08.06.2014 - 13.07.2014
Ok I'm back and doubt I'll ever hear the end of my need of blogging assistance from Greg who's busy planning the next stage of our trip (read: shopping online for a restored Vespa he could ship to Cayman from Saigon!)
From our initial trip planning, making our way clockwise through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand seemed like the most logical route based on what we wanted to see and do before heading further south. We had heard so much about the slow boat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai, which is just across the border from Chiang Khong, a town in the north of Thailand, that we decided to start a few hours further south in Chiang Mai, despite us planning to be in Thailand again at the end of the loop.
Chiang Mai is located 700 km north of Bangkok, among the highest mountains in the country. It is the second largest city in Thailand, yet only has a population of around 200,000 (compared to Bangkok which has about 9 million!). We had read there were plenty of things to see and do, amazing food to try and that it was a shopper's paradise. Sold!
Our flight to Chiang Mai connected through Bangkok and we were scheduled to arrive at approximately 11pm, which was after the 10pm curfew imposed by the military government (or so we thought). Naturally there was a little bit of apprehension and uncertainty as to what we might have to deal with on arrival.
To our surprise, everything seemed so organized and clean compared to Nepal, India, and Africa ..... so basically our whole trip to date. Other than the curfew, there was no other indication that the country was in a state of martial law and we quickly felt very at ease. We also found out that the curfew imposed on Chiang Mai had been relaxed to 4 hours a night, from 12am to 4am. Things were looking great.
Feeling rested after a good night's sleep, we started with a quick local breakfast just a few steps from our hotel in a small restaurant with pictures of every dish on the walls. Very overwhelming selection but luckily the breakfast items were few and we weren't interested in curry or soup at that hour. They happened to have our favorite so I ordered mango and Greg tried the mango with sticky rice, which we later found out was more of a snack/dessert than a breakfast - regardless, we were off to a great start.
Chiang Mai was built in 1296 as a walled city surrounded by a moat and is currently made up of the old city (within the walled area) and the new city which has grown up around it. The city is also full of ancient temples (Wats) still in use today by Buddhist monks. Our hotel was conveniently located within the old city and walking distance from most of the sights. But first, I sweet-talked Greg into booking a full-day cooking course for the next day before setting off on the mandatory tour of the city.
I almost felt disrespectful stepping inside the temple when I saw the meditating monks. I tried to be as polite as I could with my hands in prayer and a few nods of the head. As I got closer, I realized they were wax sculptures! Was anyone watching me??
After walking a few miles, we took a break and got our feet massaged by fish, as you do.
The signs advertising 60 min Thai massages for $6 were everywhere and after covering a few more miles on foot, we decided it would be a crime not to try one considering how expensive they are back home. We almost felt like we had been beaten and robbed of the $6 rather than having paid it but thankfully, the relaxing effect kicked in soon after we left - aaahhhhh, so that's what all the fuss was about!
In the evening, we hurried through the night market just east of the old city, as we had heard of a procession of monks taking place at 8pm in the old city which we didn't want to miss. I knew I was in trouble when I found myself stopping at every stall. Greg pretended not to notice and kept walking in the hope I would give up and follow him. Instead I chased him down, brought him back to the stall I was interested in, asked for his opinion and the money to pay for the item (although not necessarily in that order).
Decorative hand-carved soaps:
Between two souvenir stalls - why not?
Greg managed to drag me out in time but unfortunately, someone had sold us a dummy as there were no monks in sight. So we headed back to the night market for a little more before they packed up.
One happy customer:
The process was actually fun to watch. The creamy liquid is first spread on the dry-ice pan, mixed with the chunky ingredients (oreo cookies in this case) and rolled into small ice cream tubes which are then topped with whipped cream.
The next morning, we went for the same mango breakfast before meeting our cooking gurus. To start, we stopped at the local market and were each given a shopping list of items to gather (with some assistance, of course).
We were then shown some of the many amazing (and weird) local fruits, herbs and vegetables and then left to do our own little wander around. Naturally our first thought was: how on earth are we going to find these ingredients back home??? Everything looked so fresh and the cooked food smelled so delicious we were almost tempted to skip the rest of the course!
Pink century eggs:
The eggs are preserved for several weeks or months in a special concoction of clay, salt, ash, lime and rice hulls, which turns the inside dark brown/green. The shell is then painted pink. It actually tasted pretty good!
We then drove about 20 minutes outside the city into a gated community or suburb with some really nice houses, apparently the more expensive in Chiang Mai, before arriving at the cooking school. The format was simple: watch the expert first, then go to your station and give it a shot. They made it easy for us as all we had to do was chop a few vegetables and cook. The more complicated ingredients were either prepared during the demo or made available. They didn't leave much room for error and we were very grateful for that.
It was great fun and surprisingly, our dishes were actually quite good! We each prepared 5 dishes so were completely stuffed and in need of a snooze by the time we got in the bus back to the city. I packed a doggy bag but obviously didn't think it through as it was left in the hotel mini-fridge, untouched. In hindsight I should have left it behind for the house cats who seemed quite happy to eat the leftovers from the other students, including the spicy curry!
Back at the hotel, I went for another 60 min Thai massage while Greg surrendered to a food induced coma.
Planning to do a tour of the mountains around the city the next day, we hired an orange Honda scooter for 24 hours and spent the evening zooming around the city. Beep beep!
Us and the photo-bomber:
We followed our friends' recommendation and stopped at the 3D Illusion Art Museum for a visit. We had fun goofing around, it was brilliant!
Our tour the next day consisted of a 100km loop around Chiang Mai full of winding roads, beautiful mountain landscapes and a few cool diversions, too, including Tiger Kingdom and Mae Sa waterfalls.
Tiger Kingdom is essentially a tiger farm but unlike other tiger farms in Thailand, the tigers at Tiger Kingdom are treated with great care and the facilities are extremely clean. It was truly a memorable experience. From the moment we arrived, the staff were very professional and organized. They presented the various packages which depend on the age of the tigers one wants to see so we chose "Smallest" (2-3 months), "Medium" (9-12 months) and "Big" (13-30 months). They don't take chances with tigers older than 30 months as they can become dangerous and unpredictable. Other tiger places in Thailand do and have to sedate them to minimize the risk and of course, accidents have happened. If you are ever in Thailand, please avoid Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi near Bangkok.
Cheesy but fun nonetheless:
Working the camera:
Mae Sa waterfalls:
Learning in the parking lot - not quite ready for the street chaos:
We stopped at an outdoor market as we were approaching Chiang Mai - who's ordering frog?
We arrived back in Chiang Mai just in time to catch our bus to Chiang Rai, about 3 hours further north. We had read that Chiang Rai was a quieter and less touristy version of Chiang Mai - not that we were that bothered in Chiang Mai coming from India and Nepal but we decided to include it in our itinerary as we were heading north anyway.
The bus station in Chiang Rai was just next to the night market and only a couple of blocks from our hotel so we quickly dropped our bags off and went exploring.
Loving the street food - spicy papaya salad, yum!
and nerver missing an opportunity to order mango juice:
We booked a countryside/elephant camp tour the next day and were promptly picked up at 10am by our guide. The less touristy comment proved true as we were the only ones on the tour.
We went upstream on the Mae Kok River (a tributary of the Mekong river) for about an hour on a small long-tail wooden boat with a tiny propeller attached to an extended pole that made it look like a weed eater:
Our private tour:
We realized some sections of the river were actually quite shallow and dangerous, which explained the weed eater, but we decided to trust our captain who looked like he knew his way around. I think it's fair to say that our ability to trust complete strangers with our lives has been tested way too often on this trip!
We safely arrived at the elephant camp in Ruammit Village where we were given a dozen bananas each to feed the elis. Sweet! I love feeding elephants
Then came the rather awkward mounting of said elephant and the subsequent hour and a half ride to a minority village in the hills. The look on our faces when the elephant started walking must have said something along the lines of: "what have we gotten ourselves into?!!"
Any more bananas up there?
To say the ride was initially uncomfortable is an understatement. Luckily, the intensity of the side-to-side swaying diminished as we got deeper into the countryside. Or maybe we just got used to it? There's no denying the scenery was very beautiful and our eli worked very hard for us going up some very hills, across streams and through some very narrows paths. We were actually very impressed given the size of the animal! Other than my ponytail getting caught in a branch and almost being pulled off the eli in the process, the ride was quite enjoyable in the end. Yes, it's funny now.
Lunch at the minority village:
Huay Mae Sai waterfalls: last stop of the tour where Greg was taught some climbing skills by a few teenagers (you'll remember from our Manali post that he struggled a bit with "technique").
To his credit, the rocks were very slippery.
Songtau ride back to the city - form of public transportation that literally means "two benches" in Thai:
Back at the night market we were treated to an amateur cabaret show - not exactly "Thailand's Got Talent" material unfortunately:
So we decided to entertain ourselves at Monsieur Retro Studio:
The next morning, we realized the beast was about to stage a comeback and decided it was time to enlist the help of a pro for the bargain price of $1.20 - cheaper than razor blades and Greg had used his last one in Manali.
For the same price he could have gotten his ears cleaned as well. I watched this done on the guy next to him and I was impressed by the surgical precision of the procedure. I tried my best to convince Greg but he chickened out - one traumatizing experience was enough for the day.
The rest of the rainy day was spent strolling in the market, relaxing in cafes and catching up on the blog, oh and stopping Greg from buying a scooter! I swear I'll turn around one of these days and we'll have some form of motorized vehicle to ship home.
Everything to suit your needs - live turtles and snakes, fresh produce, spices, clothes and even a salon!
Chiang Mai's clock tower:
A bit uncertain about the border crossing into Laos the next day, we decided to play it safe and spend to night in Chiang Khong just an hour further north instead of staying in Chiang Rai and trying to get it all done the next day at the crack of the dawn. Greg was probably worried I wouldn't get out of bed in time!
And this, my friends, is where chilli defeated us for the second time. I ordered a spicy papaya salad and and spicy seafood salad but they didn't tone it down for us tourists. Actually, I think they fired them up on purpose given the number of chillis I saw in both plates. Greg buckled after the first bite and very nearly cried. I patiently picked out all the chilli peppers and powered through the important seafood bits. One of my proudest achievements of the trip
The location was actually great, we were right on the banks for the Mekong river and could see Huay Xai on the other side.
One last beer and a few games of backgammon before bed - for the record, I'm currently in the lead by 9 games but Greg refuses to acknowledge this fact:
Our next post about Laos coming soon...ish. Although the pressure is really on this time. Our friends James and Natalie Drury, who have just arrived in Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang, are much more gifted at this blogging thing than we are and could potentially post their Luang Prabang update before we do which would be slightly embarrassing seeing as we were there almost 3 weeks ago now! Check out their blog on marriedtoourbackpacks.wordpress.com. It's very good!
We are still in Vietnam but leaving Ho Chi Minh city tomorrow evening on a flight to Siem Rep, Cambodia.
Greg and Issy