21.02.2016 - 24.02.2016
After the 2 days of character-building in Ayutthaya we were happy to be on our way. We (excuse the pun) wolfed down some food at a café opposite the train station and after a bit of sweaty waiting around we were on our sleeper train; car 11, the 'lady' car.
We had booked two uppers (top bunks) opposite each other. As the train had started in Bangkok, the car was already pretty full and most people had got in their bunks and shut their curtains. While we were still figuring out where to stuff our bags a smiley gentleman asked if we wanted to order dinner and breakfast. Even though we had only just eaten we got carried away with the idea of being served a hot meal on a sleeper train and said yes to both. Shortly after we were served with our rather large meals (served on a nearby cubby-hole table) that neither of us could finish.
The train was very clean and well organised and the bunks were fairly roomy and comfortable. There were curtains for privacy, your own personal reading light and two weird seatbelts at both ends of the bed that we think were supposed to prevent you from rolling off. The toilets too were clean and well-equipped and without sounding too misandrist we think this might have been due to coach being women only.
The only struggle we had was actually getting into our beds. There were very narrow metal ladders at one end that were built into the side of the 'cabins' and for someone as ungainly and inelegant as I, ascending to my chamber while the train was in motion was not easy. In the end we came up with a better technique which involved using the ladders on both sides (one leg on each) and then diving in at the most opportune moment. Picture a fat starfish trying to walk up a drain.
We both managed to get some shut eye; thankfully the train wasn't very wobbly and there weren't any obvious noise pollutants. We were woken at 6am for breakfast which, like dinner the night before, was a pretty hearty meal. Lauren particularly enjoyed the teeny tiny orange juices that were included. Soon after our unnecessary feeding we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, packed up our belongings and squirmed our way through the narrow train doors onto the platform at Chiang Mai.
Faced with the familiar barrage of taxi touts we selected the only female we could see and were chucked in the back of a large open mini-van come tuk tuk with a load of other passengers. We were the last to be dropped off and, not one to miss an opportunity the taxi tout lady tried in vain to sell us some tours to the various animal sights that blight the region. All sorts of wildlife activities can be enjoyed in Chiang Mai; from the well-known elephant riding to stroking tigers to playing with monkeys. Needless to say we weren't sold on the idea.
We arrived at our hostel, as usual, early in the morning. After waiting on the front terrace for a while the host, Fern, came to our aid and told us check-in was at 1pm but we could leave our bags behind her desk. After watching us essentially use her patio as a changing room come bathroom come wardrobe, Fern offered us a room upgrade for only £4 - a room that was double the size, with an en suite bathroom, an actual bed instead of foam mattresses on the floor AND that was ready now. We gladly accepted the offer only for her to then wash all of our laundry (3 weeks worth), dry and fold it and give it back to us a few hours later. Needless to say we were the happiest little lesbians in Thailand.
For lunch we found a sweet if not trendy veggie café called Imm Aim where we lapped up a number of whole-food dishes and where I also bought some funky homemade woven thread earrings. On our way to the old town of Chiang Mai we stumbled across an amazing 70s second-hand clothes shop where I very selflessly restrained myself and only bought one dress. I then proceeded to buy my third pair of sunglasses (yes I lost my second pair).
One of the things we needed to tick off our list was booking our journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos. We'd done our research and knew that the trip would involve a minibus through Chiang Rai to the border, a night's stay in the border town of Chang Khong, then a boat along the Mekong for 2 days with a night's stay in Pak Beng. We got a number of quotes from travel agents for the standard, basic journey that most budget backpackers book; approx. £35 each (not including the night in Pak Beng). Being good little travellers we wanted to look into the boat company that all the travel agents were using (Aya) and sleep on the decision. To cut a long story short, after reading some awful reviews and blogs and weighing up our options we decided to 'splurge' and book a more luxury journey with a company called Smile River Cruises. For the 3 days it cost £160 each and this included a few meals, a night in Chang Khong and Pak Beng, a private chauffeur to the border that stopped at 3 sights along the way, visits to two local hill-tribe villages and the Pak Ou caves and, most importantly, included a private river-boat with proper seats and toilets and room to move around and appreciate the views.
Decision made, we felt like we'd mildly betrayed our fellow backpackers and our own imposed budget but we were excited to get the VIP experience.
That evening we checked out the Sunday walking market where, feeling newly skint we resisted buying any knick-knacks. Lauren did however find some room for 2 spring rolls an 3 samosas for her dinner. I wasn't feeling too great (slippery slope from this point) so I just had a a rather massive corn on the cob for tea.
We were up early the next day to ensure we could get booked in at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution for our foot massage. We managed to get an appointment for early afternoon so to burn some time we had breakfast at an upmarket veggie hotel we'd almost stayed at (but was too expensive).
Our foot massages were very good and we both felt positive about giving our money to a space that provides an opportunity for incarcerated women to learn a skill they can then use when thy 'get out'. I spoke to one of the officers at the centre and she said (under her breath) that around 80% of the prisoners working as massage therapists were jailed as a result of drug crimes. Consider this quote from Thai Customs website; "Violators of laws related to illicit drugs, e.g., having and holding for use, or being a producer, seller, or transporter are subject to the death sentence". Yeah, it's pretty serious stuff. Although we were certainly glad the prisoners at the centre clearly weren't dead, I couldn't help but wonder whether these young, polite and intelligent women had had their lives completely fucked for the sake of a spliff, or some cocaine or, maybe even for covering for someone else. Things like this make me appreciate the UK.
That evening we walked to the Maya shopping centre; a massive fancy mall with five floors of shopping and eating adventures to be had. We ventured to the cinema floor where we saw Joy with Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. Unfortunately the film was a load of crap, but the BBQ/caramel popcorn was amazing. Much like Myanmar, there was a short video before the film started where the audience showed their allegiance to the country and it's King. We were shown photos of the King through the years (with all of his dogs in weird poses) as well happy New Year cards. We, like the rest of the theatre, stood up to show our respect. No way I'm going to end up giving tourists massages.
The following day we thought we should probably check out some of the temples on offer; so we did. We saw a few interesting temples, one of which housed a crystal and a marble Buddha - both over 2000 years old. After walking for a few hours the heat (and period cramp in my case) got the better of us and we retired to a place called Catta-café, which, aptly so, is a café with lots of cats in it. We enjoyed a cat fur covered brownie and some cat fur covered drinks while stroking and playing with some very cute cats.
For dinner we found a Japanese veggie place called Greendays (like my favourite café on Lark Lane in Liverpool) on the other side of town. We travelled by tuk tuk and as we approached it was immediately obvious that this area (which we think is just essentially the centre) is very Westernised. It actually felt like a slightly scaled down version of Bangkok. There were strips of bars and pubs with English names and Ping Pong shows and tat shops although it definitely had a classier more metropolitan edge. The Western clientèle appeared to be older white men as opposed to 20-something boys and girls out for a good time.
The food was lovely and once again we ordered way too much and for pudding we got pedicures on one of the strips. We were a little disappointed that a dry skin scrape and scrub wasn't included but we didn't complain. At least we got to people-watch and get a feel for the disdain the Thai girls working there felt at their shitty jobs.
Back at the guesthouse we Skyped my Mum and I tended to my ever-worsening stomach bug (trips to the toilet were involved). As the sickness took it's hold, we both thanked the lord we had booked a fancier trip down the Mekong...