a pretty commercial affair where you can get very close to the tiger size of your choice for a starting price of about £9 for the biggest cats to a £38 bumper ticket where you got to see all the cats from the smallest to the biggest.

We paid about £15 to see just the smallest tigers -4 month old babies!! We were so excited at the prospect of getting so close to such adorable animals. Signs around the waiting area informed you that the tigers are not drugged, just hand reared and well trained. It's impossible to be sure what goes on and it did feel a bit hypocritical to be selfishly visiting a place that is set up purely for tourist entertainment as opposed to conservation. But we just wanted to cuddle a tiger!!!

For your entry fee you can explore round the enclosures of all of the tigers for as long as you want. But you only get about 10 minutes inside the cage with your tiger of choice. As we went into the park we headed straight to the enclosure containing THE most incredible baby tigers inside and they were just being fed. We were very optimistic thinking we'd got to the park as it opened and as feeding was just happening that we might get chance to join in. But our luck turned. By the time we got into the cage all 5 babies were completely passed out!! None of the playfulness we'd seen minutes before, just 5 tigers that appeared like stuffed toys. We took a few pictures but quickly became uncomfortable and started to wonder if indeed they were drugged after all. The staff were dragging the cubs into position for photos and they didn't even open their eyes. We left the cage and instead spent some time with the bigger cats feeling a bit deflated and slightly foolish to have paid for such a disappointing experience. Some of these bigger tigers were also very sleepy, some on their backs with legs in the air. But as we spent more time watching it was clear that there were some very lively characters and perhaps we'd been a bit hasty.

Infact when we had seen all of the other tigers we went back to the infants cage. What a difference!! Now there were 5 very much awake, very lively and cheeky tiger cubs crawling all over other visitors. We were so frustrated!! We had totally missed out!! But after some pleading and persuading plus a little encouragement from our tuk tuk driver we were allowed to bend the rules and go back in with the babies. And it was amazing. We were all totally in love with them. Incredible!! So we got a few more pictures and left feeling completely satisfied at last. A great experience.

Friday night Cat found a couple of mountains for us to party with so Dale and Mike joined Tom, Christine, Cat and I for some food at a riverside restaurant and then drinks in the local area. We also met up with Darren who Matty had collected on his moped in Koh Tao. We had a great night drinking cheap blue lagoons and dancing to cheesy music.

Saturday was for chilling out and we took advantage of the pool before a final day of sightseeing then off to the elephants on Monday. It turns out that Thailand has lots of Boots stores so (girls may understand this) we stocked up on cheap tampons and shower gel!! Simple pleasures!

Sunday morning we woke up to more of the usual cloud and threats of rain and unfortunately Cat was suffering with a tummy bug. So I set off alone to go cycling round Chiang Mai. We had found a recommendation online for 'Chiang Mai Biking' who do cycling tours into the countryside. I was the only client on Sunday so I had a personal tour guide!! We covered about 35kms (luckily all flat!!) and visited a lot of local attractions. First stop was a fairly new temple, part of a monastery. I found out that about 90%252525 of Thai people are buddhist and that at some point in their life the men all spend time as a monk. Some as little as a few days and others spend years trying to improve their souls becoming more 'enlightened'. I just had fun being allowed to hit all the bells that are used to call the monks for meal times! At a later temple it was a giant gong! Making noise is fun!!

Every village has its own temple and they are all extravagantly decorated with gold and beautiful colours. That's what I like most about the different cultures we've seen so far; the colours and crazy decorations that accompany even the basic daily religious rituals.

Inbetween all the temples my guide took me first to a very simple farm where three ladies were very deftly producing a local staple of sticky rice steamed within bamboo tubes. One lady was responsible for stuffing the tubes and sealing them with a tuft of coconut husk, the second supervised them being boiled then roasted over a fire and when cool she used a huge machete to remove the solid outer layer of the bamboo and the third lady used another huge machete to trim the remaining tube into a neat shape. My guide bought me a tube and showed me how to peel it to reveal the tube of rice inside. It was steamed with coconut milk and a few black beans and was plain but delicious.

Next stop was a bakery making western goods. We watched the small production line making the favourite product of the locals; sweet bread rolls spread on top with butter and sprinkled with sugar.

After the bakery we saw more of the countryside. We passed men working in the rice paddies and locals preparing for wedding celebrations in the villages.

The final stop was a market that sold everything from household cleaning products to chicken feet and curry paste! Again the guide was provided with cash to allow me to try stuff. And those that know me well will know that I was in heaven!! Everything I asked about I got to try; from exotic fruit, to local sausage made with Thai green curry flavours to banana and sweet rice in little banana leaf packets. It was a perfect way to end the tour. And the comfy seat of my bike meant I even survived the usual sore bum of biking!!

The final evening in Chiang Mai we spent exploring the Sunday walking market. It takes up a whole block of local streets and is a manic busy set of stalls selling clothing, tourist gifts and food. Because this week is also a big festival (lantern festival Loi Krathong) the streets were jam packed so it was hard to move. Made more difficult by street performers sat on the ground that formed an extra challenge to the obstacle course! Cat did well to spend a few hours here but eventually we returned back to get an early night ready for an early pick up to go to our volunteering at the Elephant park. We are both very excited about it!!

Chiang mai has a really relaxed feel to it and there are loads of tours you can do that take you into the surround villages and mountains. I'd be happy to spend more time here. It's a lot like Fort Kochi in India. But we will be back next Sunday for one more night.
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