In August 2013, my family (Sue, Laura and Lucy) and I travelled to Thailand for a week to explore the north of the country. We flew with Thai Airlines (Economy class) and were part of an organised trip by Intrepid Travel. The trip started and finished in Bangkok and at the end of the trip, we joined another trip to see the islands in the south of Thailand.
Day 1 - Hull to Bangkok - Sunday, August 11, 2013
We spent most of today travelling today from Hull to Heathrow to Bangkok. We had already organised a transfer with Intrepid, our tour operator, from Bangkok airport so we arrived safely at the Viengtai Hotel (just around the corner from Khao San Road) at around 3pm. We managed to check in and have a dip in the pool before a welcome meeting at 6pm.
Here we met the others who were on the first leg of our trip, which was to be travelling around the North of Thailand. Our tour leader was Gung - a lovely Thai lady from Bangkok - and the others sharing our trip were Geoff, Jane, Jamie and Nick from Australia, Phelisia and Sarah from London, and Cathy from the USA.
After our welcome meeting, we went out for a drink and a meal with our fellow travellers (after sampling some of the street merchandise) and then Sue and I had a massage on the street, outside the hotel.
Day 2 - Bangkok to Sukhotai - Monday, August 12, 2013
After checking out from the hotel, we travelled by air conditioned minibus to Hualampong Train Station, in Bangkok, for the start of out trip.
At 8am, the Thai national anthem started playing and everyone stood up in the station to mark the queen’s birthday. This was our first experience of the patriotism of the Thai people which we found really unusual compared to our culture.
The train journey to Pitsanuloke took over 6 hours, partly due to the train breaking down and having to be replaced. While we were waiting, we were entertained by a guy dancing around like a crazy man on the train tracks to keep our spirits up :)
We took a Songtaew from Pitsanuloke station to visit Wat prasrirattana Mahathat Pitsanuloke temple. When visiting the temples, the females couldn’t show their shoulders or knees, so they had to put extra clothes on to cover up.
We then looked round the local market, sampled some food and continued to Le Charm Resort in the Songtaew and relaxed in the swimming pool there. The resort was very pretty but, even though we put lots of mosquito repellent on, we were bitten all over our legs by some kind of insects.
Need to buy more repellent tomorrow!
Day 3 - Sukhotai to Lampang - Monday, August 12, 2013
We’re getting used to packing every morning and moving on to the next place! After an early breakfast, we went to Sukkothai which is 427km north of Bangkok and means “Dawn of Happiness”. It used to be the capital of the Thai empire for 140 years, from the 13th century.
We travelled there by Songtaew with all our luggage and rented out bikes. It was a scorching hot day, and we spent most of it cycling around the historical park at Sukkothai, which has an area of 6,596 km2, and visiting temples, including Wat Maharat, Wat Sisawai and Wat Sri Chum. (Again the females needed to wear temple dress).
It was really peaceful, cycling around, looking at the Buddha statues in the park. The Thai 'version' of Buddhism is Theravada Buddhism. This is different to the Chinese version, and the most noticeable difference is the imagery of the Buddha. Apparently the big, laughing Buddha from China is not a buddha but merely a monk that is aspiring to become a buddha. There was a Bodhi tree in the park (which has heart shaped leaves) and is the same type of tree that Buddha reached enlightenment under.
For lunch, we stopped for a picnic that our guide had cooked for us which tasted delicious. We’re getting used to having rice for breakfast, dinner and tea now :)
We then went onto Lampang, and after checking into our hotel (an old fashioned Thai bed and breakfast dwelling), went to explore the town and local market. Later we went out for a meal and watched a band at the nearby bar.
Day 4 - Lampang to Baan Mae On, Chang Mai - Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Last night's accomodation was the simplest so far. It was a traditional wooden Thai house next to the river - very pretty, although quite basic too. Early in the morning, we loaded our luggage onto the Songtaew and set off to FAE (Friend's of the Asian Elephant); an elephant hospital that Intrepid support. It was opened in 1993 by Soraida Salwala and was the World’s First Asian Elephant Hospital. Located in the MaeYao National Reserve of Lampang, Thailand, Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) is a 200-acre facility that includes elephant infirmaries, an operating area and a nursery for baby elephants. One of the elephants there had a leg missing which he lost when he stood on a land mine.
At the hospital, we were introduced to Aoi, our local guide and the lady whose house we would be staying at tonight. We then went onto see an elephant show, where Sue and Nick got involved playing catch with the elephants. The elephants painted pictures with their trunks which were amazing! We then went to see how elephant's waste is dealt with and how elephant dung paper is made. I had to squeeze (treated) elephant dung in my hands and put it onto a mesh which dried out in the sun and, eventually, turned into paper.
Shortly after this was our elephant ride, where we sat two abreast on the top of one of these magnificent beasts for a walk through a lake and into the jungle. Our time with the elephants ended with a visit to the elephant's nursery and watching the elephants take a bath.
On the way to Aoi's homestay, we visited Sankampaeng hot springs where people boiled eggs in the water - it was that hot! We spent some time swimming in the baths and had a massage to wind down by the side of the unusual smelling water.
Later, when we arrived at Aoi's homestay, we were treated to a traditional Khantoke dinner and were given a musical performance by local children. We were then able to have a go on the instruments, which included a Thai lute and some hand drums. The evening was rounded off with a folk dance from the local children during which we got to join in too - long fingernails included. Accomodation was 6 to a room on roll up beds equipped with mosquito nets - basic but functional.
Day 5 - Aoi's Homestay to Chang Mai - Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Our shower this morning was situated in an outside hut and it comprised of a bucket of water with a ladle. It was very refreshing. After breakfast at the homestay we walked across the road to the local temple where we gave alms (food offerings) to the local buddhist monk. In return for this we received a simple bracelet that we needed to keep on for 3 days to ensure good luck. (We all managed to do this!)
We then embarked on an action packed cycling tour around the local village with the ladies covered up so as not to upset the locals. First we visited the local primary school and met the children in a reception class. They sang us some songs and we each had a go at teaching them to draw letters on the board which they had to copy. We played duck, duck, goose with them and then they sang us their national anthem. Each of the different nationalities had to get up and sing their national anthem in turn for the children. I was really suprised how modern their classrooms were, with CD players and televisions. They didn't have interactive white boards yet but I'm sure they will in time. I felt a little sorry for the teacher of the class as she had to come in after we'd left and calm the children down.
Next we cycled to a sewing factory and was amazed at the tight spaces that the workers had to sew in. There was an opportunity to buy some of the gifts after we'd met the workers. As we cycled through the paddy fields, Nick asked some of the workers if he could help them plant the rice. He had to put on their boots and they waded in the water barefooted to help him. (In the picture you can see that Nick has a camera on his head. He used this nifty device to film some really cool footage - especially on the Jungle Flight; an aerial adventure above the jungle that we didn't go on.) A little further was a mushroom factory were they grew mushrooms in plastic bags in greenhouses. In some of the greenhouses they grew cucumbers and they hung weights onto them to make them straight.
Our last stop in the village was at a local house where we were shown how the rice is harvested. We were given the opportunity to grind the rice and seperate it from its chaff - a process known as winnowing.
We said our goodbyes to Aoi and headed into Chiang Mai to check in at our hotel for two nights - People Place. Later that afternoon we went to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple which had stunning views over Chiang Mai. There were 306 steps up to the temple and we were able to observe an initiation ceremony for a young monk and watch the monks chant. (Many young boys become monks as they receive a good education; in fact before state run primary schools were introduced in Thailand, the temple was the main place for young boys to become educated.)
Later that evening we had dinner at the night market and went to watch a "Lady Boy" show. Lady Boys (men dressed as women) are very popular in Thailand. Kathoeys (their official name) are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexual people are in Western countries or the Indian subcontinent. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys, and Thai newspapers often print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. The show itself was a cabaret show and Sue had her picture taken with some of the cast after the show! Another memorable day in Northern Thailand.
Day 6 - Chang Mai - Thursday, August 15, 2013
Today was a free day so we asked Gung, our trip leader, if she could organise a rafting trip for us on the river. Unfortunately, because it is the rainy season and the rivers are full and fast flowing, this wasn't possible. However she did organise a trip for us into the jungle to meet some hill tribes. Phe, Sarah and Cathy came with us on this trip too.
We started off trekking through the jungle with our leader, Mr Sang. He was a member of one of the hill tribes although he lived some of the time in Chiang Mai. He led us up into the jungle, pointing out interesting sights and plants along the way. We eventually arrived at the waterfall and had a well earned dip. We stopped on the way back at one of the huts of the hill tribe people who cooked our dinner for us. While we were waiting for lunch to be cooked, one of the members of the hill tribe produced a machete and offered to cut off Sue's legs so her insect bites didn't itch any more! He put some calamine lotion on her bites, which really calmed them down, and explained that they weren't mosquito bites but possibly bites from ants. He had also set up a shooting gallery at the side of the hut, where you could shoot pebbles from the stream at tin cans that were hanging from the trees.
The cooking was done on an open fire, as this particular tribe (Lahu) has no electricity at all, and it tasted wonderful. Our guide, Gung, helped to cook, as her parents owned a restaurant in Bangkok and she loved to help out. I sat next to Mr Sang and we at raw garlic together. "You are jungle man!" he told me. We said goodbye to the Lahu people and returned back to the Songtaew which took us to another hill tribe village, this time inhabited by the Akha people. The Akha is one of the largest hill tribes and there are around 80,000 living in Thailand's northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
After we returned to the hotel, we had dinner at McDonalds and then went to watch a Thai boxing competition which Lucy, my youngest daughter, absolutely loved.
Day 7 - Chang Mai to Bangkok on overnight sleeper train - Friday, August 16, 2013
Our last day in Chiang Mai involved lots of cooking, eating and sitting around. We were booked onto a cookery course in the morning through Cooking@Home and was based in a secluded part of Sankhampaeng village, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The school is run by Pom, and has been running since 2009. We were picked up by Pom's sister and taken to a local market to introduce us to our ingredients. There were so many varieties of rice, it was bewildering.
Some of the group didn't want to look at the meat section, which was understandable given the smell. There were lots of fish and amphibians waiting to be killed on request and butchers cutting up the animals at the stalls. We timed one of them cutting up a chicken and it took him less than two minutes to seperate all the body parts ready for sale. Amongst the meat, blocks of blood and bottles of blood for sale, I saw a baby in a carry cot, with netting around it to keep off the flies.
What I have noticed in Northern Thailand is the lack of packaging compared to the UK. Food is wrapped in leaves, ready to eat - much more environmentally friendly than plastic. After we'd bought our ingredients at the market, we met up with Pom at the cooking school. Pom had a big cooking station at the front and proceeded to guide us through making around 5 different Thai dishes. The mirror above her head showed us exactly what she was making and then it was down to us to try it out. Lucy and Nick (who is a chef in Australia) got up to help Pom with some of the meals. It was a lot faster than cooking at home - the meals only take around 10 to 15 minutes to make and you have to be on the ball otherwise you make the wrong choices. Luckily, help was at hand and we all managed to make enough food to fill us up including Thai Green Curry, Spring Rolls and sweet sticky rice with mango.
After our cooking experience, we went back to the hotel to pack and prepare for the overnight sleeper train back to Bangkok. Apart from our leader, none of us had ever done this before and were not really sure what to expect. When we arrived on the train, it didn't look particularly unusual. We sat around chatting, eating and playing cards whilst the train chugged along towards Bangkok (our overall journey time would be around 15 hours). The menus that we were given mentioned Bogie Restaurant and Karaoke Bogie, and we discovered that this was the disco carriage which we found out, when we'd wandered down to take a look, comprised of a bar, bright disco lights and booze - something I did not expect to see on a sleeper train.
Just before 10pm the guard came round and made everyone's beds up. Being tall, I just managed to fit in corner to corner in my compartment and I slept reasonably well until chatting and shouts for orange juice, by the guards, woke me up around 6am.
Day 8 - Bangkok - Saturday, August 17, 2013
Our train rolled into Bangkok at around 8am where we said goodbye to Cathy, who was meeting a friend from the USA. We were taken back to the Viengtai Hotel where we had a quick shower and then breakfast. We all thanked Gung for her help on the trip and said goodbye to Sarah who was heading down to Southern Thailand (Phe would be coming with us to Southern Thailand.) Gung had kindly organised another trip for the two families which took us to some traditional floating markets an hour and a half outside of Bangkok.
The trip started off at Tha Kha floating market and we took a long tailed boat ride around the canals. We stopped off at a coconut plantation to find out how they make coconut syrup. It tasted a lot like fudge (one of my favourite sweets). Back at the market we sampled some of the food from the vendors. I bought some fried food from a lady on one of the boats; she passed up a net for me to put in 20 bahts and when she'd received the money, passed me up the fried food.
As we drove towards another floating market, Gung told us about a market that was on a railway line and that we would just be able to see it if we rushed. Intrigued, we got out of the minibus at Maeklong and stood amongst hundreds of Thai tourists on a railway line who were pointing their cameras down the line at a covered marked. All of a sudden a train's horn sounded and, as if by magic, the stalls and stall keepers moved back to let the train through. As soon as the train had passed us, the stall keepers moved back into place and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Our final stop was Amphawa Floating Market in Samut Songkram. This one was popular and very crowded, but mainly with Thai tourists. Hardly any foreign tourists. There was a mixture of riverside market and floating market here and we sat and ate while we watched the boats go by.
Later we said goodbye to Geoff, Jane, Nick and Jamie before heading off to the welcome meeting for the Southern Thailand trip at the hotel. We all agreed that the Northern Thailand trip had been a fabulous experience, with excellent company, and lots of great memories to cherish for years to come.