17.01.2008 - 24.01.2008 30 °C
The bus trip from Luang Prabang to the border at Thailand, didn't disappoint, another test of endurance for 12 hours. Firstly there were no allocated seats, so we had to arrive at the bus station an hour before it left. The locals were clearly expert at this, and many of them looked like they might have pitched up 2 or 3 hours before. So when we produced our ticket we were pointed to the bus and told to go find seats. Every seat had someone's bag strategically placed on it apart from the very back row, so we took a window seat each. Then we sat outside and waited until about 15 mins before we were due to depart before everyone piled onto the bus. There was then an hour and a half of chaos and no air-con whilst the bus was loaded to bursting with people, and they strapped various things to the roof.
Not satisfied that there were enough people on the bus having filled all the seats, a stack of of tiny plastic stools was produced, and lined down the aisle. So, once there were approximately a million people on the bus, and no oxygen left we got going, an hour and a half after we were supposed to. As usual, this was a false start, as we drove round the town to a petrol station for them to fill up the bus.....with the engine running, which I always find a bit concerning. Then for the next 12 hours, through the night, we had to listen to blaring loud Lao music. I felt a bit sorry for the people in the cheap seats in the aisle, as the road was really bumpy and windy, so most of them stood and clung to the ceiling hand rails, as opposed to sliding about on their stools. The bus arrived at our destination, Huay Xai, at 5.30am. Two and a half hours early! Due to the blind conering at 100 miles an hour the whole way there. So we were dumped at the bus station, in the dark, freezing cold. We took a songtheaw - (literally translated as "two rows") which is a van with 2 benches along the sides in the back - to the immigration office. It was closed and didn't open until 8, so we had to sit around in the freezing cold for another 2 hours, which was fun.
We did eventually get across the Mekong river, that acts as the border, and caught a bus on the other side to Chiang Rai. We were both shattered for the next couple of days.
We didn't get off to a very good start in Chiang Rai, as there didn't seem to be much to do, although there is a market it's mostly residential. When we were wandering about we saw little wooden signs directing to "Chiang Rai Beach", which we thought was odd, as Northern Thailand is landlocked. There is a river though, so we decided to play it by ear and go on a little adventure to find it just by following the signs. There were quite a few signs, then they disappeared. We walked about 2 miles in the blistering heat to the outskirts of town where we found a massive motorway style sign to the beach. By that stage we'd had enough, and decided that it didn't in fact exist and the signs were just there to take the piss out of tourists, so we walked the 2 miles back into town. The main feature of Chiang Rai was the night market. The main square has tables in the middle and is lined round the outside by food hawkers. This was great. Really cheap, good, spicy food for next to nothing, and free entertainment on the stage. There were also quite a few child beggars.
There were lots of locals selling souvenirs, and a woman doing tarot readings. We passed by her and she was very interested in Jenny. She said she had a "very lucky chin". I just about wet myself, and have been slagging her ever since.
From Chiang Rai we took a bus 4 hours West to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai's got alot more to it than Chiang Rai. It's th 2nd biggest city in Thailand. It's pretty touristy, but there's loads to do and see. Lots and lots of temples. Think we've seen enough temples to last a lifetime. They have some extra gold ones in Northern Thailand.
We did go and see a variation on the theme on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, at Wat u mong. This is in the forest and quite overgrown. It also had a series of tunnels to wander through, and a lake with giant catfish and turtels to feed, which was a bit different.
We did a Thai cooking class on our second day. This was excellent. It was just us and an Australian guy. We started off by agreeing what we were going to cook then took a trip to the local market, where we were told all about the various typical Thai ingredients. We also bought the ingredients for our dishes. We then got into the cooking itself.
It was good fun, really simple, and the end product was almost retaurant standard, even if I do say so myself. We cooked 5 dishes and they were all great. By the end we were all stuffed.
Really worthwhile, definitely going to try and recreate them back home.
Yesterday we splashed out and went to the Elephant Nature Park about an hour North of Chiang Mai. This was pretty amazing too. There are various companies that offer elephant related activites, trekking, riding, mahout courses etc. but the elephant nature park is dedicated to saving asian elephants from the illegal logging industry, and from Burma. They have a lot of elephants that have been injured or abused over the years. The emphasis of the park is to allow elephants to roam free and socialise as they would in the wild, or as near to it as possible. With as little human interaction as possible.
It's an incredible place. Being able to get so close to them, and watch them roaming about in their little groups was really impressive. Whilst many of them have lots of problems, they all looked really happy and enjoying what they were doing. All of the mahouts - elephant drivers - have been retrained so they don't use the metal hooks that other operations use to control the animals. They use voice commands and positive reinforcement. None of the elephants are made to carry tourists, as most of the other outfits do. Apparently elephants backs are not designed to bare much weight, and so to ride them is not good for them.
We got to feed the elephants watermelon. The elephants would line up and stick their trunks out and we would place the fruit in their trunk. We fed the old granny one, 75 with only one tooth.
Accordingly, she had had her watermelons specially peeled. We then got to go and follow the elephants to the river and help wash them, with buckets and scrubbing brushes. This was really incredible too. We were basically allowed to wander amongst the elephants freely and touch them.
Quite frightening at times, as they are such enormous, strong animals, and they just wandered where they wanted too. Of course once they had all been cleaned, they got straight out and sprayed dust all over themselves.
The younger ones all headed straight for a muddy pool and were pushing each other in and sliding about in the mud, having a great time.
It was so great to watch, and we were literally 10 yards away. We then got shown a pretty distressing movie about traditional methods of training, where they break tohe spirit of the elephants and poke them with sharpened sticks. Not very pleasant to watch. We also got to meet the founder of the sanctuary, a little Thai woman called lek. She answered everyones questions, and gave loads of background about the place. It was really interesting. We then got another opportunity to wash the elephants before we returned to Chiang Mai. All in all a really great experience that I'd recommend to anyone.
I think Jenny might want to return to live there. You can volunteer and it's a shame that we didn't have a bit longer, as that would have been fun.
Today is another boring day of hanging about for a night bus back to Bangkok, where we are catching a plane to Krabi tomorrow morning. Last real bit of travelling, as we've only got a short time left, we're going to be taking a bus, plane and boat in the next 24 hours, and with any lucky be back on Ko Phi Phi by tomorrow afternoon. I'm sure Jenny's chin will see us through.....