Monday, December 31, 2007

Lop Buri to Chiang Mai and New Year's Eve

After all the effort that I outlined in the previous e-mail to change train tickets so we could get to and out of Lop Buri earlier, it was all for naught. Once we boarded the train we moved about 100 ft. and stopped. Our engine had blown a gasket. After a while we asked how long it would be until we went again. We were told half an hour. After half an hour we asked how long. We were told half an hour. Apparently half an hour is the Thai version of manana.

We eventually got to Lop Buri, a very small town with limited tourist infrastructure. We set a new record there. We got a hotel for 260 baht per night. That's less than $9. I would have been happy to pay more for something better, but this was the best there was. It had a fan, a western toilet and it was clean, so I was happy.

The next day we woke and headed out to do some sight seeing. We started by trying to find breakfast, but the Thai breakfasts are a little scary (sticky rice), so we ended up with donuts and juice in the park. Next we toured the old royal palace, built in 1666 as a back-up to the primary palace in Ayutthaya. Moderately interesting.

We grabbed a bit of lunch from a dim sum place, then headed over to some of the old temples. Here it was a little more interesting. Monkeys have taken over many of the town's temples, and even roam the streets and power lines all around town. We went to one of the more popular shrines in town that is still being used as an active Buddhist temple. It was covered with monkeys. There was a great big buffet that had been set out for them, featuring monkey favourites like cucumbers and boiled eggs. There were hanging ladders going from tree to tree. And there were several pools set around for monkey usage. No wonder there were so many of them there, it was monkey heaven. The most impressive sight for me was monkeys jumping out of trees to land in a 10 ft wide plastic pool that had been set out for them. They were just having a great time.

After tiring of monkey heaven we went over to the monkey 'hood, another nearby temple long since out of use. Again, the monkeys were all over the place. We took lots of photos and Colleen had a few good chats with some of the monkeys. At one point she got a little too close and the next thing we knew a monkey was on her, trying to take her glasses. Colleen protected her stuff and handed me her camera so she could get the monkey off her back. Easier said than done. Next thing, she had two more monkeys jump on her. I helped her fend them off, after taking a few photos, but we did it gently, as much for her sake as for theirs. We were far more careful around the little guys after that.

We were now pretty monkeyed out. It was extremely hot, so we wandered through the shade of the town's chaotic markets, then went back to our hotel to cool off. I sent a few e-mails and Colleen napped. We wasted time for a few hours until dinner. Then we set off to find a nice place to eat. Since we were going to be taking an all night train that evening we wanted to be sure that we could find somewhere trustworthy, where we could be certain that whatever we ate wouldn't give us food poisoning or something else with similar symptoms. We knew from experience that the last place you wanted to have stomach troubles was on a train, where a squat toilet in motion is challenging at the best of times.

While looking for dinner we stumbled upon one more wat that we hadn't seen during the day. It was monkey free, but it was lovely, particularly at dusk when the lighting was perfect and the temperature was reasonable. We poked around there, then gave up on finding a good/safe Thai restaurant and settled for KFC. I trust the Colonel to take care of me.
We got to the train station with half an hour to spare, then had to wait for a couple of hours more for it to arrive. We had second class sleeper berths, which gave us spots to lie down and curtains for privacy. It was actually pretty decent. We awoke the next morning about an hour out of Chiang Mai, tired but ready for the day.

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city and is considered to be its cultural capital. I find it interesting that it's the second largest, since Bangkok is the largest, but the two have populations of 200k and 8.5mm respectively. That's a huge drop from #1 to #2.

We got a tuk tuk to our guesthouse, ate a late breakfast, checked in, showered, and headed out to explore Chiang Mai. We took the recommended walking tour and visited several temples, however these were in far better shape than what we'd seen before. Some were still in regular use, built with massive teak pillars. The last temple of the day was Chiang Mai's most popular temple, the Wat Phra Singh, apparently one of the most impressive and revered due to its image of Phra Singh or Lion Buddha. Unfortunately, sort of, we didn't get to see that Buddha image because there was a celebration/service going on for the new year. Maybe a hundred Thais sat on the floor of the temple with a string wrapped around their head. On the other end of this string was a plastic envelope with money in it, which was in turn attached to a grid of strings running between the teak pillars of the temple. We asked one of the monks what was going on and he explained that it was a good luck celebration for the new year, and that all of the funds went to temple upkeep. Makes sense, but it was a pretty bizarre sight.

By this time it was getting to be New Years Eve. We headed back to our hotel to clean up then went out for dinner. We wanted to go somewhere nice, so we found a good sounding restaurant in our Lonely Planet bible. We jumped into one of the local sawngthaew, which is the primary form of local transport, sort of like a mini-bus to nowhere, and asked to be taken to our restaurant. The driver gave us a price, we got in, and headed off. A few minutes later I realized that we were going in completely the wrong direction. I asked the driver, as best as I could, if he knew where we were going. After a few more minutes we determined that he had no idea. He tried to call the restaurant, with no luck, and we gave up on him. We next tried a tuk tuk, with no better luck, and decided that we'd be best off just to walk somewhere local. After a lot of walking around we ended up at a place called The Wok where we had a terrific dinner.

After dinner we decided to walk around the town for a bit, what with it being New Year's Eve and all. It was then that we saw a string of lights rising in the sky. We followed them over to the main street and were able to make out that they were small lanterns with little fires burning inside that had been released into the air like mini hot air balloons. There were first a few of them, then hundreds, and they just kept coming. We walked over to the square where many of them seemed to be originating and found a mass of people in the main city square watching, selling and lighting these lanterns. We watched, learned how it was done, then Colleen and I bought our New Years lanterns. The idea being that you light a lantern and release it, and it takes away all of your bad luck from the last year. So we're starting out '08 with a fresh slate.

After releasing ours we stayed around to watch others let go of their lanterns. If you didn't hold onto it long enough after it had been lit, for a couple of minutes at least, then there wouldn't be enough hot air in the lantern to carry it off into the sky. It might rise at first, but then it would go horizontally, or even drop back down. This made it very risky, because you had public square with thousands of people and burning lanterns floating for a bit then dropping back to earth. On the other hand, sometimes a lantern would just rise a bit then go laterally, which would take it into one of the trees surrounding the square. Sometimes they'd stick in the branches for a minute or two, but usually they'd release back into the sky. Only a few stayed in the trees until they burned their fuel source out. Finally, some of the lantern fuel sources, which seemed to be just rolled up paper but were clearly something more effective and long lasting than that, dripped burning material as they crossed the sky. No one seemed to get hit by it, but it seemed like a good way to get a nasty burn. Danger aside, it was wonderful to watch the thousands of lanterns lift off into the sky.

After watching on the ground for awhile Colleen and I went up onto the city walls that were on one side of this square to watch the continuing festival of lanterns. At the same time, individuals were setting off fireworks all around us. Then, at midnight, with the continuing procession of lanterns rising through the sky, the frequency and size of the fireworks grew, until there were explosions going off all around us. Big ones in the distance, midsized ones right overhead. It wasn't a coordinated effort like you'd see at home. Rather, it was a hodgepodge of different fireworks and lanterns happening all around the city. It was disorganized, it was improvised, and it was terrific. We were surrounded by explosions and a beautiful light display throughout the sky. This improvised grassroots show was probably the best New Years display I've seen.

One final, possibly anal, thought on New Years in Chiang Mai. I wouldn't be surprised if there were 10,000 to 20,000 of those lanterns that floated through the sky last night. At some point they've all got to come down somewhere. Some poor farmer in the east is probably cursing the Chiang Mai celebrants this morning.
Happy New Year everyone.

1 comment:

Bangkok Hotels said...

I will plan my next trip on Phuket. My destination is the beach. I knew that beaches in Phuket is very beautiful during Nov till March. If i go there, i will share my traveling picture and blog as well. I like your story so much....