After a 24-hour train that was late leaving and longer than expected we made it back to the big smoke of Bangkok, swapping private beaches and snorkelling for steamy street markets and flashy shopping malls. My diving course birthday present never came to fruition so I opted instead for a new lens for my camera and we took off to Chinatown to sample some snaps and steamy soups. Taking a wrong turn on the way, we actually ended up at a 24-hour flower market that has been in action for 100 years or so. It was definitely the nicest smelling place I’d experienced here and the colours and blooms were quite a treat.
The weekend saw us sample another market – the largest in Thailand: Chatuchak. If you are ever in need of anything this is the place to go. They sell everything imaginable here; clothing and shoes, to knives and army paraphernalia, to puppies and squirrels – a bit cruel considering the heat, but you know, if you need one…
Before we knew it, a week had slipped past us so we packed our bags and hit the road again from current capital to old capital: Ayutthaya. A city much smaller in population now than in its heyday, it makes for a nice place to cycle about, checking out the ruins and imagining the former glory of the place. In our usual struggle to find a guesthouse sans tuktuk we wandered the streets and were picked up by a long haired local who upon learning my nationality started to regail me with stories of his kiwi girlfriend – a long-distance relationship I am reluctant to believe. He showed us a small family run place where a newly-walking baby (what is a one-and-a-bit-year-old called?) ran straight to my leg and wouldn’t let go. I guess you could say the place chose us and not the other way round. She continued to run into our room at fairly unannounced intervals – not ideal when your room is straight off the living room/streetfront and you have just gotten out of the shower.
A relaxing cycle is always nice until you get verbally abused by a pre-pubescent child on the back of a tuk tuk. But then we saw elephants. Elephants always cheer me up.
Onwards and upwards and at dangerous speeds we continued north to Chiang Mai, perhaps one of the coolest cities in Thailand. The idea was to try and find an apartment to hunker down in for a month, so Angelo could get some writing done, and I could… well, do whatever. Or, you know, nothing much at all. Which is what I did.
We hit the jackpot with Huay Kaew Residence, an apartment complex with pool, gym, salons, massage parlour, laundry – yes, actual washing machines! – and mini-mart all inside the complex and a shopping mall right next door. Not only was it in an ideal location, but it was cheap as chips, with a double room and onsuite costing us a mere 5000 bahts ($180) for the entire month. Wellington, eat your heart out.
With new friend Izzy from Scotland in tow, we soon had our local eats sorted. She let us in on some great local secrets: half priced bakery goods after 7pm; vegetarian lunch buffets; and cheap fresh fruit, and was a merry companion on my regular food outings. In fact for the first time since arriving in Thailand, we had more than a handful of vegetarian places to eat at, increasing our options from rice + vegetables and ‘vegetable soup’ – which is never really vegetarian as it’s made with chicken broth – to all manner of things. Unfortunately though, these cafes were often quite beyond our budget, but nice for a treat.
My hopes and plans of finding a yoga course or some creative outlet never came to anything thanks to my own laziness, but I did enjoy using a gym and swimming – for the first three days anyway. Fairly regular writing breaks saw us exploring the ‘Walled City’ where you’d be doing well not to trip over the numerous ruins of temples and stupas laying about, and Sunday nights were particularly anticipated as the whole center of town converts into a large street market showcasing many of the boutique arts and crafts on offer around the city, among other market-y things. But if Sunday was too far away we could always stretch our legs at the night bazaar, finding inspiration in the underground art section where artists sketch the most lifelike pictures using charcoal pencils.
We embraced some of the more touristy things to do including the fish spa. Why on earth anyone would want to put their feet into a dirty fish tank – and yes, it IS dirty, I can see the skin – and let the little critters nibble at your dead skin cells is beyond me. But, when in Rome…
It was HORRIBLE. We had paid for 30 minutes and I could barely keep my foot in there for three seconds. I should add that I am ridiculously ticklish on my feet, and no amount of concentration or self induced ‘zen-state’ could keep me still. We left before our time was up but not before I was wondering how many other feet meals those fish had had before feasting on my Kiwi plodders. Can fish carry diseases? What if someone had Athlete’s foot? Have I now got Athlete’s foot? (By the way don’t google that. Yuck.)
The Chiang Mai Women Correctional Institution and Vocational Training Center offers traditional Thai massages, and a food and drink service: aka, a cafe, as a rehabilitation programme for its prisoners that are soon to be released. Thai massages are not like western massages either: plenty of stretching, prodding, and contortionist movements, and that’s just to put on the outfit they give you. Your joints are pulled so hard they feel like they’ll soon not be joining anything anymore and you and your extremities are bent in every possible direction for the sake of stretching and loosening. We wobbled out of there feeling somewhat lively – or thankful to be alive? – and continued on our way.
Arguably one of the better sights to see in Chiang Mai is the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Buddhist temple, located on a mountain of the same name, that looks out over the city. Our small scooter struggling up some of the ascent we arrived mid afternoon in the hopes of catching the chanting monks at prayer time. There is something special about walking around in a temple such as this: bells chime, incense smoke rises and falls with the breeze filling the grounds with its scent, the golden stupas are lit up by the sun, and there is an incredible sense of peace and serenity. It’s going to sound a bit corny now when I say “then I saw a rainbow” – but I did, and it was pretty.
And as if a bigger contrast could be possible, we spent the night ringside watching Thai and foreigner alike beat the absolute shit out of each other in the Muay Thai boxing ring. There’s a somewhat artistic side to this martial arts, as each fighter begins by performing a ritual called Wai Khru Ram Muay. The fighter circles the ring three times kneeling and bowing in respect to his teachers, God and man. This is Wai Khru. Then Ram Muay, which means ‘dance’ and ‘boxing’, is a show of personal style and skill enacted on each side of the ring, facing the audience. Then commences a lot of quite brutal punching, kicking and elbowing, and some very enthusiastic shouts and jumps from the crowd. I spent the entire evening with alternating expressions of concern and amusement, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Maybe because I could walk away completely unscathed afterwards. I could’ve walked away richer too if I’d taken the risk to bet on the competitors. But winning money on the account of one six-year old knocking out another six-year just didn’t seem right…
With flights booked to Myanmar for the end of the month we had three weeks to kill before we had to be back in Bangkok. Our options were: two weeks in the East of Thailand, a place said to be stunning and less touristic; or Laos, which, of course, is another country all together.
Guess I’ll be seeing you in Laos!