07.06.2012 - 15.06.2012 35 °C
The bus from Chiang Kong dropped us about half a mile away from the old city gates, outside a hotel. We had heard that pretty much all hotels in Chiang Mai also offer treks, and can be pretty frosty towards people who aren't interested in booking their treks with them, or people that just don't want to do treks, and this hotel was no different. Before we had even got our bags, 'Annabelle', the energetic and charming salesgirl from the hotel was busy trying to get everybody who had got off the bus to stay there. She was offering a double room with a fan for 4 quid or with A/C for 6 quid, and if we booked 2 nights we got the third for free... but only if we booked a trek through her. The rooms were clean and spacious, and everybody from the bus was keen to do a trek so the majority of us checked in and booked the trek. By the way we went mad and paid the extra 2 quid to have A/C.
We booked the trek for two days time, so we had a chance to have a look around the shops the next day and even found a 'Boots', which made Lou far more excited than a shop selling moisterisor and posh soap should. I also decided that as I'd been in Thailand for a full day it was time for a Thai massage. After initially putting the pyjamas that I was given for the massage on the wrong way around – to the great amusement of the masseuse, I was instructed to lie on my back. The next hour was a mixture of twisting, elbowing, kneeing, pulling, pushing and contorting, but my whole body felt brilliant after it. I'd had oil massages in Laos and Vietnam but this was by far the best.
The next day we got picked up early for the 2 day trek which was to have an overnight stay beside a hill-top tribe village. From the boat, the girls from South Africa and Germany had booked, as had the Norwegian couple, and a German couple and two friends from Iran made up 10 people in total for the trek. What Annabelle had told us, was that we would be doing a trek and on the second day we would be doing some white water rafting and an elephant ride. What she hadn't told us was that the first day we would be visiting a botanical garden – which as quite pretty but not really what everybody wanted to do, a snake house – where a snake-teasing show was put on for our benefit, but we would all have rather it had not, and a "long neck tribe" village – which was the most interesting. From an early age the girls put rings around their neck in order to stretch them (hence "long neck tribe"), and the older members have up to 25 steel rings around their necks. Apparently they stay on 24 hours a day, evey day, and if they took them off they would not be able to support their heads as after some time the muscles waste away, but as interesting as it was to see the tribe, it was just a village selling trinkets. Anyhow the point is that these trips should really be more transparent.
When we finally got trekking, it was worth the wait – the scenery was spectacular. Our guide – 'Wat', told us that it would take between 3 and 4 hours and was quite testing in parts. The trek was mostly uphill and was indeed quite testing in parts, especially as I was wearing sandals. And even more so for one of the Iranian girls who hadn't wanted to leave any baggage behind in Chaing Mai and so had an extra 20kg on her back. After hearing enough of her moaning, Wat took her backpack as well as his own and the speed picked up, and after a total of 4 hours or so we arrived at the hill-top village in time for sunset.
It was to everybody's great pleasure that a colleague of Wat's was waiting for us at the top with an ice-box full of cans of Chang. Whilst everybody else got freezing cold showers (albeit quite pleasant in the humidity of the jungle), Wat and his colleague went about preparing a yellow curry for us all. The cooking instruments and utensils were rudimentary; the only heat he had at his disposal was from a wood fire, but the food he served up was brilliant. Along with the yellow curry there was rice a plenty and a spicy cabbage salad. After we had finished dinner everybody went back outside where a campfire had been built and lit, although from that point on the Norwegian guy took the job of keeping it stoked solely his own, which was fine by everybody else but I was concerned that such an avid interest in matters relating to flames would eventually lead to some kind of eye-brow injury.
There was yet more to come from Wat, who after doubling up as a tour guide and chef, surprised us all with another skill – he was half decent on the guitar. He wasn't so great at singing, though he gave it a good go with a mixture of classic western 3-cord numbers and traditional Thai songs. Another member of the group – the German girl, also said she could play a bit so after half an hour or so Wat passed the guitar and we had some Pinkfloyd, Oasis, Eagles and that vastly talented musician and all round good egg... Robbie Williams. After everybody had had enough of guitar sing alongs we had a couple of solo numbers. The Norwegian guy gave us two or three comedy songs (in Norwegian, but his girlfriend was laughing along), and then we all felt lucky to be serenaded with 20 minutes of beautiful Iranian songs that completely melted your heart. Earlier during dinner the Iranians had been telling us of how tough life in Iran could be – they were involved in the 2009 anti-government protests, and punished accordingly, and you could really hear the deep melancholy in their voices.
The next day we started early to walk to a waterfall an hour or so from the camp. However as we set off the heavens opened and torrential rain fell for the next half an hour, making the route to the waterfall dangerous. Wat took a vote and 9 people voted to not to go to the waterfall, leaving me as the sole yes-voter, but when somebody mentioned the leaches it was suddenly 10-0.
Having given the waterfall a miss we got to the elephant sanctuary earlier than planned. I am not generally a fan of these kinds of activities – you can never be sure of how the animals are treated when you're not there, and even if they are treated well, I'm not sure they would be roaming around with a big box with 2 people on their backs given the choice. But alas, it was part of the tour and apparently the place where we were visiting was a sanctuary for elephants who had been used for logging but were no longer required, and without them bringing in some kind of income there would be no way to look after them. So anyway, the hour or so long elephant ride was quite fun; we fed them sugar cane, they took a bath and one of them had their almost new-born with them who was pretty cute. I still have reservations about this kind of activity but from what I could make it the elephants were not maltreated which I suppose is one thing.
To finish the 2 days of activities off, we white water rafted down the river. I've been white water rafting in faster water before, but this was still fun. Half way down the river, we swapped to a bamboo raft and meandered the rest of the way to where the land rover was waiting to pick us up. The bamboo rafting was pretty low-octane stuff, but not a bad way to finish what had been a really good 2 day “trek”. If they just dropped the activities on day 1 before the walking begun it would have been so much better, but the impression I got was that every trek company does the same so perhaps its a requirement for the licence.
We had a couple of days after the trek until we were due to leave Chiang Mai, so Lou decided to do a cooking class. I was looking forward to seeing her at the end of the day to taste what she had made but alas everything was so nice that she had eaten it all. She got a comprehensive cook-book with ingredients and instructions for how to make all of the dishes that she, and the other 8 people had made, so when we get home there will be plenty of tom yam soup with prawns, pad thai, panang curry (with paste made from scratch), spring rolls and for pudding sticky rice with mango and coconut milk, and deep-fried banana with coconut and cream battered toast.
After spending a week in Chiang Mai we only had 1 week left until our flight from Bangkok to Sydney. We decided to split that week between Koh Phangan – one of the Island in the South East of the country, and finally finishing in Bangkok. The cheapest way to do it was to get an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and from Bangkok take an overnight bus to Southern Thailand to catch a ferry over to the Island. A long, and very tiring journey, but from what we had heard about Koh Phangan, definitely worth it.