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Published: April 27th 2017
Sunset Over Wat Phra Singh
The sun sets over Chiang Mai's most revered temple.
Because of fighting in northeastern Myanmar, foreigners are currently not allowed to travel through the area due to safety fears. Therefore, I had to take the long way around to get into Thailand. I was originally going to spend a couple of days in Mawlamyine en route, but when I realised I had to go to Hpa-An to get there - which was pretty close to the border - I thought I might as well head to Thailand straight away. I'd seen and been to everything I had wanted to in Myanmar.
Burmese accommodation and hospitality has been about as good as I've seen on this entire trip. As well as being friendly, staff would go out of their way to meet any request you might have. Therefore I was allowed the luxury of having a shower before the travel marathon ahead of me.
On boarding the bus, it turned out the bus was going all the way to Myawaddy - the Burmese border town with Thailand - which was super handy, so I changed my ticket (unwittingly, I did it for free too!). And just like that, I was leaving Myanmar for Thailand.
As we drive through Hpa-An, the
One of the elephants I helped to feed at the elephant sanctuary I visited.
scenery reminded me of Vinales
a little, with its massive limestone rocks rising out of the ground. The rice fields made the scene look a bit like Hampi
too. Perhaps it might've been worth a stop.
Anyway, after an 18-hour bus journey during which I got about five hours of actual sleep, I then had a border crossing to do. As has been the case with most of my border crossings, it was nice not to have to do it alone as I was joined by English couple Kate and Steve, and Swiss girl Mara. Not that there was anything intimidating about this particular crossing as like the entire Burmese population, the Myanmar border officers were friendly-as and the money exchangers gave us a fair rate converting our Burmese kyats
to Thai bahts
. Even the Thai border officials were nice. I felt a little sad leaving Myanmar behind - I really will miss the kindness of the people, more so than anywhere else I have been.
But while the other three decided to break up their journey by staying the night in the border town of Mae Sot, it was only about 1pm so I decided to push on
Traditional dance where the dancers wear really long fake fingernails.
to Chiang Mai.
Arriving at the bus station, I then discover that I had missed the two direct buses to Chiang Mai for the day and after a bit of a misunderstanding with the guy at the info booth, I finally worked out that I could get a shared taxi to the shared minivan station, from where I could get a shared minivan to Tak, from where there were more bus services to Chiang Mai.
It was immediately clear that Thailand is much more developed than Myanmar and I was expecting that. But they are still constructing some of the roads and as I sat exhausted in the shared minivan while stuck behind a queue of lorries after almost 24 hours of travelling, I did wonder whether it might have been a good idea to stay the night in Mae Sot!
A one hour delay of my bus to Chiang Mai from Tak ensured I arrived super-late and by the end I was really just wanting this long, 30-hour journey to be over. Meeting Danish lad Morten at the bus station in Tak and chatting to him on the bus at least made the journey feel a little shorter
than it was.
Thai people have seemed friendly enough so far - not as friendly as the Burmese mind you, who have set the bar impossibly high. Things also seem far more liberal and Westernised here too, with the local girls wearing hot pants. Oo-er.
My first full day in Thailand was an admin one with laundry to be done, a blog to be written, budgets to be set and...bedbugs to be found!
The previous day, I had two massive bugs - they were so big that I'm not sure they were actually bedbugs - climbing all over me while I was in the shared taxi in Mae Sot. When I flicked them off however, they practically exploded as soon as I hit them, leaving one wriggling around on the ground in a pool of its own - or mine or some other creature's - blood. It was disgusting. There were similar baby ones climbing all over my shoes - these looked more like bedbugs with blood in their translucent bellies - and they exploded on touch too! When I arrived in Chiang Mai I then found myself completely covered in bites. I had seen these before - these
Old City Moat
Behind the moat are also sections of the old city wall.
were definitely bedbug bites. But where had they come from? In a first, I think I must've been bitten on the night bus. I then spot one scuttling across my leg. How and why are they still on me? I killed it and then had to spend two hours going through my whole backpack to see if there were any more. I had better things to do and I didn't find any more. But the bites were itchy-as and they're gonna stay that way for at least a week. And with my stomach still suffering some residual dodginess from Myanmar, I was not having a good time of it in kicking off Thailand.
Ha, but things were about to get worse! The hostel owner was already a bit weird but when he noticed me scratching my bites, he came over to have a look.
"That is bedbugs!" he says.
He tells me that I need to wash all my clothes in really hot water as well as telling me all the stuff I already know about bedbugs.
He then says; "I'm sorry but you cannot stay here." What? I tell him he is overreacting and that I had gone
Streets Of Chiang Mai
Typical street inside the old city walls.
through all my stuff very thoroughly and found nothing but he tells me "you cannot see them! Please, you need to leave now!" It's almost 10pm.
"Where am I supposed to sleep tonight!" He shrugs.
So I was unceremoniously kicked out of a hostel because I had bedbug bites - another dubious first and not exactly something that is my fault. He accuses me of trying to cover up the bedbugs but from my perspective, if I go around telling places that I have bedbugs before checking in, do you think anyone is going to take me? I'll be sleeping on the streets! Just as well there are hundreds of hostels in Chiang Mai, of which ten of them were on my alley. I end up at one that is slightly more expensive but is newer and has air-con in the dorm. So I guess it worked out for the better despite the embarrassment and extra hassle that I could've done without.
With a 7-Eleven on every block, it was nice to have Western comforts and modern conveniences again; but the price you pay for this is with the huge numbers of tourists. I was expecting this too however,
Wat Lo Molee
Surprisingly impressive temple complete with a tall brick chedi near my hostel.
as it seems that every person I have ever met has holidayed in Thailand. In terms of feel, it reminded me a lot of Malaysia
Despite the overwhelming number of tourists however - every fourth person on the street is a tourist, and every second building is a hostel, cafe, restaurant or tour agency - Chiang Mai still manages to retain a laid-back vibe, which I noticed when walking around the city the next day.
Maybe it has to do with the many temples around. Once you've seen one Thai Buddhist temple though, you have kinda seen them all; there is usually a big sanctuary, within which is a big Buddha statue and the two main temples in the city have massive stupas or chedis
. All have Thai style architecture which isn't too dissimilar to Burmese architecture; the Thai temples however seem better maintained and more intricate in design. Wat Phra Singh has a massive golden stupa and Wat Pham Tao is made of teak like a couple of the ones in Mandalay
and this lends an altogether more serene atmosphere inside the temple grounds. My favourite one however was the Wat Chedi Luang which had an entrance fee.
Stairs At Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
The iconic staircase leading up to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.
I had used up all the cash I had changed over from Burmese kyats, so I now had to use an ATM and incur the dreaded £5 withdrawal fee. It's daylight robbery if you ask me, especially considering how far 200B (baht) can go here. That's one night's accommodation just to withdraw cash. Therefore I made sure I got out as much as I could so I won't have to get cash out again. Anyway, Wat Chedi Luang had an impressive sanctuary interior but the most impressive feature of the temple was its ruined brick chedi. The little white stupas of Wat Suan Dok created some nice atmosphere and Wat Lol Molee had some intricate, recently-built chapels to add to its Bagan
-like brick chedi.
Chiang Mai's most revered temple however is a little bit out of town upon a hill overlooking the city; Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Perhaps its most iconic feature is its 306-step staircase leading up to the temple itself. To climb the serpent-flanked staircase - Gaudí-esque mosaic sculptures rather than real serpents - apparently allows Buddhists to accrue much merit, an important thing to accrue. As for the temple itself, the architecture is wonderful again and
Chiang Mai's lively night markets are popular among both tourists and locals alike.
there is much gold present, but having already seen Shwedagon Paya in Yangon
, I was harder to impress.
Chiang Mai's night bazaar is a supposedly popular place for tourists and locals to visit in the evening, so I thought I'd venture outside the old city walls to check it out. Loi Kroh Road, the road I had to follow to reach it, was more like the darker image of Thailand many people are familiar with; full of seedy bars with escorts out the front luring in old, white men. Tattoo parlours were plentiful here too. As for the night bazaar itself, the original Chiang Mai Night Bazaar was pretty quiet and empty. Most of the shops there were selling art, some of which was quite impressive. Most of the action however, seemed to be across the road at the newer Kalare Night Bazaar which had a bustling food court as well. What really surprised me was the fact that no-one - and I mean no-one - at either bazaar hassled me to buy anything! After four months of incessant hard sell, this was a really pleasant surprise. No-one stared at me here either!
Further down the road was a local band playing
Wat Suan Dok
Temple outside of the old city walls with loads of small white stupas.
some impressive covers which was what drew me to the Ploen Ruedee Night Market which had loads of stalls selling food from around the world. The way it was set up, it could well have been Street Eats in London. What sucked was the fact that while I enjoyed the pad thai
I had the previous night, it gave me stomach cramps later on that had me in agony. Therefore it was the most heartbreaking and frustrating thing to have to walk past all these stalls in a country famous for fantastic food, so that I could go to a local restaurant to order two plates of plain rice for my dinner.
With my stomach having been like this for a week now, I knew that I had to get it sorted out. Near my hostel was the very modern Chiang Mai Ram Hospital were I was seen to very efficiently. This efficiency came at a price however; £50 later, I had seen a gastrointestinal specialist and had all the drugs I needed to kill an intestinal infection that I supposedly had in my gut.
Chiang Mai is supposed to be Thailand's cultural centre so I decided to
Lanna Folklife Museum
Chiang Mai's best museum is housed in the old provincial court building.
drag my sick arse and stomach out of bed to soak some of it up.
This started with a trip to the Lanna Folklife Museum. Back in the 13th century, Thailand's territory was made up of several kingdoms; the main one in the north was that of the Lanna and in 1296, the Lanna King Mengrai decided to move his capital to Chiang Mai from nearby Chiang Rai. The museum was very well put together and enlightened visitors on various Lanna traditions, the more interesting being fon lep
, a traditional dance involving the wearing of super-long fake fingernails; Lanna murals and the step-by-step process of how they are created; Buddhism and the role it played in traditional Lanna life; and the most interesting of courting rituals where a pre-arranged meeting by parents would take place outside the girl's house where she would be showing off her homemaking skills and the guy would approach her in a bid to charm her by displaying his musical expertise.
I then decided I wanted to learn a bit more about the history of the place and thus checked into the Chiang Mai Historical Centre. There I learned that the Lanna Kingdom declined in the
Lanna Courtship Scene
Display inside the Lanna Folklife Museum.
16th century during which the Burmese occupied the city. It became part of Siam in 1775 after the Thai king Taksin helped drive out the Burmese. Abandoned for fifteen years directly after thanks to Burmese counterattacks, the city rose back to prominence as a trading centre with its position alongside the Ping River. This museum wasn't as good as the Lanna one - the displays were well put together but it lacked the same clarity of presentation.
While I thankfully didn't get any more bedbugs, I was still running to the toilet after every meal; in fact, after taking the prescribed antibiotics, my condition got worse and the anti-diarrhoea medication prescribed to me didn't work at all. To make things even worse, the antibiotics had some serious side effects including a slight fever but it mostly sapped me of energy to the point where even walking to the nearby 7-Eleven was a mission. It didn't help that I could hardly eat anything either. Meanwhile, my thirty days granted to me in Thailand were quickly disappearing; I was even thinking about flying directly to Kuala Lumpur and taking my one month pit stop with family early, before coming back and
Wat Phan Tao
Monastery with a sanctuary made entirely of teak.
doing Thailand in a much healthier state, at a later date. With all the suffering I had been through recently, I was really questioning whether it was all worth it. I wasn't excited at all about any of the sights or activities I was seeing or doing and I just wasn't enjoying myself. Was it time to pack it all in and head home?
I went back to the hospital where they ran some tests and confirmed their initial diagnosis which was an intestinal infection; this time however they gave me some stronger antibiotics - with stronger side effects.
Therefore it wasn't ideal to have to wake up early the next morning for an all-day tour of the Northern Thailand countryside but having already postponed my tour once and then been charged 200B to postpone it a second time, I wasn't about to go and get charged again for a third postponement. Having spent another £60 at the doctor's the previous day, I'd spent enough money already. Spending £110 on medical treatment was a heartcrusher by the way, especially when I think of how hard I have had to work and the things I've had to give up just
At an orchid and butterfly farm I visited as part of my elephant tour.
to save a £1 here and £2 there. As it was, I downed seven pills including three different antibiotics before the tour started and hoped for the best.
The first stop for me and my two fellow German tour goers Philipp and Stefanie, was an orchid and butterfly farm which to be honest, isn't the kind of thing that floats my boat. Interestingly, all the orchids were hanging. Seeing the colourful butterflies fluttering all around in their enclosure was pretty cool though. Not so cool were the effects of the antibiotics; I was really struggling and I honestly thought I might have to throw up as well as shit my pants. The oppressive heat wasn't helping either.
It might've been due to a lack of sleep too however as I passed out in the truck en route to our next stop for the bamboo rafting. Thankfully I was feeling much better on arrival. The bamboo rafting was nice and relaxing - it was like Thai punting
. Sadly, we passed a group of Chinese tourists riding elephants; it is a questionable practice in my opinion as I'm not sure it is good for them (the elephants, obviously). And as we passed
Feeding The Elephant
I feed an elephant some bananas.
the elephants, we also passed loads of developments along the river; resorts, zip-lines (did that in Costa Rica
), restaurants, hotels. This was rampant tourism and the ambience of the jungle and mountains here was spoilt as a result. It was sad to see.
Thankfully the elephant sanctuary we visited next had its own quiet neck of the woods and the elephants are looked after (a little better...). We were in peace as our guide explained to us what is done at the sanctuary and some elephant facts. Apparently, most elephants were used for logging but that has now been banned, which has taken away a lucrative form of income for elephant owners. Therefore it seems that some elephant owners have opened up sanctuaries such as this one and now earn their living from tourist visits like ours. Incredibly, elephants eat 250-300kg of food a day; therefore one of the elephants I was feeding would eat a bunch of bananas that would take me a week to get through, in one gulp! They are intelligent creatures, which you can see by the way they break sugar canes down to a reasonable size before eating them, and it was cool to see them
Washing An Elephant
Philipp, the elephant handler, me and Stefanie give this elephant its daily bath. It didn't really like it.
up close. This isn't my first close encounter with elephants
but Asian elephants are much more approachable and less aggressive than African ones. They are cheeky though, constantly wrapping their trunks around your hand for food even when you didn't have any. It seemed to be all they were interested in doing. And apparently that is all they do all day! Nevertheless you still couldn't help but admire and adore these beautiful creatures.
And it is fair to say that bath time isn't an elephant's favourite part of the day as the handler struggled to get the elephant to sit while we washed him down. It was slightly scary when it started walking towards me, looking to grab the sugarcane brush out of my hand. I'd love to know what they are thinking every day.
"Oh f*ck, not bath time again."
"Hey human, gimme that sugar cane you prick!"
"Stop f*cking splashing water on me you c*nt!" *Uses trunk to spray water on us* "There, how do you like that you little asswipe?"
"Don't make me sit on you!"
"Gimme that f*cking bunch of bananas!"
It was still fun though and still the highlight of the day. And of course I managed to scrape my shin on
My guide on the trek said that farmers only get one baht per kilo of cabbage sold; that is just 2.5p per kilo. It was sad to hear.
a rock in the elephant bathing pool. Having also scraped my left shin in Kerala
, my shins have taken a battering this trip. I'd had enough washing elephants by then anyway, even if we were only washing the thing for five minutes. When it started shitting in the water, I wanted the f*ck outta there.
The last part of the tour involved a short trek through the jungle - as if I hadn't done enough trekking
- but what would normally be a piece of piss was tough going in the heat and I was low on energy and strength from my illness and the antibiotics. Luckily we arrived much sooner than expected at the local waterfall. It wasn't massive and it was full of locals cooling off, which we did too. The water was nice but it wasn't the cleanest waterfall I've seen so I didn't want to linger too long with my new graze on my shin. What is it with me grazing my shin before going into water? Grrrr. To be fair, I've seen better waterfalls and I've swum in nicer ones too.
Our guide reminded me that it was Sunday today and thus also reminded me that the Sunday Walking Street
Sunday Night Walking Street
This market stretches for one kilometre.
Market was on. Every Sunday, Thanon Ratchadamnoen - one of the main streets in the old city - transforms into a 1km long street market. Calling it a "walking street" is a bit of a stretch though; it is more like a "crawling street" since that is the pace you are reduced to when trying to squeeze through the thousands of people - both tourists and locals alike - checking out the handmade soaps, clothes, carvings, trinkets and herbal remedies on sale. Of course there is also loads of delicious looking food and beverages on sale - none of which once again, I was able to sample. Absolutely tragic.
Eating the local food is one of the highlights of travelling for me and so is having a drink and socialising with other travellers you have just met. Not able to do the former and not in the mood to do the latter, I did feel that I wasn't having the full experience here in Thailand. In fact, I didn't feel like doing anything
and getting myself out to do stuff was a struggle.
I had had a few days to mull over things and taking into consideration that I
Wat Chedi Luang
My favourite temple in Chiang Mai.
wouldn't be able to drink for at least the next week thanks to my antibiotics, that it might still be a few days before I was 100%!h(MISSING)ealthy, and that I wasn't too excited about where I was and what I was seeing (everyone has been to Thailand - nothing too different or fascinating here), I decided to make the call.
The last two months - and perhaps the last eighteen - has drained my energy, my enthusiasm and my patience for travelling. My next planned destination was Bangkok - and I was almost dreading the overnight bus journey there and the thought of descending into its chaos. When my watch broke - for the second time on this trip
- followed by my lone electrical adaptor, they were the last straws. I had said that if I ever completely lost interest in what I was doing that there would be no point continuing - being sick hasn't helped but it has definitely contributed - and now I was finally ready to admit it. I was tired and I was travel-fatigued; I never thought I'd say it, but I was finally over travelling. I needed to stop.
Rather than terminating the trip entirely and flying to
Inside Wat Phan Tao
Buddha image inside the teak Wat Phan Tao.
Auckland however, I booked a flight from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur instead. As you may or may not know, I have family there who can nurse this depleted, worn-down backpacker back to health - not least my own mother. I was supposed to stop in KL for a month anyway but now I've now brought it forward two weeks; I could've made my way down by land and boat through Thailand's famous islands but I was determined to enjoy the islands as well as Bangkok in full health and with a positive mindset. At this point I will be coming back up to Thailand over land from KL up to Bangkok from where I will continue my journey through Asia; but then again I may well decide to end it completely and fly back to New Zealand directly from KL, which would be a shame. Is the fate of the entire trip now in the balance?
The day before I left, many in the hostel were lamenting the fact that I was leaving the day before Songkran, the Thai New year which is traditionally celebrated with water, hence Songkran also being known as "the water festival". In Chiang
These locals wait to douse traffic and pedestrians in water as part of Songkran festivities.
Mai, this has simply turned into a massive city-wide water fight which involves you whether you want to be involved or not. Like any long holiday in any party-friendly country, the action usually kicks off the day before and so I did get to experience some of Songkran after all. Namely, I was hosed down by locals carrying water-guns as I walked the streets. Everyone was in such a good, celebratory mood however that it was hard not to take it in good spirits. I was particularly vulnerable - as were motor vehicles, particularly ones containing foreigners - because I was staying near the old city's moat which is where the locals source their water to spray unsuspecting passers-by. They would target each other too and naturally, tourists also got involved and it was just a happy occasion all around. It seemed like good times, certainly judging by the party scenes outside the hostel; I never thought that drunken Thais singing retro-karaoke so badly could be so entertaining. And if I was fully healthy I most probably would have joined them! But alas, I couldn't even take crackers let alone beer so all I could do was look on in
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Inside one of Thailand's most sacred temples.
from the outside. The party lifted my spirits a little though - the happiness all around was infectious, which added to my own happiness of getting out of Chiang Mai, along with a determination to get better in order to enjoy these good times once again soon.
It was a nice mood with which to finally leave Chiang Mai after almost two weeks. I do like the place, with its tourist infrastructure, street food (not that I got to try any), street markets and friendly people - but mostly for its overall laid-back feel. But for now I am really looking forward to some familiar faces and some familiar surrounds. There will be travel plans to be made while in KL and probably some visas to be arranged too, but most importantly, I needed to nurse myself back to health. Thus the thing I was looking forward to doing most of all was doing nothing; absolutely nothing.
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