Early morning, following a hellish sleeper train ordeal, we pulled into Chiang Mai station. Generally speaking I’m a big fan of the Thai rail service; the trains are reasonably comfortable, it saves a night’s accommodation on holidays and you do all your travelling while unconscious. That’s assuming you can attain the necessary somnambulant state in the first place. Somehow my upper bunk wasn’t properly deployed, resulting in a jarring jump every time the carriage hit the slightest bump, my bed bucking as if it were beset by demons and convincing me every time, in my sleep-deprived stupor, that the train was parting company with the tracks.
With J&K in a similarly fatigued condition we tramped along the platform like zombies, vaguely aware of holding bookings at a guesthouse called ‘Lek’ but clueless as to its location. At the platform’s end stood an unassuming cubicle bearing the much-needed ‘tourist information’ signage so we trotted up on the lookout for maps, advice or any other navigational aids.
“Can I help you? You have somewhere to stay?”
“Yes, we need to find the Lek Guesthouse.”
“Oh, Lek is not so good, must share a bathroom, you want to stay at SK?”
“We have rooms booked at Lek.”
“SK is very good, look at this brochure, very clean rooms, how much you pay at Lek?”
“Same price at SK, we drive you there for free.”
So, not so much a tourist info booth as a sales point for the SK tour/hostel group then. None of us were in the mood for anything remotely resembling discussion, argument or even thought so we shrugged and decided to have a look at SK – even if it wasn’t up to scratch it was a free ride to the centre of town. Luckily we’d made a good decision – decent accommodation, good prices, a restaurant which served a breakfast consisting of more than just bread and bananas. The high point for me was the chill-out area by the pool, surrounded by an insane collection of Thai antiques so haphazard that it seemed to have been put together by a blind man. My only gripe is the wi-fi – who charges customers for wi-fi access these days? And why is it only bigger companies who do so, those with the massive profit margins, while their smaller competitors are perfectly able to give it away free and mysteriously remain in business? It baffles me, it truly does, and is further proof that capitalism only rises in negative proportion to common sense.
Anyway, checked in and down to first order of business – some sleep for my compadres and some lying on the bed and wishing I could sleep during the day for me. Soon refreshed we hit the streets to find our bearings in town.
As mentioned in the last post we were without guidebooks, plans or a clue and therefore refreshingly free to bumble and putz our way around time, slaves to neither agenda nor timetable. Chiang Mai is, compared to Surat and Bangkok, a rather beautiful city in places. The abundance of temples, the moat hemming in the city centre and providing a convenient and enormous landmark and the ample green spaces conspire to create an atmosphere which is laid back and peaceful despite the constant buzz inevitable in a city of its size. We took in some Thai food, treated our selves to hot dogs and beers (at Mikes – converting vegetarians since 1979) and wandered through some temples and markets, finding some worthwhile souvenir material for a change.
The evening found us drinking beers and continuing our Beanie tournament on a balcony overlooking one of the main thoroughfares in the university district. When hunger struck we found ourselves in an upmarket salad bar of all places and gorged ourselves on lettuce, freshly baked bread and – of course – grilled steak. Before we knew it the previous night’s train journey had caught up with us and we were in a red truck headed for the hostel and thence to neverland for a while.
Next morning we awoke with a plan in mind and after breakfast booked a tuk-tuk to take us around a few of the sights – the butterfly and orchid farm, the snake show, Tiger Kingdom and a local handicrafts centre. Only being charged 500 baht between three to have a taxi at your beck and call for a whole day was a pretty sweet deal, made even sweeter by the fact that we were ushered past the Orchid Farm’s entrance desk without having to pay the 40 baht entrance fee.
We made a beeline for the butterfly section first (sorry) and spent a good twenty minutes marvelling at the fleeting flecks of colour dancing around us. Our cameras strained to keep up with the movement, often foiled by an inability to focus in time resulting in a plethora of beautiful shots of flowers with no butterflies in sight. The orchid nursery was equally stunning, row upon row of vibrant blooms, bursting in kaleidoscopic colour wherever we rested out eyes. The variety was almost exhausting, orchids in all manner of shapes I had never seen before.
At the end of the tour we had a quick look at the gift shop section, expecting just the usual array of tourist tat designed to appeal to the most tasteless of travelers. Instead we ended up making some rather cash-heavy purchases, having been entranced by the jewellery made out of actual orchids and dead butterflies encased in lacquer and edged with gold. The butterfly wings were so thin they were transluscent and the coating only served to make their natural hues yet more prominent – far and away the most gorgeous tat yet discovered.
The snake show was next, twenty minutes or so of watching a trio of maniacs prodding, kissing and otherwise goading a selection of venomous serpents a mere couple of metres from our ill-protected sandalled feet. These were no neutered pets – they actually milked the king cobra’s venom glands into a plastic cup right in front of our eyes – a fact attested to by the blistered, scarred and unnaturally purple appearance of the handlers’ hands. They pulled a great gotcha out of the bag, terrifying some poor African kinds by throwing a length of rope into the crowd in the process of trying to lure the mythical ‘jumping snake’ out of it’s box, some priceless reactions were enticed. The highlight though – aside from the MC’s constant please of “Oh no Mr Snake Man, ni, it’s too dangerous” – were the photos of none other than Sly Stallone posing with the staff when they helped filming Rambo a few years back.
Following this we had to go and look at Tiger Kingdom, the chance to play with baby tigers being too much to resist. Unfortunately it’s an attraction built with the monied tourist in mind, 520 baht for 10 minutes with a young tiger being a little too much for our blood. A little dejected, we slunk (slinked? slank?) off for lunch where my mood was lifted somewhat by a bag of sticky rice the size of my head. Seriously, I could have used it as a pillow and if they served portions like that in Surat I’d be the size of a truck by now. Khao Niaw is like Pringles for me, once you pop you can’t stop.
With the day wearing on we decided on one more distraction before getting back to a shower and some rest and instructed the driver to take us to the local handicrafts village. There are all manner of workshops in the area, carefully and lovingly turning out beautiful silks, jewellery, sculptures and everything else you could imagine, but we stopped of at the parasol shack. Behind the mess of proto-umbrellas sitting like abandoned white skeletons and awaiting completion in front of the building was a riot of colour to match that of the butterfly and orchid farm. Incredibly talented woman sat delicately painting the paper and silk sails, joking conversation and laughter contradicting the intense concentration on their faces. From simple black and white oriental designs to intricate, controlled explosions of every colour of the rainbow their creations lined the walls and covered the tables, turning the building itself into a work of art.
When we could handle no more we headed back to the hostel to finally unwind a little. There was more to do in Chiang Mai but that’ll have to wait for the next post cause my stomach’s a-rumbling and I can smell breakfast.