For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.
Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.
If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.
NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.
Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!
It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.
The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.
Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here – the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.
Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.