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Tag Archives: Chiang Mai

Evening entertainment for Thai people.

I really wonder how often visitors to Thailand ask themselves how Thai people entertain themselves and where Thai people go for an evening out.

Lest we forget, is it only natural that they need a way to socialize and entertain themselves – or you thought they are only around to serve you or take your money? Because it is what some people believe, judging by their behavior. Restaurants and fast food chains such as McDonalds tend to cater to foreigners (as well as the globalized urban middle and uper-middle class). After all, the Thai tourist industry was built around catering for foreigners since its very conception. In case you do not know how tourism started in the Land of the Free – it was when American soldiers came to Thailand (a US ally) to relieve themselves from the Vietnam bombing raids and to screw the local women. Forgive me if I am being blunt, but this is how things are (the Buddhist deities have been busy at work ever since delivering justice to everyone involved). What has followed since is largely the logical evolution of the originating act.

So, where do the “common people go”?

McSpicy McDonalds

McDonalds - this is not where 'common' Thai people go

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Last day in town. What better than a…

… cooking course?
Mmm, Thai food, yum yum yum!
OK, before we get too ecstatic, let me say that one should not generalize about Thai cuisine. It has quite a few dishes that are tasty (to the European), and quite a few that are not. I had my share of both. But the traditional Tom Yum soup got me hooked like a hippie on LSD, like a teenager on extasy, like a… you get the point.

The delicious Tom Yum soup

The delicious Tom Yum soup

Courtesy: random blog

    When I was preparing this post, I fiddled with the idea of providing the soup recepy. But honestly, why do that if anyone can look it up online in 5 seconds – for example, here? The web abounds of posts that chew over the same story again and again – especially about travelling, and especially about Thailand.

It all started because I remembered about a book I had read. A unique kind of book, where cooking recepies were smoothly integrated into the book’s narrative, becoming a part of the story itself. This was even reflected in the book’s title – “Mock Faustus | Corrected Complemented Cooking Book”. I loved this book for its subtle humor and I was immediately tempted to sneak a paragraph about it into this blog post and claim to be following into its tradition. Wait, what tradition? Who on Earth knows about a Latvian book written in the seventies? Amazon? Amazon, take two?

Amazon says: “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” If I ever saw a sign trying to tell me “never”, that would be it. Not willing to give up without finding at least a small trace in English about the book, I dug some more online, and I was only able found this in a 2003 article from a Latvian “visual arts” magazine called Studija.

“It is strictly required that partridge pate be served only in shells collected in the Balearic Islands shortly before a typhoon,” as Marģeris Zariņš wrote in 1973 (“False Faust, or a Corrected and Supplemented Cookbook”). The hero of the book was an old apothecary, alchemist and pseudoscientist, a Latvianised Baltic German Jānis Vridrikis Trampedahs, who in 1930s Latvia enjoyed for his dinner treats prepared by a servant-woman brought specially from Scotland, each dish being served in the corresponding fine dishes to the sound of appropriate music – after which he visited the outside loo, as is usual in the small towns.”

So much for the book being a masterpiece and a modern classic. So much for its excellent unobtrusive humor. According to online search engines it is as if it never existed – such is the gradual fate of the culture of small countries. Oh, well…

So – cooking, cooking, cooking…

Unlike many tourist destinations I’ve been to, one-day cooking courses are a well-established offering all around South East Asia. All I needed to do in order to get enrolled was mention it to the guy at the hostel. One short phone call later, and I was all set for the next day. As usual, I was picked up from the hostel in the morning and delivered to the cooking course school (a school by day, a residential house with a beautiful yard where the school owners lived by night). Running the whole enterprise was a kind and smiling Thai lady with excellent English in her mid-twenties, helped by her younger brother (who was in fact the one to pick me up in his van in the morning).

      I do not need to tell you what I would eat that day – it would be my own dishes! (okay, I told you).  Within about six hours we would prepare six different meals – a soup, an appetizer, a salad, a couple of main courses and a desert.

    There is no way you could cook six dishes in a day from scratch! – you’d think. Well, in Europe maybe not. Asian cusine, however, is no French. In Asia meals are designed to be cooked fast. Meat! It is never cooked in big pieces that take a lot of time to get ready. It is always cut into small bits – and those take just a minute to cook/bake/boil. Same goes for just about everything – cut it to small pieces, and it cooks in no time.  In fact, the actual time to clean and slice all the ingredients and get the sauces ready takes 80% of the time, while the cooking itself – only 20% (is this another application of the 80/20 rule? I do not know).

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Goin’ Trekkin’

Have I ever ridden an elephant before? No. Have I done white-water rafting before? Sadly, no, but I definitely want to try it. Walking in the rain forest to reach that well-hidden waterfall? What about extras such as a visit to a hill tribe village and an orchid farm to part with some of my souvenir-designated money?
The answer to the question “Why go trekking?” seems too obvious  –  to experience things you had no chance to try at home, to get intimately close to the beautiful countryside, to enjoy the company of others, adventure… the usual marketing points.

The beginning of the rainforest
The beginning of the rainforest

Courtesy: tvidhyarkorn @ Flickr

   Yet, for me there was one more reason – a general one, in fact – coming into play each time I succumbed to participating in organized events. And that reason is… ok, you will need to read the post to the end to find out or jump straight to the last paragraph.
For the time being, however, let’s get back to trekking.    Read more of this post

A tiger lover by day, a social animal by night

***
A tiger lover by day…

            Have you ever seen a Discovery Channel documentary about a tiger refuge in Thailand run by Buddhist monks? The Tiger Temple (Wat Phra Luang Ta Bua) – a place where tigers roam free without the danger of being shot in the rainforest, where orphaned tigers cubs get the chance to grow up rather than die of starvation. In case you have not, you might want to learn more about this unique place (or here – the official website). To tease you further, here is a photo from a monk/tiger daily routine:

Tiger Temple (Wat Phra Luang Ta Bua)

Courtesy: Wikimedia.org

    I do not know about you, but to me that image seems like it came straight from Gary Larson’s cartoon series The Far Side.

Gary Larson The Far Side cartoon  Gary Larson The Far Side cartoon

 Courtesy: thefarside.com

    But let’s not get too distracted with Gary Larson’s hilarious cartoons – you can find a plethora of those online – and get back to the tiger theme.  Could it really be that the Tiger Temple was somewhere near Chiang Mai and I could visit it?

    Well, no. I had to settle for the second-best thing – the Tiger Kingdom – which is different from the Tiger Temple (as much as a temple is different from a kingdom). Unlike the Temple, the Kingdom is a for-profit organization, and they charge you a good entrance price. You might want to find out more about them here.

   So, how did I end up going to Tiger Kingdom in the first place? Just the previous day I had no idea that it even existed, and hence had no plans of visiting it. But I saw a poster at the hostel, and the poster looked, I kid you not, like this:

Cats

… and they threw virgins into cages with tigers…
Courtesy: tigerkingdom.com

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First day in Chiang Mai

***
A meeting point at Chiang Mai central area

    In the early afternoon, I went downtown to meet a couple from Slovenia that I had met on the bus. It was one of several casual but nice encounters along the way that made the trip more pleasant and memorable. Upon arrival at Chiang Mai we had decided to meet at some place easy to find, like for example… the market. Looking back, it amazes me how clueless we were and what we were thinking choosing an oriental marketplace as a meeting point.

Map of Chiang Mai Historical Center

Map of Chiang Mai

Hey, that market thing was just a small dot on the map…
Courtesy:
http://www.mapofthailand.org/travel-map/chiangmai-city-map/

    Getting to the market was easy indeed – every local guy knew where it was (the reason for choosing it as our meeting point). But actually meeting there proved hard. The Chiang Mai market was a traditional Oriental covered market place, and it spanned a whole city block, too. It had no less than twenty entrances, all leading the novice into a labyrinth of passage ways. Just about everything was sold there – fruit, vegetables, spices, fish, souvenirs, clothes, electronics, you name it. To put things in perspective, it was like being in Istanbul and arranging a meeting with some friend “at Kapaly Carsi, like, somewhere inside, you know.”

    Upon arrival at the market each of us had realized that it would be impossible to find each other inside and that the only way to meet was at some entrance. Which one? Exchanges of text messages followed…say, entrance #14? Sure, no problem.
Now, where for the love of Lord is entrance 14? Must be between 13 and 15, right? Right… the entrances were numbered in a somewhat weird way that seemed completely random. The entrance numbers went something like 1, 6, 3, 18, 12, 8, 5, etc. You can guess what followed – we spent a good half hour texting ourselves – where are you? I am at gate 15 – OK – wait for me… I see gate 14, but its neighbors are 1 and 7…
Eventually we bumped unto each other purely by chance.

    Having solved this, we went for some street food – a mutlitude of stalls and vendors practiced their trade around the market. In Bangkok I had not tried any street food – just some drinks which were really good, by the way. But the Slovenians were more adventurous than I was. So we got some rice, some fried chicken legs and mango salad. All was edible but I’ve eaten better. As for the mango salad –- mmmmango salad – sounds delicious! It is very popular in Thailand and is indeed made of mango. Those who have been to Thailand know what it tastes and looks like. Nothing even remote like mango. How come? For starters, it is made from mangos that are not yet ripe. One such mango gets shredded to tiny pieces and the end result looks and tastes a lot like cabbage – which is alright, if you asked me. But once you throw in the ubiquitous fish sauce – which I never learned to like – and there you have your ‘mango salad.’
The whole meal – rice, chicken legs and salad cost B50 all together, that is, less than $2.

***
Next: a visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo

    Well, it is the Chiang Mai National Museum where we actually wanted to go. But it was a Monday, and it had a day off. The friendly people in the red track who took us there knew that but took us nonetheless. Oh, well…. Then we decided to try, I believe, the Arts and Cultural Centre – which was supposed to be open (even on Monday). Or so the travel guide book said. We hopped on another red truck and got there to find out that the Centre was closed too – for renovation. It would only open in a month or so (But at least we got some nice brochures from a kind lady at the Centre central office)
So, it is easy to understand why we decided “enough museums for today”. And this is how we ended up going to the Zoo – with wild animals confined in small concrete floor cages. OK, I lied! The Chiang Mai zoo was nothing like that. It is hands down the best-deisgned zoo I have ever been to. It looked more like a tamed jungle (right, it’s not so hard to have it this way in Thailand), with plenty of trees everywhere and large fenced areas for the animals.

A view from Chiang Mai Zoo

Hey, I want to live in this Zoo, too!

Courtesy: author

But not in this spot!

But not here!

Courtesy: author

What about here?

What about here?

Courtesy: author

Also inside I saw a giant panda for the first time ever (the pandas were kept in a special air-conditioned pavilion, for which you needed to buy an extra ticket).

Giant Pandas at Chiang Mai Zoo

Giant Pandas at Chiang Mai Zoo

Courtesy: author (photo quality is bad as no flash was allowed)

And last, but not least, the Zoo featured a big aquarium with fish and various marine animals. It is supposed to be the best in Thailand (and would cost you B200). We got a bit too late to it and the last admission fore the day had been twenty minutes ago.
Note: In Japan – a month and a half later – I was able to visit the huge Okeanarium in Osaka. This is the aquarium to visit in Asia – especially if you fancy whale sharks. I will be devoting a special post to the Okeanarium later.

A Thai horse

No comment

Courtesy: author

***
Chiang Mai Evening: Prisoner style massage

    When we got back from the Zoo, it was already evening. The Slovenes wanted to go for a massage.
Did you know that Chiang Mai is the “massage capital” of Thailand? You did not. It has a long tradition as all the established massage schools are located there. When it comes to massage in South-East Asia it is a hit-or-miss situation – even in Chiang Mai, make no mistake about that. We chose a place that was not far from where we were standing. The price was B180, or just half of what they’d charge you on any of the tourist-frequented islands. And it was good.
Later that evening at dinner we were browsing through some ad-filled brochures, and we came across an ad for that very massage parlour. It said that the masseuses were former female prisoners enrolled in a government-sponsored “after-prison” rehabilitation program.
This immediately made me feel even better. Contributing one notch towards the livelihood of those poor young women was way better than letting some tuk-tuk driver rip me off for the same money. I am not sure what these girls went to prison for in the first place – but it was likely stuff like petty theft and possibly drug abuse. Thai prisons are another huge topic and plenty of information is available online for those interested, so I have nothing to add here.

Coming to Chiang Mai

***
Moving around Chiang Mai 101

     The bus arrived at Chiang Mai at around 6:00 am. With its couple of hundred thousand inhabitants, Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok, but definitely not small. It was still dark outside, but soon the dawn started to break.

A young Buddhist boy doing his morning food collection walk

Using the daily morning food collection walk of Buddhist apprentices to tell the time

Courtesy: author (shot from the bus window)

       Unlike Bangkok, there are no taxis in Chiang Mai. Brent had advised me to take a tuk-tuk to the hostel, because it was located far from the bus stop. Even at that early time some tuk-tuk vultures were already circling around the arriving sheep. Or, if you want it said unother way – some self-employed members of the town’s service industry had gotten up early in order to provide the travelers with a needy service. At first I was approached by one, and soon by another driver both of whom asked for B150 (about $5) to take me to the hostel. Brent had told me that the ‘normal’ price was at most B100 and that I should not agree to anything higher.

    What Brent had not told me, however (I assume that for some reason he was not aware of it himself) – was that there existed a much cheaper mode of transport around Chiang Mai. Which would have cost me just B20 to the hostel, or to just about any destination within town. This mode of transport is the ubiquitous Chiang Mai “red truck.”

Chiang Mai Red Truck

Chiang Mai Red Truck ( Songthaew)

    Courtesy: wikipedia

    These red trucks move along the streets and pick up people on the way and deliver them all one by one in a self-propelling process. From a practical point of view, you should think of it as a slightly slower taxi. During my time in Chiang Mai I used these red trucks extensively, and I was never refused a ride, regardless of what direction I was going. And it never took long to reach my destination. (On a side note, the majority of Chiang Mai’s attractions and activities are located around its historical center area anyway).

    If one needed to go to a location outside of the central area – say, to the Zoo – the fee would still be a modest B30 to B50. Mind you, these are the actual prices that Thai people pay themselves. The tuk-tuk “alternative” is in fact a big rip-off. I noticed that very often the red truck operation seemed to be a family affair – the husband was doing the driving, while his wife collected the money with a wide smile. Sure enough, when you are a foreigner they happily ask for several time the price. But once you smile back and tell them you know the ‘real’ price, they smile even wider and charge you right.

     Fresh out of the bus, I knew none of that and I followed Brent’s suggestion – got a tuk-tuk ( and it was my only tuk-tuk ride in Chiang Mai). I later calculated that if I had continued using their service I would have paid about $30 more for moving around. Now you have no excuses using a tuk-tuk when in Chiang Mai!

***
Spicy Thai Backpackers hostel

    Spicy Thai Backpackers was in a small neighborhood with large, American-style wooden houses. It all looked pretty upscale and unusual for Thailand. And it was. At the entrance to the neighborhood there was an unobtrusive booth with a security guard who did not react in any way when foreigners were passing back and forth. As I found out later, the building of the hostel had been a residence for the US Consulate at Chiang Mai. I strongly suspect that us backpackers were invading an area where many of Chiang Mai’s richest people lived.

A random house in the hostel neighborhood

A random house in the hostel neighborhood

Courtesy: author

    The hostel itself was really nice. Relaxed atmosphere, smooth and competent management and – above all – easygoing community spirit dwelled in this place. Its advantages far outweighed the only disadvantage of being relatively far from the historical center. Each new day I spent here would only strengthen this perception. If you want to know what got me hooked on hostels, now you know.
But prior to discovering all of these Spicy qualities, I dropped dead on my newly acquired bed. I had not gotten any sleep all night on the crowded double-decker bus. In fact, if you read my earlier posts you would know that I had not have a single night of going to bed at some reasonable time, and this night in the bus had been no different.
The hostel cost B250 ($8) a night for a shared room with 10 beds. One could find a cheaper place to stay if one so needed. As for me, it was worth every baht. What is more, unlike in my Bangkok hotel, the hostel offered free wi-fi, as well as two computers with Internet connection – also for free. It was hard to not appreciate this – in Bangkok I had spent a small fortune in the internet cafes, paying 20 or 30 baht per hour. I was beginning to discover the important advantages that hostels in Thailand had over hotels  – free wi-fi and Internet was not all of those, there were in fact more.

    When I woke up it was 1 pm.  I dumped my National Geographic guide at the hostel’s “book swap” section (one more thing you would not find in a hotel) “swapping” it for the Lonely Planet’s masterpiece “South East Asia on a Shoestring”, hoping that it will be more useful. (A later note: no, it was not, at least not by a large margin.)
With the new travel guide book in hand, it was time for Elvis to leave the building and explore Chiang Mai together with two new acquaintances – from Slovenie – who had travelled in the same bus, and so Elvis did.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai and how I got ripped off nicely at the train station

I started the day by making the usual list of things to do. By now – the forth day since the journey began – it was an established fact that travelling on one’s own was mostly about writing “to do” lists and chasing them to the end. That traveller’s freedom thing was a myth. Or, rather, freedom would only manifest itself through some discipline. When you travel in a group you can share most of the chores – like hunting for information, shopping for necessities or – last, but definitely not least – having someone   watch over your luggage while you’re using the little boy’s room. But when you are on your own… well, you are on your own.
And the list of things to do was a reflection of that fact.
Largely thanks to the conversation with Brent last night, I had made up my mind where to go next – Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand.” Despite being the “largest,” it actually has only around 200,000 inhabitants – and lots of offerings for tourists. Kara had suggested that instead of going there by bus, I should take the much more comfortable overnight train and sleep on a couch.
It was reasonable advice, and I agreed. I looked up the Thai train schedule online (in English) and found out that there were two trains bound for Chiang Mai in the evening. The expensive A/C couch first class was B730 ($25), and the cheaper options were under B500 ($17). I also looked up where the train station was relative to Khao San – luckily, it was not far and a taxi would be the best option to get there. Then I packed my stuff, checked out but left my bag in the hotel storage room (they offered a free one-day luggage storage service, much appreciated) and started pursuing the items from the daily “to-do list”.

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Courtesy: author

     I could not read Thai (I leave it up for you to decipher), but I can tell you – that did not look like a statue of a policeman. The garment was army-style and this looked like a Thai soldier. Why would there be, one might wonder, a true-size friendly smiling army guy at the entrance of the trainstation in the capital of the Land of Smiles? My guess would it be that it was installed by the Thai government as part of its propaganda campaign against the so-called Red Shirts Movement.

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

 Courtesy: author (shot this through my taxi window)

    You can learn more about the protests and the disposition of forces in Thai society and politics here and here (by a person you already read about – Isaac Olson). I’ll just add that while the violence at the time of my visit was already over, the city was under curfew and some popular tourist destinations (King’s palaces) were “closed for renovation” and surrounded by fences and police. On the surface it all looked like “business as usual” – and perhaps a good deal of foreign visitors never noticed any different.

Next inside the train station entrance was the information desk, serviced by two middle-aged ladies, who spoke decent English. One asked me where I was going. “Chiang Mai”. This made her very happy, because – she told me – she was from Chiang Mai herself. I immediately became a person to be helped more than the usual and she decided to personally accompany me to the ticket counters to help me out. We went to a counter, she told the guy something in Thai, he told her something back… and she told me that there were no train tickets to Chiang Mai left. Nada. Zero. Zip. All taken.
The friendly lady was quick to provide an explanation – the Queen’s birthday was just a couple of days from now, and it was to be a public holiday with people going back home.

But when there is a problem, there is a solution (Thailand is no different than most places on Earth – many problems are invented so that you pay for the solution). And who knew it better than that lady! She quickly took me upstairs to the tourist bureau to get “help,” where a very beautiful and sincere Thai girl with perfect English offered me a bus ticket for only B 950.
Let’s summarize the situation. What were my options? I had already checked out of the hotel, and I had booked the hostel at Chiang Mai for the next day. Whatever I chose to do, staying another day at Bangkok would cost money. I was also looking forward to moving on – four days at Khao San is perhaps close to the all-time world record. In addition, I was assured that the bus was very comfortable and I would be able to sleep fine. So I gave in – B950 be it. Now, this story has more to it, but for the time being (and for some extra suspense in this suspense-less post), let’s get back to what the train station looked like.

First of all, inside was really clean. In the big central area, people were sitting or lying around with their shoes off. Kids were playing around. There was a statue of Buddha near one of the walls and people were able to offer their gratitude. It had a very relaxed atmosphere, and I think it is the best train station I have seen. Train stations are usually all but relaxed.

Bangkok trainstation

Bangkok trainstation

Courtesy: author

            At last the four of us – all foreigners traveling to Chiang Mai, were told to follow some Thai guy who appeared out of nowhere. He took us out on the street – where there was no bus in sight – and we were told to get on two tuk-tuks (two passengers each). Together with our luggage, we were transported to another area of Bangkok and delivered to what looked like a ticket booth on the street, and not a bus station. At least there was our bus there – a double-decker with about 70 people (all of them foreigners). The leg space between the seats was very little, and there was no chance in hell to assume a sleep-friendly position. Hence, I got no sleep (yet again). The bus stopped at some place at about 1 am for a “snack”, but the food was really not good.
Since I did not know what to expect, it all seemed fine to me at that time (any inconsitencies could easily be attributed to misinterpreting and cultural differences – regarding, for example, leg space).
But fact is, I – and I guess everyone else on the bus – was being ripped off nicely.
I will fast forward a bit and tell you how I found this out. Some days later I took another bus on the same route – from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok – and this time my ticket was arranged in advance (by the hostel manager). It was the so-called super-VIP bus, and it cost B550. Let’s do a quick comparison to the B950 bus that I was currently in.

 Offering  B 950 bus  B 550 Super VIP bus
 Passenger seats  80  20
 Food  Once at a rest stop, bad  Several times in bus, OK
 Leg space  Totally insufficient  Plenty – almost like a bed
 Extra  A/C, blanket, pillow  A/C, blanket, pillow

The back trip felt much like airplane business class and nothing like the crowded double-decker bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Then I also checked about the Queen’s birthday – and it was August 12, not August 1st.

Since I do not speak Thai, I still wonder whether I could have avoided this particular rip-off given the circumstances. But the good thing was that – once bitten twice shy – this was the biggest rip off I let myself get involved in for the whole journey. It was also a lesson to not rely on getting the tickets in the last possible moment, but rather do my best to get them in advance. It also made me re-consider the more expensive, but more predictable (not to mention faster) flying option. I say “re-consider”, because my original intention to use exclusively land transport once in Asia – no planes! Yet after a couple of such encounters with Thai and later Cambodian ingenuity, I changed my mind. On a side note, there exists another solution: on my next journey (whenever that is) I am looking forward to travelling around Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on a scooter.  While it is not an option for everyone, a lot of people do it and it is a very viable alternative.