GETTING TO CHIANG MAI
So our journey to Chiang Mai…where to start?! Let’s start with the plan! From the island, Koh Tao, getting to Chiang Mai would require a ferry to the mainland (2-3 hours), then a night bus to Bangkok (12 hours), followed by a trian to Chiang Mai (13 hours). We had decided to spend a day in Bangkok so that we would get the night / sleeper train up to Chiang Mai, meaning we’d save paying for 2 nights accomodation if we slept on the bus and train.
We heard the morning of our departure from Koh Tao that a tropical storm was about to hit the islands, and as it turns out, our ferry would be the last to leave (or arrive at) the island for the next week. After leaving a couple hours later than scheduled, there was a swift change in weather; within 10 minutes of leaving the pier, it was clear that the sea was very, very choppy. Being a narrow ferry with 3 passenger levels, our boat rocked A LOT. Over the 3 hour journey, people were grabbing life jackets (sufficiently causing those without life jackets to panic) and at least half the boat threw up. It was definitely one of the scariest journies we had taken, especially when it got dark. After what felt like an eternity of clutching on to the seats in front of us so we weren’t thrown across the boat, we made it to shore. The finale was that someone had thrown up on Lu’s backpack… unfortunately she felt it before she saw it, which caused Lu to nearly throw up too. It really was the vomit-filled cherry on top of the cake!
Following an hour of classic Thailand chaos trying to find the right night bus to Bangkok amongst hundreds of other travellers, we were aboard a bus and ready to have a sleep. Being low on luck though, our coach broke down. Twice. Both times this happened, the coach started making loud banging noises, rocking all over the places and veering off the road. The first time, the driver switched the engine off and on, and that temporarily solved the issue (no need to investigate the engine if the banging stops right?). The second time this happened, the coach veered off the road and came to a sudden holt. Being around 4am, we waited for 3 hours and then got on another coach to Bangkok which seemed to travel at 80mph the entire way (nothing like a bit of fear to wake you up in the morning; far more effective than coffee).
Thankfully, our luck changed when arriving at Bangkok. We had a great day walking around the city, returning to a cafe we loved from our first visit, then walking through some amazing hidden-away street markets; we stopped off at a place called the Unicorn Cafe for lunch. The Unicorn Cafe is a multi-coloured, calorific, fairyland extravanganza of desserts to prove it. This tiny cafe was truly magical and gave us that sugar buzz we needed to uplift us! Then we carried our food-babies to Bangkok’s Central Park where we sat on a bench, took our shoes and socks off and Lu read her book whilst Josh had a nap. Opposite us, two elderly men did the same, sitting cross legged, they got out a chess board with their own hand made wax chess-pieces, and quietly played together. A still tranquility surrounded us in that park, it’s like the World was giving us the thumbs up after what we’d been through.
The journey still wasnt over yet… We had the sleeper train booked for 19:35 and we hoped that our spell of good luck continued. It did. We got our tickets easily, grabbed a cheap tasty dinner from the station food-court and got on the train, ON TIME! We couldnt believe it went so smoothly. The train itself was very impressive, you had the upper bunkbeds and two seats below it, only when the train got moving did staff come round and make the bottom bunk bed up for you by sliding the two seats down. It felt like being on the Hogwarts Express! The bumpy ride took a while to get used to but after the past 26 hours, sleep came quite easily to us.
WE MADE IT!
Arriving in Chiang Mai was a relief, being on a budget, we decided to walk to our accomodation. After some severe underestimating on distance, we asked for directions from a local, and after a bit more getting lost, we gave up and grabbed some breakfast. Immediately we noticed how everything was cheaper here than it was down south, pheww! We found our accomodation via google maps, dropped our bags off and headed for the Friday Flea Market which was just off the road we were staying on. For 20 Baht we got 8 pick-n-mix style dumplings, all with different filling, not bad for 50p. Lu finally found some Elephant trousers and along with a beautiful dark red scarf that she just had to have, all for a bargain! The rest of the afternoon and evening, we walked round the city taking everything in. There were handfuls of temples scattered within the city with many lanterns and floating umbrellas decorating the night skies.
The following day we decided to visit some of Chiang Mai’s famous sites. We visited Wat Chedi Luang, a giant unfinished temple that was built back in the 14th Century. The size was impressive, looking up at the structure it took up most of the view stretching across the landscape. Imagine if it actually got finished! There were many smaller temples surrounding it, a couple of which didn’t allow women in, so Lu got left bhind on those visits (rude!). It was interesting to find out more about Buddhism and Thai culture. Upon walking furhter, we found a large pond with an old, rickety bamboo bridge across it. We got chatting to a man who was visiting from Laos, who explained to us that the bamboo bridge was the only one in the city, although you could find bamboo bridges nearly everywhere outside of the city.
Following a snack of a ‘Mango Paradise’ which is a fancy Mange Sticky Rice with two types of coconut icecream, we had a delicious lunch at restaurant called ‘Coconut Shell’. The mains were only 50 Baht (£2.25) and were genuinely served in coconuts – how quirky to have a coconut filled to the brim with curry! Our evening consisted of searching in the wrong direction for a night market, but fortunately, while wondering the streets of Chiang Mai, we made friends with two Australian women who also looked lost. We teamed up and shared each others backpacking stories/ plans along the walk. When we made it to the market, oh ‘Mai’ was it MASSIVE! The streets were closed off and there were stalls as far as we could see, filling football pitch spaces with colours, smells and noise. We found a foodcourt with live music which was very country-like; in the middle were straw bales with barrels acting as tables. Lu got Cowboy’s Satay Chicken whilst Josh went for Vegan Curried Noodles. It was pretty good for a day in the city, but with all the walking (and eating) we got a TukTuk back ‘home’ for the night.
THAILAND’S TALLEST MOUNTAIN
Day 3 in Chiang Mai was a full day excursion in the Doi Inthanon National Park with a small tour group. It was an early start with a pick up from a mini-bus already filled with other tourists, all yawning or asleep in the early hours (we’re talking around 7am – I know, what a bunch of princesses!). Our first stop was Wachirathan Waterfall, which was so large. It provided the most breathtaking view as the morning sun shone through the jungle, creating shimmering rainbows in the waterfall’s showers. Even on the walk up to the viewpoint, you could feel the refreshing, cool spray of water on your skin. We managed to climb to the top of the waterfall, passing the sign ‘beware of slippery surface’ (cue picture of falling man off cliff), for a look at the spectacular view of the waterfall below us! Clambering back on to the mini bus like excited school kids, we then headed to the peak of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Luang – exact translation: ‘Big Mountain’ – it’s in the name! Thankfully we were told to bring jumpers as it was a cold 9 degrees; Josh relished in the fact that he had to force Lu to bring one with the words ‘I told you so’ just hovering on his lips… good job Josh knows not to play with fire. Afterward we visited the King and Queens Pagoda’s, created for them on their 60th Birthday’s, these incredible temples were literally in the heavens, sailing above the clouds.
Lunch was provided and even though we expected sandwiches, we were surprisingly presented with a full sit down feast of curries, fried chicken, vegtables and fruit. It was after this we started the 2 hour trek down the mountain and to the village of our tour guide, Rhotee, who is from the Karen Tribe, one of the few tribes to still live in the mountains. During the picturesque walk, we passed vines you could swing on, waterfalls you could swim in and saw buffalo’s on the mountainside, all the while Rhotee provided a wealth of information on the trees, plants and animals which his people live off. This included learning about trees which provided fuel for fire, medicine and household immenities. Rhotee was a great laugh and you could tell he loved telling us western folk of his homeland. Amongst our group were Italians, Argentines, French and Australians. It was a lovely group of people and we talked all through the tour… the french asked us about Brexit… we thought we’d out-run that topic! At the foot of the mountain, we walked through lushious farmlands of flowers, rows upon rows of rice, strawberries and coffee trees. In the Karen tribe’s village we were treated to some REAL FRESH coffee. We saw the orginally white coffee beans being transformed through the roasting process, from where they were rested, churned and then poured straight into cups for us to drink. The powerful smells of fresh coffee combined with the fires from the roasting ovens is unforgettable.
On our way back to Chiang Mai, we were dropped just outside the Old Town (where we were staying), to see there were no longer any streets, but kilometres of market stalls and a sea of hundreds of people. It was a never ending hustle and bustle up to our accomodation. Once we got rid of our bags, we went right back out there. The buzz of the city was at its peak as locals and foriengers merged into a constant hum of music, laughter and chatter, most of which we couldn’t understand. It was another sublime experience. Lu even got a lesson on how to use chopsticks from a local after being laughed at whilst eating curried noodles. Lu already had a sweat going from the spice, let alone when she then had to finish her dish under the watchful eye of her ‘Thai aunt’! We then found a temple with an enchanted-like garden, a tree surrounded by water with a buddah amongst the roots. Colourful lanterns filled all the outside space as well as reflecting off the water. It really did look as if the buddah was floating between two worlds, it was mesmerising.
Day 4 included our trip to the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary. It was an early morning with a 6:30 pick up and an hours drive out of the city. As we pulled in to the sanctuary’s long drive way, there we saw the elephants unlike we’ve seem before. Previously we’d only ever seen them either tied up or walking in a cirle being ridden by tourists. Here they had a huge open space roaming alone, they almost looked free. Our guide for the day wanted us to learn about the elephants and was adamant that it wasn’t just going to be a day of selfies (although we took a few!). They told us how Kanta started out and the stories behind some of the elephants they rescued. We changed into very stylish uniforms and headed out to meet these huge creatures. First we fed them sugar canes, and then once all the sugar canes were gone, we went on to feed them bamboo leaves. These large animals towering over you were so gentle, even as they were snapping the branches with their trunks, they very nimbly sniffed out the next bit of food and elegantly took it from your hand. We then made a superfood snack for them consisting of banana, wheat pellets, mulberry with tumeric and garlic to help with their digestive systems. They seemed to love these, much like a sticky sweet for them. After the final feed, we were then able to give them a bath in a muddy pool of water. Armed with buckets and brushes to soak the elephants in water and to scrub them down, we got to work while the elphants frolicked and rolled in the water like playful puppies! We even got sprayed by the youngest elephant who loved to shower people from its trunk. It was the best day, Lu and Josh just couldn’t stop grinning and now plan on having elephants join their future farm (along with the goats, horses and dogs of course)!
It was the perfect ending for our first month of travellling and our last day in Thailand. We then headed to Luang Prabang, Laos, via a number of buses over 20 hours… But thats a whole other story, so we’ll leave that for our next chapter.