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We have just spent almost a week in northern Thailand, in Chaing Mai and today we leave Thailand for Laos.
Up to the North
We made it up to Chiang Mai on a local bus, where we were the only tourists. It was a great full service bus, with a stewardess, who brough us towels, drinks, food, water. Why can’t bus travel be like this at home? We arrived bleary eyed early in the morning and took our first tuk-tuk ride to our guesthouse, Julie’s which is one of those places that isn’t in the guidebooks, but is legendary among travellers. It is one of those few guesthouses that really make you feel at home and people end up staying months. Cheap rooms ($4), cheap and great food, and super friendly local staff. We were lucky to have emailed ahead to reserve a room because they are always booked.
Chiang Mai is a beautiful cultural northern city set in rolling hills. It offers tons of things for travellers – courses in anything Thai, treks into the hills to visit hilltribe villages, great shopping and the cheapest Thai massages yet ($4!).
First up for us was a
3 day/2 night trek into the surrounding hills of Chiang Mai. We met up with our group (us, 2 Americans, 4 Scots and 2 French) and first stop was the local police station to register ourselves for the trek. Is there a reason you have to register with the police??? We’ve told you over and over again that is is very hot and humid in SEA and Chiang Mai is no exception. After driving out to the area we would be trekking in, having lunch, we set off – uphill! We knew the trek wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but it was hard going. We were walking up extremely steep inclines through rivers and sweating so much that within a few minutes we were completely drenched in sweat. Most of the group was up for it, although the French girls struggled quite a bit (could it be all the cigarettes they stopped to smoke?)
The hilltribe villages are small villages high up in the hills that are ethnic minorities from Tibet, Myanmar, China and Laos. They are semi-nomadic people that have moved between political borders regularly and heavily marginalized. Historically they have not been given Thai citizenship,
exasperating their poor living conditions and leaving them unable to access basic health care, education and basic amenities. Trekking to the hilltribes can be controversial because it has helped protect their culture by providing tourism income for maintaining their traditional ways, by it has also provided continual exposure to outside influences. We opted to do a trek and tried to pick a company that did it in a culturally sensitive way.
After 3 hours of trekking uphill and reaching an altitude of 1,500 m, we reached the Lahu village we would be spending the night in. The villages still live in very basic conditions, without electricity or plumbing, although they do have a basic pipe system of running water. We even saw the occasional solar panel and a couple of generators. We really didn’t have a lot of interaction with the villagers, although the children did come to sing and dance in the evening. It did have a bit of a contrived tourist feel, however, we weren’t expecting first encounter-like experiences either. The children singing did remind us of Africa and interaction we had with villagers there. We slept in a bamboo hut on just a mat (very comfy…no,
who are we kidding?) and the cooking was done over fire. We spent the evening hanging out with our guide and his family at the hut. The guide was not from that village, however, was given a wife and now has a child.
It is the wet season here and it rained throughout the night and in the morning, the clouds rolled in, giving us a different kind of white out than home. We did get a chance to walk around the village and did find two other huts of trekkers, confirming our belief that this wasn’t a isolated village. The second day was our long walking day, where we walked for over 5 hours, straight, up and down hills. We walked through lots of different terrain – woodlands, bamboo jungles, rainforest. We stopped for lunch and it was cute that lunch consisted of noodles served on a banana leaf with banana stem chopsticks. We stopped at a small Shan village along the way and I made friends with a really cute little girl.
We finally did make it to our second camp, which was a bamboo hut beside a beautiful, massive waterfall. Our feet were aching, we
were hot and sweaty and it was great to jump into the super cold water of the falls. It was a beautiful place to be for the night and there were some really friendly kids that we played with. The experience really did remind us a lot of Africa, especially the children. It was great to play some cards that night with our fellow trekkers. It poured rain all night again, although this time our hut was not very waterproof and we got quite wet.
The last day, we trekked for 2 hours in the rain to reach an elephant camp. On the last day, we got to do a triathalon of activities. We started with an hour ride on the elephants – something we weren’t crazy about doing, but we were really impressed by how well they treated the elephants. Next up was white water rafting, which was pretty tame, but fun. We finished off with bamboo rafting down the river.
All in all it was a great trek and we got lots of exercise! When we were planning this trip, we had wanted to trek for a couple of weeks in Nepal and after 3 days,
we were pretty pooped, so I’m not sure how we would have held up doing a 2 week trek. Once we got back to town, we of course treated ourselves to a foot massage…ahhhh! Paul was very dedicated and woke up at 2am to watch the England game, before going back to sleep.
Wats, Wats and More Wats
Chiang Mai has almost as many wats (temples) as Bangkok, a city a lot larger than it – 350 of them. We decided to visit a few of the highlights and started with Wat U Mong, which is often referred to as the Forest Wat because it is located outside of the city in a forest. It was a beautiful wat to explore, with park like grounds. Next up was Wat Phra Singh, the largest wat in Chiang Mai. Lastly, we visited Wat Chedi Luang, a very old wat where the Emerald Buddha that we saw in Bangkok was originally kept.
Chiang Mai has a huge night market that consists of a street with tons of street vendors selling hilltribe crafts, Thai goods, and of course a Thai market wouldn’t be complete without counterfeit goods. It’s great shopping,
although you have to barter hard. We got to play the “calculator game” with the vendors, which involves them punching in their starting price into the calculator and then the calculator is passed to you. You punch in your initial offer into the calculator, which of course is met with much shock and disgust and you go from there, passing back and forth. We also enjoyed eating from the street stalls one last time.
Thai Cooking Class
Thai food is renowed for being a very tasty cuisine and we have really enjoyed eating the food here. We find the best food often comes from street stalls and we are getting quite accustomed to the spice. So knowing how much I love cooking, it wasn’t surprising that doing a cooking class here was a must and I managed to wrangle Paul along. It turned out to be one of my favourite days.
We had a great group of people in our class, which was a full day, where we learned to cook 6 different Thai dishes (Pad Thai Cookery School). We first started with a market tour, where they showed us some of the special Asian ingrediants and told
us what Western substitutes we can use at home. We then went to the cooking school, where they have an eating area, a preparation area and each person has their own cooking station. It was great to have all the ingrediants ready for you to use in your own personal tray and to not have to worry about the dishes. I wish someone would do that for me at home! Paul wants me to add, “as if you ever do the dishes”.
We made Pad Thai, Springrolls, Papaya Salad, Tom Yam (spicy soup), Green Curry, Stirfried Chicken with Cashew Nuts and Sticky Rice with Mango. It was so much fun learning how to cook it all and you actually felt like you could cook these dishes at home. So expect some yummy Thai food when you come over to our house for dinner! Even Paul had a fantastic time and you should have seen his concentration when rolling those spring rolls!
We are off to Laos today and while we are really excited about exploring Laos, which travellers all seem to rave about, we will be sad to leave Thailand. We have come to really like the country,
the people and of course the food and cheap massages. However, we will be back through Thailand a couple of times and will be able to indulge in a last minute massage or plate of phad thai.
Instead of a text quote, we thought we would leave you with a picture of a quote we liked from Wat U Mong (see bottom picture).