Thailand : Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai
Bangkok - Chiang Mai - Pai - Chiang Mai - Bangkok - Koh Phangan - Surat Thani - Padang Besar
28.12 - 3.1 Bangkok
We entered Bangkok during supper hour. The traffic being so congested, we arrive 3 hours later than scheduled. Bangkok is so big and modern - miles of high-rises, modern skyscrapers and crammed older ones, complex expressways and endless traffic! Last time i was here, i was 25, solo traveler and 'poor'. I remember being impacted by the sight of poverty, children beggars on buses, maimed beggars on sidewalks. I wonder what our children will see this time.
It's New Year so we were hoping to catch some big city fireworks. But when we arrived, we found ourselves in the midst of a country in mourning. Their beloved King just died. Even our taxi driver in speaking about his king, wiped his eyes. It could have been sweat but it could have been tears as well.
New year being peak season, we did not have many great choices for accommodations. Not really knowing where is good, we end up at an apartment far from city center . It was listed as close to transport but in fact it was close to the BRT (bus system) which then you would have to transfer to BTS (skytrain) to get to the main areas. It was cheaper to catch a cab so between taxi and walking, we got around.
It turns out there wasn't much luck with Alvin's glasses here so it's Singapore next. With the high cost of flights during this season, we decided to just spend time here in Thailand instead of rushing away. There were a few choices,... in the end, we went to the train station and bought tickets to Chiang Mai.
3.1 - 9.1 Chiang Mai.
We got to ride on the newest trains from China. They were clean and comfy. There was a train attendant for each cart. His/Her job was to convert seats to beds then back to seats again in the morning. Downside was the top has no windows and they don't turn off lights at night.
We stayed at Absolute Hostel. $9/bed in dormatory rooms. Joe and Ling were great owners. They both lived in Australia for a span of time, returned home to start this business a year ago. Ling is part Yunnanese and speaks fluent Chinese. It was interesting to hear about the presence of the Chinese in these northern parts of Thailand. What was cool was the way the kids embraced these hostels. They really liked the high traffic and communal feel not to mention the Wii soccer matches that Joe plays with anyone that's willing!
Looking into responsible elephant tourism in a country where elephants are still greatly abused and overworked took a lot of time. With Joe' recommendation, we went with Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. After spending the day with them, i don't think they are the most ethical as it is a business after all. But i believe they do care for the elephants and it supports local hill tribes, in this case, the Karen communities.
In Chiang mai, our location was so convenient for food. Dangerously close is Baan Bakery, the best French bakery in town. We met regulars who'd travel across town just to come in for their dose of pastries. We had our daily share too - everyday except Sunday. We lived minutes away from the South gate where the morning and night markets are. Mangoes and sticky rice for breakfast. Pad thai, sushi, grilled meat, curries for supper.
A highlight for me was the Sunday Night Walking street. BEST street fair ever. A great blend of handmade, artist made, traditional, local and all the mass produced products of course.
9.1 - 12.1 Pai
We had a few extra days to squeeze in a side trip to Pai (Thanks Jane for the recommendation!). Pai is a town north of Chiang Mai near the Burma border. You know it's a hippie town when there's vegetarian, vegan and organic food offered on the streets. The drive was very scenic but windy so much so, we all ate gravol on the drive back to Chiang Mai 3 days later. What did we do? Instead of getting dreadlocks (I was tempted), we did a few days of trekking.
Where do i begin with this man?
Online, actually. I read about him from blogs and travel guides. Imagine my surprise when he responded to my short little email! In meeting him, he said he'll make time for our family for a one day hike (though he prefers multiple days as it's more worthwhile.) Mr. Chart's specialty is trekking off the beaten path in the jungles of his youth. You'll learn about medicinal plants and ways of how hill tribes survive in the jungle. Perfect?
There were signs. Like giving us 2 phone numbers the day before and neither worked in reaching him. Like offering us some local liqueur while driving and scolded me for not pouring him a cup. He was a smooth talker. He made everything sound so easy to organize. Rain? "The tribal people do not have rain jackets. No worry." Water? Bring a whole case and leave it in the truck. Food? "I will cook it for you how you like!"
There seem a lot of things for him to pack and prepare so by time we left, it was after 8:30. We later surmise he was actually getting ready for his own hunting. Yes, hunting.
It was already raining hard. Mr. Chart says we'll need rain jackets! Good thing Alvin and the kids packed their rain jackets whereas i wanted to be free and simple and... i'd rather not bring my heavy head to toe vinyl one from Vietnam. I went next door to 7-11 and bought a cheap poncho.
The drive there was half on paved road, half off road. It took about an hour to reach a Lahu village. Once there, he sent us off in the rain to explore. Said he needed time to talk with his men to plan the day.
Tired of walking in the pouring rain without direction, we returned to the house where Mr. Chart parked his car. We found out then that he felt free to give away 5 of our bamboo rice tubes to the family who lives there. We had 3 left for later.
The man who lived there would guide us to a nearby waterfall. He also will see how well we hike so they could determine where we hike for the rest of the day. 2 other young men joined in later on the hike. They were really nice. Patient and friendly but no English.
Mr Chart? He was hanging out with the men drinking. He did not cook lunch. It was the ladies who did that. When we were ready for the afternoon trek, he told us to go on ahead of him with the guide and he'll catch up with us. He then started changing clothes. I wondered why as the weather is now dry and getting warmer.
I have to say, this was a Fantastic hike in the jungle. There was a definite path at the beginning but the middle was all machete cut by our guide. The last few hours was a beautiful trail on the edge of a mountain leaving the jungle below. I spotted a blooming Sakura tree in it's midst!
Supposedly, Mr Chart had a hard time finding us. There were no cell reception at the waterfall where we stopped for a long while. When he came, we noticed he was in his full hunting regalia complete with a long rifle. I confronted him about being absent and brought up some of the expectations set the day before. He immediately became upset and said i ought to be grateful. Well, i was but i was also a thinking person with a voice. I realized then there would not be any discussion due to his inability to receive constructive feedback other than praise, especially from a woman. He was not too upset to ask for an empty water bottle to fill up his liquor.
I don't doubt Mr. Chart is good at leading a trekking group and sharing his jungle knowledge. What is not known is that he is also highly unorganized, unaccountable, assumptive, and an alcoholic. Would not recommend.