Friday, 14 September 2012

Chilli in the eye in Chiang Mai

I am writing this episode from somewhat less exciting setting than the usual internet café surrounded by slightly sweaty men gaming away online. Instead, I am in the back of Dad’s car which is speeding along the motorway. The destination is pretty exciting, however, as I am headed to Nottingham for a reunion with my brother and (soon to be officially) sister-in-law. And my first introduction to my nephew Jamie who was born some 5 months ago. That’s the truly exciting meeting.

But rewind to 17th July when I was still on my travels, jaunting merrily around south east Asia. After the final trek through Lao rainforest, we were on a tight timetable to get over the river border and make our way to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. As ever the lazy student (and just to complete the stereotype, I might mention I am wearing my Bob Marley T-shirt), I pass over to my diary entry:

“We’ve had quite a wonderful time in Chiang Mai. It was a pretty frantic journey to get there, or at least to leave Laos. It rained on our last day of the Gibbon Experience so hard that the cars couldn’t get all the way to the village where they originally dropped us two days before. So we had a bit of extra hike on a rather steep road. There was swearing and sweaty faces and a lot of talk of littering and Holland, although those topics weren’t connected. Even when we did get to the 4WD trucks, they seriously struggled to get up the hills and through the slippery mud. There were a couple of moments where I truly thought either our car or the other – which was struggling much more, to the point where its passengers were obliged to get out and push – would roll. But we all made it out alive, if a bit bruised and certainly muddy.”

Just an aside, I don’t think that paragraph, upon reading back, properly conveys the terror I felt in that truck. I think it was largely Lorna talking about her idyllic Devon that kept me from strangling the Dutch girl taking photos of the other car losing control and skidding sideways behind us, a fate that I was sure we were going to replicate but with more rolling and death. The only thing that interrupted her blessed nattering was a few serious jolts that almost brought our foreheads together and certainly had us grabbing for any handhold on the car ceiling. Then there was the point when the tyres started smoking; it was unclear whether that was because we were actually stuck in the muddy rut we were in or because our driver was making the way easier for the less capable truck behind us. That was off road driving like I had not quite experienced before.

“Anyway, the rain resulted in a delay for us getting back to Huay Xai so we were almost running to try and catch our bus. We got back to the hostel before 4pm and were collected on foot only to be taken to the river and told to go through immigration and on to a ferry to catch our bus from the other side. As though we were simply walking talking baggage we got a destination label stuck to us [this preliminary indignation at these stickers gave way to a placid acceptance and then on a later journey without them, as they had become better than tickets for us, they were sorely missed]. In a further rush, we stumbled through passport control and then straight down to a boat where our confused falang bumbling seemed to get us on the boat to Chiang Kong for free – or maybe another lady who gave us directions, paid some money, but didn’t get on the boat paid for us. Either way, after the quick crossing we went through the Thai border control and used our sticker to locate ‘Mr Kapthan’ (Mr Captain) amongst the drivers on that side. And once we found him after all that rushing we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the final passenger!

It was a pretty smooth 4-5 hour drive in the mini-van from there. And I mean that in every sense – the roads are certainly a lot better than Laos, and that was just the start. We were amazed by electricity cables everywhere and stopped for snacks in a 7/11! Fully air conditioned with snacks in plastic wrappers and a coffee machine. After 2 weeks in underdeveloped Laos, Thailand was a culture shock.

The next day we just took easy with a little bit of exploring. After a truly terrible breakfast we headed to a veggie restaurant for delicious green curries. We had tea and found gorgeous soap in a little shop before planning our next 2 days of activities with a lovely man in a tourist booth. The night time antics, our first in weeks and on this trip, were the best part of that day. We met up with a few others who had been on the Gibbon and subsequent mini-van ride – Kerry, Brian and Lisa (Americans) and a Kiwi, Anna, who was especially good fun with her Dori faces and dancing. I had a tasty khow sou curry, particular to Chiang Mai, and tried a Chang beer that made me feel sick. Then it was onto a reggae bar for 80 baht mojitos – less than £2/$3 – and to watch the live bands play. We were the first there and the first to start the dancefloor. We made new friends: notably two Glaswegians whom Lorna could not understand and a Hawaiian man named Yahweh, unbelievably.

The hangovers were not a good start to our cookery course the following day. Lorna in particular was on struggle street. We first visited a market to learn the difference between normal and sticky rice in dry form; that when tofu is coloured orange, it’s from turmeric; and what the different noodles – egg, glass and rice – are made of and good for. Then it was on to the farm to learn about fruit, veg (a lot of tiny green eggplants) and herbs/spices. There is more than one kind of ginger!

We were very lucky to have Gay, the owner of the school, Asia Scenic, and face of the business, teaching us. She had great energy, fantastic English and some pretty funny jokes. More useful than the specific recipes (detailed in a book we were each given at the end) were the tips for flavouring; how much of what to use; which herbs to eat and which should be left on your plate when eating a dish; and that you always chuck in the strongest flavour first. The green curry was probably my favourite and I was proud to make the paste from scratch. Aside from rubbing chilli on my face multiple times, it was a really great day.

We headed over to the UN Irish pub for a quiz that evening with a lovely newly-wed Kiwi couple we had met on the cookery course, Jenny and Dave. It was bizarre to be in a pub surrounded by farang doing a quiz in Thailand. It wasn’t the best night as my mood dropped and ebbed with a mixture of homesickness, missing Australia too and physical nausea. So there was no more dancing in bare feet to live bands that night. I fell asleep listening to Passenger, ‘Let her go’, focusing my attention on their genius line, ‘you only hate the road when you’re missing home’.

The following day we both felt a bit under the weather which dampened spirits slightly for the elephant mahout training course we booked. After a somewhat sceptical start, we were won over completely by the Dante elephant park, the animals owned by the same villagers that run the place. We watched a baby elephant called Ploi play with our guide Chin.

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