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Tag Archives: Chiang Mai

Songkran in Chiang Mai

What can be more fun than three full days of water fighting?

From Thursday, April 12 to Sunday, April 15, Thai’s in Chiang Mai were out in full force spraying down each other, tourists and making sure to get plenty of water on images of the Buddha. They were out a day early with their water guns and buckets of water despite the holiday technically starting on Friday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the last day in order to catch my train back to Lop Buri, but after three full days of serious use of my water gun, I was ready to head back home.

Thai New Year, or Songkran, was originally celebrated as a time of year to clean house and wash away any bad luck from the year before. Young people visit their elders to sprinkle them with perfumed water as a form of good luck for the year ahead.

To honour the Buddha, there is a procession along the main streets of images of the Buddha so that people can sprinkle perfumed water on it to show their devotion.

But the festival has really turned into a three day street festival, stopping only at night so that the night market can set up just inside the Thapa Gate. Throughout our hotel there was a rational fear of heading out too soon and getting soaked on your way to get something to eat, so anyone who came in relatively early found themselves hiding out on the patio or watching and waiting by the doors for the coast to be clear.

Of course, coming in for the day often meant one last splash as your hosts at the hotel poured buckets of ice water down your back before you ran in to find a hot shower.

Even motorbikes aren’t safe from the onslaught of buckets and waterguns on a soi

I’ve never had a smile plastered on my face for so long, nor been as soaking wet as I was during Songkran. The biggest sponsors, Air Asia, Thai Airways and Coca Cola all had stages set up just outside the city gates pumping music, water and foam the entire day. It made for the most epic daytime party I’ve ever been to.

Train to Chiang Mai: Standing room only

Over the past two weeks, I figure I’ve spent 75-80 hours in transit. Be it a bus, a train or simply waiting for either. That’s almost 5 days out of the last 14. My pores have never felt so clogged, my ass has never been so numb, and never have my ankles been so swollen.

Taking the train into Chiang Mai, however, was a whole new experience on its own. When I asked at the train station about booking advance tickets, they told me it was completely sold out. Considering that it was Songkran (Thai New Year), I wasn’t surprised. However, they did tell me that I could show up before the train and get a ticket and that’s exactly what I did. Prepared to board the 5:00 train, I show up at the station only to be told that they have standing room only tickets.

“Standing room only?” I asked doubtfully, as if there was a possible communication error. Nope, they really meant standing. So, calling on my sense of adventure and desire to pay as little as possible, I buy a ticket.

The difference between the tourist-centric sleeper and the second and third class trains are night and day on a regular day, however this is Songkran where everyone is heading home to welcome the new year with family and friends, so when they said ‘standing room only,’ they really meant it. People were packed in like sardines, filing the aisles and sitting on the open stairs, with only a guardrail beside them to prevent falling to their death. So I claim my spot where the trains connect and prepare myself for a long train ride. With one foot on one train, and the other foot on the other train, I took deep breaths, imagined myself doing the splits should the trains detach for any godforsaken reason, and tried to ignore images of my life passing before my eyes.

It really wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the people constantly moving the length of the entire train selling food and drinks, forcing me to suck it in and push myself against the chains keeping me from falling off the train. If those sellers weren’t there, I would have been able to sit, just like the lucky souls who claimed a spot in front of the open doorway, or on the stairs.

Nonetheless, I made friends with a group of guys who were playing the guitar and singing some rather beautiful Thai songs. I tried coaxing them to sing a song in English, despite their combined knowledge of three phrases; “Where are you from?” “What is your name?” and “where are you going?”

Eventually they started singing Zombie by the Cranberries (which is actually quite a popular song here, I imagine because of the simplicity of the words). Then they sang Bruno Mars, The lazy song, and I was able to teach them how to say certain words and sing along with them. Singing and laughing with them made the time fly, and then eventually it was 5 hours later.

It may have been the pathetic way that I was trying to sleep standing up, or maybe it was in the even sadder way that I started trying to sit between people moving between the trains that caught the attention of a Thai woman and her New Zealand husband, but they set down a mat for me and I sat at their feet for the next 4 hours until I couldn’t feel my butt, and realized there were seats open in 3rd class where I caught a few hours sleep before arriving in Chiang Mai.

Having traveled on the sleeper, standing in third class, and sitting in second class on my return from Chiang Mai, I can honestly say that I like the atmosphere in third class better because you can truly enjoy the Thai people that you are traveling with and anticipate the next person to walk up the aisle singing “nam yen, bia,” (Cold water, beer). To truly travel as Thai people travel, take a third class car, but maybe only if you’re going a short way – most wouldn’t enjoy my uncomfortable 12 hours. However, for a painless ride, the sleeper really had it figured out. The rocking motion of a train can put anyone to sleep (even standing!) and the comfort and privacy of those bunks is surprising.

Then again, my ticket was only 200 baht ($6.50) whereas sleepers can run anywhere from 650 to 1000 ($21 – $31.50) and when you’re on a budget and already living in Thai Baht, that makes a big difference.

It was worth all the pain once I got to Chiang Mai and started seriously living it up for Songkran. I have a lot of research and writing to do in the next couple days to do the holiday any justice!

From Chiang Mai to Vang Vieng

Leaving Pai resulted in three nervous breakdowns and an almost fist fight between a Thai woman and a Turkish woman. We watched a bus come and people start getting on it, and thought that our tickets reserved our spot. Rookie mistake. We didn’t realize that we were supposed to check-in and double check in to reserve our spot on the bus. So, while the bus was full and sitting there we were pleading our case about all the connections we had to make and then one woman said the next bus was coming at 4:00. Since it was currently 2:00 and the three of us had connections with the hour upon arriving in Chiang Mai we were all slightly stressed out. After the time miscommunication and some frantic screaming, we were assured that there was a bus coming within 20 minutes.

After finally getting on the bus and getting to Chiang Mai, I narrowly avoided a possibly very public and very emotional goodbye and we plopped down our bags, checked our watch and headed off for dinner.

Notice a step missing?

We didn’t check in at the desk. So for the second time that day, we didn’t check in. Not until we noticed another large group of people with their passports at the desk did we realize that we were going to miss another bus, so we went up and handed our passports over and got our names on the list for the next bus.

Eventually the bus left, what was supposed to be 7:00 turned into 8:30, but we were on the road.

Driving down a Thai highway is a lot like driving down any highway unless you see the road signs. We could have been anywhere in the world. So we just cuddled up and tried to sleep through countless 7-11 bathroom stops and 4 loud girls from New Zealand in the back.

The border was uneventful; we filled out our departure cards, got our passports stamped and Visa’s issued and we were on our way. We were surprised at how pricey the Visa was since we had read on the internet that it was $35US, but we had to pay 1,800 Baht. We took a Songthaew into Vientienne where we waited for a big bus to take us on to Vang Vieng. This time we were prepared to jump on that bus as soon as it arrived to ensure our spot.

The ride into Vang Vieng was beautiful, through villages and up and down mountain sides. Many times the driver had to stop and honk at cows and goats to move out of the road. In many places the paved road gave out to gravel and I learned later that it’s because the roads are new, but they’re not paved properly, so every time there is a big rainfall, it washes out the road.

Arriving was such a relief, we had picked a place to stay out of Melisa’s book and grabbed our bags and headed out in search of it. However, since Vang Vieng is known as a party town because of the tubing down the river and bucket drinks, everything that was remotely cheap and clean seemed booked so we just grabbed a room at an upper class place with the most wonderful view in the world.

After hitting the bank machine to get some KIP ($1 = 7,800 KIP! I’m a millionaire!!) and dropping off some laundry, we proceeded to grab something to eat and drink. And so the night begins. Almost immediately, we met one of the adopted locals, an American who has been coming back here for 9 years to teach English, give Chiropractic care to the people here and run a restaurant in town. They actually completed an adoption ceremony to accept him into the family that consisted of the sacrifice of a couple chickens, a lot of candles and a shaman, and n ow most of the town calls him “poppa.” Him and his partner fed us Lao Lao, essentially Laotian moonshine, and we were able to ask him all our questions and they took us on a tour of the towns best bars. We were thoroughly upset by the 19-year old crowd (or younger?!?!) and called it an early night. Also, exhaustion and drinking hard liquor don’t mix very well. The crowd here seem to be as rowdy and reckless as the Haad Rin crowd that we constantly made fun of at Haad Tien, except that here there is a constant stream of people coming and going and the party continues every day of the week.

The weirdest thing about this town is that every other restaurant plays Friends on the big screens. So they have the low tables and mattresses on the ground with pillows for relaxing, as one would expect at a truly Lao restaurant, but restaurants side by side play continuous episodes day in and day out. On a day like today, with the rain coming down so hard that you don’t really want to be anywhere else, it was a simple comfort to sit on the internet, beer by my side and an episode of Friends for background noise.

Popa told us that the reason for this is that one bar started playing it one year, and everyone flocked to it because it was so random. Other business owners saw their success and followed suit and started doing it to the point that if you’re sitting on the patio, you can hear three different episodes playing simultaneously. Some have swayed a little and started playing Family Guy or South Park, but for the most part Friends is the staple.

One of the things I love about Melisa is that she absolutely loves animals. Of all kinds. But today we saw a poor dog that had a limp and her heart just broke. Heading over to cuddle it and give it some love the poor thing whimpered while it was trying to sit down. The owner kind of shrugs and says that it got hit by a mini-bus. So for the next half hour, she’s asking everyone around if there’s a vet or animal clinic around somewhere that she can take the dog to so that his leg could get fixed. Alas, there is nothing close at all, and most people tried to send us to the hospital, so I had to take her mind off of it before she broke down into tears. Sometimes animal culture shock can be the hardest reality there is to face. (Popa also told us that if the people here have a particularly bad year as far as tourism goes, the dogs are the first thing that they turn to for food… And I thought they didn’t do that here!!)

Since the rain started today instead of a trek that we had planned to do in the mountains, we’re going to head into Luang Prabang tomorrow, where we’re hoping to trek and spend a night in a Northern village. I’ve come to learn that planning and expecting things while traveling can really only be done from each location you’re at. So I’ll have to book my ticket back to Bangkok, but until then we’re going to take every day as it comes and play by ear.

From Sensory Overload to Satisfaction

After only two nights in Bangkok, we decided to GTFO and head to Chiang Mai. I think the problem was that while we situated ourselves on Rambuttri Road, which is really just a quieter, less alcohol soaked version of Khao San Road, we were still in the heart of the tourist district. Everything was go-go-go 24/7 and I’m getting too old for that shit. I honestly despised most of the people I saw, couldn’t enjoy the late night markets, and really didn’t want to sit and drink until I was as stupid as half the morons roaming the streets. (Although maybe I would have had a better time)

Offerings outside of the palace with the emerald buddha

I’m sure it would be different if I was in a party mood, or if I saw a different part of the city. And I’m open to experiencing it differently. But any subsequent visits will NOT be anywhere near Khao San Road.

We were able, however, to make it to the Grand Palace to walk around for an afternoon and see the temple and old palace grounds. It was beautiful and fantastic seeing all the intricate detail on the pagodas and in the temple and watching the Thai people praying and giving offerings of incense and flowers and lighting candles for Buddha.

So we booked our sleeper train to Chiang Mai. 4 girls were heading out, while Theo and Melisa stayed behind to meet up with friends and wait for Visa’s to get sorted.

Sarah from my bunk in the sleeper train

The sleeper train was a lot of fun. I’m not sure if we were as loud as the guys just down the hall, but there were times when we were having some serious girl talk and giggling ‘till we cried. The morning was beautiful, chugging through the countryside and seeing all the beautiful landscape.

Chiang Mai has been fantastic. Everyone that I’m with loves the city and barely wants to leave. We were able to fit in a lot while we have been here. The first night was Sunday, so we were able to visit the Sunday Walking Market in the old city. But not before we spent the entire morning walking around the city trying to figure out where we wanted to stay. Knowing nothing about Chiang Mai and trying to stay as far away as possible from another Khao San situation, we decided to stay outside the old city. While this was a mistake and we ended up moving the next day inside the old city, it was nice to see a few different neighbourhoods around the city.

The Sunday Market was beautiful, people lining the street down both sides and the middle selling unique artisan crafts alongside stalls of people selling the regular tourist goods of harem pants, Thai fisherman pants and silk scarves. The market itself, however, doesn’t seem to be a tourist trap, but a place that locals come, kind of like a flea market mixed with the One of  a Kind show. Shopping without spending money and with a bunch of girls who are going crazy buying souvenirs and gifts for home is exhausting. Luckily, Theo made it down and Louie, a Scottish / English guy we met on Khao San and adopted were also there and I was able to escape with them for some beers.

That night we found an awesome bar called “Inter Bar” on Tae Phe Rd. that did a lot of rock covers, were we spent the night singing along to Nirvana and AC/DC until stumbling home to our guest house.

Monday was kind of a slow start, but we went to the Tiger Kingdom and petted and cuddled with tigers. It was pretty terrifying, but fantastic. I was initially/ concerned about going because of the controversy about whether the cats are drugged in order to remain so lucid with people and not to attack them. Now I’m not sure what I think, while there is the possibility that the tigers are trained from birth not to attack or bite and how to follow orders, the fact that they were sleeping almost the entire time that people were in the cages made me second guess. The nature of a tiger is to hunt and attack, but if nurtured properly can anything truly be tame and ignore their instinct?

Yesterday, we organized an overnight trip to Pai, in Northern Thailand because most of the group wanted to get up into the mountains and swim in the hot springs. After about four hours of winding roads and mountain views, we arrive fully nauseated and ready to eat and figure out the next couple days. Since we’re only here for one night, we wanted to fit in as much as possible. So after dinner, we went to the hot springs for a swim at sunset. While I have pictures of everyone hanging from the vines, I’ve been warned not to post them on the internet because not one person actually looks good in the pictures. Considering that I couldn’t see anything until the flash went off on my camera, I think I did a pretty good job though!

Now Melisa and I are heading back to Chiang Mai tonight to catch an overnight VIP bus into Laos. While it’s super sad that we’re going to be leaving the group, it’ll be good for us to be able to get things done without trying to herd everyone else along or agree on a plan with 7 people. Also, considering that she’s going to be traveling alone for the next 3 months, and I’ll be on my own for the next year, we’ll need to ease our way out of the comfort of being surrounded by other people who will plan, navigate and keep us company.