Chiang Mai: summer series installment I

As promised, I will be writing a number of blogs on my summer adventures in Burma/Myanmar (what you call the country depends largely on whether you recognise the military regime that’s led the country since a coup in 1962, as it was the military regime that replaced the country’s colonial name, Burma, with “Myanmar” in 1989). I quickly learnt that the surest way of avoiding offense when talking to Burmese people about their country is to wait for them to refer to their country by name … and then simply refer to it by the same name. That and the fact that it’s likely that anyone living outside the country in exile (self-imposed or otherwise) is opposed to the military regime and will therefore most probably call it “Burma”. But you need to be a careful chameleon about it.

However, this is a pre-Myanmar blog edition – I came across to South East Asia a week before my June 1 start date and spent some time in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. I caught the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai – I highly recommend the overnight train to anyone making that journey – you wake up in the morning to incredible views of rural Thailand… and it really is a journey that a plane trip cannot begin to capture:


View from the Bangkok – Chiang Mai train in the early morning

Chiang Mai itself is a lovely little city, divided into two distinct areas: the “New City”, where most of the entertainment areas are, and the “Old City”, which was built over 700 years ago in the shape of a big square (about two kilometres squared), surrounded by a high wall and moat. The four corners of the wall remain today, as does the moat and the main gates on each side, the most famous being the Tha Pae Gate on the south side of the Old City. [As an aside, I took these photos early in the morning when few other people were about… the streets are usually far more crowded than these photos show!]


The Tha Pae Gate, the main gate to the Old City (south side)


Part of the wall near the north-east corner of the Old City, with a songthaew driving by. Songthaews are Chiang Mai’s version of taxis/ETs/commuter omnibuses, etc


The moat on the south side of the Old City in the early morning – notice the monks walking in their bright orange robes

Chiang Mai’s Old City is made up of numerous winding roads, some regular sized …


… and some so narrow that cars cannot pass through them … which isn’t a problem since most people get around Chiang Mai on motorbikes (even school kids!)


And everywhere: colourful buildings and small buddhist shrines:


Another fascinating aspect of the Old City is how new and old exists side by side, with the Old City walls and wats (temples) interspersing coffee shops, restaurants and clothes stores.


The main road along the south side of the Old City, with the Tha Pae Gates on the left


One of the many wats in Chiang Mai’s Old City

One of the best things that I did in Chiang Mai was to go on a two-day “trek” into the jungle several hours to the north-west of Chiang Mai. I was promised that it was a non-touristy tour, that we would see no other tourists for the entire duration of the trip and that I would have a great time. It certainly delivered on every one of those promises. And, as a bonus, we were issued with a set of jungle-green “roughing-it” gear:


My favourite part of the gear? Why, the awesome machete of course! (The fact that I didn’t actually use it at any stage of the trek is totally beside the point… it totally added legitimacy to the jungle trek!)

There were 8 of us on the trek – 3 Finnish guys who were visiting Chiang Mai from Bangkok, where they are doing a year study exchange at a local university. When I asked them what they were studying, they replied, “In Finland  we were studying electronics, here we study nothing, we just have to spend a couple of hours in class 3 days a week and we pass. The classes don’t even have to have anything to do with electronics. It’s great.” Then there were 2 German girls on a gap year after finishing high school, our guide Den, his assistant (whose name I never got) and myself.

We began the tour by riding elephants in a village not far from Chiang Mai. The Thai government recently banned logging in the country (better late than never) and many people who owned elephants and used them to carry felled logs have been left both without livelihoods and with the big problem of what to do with their elephants. Many end up selling them to whoever will buy them as they simply cannot afford to look after them. The guys who run the tour company that I was with are related to a number of people in the particular village we went to, and they have an established agreement with the village: once a week or so, tourists ride the elephants, and in return the tour company contributes to the upkeep of the village’s elephants. Not ideal, but certainly more “sustainable” a situation than it could be. The elephant ride was a lot of fun, and we got to feed them copious amounts of lady-finger bananas in the process 🙂

And then we started walking… I can’t begin to estimate how far we walked during those two days, but there were certainly several fallow and dry paddies walked over and many hills climbed and descended (and much subsequent pain and stiffness!) We spent a few hours resting in a small Karen village [the Karen are a marginalised minority group in both Thailand and Burma] on the first afternoon. A view of the village as we approached it:


We spent the night in a traditional northern Thai house. Normally, they have only one room that is used for cooking, sleeping and everything in between, but some of the more “modern” ones have two rooms – one for cooking and the other for sleeping.


The floors are made from strips of the outer layer of bamboo, supported underneath by logs, which made walking on the floors feel a bit of like walking on a trampoline. We slept on traditional mats on the floor (which were not nearly as soft as the photo suggests!). Here you can also see the thin bamboo floors:


The view from our little house was amazing!


We had a great Thai cooking lesson that evening, whilst we all contributed to cooking dinner. And “dessert” was sticky rice pudding that was cooked in bamboo poles that were heated next to the fire, and were then cut length-wise for serving:


… “dessert” was also roasted frog, which we caught on the paddies at night by torch-light. Yes, I actually ate roasted frog … but it was so roasted that it (thankfully!) tasted of nothing but crispy smoke!


Den, our guide, took a bit of a shine to me and wanted to catch a flying squirrel (or a “squirrel fly” as he called them) for me to eat. Thank goodness he wasn’t able to catch one … it would have been thoroughly uncomfortable if he had. The next day he bought several dried ones at a local market – they look exactly like bats! The fact that Den spoke passable English made the tour that much more interesting as he was able to explain local Karen and Mon traditions to us and taught us about different plants and mushrooms in the jungle – those that we could eat and those that would kill us, and how we could tell the difference. We came across so many mushrooms: from small luminous yellow ones, to huge multicoloured ones. Den casually strung English words together with no punctuation or joining words (which was often very funny) but what he meant was generally pretty clear – for example “some dogs … careful … crazy!”

We came across a number of hillsides that had been totally stripped of all trees – making it clear why the Thai government had made logging illegal. What hadn’t been cut, had invariably been burnt (following the traditional slash and burn land preparation method), and on some hillsides villagers were beginning to plant upland rice ahead of the rains, which are due to start in the next few weeks. The contrast between the forested and deforested hillsides was shocking:


We ended off the tour by rafting down a river on rafts made of bamboo poles. Trying to keep standing on the rafts as the poles rumbled and bounced over rapids (and while the other people on the raft shifted their weight and tipped the raft) was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done! And when bamboo rafts hit a snag, they stop dead still, throwing everyone forward simultaneously! We were absolutely weak with laughter most of the time, while the local villagers who accompanied us down the river cackled hysterically (not entirely unlike Gollum). I’m not sure who had more fun – us or them laughing at us! The rafting was undoubtedly my favourite part of the entire tour. Here are the bamboo poles before they were tied together to form a raft:


All in all, Chiang Mai has been a wonderful experience! Tomorrow I catch another overnight train back to Bangkok, starting the trip to Yangon 🙂

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