Friday, January 15, 2010

Chapter 5: Thai Tiger and the Prue Special

I woke up feeling seedy after my conversation with the toilet before bed, I couldn’t remember any of the swear words I was taught during my conversation with the locals at the bar, the bar that caused my seediness. A knock on the door told us that the departure of 9am had been moved forward to 8am. It was 8:05am so we told them to give us a few minutes and started running around packing and cursing, while wishing I could remember how to do it in Laotian. The old lady at the front of the Guesthouse waived our pickup back, told us to slow down, and took our breakfast orders. Eventually we had shoved our sandwiches into our packs and followed the guy picking us up to the border.

By sheer luck our guesthouse was just around the corner from the Laos Immigration, which was no more than a small window on the way to the boat ramp. We piled into a long tail boat and were across the river entering Thailand, where we checked in at the mirror image Thai Immigration window, then piled into a stinky Sawng Thaew (Ute with bench seats in the tray) and were taken to the pickup point for the minibus to Chiang Mai. We were dropped off at a guesthouse and after a bit of embarrassing confusion we stopped arguing with the driver who we thought was trying to get commission for dropping us at a guesthouse.

We waited at the guesthouse with a lady from Ukraine and a older couple from Netherlands who had all been on our slow boat trip from Luang Prabang. The Netherlands couple had taken the 8am pickup and had been waiting an extra hour, we were glad we took our time as we still had nearly an hour to wait till the bus left. We were ushered to a luxury 16 seater minivan where we were treated to the added luxury of being the only people on the bus. So with multiple doses of comfort the five of us spread out across the minivan and enjoyed the five hour trip to Chiang Mai.

We arrived in Chiang Mai and were dropped at the guesthouse from the same chain as the one we departed. Unable to negotiate a fair rate with a Tuk-Tuk we decided to walk and were able to navigate our way to the guesthouse we had picked, both from the lonely planet book and from being recommended to us multiple times on our travels. We arrived at “Julie’s Guesthouse” and after meeting people along the way who told us they were full, we were relieved to find they had a private double room for Prue and I, only for one night, but we might be able to change the next day to another room. Julie’s is a very chilled out hostel style place with a large outdoor communal area with couches, tables, cushions and a pool table.

The other benefit of Julie’s is the massive range of tours available to be booked from the desk, with heaps of folders and pamphlets to scan through. So great was the number of tours it actually took us more than an hour just to decide on a shortlist. We only had two nights in Chiang Mai, which meant only one full day to do a tour as our last day would be cut short to catch the overnight train back to Bangkok. Our options involved an Off-Road motorbike adventure with Elephants, rafting, a waterfall and a local village. There was a tour with Elephants, white water rafting, a waterfall and a trip to the “Long neck village“. The last option on our shortlist was the “Flight of the Gibbons” which is a series of zip lines spread out across the canopy of the jungle.

All of them sounded awesome, but eventually we ruled out the one with the “Long neck people” as we found out the people who lived there didn’t actually really live there, they were forced to live there by the Thai Government who wanted to keep them as a tourist dollar maker. They actually lived further north near Chiang Rai and had even applied and been granted refugee status to New Zealand but the government of Thailand wouldn’t grant them an exit visa. We decided it best to boycott the “Long neck village” which left us two choices, we left the decision until after dinner and headed out for a feed of Italian food which we figured would be ok because of the Italian guy sitting in the restaurant. But in SE Asia everything is “same same but different“.

After spinning bottles and flipping coins we finally decided that we wanted to do the off road motorbike tour so we booked it for the next day, even though we were going to be the only people on the tour. After the two long days sitting on the slow boat and another five hours of bus that day we were well overdue for a massage and headed around the corner to find a traditional Thai massage place. Making the most of the very few chances we had left for $5.00 hour long full body massages.

It was strange to find that massage in northern Thailand was more similar to Laos massage than the massages we had in Bangkok. In fact there are vast changes in massage styles across all of the regions of SE Asia, some subtle changes between areas and some changes are completely different styles from one town to the next. Sometimes it may also depend on who gives the massage as Prue and I have compared notes later to find we had different massages, sometimes amusingly different. Either way the massage in Chiang Mai was very good and we promised to return the following evening. After a few drinks back at Julie’s we retired for the night well relaxed.

We awoke recharged and rearing to go, Julie’s served us a cheap but mediocre breakfast and eventually we were collected by a Thai-Canadian guy in a white shit-box car. We arrived at the tour place to find it was no more than a house with a carport and a desk under the carport. There were a few scooters scattered around with fat knobby tires giving them a slight sense of the hardcore. Our guides for the day were “Bet” and “Debt” two very alternative looking locals who were great fun and they showed us to our bikes. On a side note it wasn’t until I started typing this blog that I realised the irony of the two names “Debt” and “Bet”.

My bike was a Thai made “Tiger” model scooter with a slightly larger frame and engine than Prue’s scooter which was a regular Honda “Wave” type model. But with chunky tires, of course. We took them for a quick test ride around the block and Prue found her scooter was a little too high to feel comfortable. Bet and Debt pulled a small tool kit off the front of my bike, hoisted up Prue’s bike, removed the wheel and a miscellaneous piece of the back suspension . Within 15 minutes Prue’s bike was back on the road, but now it was about 3 inches shorter, tailored to her height.

Shortly after that we were all on the road, Prue riding the Honda Prue Special, me riding the Thai-Tiger and Bet and Debt two up on their own bike, with Debt steering and Bet hanging of the back taking action photos of us. Not far out on the highway I realised why not many Thai made scooters are around in a country with more scooters than dogs and cats combined. Hitting top speed my bike vibrated like it was receiving a phone call, which sent numbing waves through my body from the foot pegs all the way to my fingertips. Holding the handlebars was made even more challenging by the fact that the front tire and the handle bars weren’t at right angles, making my left hand closer to my body.

Thai Technology aside, the fact that we were doing top speed on our way out of the city was a good sign that Bet and Debt liked to go fast and have a lot of fun. How they managed to go faster than us while carrying a pillion speaks volumes for their confidence because soon we were off the highway and winding through country back roads, small villages and sweeping mountain curves. After an hour or so of fun on the Thai roads we arrived at a little roadside collection of bamboo shacks alongside a river in the village of Mae Wang. We changed into our bathers, played with some kittens that belonged to the place and were picked up by a Ute shortly after, with Prue riding shotgun and me standing in the tray, surfing to our destination.

We arrived upstream from our bamboo shacks and climbed onto a bamboo raft. This bamboo raft was much different to the one we had on the River Kwai, which was huge and had a seat with a roof on it. This bamboo raft was no more than about eight long pieces of bamboo tied together with what looked like a rope made of shredded tire. We drifted down the river peacefully as our local ferry-man steered us with a bamboo stick like a Venice Gondola. The river had a few little rapids which were fun as we’d duck and weave through them as nasty rocks glided by inches away. Then the river would turn peaceful again and we’d glide along between the overhanging jungle, passing small bamboo villages and a bamboo bar reminiscent of Vang Vieng.

Towards the end of the river our Gondola man turned toward us with a wicked grin, pointed down the river and said “waterfall!”. About 30 metres downstream the river dropped out of sight slightly. As we approached slowly gaining speed he turned again and said “hold on”, an obsolete command as we were already gripping as tightly as possible to the nonexistent handholds. The river dropped us about a metre and a half and we managed to stay on the raft, trumped by our Gondola man who rode the waterfall standing up and still steering.

Back at the bamboo shacks at Mae Wang we changed back into dry clothes and sat for a local serving of lunch. Then we jumped back on the ‘Thai-Tiger’ and ‘Prue Special’ and headed off up the road to the Elephant camp passing many Elephants just standing around on the side of the road, and even saw a few baby Elephants being mobbed by cameras on the road side. I stopped to add another camera, then sped off to catch up with Prue, Debt and Bet.

The Elephant ride was pretty dodgy, instead of the Mahout riding on the Elephant he dragged it with a rope tied to its ear, all the time smoking a banana leaf cigarette. Our Elephant didn’t seem to want to go for a walk that day as it stopped every time the Mahout slackened the rope and would make a noise that could only be interpreted as “growling”, sometimes it made noises out the other end too. The Mahout would grunt back at the Elephant and tug on the rope until it moved off again. We paid 20 Baht to buy a bunch of bananas for the Elephant as we felt it wasn’t the happiest Elephant and could probably use some comfort food.

The hills are impassable, absolutely impossible to pass, they’re impassable. That memorable line from the early 90’s PC game “Return to Zork” flooded my thoughts as we switched our scooters from bitumen mode into off road and rode gangbusters up the first hill. Our directions were simple, “first and second up the steep bits, and don’t fall off”. Easy enough to say as we navigated steep and narrow mountain trails trying to follow the tyre line with massive erosion cracks up to one metre deep in some places worn from the years of seasonal rain. Don’t step in those cracks or you really will break your back, dropping a scooter in one would be just as disastrous.

The perilous cracks in the road were laughable compared to the steep cliffs and hill drops that flanked either side of the slippery dirt track, making crashing into a tree a preferential option. Thankfully we didn’t come asunder at any point, and fuelled by a injection of raw adrenaline we found ourselves navigating our off-road beasts up and down the twisty tracks at steady pace, grinning and “whooping” each time the back wheel tried to get in front of the front wheel. While posing for Bet and Debt who would stop 100 metres in front of us to get a photo as we skidded past them.

On the other side of the first mountain we found our self cruising into a tiny village called Ban Sam Lang inhabited by a family of twelve people from the “Karen” minority group. They spoke their own dialect, never travelled into town, occasionally traded with nearby villages as they were entirely self sufficient on the mountain. Bet spoke enough of their language mixed with a bit of Thai to have a conversation with them and we learnt a little about their way of life. I smoked a bamboo cigarette with the grandmother who at 84 years old was still going strong, and watched the daughter hand sewing beautiful scarves, who was married and nursing her new baby at the age of 14.

After saying “goodbye” and “thankyou” in their local dialect (which I now forget) we climbed back on the Thai-Tiger and the Prue Special and charged back over another mountain following Debt and Bet as best as we could. The landscape changed into tall woodland trees, the path narrowed to no more than two tyre widths and our confidence was tested as we reached the first obstacle, a river crossing. The crossing was just a tree trunk lined with bamboo slats stretching for about 15 metres across the river. We both made it across with ease, albeit quite nervously.

Shortly down the track we arrived at a much smaller river, this one had just a few tree branches stretching across it with gaps between each branch. Prue’s tire got stuck in one of the gaps and she tipped over sideways but was caught by Bet just in time to save her (and the bike) from falling in the river. On the other side they were satisfied there had been no damage so I lined up the thickest branch and cranked the throttle and used the sheer momentum to plough across the makeshift bridge.

A little while later Prue started struggling on the hills, and couldn’t change down gears. Scooters have cyclic gear boxes so every time she wanted to go back to first gear she had to go up to fourth to click over to first gear. Eventually sick of it, she pulled over and Bet and Debt used their best “bush-mechanic” skills to fix the problem. Prue’s foot peg had bent upward when the bike got caught in the bridge, stopping the gear pedal from going down far enough to change down. Debt and Bet grabbed a tree branch and bashed on the foot peg until they were satisfied.

Eventually the track turned into a dirt road which rose to the top of a hill and became bitumen road. As we turned onto the road the pace got faster again and we wished we had real motorbikes as we cruised around twisty mountain roads, stopping at a hill top temple with a panoramic view, a gigantic golden Buddha, carved rocks dating back hundred and hundreds of years and the longest name I’ve ever heard “Wat Pra Tat See Sam Debt Pra Budda Chin Na Wong“. At the top of the lookout we could hear chanting coming via speaker from a village in the town far below. We asked Bet what the chanting was, to which he replied, “Oh, that is the local news, tomorrow there is a meeting in town and a special event at the local temple, etc”.

We headed back down the 300 steps from the temple to where Debt was waiting with the bikes and headed off towards Mae Sa Park Waterfall, a picturesque waterfall hidden behind a valley of farmland. We stopped for a photo opportunity then jumped back on the bikes for the long trip home. On the way home we were treated to yet another beautiful sunset, and stopped on the roadside next to a group of Eucalyptus trees for another photo and a breather. Arriving back in the traffic chaos of Chiang Mai just as darkness set in and we played the Thai version of Vietnamese slalom as we kept up with Bet and Debt in crazy traffic all the way back to their home base.

Bet promised to drop off a CD with photos to our hostel the next morning and after dropping us back in the white shit-box car we said our goodbyes. We had such a fun day, but one thing was a certainty as we were walking like cowboys, it was obvious we needed another massage. After picking up our new room keys from Julie’s we had a shower and changed, then headed back to the massage place from the night before. We walked in and asked politely, with an air of embarrassment, for massages with a…err…umm… “special focus on our bottoms“.

Intermission: The Epic Bloggers

G’day Everyone,

At the beginning it was relatively easy to keep our blog up to date, with long bus rides, train rides and evenings by the pool bar providing the hours required to write everything down. Eventually we started to lag behind like a online multiplayer on a slow internet connection. Meanwhile the events of each day seemed to become more grand and adventurous making each post longer. The blog’s intention was to keep our friends and family (Hello!) up to date with our adventures, but most importantly for us it was a medium for us to keep a travel journal so that we can remember, and even revisit through storytelling, the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the things that happened.

Looking back through the blog from time to time it already feels like the events of the first few posts happened in another lifetime. A short while into the blog the idea of publishing everything into a book for ourselves was mentioned to us, at the time it seemed a bit self indulgent, however as the blog grew and the adventures continued the idea of matching the posts to a collection of our photos and producing a full colour coffee table book started taking shape, then the shape grew larger and larger and we were all crushed under the weight of the book. Possibly.

At this point in time we are roughly four weeks behind and trying hard to play catch up. The problem has always been finding time to sit and write the blog. For the last month or so, finding any spare time is best spent doing as little as possible, like sleeping. Being on the road (holidays or not) for so long is physically and emotionally draining. We’ve spent the last week in Austria, where we had a fantastic time at Laura and Headley’s wedding, but decided that maybe we should let them have a break and some time to themselves, and seeing that as good advice decided to do the same for ourselves.

So here we are, deep in the south east of Austria staying in a homely self-contained apartment in an old farmhouse attached to the farm, in a place where not many non-German speakers (if any) have ever been before. The landscape littered with hills, forests, villages and churches and smothered in thick snow. You may read about it in a few weeks when the blog catches up. Our aim is to do as little as possible, and in this time we have been able to write a few blog posts, sort through photos and just relax in general.

The hard thing about writing the blog so long after the events you are writing about have taken place is remembering what actually happened. When you do arrive at the starting point for a new post the memory takes form chronologically with each event unfurling after the next. This is where the blog posts tend to become rather long, (and seem to be getting longer) as each event seems as important in the grand scheme of things as the next, whether they are or not. But we like to think that the small insignificant details add colour and flavour to the story, like red cordial in beer, it may not be the best idea but some people drink it.

So on that note, as we sit here by the heater in our little snow covered cabin in -3 degree temperatures, remembering events that took place in 35 degree tropical jungle. I’m going to have to ask you, as the reader to make a small allowance of us. Be patient with the frequency of our posts and their longwinded lengthiness. Remember that this blog is as much for us as it is for everyone else.

Thank you for following along with us, and please keep posting comments as it is really nice to hear your thoughts. For those of you who want, you can follow the blog by clicking ‘follow’ and providing an email, this will send the new posts straight to your email.

Your only other option is to just stop reading… Now.

Lots of love,
Drew and Prue Elmer