8 November 2011

More Buddha Than Your Body Can Handle [Chiang Mai, Thailand]

I can't remember the last time I spent 24 hours straight in transit, so a big trip was overdue. The aim was to get from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Chiang Mai in Thailand; an international border crossing and 1,100kms separated the two. We had hoped to head north without transiting through Bangkok. Mainly because of the flooding; we had heard conflicting reports about what transport was working and how badly affected the city was. But things don't always go as planned...

We set off from Siem Reap at 8am on a short three hour bus ride to the border town of Poipet. Crossing the border into Thailand was no issue, it was when we arrived the problems started. As soon as we were through customs a guy from a travel agent approached us saying he could take us anywhere we wanted to go. I was more interested in finding the local bus station and getting on a normal bus, but he said he had a bus leaving in 10 minutes for Chiang Mai and I negotiated a price of THB300 each (US$10). It turns out that people in Thailand often sell things they don't actually have...

So we go to this guys office and sit around for a bit... Nothing really happens. There are a couple of other travel agents around so I decide to call in and see what they have to say. The consensus is that there is no way to Chiang Mai without going through Bangkok, and it is going to cost MINIMUM B800 each. One guy wanted B2,000! We were starting to suspect the first guy didn't actually know what he was talking about, but decided to give him 30 minutes for his magic bus to show up.

No surprise, but there was no bus. The guy had actually gone around to the other travel agents to ask how he could get us to Chiang Mai. He didn't even know where the city was! Trying to tell me it was only three hours away. All the travel agents run mini-buses to Bangkok but want at least THB350. We were lucky enough to find the agent for the local, government run bus. An hour later we were cruising toward Bangkok's northern bus station; the exact station we needed to go onward to Chiang Mai, for just B200. But we were still not sure if we could even get a bus heading north.

We arrived in Bangkok at about 8pm, straight to the ticket office and bought a ticket for a bus leaving 90 minutes later for B500. Perfect! Maybe 30 minutes after we left the station we hit the flooding. I couldn't believe the buses were driving through it, it must have been 2 foot deep over the road. And much deeper on the side! We saw locals paddling around in small boats or random bits of floating material. Intense.

The bus pulled in to Chiang Mai bus station at just after 8am the following morning, almost exactly 24 hours after we had set off. We managed to find a share taxi (songthaew, basically a small truck where the back has been turned in to bench seating) into town and started about finding somewhere to stay.

First observations - accommodation is EXPENSIVE (in comparison to other SE Asian countries). B200 (just under US$7) was the absolute minimum we could find. We were paying $3-5 in Cambodia. But the food is cheap. Well, local food anyway, western food is expensive as always. But it is really easy to find local restaurants and they all have English menus. And it is SO good! I have been looking forward to a green curry and pad thai for months, and I was not disappointed.

The old town in Chiang Mai is a small (approx 1km sq) area literally packed with temples, and surrounded by a small mote. The temples are decorated in a unique way; with coloured glass mosaics which glow brightly under sunlight. We spent the best part of a day just wandering around, admiring the city and temples.

The main temple in Chiang Mai, apparently the most important in Northern Thailand, is Doi Suthep. High on a hill approximately 15kms from the center of the city, Doi Suthep is a golden masterpiece. There are countless images of Buddha, a couple of small temples, and a massive stupa all coated in gold. Though my favorite was the sitting Buddha carved entirely out of jade. The temple also provides beautiful views over Chiang Mai and surroundings. So yes, it was really nice, but not sure if it was worth it. Public transport up there is almost non-existent. Share taxi's freelancing wanted 500B ($16) for the return journey. We ended up sharing with another girl and paying B300 between Julia and I, which I still thought was really expensive! My advice if you want to do it; go in a big group or hire a scooter.

We spent one day 'trekking' outside of Chiang Mai through a tour company. It included a elephant trek and a ride downriver on a bamboo raft. Although it is possible to get out into the wilderness and do these things yourself, to get really deep into the forest a guide is recommended. And for the other activities it would just take more time and probably cost about the same. But  I use the term trekking very loosely; we walked for about 30 minutes through the jungle for the entire day. In fact everything we did was pretty mediocre. But we did do a lot of things, and it was pretty cheap, so I guess it is OK.

So first up was rafting. Well actually first up was a garden of some description... Here are a couple of pretty pictures in lieu of a description. As you can see I look thrilled to be there... Anyway, soon after the garden we jumped on an old bamboo raft that was barely holding itself together, and with the help of two locals, drifted our way down stream. It was quite nice, slowly making our way down the river through the jungle. The best part was at the end when we almost missed our parking spot, the raft twisted and almost spun around, and the locals only just regained control.

We then jumped on our elephants for our one hour trek through the jungle. Which turned out to be a 15 minute walk along the side of the river (and elephants walk slowly!) to a stand where they sold bananas that you can buy and feed the elephants. Then they turned the elephants around and walked back. A little disappointing, but the elephants were amazing! There was a baby that was very cute. I think we were riding its mother because it stayed beside us the whole time. The main thing I was worried about was the treatment of the elephants. Although nothing bad went on when we were riding them, and in fact they seemed really happy. But the 'carers' were all carrying these sticks with a blunt metal spike. I saw one guy using it on an elephant that didn't look too nice. I also saw another elephant chained up which was a bit sad.

One thing that the tour did well was the lunch; a big buffet of really good Thai food. Afterward we went to get fitted into our harnesses... Harnesses? ... We weren't aware of it when we booked, but apparently our tour included zip-lining! AWESOME! Well, not really. It was actually pretty lame; a small line across the river. The staff were pulling on the line making the riders jump up and down just to make it even slightly interesting.

Then came the 30 minute wander through the jungle. I wasn't complaining too much though, as I still have a little trouble walking after the scooter accident. We did walk through some nice, leafy jungle to a small waterfall. What was made out to be an amazing place for swimming and relaxing was more of a tiny pool, in which you couldn't really swim. There was just enough room to put your feet in and cool off.

Our final stop was to visit the minority 'hill tribe' people. This is all basically just for show now, and the people do not live in the traditional way they did in the past. But they do make all kinds of handicrafts and dress up in their traditional outfits, so it is kind of nice to see. They were all very friendly, and I managed to get a photo with this stunner!

Next stop: Pai, a small mountain town about 140kms north of Chiang Mai. I am looking forward to a couple of days relaxing, swimming and wandering through the jungle.

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