25th and 26th February – Days 29 and 30

Song of the last two days: Gunga Din by the Libertines.  Why? Cos it’s a tune and I’ve been wanting to include it for ages!

Ayup.
On Thursday morning we got a taxi from our hostel over to Bangkok Northern Bus Terminal. It was easily the biggest bus station we’ve ever been in and looked more like an airport. Members of staff approached us and asked us where we were going. They were helpful and efficient in pointing out the Siem Reap bus to us – so efficient in fact that we were ushered onto the 8am bus as there was still space, even though we had tickets for the 9am departure. For the first half hour we crept along, bumper to bumper with other traffic as we passed through various checkpoints on the way out of Bangkok. The Thai police seem to enjoy a good checkpoint, though what they’re checking for is not apparent because a good deal of the traffic seems to get waved through at random.

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Down by the riverside at Siem Reap.  We’d have stuck some pictures of Poipet up for you, but it’s not the kind of place you should be getting your camera out.

I feel like our attitude towards Bangkok has softened since our first visit. Maybe a cocktail of culture shock and jetlag were responsible for our initial downer on the place, although I’m sure it’ll never be my favourite destination. In a country that’s changing so rapidly, you get the feeling that Bangkok is something of a fall guy for the rest of Thailand. As long as it continues to swell with more skyscrapers, fumes and western investment, the rest of the country will be spared from it’s worst excesses and remain charming and unique.

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US dollars – the currency of choice in Cambodia due to the weakness of the Riel

We drove for around four hours surrounded by farmland as far as the eye could see, until we arrived at the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. From here we would get off the bus and walk across the border into the Cambodian town of Poipet. To quote Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Poipet’s reputation precedes it and Hollie and I were pretty nervous about the place before we even got there.

Everybody passing through the Thai-Cambodian border must do so on foot, so we got out of the coach about a hundred yards before the gate. We followed the other passengers as closely as possible, keeping eyes ahead and ignoring the attentions of various grotty-looking geezers asking “You want help with your Visa?” A few of the less well-read amongst the group were picked off like wilderbeest from the rest of the herd, and we watched them disappear into shady-looking offices where presumably somebody tried to flog them a fake Visa. The first part of the process is to provide the Thai immigration staff with a departure card which we received when we arrived in Thailand. Our passports were checked, our Visas stamped and our departure cards were taken off us so that we were temporarily in limbo, officially not residing anywhere. We walked out of the Thai departure office and down a long gangway, and it was here that the beggars had positioned themselves.

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Cambodian riel – the amount that we’ve laid out in the photo is the equivalent to about £1

Women with their heads wrapped in scarves and tiny babies in their arms, who would approach you, pointing to the baby and say “Aaaah.” A little boy with a deformed leg, bent double on itself so that his toes jutted out of his kneecap, stretched out a begging bowl under the reproachful eye of his Mother a few feet away. Children who had barely learned to walk and talk, clad in old football shirts, who waved crumpled postcards at you asking for a dollar each. As heartless as it sounds we had no difficulty in saying no. Nothing about Poipet is as it seems and I wonder whether if we did give anybody a few dollars to ease our conscience, whether it would just have been taken off that person later by a beggarmaster. I have little experience upon which to base my judgement, but from what I’ve read, beggars in poor countries are often part of a much more intricate underworld than would first appear. We’ve read stories about women blowing smoke in babies eyes to make them cry, and children who have no relation to the women who pretend to be their Mothers being “paired up” by members of the criminal underworld to draw the biggest emotional reaction from tourists. As undoubtedly desperate as these people are, it’s unlikely as a backpacker that you can directly help, especially by giving out money in the street. For me, the best thing you can do is observe, let it enhance your understanding of the world around you and make other people aware of what you’ve seen.
After running the gauntlet we arrived in the Cambodia Visa Office, where we filled out an arrivals card and handed it over along with our passport and e-visa, which thanks to Hollie’s foresight we’d taken care of before we even left England. The immigration officer behind the desk was a complete tosspot. The delicate situation in which tourists find themselves in provides him with a licence to be as nasty as he wants without suffering retaliation. He succeeded in making us both feel like international criminals, huffing and cursing his way through a simple process which we had already sped up for him by doing the bulk of the paperwork online before we arrived. Come to think of it this may have been his beef – some of the border police have been known to make a bit on the side by charging people “extra” Visa fees – by completing the form online maybe we prevented him from being able to extort money out of us. I stood waiting for Hollie to have her Visa stamped whilst a young woman invaded my personal space and wafted her newborn under my nose – never have we been so glad to get back onboard a bus.
Cambodia is immediately different to Thailand. The reminders of French colonialism were spotted straight away as the bus pulled off from the kerb and occupied the right hand side of the road, whereas Thais drive on the left. Having said this, motorists in both countries – but especially Cambodia – have a penchant for driving up the wrong side of the road. It is a completely normal occurance for a scooter driver to trundle along the gutter in the face of oncoming traffic, with nothing but a smile and an indicator flashing by way of apology. In Thailand there were obvious signs of people being hard up, but it was a mobile kind of poverty in which you felt that a person was never far away from attaining a bit of work that could tide them over for a while. In Cambodia this is not the case – a perpetual cycle of hunger and want seems to exist everywhere. Barely any of the western-style signs and advertisement boards that are abundant in Thailand line the road here. Occasionally an extravagant sign will advertise the “People’s Party” alongside a smiling image of their Prime Minister, Hun Sen – as if the people need reminding of the fact that the same bloke has been in charge for the last thirty years.

The land between Poipet and Siem Reap is an infinite patchwork of dusty fields in which scrawny cattle are lead by slightly-built farmers in straw hats, past pools of filthy brown water where children play. Mopeds labour to pull massively overloaded farm trailers along the road and are frequently overtaken by cyclists or stray dogs. The Angkor Wat ruins that we seek are about a thousand years old, and the first impression gained from the coach window suggests that not much has progressed since then.
After another four hours we arrived in Siem Reap and were ferried over to our guesthouse, Baphuon Villa. It’s a beautiful place and at first I thought it must have been some old French ambassador’s house from the colonial days, before the owner told me it wasn’t that old and that he’d decorated the whole place two years ago, which shows you what I know about architecture. We went to the cashpoint and drew out US dollars – because of the weakness of the Cambodian Riel as a currency, dollars are universally used instead. Even more confusingly, shopkeepers will hand out small change in the form of a wad of Cambodian notes, so that you’re dealing with two currencies at the same time.
Both Hollie and me have been in poor health over the last couple of days since the long sleeper train journey down from Chiang Mai. Not for the first time, Friday was a day of doing very little but rejuvenating. The heat in the south of Thailand and here is unmanageable after a couple of hour’s exposure. The most productive way of dealing with this is to get up just after dawn and try to power through until about 3pm, after which you end up collapsing exhausted on the bed in your hotel, with the fan whirring above your head and palm leaves tapping against the window.
When we did venture out on Friday evening it was to the very Khao San-inspired “pub street” where a hundred or more different food joints compete for the custom of tourists from all over the world. A lot of these places are shady and grotty looking, and after our recent bouts of illness we didn’t much fancy coming down with food poisoning. In the end we went with a restaurant called Khmer Kitchen – Khmer being the ancient civilization who built the Angkor temples and ruled much of South-East Asia in the middle ages, along with the name of the national language. We both ate a stunning baked dish, almost in the style of a lasagne crossed with dauphinoise potato. Apparantley it’s a traditional Khmer style recipe and we need to get doing our research into it so that we can try and recreate it back home.
Competition time: It turns out that a very famous rockstar ate at the Khmer kitchen whilst on a visit to the Angkor temples. Can you guess from Hollie’s impression who that rockstar is??? The first to comment with the correct answer gets to pick the next “song of the day” for whatever reason they choose.  Were you hoping for a better prize!? It’s all we got out here!

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Tomorrow we visit Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples.

Tommy and Hollie x

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23rd and 24th February – Days 27 and 28

Song of the last two days: Bob Dylan – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

“Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby
Can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, baby
Leanin’ on the windowsill
Well, if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don’t make it
You know my baby will

Don’t the moon look good, mama
Shinin’ through the trees?
Don’t the brakeman look good, mama
Flagging down the “Double E?”
Don’t the sun look good
Goin’ down over the sea?
Don’t my gal look fine
When she’s comin’ after me?”

 

Shortly before 5pm on Tuesday evening we boarded the Chiang Mai to Bangkok sleeper train. During the high travel season getting tickets for this train is no easy task, and we ended up staying three extra nights in Chiang Mai in order to get a ticket for this train. As it turned out, it was well worth the extra stay in Chiang Mai, although as I write this on Wednesday evening we are both absolutely knackered still. I’ve been on a few “sleeper” trains now and I have to say the “sleep” part has to be taken with a pinch of salt. When the train is ticking along at a constant speed with the gentle “clickety clack” of the rails beneath you, it’s possible to sleep quite well. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen that often. The constant speeding up and slowing down and clunking around is hard to get used to, and that’s before you pull into a station and more people get on and off. I reckon I got about four hour’s sleep which to be fair to Thailand’s railways, is more than I got when travelling on sleeper trains in Britain and Switzerland, though Hollie got even less kip than I managed.


Because of the demand for tickets we were unable to get bunks right next to each other, so in order to spend the evening together we rendezvoused in the buffet car. It sounds romantic, but wasn’t really. The food was good but kept travelling around the table as we ate it, and a drunken Turkish bloke opposite exclaimed loudly and jumped out of his seat after a hot cup of tea flew off the table and all over his loins.

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An hour out of Chiang Mai the train entered into a tunnel and upon emerging on the other side we found ourselves in the midst of misty mountains. All of the windows in the carriage were down and you could smell the smoke from farmer’s fields, carried up on the muggy evening air. The embers of the sun peeped out from above the silhouettes of hills before dissapearing. The landscape turned to a murky black until we emerged out of another tunnel to see vast swathes of the opposite hillside on fire, burning the same defiant hue of orange as the recently deceased sun. It made me think of that William Blake poem: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night”.

As we descended into Lamphun station the moon revealed itself to us, itself a kind of half-sun as it recycled the last rays of daylight from beyond the horizon and reflected them back onto the land.
We sat in the buffet car playing the well-known backpacking card game of “Shithead”, until we were kicked out at half past nine. I was ready to leave – after teaching the game to Hollie she appears to have developed a system, and now I reckon I only ever win about one in ten games. We returned to our seats to find that they had been unfolded into beds. Hollie and I were both in the top bunks and I had to contort myself like some kind of Russian gymnast to get into my bunk. Once in I managed to stretch out pretty well for a 6’2 lump. Sleep was snatched and broken, and my foot kept rustling the plastic 7/11 bag full of crisps and water that I placed at the foot of my bed.

The train was due in at 6:15am, so I’d set my alarm for 6am, at which time I planned to wake Hollie which is a fine art. We’d already left Chiang Mai fifteen minutes late and we’d been trundling along by the time I fell asleep, so I had every reason to believe we wouldn’t arrive until gone seven. I was rudely awakened by the stern “Good morning” of the carriage attendant at 04:45am. I asked “Are we nearly at Bangok?” to which he replied “Ten minutes.” This was a lie – he wanted everyone up so that he could start folding the beds back away and clock off early. I rushed to wake Hollie up before the attendant got their first – waking Hollie before she’s had her forty winks is a bit like taking a bottle of whiskey off Father Jack. I pulled the curtain back and she was staring at me like an owl, wide-eyed and wide awake. We stood for an hour and a half in the corridor until we arrived. We stepped off the air-conditioned train and into the Bangkok morning.

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You don’t breathe the air here – you wear it. It wraps around you like an itchy woolly cardigan of exhaust fumes, sewerage and spices.
Hollie managed to grab us a non-dodgy taxi driver straight away and for the second time in a month we found ourselves sleep-deprived in the back of a cab, weaving our way through the labyrinth of central Bangkok. Though our driver was fair, he had some filthy habits. During frequent stops at traffic jams he picked at his nose and his ears with a toothpick, burrowing deeper and deeper the longer we were stationary. Not satisfied with the harvest that the toothpick was providing, he reached into the glovebox and fished out a cotton bud. At one point he got so lost in the ecstasy of clearing out his earhole that he missed the lights going green, and left the cotton bud sticking out of his ear at a right angle as he flung his hands back onto the wheel. After a seemingly endless journey we arrived at the hostel, and here we have remained ever since, holed up in the flatulent bowels of Bangkok.

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Tomorrow morning we take the government bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Hope you’re all well, whatever your endeavour.
Tom and Hollie x

22nd February – Day 26

Song of the day: Let it Go – that one off the Disney film Frozen.  It’s a banging tune and Pern, our cooking instructor, kept throwing bits of herb into the garden and singing it.

Ayup.
Today we passed into legend as the greatest ever Farang to have cooked Thai food. As we returned to Chiang Mai the traffic parted, scooter drivers dismounted and bowed to us, and street food vendors wept in the street in solemn homage to the perfection of Hollie’s spring rolls.

Alright, you’ve got me – I’m exaggerating – but only a little bit.
We met our teacher for the day, Pern, at a minibus round the corner from our hostel. We were ferried to a rustic rural location about an hour out of Chiang Mai. Along the way we saw buffalo grazing untethered at the side of the road – sometimes in the road – and I recall thinking that I was glad that we’re in a minibus and not trundling along past them on a low-powered scooter. The Thai Farm Cooking School is one of the better known cooking schools operating in Chiang Mai, and I’m not surprised that they’ve built up such an excellent reputation. Their premises is an organic farm on which pretty much all of the ingredients that are used in the cooking are grown. With about three or four classes of ten people cooking five courses a day, it must pay to grow your own ingredients.

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After the usual United Nations-like meet and greet in which all of the class introduced themselves, we went for a tour of the allotments, in which Pern showed us what various herbs and vegetables look like on the plant. The highlight of this tour for me was the kaffir lime tree and the holy basil plants. Kaffir lime is a fruit that looks like a nobblier version of the one that we are accustomed to. The rind and juice, as well as the plant’s leaves are used in cooking, and one smell of the fragrance of the leaf immediately puts you in mind of a traditional Thai green curry. Holy basil is a herb which is native to the Indian Subcontinent – it is sacred in Hinduism and now to me as well, as I love the stuff. I wouldn’t compare the smell or taste to the kind of basil widely used in Europe, but it does provide a distinctive yet unobtrusive flavour to a dish. Pern said that she believed stir-fried holy basil had more of a claim to being Thailand’s national dish than Pad Thai – as the herb grows in such abundance it is much cheaper to source than the tamarind and other ingredients used in Pad Thai. I’ve had a quick google and it looks as if we’re going to struggle to get either of these ingredients fresh in England, so I’m going to have to fill my face with dishes containing them as much as possible until we come home. Also of interest were tiny, toddler-sized trees containing a single baby pineapple each – we had never seen young pineapple trees before and some day these will grow up to be the tall, swaying symbols of exotic locations that we usually see only on postcards in Britain.

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Our first culinary task was to create a proper paste to form the basis of our curry. Hollie had picked red and me green, with both of us erring on the side of caution when it came to chillies. I’ve got a taste for hotter dishes than Hollie but I’ve already made the macho mistake during this trip of taking on more spice than I can handle when I ate a panang curry in Ayutthaya – my face resembled a baboon’s arse by the time I’d polished it off. I won’t go fully into the details of what ingredients go into making the perfect curry paste – who knows, maybe we’ll cook for you some time when we open our string of Thai restaurants in England and you can sample it for yourself. What is essential is that all ingredients that go in are chopped as finely as possible, and then smashed into a very fine paste using a pestle and mortar. Pern stood at the head of the table, banging her fist and shouting at us like some mad General. “Harder! Louder! Faster!” as we pulverised a variety of exotic ingredients. I was way ahead of the game at this point, enjoying smashing the hell out of the contents of my bowl. At one point Pern leaned over and whispered “You are too loud and too fast” as I threatened to split the table in two. Naturally, she used my curry paste as an example to the rest fo the class. “When your paste is finished it will look like Tom’s.” I winked at Hollie smugly and awarded myself an imaginary medal.
In the neanderthal task of hitting things I was top of the class, but as the day wore on I slipped down the rankings, with Hollie rising up the other way. In fact, after establishing we were a couple Pern kept saying to Hollie “Look after Tom” and “I teach you and you teach him later.” By the time we got to spring rolls Hollie was star pupil, wrapping her parcels of vegetable so neatly that she drew a round of applause from the rest of the class. Hollie usually wraps all my Christmas presents as if I do my own they tend to look like a dog has attacked them, and I think she applied the same physics to pastry sheets that she does to gift-wrapping. Hollie may also be credited in the near future with inventing a new Thai curry known as the “White Curry”, or perhaps even, the “Fallang”. She used less than half a chilli in her paste, and as a consequence her dish didn’t have the usual pigment. Nonetheless, it was almost as delicious as my green curry! The thing that strikes me about Thai cooking is the speed with which meals are cooked. The term “fast food” is always associated with burgers and chips and other unhealthy stuff, but Thai food is faster and, on the whole, healthier. If Pern’s stove was on for more than a minute and a half for any of each the meals she cooked I’d be surprised. When cooking Pad Thai she pumped up the gas and the flames rose high above her head, and with skill and precision she ensured that the chicken, vegeatable and noodles were cooked to perfection. Obviously our own attempts at cooking were slowed down from her examples, but with practice I think it would be possible to cook a lot of Thai meals in under two minutes, meat and all – as with a lot of cooking, the preparation of ingredients is the time-consuming part.

The above images were taken when Hollie “accidentally” set the camera to take timed images of my face as I tasted my food…

 

 
Over the course of the day Hollie cooked: Tom Yam Soup with shrimps, Red Curry, Spring Rolls, Sweet and Sour chicken and Mango with Sticky Rice. I cooked Tom Ka coconut soup, Green Curry, Pad Thai, Chicken with Holy Basil and Banana in Coconut Milk. We’d not given Thai desserts much of a sampling so far, but both puds were absolutely delicious, and possibly healthier than most othe desserts, in spite of the palm sugar and creamed coconut content. By the end of the day our hearts and stomachs were full.
We returned to Chiang Mai and after slipping into a food induced coma for an hour or so, we went out to grace the reggae bar with our presence one last time. From what we have witnessed, live music is huge in Thailand and many restaurants we visited had a live band playing. Having played in bands in England I like to think I’ve got an ear for a tune, and although pretty much everything we’ve heard has been covers of classic songs I can tell you that the standard of musicianship is amazing. We got ourselves a drink and sat down to watch a three-piece group, the singer of which looked strikingly like John Lennon – he obviously knew it as well because he was sporting a pair of round-lensed glasses and a similar haircut. About halfway through their set a big, muscly meathead with greasy blonde hair poking out from underneath a baseball cap sat down right in front of them and begged to be allowed to play “Just one song!” He was an English lad and the band onstage gracefully gave way and allowed him to play his one song. Upon being allowed to play he immediately beckoned to about five of his mates who were sat outside. They came in and sat down without buying a drink, and proceeded to shout and whoop whilst he whined his way through a cover of a Jason Mraz song. The Thai band stood politely and watched, applauding at the end, then got back on stage. The Lennon lookalike tried to take his guitar back but the English lad wrenched it away and begged “Just one more!” He then announced through the mic to a bemused audience “I should be getting paid for this.” Hollie had to distract me through the next ten minutes to prevent me from going up there and belting him. I’m of the opinion that unless it’s an open mic night, you don’t ask a band if you can play before their set is finished. Even if they’re gracious enough to let you have one song, you don’t push it. This lad went through a medley of four pop songs, singing in a well-polished X Factor warble whilst making announcements like “This one’s for the ladies” between songs. After his last song, the Lennon-alike had to more or less yank the guitar out of this tosspot’s hand! Before leaving, the English lad picked up his beer in one hand and the mic in the other and announced “Thanks for letting me play, although you lot were shocking. I even bought a beer.” before swanning off into the night with his mates, who still hadn’t bought a drink. Hollie and me were embarassed to be from the same little island as this utter wally, and as we popped 100 baht into the band’s tipbox I couldn’t help hoping that he and his mates had an even closer encounter with the python that we had spotted on Friday night.

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We headed back to the hostel to pack.  Chiang Mai has been really good to us, but tomorrow it will be time to move on – there’s so much more to fit in!

Love Tom and Hollie x

21st February – Day 25

Song of the day: The Smiths – Ask
Alright.
I’m getting slack at this blogging business aren’t I? Sorry, we’ve been out and about all day for the last few days and by the time we get in I haven’t got time to do justice to all that we’ve seen.

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On Sunday morning Hollie was having a browse on a Facebook group for Backpackers travelling around South-East Asia. There are over 10,000 members of the group and a lot of the posts provide really helpful advice about travelling. An English girl staying in Chiang Mai posted a message asking if anybody fancied sharing a songtheaw to the Bua Tong falls, better know as the “Sticky Waterfall”. The falls are about an hour and a half’s drive outside of Chiang Mai and don’t appear to be on any of the organised tour itineraries. Hollie and I had considered going on our own but decided the songtheaw fare would be too expensive between two of us, so the chance to split the fare was a welcome one. We met Becca and another lad from London who I didn’t catch the name of and took a songtheaw from their hostel.

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The falls are tucked away among the forested slopes that take over the landscape after leaving the sprawling suburbs of Chiang Mai. The two young Thai lads who picked us up seemed pleased to be out of the city for a bit and encouraged us to take our time. I found myself thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad job cruising around in a songtheaw with your mates, ferrying tourists to scenic locations and pumping out tunes on the truck stereo. Our driver was wearing a Smiths t-shirt so he was certainly a man of taste. The name “Sticky Waterfall” is very accurate. It’s a steep climb of fifty metres or so from top to bottom, but almost all of the rocks have a mineral deposit on them, providing a rough surface which allows you to grip with your feet without slipping. We scaled the falls in about twenty minutes – with the shallow waters lapping at our ankles it was a really refreshing climb and by the time we’d finished we didn’t feel the physical exertion that we might have done if we weren’t soaked through. It was satisfying to look back on what we’d climbed every now and again, views over the valley were spectacular. We found our two songtheaw hosts sunbathing in the back of the truck, and after shaking off the haziness of an afternoon nap in the sun they took us back to Chiang Mai. The journey came to 800 baht or 16 quid – well worth the money, especially when split between four people.

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Hope you’re well.

Tommy and Hollie x

19th and 20th February – Days 23 and 24

Song of the day: The Snake by Al Wilson

“Take me in oh tender woman, take me in for goodness sake, take me in oh tender woman, sssssighed the snake!”
Alright? good, glad to hear it.
We had a late one last night so I didn’t get round to writing. After going to a a couple of impressive temples in the day, we went for lunch at a sushi cafe. The only sushi I’ve ever tried was in the Tesco meal deal, and I did not like it. Surprisingly, tasting the real deal was a lot nicer, and I think it won’t be the last time we visit this place. Wasabi is surely the hottest substance known to man though – any more than a microdot is guaranteed to have you steaming at the ears. Hollie managed to outclass me in her dexterous use of chopsticks to pick up her food – my technique was about as effective as using a sieve to carry water about, and I was picking bits of rice off my trousers for the rest of the day.
In the evening we walked to the Thaphae Gate on the east wall of Chiang Mai’s old city. We bought tickets for the cheap seats for that evening’s Muay Thai boxing, then went to a bar next door to await the stadium’s opening. By lucky coincidence it was Happy Hour so we had a couple of cocktails and played pool whilst Pink Floyd sung Wish You Were Here to us over the tinny soundsystem. We went into the Muay Thai stadium just after opening and found that we’d done right not to pay the extra 200 baht each for ringside seats – we were right next to the VIP seats in what was a relatively small arena, and people sat in the front row must have had neckache by the end of the bouts as the ring was raised about six feet off the floor.

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The stadium is a large, sweaty, corrugated shack with concrete floors. The aroma of Thai cooking and stale beer hangs heavy in the air – the place has a real grassroots feel to it and it put me in mind of nights spent at the greyhound races back in Blighty. We got in just before nine and the first contest didn’t start until half past, but for this entire period a strange oriental song was being played. It consisted of a very high-pitched flute (We think it’s called a pi chawa) being played over the constant beating of a drum. The instruments followed each other and occasionally the drum would speed up, followed by the flute, or vice versa. It was an oriental sounding, urgent kind of music that conjured images of men in ancient times marching to war. At first we thought that the song was being played over speakers, before we realised that there were two blokes sat on a raised platform playing this other-wordly music.

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The first match was between two kids of around seven. Their shorts looked too big for them and you could almost feel the mainly farang audience resisting the urge to say “Ahhhhhh”. Any lingering cuteness quickly dissapeared when the first bell rang and they leapt at each other. Muay Thai must require an unbelievable amount of stamina and fitness – probably even more so than boxing. The fighters deftly hop from one foot to the other, constantly raising their knees slightly to feint a kick, or dipping their head as if to come forward, before pulling back. The sparring itself is a hypnotising contest of concentration where each fighter looks for a way in behind the guard of their opponent. And when they do, it can be brutal. One of the little tykes sold his opponent a one-two combination with the gloves before his leg came round in a powerful roundhouse kick that connected with the other lad’s cheek. The wounded fighter bounced straight back up from the canvas and piled into his opponent, who was enjoying the adulation of the crowd for his previous heroics and had lost concentration. It went on like this for five rounds. Between each round loud pop music plays and a large trough is slid into each fighter’s corner, to catch the water which their coaches chuck all over them. Each fighter’s team rub their muscles vigorously to prevent them from cramping up.

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The fighting itself was fast-paced and skilled. But before we went to the stadium I’d read a review on tripadvisor that suggested that most of the fights were fixed. This wasn’t immediately apparent and I’d say that the first three or four fights were genuine contests. The highlight of the night was the fourth fight between two lads who looked like they were in there late teens. They really went for it with all they had. When a winner was decided at the end of five rounds they bowed deeply to each other and to the crowd. The last three fights had some tasty moments but then ended very quickly, with one of the fighters going down softly and not getting back up again. Our suspicions were further enhanced when a bloke kept coming round waving a load of 100 baht notes in our face. Each fight he would come round and say “I red. You blue?” or “I blue, you red?” The idea being that we pick the fighter in the opposite coloured trunks to what he had picked. Funnily enough, he always seemed to back the winning fighter. Overall, we had a great night and would like to see some more Muay Thai. The fact that the last couple of fights – between grown men – were so cringingly fixed was a shame. On reflection I’m dissapointed we were so jetlagged in Bangkok that we missed the chance to watch the country’s premier fighters in action, but we may have time to go on our way back through Bangkok.

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We returned to the reggae bar that we’d been to on our previous stay in Chiang Mai. The ice sculpture was there again and Hollie got in on the action, having a shot of tequila poured down the channel by a jolly Thai gentleman who looked like a Hell’s Angel. We met a young English couple from Bournemouth. They were pretty far out and the girl told us about how she’d been deported from Thailand as soon as she arrived because she’d ripped some pages out her passport to write a phone number down. We nodded along sympathetically as she told us how she’d got off a 13 hour flight and had to get straight back on the next one home, just for tampering with her passport. Lovely people, but complete morons.

At 12am all of the bars in Thailand have to close up. We filed out onto the street and wondered what to do next. The friendly Thai Hell’s Angel told us about a club called Spicy that stayed open late just outside the city walls, so we decided to have a wander over. After about ten minute’s walk I asked Hollie where the club was and she replied “Over there, where all those disco lights are flashing”. As we neared the disco lights it became apparent that they were not in fact disco lights at all, but the flashing lights of about half a dozen police cars. It seems that the club doesn’t have a licence after 12am after all. We stood watching the commotion from across the street, with our backs to the moat that surrounds the old town. A couple of Chinese lads had their phones out, filming something in the murky depths of the moat. As we looked down, a MASSIVE SNAKE was meandering it’s way along the surface of the water. When I say MASSIVE, I mean 8-10 feet long as a conservative estimate. We followed it along the moat, pointing it out to anybody who was passing by. In the end it’s body dissapeared below the water and it settled near the bank, with it’s head poking out of the water and tongue flicking intermittently to taste the midnight air. We stood with a crowd of people gawping at it for about twenty minutes until we were satisfied that it wasn’t going to move anywhere. This was one of those unforgettable experiences that costs nothing but will abide long in the memory. For all of the paid trips and prearranged tours we will go on over the next few months, the spontaneous things that just seem to happen along the road are sometimes the most rewarding.
To round the night off we went to the supermarket to soak up the booze with 7/11 toasties (Hollie had Danish carbonara flavour. It sounds horrendous but it really works.) We returned to the hostel and Hollie ID’d the snake as a Burmese python, a constrictor. It wasn’t venomous and probably not big enough to take down a fully-grown human, but let’s just say I wouldn’t fancy getting in the water with it!

Today I’ve been a shadow of a man owing to last night’s antics, whilst Hollie remains as spritely as ever. The first half of the day was spent drinking fruit smoothies and eating strange Thai variations of the traditional club sandwich. In the evening I felt better and we’ve been to Chiang Mai night bazaar – a huge market stretching over two buildings and several floors. Thousands of traders sell anything from crocodile leather, to ivory-handled blades, to carved wooden images of Buddha. A seafood restaurant brings new meaning to the term “fresh” by keeping all of it’s stock alive in fish tanks at the front. You pick the specimen that you’d like to eat and they’ll kill it and cook it right in front of you. There are lobsters and shrimps, crabs and catfish to name but a few. On the way there and back we played a game which involves trying to decide whether each Thai massage parlour offers “extras”. Telltale signs of a gentleman’s parlour include closed blinds, loud music (to drown out any incriminating noises), and an entourage of young Thai women standing outside, fluttering their eyelashes at passers-by. Apparently, it is a tried and tested tactic of these parlours to entice a man in by having some eye candy on the door. Once money has changed hands and the man is lying awaiting his massage, the young lady will dissapear and some fifty year old bruiser will enter the room to provide the “treatment”.
Have a nice day. When I started writing this the Rams were 1-0 down to Brentford. Turns out we won 3-1! BOOOM.
Have a good week,
Tom and Hollie x

18th February – Day 22

Song of the day: Paper Planes by M.I.A.

“I fly like paper, get high like planes, If you catch me on the border I got visas in my name…We pack ’em and deliver like UPS Trucks…”
Evening all.
Today we have been to another country, drank whiskey containing a tiger’s appendage, been present at the smuggling of substances over the Thai-Laos border, and stared at intricate Buddhist wall paintings of Freddy Kruger, Michael Jackson and Batman.
It all started at seven this morning when we were picked up by the tour minibus. Our guide introduced himself as “Banana”. He explained that our simplistic western tongues couldn’t wrap themselves round his full name in Thai, so it would be far easier for all parties if we just referred to him as a yellow fruit. Fair enough mate. After doing the rounds to pick up everybody from the hotels we drove to Chiang Rai, about a two and a half hour drive. Our first stop was Wat Rong Khun – the White Temple. I know what you’re thinking – “This couple are a pair of religious nuts” and I will admit that we’ve visited some kind of temple pretty much every day since we arrived in Thailand. But they’re all so unique and impressive in their own right.
The White Temple in particular is unlike any other temple in Thailand, and probably the world. It was designed and built by a bloke called Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is a legendary Thai artist. This bloke has some serious talent and has become something of a national treasure in his native land. The story goes that the previous temple on this site was falling to bits, so Kositpipat dug into his own pocket to fund a revamp. So far he has spent 40 million baht of his own dosh on designing and building the most unbelievably beautiful and random Buddhist temple around. Entry to the temple is free to the public all year round, but Kositpipat does have a bit of an ulterior motive for his generosity – he sees the temple as his offering to Lord Buddha, and reckons that in return he will be granted eternal life.

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To enter the temple itself you must walk over a bridge that spans what is supposed to be a representation of “hell”. Hell is symbolised by hundreds of tortured-looking faces, hands and torsos moulded out of clay writhing around in a large pit. Countless outstretched grey hands reach up towards the bridge that you’re standing on, whilst a bloke with a megaphone keeps shouting “Keep moving! Don’t stop!” to anybody who attempts to take a selfie. I don’t think the bloke is part of the Temple decoration but he does do a very good job of making hell seem authentic.

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Crossing the bridge over hell. 

After crossing the bridge over hell you enter the main chamber of the temple, which is supposed to represent heaven. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in here but you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that among the typical Buddhist images painted on the wall were Freddy Kruger, the masked man out of the Saw movie franchise, and Michael Jackson. It seems that the higher you looked on the walls there were more representations of heaven, and towards the floor were images from hell. Michael Jackson was striking his famous Moonwalker pose at the same lowly level as Freddy Kruger. Now, I’m not going to get into a “did he/didn’t he” debate about Michael Jackson here, but it struck me as a bit harsh to cast him into the flames of hell for all eternity. There were no signs of Hitler, or other notable nasties from history, yet Jackson managed to make the wall of shame.
Apparently The White Temple won’t be finished until around 2070, and we only had a forty minute stop. There was a Chinese couple on our tour however, that seemed intent on sticking around to see the place finished. We were sat in the bus with the rest of our tour group for fifty minutes awaiting their return, before Banana gave up on them. He slid the minibus door shut, waved majestically at the Temple and uttered the immortal words: “Bye bye, China”.
Our next stop was a Karen hilltribe village, where we were supposed to see the genuine culture of the “longnecks”. The villages near the Myanmar border are infamous for being set up just for the benefit of tourists, practicing in human trafficking and forced labour, so we sat this one out. It was far more entertaining to hear Banana locked in an argument over the phone with the Chinese gentleman who had been left forty minutes down the road. “I said ten past the eleven! Ten past! You told me you speak English. You no speak English!” After a lengthy debate Banana told the gentleman that the rest of the tour group would not want them onboard anyway as they had messed us about so much, so we would pick them back up at about half past five when we were heading back to Chiang Mai.

We drove for another hour and had lunch before pulling up at a jetty alongside the mighty Mekong river. The Mekong is the lifeblood for many of the people who live in South-East Asia. It starts somewhere in the Tibetan foothills and meanders it’s way down through China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos before pouring out of the Mekong Deltas in Vietnam, and into the South China Sea. The Golden Triangle is a point on the River Mekong where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all meet. Part of the reason the triangle is referred to as “golden” is because of the amount of money and conraband that passed through here during the height of the opium trade. The authorities have cracked down on opium growing in the last few decades, but I’d hazard a guess that there’s still plenty of it going on, as I am about to allude to.

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Contraband, if ever I saw it.

We boarded an old wooden boat that took us out into the middle of the river, whilst a Thai lad who spoke excellent english told us about the Golden Triangle through an incredibly loud tannoy that was situated just above Hollie’s ear. We sailed to a point in the river where he pointed left, to Myanmar, right, to Laos, and behind us to Thailand, where we had just come from. He then pointed out four different casinos the size of shopping malls on various banks of the river. Owing to the fact that the Golden Triangle is the point at which three countries meet, there is a bit of confusion about what laws apply to where and things like that. As a result a slightly dodgy, duty-free kind of zone exists on all borders, referred to as the “Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone”. Apparently people come from all over the world to enjoy the relaxed gambling rules that exist in this small haven from the authorities.

We were supposed to be docking at the Laos side of the river for half an hour. We did, but not before returning to the Thai jetty that we had started our voyage from. The lad on the tannoy announced “Ladies and gentleman I’m sorry we had a small problem but it’s okay now.” The small “problem” appeared to be two blokes who had been waiting on the jetty, each carrying a large whicker basket wrapped in newspaper and banana leaves. We don’t know who they were and what they were carrying, but if it was smuggling, they weren’t particularly subtle about what they were doing.
We traversed the river again and landed in Laos. The two blokes got off with their baskets and we went in the opposite direction to a small market. Banana, in his infinite wisdom, had arranged for us to try some Laotian whiskey for free. He had promised this treat for us first thing in the morning, and all day I had wondered what might make the whiskey unique to Laos. My question was answered with one look at the array of bottles laid out on the table. Each of them had some kind of pickled jungle creature in them. There was a bottle with a gecko, a bottle with a scorpion, a bottle with a dead cobra and a bottle with a non-descript piece of what looked like liver in it. Hollie politely declined to sample but curiosity got the better of me. Banana asked me what my tipple of choice was and I said something along the lines of “Why, I’ll take a measure of your finest dead snake liquor sir”. However, due to some dreadful breakdown in communication he scooped a ladle of the liquid in the bottle next door to the snake into a shot glass for me. I necked it. It was dreadful. As I asked what it was through gritted teeth he laughed and said “Organ of a tiger”. “Oh. Which organ, Banana?” “One that the man has but the lady doesn’t”. For all of the effort we went to to avoid mistreating elephants and tribespeople, I’d managed to drink a shot of whiskey which contained the penis of an endangered animal. If we’re speaking in Buddhist terms here, my karma levels must have shot through the floor – I’m definately coming back as an ant. Oh wait, I ate some of those! Baaad karma. I’m going to be a flea in the next life.

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Next time I’ll just have a beer

We were back in Chiang Mai at half eight, after going to pick the Chinese couple up on the way back and finding that they had already gone back in a taxi. It was a long day but probably worth it for the White Temple alone. The Golden Triangle felt like a huge sleazefest, but it was quite interesting to be at the point where three countries meet. Tomorrow night we are finally going to witness some Muay Thai boxing.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour.
Love Tommy and Hollie x

16th and 17th February – Days 20 and 21

Song of the Day: Time of the Season by The Zombies

Ayup.
Yesterday we took a minibus back from Pai to Chiang Mai. It was three quid each and a much more relaxed journey than the previous one, as at no point did we fear we were going to plummet off a cliff at 70mph. In the morning we thanked Connor the Brummy expat for his fantastic hospitality, and said an emotional goodbye to Reg, who may very well be the most intelligent dog in the world. We were given a lift to the minibus by Connor’s wife Maaw in the motorbike and sidecar, and part of me wanted Reg to repeat her antics of the previous day and jump on the moving vehicle – we could have taken her all round South East Asia and dropped her back off before we move on to India.

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After checking into the hostel yesterday we didn’t do much.  We were knackered so we got an Indian takeaway and watched Friends on youtube – the one with Marcel the Monkey and Jean Claude Van Damme.  Today we took a songtheaw from Chiang Mai old town up to the mountain temple of Wat Doi Suthep. It was another nice’n’nauseating journey on a serpentine road up the mountainside – but so worth the journey once we got there. We were dreading having to ascend the advertised “300 steps” up to the temple in the hot afternoon sun, but as it turned out it wasn’t that bad – maybe they couldn’t count, cos I reckon there were only 150 at the most. Either side of the staircase were statues of fearsome-looking serpents with several heads each. Their bodies formed the banisters at each side of the staircase. We climbed the stairs and paid the 30 baht foreigner fee before entering the temple complex under a gilded golden arch. In fact, the term “gilded golden” applies to pretty much everything I am about to describe in the temple, so in order to save me from repetitive strain from re-typing it over and over again, just assume that everything that I don’t describe as otherwise in the next passage is covered in gold.

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We took off our shoes and left them with about four hundred other pairs, earmarking where ours were just as you might when parking your car up in a large supermarket carpark. In this courtyard were huge, gnarled trees that must easily have been 500 years old, covered in prayer flags and little trinkets of various colours, but most of them were (see above paragraph). We went through an outbuilding and into the inner courtyard of the temple, where all sorts of shrines were bedecked with candles, incense and more precious-looking trinkets. We entered a room with a gigantic statue of Buddha with various smaller statues crowded all around. This kind of room seems to form the main font of worship in all of the Wats we have visited and I suppose the best comparison would be to that of an altar in a Christian Church, only much more grand and expensive-looking. To the left of the room sat a very amiable monk in the lotus position, who indicated for Hollie and I to kneel, along with about 8 others. We did as he asked and recieved a blessing much like the one I described in Pai – he dipped a kind of split bamboo cane into an ornate silver tankard containing water, which he proceeded to sprinkle all over the assembled tourists whilst repeating various incantations in a language I didn’t understand, though it didn’t sound like Thai. He said in English “Good luck to you all and always be happy” and that was our cue to get up. I think I will take this Monk’s advice. In the centre of the inner courtyard was a huge stupa (a kind of large bell-shaped tower, with a prominent spire pointing to the sky). I know I told you just to assume everything was golden, but the gold on this stupa deserves a special mention. It was possibly the most golden thing we have ever seen, and it’s irridescent gleam was amplified by the sunlight so that you could swear it was glowing.

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All of these buildings were impressive. The constant presence of orange-robed monks and the din of huge cast-iron bells added to the other-wordly atmosphere in the place. But possibly more impressive than all of this was the view over Chiang Mai. A long balcony at the far end of the temple presents a view over the entirety of Thailand’s second city. Though the air in the valley below is a constant hazy grey from a combination of pollution and farmers burning their fields. You could clearly make out the perfect square of the old city in which we are currently staying, divided from the rest of Chiang Mai by an ancient moat and a highway either side of it. You could see the various domes and pagodas of other temples miles below, and you could see the whole airport including the landing strip. A distant rumble every now and again indicated a plane taking off or landing, and it was amazing to see how long these tiny, cigar shaped streaks took to get to an altitde that levelled the mountain on which we were standing. Of all the ruins and modern temples we have visited, Doi Suthep has been the most impressive. As with the Temple of the White Buddha at Pai, I don’t think you need to be religious in any way to appreciate these Buddhist temples – the people who design these things seem to go to great lengths to ensure that everything you see, hear and feel in these places provides a calming, meditative effect on the soul.

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A stupa, pointing to the sky

The good vibes of Doi Suthep were quickly dissolved by the cheap gasoline fumes and roaring complaint of a tuk tuk engine. The sleeper train we had tried to book for Saturday had turned out to be fully booked, so we had to rush to the station to try and get the next train we could. By far the quickest way of doing so in Thailand is to scythe through the rush hour traffic in a glorified sardine tin mounted on a motorbike engine. The Chiang Mai to Bangkok sleeper train has turned out to be a nightmare to book during the tourist high season. We ended up having to take beds in seperate carriages on the 23rd February, meaning that we’ve had to extend our stay in Chiang Mai by three nights. It’s a pity because we have so much that we want to fit in and we wanted to be in Cambodia by Sunday, but this is what we’ve learned about travelling. Stuff goes awry in the blink of an eye and you just shrug your shoulders and get on with it. There are far worse cities to be stuck in than Chiang Mai – Hollie and me agree that it’s our favourite destination in Thailand.

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People writing on a golden ribbon, to be wrapped around the stupa.  What did we write? That would be telling.

Tomorrow we’re going on a day trip to Chiang Rai to see the White Temple, paddle about in some hotsprings and go to the “Golden Triangle” – the exact point of the land where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

Have a cracking day, whatever you’re up to.

Tommy and Hollie x

15th February – Day 19

Song of the day: Kill All Hippies by Primal Scream
Ayup.

Today we hired a scooter again and took it for a spin in the hills that overlook Pai. First we stopped at a temple called Wat Hua Na. This was an unremarkable visit other than the fact that I was blessed by a Monk (I think). He was an old chap sat in the lotus position in the corner and I asked him if I could take a photo. I gave him twenty baht from his troubles and he asked me to kneel before him. He removed the lid from an ornamental jar and took out a stick of bamboo containing water. He began to utter various incantations before pouring water over my head and tapping me over each shoulder with the stick, as if I was being knighted. I didn’t really know how to thank him so I put my hands together and bowed to him as I’ve seen Thais do. As I walked off he began laughing heartily – the deep, contented laugh of a man on the path to enlightenment. Either that, or he was thinking “I’ve just poured water over this cretin’s head and he thinks it’s a special ceremony”.

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Unfinished monk-ey business

We continued a little further up the road and stopped at Santichon – known also as the Chinese village. Santichon is yet another example of the vast array of cultures and ethnicities that call Northern Thailand home. Initially, it looked just like a pretty collection of huts and koi carp ponds, built thriftily out of mud and straw, before being adorned with the usual golden effigies of dragons and Chinese animals that are so prevalent in oriental culture. It was puzzling because there was a much more modern-looking town built on the hillside, and we assumed that we had walked into some kind of touristy village. We had, but there’s more of a story to it than that.

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This village was built by Chinese refugees that escaped here through Myanmar after the communist revolution in 1949. It sounds like this community had lived up here on the hillside since then. In the nineties, the place developed a serious drug problem. The Thai army came in and raided the place several times, before placing restrictions on the movement of the people who live there. Just like the hilltribes, it seems as if the people here are struggling to be recognised as Thai citizens. Because the people of the town were not allowed to travel around and find work, they had to look inwards to earn their keep. They built the more oriental-looking village to celebrate Chinese culture and earn money from tourism. Hollie and me had a crack at some proper archery – an old lady handed us a lethal-looking bow and arrows to fire at targets. Not for the first time, Hollie showed me up by hitting the target whilst my arrows flirted all over the shop. The old lady was directly behind me knitting some children’s clothes, but I heard her shift uncomfortably in her seat every time I got ready to let one of my arrows fly.

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We got back on the bike and motored further up the mountain road. We whizzed past rural villages where skeletal cows and goats chewed at isolated cuds of dry grass. Past a shack advertising petrol for sale where an old man sat outside drinking from a grubby plastic container, leading us to speculate whether he was drinking his product. Cockerels, hens, chicks and ducks scuttled out into the road and tested our balance as we negotiated a path through them. We stopped for a short while at Mae Paeng waterfalls, but after finding it overun by hippies we cleared off back to Pai for dinner.
We’ve had mixed feelings on Pai. Everything that you see and hear about the place implies that it is some kind of hippy wonderland where the young and the groovy go to hang out with like-minded people. In a way it is – but that’s part of the problem – at least for us. Walking round the main streets of Pai you see people who seem to genuinely believe they’re at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. People who talk about organic lentils whilst wearing brightly-coloured, glorified potato sacks as clothes and farting out aromas of pure, unadulterated vegetable. I’ve never seen so many Jesus lookalikes wandering around the main streets with their tops off, digging chicks with braided hair and Thai dye t-shirts. It’s not that we don’t dig the whole hippy ideal – peace and love and all that, that’s right up my street – but you can’t help feeling that the whole thing feels a bit contrived. When we arrived on the Khao San road we knew immediately that what we were witnessing was cool and different to what we were used to, but still a bit naf. People that hang around Pai don’t seem to have that same self-awareness. What’s been created here isn’t authentically Thai, or in my opinion authentically anything. It’s a place of congregation for people who were too young to be at Woodstock, or people who were at Woodstock and still can’t let go of that dream.

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The valley in which Pai is situated is beautiful, and I can see how it became such a popular place for backpackers. I won’t deny that there’s amazing food available here, and it’s not unheard of to stumble upon a real gem of an acoustic troubadour playing for beer in some bamboo hut.
I wouldn’t advise people against coming, but if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, all I’d say is don’t take it too seriously. Up in the mountains road workers are widening the 1095 highway from Chiang Mai so that it can accomodate the larger tourist buses. You have to fancy that when the work is complete the levee will break and wash away any remnants of Pai as an “unspoilt” destination – all those hippies riding the crest of the current wave will have to choose whether to cling to the wreckage, or move on to the next valley in search of a new “Pairadise.”
Tomorrow we head back to Chiang Mai for a few nights before we move on towards Cambodia.
Have a niiiiice day!

Tommy and Hollie x

13th and 14th February – Days 17 and 18

Song of the day: Over The Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin
Ayup.

It’s been a while. How are you? Well, I hope.
I didn’t write yesterday because we spent the whole day drinking fruit juices, eating and sleeping, which doesn’t always make for the best reading  – I can’t give you death-defying bus journeys, mind-bending temples and anecdotes about my own stupidity every day now, can I?
Last night after pottering about around the various bars and street food stalls, we paid to be driven up to Pai canyon to watch the sunset. We were chauffered up there in the back of a Toyota Hilux truck, which is by far the most popular of a very limited variations of cars on the road here. We were seated in the cab of the truck whilst two German lads sat in the trailer, downing cans of Chang and allowing the wind to ruffle their long locks. It was a short journey and as we hopped out the driver pointed us in the general direction of the canyon. I asked “What time shall we meet you back here?” He shook his head and said “When sun goes down”. Obviously Tommy!
Pai canyon is impressive. Narrow red sandstone ridges give way to sheer drops of fifty feet or more. The ridges snake their way round in random patterns for about a mile in distance, whilst in the basin of the canyon thick jungle vegetation thrives. Because of the drop I imagine that it’s a tall order for people to get down there, and I could picture all kinds of creepy-crawlies scuttling about on the forest floor, far from the greedy grasp of the tourist.
Unfortunately, we had no such luck and as we sat as close to the precipice as we could safely manage, sightseers of every creed and colour came and stood in front of us to take selfies with the sun going down over the mountain behind them. A swish of my outstretched ankle could have cleared our view very quickly and provided the aforementioned creepy-crawlies with a tasty treat, but there were too many witnesses.

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Pai Canyon

Today we have taken the biggest leap yet into Thai culture . What did they do? I hear you ask. Did they eat a selection of Thai delicacies? convert to Buddhism? spend an evening in the home of a local family? No, my friends. We hired a scooter. Nothing in Thailand says “I belong here” like an underpowered, glorified hair-dryer on two wheels. I would not be at all surprised if there was a movement to have the scooter emblazoned on the national flag. For 250 baht (£5) it was ours for the day. We paid a bit of a premium to rent one off Connor, our hostel owner, but it was worth the extra dosh to have an English-worded lesson in how to ride the thing.
Just to allay the fears of our parents (who will be reading this bit through gritted teeth) I had a very thorough lesson in how to go, and how to stop. Turning was something that I picked up on my own by driving the bike round the quiet backstreets until I had the hang of it, and by the time I returned to Hollie, I felt like Steve Mcqueen. She sent me off on my first official errand to pick up some water and toasties from the 7/11 down the road. As I roared along at ten miles an hour, being overtaken by stray dogs and scuttling chickens, I could hear Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run playing along in my head. When I dismounted at my destination I walked up to the automatic doors of the 7/11 and caught a glimpse of my reflection in my egg-shaped helmet. Born to Run was quickly taken off the turntable of my mind and replaced by the Benny Hill theme tune – I looked like one of the aliens from the film Mars Attacks, only with a pair of fake raybans on. Still, I’d rather have an egg-shaped helmet than an egg-shaped lump on my head.

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The sense of freedom from being able to get to places under your own steam is a fantastic feeling, and I’m glad that I feel confident enough to drive us around a bit now as it could potentially save us some money. Hollie is a nervous passenger but has seen me tootle up and down the road at a snail’s pace enough times today to know that she has nothing to fear with me at the wheel. Who knows, maybe she’ll even squire me around town at some point.
In order to practice being on the road, I went out first without Hollie on the back to Wat Pra Tat Mae Yen temple, more commonly known as the White Buddha. Halfway up the mountain and above the temple itself is a huge white statue of Buddha. He sits cross-legged with one palm open in his lap, casting his gaze over the entire valley. I parked the scooter up at the temple and climbed approximately one million steps until I reached the base of this great monument. The sun was brutal and like all places of religious significance in Thailand, you are asked to take off your shoes as a mark of respect. I regained my breath from ascending the stairs and slipped my shandals off. For the next five minutes I danced around the monument like Fred Astaire because the tiled floor was too hot for me to put my feet down, before giving up and heading back down the stairs. Nonetheless, it was very impressive! I had a walk around the temple itself and I was struck by the tranquility of the place. Most of the temples we have visited so far have been in the middle of the city and although the ornate beauty of each one is remarkable, I’ve not considered them to be especially peaceful places. I have no religious views in any direction but I don’t think it matters in a place like Wat Pra Tat Mae Yen – it’s just a beautiful place that gives you an exceptional sense of serenity.


I was too knackered to go straight back so I went to buy some orange from a family shop that was situated under an awning. The lady asked for 15 baht for it but having no change, I gave her 20 and asked if I could sit in the shade under her awning a while. Just then a fat kid sitting up a short set of steps said “Hey you, farang!” (Literal translation: pale skin) “Who, me?” “Yes you. I am watching Muay Thai boxing. Come sit with me!” And so for the time it took me to drink my orange juice I sat with this friendly yet casually racist fat kid and pretended to know what was happening as he shouted at a tiny little telly. Muay Thai is chivalrous as it is brutal, and I am desperate to catch some live when we return to Chiang Mai.
When I returned to the hostel I was full of beans and ready to show Hollie the landmark that I’d found. We made ready for the off but Reg, (the genius dog I described on Friday), had other ideas. As soon as I started the moped engine she jumped on the scooter inbetween my legs. This was hilarious and made for a great photo opportunity, but then she wouldn’t get off, no matter how much I pleaded. Hollie hopped on the back and we managed to rev off down the road a bit, before Reg caught up with us and leapt on the bike whilst it was still moving. This process was repeated for about half an hour, each time with Reg hopping on the moving vehicle. I was nervous enough with Hollie as a passenger, without having a canine companion riding shotgun with me. In the end we gave up and wheeled the scooter back to the hostel. Reg seemed to become distracted by a rustle in the bushes and Hollie’s eyes met mine. Quick as a flash, she hopped back on the back and we tore off down the road. Of course, Reg wasn’t going to be outsmarted that easily and as I looked in the mirror I could see her tear-arsing after us like a bat out of hell. As luck would have it, a poodle came running out of it’s hiding place in the bushes and acosted Reg into a round of the usual anus-sniffing that dogs seem to enjoy. We turned the corner out onto the main street and finally extracated ourselves from this lovable but very needy hound.

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A picture tells a thousand words

We returned to the White Buddha and climbed the steps together. The sun had just set and the climb was a lot less intense than earlier in the day. The evening sky is always hazy at this time of year because it is what the Thais refer to as “burning season”, when farmers burn off the remainder of the crops in their fields. It’s not unusual to look out and see areas the size of a football pitch awash with flame. As we descended the steps a party of Chinese tourists, about twenty of them all clad in the same blue-t-shirt design, were walking up the other way. Two of the ladies began making a fuss of Hollie and asked to have their photo taken with us, a request which we granted. As they were walking away one of them looked incredulously at Hollie and stroked her arm. We read about this strange occurrance before we started travelling – people in certain parts of Asia are obsessed with having smooth, pale skin, considering it to be a sign of purity and classiness. I think this comes from the fact that outdoor work is considered to be carried out by peasants whose skin is exposed to the harsh sun. It seems that these ladies must not have seen people like “us” in the flesh before. Their fascination was genuine and harmless, but it was really strange to be such an object of curiosity, and made us feel for the first time since we’ve been here that people were looking at us through a lens, rather than vice versa. It was also upsetting to think that whilst we consider ourselves to have the best tan that we’ve had in years, to the trained eye we must still be extremely pasty looking!

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We returned the scooter to the hostel and walked into town for dinner. I fancied a beverage and I’ve seen enough black eyes and split chins whilst we’ve been walking round to know that it’s not a good idea to drink and drive in a country where you don’t know what you’re doing at the best of times. We ate tuna spring rolls with plum sauce (much better than they sound), battered shitake mushrooms with satay dip, chicken stir-fried with cashews and a northern ginger curry. It came to the scandalous total of ten quid with drinks included. We then went to a very hippy kind of cafe called Edible Jazz, where I lay in a hammock drinking beerlao whilst Hollie gently rocked me with her foot. I offered her a go, but she refused, probably after seeing the difficulty I had in getting out of it when getting up to go to the toilet. We returned to the hostel to find Reg chained up on the porch – Connor and his wife had gone out and knew better than to let her chase after them into town.
It seems I’ve caught verbal diarrhoea again so I’ll leave it there for tonight.

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Have a good one, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Hollie x

12th February – Day 16

Song of the day: Helter Skelter by The Beatles
Ayup.

Today we’ve been through purgatory and ended up in paradise (again).
I’m sat on the bed in our room. In front of us is a set of french windows that lead out to a veranda, beyond which is a large pond where fish constantly bob up to the surface to prey upon mosquitoes. There’s a little floating hut on the water and the pond is surrounded by various tropical vegetation such as palm trees and bamboo. Two hours ago we were clinging to the headrests in front of us until our knuckles were whiter than the summit of Mont Blanc, exchanging nervous smiles with our fellow minibus passengers and telling ourselves that the situation was “under control.” Such is the duality of our experience of Thailand so far – days and days of ecstatic discovery blended with madness, and the very occasional dollop of terror.
Yesterday we bought two minibus tickets to Pai for 170 baht each – about £3:40. We were chuffed with the price which seemed cheap even by Thai standards, and looked forward to the luxury of a 12-seater minibus rather than a lumbering public bus lacking the glorious gift of air-conditioning. This morning we rose early and packed, checked out and enjoyed our last complimentary breakfast. A songtheaw came to pick us up at around half nine and for a while we panicked that this would be our mode of transport for the next three hours or so. As it turned out we were only ferried by the songtheaw to Chiang Mai train station, where we transferred to a very swanky-looking minibus. All was well in the world at this point as we chugged through the sprawling suburbs of Chiang Mai. The driver seemed steady and our fellow passengers seemed devoid of annoying habits.

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Out of the frying pan…

We pulled into a petrol station to fill up, and a couple of Dutch lads got out for a smoke. A Chinese lady got out of the bus to go to the toilet, leaving her daughter in the minibus. The driver seemed disgruntled that part of his fare had left the bus. He filled up and drove round from the pumps to wait for the passengers to return. Just as they all got back on, the Chinese lady’s daughter decided she couldn’t go any further without going to the toilet to. The driver exclaimed loudly in Thai and waved his arms about a bit. When she returned he slammed the sliding door behind her and proceeded to shunt out of the forecourt at a rate of knots.

The traffic grew thinner and our driver’s foot got closer to the floor. Pretty soon we were out of Chiang Mai and ascending into the breathtaking mountains that surround Thailand’s second city. Whoever designed the 80-100km stretch of road between Chiang Mai and Pai was a sadist. It’s as if a load of road planners did no work all year, got hammered at their Christmas party and then decided to plan out the whole stretch of road in the early hours of the morning. The 1095 road between Chiang Mai contains more hairpins than Marge Simpson’s barnet. It requires a cautious, pragmatic approach with one foot constantly hovering over the break to ensure that one ends up in one’s destination intact. Our driver did not take this approach. Each corner was a nauseating cross of his hands, spinning the steering wheel as if it was an episode of the Magic Roundabout stuck on fast-forward. His human cargo were left to brace themselves as best they could as he took bend after bend like he thought he was Colin Mcrae.

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And into the fire.

After about an hour of this nerve-racking carry-on, he swung the bus over to the other side of the road and pulled up on the “hard shoulder” (a dusty ditch). We spent ten minutes wandering around a roadside cafe. I went to the toilet and considered finding one of the many Buddhist shrines that line the road in these parts to beg for safe passage. We gingerly hopped back on and he revved us off again. About two miles down the road, a young Thai lad said something rather urgently to the driver, who immediately slammed on the breaks and got out. He slid the minibus door open and asked in Thai what was the matter. The lad turned round to face the rest of the bus with a look of sheer terror on his face and said in English “Sorry, I forgot my bag”. The driver took off his sunglasses and I swear in the pupils of his eyes I saw the tiny mushroom clouds of a nuclear explosion going off. Every orifice in my body sealed itself shut as he performed a U-turn and caned it back down the mountain to the stop of ten minutes ago. The lad collected his bag and put his hands together in the praying position, apologising to all and sundrie for his absent-mindedness.
It was at this point that the driver became possessed by the wandering spirit of one of Emperor Hirohito’s Kamikaze pilots. These minibus drivers are apparently paid on their quick turnaround and he was buggered if he was going to miss his bonus. We went up the wrong side of the road round a blind hairpin to get round a little Toyota Yaris that was daring to chug along at 50kmh. We almost kissed the bumper of a lorry full of logs before swinging out in front of a truck in order to overtake it. At one point we nearly rammed a songtheaw full of sleeping soldiers as we descended a sharp corner to find it almost stationary at the bottom of the bend. Hollie and I shared a headphone each and listened to Helter Skelter on full blast, trying to block out the rising chimes of terror in our heads.
Do you remember the bag I described two paragraphs ago that we had to go back for? It came in handy. As we descended into Pai and the worst was almost over, the bag’s forgetful young owner grabbed it and jettisoned the contents of his stomach into it. HEEEEYURGH URGH….HEEEEEYURGH URGH…. He sounded like the girl from The Exorcist. Hollie and I turned to each other and nodded at the irony of the bag situation as an aroma of warm carrot and coriander permeated our nostrils.
Not long afterwards we rolled into a wide valley, in the middle of which Pai is situated. We got off the bus and completely blanked the driver before wandering over to a roadside cafe for a brew to steady our nerves. The lesson we have learned is: take the largest, slowest bus to Pai if you value your life. I don’t believe a coach would make it up the 1095 – some of the narrower hairpins also ascend at a gradient of about 40 degrees – and as a result I reckon it would probably follow an altogether flatter and less hair-raising, hairpin-saturatd route.

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See what we mean!?

We were collected from the cafe by a Thai lady in a motorbike and sidecar – infinitely preferable to our previous journey. Ten minutes out of town we arrived at Oasis Pai hostel. The Thai lady who picked us up is the joint proprieter along with her husband Connor – a Brummy expat who could not have done more to make us feel at home. He sat us down with a map of the area and drew rings round the things he recommended, the things he thought were overated and the places to steer clear of. He made us feel so comfortable that we’ve already extended our stay here from three to four nights, and we look forward to having a few beers and a chinwag with him at some point over the next few days.

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The view from the afternoon

At around six we headed into the town, accompanied by Connor’s dog, Reg. Reg is like no other dog we have met. She’s a crossbreed of God knows what, looking a bit like a cross between a staffy and a smaller Rhodesian ridgeback. Without any encouragement from us, she walked by our side for about a mile into town, barking at any stray dog who crossed our path. She sat under the table whilst we ate dinner without begging, and wandered off shortly after we got up from dinner. Later in the evening we went to the “Casuals” bar, which is a favourite haunt of Connor and his wife. We sat chatting with Connor for an hour or two whilst Reg came in off the street and slept under the table. When we got up to leave she got up with us and escorted us all the way back to the hostel! We didn’t come out here to get emotionally attached to more animals than we already do back home, but Reg seems to have broken down our defences already.  For the record we would like to state that although Hollie’s sister’s basset hound Alfie has never escorted us anywhere, and would steal our dinner in the blink of an eye, he is still our favourite dog in the entire world.


First impressions of Pai suggest we will like it. A lot.

Peace and love,

Tommy and Hollie x