Arrived at Libra Guesthouse after a short flight and taxi ride, at about 11pm. Not a good start, the room wasn't bad but we had twin beds despite booking a double room, and were joined by a cockroach in the bathroom. Woken at 6:30am by people walking past our room outside (we were on the ground floor), talking, making noise...and then the workmen across the road started up. But then things got better.
Dao is the lady that runs the guesthouse, and as soon as I told her we didn't sleep too well, she apologised and immediately moved us to a double room on the second floor. She had been having an argument with her staff about whether we were two guys or a couple and eventually settled on the former (note to self - specify this when emailing guest houses in future). She then got out a map, and sat with us for about 20 minutes pointing out the highlights of Chiang Mai, things to do and see, and places to eat. We've booked on a 2 day/1 night trek with the guesthouse which promises to travel a less well-trodden route and includes a stop at a waterfall (can't get enough of those...) a stop at a hot spring, a trek with some elephants, some bamboo rafting and an overnight stay at a Karen village. To date there's only 3 of us booked on the trip, but a few Germans may be joining us. It'll either be Tuesday or Wednesday depending on when we can get the numbers together. It's pretty reasonable too - it works out at about 70 quid all in, including food and accommodation.
We checked out the Chiang Mai cultural centre yesterday afternoon which told the story of Chiang Mai's history and had plenty of things to read and listen to, but it was presented in quite a dry format and wasn't as stimulating as the counterpart in Bangkok. We also visited Chiang Man, a fairly ancient wat on the way there (almost 800 years old).
In the late afternoon, we went back to the guesthouse to sit in some hammocks in the shade; the heat has been blisteringly hot, and really takes it out of you. We met a fellow resident - Hayley, from Melbourne - and decided to join her in the evening as she was headed to the massive Sunday market that Chiang Mai hosts each week. We met some of her friends en route: Eli and her partner Huey, and Eli's friend Anna, all from Australia. It's been great to chat with new people and get ideas of places to visit when we eventually head over there. We've all arranged to meet up for the Lantern Festival next Saturday, which promises to be excellent. We saw a few hundred of the lanterns set up next to the Three Kings monument in Chiang Mai, and I imagine they will look spectacular lit up.
The Sunday market was amazing. I cannot even fathom how people can cram so much "stuff" into one street. It's probably a good kilometre or two long, with arts, crafts, clothing and food all lining the street, and two huge food courts either side. Everything is crazily cheap, and pretty good quality too; I could quite easily see myself coming back with two massive suitcases and filling them with beautiful pictures, carvings and clothes. But unfortunately not on this trip! Gilly went with the intention of getting some light trousers, and succeeded. Somehow, a new dress also ended up getting purchased. Ah well, on her back be it. The food in the food courts was amazing. We ate some of the nicest samosas we've ever tasted, and filled up on various rices, chicken balls, odd sausage-type things and prawn toast. Delicious.
Today we went up to Doi Suthep and had a wander around; a lovely building, but something about the nature of the Buddhist culture makes me uneasy. Everything I've seen appears to revolve around money. Donation boxes line the walls, and giant "trees" made out of banknotes abound in many of the temples or wats we've visited. Locals come to pray to the Buddha and throw numbered sticks on the ground to get "lucky" numbers they can use to play the lottery, and hundreds of boxes promoting good fortune are available for you to buy anything from a long life to happiness (depending on the boxes you decide on). This clashes uncomfortably with the solid gold idols and monuments which are on display, as well as the stupid amount of wealth flaunted in the many, many palaces around the country. I make no secret of my atheism, but I feel that a religion which promotes the purchasing of happiness with hard currency is perhaps not as sacrosanct as it would like the wider world to believe. This is just my opinion, however.
We're heading to a little restaurant around the corner from the guesthouse tonight with Hayley for some yummy dinner. I probably don't need the qualifier...it's always yummy. We'll find out later if the trek is on for tomorrow, otherwise we'll probably head out of the old city and check out some of the outskirts. As we're going to be here until Saturday at least, we've got plenty of time to wander around at our leisure. It's nice not to feel rushed. Our visas expire on November 10th so we definitely need to have left and be in Laos before then.