Chiang Mai

Stepping off the train from Bangkok we were greeted by a cool breeze and a lone pickup truck set to take us and our fellow travellers into town. Surrounded by mountains, Chaing Mai is considered the capitial of northern Thailand, a green landscape of forested mountain peaks and lush farms set in the valley bottom below. In the  heart of Chaing Mai is the old city, a collection of temples and guesthouses spread throughout a web of narrow streets filled with cafes and markets. The sleepy old city is separated from the frantic modern Chaing Mai by a moat, built over 700 years ago to protect its residents against invading Burmese. We booked ourselves into one of the many liittle guesthouses tucked within the old city walls, excited to spend the next few days exploring the city and its surrounding area.   By that evening, we had discovered that one of the old city’s best kept secrets; the Talat Pratu Chaing Mai; a large open air food market where vendors spread along the roaside against the moat and you can  eat to your heart’s content.  We couldn’t think of a better place to eat and drink with new friends, and spent the next few nights doing just that. The only thing better than the warm hospitality of the Thai people is their food, and after a week of eating our way north we decided it was time for a work out. 

             You can do anything you want in Chaing Mai to get your heart rate up, but hiking and mountain biking seem to be the most popular and heavily advertised at all but a few of the tour operator stands you walk by. After sussing out our options we figured we would try something new, and signed up for an afternoon of  Muay Thai lessons. Our estemed trainer Kru Pong stood at best 5’6″,  and picked us up in his hello kitty adorned car.  We were quickly reminded however that looks can be decieving.  Soon after we arrived at the gym and  unloaded the 10 gallons of water Kru brought for us, we got to work. The session started with a full body tiger balm rub down and questions from the trainer for Alison inquiring when she was going to produce a child he could train to fight. After these early pleasantries, Kru proceeded to punish us in the afternoon heat. Although his english was limited, he seemed to have a mastery of numbers above 10, which he frequently used when giving orders of excercises we were to do to for warm up.  He always claimed it was the last set, but it never was. The three hour session was beyond hard for both of us but very rewarding, and by the end of the session Kru wanted Alison to stay for a month so he could turn her into a fighter. 

           After a day of recovery from our training session with Kru, we wandered the town in search of our next adventure.  Curious to see what the local mountain biking scene was like, we popped into Trailhead Tours, one of Chian Mai’s newest bike shops.  There we met Nui, one of Trailhead’s proficient guides and an active participant in the local race scene.   Although we declined a tour, Nui invited us to join him that Sunday to watch one of the national races happening just outside of town.  Due to a broken collarbone which he had aquired only a few days prior he wouldn’t be competing, but he was eager to watch others he knew and happy to have us along for the ride. 

The lush green mountains surrounding Chaing Mai are all protected by some form of park or reserve designation, providing the perfect trail building environment for local riders. The Thailand Gravity series is part of a circuit of downhill races in northwest Thailand which attracts riders from across the country  and as far away as Austrialia and New Zealand. We arrived early enough that Alison and I were able to hike the course while watching riders take advantage of last minute practice runs. The course was everything you’d want; some steep technical terrain, followed by some fast flow leading into the big air for the crowd at the finish. After sweating in the jungle heat slogging to the top of the course we decided the large jump was the best spot to watch, and joined the crowd to cheer on the riders and they (mostly sucessfully) aired it out to everyone’s delight and cheers.  After the race the crowd moved to the finish area to enjoy a cold beer and a riding skills display put on by some of the riders. I found it exciting to be around so many people who loved their sport and their community, the energy was contagious and won’t soon be forgotten.  Alison and I decided then and there that Chiang Mai was definitely going on the list of places to return in the future, but next time with bikes in tow.

   

  

   
    
    
 
   

   
 
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Tuk Tuks and Trains

We landed in Bangkok Saturday morning around 11am. Having managed to convince our bodies to sleep in an only mildly reclined position for 9 hours on the plane over from Los Angeles, we were both determined to make the best of the day and fight off any jet lag until later that evening. After making our way to the end of the skytrain line we jumped aboard a tuk-tuk, the equivalent of a gas-powered rickshaw so colourfully decorated you would think it had just come from the disco.

Unfortunately, there are moments when you look as fresh off the boat as you truly are. After quite a few city blocks I attracted the keen eyes of a motorcycle-mounted pair of purse thieves who clearly saw the weight of my burden and decided to relieve me of some of it. One close pass from behind and a snatch from my chest and they were off into oncoming traffic. Good-bye $15 Bently purse….
After tears, a bout of fuming silence, many choice curse words and some time to cool off, we confirmed that there was nothing I couldn’t live without that was in that cheap little sucker of a purse, and that the most the thieves got away with were my debit, visa and nexus cards, hand sanitizer and lotion, and a pair of ear buds I was rather attached to. So if you happen to be in Bangkok reading this and you run into a set of Thai men on a motorcycle with suspiciously clean, soft hands, punch them for me would you? While the city redeemed itself in the following days, there is nothing more violating or infuriating than having something stolen from you, and it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth having only just arrived in the country. On the bright side though, I got to go purse shopping that night.  

After changing out of the clothes we had been occupying for far too long we headed off into the streets, hungry for some food and beers in the streets of Bangkok. Our hotel was situated in the Banglamphu district, not far from Khao San road where backpackers and vendors crowd the streets and you can find everything from pad-thai to knock-off designer purses and the latest trend in Thai tourist tshirts. We wandered for hours, making our way eventually to a little hole-in-the-wall soup joint that seemed quite popular with the locals. As with everything we ate over the next few days, it did not dissapoint. From red curry to meat-on-a-stick to padthai, we tried whatever we could find. We made it until about 9 o’clock that night, then promptly crashed, excited to do it all over again the next day.

The next day we made for the Chatuchak weekend market, an open-air market that boasts to be the largest in the world (250,000 people and counting attend each weekend). From puppies to vintage clothing to art, you can bet you’ll find it at the weekend market.

For hours we wandered, in awe of everything you could buy. Byron noted that a traveller really didn’t need to pack a bag when heading for Bangkok. One just has to be sure to arrive on the weekend and head straight for the market; within a few hours you’ll have everything you could possibly need.

From the market we made our way back into the heart of the city and headed to Wat Pho, one of the city’s many temples which showcases and displays the Buddha idol. Wat Pho itself houses the longest reclining Buddha, which measures at a stunning 50m long and 15 meters high. Although not well versed in the Buddhist religion, I have always enjoyed the idol and couldn’t help but feel a warm and peaceful glow standing in admiration of this massive form. With intricately decorated and adorned stupas lining the grounds as well (commemorating the first four Chakri kings), it is easy to understand why architecture is held as one of the highest forms of art in the country.

From the temple we made our way over to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of further stimulus for our culture-hungry minds (and possibly a bite to eat while we were at it). Whether it was a special occasion or a nightly occurrence we never found out, but as we entered the streets we were greeted with fireworks and a parade, complete with dancing dragons and crashing symbols. We sat down to dinner at one of the many crowded street food vendor gatherings, and were soon sweating profusely as our dinner was cooked in a pile of searing flames only meters from our table. Again, the food did not disappoint, and we ended the night with happy bellies and full minds at all the city had shown us.

Knowing we would be leaving the city the next day, the following morning we made way for the train station to purchase our tickets, and then on to the Tropical Disease hospital, where on the good advice of our Canadian doctor we skipped getting the Japanese Encephalitis shot until we made it here, where the vaccine was a tenth of the price of what we would have paid back home. Two sore arms later, we were back out on the streets, taking in our last day of sights in the city.

And now, four days later, we have made our way north on the train, heading for Chiang Mai where the mountains, temples and elephants (!!!) await us. After we have our fill of the region we’ll head east into Laos and Cambodia, and who knows where from there. We’re only just getting started! 

xo Alison & Byron
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

The Coles Notes:

Here’s to those of you who may be heading to, or are currently in Bangkok

1. Try and take tuk-tuks with netting or webbing on the side to protect your stuff from theives. Be diligent; It’s a big city and a small bag or purse can be ripped right off your chest if you’re not careful and it’s got cheap straps

2. Bring an unlocked cell phone from home. You can pick up a cheap sim card right at the airport (ours was 30days, talk and text, 4G of data for $20CAD)

3. Negotiate or confirm price of transportation before you go

4. Go to the Chatuchak weekend market if you can; you won’t be dissapointed

5. Eat street meat at the busy stalls, and try as much as you’re brave enough to

6. Banglamphu has the cheapest beers we could find (60baht for a tall Chang); anywhere along the river had the most expensive (130baht for a small Chang)

7. Head to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases for a cheap ($25 CAD) Japanese Encephalitis shot if you need it

8. Dried sardines are not that good. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

9. Buy tickets at the train station (at least one day in advance) for any trips; don’t buy them from an agent or side-street shop

10. The A/C cabs on the train can be ridiculously cold; get ready to wear all of your warm clothes on the trip.