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Published: April 29th 2016
It was time to give Thailand another chance - this time we were going to explore the north. We started off in Chiang Rai, a nice town a couple of hours from Chiang Mai. The place was pretty cool, laid back and foodie, with a load of decent bars (although with a fairly obvious underbelly - how many all-night massage parlours does one small town need?). We had a fairly heavy night at one of the bars, where their slogan was 'Jam with Sam' - the owner is a very good guitarist, and gets customers up on stage with him every night to jam on his collection of nice guitars, bass, drums and - most importantly for me - piano. Having not got my hands on a piano for over 7 months, wild horses wouldn't have been able to drag me off stage... I had a lot of fun, and rather a lot to drink to go with it (the Thai SangSom rum is fairly evil stuff in bulk...)
The main tourist sites in Chiang Rai are a pair of totally bizarre counterpointed temples, that represent heaven and hell. We visited 'heaven' first, and I've got to say that if
that's what's awaiting in the afterlife, I'm glad I'm atheist... All built in blinding white, you enter the temple across a sea of writhing hands, which looked a lot like people trying to escape torture. All around there were disembodied heads hanging from trees - some demons, some normal people, and for some reason also Batman, The Hulk and Ironman. The main building was filled with paintings - the obvious Buddhas and religious scenes, but intertwined with more pop culture; Michael Jackson made an appearance, as did Darth Vader and Superman. The Twin Towers came crashing down on one wall, with the planes morphing into petrol pumps at their tails, in a somewhat unsubtle political message (in rather dubious taste, an Angry Bird was coming flying in towards the remaining tower...).
Bemused by all this, we then headed up to 'hell', which was if anything even weirder. This one is built all in black, and is packed full of animal pelts, skulls and other dead things. There were also huge numbers of phallic objects everywhere, amidst macabre carvings on the walls. In the midst of all this sombre mood sat the artist with an acoustic guitar, jauntily singing Neil
Young and John Lennon songs while vigorously encouraging visitors to sing along with him. All in all, two very weird but strangely wonderful temples!
Next we went to Chiang Mai, which I had fond (albeit vague) memories of as a kid. I don't know if it's changed a lot since then or if my memories were misplaced, but I was pretty disappointed in the place. I remember vast quantities of awesome street food everywhere, but after we arrived we walked miles around the old city and just saw soulless tourist restaurants serving identical crappy Western menus. We did find some decent places once we'd searched a little harder - one particular khao soi street vendor there will live long in the memory - but somehow Chiang Mai seems to have lost its appeal along the way. Sadly this seems to be the story of tourism in Thailand!
After an overnight train journey (not a bad night - but it made us miss the atmosphere of an Indian train trip, with chai-wallahs shouting their wares down the aisles...) we arrived in Ayutthaya. An ancient capital sacked by the Burmese in the 1700s, it now has an almost Angkor Wat
feel to it, as you wander around ruined temples in the process of being reclaimed by the banyan trees. There's a particularly evocative area where a decapitated Buddha head has been captured by the roots of a tree, and now stares out at you from his wooden prison - it makes it easy to picture the violence suffered by the place as the Burmese came through. We spent a nice couple of days there cycling around the ruins, visiting temples and wilting in the uber-heat.
Next was some more beach time and diving - Koh Chang looked pretty close to Ayutthaya on the map, and after just a quick walk, boat, train, metro, skytrain, bus, tuk-tuk, brief overnight stop, taxi, ferry and finally songthaew ride later - we were there! (It was a little further than it looked...). We stayed in a resort just off the beach and had a nice chilled out few days, playing pétanque, taking a cooking class, and generally relaxing in the sun. We'd chosen Koh Chang for it's diving, and we were hoping to give Felix and Roland a taste of snorkelling the amazing Thai coral reefs while we dived. Unfortunately, the sea was
pretty wild while we were out, and so they got a short taste of not seeing very much above murky waters, and quite a long taste of seasickness and chundering on the rolling waves... Oops! Hopefully it wasn't too much of an ordeal for them... We had fun diving, anyway! The reefs weren't that great, but there's a brilliant wreck there - the HTMS Chang, sunk a few years back as an artificial reef; they cut a load of it open before they sunk it, so there are huge areas where you can go 'inside' the wreck without all the dangerous business of being in a confined space underwater. It was a great dive, floating through the corridors of the old warship past huge schools of fish - all very atmospheric.
After a quick stop off back in Bangkok (where we just focused on eating as much good street food as possible, knowing we won't get any more for a month) that was it for our time in Thailand. We definitely preferred the north of Thailand to the south (though that's faint praise), but the main centres still seemed a little spoilt just by the vast numbers of tourists
everywhere. Having said that, the diving is fantastic, the people are lovely, the beer is cheap, and the food, found for pennies on every street corner, is probably my favourite food in the entire world - so I imagine we'll be back again some day...
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