Chaing Mai was the next destination for 2 reasons.. 1. it was a logical start to the northern circuit to then head to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and 2. it was one of the best places in Thailand to celebrate Songkran. Chaing Mai is Thailand`s second largest city and is in the far North of the country in-between the boarders of Laos and Burma. For centuries Chiang Mai was an important trading post for opium, fabric and timber dealers but today it attracts tourists for its laid back and culturally different aspect on life that you’ll find down south. The topography of the north is another feature thats makes it so different here, the land is covered with so many limestone rock formations that seem to spring out of the ground like pins in a pin cushion at every turn. This also adds to different tourist attractions in the form of kayaking, trekking, rock climbing and caving as opposed to beach life and diving.
As it was holiday season which meant that many business were closing down it was time to get up to Chiang Mai as quickly and cheaply as possible. As always Bangkok airways came to my rescue with a cheap airfare up to Chaing Mai via Bangkok. There was also growing political unrest in the country, with the world summit being disrupted in Pattaya and demonstrations likely to appear most heavily in Bangkok, this was no time to be hanging around, so i flew into Chiang Mai on the eve of Songkran, the biggest festival in the Thai (and Buddhist countries) calender year.
Songkran is the Thai New Year and falls at the hottest time of the year and always on the 13 – 15 of April, however Chaing Mai starts early!! Songkran is usually devoted to visiting Wats (Bud dist temples) to cleans the Buddhas by splashing water over them, but it is more commonly know for the throwing of water over anyone and everyone! The festival is also the celebration of the passing of the dry season into the wet.
People line the streets throwing water by means of hose pipes, buckets, water guns and anything else that comes to hand. in essence if you don`t like to get wet, stay in doors till 8pm everyday otherwise you are sure to get drenched!! Songkran is immense fun and done in a great lighthearted way that is fun for all ages, from 4 – 64!!! The only issue is that you can`t go anywhere during the day unless in the safety of a taxi as the roads are blocked by the hoards of traffic and people. Many families turn their trucks into mobile water stations and soak passers by whilst getting soaked themselves, every gets involved and is unmissable fun!
Luckily I arrived at night and on the eve to Songkran so I arrived dry to my guest house, The Royal Guest house. It was a promising name for a guesthosue, unfortunately it had been built in the mid forties and had not much renovation or decor change since it was built. It was however very clean and most importantly cheap!! The staff really made up for the dated decor. One waiter in particular was great fun, albeit his strange interest in my room mate Tilens sexuality. He was convinced he was a ladyboy and that was pretty much the only thing he spoke of. This was either due to his limited grasp of the English language or that he was a perv!! all in all he was a great laugh and we enjoyed many a night staying up with the other staff playing Thai Rummy (a more difficult version of English Rummy) and even winning a few baht off them!!
The first day of Songkran we decided to embrace it with vigor and gusto so armed with water pistols and buckets we stepped out on the streets of Chaing Mai looking for action. We were not disappointed, i think we made it 50 meters from the hotel before being drowned!! 7 hours later we returned to the hotel, fingers and toes wrinkled, resembling drowned rats and sloshed our way into the lobby of the hotel for a much needed hot shower!! Songkran is such a great event and one not to be missed if you enjoy large scale (and we are talking 1,000`s of people lining the streets) water fights! it is a shame though that over 400 people a year die during the course of Songkran due to water vs traffic related accidents, however as one Thai taxi driver put it to me, thats the price of celebrating.. not the nicest way to think of it!
It was an early night that night, water fights are a tiring event, plus it was up early next day to go on my Thai cooking course.I had booked myself on the course to learn more about Thai cooking (as it was one of my favourite cuisines and it meant i was out of the water for the day (or so I was to think!) so at 9.30 i was picked up in the most rickerty tuk tuk to date, meet my fellow chefs for the day and headed off to the local market to pick up supplies. The local market was awash with many colurs, smells and various stalls selling all kinds of fruit, veg, rice, noodles, meat and fish. We picked up the ingredients for the 6 dishes we were each going to prepare that day and then heading off back to the classroom / outdoor kitchen. The classroom was basic but again very clean and in good working order, i was please to learn that our teachers for the day spoke perfectly good English and were very keen to help. First on the the list was to prepare the curry pastes. These are essential to all Thai curries and each different curry had its own blend of chillis and spices. After pounding spices into the pestle and mortar for 10 mins I was ready to start preparing one of my favorite dishes – Massaman Curry.
After the cooking the most amazing Thai curry anyone has seen (well I thought so), i was on a roll and then whipped through another 3 dishes – Thai Pork with Hot Basil Leaves, Rice Noodle Soup and Pad Swei (thick noodles and pork in an oyster based sauce). After we made these dishes we sampled all of them and then completed the last 2 dishes (Thai Beef Salad and Pork Cakes with sweet and sour dipping sauce) which needed tasting and also a wheelchair to carry me home! The whole day was a blast and a learned a lot from the day, one of which was that Thais concentrate on the sauce more than the meat and veg. The meat and veg are added at the last 2 mins (whereas European cooking denotes these be cooked first) as the sauce is the most important taste factor in the dish. Getting back to the hotel i inevitable got soaked, i was feeling rather cocky and cheerful that I had almost made it back to the guest house when 50m before the guest house I had the biggest soaking of my life as the tuk tuk pretty much broke down in the middle of the street and we were sitting ducks!
That night we headed out to the Sunday market which was 1000`s of stalls all selling pretty much the same thing – jewelry, shoes, purses, clothes which were interspersed with the odd food stall. One of which we found most interesting as this one seemed to specialize in all sorts of insects and bugs from cockroaches to crickets to silk worms. After a quick nibble and crunch (crickets are ok, silk worms are just awful!) it was back to the hotel for a beer or 2 and cards!
The following day we decided to head on out to Tiger Kingdom. As the name suggests this was where the tigers were at and you had the opportunity to go into the cages and stroke the tigers for 15 mins. This was a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with these giant cats. We had heard some stories of some places drugging the animals in order to sedate them, thankfully there were no signs of stoned tigers as the juveniles seemed to be very perky indeed and spent a lot of time play fighting. We had booked ourselves 15mins with the big cats and being able to get so close and to stroke the big guys was truly unforgettable. You soon realize that you`d be merciless to these against as their paws are about twice the size and twice the strength of my hands. Their heads are also perfected to breaking bones with their huge teeth and muscular jaws. Perfect killing machines!! After patting the tiger, not too hard in order not to annoy them too much, we had a look around the rest of the “kingdom” which housed tiger cubs, loin cubs and young cats. I was great to see them play and lark around which other and it was easy to see why they lords of the jungles. The next couple of days were then spent getting more soaked and planning our route to Laos as my visa was running out. It was a shame that I was unable to spend some time trekking in the hills and meeting local tribes but I heard Laos was full of trekking adventures. It was also a shame that we couldn`t explore too much of Chaing Mai for the fear of being drowned! So on our last night we boarded the night bus which would take us to the Laos border and the friendship bridge that links Thailand and Laos, and so onto the next country!!!