There’s a familiar sense of being on my own once again. Walking out of Chiang Mai’s railway station, with the rest of my organised tour heading down the tracks to Bangkok, its back to fending for myself.
I’ve at least got Alissa, my tour mate from Canada, for company for a few days, but gone are the organised coaches, the advice and the worry-free world of having someone to get you from A to B.
A in this case was the railway station, B was a hostel by the name of Spicy Thai that we’d both agreed to book on a recommendation by some people Alissa had met. As we rattled along the roads and around the city walls, we both spoke about our fears of the unknown once again. Through the smoke drifting from the roadside eateries, our tuk tuk blasted around another corner, our voices barely audible above the engine, clearly working hard with the weight of us and all of our luggage. It includes a box of Christmas presents for Alissa’s family back in Canada, which many of us have had a hand in carrying from time to time since it first appeared in Laos. ‘Boxy’ is its name, apparently.
“We’ve got to make new friends again,” I say to Alissa.
It’s a strange thing arriving at a new hostel. You know absolutely nobody, and so the first few hours are often crucial. Go in over-friendly and sure of yourself and you come across as a bit of a pillock. Hide away too much, and you could be seen as a bit of a recluse. It’s a fine balance, but its becoming a familiar cycle now. You always arrive as a ‘newbie’, relying on advice from those who have been there for a few days, but within a couple of days, people come and go and suddenly people are coming to you as the ‘veteran’ of the hostel for advice. Then you move on and the cycle starts all over again.
Tonight we arrived at the hostel to find a few people sat outside drinking a few beers. Unloading all of our rucksacks from the tuk tuk – not forgetting boxy – a few of them shouted over for us to join them for a drink once we’d chucked everything inside. Its always nice to be made to feel welcome from the start.
The hostel seemed very homely. It’s the former home of the US ambassador that’s been converted into dorms, located in one of the smartest parts of the city. Its actually in the middle of an upmarket residential housing estate, and there’s a very Western feel about it. Inside there’s a huge plasma tv, cinema system, sofas, dining table and photographs everywhere on the walls of previous residents having fun in the various places around the area.
I went to the fridge, marked my name on the honesty chart and took an ice cold Chang for Alissa and I and went to join the guys outside. There were two Australians and a few others, and by the sound of it they were all going to see some Muay Thai boxing in a couple of hours. It was clear everyone’s had a few beers, but it was also clear the two Australian’s were incredibly annoying – they were very young, and I have to say it showed. With a particularly stupid hat, they thought they were cock of the walk, trying to make jokes, trying to be funny, being loud, being crude. They seemed to have a gaggle of people who thought they were hilarious however, and there was a bit of a clique.
Thankfully we met a guy called Gaylan, a farmer from the States, who took it upon himself to show Alissa and I to the main street and point out where the main places to eat and drink were nearby. We opted for street food, and I discovered the incredibly tasty Chiang Mai sausage, which is basically heaven in a sausage. Its no Lincolnshire banger, don’t get me wrong, but when you’ve not had a good sausage for a while, the meaty, spicy, tasty, lemongrass-infused morsel I picked up for 20p was just the ticket. I had two, followed by an equally good tub of Phad Thai noodles. In total, dinner cost me just under £1.
The next few days were spent relaxing after such a hectic few weeks on the road. Blogs were uploaded, there was a trip to the mall to pick up boring things like shampoo, Alissa’s ‘Boxy’ began its journey from the post office to Ottawa and the two Australians continued to be loud, immature and obnoxious. It made me wonder if the hostel was the right place for me – it was nice enough, but some of the people were irritating to say the least. It’s a hazard of the backpacking world in that you have to live in close proximity with people like that sometimes. In any case, my train ticket was booked back to Bangkok in a couple of days time, so I wouldn’t have to put up with them for long.
One of the good features of the Spicy Thai hostel is that it fosters a family atmosphere, and the night before Alissa left, everyone went for a really nice meal at the Riverside bar in the city, on the banks of the river. Speaking to a few others, it became clear I wasn’t the only one who was a bit fed up with some of the young Australian’s antics…but the word on the street is that they leave tomorrow.
Sure enough, they did, albeit after drunkenly waking the entire hostel at 2am after snapping their key in the back door lock, banging and shouting until Alissa reluctantly marched out of our ground floor dorm and let them in with a huff! But within one day, the entire dynamic of the hostel changed. It seemed to become much friendlier, much more relaxed and I got speaking to some really nice people. One of them was Bryce, another Canadian, who was in the bed next to mine. We’d got talking while clinging onto the back of the hostel pick-up on the way to the restaurant, and it turns out he’s a software programmer in the world of online poker.
Alissa’s last day soon came around, and we agreed to do something together that was a bit different – so we went to prison!
Chiang Mai women’s prison runs an excellent rehabilitation scheme for inmates, whereby they are taught how to perform Thai massage in return for payment, which goes into a kitty for them when they are released. It’s a true ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ situation, though I’m hoping mine will be massaged rather than scratched.
We arrived outside the main whitewashed walls and gates to the prison, complete with its rolls of barbed wire and lookout posts nestled between the trees. The massage suite isn’t actually inside the main complex, but instead in a very pleasant building across the road. Inside there’s the fragrant smell of lavender and about eight or nine people laying on beds being moved and manipulated into a variety of positions.
I’ve never had a Thai massage before and so didn’t really know what to expect or how much it would hurt (massages always hurt, especially with a back like mine -more knots than a Scouts’ rope course) I have no idea what the women are in prison for, although I can’t imagine the authorities letting mass murderers loose on a predominantly touristy clientele, but in any case they’ve done something wrong and I had some quite expensive gear with me. They’d obviously thought of that, and provided lockers, but instead I decided to keep my camera with me to record the moment. Infact, I went one step further – I asked one of the inmates to take a photo of Alissa and I once we’d changed into the slightly unflattering massage outfit.
It was then I realised how long away from society this particular inmate had potentially been. She seemed to have very little idea how to use a digital camera, looking for the viewfinder (it hasn’t got one, just an lcd screen) and then almost dropping it as she tried to work out how to take a photo. She worked it out with a bit of help, and she seemed delighted when I showed her the end result. Its easy to forget that outside of the massage building, these women are subject of some of the most punishing and harsh prisons in the world, far away from any form of modern technology.
The massage started with a foot wash, and my now dirt-ingrained feet after weeks of flip-flopping around Asia are not a sight for sore eyes. I could almost sense her revulsion, and I’m sure she detected more than a hint of embarrassment from me, as she grabbed a second helping of soap and tried to keep her eyes away from my dried-up, dirty size 10s.
Patted down with a towel, I was then moved to a bed where I laid down and was told to relax. It started with my feet being massaged and pulled around, each toe individually cracking, my ankle being rolled around for a while, joints being bent in directions they don’t normally bend. Then it was up the legs, her hands kneading away into my muscles, stretching my knees and she was intent on trying to pull my upper thigh bone out of its socket.
My arms were next, followed by the cracking of all my fingers and knuckles. If at first she failed to get a good noise out of my limbs, I could almost sense her disappointment and she’d just work harder at it, not letting go until my bones had been freed within. Its was strangely enjoyable – I admit, I was half on edge most of the way through, worried about what procedure would come next. And it was for good reason, as suddenly she starts crawling over my back and putting my legs into some sort of lock position between hers.
“Push up,” she tells me, threading her arms through mine and around the back of my head, so my hands are kind of waving in the air. I’m totally immobile now, so if she was the wayward mass murderer that slipped through the net, now was her chance.
She pulled me up from the bed, cracking something in my lower back. For a minute I think it could be broken.
The next thing I know she’s got my whole body resting on her feet and I’m almost doing an inverted crab above her. It really wasn’t comfortable. Something probably should have clicked that hadn’t and she was determined to make it pay. She pulls down on my arms while gripping my legs. I’m wondering if wrestling is a favourite pastime in the cells.
Crunch. Something gives. She tells me to sit up.
I’m now put into a position that makes me look like a human corkscrew, my arms again weaved between hers. I knew this was the finale. This was the biggie that she’s been working up to for an hour. I wondered if I’d walk back out of the door, or get wheeled out.
She swings my arms slightly from side to side. Once. Twice. Arrrrghhhh.
In one big move, the whole of my upper body was twisted round, and I’m sure every joint that connects every bone in my back cracked simultaneously. It wasn’t painful as such, just a bit of a shock. In one go, weeks of rucksack carrying, trekking through cities and sleeping awkwardly were cracked out of my back. It did feel like it had done some good, and for just over £3, I walked out feeling like I had done something good too.
Plus, I can tick off ‘Thai Prison’ from my to do list. Thankfully, it was the right reasons!
An hour later, Alissa was undoing the good work by slinging her backpack on and running to catch a taxi for her train to Bangkok.
I waved her off and returned to the hostel, where I chatted to Bryce for a while. Someone near reception was talking about spicy pies for some reason, and excitedly singing ‘spicy pie, spicy pie, we’re all going to spicy pie’ to the tune of the spider pig song in the Simpsons. It must be a decent pie restaurant nearby.
There was a lunar eclipse across Asia that night, and I kept myself entertained in the front garden with a few others trying to find the right setting on my camera that enabled me to get a good shot. I used my mini tripod to get a couple of decent-ish pictures that I put out on Twitter. One was selected to be used on a website somewhere that was nice, and I had a message to say another was being used on Twitter as a ‘top image’. Picked up a few new followers as a result.
Everyone watched Hangover 2, based in Bangkok, that night, and a group of us arranged to go to Chiang Mai Zoo the following day. It would be my last full day in Chiang Mai, so I needed to do something, but there was a part of me feeling like I’d not quite seen all I needed to see. Then I was told about Spicy Pai, a sister hostel in a town to the north amid mountains, waterfalls and beautiful scenery. It also explained the spicy pie song.
Pai was a place a few people had mentioned but I’d not really paid much attention. I’d never heard of it, and it only had a small section in my Lonely Planet, so it can’t be that good (!) Even so, there were a steady stream of people hiring mopeds and making the five hour journey up there. Over breakfast before the zoo, a few people were talking about Pai as if it was some kind of northern Thailand utopia. It started to make me think. I really wanted to go see some elephants in Chiang Mai, but the high cost had put me off. Back to the Lonely Planet, and the small section on Pai did include the fact there was a popular elephant place, where you can take elephants to the river, wash them, play with them and generally have a brilliant time. The best bit was, it’s a fraction of the price.
The only problem was my already changed rail ticket can’t be changed again. But my mind was made up – it did sound like a great place to visit, and for the sake of another £14 rail ticket, it was worth it to make the saving on the elephants. I advertised the train ticket on a blackboard in the hostel, and got ready for the zoo.
There was a good group of us that visited the zoo, a few from the UK, Bryce from Canada, Erin from the States and a guy called Graham, a Tranmere Rovers fan with whom I talked a while about Grimsby Town’s misfortune over the years.
As zoos go, Chiang Mai’s was really good. I’m still not a fan of animals in pens, but on the whole they seemed to have a fair bit of space and seemed happy. The highlights were the number of elephants that were dotted around, and you could buy fruit and vegetables to feed them. I bought some bananas to feed to one of the baby elephants, who in one nifty manoeuvre managed to stand on the edge of it to take the skin off. I then stood and peeled each banana for it so it didn’t have to do it itself, much to the amusement of the group who were watching.
Other highlights included the tigers that you could buy meat for to feed through the bars, admittedly with a long pole to save you losing any digits, and the pandas were good to see, although they didn’t do much other than sleep, which I guess is what pandas are famous for.
One of the funny things at the zoo was the fact a 7-Eleven shop had managed to find itself within the park. They’re absolutely everywhere in Thailand, but to find one amid the ostriches and deer was strange.
Even so, it was a good place to buy some cheap sandwiches – but quite how cheap was revealed at the monkey enclosure. I’d plumped for a pork and mayonnaise sandwich, which was disgustingly sweet and slightly strange tasting. The monkeys were beckoning a few people to throw them fruit and food, and with a lack of bins around, I threw a small bit of my sandwich to one particularly greedy monkey that was at the front. He caught the rolled-up sarnie, took a taste, looked at it, spat it out and threw it into the surrounding moat – complete with the same expression I had pulled when I first tasted it!
On the way back to the hostel, Bryce asked how we were getting to Pai. He said he’d be interested in going if we took scooters and had a road trip. With a few nods in the back of the taxi, there was an agreement. Krys, an Australian guy, Bryce, Erin and I agreed we’d make the trip as a group, and we’d investigate the cost in the morning.
That night I went to the walking street market and spent hours looking around buying a few Christmas presents for my family back home. It was mainly light, postable gifts – hand dyed silk scarf for mum, Angry Birds t-shirt for my brother, stupidly daft handmade elephant slippers for dad (well, Christmas isn’t Christmas without slippers!) along with a few clever, and very pretty, hand carved soaps that I knew probably wouldn’t make it back in one piece but I figured was worth a try. I found some really nice handcrafted Christmas cards too on one stall, and with a bit of wrapping in the hostel that night – out of newspaper as wrapping paper just isn’t available here – they were wrapped and ready to post back home with a few other clothes to try to lighten my ever increasing load on my back.
With waterfalls and a mountainous trip to look forward to the next day, it was an earlyish night. Pai was calling.