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The First Four Days

THAILAND | Monday, 28 December 2009 | Views [877]

A post by Andrew....

Sa Wat Dee Krap and a whole lotta Meh

...well actually, it's Mai, but more on that later. Day one of Bangkok and all I can say is wow. Truly a whole 'nother world over here and the divide between us and them couldn't be greater. Arriving late-night Bangkok time at the airport, we were greeted by the most amazing foodie smells walking from the plane. Simply incredible... They're everywhere. Our transport to the New World City Hotel met us after we had passed through the rather, er... brisk customs process. A stamp in the passport and baggage-check was irrelevant as the customs officials sat and played patience on their PC's in the airport!

Driving into Bangkok was amazing, the roads and motorways look like a total noodle-like mess. No idea how you'd figure them out, guess it would take living here to suss 'em out properly. Midnight hit and we were hungry, so a quick 30sec walk around the corner to some amazing road-way restaurants serving all the Thai 'Classics'. Amazingly friendly people and the beer is HUGE! $15 fed both Kristy and I for the evening, and we got the "entertainment" for free... being a HUGE double-decker bus trying to fit down a lane way that we (and many other dinner patrons) were inconveniently sitting down. As I was sitting roadside, my Tom Kah Goh Soup had a little Diesel-tinge after the bus had passed by merely 15cm from me!...

The next morning we were up and out the door around 7am... at the time, we thought it was 8am (and spent the whole day and hour fast of 'real' time... thanks accurate airport clocks!). After a traditional green curry for Breakfast Kristy and I jumped aboard a Tuk Tuk bound for a boat tour of the river area. We tried to haggle the price, but didn't get too far with the first boatie so settled on the original price of $22 each for a one hour cruise around the river area, often referred to as "little Venice" although the comparison is quite offensive to the Venetians I would say!

Houses build right on the river sides, some floating... some not so. We met a 'floating market' who was a lady rowing her boat around with tacky over-priced souvenirs. I gave her 80 Baht (around $2.40) for a can of Tiger Beer and donated it to our lovely boat driver. Kept him happy for the rest of the trip, constantly calling out "Temple!" every minute or two when we passed one of, I'm sure, HUNDREDS of Buddhist temples around the city.

Returning to the Amulet market, we had a look around at the millions of Buddhist amulets, trinkets and necklaces. We weren't really sure of their meaning or their function, so both Kristy and I steered clear of them, instead marveling at how this very poor nation can sustain an income for just about anyone who wants to work at doing, well, the most bizzare things! From a street-side dentist fitting spare teeth (I'm not kidding) to an entire marketplace dedicated to selling flowers as necklaces and hand-made wrist-bands... all for around 10 baht (around .30c) it's pretty extraordinary. There's honestly no excuses for beggars or homeless people in Bangkok where the most meaningless tasks can be done for a dollar.

After a few more random walks around various non-touristy places, down side streets and a stop for lunch on a waterfront eating place (not quite how it sounds!) we tried to catch a tuk tuk back to the hotel. Now, here's where it gets odd. For literally hours we'd been yelling "Mai" (pron. "Meh") at every tuk tuk driver in sight, not wanting to be taken on a tour of the temples or on some other bizzare "tuk tuk mafia scam" (that's right, they have a mafia!) do you think we could find a tuk tuk? Absolutely not. Seems when we wanted to go home, they were busy shifting goods around for the locals, either to supermarkets for the "night rush" or restaurants or some such. After half an hour of walking around we finally were able to catch a reasonably priced tuk tuk back to the Khao San Markets. These are the main tourist markets in old Bangkok and are pretty odd! Lots of tacky tourist crap along side some pretty convincing knock-off T-shirts, shoes and pirated DVD's. Was a strange place, and both Kristy and I scored a couple of good purchases (and I even got my barter-on for the first time, getting a fairly cheap deal on an Element T-Shirt for about 200 bart (approx $6!) so score one for my negotiating skills! After a glance at the map it was back to the hotel for a well-earned nights rest. Not before stopping off and catching up with one of our tour group members 'Jeremy' at the local bar where we chatted for a while. More on our other wonderful Intrepid Posse later.

"Same as yesterday, but different"

Welcome to the highlight of our tour so far. I'm talking days 3 and 4 here (with a little bit of 5 thrown in at the end). The above is a quote from our tour group leader, master, guide and jedi master known as "Dong". He's a local Thai as well as a member of the "Karen" tribe where we set off to trek on days 4 and 5. Dong is fluent in Thai, the native tribal Karen language and is fairly amazing with his english all things considered. Just an amazingly nice, friendly guy. The above quote carries some rather important information, so keep that in mind further on. Day 3 was, of course, Christmas eve, of which we spent on the overnight train from Bangkok to Chang Mai. This trip is supposed to take around 12-13 hours depending on a few things. Well, ours blew that record considerably taking an incredible 22 hours from station to station! That's right, we spent both Christmas Eve and Christmas day stuck aboard a broken down train in the middle of Thailand somewhere! I'd love to be able to tell you where, but due to literally no-one on board knowing why we broke down (and a slight hangover the next morning!) we instead spent the 'downtime' partying it up in the converted "Karaoke Carriage" aboard the train! The staff threw caution to the wind (which is something both frightening and fun) as the drinks flowed freely. The amazing part of this whole event was it gave us some valuable time to get to know our traveling companions and our group leader... along with drinking the cheap booze aboard the train! I spent the night with our guide Dong watching the drunk Thai train staff (including one Thai Lady-boy staff member!) singing it up to Madonna's 'like a virgin' on Christmas eve, getting a bit of sleep overnight, then back to the Karaoke Carriage with Kristy, Dong and Jeremy for some more rounds of drinks. We learned here that Jeremy (from Adelaide, Australia) has a soft-spot for Vodka and, to my utter disbelief... about 3 - 4 bottles of the stuff appeared from out of the blue and he and Dong got stuck into it! The train staff also joining in! Kristy and I stuck to the cheap Singha beer and in between jumping off the train and taking photo's we had a fantastic christmas day. Certainly one to remember.

Arriving VERY late in the day in Chang Mai we headed straight for an absolutely amazing Buddhist Temple set right atop of a hill about 20mins from the city. It's certainly the most beautiful place I've seen in my life and to think it had been there around 300 (or more) years is pretty amazing. The Thai people take such amazing care of their ancient temples it really is phenomenal how good they look, especially when compared with the rest of the buildings in the city! Unfortunately, due to our ridiculously late arrival into Chang Mai we had to cut our temple visit short and took the taxi back our hotel in Chang Mai to pack our gear and get ready for our first day of trekking to the Karen Hill Tribe... something that was going to be pretty special.

We boarded the taxi to take us out to the local market on the outskirts of Chang Mai to stock up on some water, grab a bite to eat and get any last minute things for the trek. Our two fellow group members are, shall we say, slightly less prepared than we are... therefore, they needed to pick up a few basics. Jeremy, as mentioned before, was rather circumspect today after his visit to the temple and Dong gave him the nickname "Buddha Belly" to replace his previous "Vodka" nickname. Apparently, Dong believes that receiving a blessing from a monk last night has changed his ways and he's certainly been much quieter today! Which is rather nice... just quietly. Our other member of our little group is Carthiga. She's Canadian and ridiculously competitive when playing cards and has a fairly extensive knowledge of Star Wars, which I'm loving having quote-offs with her! On the downside, she's ganged up with Kristy and they've been having a lot of fun taking me down in cards, taking the piss in general and apparently, Kristy wears the pants according to our group. Sigh.


...we left the crazy out-of-town markets and headed about and hour or so into the mountains where we would begin our trek. Stopping at a Darwin-esque waterfall along the way, which could've been anywhere in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territories of Australia! Arriving at our "Trek Start!" as Dong called out, we started our walk into the forests of Northern Thailand. Now, when signing up for this tour the Intrepid Information clearly stated our "treks" would consist of "No Jungle walking and easy-going walks through beautiful rice paddy fields". Well, this was anything BUT easy going! I'm talking brutal knee-crushing spine bending exhaustion as we climbed up and down steep mountain sides and slippery barely-viewable walking tracks for 3 hours!

Did I complain?
The Village area looking towards our little hut (on the left) and another house on the right. There's more photo's of this that will be uploaded when the internet is quicker and the people doing it are not as sleepy as they are now!
Well, technically yes. Kristy was a trooper keeping pace with Dong the whole way and we all decided she was a freak. Carthiga and I pulling up the rear stopping more than the rest with the monk-enhanced Jeremy keeping good pace too. Definitely worth getting a blessing before this marathon! The trek was absolutely incredible and Dong reminded us along the way that it would be worth it, sure enough walking into the Karen Tribe village after traversing this insanely dense bush was something to be proud of. The village itself was something out of a movie set, a dream or both! Photo's don't do it's beauty justice and it's total isolation and lack of "western" interference was magical. Our little "hut" overlooked the river and the harvested rice paddy fields and was made entirely of bamboo and natural wood from the forests. We learned that the Government no longer allows these hill tribes to just move around the forests willy-nilly and instead they've settled for the last time in this absolutely magical location. I couldn't help but think that they wouldn't go anywhere else even if they could! This village had it's own language, which Dong was fluent in, it's own power source (via Government-funded solar power) and a population of about 120 people. Houses will set into hillsides, above ground or hanging on the side of cliffs. I simply can't tell you how absolutely amazing this place was, I'll get more photo's up sometime to show you but for now these small snaps will suffice!

After a quick meeting, learning the local-greetings ("Da-bleah" being the only one I can remember - meaning "Thanks!"!) we had an amazing "local dinner" consisting of the Thai standards and porcupine meat, which sat well with my earlier consumption of ants, crickets and weird squishy bugs I'm not sure what they actually were, but "gooey" describes them aptly. We settled in for the coldest nights sleep ever but there were no complaints. Simply an incredible day of exhaustion and beauty. This is why we came here.

The next morning we began our trek after a local breakfast (curry, rice...) to the next village along the way. Here's where my above quote comes into play. I asked Dong at breakfast what our next trekking portion would consist of, we all were absolutely hammered after the walk from the previous day and were hoping for some easy-going "rice paddy fields" as Intrepid promised us we would walk through. Dong, being ever-so-vague as usual replied with "Oh, Same as yesterday... but different". The groans were, best described as; audible all the way to Bangkok. Accompanied by our local guide 'Mr Boon' we set off for the next village... Dong and the guide were correct on this one, it was certainly beautiful and it was CERTAINLY the bloody same, but different! 4 hours of some pretty intensive cardio work along, even more steep and difficult terrain, something I was certainly not prepared for! Getting through this trek today was, admittedly... a lot easier thanks to knowing what the last day was like. We also all knew Dong would reward us with something special at the end of the trek...


We rode. Elephants.


Yeah, it was pretty wicked. Elephants walking up hills we could barely climb for the last 2 days and across river beds you wouldn't swim in... these massive beasts did their thing for over an hour, carrying us bags and all! Just the best, surreal experience. If you ever get the opportunity to be near, touch and ride an elephant in their own environments take it, because it's phenomenal. We learned here there were 2 Elephant "camps" in the area here and they only worked once a day, which compared with their almost daily grind before tourism is a great example of how Intrepid (and tourism in general) can do some amazingly good work both for endangered animals and the tribal people here. The elephants were healthy, happy and breeding! A beautiful 2 year old baby was bouncing around the campsite before we headed off and they never once tripped or fumbled their footing the entire journey to the next village.

Saying goodbye to our elephant friends, we walked into the next village... a bigger extension of the Karen tribe. However, we all agreed, this one was different somehow. The western influence by missionaries was a lot more present here. For better or worse, it wasn't nearly as charming as the almost-untouched previous village. More rubbish, more buildings and a television blaring sports as we entered the village left us sorta, sad. Sure, the people were lovely and seemed happy... but the pride in their village was lost with the intrusion of more "western" notions such as schools, churches and satellite dishes! I hope that the other village keeps to their own and retains their pride and identity and not give in to the "easy money" of either tourism or missionaries. Don't get me wrong, both do good work and certainly, without tourism these places would simply disappear back into opium growing madness... but there needs to be a balance. There was an obvious lack of that balance in this newer, bigger village.

Jeremy and I headed for the river and took a well-earned bath as Kristy snapped away on her camera. The shots she has been taking are absolutely amazing and I caught a glimpse of some of them. Just wait till she throws them online! We had a "story moment" (as Kristy and I have begun to call these events) with one of the local girls all of 12 years old, joining Carthiga, Kristy and I in a game of Uno. Kristy absolutely blew us all away with her education skills as she broke both age and language barriers to teach this non-thai AND non-english speaking girl the basics of uno. She was playing almost full speed within about 5 hands and if it wasn't for dinner arriving, I would've been taking her money in Blackjack in the next game!

...and that's where i'll leave it!

Sorry this has taken so long (and sorry it's so massive!) but we've been out of contact for days... away from internet, phones and television and I gotta say - it's amazing. To all those who have tried to contact us or wished both Kristy and I a merry christmas either on facebook or via text (or message) thanks so much and we'll make sure to top our local credit here and get the mobile up and running tomorrow.

...What is next on our blog-update?

For a teaser, try bamboo river rafting for 4 hours more train madness and the Bangkok and Ko Samui await! Yup, we're just a third of a way in to our adventure and I hope it's as much fun reading about it as it is doing it!

Until next time, "Kop Koon Krap" or "Thank you" and we'll be back with something the same, but different soon

- Andrew & Kristy

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