Monday, 25 March 2013

... Indochina: Now I'm The King Of The Jungle

I suspect I'm too jet lagged (sounds better than old, right?) to tolerate some loud mouthed thoughtless Brit who decided, at 11pm, it would be a fantastic idea to yell & scream like a girl in his drunken stupor in the carriage which I and a potential 38 other people were trying to sleep in. As politely as I could I gave him a piece of my mind. I think I scared him. An Asian girl in a bunk diagonal to mine mouthed a grateful thank you - she had already been in her bunk before I got into mine around 845pm. I saw him again at 130am, admittedly a damn sight quieter, still wandering up & down the carriage for Lord only knows what reason. He apologized yet again as I gave him the death stare whilst I climbed out of my bunk to go and pee in a hole in the floor in the toilet. "I still want to punch you in the head," I silently thought to myself.

Yep traveling attracts arseholes as well as some wonderful people.

I rode 2nd class to Chiang Mai. This meant that I would get a bunk in a carriage that sleeps 40 of us with each bunk separated by blue curtains. I had a top bunk which the staff set up for you either at your request or if you've wandered off to the "Disco car".

I had to check it out. It had, admittedly, been slightly oversold. I turned up in a pair of Keens rather than sequins and found a couple of strings of flashing Christmas lights, a bunch of typical train-type seats and tables and a bar that served alcohol and Thai style food. Predominantly occupied by Brits there was also a couple of Europeans and an American. The waiter bopped his head to the music and someone grabbed me to stand up and dance to Gangnam style. Yes I can now say I have danced to Gangnam style on a train in Thailand. "Wanna bet they'll play Mambo no. 5?" asked Maura, the American. Of course they did. I had to ask the two 19 year old girls how on earth they knew the words to this song. "I remember it from my childhood." What, when you were 3?!? When the Bollywood-infused, and quite frankly dreadful, cover of the Knightrider theme came on Maura & I were laughing as we were told "never heard of that show". After almost being force-fed some Jim Beam (gross) and some Thai rum (yummy but could only manage about a thimble worth straight) by Da, the tiny Thai girl who likes to eat KFC and can drink spirits neat, I decided it was time to shimmy my way to bed.

Whilst the bunks are way more comfier than what I had traveling overnight from Cairo to Aswan in Egypt I didn't sleep all that great. Seemed to be in 2-3 hour segments. As usual I woke at 4am and couldn't get back to sleep. The train also doesn't seem to travel all that fast. Around 815am we pulled into Chiang Mai station and I hopped into a red sorngtaaou, which functions like a cross between a taxi & a bus, to head to my guest house.

Popular with both tourists and Thai's, Chiang Mai is a city of temples and culture. It is also a popular base for trekking the hill-tribes. North of the city, the province becomes mountainous forests. An increasingly popular means of traveling through this is via pachyderm.... Aka elephant. Elephants have a huge battle with their mere existence on this planet and in Thailand it has been no exception. With the banning of logging these creatures, used as forest fellers, faced exploitation and near extinction of the mahout tradition. A homegrown campaign is now doing quite well to give these beautiful creatures a safe working environment in semi-wild sanctuaries and ecotourism programs. Maetang Elephant Park, about an hour drive into the hills from Chiang Mai,  is one such outfit. The Chailert family have dedicated their lives to the protection of the Asian elephant and also the welfare of the mahouts and their families. They have an informative website highlighting their commitment to this wonderful cause.

You will suspend all your prior ideas and beliefs about elephants. You arrive knowing they are huge, powerful, beasts of the wild. After listening to the park staff speak about their elephants, you will just walk up to one, and without thinking, offer it a stick of sugar cane or a banana. You will run your hand over its head and trunk as though you are petting a beloved pet. You will giggle as it keeps reaching for more bananas from you, leaving a trail of snot on the palm of your hand. You will fall in love with the baby elephant. All this before you even climb onto one of their backs to ride out into the jungle. You will get to sit on the neck if you're brave enough, feeling the ears flap against your legs. You listen to mama talk to her baby in a low rumbling noise or make the typical elephant noise just like in all the nature programs on TV. You will learn some basic commands so that you get a feel of what it is like as a mahout. If you're riding a playful elephant it will give you a spray with water when it stops to take a drink. The guides were very friendly, knowledgeable and patient, and thanks to them I had a very special and memorable experience.

And you will never again look at elephants in the same way! Fantastic!

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Theravada Buddhist temple in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, is one of Thailand's most famous temples. What a spectacular place, located about 25 minutes drive from central Chiang Mai, although it feels like you are miles away. It's really worth the effort to visit. The temple, built around 1350, is absolutely gorgeous and full of gold glory.

The history and legend of the temple you'll read more eloquently elsewhere, but basically, no one save for the King of Chiang Mai believed that a monk carrying a piece of bone truly had a relic of the Buddha.

In celebration of the find, the king sent a pure white elephant to the mountains carrying the bone as a means to find its resting place. The elephant blasted its trunk three times and died at the site of the temple.

For you it is after over 300 steep steps that you're awarded with the sight of Doi Suthep - and what a sight!

It was definitely worth the effort. Unfortunately it is currently burning season and so the views of Chiang Mai were too hazy to make out much but you will be more taken in by all the gold glistening in the sun anyway. Go to the temple for the 6pm chanting by the Monks and the sunset - an experience I won't forget!

Dinner was at a place called the Good View, aptly named for its location along the Ping River, where I tried the spicy Tom Yam Pla Chawn (serpent head fish soup). The food was great but the service a tad sporadic and I had to endure listening to a singer murder an Adele song. Afterwards I had a meander down to the Night Bazaar, where anything you could ever want you can find at a cheap price and Taphae Rd, which is one of the major arteries in Chiang Mai. I was making my way back to the guest house, after a pit stop at a stumbled upon Starbucks, when I came across the best find so far, "Fish & Feet" fish spa. You pay around $5 dollars to soak your feet in a tank full of hundreds of fish that eat the dead skin off your feet for 15 minutes (cheaper the longer the service so I opted for 30 minutes for my dreadful runners feet). The initial shock of all the fish sucking on my feet was enough to send me in to a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Strangest feeling ever! It tickles a bit but also feels like mini shocks kind of like a TENS machine that you may have had used on you by a physiotherapist. I left the spa with my tummy hurting, my feet tingling, and my skin actually feeling softer.

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