Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Recreation-ing in Chiang Mai

Our three days in Chiang Mai were action-packed and went by way too fast.  But we’re in the airport getting ready for Phuket. 
I arrived early on Monday and Ken was waiting for me at the airport.  He had a miraculous amount of energy after over a day of traveling and adjusting to the time difference.  We dropped our stuff off at the hostel and rented a motorbike right there.  Fortunately, Ken was raised in a family of motorcyclists (his dad raced them in the 1970s and Ken’s had his license for 7 years) and was ready to take on the roads (not as crazy as India but still pretty lawless and it required driving on the left).  So with just a basic map in a brochure and an idea from Ken’s cab driver, we took off up the mountain for some exploring.  Thank God Ken can read maps and has excellent navigation abilities because I had no idea where we were most of the time, but he figured out the city almost immediately.
Level 1 waterfall (Mon Tha Than) on Doi Suthep mountain
The Doi Suthep mountain itself is a national park and we wound through jungle-y greenery on switchbacks.  Our first stop was a waterfall, supposedly the mountain’s best.  We did some trekking and found the first two “levels” of the nine level waterfall.  We found a happy Thai family playing at the bottom but were disappointed to find out that the upper seven levels were blocked off for the day.  
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
We continued our happy trails up the mountain to one of Chiang Mai’s most famous Buddhist temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.  It was a giant, golden gleaming pagoda that I remember seeing from the air.  Supposedly the temple was built around a holy relic of an elephant bone that had magical powers- it glowed, could disappear, could move and replicate itself.  The temple itself was kind of a tourist trap, with donation boxes every two feet but still beautiful and cool to see.  From there, we continued onward and upward on our tired little scooter to a palace at the top.  The actual palace was closed for construction but the surrounding grounds were breath taking and probably the real highlight of the place.  There were extensive rose gardens, bamboo gardens, fountains, a greenhouse and even several intricately carved tree trunks.  Satisfied with hitting all the major mountain attractions, we rolled down the hill for a beer at an adorable bar downtown.  We walked around some of the local markets and grabbed a bite to eat before heading back to the hostel to crash for a couple hours before the night market. 
The night market in Chiang Mai is supposed to be Thailand’s largest and it pleasantly surprised me.  In Taiwan, the night market was chaotic and filled with repetitive piles of mass-produced cheap things and smelled of stinky tofu.  This one had stalls with a wide variety of quality crafted goods from carved soaps to incense to wall hangings to paintings to jewelry to children’s toys… really, anything you can imagine.  There were “fish foot massages” where you could put your feet in aquariums of fish who would eat the dead flesh of your feet (thanks but no thanks!) and scantily-clad drag queens advertising their 9:30 Cabaret show.  We met a couchsurfer on our last day who told us about the Sunday market, an even more extensive market that attracts many locals in addition to tourists.  It’s unfortunate that we missed it but we’ll put it on the list for next time… if we return, I’d love to make it to Pai and climb Jeng’s favorite waterfall a couple hours away. 
Chang Rai hot spring
The second day, Ken and I went on a Golden Triangle tour to the Laos-Mynamar-Thailand border, the hotspot of opium trade back in the day.  En route, we stopped at the Chang Rai hot spring.  The water was so hot, you could boil eggs and we could barely submerge our feet without grimacing.  After that was Chang Rai’s famous (new and unconventional) white temple "Wat Rong Khun" and golden toilet.  The white temple looked like an ice palace (in Alanna’s words) and was designed to elicit the journey to heaven.  You crossed the moat past some intimidating guards and the inside portrayed a colorful collection of people floating around Nirvana.  Apparently, there are no white people in heaven.  But the toilet was pretty entertaining too- you had to exchange your shoes for slippers to use it.  Some of the washrooms I’ve encountered have been pretty sketchy but Thailand’s best toilet did not disappoint!
Chang Rai White Temple
We went on a boat ride at the Golden Triangle itself and learned a bit about the history of illicit drug dealing and modern day attempts to attract tourists with casinos.  They dropped us off in Laos for some incredibly entertaining shopping.  Inside whisky bottles, there were snakes eating snakes and snakes eating scorpions- it makes the worm in Mexican tequila seem tame!  They had some other interesting alcoholic beverages without amphibians inside but the snake-brand rum promised “sexual enhancement” with a hand written note next to it “great gift for mom!”.  Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be purchasing that for mother’s day anytime soon.  That was a fun stop.  We later went to the Northern-most of tip of Thailand, two feet from the Mynamar border but you need to pay a fine and get your passport stamped to step into Mynamar so we didn’t do that.  We headed back to Chiang Mai but somehow retained energy for another late night adventure.  We headed downtown for dinner and had a very… memorable… tuk tuk ride back to the hostel.  After eating, we found a empty tuk tuk and attempted to locate the driver.  It turns out he was behind us, polishing off his third 750 mL Leo beer.  When I handed him the business card with the address of the hotel, he was squinting, holding it up to the light and asking us to read it to him.  Awesome, we thought.  A blind, drunken tuk tuk driver.  Fortunately he could read it with his glasses on but it was too late to escape, despite our best efforts.  We piled into the tuk tuk with a prayer in your hearts and a terrified smile pasted on our faces as we sped through the city streets as he blasted Thai music or enthusiastically enquired about our honeymoon (Don’t worry I didn’t actually get married in Thailand).  I have to get the pictures of our final photoshoot once we made it to the hostel but he insisted on taking a photo with me and he had a huge Chesire Cat grin on his face for sure.
Ok, it’s almost time to board for Phuket- I think I’ll save Chiang Mai day 3 for another post.  Pai-kawn!