As I stepped out into the warm Chiang Mai evening, I could barely contain my excitement at having a whole new country to explore. With just eight days over the Christmas break, in desperate need of an adventure, I had done the ‘real’ traveller’s unthinkable - booked myself on an Intrepid tour in Thailand. I had two nights in Chiang Mai before meeting up with my tour group and heading to the hills to ‘Hike with the Hilltribes’.
Barely stopping to dump my bag, I couldn’t wait to get out amongst it. Walking up to the night market near my hotel, Chiang Mai was so much cleaner than I expected. Every square inch seemed to be swept within an inch of its life. The night markets were filled with all sorts of food I’d never seen before – black gooey vegetables – insects – seafood on sticks. What at first I thought were little blue fireworks lighting the sky, were on closer inspection fluorescent toys being thrown into the air by hawkers. Scooters and Tuk-Tuks chugged past me, setting the pace along the old city wall. Chiang Mai met me like the smile of a relaxed academic, eccentric and fun with the promise of hidden treasures.
As he led us around Doi Suthep, the first Thai temple I had seen, its other worldly beauty blew me away. Set high amongst the hills, it is adorned with incredible art and monuments, many in gold leaf. Wanting to soak up the beauty and all the good luck I could, I lit a candle, was blessed by a monk, rang a bell, hit a gong and lay a flower in respect.
Grounds of Doi SuthepAs luck would have it, to my delight a few hours later back in the city I discovered that Chiang Mai was full of temples to explore. So I set off in a Tuk-Tuk to see Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man. Uncovering the vast and rich history of Chiang Mai left me thinking Chiang Mai is to Thailand what Oxford is to England. My kind of town.
Wat Chedi LuangSo with a full day of exploring under my belt, I nervously headed back to the hotel to meet my tour group. After dinner and beers, whizzing through the traffic on the backboard of the truck, I started to think this whole tour thing might not be so bad.
The next morning we headed for the hills. We stopped in Mae Ma Lai to check out the local market, an exotic treasure chest of spicy sights and smells. I tried fried grasshopper, it tasted a little bit like prawns. I passed on the silkworm.
Grasshoppers for Morning TeaAs we got into the hills, we visited a cave filled with antique carvings and Buddhist statues. I half expected machete wielding bandits to emerge from the shadows.
Despite an early morning wake up from the village rooster after sleeping amongst the snores and grunts of my new found tour group friends, I woke up the next day excited and ready to go. Our group of twelve had turned out to be a great bunch of people, fellow adventurers and just plain good fun. And today we were going to ride elephants.
Wild BambooWe headed onwards into the jungle, a good few hours of hiking ahead. It was slow going and steep, but incredibly beautiful. A few hours stretched to four, and finally we made it to the elephant camp. We cooled our feet in the stream and ate more tremendous food, before climbing aboard. Elephant is truly the only way to travel. I’m thinking of buying one to use for my morning commute.
Elephant TravelAfter swaying into Mae Jon Nog village of the Dara Ang tribe on our elephants, we had another hour or so’s hiking ahead of us to reach another Dara Ang village, Pang Daeng, where we would spend the second night. ‘Showered’, having feasted again on amazing food, sensually sated by our long day, we sat by the fire beer in hand. As the night fell, giggles drifted in from the edges of our vision. The children of the village were coming to perform traditional dances for us. The giggles and excited noise gradually grew until the teacher appeared, the children quickly fell into place before us – and they danced.
Children of Pang DaengInnocent joy bubbled through the smoky air. Concentrated little faces smiled at us as they gently danced, their hand woven skirts bursting with colour. With muscles still singing from the hike in, a mind filled with jungle and elephants and skin tingling all over from the cold water wash, their childish happiness clung to the air, soaked into my pores and stayed with me for days.
As we walked out the next day, through the picturesque village proud in its tidy beauty, electricity poles were being put up. We happened to be there on the day electricity was coming to the village – a momentous occasion. One couldn’t help but wonder how it would change things, how their lives will never be the same.
That is the nature of our world, ever changing. Each snapshot, each experience, can only ever be of what is there right then, at that moment.
A few hours later, pondering the ever changing river as I drifted on a bamboo raft, I was happy. I’d bitten the bullet to ‘do a tour’, and it had paid off in spades. The week had been jam packed with sights, sounds and experiences I could never have had otherwise.
I started day dreaming. Where can I step next… ?
Monk in Chiang Mai