Friday, 6 January 2012

a new year in chiang mai

24th December 2011 - 1st January 2012

Chiang Mai

               With the monkeys biting at my heels, I departed from the town of Lopburi on the evening of the 23rd as I was eager to reach the northern city of Chiang Mai in time for Christmas. Looking at my various options for making the overnight journey it became apparent that the quickest and cheapest option was to be by train. As it was approaching the new year all the sleeper carriages were unfortunately fully booked with only a few seats in second class available for the twelve hour journey. Reflecting back on my time spent in India, I like to think that I've become pretty battle hardened to long uncomfortable journeys so the lack of a bed didn't particularly worry me, especially when I boarded the train and found that the seats almost fully reclined anyway! Bidding farewell to Ramon, who had arranged to meet up with a friend back in Ayutthaya for Christmas, strolled down to the train station and waited for the evening train from Bangkok to arrive before making its way up north. The train - like most Thai trains it seems - was late and so as the heat of the day gave way to the coolness of night, I waited on the platform eager to get the next part of my journey underway. Sitting on ceramic tiles still warm from the rays of a late afternoon sun and with nothing much to do except wait expectantly for an increasingly late train, I spotted an old Thai gentleman standing to my side who for some unknown reason; was dressed in camouflage gear. The man wore a faded military style cap emblazoned with a single gold star which perched on tufts of silver hair that curled up from the sides of his head; whilst a wisp of grey hair hung defiantly from his furrowed chin. All in all, he looked like an interesting chap so I thought I would strike up some conversation and opened by asking him about his cap. It transpired that he had been a soldier in the Royal Thai Army in his younger years and had now settled in Lopburi to live out his days selling various merchandise from his small local shop. Business was actually the purpose of his trip to Chiang Mai and with a sweep of his hand; he drew my attention to some large bags which rested at his feet. Every month or so he makes the long trip to bulk-buy some goods from the numerous markets which populate the shopping behemoth known as Chiang Mai. With the goods purchased he then returns to sell them on for a small profit at his shop in Lopburi. We talked for quite some time about my travels and his life in Lopburi and eventually, 90mins after its scheduled arrival, we were roused by the bright lights and muffled horns of our late train which sheepishly chugged into the station. Finding my seat, sat down and introduced myself to my neighbour, the instantly likeable Pongsun. The hours soon slid away as this friendly IT worker from Bangkok taught me some new Thai phrases, wrote down my name in Thai for me (which is this by the way)- อเล็กซ์ -and in return and upon his request, I reeled off some good English movies to watch and read him some passages from 'Travels with Charley' a really great Steinbeck book I've been reading which he seemed to like. To go off on a quick tangent here, I want to say that everyone needs to read at least one John Steinbeck novel. I had read Cannery Row a few years back but after picking up 'Travels with Charley' my interest has been fully reignited in this great American author. The book recounts a trip he made later on in his life where he wanted to rediscover an America that he believed to be lost and through the marvelous narrative the reader is taken along with him on his insightful journey. Interestingly in that same year (1962) he won a Nobel Prize in Literature which I didn't even know existed! Since picking up that dog -eared copy in Mamallapuram (India) I've been stopping off at every bookstore I come across, eager to find more of this master's work and i'm currently reading Grapes of Wrath which has further cemented my interest. His command of the English language is both impressive and inspirational and I aim to get through much more of his canon whilst I'm away on my own journey and if a little of what I read influences my writing here I'll consider this a blessed blog. Anyway, I digress,  as the darkness of the night tore past the windows of the carriage, for some ungodly reason the windows were kept wide open the entire night and as a result I once again had to get some warm clothes from my traveling wardrobe to help me to doze off in some degree of comfort. After finally slipping off into a weary form of contorted slumber, was awoken hours later by the sun as it cast it's early morning rays through the open windows of the train's drafty carriages. Warming my face in the glow of the sun's soothing smile, we pulled into Chiang Mai a few hours later than expected due to the delay the previous night. After alighting from the train, exited the station where I hopped straight into the back of a Songthaew ; basically a pickup which has been adapted to hold two benches in it's rear, so that in it's function as a taxi it is now capable of holding about 8-10 passengers. The one I jumped in was full to the brim with monks and a particularly chatty old boy sat opposite grinning at me through his few remaining teeth. Hit the proverbial jackpot in terms of accomodation as found a great little dorm/guesthouse called 'Little Bird' which had a dorm room available for a very reasonable 100baht - (48 baht to the Pound). As a result of the great people I met at Little Bird and the arrival of Ed who decided to join me up north for Christmas, have stayed far longer in Chiang Mai than I intended, which has been nice as being able to stop for awhile gives a pleasant breather from the constant moving. 

                To give a bit of context here, the city of Chiang Mai rests in the fertile land of the Northern Plains and was once the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna. Lanna translating as 'the land of a million rice fields' and this had been quite clear from the landscape I observed on the approach into town. The surrounding area is comprised of hills carpeted by dense jungle in which tribe villages exist and these serve as a popular destination for the many trekking tours which originate in Chiang Mai. I fully intend on doing a trek at some stage - another post will undoubtedly follow concerning my time spent in the jungle. Staying in the old quarter of Chiang Mai; the central ancient city is set within a two-kilometer square moat and all sights of interest are within walking distance of my very central location. Strolling along the narrow lanes the old quarter is comprised of, flashbacks to archaic times regularly appear around every corner in the form of  the crumbling red walls which line the moat and the multitude of extravagant temples which still retain their former glory due to careful preservation. My initial impression was that the city had a much more laid back atmosphere in comparison with it's hectic brother down south and the way of life here seems a very relaxed affair. The city does however have a lot of tangible energy and excitement which is created by starry eyed tourists who pour into the city everyday. The array of activities which one can partake in here is staggering as the various agencies which populate the central areas offer everything from trips to elephant schools, trekking tours, cookery courses, mountain biking, zip lining, bungee jumping and a plethora of other outdoor pursuits. One day, along with Ed, we hired some scooters and made our way up the Doi Suthep, a large mountain which rests quietly to the west of town. Having only ridden a scooter once before, a shaky start followed made even more taxing by the manic midday Chiang Mai traffic. As confidence grew though I soon started to zip between cars and through congested traffic with ease and after making several loops of the ancient city we headed off on the windy road up to Doi Suthep. The road leading up the mountain produced some amazing sights as we passed waterfalls and viewing platforms. Stopping off at one viewing platform we took a moment to appreciate the views of the vast sprawling metropolis of Chiang Mai which spread out across the landscape before us. Walking back to our scooters to resume our ascent we were told that we had to wait whilst a convoy passed by containing a member of the Royal family. This meant that everyone traveling the road up and down from the peak had to pull to the side as no other cars could be driving on the same road as a Royal, which says a lot about how highly revered the Royal family are here. Reaching the summit another viewing platform gave more impressive views over the surrounding valleys lit by a late afternoon sun partially shielded by a cloudy day. The temperature had considerably dropped by the time we reached the top and due to lack of foresight I found myself shivering in my shorts and t-shirt whilst Ed grinned smugly as he had packed a jumper and trousers. Cruising back down the hill, picked some speed up and enjoyed carving down the smooth concrete road back to base and as we descended the temperature grew again which came as a great relief to my joints which had become stiff from the brisk mountain air.

         Although Christmas on the whole is a fairly non-existent event over here in Thailand, walking through the central square a large Christmas tree had been erected; I suspect mainly for the benefit of the hundreds of westerners who visit the town rather than the locals. The tree itself was no ordinary pine tree as a central steel frame had been erected upon which giant baubles made of old cd's rested, gradually decreasing in size as they reached the star at its peak. A novelty santa sleigh rested at the base whilst pearl white reindeers dotted the rest of the square; massively tacky but it did at least give me a sense that Christmas was round the corner as up until now the warm weather had negated any Christmassy vibes that I would normally feel this time of year. As the days rolled on, Christmas soon passed - got my turkey fill - and New Year's Eve reared it's head. The actual night was spent at the Warm up bar - a bar favored by the local student population - with Ed and a few others from the Little Bird hostel. The night was spent mingling with the friendly Thais; drunk on their bottles of Johnnie Walker whiskey and good feelings. As the countdown neared it's climax, midnight resulted in a surge of party poppers firing off and cheers spilling across the dance floor and overflowing to the street outside. Looking up into the night air, sky lanterns filled my vision, so numerous that to the casual eye it may have looked as though the stars were on fire. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all and thank you for following me on my travels. Keep reading to see what 2012 has in store for Biggles!


Arriving in Chiang Mai.
Chaing Mai rests in the north of Thailand.
The moat which surrounds the central old quarter.
The CD Christmas tree.
The view from Doi Suthep mountain overlooking Chiang Mai.

At the top of Doi Suthep with Ed.

Lighting a sky lantern to join the hundreds of others in the sky over the city.

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