Thailand

So, at NUS in the middle of the semester, there is a week with no classes called “recess week”. Local students refer to it as study week, exchange students see it as a good excuse to go explore Asia. I am no exception to this, so I spent my recess week in Thailand with Amber and Lina, two other exchange students. We had purchased a package from a Singaporean travel agency, called Eco Travel Services, for a trekking/adventure trip in the Chiang Mai area of Northern Thailand.

First though, we need to get to Chiang Mai. We flew to Bangkok Saturday morning (the 22. September), and arrived at the airport, which is very modern and nice, the architecture is slightly reminiscent of Thai temples, with the shape of the windows airside looking a bit like pagodas in my opinion.

I think these windows look like pagodas.

The Thai immigration authorities are quite strict, which meant a very long queue for passport control, even after we discovered there were two separate areas in opposite ends of the terminal. They used a stapler to affix my departure card to my passport, which I thought was quite mean, but oh well, shows the passport has been used.

With a new airport it is fashionable to include a train system to bring people into town, and Bangkok is no exception. The train journey into town passes congested motorways, ridiculously long flyovers, temples, slums, nice suburbs and office blocks, before terminating at Phaya Thai station on the BTS (skytrain) system. And when I say terminating, I mean terminating:

End of the line. Those buffers better be solid!

It was raining buckets and spades when we arrived in Bangkok, and it continued for the rest of the day, but that did not stop us walking to the main railway station. The journey itself is not particularly far, say 3 km, but because of the rain, the unknown surroundings and the generally badly designed pavements in Thailand (anything that needs to be placed by the roadside, say electrical substations, overpasses, food stalls, parked cars or trees will be placed on the already narrow pavement, making walking quite the obstacle course), it took us quite some time.

A busy Bangkok street. See the rain?

At the main railway station, we dried our stuff, and waited for the train. There are several trains to Chiang Mai from Bangkok that do the journey overnight (all bookable via the sligtly-dodgy-looking-but-legitimate-and-quite-convenient online ticket website for the Thai Railways). Our train was one of the less popular ones, since it was not a sleeper train. But it had comfortable seats, and since we were practically the only paying customers in our carriage, we had lots of space to lounge out on. Dinner and breakfast were included in the price, but so was airconditioning, which is usually nice, but in this case they must have set it to about 16 degrees C. I woke up in the middle of my night, sleeping in jacket and under the provided blanket, and could not quite remember where I was. Not wanting to open my eyes, my brain reasoned, based on the temperature, that I must be camping in Sweden!

One of the small stations we passed in the morning on the way up to Chiang Mai.

Arriving in Chiang Mai a few hours late (as night trains usually do), we were greeted by our guide for the day, and drove to the hostel we would be staying at for the night, the Trekker Camp. The hostel is comfortable, with big beds, clean toilets, mosquito nets on the windows and powerful fans in the room. The staff are nice, and the wifi just about reached into our room. Only complaint would be that the dining area was the courtyard, which meant insect repellent had to be applied before meals as well. But it is still morning where I have got to in this post, so after having settled in, we went off on a cycling tour of the area. We visited a few temples, ruins of temples, saw the river, visited a farm and visited a historical village (reconstructed traditional houses etc). All the while our guide was telling us about the ancient kingdom of Lanna based in Chiang Mai, Thailand as a whole, the plants, agriculture, culture and generally being quite entertaining.

One of the temples in the Chiang Mai area.

The evening was spent at a cookery school, the Baan Hongnual cookery school. We were hosted by Golf, a very talented and entertaining young chef, who taught us how to make Pad Thai, Masaman Curry, Deep fried Bananas and Tom Yam Soup. Very good fun. For this we were joined by Ai Wen, a Singaporean who had been in the area for the past week on a similar trip to the one we were embarking on, and whom we spent the rest of the day with.

Cooking at the cookery school.

After having cooked and eat, we drove to the Sunday (night) Market in Chiang Mai. Ai Wen gave us a short lesson in bargaining (“start at less than half the price they state, and see where it goes”), and off we went. The market itself is quite large, with stalls neatly arranged in rows along the town walls and along the central street inside town, and it was quite busy with backpackers, tourists and locals. The stalls were varied and diverse, selling everything from shoes, soap and silver to earrings, handwoven and hand embroidered blankets, shirts, belts, souvenirs and art, most of it locally produced. I picked up a few things that I plan to send home as Christmas presents, and a white plain cotton shirt that proved very useful for the next days of trekking.

The historic (reconstructed) city gate in Chiang Mai engulfed by the market.

Next day was the start of the trekking. We met with our guides King and Nouka, and off we drove up into the hills. On the way we passed another market (got myself some cheap sandals. The glue holding them together, it later transpired, was water soluble), and a notable waterfall, where we had a swim in the natural pool below. The roar of the water, and the wind and spray of impact between waterfall and pool were quite something. We had lunch at a roadside salon, and continued up into the hills.

The waterfall we visited on the first day of trekking. The full extent of the water spraying is not visible.

When arriving at the drop-off point that marked the start of our trek, right on cue, it started raining again. This made the muddy path we were following quite slippery, and progress slow. Our endpoint of the trek was a Karen hilltribe village, and the path we were following went via another village, and a spectacular hilltop view. Notable things along the trek was the rain, the leeches, the views (simply spectacular, one of the highlights of the trip) and the good company from our guides.

The view from the top of the hill, looking out over valleys and hills. In the distance is the hill we went up two days later.

Due to the rain, we arrived after dusk in the village, all very wet and muddy. I had avoided getting bitten by leeches on the trip, even though many had tried. (They seemed to think my leather shoes were skin, so tried sucking blood there. The clever ones that went further up could only go along my trousers, as I had tucked in my trousers into my socks.) But when arriving in the village, I took off shoes and socks to let them dry, arranged a few things, and then decided to check for leeches again. Lo and behold, a leech had used the opportunity to get at my ankle, and a small, circular wound had appeared, profusely bleeding. The leech had already fallen off, and I found it lying on the floor looking very satisfied with its feast. I took great pleasure killing it. (Luckily, since the leech had had time to finish, the wound did not hurt at all.)

The kitchen at the house we stayed in. King and Nouka cooking.

The evening was spent playing with sticks and cards, and I also sampled an edible larvae that lives in bamboo. It had a texture and consistency like shrimp, and tasted of bamboo, but was very nicely spiced. I could get used to eating insects. We slept under mosquito nets in a wooden hut, and I awoke quite refreshed the next day. Now is perhaps the time to mention the primitive state of most toilets and showers we encountered on the trek. Nowhere was it an actual hole in the ground, but Thailand in general is a BYO TP country (bring your own toilet paper), most locals simply using the showerhead usually located next to the toilet to rinse. The toilets are almost universally of the squatting type, which takes some getting used to, but isn’t too bad, since they actually flush (often manually, pour a bucket of water into it to activate). Showers are cold water only, but considering the temperature was around 30 degrees during the day, this was not a problem.

The shower.

Day two of the trek was spent trekking out of the village to an elephant camp. Essentially the story is that elephants were previously much used in the timer industry, but Thailand has almost completely stopped felling forests around 20 years ago, so the elephants are unemployed. And since elephants live for 60+ years, and need a lot of food, and are essentially domesticated, the keepers need a revenue source. Enter the tourist, coming and riding about on them. The elephant we rode on was a gentle beast, with very leathery skin and bristling hairs. She (if i remember correctly) was quite reluctant to have to take us for a ride though, mostly due to the veritable obstacle course that the camp had created as a track. (You may be interested to know that elephants actually can bend their knees, and can take surprisingly deep and tall steps.) But it was a nice experience none the less.

I, tourist.

After this, a bamboo raft was awaiting us on the Ping river, just next to the camp. We were due to board the raft and drift/punt downriver, but first we were advised to change into some clothes that we were willing to get wet and possibly brown (from the muddy water). The river was quite still for the first part, allowing us all to practise using the bamboo poles to steer the boat. Forward propulsion was mostly provided by the current, but the pole was needed to steer the raft by pushing against the bottom of the river, sometimes 3 or 4 metres down (thus the long pole). The trip downstream lasted for a few hours, and the lower part of the river had quite a few white water sections, thus the life jackets. The river flows mostly through rainforest and tropical forest, and it was quite a special experience sitting so close to the water, in the middle of the jungle.

Just floating down a river in a jungle.

After disembarking the raft at a small village next to a resort, we had lunch, and then set off in the Land Rover to Fang, where we would stay the night in the Phumanee hotel. The drive there was quite long, made longer by the fact that the back tyre punctured. But luckily the spare tyre that Land Rovers carry is actually a functional tyre, and luckily this happened on the main road close to a petrol station.

Arriving in Fang, we delighted in the creature comforts a hotel provides after two days roughing it. The TV set had about 40 Thai channels, two channels in Mandarin, and a single German channel, but they had wifi. Or rather, they had wifi, but their router was badly configured. (Technical part ahead, skip to the next paragraph if you are not curious). The router had run out of addresses to distribute via DHCP (the addresses were not expiring, seemed to be a bug in DD-WRT), so I had to set up a static IP address for myself, and I also helped the hotel manager with diagnosing the problem. I could probably have fixed it, but unfortunately the passwords for the router and access points were written down incorrectly, so we could not fix it. Instead I described the process of how to configure connecting devices with static IPs to the manager, until he managed to contact the person who originally set up the system.)

Fording a river. Our local guide and Nouka helping King to cross.

The hotel is run by members of the Lahu community, and in the morning the manager gave us a brief introduction to their history, and then we set off in a different 4×4 to the starting point of our trek up Thailand’s second highest peak, upon which the village we were aiming for is perched about halfway. We drove up the hill as far as Doi Pu Muen waterfall, and trekked from there. We had a local guide from the village to help us, and later it transpired he had chosen the difficult route for us. This involved sliding down slopes, crawling up slopes, crossing knee-deep rivers, ducking through fallen trees etc. A very exhausting but fun four hours. The last part before the village was walking through cultivated lands, where we had a well deserved rest.

Amber took this photo, thus she is not on the picture.

In the village, we were accommodated in a bamboo longhouse, and we spent the afternoon picking tea leaves, and trying the traditional method of tea preparation, which then involves essentially stir-frying the tea leaves, massaging them on a bamboo mat, and then repeating the process. The leaves can also be left out to dry beforehand, creating black tea instead of green tea.

Detail of a tea plant. The top three leaves are picked.

During the evening we joined in the traditional Lahu dance. Originally this was only danced at their new year festival, but they dance it more often when visitors arrive. Not sure what I think about that, but it was quite fun trying out the dance. I did not quite follow the footwork, it involved a lot of taps, and left foot followed by left foot again, and turning. All going round a fire. Very confusing, but fun. Later that evening I discovered the long shutter mode on my camera and decided to take a 15 second exposure from the “kitchen” (open fireplace) door out across the valley below.

Look what my camera can do!

Waking up the next day, we had breakfast, and then set off for Chiang Mai again. The trekking/adventure part of our trip was over, and once in Chiang Mai we were free to our own devices. But on the way we visited a cave system, which has at various points of history sheltered many people for many years. Once in Chiang Mai, we camped at the railway station, freshened up, met some other NUS exchange students (quite the coincidence), and waited for the train back to Bangkok. The train back was uneventful. This time it was a proper sleeper train, very comfortable and cosy, I slept well.

A Buddha statue in the cave system. Sorry about the lens flare. This is the Saturday Buddha, when he was attempting to attain enlightenment, and the devil was opposing him by flooding the valley, the Naga (dragon-snakes) rose out of the water and created a chair for him so that he would not be disturbed. Buddhists believe ones personality is dependent on the weekday one is born, This one happens to be my Buddha statue, since I was born on a Saturday.

Waking up, I soon discovered we would be late arriving in Bangkok that morning. The trainline into Bangkok travels at ground level, and seems to obey the same traffic signals as the road it runs beside, so we were waiting for a lot of red lights! Finally at the station, we set about finding a taxi. This turned out to be quite easy, but we paid dearly for the convenience of not having to flag one down ourselves, by agreeing on a fare 7 times the fare it should have been by taximeter. We managed to negotiate the fee down, but this really burned us off hired vehicles of all sorts in Bangkok. Travellers beware, they will scam you. The hostel we were staying at has been awarded several global awards, and I can see why: it was clean, modern, swanky, but also relatively cheap, with an interesting location. We checked in early, and set off into the city to see the sights. We had decided against the Grand Palace complex, since the entrance fee was quite steep, and instead went to the national museum, via riverbus. It was raining again.

The Grand Palace complex seen from the river.

The national museum was good. We spent the afternoon there, but even so didn’t manage to cover all the exhibitions. They had a long exhibition detailing the history of Thailand and a large artefact collection. The final flourish was a new annex they had built that housed the royal funerary wagons. Most of them four metres high and covered in gold detailing, quite the sight.

Detail of a royal funerary wagon.

During the evening we headed to a Bangkok night market. The stalls were not as varied as Chiang Mai, but high quality counterfeits were in good supply (I bought a belt, and was asked which brand for the buckle I wanted. I opted for just a nice plain face. Don’t want to be arrested for possession of counterfeits anywhere.) One of the more disturbing features of this area was people offering us “ping pong shows”. These are, from rumour, sex shows involving ping pong balls. We declined all offers, not something I had included in my plans for Bangkok. The next day we went to Chatuchak market. This is worth including in any trip to Bangkok, simply to marvel at the size of the world (if it is impossible to cover even a single market, let alone a city, what does that say about the world?). It is also quite a nice market, with a very large selection of clothes and art, both industrial and hand-made.

Examining some fans at the market.

At around midday we had enough of the market and went into town. We had spotted large advertisements for the opening of the first H&M in Thailand, and were curious. Sure enough, a long queue had formed outside the shop, to which they were restricting entry so that everyone had enough space to actually shop. The shopping centre in which the H&M was located was indistinguishable from any other shopping centre (although probably bigger than any that exist in Denmark), and prices were shockingly high by the Thai standards we had become used to. But from the top I managed to catch a nice picture that somehow sums up Bangkok: Drab modern architecture, the skytrain, and a temple.

Quintessential Bangkok.

It was now time to head home. Arriving in Changi airport, Singapore, it was quite odd in that it felt like home, after (only) two months here.

PS: Below is included a gallery with all the above pictures and a few more. Previous posts have had the pictures in full (sometimes 16 megapixel) resolution, but this time I have scaled all the pictures to at most 960 pixels wide to save on upload space. I hope you can forgive me.)

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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