Published: October 21st 2006April 30th 2006
Well, Chiang Mai was better than I thought it would be. I'd heard reports varying from "I love it!" to "It's a repulsive human zoo!" so I was wondering how I'd feel about the place myself. To be honest our welcome wasn't the greatest. We arrived a couple of hours later than estimated, the bus spilling out its contents (that is, us and several other assorted westerners) on the door step of a hostel with no idea where we were. Common enough but we hadn't gotten caught in that trap for ages. Mildly annoyed, Jim went to get our bags from the back of the van and inadvertently stepped into an open sewer. Some bright spark had removed the concrete slab and not replaced it. This was not obvious in the dark, concealed as it was in the shadow of a shrubby plant. Up to his thigh in human excrement and God know what else Jim was, shall we say, slightly miffed. It was too late to book in somewhere else, even if we had the slightest idea where we were, and as it was the rooms were clean, reasonably priced, had a fan and (most important to Jim) a shower
with good water pressure.
After 'freshening up' (read scrubbing himself raw) we had a night cap and went to bed. All in all a rather uncerimonius entry back into Thailand. We hoped it got better. We were in luck. We awoke to a glorious day, packed up and discovered we were close to town so we walked in, stopping on the way for a hearty breakfast. Then with full bellies and improved outlook we found ourselves another hostel.
So, about Chiang Mai...Touristy, you bet. Plenty of creature comforts and easy living, for sure. True holiday feel, absolutely. It was shaping up to be - open sewers aside - a nice easy end to our travels, laid back and cruisey, but not really what I'd had in mind. Unfortunately my heart was still a little broken at the failed Gibbon experience and that whole fiasco (I know, I did my ranting in the last blog, enough said!). Advice on Chiang Mai? If you want adventurous, 'authentic' experiences this is maybe not the best spot to make a bee line for. Enjoyable none the less though.
While we were in Chiang Mai we took a cooking class - which
Close up of the vendor village lady
we'd been talking about throughout the trip - and we did our second ever organised tour. That tour included an elephant ride - which we'd also talked about throughout the trip - as well as 'white water rafting', a 'trek' and a visit to a 'traditional' village.
Organised Day Tour
It was pretty much what we expected it to be. The so called white water was a languid stream for the most part, with a few faster paced areas. The trek was an hour long hike to a small waterfall, the elephant ride was fun but I worried about the elephants quality of life. They seemed well looked after if not a little bored. The elephants knew the circuit well and followed each other down the path, across the river, up the bank and along the other side, back across the river, down the road towards our starting point, stopping without prompting at the banana hut and reaching up an expectant trunk, until I dolled out a small sum for a bunch of bananas. I watched them, one by one, disappear down, over and under the great dome of our steeds head. Each time the appendage would
In front of the satelite dish in the 'traditional village'...
reappear, curl upward and back towards me and wait, patiently searching the air for the next yellow treat. It was fun and also I made a mental note on the real price of bananas here, having paid an amount for a single banana similar to that just paid for a whole bunch. Tip: If you want to buy a banana in Asia, it isn't worth nearly as much as you might think...
Anyhow, back to the tour, the traditional village had a giant satelite dish in it (see photo) and the lady pushing her wares had a rap - or possibly skate - tshirt on under her traditional costume (also pictured). Instead of traditional jewelry the lady had, in its a place, 2 keys on a piece of string hung around her neck. We expected it to be pretty much how it was but went anyway. The trekking and traditional village tours in Thailand are nothing more than a tourist circus and its a shame. Tourism is a double edged sword, providing a livelyhood, but at what price? To culture, lifestyle, tradition and society? I almost felt guilty for participating, however not participating at this point is kind of
White water rafting...
Note the marked absence of white water... probably better in the wet season.
like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. The damage is already done here. Luckily, they are (so far ar least) avoiding the same kind of result in the tribal villages in Laos, but I wonder for how long?
Anyhow, we actually did have fun this day. The crew we were with were a good bunch and it was an easy light hearted day (destruction of cultures aside). If I'd been expecting a real village and exciting rapids and a lengthy ride on elephants through virgin forests plus a challenging trek I would have been dissapointed. I would have been angry as hell. Maybe this is what the people who complain about Chiang Mai had been expecting and chasing and when they got what we got they lost it. If you want the real deal then go somewhere else. You'll get a more authentic experience in a village by renting a bike in Laos or Cambodia and getting lost in the backwaters out of town. We definitely did. But for some easy, laid back tropical fun and plenty of organised options go to Chiang Mai. If you are short on time, during a quick vacation and want
lots of activities and everything to be easy this is a great place to be. The town had a nice feel and we met some good people. There are lots of bars and great restuarants so its a good party spot. I hear that it was crazy during the new year festival.
The day after the organised fun and games, we did a day long cooking course which was awesome. I loved it. Jim wasn't as enthusiastic, I think he was just bitter because he miscalculated a few scoops and his wasn't as tasty as mine. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the group we did it with because I'd love to recommend them. They picked us up in the morning and took us to the market, explained the different types of rice, chillis, curry pastes and what you want for what purposes, then took us out to the organic farm where they are based and where most of the ingredients are grown. We had a tour of the farm and explanations of the various ingredients and their uses and then an orienation to the kitchen and the different untensils before getting down to
the slicing, dicing and the cooking, all instructed by the wonderful staff there. The most memorable and entertaining was Wan, the lady boy chef. She was great! She was the most flamboyant lady boy I've seen yet, and extremely enthusiastic. Once our 4 course culinary creations were completely concocted it was time to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables and meat and curries and pad thai and spring rolls and sticky rice) of our labours. Yummy!! Couldn't eat it all so doggy bagged the rest to take with us.
After all this we got horribly drunk with some folks we met at our hostel and tried for a late night burger at a famous burger place in town, but unfortuanately we were 5 minutes too late. We went for crisps and chocolate bars at the convenience store instead, where a poodle was napping on the counter under a little blanky. A sure sign that it was time to be wrapping up in bed ourselves....
I woke late and rather unwell for yet another hungover travel day, this time on the night train to Bangkok. It was quite a long one, but comfortable as far as night trains go. Apart
from the hangover that is. Really, after 3 months of this you'd think I'd have learnt not to get drunk the last night in a place, but I keep doing it. Ahhh welll.... what can you do? We got one of those burgers on the way to the train station and am very glad we did. Highly recommend the Chiang Mai burger place for a real western style burger, if you have a hankering...
There are more photos below