Saturday, January 04, 2014

A Drive to Chiangmai on New Year

All squash on the Peak
It's common for folks here to flock to the north during the year end in order to welcome the new year and embrace the cold weather. Right before the trip, I was pretty excited and I envisioned myself standing atop the mountain taking in the golden spectacle during sunrise supplemented with a scenery of peaks engulfed in a sea of fog. Truth is, it was a sea of people's heads instead. Everyone made their way up the peak and scuffled around, not 2 to 3 meters away, a deadly drop over the edge of the cliff and onto rocky outcrop 20 meters down. Die for sure and it had happened. Many of my friends said they rather be in Bangkok than to go places and, loosely translated from Thai, "scuffle-to-eat, scuffle-to-enjoy". I had never traveled on New Year's holidays and now I know why.

The rewards of getting to Chiangmai
It was great drive to the north from Bangkok. Once passed the terrible pothole filled roads of Nakon Sawan onto Tak, was a pleasant cruise through the scenic countryside on meandering roads towards Lampang and into Chiangmai. Pick a good time to go, I left on a Friday when most people were still working. My friends who left on Saturday the 28 Dec filled Facebook with pictures of roads jammed with cars accompanied by curses, complains and swears. They took 15 hours to reach Chiangmai crawling most of the time at 40 km/h. So my advice is, never ever leave Bangkok on "convenient" days that coincide with the year end.

Birds and Birds
Along this route I mentioned, there are plenty to do. Nakon Sawan offers a waterlogged nature reserve known as Bueng Boraphet, a place for bird lovers and filled with vibrant lotus flowers if the season is right. Not wanting to stress myself out on a 700 km journey to Chiangmai, Mae Sot, we decided to stay a night. In the morning we enjoyed the colder then Chiangmai weather and denser then Chiangmai fog. There were the hill tribe markets we visited where the visitors few and the fried pork skins fragrant and freshly taken out of hot oil. We stopped by the view point I discovered on my previous trip and sipped hot tea, it was truly relaxing.

I was told that within each province there will be a main temple. It is customary that visitors should then pray at them temples as part of their itinerary. In Lampang I visited, there is Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Within the temple ground is the dark pagoda. Also in the compound lies a mysterious chapel that no woman can enter as it may result in horny monks or something. Lampang is famous for her horse carriage rides, we took it and galloped around the temple at a lazy pace. The horse's name was Peter.

Coin Balancing
In Lamphun there is Wat Phra That Haripunchai. In this temple, there is a giant Buddha's footprint that everyone prays to and leave a coin behind balanced on its edges. Back in Lampang, they have a foot print too. In fact, many temples here have Buddha's foot print. Buddha must be very popular and travelled the globe to leave his prints in ancient cement. He must have been a rock star. This Lamphun temple features a golden pagoda that looks too much similar to that on Doi Suthep. I could easily trick others into believing I was at Doi Suthep with a snapshot.

Speaking of Doi Suthep, it was one stop I never went because the whole Thailand seemed to be there. Massive jams up the mountain and not a place to park. I bet Buddha came and left his footprint too. All in all, I prayed at 2 temples thus. With so many people, my line of telepathic sight to the Buddha during prayers were constantly interrupted by people moving up front near the altar. My prayers will not be answered this year because most of the time, I was praying to stranger's ass.

There are many more hill tribe villages to visit around Doi Suthep and it was one of the places I went. Driving up the mountain on a late morning, I so anticipated winding down me windows breathing in the fresh mountain air. All I took in was dreadful exhaust fumes and the smell of burning clutch and brakes on the slow crawling mountain pass. Eventually I reached Ban Mong Doi Pui Suthep without dying from the odorless carbon monoxide. It took forever to find parking as it was crowded, during that time spent, I witness my armpit hair growing longer.

Ain't Real
So anyway, finally into the village I went. I had never seen so many pretty Hmong girls dressed in their traditional multicolored bonbon adorned costumes before. It was amazing at first until I saw them snapping pictures on their Galaxy and iPads. Aright give them some credit, maybe they were from visiting tribal villages. Another tell tale sign was that Hmong girls don't wear jeans. I am interested to find out what they wear underneath their dress though. However, there was no breeze strong enough that day to blow their heavy skirts up. Why was the whole hill like a crowded fancy dress party? Because there are shops renting out these costumes for people to play out their whatever Hmong fantasy frolicking among the flowers and Poppy fields. Yes your read it, Poppy fields they have with Poppy flowers and probably Poppy intoxicated tourist maybe around hidden corners. Poppy I never try, but Khao Soi, a traditional northern noodle set in thick curry gravy so delicious I had in one of the hill side shops.

One Lane, Two Way
Traveling north in winter, one of the main list of items to do would be to visit what they called the Sakura flower pastures on the mountain. It ain't easy to get to. Can I drive there I asked, yes I can they said. But they never did mentioned we needed to drive along one lane roads meant for two way traffic edging sharp cliff drops. Found out the hard way, I decided to park my car on one of the larger view points before I reach the infamous Khun Chang Kian. So did many others. We hopped on the "two-rows" which charged us 150 for the return trip some 3 km more into the mountainous terrain. The journey took long for most of the time, the driver had to move close to the edge of certain death to make way for opposite traffic. When we arrived, we were greeted by dry twigs, no pretty flowers. They were all budding, set to bloom only in the mid of January. It's okay, never try never know and now I know. So did many others.

The downhill to our resort was also a killer, we were stuck on the mountain pass for 3 solid hours thanks to the "two-rows" that hogged Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. When I finally reached the temple entrance from Doi Pui on the downhill, I saw them rowdy "two-rows" made illegal u-turns, waited for passengers, parked alongside the narrow road and blocked the traffic without regards to the public. Strangely through those hours of ordeal, there was not a single police in sight to keep order, none, zero, naught. They must have all been assigned to protect Yingluck from whistle blowers on her tour of the north during the period. Whatever.

It was Mad
We returned to our hotel when the skies turned dark. Had a shower and decided to head for dinner at the famed Walking Street of Chiangmai. Again, while looking for a place to park around the vicinity, I witness my armpit hair growing. And when we finally set foot on the avenue lined with shops of all sorts, I swear the whole Bangkok plus many parts of the world were all there. Canned sardines have more space to move then people on Walking Street. The Khao Soi I had in one of the makeshift food corner tasted like curry diluted with river water. Bad choice, bad night. Went back to resort soon after to enjoy steaming hot tea in the cold weather, it was much better.

The next day, learnt from the previous Doi Suthep trip, we knew we must leave at ungodly hours of the morning to avoid traffic. We headed for Mon Cham, Thais told me it was the latest new trend in Chiangmai to visit this region of Mae Rim. Its near to the heart of Chiangmai and we reached there in under an hour, arrived just before 6. We found out then, Mon Cham was a gated compound and the sign reads "Open at 7 am". There were some two rows parked around the corner and they voiced out they could take us to watch the sunrise some distance away. So we went. That which was the crowded peak I mentioned in the beginning of this blog. We returned some 2 hours later and Mon Cham hand turned into Mon Jam featuring a sea of cars and people from Bangkok. So the rest of the morning was spent on the strawberry fields and the vineyards surrounding Mon Cham. We returned to our resort early afternoon to unwind the rest of the day in preparation for the full 700 km trip back to Bangkok the next day.

Pleasant Drive
If you should be driving for the northern trip, plan it in such a way that you choose the best of resorts to stay on the final day, there which one can wind down after the hectic few days of visiting here there and everywhere. Also, one is not advised to go on days coinciding with New Year nor Songkran because your underwear will decay in traffic. Picking the right car to go will also be wise. A small call on this trip consumes 1 liter per 13.5 km contributed by the hilly drive and jams. The Jazz hugged the sharp turns and accelerated well on the mountain pass. A large capacity car will consume 13.5 liter for per 100 km. The upside is a stable ride and pleasant high speed cruise on the more gentle meandering roads where torque is on the side of overtaking. Winter will be romantic for one to ride their big bikes up north as I had seen, but travel in the day would be a sensible choice. Night riders may hit bad roads and fall off, get run over by the many other vehicles whizzing by thinking the fallen is a large road kill. That is till they smash into the bike further down the distance and hear mechanical crushing sound. This made more dangerous by slightly drunk drivers because everyone drinks this period.

Surprise Lunch Area
The drive to Chiangmai is 700 km or so. Averagely, it takes more than 10 hours to get there with the many small meal and toilet breaks in between. It could take less than 7 but that will mean driving nonstop till testicles molecularly infused with car seat. It's good to try the obscure rest areas dotted along the route as I had discovered. We stopped at one of these and had a very pleasant lunch by the Wang River.

In between your drive, you could take a break at places for sheep huggers. There will be Coco and then Hug Me Sheep Farm. These places are well known and during this season, pity those sheep and rabbits that must have been stressed by the marauding crowd, the grappling hands and the overfeeding. These spots are for the shutter bugs, for a nice coffee break, an average cake maybe and for lousy food.

The Resort I Stayed
Plan your trip well in advance and make accommodation bookings because most resorts will have been fully booked. Some of my friends however did what they always had done, which is to just drive in and try any lodging they find along the way. They said, there always will be somewhere to accommodate you, it's either those less well know unrated unpublished small inns or home stay, or that discrete drive in "pump-pump" hotels so many in Thailand where your cars are concealed in curtains.

Wrapping this post up my advise on traveling on new year - leave Bangkok and be back on the odd days, there will be less frustration and more relaxation. Visiting the touristy spots, go well before the sunrise. When the crowds start to build in the late morning, have lunch and then head back to your resort and chill out the rest of the day.

Hot Soup in Cool Winter
Chill by the River
Waiting the Sunrise
The Strawberry Fields
Lunch on the Hill
Morning Fog
Picture in the Final Day, Still Cool


Martyn said...

Jewie - I've only been to Chiang Mai once and that was out of season. I don't think I could handle the crowds of people you had to negotiate.

Excellent write-up.

Jewie said...

Thanks for the compliments. Well I hope you did visit Chiangmai during the year end, it is the best she could offer together with the winter.. . . minus the crowds.