Thursday, March 1, 2012

4 days in northern Thailand

From Bangkok our itinerary took us to the north of Thailand, where we spent 4 days in the city of Chiang Mai and its surroundings. We managed to pack our days with a lot of activities, stay busy and make the best of our time. To quote Anne: "We did well for ourselves." To quote myself: "We deserved it." These are inside jokes of "Anne and Monica around the world" and we don't expect you to find them funny. We may explain them later to you, in person, over a beer.

We took the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and it was a really nice experience. I was used to dodgy trains in Romania and never trusted being in a dodgy overnight train, but the ones in Thailand exceeded my expectations. The train was super clean, safe, the beds had fresh, clean linen, blankets and you even had food service straight to your berth.

 How a sleeper train looks like in Thailand.

Our cabin mates were two cool girls from England and we really enjoyed hanging out with them. We caved in and bought 4 overpriced bottles of beer from the pushing saleswoman on the train.

Anne and I got the lower berths.

Chiang Mai is full of Buddhist temples, it feels like there's one on every street. We walked around the city, saw a few temples and took a few photos of things of interest around them, not much of the temples themselves. A lot of young Thai boys become monks for a year or more. When they become monks, they shave their heads and wear an orange robe. They sleep, live and get educated at the temple, in quarters adjacent to the temple they belong to. They can't work and are supposedly not allowed to buy things with money. So every day at 5 am in the morning, people in the city go out with food (mostly rice) and offer it to the monks. It's called "paying merit." I made the mistake to refer to it as "feeding the monks" in front of a Thai lady and she was very offended. She explained to me that "feeding" is a word used for children and animals, but monks are superior beings, so we can't use such a petty word when we refer to them.

A field of tulips and a golden buddha outside one of the temples in Chiang Mai. 

One day we rented a motorbike and drove up about 40 km outside Chiang Mai to a farm/restaurant called Mon Cham, located at the top of a mountain. It was a beautiful ride on windy mountain roads and we even saw an elephant on the side of the road.

Motorbike babes.

The road to Mon Cham.

We made it to the top of the mountain!

Mon Cham is a Royal Project property in the village of Nonghoi, north of Chiang Mai. Situated on top of a ridge, Mon Cham used to be a opium field. Since the growth of opium poppy has been officially banned, the villagers have been trained to grow other crops that would do well in this climate, such as broccoli or cabbage. I bet the villagers are stoked about the money they make out of selling cabbage... Mon Cham has a restaurant with food coming from their gardens and also offers a few camping spots. It's about 45 km north of Chiang Mai, and relatively hard to find, since the locals don't seem to know directions how to get there. Once we found it, it seemed super easy.
On the way back from Mon Cham we stopped at Tiger Kingdom and went into the cages to pet the tigers. Anne has a detailed blog post and tons of great photos of hanging with the tigers: Tiger Kingdom and the Elephant Sanctuary.

Playful big cats in the cage. The one at the bottom is a female and the one on top is a male. All this happened with tourists inside the cage.

The resident lion at Tiger Kingdom. This was the first time in my life I've seen a tiger this close... and my heart was beating really fast with awe and amazement. I stared at him, and he stared back, straight in the eye. It was a bold, piercing stare. Then, he snapped and jumped at me. The fence between us protected me from being mauled, but I still felt my blood freeze and my entire body tremble with fear. Then the lion started roaring, which was also something I'd never heard before. It sounded like a dog barking, but much, much louder, and somehow heartbreaking.

The next day we went to an elephant sanctuary located in the jungle a few hours north of Chiang Mai. We rode in the back of a pickup truck that was equipped with two benches on the sides. This is the road we took.

This is the first sight we saw when we arrived at the elephant sanctuary. The elephants were waiting for us to arrive, knowing we would feed them lots of bananas. Apparently, they roam around free at night on the property, and come back by themselves willingly at 9am, as they know they will be fed bananas by tourists.

On the way to the elephant sanctuary.

The forest where the elephants live.

 The house where elephant caretakers (mahouts) hang out and live.

Elephant caretaker peeling bananas for the baby elephant. Adult elephants can eat bananas with peel (in fact, they gulp down an entire bunch of bananas if they manage to grab it from you with their trunk.) However, baby elephants can only eat peeled bananas. How cute, right?

Anne feeding banana pieces to the baby elephant. He was so adorable!

Look at that cute smiling face. He is so happy! Contact with animals can give such an endorphin high. I hugged this little guy as much as I could and I would've kissed him too, had his skin not been spiky from the harsh hair.

Our guide is teaching each of us the basic commands of riding an elephant: how to kneel, how to stand up, going forward and backward (yeah, believe it or not, elephants have reverse!) and so on. Each of us got on an elephant and rehearsed the commands until the elephant seemed to listen to us.

Anne and I were lucky to get our own elephants. Whether the guides took a special preference to us, or for some other reason, we were told that there are extra elephants, so we each got to ride our own elephant. Normally, two people have to split one elephant. This was really nice, as it allowed both Anne and I to feel how it's like being a real mahout.

Before going on the ride, I wrote the command words on the back of my hand, in case I forgot them. The words were very similar and I wanted to make sure I don't forget how to say the right command at the right time. It is best to ride the elephant closest to its ears, nudging your legs in the space behind its ears. It provides most stability for the rider and most comfort for the elephant. However, my elephant was still very young and I felt like sliding forward if I was too close to its head. So I sat more backwards. At times, especially when he was going downhill on a steep slope, it was quite hard to keep my balance and often I felt like I was close to sliding off the thing.

Me and Ratong, my elephant for the day.

The food they offered us for lunch was delicious: chicken fried noodles wrapped in banana leaves.

One of the many night markets in Chiang Mai, this one specialized in food. It was all super delicious and clean. I ate there a few times and absolutely loved it. For about 30 baht (1 USD), I had a superb red curry that could rival any pricey curry in a San Francisco restaurant. We'll definitely work on an article about the amazing food we've had in Thailand, once we find the time to do it.

The old town has a perfect square shape and is surrounded by a moat. It also used to have a defense wall, but only small parts of it remain standing today. Alongside one of the sides of the moat there is a food market every night, where vendors bring out their cooking stands, equipped with gas tanks and full on stoves. Most of the carts are on wheels and they could be hooked up to a motorbike at the end of the night to be transported home. The vendors also bring plastic tables and stools, and a whole street turns into a vibrant outdoors eating area. This place was probably one of my favorite things about Chiang Mai.

It was Valentine's Day, so Anne and I treated ourselves with two slices of watermelon from a street vendor. The red of the watermelon went really well with the theme on the streets: red roses, stuffed animals holding red hearts and other V Day crap that is just as prevalent in Thailand as it is in our Western world.

Then we went to an outdoor craft market, a sort of Mecca of traditional Hmong fabrics and embroidery. I'll talk more about the Hmong tribe in future blog posts about our visit to the ethnology museum in Hanoi and a homestay we did in a Hmong village in northern Vietnam, but for now I'll say a few introductory words. The Hmong are the largest ethnic group spread across northern Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. They live in villages in the hills and lead a very simple life, with subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and rice cultivation. They've long been persecuted, but are now found to be a main point of interest for tourists, who recognize the value of their intricate weaving and sophisticated embroidery. And so, Hmong fabrics and other paraphernalia (cow bells, jewelry, baby hats and wrappers, traditional attire and bags) are now hot items in markets or in antique stores.

Cute little zipper pouches made from Hmong hand-embroidered fabric. Anne and I bought a lot of these to give as presents to our friends and family. They are all one of a kind.

Still on Valentine's day (after we got ourselves some crappy hour long foot massages), we went to the hippest bar in town, called The Riverside. Earlier on we met a nice gentleman from Switzerland who'd lived in Chiang Mai for about 18 years, and we ended up spending most of the night with him, getting a lot of South East Asia travel tips and recommendations from him. We walked together to the Riverside, which was packed with the coolest Thai cats. The band that was playing live covered famous indie songs and the lead singer had a great voice. We really loved this place.

One of the following days Anne and I split for the day: she rented a motorbike and rode around Chiang Mai, while I took a cooking class. I dedicated a separate blog post to the cooking class experience, with details on the dishes I made and the recipes.

Nothing but a dreamy smile while pounding on that green papaya salad.

We spent our last night in Chiang Mai having dinner with the family that hosted us in their guesthouse, O-boon. They graciously invited us to join them and their relatives for dinner and we loved the opportunity to experience real life in a Thai family. Apparently, at a Thai dinner you need to serve more dishes than people sitting at the table. All dishes are served at the same time and each person gets their own plate full of rice. You then sample from the other communal dishes and add them on top of your personal rice plate. In South East Asia rice is in general the counterpart of bread in Western culture. It comes with every dish, and is used as a filler or a way to balance the spicy dishes.

Both Anne and I fell in love with Chiang Mai and wished we had more time there. We both agreed that we must come back there again one day. There are lots of volunteering and English-teaching options in Chiang Mai, and the city is very livable. It's also Thailand's second largest city, with lots of colleges, medical schools and excellent hospitals. The only downside to living in Chiang Mai for a long period of time is the pollution. During the time of the year that we were there (February), the locals perform slash-and-burn agriculture, which generates huge amounts of smoke. The entire area is covered with a thick layer of grey smog and as soon as you get there, you might experience problems breathing, coughing or a sore throat. Many locals ride their motorbikes wearing masks over their mouths and noses.