Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chiang Mai I

Our train arrived at the Chiang Mai train station an hour later than scheduled on the 24th. The guesthouse we were staying at, conveniently, had a pick-up service. This meant we wouldn't have to barter with anyone on prices for a ride into town. The two sisters that greeted us there seemed pretty nice and we loaded ourselves into the back of their truck and watched the city fly by as we made our way to the guesthouse. We waited around in their restaurant area as they got our room ready. One of the sisters gave us a map and circled various points of interest in a very business-like manner. Then we waited some more. I checked out their bookshelf (a "take a book, leave a book" bookshelf) and was amused at finding three copies of the DaVinci Code. It must have been a popular read amongst their guests. We continued to wait some more. Chuck wandered down the road to check out the area a bit. And we waited. As I put my head down on the table to try and sleep they announced our room was ready. Phew! It was a pretty good room with an attached bathroom and hot water. There was just a fan to keep us cool, but Chiang Mai is cooler than Bangkok due to it being much further north, so that was fine. First thing we did was check out the internet. But there was no internet. No wifi signals for our hotel came up. So we asked at reception and were told it was broken and being fixed. We decided to check out the Sunday Market a few blocks away instead. As we walked down the busy road, watching the songthaews, tuk-tuks, and falangs pass us by, Chuck (who was walking in front of me) was suddenly clobbered by a thin, black haired girl. She rushed into him and threw her arms around his neck in a big hug, leaving us both wondering what the hell was going on. When she let go and we could see her face we realized it was our friend Evelyn, who we had met in Bangkok and had gone to the medical museum with! She seemed so happy and relieved to see us, and once we got to talking she told us why. She had run into some bad experiences in Chiang Mai. Apparently while walking around alone at night, not only was she chased by a pack of barking dogs, but she was also aggressively hit on repeatedly by drunk tourists. Perhaps because she's Chinese they figured she was one of those "expendable Asian chicks" or something stupid and ignorant like that. Anyways, it left her feeling really uncomfortable and scared, so she was glad to now have people she knew nearby. As coincidental as our finding her there sounds, it wasn't really all that amazing. She knew we were coming to Chiang Mai and knew where we had planned on staying, but didn't know exactly when we would be there. So she decided to just march herself down to our hotel to see if we were there, and on the way ran smack into us. Needless to say, she joined us in our trip to the Sunday Market. The market was surprisingly packed - to the point that you could only move as quickly as those in front of you. The goods for sale were much nicer than the market goods I'd seen in Bangkok, and a lot of it looked hand-made. It was all typical market stuff though: clothes, jewelry, toys, trinkets, etc. And food, of course. We made sure to get some of that. Afterward we went to a nearby bar that Evelyn had heard about called THC (there were lots of signs there telling people that they probably shouldn't actually smoke pot because the police like to come by for unexpected visits). It was a very cool building and location: on the roof, right next to the starting stretch of Sunday Market stalls (there are a lot of them, too). We got a few buckets and talked well into the night. Oh, a bucket is something we discovered in Thailand, although I think they're popular with tourists throughout all of south-east Asia. The traditional bucket recipe is basically half whiskey, half Coke, and a bottle of Thai Red Bull, all mixed together in a small plastic bucket, or something similarly sized. Everyone gets a straw and shares the bucket love! It's usually quite strong, but the Red Bull covers the taste of the alcohol so you can easily forget how drunk you're getting. It makes for a lot of good and very bad nights for a lot of tourists I think.

In the morning on the 25th we walked to Evelyn's hotel to meet up with her. It was her last day in Chiang Mai and we wanted to hang out before she left for good. After we all had brunch we stopped into an internet shop to try and figure out what our sight-seeing options for the day were. I discovered that there was an upcoming flower festival in a week and a half, but not much to do or see in the center of the city in the next 6 hours. Sure, there were lots of temples, and a zoo at the edge of town, and an expensive bug museum, but there weren't really any big must-see sights. We shuffled on down to the hotel Chuck and I were staying at, in the hopes that their connection was fixed so as to avoid paying any more money for internet at the shop. And it was fixed. Only problem was that they refused to tell us the password. When I reluctantly turned my laptop around to let the woman type in the password she whisked it up and disappeared into a room for five minutes doing god knows what with it. I'm 99.9% sure they didn't download any porn or steal any of my infos off of it, but still. That's my computer and I don't want people just randomly disappearing with it! And Chuck was for sure not going to be letting them mess with his computer, so thoughts of switching hotels started dancing through our heads. In the mean time, I ended up getting my computer back with working internet and we looked up a famous (now deceased) Chinese singer who Evelyn had heard lived in Chiang Mai. Apparently she developed a taste for a Coca Cola chicken soup, and we were hoping we could try it too. After much research we figured out where the one and only Coca Cola chicken soup place was and jumped in a tuk-tuk. Of course, once we arrived we were disappointed to find that the place had been closed down for about three months. A nearby shop owner claimed that there was another place on the other side of town that had the Coke soup though, and called us over a tuk-tuk. With all the broken English involved in our conversation I wasn't surprised when this soup place did not, in fact, have Coca Cola chicken soup. They began looking at us like we were crazy when we kept pointing to their soup and saying "Coca Cola? Coke?" Blast it all! We ended up eating their soup anyways, and it was good. It just lacked that unique Coca Cola taste. We went back to our hotel again after that, getting sugar-salted strawberries and a coconut along the way. Before long, Evelyn had to catch her bus to her next city and Chuck and I attempted to tackled the internet problem once more. They, again, refused to just give us the password, and wouldn't even go get someone who knew knew how to get the connection to work. They were so uncooperative and just didn't seem to care! It was really frustrating, so I vowed we were going to be out of there the next morning.

True to our word, we woke, packed, and checked out on the 26th. About four buildings down the road we found another guesthouse for a better price, with internet that worked well and which we were actually allowed to know the secret, sacred password to. The rooms weren't as nice by any means, but that is hardly important to us these days. There were beds, toilet paper, and hot water. Oh, and the staff were so nice! It was owned by a British man and his Thai girlfriend (or should I say a Thai woman and her British boyfriend...hmm). The woman was friendly and warm and genuine, while her boyfriend was a typical, but likeable British "bloke." They had an adorable little son who was maybe one year old. He was always downstairs in the restaurant area, cuddled in someones arms. Mom, Dad, a friend or even a customer. He was constantly played with and entertained. I think we only heard him cry twice in our three week stay there. He seemed so loved. So we settled into our new room, and via our new, shiny internet, Chuck connected with an old employee of his old employer: Tom. I remember back when Chuck was still working with this particular company, hearing the romanticized story of how this elusive, brave Tom got sick of the corporate BS, sick of the unending routine, sick of the monotony, and finally one day up and left, unexpectedly, for strange and exotic Thailand. It was the sort of story that inspired one to dream. To think that there is hope - an escape. And here we were gonna get to meet the man himself! The plan was to meet at our guesthouse and go for some Northern Thai food. To be honest, I kinda hate "meeting people" for the first time, so I was probably a bit of a bummer through the meal. Luckily Chuck is good at conversation though, so it went well enough that he invited us to Burger Madness with his group of friends that night. Ah, Burger Madness. Every Tuesday. It's an event that can, and has, easily turned into a weekly ritual. This being our first time, we got to meet a few people: Randy, Sai, Chris, Kat, and Allie. The group consisted of persons from America, Australia, Britain, and Germany. Kat and Allie were just visiting for vacation, while the others had set themselves up fairly permanently in Thailand doing such things as teaching or being self-employed. Along with the Burger Madness was a sort of beer madness, which is a madness we all happily gave in to. How can you beat three large bottles (640 mL) of Chang beer for $4 US?? See? Insanity! And the burgers were some of the best Chuck and I had eaten since leaving the States. The company was great, the conversation flowed, and laughter was abundant. There was even some entertainment. Let me start by telling you about the movie Bangkok Dangerous. In it, there is this scene where Nicolas Cage (oh boy, he's just a gem of an actor, huh - so dynamic...) encounters an elephant while walking through the streets of Bangkok. He proceeds to pet it and have a lovey moment with his blind lady-friend after getting over his initial shock. When I watched that movie for the first time over a year ago, I remember laughing and rolling my eyes at the unrealistic scenario. And now we fast forward to our night at Burger Madness in Chiang Mai. I was sitting there laughing when Randy catches my attention and asks me an odd question. "Do you want to feed an elephant?" Given the beers, my mind was processing things at the rate of "the lights are on, but no one's home," and I told him "Sure," because feeding an elephant one day would be cool. He stood up and motioned for me to come along. I realized that he wasn't just inquiring after my secret elephant-feeding desires when I looked in the direction he was headed and saw, standing just outside the patio area, an adorable little elephant, trunk wagging and curling in the hopes of luring unsuspecting saps into buying food for him from his two handlers. A freaking elephant! Surreal. I declined to feed him at that time, but he passed by a few more times that night and I finally gave in close to midnight. Chuck and I got a little baggie of green mango slices and held them out, one at a time, to the elephant. I was tentative at first, trying to hold the mango by just the smallest edge, but after a few bites I held on tighter so I could have more of a chance to feel his skin. He could have done with a thick moisturizer by human standards, but by elephant standards he was probably a sexy shade of rough. Reaching out with his coarsely haired trunk, he would take the fruit from our fingers with his little nostril bits. He wasn't rough or clumsy at all. He was very sure of his movements and took the mango gently, letting his trunk brush across our hands. It was pretty cool. He even trumpeted at one point. A cute baby elephant honk. After that novelty wore off we decided to move the party elsewhere. We all went back to Tom's place where the night turned into an over-intoxicated blur to be honest. I think I ended up asleep, actually. And there was a cat. Somewhere... Good times...

As you might imagine, we weren't really up for doing much when we woke up the next day (the 27th). We ate the delicious food from the restaurant downstairs and drank lots of water. Certainly, we'd learned our lesson! No more drinking for us!

On the 28th we still weren't feeling quite right and suspected it was more than just an extended hangover. I felt perpetually full making it hard to eat even half a meal. But we were well enough to walk around the city a bit, so we did just that. We stopped into Wat Phan On, which had a bright gold chedi that shone like an alien landing beacon in the smog-free sunshine. We were interviewed by some Thai students who asked us questions like "What's your favorite thing in Ching Mai?" and "Do you like Thailand?" They must have had some English assignment where they had to talk to foreigners, and maybe even practice their writing skills (they wrote our answers down in English). On the way back to the guesthouse Chuck managed to step in some fresh paint. They had just finished painting red and white stripes on the curb to indicate that "no parking" was allowed. Chuck stepped in it, causing his next step to leave a smudge of white paint on the sidewalk. So, Chuck has made his mark on the city of Chiang Mai. If you're ever in Chiang Mai, stop by the intersection of Moon Muang and Rachadamnoen, on the south side - maybe it will still be there! And that night as we looked out over the communal balcony of our guesthouse we saw a few specks of distant light against the black sky. People had been busy sending off lanterns for some reason. They floated delicately upwards in a silent celebration of who-knows-what.

The 29th... Hmm... No clue what we did. I didn't take any notes on that day, and there are no photos. Oh, oh! Our friend from Bangkok - Femke - arrived in Chiang Mai and came to visit us. She came by our guesthouse and then we went out for food later that night. Yeah.

The 30th we met with Femke for dinner again. We went to the south side of the moat (the entire old city is encircled by a perfectly square moat, a remnant of the old days) where the square was packed with metal, wheeled carts and filled with the delicious scents of Thai street food. We opted for a tasty-looking soup cart. Over dinner we discussed our plans for the night. One of our new friends - Sai - had had a birthday recently and they were all celebrating with dinner and drinks. We invited Fem along with us. We still had some time until we were supposed to meet people at the restaurant so we checked out the nearby night market. It was full of tourists and crafted goods. Chiang Mai is a nice town, but also very touristy. We saw a dragon dance going on inside of one of the temples we passed by. The coordinated precision with which the dancers controlled the dragon was mesmerizing as they wove back and forth and up and down in front of the crowd. The beating drums only added to the hypnotizing effect. Femke got herself some fuzzy balls to dangle from her bag and I almost got a $1 anklet. But alas, I knew it would only break in three days because me and anklets just don't mesh. We spilled out of the market to find ourselves back in the square we had eaten our soup at. It must be time to head to the birthday bash! We hailed a songthaew and headed off towards the restaurant. A songthaew is like a group taxi. In Chiang Mai they are generally red pick-up trucks with a big metal cover over the top and set up with a long seat along each side of the truck bed. You flag them down, tell them the street you want to go to and they nod yes or no. If it's a yes, you hop in the back and wait until you're at your destination, then hit the little buzzer on the roof of to be dropped off. It's a flat rate of 20 baht per person unless you've negotiated otherwise. Pretty convenient if you ask me. Once we got to the restaurant we grabbed a table and waited for people to arrive. We ordered some drinks while we waited and watched the scantily clad waitresses wander around. The restaurant was a Western place with a bit of a Hooters feel, so the waitresses were wearing butt-length, skin tight dresses. For entertainment, we picked out the best looking ones. Nothing like superficial judgment to pass the time. But, soon enough, Randy made an appearance and everyone else followed quickly. Food was ordered, drink was imbibed, and deliciousness abounded. There were about 9 or 10 of us in all which made for some louder-than-usual, criss-crossed conversations. We met Becca, who was staying on a work-exchange farm of some kind, earning her keep by helping out. It sounded like a fabulous experience! We discussed Randy's big-hearted-ness and I learned more about Kat and Allie's lives back in Australia, and at the end of the meal I cringed when a bottle of Tequila was whipped out. Tequila is not good stuff. But being a team player (or was it peer pressure? Uh-oh! Not peer pressure!) I downed my shot like a champ. Well, I did make hideous faces afterwards, but I didn't spill a drop. After dinner we moved on to a club called Warm Up. It must have been a popular place because it was packed with provocatively dressed guys and gals, Thai and foreign. We got through security just fine, thanks to our white skin according to Tom. Awesome. It didn't get us anything so nice a free drinks though. Boo. We got ourselves a bottle of whiskey, a few bottles of soda water, and commandeered a table via Kat and Allie's womanly charms. Those fellas never saw them coming! We talked, checked out the dance floor, listened to the live band, experienced the hell that was the bathroom (complete with vomiting young beauties), etc. Eventually though, I was ready to go. I guess the club scene isn't really my scene unless I'm in a very specific mood. Fem decided to tag along with us and we headed out front to get a tuk-tuk. The guy quoted us a high price, of course, and we climbed in. Just then we heard some shouting over the dampened music and turned to look. A guy on a motorcycle with a smirk on his face was in some sort of disagreement with another fellow who was yelling at him. Within just a few moments the angry guy took three swings at him. The first one didn't really connect, so the smirk wasn't quite wiped off motorcycle-man's face, but adding in the second and third did the trick. He stumbled under the strikes, causing his bike to fall under him, although he managed to not be knocked to the ground in the process. He was, however, obviously upset now. There was a lull in the commotion and I thought it was over, but then about four other guys came back with motorcycle-man. I didn't see what exactly happened next, but I remember someone trying to smash the instigator in the head with a bottle, only to be stopped by a bystander or friend who thought this was not a good idea. Then the instigator was suddenly on the ground, on his back and obviously in a daze. One of the guys gave him a glancing kick to the face and he just lay there, head lolling with the blow. I saw a pool of blood oozing from his head. Meanwhile, a crying girl had thrown herself into the fray, tears streaking down her face as she cried and screamed at them, throwing herself against another guy who was going in for a kick. Then it was over. Everyone had been restrained or talked down by friends, the bleeding guy was helped up, and it was over. The fight happened so fast and was so short. It's the first actual fight I've ever seen and I can't say I liked it at much at all. It made my stomach turn. I couldn't get over how fast it was, and that despite that, the guy was bleeding from his head and practically unconscious. And the poor girl screaming and crying. Bleh. But I guess it makes for a mildly interesting story.

The 31st was a hang-over-free day thanks to my outstanding control over my drinking. Even so, I had some hang-over worthy food downstairs at our guesthouse: a cheeseburger with mashed potatoes and gravy. I wasn't prepared for the gravy. It hit me like a freight train. It was fantastic! Creamy, salty, flavor-y, rich, and deep. I raved to the owner about it and discovered why it was so good. It was made from the real dripping of a real, honest-to-god pork roast. Om nom nom nom. And for dinner he would be serving a real, honest-to-god Sunday roast. Double om nom nom nom. I would certainly be there for that, and I reserved myself a plate. Let's just fast forward to the Sunday roast and beyond (it was fantabulous by the way) because we had a very boring and lazy day. In the evening though, we met with Femke at a little outdoor bar down the road from us. We had a few tasty, fruity drinks and then made our way to the Sunday market. There's no place better than the Sunday market for even more food on top of your Sunday roast. We wandered through the crowds, down the road, eying the crafts and clothes as we went. Chuck got himself a a top and some hippie pants, and I ended up with a cheap tank top and shorts. We stopped in to the first food-filled side street and had a few pieces of sushi and a bowl of khao soi (a curry soup made with egg noodles, most popular in Chiang Mai). Then we came upon a temple whose courtyard had been packed with food carts, and in we went. Fried chicken balls and some spicy rice noodles were the big winners here. The not so big winner was an odd sweetened-condensed-milk (they use a lot of this in south-east Asia by the way) drink that was filled with cubes of grass jelly. Just as you might be imagining, it is indeed made from grass. It doesn't taste quite like grass though. It tastes more like... nastiness to be honest. Very bland with a hit of old-ness. I managed to choke almost half of the drink down before I gave up. We passed a vendor selling everything Hello Kitty and had to get a picture. Took me right back to my days in elementary school, it did. Further down the road we came across a low table strewn with earrings, an old woman sitting behind it with pliers in hand, bending the prongs of another hand-made pair of earrings into place. Her earrings were just my style so I bought a pair - for a whopping 100 baht! That would be $3. I mean, sure, I can get a pair of $3 earrings from Claire's, but I'll never see the face of the poor, under-paid woman/man who made them. At least I got to smile at the creator of my earrings and say "Thank you," or "Khop kun ka" as it's said in Thai. And then, not 50 feet further down the road I saw another table covered with an array of earrings, glass ones in this case, a man busy at a blow-torch behind the set-up. He was busy dotting bits of clear glass onto a marble-sized clear glass ball, which would end up being a nicely textured dangle for an earring. So I decided to support his trade as well and bought another pair of earrings for 100 baht. What a steal... We came across a cart selling fried insects and worms so Femke got herself some little silk worms that we shared. They weren't anything special, although they were a bit better than the insects we had in Bangkok. It was a pretty good night at the market if you ask me, although my throat was hurting a bit by the end of it. That was more to do with the fact that I was coming down with some bug than anything to do with the market, though.

The next day we tried a new place for lunch and had some interesting and tasty (as always) new dishes. Chuck had a thick soup, it's broth being the consistency of runny snot. I know that description makes it sound really unappetizing, but it's the closest comparison I can come up with at the moment. I got some fried noodle thing. After food we began our mission for the day: temple hopping. We went through three or four before we found ourselves in front of the guesthouse where Femke was staying, so we popped in to see if she was around. Lucky for us, she was sitting right there in the common area, getting herself set-up with a bus to her next town. One of the guesthouse staff walked by and commented on her long hair as I took a seat next to her. She took the ends of her own long braid and Femke's, stuck them together and said "Avatar" with a laugh. If you've seen Avatar then you might remember how they all had really long hair with feely-bits in the ends. I thought this was pretty funny, although no one laughed out loud so I held it in. Fem joined us for the rest of our temple hopping. At one of the bigger temples we were captivated by the huge, crumbling pyramid-esque structure at the back of the property. It must have been impressive when it was still standing. Another temple had a line of metal pots, just like we had seen in Wat Pho back in Bangkok. Femke got 100 baht coins from the monk on duty and when about methodically plunking each one into a pot. After we were templed out Chuck suggested going to one of the many fish spas scattered throughout the city. What a good idea! We went to one whose location we remembered and were happy to find they had enough fish to go around. Off our shoes came and in our feet went. It is such a unique experience that it's difficult to describe. At one point it felt like a bunch of little soda bubbles attacking my feet, and at another point I would have described it as a vibrating foot massager. It took a few minutes to get over the ticklish nature of the experience, but after that it was kinda nice. And in the end, I think the fish might have actually had an effect on my crocodile feet, seeing as they left a few faintly lighter lines across my soles. We topped off the fish experience with some foot massages. I think they didn't have enough actual masseuses on hand for all three of us, so I ended up with a thuggish-looking, tattooed guy who dug his fingers roughly into my feet. I had to grind my teeth against the pain a few times, but I told myself "No pain, no gain." I hate complaining to masseuses about their technique... We walked back to our guesthouse, stopping along the way for some mangos, papaya salad, and cough medicine (my sore throat had developed into a bit of a deep-lung cough). The three of us relaxed outside, at the restaurant of our guesthouse having a few beers and discussing the nuances of Dutch and American culture and the silly things we all do, until we eventually grabbed a songthaew to a local Mexican place that our Chiang Mai friends had mentioned. I can say that the margaritas were good, and the food was decent, but they were very stingy with their portions. I got maybe two spoonfuls worth of Mexican rice with my dinner. Lame. Then it was off to the roof-top bar for even more drinks! I dunno what it is with Chiang Mai and drinking! It was a fun night though. Lots of good conversation.

The 2nd was a McDonald's day. They were out of ketchup. How does McDonald's run out of ketchup? What-ev. Stopped by a few bookstores looking for a book recommended by my Mom. Once back at our guesthouse we saw Femke sitting in the restaurant area with all her stuff. It was leaving day for her - she was off to see more of Thailand. She'd explored a lot of Thailand already, but there's always more to see. She had come by to hang out with us before her bus took off, and where were we? Stuffing our faces with greasy delicious food is where we were. Ah well. We hung out for a bit, Fem showed us some pictures of her home-town in Belgium, and eventually she had to go. We wished her well and hoped to see each other again one day. Chuck and I stayed downstairs, checking e-mails and what not. My throat was really sore and Chuck, being the gentleman that he is, went and got me some cough drops. They helped with my urges to cough, but when I did cough it was still all phlegmy sounding. A little cough wasn't going to keep us away from our new favorite Tuesday night past-time though: Burger Maddness! This time Sai brought along her adorable daughter (4 or 5 years old I think?) who seemed to find men more interesting than women. Both Randy and Tom, and even Chuck (she's a brave girl and makes friends with new people quickly) were fun to watch while playing with her. She seemed to have a wonderful curiosity about the world and a fantastic imagination. We kept it a short night and left around 11:00 - I needed my rest to try and kick my cough.

We woke up earlier than usual on the 3rd thanks to some special plans for the day that required us to be waiting outside our guesthouse by 8:30 AM: cooking school! It was closer to 9:00 when the cooking school's songthaew came by. We climbed in and met our fellow cooks for the day: three other young people and four older folks. Most of the older folks seemed alright, but there was one guy who was just...really strange. He would take pictures of everything. People's feet, grass, clouds, chairs, etc. And he claimed to have studied cooking with some person that his friends seemed to think was impressive, but he couldn't figure out how to cut with the sharp edge of his knife. And he walked around with his mouth fully open, his bottom lip hanging heavy and glistening with saliva. I suspect the guy might have had some sort of impairment beyond the average, so I should probably just keep my mouth shut and pretend he was fine and dandy. But let's face it, some people catch your attention and make you wonder what their story must be... His friend's story was interesting though. He left the US back during the Vietnam war to avoid the draft. Over the course of many years he traveled through Europe and eventually into Afghanistan and India, where he decided it was time to make a decision: Australia or the US. He flipped a coin which decided he was going back to the US! And then another story about swimming with sharks and having to pee really bad and not knowing if urine attracted sharks. Apparently, it doesn't, as he was greatly relieved (haha, relieved) to find out. Ok, enough about those guys - back to the cooking school. We were driven to a food market and shown some basics. Our guide showed us different rices, including sticky rice. You can tell sticky rice and normal rice apart because sticky rice is opaque when uncooked and slightly transparent when cooked. Regular white rice is the other way around: slightly transparent when dry and opaque when cooked. Good to know. He then showed us the curry pastes: green, red, and yellow. Green is the hottest, yellow the mildest. Who'd a thunk? Finally he showed us the seasonings and suggested substitutes if we didn't like, have, or were allergic to it. He was a funny guy actually. For example, he might hold up a bottle of fish sauce and say "Oh, unlucky for you. You don' like fish sauce. What can you do?" We'd all stare at him blankly and after a moment he would hold up it's substitute (in this case he said we could use soy sauce instead). He would also hold up a baggie of palm sugar or MSG and give out points to people if they knew what it was. He was always smiling and had all sots of little jokes ready. After he showed us the basics we were free to wander around the market for a bit. We didn't get to buy our own ingredients or anything - they had all that taken care of. But we did buy a bit of food for breakfast. We all piled back into the songthaew and headed the rest of the way to the cooking school's farm. It was a small farm as far as I could tell, and had only a small garden. There was tobacco, kaffir limes, lemon grass, bitter eggplants, various types of cilantro and parsley. A lot of herbs. We were given sombreros (I don't know why sombreros and not those fun cone-hats) and aprons, shown around the garden to taste and smell the herbs, and then brought back to the kitchen area where he showed us how they prepared the sticky rice. Then it was finally time to do something cookish. We were given our ingredients for the curry paste of our choice (green for me, red for Chuck) and got to work grinding them up with our mortar and pestle. My arm hurt after that. Next we got to chop up ingredients and toss them in our pots of boiling water and coconut milk to make our curry. Once done we put that to the side, washed our pots, got our ingredients for our next dish (Chicken in Coconut Milk soup for me, Tom Yam Shrimp soup for Chuck), and followed directions on how to cut everything up throw throw it in the pot. Get the picture? The last dish before lunch was Chicken and Cashew for me and Chicken and Basil for Chuck. Then for lunch we stuffed ourselves on the food we had cooked, and I don't think anyone actually managed to eat all of their three dishes. It was amazingly good food though! It's like you just can't go wrong when cooking Thai food under supervision. We all lounged in our chairs like beached whales, now dreading going back in the kitchen and making our last two dishes. But after a few cups of lemongrass-basil tea and a hot stroll around the garden, we were summoned back to the kitchen to start on our desserts. Thai desserts are very simple, and Chuck's Mango and Sticky Rice was only finished before my Pumpkin in Coconut Milk because pumpkin takes a bit of cooking to soften. Our last and final creation was Pad Thai for Chuck, and Spring Rolls for me. I have to say, I did a beautiful job rolling my spring rolls. They were tight and symmetrical and oh so pretty! Chuck's Pad Thai was tossed into a baggie and tied off, as was my Pumpkin in Coconut Milk and the Spring Rolls. Thai take-away is kinda fun because they put the food into clear plastic bags and tie them off so that they are full of air, like a balloon. If you shake it, the food-stuffs inside bounce around freely. I got to learn how to do this, and made our baggies nice and balloon-y. I felt all Thai. So that was that. We hopped back in the songthaew and were trucked back into town to be dropped off at our respective guesthouse. Chuck and I ate our bagged food a little while later and were delighted to find that it was all quite delicious. We even got a cookbook for all our hard work. What a fun day!

The 4th was another day of drinking. It started out fine as Chuck and I went out for breakfast and then looked for a place where Chuck could get a shave. Ever since he got his face shaved for him in Bangkok he hasn't wanted to do it on his own. That night was Kat's last night in town and the plan was to meet at the burger place to celebrate the good times and forget all the bad times (although there were no bad times I could remember). The party moved itself to the roof-top bar (against Tom's objections) where we had some buckets. I made claims that I could drink a bucket in under five minutes (or was it three...) and was egged on by a few people, but I wasn't stupid enough to try. I mean, I totally could have done it, but I would have really regretted it the next morning. Then onto the whiskey van, some random club, and finally ended up at Randy's house. We were all over the place! I hope Kat had a good night!

The next day brought the event I had been looking forward to since arriving in Chiang Mai: the Flower Festival. We went down to what I thought was the main festival area, only to find myself mildly disappointed. I mean, there were some nice parade floats, a photo spot decorated with flowers, and a few vendors selling plants, clothes, and food. But it wasn't what I was expecting. I was imagining rows of home-grown prize orchids and a Sunday Market-like atmosphere. But we walked around and I appreciated what was there. We got some noodles and I bartered myself a new skirt. Skirts are a great thing to have in Thailand, where you're pants feel more like sticky paper than jeans. We watched some singing and dancing performances that were happening on the stage. The costumes were brilliant, but the dancing was subpar. I have yet to see any truly good dance routines in Thailand. Well, their boy-bands on the music video channel are alright. At least they're synchronized and dance with sharp energy. The live performances I've seen have been sluggish and not together. Not that I could do any better mind you. I'd look like a buffoon up there (no offense to any buffoons reading this - you guys are fabulous). That was about it for the 5th.

I dragged Chuck back to the flower festival on the 6th. We were lucky that we had arrived when we did, because the parade was going by, showing off all the floats that had been decorated with flowers. Just flowers! Nothing else! They were all amazing in my opinion, but some were more fabulous than others. These, of course, were the winners of the float contest. After getting bored with the parade (it was hot, the floats started to look the same, and I couldn't get a good photo-taking position) we got some festival food and I haggled myself a green, many-stranded bracelet. I haggled her down from 150 to 70 baht, which made me feel like a Jedi mind trickster. But she gave in to 70 so fast that I suspect I was still played... Oh well. When we got back to our guesthouse we were asked by the super nice lady-owner of the the place if we were going to watch the Flower Festival beauty contest that night. By the end of our conversation with her we had learned that there was an even bigger set-up on the other side of town where the prize winning flowers thst I had been hoping for were being show-cased. That was what I wanted to see! So we relaxed for the rest of the day and at dusk headed out to the big festival. It was pretty crowded at the edge of the market, where we started, and as we walked towards the center of the festival, passing vendors selling the same vendor-stuff as usual (there were a lot more plant sellers than usual though) the crowds grew until at the center, we were pushing through, shoulder to shoulder. The food stands went on as far as we could see to our left, plants on display on our right, and down the center were the flower decorated floats we had seen earlier in the parade. We passed through the childrens' section where there was a bouncy house set up, slides and swings, and even a goldfish scooping game. Eventually we tumbled out the other end of the festivities feeling a little disheveled, but energized at the same time, and kept walking towards one of the old city gates to meet Tom for dinner. Chuck and I wandered around the nearby Night Market for a bit because we were still early, but eventually we met up with Tom and dinner ensued. They were both in the mood for something spicy, and I figured maybe I could handle the spice, so i went along with it. First we got a green papaya salad (thin strips of not-yet-ripe papaya mixed with various spices and an uncooked crab), followed by some pad ga prao (stir fried meat with holy basil) gap prik (with chilies). There was some other meal involved as well, but what with my brain being on fire I can't remember what it was. I could hardly eat the food. I tried, but it burned too much. How do people eat stuff like that?? Such good flavors killed by nerve-deadening spices! It reminded me of Achara's curry. Delicious but dangerous. Very dangerous. We had a few drinks at the Chill Out bar next to our guesthouse, where we met up with Randy, Chris, Chris's wife, and a pleasantly crazy Irish friend. We kept it low key though and after a few fruity, weak drinks called it a night.

The 7th brought even more Flower Festival fun. Chuck and I stuffed ourselves silly on festival foods and I got to take pictures of all the beautiful plants that had been groomed and grown for the contests. The orchids were by far my favorite. They're such lovely, interesting plants. On the way out of the festival we got ripped off when we bought some mini bottles of alcohol. Here we thought we were getting a good deal when in fact we were getting colored water. You live, you learn.

Some of you might remember the Super Bowl being on the 7th, but for us it was on the 8th. Bright and ridiculously early in the morning. We woke up at 5:30 AM and stumbled our way through the still-dark streets to one of the few guesthouses that was going to be open and showing the game. Tom and Randy were there, as planned, drinking well needed cups of coffee and waiting for the game to start. There was a "cover charge" of sorts that we had to pay, but it included breakfast so it was alright. It was cold that morning too. I had on three layers of clothing and was still cold. Even a few hours after dawn the sun hadn't managed to warm the city up at all. I didn't know weather in Thailand could feel like that! We watched the game, got excited a couple of times, had breakfast, a bloody mary, etc. I hardly remember the actual game, but I remember having a nice time. That evening we met Tom (Randy never showed, bum) for quiz night at a place near our guesthouse. We were horrible, but it was lots of fun making up goofy answers to the random questions. I think the other team who had to "grade" our answers must have thought we were idiots. However, I can't say I feel too dumb for not knowing everything like some of the other teams. I like to think I'd feel like a useless know-it-all if I actually had so much useless trivia locked away in my head. However, I don't really have any special useful information locked up there either... After our horrible loss we headed to Reggae Alley to drown our sorrows. It was a pretty happening place with some decent music going on. I was mildly shocked to see a five year old boy out at midnight trying to sell who-knows-what to all the bar customers. I found him endearing because when told "No thanks" he didn't leave, but began playing in the sand with his toes (the floor of the bar was all sand). It made me suspect that he wasn't really interested in selling crap and would rather have been off playing. Big surprise there. Ah well. At least he wasn't being cracked under a whip (at least he didn't seem to be).

On the 9th Chuck and I finally got off our butts to do some more sight-seeing. We rented a scooter which Chuck drove around a bit on his own to get the feel of before I climbed on behind him. He drove us around the moat that surrounds the Old City of Chiang Mai, practicing changing the gears with his foot, controlling the speed, and braking without tossing us off. Once he had that down, we headed off into the hills just outside of the city where a number of popular tourist sites are to be found. The idea was to visit the big temple known as Doi Suthep, but on the way we saw a sign for a waterfall pointing off to the left. We stopped in and followed the short foot-path to where the water spilled gently over the rocks. It wasn't grand at all, but it was pretty. What I really liked about the place though, was the fun orb-weaver spider hanging upside down in the shrubs and the Tokay Gecko hanging out on the trunk of a tree. The same kind of gecko we had seen snapping up flying bugs back in Kanchanaburi. I was just merrily walking along the path when I suddenly remembered I should keep my eyes open for wildlife. I looked to my left and BAM! There he was not five feet from me, frozen in an attempt to become invisible. By the time I had gotten my camera out of my bag he had moved into the safety of a knot in the tree, making my photo rather boring. In the process of trying to zoom and get the lens focused (stupid finicky camera) he had run away completely. Slippery sucker. We stopped into another nearby temple that was still under construction. The main temple building was filled with bamboo scaffolding, men perched haphazardly about the room putting the finishing touches on the colorful decoration. It looked like it would be a pretty nice place once finished. Chuck drove us further along the winding mountain road and occasional views of the distant city popped into view where the trees had been cleared from the side of the road. We stopped at one look out point where a wooden platform had been built to offer a commanding view of the city. After 15 minutes we arrived at the big Doi Suthep. It was a bit like a theme park in that you had to pass down a tunnel of vendors in order to get to the temple. I found the most impressive part of the place to be the twin serpents that flanked the long set of stairs leading up to the building. Did I mention that the stairway was long? Cause it was long. I had to stop twice along the way to catch my breath. The temple was like a temple. There was a big bell, lots of statues, a plastic emerald buddha. It didn't take long to look around and get our fill. We decided to finish up our outing with a trip to the zoo. We chose not to take the metro/tour bus that drives around the zoo, thinking that the place would be walkable like a lot of other zoos I've been to. It was, but barely so. There were lots of hills and long stretches of road between the sets of exhibits. We managed, although every time one of those tour buses drove by we got bewildered looks from everyone on board. The zoo itself was pretty good though! The animal displays were attractive and well set up I thought. We got to feed the giraffes which was very cool. It was a lot more similar to feeding an elephant than I thought it would be. I would hold out a piece of unpeeled banana and his rough, purple, long muscle of a tongue would loll its way out of his mouth, wrap itself around the food and snap it all back in. Feeding animals like that makes ya feel like a kid again. We got videos of the feeding too: here I am feeding him and here's Chuck. The zoo also had some neurotic orangutans, daft emus, sleeping koalas, and skittish deer. We paid extra to go into the panda exhibit, which was like visiting a terminally ill celebrity. We had to step in a pool of antibacterial liquid to clean our shoes and they taped the flash on my camera down. Once inside we got to see just one lazy panda, sleeping with his dirty butt pointed in our direction. Did you know they have a 24-hour panda channel in Thailand? It's filmed from the Chiang Mai Zoo! However, it seems all the activity that happens on it is behind the scenes and not out in the public viewing area. Boo. There's a lovely aquarium at the zoo as well, with a nautilus, sea horses, an adorable hermit crab, and some other fun stuff. In the bird exhibit area we were treated to the mating rituals of the peacocks. The beautiful man-peacock was busy strutting around all the dull looking ladies, his tail feathers open and quivering. One of the peahens found something tasty lodged in his little bird anus and began pecking around in there. It must have been really good because she went back for more. Again and again. It was pretty gross. We ended up staying until closing time and were ushered out on one of those tram buses. And after all that we still went out with Tom, Randy, and Sai! Sai had yet another friend visiting her from out of town, so we got to meet another new person. Her friend had a little boy who was cute and wildly energetic. He was a ladies man and even gave me a kiss on the cheek before leaving. Maybe it was just my night with kids though, because even Sai's daughter played with me. She got it in her head that she could use a fork to brush peoples hair and chose me as her guinea pig. She was so gentle and careful while she was combing my hair, making sure not to poke me or stick the fork in my eye. After dinner we went to Sai's house and hung out talking on her roof patio until it was quite late.

The 10th was a simple day of cart food and fruity drinks. Nothing special.

On the 11th we decided we'd better look for a way back to Bangkok, since we were supposed to be leaving the next day. The tourist shops all offered the same overnight bus, which is not what we wanted. Finally resorting to going to the bus station itself to get tickets got us the bus we wanted: an AC morning bus. We had a sort of goodbye lunch with Tom at an Isaan restaurant (Isaan is the north-eastern region of Thailand). It was good food, but much more lime-y than I was used to. Next thing was to extend our visas. It cost us a pretty penny, but if wanted to hang out in Thailand any longer we'd have to do it! It was a relief to have it off our shoulders once we were finished though. And that night, when we informed our hotel that we were going to be leaving the next day, they gave us each a free drink! I thought that was pretty great of them.

And on the 12th we packed everything up, checked out, and hauled ourselves down to the bus station. The bus ride was as comfortable as it could be, with good, strong AC. Chuck and I had a good time making fun of the sappy Thai music videos they were playing on the TV. It seems that Thai music videos have two basic requirements: crying and painful love triangles. And more than one video ends with someone being hit by a car and presumably dying. They're soooo melodramatic! The bus also showed this really weird movie with a crazy demon lady chasing all these people around their village. It sounds like it might be scary, but it was definitely more of a spoof. Everyone over acted ridiculously and there was farting and silliness gong on all over the place. Between the movies, music videos, and sleeping we were in Bangkok again before we knew it!

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