Thursday, 28 May 2009

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was mint, could have spent a long time here as the place had a lot to offer but it would also have cost me an arm and a leg as the excursions weren't cheap. This was to be my very final stop in my now 2 month trip around Thailand and while I didn't really think about it too much at the time I was pretty sad that this was the last time I was going to be in Thailand properly. There is just something about this country that really appeals to me I just feel there is a real sense of fun in everywhere I have been here, its quality.

Chaing Mai reminded me a lot of Kyoto in Japan. It was the countries second biggest cities so was a similar size to Kyoto. It geography was also fairly similar. It was a pretty short city with very few tall buildings and was surrounded by mountains and countryside. The place even looked fairly similar to Kyoto in terms of architecture minus Chaing Mai city wall and with none of the crazy neon Japanese stuff you get everywhere there. I wasn't totally blown away by it as I felt the best things the place had to offer were to be found a few hours away in the various trips and treks you could do from the city but I still liked it a lot from the very minute we turned up.

I think one of the reason for my instant like of the Chaing Mai was the circumstance to which I arrived and the way we got there. We had a number of options of getting to Chaing Mai which were all a pretty similar prices. We could either bus, fly or take the sleeper train. We've done loads of buses, I've been on loads of planes but I have never had the chance to a sleeper train so it seemed like the obvious choice. It was not only an obvious choice in terms of adding a new experience to my travels, it was also the best decision I have ever as it just flew by. There was no fussing around with checking in a waiting times you get with planes, no shitty uncomfortable seats with Vietnamese karaoke on the TV the entire journey that I had come to expect on buses. It was just buy your ticket, jump on, chill out for a bit in your seats then when we wanted you would ask the captain?! or whatever the hell you call the guy on the train to turn your seat into the a bed, get in and then wake up on the other side. It was perfect.

I woke up after something like 12 hours sleep in Chiang Mai station and felt so awake that I wouldn't need to sleep again for at least 4 days. It had the mental alertness to battle with the accommodation touts at the station entrance and even the energy to be able to not necessarily having to take the first hostel we came to through fear of anymore traipsing around the street would cause me to collapse from exhaustion. A situation I had been in, in nearly every city I had been to in Asia so far.

The hostel we decided to stay in was real nice. It was a family run place which they not only ran but also all lived in as well. I think there must have been at least 3 generations living there as there were bloody loads of them. The room we stayed in had possible the gayest interior to any room we had stayed in so far. We decided to save a bit of money and ask for them to take the TV out of the room. I don't know why it made any difference to price really but it was nice to think we were saving some money. I think I should mention at this point that Australian Pete was still with us meaning we had almost spent an entire month with him which was quality.

Another benefit of the hostel was that we were able to book all the tour and activities we wanted to do in Chiang Mai directly through there at a good price as well. The hostel had been going for 22 years so they had built up some very loyal contacts who gave them good discounts on tours and treks which us backpackers could then take advantage of. The main reason people come to Chiang Mai is for the treks and other activities available in the surrounding area so we were literally spoilt for choice for things we could do while we were there.

The first things I signed up for was the Thai cooking course, which was quality.

As well as this we also signed up to do a days white water rafting and ATVing or All terrain vehicle'in or just quad biking to me and you. The quad biking trek was great fun, if not in parts a little scary. It was a 3 hour ride along road, dirt tracks and jungle as we made our way to the top of the river where we would eventually be white water rafting from. The hossing about on the road I loved. I do enjoying driving when I'm back home so was good fun to get back out and ride about the roads again, especially on a quad bike and especially around the Thai country side. We were on the road for about 40 minutes till we eventually came across the turning we had to take that would take us up to the top of the river. However while when I was on the road I was fine, no problem at all and loving it, the minute I hit the dirt track I seemed to turn into an absolute spaz and couldn't control the bike for the life of me. Now I like to think there was something wrong with the bike and it wasn't my complete lack of driving abilities but it probably was that but I just couldn't seem to stop the bike from veering off to the right. It seemed like the ultimate struggle to get the thing to go in a straight line. It wasn't really bothering me to much but it was a pain. I eventually ended up in a bush which was annoying but unfortunately no one was around to see my spectacular decent into the vegetation which was shame.

We soon made off the dirt track and into the jungle. It was now an absolute mission controlling the thing, I was going through at a snails pace which Pete in front of us was standing up, wheel spinning and donuting having one hell of a time, all the time I was just fighting the thing not to go right. Eventually the things was going to get the better of me and it did. No longer even on a dirt path just on a simple straight road I felt myself slowly going off to the right and before I knew it I was heading up a mud bank. Errr ooooohh I thought to myself as I started driving up towards the clouds. Likely the old noggin' kicked in and seemed to think it was a good idea to bail at this point and rightly so. I jumped backwards in the opposite direction the bike was going and as I spun onto the ground I could see out of the corner of my eye a few meters away a rather large quad bike do quite a spectacular flip in the air. I got to my feet as quickly as I could adrenaline pumping just trying to work out how the hell I got out of that one without even a scratch, bruise or broken bone on me. Even more remarkable was the fact I had my SLR on my back and that didn't even have a scratch on it either! Despite doing a couple of barrel rolls as I rolled away to safety. I just remember Tommy shouting from behind as arrived on scene "are you ok?" " yeah" I replied as I tired to work out what had just happened. The third amazing stoke of luck was there wasn't even any damage to the bike! The seat fell of but our Thai guide just whacked that on when they eventually came back to find out where the hell me and Tommy were. Not before they had a good old laugh at me and taken a few pictures of the upside down bike on their mobiles. Not the reaction I was expecting from them at all. I guess Chuck Norris was watching my back that day. So like the absolute warrior I am surviving the crash, headed on a bit further up the road to the white water rafting start point. Although I must admit my confidence was now in tatters.

After the ATV trek we were given a free lunch at the white water rafting base to give us a bit of energy before we made the 2 hour decent down the river back to the minibus to take us back to our hostel. Me met up with 2 other guys at the top who had been riding elephants all morning while we were quad biking. So the 5 of us along with 4 other guys who worked at the rafting center began getting ready for the long ride down.

The first thing we did was get in the boat on dry land and choose which positions we were going to sit in the raft. We then went through and practiced all the various drills we would need to do while heading down the river which we would need to do so that we didn't capsize or anyone fall out. We also practiced the drill for what to do if someone did fall out of the boat. It was all very reassuring that they were running through everything before we got in the boat and they didn't just set us off expecting us to be able to get the hang of it straight away. We practiced all switching over to onside to help with the steering as well as all getting inside the boat encase things got a bit choppy. Even the practicing of the maneuvers was good fun, so I couldn't wait to get into the water!

After the short practice session we got geared up with out helmets and life jackets and headed on down to the river. I shared a boat with only Pete and Kyle, a meat head American from Mississippi. He was a right laugh in more of the laugh at right laugh rather than I funny guy. He was a patriotic marine who also loved guitar hero. He was very serious about the rafting and it did make me laugh as he shouted and woohoooed his way down to the bottom. The first 30 or so minutes were fairly causal as we headed towards the white water giving us a chance to get accustomed to our boat. So I spend the majority of this time chatting to Kyle about xbox360 games which was a very pleasant way of passing the time! We eventually hit the white water and it was just aweeesome, we got thrown all over the place and was just an amazing way to cool off in the afternoon sun. We bounced and crashed into the rocks, spinning around backwards and just generally powering our way to the bottom. I can safely say I have a brand new favorite hobby and something I am definitely going to do again be it on this trip or back home somewhere. It was some serious fun!! We even got merked by our captain who decided to intentionally capsize us at one point the joker! This gave us a bit of time to chillout and also allowed me for the first time to test whether a life jacket actually works and it did as it kept me nice and buoyant.

Myself and Tommy decided to stay in Chiang Mai and extra day than what we had planned so that we could catch the campions leauge final and didn't miss it stuck on a bus between here and Laos. It wasn't going to kick off in Thailand till 1:40am so Tommy wanted to get some kip so he was nice and awake for the game. I couldn't be assed to do this as I am not a homo like Tommy. So I twiddled my thumbs trying to think about what could kill a few hours so decided I would go for a walk around Chiang Mai. I set off at about 11ish and 10km I finally made it back to the hostel just in time for kick off. I had ended up walking around the entire city of Chiang Mai by just following the surrounding wall. It was a good few hours walking and allowed me to see a huge amount of the city. It was around the 5km point I was pretty much fed up of my walk but at this point I was really at a point of no return it was either 5km back or 5km a head of me so I opted just to keep going. I realized about half way round how much my attitude towards this country had changed since I had first arrived here. When I first got to Thailand for some reason I just felt everyone was out to mug me. When mine and Tommy went for a walk for the first time in Bangkok we padlocked all our zips and were very suspicious of everyone we saw. But here I was 2 months later, no pad locks or anything just strolling around the city in the earlier hours of the morning. If the guy from Quantum Leap had come back in time and told me that is what I would be doing when I was in Thailand I wouldn't have believed him as I probably would have been too scared of getting robbed. I guess it just shows how my travels are chiang my attitudes towards things and how I no longer instantly thought everyone in Thailand was a thief (haha). I guess the main reason for this is just how friendly everyone here is, its so nice and just make you fell so relaxed all the time. Sometimes I wish it would be a bit more like that back home, but I doubt it will ever change.

On my walk earlier that evening I had walked past a huge bar filled with Thais all getting geared up for the game. The Asians bloody love the premiership, or the EPL as they call it out here, so watching the game with the Thais was a must! I called Tommy who was just waking up so while I waited for him to join me a popped into a bar just down the road for a bottle of Chang and watched a local Ska band play. The Thai youths here also seem to love ska and ska punks a lot as this was the second time I had seen them all skankin' away to it. I think they were a bit like who the hell is this guy when I rocked up and just sat at the bar having a beer watching them all but I didn't care, was just cool to see them all rocking out.

Tommy eventually showed up and we headed off to watch the game. We sat down and the game kicked off, for the first 10 minutes Man U were on fire and so were the Thais. They would scream and shout and every near attempt or basically every time Man U made it into Barcelona's half. Unfortunately after the 10 minute mark Man U didn't really do anything else and nor did the Thais. It could have been the best football game of my life ever had Man U played a bit better as the Thais would just have gone mad. But never mind those brief 10 minutes of madness were better than nothing.

As it turns out while we were in Chiang Mai just happened to be right in the middle of a big Buddhist festival that happens here every year. I don't know what the festival was called or what exactly it is celebrating but it meant that there was a heck of a lot going on every evening was there. Each night a huge midnight market was being held stretching for kilometers down the main streets in the city. As well as the this the main Buddhist temple in the city was also open to the public later into the early hours allowing people to come worship while the festival went on. I wasn't really sure what was going on but one part of the festival involved a large zip line which monks would will with water and then members of the public could hoist it up right to the top of a huge temple and let them pour the water over the top. No idea what this was symbolising but I guess there was some sort of cleansing ritual thrown in there somewhere. It was very lucky that we juts happened to be in Chiang Mai whilst this festival was going on as there was just a real buzz about the city while we were there and while we didn't understand what was going on we tried to get involved as much as we could trying to see everything that was on offer.

I had a brilliant time in Chiang Mai and was very sad to leave. I am pleased we had moved out flight to Australia back allowing us to properly appreciate this place as well as giving us time to hit Laos properly as well. I had 3 great experience here 2 of which I am definitely going to do again, the quad biking not so much, but the water water rafting and the cooking course were superb. Chiang Mai = Mega funzzz