Chiang, Chaing, Chaing. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. Chiang, I now know means ‘city’ and these three cities are all a time honoured part of the ‘banana pancake circuit’. The banana pancake circuit being the well worn route followed by tourists through this part of South East Asia. It is marked by the constant trail of banana (or pineapple as is our preference) pancakes served by restaurants oriented to western clientele throughout the region.
But banana pancakes were not all that was on the menu in the chiangs. In Chiang Mai our feet were good for a snack as well. If you’re a fish that is. Strolling the streets one afternoon Amy noticed tanks full of little fish with a bench seat positioned so that your feet could hang in the water. ‘What’s that and can we try it?’ she asked. Sure why not. When in Rome…
So we indicated to the attendant Thai folk we would like to stick our feet in with the little fish, slid our shoes off, planted our behinds on the bench and dipped our feet in the water. The fish, hundreds of them, swarmed; attaching their little mouths all over our feet and legs and coating them with leech like protuberances.
It tickled like crazy as they darted and nibbled every nook and cranny, getting right in between each toe. I burst our laughing and couldn’t stop. I laughed like I haven’t laughed for years (see the video – I hope it works). Deep belly aching laughs. Emma, Amy and Oliver soon followed suit, but I’m not sure if they were laughing at me or the fish. It stopped the street. Passers by halted in their tracks to laugh at us, or with us, as we laughed at the fish. Diners in the restaurant opposite stopped eating to watch us with amusement. The day spa owners urged us to use our antics to rope in more customers.
Feet munching that day was preceded by eating of another kind. The sort of almost home cooked meal that comes with Thai cooking classes. It’s all about ‘emotion’ our instructor told us in her broken English. ‘No measuring, you just add the flavours according to your emotion. If your food is no good – no one to blame but your emotion’.
We must have been in a good mood, all of us, because our food was great! We pounded out curry pastes, deep fried spring rolls and banana (a particularly tasty treat) and stir fried noodles and other dishes. But no banana or pineapple pancakes, this was the real Thai deal. Another of Amy’s great ideas on things to do.
We needed good food in Chiang Mai to keep us warm. We went out of our way to get accommodation with a pool only to arrive in the middle of a cold snap that had the thermometer hanging around 10 degrees with cloudy, rainy and overcast skies. It rained so much one afternoon Emma and I brought plastic polka dotted rain ponchos! Amy and Oliver had raincoats. The ponchos worked but I couldn’t bring myself to be photographed in one. Good thing we don’t know anybody here.
The elephants around Chiang Mai also seem to have a healthy diet. This we discovered through a visit to the ‘Elephant Poo Poo Paper’ park, which has perfected the art of turning elephant poo into paper. The whole concept appealed very strongly to particular portions of our party and we spent several hours participating in the process and making our own elephant poo poo paper cards.
By the time we hit Chiang Rai my appetite for walking around crazy busy urban environments had well and truly passed. I hit a bit of a low patch. Maybe it was the Chiang Mai weather. Maybe it was the rolling in to town but not really knowing why we had come. For the life of me I couldn’t think how I was going to enjoy three more days hanging out in another chiang with its whizzing scooters, congested footpaths and all the rest.
Our Chiang Rai residence did its best to compound my low mental blood sugar. The Akha House River Lodge was a lesson in do your research before you book. Sometimes, even in Thailand there is a reason why a hotel is cheap. We arrived home one evening to discover we had locked the key to one of our hotel rooms, in the room (most hotels don’t have rooms with four beds so you have to get two).
No worries right? Just pop down to reception and get them to open up with a spare. I however almost went spare when reception’s answer to our dilemma was to pull out a carving knife and a fork and spend 15 minutes trying to break in to our room for us! I couldn’t work out whether to be delighted or furious that they couldn’t get in! I kid you not, they did not have a spare key. I’m pretty sure they also didn’t have a mop, feather duster, bathroom cleaner or plumber.
When it became apparent we were looking at a night sleeping on the streets I took matters into my own hands, climbed the 2-metre-high wall separating one balcony from the next and lifted the glass sliding doors at the rear of the rooms off their tracks. Problem solved, but add security to the list of features missing from this particular residence.
It is however curious how each day unfolds. Four different sets of ideas on what we could, should or would like to do together with the unknown opportunities a new place has to offer, means it is impossible to predict what will unfold.
In Chiang Rai opportunity lead us to a hire car and we soon left the buzzing city streets and drove off to the green countryside beyond. Here we found twisting, winding, mountainous roads with tea plantations and perilous drops on the side of ridgeways, hot springs (hot enough to boil an egg), rice paddies, crazy White Temples and waterfalls in the jungle.
Even Chiang Rai itself lured us happily back into its fold with its Saturday night walking market. The main street closed for a kilometre or so and a mobile shopping strip emerged from the tarmac. Food stalls and stalls of every other kind soon abounded and the locals all emerged in their droves to create a really festive atmosphere. There was literally dancing in the street! Lanterns lit the night along with fairy lights in the trees from the accompanying flower festival that also happened to be in town. It was soon hard to imagine why I had felt any doubt.
The next day a little girl on the bus from to Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong had clearly eaten her fill as she threw up all over her poor mother. But hey, all we parents have been there. This however was not enough to put me off the ride. It was the coolest bus I’ve been on. I’m sure it was built in the nineteen sixties. It was tumble down and rickety and packed full of locals and westerners like us on the banana pancake trail. The door immediately adjacent my seat opened and closed at random as we whizzed along ensuring a plentiful supply of fresh air and no unpleasant smells from the poor little girl that had been sick. The spew itself was washed away by the attendant by pouring a bottle of water all over the floor as we drove along.
In Chiang Khong we experienced the benefits of a more carefully chosen accommodation choice as we checked into the Teak Garden Hotel. An ‘infinity pool’ perched above the Mekong River provided Amy, Oliver and I a beautiful view while Emma tapped away at the laptop at the poolside lounge, planning our next moves. The sun set casting a golden light across the river and onto the buildings in Laos on the other side. Tomorrow we would be there, all going smoothly at our first border crossing that is. But that’s another story.