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

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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