Monday, January 25, 2010

Three Weeks of Thailand Part 3: Chiang Mai

Ah Charming Thailand. One sign said: “MARRIAGE registration FOR ALIENS.” I wonder how much business they get; I want to believe. (The X-Files reference). On New Years day we went shopping a bit more and relaxed a lot after such a crazy night. We saw another movie, ate more pizza, and I got a new, proper bag for carrying around my computer. My SaskTel bag had worked very well for me for years, but it was showing its age. I love this new bag, and since I bought it in Thailand, you can bet it was for a good price.

January 2nd was also a nice lazy day, though I don’t remember much more than eating, talking, and later catching an overnight bus that night for Chiang Mai; the biggest city 12 hours to the North. Lily helped us sign up for tours again and it was a steal I thought. For example, a 3-day, 2-night trek through the jungle with food, locals and other perks was a little over $100.

It was a long ways away though, and unfortunately I was a little cramped on the bus with my big legs. A little after midnight when I finally fell asleep, the bus made its only big stop of the night, waking me up. Then at 4 in the morning the bus broke down and we had to change to another. When we arrived, we unfortunately fell into a vulture’s trap; the kind of taxis that sit at a hotel or popular demand spot offering rides for way too much money to new people that don’t know better, much like the airport. Sure the ride was only $7, but it should have been $2 at most; it’s the principle of it.

My warning light went off after he dropped off the first people, and then he asked if we wanted to stay at a hotel that he knew; a sure sign of a scam artist like those 3 wheeled tuk-tuks that offer you a ride for cheap, but don’t take you anywhere except to their friend’s shops where they get commission. Anyways, he ended up driving around in circles to make us think he drove far, but our hotel was down the street as we discovered later.

I normally wouldn’t fall for this sort of trap anymore, but we were exhausted after the all-night trip, and I pretty much relied on Anna to do everything for me with her Thai skills. Now she’s wiser to it, it’s how we learn I guess and since that was the worst thing that happened the whole trip I’m not sour about it. It was early in the morning and we were exhausted, but they wouldn’t let us check in until noon.

We attempted to pass time by seeing the area, but didn’t go too far. I got a new book: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as I’m a little ashamed I haven’t read it before. It was pretty good, but really short. They finally let us check in early because we were sleeping on the chairs in the lobby.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful, wonderful place. It’s not hot and busy like Bangkok, so walking around it is no problem. In the center there are ruins of an ancient castle or something and a moat. The moat has since had decorations like fountains installed.

In the afternoon after napping a couple hours, we had a tour to a big temple up on the hill. The tour group we were to go with was over packed and didn’t pick us up, so Lily got angry on the phone with them, and before long a guy came in his car on his day off to take us up on a personal tour as a favor to his sister running the other tour.

He was really nice too, now we have another tour guide friend up North. Apparently it was the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand that we drove up, but it wasn’t too high for a mountain I think. He told us how he used to jog up it every morning, which was still crazy.

Well I wrote quite a bit about temples already, but here we go again. It was beautiful on top the mountain. There were kids giving performances and many markets strung out. Some of the pastel paintings are so beautiful that they’re hard to not buy, but I still have one in my closet at home. I now have lots of decorations that I haven’t hung up yet.

You walk around the large, center pagoda in a clock-wise direction 3 times. Because of an accident years ago, it’s forbidden for pregnant women to do. There was an offering at one side, separated into days of the week, then two for the morning/afternoon, depending on when you were born. At one part after praying, you try to lift a heavy golden elephant with your pinky finger. If you get it off the group, your wish will come true.

Another spot had a strange rock with the 12 Chinese zodiacs on it. Interestingly enough, they got rid of my year, The Boar, so they could put Thailand’s national animal, The Elephant, on it. If you could stick a coin on your animal, it’s good luck. I had no problem, but apparently some people do. Later, there were little leaves of very flat gold you could buy. On the leaf you can write your name and prayers or whatever you like, then hang it on a tree. Later, the leaves are melted down to form a new Buddha statue, immortalizing your words I suppose.

Anna had a really nice bracelet from a temple when I arrived, so I wanted us to get matching ones. In one of the places a monk splashed water on people while reciting prayers or something, and took my hand to give me a bracelet. His English was surprisingly good, and he had a sense of humor for such a humble looking man. He shook my hand vigorously saying, “Good to meet you, welcome to Thailand” and stuff like that. Unfortunately because monks can’t touch women in any way in Thailand, Anna had to get a bracelet from his non-monk assistant for exactly that reason, and as a result our bracelets aren’t exactly the same but close enough.

When we were done at the temple, our tour guy dropped us off near the center of town in the huge market there. There were all kinds of foods, crafts, and whatever including rows of chairs for foot massages. We got a couple bottles of different fruit flavored wine, and then later I bought some silk pillowcases. Not that I needed them in any way, but they were too beautiful to leave at such a low price.

On the way back to the hotel, there was a Mexican Food restaurant. Anna never had it before, so I wanted to share my love of first experiences with her. I bought way too much food of all varieties, and in the end I ate most of it. She liked it a bit, but it was one of those “every now and then” foods, like how I feel with curry and other stuff. I knew she liked spicy, so I got her a side order of Jalapeno peppers.

At first she almost mocked me, with “you say it’s spicy, but I bet it’s not” kind of deal. She took a big spoonful of them, ate them, and looked at me in a “told you so” sort of way. “Ok you win”, I thought, and went back to eating. Not even a minute later, her tough-guy show collapsed into exasperated breaths and a frantic grab for some beer. I laughed liberally at her expense :)

We discovered that Mexican spice in contrast to Thai’s, burns slow and long. In Thailand, it burns hard and fast, but then is gone in a minute. That was interesting, but she still piled food on top of the peppers to finish the rest of her meal. I bought different drinks for her to try too, like a Pina Colada and a Strawberry Margarita, which were mixed really strong, but later she told me to just buy her beer in the future; there’s something to be said about simplicity. So there we had a great Mexican meal with enough food for 3 or 4 people and 4 or 5 alcoholic drinks yet the bill was still only about $35.

Inside there were a couple older fellows sitting at the bar and talking. As soon as they mentioned how expensive healthcare was back home, of course it meant they were American right away. They talked about how cheap it was in Thailand, and how much better the treatment was, with one guy walking out saying “I never had a filling hurt so little” and cost $20.

I remember before leaving Canada, the dentist told me not to visit any Asian ones because they’re no good. What he was really doing was trying to keep his business by trying to keep the superior care a secret; it’s a nice scam the doctors and dentists have going back home.

I was talking a friend here in Japan, and for a simple cleaning they charged him $700 in the States. They told him he had a cavity, and he was like “no thank you!” because they wanted $5000 to have it fixed. You can fly to Thailand, live very comfortably for over a month, have it fixed, and still have money left over at that price; my 3 weeks cost around $1500. But I digress.

In the morning we got picked up and headed into the jungle for the trekking tour. The first day wasn’t too eventful; we stopped off for supplies like cheap flashlights and mosquito repellant. Anna got her first pair of sneakers for the hike that was comically big on her, and then we walked through the jungle for a bit to a small village, passing waterfalls. We stopped at a dam for lunch, and Anna left some of her food out on the ground.

I asked why, and I guess for Karma in the Buddha religion. She said it was for all the spirits of people passed and what not, so they could have something to eat. I wonder if that’s why there is always food and drinks left as offerings at statues. Like I’ve said before, there are all kinds of neat things I learn from watching her, it’s pretty fascinating. You can’t get this kind of cultural experience on just any tour.

We could swim at one of the waterfalls, but I didn’t really have a place to change, and it was really shallow anyways. We saw another temple on top a hill, including a huge Buddha statue maybe 10 meters high. There is such an amazing view from up there; the farmland is something else. I wonder how the statue looks from down below. There was also a huge lying Buddha statue carved into the mountain.

We reached the village with an hour of light left. There we had access to our tour guide’s “7-11”. We were the only two in the group to buy water, while everyone else started drinking beer haha. The one couple went through 12 cans before the sun even went down. The cabins were really interesting, being little more than bamboo suspended above the ground, and using some of the big, thick, strong leaves pierced together by wood splints for a roof.

There was lots of farmland nearby, and what I would call oxen, but apparently they’re buffalo. There sure didn’t look like any Canadian buffalo, but regardless they’re invaluable farm equipment. There was a small stream which double as the water supply and the shower. Anna wanted one, and instructed me to shine a flashlight off to the side and not on her while she cleaned in the cold pond a couple meters away from the campfire where everyone was drinking and talking. I think she was the only one that bathed that night.

And what a cold night it was. It was a nice change from all the hot days we’ve had, but we had to keep close to stay warm that night. I packed my winter coat with me because I knew I would need it when I got back to Japan, but we made good use of it that night. Anna wore the new toque and scarf she made me too.

The huts were big, enough to fit up to 10 people or so, and had mosquito nets suspended above to keep you from getting bitten. I don’t know why or how, but they in Bangkok and Koh Chang had ravaged me earlier and left Anna completely alone. The mosquitoes are much smaller than back home, and after scratching some of the many bumps; sometimes pus came out… which was a first. Maybe that’s why I got sick a little more often than normal.

The second day was really tough; we walked for up to 5 hours, taking breaks in-between of course. Along the way it was really beautiful though, making our way through the mountains and following a waterfall’s path. The path was quite dangerous at times too, being hardly a foot wide on the side of a cliff following the stream. Apparently the rainy season is really popular for this tour, I can only imagine how much more dangerous it would be then.

We swam in the one waterfall for up to an hour. The water was incredibly cold though, so most people hung out around it. I sat in it for a little while, but after 10 minutes or so, it literally felt like there was fire on my skin. It was a strange feeling, perhaps the early onset of hypothermia, or some of my skin cell’s swan song. That’s a phrase I like; in short a “swan song” is the last, and most beautiful thing something does before it dies, like when your ears ring after hearing something loud, saying you’ll never hear that frequency again.

Later on at another waterfall, the tour guide goaded us into sliding down the stream on some rocks. After watching for a bit, I recognized it immediately as canyoning, without the safety suit and all that stuff. I went a number of times, and got even more tired. We continued the hike, walking along fallen trees suspended over the river, and through a small village. In the village a grandma was making cloth by hand using the sort of weaving machines I’d only ever seen in museums before. They have a peaceful life I think, with many animals like pigs and chickens, and people helping each other out; a group was building a house nearby.

Finally with about an hour of light left again, we made it to camp. Here we could sleep in a town house again, or pay an extra $8 and get a private cabin with a mattress and shower. I often have to remind myself how cheap it really is perspective, because at first you hear “250 baht” and you think “Wow! Too expensive.” The shower was totally worth it though, even if there was no hot water.

Also the toilets don’t flush; there is a bit container of water nearby, so when you’re done, you throw a bunch in the bowl to flush. Many times there was no toilet paper either, so you used a spray nozzle nearby to wash off down there; it’s actually kinda smart given how hot it must be normally.

We ate, and drank some of the tour guide’s moonshine. He said it was Thai Rum made from rice, and since it was from rice it tasted like Japanese sake a bit. I was so exhausted though, that I was slurring my words. I really wish I had the energy to sit around the campfire and visit with these cool people, but atleast I saved face a little from going to bed at 8 or 9 by staying up and staring at the stars for an hour maybe. They were absolutely incredible out there in the middle of nowhere.

The 3rd and final day was much less demanding, so much so that I wish they mixed it up more with elements from the 2nd day. After a short walk, we got on the river and paddled little boats. Well, one person got a paddle; the other got a big bamboo pole to push off the ground with. It was fairly shallow, so a couple times we would get hung up on rocks. Anna and I were having lots of trouble, and were spinning around in circles more than anything. A tour guide ended up helping out on our boat, which was great.

The first time I got a paddle, the first thing I did was deliberately soak Anna. It was pretty hilarious; the water wasn’t too warm or clean either. Many of the boats splashed each other, but I we all had a good time for over an hour. There were dogs that followed us too, and Anna picked one up to put in our boat. We saw lots of the countryside and cool foliage.

After the boat ride, we went to another place that put us on bamboo rafts. This time a French dude stood in the back helping the guide steer, while Anna and I hung out relaxing. It’s funny to note, that when we entered the place they had a sign saying how you have to use a lifejacket and such but we couldn’t see any anywhere. The ride was bit bumpier at points too, dropping off on some falls and banging into some rocks. It was still really fun though.

Back on land we waiting for a long time for the truck, so I think they just commissioned a cattle truck because we all stood up in the back of it like we were. It took us to ride elephants. Right away Anna bought a huge bundle to feed the elephant with, and it was hilariously big compared to her; she looked like a little bandit carrying it around; she even ate one.

The elephant we rode was a bit younger and unruly, so much so that we wouldn’t move more than 20 meters before we fed it all the bananas we had. It stuck its snout up at my leg, breathing on it expectantly. It wasn’t happy with just one banana either, Anna was giving him 2 at a time. I was tempted to put one in his big nostril. Later it got water to cool off, and sprayed us good up top. It was still a fun ride and we got some good pictures.

After the ride, we made it back to the city, where we went to a “buffalo wings” restaurant I saw a couple days earlier. This was Anna’s first time having “chicken wings” as we know them back home, and I got them at “atomic” spice level, which she loved. Traditionally, Buffalo wings are hot wings dipped in ranch, so that’s what it was. We had more, but I can’t remember what. I just remember she bought some Durian that wasn’t very good and smelt really bad. We left it outside on the patio to not stink up the hotel.

In the morning we went to the train station, and rode a train for 12 hours back to Bangkok. We did this instead of another overnight thing, because many travel books talk about how it’s one of the most beautiful rides you’ll go on and they’re quite right about that. What we did see was breathtaking when we weren’t surrounded by jungle, until it started raining and we couldn’t see anymore. We really got lucky with the rain again though, it happened maybe 3 times the whole trip, and each time it didn’t really wreck a day or anything.

The train ride was also a good chance to read, nap, talk and play video games. I put in “The New Super Mario Brothers” for her, and I’ve never seen someone have so much fun with anything, she even made her own sound effects. Every 5 minutes or so, she would literally turn the power off, take a deep breath, and try to settle down for a couple minutes before playing again because she was so overwhelmed. If ever there were a time to fall in love with someone, it would be then. It was so cute. She loved to watch me play too when a level was too hard for her.

The last 3 days together in Bangkok are a bit of a blur; we didn’t do anything too special, but we did lots. We saw 2 movies, played Settlers twice, tutored English a bit, ate pizza, met her friend and husband a number of times, went to the night bazaar for drinking, talking and eating. We sang Karaoke with Lily; we went to restaurants, and so on. This was also when I first got sick too, and I’m still sick now 2 weeks later and on medication, I got strept throat again after a hiatus of almost 3 years, I wonder if it’s because of Bangkok’s pollution.

The last day, January 10th was ominous. We held hands tighter and were more quiet than normal. Lucky though Lily called to say goodbye and thanking me for coming, and her friend and husband did the same shortly after. It was a nice little push for me to remember “don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened.” So many nice people, and so many nice memories. It was an amazing 3 weeks.

"We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." -Winston Churchill


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