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Colin and Sue’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

MapWe took another night train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. This time we sampled the onboard breakfast in the restaurant car - about as good (or bad) as UK railway food. Chiang Mai is the 2nd biggest city in the country but is a lot more relaxed than Bangkok. We're staying in a Dutch run guesthouse(Awana Sleep and Swim) in the old city, within the city walls and moat. We've spent some time sightseeing - lots of little lanes with old teak-wood houses and a temple on nearly every corner.

We've been travelling by tuk-tuk (three wheeled open sided taxi with a motorbike engine) for the first time. We hailed one driven by a youth with his girlfriend riding alongside - in hindsight we think they were doing the equivalent of "the knowledge" or that they had just borrowed it for the afternoon - we said we were going to one of the four main gates into the old city - which everyone knows. They consulted each other and giggled, we showed them where it was on the map, they consulted more and suggested a 60 baht fare. We agreed on 50 baht and set off - by now in the pouring rain. The tuk-tuk kept stalling and backfiring and they kept stopping for directions even though we knew the way. They gave us their umbrella and eventually we arrived at the gate, we directed them to our guesthouse and the girl took us one by one to the door sheltering under the umbrella. We were quite happy and amused by it all but they were very apologetic saying "sorry, new driver, new driver" and would only take 40 baht - so definitely new to the game. Fortunately we were back before the road outside was knee deep in water.

We decided to do another cookery course - with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School which is run by a Thai TV chef, fortunately he wasn't like Gordon Ramsey or indeed Micky from Kanchanaburi. This one involved learning to make the curry pastes - lots of hard work with a huge pestle and mortar - good for the arm muscles. Yet again we cooked loads of delicious food and ate far too much. We made black sticky rice pudding - very nice but probably equivalent to deep-fried Mars bars on health grounds. In fact we have discovered that coconut milk is very high in cholesterol so our healthy Thai diet is looking a bit suspect.

We also went on a 2 day hill trek - we had been dithering about which one to choose of the numerous options. Anyway, a Dutch family staying at our guesthouse had already booked one and their guide came by at breakfast to brief them for the following day. We listened in, it seemed fine so we decided to join them which made it very easy. It turned out really well - there was us, the Dutch couple with their 2 boys aged 9 and 11, and 3 English lads.

The first day involved visiting a waterfall and hot springs and then 3 hours trekking through steep, muddy jungle to the Karen village in the Mae Tong area where we stayed. It was quite rainy which made it more muddy but kept the temperature down which was good. There were also loads of leeches and, despite rubbing tobacco water on our legs and putting tobacco in our boots, socks etc. Richard, one of the English boys and Sue were attacked. Our guide, Susin, suggested using dead spiders to stop the bleeding - Richard went for it but Sue opted for a boring plaster (imagine getting a leg infecton and telling your doctor that you were bitten by a leech and then pressed a dead spider from the roof into the wound).

The Karen people are originally from Burma and the older people generally don't speak Thai - our guide, Susin, and his brother, the cook, were from another Karen village. The village was quite near the Burma border and the opium growing area of the Golden Triangle - although our guide said that opium was no longer openly cultivated. Our village had about 20 families, was only accessible by foot and was about 1.5 hours walk to the next larger village for school, doctors etc. The kids had to either walk to school each day or stay with people in the next village. They had solar panels for electricity (lighting only) but the day we arrived, which had been wet and cloudy, the lights went out at 8pm and then it was candles, torches etc. It really was a different world.

After another night of rain, we walked for an hour to the river - the plan was to ride elephants to another village down river and then take bamboo rafts further downstream. Unfortunately the water was too high for the elephants to cross the river safely so whilst we had an elephant ride (no bathing but still fun especially sitting on the elephant's neck rather than in the chair) the guides built 2 rather flimsy looking rafts. The rafts floated just below the surface of the water and were very wet in the rougher sections. They were steered by bamboo poles, a bit like punting.

We arrived at the next village downstream where the guides consulted on river conditions and after reinforcing the raft (some extra twine) and taking on a river guide (a boy who looked about 12) we set off. This stretch was much rougher with rapids which the non-punters had to sit down for - Colin had to keep standing to help with the steering, although he decided to let go of his pole when it got trapped under the raft. We had to walk one apparently dangerous section where rafts had broken up last year - leaving our bags on the raft - but fortunately rafts, guides and bags all survived.

The last leg of the journey was by truck which was delayed by a fallen tree blocking the road - the (unpaved) road was dug out to enable trucks to get through. So all in all it was an eventful and interesting trip.