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Published: December 13th 2007
Our first stop in Northern Thailand was in Chiang Rai. Roughly two bus hours south of the Laos border. We visited the very interesting Hilltribe Museum and Education Center, which reinforced our decision not to do more treks visiting hilltribes. We have already mentioned our mixed feelings in the last blog entry. Besides an exciting night market (less touristy than Chiang Mai) and a few wats there is not much to see in this small city but we had our dirty clothes washed and written the Laos blog there.
A bit more then 5 bus hours south west is Chiang Mai. We made the trip in a regular bus which means 5 seats per row and not the usual four! Not really comfortable... Chiang Mai is the second largest city of the country but compared to Bangkok (the largest city Thailand's) it feels like living in a village. Some find it hectic and polluted but we found the city rather friendly and peppered with really nice temples. However, the praised Sunday Walking Market was a bit of a deception and the night market too much oriented towards tourists, which means hundred times the same dumb t-shirts and dozens of fake
Akah women selling souvenirs.
We also took a fabulous one-day cooking class in Chiang Mai. We really liked it and hope being able to reproduce some of the recipes in Switzerland. On our last day we wanted to go hiking without visiting any hill tribes... no one could provide us any information, probably because there is not much money to make with us and also because nobody (except us) is dumb enough to come to Thailand for walking only!! First, we arrived at the sublime Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and asked around for the hiking trail to the Mon Tha Tahn waterfalls. As it is always the case if you ask several persons we received many contradictory answers... finally, after some detours we found the entrance to the national park and made a nice hike from one waterfall to the next (nine levels in total) on a deserted trail! It proved once more that if you want to do something out of the ordinary, especially in Thailand, you have to ask around a lot and not abandon too quickly.... often you are heavily rewarded (if you find)!
The morning before we left Chiang Mai we waked
up at 5h30 to see the monks' round for rice. People had told us that it would be a special round because it was the King's birthday and we were expecting a kind of procession... In fact there was no procession but only some monks here and there to whom people offered rice. It was interesting to observe but still a bit disappointing!
During our transition day from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai we stopped at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang. We were just in time for the daily bathing of the elephants where the big mammals completely submerge in the water. The elephant is an important symbol for Thailand, however the animals have seen better days than today. Only few elephants are still used as "working" elephants and those still used in the logging industry are often pumped with amphetamines so they can work longer hours and don't feel pain. Elephants in the service of the tourism industry are not always treated very well neither, but the center we visited is somehow different than the one-elephant-camps of some dubious tourist agencies. On site is an elephant hospital treating old, abandoned and sick elephants from all over the
country. To help finance there is even a factory on site that transforms elephant dung (or elephant shit if you prefer) into paper. A really interesting process and the paper is nice... by the way elephant dung has the useful characteristic not to stink at all!
The reason to come to Sukhothai is its historical park. Sukhothai Historical Park is another UNESCO World Heritage site and displays close to hundred ruins within a radius of 5 kilometers. Sukhothai was the first capital of Siam (name changed to Thailand in 1939) and was established in the 13th century. Sukhothai's dynasty lasted 200 years and nine kings. We rented bicycles to cycle around the park despite the heat during the day. We were surprised by the few tourists and the absence of large groups of bus tourists but we did not complain.... in comparison with the bigger (and ten times more expensive) Angkor ruins in Cambodia we could easily appreciate in silence. And there are many marvellous temples in this park, some similar to Angkor (Wat Si Sawai) and many of different style. A distinctive feature are the large Buddha images in different positions, which are absent in Angkor. You can
see many Buddha images in the pictures section of this blog...
Sukhothai also happened to be city where we stayed when his Royalty the King of Thailand turned 80 (on December 5th). It was of course a holiday in the whole country and every city had its own festivities. We missed the fireworks but saw some Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and other folklore demonstrations. As we do not necessarily share the adoration for the King we may had less fun than the Thais but it was interesting to wander around the hundreds of food stalls and the yellow decorations (the King's color).
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