Sunday, April 27, 2008
Our new friend Pon takes us to a traditional Nepalese hill tribe village, but when we arrive we find it very commercialised and over priced. Rather than making these people feeel like they are in a zoo my friends and I decide to skip this camp and rather opt for a hiking trip during the cooler months, when we can pass through and see the real villages.
The drive trough Mae Sa valley is a lush green delight and when we stop at a butterfly and orchid farm, I feel like I am getting colour therapy. We sit down for a Thai buffet lunch in this sensual garden and by the time we leave we are already happy with our day.
However, we paid our driver for the whole day. So we convince him to take us to Doi Suthep, the top of the mountain as opposed to the valley. He didn't feel like the drive and complained about his petrol situation (and even tried to pretend not to understand) but as seasoned travellers we know better than to feel sorry for him and pay more or give in to his sly tactics.
Eventually we make it to the highest point of the mountain where one of the holiest temples in Thailand thrones. It is typically Thai, with elaborate gold towers and colourful decorations. The view should be incredible on a clear day, but on our summers day a heavy mist hangs over the city.
It is indeed the hottest time of year and although Chiang Mai is probably best discovered on foot (preferably hiking through the jungle) that would simply be looking for trouble. So we opt for a boat cruise on our last full day. It is a fantastic way to see the city and the countryside from the lazy comfort of the shallow summer river.
As with most of the boat cruises in this area, we also stop at a botanical garden where the locals show us all the local herbs and offer us fresh fruit and cold drinks to provide some comfort before our midday journey back into the city.
The heat prevents us from moving any more until the sun goes down.
Our short visit ends with a shopping trip to the Night Bazaar, where I find colourful embroidered handbags. The handicrafts in this area is really unique and cheapest in Chiang Mai. My friends discover some mango wood candle holders and soon we are all happy with our treasures and ready to head for some Thai islands.
“I’m from Mae Sa,” says the taxi driver, Pon, who is taking my friends and I from Chiang Mai airport to Tri Gong Residence in the city. Funny that the valley where he "grew up" is just the place we are planning to go on our first day in the Thai jungle.
We barter for a good price and inform the driver about our preferred itinerary. He looks happy and we are chuffed that we will have Pon showing us around his hometown rather than an anonymous tour guide.
After a breakfast of Pad Thai at a small organic restaurant around the corner from our guesthouse, we are ready to make the most of our two full days in Chiang Mai.
First up is elephant riding and Pon does well in finding us an elephant camp where an hour ride costs only 400 baht (about 8 euros). The more popular tourist camps charge double. My elephant has mozzy bites and stops regularly to scratch against a tree. His Thai master laughs with eyes full of love and I remember a movie I saw on my last trip to Thailand: the tragic tale of a Thai being separated from his elephant.
When our hour is up I am in awe of this giant who took me into the jungle and through a river. The animal with the big feet touches my hand lightly with its trunk. My heart goes all fuzzy wozzy.
To top this experience is going to be very hard today.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
If I needed an excuse for another beginning, Songkran is it. I arrive on the last day of the Thai New Year celebrations and by the time I reach my guesthouse just off Khao San Road (the famous market street), I am soaked and covered in chalk from head to toe.
The Thais celebrate New Year with a vigour characteristic of their sense of fun. A country wide water fight cools everyone down during the hottest time of year and the chalk paste that they enthusiastically plaster all over each other (and me) symbolises purification.
A few adolescent boys try to steal a kiss as they rub the chalk into my face but I manage to dodge them and when I enter the guesthouse I am in neutral territory.
My friends are sitting at a table having some drinks, but their giant water guns are still ready for battle. They look like Mr and Mrs Smith.
While I join them for a Thai curry I wonder if there is another reason for me to start over. I already celebrated Western New Year and Chinese New Year in 2008. So I think for Thai New Year I won’t make any resolutions or hope for good luck, but I will make a wish.
After realising that Latin charms have no substance, I will wish for love. I know that a relationship will be difficult to manage while travelling but life is just so much more fun when it is a shared experience.
For now, I am sharing the chalk laden sights of Thailand with some of my best friends. Starting with the excessively golden Grand Palace and the giant lying Buddha. My brain is just too small to absorb it all.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Unless spending money is no issue, a holiday in Dubai can probably become frustrating. There are loads of malls and markets as well as luxurious bars and restaurants to choose from, but I knew that my family would be shopped and eaten out by the first day or two.
Of course, Dubai offers many beach options and fun parks, but it is probably not the preferred destination for a beach holiday or go-karting. And while the ski dome in the desert is a must-see, my family are not skiers and a glance through the windows of the Mall of the Emirates was enough to quench their curiosity.
A desert safari is also a something any holidaymaker should experience in the Middle East but it only covers half a day - and so I phoned around to find out what kind of day trips are available in and around the UAE.
First up was a family outing to the wadi in Hatta with Oasis Palm Tours. Now, I thought rock pools in the mountains mean lush green scenery but boy was I disappointed. I had never seen so much rock before and so little life. Somewhere in the middle of this nothingness there is a big pool of clear water that disappears into the rocks.
Sadly, this sight that should have been pristine is ruined by the huge amount of graffiti around there.
The tour begins with some dune bashing and ends with lunch at a lovely resort. Not bad, but I preferred the bus tour with Arabian Adventures which took us out to Fujeirah, a seaside Emirate. We even crossed over into the small town of Dibba in Oman, where I had my best meal in the Middle East up to date. The food that we enjoyed at the Golden Tulip Resort was surprisingly fresh and well flavoured. This would make a great base for a diving trip. Now I just need to sort out my PADI!
The tour was very educational and I got to see my first real oasis. So much green... like a massage for my eyes. The only downside was the attitude of the tour guide. She was so unenthusiastic, I wanted to grab her microphone and go: "Look, there is Snoopy island, it's a great spot for snorkelling!"
We visited the ruins of the Fujeirah fort on the way back to Dubai and I found it quite shocking to learn from the tour operators that these buildings are being rebuilt to resemble their original state on top of the ruins. I guess here people think differently: why preserve the old when it can simply be recreated?
A week filled up pretty quickly and I never even got to take my family to Al Ain (which is also an oasis) or even Abu Dhabi, the island capital of the UAE. So then, there is more to explore around here than I thought albeit not good for a woman to go around alone. I will have to invite my family for another holiday.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
The Middle East is clearly a man's world. After being based in Dubai for nine months I am still desperately searching for things to love about this place - at the moment my list is restricted to (1) the red sunsets (2) the tax free shopping and (3) the creek at night. Yet, when the men in my life visited me here recently, they were well impressed with this 'city of the future'.
My brother couldn't stop taking pictures of the Hummers and Ferrari's, while the latest gadgets in the electronics stores kept him amused for hours.
"This city is so cool. I wish I could live here," he said.
I booked a couple of excursions for us with Oasis Palm Tours and especially the city tour was really good value. If we had to cover all that distance with a taxi it would have cost us at least three times as much. The tour covered all the forts, souqs, beaches and architectural highlights and even took us to some specialist stores where we could buy Middle Eastern treasures at fair prices.
My father's favourite outing was the Desert Safari. All that dune bashing had me feeling a little ill, but the boys were having great fun. At least I got to see my red sunset over the desert from the back of a camel.
The package included a mezze dinner at an open air venue in the middle of the desert and while the food was delicious, the belly dancer was a bit disappointing. Once again, the men enjoyed the visual delight immensely, but personally I found her dancing skills less than impressive.
To see Dubai through my family's eyes were great fun and they even bought me a cashmere scarf at the souq, which is certainly one treasure a woman can relish in this male playground.