Back in Thailand and after a mad dash to get our clothes washed and packed for the next leg of our journey, we got on a sleeper train bound for the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Travelling by sleeper is so much more civilised than by bus! The bunks are cosy and just about long enough to be completely comfortable to sleep in. Leaving in the evening and arriving in Chiang Mai the next morning we were rested and ready to tackle a new city! Compare this to sitting on a bus for 12 hours (or more) and arriving in the dead of night, and I know which method of transport I prefer.
After checking into our guesthouse, chosen on advice by a very nice American lady in an adjacent bunk, and having lunch, we rented a motorbike to explore the town with.
Chiang Mai is supposedly well known for its hundreds of temples and its walled and moated central area. Oh, and its Night Bazaar. After getting lost for quite a bit in the predominantly one-way traffic system, we made it to one of the alleged highlights of the Chiang Mai province: Wat U Mong. I'm afraid it really wasn't worth the drive out there. We then went to a temple where Melissa wanted to follow a meditation class, only to be disappointed by the fact that the next class wasn't for another week. After this we visited the alleged-most-visited wat in town. Again, it was disappointing!
After all this our spirits were a bit low, and we decided we would leave for somewhere else the next day, and in the evening we engaged in some therapeutic shopping at the famed Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. It's a large collection of shops and stalls selling mostly the same stuff (silk cloth, touristy clothing, various contraband) but with some really nice stuff mixed in if you look carefully. And all at "special prices".
So, the next day we got on a bus to Pai. Pai is a sleepy town in the north, not far from the Burma/Myanmar border. Accommodation there is much more basic (and cheap!) and the tourism industry is much less in your face. We stayed in a nice wooden bungalow, where we finally got to use our mosquito-net! After an unusually cold night (Pai is up in the mountains and gets cold at night!), we went on a two day trek. We drove for a couple hours up a mostly dirt track, bouncing and wobbling all over the place, after which we were to walk the rest of the way. The walk started up-hill in the blistering sun and wasn't the easiest walk I've been on! We stopped for lunch at the Pai river and swam in it's refreshingly cool waters, ignoring the fact a colourful snake had just swum past. We ate fried rice in bowls made on the spot from banana tree leaves (Melissa made one too!).
The rainforest in Thailand is actually very very dry at this time of year. Most of the ground is sandy or covered in dry foliage, and the plant life is not very dense or green at all. Also, the rivers and waterfall we passed were at very low levels. Anyway, at the end of day 1 we traipsed into a Lahu hilltribe village. We were welcomed by curious children and barking dogs. The Lahu grow their own rice (each family providing for themselves) and other vegetables and they sell oxen to raise money for other purchases. They also still do a lot of foraging and hunting. We stayed in a house on stilts and slept on the floor on mats. We were served with some excellent food, and while we were eating, several dead squirrels were brought in and were plucked in front of our eyes! Supposedly dusk is a good time to go squirrel hunting. At this time the attention of the kids had turned away from the white foreigners to the solar powered satellite TV in the adjacent hut. It was quite strange to see satellite dishes in a village where they grow and hunt their own food and don't have telephone lines!
I got up early in the morning (I was too cold to stay lying down any longer!) to sit by the fire and to go for a wander. I watched the Lahu grinding their home-grown rice in a man-powered mechanical pounder that works like a see-saw. They pound the rice to get rid of its shell and then dry it on large shelves above their fires. I went back to wake Melissa and after a breakfast of jam and toast we got to try some curried squirrel, and I thought it smelled like leftover Christmas turkey broth. One thing I will note is that they don't remove the bones, they just kind of mash up the whole thing, so that you are continually picking out bits of ribs from your teeth.
Back on the jungle trail we started the day hunting for food. Our guides were looking for the nests of a certain type of beetle. It digs holes and hibernates in them with its larvae. The larvae are the ones we wanted, as I hear they are good roasted. After a couple nests that had already been ransacked by snakes we found a good one! We were quite surprised by the number of hockeyball sized earth balls that came out of the hole, each with a quite large white larva inside. After this we passed another water-fall and some forest-fires! We walked particularly fast near the latter, while languishing in the cool mist generated by the former. We passed through another village at lunchtime and we all had a well-deserved snooze. We finally made it to our destination and were driven back to Pai.
The next day we ticked off the our final to-do-in-Thailand: the elephant ride. We got to ride an elephant for an hour and a half and half-way through we waded into the river, where the elephant bucked us like a bucking bronco (but on command) and we went flying into the water. We then spent another half our climbing back on and being thrown off. This aquatic fun was slightly offset by the fact that the elephants would do their business in the water right next to us. I would also say that an hour and a half is long enough on an elephant's back! It's quite uncomfortable and it really is high up. While going down a particularly steep hill, our elephant decided to stop every few metres and swing from left-to-right picking out the more juicy greens, with Meli and I hanging on for dear life!
That afternoon we got the bus back to Chiang Mai. In the evening we finished off some of our souvenir shopping at the Night Bazaar and found a really nice jewellery/crafts shop. The next day we mainly updated our blog, did some more shopping at the jewellery shop and walked around town. In the evening we got the sleeper back to Bangkok. A short, but fun time in the north! We would like to go back to Chiang Mai with more time and perhaps more money, because the thing about Chiang Mai is really that there is a lot to do, like cooking courses, meditation classes, massage schools, mountainbiking and other adventure sports. One thing that Melissa really wanted to do was a silver jewellery workshop. Maybe one day!