Sunday, July 08, 2007

Well, I am sadly overdue for posting on a variety of things...but after chatting with a friend on Skype earlier today, I realized just how busy I have been for the last, uh, 3? months.

So, let's go back in time together to April 2007 and take a look at some of the exciting things that I have almost completely forgotten about in the centuries that have passed since then and now. So for starters: Chiang Mai, Thailand (Actually, this was May, so I'm doing even worse than I thought...)

I spent the last two weeks of April inside a climate-controlled conference room in a 4-star hotel in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. That actually wasn't a bad thing as a tropical depression had decided to make itself at home in Thailand for those two weeks. But after the conference it seemed to let up a bit, just in time for a friend from my Madagascar history to come and go on tour to the north of Thailand.

We flew out the next morning to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The rain stayed with us, but only in the mornings and evenings - the days were perfect for being tourists. Chiang Mai reminds me oddly of Minoqua, Wisconsin with elephants. Well, of course, there aren't any elephants in town, but the town itself is cute and well-groomed with lots of little shops and inns and the city is bordered by a canal system dressed up with trees and flowers and fountains and the like. And it is definitely tourist central. For anybody wanting to do Southeast Asia for the first time, Chiang Mai is the perfect starting point. It is totally made for easy touring - all you have to do is get there and get a room, and then you can do anything without preplanning it all. We had three full days and did three different tours. And here are pictures from each of them:

Day one: Around Chiang Mai

First was a drive up into the cloud-encased mountains to visit a Hmong "traditional village." I'll confess this was more of a disappointment - I literally couldn't find a village for the bus parking lot and all the souvenir shacks lining the few streets. What I did see of actual dwellings looked oddly like any village in Southeast Asia with close-built wooden houses, cooking fires and people driving around on motorbikes. Oh, well, the shopping was fairly good...

Second stop was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. "Wat" means "temple" in Thai, and if there is one thing Thailand has in prodigious quantity, it is temples. But this temple is one of the most sacred temples in the country - one of the few where dress code for foreign visitors is actually enforced, despite the Thais' almost Norwegian dislike for being demanding of their guests. Indeed this was an impressive temple, with 300 steps up to the top (or an enclosed tram for the overheated and lazy tourists) and monuments to the sacred white elephant that lead the king to the place for building a temple.

Gold-gilding is ubiquitous of any semi-important or religious site in Thailand. Gold paint is liberally substituted at public levels nowadays, but all of the taller structures out of immediate reach are (according to our guides) still the real thing.

Day 2: Day trip to the "Golden Triangle"

The so-called "Golden Triangle" is the three-way boarder region of the countries of Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos. There's lots of history to this area, but the border itself is made pretty clear thanks to the convergence of a couple of rivers, one of which becomes the Mekong and eventually wanders its way all the way down to the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. The region is pretty well fraught with ilict activities of every kind, including trafficking of drugs and people, refugee/illegal immigrant crossings and black market trade. Still it's a pretty area, if you're able to ignore the pristine river banks marred by large casinos in each country for attracting more tourists to the site.

We were able to take a "quick trip" via speedboat into Laos. I didn't manage to get my passport stamped as I sort of hoped, but there was plenty of opportunity for shopping on the quiet far shore (surprise, surprise?), and not much else. But, I swear! I have been to Laos! And I have the canvas bag stamped with "Laos" to prove it!

Crystal standing under the proof of being in Laos PDR

Crystal and Erica standing on the riverbank, waiting to be shuttled back to Thai.

Day 3: Elephant Camp

So on the third day we finally had the chance to do exactly what Crystal had come another 1/4 way around the world for: ride an elephant.

Crystal had a whole morning with elephants - feeding the baby, watching the elephant theater, and then finally the highly anticipated elephant ride. We traded cameras with other girls on our tour - their elephant followed ours, so we have lots of good pictures of the rear-end of our elephant! Then, as the bonus after going all the way out to the elephant camp, we got shuttled off to ride bamboo rafts down a river...followed by an ox-cart ride through the forest. Ahh, how romantic. Ahh, how much like what is called "life" in Madagascar. The afternoon was spent first chilling (or cooking, as the case was, in the sun) next to a pool at our restaurant hotel, followed by a visit to the butterfly and orchid garden. The orchids were quite pretty...sadly, it was the wrong season for butterflies.

The next day we flew back to Bangkok, and then after one last day in Thailand to get our visas (and to eat some really good Thai food...not like we hadn't been doing that all along),

and then we were off to Vietnam (and more food).

With only a couple of days in Vietnam, we stuck to Hanoi (and the Hanoi traffic). We visited a silk village, did lots of shopping, saw the water puppets (a Hanoi must-see), explored the surrounding countryside, and Crystal sampled Vietnamese square cake - a concept she is determined to take back to Madagascar to introduce variations on "rice."

(ahh, least we drive on the right side of the street!)

(a picturesque cemetery in the rice paddies)

(Silk loom at the silk village)

Mmm, sticky-rice square cake!

The Vietnamese version of a temple/pagoda - no gold gilt!!!

And then, it was over. Crystal had to fly back to Madagascar to finish her PCV experience, and I returned to work. But not to a boring life: next post - Ha Long Bay!

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