Chiang Mai; starting to train for Kilimanjaro
My first flight was delayed and so instead of having nearly 2 hours at Bangkok to connect my flight to Chiang Mai; I had 30 minutes. The airplane crew had done their job well and informed the airport staff about the delay and a man was waiting with a sign to show us where to go. I made it with good time, and got some exercise running through the airport so win win! I met Skye who was also getting the same connecting flight, he was travelling back to Chiang Mai to stay for a while and said he would introduce me to some friends there. He was travelling with a Thai girl who he was seeing and who was returning home after a short holiday to the islands with him.
Arriving in Chiang Mai the first thing I had to do was change my money from Indonesian Rupiah to Thai Baht. The exchange rate I got as awful, it was supposed to be 1 IDR: 0.0024 Baht but they were offering 0.0017 which meant quite a difference when converting a lot of money. I later got a better exchange rate in Chiang Mai at one of their ‘Super Rich’ money exchangers. I then waited in the queue for a taxi, an older man said he was going a similar way to me so we said we should share the taxi, the lady organizing the queue said there was no sharing and if we did it would still be double cost LOL. This made me laugh, that’s not very environmentally friendly, or friendly at all in fact! I arrived at the hotel I had booked online through Agoda app (a brilliant alternative to Booking.com and they seem to have different hotels on sometimes). It was called C.M. Apartment and was clean and the room had space for yoga; all the essentials! It was cold, that’s what struck me, I had come from 33 degree humidity, it was 13 degrees this evening and I was not equipped for this. I put most of my clothes on as layers and walked to the corner of the road for some dinner. The first stall I came to seemed popular with the locals, which is always a good sign unless they’re eating something weird. It was plastic garden furniture around a wheeled cart where a lady was cooking with her daughter serving. I asked if they did tofu and she said yes so I ordered a Pad Thai with no egg, and what I was served was the best Pad Thai I have ever had! It was served with peanuts and some chilli flakes, totally delicious. This was used as the marker stick for everywhere I went after. They always offered condiments pots as well, I later discovered that the clear liquid with chillis floating in it was spicy vinegar, the other was chilli sauce and then sugar..yep, sugar. As if there wasn’t already enough sugar in everything, you can also put it on your dinner. I opted out of all but the spicy vinegar, which really had a kick to it. She then told me it was 50 Baht, that’s £1! I could see I was going to like it here if the food was this good and this cheap.
The next day I headed down for my included breakfast; this was new to me, you never got breakfast with your room in Bali, or at least I hadn’t. They had a card with the options on that you had to choose, none of which were vegan. I asked if I could have the fruit bowl with no yoghurt, and toast. The fruit bowl was a huge bowl full of tropical fruits, really nice.
I met David whilst I was tucking in, a guy recently divorced, with kids older than me he told me. He was interested to know what I was doing in Chiang Mai, and alone. I was also interested in his journey. We swapped stories and he offered to buy me a juice at the smoothie place down the road and show me some of the temples. I ended up dragging him around the whole day! The first temple I glimpsed was at the bottom of the road that the hotel was on, it was understated but beautiful, with a gold lacquered elephant outside.
We headed to the 2 big temples, on the way seeing some of the unfamiliar sights for me; tuk tuks, monks, street carts selling pancakes and rotees. When we got to the 2 big temples next to each other, I was told that I had to borrow a sarong to cover my knees to enter. I covered up and the sight of all the gold and splendor took my breath away as we entered. EVERYTHING was gold, and at the end of the long hall was a large gold Buddha surrounded by others – wow!
The larger and main city temple was just as amazing, and it had some pretty impressive grounds also. We came across what they called the ‘city’s staff’ and it forbid women from entering; not impressed (see below for the reason)!
We got some food and then David headed back to the hotel, and I continued walking, as it was Day 1 of Kilimanjaro training and I needed to get my legs going. I enjoyed walking round the streets, guided by my colourful tourist map. I then met Skye for some food and we walked to the night market. He told me it was possible to walk to Doi Suthep (one of the peaks surrounding Chiang Mai) from the old city where I was staying, so I decided to do that the next day.
I started off at 10.30am, (still with my colourful map in hand) and headed towards Doi Suthep. At this stage I couldn’t even see it, but the walk through the rest of Chiang Mai was pleasant and nice to see more than the Old City. The city expanded out into computer shops, a couple of malls and long large roads. If it wasn’t for the food carts dotted here and there and the unfinished look to a lot of the buildings between the commercial areas, I could have mistaken this part for America. I finally passed the zoo and knew I was nearing the base of the peak as the red mini-firetruck-looking vans were parked waiting to take people up the road to the peak and the temple at the top. They hounded me as I walked past and didn’t seem to understand that I would walk. I pointed to my feet and did the universal walking mime but as walking isn’t a common pastime here I guess they didn’t get it. I go the same response at the bottom of the mountain where there was another temple and more red trucks waiting. I asked how far it was to the peak, expecting him to say 4-5km and he said 12! I had already walked about 7 so this was going to be a long day for my recently lazy legs. I got to it and soon discovered that as I had suspected, there was no trail up the mountain, just a walk on the tarmac windy road. Not so picturesque but needs must. As I ascended I did get some beautiful views and aside from a few cars and trucks going up, it was relatively peaceful. Kindly, several cars and motorbikes stopped to offer me a ride; the beautiful nature of Thai people and fellow travellers. I declined but was touched that people did care and did look out for each other sometimes.
About two-thirds of the way up I reached a small clearing at the side of the road. There were 2 small buildings, one was a temple. I put on my sarong and entered the temple. It was a simply decorated building, not so elaborate as most I had seen, but had a real impression about it. It had a huge white Buddha seated in meditation pose, and it was just him and I. I seated on the mat and had a peaceful meditation – heaven!
As I was leaving a woman and her toddler were approaching the temple. The little girl ran over to me excitedly as I was sat putting on my shoes and started stroking my hair; it was a very cute moment.
I continued on my jaunt, stopping at two view points, one where I met a couple who were going up on a scooter, we hit it off and agreed to meet for dinner that evening. They offered me a lift but I explained about my training and left to try to get up there before the sunset.
The last part of the walk was steep, and filled with rubbish; this must be the part where everyone chucks their rubbish out of the coaches. I collected as much as I could, with funny looks from passers-by. Then I finally reached the top! It was not what I had expected; a busy tourist hub with stalls selling clothes and sarongs and all kinds of food. One lady ushered me over and I thought I would see what she was offering as I had not brought lunch and so had just snacked all day – she was selling locusts and other bugs in huge piles; I almost threw up, and dashed off. Upwards towards the temple and I came to the huge staircase with the Naga statues weaving up either side. The Thai version of the story of Naga goes that he was part serpent, part man and wanted to join in with meditation in the monastery with the the Buddha. He was refused as animals were forbidden in the temple, so he vowed to always protect over the Buddha as he meditated. The entrance stairs to temples often have Naga statues either side.
The steps went up as far as I could see; my legs were not so happy about this after my 20km walk but I made it quite quickly to the top. The temple was a culmination of several parts, unlike the other temples, which had been one main room, there didn’t seem to be that here. I wandered round the busy area, there were Buddhas everywhere; small ones, ones made of jade, huge gold ones. There were 2 temple rooms with monks sat in them. I sat down in one to meditate and the monk made conversation with me about where I was from etc. We sat together after in silence both, looking at the big gold statue in front of us. He then got back to his blessings; people would make an offering and receive a blessing from him, including being sprayed with water from what looked like the end of a witch’s broomstick as he flung it up and down chanting. There was a steady influx of people for blessing, so I moved on to see the other temple room. The monks here dress in orange, adding a brightness wherever they were sat.
I left the temple after not too long as it was very crowded; not really my scene. I got one of the truck taxis back into the Old City, had a shower and went out to find a Thai curry; I had been craving one and hadn’t had one yet!
I actually was enticed in by more Pad Thai instead of curry in a little casual restaurant not too far from my hotel. I then wandered around Chiang Mai, ending up walking quite a lot more, but the city was really at its most charming at night. I was craving chocolate so I headed to a little coffee shop on the way to the Chiang Mai gate. The gates are the old entrances to the wall that used to surround this part of the city, when it was the only part of the city. The walls no longer exist in full but parts remain and the gates allow traffic to enter into the old city. They create a charming mix between history and present. The coffee shop delivered what I was hoping for - dark chocolate cake and soya milk chai latte; a wintery touch of home because I was feeling a little homesick as Christmas approached.
Doi Inthanon and the mammoth scooter ride!
I decided to travel to Doi Inthanon on a scooter taxi as opposed to go on a tour. It was about 2 hours away and is Thailand’s highest peak, with 2 twin temples at the top looking out over the valleys; a must-see whilst in Chiang Mai! However, I did not prepare myself for the ass-numbingly boring ride there. The last hour was more bearable as there was views as we wound up the mountain, but the first half was all highway. So with helmets that looked like they came off a rock-climbing expedition, we made the 90km jaunt on a little blue scooter. To say I was glad when we got there is an understatement, I had lost all feeling from my hips down and so enjoyed the walk up the steps to the first of the two temples. They were majestic from the outside, but rather simple on the inside; both hosting a Buddha in a hexagonal shaped room that had stone carved sutras (stories about the Buddha’s time) on the wall. The floor was marble and cold so with the no-shoe rule it was a feat to stand and read the stories before your feet got numb, but the stories they had chosen were captivating and worth the chilly feet. The view was what made this place though, you could see for miles and miles across a hazy mountain range covered in forests. The small gardens were not quite fitting with the dramatic spires of the temples, but somehow worked. I sat and gazed out wondering how far I could see and how lucky I was to be able to come and witness places like this. The beauty of the view took me inward; meditating here was easy and I felt instantly connected with everything and everyone, forgetting about my sore backside, forgetting everything made of thoughts and just being. Magical.
The next day was Christmas Eve and I moved hotels to stay somewhere a little nicer as a treat over Christmas from my Mum. I wandered around the walking night market that was on every Friday, it was bustling; stalls filled with gifts, crafts and food. I also found a little bit of Christmas!
I decided to embrace the fact that Christmas would be different this year and go to an elephant sanctuary to volunteer for the day. I had wanted to do this anyway at some point; a lifelong dream of mine to meet elephants, who have long been one of my favourite animals, and ones that I have campaigned for their protection, yet I have never met. See my next blog post!