The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Endless Summer comes to an End - Chiang Mai

Place – Chiang Mai Airport. Time – 1pm Sunday. This week’s blog is coming from the airport lounge of Chiang Mai’s International Airport.

It’s an airport lounge like any other; uncomfortable blue chairs, television set on some absurd station showing bad game shows at too loud volume, lots of bright pigeon hole size shops selling stuff that you don’t really need and if you do indulge, will skyrocket the carry-on allowance. Thank goodness, it’s weighed at check-in and not as your running for the gate. We really should be sitting here in four days time in eager anticipation of winging it to Myanmar... instead we’re on our way back to good old Australia. That’s right, our endless summer of wandering has come to an end even before summer wakes up. The last time I left you, we were gaily dancing our way along Chiang Rai’s streets; now I’m dancing hot-footedly to the ‘little girls room’ thanks to a tiny uninvited stomach bug with a big appetite. “So why scamper home because of a bout of the Thai Trots?” I hear you ask. Well....

I was keen to take a more chill’n-back-devil-may-care mode of transport to our next destination, Chiang Mai. I’d heard many a grooving backpacker made the trip from Tha Ton (a mountainous village above Chiang Mai) to Chiang Rai via a long-tail boat or if they were feeling even more flexed a bamboo raft,down the Mae Nam Kok River; a trip that took at least six hours. We were thinking of doing the trip in the opposite direction. I admit I’m still wary of any type of water transport especially after the screaming bounce across open ocean to the Perhentians, but I was open to the thought of idyllically puttering up a river.
The day before we were to leave Chiang Rai, I’d left Big M to indulge in a spot of sports relief –F1 followed by the world cup - whilst I headed on foot to the Boat Ramp, getting waylaid along the way by the wet markets, endless temples and trying to get across ridiculously busy roads. My quick dash to the pier was turning into a sweltering, getting lost down side streets sweat-fest and finally I gave up on walking and decided to hire a peddle rickshaw. Why is it whenever you need or want something, it’s never around! After knocking back countless offers of vibrantly decorated rickshaws through the middle of town, I’d now found myself in streets empty of the three wheeled contraptions.

Empty except for one lone very old, very rusty, very raggedy tender; and this was the driver. Beckoning me over to his equally dilapidated buggy, he insisted I climb into the back and let him peddle me to wherever I wanted to go. I was a bit hesitant the rickshaw was capable of taking me anywhere but the chap looked in need of a fare, and so I settled my ample frame on to the bits of metal covered in shredded canvas and watched his ancient bony frame mount the bike – and there we sat. Unmoving.

He tried, pushing his spindly legs back and forward, but not around, trying with all his might to turn the peddles. Nothing happened. I was too rooted to the spot with shock to get off the rickshaw. With his leg pushing came a body rock and grunting and to my horror I found myself also trying to rock the rickshaw forward. What the hell was I doing!  Disgusted with myself I moved to get off but before I could step down, he was off the bike and pushing the rickshaw along the street. So appalled at what was happening I tried to get him to stop and let me off but he refused determine to take me to the boat ramp.Either that or he was deaf.

After pushing the bike for a while he re-mounted and continued with a half peddle action along the road. That is, he rocked his feet in a back and forward motion, catching the chain on the links to move. It was an incredibly slow journey and only when we hit a small decline in the road level was he able to complete a full peddle turn. Upon entering the highway, it became an are-you-mad-death-wish-journey as cars, trucks and motorbikes whizzed around us in all directions.  My “please stop” pleas fell on deaf ears as we snail paced it to the river. Our return trip was a tad quicker – he peddled whilst I walked and pushed the rickshaw from behind.

At the river I took one look at the wooden boats, complete with gas cylinders attached to the back of the seats and flimsy tarp covering overhead, and listened to the clerk tell me we’d be going against the rapids – “very bang-bang” were his actual words - dodging logs and debris coming in the opposite direction, and that the journey was an all-dayer as the water was low, and decided, “I’ll just relax in an armchair – coach style” . I just knew I’d be a blubbering mess, hugging the boat seat all the way.

And seat hug I did the very next day, but not from fear. Our meal the night prior decided not to agree with me although I’d found it immensely agreeable and moorish.
By time I reached Chiang Mai I wasn’t so much a blubbing mess as a groaning moaning lump whose flagging spirit sank further by first impressions of Chiang Mai. A mass of ugly modern buildings tied up in wide concrete highways leading in all directions and filled with furious traffic was not what I was expecting. Although the ghost of guidebooks past described Chiang Mai as a tourist trap, warning of drug busts and trekking scams and that the word Guesthouse was a convenient buzz word, the new “fresh off the press” guide book promised a cool, kick-back, ‘culture darling’.Where in world was it? 

One of reasons I love travelling is the people we meet and once again, fate smiled upon us in the form of a young German chap with little money. He approached us at the bus station asking if we’d share or should I say shout him a taxi to the “Old City” – he was a shoestringer of the absolute threadbare kind, trying to travel around Asia on the equivalent of $10Aud a day. We all trundled off to the old city and found the tranquil oasis everyone had been raving about. Behind the ancient red brick walls of the Moat we fell into cobbled stone soi’s fringed with leafy gardens housing sweet little guest houses and fragrant cafes. We had found the nirvana. Our taxi companion suggested a guesthouse he knew then disappeared into the maze of rambling laneways. He may have been on a shoestring, but his tastes were impeccable, the guesthouse he suggested was delightful and we set up home for the next ten days.

Chiang Mai was two things for us – the launching point for our sojourn into Myanmar and the destination to tick off the Thai component of our quest to cook our way through Asia. We found Chiang Mai filled to the wok with cooking classes and trying to pick one was like trying to find the perfect red chilli in an Asian food market!

We settled on the BaanThai Cookery School located down a tiny alleyway in the cutest little building. The class was a kaleidoscope of nations as a group of sixteen gathered in the early morning ready to trek to the market to collect our ingredients for the day. Led by a delightful chap called Oen to the market, we all carried the sweetest little cane baskets which drew a gaggle of giggles. One would not normally think it funny carrying a cane basket in Thailand, after all, it’s the mode of carry apparatus for most here, but when big grown men in shorts and thongs swing delicate pieces of wicker, it’ll garner a few looks, especially if it’s the Big M with his aussie ocker stride.

From a menu of eighteen dishes, we each picked six and began cooking in the morning, chopping, grinding and sluicing throughout the day. I was particularly thrilled to learn how to make coconut milk and cream, surprised to discover it wasn’t actually the juice that came from the inner of the nut but the flesh, shaved, soaked and kneaded in water. Very labour intensive, yet the end result was so fresh and fragrant, it was worth the flexing of muscles. By day’s end, after sharing and gorging on delectable victuals, we waddled back to our guesthouse with full tums and tingling tastebuds.

As the week progressed, my symptoms from the disagreeable food I’d eaten in Chiang Rai were steadily worsening. I was suffering from constant stomach cramping and churning and bathrooms had become the number one must visit sites for me. Despite this I was determine to drag Big M to as many Wats I could find and hunt out the thousands of silk lanterns that were popping up all over the city in preparation for the upcoming festival of Loi Krathong. These fantastical creations floated on moats, adorned roundabouts, clustered in parks and almost camouflaged the fronts of public buildings. Shinning with such vibrancy in the sunlight they promised to put on a spectacular show and I was hoping we’d still be there for it.
I was also keen to undertake a Hill Tribe Trek to visit the Karen Longneck although I had reservations about the ethics of these tribes being used as tourist attractions. Whilst in Chiang Rai I had watched a video at the Hill Tribe Centre, which explained how they were trying to discourage the practice of wearing brass rings. According to the centre, the custom of putting brass rings on women began as protective armour from tiger attacks. Now purely decorative the rings were to entice the lucrative tourist dollar however the practice and viewing of such was compared to visiting a zoo. I had a dilemma, do I visit or not? For a long time I’d wanted to see these beautiful women with the long elongated necks whose images had stared back at me from countless magazines and although I had made a conscious decision not to visit the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi on moral grounds of animal exploitation, I told myself these women had made a conscious choice to wear the rings.

I was in no condition to undertake a trek; on top of my gurgling gut, I was now suffering from fatigue and looking a tad grey around the gills so we decided to book ourselves onto a day tour. Dosing myself up on painkillers and blockers, we crammed into a mini-bus along with a heap of day-trippers and set off to visit six different hill tribes, an orchid farm, a temple and a cave. Maybe I should also mention that along with the exhausted death-warmed-up-look I now had going, I’d also lost my thinking sensibility and morphed into the robotic tourist intending to get as many sights possible for our Baht.

Despite wandering through small-clustered villages surrounded by stunning mountain scenery and watching gorgeous laughing children play with abandonment whilst their talented mothers wove exquisite pieces of fabric, sold pieces of silver jewellery and traditional beaded costume, I found every scene, sight and experience blending into a grey blur.

Big M makes his mark

He's a-hunting chicken

The final stop was the Karen Longnecks and as Big M and I walked though the corridor of stalls leading the village, I found the pit of my stomach turning, not from illness but from angst. Deep down I felt what we were doing was wrong. Upon reaching the ‘village’ – which was little more than a staged collection of timber huts with fabrics hanging from them and each having either a grown woman or a young girl, all with brass rings around her neck, sitting, waiting - Big M stopped. Refusing to go any further, he said, “This is a zoo, it’s not right.” All around hordes of tourists were clicking their cameras away, some posed with the women, leaning up against them, touching them, as if objects. Running around the village were little girls and boys playing gleefully in the dirt. Cameras clicked away at them and some of the tourist gave sweets as enticements. Some of the girls, barely out of toddler age, had rings already on their necks.

Our guide explained the girls started wearing the rings at five years of age. They would have five brass ring wound onto their necks, then every three years until the age of twenty-seven, another three rings would be added.Once the girl started wearing the rings she would need to wear them for the rest of her life. The guide told us the women believed the rings accentuated their elegance and beauty but the down side was the girls would never leave the village. They wouldn’t receive any education higher than elementary schooling and for the rest of their lives, would be only able to make their income as tourist attractions and weavers.

I was horrified – these weren’t mature women making conscious decisions, these were little girls being encouraged to wear these bonded cuffs, enticed under the pretext of beauty to become enslaved to the camera wielding dollar -what of their hopes for the future should they wish to go to university, or travel, or marry outside the village.  How, at the age of five could they know what they would want in the future? I was further horrified to learn some of the women received burns from the rings, as the brass needed to be heated to take off and put on and that sometimes the burns became infected causing serious health problems and even death.

I was furious with myself for falling into this exploitive trap and no amount of telling myself that some of these women were wearing these rings well before the visiting of hill tribes had become a popular tourist pursuit and that they needed to earn a living, could justify in my mind the supporting of the custom. Was it a custom?According to the guide, this practice had only been around for about 200 years. Was that a long enough time for it to be considered a traditional custom? A custom to retain?

Chiang Mai was where we planned to fly to Myanmar from. During the week there, we had organised our flights and booked accommodation. Although we’d planned not to have a plan but to go where and when we felt, we found with the release of “The Lady”, Myanmar had suddenly become the hot, must-go-to-spot and everything was booking up fast. We were due to fly out in four days time and I couldn’t wait to see the Myanmar stamp in my passport.

Saturday morning I woke with severe pain, doubled up and unable to walk , it was if I was being pummelled inside and on fire. I turned to Big M and said, “I think I’ve twisted my now!” I had big doubts of going to a local hospital, terrified at what conditions were awaiting – both my personal condition and that of the state of the hospital.  An expat cafe owner recommended I go to the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital and as I stepped into its confines a weight of dread lifted from my shoulders. To my untrained eyes, this was one of the most modern, cleanest hospitals I’d ever been in. My assigned doctor was wonderful and thorough, in fact a little too thorough, suggesting just about every test, x-ray and ultra sound under the sun and we began to wonder if we were about to pay for a new wing for the hospital.

I found myself going from one test room to another, an x-ray here, three ultra sounds there, bodily fluid tests and lots of prodding and probing. At the end of the day, I was told I had an inflamed bowel due to a parasite, given some antibiotics and instructed to go home and see my doctor as soon as I could as they had also found something else that needed attention, albeit not serious enough to be hospitalised, but serious enough that it needed further investigation. Oh and a pleasant surprise was the final bill, my wonderful doctor with his full thorough attention cost us less than $100 Australian. Phew!!!

So here I sit, some eighteen hours later in an airport lounge. On the tarmac sits a couple of planes, one is going to Bangkok, the other, maybe to Myanmar... I don’t know, but I know we won’t be. Our prized Myanmar visas sit all shiny and new, never to know the smearing ink of a boarder stamp and our endless summer of wandering has come to an end – well for now anyway. Big M leans over and gives me a hug, “We’ll try again in February,” he says. I nod in agreement, but my heart knows better. It took us years to find the right time to just up and go without a care in the world. Who knows if this opportunity will ever arise again? The boarding call sounds - Home, here we come.

More pics of Chiang Mai
Drive-Thru Takeaway
Breakfast at the Thai One On Sports Bar...YUM!

Even Donald needs guidence in life...

So this is what make Thai food so yummy...

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