I’m writing this sat on a slow boat, floating down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. Theres jungle either side of me and the thick orange brown water that we sit on, meanders round rocks and sand banks, making the driver’s life pretty tough. It’s our second day on here and we’ve got another 8-9 hours journey ahead of us. Anyway, let’s take you back in time to Andy’s last post – leaving Bangkok for Chiang Mai (north Thailand).
Even though we had paid over the odds for the night bus, it turned out to be one of the nicest 9 hours I’ve ever spent on a bus would you believe it? I’ve done enough now to know! Air con, toilet, free food and drink, no next door neighbour wanking plus the strangest Thai comedy on TV. It was a live show with people on stage, skin blacked up with what looked like Marmite and rasta wigs on saying ‘ya mun’ to each other. WTF!? In another scene, a manly lady boy was having his arse slapped by a creepy looking man while the crowd roared with laughter. Their TV was even crazier than the Chinese!
We arrived in Chiang Mai around 6am and were dropped off somewhere in town with no clue where we were or how to get to our hostel. Luckily, and this time I was pleased to see one, a tuk tuk man rolled up next to us – “hello sir, you want tuk tuk?” – brilliant, yes we did you fine lil Thai fellow! Just 10 mins later we got to our hostel and stood outside the gates. The owner – Roger, a Swiss guy who went traveling through Asia 15 years ago and never left – and his Thai wife must have heard the Tuk Tuk arrive and so welcomed us in.
We trawled through the tons of day trip brochures our hostel offered as Chiang Mai seemed to be an adventure hub – trekking through jungle, Thai kick boxing, waterfall swimming, cookery classes, petting giant tigers, white water rafting, cockerel fighting and elephant riding to name but a few. What on earth were we going to choose, there was so much to do here! One of the biggest worries I had in my head was the harsh mistreatment of the elephants. I had read that in some places, they were basically beaten, undernourished slaves for the rich tourists to ride all day long in the heat of the sun. Some reviews even spoke of the keeper (known here as a Mahout) hitting the skull of their elephant till it bled with a sharp ended club to get them to walk. So, after much debate, we booked a full day cooking course and settled on a full day adventure that included some of the above (including a reputable elephant farm). The one activity I wasn’t going to encourage by buying into though was visiting the tigers here, where you can literally pose laying on them, with your head in its mouth if you wanted and cuddle cubs like puppies. Apparently you are told on arrival that they are so chilled out due to their clever close upbringing with humans…. yea right! Come on people, look at them! They are drugged! They are lounging around looking like stoned teenagers listening to Nirvana! It’s just so sad that they spend their lives chained up, living in a haze with sweaty tourists laying on them like some old Raj floor rug. I hear you sigh, ‘oh Emma it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity’, but I had to follow my head with this one, not my heart.
So, back to Chiang Mai, we ventured out for the rest of the day to explore the city and soon realised how nice and chilled out it was. The road we were staying on was full of art shops selling paintings and sculptures, the next road along offered posh spas and riverside restaurants, and in the centre of town was a day and night market selling local crafts and clothing. All around was the sound of bells from the roofs of the Buddhist Wats and I felt a sigh of relief as I soon realised it was a world away from the dirty hell hole of Bangkok. I was happy again. We ate that night with the locals for around £4 in an open-top street restaurant and the food blew mine and Andy’s minds.
The next day, with our swimming gear on under our clothes, suffocating with suncream, and a rucksack packed and ready, we were picked up by an open back van filled with Canadians, Germans and Spaniards. We hopped on for the hour drive to an orchid farm, where we got to walk through the different species hanging in tubs, suspended from the ceiling. Orchids are lovely, don’t get me wrong, but after 15 mins we were ready to leave. The next stop was to visit a couple of different tribes living in villages dotted around the hillside. We saw the stretched ear women, a group that wore elaborate hats and another called the Karen people/stretched neck women – the ones that have the gold rings around their necks. We felt slightly uncomfortable as it was a bit like a circus walking around their houses. Tourists were just walking straight up to the confused looking, half naked children, snapping away without asking the kids parent’s permission first or offering any sort of donation after. All the women were dressed up in heavy looking traditional silk and cotton, with red stained lips and cheeks (my tour guide tells me a berry from a local tree is to thank for this), they were so beautiful. I had my photo taken with one of the Karen ladies using her fake set of neck bands made especially for the tourists to hold up. If you check the picture out below, you’ll see how beautiful she is… and how white and clumsy I look! Andy says a long neck doesn’t suit me 🙂
After the tribe visit, the next stop was the elephant farm. When we arrived, I could see people walking towards us smiling and laughing, looking through photos on their cameras. Had they just got off our elephants? We turned a corner and was hastily ushered up onto some bamboo scaffolding straight onto the back of the biggest elephant of the pack. Bloody hell the height of this creature was astounding, especially when you add on the height of the make shift bench strapped to his back too. I was flapping like a right pansy and yelped when suddenly a trunk of another smaller elephant behind us grabbed my wrist. It was like the scene from Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom 🙂 To get seated, you tread all over the elephants sparsely hairy neck to sit down on the seat, I kept saying ‘oh sorry, oh sorry’ to him as I felt bad, but this elephant has been doing this for years and we were probably his 6th ride of the day and it was only 11am. After the others from our tour had boarded their elephants, we were off – after a swift loud CRACK on the top of the elephants skull with the Mahout’s infamous hooked hammer. I covered my face. Damn it! Looks like wherever you go to ride these gentle giants, they use these awful contraptions. I’m now trapped for an hour and hoped I wouldn’t hear the sound again. We wandered slowly down to the river where the elephants drank for a bit but were not allowed to cool their hot skin by spraying it for fear of damaging a tourists camera. Every time they tried, the Mahout shouted or stabbed the inside of their ears with the pointed club thingy. We then climbed an extremely tall hill while Andy and I gripped onto the sides of the bench as we were sliding all over the place. It was so funny and bizarre to think we were on the back of a massive Dumbo! But every time the elephant tried to stop for a breather or eat a blade of grass, the Mahout cracked him on the head again. We naturally recoiled with gasps or ‘ouch’ and the Mahout turned round to us and said ‘you no buy banana to feed elephant, he stop’. Great, so it was our fault now he was totally knackered for the day? Whaaaat?! After an hour, I was pleased to get off as my arse was flat and I no longer wanted to hear that CRACK again. As soon as we got off, along came another 14 tourists looking excited to ride these beautiful animals. I wondered how many trips a day they had to do. If it was one an hour and the park opened from 9am till 6pm, you do the maths.
We sat and had lunch in a bamboo hut, eating the freshest pineapple I’d ever tasted (back at home I can’t stand the stuff!). We were then back on the van, hurtling towards thick jungle on the side of a mountain. We then started our ascent into the green, working our way towards an ice cool waterfall at the end, which took around an hour to get there. We walked past tons of lychee trees (with happy wasps and ants eating the spoils), climbed over fallen trees and hoped across rocky stepping stones on the river. To strip off and jump into the cold pool of the waterfall was heaven. I was bright purple and 15 mins in the water brought me to a lighter shade of pink. After 45 mins, we were off, back the way we came. Dripping wet and now hot again after the trek in 35 degree heat, we were led down to the river, put on a helmet and stinky BO smelling life jackets each, and climbed into a yellow boat for 2 hours of white water rafting. It was so much fun! We crashed and smashed over rapids, got stuck a few times on a rock but never once came off our boat. What pros! After tackling the fast, wild part of the river, it now opened up and became smooth and calm. We took off our gear (thank god as it f’ing stank!) and stepped off the boat onto bamboo rafts, pushed along by a lovely old dude. This guy for some reason took a liking to my tattoos on my feet and kept touching them, smiling. Ha ha I pulled an old man on a bamboo raft in the middle of a Thai jungle. How romantic! It’s nice to know I’ve still got it! 🙂
We slept so well that night, arms tired from the rowing, legs sore from the climb and minds a-buzz from all the fun we’d had. I love Chiang Mai!
…to be continued in next post.