How to Do Nothing in Thailand

 * Find my picture album on Flickr here*

After nearly a month in China, I felt like I needed a holiday from my travels. Gratefully, Thailand was right here for me.

I embarked on the first flight of my trip on the 5th of September, not knowing yet how long I would stay in Thailand. Between the South – islands and diving – or the North – mountains and relaxing – I had finally decided on the North. After China, I wanted to cool down and anyway, because of the pollution, I couldn’t breathe properly any more so  diving wouldn’t have been the smartest choice.

Colourful market in Chiang Mai
Colourful veggies in a market in Chiang Mai, where I attended a great cooking class

So after crossing Europe and Asia by land, I was kind of disappointed not being able to make it to Thailand without flying, but the Mekong boat trip just seemed way to dodgy to give it a try. And anyway, I had to move on to India soon for my internship, as soon as I got my visa!

Going further South in China by train and flying straight to Northern Thailand was probable not the cheapest options, but I am glad to have reduced the length of the flight and hence my carbon footprint. Also, it was awesome to visit the Guilin area in China with it postcard-like landscapes stretching all around you.

travel notebook watercolours beer and food
Stretching my beer and meal through a couple of hours, decorating my travel notebook while waiting for the bus!

The first thing that hit me about Thailand, was that people spoke English. The old man queuing at the airport spoke English, the ladies at the markets spoke English, the kids in the streets spoke English… what a change from China, where the “English speaking” salespeople wouldn’t speak English!

Chiang Mai

Thailand was supposed to be my holiday. So instead of doing loads of research about where to go and what to do, I just listened to my dear friend Audrey who made me a list of the places I would be going to and what to do there.

From the airport, it was quite an adventure to go into the city centre. It wasn’t that was away, only a couple of kilometres, but backpacker-style, I didn’t want to do it by taxi. Plus I still felt this lingering resentment towards taxi drivers from my awful experience in China.
So I went on to try to find the bus, which I never found. I eventually met a couple of Israelis who shared a taxi, and ended my journey in a songthaew, a pick-up truck turned into a kind of taxi. Now that was fun!

“I’d rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff”. Stamps backpackers felt like home for a few days, the friendly staff took care of my just like a family!

On my first day in Chiang Mai, I followed a fellow traveller to a cooking class. We were picked up at our hostel, brought to the market to learn about the local veggies, spices and herbs that make Thai food so delicious, then went to the cooking school itself to learn about the recipes. We got to chose 6 different dishes from spring rolls to mango sticky rice (my new favourite), not leaving curry paste aside.
I guess this is how my love affair with Thai food started.

Cooking class ingredients and utensils from Siam Garden cooking school, Chiang Mai, Thailand
As everything was prepared for us by a huge team of staff, this cooking class felt more like watching a Youtube cooking video and getting to eat the amazing food afterwards rather than actually learning how to cook.

The day after, with a whole songthaewful of backpackers from my hostel, we went swimming and cliff-diving in the Grand Canyon. This abandoned quarry had been turned into a swimming resort with high cliffs, bamboo rafts and warm water. We spent the afternoon relaxing in there and jumping from cliffs so-high-I-got-the-worst-wedgie-ever. As a huge storm was coming in and people were freaking out, I decided to go swim in between some of the highest walls to see how it was like on the other side. With nobody there apart from me and a reassuring stand-up-paddler, swimming in this deep blue water surrounded by bright red cliffs felt magical.

Cliff Diving in the great Grand Canyon, an amazing way to spend the day in Chiang Mai!
Cliff Diving in the great Grand Canyon, an amazing way to spend the day in Chiang Mai!

On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went to the Doi Inthanon Elephant Sanctuary. After a messy pick-up and a long drive, I finally got to the place. On our way, we saw some elephants all geared up for riding. We had been warned: to get an elephant to accept people on its back, it is violently beaten in its youth. So for seeing elephants, I preferred being more humane and going to a sanctuary where the elephants were well taken care of.

First, I went swimming in the river with the elephants, what an introduction! The huge mammals didn’t seem to care much about us being around and I was quite afraid of getting my feet squished. At the end of the bathing session, we did a photo shooting where the elephants trunks were used as water guns! Afterwards, I joined an other group to feed the elephants. They would eat the pieces of pumpkin and sugar cane out of our hands, feeling like they would eat our hands too! Some of them sneaked around me with their trunks to try stealing some food from my bag.

elephant kissing Chloe at the Doi Inthanon Elephant sanctuary
“Chup chup!” Who wants an elephant kiss?

My  trip to the sanctuary was only a half-day, so after a delicious lunch, we had to drive back to Chiang Mai. I had booked a bus to Pai in the afternoon and hoped to have some time to wander around in between.

I am almost ashamed of not having been to any temple in Chiang Mai, especially when later on I see some pictures of beautiful places I could’ve been to. But hey, it was my holiday, and I’m happy about what I did with it!

Baan Ping Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Well, actually I did see some temples, while wandering around, but haven’t tried going to the greatest ones! This is the Baan Ping Temple I found on my way around town.

Pai

Audrey had warned me: take only a few days in Chiang Mai then go to Pai, you’ll end up staying longer than you would have thought. Indeed, once I got there I felt that I could have stayed my whole life. I just felt at the right place in this relaxed atmosphere. And the food. Oh my. I would have brought Pai back home just for the food.

map view of the road from CHiang Mai to Pai with 762 curves
Audrey had also warned me about taking motion-sickness pills for the bus ride. I trusted her, and got some just in case. At first, on the map, the road seems OK. But when you zoom in, you understand how people could get sick! The locals proudly boast about their 762 curves on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai.

I had noticed a hand-drawn A4 sheet advertising a yoga/meditation homestay in Pai. I couldn’t decide between this place and the recommended Spicy Pai tree houses, but decided on the alternative Funhouse. I could always go to the other place if I felt like it!

The bus dropped us in a random place in Pai. Pai is not big, but when you don’t know anything about the place, it is still easy to get lost. Fortunately, there was a restaurant called Mama Falafel a dozen of metres away, so I had dinner there and used the wifi to contact James, the owner of the Funhouse, who would come to pick me up.

Art in Chai: kombucha and vegan chocolate cake
A typical break at Art in Chai: kombucha and vegan chocolate cake. I could spend hours wandering around Pai and sampling all the food I could find!

As soon as I met James, I got rocket-launched into Pai’s alternative culture by going to a cafe/pub and having a discussion with a 90 years old traveller who looked more like a pirate than anyone I have ever met (including the Jack Sparrow we once met in Lausanne). I could understand maybe 40% of what he was saying, but of what I understood, he seemed to have an greatly interesting life!

Pai's oldest temple
The oldest temple in Pai, which was close by to the Funhouse, in the ancient Pai village

 During my 5 days in Pai, James introduced me to meditation and energy-things like chakras and crystals. I went to a yoga class in Circus hostel. We rode to some hot pools in the back of the pick-up and went to jam sessions which were so chilled we could stay there for hours being happy about the moment. Also, I did get a Thai massage.

Every morning, we cooked breakfast: we put on some rice in the rice cooker, hunted for papayas with a bamboo pole and a blanket, then prepared the bananas and papayas for the “breakfast joke”. The rice is served with coconut milk, brown sugar and the fruits. Filling and delicious!

On my first day in the Funhouse, I was alone in the hostel. Then, the amazing Fluffy and Luke came in and we shared some great moments eating, listening to music and going to some crazy caves together.

Bamboo-raft ride inside of the cave
Bamboo-raft ride inside of the cave. A great experience but maybe not worth the super long ride in the back of a smelly songthaew for rushing through the caves in 15 minutes!
We never managed to get this all the way round, we'll have to come back!
We never managed to get this all the way round, we’ll have to come back!

Pai was so much about the food for me. Every meal and every snack was so delicious. From the cheap but amazing rice-paper veggie rolls on walking street to Burger Queen’s veggie patties, and from the super hot green curry to the vegan cakes and coffees, everything simply tasted so good. It has to do with the wide availability of vegan food all over the place, and the coconut milk they put in every dish. I loved it so much. If you ever go there, do run after the ice-cream man who is selling coconut milk ice creams for near to nothing from his tiny cart with a jingling bell.

I didn’t appreciate their beers though, so I was content with fruit juices, coffee and tea. On one evening, while we were playing along percussions during a jam session, I had a White Russian with coconut milk. This might be my new favourite cocktail.

papaya salad in Pai
What should we do with the big as unripe papayas we just hunted down from the tree? Papaya salad!

I had such a good time in Pai! And out of the list of the 20-or-so things to do in Pai, I did only one single thing! Let’s say that it was because the weather was terrible. It was. And I didn’t even mind.

Bangkok

Why did I come to Thailand in the first place? Oh yeah I remember, I have to get my passport!

Mum had done all the hard work at the visa office in Geneva and had managed to get my Indian visa done in my French passport as I have been travelling on my Kiwi passport. When my visa had finally been processed, she sent it to the friend-of-the-mother-of-a-kid-in-school. I thank the universe and our small world to have made this happen.

VIP Bangkok Bus Lines
My disappointing experience in a “VIP” night bus. At least I got tea.

I got on a night bus to Bangkok after winding down from Pai to Chiang Mai. Proud of myself, I even got an upgrade to a “VIP” bus, which I was told would have great reclining massage seats! Well, it wasn’t as comfortable as I was told, there was no massage to be heard of and the TV kept switching off. I guess I should have gone for the “Super VIP” bus!

Anyway, I got to Bangkok early in the morning, to realise after getting out of the bus that I had forgotten my ukulele on board! A couple of hours later, fortunately, I got it back. After a nap in my hostel (Sabye Club), I went on a walk around the place and to a temple, have lunch, then get back because it’s way too hot outside and I’m feeling light-headed. In the evening, I will be handled my precious passport. India, I’m coming!

passport and visa and gifts
A passport, a visa, and some cool gifts sneaked in by the twins and family!

It was interesting to see the “westernised” part of Thailand in Bangkok, a huge city with fridge-cool malls. In this place, I felt the meeting of the Asian and Western cultures, the traditional and backpacking culture, the corporate and spiritual coexisting in every place I went to. I can’t say I liked Bangkok, but it was a great place to experience.

river cruise in Bangkok
Not much time to see around, and it was way too hot, but this river cruise on the public transport boats was a neat thing to do!

The bus to go to the airport was one of my most stressful experiences of the trip. I left 5 hours early to find myself, 3 hours later, 3 kilometres away from the city centre, stuck in traffic. I did consider jumping out of the bus and getting on a crazy motorbike ride to get to the airport in time. But in the end, everything worked out well. I even had time to change to fresh clothes and spend every single baht I still had on a last tasty meal!

night sky by plane
India, here I come! Second flight of the trip, and last flight of the year?

There was only one thing on my to-do list for Thailand: learn how to ride a scooter. And I haven’t even done it.