Feb 24 11

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by Emily Benjamin

We had a couple of options for how to get to Luang Prabang in Laos from Chiang Mai, as offered to us by our friends at Sawasdee Guest House. We could take the fast boat, which is notorious for sinking or crashing and considered by most guide books as ‘dangerous’, or we could take the slow boat, which does the same trip but over two days and while it is considered safer, guide books also recommend massages before and after the 14 hour boat ride. We could also fly, but where’s the fun in that!?!

After a bit more research (mainly with TravelFish) we decided on another option. Rather than following the usual tourist route, we decided to avoid the usual Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tourist trap before making our way to Luang Prabang. We took a 3 hour bus north from Chiang Mai to Thaton, and then a 4 hour boat down to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai, you are able to take a short bus ride to the Laos border, and thus it is a popular stop for travellers hoping to make this crossing. But in choosing the more scenic route to get there, we were piled into a long boat with 10 other people, giving me the very first minor panic attack of the trip so far. But let’s get to the good, first.

The boat trip was beautiful. The river winds its way through northern Thailand, snaking through mountains and small villages, around bends and over rapids. We saw locals fishing, dredging and eating by the river beds, kids jumping from rocks into the water and buffalo swimming and drinking together downstream. It was surreal to be navigating rapids in an almost-submerged long boat, then turning a corner to see a herd of buffalo just 10 metres away. While the trip was long, we were blessed with perfect weather and a capable captain, who got us to Chiang Rai safely just after 4pm.

But for the first half of the journey, I was scared shitless. I don’t like to use that language publicly, but there is no other way to describe how I was feeling for the first 2 hours on that boat. When I say almost-submerged, I mean it. If I had leaned back much further, I would have tipped the boat and sunk it. About 10 minutes into the journey, the boat stopped and the captain asked people to switch seats because we were uneven. Every few minutes we’d scratch the ground, or be heading straight for a pile of trees/branches/rocks, and I would look back at the captain and see the look of anxiety on his face. Jamie will think I’m making that part up, but through my fearful eyes, that’s how I saw it. You could watch the concentration and concern on the captains face as he negotiated his way down the winding river, which literally had us zigzagging left and right to find sections deep enough to take our heavy boatload. Oh, and did I mention that our journey started with 12 people and we still collected another two on the way? My thought at the time – ‘you can NOT be SERIOUS!’

Despite all this anxiety, those who know me well will find humour in this – after my initial thought of ‘oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die’ my second thought was ‘I’d better finish my chocolate bar, chips and can of drink to save them going to waste.’ Yes, it’s true – food is ALWAYS on my mind.

Now, twenty hours later, I can look at all of this rationally and realise that if we HAD capsized, it would have been because the river was too shallow and we’d run a ground. Which would be fine, because we’d just stand up in the shallow water and walk to the river bank. Or if we tipped in a section that was a little deeper, no problems – I’m a confident swimmer, and I could probably still swim to shore with my valuables above my head, kept dry. If not, insurance would replace them. So I can see that there was never a real threat to my life yesterday, on our semi-submerged long boat. But there was no convincing me of that at the time!

So that’s the good, the bad… now the ugly. I’m sick. This time I can see that it’s not life threatening, but it is keeping me bed bound and grumpy on an otherwise pleasant Chiang Rai day. It had been slowly building for the past 2 or 3 days, so I can now assume that this cold/flu contributed to my feelings of nausea yesterday on the boat. But now, it’s gripped me good and proper and I’ve had to dig into the emergency medical supplies for cold and flu tablets and panadol. At least the $500+ pack of pharma goodies isn’t being wasted, and I’ve got a proper excuse for staying in bed, being looked after (Jamie’s out getting me snacks and drinks, yay!) and watching movies. Tomorrow, sick or healthy, I’ll be up and moving again as we head to Laos.

Till next time,

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 20 11

Welcome to Chiang Mai!

by Emily Benjamin

It feels like it has been ages since I last posted, when in fact it has only been about 3 days. That’s how relaxing Chiang Mai is.

This city is beautiful. Absolutely stunning. So warm, friendly, and welcoming to newcomers, I fell in love with Chiang Mai the moment we stepped out of the airport. Our cab driver told us stories of his house in the mountains, and invited us to visit to meet his family and see his baby elephants. We were shown a photo album of his home and surrounding areas and tribes, and at first I thought he was just on commission to get us to join tour groups. But he was just genuinely friendly, and keen to show off his home.

We arrived at 4pm Wednesday and met Sam, the owner of our guest house, to check in. Feeling relaxed but energetic, and with the temperature mild and the sky clear, we set off on bikes to do a quick tour of the city, and see if we could find the night markets. On the map, it seemed the Night Bazaar was only 3kms away, so we expected it would be a short ride. However 3 hours and 13kms later, we made it home, without having seen the markets at all. Well, that’s not entirely true – we saw some markets… just not the ones we were looking for! Tired and disoriented (we’d been off by 90 degrees more than once while riding, thinking north was east and south was west. Whoops) we head back to Sawasdee Guest House and crashed for the first of many wonderful nights at the hostel (very highly recommended, by the way, if you’re ever in Chiang Mai. We love it so much, we’ve extended our stay twice already!)

On Thursday we were up early for a cooking class at an organic farm, south of Chiang Mai. We were greeted by a driver at 8am who welcomed us with “Today, you are locals!” We collected the other participants (eight of us in total) and caught a train out towards Lamphun. There, our ‘head chef’ for the day, Oi, took us on a bicycle tour of the farm, showing us the different herbs and vegetables being grown there for the thai markets. More types of basil than I knew existed! After picking a few fresh ingredients, it was back to the outdoor kitchen to start cooking the dishes we’d each selected to cook for the day. Choosing 6 each, Jamie and I split our choices and I am proud to say that between us, we can now cook 12 thai dishes – including pad thai, panaeng and green curries, spring rolls and sticky rice with mango. You’d think 6 meals in a day was too much but no, we were able to eat all of it, and then drink beer all night long with the cooking group at a reggae bar back in Chiang Mai. But the details of that are a little sketchy ;)

Friday and we were up early again, collected by a young thai boy named Mac for a trip to Elephant Nature Park, about an hour outside of the city. There are 35 elephants here – 31 girls and 4 boys. As Mac tells us, the boys like these odds! They’ve split themselves into about 5 packs, but most of the elephants are friendly with each other, with the exception of one boy that has stabbed one of the girl elephants when she refused to have sex with him. True story, and now they have to be kept away from each other. Kind of like an Apprehend Violence Order she has on him now, I think! We walked around and met the gentle giants, fed them buckets of watermelon, pumpkins and cucumbers, and after lunch we took them down to the river and washed them. Some were more willing to be washed than others but all of them got wet somehow, either by buckets or by swimming in the mud pit instead.

In the afternoon we fed them again, after watching a quick documentary about the treatment of elephants in Asia. It was horrifying to see how many of these animals have been treated from such a young age, beaten into submission and forced to work, then abandoned when the work dries up. Thankfully there are organisations like Elephant Nature Park that take these beautiful animals back to the park where they are cared for day in, day out.

That brings us to Saturday, and I can’t believe it has been a week since I left Brisbane. We’ve been ripped off by tuk tuk drivers, eaten dinners and had drinks for under $1.50 each, seen spectacular temples, beautiful elephants and been lost by bike. Today we relaxed with a sleep in, massages, $4 lunch and a quick trip up to Doi Suthep to see the temple overlooking Chiang Mai. Tomorrow we’ll spend some time in the Sunday Markets lining the city streets, Monday we’re going for a jungle trek through to waterfalls and white water rafting, and Tuesday we visit Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand at 2500m. After that, we’ll probably head north/north east and cross into Laos for a few days in the mountains, off the grid.

I’ve had a bit of trouble uploading some of the photos onto the blog. There are a few more photos back on the main page, and I’ll upload the rest to Flickr and Facebook.

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 20 11

Chiang Mai

by Emily Benjamin

Beautiful Chiang Mai. It’s hard not to feel relaxed in this city, with the mountains, fresh air and kind locals. The food is fresh and cheap, the transport simple (just walk, or borrow a bike) and on the outskirts of the city you have everything from cooking classes, to tiger and elephant farms, to meditation courses. I had high expectations of Chiang Mai, based on the advice of my friends, and I have not been disappointed. This city is a must for anyone visiting Thailand.Chiang MaiFishermanFuzzy BananasIMG 7940

The BellsIMG 8082

Filed Under → Travel
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