Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Chiang Mai Trek!

Weather seemed to be with me the next day so I decided I'd finally play tourist. Making sure I had long pants and long sleeves on, I headed to the Palace first. Bit of a game of "Frogger" with Bangkok traffic trying to get there. I arrived in one piece, somehow, and joined the line of tourists who didn't wear appropriate clothing, as I assumed my flipflops would be met with disdain. They waved me through, fortunately. I had a giggle over the tourists who were given men's work shirts and long pants or skirts to wear if they had arrived in shorts and tank tops. I think after a month in India where one doesn't show much skin unless they're at the beach, I'm surprised at how crass westerners are -- not even trying to not offend locals. At Taj Mahal even, I saw a group of pasty, fat, western women shoved into teensy shorts and sausage-casing spaghetti-strapped tank tops. No clue, no clue.

I wandered into the Grand Palace where Wat Phra Kaew houses the Emerald Boudha, and almost instantly the skies opened. Along with a hundred other people, I took shelter under a nearby pagoda typed porch. The rain was incredibly heavy. But it did afford me un-touristed shots of the beautiful golden domed temple in front of me. At one point, a young woman (Chinese possibly?) braved the rain and ran to the steps in front of the temple to have her picture taken. Everyone under the roof hooted, clapped, laughed and cheered for her. As the rain started to peter off -- and by peter off, I mean slightly less heavy than the BUCKETS it was raining when it started-- I handed over my camera to the girls next to me and high-tailed it through the puddles and up the steps. I was also cheered on, particularly when I struck a rather dramatic pose -- they laughed and laughed and clapped harder.

I noticed, after the rain stopped and everyone headed out again, that most of the Asian women around me (and particularly Thai women) seem to not be into comfortable shoes. They were almost all in some sort of heels. Even flipflops had heels. Wat_______ was beautiful. At one point, I found myself walking behind a young man in a navy blue baseball hat that had the NFL logo on the back. I went ahead of him to look back and found that he was wearing a Chicago Bears hat and a Cubs shirt.

He was with a whole crew of Chicagoans. I don't know why I didn't think to bring some sort of logo'd apparel with me. Something that would grab the attention of other Americans -- it would have been a great way to meet other people. I had a boss when I lived in Hollywood who always wore something with Florida State on it, be it a hat or a shirt. I thought this was a bit obsessive, especially when it was just for the office, but it made sense when he was out traveling. He said he met SO many other FSers and made new friends that way. Of course, wearing Goucher Gopher apparel would probably not do the same for me. But why didn't I at least bring my Cubs hat??The Palace seemed to be roped off for some sort of "lying in state" event (I don't know who was "lying in state") so I left and walked around the outside wall to Wat Pho, home of the giant reclining Boudha. I spent a lot of time being a photoblogger (which apparently is a terrible bad word according to a certain photographer friend of mine) and taking photos of the temples in the puddles ::GASP:: I know it's lame but it was fun. I noticed I wasn't the only one doing it, too.

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Afterwards, I wandered back through the streets to my hotel. I noticed that even though I was walking through a market, and past vendors lining the sidewalks, they weren't yelling at me! "Miss! Miss! Madam! Madam! You like? You buy?" What a relief! You can't even let your eyes fall on something in India without the stall-owner/storekeeper instantly falling on you to make a deal.But I also noticed, later on, haggling is a whole 'nother beast in Thailand. Instead of in India where they name a price and you usually halve or tree-quarter it and start from there, Thais appear to instantly throw snippy fits and throw their hands up and walk away -- particularly with any sort of transportation worker. No haggling. They'd rather not make any money and walk away then lower their ridiculous asking prices. Indians take it in stride, rolling their eyes at your price, with a smile though, and, "Oh! You're killing me!" -- it's part of dance. Then you finally make a deal and the Indian shopkeeper often invites you for chai. Civilized! No hissy fits! I miss that.Spent the evening writing and wandering around Khao San Road and places nearby -- now that it was safe since all the Super Soakers were gone. Stopped in a pharmacy and weighed myself, but as I didn't know the kilogram to pound ratio, I had no idea what 50 kg meant.

I forgot to mention that on my first real day in Bangkok, I'd braved the Super Soaker Brigade and I'd had one of the most amazing meals of my life. A bacon, double cheese Whopper. BACON!

Friday - I relaxed and prepared for my first night-train up to Chiang Mai. Before leaving, however, I decided to take up my guesthouse's offer of foreign phonecalls for 10 baht a minute (which is about 30 cents or so). Pretty good. The woman who seems to run the guesthouse (and never has a smile on her face or anything but a grumble when you ask for change to use HER computers, thereby giving that money right back to her) dialed the number and started her stopwatch. I was calling home pretty early but I figured Mom would be up for work and Dad gets up early as well. BUT! I forgot it was Friday -- Mom's day off. Oops. It was great to hear their voices though -- haven't spoken to Dad since Easter and haven't talked to Mom at all. We spoke for about ten minutes and when I hung up, I'd gone 2 seconds into the next minute. The GH Woman demanded 110 baht. Now I realize it's ridiculous to argue over 30 cents. But this wasn't exactly a payphone! Here I've been staying at this guesthouse for several nights, paying to use the internet for hours, and she wasn't going to let two seconds slip by. I said, without raising my voice or getting fractious, "I don't think it's very considerate of you to charge me for an extra minute when I only went 2 seconds over." Instantly, she was snarling at me, "MY PHONE! MY HOTEL! YOU PAY OR YOU DON'T USE! MY PHONE! MY MONEY! YOU DON'T LIKE YOU LEAVE!!!" Wow. So much for "Land of Smiles." I was happy not to come back.

I grabbed a taxi after storing one of my bags and headed for the train station. I boarded the train and was instantly struck by the complete difference between Thai and Indian trains. Now, I realize at this point, I should stop comparing, but the night trains in India were a mixed bag. I had the horrible night stuck in 3rd class, and the reasonable nights of sleeping on the three-tiered cots, covered in dust. I also realize that I only paid 6 bucks for those tickets while the night train to Chiang-mai was around 26 bucks. But wow. It was air-conditioned and you sat at a table with another person until the conductor came around and made up your beds, one above and one below. Sheets, blankets, comfy foam mattress and fluffy soft pillow. I slept like a log. Arrived in Chiang Mai around 9:30 a.m. and was picked up by the Lodge I was staying at, BMP. Very nice lodge -- swimming pool!

I had a meeting with our trek guide that evening, but until then, I sat out by the pool. It was lovely. The meeting got started at 6. There were going to be 9 of us on the trek: 4 Irish boys (Colm, Colin, Dave and Ron), Robbie the young Brit, Lene and Kaspar from Denmark, Hanni the "European" and myself. We were due up and out by 9 and urged not to stay up too late. After the meeting, we all hung out in the BMP's restaurant before deciding to check out Chiang-Mai's Night Market. We walked into town and had a great dinner, the boys eyed some Chinese throwing stars, and then wandered back, but not before stopping at 7-11 for some "large Changs" and squid-flavored potato chips!

mmmm.  Hot Squid Flavor.

Colm offered to open my Chang, using a lighter, which ended in my Chang shattered on the sidewalk. He went back and got me another. Back at the guesthouse, we watched soccer (Man United vs... um... shoot, can't remember) for a bit before retiring -- the Irish boys being rabid football fans and all.Next morning, I wasn't feeling so hot. Tummy was absolutely terrible and the thought of trekking all day was not looking good. Nonetheless, I packed the small backpack I was given with the necessary items and headed downstairs after stowing the rest of my stuff away in storage. The backpack was pretty heavy with camera equipment and whatnot. All the boys seemed to have rather light packs. We climbed into a songthraew (a converted pick-up truck with benches and a roof) and headed out into the country. Tummy was feeling worse and worse. About 45 minutes later, we stopped at a market while Simon, our guide, picked up food supplies. I sought out a bathroom. This was going to be a long, long day.

Climbed back into the truck for another 45 minutes to the National Park where we were trekking.At first the trek was easy -- relatively flat land, although my feet were wet instantly due to trying to jump across streams and missing. Where was my balance? I didn't like my pack much though. It hung low on my back and was straining my shoulders. We stopped for lunch pretty quickly and a 20 minute rest. Then it got harder, more hills, not much shade -- the trees were remarkably bare. Stopped again by another stream. My back was really hurting now. The camera was weighing me down and I looked jealously at the Irish boys with their tiny packs. Then it got SO MUCH WORSE. I realize we were going to be staying with HILL tribes but i was not prepared for the hills we climbed. I was quickly the last person in the group. Simon lead and a young Thai boy who never spoke brought up the rear, making sure none of us got left behind. At one point I considered paying him to take some of my stuff, I was that exhausted. I remembered what Andy told me in India -- that sometimes when he was particularly exhausted, he'd play Commando or something and imagine he'd have to drag someone through the desert. I tried to buck up, imagine i was in the Marines or something. But every burst of energy flagged immediately, my legs wobbled, my back was killing me.


After one particularly hard-core uphill hike, we stopped at a lovely waterfall and I nearly keeled over. Simon told us there was only about a ten minute walk ahead of us before we were done for the night, but it was entire uphill. And by uphill, it was practically straight up. I wanted to cry. I told Simon that the bag he gave me's straps didn't work right. I couldn't tighten them to fit the pack closer to my upper back instead of hanging down just above my butt, thereby dragging me backwards. Simon took my pack, moved the stuff around inside, and then wrapped the straps around it. He handed it back to me and it was much MUCH better. Still too heavy, but at least not breaking my back.

We got up and started the last daunting length. I tried to keep up my momentum but almost immediately was the last person again. I stopped for breath every couple of feet. I so wanted to dramatically fall to the ground and groan to everyone, "go on without me!" When we reached the top, I could have flung myself down and stayed there all night. We walked a few more minutes to a small group of houses on stilts. I couldn't' believe we made it.

We were invited to use showers and eat lychee fruit from the trees while dinner was prepared. I think all of us were too stupefied to move. Beer was offered, but no one was drinking it. We were all zombies. Dinner was served and we wolfed it down. It was still early, so I got out my iPod and speakers and we sat around chatting. I was playing my "R&R Thailand" playlist that David made me. Mostly, my fellow trekkers didn't know the songs on it although the Irish lads were familiar with Flight of the Conchords "Most Beautiful Girl in the Room." As we sat and talked, Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" started playing and I noticed the Irish boys bobbing their heads and whistling along. Ah! They know this one, I thought. Then one of them turned to others and said, "Which advert is this again?" "Budweiser," answered another. And they continued whistling along. I thought this was pretty funny because I am familiar with this commercial although it has never aired in America because a friend of mine, Brian Floyd, is in it. We crashed pretty early on-- we were given a large barn-like structure to sleep in where they'd laid out lots of futons under mosquito netting. I slept pretty well except for the two animals which sounded like they were trying to kill each other just outside.

Day 2 of Trek

I was surprised I wasn't totally exhausted the next morning but I was not looking forward to the long haul ahead of us. We only had a little more uphill walking to do, fortunately. Not far from where we started, Simon stopped the group and picked up a long piece of grass. He poked it gingerly in a large hole on the side of the path. He poked and poked and eventually, and I can only imagine quite irritably, a HUGE tarantula emerged. It stood with its front legs raised and struck viciously at the piece of grass as Simon poked and prodded it. As is my habit of anthropormorphizing everything, in my head the tarantula was saying, "Really? I mean, really? Every Tuesday, Simon! Can I just have a break for once? Can't you go bug Louise... she's just a few holes down, for crying out loud. ::sigh:: All right, here. Grr. (raises legs, attacks half-heartedly) Okay, can I go back to tea now? Thanks. See you next week."


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Finally we headed downhill where we got the chance to Tarzan our way across a stream by holding a vine and later came across a farmer who was roasting a lovely stretch of cow hide across a fire -- with the cows head in the fire itself. Mmmm, lunch.

Lunch actually took place at Simon's mom and dad's place. While Simon cooked a delicious and simple noodle and broth soup, we lay about and rested. We were absolutely filthy.





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Simon's grandmother stopped by and sold us some necklaces and allowed me to take her picture. She had amazing earlobes that, unadorned, hung nearly to her shoulders.

Most of my fellow trekkers took short naps but I couldn't, instead took some shots around the hut -- i love that even many of the simplest of homes have satellite television.

Finally we roused ourselves to hike for the first of two waterfalls. The boys played with a half-filled volleyball. I waded in but it was a lot colder than I expected. We didn't stay long.
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We trekked for a bit longer, at one point walking along a very narrow spit of land with quite a fall on one side. My legs were starting to shake again. We crossed through an area where the ground burned. There are two types of farming methods for two types of rice - rice paddies for white rice and dry ground for brown rice. In order to clear ground for the brown rice, farmers tend to slash and burn -- which the government frowns upon, but no one wants to take the livelihood of the hill tribes from them. They alternate where they grow crops, but still you can see jets of smoke coming from all over the landscape. It's a bit strange to be walking through a forest that's half on fire. I don't know how they keep it under control.

We reached a shallow stream. Simon crossed a log first then lifted a thin bamboo rod across by supporting it on a forked branch. I guess this was supposed to be a railing. I was last to cross and I knew I wasn't going to make it - not with my legs as jello-y as they were. I took one step out, then another, and my legs went... I grappled for the "railing" but it was not supportive whatsoever and I fell. It was shallow, but nonetheless, the rocks were slippery and I couldn't keep my balance and fell all the way in. Luckily, I saved my camera, thrusting it into the air, at the expense of my elbow, which took my weight on the log. I was mightily embarassed.

As we returned to that narrow spit of land to continue the hike, I again slipped. My legs were a mess. I sat down heavily and wanted to cry. Where was my energy? The group was far ahead of me now and I felt like a bit of a failure. This shouldn't have been a difficult trek.

Finally we reached the second waterfall, which was also where we were staying for the evening. I put my stuff in a bungalow and noticed that there was a sign on the door that read, "Boum boum, no knock." Simon and his mother were lingering nearby and I asked him what it meant (although I had a fair idea). He grew flustered and his mother said something in Thai. Simon said, "It means, 'Loud noises.'" Uh huh.

We relaxed while Simon and his family prepared dinner. There was a chicken in an overturned basket when we arrived. I noticed the basket was empty a bit later and that chicken was on the menu. I will now forever refer to those cages as the Baskets of Doom.

The second waterfall is apparently the waterfall used in the movie, "The Beach" (where it was digitally enhanced by height and also had more water forced over it).

It's beautiful but also a little cold so I contented myself by watching the puppies that were scampering about and playing. Then I went to arrange my stuff in my thatch hut and as I sat in the doorway, I saw a HUGE wolf spider on the door. I enlisted the help of a couple of boys to bat it from the door (insisting they not kill it) but everytime they swung at it, it would scurry to the other side of the door and I'd squeal. Not my finest hour* I admit.

Dinner was served - I guess that might be the freshest chicken I've ever had. And then the beer started flowing.
I lamented my lack of strength during the walk and it occurred to me to ask if anyone knew the pound to kilogram ratio. One of the Irish boys broke out his guide book which listed that it was 1 kg = 2.2 lbs. I'd lost 10 pounds since leaving the states. That explained a lot. Also considering the 6 weeks of bad tummy, I thought it might be prudent to see a doctor when I got back to Bangkok. I broke out the music again and a fine time was had by all -- which included a late night dip under the waterfall. The full moon lit up the sky like daylight. The next day was going to be much easier so we made the most of the night.


Day Three

Up early for breakfast and a shower under the waterfall - brrr.
The trek back to the truck was pretty easy (although we again walked through burning fields) and my strength kept up.
The next adventure was an elephant ride. We stopped for a bit of lunch and arrived at the Elephant trekking area. We paired up, I was with Robbie from UK. We exchanged cameras with the Danes, Lene and Kasper. Apparently the elephants are big fans of bananas so we purchased a bunch (or 3) before climbing the platform. We were told to keep the bananas from the elephants' view but after Robbie climbed onto our elephant, I gracelessly dropped the bananas from the bag we'd hidden in them and another elephant, with lightning-quick speed, grabbed them with his trunk.
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I tried to wrestle them away but to no avail. Luckily, Robbie had another bunch but we were out of those before we even exited the yard. Those elephants are greedy! They'd take 3 or 4 steps and their trunk would snap back at us, demanding a banana. It was like a toll or gas or something. There was a banana stand just outside the yard, before the trail, where we bought more. Again, these quickly ran out and the mahout would have to poke at the elephant's trunk to keep it from demanding fruit every 15 seconds.



I'm not so sure about this elephant ride activity. I don't think the elephants are treated very nicely and the mahouts were certainly bored out of their minds. Because it was no longer being paid its toll, the elephant had a charming new tactic of expressing its frustration with us. Every 30 seconds or so, its ears would stop flapping, it would thrust its trunk into its mouth and then whip it back at us and spray us with elephant snot/saliva!! Robbie and I started to know when to duck for cover, but we were already covered in it. The mahout assured us that the elephant was only trying to "keep cool" -- but, funny how the snot-spray stopped when we purchased another bunch of bananas at the next stand. Jerk.

Midway during the trek, the mahouts guided the elephants over to some large tubs of water. I knew then that we were in for some trouble.
I did my best to shield my camera and bag as the elephant took giant gulps and sprayed himself repeatedly -- drenching Robbie and me. One of the mahouts jumped into the tubs as well and swam around, mingling with the trunks. I was shocked at how strong the elephants trunks are and how dexterous the tip is at grabbing and holding.

As we continued, the Mahout invited me to sit out on the neck of the elephant with him. This was a very strange sensation -- I was not used to holding on with my thighs and his hairy, coarse, thick skin felt weird on my legs. It was also pretty precarious; I was certain I was going to flop off at any moment. We ran out of bananas again and the spit/mucus started spraying. At this point, I was just one big glob of elephant snot. Delicious.

We made it back and continued on to our next destination: river rafting. There were 4 to a raft. At the front was our guide with a long bamboo pole, then two people sat in the middle and one of us would stand at the back with a second pole. The raft consisted of about 6 thick bamboo poles, about 15 feet long, roped together -- and that's it. I was on a raft with Robbie and Colm. Robbie took the back and Colm and I enjoyed the ride in the middle. Our guide was hilarious. When we'd approach rapids, or get a little too close to an outcropping of rock, he'd squeal in a high pitch (and what I think was supposed to be an American accent), "Oh my Buddha!!!"

We got into a race with the other backpackers/guides. Robbie was pretty good for most of the ride until we came too close to the bank and he stuck his pole into a rock to push us away -- which he did.... except his pole stayed stuck in the rock and nearly took him with it. Now we were rudderless and the "Oh my Buddha's" really picked up.

One of the other rafts was piloted by a girl who couldn't have been more than 14 and she was ruthless, whenever we'd get close, she'd smack her pole in the water, spraying us. We'd splash back. Also, along the way, the riverbanks were lined with picnicking Thais. There were little platforms with roofs where the families would sit, legs dangling in the water eating and drinking. Emphasis on the drinking. I noticed there were restaurants on the other side of the river, some with wires across the river. It looked like you could order food and it would swing down the wire to you. The families would splash and splash us as we passed and we'd splash them right back. Apparently they were yelling at the Irish boys, "Monkey men! Monkey men!" due to their slightly furry-ness. But when the Danes went by, the Thais would go quiet. We think it had something to do with Lene's gold bikini. So much fun!
It was sad when it was over.

It was about a 2 hour drive back and we were exhausted. After a quick dinner, I fell into bed for about 14 hours!

*But I would redeem myself in a BIG BIG way Vietnam, so it's okay.

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