Posts tagged ‘Thailand’
Anyone arriving in Bangkok over the last few weeks would have been excused for thinking that they were witnessing the homecoming of a World-Cup-winning football team. Entire blocks had to be closed off to accomodate the traffic of a thousand trucks carrying flag-waving supporters; Chinatown was alive with the sound of music pumped from speakers mounted on motorbikes; and for every gyrating body hanging off the back of a pickup truck, there seemed to be twenty on the street cheering them on. Every street-facing window, shopfront, stoop and laneway was awash with the colour red – sometimes that of the official supporters’ shirt but more often just any old undershirt or dress pulled out of the bottom of a wardrobe.
The atmosphere was electric. Police and army officials charged with overseeing the demonstrations were hard-pressed to maintain their stoic expressions as teenaged girls tucked roses into their pockets. For our part, standing and waving vigorously to all the smiling faces didn’t suffice for long and we were soon dancing up and down the road, wriggling our hips in time to the latest Thai hit and clapping along in time to the supporters’ chants. Later we were to hear that the gathering became violent in the small hours, a point we could hardly believe after our early evening experience.
Far from a football victory however, the demonstrations were part of the ongoing protest happening all over Bangkok – a call from the people for the Prime Minister to dissolve the government and set a date for a general election. The Redshirts had organised mass demonstrations, offering free food, accomodation and even pocket money to supporters willing to travel cross-country to the capital. For all of its indignance, and political intent though, the protest often came across as one more excuse for the Thai people to get together and celebrate on the streets. Smiling faces, bouncing babies and outstretched hands replaced the stern expressions and hostile vibes that one would normally expect from a gathering of this nature. Even in their outrage it seemed that the Thai people were incapable of being anything less than lovable.
Surprisingly (well, in our opinion anyway), the protest showed Bangkok in a much more flattering light than that of daily life. Having spent 12 hours in the capital a few weeks earlier, we were dreading our return to what had come across as a souless, commercial captial. Basically just another Big Asian City. This time though, we were forced to abandon our tuk-tuks and walk blocks through the protests, being greeted by everyone as we passed. The whole city slowed as it struggled under labour shortages and the strain of having half its roads closed but to us, it just felt more lively and less cold. I can only imagine what it’s like during the King’s birthday every year when all businesses close, everyone dons yellow clothes and the sky lights up with bursts of fireworks.
Once we warmed up to the idea of Bangkok, it didn’t take us long to see through its ugly outer shell and cold (yet stiflingly humid) air. With the help of Julia and Caroline we explored the spectacular Royal Palace and temple, oohing and ahhing at its dazzling golden spires, glass-encrusted walls and intricate murals. We trekked through the local malls and markets again – MBK for its tshirt stalls and cheap Mac makeup, The Siam Centre for its local designers, The Paragon Centre for its awesome foodcourt and Khao San Road for the cheapest of everything. But more than anything, we ate our body weight in baked goods, pad Thai, kebabs, fried rice, curry and papaya salad (washed down, of course, with a some delicious cocktails and less delicious Chang beer).
Note: the following paragraph is not for the faint of heart or parents. If you are insulted by nudity, prostitution, x-rated porn, lewd acts or by the idea of us being involved in any of the above look away now.
Okay, if you insist but our lawyer has advised us that by reading this you have waived your rights.
Everything was going just dandy until we asked Jules what she felt like doing for the evening. “There’s only one thing that I want to do in Bangkok…” she said, innocently enough. A few hours later (with Gary’s full support for the plan) we were propped up an empty bar called Super Pussy with half a dozen middle-aged hookers and one throughly unconvincing ladyman cooing over us, massaging our shoulders and offering us 2-for-1 deals. Giggling nervously we eventually managed to shoo them away and just as they strutted off in their waist-high gstrings and we started to relax, Gary let out a blood-curling scream. It turns out that one of the performers who was currently lying naked on the stage with her knees curled up to her chest had… ahem… ‘fired’ a peeled banana at him and it had smushed all over his tshirt (black, of course) and shorts.
Once Caroline, Julia and I had picked ourselves up off the floor, recovered our composure and dried our tears, we ran screaming out of the bar and onto the street. With our Ping Pong box firmly ticked (pun fully intended) we jumped in the next tuk-tuk and screeched our way out of Patpong as fast as three wheels could take us. Back in the tourist district sipping on daquiris even Gary was laughing over his soiled tshirt as we recounted our red light night of razor blades, fairy lights, flowers and various other things that should never, ever be used out of context. When in Rome, right?
Advice: If you can ever eat again after reading that, one good food spot we found near Th Khao San was an aptly named street canteen on the next street called Very Nice Thai Food.
More pictures from Bangkok are available in the gallery
I don’t know what I had expected from Khao Sok. The guidebooks had been sorely lacking in details so I had put together my own image. It would be a lush tropical jungle, thick with fat, dripping palm trees and flowers bursting with colour. Within ten minutes of hiking we would find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, trying to locate the source of monkey calls while dodging our way around pythons and deadly grass snakes. Sweating through our clothes and jungle hats (á la Eliza Thornberry), we would make our way through the thickets, eventually arriving at a thundering waterfall and emerald rock pool. After a refreshing swim amongst schools of colourful fish and bathing elephants we would spread the contents of our picnic hamper across a flat rock, sharing ham sandwiches, Tayto crisps, coke and a flask full of Barry’s Tea with a family of hungry monkeys.
Our first 20 minutes in Khao Sok only built our expectations up more. After hitching a lift from a taut with a pickup truck (who also moonlighted as a guesthouse owner, taxi driver, tour guide and the love of your life for the right price) we arrived in Art’s Riverview Guest House, Lonely Planet’s most enticing recommendation. Tucked in off the main strip, the guesthouse was the absoulte picture of serenity – all varnished wooden staircases, restaurant tables overlooking a sluggish river and rope swings delivering sceaming children into the water. We almost tripped over ourselves in our rush to get to the booking desk. Unfortunately it was not to be and our taut (obviously well aware that Art’s was fully booked) enticed us over to his guesthouse where we had to make do with mediocre raised stilt huts with mosquito nets.
That was just the first in a string of compromises. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is just how limited Khao Sok National Park really is. Covering over 700sq km, you would imagine that the trekking possiblities are endless. Not so. Due to a large concentration of rivers in the area, much of the park is inaccessible so tourists have the option of two short-ish walking routes or a handful of package tours that offer different combinations of tubing, canoeing, elephant trekking, a trip to the lake and rafthouses, a visit to Bat Cave and a night or morning safari.
Undeterred we headed for the Visitor Centre to pick up our hand-drawn map and set out on our first jungle adventure. After all, inaccessible or not, Khao Sok is still home to tigers, elephants, monkeys, maques, snakes, spiders, lemurs, wild pigs, bats, lizards and God knows what else. Surely if we hung around long enough some part of my fantasy trip would have to come true.
Taking it in turns to lead (the person in front had to shoo away all the snakes), we picked our way through the bamboo jungle, waiting excitedly for our first animal encounter. We weren’t waiting long before Gary let out a hysterical wail (almost female in pitch) as he came face to face with his first snake. No doubt sensing his raw masculinity and predatory instincts, the snake retreated into a nearby hole and Gary, trembling at the knees ever so slightly, marched on.
A few minutes later, as we were starting to despair of ever seeing more than a pretty butterfly, vivid flower, babbling brook or some fleeing snakes, we heard a familiar noise. “That’s an elephant,” said Gary breathlessly as we started to creep a few metres in every direction looking for the source of the sound. Twenty minutes of intrepid exploration left us in no doubt that there was an elephant nearby (we found fresh droppings and newly broken bamboo trees) but we were no closer to any major wildlife spottings. The rest of the day was much the same – lots of beautiful forest, towering ancient trees, refreshing rivers and even a flying lizard but nothing bigger than a python.
Trying to mask our disappointment (after all, it was a beautiful hike and a lovely experience), we booked ourselves in for a tour the next day only to be introduced to compromise number two. Where we wanted a two day tour with a night safari and overnight camping trip, we had to settle for a one day trip with no safari for much the same price because during the low season, there aren’t always enough tourists around to make up the required numbers – even if all of Germany seems to be knocking about.
Thankfully the trip turned out to be worth every single penny and every pain we had gone through to get to Khao Sok. The first part was a one-hour ride across the lake in a longtail boat. While the karst scenery in the Krabi region is often quite pretty, we had never imagined that an artificial lake in the area could be so beautiful – possibly even more beautiful than Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. With its hunched grey humps rising out of the still water, the lake was a stunning setting and the perfect habitat for the resident monkey population which emerges from the trees in the evenings to take a cooling dip in the lake.
The first leg of our journey (second if you count the 1½ hour drive over) brought us to the rafthouses, where a swim in the lake and a ridiculously large lunch left us ready for the afternoon’s adventure. Full as ticks and rearing to go, our longtail dropped us at a bank across the lake and we started to make our way through the jungle, wading across rivers, breaking up swirls of vibrant butterflies, cowering before huge spiders (“Why,” asked Gary, “are the bugs in Asia so much bigger when the people are so much smaller?”) and craning our necks to watch monkeys swing from branch to branch 20m above ground.
Eventually we got to the cave where we donned our headlamps and tiptoed in, trying not to wake the bats and toads up. Again, no such luck as our guide shone his torch on everthing that slithered, hopped, creeped and flew in the cave. All the previously sleeping inhabitants were at once roused to life and we had to duck our heads to avoid some of the less impressed residents. Relieved to be done with that particular chamber, we made our way onwards through freezing water that started at ankle depth and eventually crept up our thighs until we were frantically dog-paddling through a tight corridor, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune.
Although Khao Sok National Park didn’t fulfill my inflated expectations, solitary treks through the jungle and nights spent listening to insects and toads from inside a mosquito net ended up being exactly what our trip had been missing. One way or another we had sought out our own slice of Thailand – one we didn’t have to share with every topless Scandanavian and her blonde boyfriend.
More pictures from Khao Sok are available in the gallery
It is almost redundant to describe Ko Phi Phi, so familiar is the western world with images of the emerald in Thailand’s crown. Featured in Alex Garland’s film The Beach and James Bond:The Man with the Golden Gun, the scorching white sand and silky green sea of Phi Phi are by now synonymous with both Thailand and paradise. What more could you want from a tropical getaway after all? Crystal clear water? Check. Luxurious sand? Check. Dramatic cliff faces topped with startling green vegetation? Check. Traditional longtail boats bobbing in the waves? Check. A rough jungle interior untouched by concrete roads or high-rise hotels? Check. Absolutely no motorised transport on-land? Check.
The only problem is that Ko Phi Phi’s shores are anything but the undiscovered playground that Leo and crew happened upon in The Beach. On the contrary, Ko Phi Phi is Thailand’s very worst kept secret so instead of that Castaway moment you were looking for, you are more likely to have a Kevin And Perry Go Large experience. Topless girls sunbathing only a hundred metres from the local Mosque, overweight middle aged couples sitting in restaurants wearing only their swimwear, drunk 19 year-olds stumbling down the street at 7pm, astronomical prices (relatively speaking of course. I am told that €2 is not really too much to pay for a large plate of curry, nor is €15 for a standard ensuite room ) – these unfortunately, are the realities of Phi Phi’s budding tourism scene. But for Phi Phi, I can forgive it. For Phi Phi, I can forgive anything.
Whatever about its on-land assets though, the best part of Ko Phi Phi is only open to a select few. Here the wildlife roams free and the natural habitat, alive with vibrant shades of pink and blue, is completely untouched. And what’s more, you can go for hours without seeing a single tourist or loose boob. I am of course talking about Diving: The Sequel. If the diving scene in Ko Tao was good, it was earth-shattering in Ko Phi Phi. Instead of the few barracuda we saw in Ko Tao, there were schools of them in Ko Phi Phi. Where we saw a handful of the same fish in Ko Tao over and over again, the waters of Ko Phi Phi housed far too many species to even take in – clownfish, angelfish, sergent major fish, harlequin sweetlips, grupas… And then there were the huge, menacing moray eels lurking behind the coral (waiting to report back on the Little Mermaid no doubt), striped sea snakes curled up on the sand and comical yellow trumpet fish looking a lot more serious than anything with lips that long should. Apparently Phi Phi also has a huge population of leopard sharks, reef sharks, seahorses and turtles although we didn’t spot any (our instructor informed us that ours was the first trip he had ever taken out to that part of the marine park without spotting at least one turtle).
And all that was just two dive sites out of an almost endless number on offer – sites which take in ship wrecks, deep sea dives and some of the most beautiful reef in Thailand. Just one more reason I could stay in Ko Phi Phi forever. Other reasons include the endless offshore uninhabited islands that I have yet to explore; the fact that when a local is passing you on a bike, instead of ringing their bell, they just sing “ring, ring” or “beep, beep” to ask you to move; the impossibility of getting anywhere without setting foot on a longtail boat, festooned at the front with coloured prayer scarves as an offering to Buddha in return for safe passage; the surprisingly interesting shopping scene; the spectacular weather; the snorkelling; the monkey that walks around town, hand in hand with his owner, wearing red shorts and a shirt with sailing boats on it; the lively nightlife and in particular the live band in Rolling Stoned; the hope that one day, I might arrive in the famous Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed) to find it deserted and the opportunity to climb up to the view point every evening to watch the sun set behind the cliffs.
It has to be said though, that one of the best parts of our trip to Phi Phi had nothing to do with the island itself but rather the happy coincidence that we got to spend a little more time with Dan, Ash, Cat and Julia (okay fine, we followed them). Before our final, devastating seperation we spent a few days lounging on beaches chattering about nothing and everything, lolling about companionably in hammocks, arguing over whose turn it is to decide where we are going for dinner and, best of all, downing buckets and attending wet tshirt competitions in the local Irish Bar. When the Norwegians left for South Africa and Dan and Ash strapped on their boots and headed for Mt. Everest (“but they’ll climb that mountain when they get to it,” says Gary) Laura and Joe rolled into town and the merriment continued. Hurrah for friends!
Six days after we arrived, we left Ko Phi Phi bronzed, totally relaxed and in my case, completely smitten. Khao Sok National Park has some big shoes to fill.
More pictures from Ko Phi Phi are available in the gallery
They say that you never forget the first time you breathe under water. Like your first kiss there is a lot of initial trepidation. How does it work? What if I do it wrong and I end up drowning? How am I supposed to exhale? Where should I put my hands? Luckily your instructor is there to reassure you – “Don’t worry, if worst comes to worst you can always just stand up and walk away.” Shaking with anticipation you finally pluck up your nerve, take a deep breath and go for it. The first few seconds are the hardest. Rejecting the very notion that this could be possible, your lungs refuse to co-operate. Your face starts to turn purple and just as you are giving up hope it finally happens, that first desperate gasp. As the air works its way into your mouth you swallow it greedily, holding every last atom in your lungs for as long as you can in case your mouthpiece doesn’t work the next time.
As quickly as it started though, it’s over and you are back to the surface. Dizzy (you stood up too fast), gasping for breath and with a suspicious wet patch on the front of your tshirt (is that my drool or yours?)s, you wonder when you can do it again. You already have a few improvements in mind.
Like hundreds of thousands of backpackers before us, we had come to Ko Tao to learn how to dive in the wake of a vicious week-long hangover from Full Moon. The rules were simple – we would be up early every morning for academic classes followed by one or two dives in the afternoon. We would not be allowed to drink over the duration of the course (drinking increases your chances of developing The Bends and as we all know, fatal illnesses are forever, not just for the holidays), and we would have to listen closely to everything that our hot young Danish instructor/instructress said. In our broken, impoverished, submissive (and in Ash’s case, horny) states that was fine with us. Plus, if we were going to not drink with anyone, there were no better people to do it with than Dan, Ash, Louisa, Paul, Julia and Kat – the British, Maltese and Norwegian delegations we had collected in Ko Pha Ngan. Now if only we could track down a few Eastern European representatives we could have ourselves a proper little Eurovision Song Contest…
Reluctantly, we settled into our five star accomodation, trading the massive spiders and dirty sheets of Pink’s Bungalows for a sparkling pool, fresh towels, airconditioning and beach-side sunset views in Coral Grand. The life of a traveller is so hard sometimes.
So anyway, after hours and hours and hours of book learning, homework, pop quizzes and 90s American instructional videos, we were finally ready for the big event – our last day of diving. Exhausted after a competitive game of mini golf the night before (Gary and Ash stopped just short of clubbing each other over the head on the last hole) we were up at 6am in time to put our gear together, meet our videographer for the day and hop on the boat out to the dive site. Slipping into the water I was a little doubtful that the dive could be as good as the one we had had the day before.
That first encounter with coral and schools of tropical fish had blown my mind. Why, I had thought as I spread my arms and dived weightlessly into a group of clown fish, would the Little Mermaid ever want to leave this place? But I was so wrong – diving could be so, so much better.
The difference on this day was that our nerves were stiller, our skills more honed and our confidence much higher. Today, instead of swimming in a straight line after the lovely Martina, we were setting our own courses – chasing shellfish back into their crevices, backflipping for the cameraman, hovering in Buddha poses and pausing every now and then to watch curious fish as they swam right up to our goggles and looked us square in the eye. The dive site was more beautiful too. For the first time we realised just how alive coral is with all of its gently waving tentacles and predatory plants. And the marine life! Watching identical Angel fish chasing each other around rocks or thousands of Glass fish changing from one formation into another as bigger fish tried to break their ranks or even the odd Trigger fish as it patrolled its territory, just daring us to come within finger-breaking distance, was the most intoxicating experience. And the best bit? They didn’t even care that we were there, never spared us a second thought (apart from that scary Trigger fish, he could taste blood).
One of the greatest things about scuba diving though – better than the backflips and the Buddha poses – is the silence. There are no tuk tuk drivers chanting, no horns beeping, no cats fighting, no mopeds roaring and no kids screaming. The only sounds are the swish of your fins and the hiss of your breathing. Occasionally, when you get stuck directly above another diver, you can hear a faint popping noise as their bubble stream tickles your face and rushes past your ears. If you are unfortunate enough to be at a busy dive site the odd boat will pass, its horrible roar rumbling in your chest and making you think for that split second before you locate the source of the noise, that the world is ending. But then it passes and the fish continue the important business of swimming in formation and you recommence your backflip competition and the world goes on in its perfect suspended silence.
Under the sea there is no smell of month old rubbish rotting in the sun. There are no raucous bars. There are no drunk westerners veering across roads on mopeds they can’t drive. There is no glow paint. There is no Chang beer.
Of course it’s not all perfect. The duration of your visit is limited by the capacity of your tank, you have to keep popping your ears to prevent your drums from exploding, if you hold your breath during your ascent you can cause lung rupture and then there are always those brief moments of pure, uninhibited panic. Over the course of our morning dive we all took it in turns to freak out. Gary went first having his moment of blind panic during a skills demonstration when he was supposed to drop his regulator (the bit he breathes through) and swim to the surface without it. For me, it was when we hit 18m for the first time and the entire weight of the ocean was pressing on my chest and head. Suddenly, I was painfully aware that I was at the bottom of the sea with no way of getting to the top without my equipment. What if it stopped working? What if I was stuck down here with no air? What would it feel like to not be able to breathe? To feel your lungs filling with water? As I got more and more worked up I started breathing faster and faster and deeper and deeper yet never feeling like I was getting enough air. Just as I started to gasp for breath and consider swimming to the surface as quickly as I could and to hell with The Bends, my favourite yellow Angel fish swam past and I chased after it trying to pet it. Saved by my short attention span.
All too soon our last day of diving was over, we had our Open Water PADI certificates and we were leaving Coral Grand with aspirations of becoming the greatest divers that ever there were. The Indiana Jones’ of the deep sea. The Captain Kirks of the coral. The Supermen of the sub-marine. Tucked under our arms along with our dive logs and PADI manuals however, was a little something that might interest you guys – a video of us, Dan, Ash and Paul making idiots of ourselves in wetsuits. Enjoy!
More pictures from Ko Tao are available in the gallery
It’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago Sunrise Beach in Haad Rin was the picture of paradise – white sand as fine as flour and clear aquamarine water arching their smooth backs across the bay. Now though, the sound of gentle lapping has been replaced by the shrill screams of electro music from one corner vying for wave space with the thump thump of heavy bass from another. From a distance it looks as if the dark shadows are moving as one, thrusting hips, chests and heads in time to the deafening beat of the music. As you move closer though, the scene comes into focus and the chaos emerges.
The first thing you notice is the fire. Blazing on huge ‘Amazing Thailand’ signs, leaping from the hands of jugglers, illuminating the sky in floating paper lanterns, swinging from the wrists of poi dancers and flying in the graceful cirles of a flaming jump rope, fire is everywhere.
The second thing you notice is the colours – neon orange, green, red, yellow, pink and blue smeared across young chests, stomachs, legs, arms and faces. Paint filling every available inch of skin in swirls, spots, hand-prints and for the more artistic party-goers, minute drawings. To the left is a guy with a huge glowing smiley face on his back dancing with a girl who has a flaming phoenix delicately painted across her chest. To the right, three guys who have taken glow paint to another level, covering themselves from the tips of their hair to the ends of their toes in a single colour – shorts included.
Somewhere in the bedlam are three English people, a Welshman, two Maltese, two Norwegians and a couple of Irish. Following an extended finger painting session (and a dash of vodka) they are covered in everything from tribal warpaints to empress dots and full body rose vines. They have also found themselves in possesion of a strange plaid trilby (when asked about it later one of the Maltese said “I don’t know what happened. One minute I was buying a bucket from a lady in a hat and the next I was walking away with it on my head…”) Two of the English, having spotted something shiny or a new country in need of invasion, have wandered away. Meanwhile their countryman is working hard on international relations, wooing one Norwegian while holding back the other’s hair and embracing the Welshman who is weak with relief and sobbing “I was afraid I’d never see you again, don’t ever leave me!” into his shoulder. What a pillar of society.
“In an attempt to stay sober” the Maltese have taken to hiking around the beach at half hour intervals and following their lead, one of the Irish who has, up until this point been a picture of innocence, keeps breaking rank and sprinting wildly into the crowd. Exasperated, the other Irish, still not yet recovered from his last mad dash, chases after her.
Over the course of the night Full Moon revellers will contradict the three most basic rules their mothers taught them – don’t play with fire; paint is for paper, not people; and never drink anything from a bucket. They’ll burn the ends of their hair and singe their eyebrows while jumping rope. They’ll fall asleep on the sand while their friends dance around them. They’ll climb to the top of Mushroom Mountain to get that little bit higher. Some of them will think it’s okay to graduate from peeing to pooing in the sea. Many of them will hold back someone’s hair (a friend’s, a stranger’s) while they take a second look at the three vodka buckets they downed in ten minutes. Almost everyone will go home with a dozen more friends than they came with. The lucky ones will go home with a stranger. In the future, everyone will reminisce on that beautiful night when the moon was full, the air was thick with sex and amphetamines and they danced their young, tanned asses off until the sun rose and the sea was filled with coloured buckets bobbing in the waves.
Note: No Mam, we didn’t do drugs. Or set ourselves on fire.
More pictures from Ko Pha Ngan are available in the gallery
You could spend a lifetime in Chiang Mai and never run out of things to do – temple-hopping, cooking classes, yoga classes, open conversation classes with monks, thai massages, foot spas, elephant shows, shopping, late nights out, early morning markets, chilled juice bars, local national parks, sacred peaks, floating on the resevoir, jungle adventures, minority tribe visits, off-road biking, uphill hiking and the endless hunt for the best curry in town. Somehow the words “I’m bored” just aren’t a part of this vibrant city’s dialogue.
It is for all these reasons and half a dozen more that Chiang Mai is the perfect gateway into Thailand and a pretty convincing destination of its own. With more depth than the islands at less than half the price, the capital of the north is the kind of place you can sink your teeth into. The kind of place where you can kick off your flip-flops, pull up a chair and really get to know the locals. Indeed it is the locals that make the city so open and welcoming – locals who spend their days lounging in their shopfronts chattering with neighbours and their evenings devouring mango and sticky rice at the local market with family and friends.
While it may seem all those smiling faces are part of one big Thai-speaking club though, it is not an exclusive club as we learned one night on our way home. Wandering down the street after a scrumptious market dinner we were suddenly faced with a huge crowd of local people who were singing and dancing on the street. Emerging from their ranks were ten or so brightly coloured floats on sticks. Homemade from crepe paper and sticky glue, the humble floats were bobbing in time to the music, rattling, jingling and swishing their way towards a local temple. Captivated, we stood at the edge of the crowd smiling at performers who seemed happy enough to burst and wishing for the hundredth time that we were part of their club.
Well, you should be careful what you wish for because two minutes later we were being hustled by a group of middle-aged women in matching outfits onto the street and into the beating heart of the celebration. Hopping from one foot to the other and grinning manically at everyone who caught out eyes, we copied our hostesses moves, wriggling our hips, waving our elbows, twisting our wrists and pinching our fingers together until we looked like a bad Bollywood film. Just as we started to run out of breath the procession finally reached the temple gates where we took our leave as the crowd hollered their way into the gilded temple and, with a backwards wink, set about the serious business of celebrating Buddha. Breathless and hyperactive after our initiation into the club, we floated home, raving about those moments that remind you why you started travelling in the first place.
Continuing the theme of hopping on the bandwagon, we signed up to a full-day cookery course in Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School and started our fast. After all, we were going to need all the help we could get if we were going to eat five dishes in one sitting. Over the course of the day we would learn how to make thai green curry from scratch (paste included), tom yam soup, spring rolls, steamed and sticky rice and my all-time favourite Thai dish, mango and sweet sticky rice.
The course started in a local market where we were introduced to all the ingredients we would be working with during the day and some massive vats of the final ingredients. Even at 9am they smelled delicious. We were introduced to our instructor Max – another adorable local kid who said his name was short for “Maximum, as in maximum size” even though he was far from it. How, I thought, could you be so tiny with so much delicious food surrounding you at every second? Fragrant curries, wonderfully greasy fried chicken wings, juicy fruit, charcoal grilled meat kebabs, coconuty sticky rice, buttery chocolate rotis and so much delicious pad thai…. Thailand, a country where curry is a breakfast or lunch meal but definately not a dinner dish, is not the kind of place to watch your figure. And when a plate of Pad Thai sets you back less than a dollar, why should you?
So anyway, back to the farm where Max is taking us on a tour of the crops, following everything up (struggling desperately against a smug smirk) with “You don’t have this in your country, no? It is too cold.” “Thai ginger, you don’t have this.” “Coconut, this not grow.” “Green papaya, you buy from my country.” This continues in the kitchen when we take one glance at our ingredients and realise that we will not be able to buy half of this in Ireland. “How much of it can we replace with potatoes?” we wonder until Max swoops to the rescue. “You can’t find Thai ginger? Use more lemongrass. No kaffir lime? More lemongrass. Out of chicken? Just toss in a little more lemongrass!” Lemongrass, it seems, is the solution to all of life’s problems.
After some vigourous chopping, pounding, crushing, dicing, frying, marinating, boiling, steaming and a few cheap laughs (“When stirring use little finger of left hand. If you need more salt, use one on right hand” says Max, sticking his finger up his nose to demonstrate. “The things you can do with those fingers” says one overweight, middle-aged American breathlessly to a chorus of immature giggles from the class) we plop heavily into our seats around the table, take off our sombreroes and start the very serious business of eating.
I won’t lie, it wasn’t the best food I have ever eaten. My curry paste was still leafy, my tom yam soup was too spicy and my spring rolls were so loosely wrapped that they were half-full of seasame oil. The mango and sticky rice however, was absoulte perfection (although I do acknowledge that all I did was add some coconut cream to a bowl of sticky rice). Full up to bursting point, we gave our leftovers to the cat who was looking a little worse for wear afterwards….
Before we left Chiang Mai we met up with our oldest travel buddies Dan and Ash – by now firm secondary characters in the story of yearlongbreakup. The night started out pretty normally – them filling us in on their four new travel buddies, the woes of securing an Indian visa and a story involving Connect Four and some hookers and us raving about elephant welfare (yep – still on that buzz). A few ill-advised Chang beers later however, and the scene was a little different. Ash, paranoid after spotting the Thai girl who had stolen his camera’s memory card when he went home with her last night, fled the bar screaming something about not paying for sex while Gary and I argued heatedly (and ignorantly) about Buddhism and Dan tried to break it up whilst securing an invitation to the wedding.
Whatever it says on the bottle – Chang is not 6.4% alcohol and Changovers are not fun.
More pictures from Chiang Mai are available in the gallery
It is 1am in Chiang Mai and you are sitting in a beer garden about to start into your fourth Chang beer. A few metres away a live band is belting out a phonetical version of a western rock song (“smo-h on the wah-er”). Midway through your rivetting conversation about the merits of an unregulated beer (“It says its 6.4% but it could be 15%.” “Yeah, but that’s just better value!”) your new best friend stops dead, staring open-mouthed behind you. You turn around expecting to see yet another beautiful Thai girl only to be faced by a wall of tough grey flesh. Its an elephant. AN ELEPHANT! A real life elephant only a metre away from where you sit. The hairs on your neck stand on end and just as you rush over to pet the creature it occurs to you – What the hell is an elephant doing in a big city in the middle of the night?
Since logging was banned in Thailand a few years ago all of the domestic elephants and their owners that were once employed in the industry have been out of a job. Unable to afford the upkeep, many Thai people sold their elephants into Burma, others looked for a new occupation and many headed to the cities where drunk tourists would pay money to feed bananas to the magestic beasts. Living here in makeshift camps many mahouts (elephant keepers) don’t have the resources to care for their elephants in even the most basic of ways.
While Thai law currently protects wild elephants, domestic elephants are considered to be livestock much like chickens or cattle so there is little to stop an owner from abusing, maiming or even murdering his elephant (small fines exist but they are rarely enforced.) And abused, maimed and murdered they often are. Small wonder that there are only 5,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand where there was 150,000 twenty five years ago.
The practice of training a baby elephant is pretty much the same all around the country and has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. At around 4 years old the elephant is put into an ‘elephant crush’ barely large enough to hold it. Here it will spend up to a week (three days for girls, seven for boys) being beaten continuously by a dozen or so men using sticks with nails embedded in the end. To prompt a quicker response, the men will often stab the elephant’s sensitive inner ear. It will not be given any food, water or medical treatment during this time. The aim of the practice is to break the elephant down, to destroy it’s spirit and free-will and most importantly, it’s bond with it’s mother. Inevitably many elephants die during this process but it is considered by most Thai elephant families (and the all-important Shamans of their village) to be a necessary evil.
Taking all this into account, it can be difficult to decide which of the dozens of elephant camps to visit in northern Thailand. In many tourist camps elephants spend most of their waking hours chained in pens, released only to give rides to westerners and to perform in twice daily shows – painting and dancing among other things. But without these camps domestic elephants have nowhere to go and are often released into the wild by their owners where they are shot by poachers or by villagers when they wander into the wrong field and eat the crops.
After looking around for a while – anyone who knows Gary will understand just how important it was that we get ourselves to an elephant camp as soon as humanly possible – we stumbled across the Elephant Nature Park. Here visitors are invited to trade in the dancing shows and elephant rides for a slice of good conscience. Founded in 1995, the Elephant Nature Park is home to 33 rescued elephants who have no demands placed on them other than to show up for daily feedings (no big request since they eat 10% of their body weight every day) and to take the occasional bath. In return they are offered constant vetinary care, 150 acres to wander, plenty of company and the occasional trip up to Elephant Heaven – another stretch of land where they are allowed to wander free in an attempt to re-introduce them to the wild.
To say that we enjoyed our time in the park would be a massive understatement. In truth, we had the greatest time ever! The team collected us at 8.30am and we met our guide Hin – a cute young Thai guy with so much enthusiasm and love for his job that it was hard to make space for anything else in the minivan. We were hardly out of the van when another chunk of the family came to meet us. As it turns out the park is not only home to 33 elephants but is also occupied by a dozen or so cats, a herd of cows, a handful of water buffalo including one rare white buffalo, one pony and a welcoming committee of 50 dogs. There is also a huge school of fish living in the river on the premises which, in keeping with the park’s pilosophies, are fed daily by staff and volunteers bearing buckets of fish food. All the animals are strays, rescues or unfortunate creatures who were left on the doorstep one day.
After meeting the human and canine team, Hin introduced us to the long-nosed members of the park complete with their heart-breaking stories. Hope was an obvious favourite. Rescued by founder Lek when he was only a year old, Hope had been orphaned a week beforehand when his mother was shot. He was a handful from the start and, as the sanctuary’s only wild elephant, he was a little harder to train (Lek uses positive reaffirmation – offering bananas rather than the elephant crush) and he even broke two of Lek’s ribs. Although he has been with the sanctuary for a few years now, Hope is still the most rambunctuous of the tribe – requiring two full-time mahouts to keep an eye on him where the others only have one and having always to wear a bell so that the staff can always hear trouble coming. We found him as charming as a little James Dean though, although his kisses were a little more slobbery than I would like to think James Dean’s were.
The definite highlight of the day was bath time, when we were allowed to run into the freezing cold river and help scrub the elephants down using buckets and handfuls of mud. A little apprehensive at first we kept our distance. The mahouts led the way though, splashing water in the elephants’ faces in that strict-but-loving parent way that they have perfected (its lovely to see the relationship between them and their elephants, walking along side by side with the mahout babbling away and the elephant nodding his/her head in understanding). Little by little it became obvious that, in the heat of the midday sun, the elephants were loving it so we got closer and closer – always watching our toes – shovelling water as if onto a burning house and scraping off layers of crusty mud. The challenge was to dodge their trunks as they sucked up water and sprayed it onto their backs.
All our efforts seem to have been in vain though because hardly five minutes after they got out of the water the two babies of the group had found a nearby mud puddle and were stomping about in it, wrestling one another to the ground. Concerned at first for their precious children’s safety, the herd gathered around making half-hearted attempts to break up the tots with a bit of spanking and gentle nudging. It wasn’t long before the ever-growing puddle had engulfed them all though and, slipping and sliding on their backs and bellies, the entire family (excluding Grandma of course) rolled about the mud pool trumpetting and giggling as their mahouts cheered from the sidelines.
As well as bathing and making out with the elephants we helped to feed them a few times during the day. While it wasn’t as interactive as a bare-back riding session nor as novel as a painting demonstration, we left The Elephant Park having learned a lot more about Thailand’s wildlife and culture. Although our pockets were a little lighter it was great to know that, for once, our cash was going to a worthy cause. Our only real regret was that we didn’t have a week, a month or maybe even a year to spend pottering about with the elephants, shovelling poo, preparing tonnes of fresh fruit and contributing more to what is undoutably a worthy cause.
*note: we had a little trouble booking through the website which, as it turns out, is run from the UK. If you are banging about Chiang Mai its a safer bet to drop into one of the charity’s local branches.
More pictures from the elephant nature park are available in the gallery
After seeing the healthy tourist scene in Pai we were expecting something similar from nearby Mae Hong Son. Less IKEA furniture and live music for sure, probably something a little less quaint too but when you are dealing with the capital of a province – and one with such easy access to so many hiking routes, minority villages and frontier towns – that comes with the territory, doesn’t it?
What we weren’t expecting, and what we got, was a peaceful traditional town which, according to the German we shared our tuk-tuk with, has hardly changed one iota in the last 27 years. Once an important logging town, Mae Hong Son has changed its stripes – using its elephant population for jungle treks instead of heavy lifting and turning many of its traditional wooden houses into inviting little guesthouses. Yet a wander around the town rarely reveals more than a handful of tourists, all of whom are quietly perusing menus or whispering over a beer.
It was in one of the town’s homestays that we dropped our bags after the long and bumpy drive from Pai and in the spirit of the Mae Hong Son, Home for Relaxing didn’t take long to impress us. Run by a young couple with the help of their bouncy young daughter and a gregarious puppy, the guesthouse was nothing less than the most welcoming place we have ever stayed. After almost 4 months away from our family and friends, being invited into another family to share meals, smiles and even bum the odd lift, was exactly what we needed and we were only sorry that we had no more than 2 nights to spare.
Of course if I had my way we would have had our own set of wheels. The plan had always been to rent bikes and do the renowned Mae Hong Son loop which takes in 1864 bends, three important towns, several national parks, Thailand’s highest peak, an immeasurable amount of mountain passes and almost 1000km of smooth road. Gary had other ideas though and, after taking one look at the winding route from Chiang Mai to Pai, he put his foot down, refusing to let me anywhere near a bike in case I lost the other side of my face too (granted that was almost inevitable). As a compromise between his paranoia and my suicidal tendancies, we decided to rent a shared bike in Mae Hong Son and be our own guides for the day. What our photocopy of a hand-drawn map didn’t tell us though, was that we would be attempting to drive 140km on dodgy road entirely uphill in both directions. Had we known, we might have dragged ourselves out of our cozy bed before 12pm.
Our first stop was a nearby Kayan village, or to be less PC, a long-neck village. One of Mae Hong Son’s most controversial ‘attractions’, traditional Kayan women wear heavy brass coils on their neck, starting at the age of five and adding more rings as they get older. The end product depresses the women’s collar bones, giving the impression of a foot long neck. While some people will tell you that the women have to wear the coils non-stop because taking them off causes their chest to collapse, this is just a myth and the Kayans take their jewellery off regularly. That said, no-one seems to know exactly why they do wear them. Popular theories say that it is to make them less attractive to men of other tribes; to stop them from being carried away by the neck by tigers; to keep their valuables safe from thieves; and according to Lonely Planet as a simple fashion statement. What is definite is that the practice was dying out until money brought in by tourists and pressure from the government encouraged the tribes to keep the custom alive. Today these tribes, originally from Burma and once self-sufficient farmers, live on the proceeds of tourism – collecting a toll of 250 baht from every visitor and selling souveniers in return for a photo opportunity.
As much as this may sound like a zoo, we didn’t get this impression at all on our visit. Arriving in the least touted of the villages long after the tour groups had gone, we were the only westerners around at the time so instead of pandering to hoards of flashing cameras, the women were all lazing in hammocks, weaving, gossiping or tending to their children.
After spending a day’s budget on souveniers we didn’t want and Gary getting exactly the photos he did want, we hopped back on the bike and headed for a shan village on the Burmese border. While it was nice to see the town itself and the waterfall we visited en route was fine, the best part of the excursion was the drive which took us from winding valley roads, past elephants grazing on the roadside, over pocmarked warzones, through swishing rice paddies, clambouring up cliff-faces and eventually, free-wheeling into tea and coffee plantations.
We argued over speed (G:“Slow down Ro, you’re going to kill us.” R:“Do you even have the damned thing turned on, Gary?”), throttle (G:“Just give it some revs Ro!” R:“I am Gary but this hill is at like 179 degrees!”) and who got to drive (G: “I’m a much better driver than you are.” R: “Eh no you aren’t.” G: “Yeah well which one of us lost half her face to a road then?” R: “It was a patch of gravel, there was nothing I could do. And anyway, it’s hard to crash when you never top 5km/hr.”) and generally just had a gay old yearlongbreakup time.
As excited as we were to get back to Chiang Mai for our upcoming trip to elephant sanctuary and cookery course, we were sad to leave Mae Hong Son in the end. With its scenic day trips, glittering temples, tranquil lake and smiling locals, the provincial capital was exactly the slice of Thailand we had been hungering for.
More pictures from Mae Hong Son are available in the gallery
Walking down one of Pai’s four main streets it’s not hard to imagine it as the one-horse town that it must once have been. Tastefully restored wooden shopfronts line the dusty streets and even on a busy weekend afternoon the pace of life is so slow that it could be Laos. Come evening though the town changes its stripes as food vendors start to cook up pancakes, curries, pad thai, kebabs and skewers and a retro white and orange Volkswagon-van-cum-coffee-shop rolls into town. Come evening, Pai becomes that rare kind of town thats so cool it hurts your teeth.
Technically Pai shouldn’t be cool. A longtime sweetheart of the backpacker scene, Pai should by now have become another Vang Vieng – fun for a while but tacky as hell. Indeed according to my Lonely Planet guide, many people say that its Northern Thailand’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road (loud, lairy and just for tourists.) Yet when the market stalls string up their coloured bobble lights and a local policeman picks up his guitar and starts belting out Elvis ballads on the street – still in full uniform and riot helmet of course – it’s obvious that Pai is a little different from your average backpacker haunt.
A lot of this, I think, has to do with a level of cross-pollination that is so hard to find in Asia. For a start, Pai is as much a haunt of Thai tourists as farangs (foreigners) but not the camera-toting, socks-and-sandals set. No, its the well-heeled, achingly beautiful, beautifully young Thai crowd that come to Pai every year to escape the heat of the south, stretching out on cushions alongside every breed of hippy known to the western world.
On a more permanent level, the town has more than its fair share of expats – young families come to scratch out an existence until Junior gets to school-going age; western women cling onto their Thai husbands’ backs as they zip about town on motorbikes; and lifelong backpackers find their patch in a small commune outside of town. Hearing an American woman exchanging friendly fire in fluent Thai with a local, it is hard not to compare this Thailand to that of Chiang Mai or Bangkok where balding men with sweat-stained shirts rub their greasy hands all over young Thai flesh. This Thailand is no country for old men.
Of course the biggest draw for many young tourists (ourselves included) and the key to Pai’s sub-zero status is it’s music scene. Whatever your taste in music, Pai has a bar that is catering to just that – cross-legged reggae bars, sexy jazz haunts, indie bars decked out in Ikea’s latest and greatest and a fantastic live venue where a pure white daytime studio opens up its french doors to become a stage by night. After months of hearing nothing but Chinese pop and, more enjoyably, nails on chalkboards, perching on a footstool outisde in the cool evening air sipping a beer and listening to live performances of Jeff Buckley numbers or sitting barefoot and cross-legged enjoying a Pearl Jam cover is beyond magical – its miraculous.
For the most part, visitors to Pai are too relaxed to do much more than sleep all day but for those who have already recharged their batteries there are a few things to do in the area – trekking, visiting hilltribes, elephant rides, whitewater rafting (although at this time of year whitewater drifting might be more apt) and tubing down the river are a few of the most popular. Still recovering from Vang Vieng and our trip down the Mekong though, we hadn’t the energy to buck any trend so we contented ourselves with renting motorbikes and touring the hotsprings, Pai Canyon and a nearby waterfall where hippies go to do their laundry, locals go to wash, couples go to canoodle and backpackers go to sip a few beers and laze in the sun. Watching other people enjoying their friends (while we miss ours so much) turned out to be a depressing, lonely activity so we didn’t stay long, opting instead for the most epic mid-day nap in our little bamboo hut.
Tourist blackspot or not, everyone could do with a little Pai in their life.
More pictures from Pai are available in the gallery