Tuesday, January 4, 2011

“Can we ride the elephants??” (Part 1)

(I wrote this the week of Christmas…sorry for the delay!)

I want to start this post off with a HAPPY CHRISTMAS! It’s Christmas morning (EARLY) and naturally I can’t sleep – still working on getting over jet lag. I arrived on Monday afternoon and have woken up at crazy hours ever since. So begins the blogging…

We left off with Bangkok. Oh how I miss it already! I truly took a liking to the crazy hustle and bustle of that city. It’s quite unlike any other city I’ve ever been to. Anyways, we were coming to the end of our stay in Bangkok, with just over a week and a half left before the end of the term. Papers were almost done, assignments were slowly being submitted and there was only one final to speak of. So naturally it was time to take advantage of our “extra time” and plan a weekend trip to the mountains of Thailand: to the historical city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai has been around for over 700 years – it’s one of the oldest and most established cities in Thailand. At least that’s what my Lonely Planet guidebook tells me. It’s also known for its opportunities to get out of a town and enjoy the scenery of the surrounding mountains. So after much planning, Jonathan and I were officially on a train to Chiang Mai. Class ended for the week on Thursday night and we had a bit of paper writing to do, so we planned to leave on Saturday evening on an overnight train which would have us in Chiang Mai 12 hours after departing from Bangkok. (We had originally planned to leave on Friday night but discovered at the train station Friday morning when we went to buy our tickets that it was a holiday weekend – it was the King’s birthday weekend. A three day weekend means vacations for the Thais. In other words, tickets were sold out for the sleeper cars on the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Saturday night it is!)

We arrived at the train station about 40 minutes before our train left. We approached the departure time tables to see our train platform had changed. We also heard someone say, “leaving to go to Chiang Mai in 30 minutes?” This is when we met Tim – a tall, Dutch backpacker heading to the same place as us, and conveniently, on the same train. We told Tim yes and he showed us our new platform number. We made conversation – the typical small talk when you meet another English speaker during your travels: Where are you from? Where are you going? How long is your holiday? And so on. We invited Tim to grab a cup of coffee with us before the train left, which we did and then promptly headed to the train to board for our long 12 hour ride.
Jonathan's homework face.

We started the trip with a bit of homework, which I continued but Jonathan couldn’t stand the idea of. So he went to grab Tim and have a beer in the food cart. Eventually, one of the train workers came by to make our beds – when we got on the train it was just seats like you would find on a normal train ride to anywhere. These suckers fold out to produce beds with fresh sheets and a blanket! Sleep was soon to follow…for me at least. Several hours later – approximately 6am – I woke up to the rattle of the train. Jonathan was awake and we spent the last 40 minutes or so of the ride staring out the window at the countryside of Thailand. We finally got off the train, grateful to stretch our legs, and grabbed Tim to head towards the taxies. Once on board the back of a red pickup truck, it was off to the center of Chiang Mai. It dropped us off at the end of the road from our guesthouse and, minutes later, we were checked in, our stuff put down, and ready to find banana pancakes for breakfast.

Exploring the tunnels in Wat U Mong
The rest of the day was filled with trips around the city. We first headed (with Tim) to Wat U Mong, a temple in the middle of the forest in the mountains on the outskirts of town. It was absolutely incredible and very unlike most of the temples we had seen so far. There are tunnels built under the pagoda where Buddha statues are down every alcove. It was also the day the monks of the area were receiving their robes, so people were everywhere. I’ve never seen so much orange.
Wat U Mong - pagoda

The next leg of the trip included a trek to Dui Suthep – a temple on the top of THE Chiang Mai mountain. We asked a tuk-tuk driver if he could take us, not knowing the details of the ride up. He laughed and said, “no tuk-tuk”. We took this to mean the tuk-tuk couldn’t make the trip. We didn’t understand the full context of that statement until we were headed up the mountain. We successfully fit 19 people on one red pickup truck. Not sure how the truck made it but it did. After a 20-25 minute ride, we were at the top of the mountain and at the foot of the temple stairs. As everywhere else, there were vendors lining the streets trying to sell visitors anything and everything. We bypassed the shopping and headed towards the temple. Another climb up another set of crowded stairs and then finally we reached the top! The temple was beautiful and, not to mention, completely packed. People were everywhere. In the temple, outside the temple, in the cafés, in the shops. Everywhere. We made it through the crowds and wandered around to the back side of the temple to check out the rest. What we found were incredible views of Chiang Mai. The temple view was completely unblocked by trees, buildings, and the like. We snapped a few photos and decided it was time to head away from the crowds.

The view from the top of Doi Suthep.
After what seemed like the longest trip ever, we made it back down the mountain, although not without nearly falling asleep. Well, I might be speaking for myself only. Nonetheless, we made it down and found our way back towards our guesthouse. I played phone tag much of the day with two of the other Chiang Mai travellers from our group, Sara and Tabitha. We were planning to meet up with them after the hike down from Dui Suthep. But of course bad reception coming down the mountain hindered our plan making. While waiting to hear from them, we stumbled upon a market I conveniently had in mind earlier that day to attend. It’s called the Sunday Night Market – the name is fairly self-explanatory. We wandered through the market, finding things we didn’t need. Or maybe I should again speak for myself. I bought things I didn’t need. Either way, we explored the market, taking in the typical overwhelming sights, sounds and smells of what I’ve come to know as Thailand. 

It wasn’t long before our feet began to tire and our stomachs growl in protest. Time to rest and eat.  But still no word from Sara and Tabitha. Conveniently, seconds later, Jonathan spots both of them across the market aisle. We make plans to make plans – literally. Call us in an hour and we’ll figure out what to do about food. So Jonathan and I head back to shower and relax until we hear from Sara and Tabitha.

The rest of the evening consisted of food at a great Western pub and a drink at several different bars around the area. We even participated in the lighting of a lantern, which Jonathan sent floating into the night sky. Overall, Chiang Mai has quite enough to do to keep the average fairly-easy-to-please traveller happy. Although, I do have to mention that many of the places we visited were geared towards farang, or foreigners. No problem. I hardly noticed anyways.

- Brandy

(P.S. more to come on our adventures in Chiang Mai...but there's so much I wanted to share I had to break it up into two parts. The second coming soon!)

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