Bangkok and Chiang Mai

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hello again,

About a month ago I returned from a wonderful two-week trip with Helen. Combining the one week Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving, sort of) vacation with 5 vacation days, we made a circle checking out Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and back to Bangkok. Since I use quite a bit of detail and I like the map pins, I've decided to divide the trip into three entries, one for each country visited: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. I know, it's crazy! Actually it will probably make it much easier to read. Anyway, here is the first installment about Thailand.

Rough Start

Early Monday morning we headed to the Incheon airport excited for our upcoming adventure. Arriving at the gate, we were less than excited to discover that we would have a layover in Hong Kong. At that moment, I remembered some strange clause about the tickets. I purchased them in a hurry, ignoring the strange wording of the ticket agreement. I guess I should have paid more attention. Compounding Helen's frustration, was my elongated Internet-usage absence that left her alone with bags needing to go to the bathroom.

I apologized profusely and things started to improve in Hong Kong. We were both impressed by the airport and the surrounding scenery, peaking our interest in later visiting the modern city. Because the layover was so short (less than an hour) and Hong Kong almost perfectly in the Korea-Bangkok flight line, we didn't lose too much time. Arriving at the Bangkok airport, we immediately caught a public taxi to the train station. The drive in our bright pink Toyota was fun. Bangkok is quite modern for Southeast Asian standards with a massive skyline and rather smooth traffic (tolls keep the freeways relatively smooth sailing). 

Overnight Chiang Mai Train

We ate Pad Thai (my favorite dish and a foreign Thai favorite) as we waited for the long trip north. When we found our seats we were surprised to find out second class did not include private cars. Rather we were given two love seat style seats facing one another with a fold-up table in between. After a few hours cruising through and out of Bangkok, the lady arrived to turn our seats into beds. After lowering the bunk bed above our heads, there were two sleeping areas. The lights remained on all night, so we had to cover our sleeping area with curtains, which the upper bunk didn't have. We slept on the lower one together. The cramped space and excess of sleeping materials reminded me of forts I built as a kid.

 Although we woke up numerous times during the night, it was fun to look out the window and see a sky of full of stars. By the time the sun rose, it was time to wake up and convert our bed-fort back into chairs. A couple more hours through jungle and astonishingly small towns (only a train official in sight at the stations) and we arrived in Chiang Mai.

Surprising Size

We bargained for a ride into the city center on the back of a pickup truck, which serve as taxis everywhere in the Chiang Mai. After being dropped off I was pretty floored by two things. First, the size of the city. I was expecting small and quiet and it was neither. Traffic was heavy and there was no sign of wilderness anywhere. Secondly and very related, the number of motor bikes. Everybody was riding motorbikes: men, women, students, children, whole families! The more the merrier, apparently.

We crossed the street (quite the arduous task) and went to the first hotel in sight. It was a bit pricier than we  would have hoped, but the room was clean and spacious. To top things off, the hotel featured a salt water pool complete with a waterfall . That's right non-chlorine pools are all the rave, at least at this hotel. It's not quite as pungent as the ocean, but definitely not a treat for open eyes or mouths.

Relaxation Vacation

After some needed relaxation, we walked a mere block to probably our favorite restaurant of the trip. A Jerusalem place serving delicious cheese, salads and all the kosher food you can handle. Well, at least I assumed it was kosher; not that it mattered for me. We scarfed down a Greek salad with feta cheese (It had been so long since I'd had good cheese. Korea is not known for its cheeses.) and went for a walk. Again less than a block from our hotel, we found a relatively cheap travel agency to purchase Laos tickets. In two days we were leaving to Luang Prabang. After our travel arrangements, we stumbled upon one of 300+ wats (Thai Buddhist temple) in the city of 150,000 people. The temple was empty and refreshing to have the beautiful spiritual space to our selves.

We walked around some more checking out all the different programs and prices for trekking trips (the thing to do in Chiang Mai!). What we discovered is that they all offer relatively the same thing, so it's worth investigating for the best price. A rain delay sent us home in a pickup truck, and after resting we decided to indulge ourselves even further with a Thai massage. Mine seemed to be more painful than Helen's, because she was quite satisfied while I was mostly sore. Hunger kicked in again, so we walked to a night market offering all sorts of local goods and foods. Delicious! We didn't quite have our fill though, so we headed to a Western restaurant for pizza and Helen's first sampling of apple pie (In Thailand too, how fitting!). Once the gluttony ended, we found a great trek price and lined up the next day's activities. We watched some hotel movies and prepared ourselves for tomorrow's adventures.

Elephant Riding, Hiking, Village Exploring and Bamboo Rafting

We woke up broke and needing money. I exchanged some and paid for our room after asking for a minimal discount. Our guide, Q, was early, as we were the first people to be picked up in a clean Toyota mini-bus. We would later add three more couples, two from Spain and one from Myanmar or as I prefer to call it, Burma.

Burma Interlude

I'm going to take a moment to talk about Burma for a second. I read a wonderful book that everyone should look for if you have the time and inkling: "Finding George Orwell in Burma." It's about Orwell's time in Burma and how his writings can all be interpreted as social commentaries of Burma, "1984" especially. The book is about Emma Larkin's (the author) journey, retracing Orwell's steps in the various places he was assigned to serve in Burma. It's also about the current socio-political situation of the country. In a word, dire. With no freedom of press, the country is completely controlled by the military, and citizens cannot travel, work, educate themselves or communicate without the consent of the government. Of course to maintain such a dictatorship nothing much can be allowed and thus the prison system is teeming with dissidents guilty of handing out fliers, educating improperly (You must teach the government propaganda and teachers must fill out a survey to ensure they are loyal enough) or no crime at all. Just like "1984," the country and it's people live in a state of fear.

At the time I met the couple from Burma, I knew nothing of the former paragraph and unfortunately could not delve into any of it. For instance, I have no idea how they were permitted to travel (few people are). Also, they seemed to only have positive things to say about their country, leading me to think they work for the government or are deeply affected by it. In fact, they even encouraged us to come visit. 

Of course, at the time Thailand was also going through its own political troubles. While we were there the Prime Minister was kicked out for hosting two cooking shows. The Prime Minister installed afterward was immediately controversial as well because he is the brother-in-law to former ousted PM and currently exiled Thaksin.

The Trek Continues

Our first stop was for elephant riding. Helen and I are were perched on our elephant for about an hour riding around through manicured jungle. Every 10 minutes or so we would arrive at a banana station and were encouraged to buy the fruit to feed the elephants. The feeding was quite interesting. As soon as the elephant placed the banana (he never bothered to peal it) or sugar cane in his mouth, his trunk came right back for more. If the next treat was not placed in his mouth soon, he blew in frustration. This mixture of mucous and foul smell is not the most delightful thing, but does come with the territory of riding an elephant. By the time we arrived back at our departing tree-house structure, I was more than happy to get off. The sun was getting really hot (there was little shade) and the seat was not getting any more comfortable.

The next stage of our journey was a hike to a waterfall. After a short while we stopped at a Hmong village (originally from China) that was empty except for one boy doing traditional archery. Q, our guide, was very content to tell us about the village, but no one was too keen on listening. Everybody seemed to be more interested in moving. I was the only native English speaker there, so Q's speeches were not always well understood by all. The waterfall was gorgeous. About 20 feet high, it created a powerful current. Helen and I did wade into the brown water (muddy bottom), but could do little beside shuffle around the side, which was quite pleasant. 

When we left our oasis, a pack of dogs decided to come with us. Thailand has a big stray problem. There are way too many dogs and not enough land/owners to care for them. Since they don't eat them (like Korea), there is no profitable way of getting rid of them. Our furry friend followed us to the Karen tribe, originally from southeastern Burma. They have been effectively kicked out of the country, because they oppose the current regime. The Karen are very skilled weavers and Q talked as we watched an old lady weave a blanket.

Next was lunch. It was a delicious Thai offering of vegetables, meat and rice followed by ice cream. Yummy! With a full stomach we headed to the river for bamboo rafting. Four people were assigned to each long and narrow bamboo raft. The guide was at the front steering with a long stick while a brave tourist could do the same at the back. Our Burmese friend decided to stop steering shortly after and took a seat with the rest of us.

Sitting on the raft is a unique experience. Instead of floating on top of the water, the raft is slightly submerged, so you get wet. Adding to our moisture was a thunderstorm. With a loud thunderclap introduction it started to pour, making for a wonderfully wet ride. Everyone was instructed to get off at a waterfall so the guide could navigate solo (impressive). When we boarded for the second time, I got to steer in the back and had a blast negotiating turns, debris and tree branches while trying to maintain my balance. Unlike some other unlucky tourists, I made it without falling. Unfortunately, as soon as I was getting the hang of it, we were finished.

After the trek we headed home and delved into the market again. Following this, we went to a bar for more food and drinks and then called it a night. Back at the hotel, I watched a Togo-Zambia soccer match. Zambia was much better, in case you are interested. I mention this though, because it showcases the diversity of Thai TV. At nicer hotels you will get English, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese and maybe even Spanish channels. It makes for some entertaining channel surfing.

Fast Forward to Bangkok

The next morning we flew to Luang Prabang, Laos. After a couple days there we met friends in Cambodia for a week where we flew back to Bangkok. Since I decided to divide the trip into three entries about three countries, I'm going to talk about the final day in Bangkok, because this is the Thailand entry.

After a week in Cambodia, Bangkok was very refreshing. The Phnom Penh departure tax, especially, left a bad taste in my mouth. Not only do you have to pay $20 for a visa to enter and stay, you also have to pay $25 to leave the country...blaa!

Although I stayed there before, Helen wanted to see Khoa San Road, the infamous touristy area with all kinds of bars, restaurants and street shopping. We found a hotel, ate dinner and retired for the evening. The next morning we ate a street food breakfast (deliciously cheap), swam and photographed the scenery at our rooftop pool. Then we had to make a decision: with a midnight flight time and lots of time to kill, what to do with our bags and our time. After weighing our options, Helen opted to pay for another hotel room, something I was not prepared to do. Either way, we made good use of it, eating another street food feast, napping and watching movies there all day long.

When it was time to go, we joined the throngs of backpackers headed to the airport the cheap way: minibus. Although we had to wait a while, switch drivers, deal with cramped legs and strange detours, it was nice to know that we saved some money. When we arrived at our gate after some immigration hassles (Helen lost a departure paper in her passport), we met four more teachers from our school heading home from the Chuseok holiday. At last our two week vacation was done and we had to head back to work...no!

Wrap-up

Fortunately, for you, there is more to come. Now that you have read about the beginning and end of this trip, why not the middle. In the not so distant future, I will write and send out entries about our time in Laos (fabulous) and Cambodia (thrilling and frustrating).

I hope you enjoyed reading. Feel free to e-mail or facebook me. I would enjoy hearing form you.

Bill






 
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