Sar’s Surprise

Today we leave Chiang Mai early for a long day on the road to Chiang Khong.  Chiang Khong is a border town between Thailand and Laos and is where we will begin our two day cruise down the Mekong River.  I’m a little nervous about what to expect, not being a fan of boats, but I know the shoreline will be in sight at all times, so fingers crossed.

20161106105315_IMG_8183

One thing I had always wanted to see in Thailand was the glorious White Temple.  “Where’s the White Temple Sar?”  I asked during the train journey to Chiang Mai.  “On the way to Chiang Khong” he answered.  Today, while telling us about the day’s program, Sar admits “White Temple, we go there”. I look at him “Do we actually visit there?” trying not to get my hopes up.  “Yep, we go to White Temple”.  OMG YES!  I am beyond excited to hear this news.  The friggin White Temple!!!  Woohoo!

We have about three hours of driving to do before then.  Plenty of time to listen to Mrs Magoo berate Mr Magoo for everything and nothing in particular.  ‘Take a photo Dennis”, “no, don’t take a photo of THAT!”  Oh, I haven’t told you about the Magoo’s yet.  They are an older couple that we have dubbed with this name, simply because they fumble about, arguing with each other and asking questions about things that Sar has literally just told us.  All, the, time.  Mr Magoo, or Dennis, seems like a genuinely nice guy, but he is constantly lugging around Mrs Magoo’s bags and generally being berated for doing the wrong thing.  Mrs Magoo, never, ever smiles.  Everything seems to be an utter disappointment to her and I’m really not quite sure why she left the comfort of home to come to Asia, but they are here and part of our big happy tour group.

Thankfully the bickering is put on hold with a stop at a cashew nut factory.  Everyone stops here.  Yes it’s touristy, but cashews are awesome and they make some fantastic cashew snacks here including these coffee soaked ones that I picked up.  Besides, where else do you learn why cashews are so expensive?

But finally, we arrive in Chiang Rai.  Home to the White Temple.  The White Temple deserves its own gallery, which I will post,  but let me just show you the toilets, yes the toilets…

The White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun as it is rightly known is the masterpiece of Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat and he’s spent 18 years on this labour of love.  He created the temple with his own funds and small contributions so that he could retain total creative freedom.

“I want to be the only artist in the world who can create anything with utmost freedom; I do not want to work under anybody’s influence or thought processes.  No one in the world can order me to do their forebidding, because I do not accept any monetary donations from sources including government officers, politicians or millionaires.  Money can give the donors power to influence the takers, much like many artists who work as employees.  I, then, need to find funding to build the temple by myself”.

20161106130541_IMG_8218

There is so much incredible detail and building in this temple it’s hard to take your eyes off it.  I wanted to photograph every inch of it.  I would have slept here overnight if I could have.  Sunset at this temple would have been a gift from the heavens.  Inside the temple are incredible mural paintings of dragons, skulls and buddhas not to mention Superman, the dude in the black coat from the Matrix, George Dubbya, a minion and much more.  It’s insane.  And unfortunately, not photographable.  You should definitely go see it to believe it.

20161106125931_IMG_8201

On site there is also a gallery where you can see the artist’s other works.  I am so glad we stopped here, though if you ask Mrs Magoo (actually she’ll tell you even if you didn’t) she can’t understand why anyone would want to see this ridiculous building and what the hell was the artist thinking when he created this, this thing.  Tut.

More hours later, we arrive in Chiang Khong.  It’s a very quiet little town about 4km from the border, so there’s not much to do except for wander down to the riverbank to soak up the feel of the town and watch the locals enjoy their evening.

20161107_063913

We share a group dinner, because there’s not really much option in Chiang Khong, but Hannah and I leave early to try and track down the sweet man we saw peddling his wares earlier, which we do without much effort.  We purchase a selection of the sweets and rush back to our balcony seating to enjoy them.

20161106_203049

Well, not quite, because they are – and I’m so sorry to say this – gross.  We pretty much spit them out and then wash them down with the cheap wine coolers (also gross) we bought from the convenience store.  An early night it is for us then.  Probably not for the Magoo’s though as I hear they are still at the restaurant fighting over the bill.

Because it’s Ladies Night…

Breakfast!  I’m starving because, as I knew I would, I was dreaming about that Khao Soi Chicken all night!  Luckily, not far from the hotel is a cute little bakery with a breakfast to satisfy even the hungriest of people.  In fact, the breakfast consisted of so much food, that Erin and I needed two tables to put it all on!  Juice, coffee, fresh bread with jam and butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham and salad.  Whoa!

IMG_20161105_080515Just as well today is a free day and Hannah, Erin and I have decided to hire bikes to explore the old town and work off some of that breakfast.  We hook ourselves up with some bikes from a bikeshop down the road and head for the Old Town.  Here, there are lots of little alleyways with cool street art and funky cafes and the streets are relatively quiet to cycle around.

The Old City is still bounded by the remains of a 600 year old moat and fragments of the old city walls, which give it a unique atmosphere to explore.  Many old cities in Thailand were walled, however Chiang Mai’s is one of the only ones remaining.

After cycling around for most of the morning, it’s time for a rest.  So what better than to stop for a massage by ex-Prison Ladies.  I must admit I was sceptical at first, but it had been a while since I’d ridden and a massage would be brilliant right about now, as well as offering a chance to get out of the heat.

Set up by a former director of Chiang Mai’s Women’s Prison, Lila Thai Massage provides employment opportunities for women that would otherwise find it hard to work elsewhere, with discrimination against former prisoners rife, as it is in most societies.  Once the women leave prison, they are screened and put through an intensive training program.  There are a couple of centres like this in town, so if you rock up at one and told that you have to wait, or they are full for the day, try another.

An hour’s worth of foot massage and reflexology under the cool of a circulating fan and I’m feeling good as new.

IMG_20161105_123436

After lunch nearby with Hannah, I’ve had enough cycling for one day, my pants are sticking to me like glue and I need a shower.  An afternoon nap may even be in store.

Dinner is back at Anusan, I wonder why?  Cause we gotta try the Khao San Pork!  And of course the mango and sticky rice, which is also a favourite of Chiang Mai.  Verdict?  The pork is good, but it’s winner, winner, chicken dinner!  The mango is great, but I’m not a huge fan of putting it with rice.  I was glad to give it a go though.

Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for…Cabaret Night!  This is where Chiang Mai’s prettiest ladies (or rather ladyboys) come to shine.  The makeup is done to perfection and the costumes are fabulous.  Girls parade the stage, belting out tunes from Arianna Grande, Rihanna, Gloria Gaynor and more.  Some are better at lip-syncing than others but it’s a brilliant show full of colour and dazzle.  Even the guys from the audience that get ‘dragged’ up on stage end up loving it.  You definitely should not miss this if you are in town.

My First Muoy Thai Match

I awake as we pull into a small station about a half hour from Chiang Mai.  Dogs, cats, chicken and geese roam along the tracks and platform.  Tropical plantlife surrounds the station.  It’s peaceful and quaint.

Chiang Mai station is possibly the loveliest station I’ve ever disembarked at with its spotless platform and it’s lovely thai garden.  Outside the station, bright red songteows line the parking lot and touts parade around hassling new arrivals for a ride.  Pamphlets are being handed out for tonight’s Muoy Thai match.

20161104153558_IMG_7998

We jump into our minibus and head to town.  Our hotel is the People’s Place 2.  It has simple rooms and is situated behind the Anusan markets, which become alive in the evenings with people drinking, dining, shopping or enjoying the biggest drawcard of the market – the ladyboy shows.

After settling in we jump in a minibus bound for Mount Doi Suthep where the shimmering gold temples of Wat Phra That sit against the bright blue sky.  Wat Phra That was built in 1383 and is still a working monastery today.  To get to the monastery, you can climb the 300 steps of the Nagan Serpent Staircase or you can take the lift.  At the top, birds are chirping and bells are ringing gently through the air.  There are a number of shrines and temples you can explore and you can choose to have your fortune told by Joss stick.  Note, take your shoes off before you go to return your bad fortune or you’ll risk being chased by a monk.

From Doi Suthep, you get a magnificent view of the city below.  It’s peaceful here.  Outside, however the streets are lined with stalls and hawkers and songteows waiting to ferry tourists back to their hotels.

20161104135218_IMG_7882

20161104143046_IMG_7918

Driving back to town, we weave through the streets of Chiang Mai, giving us our first glimpse of the streets.  An explosion of colour with fruits, vegetables, flowers and signs.  It’s buzzing, but in a more laid back kind of way than Bangkok.

Unloading from the minibus, we go on the hunt for snacks and beers.  Sar guides us down the end of the which our hotel is on, and through a gap in the fence into the back of Anusan Markets.  We wind through the markets to the food hall.  The whole group stands in front of the same stall, umming and ahhing over the choices and then moves en masse to the next stall.  Feeling kind of awkward about this, Erin and I head decide to eat here and we are rewarded with the most amazing dish.  Khao Soi Chicken is the specialty of Chiang Mai – chicken, or pork, in coconut milk with tumeric, tamarind and coriander flavours intermingling and a stack of crispy noodles in the middle for good measure.  Our tastebuds are tingling with joy at the discovery of this delight and I know I will go to bed dreaming about this meal.

IMG_20161104_191559

There is a staggering amount of dishes to try at Anusan and I’ll bet there’s a hundred dishes that will get your tastebuds smiling, so it can be a big decision.  Most menus are in English and there are pictures on the signboards, so you shouldn’t end up with something you don’t want.

After dinner, everyone separates to do their own thing for the night.  A small group of us decide to head to the muoy thai.  Arriving at the venue, we discover a ring set in the middle of a pavillion, with bars set up around the outside and plastic seating in between.  There are about five bouts, both men and women and the showstopper is a bout between three blindfolded contestants.  Their poor guide constantly dodges misguided swings while trying to help the fighters find each other instead.

 

The real contenders are tough.  I can only imagine the bruises and aches they will go home with tonight.  At one point you can see the UK contender’s heart actually being in his chest.  The crowd laps up this event and I have to admit that although I don’t like seeing people beat the crap out of each other, I’ve really enjoyed it too.