Days 231-236: Ta-Ta for now Thailand

S: A three hour bus ride north from Chiang Mai took us to Chiang Rai. The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Rai was more of an administrative stop before we continued our journey across the border to Laos. That said, it provided us with an excellent opportunity to add another temple to our tally.

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Wat Rong Khun – it’s white, you know.

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The town centres major monument was just as glitzy – a golden clock tower.

One of the few advantages Chiang Rai has over Chiang Mai is its closer proximity to the hill tribe communities. These are ethnic minorities living in mountainous northern and western Thailand. Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs. Most are of seminomadic origin, having migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Myanmar, China and Laos during the past 200 years or so. There are up to 20 different tribes.

Hill tribe trecks have become very popular in northern Thailand. This is where companies get groups of individuals together to trek up to where the hill tribes live, sometimes spending a night or more in nearby accommodation. This gives the visitor an opportunity to stretch their legs and see how these interesting tribal people live. We also thought we would put our legs into gear and take part ourselves. By way of introduction and research, first we visited the hill tribe museum and education centre.

Our findings made us rethink our decision to take part in a hill tribe trek. Below is a picture of the Karen Tribe, also known as the Long Necks. The reason the ladies wear a series of gold hoops beneath their chins is to elongate their necks. Among the Karen tribe it is believed that this enhances their beauty, making them appear swan-like.

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The display card we saw below the photograph made us feel very uncomfortable.

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Further reading and research showed that although the hill tribe people may benefit from tourism by way of donations, little else is of much benefit to them. These are people just like you and I, the only difference being their distinctive way of life, living as they do in a much more rural and underdeveloped environment, and following a spirit-based set of beliefs and customs. It seems all this is being exploited by rogue tour companies, making money from unwitting travellers.

The hill tribe museum and education centre served its purpose and provided us with an eye-opening insight into the lives of these fascinating people.

As we mentioned above, our journey in Thailand has come to a close. Today we begin our two day slow boat trip down the Mekong River to Laos… Those of you who have been following the blog closely may have noticed that we haven’t journeyed through Bangkok. We are leaving this megalopolis until the end. We are due to return home from Bangkok and thought we would leave it until then to experience.

Thailand had given us just what we needed on our trip so far: a comfortable cushion on which to lie back and relax our tired bones. And so to Thailand we will return; if, of course, we survive the slow boat to Laos…

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Days 226-230: Chiang Mai Part Two

S: Richard’s birthday can be summarised in two pictures.

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Now to more serious matters. Before 1990, over 4,000 elephants were employed in pulling logs, carrying people and goods cross-country, dragging plows, and performing in ceremonies. When Thailand outlawed rainforest logging in 1990, thousands of elephants were abandoned, no longer seen as useful to their owners.

Those who kept their elephants had to find a way to feed their animal, no easy task as elephants can eat 500 pounds of food daily. So nowadays owners turn to illegal logging, which has become far more dangerous. Forcing the beasts of burden to work even harder than before, loggers prod them with spears and hooks, and feed them bananas spiked with amphetamines. As a result many logging elephants become drug-addicted, exhausted and ill.

Others take their elephants to beg from tourists. City elephants scavenge on discarded food and plants polluted from car fumes, and they become malnourished. Public pressure has forced the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority to ban elephants from entering the city; but as with logging, the law discourages some but forces others underground.

Today nearly 300 elephants still beg on the streets of Bangkok, a booming metropolis. By day, mahouts (elephant owners) hide the elephants outside of town. At night, elephants plod along crowded freeways to get to the tourist centres. Some beg illegally, while many others work in other areas of entertainment and tourism — the only legal use of domesticated elephants in Thailand today. This usually consists of elephants carrying people on their backs, and performing in shows.

To get up close and personal with the Asian elephants, we researched long and hard and eventually decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). ENP is a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants; established in 1996, it sits high up in Chiang Mai’s forests. The elephants at ENP have been rescued from exploitative tourism trades or illegal loggers.

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Above is a photo of Lek with two of her 34 herd of elephants, ENP’s proud owner and a saviour in the eyes of wildlife lovers. Lek allows individuals to come and spend a day or more at the sanctuary, assisting in the maintenance and development of the elephants and the park itself.

It was a privilege and joy to spend a full day with these heart warming elephants. We learnt how to care…

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feed…

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…and bathe these gentle giants.

Observing them in an environment where they were so well looked after and seemed so comfortable in, was wonderful to see. A wide open forest in which to roam is just the environment these marvellous animals deserve. The tremendous commitment, hard work and effort which Lek, her team and all the volunteers demonstrate, has lead to a truly inspiring sanctuary.

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Oh well, all that scrubbing and then they go and cover themselves in mud…

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Elephants can be difficult creatures to hide…We can see you.

Our time in Chiang Mai nears its end. It took us some time but Chiang Mai turned out to be an enchanting place. With its friendly locals and safe streets, hidden delights and new discoveries, it has been a pleasure to spend time here.

Days 221-226: Chiang Mai Part One

S: From Phuket a two hour flight brought us to Chiang Mai, a former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768) and the tributary Kingdom of Chiang Mai from 1774 until 1939. It is located 700 km north of Bangkok among the highest mountains in the country. Chiang Mai means “new city”.

Unfortunately first impressions of Chiang Mai were not great. Day One was spent in the rain, wandering around in search of a restaurant. Day Two gave us hope as the showers calmed down, allowing us to put away our umbrellas and attempt to explore the city.

Chiang Mai claims to be one of the best places in the world for meditation and massage. Taking this into account, we did our research and laid back at a highly rated massage house and allowed our bones to be cracked into bliss for an hour. Feeling flexible, after this we took part in our first Yin/Yang Yoga class. Our supple instructor, Lek, led us through nearly two hours of muscle clenching yoga. Yin/Yang Yoga focuses on long holding poses to stretch connective muscle tissue, allowing the focus to fall on muscle alignment and the joints.

Feeling nimble, the next day we took to the trees and became gibbons for the day…

High up in the mountains (1300 meters above sea level to be exact) of Chiang Mai lies a pristine rainforest in the village of Mae Kampong. A company aptly named ‘Flight of the Gibbon’ has taken over five kilometres of the rainforest and turned it into a unique jungle experience for adrenalin junkies and nature lovers alike. Strategically placed ziplines, skybriges and abseiling stations make up the 40 or so points in which you travel across the jungle, the idea being to simulate how a gibbon travels through the forest.

Flying along 800 metre lengths of cable suspended 80 metres above the ground is a hairy experience; and it’s was even hairier with the forest below us, above us and at some points dangerously near us. But it did make us feel like true gibbons. We were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a real gibbon at one point. The furry white creature moved fast high up in the trees and put our hesitant traverses to shame.

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Strapped in and already looking like a couple of gibbons.

Other highlights in Chiang Mai included…

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The Three Kings monument standing proud outside the Chiang Mai Cultural Museum.

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Some serious chanting in Wat Phra Singh.

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Take note.

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Chiang Mai zoo. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this gorgeous panda at lunchtime.

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Q. Why do giraffes have long necks? A. Because their feet smell.

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The sun setting over the hills. The view from our hotel room.

We have another five days in Chiang Mai and part two will concluded our time here. Today, however (11.05.12) is a very special day for Richard, it’s his birthday! We are celebrating today by checking into one of Chiang Mai’s fancy hotels and it is my job to treat Richard like a king for the day…

Days 211-220: Phuket in Pictures

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Our first stop in Phuket was Patong, a small town on the west coast. Poolside chilling dominated our time here…

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…because Patong Beach’s hotties were too much to handle…

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…and it was a bit tricky claiming a spot on the somewhat crowded sands…

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…which stretched in front of Patong’s lurid and lively centre…

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…behind which, thankfully, the odd delight could still be found.

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Phuket town was our next stop. Here we visited Chalong temple, where a laid back approach…

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…helped us get a better view of the heavens.

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And we stood aside to show respect…

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…as the elephants looked on…

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…and the cats licked their paws below.

Days 208-210: Koh Phi Phi

S: Between the large island of Phuket and Koh Lanta lies Koh Phi Phi Don. An island measuring 28km sq – 8 km in length and 3.5 km wide. Backpackers claim to have discovered Phi Phi in the early 1980s. We can’t help wish that we too had landed on the island 30 years ago.

We may have fallen into the category of flashpackers on this trip, and we were certainly hoping for that vibe on Koh Phi Phi. For the uninitiated the term ‘flashpacker’ is best defined as a backpacker who likes some of life’s little luxuries. They can’t quiet afford to stay at the best hotels or eat at the most premium of restaurants; they are willing to pay a few quid extra to avoid both basic accommodation and diet entirely consisting of pot noodles; they tend to stay away from bars and beaches which attract alcopop-fuelled Brits and Aussies who are ‘just after a good time, like,’ much preferring instead to take on a challenge, like climbing a mountain and seeing a country from a different angle.

Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any room for flashpackers on Koh Phi Phi. Overcrowded by tourists and hostels, the pristine blue waters and palm tree-lined remote white beaches were nowhere to be seen.

Since Phi Phi is in such an isolated location we figured this may be our one and only visit to the island. We paid more than double the rate which we had paid on Koh Lanta for accommodation. Even then we were located in the middle of the village, surrounded by bars blaring out beats till the early hours. No sea view here; instead our room looked onto some steps leading to yet another hostel. And the beaches? Well, the one nearest us was clogged with indigo-inked tourists topping up their tans at low tide.

Trying to make the most of it we decided to sign ourselves up to an afternoon of snorkelling and a tour around the island. ‘Seven or eight people, it’s low season’ – that’s what the tour guide told us when we asked how many people we could expect to share our afternoon with. We found ourselves crammed into a wooden boat with 24 other people as we set sail for our snorkelling trip. The tour guide\boatman – our captain for the afternoon – spoke little English and we were left to work out between us what we were looking at.

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The highlight of the tour was when we arrived on Ko Phi Phi Leh. A small island not far from Koh Phi Phi Don, it was used as a location for the film ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Craggy peaks of Koh Phi Phi Leh

Now this was what you would call ‘paradise’. Powder white sand covered our toes as we approached the crystal clear warm water, the views of the spectacular limestone cliffs unspoilt in the distance.This is one of southern Thailand’s true gems. The best thing about Koh Phi Phi Leh is that it is a National Park and building has been restricted. It therefore remains uninhabited and lounger free – for the moment anyway. We couldn’t help but feel it would be a great place for flashpackers…

Apologies for the lack of photos. Worried our camera might get washed away we left it back on dry land.

Days 198-207: Koh Lanta, Can You Keep A Secret?

S: Originally we had booked three nights accommodation on Koh Lanta. Trying to play it cool we were keeping our expectations low and not expecting too much. However, we were pleasantly surprised with the chilled out and laid back vibe on the island. In the end we spent a total of ten nights on Koh Lanta, it would have been rude not to after all.

Koh Lanta is an island off the Andaman Coast of Southern Thailand. We were able to reach the island by a ferry ride from Langkawi in Malaysia, followed by a six hour bus ride.

April/May to November is classed as the low or wet season in southern Thailand. We both felt and heard the thunderstorms at night. The thunder cracked like a giant fireworks’ display and our room filled with the bright lightning some nights. During the day, however, all was dry and mostly unbroken sunshine. The one good thing about the low season was that we managed to bag a great deal. We had a lovely hotel room overlooking the Andaman sea and a great big swimming pool in which to cool off in between sunbathing sessions (how else do you think Richard maintains his golden good looks?!)

We were fortunate enough to come across a leaflet at our hotel that lead us to Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW) – a small organisation with the objective to relieve the suffering and pain of the animals on the island through sterilisation and care. We spent a few hours of our afternoon at the shelter and got up close with some of the island’s cats and dogs. It was fantastic to see that an organisation like LAW exists and to hear the stories of how the animals came to be at the shelter and their rehabilitation. Some of the dogs had even been adopted by overseas owners and were soon off to a new home.

Often on our trip we have seen groups of ill looking cats and dogs, aimlessly wandering the streets in need of help. LAW not only keeps down the population of stray animals on the island by means of humane spaying and neutering programs, it also educates and speaks to the local people, seeking out ways in which to reduce unnecessary suffering.

It was only too soon that our time on Koh Lanta came to an end. With it’s wonderful white beaches and brilliant blue skies we said our goodbyes to the island. Koh Lanta certainly manages to give the traveler an undiscovered feeling and that the island is a bit of a secret. The beaches have managed to remain free of some of the more crowded, lounger-lined beaches in Thailand. Here’s hoping it long remains a secret between ourselves.

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Poolside chilling

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Another spectacular sunset

Next stop, Koh Phi Phi. We thought we would check out what one of the original backpack islands has to offer. And also to see if Leonardo DiCaprio is still hanging about…