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Published: August 22nd 2011
There is indeed another side to Thailand...away from the beaches, full moon parties, scams and sordidness, nestled far away in the north in the city of Chiang Mai. For its part, Chiang Mai has a reputation of sorts as a Mecca of learning; be it yoga, cooking, language skills or even mahout training, Chiang Mai offers a wealth of opportunities for those with time on their hands.
That is exactly what makes Chiang Mai so appealing, in that it is generally out of reach for the two or three week tourists who want to party on Thailand’s many southern beaches and so avoids the kind of beer swilling chaos of the south. Of course like everywhere in Thailand, the locals like to have a good time and enjoy a drink...it just seems like it is all done in a much friendlier and welcoming environment.
For our base, we opted for the old city of Chiang Mai, a small two square kilometre town protected on all sides by a continuous moat and the occasional 700 year old wall, apparently built to protect its citizens from assailants from tribal Burma – ironic really since many residents of modern Chiang Mai are
actually Burmese and indeed, we saw numerous restaurants and cafes with politically motivated posters supporting political reform in Burma – how times have changed!
In the old city itself, most of the tourist action can be found in the north-eastern corner of the city. Our first hostel, Mojito Garden was a five minute walk away from this area, a relatively new hostel which offers its residents priceless peace and quiet – particularly if they have just arrived from Bangkok! After a short nap, we decided to able around the city, in part to find a trekking tour that we wanted to take part in, but also because that is one of the enjoyable things to do in Chiang Mai – simply walk around its endless labyrinth of alleyways and backstreets, where your smiles and “hello’s” are reciprocated (a personal highlight for Amy) and you are made to feel right at home.
We were no doubt fortunate to visit the city out of peak season, as the locals were more than happy to set aside time to simply chat and swap stories over a drink (including a mosquito hating masseuse who helped Amy rid herself of a migraine). No
one did more to ensure we enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai than Chai, owner of the superb ‘Chang Chalaad’ restaurant (meaning ‘Clever Elephant’) and one of the friendliest people we have ever met (I still hold this opinion of him even after he forced me to eat bugs!). After happening upon his restaurant our first night in Chaing Mai, Chai offered his advice on where to go and what to do in and around the city. Of course it wasn’t too long before he invited over another diner in his restaurant – a 62 year old Japanese guy over in Chiang Mai to study Thai at a local language school – and we were introduced to the game of ‘Jackpot,’ or Chai’s drinking version of the game where the loser paid for the round. After this it was time for Jenga, and the same penalty applied for the loser.
A few drinks and stories later, the Japanese guy left the restaurant drunk and without finishing his homework for the following day, an omission for which he was rather panicked (seriously!) and Amy and I left with an invitation from Chai to join him and his three year old
son Cho for a day out at a lake just outside the city for lunch, to which we agreed. Of course we had booked a trek earlier that day so the lunch would need to wait for a few days!
We had decided to reserve our trek with ‘Nice Place Guesthouse II,’ which would take us north of Pai and included visits to hill tribe villages, elephant riding and bamboo rafting. It also came with the perk that it was on a ‘non-tourist route’ – all things considered we expected an experience we would never forget – unfortunately we weren’t wrong! The alarm bells began immediately when, after being promised a backpack for Amy (who doesn’t have a small trekking backpack), we saw one of our guides go into a room in the hotel and basically take his brother’s school bag, which we then had to make some repairs to prevent losing our belongings through one of its copious holes! A small glitch surely...
After a three hour truck journey into the hills above the town of Pai, we began a short trek to a local hill tribe village where we would stay for the night. The village
was very primitive and indeed had no electricity and all the children where schooled at another village an hour’s walk away. The villagers were pleasant and the local kids watched and sometimes joined in as we had a game of football. Rain slowly crept into the evening so we were told to change ready for dinner, which the locals he prepared for us – a delicious Thai curry with rice.
After things had stated to look promising again, they took a turn for the worse. It began when a number of young girls where brought into the hut to perform a local tribal dance. They genuinely seemed to be enjoying performing, smiling and laughing and seeming proud of what they were doing – that is until one of our guides stood up and also started dancing inappropriately in front of the girls, laughing as he did so, and trying to take the attention of what should have been a cultural piece of entertainment. Of course, his actions were hilarious to our other two guides who followed this up with an evening of smoking opium in the corner of the hut – they did offer the pipe around so I
can’t say they didn’t have manners (we didn’t indulge ourselves!)! However, after an evening of drinking and general aggressiveness on their part, you could see the regret on people’s faces for having booked with this particular tour!
It’s a shame really because the setting for our trek was rugged and beautiful, meandering along hillsides and struggling through jungle and occasionally having to tip toe across streams. We had lunch outside a secluded hut, the home of a native to these hills. Whilst preparing the food, we cooled ourselves at a nearby waterfall, enjoying some much needed shade. At night, we slept at a tiny village perched atop a hill, where our accommodation for the night was a dilapidated hut with holes big enough that most jungle wildlife could sneak in (indeed during the night, Amy was startled to find something crawling on her face, kindly throwing it at me! It turned out to be a large cricket but it doesn’t fill me with any more confidence!). This night was much more like it – a quiet night by campfire enjoying conversation with another couple we met on our trek. When the fire was reduced to embers, we stepped outside
to see the most stunning night sky we each had ever seen – with no ambient light for miles around, it literally took our breath away.
And so, we arose for the final day of our hike in reasonably high spirits, eating breakfast before descending the hillside to meet our transportation – two large elephants. These remarkable gentle and graceful creatures carried us for around an hour into the jungle, following a stream as we went (ours decided to take Amy a little too close to the branches of a tree, from which hung a large, venomous looking spider!). After the elephant trekking, we had a short walk before being taken by pickup truck to do a bit of bamboo rafting down the river for an hour. I must have got caught up in the ‘macho-ness’ of what I was doing, as the river significantly picked up pace, causing the raft to slam into a tree root and catapult me headfirst into the river!
A few hours later and we were back in Chaing Mai – at times we had enjoyed the trek, but the guides had acted in such a way which really left a lasting impression
and soured what should have otherwise been an amazing three days.
We spent our final day in Chiang Mai with Chai and Cho at the lake, swimming and swapping stories (and dodging the ‘shotgun fire’ from Cho!). As the (very) heavy rain started to fall and flood the streets, we were back in the old city, in Chai’s restaurant where the four of us at some local food from a nearby market. We cannot thank Chai enough for his kindness to two strangers, and we were sad to say goodbye when we left...
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