Wats, treks, and Burger King!!!
29.01.2010 - 31.01.2010 33 °C
I sometimes wonder how I always manage to end up sitting next to the one person on the bus who suffers from nodding head syndrome, slumps down at an awkward angle, falls asleep, slowly slides closer with every twist and turn, and then ends up resting their head on my shoulder. I don't know if in Thailand it is considered acceptable to use someone else as a human pillow but in England it's thought of as highly inappropriate. In the end, on the 6 hour journey from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai, I had to close my eyes and try to sleep simply to avoid the overwhelming urge to turn round and shove the guy right off his seat and into the aisle beside him.
On arriving in Chiang Mai I was a little lost having not booked a room. I did go online quickly before leaving Sukhothai only to find that all the cheap hostels seems fully booked. As a result I got in the first taxi to offer accomodation for 200 Baht. Turns out it was a terrible place with some of the unfriendliest staff in Thailand. Upon arrival they asked how long I wanted to stay and when told that it would be a few days they wanted to know if I would be booking any treks with them. When I said that it was unlikely they promptly informed me, with a sneer, that my room might only be available for the one night and that I would have to keep coming down first thing every morning to find out if another night was possible, due to the fact that most of the rooms were reserved for guests wanting trips and treks.
I have to admit that my first impression of Chiang Mai was not a good one. Lonely Planet described the town as "a national treasure...a cool place to kick back and soak up some Thai-ness" and yet within twenty minutes of leaving my hostel I managed to pass a Burger King, a McDonalds, a Starbucks, around 7 internet cafes, 10 bars, 15 tourist shops and over a dozen thai "massage" parlours. In addition to this it then took me around ten minutes to cross the main ring road into the old city, a road which would even put the M25 at rush hour to shame. Every bar I passed was overflowing with western faces, as was every road, shop and restaurant. Not really the "Thai-ness I was expecting".
Having already made a bad first impression I decided to get something to eat at a fairly local place and then walked around town to see what more there was to offer. Chaing Mai does have more than its fair share of Wats (temples), 300 hundred I believe, but after the first dozen or so they all begin to look alike. It's also a slight let down when enetering the serenity of a Buddhist Temptle to later walk out and find out it's sharing car parking space with Buger King!
On my first night here I did manage to find a Wat open late at night with a chanting ceremony in progress. I later found out from a taxi driver that due to the full moon the rituals and chanting intensify. I was glad that not many other tourists were around and decided to take a seat to watch. The lack of other foreigners finally gave me some of the "Thai-ness" I'd been looking for.
On my second day in Chiang Mai, thanks to my grumpy hostel owner grudgingly allowing me to stay another night, I went to the Tiger Kingdom. Not normally one to go for such touristic attractions, especially ones which involve animals being kept in captivity, I figured that it may not be long before these amazing animals only exist in captivity. To have to chance to get up close to these animals was possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity which I would have regretted had I not taken.
I'm ashamed to say that Chiang Mai did begin to grow on me with all its western friendly places and Lonely Planet reading tourists. That is until the evening when attempting to find a good place to eat, one which wasn't full of westerners. Finding it extremely hard I carried on walking, getting called in to every bar by pretty young scantily clad Thai girls acting as a lure for all the perverted old men who couldn't get a woman any other way, even if they tried. One called out quite loudly and as I shook my head she subtly pointed behind me. I turned to find four creepy looking men, stuck firmly in mid life crisis, rubbing their hands with glee and muttering a collective "Phwah" as they approached. The girl turned to me and smiled as the four men passed her and entered the bar. In addition to this the constant call of "Massage, massage?" begins to wear thin after a little while.
As it turns out, my dislike of the main street worked to my advantage. Wanting to get away from the tourism side of Chiang Mai I continued walking for over half an hour through side streets and alleys, with no real clue as to where I was heading. Around 20 minutes after seeing my last western face I stumble upon a small hole-in-the-wall of a place, looking more like a dilapidated old garage with a kitchen in the corner than a restaurant. I enter and a man comes over to me sheepishly with a menu, looking fairly apologetic. I wonder why until I see that the menu has no english on it at all and no pictures. I look up and down the page and point to one thing at random. He nods in agreement and waits for something more, however not knowing what I've ordered I can hardly go on to order something to go with it. Speaking no english the man laughs and turns the menu over pointing at something else and nods frantically. I shrug my shoulders not knowing what it is but nod as well. The meal that finally comes out has to be the best I've had in Thailand so far, and possibly for a long time before that too. Looking like a simple vegetable and pork stir-fry with vegetable fried rice and a couple of little extra side dishes, the flavours were something else. The entire time I was there I never saw one other foreign face walk past, or for that matter for most of the walk back to town. For less than 50 Baht I believe I may have been the first tourist to venture into this amazing little place and was all the more happy for it.
I also managed to find a great way to save money whilst travelling. When getting into a public taxi to the Tiger Kindom I began to haggle with the driver over the price. He laughed and said I was the first Englishman to haggle so well in a long time. Due to my cheek he gave me an offer and said that if I sat in the front with him and helped him with his English (which amazingly he was studying by himself) he would not only half the price of my fare but also wait for me at the Tiger Kingdom and drive me back home when I was done. He was a very happy man who laughed extremely loudly and by the time he dropped me back into town he was so friendly that he offered for me to come back to his house for dinner the following evening and meet his family. I was a little sad that I was leaving the following day as this was a taste of authentic Thailand I would love to have seen. Having said that I still found a great way to find cheap transport and will certainly be offering my English skills to taxi drivers in the future.
Bus to Chiang Mai - 218 Baht
Room (although not recommended) - 200 Baht
Return taxi to Tiger Kingdom (English lessons included) - 100 Baht
Time in with tigers (depending on age group) - 350 to 500 Baht