Friday, July 20, 2012

The Land of Smiles: Part 2



Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai




Before traveling to Thailand, I thought it was Bangkok and white sandy beaches. A mountain region never crossed my mind. Tom moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai after taking his teaching class. We actually went to pick up his certificate while I was there! Chiang Mai is a large University City nestled in the Mountains of Thailand.






We took a night train leaving Bangkok around 7:30pm to Chiang Mai. It was about a 14 hour train ride, but most of it through the night, so not bad. Also, there were a lot of young travelers on the cart with us, so we played card/ drinking games and swapped stories. I think our ticket was like $40ish dollars. Chiang Mai is the big city in the mountains. We stayed in the mountain region for almost a week then booked flights (about 3 days out) to the beaches. We flew from CM to Phuket (booked first class by accident). Since we were there, I went ahead and booked my flight from Phuket back to Bangkok so I would not have to deal with it from the beach towns, and not knowing how much internet access I would have. For the flight to from CM to Phuket and Phuket to BKK was under $200 and one again, was first class.






The train was an older train, but complete with seats that fold down into beds and restrooms. The train maid comes and sets up shop for you with sheets, blankets and pillows. The views from this train make you thankful for what you left at home and amazed by what God created for us. I saw the poorest of poor villages and yet rode through beautiful national forest that winded around hills and mountains. When I opened my eyes from a rather well sleep, considering, I was anxious to get there. I could tell from my current surroundings- outside the train, I was going to love CM.

Chiang Mai means “new city”. This came from being the new Capital that was founded in 1426. It is the largest city in the northern region and one of the most cultural in the country. CM is the Capital of the CM Provence. She rest 435 miles North of Bangkok. Four “wards” make up the CMP and 1 million peeps reside within the four wards. Just this year it was named by Trip Advisor as one of the “25 best destinations in the world”. That alone is pretty darn impressive.








Once we got to CM we went to Tom’s apartment ($115 a month for a loft style room with balcony and with bathroom, toilet shower and hot water). From the train station there we took a songthaew which is basically at small pick up truck with seats and a roof built into the back bed. When we arrived at Tom’s apartment I could see why Tom loved it so much here. It’s a big city, with a small town feel tucked up in the mountains. The air is cool in the morning and evenings and the people are young, hip and very nice. I unloaded my stuff and just sat down for a moment. We sat on Tom’s balcony, had a beer and looked at the mountains, while we discussed our next move. It was decided the next move would be to find Uncle Buddy a hotel room. Right across the street was a hotel with a very impressive lobby, free breakfast, maid service, large bed, hot water, and private bath all for the bargain price of about $20.00 a night.



From there we head to grab some lunch and book flight to the beach. We thought we might as well get that out of the way. Cruising down the side walk we saw a tiny salad shop called The Salad Concept. One of the best salads I’ve ever had! http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293917-d1977921-Reviews-The_salad_concept-Chiang_Mai.html . It was at that moment I was really surprised about the culture I was visiting. Here I was in Thailand, a place many people could not even tell you where it was, sitting in the AC eating a dank salad with cool artwork hanging around me.





After booking our flights we went to visit one of the most famous Wats in the CM area, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. This was by far my most favorite. We took a songthaew up to the entrance. The vibrant colored dragons that line the entrance staircase, let me know that I was about to enter something pretty spectacular. But I just had no idea how moving this place would be. After climbing yet another 302 steps you can’t help but stop at the top and take it all in. The beauty makes you speechless. Once more, I was enamored by the detail, colors, history, meaning, respect and the people in general. It’s no wonder that Thailand is named the Land of Smiles! This saying was specific to this country. They wanted to have a name that would be inviting to tourist as, Thailand’s main source of income from the get go, was tourism. The older generation is intriguing to look at. I wanted to sit and just listen to stories. Their smiles, eyes, skin and mannerisms made you feel like all was well in the world. From the very top, you can see all of the mountains and CM.










When we got back in the city, we showered and headed out for a night on the town. Tom took us to a wonderful eatery– ha, it was Italian, but still very good. From here Uncle Buddy wandered around and Tom and I went out! We started off with the Saturday night bazaar, the Wualai Market in CM’s Old City District. There were hundreds of vendors lined up along the closed blocks that bordered the moat and walls of the Old City.  There were plays, magic shows, fire shows, food, crafts, clothes, art work and beyond. The market is each Saturday from 4pm to 11pm.




Riverside Bar http://www.theriversidechiangmai.com/  was our next stop. Their live music and drinks were calling our names. It was 10 pm and not an open seat in the house due to people still eating dinner. Let me tell you, I love a city were you can still eat out after 9pm! The structure was made of dark wood and had an open layout. The entire back side was open, no doors, windows, etc..  The band was jamming out to American tunes. They were Thai Hipsters and everyone was moving! In Thailand you can purchase a pint of liquor, a mixer and ice for about $3. Sang Som was poison I picked, a Thai Whiskey. From there we went to http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Drunken-Flower-Bar-Restaurant-1996/211352132223226 The Drunken Flower, a Tom favorite. It’s a little  bar with a wicked cool owner. Here you could buy a bottle of Sang Som and if you didn’t finish it, not to worry- you can Sharpie your name on it and come back whenever you like to finish it! After Tom played DJ (there was a cd collection that made mine look insignificant) behind the bar for a while, we then headed to the disco- Moisture. Ha, such a cliché name.  The ride over was rather fun. We met some young guys our age at a bar across the street from The Drunken Flower. They all had motor bikes and were heading to Moisture as well. They gave us a lift. I rode with Khwan and Tom with Kikkok









There are times in your life where you look back and think “mmm, maybe that was not the smartest thing I’ve ever done”, but I believe in humanity and the general good in people. I choose to believe no one would hurt me- just because. However, I’m acutely aware of this flaw. On the flip side, I desire to live my life and not be afraid to take chances. I have never been a fan of the “what if” game. That game will ruin you…. And unquestionably shelter you.  My fondest memories, experiences, lessons and ‘ahhhh-haaaa’ moments have partly come from doing things that were not planned or ‘smart’. Things that I “should not” have been doing. I will not stress my mother out with all the stories & details. Hitching rides with Khwan and Kikkok was one of those moments- It’s almost hard to describe the feeling of zipping through streets full of people, cars, music, night markets, with someone you just met- but knowing you where in good hands. It really allows you to see the culture and city from a perspective. Even if Tom and I had rented motor-bikes, which you very well can do, it would not have been the same.  Tom and I arrived safely with wind blown hair, huge smiles and several new friends. After dancing for hours, we parted ways and Tom and I retreat back to his apartment. Elephant Day was drawing very near.



To our surprise, a friend Spence Martin was traveling SE Asia with his girlfriend, Sara Bott. Tom and I knew Spence from home. We knew they were up in Laos and were hoping to meet up with him on their way back into Thailand. With several emails behind us, we were sharing Elephant Day with them as well! We all met at Tom’s apartment and from there took a Songthaew that was going to take us to Maesa Elephant Camp http://www.maesaelephantcamp.com/ , in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Round trip to the Camp and back was about 1500 baht, so about $46 round trip for each of us. It was about a two hour ride and the last hour we were deep in the mountains. Once there, we bought tickets and started down the guided path where Thai children were encouraging you to purchase bananas and pure stick of sugar cane. Apparently, elephants like bananas and sugar cane. Actually, they love it. After a feeding session, off to watch bath time! Probably 10 or so elephants of all ages and sizes are in the river with their Mahout http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahout or care giver. They are being washed, teeth brushed, sprouting out water, rolling around and talking! Every last one of them was putting on quiet the show. From here we head to the arena where we watch- true story- elephants play soccer, stack logs and the most mind blowing… painting. Yes painting, with a paint brush, paint, easel, and canvas. These pieces of art were available for 2,000 baht- about $57 dollars.  Finally, we get to ride them. There were baskets on the elephants back. Their Mahout sat right above the neck. We boarded buy climbing stairs with a platform that was the height of the elephants. Uncle Buddy has is own, Tom and I on one and Spence and Sara behind us. We took about a hour tour through the camp habitat, woods and mountains.











It is in Thailand where I feel in love with Elephants. They are beautiful, kind, smart creatures. Thai people believe they are a symbol of good luck, and now so do I.

Dinner time had approached by the time we got back into the city. After showering and a quick freshen up, Tom suggest we go for nice authentic Thai meal. It was one of his favorites, Khun Churn, http://vegetariankhunchurn.blogspot.com/ . The five of us sat there for 3 hours, as if we were locals, taking our time devouring each item that was ordered and placed in front of us, as if it were our last meal. We must have ordered 10 or 12 dishes and shared them all. We had adult spirits to quench our thirst and incredible company. Uncle Buddy was determined to pick up the bill, so us four youngsters, let him… I for one still had a few days left in CM and then 5 days at the beaches! Astonishingly, the bill was around $45.00 dollars. After dinner, Uncle Buddy went to get a massage and we stopped by The Drunken Flower to finish our bottle of Sang Som then we all decided it was time to pass out. I had yet to get a massage and I decided it was time to change that! I walked across the street to the massage parlor from Tom’s apartment and asked for a Traditional Thai massage; I think it was 45 or 50 baht- so $2 or $3! One of the best massage schools in Thailand is at the University of Chiang Mai, so I just knew this would be one of the best $3 I ever spent. Welp, let me tell you. I am NOT a fan of the Traditional Thai Massage. It was rather painful. I was a little concerned when I was asked to lie on the floor and keep all my clothes on. I could not help but think how this is was going to work!? I was actually. In. Pain. Several times she asked if I was ok. I was indeed ok, but it was not pleasant. Embarrassed and not sure what to do, I pushed through for 45 minutes. I was pulled and pressed all over my body with her knees, elbows and knuckles. When I walked out of there, I laughed and told Tom what I had just been through. He said what I really wanted was a hot oil Thai massage. Just the title of that sounded better than what I had just experienced. Since we were white water rafting the next day, I figured I’d go back for round two after getting tormented by the aqua.




One thing you must prepare yourself for are early mornings, if you want excursions. We were to leave at 8 am. The Songthaew was full with just Uncle Buddy, Tom and I along with a couple other locals.  An hour or so along the way, we stopped at some tiny village and were told to grab food and use the restroom, as it would be a while before we were able to either again. We got off and scattered. We had 30 to do whatever we needed to do. After paying 1baht to use the restroom, we walked across the street to the market. This was a market unlike what we had seen yet. There was hanging meat (keep in mind it is at least 90 out) with flies everywhere, colorful fruits, people cooking on hot tops, live stock, etc...












The last hour of the ride was rough- very bumpy and on very authentic dirt roads. We saw roaming elephants on the sides of hills, just hanging out. It was hard to believe this was a legit tour place once we arrived. Siam Adventure Tours rest in the middle of a mountain within a village on a calm river. Once we arrived, they had fresh pineapple and juice for us! Lunch was also included. It was a pumpkin curry chicken with veggies and rice. After our snack, we were given the run down. We had about an hour to kill once we got there. The guides were now cooks. They cooked up a meal for all 20 of us. While they slaved in the kitchen we walked around the village. There was an old wooden bridge that looked like something from Indiana Jones, but being the dare devils we are, we walked across. At this point I felt like I was more in Vietnam that Thailand. The only colors around were the brown river, wooden bridges and houses, blue skies and green trees. The vibrancy had disappeared. Granted there were splotches of color here and there, within the homes and tiny gardens or the wild chickens wandering down the dirt paths, but overall- a totally different feel! I, at the point, felt like I was in a 3rd world country. No big buildings. No cars. No noise, other than nature. No busy streets. No pavement. No electricity. This tiny village of maybe 50 people lived and worked here daily. Probably knew no different and they were or at my sight, completely content. I was intrigued and grateful all over again.

After we ate it was time to board our boat. Our boat was just Tom, Uncle Buddy, our guide and I. We rafted down the river in about 2hours. It was Uncle Buddy’s first time. To our surprise there were some actual white water areas! We managed through with no accidents. Another boat was not so lucky, they flipped coming into a sharp turn!! The family members were all ok though. By the end of the day I was worn out and day dreaming about that hot oil massage. Once back in the city, we stopped and got some yum yum from a few street vendors, and then I headed off to get my massage. Let me tell you, a hot oil Thai massage, is what it is alllllll about. And it is $4.00. Yes, $4.00. I gave her $10- just because I felt like I was ripping her off! After we all relaxed a bit, we headed off to a late dinner, I wish I could recall the name but it was delightful. The food was fresh and delicious. We had a booth in the whimsical outdoor seating area.  

This was our last night in CM and we had an early morning flight. The three of us walked the night market and took the long scenic route home after supper and called it a night. 

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