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Shari & Will’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 22 Jul 2007

Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

MapThe Thai railway system is perhaps the best in the world - efficient accurate information on the website, no queues at the ticket office in Bangkok, air conditioned station and carriages, punctual trains and free food. Suffice to say the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was smooth and comfortable, albeit somewhat lengthy. We sped across a level plain abounding in paddi fields and curiously shaped water towers, criss crossed with overflowing drainage channels, and dotted with houses on stilts. Abruptly the landscape changed as we plunged into the northern mountains, the train slowing to wind among jagged hills clad in verdant forest - green everywhere. One twee little station after another emerged from the jungle, each with a tiny, immaculately coiffed garden and wooden stationmaster's hut, and with each we passed the bustle and authority of the city faded a lttle more.
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai we engaged a Tuk Tuk driver with a brief and amicable barter, and were whisked directly to our chosen dwelling: the aptly named 'Nice Apartment' where the equivalent of four pounds sterling secured an ensuite room with air con, a fridge, TV and fresh towels.
The city had a very relaxed vibe with nods and smiles abounding. Tasty food and drink was plentiful and cheap. We wondered around and eventually settled in a bar where something caught my eye - a pump sat atop the bar gleaming in splendour and bearing the familiar trademark of Guinness. After our experience in Egypt we were cautiously sceptical - surely not, how far away is Dublin anyway? However our fears were unfounded and our scepticism unjust - soon we were sat supping the black stuff with thankful incredulity.
After enjoying so much of the local fare we decided to take advantage of the chance to learn it's secrets and enrolled on a cookery course. Five courses were learned, cooked and consumed in the space of as many hours. Foolishly we had eaten breakfast before arriving and by four in the afternoon not only were our brains turgid with recipes but our guts distended with their implementation as we sat replete, our lips stinging with chilli.
An evening of Muay Thai was next on the agenda, purely for reasons of cultural curiosity of course. We were led through a stadium redolent of Tiger Balm and Deep Heat to the front row, well within range of stray flecks of sweat and blood. The fights themselves at first appeared strangely stylised, the boxers moving in formulaic progressions and each round being accompanied by arhythmic music that inexorably increased in tempo. However as the evening wore on the atmosphere got increasingly tense and energetic, the fights became more serious and vicious, the crowd became more frenzied, and of course larger sums of money changed hands. The climax was an international match between a Canadian and a Thai, which to our surprise ended with the Thai being knocked out and the bookmaker leaving with a broad grin. The highlight of the evening was when four boys of eight or nine years old were led into the ring blindfolded and wearing oversized boxing gloves. Despite our initial ethical qualms we were soon laughing along with the rest of the crowd as they flailed aimlessly at the air, managing to hit the referee more often than one another.
Before moving on we visited the night market where breathtakingly skilled artisans produced sublime works in oil on canvas and in carved wood. We marvelled at the intricately rendered woodland scenes complete with every crease on every leaf and a clever depiction of depth - vastly expensive but doubtlessly worth every baht. Other stalls sold everything from silk boxer shorts to 'genuine' rolexes, from buddhist mandala to lychee wine. On our way back we were drawn to a bar where a band of aging Thai rockers crooned out surprisingly good covers of well known stompers such as Knocking on Heavens Door, Hotel California and Jumping Jack Flash. Although at times it wasn't very clear whether they understood the lyrics.