Having had our fill of sleepless over night coach journeys we splashed out and got ourselves a couple of sleeping berths on the Chiang Mai over night express from Bangkok. Despite an early problem which set us back 2 hours and had us change carriages twice at Hua Lamphong we arrived fresh and well rested after one of the most comfortable overnight train journeys we’ve had so far. I think Thailand’s rail network ranks above that of India’s in terms of comfort but not quite as cosy as the cute little compartment we got when travelling in Vietnam.
The first thing we noticed on the sorngtaou ride to our guesthouse was that the Asian dry season is really hotting up, forcing us to adopt the early morning start and mid day siesta (something Sarah is delighted about) in preparation for Myanmar which we both realise will be a real test, making the 43 Degree highs here in Chiang Mai look like a cool autumn day. Our guest house was sat just over the road from one of the ancient gate houses marking the entrance to the quadrangular old town surrounded by a moat around its perimeter dotted with fountains and bridges. All very pretty now but I imagine at the time when the moat was deemed necessary and the gatehouses had their cannons on you it would have been persuasion enough to reconsider attacking the city. The market was also close so we dined on below par mango sticky rice (it’s always worse in the tourist spots!) before calling it a day.
It was Saturday and that meant the first instalment of Chiang Mai’s famous night markets, we both had things to get but decided that we would just browse and wait for the really big market the following night. Beforehand we wandered around the old town, sampling its riches of temples and smoothie bars. Whereas earlier in the trip we may have been anxious to see all the main sights the tour companies tell you to see, we find a quiet temple somewhere that isn’t clogged with tourists, sit on the grass and just enjoy being. Listening to the monks chanting, the birds singing or reading Orwells descriptions of colonial Burma.
Speaking of literary figures, as we were coming in on the train I noticed the town before we arrived was called Lamphun. Which I happened to have read about in a book by one of my favourite authors Arthur C Clarke in his Rama series. It’s the hometown of one of his characters and the book describes in detail a temple dedicated to the life of queen Chamatevi who united the area centuries ago. I couldn’t turn down the chance to see the town, which is described so poignantly in the book as the character reminisces of home, so we rented a bike and made the one hour journey South. We skipped the highway and took the back road which was lined the entire way with enourmous trees either side leaving us with the impression we were travelling down a road that had been used for many years. We had a wander round the town, like Chiang Mai it also had small channels of water running parallel to the road, we ate on one of the bridges as the friendly locals greeted us, we could tell by their expressions that they don’t get too many foreigners around town. We visited a few temples, the first was by far the largest and had an impressive gold chedi and a gong that the king had (rung?) years before. Sarah had difficuly walking barefoot on the scorched tiles (compulsory in the temple), she wasn’t the only one, the visitors to the temple looked like they were participating in the ministry of silly walks sketch. I was glad to have opted for the shoes and socks. After relaxing in a beautifully peaceful temple out of town with just the birds and monks for company we headed to Wat Chatadevi. It was surreal standing in that little temple in a provincial town in northern Thailand staring at the murals I had read about years before.
In preparation for another night of shopping at the larger Sunday market which encompasses a few of the old towns larger streets, we treated ourselves to our first roast dinner in seven months, complete with Yorkshire pudding! All served to us by the lovely owner from Stoke who had festooned his bar with Liverpool memorabilia which added to the feeling of being right back at home. As usual it took a lot of browsing to find the few stalls that actually sell some original items but we both picked up a couple of nice little things that shouldn’t add too drastically to our already bulging backpacks.
The next day was spent desperately trying to attain current border conditions between Thailand and Myanmar across the single northern crossing at Mae Sai, it proved almost impossible as we were getting conflicting information from various embassies/consulates/travellers. We decided to hope for the best and head north again to Chaing Rai, halfway to the border where we stopped for a couple of nights. I liked it because it had a cracking reggae bar with cheap Leo beer and barrington levy on the system. Sarah liked it because we found another night market and a burger caravan that reminded me of camp and furnace in liverpool. We paid a visit to the rather peculiar white temple which is straight from the set of a Disney cartoon set. Beautiful, but not quite as relaxing as the temples from Lamphun, what with the loudspeaker man directing the herds of tourists regimentally through the entrance and exit doors, only the sheepdog was missing.
Unfortunately our fears were confirmed later on as we discovered the border at Mae Sai was in fact open but the military were only allowing tourists as far as a certain city and then turning them back thanks to trouble further in Shan state. After a frantic sky scanning and head scratching we have decided to take a long days bus journey to the only overland crossing that will allow us to travel fully into Myanmar at Mae Sot. A town we are already familiar with from our building project.
Next post from Myanmar.