Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Championing Chang Mai

Finally we have left Bangkok. Although there were some highlights in those last few days - Reclining Buddha, great bookshop found, great food, and a good tour of the klongs (waterways) of Bangkok - the truth is it's good to have left it behind. The drama with the Vietnam visa was just that, drama, but eventually the passport arrived to me at Hua Lomphong train station 20 minutes before we left (you cannot believe how relieved this made me; their intial promises to get it to Chang Mai rang very hollow indeed).

We got a night train yesterday at 6 and arrived into Chang Mai this morning at 6 at which point we went for breakfast. The group are a laid back bunch and, because I am the only single man, one other man being married and the other being the tour leader, I have had a room to myself both in Bangkok and Chang Mai. In Bangkok too I was upgraded for some reason and had a delux room. Nice.

After we checked in this morning we went into the country to take an elephant ride. I shared a driverless elephant with an English girl, Sian. Effectively it was a banana slot-machine, moving most easily when fed. At various platforms around the track we could buy a bag of bananas to feed our animal. This was as well as when we began our ride, one of the other elephants stole our bag of bananas, grabbing them, plastic bag and all, from my hands and devouring them. We had great sympathy for our own poor, deprived beast, but once we got another bag and fed him/her (Jun King), it kept throwing its trunk back for more. The elephant behind tried repeatedly to rob our banana stash and dowsed us with water when frustrated.

A mention should be made, I suppose, of the driver of the elephant in front. Throughout he sang his own, very unique rendition of 'Doh Re Mi'. Bizarre, but colourful. The trip then was great fun.

Immediately after we went bamboo rafting. The rafts themselves are very thin and I found it difficult to balance, particularly as I was sharing propeller and steering duties with the guy punting at the front (I was at the back of the boat). We passed snakes and crowds of kids who would dowse us with water (the order of the day here). Again we had a great time.

On the way back we stopped into a market for lunch. At 10 baht per purchase nothing was going to break the bank. My chilli pepper noodles were lovely, but I also got some strange, lukewarm concoction in a plastic bag (most dishes were sold in plastic bags). Although it had green beans, Chinese mushrooms and what looked like chicken, it smelled vile once opened (I am beginning to believe people when they say the Bangkok smell is fish sauce). Our guide wouldn't even touch it. I let my 10 baht go down the toilet rather than myself.

We slept most of the drive back. Then it was time for another hour long drive to one of Thailand's most highly regarded temples, Doi Suthep. Climbing over 300 steps of an ornate staircase, we entered a fairly peaceful enclave of monks. They are surprisingly unpretentious and in one of the more sacred halls, which we were allowed to enter while the monks were chanting their prayers, several varied modern day clocks were mixed among the gold and ornamented furnishings.

Good fortune is something promised in abundance in the monastery. After shaking out a fortune telling stick from a container of many, I was told the number of my stick foretold many favourable things (others did not get such good news). If that weren't enough I was then blessed (as were we all) by a monk sprinkling holy water and given a blessed bracelet which I must keep wearing for three days at least. Regardless of what you think of the whole experience, it is nice to have such well-wishing all around you and the monks certainly seem to be beneficent.

Chang Mai is quite literally a breath of fresh air after Bangkok; the traffic is not nearly so ferocious. What little I have seen so far is all to the good, though admittedly that has been limited. Driving around Chang Mai, you can't help but be struck by the contrast with the earlier city. Lovely fountains erupt from what was once the city moat, everywhere the remnants of the old city wall stand proudly. The red brick of this wall reminds me a lot of the castle and wall in Verona, though this city is far bigger and more lively. Nevertheless there is more of a liveable vibe to this place, maybe it feels more European, but with its many coloured lights and lanterns, it is most certainly more picturesque.

Once we got back to our hotel we headed out for dinner. I have just had the most stupendous crab in yellow curry you can imagine, all to the accompaniment of some terrible cover versions of some corny songs performed by a Thai guitarist on stage. It was a great meal, though I was very, very messy; how else can you eat crab without a crab cracker. I have also consumed more than my fair share of deet given the amount of insect repellent I have used on myself. I wouldn't change it for an instant though. Wonderful food.

I am conscious of the ugly nature of my last posts, but I am not alone in being glad to be rid of Bangkok. Everyone else on the tour, whether they were there a long time or only a day or so, seems to feel the same way. Although we leave Chang Mai tomorrow, I will have very pleasant memories of it and I look forward to the rest of Asia with a lot of optimism. Of course, having an organised tour helps (I don't know what I would have thought of Chang Mai in solitary circumstances), but I breathe more easily in this less polluted air.


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