Thailand Travels of a Solo Traveller

On Saturday afternoon, in Bangkok, I dropped into a relexology foot massage parlour - these are everywhere, and unlike London's "massage" parlours, most are not fronts for sex shops.  

They're just for massage.  An hour later, I limped out vowing to never have that done
again - Thai massage is a little more... INTENSE than I'd been expecting.  Here's a tip: the word for "pain" is JEP, pronounced like jet but with a p.  "Ow" means "I want" and may not convey the actual intent of your message.

Booked a room for my last night in Bangkok - a double room with an ensuite bathroom for #15/night isn't bad anywhere in the world, although as I was to discover, it's still almost double a decent room in Chiang Mai.  

Went shopping for books (of course) and a note pad, then caught a cab out to the main train station.  Grabbed a meal at about 5pm in the station, although I don't think I was in the area most of the backpackers use, as I was the only non-Thai there and was gawked at the whole way through the meal.

 The Thai people will go to extreme lengths to avoid deliberately causing embarrassment or difficulty (except for law enforcement personnel, who seem to take
delight in it), so a look in their direction was generally enough to persuade them to turn away.

The overnight train to Chiang Mai features several different options: 3rd class (no air-con, fairly uncomfortable, not recommended for farang travellers); 2nd class (air-con, sleeping berths, (I think) 50 to a carriage; and 1st class, two-berth lockable cabins.  It's 700- 800 baht for a 2nd class berth, depending on whether you take the top
or the bottom bunk, and 1200 for a first class cabin.  

Since the train wasn't full, there was a good chance that I'd have the double-
berth cabin to myself, so I took that one.  Well.  "First class" is interpreted very... interestingly... in some places.  The toilet was absolutely AWASH with some sort of chemical overflow, about an inch deep on the floor - very VERY nasty.  

More time was spent attempting to keep the jeans off the floor than actually doing what I was there for.  Had dinner on the train about 8:30, bored, it's dark, I'm going
to sleep.  Or not.  Half an hour later, shaking cold, I called the guard guy and asked for an extra blanket.  

When he came back, I asked him was there any way to turn down the air con - he tsks at me, says "you just turn it off" and came in to click off the unit in the room.  Well, yes, I've already checked that - it's the air coming through the vent above the door which is so cold.  Oh, yes madam.   Off he goes.  I've since learned that "yes" might mean "I can't do anything about it, but I'm not going to tell you that because it will make things uncomfortable".  So I go back to bed.

 All my clothes on, two blankets - everything in my room is clammy cold, the mirror is
fogged up and running with condensation, my backpack is slick and euuch to the touch.  Up twice in the night for a smoke, just because walking around outside my cabin is warmer than being in it.  Guard guy comes in after "breakfast" - my advice: bring your own - to turn the beds back into seating.  

Oh, see this switch here 2 feet above your head, behind the spare blankets - silly falang lady, why you not switch it off, a hahahaha?  I'll give YOU silly falang
lady.  "Farang" means foreigner, btw.

Arrive Chiang Mai 7am - step from my super cold air conditioned first class hell into 27oC, 80% humidity - glasses instantly fog up.  Made my way to the other end of the platform, fought through 80 people yelling "tuk-tuk? you need tuk-tuk?" "madam, you need sleep?  guest- house, very nice, you come - I have tuk-tuk".  

A tuk-tuk is a motorcycle taxi, although that doesn't really convey the gist of it.   It's basically like a rickshaw, if that helps, but with a motorcycle engine, steering mechanism and sound (hence the name).  It has pedals like a car and the passenger sits at the back.  There's generally a canopy that runs the length of the vehicle, very useful during monsoon rains.

 I finally picked the one driver who wasn't shouting at me (just to teach the others a lesson, yeah) and gave him my friends' address.  He says 80 baht, I say OK and off he go.  As we're heading away, I can hear the other tuk-tuk drivers behind me: "80
baht... 'OK'.... heeehehehehehe".  I rather suspect I should have tried to bargain him down a bit.

Chiang Mai is far more rural than Bangkok, and much more laid back.   I feel much more comfortable here than I did last week in BGK.  We took a drive mid-morning out to the hot springs - a natural phenomenon, they've tapped into the water table to produce 3 permanent low-pressure geysers rather than allowing the high-pressure
ones to continue springing up unexpectedly.  

The run-off from the springs joins with a small creek, producing an extremely warm water flow that reeks of sulfur.  My friends recommended putting our feet in, which I (clearly in a state of madness) agreed to.  Ow.  As in "I want out".  Sat for 5 minutes, my feet looked like they'd been boiled.

The immersion was supposed to help with my heel - which reflexology massage lady in Bangkok had actually BRUISED so badly that I was limping 24 hours later - but it had no effect.  The corn I'd been sticking plasters on for about 3 weeks finally just peeled off, though, as I was putting my shoes back on, so that was good.

 We wandered back up the path, to the bit where they cook the eggs.  Yes,
eggs - Thais have this mad fascination with them.  They eat something
called "preserved eggs", which I only viewed at a distance but which
Colin advises me to avoid like the plague.  At the springs, you can
buy a raffia basket full of raw eggs, which you hang from a hook so
that the eggs are immersed in the hot water.

 It takes 8 minutes to hard-boil them.  Evidently, some months back there was a young boy who had already put his feet in the hot water near the springs and
thought that his parents were being over-cautious telling him to
avoid doing it there - so he jumped up and stuck his foot into 90o
water.  Several hospital visits later...

Wandered back to the house, stopped for lunch at their local ...
place.  I don't know what to call it.  It's a restaurant, with no
doors or windows - just a thatched roof, covering wooden tables and
benches, and an open kitchen area.  There are fans under the thatch,
and it catches all the breezes, so it works.  

There is a vendor with a cart about 30 feet further down the road that does pork satay
sticks with peanut sauce - Jamie walked down to the cart and ordered
those, while Anita and I went into the ... place... and ordered
something.  I have no idea what it was, except that they'd
specified "non-spicy".  It was sort of a mix of flat noodles, broth,
pork and some sort of spice.  Oh, and those crispy noodles that I
don't know what they're called.  Not bad, actually. The cart lady
delivered our satay sticks to our table, and that was lovely too.  75
baht for lunch for 3 of us.

7pm, off we went to their regular massage place.  Seems quite funny,
I know, there's such a stigma attached to the name "massage parlour"
that you sort of want to snicker a little behind your hand every time
you say it.  But here, it's... a 2-hour massage.  You change into
their little pyjama things, everyone in the same room, you lie on a
mat on the floor and then a girl massages you.  For 2 hours.  There's
an element of excessive stretching involved - given the yelps coming
from the various mats, it's not as passive an exercise as it may seem.

Today, my heel was so bad that I decided to ice it and do my washing
and catch up on e-mails - that backfired somewhat when I realised
that Jamie takes the laptop to work every day.  Yup, clear-thinking
me.  Tomorrow I have organised a local two-bench taxi (it's basically
a pickup with a canopy over the tray, with a bench running down each
side of the tray - in Thai, it's called a song tau, which means "two-
benches") for the day - for 600 baht, they'll take you anywhere.  
They'll drop you off to do shopping, then wait for you to finish and
take you to the next place.  He (Mr Tira) is picking me up at 8:30
tomorrow morning to go to the King's Palace and the Wat (temple) on
the mountain, then to Lamphun (pronounced Lam-POON) for the
afternoon.  There are elephant shows there, and a snake show and
possibly a monkey show - a whole range of possibilities.

Woke up - put my foot on the floor and went all funny and woozy from
the pain shooting up from my heel.  The first-thing-in-the-morning-
you-had-caffeine-last-night-pee-NOW urge eventually got too strong
and I HAD to get up - moved to the bathroom on one foot, sliding and
clutching at things.  Oh, yes, the joy.  Stood in the shower under
steaming hot water for 10 minutes before I could put any weight on my
right foot at all.

Mr Tira/Teera/Tera (pronounced TEE-rah, but spelled all of those
different ways on his own material that he gave me) arrived promptly
at 8:30 to collect me for our day's outing together.  I was
misinformed re the tranport - rather than a two-bench taxi, it turned
out to be an air-conditioned van, much to my surprise and HUGE
relief.  Bright blue, festooned in American flag stickers and GOD
BLESS YOU blazoned 7 inches high across the top of the windscreen and
back window and down both sides of the bodywork, with a New Testament
and a 6-inch high mother-of-pearl cross on the passenger's dashboard
next to the water bottles... but air-conditioned.

 And besides, even that level of oddness doesn't really stick out here as much as you
might think.  While hiring a van and driver for the day is only 600 baht, I'd still recommend having an extremely clear itinerary and an alternative in case it rains.  I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but pouring rain meant that we only went to one Wat in Lamphun before retreating to the van.  Driver says, "what now, madam", and I had no clue.  So I picked "elephant farm" at random and off we set.

On the way to the elephant farm, you pass the Cobra Show and the
Monkey Show, both of which we stopped in at.  The cobra show was
funny - a large group of ?Portuguese? backpackers showed up shortly
after I did, otherwise it would have been just me in the audience,
which I don't think would have been much good for anybody.

 They were carrying around a water snake and draping it around necks for photos
etc.  Of course, several of the girly girls squealed and ran, and
some of the guys moved surreptitiously away as well.  The show
consisted of a "snake charmer" - a balding man with a ponytail
dressed in baggy rap pants and a t-shirt, with a bandanna around his
head Rambo-style - playing with snakes and attempting to scare the
pants off the customers.

He had 3 Siamese cobras, hoods up, striking at him and each other - did this thing where he leaned over slowly and kissed each cobra on the top of the head, then took the head of one of them and inserted it in his mouth before picking up another
just below the hood and displaying it to the audience.  Very close up
photo ops.  Of course, at this point my camera runs out of film.  To
prove the snakes were venomous, he milked the venom from one and then
walked around with an implement holding the snake's mouth open to
display the fangs - utterly fascinating to get a look at that from 6
inches away!  Next were the rat snakes - non-poisonous, but fast and
they bite - some more kissing and holding in the mouth etc.  

Then the jumping snake, which can leap 4 feet into the air to attack prey.  
They are not poisonous either, although I'm not sure that would
matter much to you at the time.  The guy's rummaging around in the
big wooden box with the handling hook, when suddenly he shouts and
leaps backwards as some THING goes flying into the audience.  It's a
3-feet long piece of rope, which nonetheless freaks out 3 of the
Portuguese girls so badly that they leave and refuse to come back.  
Real snake out, it's amazing to watch.

 They coil the upper half of their body together in order to propel them forward when they strike, and they really do go quite a distance.  Just  this mass of writhing
muscle and a gaping pink mouth in the middle of it, coming at you
very quickly.  Some more kissing etc, then puts it on the ground and
slaps the earth next to its head, shouts something at it... and the
snake rolls over and plays dead.  I think this is a natural survival
technique, rather than a learned "trick", but it's impressive

This thing's just been hissing and leaping at the guy,
and now he drapes it around my neck and it just hangs like a limp
rag.  I could feel its muscles moving under the skin, particularly
along the back of my neck, but even stroking its head didn't provoke
it.  Next up was the tiger python, an absolutely stunningly beautiful
snake.  Eleven feet long, sleek and the patterns on its back! just
awesome.  Another close-up photo op, this time of the python with its
mouth gaping open and the jaw unhinged - highly highly impressive.

Then off to the Monkey Show.  Let us not discuss the monkey show,
except to say that I almost cheered when the 15-year-old macaque
monkey with the iron ring around its neck, riding a BICYCLE, turned
on the guy holding its chain.  Fangs out and all.  It was depressing
and demeaning and horrible.  I went to look at the monkeys in cages
afterwards - even the baby monkeys, 4 months old, had metal collars
on and were chained to posts.  

You could feed them, though, so I did - the one sat chewing on an apple piece, holding my hand with both its back feet, then gave me its other hand and climbed onto my arm and lay on it, still eating.  The lady said, the babies like to do that,
it reminds them of their mothers.  So that was about it for me, I was
out of there.  Oh... and while I was there "donated" 10 baht to the
Monkey Preservation Society (figured it couldn't do any harm) and got
a tiny tub of Monkey Balm in return.  A product not unlike Tiger
Balm, although I think the only relation it has to monkeys is a
marketing one.

While I was watching the Monkey Show, Mr Tira got a call saying that
a family had booked him for the next morning for the elephant park,
so he asked me if we could go to that tomorrow instead.  So, OK, so
off we go instead to Doi Suthep.  Doi Suthep is the mountain - the
actual goal was the Wat (temple) at the top, but I can't rememeber
the name of it.  I'm not sure whether anyone planning to visit here
should really use these notes as a guide, since you'll have to
use "the thing... and the other thing.... you know, the red trucks
with the two seats..." rather than the actual names.  


Anyway.  I fell asleep, woke up halfway up the mountain, which looked like PNG
greenery next to an Australian road.  Not long after I woke up, there
were roadwork crews hard at work shoring up the sides of the
switchbacks to prevent landslides - all normal machinery, etc....
except the generator was being pulled up the hill by two guys using a
rope and a small buffalo, and a little further up the guys cleaning
up after the road crew were doing so by walking down the hill with
whisk brooms.  Past the Royal Palace, another 5 minutes up the hill
and there we were.

There are two ways to get to the Wat itself - either walk up the 309-
stair Naga Steps or catch the cable car for 20 baht.  The Naga Steps
are a common occurence, and worth explaining.  Basically, a Naga is a
sacred mythical dragon-like creature, and Naga Steps feature the
animal as the border to the steps.  

So in this case, the scale being what it was, the Naga heads at the bottom formed two enormous pillars
under an elaborate arch - the bodies run up the staircase as
banisters, almost (on top of the walls on either side of the
staircase) and the top stair is bordered by the tails.  OH... look,
just go here and look
at the photo.

And here for some
more information about it.  This is way easier, I might just find
other people's websites and refer you to those instead of writing
about it myself...!  The top of the thing is a whole complex of
buildings  - so serene, and quiet, and cool, with a breeze and a view
of Chiang Mai - people chatting but in low and respectful voices,
ringing the bells and praying, everyone so SO polite.  A quick aside -
the national tree in Thailand is what's known in Australia as the
golden wattle - its Thai name is "Golden Shower".  

Enough for the day - I went home to take a cold shower and get out of
nasty clothes.  Jamie was having "guy night" at home, so against my
natural instincts, I gracefully acquiesced and took Anita out to
dinner rather than launch into an impassioned "how sexist ARE you"
speech.  Realised as I got home that - although my heel had been
barely twinging after a day of walking around - three hours of
sitting still and then an hour and a half running around in thongs
(or "flip-flops" for the Americans and whatever words doesn't mean
underwear, for the Brits etc) meant I was limping badly again.  For a
laugh, put the Monkey Balm on it before I went to bed.

Haven't sent anything in a while - in the week I was in Chiang Mai,
in Jamie & Anita's house, both toilet sinks started leaking, the
shower curtain fell off the wall, my camera broke and their laptop
stopped working (this stopped me checking/sending e-mail).  I think
I'm emitting some sort of radioactivity that breaks things where they
stand, without any effort on my part.

Not much else of lasting interest happened in Chiang Mai, except the
elephant ride and some bazaar shopping.  Oh, and the Monkey Balm! God
Bless Monkey Balm!  I have bought a big tub of the stuff, it is
working miracles.  Still stiff, but a good dollop of that on my ankle
and the tendon just... relaxes.  It's fantastic.

Mr Tira picked me up in the morning for the elephant ride, and we
headed out to pick up "a family" from one of the other hotels in
town.  They were a Dutch couple working in China, with a 3-year-old
daughter who speaks Chinese, English and Dutch equally fluently.  
They had talked their friends - living in Holland, she from Argentina
and him from China, both now working in China also - into coming as
well, so we were 6. Off we set to the elephants.

For anyone who grew up in Africa or Asia, I know that other people's
fascination with elephants is extremely amusing, and I appreciate
that, but I've liked them since we first saw them in the Ringling
Brothers, Barnum & Bailey 3-ring Circus in the States when I was a
kid, and this is the closest I've ever gotten to them.  Wandered down
and stood on a platform over the river while they scrubbed the
elephants in the water.  

I have, somewhere, a photo of a large female
lying on her side in the water, one side of her head and half a flank
the only things you can see... except for the end of her trunk,
snorkelling independently about 4 feet away from her.  The park had
bananas and sugar cane on sale to feed them, and a lot of the
tourists bought those.  

One German guy was teasing a baby elephant
with a banana when two others decided they were hungry too, and they
all ran at him at once.  This young, strong, fit guy backpedalling
downhill furiously as 3 waist-high elephants charge him... and then
tripping and shouting in panic as they all mobbed him for the
bananas.  The mahouts were in tears from laughing, but a few of them
swatted the babies away and rescued him.  He was covered in mud and
elephant spit, but otherwise OK.

The elephant show almost fits the same category as the monkey show,
except that there seems to be less gratuitous cruelty involved.  One
male was chained quite snugly to a tree trunk near the river and
doing that dance that circus elephants do, when they've been tied up
too long and they're bored - I asked our guide, and I THINK (Mr
Tira's English not being what it could and my Thai being non-
existent) that he was in must.  It's the male elephants' rutting
period, and they are extremely aggressive during this time - Mr Tira
was emphasising that the chaining was both temporary and for safety
reasons.  OK, so much lifting and dragging of logs, standing on one
leg, playing soccer, etc etc.  After the show, they brought them over
to the barrier to beg for bananas, and people were scrambling
backwards to get away from the trunks.  Much the same as horses,
letting them sniff you convinces them you have no food and then they
move on.  The surface of the trunk is extremely rough, with short
bristly hairs like a pig.

Now comes the elephant riding.  I was very dubious about this part,
but the lady kept saying, "is OK, they can carry you", and I figured,
why not.  The mahout riding my elephant just LOOKED at me and shouted
something at the guy loading people onto beasts - general laughter
followed.  This particular version of riding has a seat, mounted mid-
back, for the tourist and the mahout sits just behind the ears.  On I
get, stepping off the platform straight onto the thing's back, trying
not to fall off the other side, and we set off.  Some guy with a
camera takes a snap as we leave the compound, then we're away!  The
last tour was on its way back, and every mahout we passed made some
comment... and everybody laughs.  Yay.  I'm just thinking, I refuse
to get upset at this, I'm going to enjoy this and then go away and
they'll forget I ever existed.  Turned onto the main road, heading
across the bridge - there's an old man standing by the side of the
road with a head-height walking stick.  He points and laughs, my
mahout laughs, 4 other mahouts laugh... getting annoyed.  After the
bridge, we turn left and go down a nearly-vertical bank.  Now, I
should point out that I'm sitting on a very wide flat seat with metal
sides, with nowhere but the elephant's back to put my feet, and the
mahout is approximately 2 feet in front of me.  Well, now directly
below me.  I'm holding on to the sides of the seat and pushing
backwards with my feet, but I can feel myself sliding forward off the
seat.  And the mahout is looking back at me with this expression of
sheer panic on his face, shouting and slapping my feet into a better
position - I do believe the poor man thought I was going to fall on
him.  Truth be told, if he hadn't shown me where to put my feet, I
may well have done!  So I'm now sitting with my feet together, about
3 inches below the seat, swaying back and forth, thinking, "I can see
why this never took off as a leisure activity".  They might be good
as pack animals, but certainly not the fastest or most comfortable
method of transport.  Off the main road, schlepping through the
forest and the mud, still the source of amusement for every other
Thai in a 50-km radius but enjoying the quiet and watching the baby
elephants that came with us.  Back to the main road, turned up the
mountain.  The old man was still there, still pointing and laughing -
and then he came with us.  We're trundling up the mountain single
file, the mahout ahead of us occasionally leaning over to whack his
elephant's infant in the head with his pointy mallet to make it stop
feeding so we could move again, and the old man is keeping pace with
my elephant.  He's chattering away and indicating in sign language to
me, my mahout and every other human in our vicinity how amazed he is
at my size, blowing up his cheeks and waddling before collapsing in
laughter yet again, slapping his thighs and wheezing to himself.  
Oh... aHAhahaha.  Go away.

Down the mountain, few more slightly scary steep downhills - oh, and
then a LONG steep hill.  My guy's giving me the eye to make sure I'm
staying put this time, and I had this flashback to the panicky
shouting of the first hill, started laughing and couldn't stop.  It
was so steep that the mahouts turned and sat sideways on the top of
the elephants' heads and held onto the seats for purchase - a good
workout for the arms, trying to hold yourself up on that sort of
slope.  Flat again, then through some banana plantation and up to the
unloading platform.

There was a little village there, full of women in VERY
BRIGHT "traditional dress" selling hand-made and tourist-trap bulk
souvenir things.  I got ripped off (doing a lot of that here, I'm no
good at the cut and thrust of bargaining) buying a few things, then
ran away before I got talked into buying anything else.  Back to the
unloading platform - next to that is the loading platform for the ox-
carts, our mode of transport from there back to the main camp place.  
Ah.  5 people left, one ox cart... which takes 4 people.  The other 4
all knew each other.  I just looked at the guy and he said, 10
minutes until one comes back.  OK, so I'll wait.  So I'm sitting
having a cigarette and chatting to this guy, and he says, wait - I
have an idea.  I take you on the bike.  <pause for laughter>  
Hmmm.... no?  Yes, yes, it's OK, he says, and off he runs.  He comes
back with a Zuma, which is a 50cc scooter.  Now, it's quite common
here to see a man riding a scooter with his wife perched sidesaddle
behind him and his child sitting in front of him, not infrequently
riding the wrong way down a 3-lane freeway and/or holding an umbrella
to keep the rain off.  But I'm still dubious.  He talks me into it,
and I give him my bag, still shaking my head at myself.  Just about
to get on, I hear a sound and turn my head - the entire brightly clad
population of the village is standing 80m away, pointing and
laughing.  I drop my head into my hands, shake my head, then bow and
wave before getting onto the bike.  They're all clapping and laughing
as we totter off down the mud track to the road.

It was actually quite fun, for the most part.  Got back to the main
enclosure, and were presented with the developed copy of the photo
the little man snapped as we departed - I bought mine, more because
it included the negative and that was the only way to definitely
destroy all the copies.  There are valid reasons why fat people
shouldn't ride elephants, and that photo proved it!  We were supposed
to go river-rafting afterwards, but the previous night's rain meant
that the water was moving far too quickly and had too much debris.

Just hung out the rest of the week, then headed down to Bangkok on
Monday night.  It's now Friday, and I'm supposed to be going to
Pattaya on Sunday to meet up with Colin.  A slight problem - I
haven't been able to contact Colin for over a week, and have no idea
where he is.  Or the location of my other suitcase, which he was
keeping for me while I was in Chiang Mai.  I'm not sure if the people
I'm staying with - Mod, 28, and her mother, both single women, living
in a house that's floor-to-ceiling papers and books, both working on
their 2nd Master's Degrees - can cope much longer with the
distraction to their schedule that I represent.  They've started
subtly suggesting weekly-rent apartments down the road as an

SO - I don't know what the plan is now.  I can't contact Colin, so
don't know when or if I'm going to Pattaya.  I don't want to move my
flights up in case he contacts me later next week, but have no
interest in staying in a hotel in Bangkok for that entire week.  At
this point, I'm still flying out 1st October for Singapore - that's
the only definite thing at the moment.

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