Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Up north in Chiang Mai

30-Nov-2009 by Jason

Well we woke up Wednesday morning to beautiful blue skies and a train that was roughly 2.5 hours behind schedule. We had breakfast a little after 8am, Swiss ventured to try the club sandwich, I had the eggs and toast.

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Since we were late and Koi (our train car attendant) had time on his hands, he stopped by to share some music from his “iPod.” I use quotes because he told us he bought it (a 60GB video iPod) at a night market in Bangkok for 2000 baht, or roughly USD 60…a price that immediately made me think “knock off.” He showed me some tunes (he has a varied selection of music from dance/techno to western style pop and thai style country music.) When he went to take care of some other people in our train car I had to browse through the menus and could not find any obvious signs that this was a knock off at all, pretty well done!

We were originally scheduled to arrive at 9.35am but pulled in right around noon instead due to two delays the night prior. With our extra time on the train I wandered a little to get a few pictures:

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We did a quick bit of research on the train (thank you WikiTravel…if you haven’t tried this site it’s a nice little supplement or even potential replacement for Lonely Plant, check it out!) since the guesthouse that we’d received multiple recommendations for had been booked full the past three days. We caught a songthaew into town and were dropped off at the end of the lane for Kavil Guesthouse. We weren’t sure what to expect so we initially booked one night but found our 3rd floor room spacious, clean, safe, with hot water shower and with a wifi signal from the lobby we were set. [Note: There seems to be an abundance of Wifi in Chiang Mai, it’s plentiful in cafes, bars and guest houses. I, personally, wouldn’t stay anywhere that doesn’t offer free wifi as it seems to be pretty standard up here.] In addition you turn left out of this place to arrive at the amazing Sunday market, it’s only a 15 minute walk to the night market AND turn right and walk about 2 minutes for a great selection of bars, restaurants, cafes and the ever handy 7/11. We were sold on this place especially at the great rate of only 250 THB/night!!

On the ride into town from the train station we met John, a young traveler from Scotland who’s on a nearly year long journey around the world after being made “redundant” at his job back home. Also in search of a room he followed us to our place, liked what he saw and the even lower price (180 THB) for a slightly smaller room and checked in too. He joined us for lunch just up the road at a little cafe and for a stroll around town just to see if there was anything better nearby (we’ve come to not settle into a place for more than a night without at least checking out the area and competition, but again Kavil was a great choice so we stayed put) Below a random restaurant here in Chiang Mai that we saw on our stroll and totally reminded me of home, particularly of Purdue and West Lafayette, IN…maybe slightly Triple XXX-esque?!?!

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A quick nap in the late afternoon since I didn’t sleep too well on the bouncy train bed and we got together with John in the early evening for a walk over to the nightly market held about 15 minutes away. The market was nice, stretched about 2-3 blocks with a few off shoots into some side alleys also. After walking one length of the market, though, we were disappointed not to find and sort of street food vendors, a stark change from Bangkok and slightly disappointing. Luckily on the walk back up the road we ducked into one of the side areas and found a plentiful selection of vendors and small restaurants and we stopped to grab a bite to eat. After dinner Swiss’s sweet tooth reared it’s head (or crown?) and he was in the mood for a sweet roti. He found a place near where we had dinner that was just so-so. It was roti, but the service was certainly not hospitable and the quality of product was meager at best. Irish eyes were smiling on us (or are they Scottish since we were with John?) and we crossed another roti cart on our walk home. While the first cart delivered an inferior product for 10 THB, our second cart offered a delicious and tasty sweet roti and for only 6 THB to boot! We decided to explore our little area and stop by a bar for one beer before bed. Having settled in at the “quiet” bar (ie. no music playing) but in the courtyard next to 3 other bars blasting their music, we had a drink at a much lower price than the other options with all the musical enjoyment we could stand. So have you ever started a joke with “So an elephant walks into a bar…” and wished you could actually witness such a thing!?!? Well we can now, since about 15 minutes into our beer a small baby elephant was walked into the courtyard next to our bar. We watched as it’s handlers attempted to sell fruit to people to feed to the elephants. Amazed and dumbfounded by what we saw (OK, I admit it, I’m a city boy not used to seeing that) we each had to literally pick our jaws up off the floor and continue our conversation. But wait!! About 20 minutes later the same handlers came back with an even larger elephant and walked it into the courtyard next door again. This time they had a few takers next door and we watched some drunk tourists feed the elephants, something this American city boy considers a once in a lifetime sight! :) As I said, just one drink and we were headed home for bed and some much needed sleep after a long day.

Who wants a bowl cut??

So we slept in and finally got moving on Thursday (actual American Thanksgiving day) around 11am. The first goal was to get a haircut and then rent a scooter. Not wanting to spend much time really looking around we went to the place up the road which was also only 100 THB (just under USD 3) for a haircut. We both walked out with a chop job to say the least! I mean it’s shorter than it was and she didn’t gouge out any bald spots, but it’s nothing like going to my usual place…and Swiss being sensitive about his hair was less than happy with his results also.  He says he looks like an Owl. Oh well, as Swiss likes to say now “the difference between a bad haircut and a good haircut is two weeks.” We headed down the street and Swiss rented a scooter (manual this time) for 150 THB. The intention was to ride over to the other side of town to find Julie Guest house, the place that we’d received multiple recommendations for and supposedly had a great travel booking office also, then ride up to Tesco Lotus, possibly to buy a chicken to celebrate Thanksgiving (I have no idea where you’d even start looking to find a turkey here!) Well we had a general idea of where Julie GH was located but our search was another fail. Being quite hungry and starting to get grouchy we stopped at a little local place for lunch. They welcomed us in graciously and seated us and once they had us they proceeded to tell us in the most basic broken English that they didn’t have an English language menu. I don’t mean to make it seem like they were being malicious in any way, I don’t think they were, it just would’ve been nice to have been told that they don’t have an English menu before we were seated. Curiously, the woman running the shop looked Thai (to me and my silly Western eyes) but when she wiped down our table and I moved a few items she thanked me with “Xie xie” [which is Chinese] instead of the usual Thai phrase we’d grown used to. I was confused only because the remainder of the stay was handled in Thai, but I guess there’s probably more Chinese influence the further north we move. Ordering was easy, she told us she had a selection of noodles she could serve fried or in a soup with chicken or pork. Any guesses on what Swiss had?? That’s right, the chicken pad thai, while I had the “skinny yellow fried noodles with chicken” Let’s just say that it was one of the heartiest servings of veggies in a fried noodle dish I’ve had on this trip so far and it was delicious, as were Swiss’s noodles also. We asked for directions to the Tesco Lotus but were met with blank stares, confusion, and the other patron of the restaurant telling us that she had bad eye sight and couldn’t read our map. Deflated and resigned to getting directions at our guest house we decided just to ride around town and see what was out there (making mental notes of things to explore later on foot) On our way home we ran into Team London (Sally and Caroline) who’d finally made it up to Chiang Mai (they left a day later than we did in order to go on a one day tour south of Bangkok) and they met some guys on the train, Craig from Canada and Hein from Holland. We dropped off the scooter and joined them for a celebratory Thanksgiving beer at the nearby Chiang Mai Saloon (picture Texas Roadhouse/Outback steakhouse, complete with free popcorn and peanuts in the shell!) It was a real piece of recreated Americana, I guess a fitting place to go on Thanksgiving. The group left for a meeting they had (they were leaving on a 2 day trek the following morning) while we ran into John and rejoined the group about 2 hours later for some street food (nothing screams Thanksgiving like pork noodle soup) a few blocks from our place. Sally was in need of a hoodie for her trek the following day so we walked with her all the way out to the night bazaar a second night in a row. While there I enjoyed a delicious mango and sticky rice (very Thanksgiving, right?!?) OK, let’s be honest, I devoured it and was still hungry. We walked back to our usual hangout area and I stopped in and had a slice of cheese pizza from the “NY Style Pizza” place (sorry Chicago!!) The cheese and dough were decent, the sauce was definitely out of some funky can and was not the best, but I guess that was as close to American food as I was having for Thanksgiving.

The odd calming sensation of going to a big box store

Friday morning we were up pretty early and had to use the scooter before it was to be returned a little after noon. We got directions (very easy) from the front desk of our place and were off in the cool morning air before 8.30am. We barely avoided turning onto the “Superhighway” that goes around Chiang Mai [that little 100 cc scooter could not have been on that road, at those speeds, with our large western rears in tow] so we looped around and conveniently found the back entrance to the store off a side road. We stopped downstairs at the Dunkin Donuts for a quick bite while I talked to my mom and sister (it was Thanksgiving night back in the states) and then we headed upstairs. Now, being a midwestern guy (and both of us having gone to Purdue) we’re fairly familiar with Walmart…and this Tesco Lotus in Chiang Mai felt exactly like we’d stepped into the Arkansas super chain! Now I haven’t shopped in a Walmart in years and since moving to SF haven’t been in many big box stores too often (except for an occasional run to Target) but having been out of the states for over 3 months there was something oddly calming and comforting for both of us being in this store. We wandered the aisles for over an hour, enjoying both the western items for sale that reminded us of home and the Thai items that we could now finally tell what they were since price tags in Tesco were, for the most part, in both English and Thai! We each picked up a few toiletries and other things and headed back to town to return the rented motor scooter. We stopped by a local cafe for lunch and then wandered around Chiang Mai city for a few hours.

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We returned back to our guest house for Swiss to book his trek and myself another cooking course.

Friday evening we decided to head out towards the airport, south of town, to check out the Annual Chiang Mai Food and Entertainment Festival along with John, our new friend from Scotland. I found the location, eventually, on Google maps and what looked like it wouldn’t be a bad walk…was longer than planned. We made it out there in about 45 minutes and were greeted by a sight we hadn’t seen in, well, weeks! An event with virtually no tourists!

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Honestly it was a lot like an American-style summer carnival. There were rides, food vendors, a stage with live music and performers and children’s games scattered around. It was a nice family event, although sponsored by Chang beer, which confused us a little (as Americans I’m used to beer sponsoring sporting events and major concerts, but not so much a family food festival, but who am I to complain?! :) So we tried a few items, specifically I had a pork bun (spicier than I’m used to but well seasoned), some grilled pork, and then this plate of grilled beef, a fried egg, mixed winter veggies and mashed potatoes, with 2 spicy dipping sauces. Definitely a culinary adventure:

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After listening to the “interesting” local band play and enjoying our food and walk around we headed back through the adjacent mall and on our way home. Now Thailand is a more than predominately Buddhist nation that does not (until recently I guess) celebrate Christmas. Of course, I doubt that people do anything in their homes but through the power of capitalism and the ever growing western influence this mall featured a Christmas tree and the exterior fountain decorated for the (Christian) holiday season!

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Off for a walk through the woods and cooking up a storm

Saturday morning we were both up early as Swiss was leaving for his 2 day trek and I was heading off for a full day cooking course. We had free breakfast downstairs in our guest house and I left first for cooking. I was joined by an American from Brooklyn (Jeremy), 3 French women, a couple from New Zealand and two female friends, from Holland and Canada. We stopped first at a local market where our teacher showed us various things about local ingredients, including sauces, spices (they use a lot of MSG, I hear, next door in Laos) the extraction of coconut milk/cream and some produce. With some time to wander on our own, we were off for the half hour ride out to their farm for our actual class. We went by learning about cooking sticky rice (you steam it) vs regular rice (you put the rice and water in a rice cooker, haha!) And started by making our own curry paste from scratch.

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From there we moved on to making a soup, I chose to make Tom Yam soup with shrimp, which was quite tasty.

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One thing I really liked about this class was that we all didn’t have to make the same thing. For the second dish we each made a soup but we could choose between Tom Yam or a coconut milk based soup and our instructor was flexible enough to work with all of us at once. We didn’t have the awkward “What should we all make?” conversation like we did in our class back on Koh Lanta. We stopped there to enjoy our creations for lunch. In the afternoon we each made a stir fry, I made Chicken with cashew nuts, then later (after some lemongrass tea, which supposedly aids in digestion!) I made mango with sticky rice and pad thai.

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Of course there was no room left to eat anymore so I took the last two dishes home for dinner. We headed back to town and arrived just before 5pm, with talk of our group meeting around 9pm for a drink. I relaxed for a little while back in the room, enjoyed my leftovers for a very late dinner and went to the gate nearby at 9pm to meet our group and also Sally and Caroline for a drink. They’d found John, our friend from Scotland, so they joined us. From the cooking class it was just Jeremy who made it out (I had faith in the American! :) And he brought his friend Scott (from Sheffield, UK) with him. We stopped by a local roof top bar for a few (great views, relatively quiet, although we learned they’d just opened three days earlier) then headed back to the area we went our first night in town to check out some fire spinning and live music. It was a good night out with a fun group of people.

Sunday was a pretty lazy day for me. I dropped off some laundry (ok, nearly all the clothes I have with me) around 9.30am (ready by 7pm for only 25 THB/kg?!?!) and came back to make some calls home on Skype. I then decided to be productive and headed out to lunch with laptop and notebook in tow, ready to do research on a route for the last third of our trip so we can get a quote on our last big batch of airline tickets. I did some reading, some writing and a whole lot of note taking and now waiting to see how well this may or may not align with the route Swiss needs to look into. Swiss got back around 5pm.  Here is Swiss’ recap:

If I had to sum up my two day trekking experience in one word, it would be a somewhat indifferent “meh”.  After hearing glowing reviews about treks booked through Julies, but unable to locate said guesthouse earlier in the week, I decided to bite the bullet and just book my trek through our guesthouse, Kavil.  The two day itinerary was as follows:  Get picked up at guesthouse by truck, go to market for supplies (truck), go to butterfly farm and orchid garden (truck), visit a longneck tribe (truck), have lunch, hike for ~3 hours via a jungle cave and hilltribe village to Pandang (I think) village, have dinner and spend the night there, hike out, go elephant riding (truck), go bamboo rafting (truck), have lunch, go to waterfall (truck), go whitewater rafting (truck), return to guesthouse.  Free breakfast at the guesthouse and free backpack to use.  All this for 1400 THB or about 45 USD.  Sound good?

I got picked up at the guesthouse around 9am and joined my fellow trekkers from the UK (3), Germany (2), Italy (2) and South Korea (5).  A couple of them were on the 3 day tour, while the majority had opted for the 2 day itinerary.  I quickly learned that I had overpaid by probably around 200-300 baht, not a good start, but ok given I didn’t shop around as much as I should have.  I can live with that.  What bugged me more was that the whole thing seemed very touristy:  I wanted to do some decent hiking to get away from civilization, which was somewhat achieved during our 3 hour hike that turned into a 4.5 hour ordeal due to a painfully slow Italian couple with piss poor footwear and an inversely nicer video camera.

Prior to the hike, we swung by the butterfly farm (crummy) and orchid garden (nice), and visited the longneck tribe (tourist trap – team Germany didn’t get to go in since they only paid 1000 THB for their tour, definitely worth the savings).  We then had fried rice for lunch prior to setting out on the hike.  Up to that point I was very disappointed, because everything seemed staged. Below are pictures, including a closed eye shot of me at the longneck village with our tour guide, Tom, who talked a lot about nothing and I thought was rather annoying at times.

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The hike, other than the slow Italians, was pretty decent.  We visited a pretty cool cave, got to see some of the local farming action (notice the picture of the peanut plant below), and definitely managed to get some good exercise prior to arriving at our overnight camp around 5pm or so. 

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We got up the next morning to “hike out” from camp, which we discovered was actually just a 10 minute walk from civilization, not nearly as remote as it had appeared when we arrived after our hike.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  For the remainder of the day, we followed the itinerary described above.  All of this was done by being shuttled around by truck, which was again disappointing from an exercise perspective, especially given the lackluster 10 minute “hike” out from the camp.  I will admit that all the activities were actually quite fun, especially the bamboo rafting, it’s just that I was hoping to do more trekking and less shuttling.  I’m also somewhat torn on the elephant riding piece, since I hear there are quite a few instances of elephant abuse in Thailand.  I’d have preferred a sanctuary instead, but couldn’t judge how they treat the elephants at our particular location.  The highlight of the day was probably visiting a one week old elephant after we had completed white water rafting to conclude the day.  Overall, I can’t say I recommend this particular tour, unless you can get it severely discounted (say 800-1000 THB)

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Sunday market…gorging on street food

Around 6.30pm we met up with Jeremy, Scott and John and headed just down to the end of our lane for the Sunday market. Now this thing was massive, stretching many blocks down the road and the market spilling off into alleys, side streets and various temples. We all gorged and way too much street food (it was almost all delicious although Scott made some questionable choices, including a drink called simply, “Herbs”) then walked through the packed market for over an hour. It was really great to see and a cool sight…definitely worth a visit if you’re coming to Chiang Mai, be sure to be here on a Sunday night!

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Afterwards we went to the western style saloon for a beer and to watch some soccer. I headed home as did Sally around 11pm while Swiss and the boys had a few more that night and well into the next morning. Let’s just say Swiss paid for his choices the next day :)

Monday morning I was up and ready to get some writing done. We headed out for breakfast to a little place near Sally and Caroline’s guest house where, as it turns out, the one employee there spoke no English really and I literally walked into the kitchen to pick out my tea since the phrase “jasmine tea” meant nothing to her. I felt bad for her working there at a place with an only English menu (no thai in there) and being the only one there with no help. Her Khao Soi (a northern style chicken curry noodle soup) though was delicious! While at this place we found a copy of Lonely Planet San Francisco and took a stroll through SF, seeing what this 3 year old guide book had to say about my home town (and boy, many of those restaurants mentioned are out of business! Don’t trust a printed book for SF food recommendations!) We then found a local place nearby where we each had a nice massage (Thai for me, Oil for Swiss – which drew a couple chuckles from the ladies there) and then back to our place to work on some blog posts. We met up with Sally and Caroline for dinner and with nothing in mind saw a place near their guest house that advertised as Mexican. We wandered over expecting a feeble attempt at recreating the food of my old SF neighborhood but were pleasantly surprised that their dishes were surprisingly authentic and delicious. I had the nachos, Swiss the steak burrito and the girls each a taco salad. Swiss, still paying for his choices the night before, went home while I joined the girls for a nightcap at a little place near their guest house.

Are you ready for some football?!?

That’s right, we were up and going early Tuesday morning so we could be at the UN Irish Pub and Restaurant to watch the Saints/Patriots game live (Monday night in the States!) We watched Drew Brees (fellow Purdue alumnus) and the Saints destroy Bill, Tom and company with a bar full of Americans who, it seems, are there regularly to watch football games.

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Swiss went off around lunch time in search of more pad thai while I wandered around town just south east of our area in search of bookstores (none that had a book exchange area though) and stopped in a little Italian place for lunch. The late afternoon was spent research lodging options for our next destination, Pai, and I think we’ve found a good choice (hopefully, based upon my phone conversation with someone there) We’ll be up early to head out to the bus station and catch an early bus over to Pai (only 135km but almost 4 hours due to the winding roads!)

2 comments:

Alvin said...

Post some closeups pics of those famous haircuts! Btw, I just got mine trimmed at our usual place...

brian said...

Lots of great photos. I did an overnight car from Ao Nang to Bangkok. Your train seems alot nicer than mine. My meal on the train was a little overpriced for Thailand standards, but it was excellent.

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