Sunday, 7 September 2014

N 18.47.39 E 98.59.32 Thailand: Trains, elephants and quirky temples in the north (1100 km from Grimshaw)

We were in Thailand for almost a week from 20 to 26 August. We spent a day and a bit in Bangkok before taking the night train to Chiang Mai and then on through Chiang Rai to the border with Laos.  No worries, we will be back for a second stay in another few weeks. Our trusty Calypso is on her way back to Kathmandu to pick up another group and we will be taking an assortment of local transport from here on.
Kolkta airport around midnight.

First impressions: Thailand is much more economically stable than what we have been seeing on our travels through central Asia and India.  Infrastructure is comparable to first world countries.  Buildings are finished and well maintained.  No garbage on the streets, an abundance of garbage bins actually.  No chickens, goats or cows roaming the streets.  Nobody sleeping on the streets.  We saw large equipment being used to build roads or other structures, rather than it being done by hand.  The bathrooms were spotless. Everywhere there was attention to taking care of things.  The other huge difference was the quantity of western tourists (and the resources to deal with them, be it hotels, shops or restaurants).  In a way it was sad to be just one of the crowd, but it was also lovely to have some of those luxuries we had missed over the last few months. The weather is hot and humid with monsoon rains every day (but not all day)

What I will remember:
1. Spending time in Bangkok learning a new notebook computer and exploring the streets of the old city. The crazy t shirts and other art directed at the young travellers.  Shopkeepers not as pushy as we have seen, but beware of scams. Planning what we are going to do when we are back.  Hint:  the Bridge on the River Kwai is just outside of Bangkok.
River boats all dressed up

If a tree is in the way, build the wall around it.

some of the beautiful flowers

On the roof of temples you find graceful peacock shapes

The logo behind reception at our hotel
(I feel a quilt coming on)

Khaosan road where all the cool people hang out.
And shop.
And eat.

2. The overnight train to Chiang Mai with Thai hospitality (one of the staff was responsible for making up and taking down our beds and woe betide any of us who tried to do it ourselves!) Our car’s steward, Sammy, complete with perfectly applied makeup and coordinating black pumps and a lovely perfume.  My first introduction to a ladyboy; he was friendly, very helpful and over the top entertaining.

Special treatment at the train station :)

Sammy, delighted to pose for a photo.
Dinner for Steve started with a tablecloth carefully placed.

3. Chiang Mai “our” way.  A full day hike in the hills that took us on a steep scramble up to a ridge through the jungle, then lunch and a more gradual hike down the other side through a Hmong and a Karen village.  Our guide, Tri, was (as we have come to expect), knowledgeable about everything from the plants and animals to the people as well as Thai politics. On the way back to town, we took us through a local market to show us the fruits and vegetables and meats that local people would be eating, including pink duck eggs (that are a dark brown inside) which are very tasty in salads fried with coriander.  He made a point of complimenting us on our fitness level – the hike up was pretty steep and there was a lot of scrambling for which I was glad I had my hiking poles, but it wasn’t unmanageable.  His words were that people in Thailand are attached to their cars and nobody over 50 would consider doing what we did.
Temple of Buddha's four feet where we started our hike

Fluffy mushrooms.  OK to eat, but a little old and tasteless.

This tree would have had a bee hive at the top.
  Farmers would climb up these pegs to get the honey.

Bamboo shoots.
  The one on the right is taller than my waist and about two weeks old.
All the shoots in an area will be clones of each other.

Very pretty, but poisonous.
Tri explained that lowland Thai were very adventurous and knew dozens of mushrooms to eat.  Coloured ones always were bad.  Others, you would try IF they were similar to something you knew was ok.  First you would cook it with rice and if the rice changed colour, it wasn't safe to eat.  Apparently, hill tribes are not as curious and only eat one or two types.

Tri showing us a nut that is very c\tasty, like a chestnut

Typical terrain on our walk.  Coming down to a fantastic waterfall.

It takes real skill to capture a butterfly

At the market.  These fish were still very much alive

Pink duck eggs.  Took a bit of courage to get past the colour, but they did taste just like egg.

4. Elephant Nature Park which was mentioned in Lonely Planet, but it was the photos of Dave and Alicia that convinced us to go there rather than to one of the many other elephant adventures available. A sanctuary for injured and domesticated elephants.  The day was an eye opener, but also fun as we fed, washed and just watched the antics of the elephants with their families. Also on the park was a separate dog sanctuary, started following the Bangkok floods a couple of years ago – abandoned dogs or the street dogs had no place to live as people were hurrying to evacuate the city.  All dogs are spayed or neutered and given vaccines, which made me think that my stats about the percentage of dogs with rabies in Bankok might need updating.

Lunch.  Vegetarian.  Delicious.

"Our elephant" Thaicoon, the newest member of the group.  She was injured by a landmine while working in logging in Burma.  Her name used to be "one" but she was renamed in honour of the company who sponsored her - it means "flower".  Our guide said she was very happy to get rid of the old name which had too many bad memories.

Her foot is healing, but she lost all but one toe on this foot

Her mahout, who is with her all the daylight hours. At night the elephants are enclosed so they don't go wandering off and damage neighbouring fields.  Good PR.

Mum trying to show baby what he us supposed to do for the mahout (climb up on the log)

Retail therapy.  The elephant, Hope, is hand carved.  The card is handmade paper by a local artist.

5. Checking out Thai Buddhist temples. Similarities and differences with Tibet/Nepal that we have been seeing.  Dragons are very much more “dragon-like” with flowing flamelike appendages.  The scales and other designs on the bodies are just waiting to be turned into quilting designs.
Dragons guard the temple steps

This temple had elephants parading around the roof.
 It was the oldest in Chiang Mai and built by the city's founder just a year after arriving.
Elephants are integral to the Thai identity.

This dragon looks more like a puppy, or perhaps the snow lions of Tibet.

Hand glazed tiles.
Quilting inspiration

Thai temples use beeswax not yak butter for candles

Great marketing ploy.
Make your donation into the bowl that is the day of he week you were born 

Yes, this roof is covered in leaves.
 Traditional.  We saw the living ones on our trek.
The roof will need replacing every two or three years

The gang (Jordan, Jason, Mel, Steve and Mark) donning appropriate attire for visiting the temple

Beautifully weathered old style dragon

Thailand has bells rather than prayer wheels

a temple pigeon taking advantage of a missing elephant

Earliest Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai.
A little worn but still beautiful

Or you can make your donation according to hour birth year.
This magnificent rooster looks just like the real ones.

Sleeping Buddah.

The insides of a guardian dragon

Brand new state of the art Singer treadle machine.

6.  The Blue Diamond restaurant near our hotel in Chiang Mai.  Real coffee, real breakfast food, really good other food too.

7. The White Temple in Chiang Rai for its over the top quirkiness.  Think Disney and Vegas with a bit of Star Wars meeting Buddah. The builder/architect is actually an internationally known artist who also displays his works in a gallery nearby.

8. Our last night in Thailand overlooking the Mekong River.
Dragon boats practicing on the Mekong while we had dinner

Yes, that's Laos over there

And there is Laos from our balcony at night

Leaving Thailand and entering Laos was complicated but by comparison to the crossings in Central Asia it was a breeze.  Mini van(s) took us from our hotel on the west side of the Mekong River to the border crossing.  Passports stamped, luggage not even looked at.  Get on the bus which is provided by the border people to take you across the river to the Laos customs building.  Complete Lao application for visa and pay fee (Canada was the highest, not sure what we have done to earn that honour) then wait patiently.  Get picked up with a second set of mini vans and head to the other side of the Mekong river where our slow boat to Luang Probang is waiting for us. Maybe took an hour all together, mostly travel time.

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