Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thailand's Northern Half

We've spent little time on the internet the past week and a half, internet cafes are still reasonably abundant, but wireless connections (our preference) are much fewer. In fact, it has meant that we've spent more of our free time relaxing and reading, which has been quite nice. We are really enjoying Thailand so far.

Since our flight from Hong Kong, we have travelled a fair distance around northern Thailand. We spent our first full day in the capital city of Bangkok. Our nice hostel was on the east side of the city, but had easy access to the city's SkyRail, an above ground rail system. We changed some flight dates at the American Airlines office in the morning then took a boat ride up Bangkok's Chao Phraya River and visited the Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew temples in the afternoon. Wat Pho houses Thailand's largest reclining Buddha, but the temple grounds were more impressive, including many buildings and spires in beautiful Thai architecture. Wat Phra Kaew's architecture is also beautiful and it houses a small emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace (former King's residence) was unfortunately closed for 10 days of grieving as the King's sister died on the 2nd of January. Speaking of the King, Thailand's government is similar to that of England, so the King is basically just a figurehead. We guess he has been quite a good king because there are posters of him with banners saying "Long Live The King" around almost every corner all over Thailand. It's quite amazing yet amusing because he really looks quite nerdy. :)

We decided to get out of the city right away and took a bus the next day 3 hours west to the city of Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi is famous for the Japanese POW camp during World War II while Japan occupied much of southeast Asia. Not as famous to Canadians (we hadn't heard of it) since the Allies were mostly Australian, British and American. There is a movie called "Return From The River Kwai", which helped make it more famous (we watched it while here). We didn't book a hostel and our first and second choice places turned out to be sold out. After a hot and tiring walk, we found a place on the river that was really nice with big air conditioned rooms so we splurged on $30/night. It's so much cheaper here, it's nice to splurge and still be paying a great rate. We stayed two nights and decided to take a day tour of the area. The morning was spent hiking through forest up the 7-tiered Erawan Falls. We even had a run-in with a family of monkeys! In the afternoon, we went for a short train ride on a stretch of the Death Railway that was originally built by POWs and we finished the day at the bridge of the River Kwai. It was a quite enjoyable day.

We caught a bus further west to the town of Sangkhlaburi near the border of Myanmar (Burma). The last hour of the 5-hour journey was pretty windy through hills and along a large lake. We stayed at a beautiful yet still cheap place on the north edge of the lake called the PGuesthouse. Our room was in one of many nice stone and mortar semi-detached cabins and the on-site restaurant had a great view over the lake. We stayed here for 3 nights, spending our first day relaxing and reading. They even had nice wood-strip canoes so we rented one for an hour to get a better view of a nearby pagoda and to paddle under the town's extremely long wooden bridge. We even swam in the lake a couple of times but it was almost too warm to actually be refreshing and it smelt a little fishy. The next day, we took a public transport pickup truck to Three Pagodas Pass right on the Myanmar border. It was possible to spend $10US to cross the border for a day, but it was only for a small touristy village that didn't look any different than Thailand so we decided to just put our feet through the fence to say that'd been to Myanmar. :)

The only other foreigner on our bus to Sangkhlaburi was a Dutch girl named Hester who we spent the majority of our spare time with while in Sangkhlaburi. We also travelled with her to Ayuthaya on a series of buses that took us the entire day through Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi. We again both stayed at the same hostel and the room cost us the equivalent of under $3 each. Unbelievable! Our rooms were next to the loud street though and Jason didn't end up sleeping all that well. Ayuthaya was Thailand's former capital before the Burmese sacked it back in the 1700s so the city is chock-full of ruins. We spent the morning walking around the inner city to the more popular sights and spent most of the afternoon on the internet out of the heat. We enjoyed dinners with Hester at the night market.

That evening, we parted ways with Hester and hopped on an overnight bus to Chiang Mai in the very north of Thailand. We opted for one of the cheaper charters instead of the government buses or trains since the stations for those were inconveniently outside the city. We managed to arrive in Chiang Mai safely nonetheless, despite being forced to take their arranged transfer vehicles into the city core to the guesthouse of their choosing. We came prepared assuming that would happen and found our way to our desired hostel. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last remaining rooms at the Julie Guesthouse, again under $3 each and we even had an ensuite bathroom. Once checked in, we decided on our 3-day itinerary and then spent the rest of the day walking around the city. The old core has a moat all the way around it with remnants of the old city wall here and there. We wanted to visit the Doi Suthep temple but the pickup truck buses to it only ran once full and there was no one else going... So we carried on to the market streets on the east side of town and Nicole bought a couple of cool clothing items. Went to bed early and finally got a good night's sleep.

At 9:30am, we were picked up by "The Best Thai Cookery School" and taken to the market for a crash course on Thai ingredients. Then we were taken to the school (the chef's house) and proceeded to learn how to cook several Thai dishes. All were delicious! It was quite a fun day and we even got to take home a cookbook. We're looking forward to trying our recipes out at home!
Today, we were picked up at 8:30am and herded into a minibus. First, we stopped at an orchid farm which was quite pretty and Nicole enjoyed taking lots of colourful photos. Then we stopped at a hilltribe village, seemingly manufactured, but nice nonetheless. The main attraction was the Long Neck tribe. They are a tribe that originated in Burma and flied to Thailand during the war. They put coils around their necks from an early age, gradually increasing the coil size to extend their neck. Apparently, they wear them as armour against tiger attacks, the women are said to be more attractive because of them, as well as several other reasons. Quite interesting. From there, we went to an elephant camp for lunch and we waited to go on a 3-hour trek while other travellers went on elephant rides. As it turned out, 2 other people in our group were taken on our trek by accident so we were left waiting for almost an hour before they figured out that they screwed up... Eventually, we were on our trek, just the two of us with a guide. It was a beautiful walk in the hills, through one tribe village, and finishing at a small 2-tier waterfall. We spent the evening on the internet at Starbucks and we fly to Cambodia tomorrow via Bangkok. Good times :)

Pics: Bangkok | Kanchanaburi | Sangkhlaburi | Ayuthaya | Chiang Mai

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