I’m not sure if I can really say I visited Chiang Mai or not. The sort of hit and run I did was more similar to my initial weeks of traveling (Potosi in Bolivia got a whole 4 hours!). Still I saw enough to know it’s different from Bangkok.
From Bangkok I took a sleeper train (850 bhat, 2nd class, air-con, lower bunk) to CM. First time sleeping on a train. Not as good as a proper nights sleep but not as bad as a night camping. Woke up properly at 6.30am about half an hour before the train got in. I handled conversation with the touts as well as my half woken monkey brain could for this time of the morning (“where you go”, *smile and ignore*, “I have tuktuk for you”, *shake head, stop growl and ignore*, “where you go sir”, “for a walk” I reply, “where you go” .. and so on). So I stubbornly set out for a walk to “Julies”, a cheap hostel recommended to me. I found the temperature fairly agreeable, not breaking out in sweat. Somewhere along the way I grabbed breakfast for a bit but by this stage things were starting to heat up and after an hours walking I was glad to see Julies and get settled in.
With the so-so sleep, early rise for me (rising late in Bangkok), new destination and humid walk my brain had been frazzled. So when it came to arranging a hill trek I took whatever trek Julies offered downstairs. (There’s a girl crying over her computer beside me right now. It’s a tad weird. I think her boyfriend dumped her by e-mail.). Another comparison with my earlier days traveling, say Peru, I would have walked around two or three tour places comparing prices and offers etc. I know better now – this guest house gives a sort of “backer/guarantor” effect to the trek, they are often all the same in poorer countries and if you pay more you just end up with the wrong tourists which is no fun. I barely paid attention to the details of the trek. For the evening I had a foot massage, which was good even though my toes were popped one by one.
So next morning we gathered the various people together, Sam, Alex, Xavier, Claire, Laura, Daniel, Alexandria and two Dutch girls with names I couldn’t recognise never mind remember. That didn’t get in the way of conversation of course. Three hours later, driving through some rather nice hilly, jungle, paddy field landscape we hopped out of the back of the pickup truck and quickly moved onto elephants. Oh yeah, there was something about elephants in the brochure. Ok, that’s cool, we can ride an elephant. Not to worry they have wide seats mounted on their backs, plenty of room for two. What? Sit on this one, but there’s two there already. Get on it’s neck? . . . Ok. Sam, Alex and myself had the biggest elephant. It’s an interesting way to travel and a good way to stretch your legs. Bar a bit of elephant spit and needing to carefully balance when Mrs Queen Elephant wanted to drink from a low down ditch, the ride was uneventful. The thought did go through my head that though the handlers seemed very much in control (they used something that looked like a curved ice axe to hit the elephants and had chains around the legs of some) these are still animals with a lot of power. One beserking could do a lot of damage to the tourist industry.
When I’d finally become bow-legged we hopped off the elephants and walked down a small hill to ride across a river inside a cage down a rope (like a small cable car), two at a time. The image is a little surreal thinking back because while people were caging across, people in rafts were paddling down the river and at the far side the elephants that had just crossed the river were rising onto the far bank. A traffic jam of tourist events. Then we had lunch and set out for the actual trek bit.
When I was deciding to do this trekking stuff, I suppose my mind was thinking about how it would be cooler because it’s up in the hills. Yeah it’s a little cooler (comfortable at night) but not enough to recommend as an escape in the same way you might recommend the Himalayas or Andes. So everyone sweated a bucket. This wasn’t helped by a five minute bout of heavy rain (rain jackets are not the most breathable things). Thankfully for me, my legs were just about up to the 3hour climb and I generally enjoyed it. Everyone else, hmm, maybe not as much. At the top we arrived at a hill village. There we were shown to our hut for the night. Then began the fleecing. I knew to expect this, after all, we’re effectively captive for the evening, we have money (advised to bring 500 bhat) and nothing else to do. I didn’t mind, because the alternative options for a lot of these people are not very pretty (sell kids to big city pimps, grow poppies, starve, beg). I think every female in the village was involved. First up was the bracelets and necklaces. I bought two for silly money. Next was massages. Three of the girls said yes immediately. After a few minutes of being hassled I decided I’d nothing better to do before dinner so said yes to one as well. That started a cascade and everyone then had one. It was ok and short. They got plenty of money for it. Dinner was ok too. We spent the night nattering away and then Rony our guide joined in and attempted to get everyone meditating but was constantly interrupted by “that woman, go home, go away, fuck off, ahhh hahahahaha” who was washing dishes outside. His reaction to “that woman” and then his seriousness at the meditation cause a few people to have a serious fit of the giggles. Then bed.
Next morning we had breakfast and got going. It had been misty/drizzling a lot the previous evening and the ground was pretty slippy, particularly going down hill. After hanging around a bit I pushed on to practice balanced slip sliding down the hill and was at the waterfall about ten minutes before the rest. The last bit was particularly tough and the waterfall was a refreshing relief from the heat. After that we pushed down hill along the river to do some rafting. This, like the elephants had totally passed my mind, and so was a nice bonus to the end of the trekking. Even though it was my first time I could tell this wasn’t the sort of professional outfit you might expect in Argentina or New Zealand. Laura confirmed this; in some ways she found the grade 3 rivers with second rate guides more risky and thrilling than the grade 5’s she’d done with organised guides in Canada. Our rafting guide was pretty much a quiet oars man with bad english and often the river was more in control than us. Still it was a lot of fun and in a mild dose of mutiny, Claire, Laura, Sam, Alex and myself christened the group in our raft as team cheese and coordinated the quietly spoken commands in a much louder tone. As such we kept over taking the “european” raft who were floundering in more disorganisation.
To finish we were shown onto some bamboo rafts and went at a sedate pace down the calm river. Finally after a bit of lunch on the river side we all headed back to Chiang Mai. Alex, Sam and myself hit the Night bazaar to find a hat for Sam and pass some time. While there we saw some slow Thai dancing. The scene was rather effeminate (read gay if you like ten lagers and a fight at the end of the night) with a guy in makeup and a pointy hat throwing red petals onto the ground. A little more walking and then the tiredness hit. I called it a day and wished the guys the best of luck on their bungy jump the next day.
I’m back in Bangkok at the moment after another sleeper train back (upper bunk this time, arranged things late). I’m Fruitlessly trying to arrange a trip into Cambodia with some fruit heads who’ve gone awol after making a big deal of wanting to cross together. Tomorrow I’m sure the smoke will have cleared and things will be on track, perhaps a day later than I’d have liked. Till next time.