14.05.2012 - 22.05.2012 100 °F
Biggest difference between Thailand this time and Thailand last time: the crowd. When we came in 2010 with Melanie we were in a sea of true “backpackers.” Besides physically carrying a big REI style backpack I would describe the outward appearance of a "backpacker" as someone between 25 and 35 years old, long hair/un shaven, dirty-ish, deeply tanned, wearing clothes purchased from street vendors in other developing countries, natural, quiet, curious and “chill.” As Swhite talked about in the last post, we started our trip on the islands in the south, in places we had already been and the crowd was totally and unexpectedly, different. This time around most of the people we met were between 18 and 24, clean, made up, dressed up, sunburnt, louder, less courteous of the locals, borderline rude and even had rolling suitcases. So what’s the deal? Swhite and I talked about this a lot because it resulted in such a different vibe down on the islands and we think it must be seasonal; that or, the type of people who are attracted to Thailand have completely changed. Late April-Early May is when many of the university students finish for the summer, have time to kill and are ready to party and vacation on a beach somewhere. Last time we were in Thailand is was late October and November when most people would be settled into their school year or have real jobs which is where the “backpacker” crowd comes in. If you don’t have something to get back to in the fall, then you really are setting up to travel for awhile and "backpack." In case you are curious where we fit in… I like to think our behavior was pretty compliant with the “backpackers”, we also enjoy a good party but have other objectives and our attire placed us somewhere in between. Another fun, noticeable difference was that lots of locals were carrying around bird cages, yes with birds in them everywhere! We saw countless people with birdcages hanging off the awnings of their shops as well as tons being transported by motorbike. You’ll just have to take our word for it though because we didn’t get any pics!
When you’re traveling back to somewhere you’ve been before you know your way around a little bit, you know where to find the cheapest pad thai or the best sandwich, know how much a taxi should cost for a given distance and know where the nearest 7-11 is to break a big bank note because nobody ever has change. As repeat Thailand travelers this was all very helpful to us as we went back to four places we had been to before, especially because we didn’t have to waste any time figuring things out when Jillian came to meet us. But, the true joy of traveling as Swhite and I remembered as we flew up north to Chiang Mai and Lampang is not knowing anything, being thrown off, amused and/or pleasantly surprised and getting to figure things out. I especially like all the non verbal or sound effect related communication. For example, we needed to find a hospital to get some meds but couldn't communicate with the driver so I made a hissing sound (poor choice, I know) and pretended to give myself a shot and voila! off to the hospital we went! A couple of days later we needed to buy bug spray and couldn't find it so I buzzed a bit (another odd choice) then pretended to get bit and voila! OFF Mosquito Repellent! Our last day we needed to get the train station and the driver was not understanding Swhite so I said, "Try the choo-choo arm thing!" and sure enough, we made it to the train station! Gotta love language barriers, right? You get to bust out some killer moves!
Chiang Mai is an inland city in northern Thailand known for its cooking classes, jungle treks, elephant rides and hill tribe culture. If you’re trying to picture the traveler vibe it’s much more “backpacker” and very little “vacationer” aside from older European couples on short trips. Food is cheaper, you don’t need to haggle as much since there aren’t as many foreigners and it’s bloody hot! Our first day we took a cooking class at a place called Baan Thai which means “Thai House” and our main teacher was a ladyboy (natural-born man who dresses, acts, and lives (very convincingly I might add) as a woman for various reasons) named Benz. After seeing so many ladyboys and being unsure of the original gender of some I figured out the feet are often a dead give-a-way. Benz was wearing shoes all day and I didn’t see her feet until we were leaving and I must say I had been fooled! Anyway, we started the day by Benz taking us to the market and explaining all the different kinds of ingredients would we need for our dishes that would likely be unfamiliar to us as many were special to Thailand and Thai cooking.
We got to choose one appetizer, one curry, one main dish, one soup and one dessert and each had our own wok or burner to use for each dish. It was a very well done course and the food was delicious! We were given a cookbook which even includes substitutions for the crazy versions of eggplant and such so we will be able to recreate the tastiness back home. I can’t wait to try them out!
At one point (around when the pic below was taken) Benz seemed pretty darn amused by how sweaty we were. She asked me why I sweat and if it wasn't hot in our country. I didn't really have a reply but it was a million degrees, we were mostly cooking outside and there were flames involved so I feel I was allowed to be a bit sweaty!
Day two in Chiang Mai was a day trip up further north to ride some elephants along with various other activities. We piled into a mini bus with two young Canadian couples, one young Korean girl and three middle aged fellas from Singapore. First stop: the Orchid Farm and Butterfly house.
We then drove up to an elephant camp for a half hour ride where we fed the elephants bananas. We think our elephant was named Jahmo but it's hard to say. Our driver seemed pretty darn comfortable sitting on poor Jahmo's head. He also played pop music on speaker from his cell phone the whole ride. I like to think Jahmo liked it too!
After the elephant ride we sat and waited for about 20 minutes for our bamboo raft operators to arrive. We were sitting on some benches on the other side of the river from the elephants with just one elephant chained up next to us looking pretty darn miserable. I was already nervous that the elephants would be mistreated because I had heard so many sad stories from other travelers but felt okay about our set up until seeing this poor, lonely guy. We asked our guide what the deal was and he said, "He is a crazy elephant!" As we asked for more details we found out that this elephant had killed a person 2 years ago and was only being kept around for breeding purposes. Apparently only one guy can handle him so the elephant stays chained up across the river until the one guy comes and takes him to bathe and get water or breed I guess. One of the Canadians asked why he couldn't just be set free and the guide said "no way, he's way too dangerous for that." It's odd to think about but this elephant is essentially in prison for murder. Thinking about it that way made it seem slightly more okay but then again, who knows what the circumstances were of the death and who are we as humans to decide the poor things fate? Needless to say, I felt very bad for the elephant imprisoned and have no idea what an appropriate course of action would be with him.
Okay so now we are on to the bamboo raft portion of the day... Huge spider, muddy river with elephant poop floating by and a very distracted guide!
After a nice lunch we took a one hour trek/hike to a nearby waterfall. The Canadians went zip-lining, and the Singaporean fellas opted for the mini bus route so Swhite and I trekked with a friendly old guide and the young Korean girl from Seoul. It was fun to talk to a Korean girl our age who was so interested in independent travel and especially that her family was okay with it. She has been traveling alone for almost 6 moths and wants to travel back to India to open a restaurant because she says they need Korean speaking restaurant owners. Her perspectives were very different from the young Korean girls' we met while living in Seoul and it was fun to talk to her.
After the rest of the group reconvened at the waterfall we headed up river for our last stop: white water rafting. Our group of 10 was split into two rafts of 5 people. Swhite and I lucked out and were assigned to a raft with the three flamboyant and fun fellas from Singapore. The water level wasn't so high and we got stuck on a rock and were instructed to all "bounce" to get off of it. The Singporeans couldn't handle this task and were giggling up a storm and chanting, "Shake it, shake it! Bounce bounce! Shakey, shakey, bounce, bounce!" Then after a few rapids the adrenaline must have really been pumping because two of them started calling the five of us, "The Singapore Spice Girls" and even singing a few bars of the song "Wannabe." Our little Thai guide didn't seem so amused by all the energy especially because it definitely wasn't used to paddle and asked one of the guys to switch places with Swhite so she was on the same side as me. He then asked the two guys on the side alone if they could swim and they nodded yes with a hint of confusion. Before we knew it we zipped down a series of rapids and bounced hard off a rock tossing both of our singers overboard! The two were pretty shaken up but were good sports about it in the end and one just kept saying to the guide, "Okay okay but now you owe me a beer!" and then they all started giggling again.
We rented bikes our last day in Chiang Mai and rode all over town trying to locate a restaurant that advertised avocado sandwiches we had seen from a bus earlier. We didn't find the restaurant but saw some gorgeous temples and found a few other tasty treats!
After Chiang Mai we traveled two hours south by bus to a town called Lampang. We had heard Lampang was a smaller version of Chiang Mai also with lovely temples and bike-able roads. We only stayed two nights but Lampang was an absolute ghost town! The locals definitely didn't see foreigners very often because we received countless "hellos" from the brave souls willing to talk to us followed by insane fits of giggling and we haven't been blatantly stared at so bad since India. When we walked around the night market this man got our attention and pointed to another blond white person and excitedly said, "Ooooh, same same! Like you!" It's funny how that's not offensive at all here. Maybe because I KNOW they don't mean any harm by it and to them, we are "same same" so who could blame them? Anyway those couple of days were spent riding bikes around town and sampling odd new snacks at the night market and we had fun!
From Lampang we headed to Bangkok to catch our flight on a miserably hot 12 hour train ride. Word to the wise: forget budget traveling, pay the $6 more for air conditioning! We met up with our friend we met on the islands briefly in Bangkok and then headed off to the airport to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Goodbye for now, Thailand! Thanks for living up to your wonderfulness the second time around and know we'll be back again someday!