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Published: November 3rd 2014
Our last destination in the Se Asia leg of the trip, our longest stay, with 5 nights and it turned out to be in our favourite 3 places so far.
I managed to surprise myself with the choice of hotel, it being even better than we had hoped. The Empress was big, busy but very customer focused and we really enjoyed being there. It gets a big yes vote should we ever return to the city. For our first trip into the centre of the city we made the mistake of asking the hotel to sort out a taxi for us. So that trip in cost us pretty much 4 times what all other rides cost; rule of thumb - stick to Tuk Tuks.
As usual, the first wander round any new city was bewildering, trying to read the map, pick out street names from signs, get the measure of how to deal with the traffic. By the end of it though we had managed to book our first excursion out. Carol had been researching elephants. What was clear though was that some of the experiences on offer were based on harsh and cruel exploitation of the beast and
we wanted to avoid that. We think we found a pretty ethical trip out to the BaanChang Elephant Park. Here they look after rescued elephants and manage to let visitors get up close to them. We loved the experience, getting to feed, ride and bathe the beasts, whilst at the same time learning about their characteristics and the ways they have been utilised over time. Some of the descriptions of what they have endured were very grim. At least the conditions these elephants found themselves in were humane, as far as we could tell. Our guide taught us the various commands, like stop, start, turn left, turn right etc. He showed us how to get on and off, riding the elephant whilst sat on its neck (most comfortable for man and beast, apparently); I just about managed to get my leg over. In reality I doubt if any of the commands we gave did anything, far more likely the the elephants Mahout, always at its side, was controlling all events. Carol really enjoyed bathing our elephant, which was called Thoong Thong (silver back). All in all we were there about four hours and enjoyed it all.
Back in the
city, over the 5 days we got pretty well orientated. It's a fascinating place dating back to 1296. In the past it had been a walled city, some of the original walls still remain. We spent a very interesting ( and refreshingly cool) few hours in the city museum. They had put together a really good sequence of displays showing the history of the city, using films, computer consoles, good old display boards and so on. Originally Chiang Mai had been the capital city of the ancient Lanna Empire. Needless to say, religion had played a big part and the place was riddled with Wats, the Buddhist temples.
For an evening's entertainment we tracked down the Chiang Mai Cabaret Show, which tripadvisor reviews raved about. It was an experience. The cast of the cabaret was composed of, well I'm not sure! Some were obvious males, some appeared to be females, some were very clearly "lady boys". All were very enthusiastic entertainers. The dancing was full of energy, the costumes wildly glamorous, and the singing was just like early Top of the Pops, miming with varying degrees of success. The whole event was great fun, well worth the 200 Baht entry fee and other tips which were required for every service, for example being shown to our seats, bringing drinks over.
For a half day's activity to get us outside of the city we booked onto a "cultural tour". The way the tours were set up was pretty efficient, always starting with a pick up at the hotel and ending with being dropped back there. The quality of what's experienced in between is not so clear. Part of our trip was to visit a hill tribe, which genuinely still exist. Our visit was to a village, high on a hill, however any semblance of traditional activity had long since ceased. Every street was lined with stalls selling the full range of tourist tat. Oh well, win some, lose some. The other part of the trip was to one of Chiang Mai's most famous temple complex's, Wat Doi Suthep. This was high on the mountain that looks down on the city. Fortunately our guide was able to explain lots of the history and symbolism that was part and parcel of it all.
For something very different we got booked on to an afternoon's Thai Massage course. Initially we were a bit surprised that the instructor was a middle aged German called Roy ( well! Rolf actually, but the locals cannot pronounce the "l", hence Roy). We were taken through the stages of what amounts to a 2 hour massage. Roy demonstrated on one of us, whilst the other observed and took notes, then we swapped round. It was well worth the time. Needless to say, Carol is very excited by this and has already bought the coconut oil ready for her first post course massage. Roy's story was interesting too. Travelling to Chiang Mai in 2008, taking a break from his job as a nurse back home in Germany. On that trip he undertook massage training. Subsequently he married his trainer, a highly qualified practitioner of not just massage, but of all the other healing arts. They now run their massage based business based in downtown Chiang Mai, mostly delivering courses, but still finding time to do some proper treatments too.
For our last full day we wanted to do something physical, so that we might be in with a chance of sleeping during our three flights that would get us to Cairns. Our full day, split between cycling and kayaking did the trick. as part of a group of 8 we were driven out of the city for about 50 minutes. This got us right out into the surrounding countryside. It was lovely to cycle through the farmland, mostly rice growing, and stop off in a couple of villages where our guide Hom, bought us some refreshing local snacks. Only Carol and I did the cycling, the others just focused on kayaking. Our 20km cycle ride got us to the launch point for the kayaking. We spent an idyllic couple of hours ambling down the Mae Ping River. Apart from a kayaking monk going the other way we saw just a couple of farmers on the river banks and that was it, peace and quiet under beautiful blue skies. The beastie count was pretty impressive (well I was chuffed). I saw my first ever Kingfisher, like a striking blue flash whizzing by and then another. Hom pointed out the Gekko in the riverside vegetation, the water buffalo we could spot ourselves.
After all of that it was back to the hotel for our free meal. Amazingly during the stay, the hotel had kept giving us little gifts, like fresh flowers, a necklace and earrings (Carol), key rings, little purses and on the final night a free meal, with drinks. Brilliant, what a way to finish this bit of the trip.
Next stop Bangkok, then an overnight flight into Sydney and then onto Cairns. Doubt if we will be visiting many Wats in Australia!
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