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Published: April 19th 2011
We had intended to cross from Laos to northern Thailand by means of a cramped 2 day boat crossing. Still tender wounds, and dressings that needed changing daily ruled that out, and so we took a short flight from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai. Our initial fears of flying with Lao Airlines (an airline which once had one of the worst safety records in the industry) were quickly dispelled when we got on the plane, which was so new it still had new plane smell, went on to have great in-flight service and flew bang on time.
Considering Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, it feels like a world apart from the busy roads and constant hassling that goes on in Bangkok. There is a much slower pace to life, crossing the roads is not a life threatening activity and the locals seem altogether more relaxed. The city is very simple to navigate, the old town being contained within a 19th century defensive wall and large moat. Nowadays the only parts of the ancient city walls that still remain are the 4 corner bastions along with North, South, West & East gates which
straddle the moat. Although they look fairly imposing, I don't think they would keep out a determined invader today!
Like Luang Prabang, many of Chiang Mai's main buildings in the old town are of religious significance, with numerous Buddist wats lining the streets. However, in Chiang Mai the monks seem to be confined to their temples and were not in evidence on the streets. We visited a couple of the main temples in town, however we have to admit that by this stage, we were beginning to suffer from a degree of temple fatigue, and had limited enthusiasm.
Another similarity with Luang Prabang is the large night market in Chiang Mai that cranks up every evening to the east of the old town. However, the charm and traditional handicrafts of the former are replaced by a loud frenzy of bargaining for all the trashy, modern fake goods you could ever imagine at the latter, even down to fake jewellery from Tiffany's along with fake Tiffany's boxes to store it in. They have catalogues of watches from which you can choose your designer style and it will be ready for you the following evening at a fraction of the
price of the real thing (with a fraction of the accuracy or life expectancy of the real thing too!). It's good fun to walk through though.
Cooking up a storm....again
Chiang Mai has a lot going on of interest, and is in particular renowned for its cookery schools. This being our third visit to Thailand on this trip, we now consider ourselves Thai food aficcionados so it was the perfect opportunity to learn how to cook some of our favourite dishes. We went along to the Siam Rice Cookery school
for a one day class and had an absolutely great time. We would highly recommend this school to anyone who ever goes to Chiang Mai. After a market tour to learn about some of the raw ingredients that are the essentials of Thai cooking, we were transferred, along with 6 fellow students, to the kitchen of the school to make our choice of 6 different courses. Incredibly, despite everyone in the class choosing a different dish for each course, the lone teacher managed to keep track of everyone at once, telling us when to add certain ingredients to help with the flavour of our dishes. It was quite the vocal
Cooking with fire
Lots of fun, but singed eyebrows
juggling act but he managed to keep it all moving along with a lot of skill and a large dollop of humour, with nothing getting burned.
Overall we cooked (and of course then ate) a Thai salad, noodle dish, Thai soup, stir fry, curry and dessert, all of which tasted really great, although it took a couple of courses for each of us to judge our personal level of chilli tolerance. The first efforts, especially the salad course, were burn your mouth off levels of spicy! A particular favourite of the day though was the stir fry where we got to do what none of us has ever managed to do safely at home, which is throw the ingredients into the wok with really hot oil and create a huge flame. If we had ever tried that in our last flat in London I don't think we would have got our deposit back! The video at the top shows Mike cooking up his stir fry......don't try this at home.....unless you have a very high ceiling!
Slice of Pai anyone?
From Chiang Mai we made the northern Thailand backpacker pilgrimage to the little mountain town of Pai
(pronounced "Pie"), a few hours northwest. The journey there is incredibly scenic, travelling up, over, and then back down a mountain road with multiple twists, which threw us about the minibus with each turn. We later saw T-shirts in Pai which claim there are something like 740 turns in the road between Chiang Mai and Pai. It certainly felt like it.
Pai is a mellow little town with only a handful of streets, and its considerable charms have attracted an arty, hippy crowd who hang out, live a simple life and are generally able to be as creative as they want to be. A considerable number of Pai residents are now foreigners, who have fallen under Pai's gentle spell so much that they never left. The town still has a singularly relaxed pace about it, all quirky little cafes serving delicious homebaked foods, meditation classes going on upstairs and handmade jewelry for sale on the stall outside. The location is beautiful, being in a remote corner of Thailand, near the border with Burma, and surrounded by tree covered hills, with tiny rivers flowing down into the valleys. Elephants, from the many rehabilitation centres that are found in this part
of Thailand, frequently trundle sedately along the roads around the town.
However, beyond the natural beauty, our main reason for travelling to Pai was to catch up with our friends who make a regular appearance in this blog, Tik and Emilie. Having finished their trip to India since we last saw them in Rishikesh four months ago, they have recently moved back to Tik's home in Pai to settle in to Thai life. As we were leaving Asia soon, this would be our last chance to catch up with them for a while so we couldn't pass up on the opportunity, being so close to where they now were.
It was a very chilled out few days we spent in Pai to round off our time in Asia. We spent days sitting drinking coffee in some of the many organic cafes in town, or maybe hiring bikes and going off on a short ride in the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside, or just bonding with the cat who adopted us at our riverside hut, while during the evenings we would have dinner with our friends, before going and watching Tik play guitar at his nightly slot in
one of the many bars in town. Ultimately it was a rather idyllic way to round off our time in Asia, a fitting last taste of gentle Thai magic.
SE Asia.....over and out!
All too soon we were on the overnight super duper, VIP, all singing all dancing, flat bed bus down to Bangkok where we then spent the final night before our flight east. Coming back to Bangkok for a third time, we noticed a huge increase in the temperature this time around, with the city feeling very hot and sticky, even at 6:30am when we arrived in by bus.
Our time there was a good opportunity to replace worn out bits of our wardrobe before we reach more expensive countries in the future, so we indulged in the delights of Khaosan road one last time. It was also a good chance to have one last Thai curry, although during the meal we found out that it was an important Buddist festival that evening (the first full moon of the lunar new year) so no alcohol would be on sale that night throughout Bangkok. On leaving the restaurant we realised that in every place we
passed by on our way home, people were drinking either soft drinks or tea or coffee. For anyone who knows Bangkok at all, this is a very strange experience at 9pm on a Friday night as there always seems to be alcohol available anywhere in Bangkok - and a lot of foreigners rolling about very much the worse for wear. To suddenly witness the city full of sober foreign tourists was a strange experience.
It was a final surprise thrown at us in Asia, a place that has continuously surprised us in our travels throughout the region. It has been a fantastic area to explore, from the range of culinary delights on offer in Malaysia, to the postcard perfect Thai beaches, to the chaos of the big Vietnamese cities, to the warm and friendly people and amazing temples in Cambodia. It really is an area that has something for everyone and we have had an unforgettable time travelling around these diverse countries.
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