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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


You have seen the pictures (hopefully), now for the story.

Before that, though, here's my take on how not to get to Chiang Mai.

If you are the adventure seeker, like your rail to be grounded to the track then stick to the train. But if you are going by the account that Thailand's trains are better than India's, then take a moment to pause, read and (dis)agree.

Having covered the length and breath of India right from Jammu Tawi to Kanya Kumari, from Guwahati to Deolali thanks to Dad's well-timed military transfers, the best part of my childhood was spent in Bharat's railways. If we weren't moving house, we would be on our vacations to visit the grand-parents or if Dad was posted to the icy climes of Kashmir, then we only got the summer to reach him and make the most of the two months that we got to spend with him annually. Each of those trips involved long train rides, which before the arrival of the air-conditioned coaches, was done in the comfort of the first class coupes with Mum. For days and nights, those wonderful coupes would become semi-homes, complete with our books, toys, the home-baked cakes, mom's sketch book and so much more. We'd hear lovely stories before both my sis and I nodded off to sleep. Of course, when the entire regiment made the move from part of the country, the same first class compartment would come alive with the sounds of all the army brats in tow.

It was a fabulous feeling. Being together, exploring so many parts of the country. Yes, I agree trains are the best way to see a country, but comfort when it comes to travel is now important for me. Gone are my back-packing days. In fact, I bid them adieu to them after that horrendous experience of being caught in the middle of a flood and a landslide enroute to Dalhousie. Never again did I pack my bags the way I did then, after that trip.

So when some pals, mentioned the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai as the best way to travel, we took the gamble. You guessed it - it didn't pay off. For starters, we didn't get the sleeping berths, it was a second class coach, all seating. Which could have been fine, had the chairs been in perfect order. Half of them were off their hinges, others seemed on the verge of falling off. Just when you got seated, one bump and the tray tables came right down on your arm. It didn't help, if all through the journey, you had your three year old going in and between his nap and your back getting knocked thanks to all the twists and turns along the way.

So I'm not about to get on to one of those trains any time soon. Which is why one of the first things we did when we finally reached Chiang Mai was cancel the return journey to Bangkok and get ourselves on a budget flight. Ended up being a smart move since it gave us an extra day to explore Thailand's second-largest city and culturally significant city.

Soon as we stepped out of the train station, Bala and I knew this would turn out to be love at first sight. The city has a striking mountain backdrop, seeps with history and is said to be home to over 300 temples. Considered the gateway to Northern Thailand, the city was founded way back in 1296. That part of this stunning city's history still survives. Doi Suthep, topped by one of Thailand's holiest wats, rises behind the city, providing a dramatic backdrop and fine views of the city. It sits a good 800 kilometres away from Bangkok, seems to lack all its apparent business - which is a great thing, as it frees you up to be one with yourself and nature. The city stands on the Ping river, which is a tributary of the Chao Phraya river and merits a ride on the nice dinner cruise.

This one is a hit with kids and adults alike. What's not to like about seeing elephants paint, engage in a sporting game of soccer, or lift you off your feet with their trunks? Then if you have survived all of that and fed them enough, brace yourself for a two hour jungle safari. There are longer safaris for those who have stronger backs and braver hearts. I was shrieking half the time, with my my six year-old braveheart telling me very Shah Rukh style : "Stop being a scary cow, Main Hoon Na" (I am there). Once you get used to the perpetual swaying, stop looking down and brace yourself for the next elephantine step, you'll be just fine. Never mind what it does to an already weak back.

This could perhaps be one of the finest chances to bring out the Tom Sawyer in you. There are no life jackets, just a bamboo raft, two long bamboo sticks and two friendly boat men, who will give you, your three year old and even your dog a chance to a longish cruise along the river. They will spring to the rescue, the minute you look like you will hit that threatening rock. We lived to survive, so take your chances.

There are real treks, mountain biking, white water rafting, quad driving and so much more. We've saved it all for another day.

This is an absolutely fabulous experience. Despite the summer sun, they are all dressed in their traditional finery, with some absolutely stunning crafts on display.

Speaking of which.... if you happen to be into pottery, arts and crafts, Chiang Mai is a true paradise. We spent a day exploring the silk, silver, bronze, pottery, celadon, lacquer and umbrella factories. What makes a trip to each of these places special is how they take you through the whole process of how the things are made to the final product. So once you are through with seeing the silk worms, the painstaking effort to weave a seemingly simple design to the stunning silk products, there is absolutely no way of walking out of the store without buying a thing or two. The friendly folks even let children give the loom a hand. At the umbrella factory, they even packed lots of left over paper and taught Aneesha how to make her own umbrellas at home. We are not quite close to the finished product yet, but it's a start.

If all of that is not enough, there is always the Night Bazaar, which is totally different from what you see in Bangkok. Lots more arty stuff to be bought here.

I skipped this one, but Bala and Aneesha had a blast doing the market tour, buying the stuff for their dishes, cooking it and eating it too. We got treated to Tom Yam soup soon as we ended the vacation... I'm not complaining....

Other folks who have visited Tamarind Village have said it before, I'm just not in a mood to disagree. It was in one word 'Excellent'. Great breakfast, superb location...
If you are still thinking, Chiang Mai is just a flight away. We'll be back for another trip soon, this one to explore Chiang Rai and Lampang together with more of Chiang Mai.

With that I mark the end of my Thailand diaries, back to some regular blogging now.