Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangkok to Chiang Meh...

Do Monks pay for Tuk-Tuk rides??

Hedgey pondering- "hmm.. do monks pay for Tuk-Tuks?"
- a view of Chiang Mai from the lookout at Doi Suthep

This was the question that set us on the trail of the orange-robed monk through the quaint paved streets of the old city of Chiang Mai.

“I mean, they don’t earn money do they? …and I’m pretty sure they ride the bus for free”, Kimee says in my ear as we follow him, two-bikes-back.

Suddenly, his driver pulled a swifty – a sneaky U-turn before disappearing through the gates of a temple. It seemed a little too mischievous to follow. We were never to know - I guess I’ll Google it. Though if this trip has taught us anything, it’s that the unknown can be the sweetest.

But Chiang Mai was not where we left off – after a long, sleepless, smoky, music-filled overnight bus ride from Batu Karas to Jakarta, and a plane ride, we had arrived in Bangkok!

Our splurge- a room with a view in Bangkok
This is the second time we’ve been to Bangkok. Our first was a half-assed attempt to check it out tacked on the end of a lazy week in Phuket a few years back. That time, we were pretty unimpressed.

This time we really wanted to dig a little deeper.

Just looking at Bangkok – geographically – it’s central to so many powerful influences. It’s a hub, and though neither of us are big city buffs, “they” say it’s a traveller’s city – that you can’t be bored in Bangkok. After two lazy weeks in Batu Karas that sounded pretty good! We arrived with a head of steam, eager to check it out.

Our best move was staying in Thanon Sukhumvit – the international part of town, known less for backpackers than for its glitzy shopping centres. It is, nonetheless, home to little Italy, little Japan, little India, little Arabia,  little Mexico and others – and all the delights that smorgasbord of culture offers.

Did I mention little Japan? Yes… I think I did.

In a word…Bangkok was sweet!!! Somewhere I saw it written that “Bangkok worships at many alters” – though we haven’t spent enough time (or sold enough of our souls) to offer a definitive perspective on this, we saw enough. Some people are here just to rip it up for a weekend, and there are plenty of places to do just  that (whether you’re young…or old).

Our highlight?

Kimee and I are very proud to announce that we are expecting Ramen twins. One each. Even having left Bangkok it’s most delicious legacy remains – we have fat bellies. This news was a surprise to us, though we know they were conceived at Bankara Ramen house in little Japan. We’re embarrassed to admit we’re not sure which night.

Hedgey in ramen heaven- Bankara bliss
If Bankara was a win, then the elusive ‘CafĂ© the Flow’ was our fail. But you need some losses to make you appreciate the wins, right?

A three hour expedition into the grungy streets 20 blocks north of Kao San Road was a string of wrong-turns and Tuk-Tuk rides that saw us pass up a number of ‘I’d-be-okay-with-that’ street stalls in search of a place that had been well lauded but not so well mapped online.

Three hours later our blood sugar was still rock bottom and we were hating each other (don’t worry – we love each other again). Joe-average Pad Thai on Kao San Road was salt in the wound (for me anyway – Kimee had long since stormed off).

There is plenty to do in Bangkok other than eat though. We explored using the world-class sky train system that was right by our hotel. Buddhist temples are everywhere and appear just…BANG.. right there. They are a spectacle but we didn’t make the time to tour them thoroughly on this trip.

There are intriguing old stories around these temples (that are an everyday part of the Thai landscape now) that I hope to one day understand in more depth – their significance is interwoven with a history of struggles with empires and adversaries from India, Myanmar and across the SE Asian mainland. Without fully appreciating that context, these beautiful gilded places of worship were unjustly generic to us.

After a few low-key days out of action with colds, we learned our lesson in peak-season travel – the overnight sleeper train we planned to take to the Northern provinces was booked solid for the next week. So, on the morning of the King’s birthday we boarded an early train north to Chiang Mai.

I need more than a paragraph to explain the gravity and importance of the Thai King and royal family in Thailand. His image adorns entrances, places of worship and public spaces – from the most humble eateries to royal palaces. It was a hard decision to forego the festivities of his birthday in Bangkok, but we were northward bound!

After a 14 hour train ride (and having not been fed as promised), we arrived in Chiang Mai knowing we had to plan better and travel in shorter stints.

Floods were the scenery for an hour of the train ride.
The day trip did, however, afford us a close up of the still flooded towns north of Bangkok. Beyond the initial devastation, the floods told a story of persistent inconvenience – sandbagged houses, with boats the main mode of transport.

We woke up the next day in Chiang Mai, feeling a long way from Bangkok. To give a little perspective, Chiang Mai is the hub city in Northern Thailand. Paths to and from here are very well worn - it has a healthy bar scene and an a la carte selection of package tours for the steady flow of backpackers.

Retired Englishmen are everywhere – they are the friendly and helpful proprietors of guesthouses all over the city. We were never far from a bacon and eggs brekky, and there’s a Starbucks and Maccas on the main street.

All that said, Chiang Mai isn’t without its charms. The Old City’s paved streets and many temples are  bordered by ancient crumbling walls, moats and huge doors. These remnants of a city that lived under siege from Burmese and other invaders are not fenced-off historical antiquities, but features of today’s Chiang Mai.

We lingered (as long as our colds) in Chiang Mai. We enjoyed the night market and the weekend walking markets. Yep – another city, another market. There was the usual array of generic trinkets but it’s always worth a wander – unique, locally made food and crafts are the diamonds in the rough and Chiang Mai had plenty. These vendors are also the best to chat with, though unlike in Central America, the language is still often our barrier.

After three days of sickness, we had to improve our blood-fun levels. Only one thing for it!

Sweet, sweet freedom – on a freshly rented scooter we were leaning into the sweeping corners of the road up to Doi Suthep – the mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai.

We stopped at a lookout halfway up, completely brought back to life by the ride. The view was magnificent. Kimee excitedly orders us a coffee and a bag of small doughnut-balls that look like Timbits (for the Canadians reading).

Just as I’m snapping her picture with them (coffee+’timbits’+mountain views were warming her patriotic Canadian heart), Kimee expectantly stuffs down a few of the ‘sweet-treats’. She later described the contents as tasting like shrimp paste- even for a local of the country that invented Caesars, this was too much to handle. I got an action shot of the reaction (below) – it’s taken the edge of her experimental impulses since.

*BARRRRRF*- Biggest. Disappointment. Ever.
 20 minutes later we were in the mist-drenched peak roads, lamenting leaving our extra jumpers at home. My hands were frozen and we were taking turns wearing my fleece (chivalry is DEAD). We stopped to enjoy a fresh coffee in a little hut beside the road, which looked over a small coffee plantation, before continuing on to a Karen Hill tribe village.
Having a cuppa overlooking the coffee plantation on Doi Suthep
With its simple shacks and colourfully dressed women, the village was so cool to see, but they couldn’t have cared less about us. Package tours to the hill tribes are a dime-a-dozen in Chiang Mai, as are the tourists to these people’s homes. ‘Human Zoo’ could be a little strong, but despite their fascinating history, meaningful interactions are a thing of the past.

We stopped in at Wat Doi Suthep on the way back down to see close up the spectacular gilded temple that is visible from most places in Chiang Mai. Climbing the 300 steps to the entrance was the first real exercise we’d done since Batu Karas, so we did it twice.

There are, however, some experiences you just can’t pass up. The chance to get up close and personal (at least up close) with two of the regions best known natives was one such experience.

The next morning we scootered up the highway to Tiger Kingdom. We ignored the price, we ignored the tourists and we ignored being herded like cattle. How often do you get the chance to pat a tiger?

But something was wrong about the whole thing! The enclosures were a decent size, and the conditions and treatment about as good as possible when you’re caging such an instinctively wild animal.

It was that these creatures absolutely ooze power. We were in the cage with the largest tigers at the park for 15 minutes – in the rare moment that one of them acknowledged my presence, fixing my stare with his eyes – all the superlatives people use about seeing emotions in eyes went out the window. Fear? Sadness? Hunger? (thanks v. much Eric Carmen). I saw nothing. Translucent and empty as a clear glass marble. I was absolutely in-sig-nificant.

The horny, pacing male was the most raw display of animal instinct, but lying next to those huge cats, every atom of my being knew this animal could do with me whatever it pleased.

He humoured the keeper swatting him with a stick, but it was an intimidating concession. These were, none the less, cats. A long bamboo branch with some tattered leaves got its attention, directing its gaze for the best of our photos, which semi-staged as they were, we’ll gladly use…here.

We wandered the enclosures for a while. The whole time we’d heard the howling of a female in heat through the whole park. Just as we neared her, a young male Lion in a cage next to us started to talk back. I was right outside his enclosure as he let out a series of bowel-loosening roars. If you’re using the introduction to an MGM movie as a touch point – forget it. Dolby surround sound doesn’t have balls anything like this animal. I couldn’t imagine meeting one in the wild.

 Ten minutes ride up the road was the elephant village. Home to a few dozen rescued and born-in-captivity Pachyderms. No game of Elephant-soccer, dart-throwing or Guinness-world-record-elephant-painted-whatever could take much away from the experience of having two Elephant trunks wrap around your neck and shoulders – trunks that we’d watched, minutes before, lift 30-foot logs like matchsticks. Again, a euphorically unnatural feeling but entirely unforgettable.

Ivory tusks feel a lot harder and stronger than I thought – they feel like smooth stone. And watching…listening to an elephant chew crunchy sticks of sugarcane up close – think of your favourite satisfying sound and you’re there :)


Only one statistic really matters in this post.

Visits to Bankara Ramen House… x 1.

….okay.  …x2.

Definitely not x3.

Eager to check out some of the small towns deeper into northern Thailand, we’ve since left Chiang Mai for Pai – a town we first heard about from the Cabarita surfer I mentioned in our first post. We’ve since heard and read much about Pai – hippie enclave, paradise on earth, developing scene… has-been-scene. We’re completely sick of hearing everyone’s take on the place, but absolutely can’t wait to share with you ours :)

Spoiler alert: Pai was awesome. Stay posted.

For now, love from somewhere around the Mekong!
Kimee and Hedge

Stocking up on hammock fodder.
Kimee and her new found friend

I only travel in style!

1 comment:

  1. to live vicariously through you right now....feel the tension of the tiger and the tusks against my skin...Write on....Right on!