Chiang Mai (Thailand – Part 3) May 13, 2010Posted by jorkat in Chiang Mai.
With all due respect to the spectacular islands and beaches, Chiang Mai is officially my favourite city in Thailand. Coming in, the only thing I knew about it was that you could ride elephants there. I left thoroughly impressed and would highly recommend it to anyone willing to make the trek north to experience a much different part of Thailand.
Chiang Mai was much more laid back and unassuming with all the makings of an authentic thai experience, combined with a vibrant dose of tourists, temples and holistic food/medicine.
Just getting there was an experience in itself. Katie had booked us a “first class” cabin on an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai that was supposed to take 14 hours. It left Bangkok at 7:30pm and was scheduled to arrive in Chiang Mai shortly after 9:30am the next morning. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t have high expectations when it comes to traveling or our accommodations, even if it says “first class.” As you’ll see from the pictures and video, my instincts couldn’t have been more acute.
Despite being 3.5 hours late, the ride was tolerable and we did manage to get some sleep. We slowly walked out of the train station being hounded (but not as badly as Bangkok) by cab drivers. I ignored anyone who came near us until we found the tourist centre to get some idea of where we were relative to our hotel. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from our brief travels, it’s trust no one, no matter how good the deal might seem until you get a seemingly objective opinion of what you’re trying to accomplish. Luckily, as we emerged from the station, I noticed a small Thai gentleman holding a sign that read “Algate, Katie”. Apparently our reservation included a pickup but since Katie had booked it the day before and didn’t’ receive the response identifying this service until after the fact. We shared our transport with a young couple from the Czech Republic in which I dazzled them with my knowledge of Czech hockey players, not much was said after that.
Once we were settled, we set out to explore the city. One of the first things you quickly notice is that the city is small and very concentrated. The town has just over 200,000 people and has a moat that was built around the city from when it first broke ground. This section is called the old city and has since expanded outside its original roots.
It’s a great city to just walk around and explore. Lots of temples (my favourite!) and very tourist friendly. The only temple we actually visited turned out to be one of the nicest we had visited so far. It was called Wat Phra Singh and was actually a school for Monks. There were plenty of young Monks or Novices as they’re called before officially joining the Monk-hood(?). I was tempted to engage some of the younger ones in conversation but wasn’t sure how to approach them. What would I ask? “Uhh…what do you like better, Playstation or XBox?”
They also had signs strewn all over the property with random words of wisdom. Here are a few of our favourites:
One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Chiang Mai was because of their famous jungle treks. It’s the main lure for tourists to this part of Thailand and the competition amongst the hotels and travel agencies is pretty fierce. After doing some research and speaking with friends who had done similar excursions, we opted for a 2-day/1 night excursion. The package included riding elephants, and a 5-hour hike through the jungle to an authentic Thai village high in the hills where we would spend the night. It also included white water rafting, an English-speaking guide and all meals being provided as well.
We ended up in a solid group of 10 people that were all under the age of 35 and had good representation from parts of Europe and North America. We had 2 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 French women and of course us, the Canucks. It was a solid group and everyone got along nicely.
Let’s start with the elephants shall we…
As you can see from the video, the elephants appear to be quite happy but some of the people in our group were less than thrilled with how one of the Mahout (elephant trainers) treated some of them.
One of the first things we noticed when we first “boarded” our elephant was how much our trainer was communicating verbally with the elephant. My first instinct was “Wow, he’s one with the elephant. They have such a special bond!”, whereas the cynic in me was thinking, I bet this guy has bluetooth and is chatting on his cell phone. Guess which one it was?
After our elephant experience we had lunch and started off on our trek up to the mountain village. The only downside of doing a trek like this at this time of year is that for some reason the locals burn parts of the forest as they believe that they need to kill off the existing vegetation as it somehow makes the soil more fertile and replenishes the nutrients in the plants and soil, or something like that. Our tour guide who explained this to me wasn’t exactly David Suzuki.
As a result, a thin layer of smoke hung in the air and could be smelled at all times. At night, you could see small fires throughout the hillside. The thing that struck me was how they managed to contain these fires when everything, and I mean everything is so dry.
After a fairly treacherous 5-hour trek uphill with the temperature in the mid-30’s, we arrived at our village and settled in to our “hotel”. It was literally a bamboo hut on stilts and each step you took felt like you were going to fall through the floor and plummet to your death. Katie and I indulged in a 4-hand massage from some of the locals and sat back to enjoy a beer and the scenery.
After a nice meal prepared by our tour guide and some of the locals, we sat around and enjoyed a presentation by some of the children from the village.
What was little more than just a group of children screaming inaudibly in Thai was still fun to watch as they had clearly practiced this song and routine for some time. The best part was at the end when a hat was placed in front of our group in order for us to donate any spare change we might have. Sure enough, everyone obliged but the only currency I had that was less than $20 CAD was a 500 Korean won coin which I threw into the hat. Once all the donations were made all the children huddled around the hat and conducted a coin draft based on seniority. As a big fan of any kind of draft, I was touched by this small act of fairness and wondered which poor little kid would get stuck with a coin that he/she surely wouldn’t recognize. Little did they know that it was probably worth more than all of the others combined.
Just before bed our guide left us with one more piece of information that wasn’t advertised in any of the pamphlets. Don’t be alarmed if you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the occasional rooster. Now take that last sentence and replace the word “occasional” with the words “hundreds of” and you get a more accurate representation of what the hours of 3 through 7am sounded like in our hut. It was an orchestra of roosters without a conductor and every single person in our hut laid wide awake wondering if they were ever going to stop. They finally did, shortly after we got up for breakfast.
After breakfast and less than 5 hours sleep on the ground of a bamboo hut, we went White Water Rafting which despite the low water level was very entertaining. We finished our tour with a lazy ride down the river on bamboo rafts before boarding our bus back to Chiang Mai in time for dinner and a nice hot shower.
The next day we were quite sore from our trek through the jungle so we needed something to soothe our aching muscles. What you’re about to read is something I’ve been preparing myself to write for days. I’ve had countless ideas and jokes running through my head so I hope it lives up to my expectations, which it won’t.
As I mentioned before, the only thing I knew about our trip to Chiang Mai was that we would see elephants. That’s it, that’s all. When you’re planning a trip of this scale, sometimes you just have to rely on the advice of others and as I’ve mentioned before, Katie and I are the perfect team. I manage the overall finances and macro-travel plans, and she’s in charge of the micro-travel plans (ie. booking hotels/hostels, identifying cool sights and destinations, etc.).
I admit that I do remember reading in our travel guide about a women’s prison, but the description clearly didn’t provide enough detail or do it justice as it wasn’t a top priority for either of us. One afternoon we were in the process of booking our flights to Laos at a travel agency when two females entered and asked directions to the women’s prison. As luck would have it, it was only 2 blocks away.
We had nothing else to do so we decided to check it out. Turns out that it has a full restaurant and a massage parlor that is operated by the prison. Both are open to the public and the inmates who are in their last 6-months of their term can work there to accrue wages which they receive upon their release. Brilliant!
Did I mention it was a prison full of thai females?
There wasn’t much action as we first approached so we decided to circle the property which occupied an entire city block to get a better feel for what we were about to jump into. The entire time, all I kept thinking about was a particular episode of Seinfeld in which George dates an inmate at a women’s prison. Here’s an excerpt from that episode which coined a term that I would go on to use many times that day…
GEORGE: Fantastic day! Fantastic!
JERRY: What happened?
GEORGE: Well, first, I’m brushing my teeth and this piece of apple-skin, that must have been lodged in there for days, comes loose.
GEORGE: Then, I’m at The Foundation…
JERRY: You’re still doing that?
GEORGE: Sometimes, once in a while.
JERRY: When you feel guilty.
GEORGE: No, occasionally I’ll forget to let the machine pick up. Anyway, they made this large donation to a women’s prison, and I get to go down there and check it out.
KRAMER: That’s caged heat.
That’s all I kept thinking about as we slowly walking around the prison. Caged heat. I was gonna get a rub down from a female prison inmate – Caged heat baby, Yeah-hah!
She was flipping me around and bending me in ways I didn’t think were possible. Things were creaking and cracking and the whole time, all I could think was “I wonder what she did?”. It was probably something lame like mail fraud, but in my mind it was a triple-homicide. A crime of passion that devastated the entire community. This woman might snap my neck any second now…
Unfortunately, it ended being one of the best massages I’ve ever had and we left after the hour was up without incident. I wanted to stick around in case a towel fight broke out in the showers but that area is restricted to inmates only. Stupid prison rules.
So yeah, we rode elephants in the jungle, visited a school for Monks, and got massages at a women’s prison. Not a bad way to pass a few days in my new favourite city in Thailand, Chiang Mai.