Monday, 13 January 2014

Time Out in Thailand

First of all - Happy New Year!  2013 was a bit of a crazy one, with a massive life change.  And it's going well!

It took me a while to work out how to compose this blog.  Thailand was a bit different to the other countries I've been to so far.  Having a two month visa meant that, obviously, I was able to stay here beyond the normal 30 days, which in turn meant I could take more time seeing the country.  I just saw a lot less than intended.  Thailand was a time when my plans constantly changed depending on mood and budget, which became an increasing factor.  It also means you're getting a long blog...

We made our border crossing easily with the only hiccup being that the border guard didn't notice I had a double entry visa so voided it.  And then corrected it.  I assume.  He scribbled on it, but I can't read Thai...  Not that this would matter in the end.  Maddy, Jenny & I joined again by Whitney & Jessica while we were waiting for the bus, made our way to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.

It had been my intention to be in Chiang Mai for the lantern festival, Loy Krathong, since I left England.  And I was not disappointed.  With a few others from the hostel we bought lanterns and made our way to the temple at Mae Jo University.  The roads were packed on the way out there, and we feared we had left it too late, especially when we found we had to walk with the invariably slow local crowd to the temple.  The streets leading there were thronged with people eager to get there, which gave me some hope that we had not missed it, and with stalls selling food & lanterns.  Not a good idea, really, as this meant there was even less space for everyone.  We eventually found our way to a very full field.  We assumed this was where we were supposed to be.  There was a temple looking structure at one end & chanting was being broadcast over the tannoy.  Lots of people milled about. Occasionally a lantern would be released from outside, making us wonder if this was the place to be, or if we had indeed missed it.  Then lanterns started to be released from the temple grounds as the chanting was going on.  A message was relayed not to release the lanterns yet.  (We had actually split & lost the people with ours so this was no longer an issue).  Slowly more lanterns were raised as the chanting ended.  A horn sounded, music started to play & thousands of lanterns were finally released into the night sky.  The release went on for several minutes and was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen!

What wasn't quite so beautiful was the thousands of people who had gathered over several hours trying to escape down the same road we had come up.  There was not enough room for this.  I am surprised if people are not seriously injured in the crush, but health and safety is not a major issue in Thailand.

Jenny & Maddy were due to go home & were suffering from travel fatigue, so it took a few days before we got around to doing anything.  First up was zip-lining.  Again something I had never done before.  There are several companies offering pretty much the same package and some shopping around has to be done, but I found that the Flying Squirrel was cheapest, offered a route with a bike and a skateboard amongst other things and had been created by people working at the original zip-line coarse, Flight of the Gibbon.  The only downside I could see was the possibility of a slightly naff free t-shirt...  So Maddy, Cerin (who we had found again after he left Luang Prabang & spent some time in Pai) & I set off to speed through the trees.  It was a great experience.  The first couple get you used to it & any nerves were settled by the time I was halfway across the first line.  By the time we did the 600m line we were happily sitting in our harness looking at the stunning view!  The bike & skateboard were fun but all in all it was a great time.

The second trip was to an elephant farm.  There are again many to choose from, both large touristic farms where the animals are not looked after well to smaller enterprises where their well-being comes first.  We chose Woody's Elephant Farm, partially because we happened to be staying at his guesthouse.  I say we.  Maddy was actually ill.  It was her idea, & was just really going along with it. I was also suffering from  long night out so not feeling my best off i went.  It was one of the best things I have ever done.  No palanquins are used by Woody's as these hurt the elephants.  Similarly they do not beat the elephants with the hook, but merely place it on the head and apply a small pressure.  The elephants are trained to know hat this means.  Other farms do hit the elephants and dig the hook in.  This is not necessary!  I could see that our elephants were happy.  When we went on a short trek riding on their backs (which is very uncomfortable if you happen to be at the front) they would often wander off the track a short way to eat some food and continue in their own time.  Other farms would have enforced discipline.  (Whitney, who had been to Woody's earlier, also went to one of the bigger farms later.  She said she had been horrified by the treatment of the elephants, the sad look in their eyes and the platforms that you were to ride on.  She left in tears.)  We got to wash them and feed them.  And then went swimming with them, whereby you sit on their backs and hold on for dear life as they plunge into a pool so the water is well over your mid-riff!  It was fantastic to have such an intimate experience with the elephants - you do everything with the same elephant so that they get to know & trust you.  I am so glad I did this.

Finally, Cerin & I did our obligatory cooking class.  Situated in a farm outside Chiang Mai it was a good hands on class doing five dishes.  For me it was comforting to know that two of my favourite dishes to cook, Phad Thai and Massamum Curry, were pretty close how they should be.  Cerin and another chef on the course were always asking questions, getting further information on ingredients and techniques, which was good for me as well for a further level of understanding.  Too finish with we made the ubiquitous Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango.  It wasn't the only option (the other chef also went & made deep fried bananas for the staff!) but everyone wanted to see it done. And I got to be the one making it!  Which meant a lot of pressure to make sure I didn't burn the lot.  I didn't, and with seasoning advice from our visiting chefs we created a very nice dessert.

After everyone had left I made a trip to the White Temple at Chiang Rai.  This is a very new temple, construction on started in 1996.  It is entirely white on the exterior, with mirrors inset to make it sparkle.  That alone would have made it look pretty smart.  What makes this temple very different is it's details.  There are few Buddhas.  This is not a temple based on peace.  It's something to do with death.  There is a bridge leading to the main temple, but at the foot of the bridge is a pool of hands, reaching to the sky as if to escape from their descent to hell.  A few of these holds skulls aloft.  In fact, skulls are very prominent - heads hang from trees, even the traffic cones have little red skulls on top!  It was a scene I am sure Dante would have looked upon with admiration.  Apparently the inside of the temple has odd paintings of Superman, but not being Buddhist I wasn't allowed inside to find out.

Cerin had said Pai was great, and I found that they had a Circus School there at which I hoped to finally make some progress with my juggling (I had started last Easter but never got anywhere).  When asked to expand on why Pai was so good, the answer from most people was, 'It just is.  You have to experience it.'  So off I went, for what could be a pivotal moment for me...

Pai...  It is a small town 132km north west of Chiang Mai along highway 1095 to Mae Hong Son, a great road, twisting and turning through the mountains and much loved by travellers for hiring a scooter to make the journey themselves.  Rather than the slightly safer bus.

There is not much to do in Pai.  It has a tourist centre based around a few roads, full of cafes and bars.  The streets come alive every night with a market selling all kinds of food, from the standard Phad Thai or fried rice jacket potatoes (a favourite), waffles, roti, deep fried ice cream, all the way through to insects (which I have finally tried - I prefer larvae as they are sweeter although crickets are nice if seasoned well...).  Every night was spent here finding something new to eat, savouring old favourites.  During the day the cafes held sway.  Brunch was generally taken at around noon, occasionally 1:30.  It was that kind of place.

Pai would have been just nice if it hadn't been for the Circus School and the people I met there.  They made it into a magnificent place.  The circus school sits on a hill overlooking the town, and as such has the best view, and therefore sunsets, in town.  Nearly everyday was spent on the pagoda waiting to see if that days sunset would have more vibrant colours than the previous nights.

And we did nothing.  There was me, Tine and Martin, who made up a triumvirate which would stay together for nearly three weeks.  Along with Chaz and Adam, the Circus teachers, and a long line of guests who came and went, or didn't leave, or came back again, the days flew by.  Until now I had been one of the most adventurous travellers I had found, given the duration I was out for.  People who had hitchhiked through India for months, some travelling with less than the bare essentials, even one working as a journalist for a major online financial website who was writing his pieces from 'the office' - a sofa in the corner of the reception area!  Listening to the stories they had to tell was an eye opener, sometimes in a surprising way.

We didn't just do nothing (although our ethos was to do as little as possible - when we tried some meditation classes it sat uneasily as we were actively pursuing doing nothing, and therefore doing something).  After about a weeks we rented scooters to have a look at a nearby waterfall and Pai canyon, which did rival the pagoda for best sunset.  We took part in the free yoga sessions put on for us, hilariously as we had no strength or balance and were just falling on the floor all the time (I don't know what has happened to me, but I used to be much better!).  And I finally learnt to juggle.  Just a couple of quick bits of advice from Chaz and Adam was all it took & it clicked.  I also learnt to twirl the fire staff.  It looks impressive.  When done by people who know what they're doing.  I have a lot of practice to do on this.  This was actually one of the daily highlights of the circus school - every day there would be a lesson & new people either playing with staff or poi on fire.  During the day the residents (as we became to be known) would be seen juggling with balls and clubs, practicing the poi, staff, diablo and slackline.  It was free entertainment, and totally enthralling.

Two things of note: early in my stay I bumped in Katie, who I had met in Xi'an months ago.  We had been in touch ever since an had realised we would cross paths again here.  It was great to catch up and exchange stories and tips for the next steps in each others travels.  The other thing was less cheerful.  Cerin had been due to meet me in Pai.  After a couple of days I contacted to see if he was coming.  He had been attacked at a bar in Chiang Mai and beaten up, unprovoked and over nothing.  He had suffered multiple head wounds, including a cracked jaw and broken eye socket.  He was forced to go home for reconstructive surgery.  It is unbelievable that this could happen to one of the nicest people I have met on my travels and a reminder that trouble is never far away in life.  (I can report that the surgery went well and Cerin is looking forward to travelling again as soon as possible.)

Eventually though my itch kicked in again.  I decided to walk to the Mae Yen waterfall, a 14km round trip through the woods along the river.  It was nice to be by myself with nature.  The waterfall itself was impressive an a good location for meditating.

On my return, however, it seems that this much activity was too much for some to cope with.  Tine left the next day.  It was strange after she had left.  We had got close as a group, talking, laughing, sharing ideas & stories (the best was the endless discussion we had on how to design the best hostel ever, money being no object & profit unnecessary - including hammocks set on ziplines to the toilet so you didn't have to get up!).  All good things must come to an end though, and while our time together was far to brief I am sure this is another lasting friendship.

Seeing that things were coming to an end (in addition, our pagoda had been taken over by a new group and a couple of the resident puppies - unbelievably cute - had been sent to new homes), I decided to do my final trip here. With a couple of others, I rented a scooter and went to Lod Caves.  This was not the first time on a scooter since the accident in Vietnam.  I had been on one in Chiang Mai on a trip to Doi Suthep temple, and to Pai canyon, during which I had my first ride at night.  But I still didn't feel overly confident.  That changed on this trip.  The road to Lod Caves is twisty and turny up the mountain, with some very sharp curves.  I felt very comfortable this time.  Lod Caves themselves were very impressive.  An underground river takes you to 3 different caves with stalactite formations, cave paintings and ancient burial chambers.  With only our guides oil lantern for light it was very atmospheric.  It was getting late by the time we headed back, and by the time we got to the top of the mountain the sun was setting.  Which meant the descent would be done in the dark.  I had hoped to avoid this, but we had started later than planned.  But I felt good as I swung the bike the bike through the corners and cranked the throttle along the straights.  I definitely feel more confident on a scooter now & am thinking about learning properly when I return home.

And then I left it behind as well.  Pai was a moment in time, a group of strangers brought together and lasting friendships forged.  I had not felt quite like this since Kota Kinabalu, nearly four months earlier.  It took a couple of days in Chiang Mai before the feeling of displacement left.  First I had to work out what to do next.  I wanted to be on a beach for Christmas.  I had 10 days to go.  I had planned to go to Myanmar first.  That wasn't going to happen.  I had wanted to see the ancient capital of Sukhothai, the ruins at Ayutthaya and the Bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi.  I did not have time.  My mind was full of ideas nd missed opportunities.  So I did what I always did in these situations - I went climbing, the only time I can clear my head.  And the answer came - I would get the bus to Sukhothai, then go through Bangkok to Tonsai, where I had heard from Maddy that there was some fantastic climbing, continue to Malaysia, travel to Myanmar from Kuala Lumpur, back to Bangkok and have a little clean up session from there.  Sorted.

It was as easy as that.  I packed, got on  bus, went to Sukhothai.  I was now alone again, properly, for the first time since Kota Kinabalu.  It was fine though.  I had a plan.  I borrowed a push bike from the hotel and went off the the ruins of the old city.  It is a large complex of temples and statues of Buddha.  Frankly they are mostly the same, some bigger than others, some in a better state of repair, but all in all a pleasant day was had cycling around the ruins.  And it left left me totally templed out.  Something has got to be really impressive to get me interested now!

After just a day I hopped on the next bus to Bangkok, where I stayed a massive 2&1/2 hours at Mo Chit bus station waiting for the first bus to Krabbi.  It was a gruelling 13 hours overnight bus.  Not one of the Vietnamese sleeper buses either - just normal seats to try and get some sleep.  I uncurled myself in the morning and got a tuk-tuk to Ao Nang before catching a longtail boat to Tonsai beach where I gratefully found a room at the first place I inquired at, the highly recommended Pasook Resort.  It was a bit basic, but frankly the cheapest avaliable at late notice at Christmas and after 24 hours of travelling it was a bed.

Tonsai, as mentioned, is a beach.  On the shore are a row of bars, and another road loops around the back through the woods upon which are the resorts, mainly bungalows.  It is only accessible by boat, giving it an almost island feel.  On the other side of the bay is the beach of Railay West, which can be accessed by a paths either through the woods behind the cliffs or across the front of them, or by crossing the rocks on the shore at low tide.  Also there are Railay East and Phranang beaches.  Between them are great cliffs with the best rock climbing in South East Asia.  The routes at Tonsai are the hardest.  I did an intermediate course and took on some of the routes at Railay.  It was fun and hard, but the course leader was not very good - we also had beginners in our group yet he still proposed warming up on a grade harder than I'd done in Vang Vieng.  Although I had come here primarily to climb, this was the only time I did.  I picked up a couple of little injuries which prevented me doing much more and could not find another climbing centre which seemed interested in my business.  I would like to come back one day with other climbers and tackle the routes at my leisure, as I saw many doing during my stay there. It was actually very good to watch them & see the things that experienced climbers are cable of.

The beaches have very different ambiances.  Tonsai is a backpacker haven, like Pai.  Most of the bungalows are basic, if not wooden, and all the bars are made of wood.  All you can see all day are climbers and base jumpers.  The others are driven by high end resorts, the beaches full of sun worshippers from Eastern Europe and Russia.  Tonsai has a much more active feel.  I much preferred it, only venturing to Railay twice to see a couple of small caves and a lagoon for something to do, and also because it had the only cash machines.

As with Pai, I settled into a routine.  I woke, got breakfast at Pyramid cafe (there was little choice on the beach), read, juggled, had a shower when the electricity was turned on so I had light, and went to watch a movie most nights, regardless of how bad it was, at one of the bars.  Without a dorm, and not actively climbing, I found it difficult to meet many people.  I did spend Christmas with the rest of my group from climbing, but they were gone after a couple of days.  Christmas on a beach was fantastic though!  No feeling that you should be having a good time, trying to keep everyone happy.  I just had a good day & finished it with a massage looking at the bay.

In a desire to do something I decided to take a group tour to some local islands. This meant getting to Ao Nang.  I found that the boats are run by three companies, one on each beach, and that the Tonsai boatmen feel like they have a monopoly.  They want to make 800 Baht from every boat.  If it's just one person they will not lower the price.  Trying to get an early morning boat is a nightmare.  I did a agree a deal with a boatman from another beach, but when approached by the Tonsai firm he refused.  Eventually enough people were found & I got to Ao Nang in time, but I really do think they could run this a bit better and more fairly if they joined together.  My trip took in Daenang Island for some open water snorkelling, where the coral was good and fish colourful, but not as vibrant as previously in Sabah, lunch on Pakbai Island, two rocky outcrops where at low tide a beach forms between the two, and kayaking at Hong Island, which had a shallow lagoon, only 70cm deep at low tide.  I did not get to kayak in the lagoon, but did get to go into open sea.  It was tough work against the waves, and the swell from motor boats didn't help.  I also found that tourists do not mix as well as travelers.  Only when I went kayaking with someone did anyone talk outside their original groups.

I went back to my island and awaited New Year.  I had intended to spend it on Koh Phi Phi, but was hearing stories that it was full.  As I had a definite bed I decided to stay where I was.  It turned out to be a good decision.  One day, sat at a beach bar, I looked out and saw a familiar face.  I had met Jordan at Pai, he was one of the group who had taken over the pagoda, and he was here with a couple of others from that group.  That New Years was possibly the best I have ever had, watching fireworks and lanterns being set off from Railay & floating over the bay, the music pumping out of all the bars on Tonsai, fire displays going on all the time with poi & staff.  It was a magical scene and I am glad I saw in the New Year with friends in such a wonderful setting.

Finally I decided it was time to move on again.  And again plans were changed at the last minute.  I still had time left on my visa and wanted to travel the islands down to Langkawi in Malaysia, but either everywhere was full or the prices were too high on my budget to do the journey by boat.  So I decided that I was done with beaches and paradises for now and booked a bus to Penang.

I don't think I have had a typical Thai experience.  I have not been to any of the islands, and intentionally skipped the hedonistic delights of Koh Phangan and diving of Koh Tao for the chilled climbing of Tonsai.  I have avoided Bangkok and Kao San Road, instead wanting the laid back city feel of Chiang Mai.  And the time I spent in Pai meant I was not able to see as many sights as I wanted.  But I would not have traded by time there for anything, and the sights I missed will still be there when I come back in a few months time.  I do not feel my time has been wasted.  I may have been starting to feel jaded.  I have had time away and can start the second half of my journey reinvigorated & with a fresh desire to see and experience the world.  And most importantly I have travelled the way I wanted to travel, done what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it.  Because this is my adventure.

I also know that Pai and Tonsai are not finished with me yet in this life...

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