Following our extravagant Chiang Mai Christmas apartment – a massive £25 a night – we tightened the purse strings and booked a very cheap guesthouse. A vomit-inducing road, comprising of 762 twists and turns, lay between us and Pai, our new home. For 4 hours the cramped minibus followed a snaking path, rising through dense jungle, pitching from side to side as we flew up unending switchbacks, before breaking out onto a wide plateau with mountain peaks bursting from the horizon in every direction.
After checking-in we were lead to where we’d be staying for the next four nights. Standing in the doorway, bags slumped from our shoulders to the cracked-tile floor as we took in our room. Two flimsy single-beds were boxed in by rickety panel walls and a low, misshapen corrugated-tin roof; chicken wire covered numerous gaps between the walls and ceiling – it was a shed. In the evening a gigantic spider moved in; our new roommate. We wondered whether he was as disappointed with the room as we were.
Keen to get out, we hired a scooter and whipped off to explore all that Pai had to offer.
One stop on our whirlwind tour was a hot-spring buried in the middle of a forest. The narrow road in was an undulating rollercoaster ride, each rise and fall was followed by an ever larger ascent for our bike to struggle and groan up. Our not-so-trusty scooter soon decided enough was enough and came to a halt halfway up a mammoth slope; we scrambled off before gravity reasserted itself and dragged us back down the hill. Sun beating down, we began the arduous task of pushing the bike uphill, climbing on and flying down the other side, then repeating the process over and over again.
The hot-spring was like a perfectly drawn and muddy bath. We slipped into the gently steaming turquoise-brown waters, the tightness in our shoulder and leg muscles from manhandling our bike melting away as we floated around in bliss. Jamie wanted to see how long he could hold his breath and repeatedly plunged his head into the scorching waters. After several attempts he resurfaced red faced, veins on his forehead bulging, with the impressive time (is making yourself nearly pass out impressive?) of 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
With New Year’s Eve fast approaching we headed back south, to Chiang Mai.
On the last night of 2016 we meandered through bustling streets; the main road through the old town had been transformed into a mile-long market, selling a huge array of handcrafted souvenirs, traveller chic clothing (elephant print anyone?), and chocolate smothered waffles. For 10 minutes we stood mesmerised as a glassworker created intricate glass animals using only a blowtorch, sticks of glass, and a practised hand.
Dozens of orange-robed-monks sat cross-legged, secreted away behind a temple, on a large sand mound. They emanated a deep thrum, a rhythmic chant, surrounded by hundreds of softly glowing candles. A thin ribbon of water encircled them, with a grid-like pattern of colourful bunting – reds, blues, and yellows – fluttering overhead. It was a stirring event, made accessible by a monk providing an English narrative, explaining what the prayers were and the stories they told.
Chiang Mai New Year’s Eve festivities are centred on the mass release of paper lanterns. With the nation still mourning the passing of their King, we were told this year would be a sedate affair. We arrived at the old town gate and were surprised to find a crowd of thousands; friends, families, and a multicultural array of tourists all brought together in the lighting and releasing of candle lanterns. We followed suit. We held our lit lantern in tense hands, waiting for it to fill with hot air. Having seen numerous lanterns set off too early, flying wildly into nearby trees or gliding inches above the crowd before tumbling into an unsuspecting victim, we were nervous. When the time came we released our little light and it spiralled skyward; a glowing beacon in a sea of darkness.
A great cheer went up at midnight and we watched in awe as lanterns en-masse ascended in a glowing and unbroken chain; hundreds of brilliant new stars painted the pitch night sky. Releasing lanterns was an incredible tradition to be part of, vastly different from our usual New Year’s Eve.
At the start of the New Year we went to an elephant sanctuary. In India elephants were put to hard labour in the name of tourism, directed through the calculated use of a club to the head or a sharp hook behind the ear; we were hoping to find something different.
We were each given our own Karen-tribal-top to wear, simple tunics with vibrant vertical patterns woven in all the colours of the rainbow (Karen if you’re reading this, we’ve got your clothes). All kitted out we stuffed our pockets with chunks of sugarcane and walked down the slope to meet the elephants.
First impressions: Elephants are massive! Standing face-to-face with these huge animals makes you reconsider the sanity of putting your hand anywhere near their all-consuming mouths. Not reassured by our guide – “Don’t worry, they’re vegetarian!” –, we held out lumps of sugarcane in shaking hands to the (hopefully) gentle giants. Their wrinkled and leathery trunks delicately plucked up the treats, before smoothly twisting round and shoving the chunks into their enormous maws.
Wise to the feeding process, after taking a few morsels from our outstretched palms they cut out the middleman. Trunks veered past hands and dived into pockets – sneaky bastards –, had a good rummage and then withdrew with their hauls. Jade’s initial response to this tactic was outright panic followed by the urge to run away as fast as possible.
An adult Asian Elephant consumes 300 pounds of food, and 50 gallons of water a day; eating is serious business. They snaked their trunks around metre-long bundles of dense greenery and then swung their heads in wide and lazy arcs, thrashing it against the floor. Bent and crushed into an edible mass, they stuffed the whole thing into their mouths before going back for seconds; and thirds; and fourths; and fifths …
After lunch we changed into swimwear and were lead down to a very large, and suspect smelling mud pit. We bathed the elephants in the muck, spreading thick layers over their backs and sides. One enjoyed it so much that he pissed himself, causing everyone to scatter or face a refreshing (?) hose-down. We can confidently say that 50 gallons of water a day does not go a long way towards hydrating elephant urine.
With everyone filthy we walked with the elephants along the riverbank to a nearby waterfall. The elephants charged into the waterhole – lead by the incredibly enthusiastic 3-year-old –, splashing and spraying as they went. We followed suit and got absolutely soaked. Buckets and stiff brushes in hand we scrubbed down the elephants, who dutifully rolled over to expose their bellies for a good rub.
Being able to interact with these beautiful and intelligent creatures, in an environment they seemed more comfortable in, was an incredible privilege.
We are not entirely convinced this was the ideal location for elephants to live out their lives, however, compared to the alternatives we have seen, and the very real possibility of them being killed should they encroach on farming land, this was definitely a step in the right direction.
With 2016 slipping into memory, and 2017 in full swing, it was time to say goodbye to mainland Southeast Asia.
Eager to get on our way to Indonesia we arrived at the airport at 5pm, a full 13 hours before our flight, which meant another night sleeping in an airport. We used the last of our Thai Baht on airport food; with limited options and an even more limited budget we gorged ourselves on microwaved cheese and ham toasties and cake from a 7-Eleven, Thailand’s favourite convenience store. With full stomachs we set up camp on the cold hard floor of the basement level underneath some stairs, for yet another long night in an airport.
Jade and Jamie