After a disastrous 18 hours in Phuket, we arrived in Chiang Mai on Tuesday morning (May 1st). OUr cab driver dropped us off at the wrong hotel, so we had to take a songthon (sp?) which is basically a truck version of a tuk tuk that costs 20 baht and acts as a shared taxi. We finally found our hotel (in 90 degree heat) and went out to grab lunch. We were starving and it began to rain, so we stopped in a falafel place recommended by Lonely Planet called Jerusalem falafel. Original.
My first impression of Chiang Mai was extremely underwhelming. After all of the rave reviews I have heard from so many different people about what a cool city it is, it just seemed…ordinary. This was only day one though. On day two we went to Tiger Kingdom, which was such an incredible experience. We each paid about a thousand baht to play with tigers!!! We picked the baby tigers and the big cats, both of which were cool in different ways. The babies were so great because you can really play with them, while the big cats weigh abut 230 pounds and are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. The tiger trainers were great too, they were constantly cracking jokes and giving us lots of photo ideas, and even ended up taking a bunch of the pictures for us. There were tons of articles posted around the place discussing how and why the the tigers were so subdued without being drugged, and a part of it is the fabulous care they’re in. Its also 90 degrees there right now, and their fur is so insanely heavy that I would probably just lay around in the heat all day as well. They were so docile and so adorable, it was such a happy and wonderful for us. It made me remember that I do like animals, something that is hard to forget when monkeys slap your foot and random street cats hiss at you.
The next day was just as fun. Our hotel concierge arranged for us to do a one day elephant trek in the mountains, about an hour outside the city. When we arrived, we got to ride an elephant. Ours was obviously the largest, oldest and most stubborn creature in the mix, and it was slow going for a while. I felt that the tiger zoo actually took better care of their animals than this elephant camp, and I felt sad every time the guy riding him would stick him in the side. Afterward we took pictures with the other smaller elephants while feeding them bananas. All of a sudden the Thai guys were all repeating the same word over and over (the elephants are super smart) and one of the elephant’s trunks kissed Katie’s cheek!!! Being the scaredy cat that I am I immediately backed away, only to have our tour guide Jacky grab me and hold me while the elephant kissed me too. Best kiss ever.
Next we hiked though the crazy mountain trails to a waterfall carved into the side of the mountain. I climbed over a bunch of rocks and eventually jumped in the water, which was ice cold and sweet relief from the blazing afternoon sun. The next stop was to visit one of the hill tribes, which are groups of people from both Northern Thailand, Burma, and China who have settled in the hills above Chiang Mai. Most of these peoples are not friendly, so we had to be very specific about which group we visited. It was around this time that I started to get crazy stomach pains, which I attributed to my normal acid reflux/excess sun/not enough food. In reality, it was the beginning of a horrific stomach virus. We stopped for lunch after the hill tribes, which was provided for us and included in our package, and continued on to the final portion of the day, BAMBOO RAFTING. Some of you may be wondering what on earth could this be. Don’t be fooled by the tricky Thai terminology, this was actually just a raft made out of bamboo. We sat on the raft (that was partially submerged in water) and were rowed down a very shallow river by an eight year old boy, which made me feel extremely safe. Okay, so maybe he was ten, and had probably been rowing rafts since the womb, but still not something I was super comfortable with.
It took me a few days, but it finally dawned on me why people were obsessed with Chiang Mai. It certainly was not the city’s gorgeous buildings, nor its pristine infrastructure, though it does boast crazy broken down castle walls that surrounds the city center, complete with a moat. It is hailed as Thailand’s cultural epicenter, but the real cultural gem there is its people. Every where we went, from our hotel to restaurants to the tiger zoo, people were warm, friendly, and genuinely welcoming without being too over the top. I never once felt like I had to guard my wallet. The pace is slower, people enjoy life more, and seem pretty happy despite the thousand degree heat and long work days. Even after five weeks of travel, I was surprised at how refreshing this was.
Our day was exhausting, but not even close to being over. Once we got home, we showered and packed, inhaled some ramen from 7-11, and boarded a 10 hour bus to Bangkok, where my stomach pains got reeeeal serious. By the time we got off the bus at 5 am and sat down at a cafe on Khao San Road, I was in some serious pain. It wasn’t constant, but when it happened it was 10x worse than my normal acid reflux pain, which is saying a lot. Our flight to VIetnam wasn’t until 4 p.m., so we had some serious time to kill, most of which we did in an Israeli guesthouse lobby where I intermittenly napped and used the bathroom. At some point, Katie found a place to both print our visa information and get passport photos taken for our flight to Vietnam. While I was in the chair waiting for my photo, I doubled over in pain, alarming the sweet Thai lady with the camera who kept pointing to the street and saying, “You go doctor! Doctor there! You go!”. On the walk back to the hostel where Katie was, I saw a different Thai lady shitting in the street. Given my current condition, I couldn’t really blame her.
At around 11 we decided we needed a change of scenery, so we walked two blocks down to have lunch at a cafe Josh and I had been to when we were in Bangkok last. I was able to keep down some white rice, and Katie had a non-sick person meal when we met Delise (sp?) a sweet 30-something woman from San Francisco who who was traveling alone for the first time and apparently loving it. She was going to spend a month traveling slowly up to the north, stopping in this town and that, until making her way to Chiang Mai where she was going to help build a school for a month. She was going to spend her last month lounging in the islands. She was hysterical, and very nice, and it was such a nice surprise to meet another American out here. I guess not many Americans dream of the orient. What can you do.
We finally go to the airport, where I was feeling much better, so we shared a pizza that was the same price as our hotel room in Chiang Mai. I instantly felt sick again. When we got to Saigon we rushed to immigration, where we had to wait about 20 minutes for our visas to be processed, after which I realized I had lost one of my sneakers and proceeded to have a legitimate melt down in the customs line. This was most likely due to my still cramping stomach, but it was frustrating all the same. I was exhausted, I was sick, and for the first time all trip i desperately wanted to go home.
An hour later we arrived at the hotel. My stomach pain was at an all time high, and in addition I was shivering with a fever! Fantastic. Thanks Asia. 24 hours of travel and the sickest I have been in months. Amazing. Katie was so wonderful though, she ordered me to take a hot shower and ran out to buy me ramen and 7-up. We watched some TV and I fell asleep almost instantly.