Chiang Mai

Bangkok, visit two I had to return to Bangkok to drop my laptop off for a repair - apparently it hadn't appreciated the soaking it had received during the waterlogged truck ride to the Golden Rock in Myanmar. Being the lazy person I am, I ended up staying in the city for three days, but put the time to good use visiting the big shopping malls at Siam Square, watching films and going for a few fun nights out with Jon Jonsson (a Danish party animal) and a couple of Angolan girls. A strange thing - Thai films are always preceded by a video montage about their king, during which everybody stands up. I can't imagine that ever catching on in the UK! The shopping malls were pretty interesting in their own strange way. There are four surrounding Siam Square, ranging from the top-end mall which has a aquarium and Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores, down to the lower level which has an entire floor occupied by mobile device stalls. The city was too hot to do any real sightseeing, and I headed up to Chiang Mai once the laptop had been delivered to the local service centre. Chiang Mai I took a night bus up to Chiang Mai, and arrived with no hotel booking or real idea where to go. I simply hopped into the back of a songthaew picking some other people up and managed to get a cheap room at the hotel it had been sent from. This turned out to be a real piece of luck, as I subsequently met a great group of people staying at the same place. I spent my first day in the city aimlessly wandering - a common tactic on arrival in a new place - but I didn't come across anything particularly amazing. Chiang Mai seems to be more of a jumping-off point for adventures, rather than a destination in it's own right - at least for my current kind of travelling. I signed up for a three day trek departing the next day, with no real idea what to expect. The trek started with an hour long songthaew drive to the west of Chiang Mai, then we picked up our packs and headed off into the country. The walk through the forest/jungle was far easier than I had expected, and along with the rest of the group (with only one person being slightly off pace) we stormed our way through the day, arriving at the Karen village where we would be spending the night at 3pm! Our guides abandoned us for three hours, so a gentle explore of the village was in order - a village which met with the expectations of a hill tribe, with the exception of several satellite dishes, and a sign near a school promising 'Coffee, WiFi, Massage'. Tragically, the sign had been erected prematurely and the promised services weren't yet available, but it showed how difficult it can be to escape the modern world. The evening was spent chatting around a camp-fire, and I tried to introduce the concept of 'party tricks' to the international group I was with (English, Dutch, Polish, German and Belgian) - only one person really had a party trick, and Mario entertained us with his Nepalese throat singing, a sound which must have been particularly curious to any listening villagers. Our second day had by far the best walking of the tour - on roads to begin with, then into the jungle for an hour or so until our lunch stop (a late start to the trek, which we had almost uniformly grumbled about). The stop was by a river, so a good hour was spent with a few people heading downstream, sliding over rocks and through cold rapids. Post-lunch we continued into the jungle to follow a winding trail for the best part of three hours before we arrived at the final stop for the day, alongside another river. We had been promised a waterfall/slide, but the two foot drop was a tiny bit of a let-down. A few hours messing about in the water was followed by dinner, and then drinking games which lasted well into the night. All good fun, although a weird sleepwalking incident has made me decide never to drink Chang Classic beer again...
Arty flower shot

Arty flower shot

A cockerel on a buffalo

A cockerel on a buffalo

Shared dinner

Shared dinner

Testing the waterproof camera - Mario in a waterfall

Testing the waterproof camera - Mario in a waterfall

The final day involved a short trek downhill, there highlight of which was strolling through paddy fields full of corn, and a rickety bamboo bridge across a river. We then took a pickup to a bamboo rafting place - sounds like fun, but it was generally a slow-moving affair through a fairly deep channel for an hour. There was one mini-waterfall, and I spotted a water snake (though I didn't nearly tread on it, so it doesn't get added to the 'snakes I nearly trod on' list), but really I could have spent the time doing more walking and would have had more fun. The same goes for the elephant ride, which sounds good on paper, but just wasn't that much fun. I was holding on, white-knuckle style, for the entire ride to avoid falling off, and just felt like 'one of those people'. I wouldn't really recommend elephant riding to anyone - it's exploitative and just felt wrong. It was a bit of a sad end to the trek, but I had really enjoyed spending time with the group, and continued to spend time with them at the hotel once we'd got back.
My next activity in the city was a cookery course. I was pretty lazy, and just booked the recommendation of the hotel's tour desk, as it meant I wouldn't have to phone anyone and talk to them to book. Yep, very lazy. Their selection turned out to be pretty good though - the Thai Kitchen Centre was the longest-established course in Chiang Mai, and that experience was shown in the professional way that the course was run. After selecting from a mini-menu of dishes I'd like to cook, from three options per course, we were all bussed to a local market where we were given a quick tour of the sort of ingredients we'd be using during the day. The meat and fish market was particularly visceral and pungent, but the rest of the place seemed very organised compared to other Asian food markets that I'd visited - I suspect this is a model market that all of the cookery schools use, so they keep in especially tidy to give a good impression. The course itself was equally tidy - groups were put together based on the choices for each of the six courses, so throughout the day you were preparing ingredients and cooking with different people. I made Pad Thai, Tom Yum Goong, a Thai Green curry paste, and (obviously) a green curry with chicken, fried chicken with holy basil (amazing!),and black sticky rice and coconut pudding. By the time I served out my pudding, I was full to bursting point - foolishly I'd eaten breakfast before leaving the hotel - so I walked the 2km back to the hotel. Full, but satisfied with tasty food I'd cooked myself. For my friends back in Liverpool - yes, I will be cooking Thai (and Vietnamese, and alyasian) food for you when I come back!
I made this! At Thai cookery class...

I made this! At Thai cookery class...

My final full day in Chiang Mai was a day's mountain biking. Peter, one of my fellow trekkers, had raved about his trip - despite a sunstantial number of cuts and grazes - and I decided that it would be a good idea to take the plunge and try something new. The group that were assembled were a fairly mixed bunch, from a ten year old American (with four others of his family) to a 50+ man, and with a mix of experience from none to very little! Based on that, I expected an easy ride - after all, this was the easiest route available. To begin with, that appeared to be true, following basic roads, or very well graded tracks. This wasn't easy enough for a few people, however, as one early sharp corner caused three separate crashes - the most serious being the ten year old who didn't make the turn at all, headed off the road, and was only stopped by barbed wire round his neck. While the injury wasn't serious, he (and his mother) were pretty badly shaken, and spent the rest of the day with a separate guide taking a far slower pace. Undaunted, the rest of us began to pick up speed as the road conditions deteriorated - rocks in the road, narrow bands of concrete to follow or cross, and sharper turns. I had to hang back with a brake problem, and in my attempt to catch up after it had been fixed, I had my own crash. I took the wrong track round a sharp corner, ran aground in loose sand, and finally panicked, locking the front brake and flew face-first for about ten feet, bike entangled with my legs. Lying on the ground, bike on top of me, I paused for a few seconds before raising a fist in the air and shouting 'Hooo Yaaaa!'. My helmet, elbow- and knee-pads had taken all of the impacts, and I didn't even have a scratch on me (which was strangely a little disappointing). The rest of the downhill runs were a blur, as I'd got into the groove, so to speak. I even tackled some 'single track' sections - off the tracks and through woodland on a foot-wide path - though I took them incredibly slowly, falling off sideways a few times. I raced at the end of the run, managing to get to our lunch destination first (sometimes I can be such a boy), and enjoyed a well-earned beer with the American dad. Overall, it was an incredible day out, and I'd highly recommend having a go to anyone - as long as you're prepared to hit the ground at speed, then get up again and carry on. Links: Chaing Mai Mountain Biking Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre
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