For Frederik - who had to stay home to look after the dogs and pass his exams.
Billund to Bangkok
"Bangkok, Oriental settingAnd the city don't know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world in a
Show with everything but Yul Brynner" - Murray Head, One Night in Bangkok
Arrived in the early evening after an uneventful flight via Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi with Etihad Air (great food and service). The airport at Abu Dhabi is huge and looks like the set of some future space apocalypse film.
Picked up at the airport by the smiling C&C representative and before long we were on the way to Bangkok city. Struck by the contrast between the cardboard and plastic houses under the freeway bridges - brief glimpses of people sitting outside on plastic chairs watching television - and the huge, flower-decked portraits of the King smiling benevolenty down on passing traffic. I remember the King is immensely popular and respected in Thailand, and make a mental note not to step on any coins or bills while we are here.
Arrived at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel and were upgraded to a luxury family apartment with skyline view over the city and river. Namaste.
Lesson learnt: when in Thailand you are asked if you like hot food and would you like one chilli in your Green Papaya salad, the correct answer is not "No, give me two!"
Bangkok: Wat Pho
"One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you're lucky then the god's a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me"- Murray Head, One Night in Bangkok
Up early to watch the sunrise at 0630, then down to breakfast on the terrace with a view across the constant river traffic. Already 25 degrees, the sound of birds and the fragrance of the air compete with the surge and vibration of ships, barges and ferries.
Everything is green, lush and flowering - a sharp contrast to the raw winter setting in, in Denmark. A flock of Buddhist monks settles down for breakfast beside us, chatting and smiling and surfing the internet on their mobile phones.
By 0800 we are ready to move on, and catch a river ferry (15 baht or 3.5 kroner each) and travel the seven or so stops down-river to the temples at Wat Pho. We arrive at the temples well in advance of the days other tourists, and spend half an hour walking around almost alone, in the Zen calm of the inner courtyards.
Wikipedia: "Wat Pho is named after a monastery in India where Buddha is believed to have lived. Prior to the temple's founding, the site was a centre of education for traditional Thai medicine, and statues were created showing 5yoga positions.
An enormous Buddha image from Ayuthaya's Wat Phra Si Sanphet was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767; King Rama I(1782-1809 A.D.) incorporated its fragments to build a temple to enlarge and renovate the complex. The complex underwent many changes in the next 260 years. Under King 6Rama III (1824-1851 A.D.), plaques inscribed with medical texts were placed around the temple.These received recognition in the 7Memory of the World Programme launched by UNESCOon February 21, 2008. 8
Adjacent to the building housing the Reclining Buddha is a small raised garden, the centrepiece being a bodhi tree which is believed to have been propagated from the original tree in India where Buddha sat while awaiting enlightenment. The temple was created as a restoration of an earlier temple on the same site, Wat Phodharam, with the work beginning in 1788. The temple was restored and extended in the reign of King Rama III, and was restored again in 1982.
Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok (with an area of 50 rai, 80,000 square metres),9 and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, as well as one of the largest single Buddha images of 160 ft length:10 the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas, Thai พระพุทธไสยาสน์). The Wat Pho complex consists of two walled compounds bisected by Soi Chetuphon running east–west. The northern walled compound is where the reclining Buddha and massage school are found. The southern walled compound, , is a working Buddhist monastery with monks in residence and a school. Outside the temple, the grounds contain 91 (stupas or mounds), four (halls) and a (central shrine). 71 of smaller size contains the ashes of the royal family, and 21 large ones contain the ashes of Buddha.11 The four are dedicated to the four Chakri kings.4 The temple has sixteen gates around the complex guarded by Chinese giants carved out of rocks.5 These statues were originally imported as ballast on ship trading with China.11
I manage to sneak off for five minutes, and slip in to one of the smaller temples where I stand staring at a gilded Buddha while my ears begin to attune themselves to the sounds around me: a distant gong, the rhythmic sound of a saffron-clad monk sweeping the paving stones outside. All is quiet before the onslaught of the tourist masses. Reluctantly I leave the solitude and head off for the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Wikipedia: "The image of reclining Buddha is 15 m high and 43 m long with his right arm supporting the head with tight curls on two box-pillows of blue, richly encrusted with glass mosaics. The 3 m high and 4.5 m long foot of Buddha displays are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. They are divided into 108 arranged panels, displaying the auspicious symbols by which Buddha can be identified like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories. 5Over the statue is a seven tiered umbrella representing the authority of Thailand. 5 There are 108 bronze bowls in the corridor indicating the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. People drop coins in these bowls as it is believed to bring good fortune, and to help the monks maintain the 11 . Though the reclining Buddha is not a pilgrimage centre, it remains an object of popular piety. 4"
Later we catch a cab (80 Baht - more on this later) through the chaotic inner city streets to the MBK mall to stock up on provisions for tomorrow's trip to Chiang Mai. At one intersection a phalanx of scooters, tuk-tuks and trucks bears down on us like a gladiatorial charge, only to swerve away down a side street at the last possible moment. An entire street is lined with shops selling only huge gilded Buddha's - some must be four meters high - and monks robes and bowls.
At the mall we buy the necessary mosquito repellant and sun cream for the trekking we will do later in the week, and William and I find a high-end optician with Ray Ban sunglasses, for which he has saved up for a while. While William is looking through the Ray Ban selection I realise I can get a pair of titanium glasses, an eye test, and have the lenses made within an hour, and for a price less than one third of Danish prices. Unfortunately, I ended up destroying the pair I bought crashing through the jungle at Chiang Mai, so the pair below were bought at Andaman Optic near the Orchidacea Resort in Kata Beach.
Since 2002 NASA uses the frame of the designer model Titan Minimal Art of Silhouette, combined with specially dark lenses developed jointly by the company and NASA'S optometrist Keith Manuel. The frame is very light at 1.8 grams, and devoid of hinge screws, which reduces the danger potential for astronauts to a minimum. Because astronauts work in sensitive environments, tiny screws or eyeglass components that become loose or fall off could lead to a catastrophe. Such hazards could potentially come in to play during Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), when astronauts spacewalk with only the protection of their spacesuits. A loose screw or component during an EVA could be nasally or orally ingested, causing choking; could be drawn into the coolant system impeller, causing mechanical suit failure; or could cause a tear in the suit bladder, resulting in a loss of suit pressure.
I strike a deal with the optician (5000 baht including lenses), and moving back to William we realise that the Ray Bans he has found are more expensive than in Europe (we had done our homework on this, and knew that some imported items are rather expensive in Thailand). I explained to William how to check if Ray Bans are original by running my finger nail over the etching on the lenses. It turned out these were fake. We looked up the model on my iPad and confirmed my suspicions. The sales person, who had been earnestly trying to assure us they were genuine by showing us a small cardboard guarantee slip, saw what I was doing. She sweetly thanked us for looking, quickly put the glasses back on the shelf without a word, bowed and moved on to another customer. This was all about saving face for us both - she knew I knew she knew, and she elegantly moved on. Namaste.
Heading back to the hotel we caught a metered cab from the rank outside the mall. I pointed out the meter was not on, and he pulled over to the side and said ruefully "Chatrium? No, too far". I had to digest this for a moment, never having heard a taxi driver complaining about a fare being too far before. Again I pulled out my iPad (I'm sure the Rogues Trade Union is vehemently opposed to the general trend of constant internet and GPS access) and confirmed it was a little less than 7km. The driver muttered for a moment and gruffly said "200 baht" to which I replied "150" and he smiled, at which everyone had saved face and was happy again... the driver had earned an extra 50 for himself and I glowed with the pleasure of having saved 50. Namaste.
Every Thai we have met today has been exceedingly friendly and helpful. Even in the two instances we realised we were being taken "for a ride" there were no hard feelings on either side.
Finally, what better way to end the first day in Thailand than by having a swim, lying in the strong December sun for an hour, and rehydrating with a local beer and a glass of Mekong whiskey!
Day 2 to 4
Leaving Bangkok for Chiang Mai in northern Thailand this morning, I read that the Chatrium Riverside Hotel had recently lowered its rates in order to retain staff... if this is correct, management deserves kudos, as the level of service was exceptional in every way. The C&C pickup again worked flawlessly, and by 0900 we were on our way through Bangkok traffic on the way to the airport.
At the airport the quest for Williams Ray Bans was finally successful... the pair we found passed the fake test, cost less than in the city and were further discounted 20%. Arrive in Chiang Mai after one and a half hours flight and are picked up by the Raming Hotel shuttle, where we will spend the next two nights (in the hotel, not the shuttle) before heading off into the forest for three days of trekking.
Conspicuously posted at all entrances and - to be on the safe side - at the elevator and stairs is a sign forbidding the consumption of Durians... apparently they taste sublime but have a smell described as "pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock". William and I agree to spend some time tomorrow finding some that are ripe.
Wikipedia: Founded in 1296 CE, Chiang Mai is a culturally and historically interesting city, at one time the capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom. Located among the rolling foothills of the Himalayan Mountains 700 km north of Bangkok, it could only be reached by an arduous river journey or an elephant trek until the 1920s. This isolation helped keep Chiang Mai's distinctive charm intact.
After unpacking and a swim, we head out for the famous Night Market, equal parts tourist trap and south east Asian caravanserai. Our hotel is on Loi Kroh road, renowned for its enthusiastic night life, so our neighbors are an interesting and educational assortment of lady boys and massage parlors offering a diverse array of ... activities, interspersed with antique shops, restaurants and cafes. The atmosphere is vibrant, good natured and relaxed, and I later read that there is relatively little crime in Chiang Mai.
The market offers the usual Bangkok assortment of fake designer goods, textiles, wood carvings, silver and gold, paintings and charcoal drawings (many rather excellent) and we strolled around for an hour before heading back to Loi Kroh road for a bite to eat.
On the way we passed this cheerful roadside cook, whom I asked if I could take a photo. She enthusiastically assented and - grabbing her wok - posed with a brilliant smile like an Asian Jamie Oliver!
A bit further on we found what I had been looking for - an insect cart with an interesting array of grubs, crickets and some other insects which I couldn't identify. William and I agreed to wait until after returning from our trekking tour before eating insects on the side of the road in Thailand, and promised to return on Sunday. Watch this space...
Instead we headed back to our hotel where we had Noodles Pad Thai (stir fried medium size rice noodles (sen lek) with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or tamarind pulp, ground peanuts, egg, bean sprouts, and Chinese chives (kuichai), combined with prawns, washed down with local beer and Mekhong whiskey.
Wikipedia: Mekhong is Thailand's first domestically produced branded golden spirit. Launched in 1941, it quickly became the most popular brand in Thailand. This was helped by a dispute with the French concerning the border with Laos along the Mekong River which gives the brand its name. Despite being known as a whisky, Mekhong is in fact much closer to a rum. The distilled spirit is made from 95% sugar cane/molasses and 5% rice. This distilled spirit is then blended with a secret recipe of indigenous herbs and spices to produce its distinctive aroma and taste.
A year or so ago, few had ever heard of the Thailand-made distillate Mekhong other than the Thais themselves, Far East tourists and fans of the Pogues. Yes, the Pogues. The spirit is mentioned on the Irish band’s 1990 album Hell’s Ditch: “She gave me Mekhong whiskey/Put me on a breeze to Kathmandu.” But the Pogues got it wrong. Mekhong isn’t whiskey, though its copper color might fool you into thinking so. What is it? That’s a little tricky. Describing Mekhong as a spiced Thai rum would, perhaps, be easiest, but not very accurate, or fair. The spirit is, like some rums, primarily distilled from sugar cane, but it’s blended with a five-percent injection of rice distillate, giving the flavor a distinct, sake-like backbone. Add an infusion of native Thai herbs and spices and you get something that doesn’t resemble anything else on the back bar: a light (70-proof), vaguely exotic spirit smacking of toffee, citrus, nuts and vanilla.
I got up at 6 the next morning to visit a few temples in the old city before the others got up, giving me the chance to see the sun rise over Chiang Mai (there must be a song in that somewhere) and experience the atmosphere of a Buddhist temple before the tourists arrive.
First port of call was Wat Phra Singh, where I was solitary witness to the arrival of dozens of young monks at the local Buddhist school. Students arrived on foot, by bus and tuk-tuk or were dropped off by parents in Mercedes or Mitsubishi cars.
The temple area was completely quiet, with the exception of birdsong and the brushing sound of older monks sweeping the paths and steps. A number of Wats were spread around the compound, and I visited each of them in turn.
Wikipedia: Wat Phra Singh, Corner of Singharaj Rd and Rajdamnern Rd. Probably Chiang Mai's best- known temple, housing the Phra Singh image, completed between 1385 and 1400. Of most historical interest is the Wihan Lai Kham in the back, featuring Lanna-style temple murals and intricate gold patterns on red lacquer behind the altar. The large chedi was built in 1345 by King Pha Yu to house the remains of his father King Kam Fu. A typical scripture repository is located at this temple as well. These repositories were designed to keep and protect the delicate sa or mulberry paper sheets used by monks and scribes to keep records and write down folklore. The high stucco-covered stone base of the repository protected the delicate scriptures from the rain, floods and pests. The walls of the chapel are covered with murals illustrating Lanna customs, dress, and scenes from daily life. The lovely Lai Kam chapel houses the revered Phra Singh Buddha image.
After an hour I headed back to the hotel and breakfast, stopping in at Wat Chedi Luang, Prapokklao Rd. Almost in the centre of Chiang Mai are the remains of a massive chedi that toppled in in the great earthquake of 1545, while around me Chiang Mai began to stir into chaotic life.
After breakfast we caught a tuk-tuk (80 Baht) for a hair raising ride back to Wat Phra Singh which by then had filled with visitors.
Walking back through the old city we "ended up"...
"The strange thing here though was that when we were walking around the grounds of the temple, we came across another very helpful and friendly man who claimed to also be here on vacation. The story here was that his wife is a fashion designer in Australia (insert Denmark in our case) and they both come down to Chiang Mai to get a hold of the very best materials that the world has to offer. Guess where?"
... at a tailor called Chiang Mai fashion on Prapokklao Road, where we had William fitted for a jacket and shirt and tie (8500 Baht - probably twice what we should have paid, but after final adjustment on our return from trekking and delivery to the hotel on Sunday evening I felt we had had a good experience (fit and quality was excellent) and I felt that as both tailor and customer were happy it was probably a good thing.
Incidentally, tourism is still reeling after the tsunami, global crisis and the military coup, so there are good deals to be made. This seems to be more true in the south (see Phuket, below). I'm sure we could have bargained more aggressively than we did, but as it was each deal we made was a bargain for us.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around the city, eating dinner, buying some warm jackets at the night market for our trekking tour in the hills, and packing.
Day 5 to 7
Jungle Trekking - Hill Tribes - Mae Win district, Mae Wang region, Chiang Mai.
Up early for breakfast (bacon and eggs, egg noodles, stir fried rice, papaya and strong Thai coffee), deposited our bags at Reception and were waiting for the driver by nine. Up next on our agenda was three days of jungle trekking among the hill tribes of the Mae Wang region.
"Hill tribe (Thai: ชาวเขา, คนเขา) is a term used in Thailand for all of the various tribal peoples who mostly inhabit the high mountainous Northern and Western regions of Thailand, including both sides of the remote border areas between Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma. These areas are known for their thick forests and mountainous terrain. The six major hill tribes within Thailand are the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong/Miao, Mien/Yao and Lisu, each with a distinct language and culture.
The hill tribes have traditionally been primarily subsistence farmers who use slash and burn agricultural techniques to farm their heavily forested communities. Popular perceptions that slash and burn practices are environmentally destructive, government concerns over borderland security, and population pressure has caused the government to forcibly relocate many hill tribe peoples. Traditionally, hill tribes were also a migratory people, leaving land as it became depleted of natural resources or when trouble arose.
A 2013 article in Bangkok Post said that "Nearly a million hill peoples and forest dwellers are still treated as outsiders—criminals even, since most live in protected forests. Viewed as national security threats, hundreds of thousands of them are refused citizenship although many are natives to the land."
We were collected in a songthaew (a pickup truck with two rows of benches in the back) and after driving around Chiang Mai for an hour picking up the rest of our group of ten, we headed out on route 1013 toward the Mae Wang hill region. After forty minutes drive we stopped in Ban Kat to fill up on supplies, before heading up the increasingly windy road to the hills. Ban Kat is a typical rural northern Thai town, with farm equipment suppliers, workshops and tool stores, but the central market was alive with trekkers buying bread, water and tinned food.
Before arriving at our pickup point we stopped for an elephant ride in the forest - a route of about thirty minutes. If you were able to abstract from the slightly jaded air of the mahouts and their elephants, it was certainly interesting experiencing the Thai forests and rice paddies for the first time, and seeing how stolidly the elephants tackled the steep inclines.
Finally, we arrived at our pickup point, turning off Route 1013 onto a dirt track to pick up our eternally cheerful guide Geveo, who flashed us a broad grin before jumping up on to the roof of the truck. Ten minutes drive later the songthaew had drawn to a halt, we had donned our packs and were ready to hike.
The first hour was along dirt paths, and soon we were deep in the forest crossing rivers and steadily climbing - with Geveo stopping to point out edible plants, spiders and insects - until we reached our first stop at a small waterfall, where we had a pause for lunch - noodles packed in banana leaves - and a quick swim in the ice cold water.
While we ate, Geveo disappeared into a bamboo copse and felled an arm-thick length of bamboo with his Parang (characteristic Thai jungle machete), which he then used to fashion bamboo cups for us. He explained we would use these for water, coffee, tea and - said with a broad grin and a wink - "happy water".
After the break we continued climbing through the forest when Geveo stopped and asked if anyone would like to eat some insects. He then plunged into a thicket and reappeared carrying a clutch of leafy branches, all of which had unusual thick bulges. Using his parang he quickly extricated four fat, yellow grubs from the bulges and - in a few moments - had a small fire going. He then made a spit from a length of bamboo (see video below), impaled the grubs and roasted them gently, telling us to listen for the telltale hissing sound they made when ready.
The grubs were excellent, tasting like prawns and with a creamy, cheesy texture, their skins crisp and smokey. Definitely tasty, and any qualms I might have had about eating insects completely disappeared.
Moving on, we began to descend into the jungle proper, the vegetation becoming more varied and lush as we proceeded. Apart from a brief pause for another swim, most of the next two hours were spent traversing the increasingly demanding terrain. Geveo - a man of inexhaustible energy, immense jungle knowledge and shy good humor - was constantly making sure we could keep up, helping us over difficult stretches, while darting into the undergrowth to show us interesting - mostly edible - things
Finally, at about five in the evening, we arrived at Geveo's village of Ban Noi, where we were to spend the night at Geveo's house. We were greeted by Geveo's wife, and began to fix sleeping arrangements while Geveo built a fire and began to get dinner ready. I went into Geveo's house to chat with him and his wife while they prepared dinner, talking to him about the hill tribes, and specifically about the Karen people.
Geveo's house was built of wood and on stilts - the easiest way to achieve a horizontal floor in this hilly terrain - and consisted of a single large room with no furniture, and a cooking area with an open fire in one corner. The floor and walls had large gaps in them, and feeling the temperature dropping quickly I remembered the night temperature would approach freezing, and realised the smokey fire would provide the house's only source of heat. Geveo talked about village life, and explained they have a daughter who goes to school in Chiang Mai, and who lives with his brother in the city.
After an excellent dinner of noodles we strolled into the Karen village, which consisted of about twenty houses, and greeted Geveo's neighbors who looked at us curiously, raised their hands in return but otherwise ignored us.
Returning from our stroll, with night quickly falling, we saw that Geveo had prepared a snack of beetles for us. "Beetles from the forest?" I asked. "No", he replied "beetles from buffalo dung"! Eating them required breaking off their wings, rather like shelling pistachio nuts, and they tasted very good - rather like chicken - although I noticed not everyone was eating them...
By seven it was completely dark, and after an hour around the fire in the chill night air drinking tea, most of us headed to bed under a mound of blankets.
We slept well, despite the cold, and woke early to a fresh clear morning. The fire was still smouldering from last night, and Geveo had dragged over a new log and was making coffee.
After breakfast and another quick stroll through the village, Geveo handed us each our lunch, again wrapped in banana leaves, and we donned or packs and headed back into the jungle. The first hours walk was along a road, before branching off through rice paddies, with Geveo stopping to hack some lengths of thick bamboo, which he explained would come in useful at lunchtime.
Later, we paused in a rice paddie to lift a buffalo dung pat and dig out one of the beetles we had snacked on last night. The going became rougher, with some difficult climbs and slippery river traverses, before descending to a waterfall for lunch.
Again, Geveo sprang into action with his parang and before long he had split a length of bamboo into chopsticks, which he proceeded to shape. To see the versatility of the Parang in the hands of someone who had used it daily since childhood was fascinating (see video below).
After we had eaten and had a swim, Geveo stripped a layer from the large piece of bamboo he had felled earlier, filled it with water and placed it in the fire. Within twenty minutes the water was boiling, and we could sit in the sun drying ourselves with a cup of coffee in our bamboo mugs. We were a long way from home, and life was pretty good...
After lunch we hit the trail again, and once again the trail was quite tough - as this was considered an easy trail I shudder to think what the difficult version would have been like.
I was a bit surprised not to see other animals than buffalo and a single water snake - well, perhaps not too surprised considering the noise we must have been making - but the forest was alive with insects and spiders, and the sound of birds.
The afternoon was spent crossing rivers, swimming in waterfalls and stopping to look at plants and jungle vistas before, in the late afternoon with the lowering sun transforming the bamboo leaves into shimmering green, we could smell the wood smoke of a nearby village. This was the small Hmong village of perhaps 20 stilted houses on the Mae Sapok river where we were to spend the night.
Again, we arrived without ceremony - villagers glanced up to register our arrival but otherwise did not react. Those which I did greet responded with a smile and a wave, and we felt welcome. In similarity with our previous night in Geveo's Karen village at Ban Noi, I was struck by the lack of school-age children (apparently they all go to school in Chiang Mai once they reach a certain age) and the complete lack of any shops or stores - it appears all shopping for provisions takes place at a nearby market.
Apart from a few clothes, cooking utensils and sacks of rice, a brief glance at the open-sided, wooden houses revealed very little in the way of worldly possessions. It appears that the hill people use the money that they earn from trekking and their production of rice, fruit (we saw a lot of fields of trellised passion fruit) and vegetables on scooters and pickup trucks.
Sleeping was in a communal house overlooking the river - the house had no windows but the setting sun filtered through cracks in the walls (which also functioned as a chimney) and allowed us to set up our sleeping arrangements and arrange mosquito nets. Some of us headed down to the river to wash while Geveo and some of the villagers began preparing dinner in an open-sided kitchen house.
Geveo disappeared for some minutes in the direction of the village, and came back carrying a plastic bottle of something he called "happy water" - local rice alcohol - which he passed around. Again, the only cups we had were the bamboo cups Geveo had made for us the day before, so these were pressed into action - the taste of the rice spirit reminding me of the 96% ethanol we used to drink during Chemistry class. However, together with a cup of strong green tea taken around the fire, it was definitely a good end to the day!
Another good night's sleep (Geveo estimated we would walk 25 km during our threea days trek), and we woke early to coffee, tea - and Geveo rolling us local cigarettes: strong local tobacco and tamarind fruit husks rolled in banana leaves. Amanda and William were allowed a draw as well - I figured this, together with a taste of the rice alcohol last night, would keep them away from strong drink and cigarettes for a while!
After breakfast we again stocked up on water, shouldered our packs and headed off on the last leg of our trek. Our first break came at a river crossing, where we had to cross a rickety bamboo bridge one at a time. A group of villagers watched us crossing, which made me think that previous crossings had perhaps not been quite as uneventful as ours was. Safely across, we walked for some hours through rice paddies and small terraces of vegetables - lemon grass, basil leaves, peppers and chillies.
We were now moving downhill at a brisk pace, and the rivers and waterfalls become larger, the sound of running water filled the forest and the air was cool and moist. We had a schedule to keep, so we pressed on without stopping to swim.
Incidentally, this is Geveo - our trekking company was Holiday Plus, Chiang Mai - if you are considering a hill trek in Northern Thailand look them up and insist on Geveo Prasongpana as your guide. He is a superb guide, and you will leave his excellent company as a better and happier person.
A few more hours easy walk brought us to our final destination - a Hmong village with a long-neck tourist attraction which we preferred not to visit. Many tour companies do not condone trips to long-neck villages, calling them "human zoos". Entering the village, Geveo picked a large papaya which was excellent, together with the ice cold Coke which we were able to buy. After half an hour a truck arrived to drive us the 10km down-river to our river rafting launch site.
Arriving at the Mae Wing river, we transferred to bamboo rafts, and spent the next hour shooting rapids and gliding along the more serene stretches through a verdant tunnel of jungle foliage. At one point two elephants with their mahouts crossed the river directly in front of, and behind us. A little later a brown river snake plunged into the river beside us, Malachite Kingfishers darted into the water and a pair of lazy herons indignantly took flight.
Finally we entered a surreal, "Apocalypse Now" twilight world of dark huts and shelters lining the river, while high above us a string of local, roadside restaurants could be glimpsed. Here we disembarked and meet up with Geveo, his wife (who had driven down to collect him) and our driver. We had lunch together, and it was with some regret we said goodbye to Geveo, and the serene world of the northern Thai jungle, to return to the chaos of Chiang Mai via Ban Kat.
The Parang, or Thai jungle knife
I can't finish this section about our trekking trip without mentioning the Parang, or Thai jungle knife.
Made from forged truck springs, the Parang is hand tempered by local smiths, holds its temper exceedingly well, is flexible and incredibly sharp.
A truly versatile tool used for everything from chopping to cutting to whittling to cooking, every guide we meet had a Parang in a blue PVC water pipe sheath stocking out of their back packs, but Geveo was a true Master of the Parang:
Heading back to Chiang Mai, Geveo got the driver to stop at the local market at Ban Kat, where I picked up two Parangs for 150 baht each, or about the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks:
The rough surface of the original truck spring and angle grinding are clear. The blade is held in place by a piece of hydraulic pipe, and the handle is held in place with black epoxy. This is pure tool, with no effort spent on appearances. Back home, I intend to use the Parang for chopping hard vegetables (turnips for soup) and kindling for the fireplace.
Arriving back at Chiang Mai around four, William and I had a much-needed shower and changed out of our smoke-smelling clothes before walking to the tailor for the final fitting and adjustment of his jacket and shirt, which was duly delivered to the hotel later that evening.
Returning from the tailor we passed through the Sunday market in the old city, stopping for a banana pancake at a roadside vendor. Precisely at six o'clock (as happens every day in Thailand), the Thai national anthem filled the air, everyone stopped what they were doing, and those sitting stood up while we all waited in silence for the anthem to finish. Immediately after the last note, Chiang Mai's normal chaos and bustle returned. We walked back to the hotel where I had an excellent back and leg massage on the pavement in front of the hotel before packing, dinner and an early night.
Day 8 to 15
Kata Beach, Phuket
Up early next morning for breakfast, we were picked up and driven to the airport to catch our direct flight from Chiang Mai to tropical Phuket, for a week of sea and sun. I was struck again at the airport by the privileged status of Buddhist monks in Thailand - arriving at the airport in new and expensive four-wheel drive vehicles, clutching the latest smartphones they are ushered past queues and into first-class lounges. Airport staff greet the monks defferentially, and passengers think nothing of moving aside to allow them priority boarding. After an uneventful two hour flight we arrived on Kho Phuket.
Wikipedia: Phuket (Thai: ภูเก็ต, [pʰūː.kèt]) is one of the southern provinces (changwat) of Thailand. It consists of the island of Phuket, the country's largest island, and a number of much smaller islands off its coast. It lies off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. The Andaman Sea, particularly the western coast of Malay Peninsula, is rich in coral reefs and offshore islands with spectacular topography, such as Phuket, Phi Phi Islands, Ko Tapu and island. Phuket features a tropical monsoon climate.
We were immediately struck by the moist heat and the lush vegetation. The clouds were low and heavy, and soon it began to rain gently - we had arrived in the tropics... The weather forecast didn't look too promising. At the airport, a driver was as usual waiting for us, and a few minutes later we were driving through Phuket city rush hour traffic. I was again aware of the two sides of Thai society: the local and the tourist. From poverty to extravagance, both sides coexisted side by side, with the natural beauty of the island binding them.
After checking in, we went for a swim and dinner at a restaurant on the beach. Next morning was hot and humid, with no let up in the heavy cloud cover. We spent the day at the beach, and exploring the town of Kata Beach. With Christmas Eve the next day, the hotel staff was rushing around getting ready for the gala Christmas dinner scheduled for the next night - hanging up lights, and decorating the pool area with palm leaves and orchids.
Early next day we woke Amanda with a birthday song and her presents, and went for breakfast, where the hotel staff surprised her with a song and a birthday cake. After a morning at the beach we had lunch at "our" restaurant, before heading back to the hotel for a swim and to get ready for Christmas dinner.
On Christmas day - still cloudy and hot - we caught a taxi to Patong town, about 10km north of Kata Beach to do some shopping. The drive north along the coast was spectacular, the road winding through lush jungle which plunged from mountains directly into the sea, passing stunning bays and beaches. We didn't buy much in the huge Jungceylon shopping mall - Amanda had the front and back glass of her iPhone replaced for 1500 Baht (300kr) and we contented ourselves with browsing the many shops and stopping for fruit shakes and some lunch. Boxing day - the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami disaster was spent at the beach and pool, soaking up the intermittent sun. We discovered that snorkelling is ideal about 100m off the southern end of the beach, along the rocky peninsula of Kata bay - scaring up schools of Parrot, Angel and Zebra fish, as well as a slightly indignant, 50cm long Trumpet fish. Later that afternoon we were surprised by a torrential tropical downpour - something the kids had not experienced before, and which left them slightly awe struck.
The next day dawned bright and clear - contradicting the weather reports which had forecast more cloudy weather and thunderstorms - and decided to use the break in the weather to hire a local longtail boat and risk a trip to some of the many small and isolated Bounty islands dotting the sea off Phuket.
Wikipedia: The long-tail boat, known as Ruea Hang Yao is a type of watercraft native to Southeast Asia, which uses a common automotive engine as a readily available and maintainable powerplant. There is much variation among these boats, some have evolved from traditional craft types, while others have a more improvised look—the sole defining characteristic is a secondhand car or truck engine. This engine is invariably mounted on an inboard turret-like pole which can rotate through 180 degrees, allowing steering by thrust vectoring. The propeller is mounted directly on the driveshaft with no additional gearing or transmission. Usually the engine also swivels up and down to provide a "neutral gear" where the propeller does not contact the water. The driveshaft must be extended by several metres of metal rod to properly position the propeller, giving the boat its name and distinct appearance.
The boat was pulled ashore, after first tilting the motor and lifting the screw out of the water, and we waded out into the low waves and clambered aboard. Due to the weight of the engine in the stern, we moved to the bows to aid in trimming the boat. Swiveling the motor and lowering the screw into the water, the captain slowly snaked through the swimmers, and soon had us gliding out of Kata bay. Once into open water, our boat turned due south and the beat of the diesel truck engine deepened as we hit the heavy swells of the Andaman Sea. Sitting in the bow, we were relatively protected from the worst of the spray, but it was still a wet and bumpy ride and I was glad we had invested in a waterproof bag and iPhone cover.
Or first port of call was Promthep Cape, the southern tip of Koh Phuket - Phuket Island - where we anchored in a protected, rocky bay of clear water. Throwing some bread into the water, the captain soon attracted large schools of vibrant fish, and we spent half an hour snorkelling. Check out the video on Longtail boats (above) in order to get an idea of the sheer numbers of fish.
Or next destination was Koh Bon - Bon Island - which lies 20 minutes sailing across open water to the south east of Phuket. We arrived at a protected bay littered with coral debris, and leapt ashore into the blood-warm water with our towels and water. The next two hours were spent snorkelling among reefs and corals, on an island as close to a tropical paradise as I can imagine!
A primitive restaurant was set up in the palms just of the beach, and an old man was using a parang to split coconuts with a dexterity which made me think of Geveo in the upland jungle of Chiang Mai - the diversity of Thailand's people and nature is awesome!
Later, we clambered aboard our Longtail and headed back to Kata Beach, and our final destination of deserted Koh Puu - Crab Island, where the snorkelling was excellent in the crystal clear, turquoise water.
Wikipedia: Koh Poo Island (off Kata Beach). This small deserted island gets top nods for its close proximity to the beach, good amount of marine life, almost no crowds, and decent water clarity for being so close to the main island of Phuket. A very long swim or a short longtail boat ride from Kata Beach, Koh Poo (crab island) is a great snorkeling site in Phuket. depths range from 2-3 meters to 10 meters plus. On the East side of Koh Poo (closest to Kata Beach) you will find good snorkeling. We suggest taking a longtail boat from Kata Beach. The longtail boats on the Southern end of the beach tend to be a bit cheaper and more open to negotiation. Snorkeling at this site is only available in the winter months when the longtail boats are available and the seas on Phuket's West coast are calmer. Be advised - even in the winter there can be strong currents that run between Koh Poo and the Phuket mainland.
Feeling the effects of the sun, we headed back to Kata Beach. We went up to the hotel pool for a swim and a late lunch, and the rest of the day was spent reading indoors, as close to the air conditioner as possible.
The last two days were spent at the hotel swimming pool and the beach, reading and getting some sun before our return to dark and cold Denmark.
Always sceptical about organised travel, I was happily surprised that the trip arranged for us by C&C Travel was excellent in every way - the fact that we paid 40 percent less than our Danish "neighbors" at the pool had made the whole experience even better! The bottom line is, if we had tried to arrange a trip like this on our own, it would have taken a LOT of work (and stress), and, according to our estimates, probably have cost twice as much. Damn fine work, C&C and your contacts in Thailand!
- Mekhong whiskey. 330ml bottles are 190 baht at the airport in Bangkok, impossible to find in Chiang Mai, 250 baht in supermarkets on Phuket. These make good gifts - keep yours in the freezer to drink straight while telling friends about your trip to Thailand.
- Clothes. Brand name clothes may or may not be original, but the quality is the same and the prices are MUCH cheaper than in Denmark. Tailors abound on every street corner - look for recommendations on Trip Advisor or ask at your hotel Reception.
- Glasses. Thailand is very competitive, with glasses and lenses costing a third of Danish prices. Expect 1 to 3 days for lenses to be prepared (although an hour may be possible for simple lenses. Look for reputable opticians WITHOUT pretty girls in tight, brightly coloured blouses, and preferably with only one or two staff members. I had a good experience with Andaman Optics just down the hill from the Orchidacea Hotel, who took the time to do a through eye test:
- Tiger Balm and CounterPain. These seem much stronger than similar products at home, and are really effective at treating muscle pain, insect bites and a host of other ailments. These make handy gifts which don't fill much and are always appreciated. Buy both the white and the red, they are very cheap.
Named after Aw Boon Haw whose name means "Gentle Tiger", Tiger Balm is an herbal formulation for external pain relief. Tiger Balm is available in several varieties, the "cold" Tiger Balm White (recommended for use with headaches) and the "hot" Tiger Balm Red.
- Data sim card. Buy a 7 day unlimited 3G data sim card at 7-11 for 299 baht, and ask at Reception if one of the staff is able to trim it to nano size for your iPhone, or bring along scissors to trim it yourself. WIFI at hotels is generally poor, unless it's a good hotel in Bangkok.
- Lactocare. Eat these before departure and during your stay. Despite some rough eating, we had no stomach problems.
- - Travel with the public boats (15 baht) on the river in Bangkok to experience local color.
- - Replace your cracked iPhone screens for less than half the price it would cost in Denmark.
- - Hire a Longtail at Kata Beach for 3-4000 baht for island hopping and snorkelling.
- - Get a Thai massage for 200 baht for an hour in Chiang Mai, 300 on Phuket, and a leg/foot massage as well as a head / back massage as often as you can. The massages at the hotels are good, cost only slightly more than in town, and allow you the luxury of having a drink and a swim afterwards.
- - Go for a Tuk-tuk ride, less than 100 baht around Chiang Mai, 400 Baht from Kata to Patong.
- - Barter. Offer 50% less, settle for 60 or 70. Starting prices are not as outrageous as e.g. Egypt.
- - Eat! Food in Thailand is excellent, local dishes are very cheap. Thai hotel breakfasts are worth traveling to Thailand for, and should fill you till dinner. Dinner for four with dessert and drinks costs between 1000-2000 baht. We recommend Kata BBQ at the south end of Kata Beach for excellent and cheap food. Local restaurants cost much less, but the risk of stomach problems might wreck a major part of your vacation.
- - Get a good haircut (300 baht or 60kr.) and a manicure with the works (700 baht).
- - Get your laundry washed and ironed for 70 baht/kg at almost every street corner.
- - Go to local markets and stores for amazing deals.
- - Carry a copy of your passport with you at all times.
- - Buy original RayBans, brand name electronics or fake watches unless you have done your research and know your products. The good fake watches are usually kept in another building and will be fetched or you will be lead there to look at the "AA" grade material.
- - Let your credit card out of your sight when paying.
- - Be conned by the common Thai scams (Google "common Thai scams").
- - Expect good deals on imported goods - these will cost almost as much as back home.
- - Be impolite. Thais are polite and will try to avoid a scene (see our RayBan experience, above).