Wats, Wats and more Wats (plus a cooking course and some Muay Thai boxing)
10.03.2009 - 15.03.2009
The Thai and Laos border points are separated by the Mekong, so we arrived in Thailand on a small boat bearing a Laos flag. We had already purchased Thai visas, at some effort and cost, so were pleased to finally brandish our shining 60 day document pasted into our passport. We couldn't help feel deflated somehow at the border official's only cursory glance, and immediate defiling of our visas, by scribbling over it to show we'd entered. We had met two couples on the bus, Tori & Paul and Laura & Matt, who had been travelling with each other for a while. We had something to eat and then decided we'd had enough of the local bus experience. The minibus was offering a fast air con route to Chang Mai for a fiver, and as we were still undecided on where to head to first, this made up our mind for us. Sooner than we could say 'Thai fishcakes' we were pulling up outside a hotel in the centre of Chang Mai, the accommodation owned by the travel company. We all decided to take a room there, as it seemed a pretty good deal, and we were too tired to argue. The first thing we noticed was the lack of plug sockets in the bedroom. As we do need to charge various things, particularly after a long journey, we knew we would have to find somewhere else for the rest of the stay. After a quick look on the internet, we headed off in search of Julie's, a very popular backpacker hostel. We knew immediately when we found it, loads of people chilling out on large cushions out the front, a pool table and friendly staff. We booked a room for the next day, without looking at it. Happy we had somewhere secured, we went back to hang out at the room and catch up on some much needed sleep. The next morning we moved, and loved our room. Clean and really cute, it was a big step up from the previous place, but pretty much the same cost.
Brads at Julie's hostel
With loads to explore in Chang Mai, we set out to find the main Wat's and see some of the amazing architecture. The first site we visited was, as much as we're ashamed to say, a Tesco Express we stumbled upon. As though we'd been transported back to England, we stepped into the air conned world of international branding. Everything looked the same, and true to form, the prices were cheaper than anywhere else around, so we knew that their apparent plan to obliterate all small stores reached as far as the Thai shores. Nonetheless, we fell straight back into habit, tutted our disapproval, and then bought a couple of Colgate toothbrushes for 40p each. We had deliberately taken the long windy route to our destination and were soon rewarded by finding the most amazing art gallery. It was exactly the sort of art we love, and will be ordering a few pieces on their website when we're settled back in the UK. We soon found our desired Wat, and as Anna wrapped her shoulders tightly in a scarf, a friendly Thai man approached us and it was immediately apparent that he was going to take us on a tour of the building. Worried about the classic scam of taking someone on a tour and then demanding money for their services, we at first held back. When he explained that he was the nephew of the previous Abbot of Chang Mai, who had just died, we weren't sure whether to be more worried or relieved. Added to that he was the Justice of the Peace for Chang Mai, but again, he gave us no reason to disbelieve him. As he just seemed to be genuinely letting us know about the amazing Wat, we followed him for the impromptu tour. He asked us where we were going next, recommended another Wat, and took us to the tuktuk drivers to secure a Thai fare.
The tuktuk driver agreed to take us to the Wat and back to our hostel, for an incredibly cheap price, and completely unbegrudgedly. We sped through the streets, happy that we had a chance to ride in another tuktuk, without being ripped off. The next Wat was lovely, and the oldest in Chang Mai. The walls, floor and ceiling were covered in pictures or patterns. We had a stroll around the building and found a large stupa, adorned with huge elephants. Another Thai guy struck up conversation, explaining that he was the architect who designed the new living quarters for the monks, which was being built behind us. Again, fearing a scam, we were a little reserved, but still friendly. It wasn't until after he'd left us, that we knew that he was just being friendly. After the tuktuk driver dropped us off in the right place, and we had paid no more than agreed, we agreed that both strangers were just genuinely being nice and weren't trying to scam us at all. That evening we bumped into the couples we had met on the bus, went for a drink and a look around the market. The tourist market is huge, and sprawls along all the streets that surround the official site. Pretty much everything that we'd seen for sale around South East Asia, was here but surprisingly, it all seemed much more expensive. The other two couples had been to Bangkok and agreed that everything seemed over priced. We still had fun window shopping, and we discovered that the vendors were willing to drop their prices dramatically and just started stupidly high. We were eventually buying things for about 30% of the original price.
To get to some of the more interesting sites around Chang Mai, we hired a 100cc moped for the day. We took it slowly, and drove up to see the waterfalls on the outskirts of town. After riding up hill for a while, we found an almost deserted, very well maintained car park and entrance to the waterfall. We enjoyed the waterfall, it is always exhilarating being around so much rushing water. We even came across a group of young Thai people on a photo-shoot, who had bought along a fluffy cat on a lead, which amused us both thoroughly. Back on the bike, we were soon at the next stop, the look out point. From here we could see all of Chang Mai, and it was a beautiful view. Our next stop was Wat U Mong, where various faded paintings had been found on tunnels under the stupa. The most popular story on how they came to be, is the story of the wandering Monk, who could not help strolling off into the woods to look at the beautiful scenery and creatures.
Legend has it; the monks in his monastery painted the scenes to contain his wanderings and would always know where to find him when he was needed. The site where the stupa is situated was huge, and very tranquil, as you'd expect! There were handwritten pearls of Buddhist wisdom nailed to trees along the path. There was a large lake, which was stunning and so peaceful. The water was full of massive Catfish and loads of lovely terrapins. We left as the sun was near setting, and met with the other couples for sunset at a large Wat in the centre of the city. This was apparently the place to see sunset, but as you are no longer able to climb to the top, the sun disappears behind the buildings and the scene isn't that spectacular. We dropped the bike back at the hostel and met for dinner before the boxing. We hadn't initially been interested in going, but it is as much part of Thai culture as food or music. After a few drinks, we were really into the fights, which were quite obviously more geared towards tourists than hardened fans, and therefore not as brutal as we knew it could be. The funniest moment of the evening was the special fight, four boxers in each corner, wearing blindfolds, and one ref to try and steer them in the right course, and got more of a beating than any of them for the effort. We had such a laugh and ended the evening with Anna getting her photo taken with the Swedish winner of the last fight.
We were soon on our own again, and spent pretty much a full day trying to solve a money problem. We had made an attempt to take money out on our first day in Chang Mai, but had selected 'no' when asked if we accepted the charges. It turned out that they had effectively taken the money from the account. We spoke to a Thai cashier about it who promised it would be back into the account within 7-10 days; however this left us short of money for the day while some new funds were transferred. The only really useful thing we did was book a Thai cookery course for the following day. So, with our useless day behind us, we set off in a group of 9, to the market early the next morning, to learn about the ingredients. We had seen many of the fruits and vegetables before, so it was nice to find out what they are called and what they are used for. We were then taken into the suburbs, to the streets that we had seen in the Thai soaps, to the Thai Master classroom. We each had a workstation with a wok, a chopping board and a huge knife. The recipes were amazingly quick and straightforward and made us blush to think of the times we bought microwave dinners, when these dishes seemed quicker and easier to make. We even set the entire contents of the wok on fire during the cooking, but that was totally planned of course. We felt like true chefs throwing the food around in the woks and producing tasty meals. We all sat down to eat our handiwork, and unsurprisingly we were all unable to finish. We left clutching our recipe books, disappointed that we wouldn't really have a chance to practice for quite some time. We were dropped near the cultural museum and spent a good hour touring the exhibits, and learning more about Chang Mai.
Leaving our travel booking until the last minute, we realised that we would be unable to travel to Bangkok by train, as half of Thailand was moving around in preparation for the coming New Year's holiday. Our only option was pretty much the tourist bus, which left our hostel at 6pm and arrived in Bangkok at an incomprehensible time in the morning. We were picked up from the hostel in a minivan and taken to a very sketchy looking half-built gas station. More people turned up after a while, much to the obvious relief of our group, and soon enough the bus showed up and we were ushered on board. This turned out to be just in time, as we were just about to get plagued by literally thousands of flying ants. We hadn't seen anything like it before, the huge billboard lights seemed to be attracting so many ants they were creating an illusion of one large shape shifting creature hovering around every light bulb. Another night bus journey, brought another internal rant at the bus driver for stopping at 2am to get dinner, although we seemed to be getting used to this arrangement, and actually ate something.
Without even realising we had fallen so soundly asleep, we were woken up at 5am, by the bus driver shouting 'Kho San, Kho San'. We were soon collecting our bags in a sleepy haze, and trying to work out where we were and where the infamous Kho San Road was. Amongst various mutterings from our fellow passengers, and a general exodus in one direction, we worked out that we were literally 50 meters away. Just to test the sincerity of the Bangkok tuktuk drivers, I asked how much to Kho San. I wasn't surprised when they quoted 100 baht, 2 quid, but took great pleasure in telling them I was only kidding and his chance for the easiest 100 baht of the night evaporated. Our plan was to take the local bus straight to Kanchanaburi and stay there for a few nights, but as it was still dark we didn't fancy making our way over the bus station quite yet, so we went to kill time. The only thing open was McDonalds, so we spent a neon yellow hour watching people in various stages of intoxication, end their night with a burger. Just after sun rise, we went to find a taxi to take us to the Western bus terminal. Any driver that approached us quoted fixed fares, but we were keen to do the journey with the meter on and pay the exact fare. There are many different taxi firms in Bangkok, and similarly to other Asian cities we have been in, each company has its own distinctive cab design, whether it be bright pink, or baby blue. The only similarity is that they all have a meter, and are supposed to turn it on. In reality, finding a cab that will turn its meter on for the journey can be quite difficult, especially around a touristy area. We finally found someone who agreed to take the fare on the meter, but still tried to quote us 200 baht once we were in the cab. As dawn gradually unfolded into morning, we watched the people of Bangkok make their way to work and begin their day. Rush hour was just warming up as we approached the bus station. The fare was 60 baht, less than half the quoted fare. Unsure where to take the bus, we were soon being ushered aboard a 1st class bus bound for Kanchanaburi. We had planned to take a 2nd class bus and save ourselves 50p, but it was just easier to follow the friendly guy promising he was leaving imminently. True to word, we were soon pulling away, and of course soon stopping again to let more people on. Although there are bus stops on most lines, pretty much all buses we've taken in south east Asia operate on the 'stoppa hoppa' principle, and therefore the bus can pull over at any given point to pick up a passenger. How this tends to work is everyone walks to the nearest point to their current position and just stands and waits. If this is 50meters or so from someone else, quite obviously waiting for a bus, this makes no difference, for the bus will stop at any short intervals necessary. Getting off the bus is a similar story, with people almost being dropped off at each house, as if they were getting a lift from a mate. Wherever we have been there has always seemed to be the obligatory stop just outside the bus station to collect more passengers.