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.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Gooving at the Golden Triangle - Chiang Rai

After hours of driving through Bangkoks spaghetti junction highways, passing endless sandbags and outer streets starting to flood, we finally made it to the Airport only to find that the flight was delayed for hours due to a “broken” runway. First we were told accident on runway… this didn’t quell the pre-flight nerves at all, but was soon changed to ‘broken’ .  Thankfully the plane wasn’t broken and after a smooth flight we arrived at our destination, Chiang Rai just prior to midnight and found ourselves in the throws of a full moon party of sorts. 

A party with hundreds of monks. A monk rave! There was plenty of light strobing, groovy music and munchies on offer but forget downing poppers to alter the mind, this party was about us popping goodies into monks begging bowls  in an attempt to alter our Karma. 

The main street of Chiang Rai was filled with joyous people carrying tables, trays and bags of edible goodies. We too filled up a bag of yummy delights and joined the crowds lining the street just below the clock tower waiting for the monks.  (The clock tower of Chiang Rai is stunning, a work of art given to the city by a very generous  Thai Artist and Sculptor – Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat.)   
At the stroke of midnight, music filled the air and the glittering gold tower put on a light show, changing from gold to royal blue, purple, green, red and a beautiful blend of coral shades.  As this happen the night sky filled with hundreds of small birds and a gasp went up from the crowd.  Everyone started clapping and oohing and arhing as the birds, swallows I think, flew around the clock tower, around the buildings and then settled onto the power lines above us.  It was as if they too were waiting for the arrival of the monks.  Throughout all this, candles carried in floating lanterns drifted up into the sky – it was a beautiful sight.  One of the floating lanterns became caught in the power lines sending up sparks, disturbing the birds.  As electrical sparks showered down…and not very far from us… the birds again flew around the tower then resettled along the lines. A procession started, beautiful girls in traditional costumes followed by a large bell being pulled and pushed on a cart by men in stunning outfits. 
As soon as they passed, the crowds moved in and along came the Monks.  It became like a mosh pit, everyone trying to get close to the monks to put food into their begging bowls, when the bowls filled (and it didn’t take long at all) they were emptied into a sack, and when the sacks filled they were passed back to a ute.  Needless to say, there were loads of sacks and quite a few utes.  We had to be very careful not to touch the monks whilst putting the offerings into the bowl, which proved to be hard as the monks continued walking whilst this was being done.
Not to mention the crowd was pulsatesating;  pushing and surging forward to get closer to the Monks.  And you just didn’t put the offering into the bowl , there was a small ritual that had to be carried out. Nothing too complicated, but still trying to remember it and not touch the monk, whilst being shoved was quite disconcerting , yet it was a very enjoyable experience.   We were taken ‘under wing’ by four Chiang Rai uni students who delighted in telling us about this celebration.  It happens only once a year on the Wednesday full moon and is the End of Buddhist Lent.  I found this fascinating as I never knew Buddhists had Lent and I felt even more blessed for being able to participate in this holy festival.  The celebration went into the early hours and we noticed just after the senior monks passed the hundreds of birds sitting along the electrical lines, rose into the air and flew away – have no idea where they went.
The 1989 LP states that Chiang Rai is of “no real interest – just a stepping stone”  on the way to the Golden Triangle and I think it’s thanks to this play down twenty years ago that the town has blossomed into a beautiful tranquil oasis in the north. Today, Chiang Rai is a spotlessly clean, modern town with all the old world charms and bustle.  Peddle rickshaws trundle through the leafy streets, overhead brightly coloured lanterns swing in the breeze and the central market is the place to be wether it’s four o’clock in the morning when the hill tribe women come into town in their traditional dress to sell their wares or in late afternoon when workers line the hawkers stalls for delicacies such as big curly noodle sausages, deep fried chicken (this stall was lined 20deep) and stuffed BBQ salted fish.  For us, Chiang Rai was a mine of interesting sites and discoveries.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Kanchanaburi - Hell Fires and Peace.

The desire of traveling is sometimes fuelled by the images we see on telly or in print and of course by the stories our friends tell us.  Stories of sun-kissed beaches, idyllic wanderings,  or adventure packed experiences, like lunching at a head-hunters village after rowing up crocodile infested waters.  When we hear these stories and see the images, oh how we hanker for a bit of that life. 

How many times have we seen in the movies a woman in some far off country, on holiday, a life changing experience, wandering through a market place, a cane carry-all hanging casually from her shoulder, her ethnic print skirt swirling around bare brown legs, her white top - pristine, her hair glossy and carefree, the sun kissing her gently as she banters with the stall holders and haggles with a dazzling smile.  No, the movies would never let on to you that her shirt hasn’t been washed for a couple of days and smells of BO, that her hair isn’t greasy and frizzy because she can’t find decent conditioner or that the ‘freckles’ on her legs are really the love bites of jet-fighter mozzies with undetectable stealth bomber capabilities, that she’s hanging on for dear life to her carry-all after passing umpteenth signs declaring a vigilance against bag snatchers and  that showing even the slightest bit of interest in a trinket is an invitation for hoards of touts to descend. Or for that matter, the sun is actually burning her to a crisp and it’s so muggy she’s really a puddle of mush….and of course if she was your friend, she wouldn’t tell you any of this either, after all, she’s on holidays, having the adventure of a lifetime.  

And what about the rugged hero of ‘boy’s own’ travel adventures striding effortlessly without a care in the world, or for that matter without an aching bone in the world.  There’d be no mention of the wasp lash to the eye leaving a red welt looking strangely like eyeliner; nor the suspected slipped mickie in a drink whilst watching Bathurst at some bar… making the one beer feel like it could have been a case and resulting in some porcelain kissing before passing out (thank god he was back at the room!); nor would there be an indication that  boots made for intrepid hiking can’t handle a wet stairway and compliments of the 25kg mampacca, 10kg pack, 7kg day pack and two brollies all landing on-top, the red faced hero staggers away with a sore back and very bruised bum.   These are not the stories we tell, after all, holidays and adventures are about being footloose, fancy free and having not a care in the world.  And twelve days prior, that’s exactly how we felt. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Sangkhlaburi - Sweeping the wild west frontier

This monsoon season has been particularly bad for the Land of Smiles with the widespread flooding affecting most of the country and is reportedly the worst in half a century.  So much so, even the officials are now calling upon the Water Goddess for her divine intervention.  I’m praying she can hear them.  This constant flow of water from both the skies and the rivers has cause Big M and I to hopscotch around the country in search of a patch of dry land.  Thank goodness we’ve no actual set plans, but places earmarked for visiting are now completely off the list of must see’s.  Tossing our ‘pebble’ into the provinces, we found our feet landing into the western corner of Thailand and the district of Kanchanaburi – touted as Thailand’s “Westernmost Paradise and Land of Plenteous.”  

 Since arriving in Kanchanaburi, the downpours have become worse and the flooding is now surging towards the capital, Bangkok.  This in turn has relegated us into becoming almost ‘Kanchanaburian Locals’ as we enter our ninth day in the township.  And as any local knows, sometimes a little break from routine is required.  We decide to hire a car and head to the hills for a week-end getaway. 
Big M was chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel again and with great gusto let everyone and everything know about his joy with his hand held fast to the horn; honking like a local every five minutes at temples lining the roadside, honking at stray dogs that line and lie on the road as if they own it and tooting at other motorist to let them know he’s passing them… or even if he’s not. 
Meanwhile, whilst Big M is have a honking good time; I in turn am having a wailing of a time.  My stress levels had already risen slightly - partly due to hopscotching the floods and partly due to the very emotional feelings that Kanchanaburi has brought to me as both a person and an Aussie (but more on that later).  Now they’ve skyrocketed into outer space as I find myself hurtling towards our destination.  We weren’t just going into the hills, but heading to the western frontier of the Thai-Burma border, to Sangkhlaburi, an area described in the 1989 LP as an “interesting wild west sort of place” and according to today’s guide book, sees few tourists and is an outpost for NGO aid workers working with the refugees who arrive in Thailand from Burma.  To heighten the senses even further, the day we’ve chosen to go comes with intermitted torrential rain, flooded roads of red mud slush and clouds of mist descending into the valleys as we drive though.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Phuket - too good to be true....

Its feeling all very exotic, if not a little luxurious, and as the train pulls away from the station, letting off a high whistle, a clunk of wheels on the track and we are thrown back by a harsh jolt, a surge of thrillness jolts through me.  We’ve lashed out and brought an overnight  first- class private- sleeper- cabin train ticket to travel the southern length of Thailand to Bangkok. It’s not quite the Eastern & Oriental Express;  granted the diesel Engine looks about 500years old and the cabins could do with a good lick of paint and padding but it certainly has the mysterious feel of the Orient Express, especially when a crazed Irishman runs up and down the first class corridor yelling “V.J…. V.J… where are you?” with much knocking on private cabin doors and opening and shutting.  We receive a knock on ours and a polite “Ahem” from the first class purser and his assistant.  “You V.J” he asked.  Before we can answer the Irishman yells to them, “He looks like me. Big and white, like me”.  We reply politely to the Purser and his worried looking assistant, “No, not V.J” but the purser is a diligent chap, motions to the Irishman to take a look for himself and verify we’re not his V.J.  (Maybe V.J is hiding on purpose from his mate)   I almost expect Inspection Poirot with his cute little moustache or Miss Marple with knitting bag in tow to suddenly appear.   We have no idea whether the wayward V.J ever appeared or what happen to him and the last we heard of the Irishman was his leaving the First Class for the Second Class and beyond, his crazed voice echoing out “V.J… where the foook are ya man ”.
Part of the fun of travelling is the actual journey to the destination and over the past month there had certainly been some memorable journeys.  Whether it was a  bouncing jeep  jaunt through lush tea highlands of Cameron or a spine re-aligning boat ride to the Perhentians or   rickety trishaw cycle dodging traffic on Penang, these will be remembered with fondness. Not so our  mini-bus hell-ride from Penang to Phuket.