Now that Mum and Dad have landed back in the UK, I might actually start to think about my blog again. It seems that the numerous near-arguments on the subject only served to increase my obstinance about the bloody thing... But now they are gone, my conscience is getting the better of me! And the realisation that I start my 4 week Contiki tour across the States in a couple of days acts as a further incentive to get writing - if my previous Contiki experiences are anything to go by there will be minimal blogging time! So we spent three nights in Bangkok before we got the (oh-so-glamorous) night train to Chiang Mai for 4 nights. We then headed down the coast to Phuket for a week and finally back to Bangkok for a couple of nights before we went our seperate ways - boo-hoo. Natural progression, therefore, would be start with our time in Bangkok. Alas, all of the Bangkok pics and my feeble start at the blog are all on Mum's laptop so forgive me if I start with Chiang Mai instead.... I'll go back to Bangkok - god forbid there would be any gaps in this thing!
So the night train to Chiang Mai was 'an experience', in Mum's words.... I had my reservations about it after my less than successful trip on it from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Granted, this time it did take us the whole way. Just as well - can't see Lizzy taking to waiting in a torrential thunderstorm at 3am for a replacement bus, can you?! Even first class, however, was far from glam. I think Mum expected something akin to The Orient Express and instead got good old Translink. It was grand though - we had two adjoining 'cabins' which interconnected and Dad and I had done a good snack stock-up so we able to pass on their very tempting dinner offerings. Our cabin was the last one in the last carriage which made for a dam noisy/bumpy journey but it did mean Dad could hang out the back and take some pictures - he caught these guys relaying the train tracks by hand. Dodge.com.
Against all odds (and track record) the train pulled in on time and we jumped into our first little red truck (Chiang Mai's taxi equivalent) to the hotel. Mum had searched Trip Advisor and found a lovely little boutique hotel with 19 rooms, called the Ping Nakara. I was well impressed by the infinity pool and the room was pretty swish too - even if Mum did attempt a cheeky room swap. Standard.
We were lined up like The Three Bears - I thought I was finished with hostels but no, apparently not. And most hostel-goers are tidier than this pair...
Following another Trip Advisor tip (Official Guru for Houston Holidays), we headed to Ginger for lunch. Thought I should include a picture of one of these red trucks - they're a bit of a sketch. And the sight of Mum piling into the back of it really adds to the spectacle. Cheap as chips though and you can jump in even if there are people already in it.
Ginger was a massive hit - Dad swears it was the best Thai food he had all holiday. And it was the sort of classy place where you could have a cocktail at 12pm and not feel like an alcho. Score. After a dander round the Old Town, we headed back to the hotel. Dad took particular interest in the slightly alternative Thai scaffolding methods (using only bamboo). NHBC would have a field day with these guys...
I then pissed off to a spa for the rest of the day - it was so cheap, it would have been a crime not to go. Meanwhile, Mamma and Pappa Bear had a relax at the pool before we reconvened for our first Night Bazaar visit. Things got off to a flying start - Mum buying 8 scarves at the first stall for about £4 total. 'Best price, best price' was heard ringing through the place as Mum and I bartered with representatives from Tiffanys, Links, Mulberry. All legit, right?! IP lawyers would also have a field day in this place. But best to leave work in the workplace I say!
After a very authentic dinner (Pizza Hut), we got a Tuk Tuk home. When the three of us rock up to a Tuk Tuk driver, he is usually pretty quick to point at the battery beside his seat and tell me I can sit on that. Dodgy as. Better than the ones who say 'plenty of space' and expect me to pile in the back. When that happens - the tuk tuk tends to rear up like a stallion every time the driver hits the accelerator. Rear-heavy?! Us?! Mum says its like the three of us taking a ride on a ride-on lawnmower from Coleraine to Portrush. Picture that. These tuk tuks also have a rather unfortunate habit of taking you right to the door of these nice hotels we're staying at - oh so classy.
The next morning, we were up bright and early as Mum had organized for another driver to pick us up and take us round the city a bit. Breakfast had a rather nice setting by the pool and the blue skies every day really helped.
Unfortunately the much-acclaimed-on-Trip-Advisor 'Mr Joy' didn't bother his arse to show up. Seems there was a bit of a translation problem when Mum asked if he was 'also' available on Thursday and he took that as meaning we didn't want him on the Tuesday... By the time we had worked out what had happened, Mum had organized for us to go to the elephants on Thursday so, horror of horrors, we never even got to meet Mr Joy. A driver based at the hotel, Noah, came to our rescue and we headed out in his van. Turns out - he was a bit of a knob. But he took us to where we wanted to go (shops) so all good.
We went to a couple of silk factories first where Mum and I both ordered up numerous things. And Dad, come to think of it. No show without Punch hey?! In the first factory, they showed us how silk was made at each stage. I didn't realise the worms had to die in the process! Can't say it upset me too much but still.
The selection of silks was pretty amazing and you could literally just draw a picture and point to the fabric you wanted it in. Thankfully, the whole Houston ensemble is aware of its limitations so avoided the 'drawing' option.
Next, we visited a silver factory where we watched all of the workers doing it all by hand - pretty slow work. The factory we went to made Pandora-style beads so we did a little bit of shopping there - got to show your support and all that.
Next, the umbrella factory. During our visit, Dad referred to the wares as 'shite' on numerous occasions. Marching bravely on, Mum and I didn't let this deter us and continued to purchase this so-called shite with enthusiasm. Outside the umbrella factory, there were a line of artists who would paint whatever you wanted onto an umbrella/fan/clothes. I was accosted by one little man who painted some elephants onto the top I was wearing...
We then looked round the factory and talked Mum out of trying to ship some huge umbrellas home - no need at all. One of the guys making the umbrellas looked so old that he might die with any breath. Pretty sure he hadn't moved from that spot, making umbrellas, all his life.
The selection was pretty impressive though, even if Dad didn't quite think so.
Mum and I even bought into the fan-painting nonsense and each had fans painted with Elephants and Chiang Mai 2010 written on them. We will be getting group t shirts and baseball caps made next....
Our last stop of the day was the woodcarving factory. Some of the carvings and furniture were pretty amazing but this time we managed to dissuade Mum from spending £2500 on a carving of an elephant scene. Pretty sure it would end up being one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time when that thing landed back to 65 Ballymacrea Road...!
That night we went to a rather nice restaurant on the Riverside and then headed over (on a Tuk-tuk) to the other side of the city for an ice cream.
Turned out that the ice cream place we had picked was slightly out on the sticks and Mum was convinced we would never make it out alive. That, thankfully, turned out not to be the case. Instead, we got a tuk tuk home again. This time the guys played The Eagles as loud as his pretty impressive music system could muster. Mum wondered how he knew Dad so well - that Eagles CD still reigns supreme at home. As we sailed around Chiang Mai, almost on our back wheels, me perched on the battery hanging out the side of the Tuk Tuk and Dad singing The Eagles at the top of his voice - Mum told me I should get the video out and take some footage. This is the woman who gets upset if I'm in the car without my glasses at home and yet, here she is, expecting me to rummage through my bag, turn 180 degrees and take some video of Dad and his Eagles- all whilst my arse hangs out into the middle of Chiang Mai's main road. Needless to say - I declined. When we did make it home, safely, Zoe and I had a skype session. During which she threatened me with a knife - even from the other side of the world. Can't wait to see you and all that Zo....
The next day started off with a pretty lazy start - breakfast and poolside relaxation... Mum and I then abandoned Dad and headed to the spa again. This time we were collected from the hotel and we each had a foot massage, aromatherapy oil massage and facial and taken home again. The whole thing took over 3 hours and cost 50 quid in total for both of us... Bargainous.
After collecting Dad, we headed out for afternoon tea (another Trip Advisor hot tip). This very lovely little cafe in a pink house did a pretty mean spread..
We went for a walk along the flower market and then back to the hotel for a clean up before dinner.
Before eating we headed out to the Nimmanheimen Rd which guide books raved about for boutique shops etc. Much to Dad's despair, however, we were too late and most of them were closed so Mum and I caused very little damage. One vase was the height of our shopping I think... We went back to Ginger for tea which was equally as good as our lunchtime on the first day. To make up for the disappointing shopping earlier on, I did find a lovely dress in the shop at the restaurant. Nice end to the day!
Our last day in Chiang Mai was spent at the Elephant Nature Park. After getting picked up at 8am, we collected the rest of our group and drove 'an hour' to the park. Note - everything is 'an hour' away in Chiang Mai. I think two hours was probably a closer guess! The group were lovely - with 6 young Londoners, The Three Bears and an older American couple.
Unlike my elephant experience in Laos, this Park doesn't do any riding/shows. The owner showed us a video of how elephants are broken so people can ride them and it would make you think hard about doing any riding. Saying that, I have no doubt that the elephants we rode were extremely well looked after. And it is clear from one elephant who was 'domesticated' by the owner of the Nature Park that it is very hard to tame animals by purely kind and gentle methods. Her success story 'Hope' is the only animal in the park that was not domesticated by traditional methods and he is a bit of a liability to say the least - he has to have two handlers everywhere he goes, wears a bell at all times and gets no guest interaction. All other elephants rescued from begging/trekking/logging had been tamed by harsher, but undoubtedly more effective, methods. It seems that for as long as elephants remain an animal that people want to domesticate - such methods will be necessary.
We arrived and were given a quick tour round - including a look into the kitchen where all the fruit and vegetables are prepared for the 40-odd animals.
After some coffee we went down for some feeding - which was great. Plenty of elephants to feed so everyone got loads of time with them and a chance for those all important photos!
After an impressive lunch, we headed down to the river to help wash the elephants. It wasn't quite as interactive as when we were riding them and scrubbing at them in Laos but we were all given buckets to throw water over the elephants which was a lot of fun. Dad got particularly into the swing of things.
Mum took a mostly dry role. After feebly throwing a couple of buckets, she took on the job of chief photographer. I swear we become more and more like Japanese tourists each day!
After bath time, we watched the elephants from the raised huts. It was quite an interesting day as they had just received an elephant who had been rescued following a landmine injury. It was her first time interacting with the group, actually her first time with any other elephants in decades apparently. It was interesting to watch as different groups came up to check her out. They took her down to the river with the rest and instead of going in for a splash and coming back out again - she headed straight across the river and out the other side - I suppose she didn't know any better! Her handlers rushed off after her and another smaller elephant even waded in to try and show her the ropes. She worked it out eventually and it was very amusing fr us guests to see how the new recruit got on!
The Park had some younger animals who were seriously cute. One of them had a party trick - big wet slobbering kisses. Not everyone's idea of acceptable behaviour but she took a particular shine to Mum - caught mid kiss...
The female baby was particularly friendly and stood on her little platform posing away and loving all the attention...
Apparently she is much better behaved than her brother who isn't allowed time with the Park's guests at all. Boys hey?!
All in all, it was an experience that definitely hit the Top 5 list for the holiday! Bit of a documentary overload as they made us watch two seperate hour-long videos but I suppose raising awareness is one of the main reasons for their existance.
That evening, we went back to the Night Bazaar. Dad had made it his personal mission to find a shirt to fit him, after Mum suggested that such a thing might not be possible. As if to spite us, he then found such a garment and bought in in several colours - being constantly spurred on by the stall owner who kept exclaiming 'sexy shirt, sexy shirt'. God save us all. I bought another 4/5 pairs of trousers after being well chuffed with a pair I had bought two nights before. Whether I really need 5 pairs of them is a question of debate but 'best price, best price'! One particular busy spree at Tiffanys of Chiang Mai...
After collecting a couple of things we had ordered up before (lamps/paintings), we Tuk-tuk'ed back to our hotel for our last night in Chiang Mai.