As our trip was somewhat time sensitive, and also partly as I was a travel newbie, we’d arranged in advance to join a Gecko’s trip. This would allow us to see part of northern Thailand before starting the Laos portion of a trip, which essentially followed the Mighty Mekong south, all the way to Vientiene (the Laotian capital). Whilst not as independent as the trip might have been, it did also relieve us of much organisation and afforded us more time to simply soak up our surrounds.
With the tour not to begin as soon as we returned to Bangkok, it also allowed us another full day to do a bit more exploration of the Thai capital.
It really was a far greater sensory experience having the chance to see the city full of life as it should be (unlike that first day) with people bustling everywhere, hawkers on every kerb and the smell of food in the air.
In Chinatown we sampled a vegetarian noodle dish like nothing i’d seen before or since (imagine donut like noodles in a spicy chilli broth) before we moved on to the gorgeous tourist attraction that is Jim Thompson’s house (to our knowledge, no relation to Sarah)
For those not familiar with Jim, he is credited with being the first westerner to bring Thai silk to the world (well, to the western commercial world in any case). Jim walked into history (literally, he walked into the Malaysian hills in the 1960’s and was never seen again) and his home remains a museum/shrine which is maintained by the Thai people.
Surrounded by beautiful gardens, his former home is an amalgamation of traditional Thai homes (6 were used to construct his house) which has become a very popular tourist attraction.
Before long it was time to join our Gecko’s group (a mix of Australian’s & New Zealander’s) and embark on the next stage of our odyssey.
Another day of Bangkok sights which meant much time spent on the cities waterways (Bangkok has a vast network of canals which has seen it dubbed the Venice of Asia) gazing at various Wat’s & Stupas.
It was a pretty good opportunity to start getting to know the ragtag bunch of people we’d be spending the next couple of weeks with, before our next leg which involved an overnight train ride to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
By now I was really getting the hang of this travel business, so felt it’d be a good idea for us to grab (and polish off) a few Chang long necks whilst waiting at the station. I decided to have a few more on the train as well, finding myself in much better shape the next morning than some of my much younger companions!
One thing anyone who has done south-east Asia will understand, and something I’ve not yet touched upon is the squat toilet. Many tourist locations and bigger hotels will surely have western style flush toilets, however most everyday Thai homes, rest stops and restaurants are likely to have the squat. This usually consists of a bowl in the floor with a place either side for your feet (the better ones will have grip for the feet & a deluxe version may even have a hand rail). Flushing usually involves a cup in a bucket of water and there is the affectionately known “bum gun” for cleaning the nether regions.
It’s fair to say I was still a rookie user of the squat at this stage, now combine this with the bumpy, shaking train and it’s mission impossible! I tell you what, the squat also uses muscles I forgot I ever had, so if there’s no hand rail, it takes the experience right to the edge!
With the group given two options in Chiang Mai (the major city of northern Thailand), for us it was a no brainer, Cooking School! (riding the elephants just always sounds too exploitative to me).
What ensued began with a trip to the local markets to grab our ingredients, and no markets that I’ve encountered to date ever seem as interesting or lively as those in Asian countries. A brief Q & A on local vegetables ensued, in which Adam (one of our Gecko’s group) quickly proved the DUX of the class. After a few squeamish looks at the live frogs and other less homely fare, it was off to the kitchen where we cooked up quite the feast. Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup, both red & green curries as well as a sweet dessert of pumpkin & coconut. All delicious and incredibly easy after Sarah overcame her issues with the gas burner (at one point it was either gas off, or burner at maximum heat!)
The remainder of our time in Chiang Mai was spent wandering the streets and investigating old temples. It is reputed that when lightning struck and damaged one particular Wat, the legendary Emerald Buddha was revealed. I’m not sure how tall or true these tales were, but it was a pretty cool old place, and we did run into Tom Oliver (Lou Carpenter for those ‘Neighbours’ fans) with a young Thai woman in toe, teetering on her incredibly tall heels.
From then it was on to Chiang Rai (just passed through really) and Chiang Khong for what remains my favourite border crossing to date, by boat. It was there we crossed the border into Laos…