Thursday, October 27, 2011

Day 14 - 16: Chiang Mai Trekking and a Rest Day

We spent a wonderful, if exhausting, two days trekking near some Chiang Mai villages. After booking it through our guesthouse (Libra), we got up at 7:30am and headed straight to Mork Fa waterfall, which was magnificent. I think I preferred it to Erawan waterfall, it seemed a lot less touristy. In fact, we didn't see another tourist or group for the entire trip - one of the reasons we went with Libra. After the waterfall, we went to a hot spring which was incredibly hot - we couldn't sit down in it for more than 5 minutes without getting cooked. The amount of heat that is generated by a geyser is amazing, I wasn't expecting it at all. Once we were done there, the actual trekking started. This was tough. It took us about 3 and a half hours of walking through jungle, with 4 - 5 five minute breaks. Most of it was hilly (up and down) and whilst the distance to our destination as the crow flies was 9km, we must have walked a good 11-12km, if not more due to the path we took. The heat was sweltering, and we were thankful that most of the walking was out of the direct sunlight, as it would have been unbearable. We visited two villages which were mostly empty as the villagers were out farming, and took in some great sights of the mountains. However, we were not smelling our best when we finally reached the Karen village at about 5:30pm. Our guide was a Karen native called Noo, who had left to help run the trek with the guesthouse - he was great fun. He cooked us some very tasty dinner (chicken and potato curry, stir-fried chicken and lots and lots of rice) and taught us the word "Abuya" (a-boo-ya) which means Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, Cheers, and a number of other things. Quite handy really. He also gave us some "happy water" to try...this is basically home-brewed white spirit with an ever-so-slight fruit tang, and was one of the strongest drinks I've ever tasted. We built a fire, and sat around playing cards with the other trekkers who had joined us at the Libra - Paul, Paul, Tom, Tom (all 4 from the UK), and Monique - a UK-born American who works as a professional clown in Colorado. They were a great group, and we had a lot of fun over the two days.

At about 9:30pm the lights suddenly all went out, and we were plunged into pitch dark. This was probably because the village uses solar power to generate was pretty terrifying when it happened though. We'd brought torches, but didn't spend too much longer outside as the various bugs floating around made a bee-line straight for the torchlight. We did get to see a firefly though, something I'd never seen before. Our lodging was a hut in the village, furnished with sleeping mats, a couple of pillows and some old duvets, all covered with mosquito nets. It wasn't the best night's sleep I'd had, but the trek had tired me out enough to get a good 7 hours before morning.

The next day we had breakfast (a mountain of toast and fresh fruit) and then the elephants were brought down from the mountain to get washed in the river. I got up on one of them and poured water over it, I'm not sure if it minded or not but it didn't try to shake me off so I took that to be a good sign. After the elephant bath we then got to ride them. They really are beautiful, gentle creatures and are very intelligent. The one Gilly and I were riding grabbed and broke off a nearby branch with its trunk and proceeded to scratch its head with it. After an hour or so riding, we came back to the village and fed bananas to them which was hilarious. Our elephant crammed loads into its mouth and then took some more off Gilly and held them curled in its trunk whilst munching the current mouthful...greedy sod.

We headed back to the river and got on a bamboo raft. This is basically 19 bamboo logs secured by what looked to be banana leaf. It was controlled by Noo at one end and another villager at the other, with the rest of us sat in a line down the middle. It must have taken a good 2.5 hours to get down the river; the two guides were fishing with a bit of fishing line and a carrot attached to a bamboo cane. Noo caught nothing, but the other guy - who couldn't have been older than 13 - managed to get a fish. He held it in his mouth until it died, then tied it to the raft. Lunch for him was sorted, then. I had a go fishing and managed about as well as Noo. I don't think it's a sport I'll ever fancy doing. Unfortunately disaster struck on the river when Gilly slipped getting on the raft, and lost her sunglasses. If anyone finds them in the river, please let me know. Otherwise, there's probably going to be a really cool fish swimming around right now.

After lunch (noodles, chicken, veg, and a papaya salad which was insanely hot), we got kitted out for some whitewater rafting on the Mae Tang River. Now, our insurance covers us up to Grade 3 whitewater rafting but because of the recent floods in Thailand, the river was pretty turbulent, and was around Grade 4...we decided to do it anyway. I'm glad we did as it was fantastic. The only other rafting we've done was in Wales which was about as calm as you could get - it was good, but not particularly adrenaline-filled. This was the other end of the scale, and whilst we didn't fall in or tip over, we got a massive soaking on a number of occasions down the 10km trip we took.

Wet and tired, we piled into the van and headed home. It was an amazing trip, and we were glad we took the opportunity to do it. It was also very reasonably priced - about 50 GBP each for the whole thing, including rafting, food, accommodation, the works. Outstanding. The shower I had in the guesthouse was very, very welcome though. We'd also amassed a decent pile of laundry to do so we gave that to our guesthouse to do all at once rather than have us try and scrub it in the sink. Handwashing is OK for the odd thing, but sometimes it's worth letting the professionals do it, especially if the clothes smell as bad as ours did...

Today we are taking it easy. We've moved a couple of doors down to SK Guesthouse which has a pool and is also cheaper. The 4 guys we went trekking with have also moved, so we'll be heading out for some beers and cards tonight I think. We went shopping in the main Chiang Mai shopping centre and I picked up another t-shirt, but Gilly had no luck finding sunglasses she liked so we'll probably have to wait until the Sunday market again.

As expected, the monstrosity of awfulness which is Santander has screwed us yet again by not letting us withdraw money on our debit card from ATMs. This is despite me confirming twice that we were going travelling. I'm now going to have to get a SIM card and call their horrendous customer service line to try and get things rectified. It makes my blood boil how utterly incompetent one bank can be. Fortunately we've got enough cash to keep us going for about another week, but whoever picks up the phone when I call is going to get an earful. If I can give you one piece of consumer advice it would be don't ever, ever, EVER use Santander. Ever.

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