BANGKOK TO CHIANG RAI, THAILAND: WEEKS 14 - 17 DECEMBER/ JANUARY (cool, misty, constant rain, unseasonal weather for dry season 21 degrees)
08.01.2017 - 13.01.2017 21 °C
Finally we were able to leave Bangkok behind and board a sleeper train to Chiang Mai, only after an extra train was added to the schedule on New Year's Day. The train was brand new, imported from China, with airline style toilets, red velvet upholstery, gold curtains and ice cold air-con. However, the dazzling overhead flood lights in the carriage were never switched off when it got dark, so none of us slept a wink all night and it made me yearn for the old style sleeper wooden slatted carriages, with fans, lumpy blue seats and a central pole for locking up your belongings and no glaring, overhead lighting.
Chiang Mai has certainly expanded over the last ten years with increased traffic and a 101 tour options from hill tribe trekking, zip lining, white water rafting and quad biking to being a mahout for the day at an elephant camp. The weather became unseasonal - cool, misty mornings followed by rain but it didn't stop us having a marvellous time riding elephants across the river, bamboo rafting and taking our first ox cart ride.
In Chiang Mai Night Market, Thomas sprained his ankle on uneven pavements which delayed our northward journey to Laos. While we were waiting for him to recuperate, the weather worsened across the whole region. Dry season was replaced with torrential downpours for four days solid so the only option left was to wait out the weather in Chiang Rai before attempting the Lao border crossing at Chiang Khong.
Chiang Rai has a laid back vibe that reminds me of Chiang Mai many years ago. The roads aren't clogged with traffic, there are quiet lanes to wander down without being mown down by a motorcycle or minibus and even in high season, the wats are pleasantly devoid of tourists. The river view point was deserted and the Chinese tour buses weren't monopolising the few attractions in town.
One advantage of being stranded here is the cheap Thai food. A husband and wife team up the road from our guest house could rustle up a tasty Thai red curry for 75 pence. The Chiang Rai Food Night market was another sure fire hit for Thomas the eating machine. Thai style spicy hot pot is the most popular dish for locals and Thomas's first choice.
We realised that Thais were mad about hot pot when we were in Ayutthaya and all the hot pot restaurants were jammed packed full of locals on weekday evenings. The raw ingredients of noodles, vegetables and egg are provided in a basket with either chicken, pork, seafood or fish as an accompaniment. A hot pot, complete with burning coals, is brought to your table and after five minutes, the broth should be steaming and bubbling. All the ingredients are added and the food is ready to serve up into dishes in about four minutes. As it was raining every evening, a mist i of mozzies would descend over the night market and it would be difficult not to breathe in or swallow the odd mosquito while eating. As a distraction, free entertainment was provided on stage, either young women in glittering cocktail dresses miming to "I Will Survive", showing off their air hostess arm movements (whoever choreographed should be shot) or a lone, guitar playing singer whose mournful, pitchy, melancholy ballads had me reaching for ear plugs. When he started strumming the opening chords to "Puff the Magic Dragon" it was definitely time to leave.