Back to Thailand and time to take it easy as we follow the well trodden tourist path across the northern region, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to entertain us, with visas to be obtained and a running group to meet, did we go all dreamy over temples or was it all just hot air… 314 days in.
Leaving Laos was thankfully much simpler than arriving, having spent every single remaining Lao Kip we had on breakfast (not even enough for a cup of coffee) we boarded our Songthaew – a pickup truck used as a tuk tuk, and headed for friendship bridge number four: the Thai border. We had purchased a ticket all the way through to Chiang Rai, often it’s cheaper to do it yourself; however, for the ease of knowing someone will be there to meet us as we exited immigration and jumping straight on a minivan it was worth the extra cost; no haggling with lousy moto drivers for us!
After travelling for nearly 10 months we have learned what is important to us and sometimes worth spending a little extra on, top of the list is a private room, dorms were fine at the start of this trip but now we prefer the luxury of being able to choose when to turn off the light! Next choice, perhaps a sign of us being a little older than your average gap year taker, is a bed with a proper mattress and comfortable looking pillows, waking up grumpy after a poor nights sleep is never a good way to start the day. This next one depends on the average temperarures of where we are, but hot water is a wonderful luxury, I’m sure Glenn will attest to this from travelling with us in Nepal, there’s a limit to how many days you can bear a cold shower, no matter how good it is for the organism! Finally our list concludes with an occasional trip to a tourist restaurant for fruit, yoghurt and muesli for breakfast, with a proper coffee for Mike and a decent internet connection every so often to upload our blog posts. It may not seem like much to a fair few of our readers but that’s all for us, however, I do realise that even on our relatively modest budget how fortunate we are to be able to afford this list.
Arriving in Chiang Rai we had no fixed plans for our stay in Thailand, we had one item on our ‘to do’ list: get a visa for Myanmar. The town of Chiang Rai made for a pleasant change from Laos and was my favourite place from this stay in Thailand, it felt relaxed, with not too much traffic on the streets and just the right mix of locals and tourists. Being back in Thailand again it was time to continue with our Wat count and visit some temples, our favourite by far was Wat Rong Khun, the white temple. Although it has all the trappings of a big tourist attraction; tour buses and people everywhere, endless stalls selling tat most would never buy if they weren’t on holiday and loud Chinese tour groups, it is however, a beautifully designed temple and unlike any other we’ve seen so far.
An all white vision, with ornately carved Buddhas and extravagant finials, it felt more like an artist’s exhibition than a temple. The murals inside the main sanctuary, which at other temples we’ve visited depict the life of Buddha, felt like you were reading a giant comic book of a heaven versus hell depiction with modern day superheros and villains, oh, and Angry Birds, surreal! Having hired a scooter for the day, we did our own version of the typical tourist tour taking in the main sights, another favourite from the day was the nine tiered pagoda. The pagoda itself is now dwarfed by the massive white Buddha being built next to it but driving along the winding roads to get there, it was one of those ‘wow look at that’ moments as we rounded a corner and the giant Buddha appeared perched amongst the rolling hillsides.
Having spotted lots of signs around town for an international balloon fiesta we decided to stay an extra day and pop along, we do like a festival after all! Just as we were about to give up hope of finding the advertised shuttle bus to take us there, we spotted a sign being errected that marked the pick-up point and jumped on board a songthaew. We were on our way just in time for sunset, perfect we thought, unfortunately it appeared that the rest of Chaing Rai had the same idea and by the time we arrived it was dark and we couldn’t see any hot air balloons, ah man! I had also seen online that there were bands playing in the evening, so we got some dinner from myriad food stalls and had a wander around, spotting baskets coming in on the back of pick-up trucks, we may not have missed the balloons after all I thought. Sure enough they all returned, inflated their balloons and lit up the night sky with their roaring burners, perfect, you wouldn’t be able to do this on a cold February Valentine’s Day back home! Apparently the climate here makes for great ballooning conditions, or so we were told by the British balloon crew.
Another day and another arrival at a bus station kilometres outside the town. At a mere 3 km into Chiang Mai, this time it was a walkable distance although the final few hundred metres felt much longer as we trudged from guesthouse to guesthouse trying to find one with a room left for a reasonable price. Room located, the next morning it was time to make progress on the singular item on the to-do list and apply for our Myanmar visa. This was only our second visa application at an embassy in person on our trip, the rest have been either an e-visa or visa on arrival. Once again it was the standard set of questions and fairly straight forward, except for requiring a copy of our flight ticket to show entry into the country, hmm don’t think we’re thinking of catching a bus in a week or so time would cut it here! One quick trip to the bus company office later and a plan for the rest of our stay in Thailand was formulated, the visa would take four days to be processed so tickets were purchased for the fifth day, easy.
Often early in the mornings while I’m still asleep or doing such important things as reading the news or perusing Facebook, Mike of course spends his time productively, either fervently blogging or looking up running events and clubs in the countries and cities upcoming on the trip. It was thus how he discovered that Chiang Mai have a running club, Chiang Mai Hash House Harriers, so off we went at 3 pm with the midday sun still bearing down for a run (or fast walk in my case) in the jungle! This was our first experience with a hash group, their runs are a bit like orienteering with the faster runners working out the exact route by following the clues laid by the course setter. Hash groups exist all over the world, there’s even one back home in Didcot, they’re sociable groups and will often describe themselves as drinkers with a running problem. It was a fun afternoon and a great introduction into hashing, we returned back to our guesthouse that evening in good spirits and with wet bums from being iced!
The north of Thailand is famous for hill tribes and trekking and whilst in Chiang Rai we popped into the hilltribe museum. It was a rarity of being an interesting museum and with really well written signs in English, no dodgy Chinglish going on here! The scientists in us found the information on Opium production interesting (we are currently jobless!) and as a whole the museum had for us, just the right level of information on the hill tribes, building on what we had learned in Cambodia and Laos. Previously we had wanted to go visit a Pandung village, where the women elongate their necks with metal rings, but the museum reminded us of the ethics of such visits as the local people are often exploited to make money from tourists, perhaps we’ll just stick to waterfalls and temples for the time being.
Whilst we waited for our visas we headed off to Pai, previously a good base for trekking and visiting local villages, it’s now more of a tourist centre catering to every need of the Western or Asian traveller. We had heard mixed reviews from other travellers about Pai and not having the time or inclination to trek or visit local tribes, it was a quieter few days away from the busy city of Chiang Mai. Perched up in the hills, in reminded us of being back in Laos as we rounded corner after corner on the drive there, same same but different as they say, as this time we had a comfortable minivan with air conditioning, the joys of transport in Thailand! The highlight of our stay was a walk out to a waterfall, a seven hour round trip, the waterfall itself wasn’t spectacular but it was the walk there and back that made it so enjoyable. We were able to complete the walk by ourselves, no guide required, in fact no map either just following the occasional sign and the stream as it wound it’s way through the forest. There may not have been much wildlife to see but it was peaceful, quiet and litter free. The waterfall was a cool and refreshing respite before embarking on the return leg and continuing to wade through, hop and leap across the stream once again, by the end of the walk we probably crossed the stream close to 60 times but this just added to the fun.
While I’m on the subject of water, one of our favourite things about Thailand from our previous stay in Bangkok was drinking water machines. We may not be able to drink the tap water and on this whole trip we’ve only be able to drink straight from the tap in Japan and Singapore; however, in Thailand we can refill a 1.5 L bottle for 1 baht (2 pence), why don’t other more affluent countries we’ve visited so far like Malaysia and Vietnam have this? Although wandering around Chiang Mai and Pai struggling to find one, the novelty soon wore thin.
Heading back to Chiang Mai, we collected our passports, complete with a new shiny visa and the next morning boarded a bus for the border town of Mae Sot. So long again Thailand, it’s been a fun and easy week, perhaps a little too easy and I for one was looking forward to Myanmar and the challenges that perhaps lay ahead in a country with a burgeoning tourist industry.