The long weekend to Chiang Mai began with an equally long train journey. Harry and I ventured to the train station and a quick trip to 7-11 followed after we realised that our train had been delayed by 40 minutes, which at least meant we had a stock of food for the ride.
This was a very good decision, since we were 14 hours away from our destination.
Sleeper trains have extremely cramped corridors and as we got on I saw a variety of interesting looking people as we walked to our compartment. It took us a few hours before we folded our train beds down but Harry fell asleep on his chair during that time, leaving my main entertainment to be sticking my head out of the window as the train thundered along. It was fun, although would probably win you a Darwin Award if you neglected to notice any oncoming train signs.
I claimed the top bunk once we had sorted everything out, an idea that seemed great on the principle that the top of a bunk bed is and has always been the best part to sleep in. It became less awesome when I realised I had no window beside me at the top, and our train isle’s fan had broken, which meant that I would probably be in for a hot night. I did end up getting about 2 hours sleep, and I woke up from some weird dreams after a sudden jolt from the train brought me back to the surreal reality of my situation. Sleeper trains are weird.
We arrived at Chiang Mai station at about 5, and since it didn’t cross my mind that most hotels won’t let you check in at the crack of dawn we didn’t have anywhere to go for the next 6 hours. Luckily, Kerry had arrived the day before and offered her hotel room to crash in, so we hailed a taxi and she convinced the hotel’s night guard to let us in. The sight of two guys being let in by one girl in the early hours of the morning meant that he gave us some very suspicious looks.
We didn’t really sleep, instead drifting in and out between talking about our placements and making up new in-jokes that are too bizarre to be trying to explain on here. Jess arrived at 9 and we left for breakfast before heading to the hotel we’d booked for the weekend. The full english breakfasts we all had meant that we were breaking our unwritten rule of avoiding western food, but since it came with a massive cup of coffee I couldn’t care less.
Jess had booked our hotel for the weekend and we realised whilst arriving that she had made a very good choice. The bedrooms were pretty small but we had what amounted to a small forest at our disposal outside, and we sat out here for an hour trying to plan the day, now that we were awake enough to do so.
We started with a TukTuk ride to Wat U Mong Palace, which Jess’s travel guide raved about. It was a 5 minute drive from the hotel and seemed a lot less majestic than I thought it would be, but it contained some fantastic imagery.
Still, everyone noticed quickly that this wasn’t the ‘secluded forest temple’ Lonely Planet had described, and we realised that our driver had taken us to the completely wrong place. We rectified this and soon got to the actual Wat U Mong; this one was based in a forest, so at least we’d actually arrived at the right place this time.
The temples’ grounds were a short walk down a forest road with overgrown greenery crammed to the sides, and as we walked a scruffy but tame looking dog started trotting in front as if to guide us, a nice change from the usual Thai dog reaction of attempting to kill anything that moves.
The grounds winded through the forest with art galleries and cockerels popping out of seemingly nowhere, and the temple’s caves led up to a roof where we could see most of it, an area that most of the other tourists seemed unable to find.
During our TukTuk ride back to the centre I got to ride in the front, which made me feel all cool and important, and we had lunch at a western-style cafe because all of our standards had clearly slipped. The massive burger I had made me quite tired and I actually fell asleep on our next tuktuk to Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom, an impressive feat considering Tuktuks are the least sleep-friendly vehicles ever.
The ‘Kingdom’ itself was… odd. Jess and Kerry were dying to see some small tigers so we paid 520 baht to be taken into a cage where they were roaming around, most of them either dosing or play-fighting with each other. I got to stroke them and they made good photo subjects, but something about how the areas and cages were structured made me feel a bit uncomfortable – essentially it was a zoo dedicated to tigers and lions, but since they were expected to interact with humans they felt a lot more constrained than they normally would in a similar environment. Still, they seemed to be treated well despite that, and I don’t know why I expected anything else from a massively tourist-geared centre.
In the evening we checked out one of Chiang Mai’s markets, which improved on many of the markets I’ve seen recently by being huge, not crammed to the point where it was difficult to move around, and bursting with stalls that sold interesting crafts rather than just clothes. Although I only bought a couple of fancy notebooks, thinking that most of the crafty stuff would be damaged if I tried taking it back with me, I spent a lot of time looking around taking everything in.
Surrounding the market were plenty of restaurants with guitar players blurting out popular english songs, and we ended up eating at a place where a guy in a weird hat butchered Hey Jude by The Beatles as well as plenty of other well-loved songs. It was still quite entertaining in a weird terrible sense, and we stayed until we were kicked out at closing, at which point we figured we should call it a night.
Besides, tomorrow we were riding elephants. You need energy for that sort of thing.