This is a continuation of a longer story that will make so much more sense if begun by reading Part 1!
On my first trip to Thailand all those years ago we went up to Chiang Mai via overnight train. I had a top bunk with a window that opened so that I could gamble with decapitation if the notion struck me. Friendly people with buckets of icy beer wandered the aisles in case I wanted to up the frequency of jostley jaunts to the john. I had a fan that was dedicated wholly to my bunk. It was fantastic! I wanted to share that experience with the family. Except in first class with air conditioning this time. I should know that is never the same the second time around… I bought our tickets in advance because I actually planned this trip. Reservations all around. It was somewhat important to keep the schedule I had set for us. I bought the train tickets in the oddest manner online. It involved making an email request to a train ticket purchaser person. Giving him all of our personal information and paying him in advance without even knowing if the tickets were available. Then the train ticket purchaser person physically went to the train station and bought the tickets. He then kept ahold of them until we got to Thailand to collect them. So weird. I gave the train ticket purchaser person the address of the first guest house we stayed in and our arrival date. He promised to have them waiting there for us. About two months passed from the time I paid for the tickets and our arrival in Thailand. I did not have very much faith in this system but lo and behold, the tickets were there at the tiny little guest house by the river waiting for us. The system worked! Anyhow, back to the story at hand. We had an inordinate amount of time to kill between arriving back at the airport in Bangkok and boarding the train but not enough time to do anything productive or fun. It was probably our least fun day of the trip. The train platform we were waiting on was loud and exposed to freeway exhaust. Dad was feeling the repercussions of eating something suspicious. My baht was on the fried tarantula. He was blaming a particularly mushy papaya salad. Anyhow, it was a bummer of a day to spend in the comfort of an open-air train platform. Finally, our train arrived and we were shown to our coach. Mom and I got top bunks and the guys were down below. They no longer offer beer on trains and the windows don’t open. Being in the air-conditioned cabin there was no fan either. Also, it smelled of diesel fumes. The smell was so strong I was afraid we were all going to wake up dead. If I had not had my first experience to compare it to I might have been more satisfied. The highlight for me was the overpriced instant coffee they pedaled in the morning. That is saying something.
The important thing is that we arrived. We had rooms at the Yindee Stylish Guesthouse within the older walled in portion of the city of Chiang Mai. Our rooms were nice and we had a balcony with benches and plastic chairs!
Down the street was a cafe that roasted their own coffee beans. We finally had really good coffee. My cappuccino had boobies drawn into the foam. Whatever. It tasted divine! Our time in Chiang Mai mostly consisted of wandering around the town, eating, and seeking out cold beer. Also some excursions. We had four days to fill and fill them we did. The least eventful day was killed by going up to a temple outside of town that consisted of a giant stupa on a hill and tunnels full of incense and shrines. The weird part of that place was the posters lining the walkway up to the tunnels. They were cartoon pictures of dogs engaged in all sorts of sin. Very graphic canine sin. Canine gambling. Canine lust. Canine gluttony. If you can think it, those dogs were doing it. Bad dogs! I didn’t take any pictures because I felt like a creepy peeper even looking at the posters. Anyhow, that was a wander around day that didn’t amount to much.
We arranged to go kayaking the following day. That is when I found out that my mother is a
terrible very inexperienced kayaker. Luckily our guide Aidan (from France or maybe Denmark) was pretty good at reading his charges and took us to a very placid stretch of water while the rest of the group headed into more questionable reaches. We floated along and checked out the beautiful banks of the river. We stopped to swim often as it was a really hot day and there were no real breezes to speak of for the majority of the day. Aidan shared his Fisherman’s Friend lozenges with us. This was a pretty big deal because he doesn’t have a local source for them. He has to rely on care packages from home. Towards the end of the day, a big bank of clouds rolled in and offered us respite from the sunshine and some dynamic light for our pictures. After the float, we reunited with the swifter contingent of our group and had boxed lunches on some picnic tables outside of a restaurant that was closed. The food was good and the ambiance was bizarre. The restaurant had statues of dinosaurs on the lawn. The statues had braces on their pointy teeth. Also, the restaurant was located directly across the street from a prison. You could hear the guards and the prisoners talking. It lent an element of intrigue to an otherwise run of the mill lunching experience.
The next fun adventure we had in Thailand was to take a cooking class. Scott and I had taken a cooking class in Laos when we were on our honeymoon and loved it. I, of course, wanted to recreate the experience for the family. Our class did not disappoint. We went with the Thai Farm Cooking School that was highly recommended on TripAdvisor. It was located outside of the town in the countryside. Our instructor was Benny. She was hilarious. She liked to say her name with the same intonation Elton John used singing Benny and the Jets. Memorable. Dad introduced himself as Yon Yonson from Wisconsin. We all laughed and Benny didn’t quite know how to react. She took us to a very clean and tidy market (compared to other markets we had wandered through) and explained all of the ingredients that we would be using that day. We marveled at the three foot high (meter high?) bags of fried pork rinds. We saw fresh coconut meat being shredded and pressed into coconut milk. We saw many mysterious odds and ends. Then we headed to the classroom. It was an open-air pavilion in the countryside with a garden. We got a tour of the garden and sampled freshly picked yumminess. Benny gave us a few options on what we were going to cook that day. There was a tofu option for everything and plenty of fish sauce substitutes so Scott was in heaven. We each had our own gas burner and there were many helpers to make sure we didn’t fall behind. At one point Benny was showing off her flambé skills and Dad swiftly grabbed a giant fire extinguisher from the corner and hauled it over to Benny’s cook station. She had a hard time getting back on task because she was laughing so hard! We made red curry, cashew tofu, papaya salad, and purple sticky rice with fresh mango. Sooooo delicious! We got to keep our recipe book and took pictures of some special Benny variations that she had on laminated cards for our use that day. It really helped us enjoy the delicious foods we were eating for the rest of the vacation.
Our final northern Thailand experience was to spend a day communing with elephants. We went to a place called Baanchang Elephant Park that emphasized humane treatment of the elephants. Elephant tourism is a very contentious topic. One side of the argument is that all elephants that are ridden by tourists are horribly abused. Another side of the argument is that there is not enough habitat for elephants and they are very expensive to house. Tourism foots the bill. If I had done my research before we went to Chiang Mai we probably would have gone to a place that doesn’t allow riding and communed with the elephants from ground level. That is not what happened. We rode elephants. I recommend doing your research and saving yourself from the guilt that comes with knowing you supported an industry that likely causes harm to the very animals you want to support. At Baanchang Elephant Park we were given blue outfits to wear so that our clothes would not be soiled and the elephants would have less sensory inputs. Blue-clad tourists are the only tourists they interact with. We visited with some elephants and gave them sugary snacks. We were assured that they didn’t completely subsist on sugary snacks (unlike most of America). I got a full face wet smooch from an elephant that still goes down as the most memorable kiss of my life! Sorry, Scott. Next, we were schooled on the importance of monitoring the stool quality of the elephants to ensure they are receiving proper nutrition and hydration. The guide wasn’t getting enough questions from our group so he just asked himself the questions. “We monitor the consistency of the elephant poop… WHY?” Then he would answer… while breaking apart a giant elephant turd with his hands like it was a baguette. Scott and I still ask ourselves “WHY?” every chance we get. Then there was an earnest talk about the plight of the elephant in modern Thailand. Next, he taught us elephant commands. He said that most of the mahouts are from Burma so the elephants typically don’t understand Thai commands. After he fooled everyone into thinking that they could actually command the elephants the riding commenced. It was two people to an elephant. One on the neck and one on the back with nothing but a rope to hang on to. The rope was threaded through a length of plastic hose to protect the elephant’s skin from chaffing. It was hard to hang on. I was very impressed with my mother’s tenacity. We took two laps around the grounds switching positions between the back and neck. Maybe twenty minutes tops. It felt like forever. Elephant spines are not built for comfort. Our elephant kept wandering off the trail to eat grass. Next, we went into a lagoon with the elephants for bath time. Dad opted out of this saying that he couldn’t get his hearing aids wet. I think he just didn’t want to marinate in poop soup. The water was gross. There were many pachyderm floaters keeping us company in the lagoon. After bath time we got to use the showers and have a yummy lunch. That was it, they put us back in the minibus and dropped us off at the Yindee Stylish Guesthouse. We were energized by that experience. There is something very special about getting to reach out and touch the trunk of such a huge unique animal. We still talk about how crazy that day was.
That pretty much covers our northern Thailand experience. It was awesome! Next, we headed down south for some beach time!