Chiang Mai, October 8 - 16, 2004
Cecilia and Chad met us at the arrivals gate in Chiang Mai Airport, big hugs all around. They'd found a comfortable backpacker guesthouse inside the moat near Tha Pae Gate so we dumped our bags there and headed to a fun restaurant called Riverside, strangely enough on the bank of the Ping River. After dinner we went to an artesan market.
Next morning we hired a songthaew (a pickup truck with a highish canopy over the bed and a longtitudinal bench on each side) more or less for the day and headed up into the hills and then back down again through a series of touristy attractions: a tribal village, the Royal Family's Summer Palace and the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the holiest Buddhist shrine in the north of Thailand.
A resevoir in the grounds of the Summer Palace.
Offerings for forest spirits in the Summer Palace grounds
Scarey dragons at the bottom of the steps up to the Wat
A Buddha in the Wat
Wat's that in the background?
Om mani padme hum
Next day we took a major bus ride to Pai, the first significant town north west on the Mae Hong Son highway loop, about 5 hours. Pai (pronounced "by") is a laid-back place nestled in lush green hills, with maybe three streets. The Pai, a muddy little river, burbles by. Mounted on rented motorcycles we found a "resort" downstream out of town with tiny A-frame bungalows (but no food service) that caught our fancy and settled in. A tremendous electric storm settled over the area for the rest of the evening and into the night so we hunkered down and went to bed without any supper.
We'd all agreed that we wanted to do a white-water raft trip so the priority in the morning was to sign up somewhere. We shopped around and settled on the most expensive alternative, reasoning that they'd be more reliable, the PFDs would float better, etc. Using a map that Chad had shrewdly acquired, we explored the area on the motorbikes. First stop was an unimpressive waterfall that we had to walk on a motorbike-impassible muddy road to get to, but the upside was, on foot, we met some local tribal people who sold Pepa a small smear of opium (we believe; we haven't tried it yet).
Being out in the country-side was such a pleasure. We went to a REALLY hot hotspring that had a sign beside it prohibiting boiling eggs. Then we split up; Cecilia and Chad went off to ride elephants and Pepa and I took the long way back to our A-frame, past several elephant camps. More heavy rain, boding well for exciting river fun tomorrow. After a siesta, we went into town for dinner and afterwards a sheesha (hooka pipe with fruit-flavoured tobacco) for Chad in a friendly little dive down the street.
a wat in Pai
The rafting trip was a hoot. We were about 15: Germans, Dutch, Australians, British and we Canadians, plus the Thai boatmen. They outfitted us with PFDs and helmets; the bossman gave us the usual safety talk that made everyone's blood run cold. Then we went in three songthaewes to a point on the Pai River about an hour away, 70km upstream from our destination, Mae Hong Son. The four of us and Danny, a young German engineer working for an environmental NGO in the Philipines, shared one of the three rafts. Our overnight bags, food, etc., were stowed in pickle barrels lashed under netting in the centre of the raft. Pretty soon we were are floating down the river, playfully splashing one another with our paddles and secretly fretting about how bad "class IV" might be, the difficulty designation of the very first rapids we would encounter, in about an hour.
We did the right, left, forward, backward, go, go!go!, and GO!GO!GO! paddling drills until we had them down pretty well, warmed up for the excitement. Presently our captain called "get ready" as we swept around a bend toward a sort of horizon in the water with a chaos of white heaving bumps and big rocks beyond it. "go!go!" he called urgently and we bent to our paddles, our feet jammed into the corners of the raft for stability. Chad and I in the bow dropped weightlessly into the cataract with our stomaches in our throats, lurching as we hit the bottom of the hole and stuggling out over the following wave, the captain shrieking "GO!GO!GO!" to maintain steerage-way. Great sheets of water enveloped the raft and boiled over the sides as we rollocked down the rapids, paddling frantically wondering how long we could keep up the pace, narrowly missing large boulders and other nasty riverine features, until we were spat out of the bottom of the rapids into suddenly tranquil water. Unfortunately the cameras were necessarily out of reach in the barrels so we couldn't photograph any of this even if we'd been able to in the panic.
Those first rapids turned out to be the most difficult of the trip. Still, there was lots more excitement left. We stopped for lunch at a clear water creek with a little waterfall under which everyone sluiced the dirty river water off themselves. After a couple more hours of paddling and intermittent white water thrills the camp swung into view, an enclave of lean-tos and tents among the trees on a bench above the river. Everyone lounged about in the mess-tent and our various lodgings until the boatmen cooked up a big carbo-loaded pasta dinner with fried chicken. The jungle was so dense that there was really nowhere to go. After the physical excitement of the day we slept like babies, in spite of being virtually on the ground on ratty foamies.
Next day after wolfing down porridge, a big mess of scrambled eggs and toast, we were off down the river again. At the confluence of the Pai and another river we coincided with a single raft from another company bearing the usual couple of Thai boatmen, a heavily tatooed Australian and three nubile Swiss. A huge paddle-splashing war broke out, championed by the boatmen who expertly shovelled large quantities of water at their antagonists. Several people bailed out to swim a gentle stretch of rapids. One of the Swiss girls failed to negotiate a bend well and got tangled up in a bamboo grove which we entered to rescue her. The new raft was evidently more up for excitement than our boatmen thought we were; their boatmen were constantly looking for the worst trouble they could get into, colliding with bolders, tipping into holes and earning their skipper, in my mind anyway, the title of "Captain Maniac". As we drew closer to Mae Hong Son, we complained to our captain that he was being too cautious, so straight away he dropped us into one hole after another. We lost Cecilia over the side momentarily; Pepa shrieked "CECILIA!!!", stood up to rescue her baby and nearly went in as well. A few minutes later we fell into a douzie that bend the raft almost double launching Danny, in the left bow, backwards and across the boat, fetching Pepa a solid kick in the head and sending her into the water too.
The trip was over all too soon. We sat around with the boatmen drinking Thai whiskey and eating handfulls of a mix of chilis, peanuts and garlic while we waited for the vehicles to take us into town. In Mae Hong Son we were disappointed that we couldn't get a flight back to Chiang Mai and after assessing the alternatives, settled on a 9 hour bus ride the rest of the way around the 600 km Mae Hong Son Loop highway, leaving at 6am. The flight was attractive because Pepa and I would be back in Bangladesh in 48 hrs and we thought the four of us would enjoy our last hours together better in Chiang Mai than on a bus. We met up with Danny and the Brits for dinner, then Chad and Cecilia went off with them to a bar and Pepa and I went for a massage.
The dawn had barely broken when we assembled at the bus station, some of us the worse for wear from carousing earlier that morning. The upside of the bus ride next day was that we saw more interesting countryside, while we were awake, anyway.
a hard night's day
Back in Chiang Mai we stayed in a guesthouse favoured by the LP Guide, Gap's House, which was comfortable and quaintly arranged in several levels with lush plants everywhere and a fountain in the bar patio, and antique features bordering on funky throughout. Our flight back to BKK was leaving at 8am so we hugged and sniffled our farewells with Cecilia and Chad (more stoical) at 11pm.
Epilogue: Chad and Cecilia continued on in Thailand, Laos and maybe Cambodia for a couple more weeks. A day after we parted we were all wiped out for a couple of days by an identical affliction with symptoms of headache, fever and diarrhea. Judging by its common origins among the four of us, it was either from involuntarily gulping Pai River water or the boatmen's cooking.