On Wednesday morning we woke up early to pack for our train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Although we had enjoyed the night train for our last long journey, we hadn’t got very much sleep and we had missed out on seeing the scenery changing around us, so we decided to risk the 11 hour day train this time. We had 2nd class seats in an air conditioned compartment which was very similar to an old British train, not luxury but perfectly comfortable enough. The day passed fairly easily, doing schoolwork, writing blogs, reading, watching the scenery, and chatting to MJ, an American who drew the short straw and ended up sitting with us. We were served free drinks and snacks at regular intervals, as well as an incredibly spicy and fairly disgusting lunch of rice, green curry and garlic chicken in a packet that looked like dog food. We had brought masses of fruit, biscuits and sandwiches with us so we didn’t go hungry at any point. The journey proceeded smoothly, through the flat rice plains where we could see vast numbers of cranes flying in the skies, up to the northern hills, until we drew to an unexpected stop a couple of hours before Chiang Mai. Ahead of us was a forest fire, and it was clear the train staff didn’t know whether or not to proceed. We sat for a bit, went forward for a bit, then reversed for a while, then repeated this several times over the next hour until we finally made it onwards and out the other side. The whole family found this wildly exciting and it made our long journey much more interesting! Despite this distraction, we were all tired and very ready to get off the train when we finally reached Chiang Mai at 8.00. On arriving at the station we picked a rot daang (shared red taxi) and were squashed in with 7 other people before finally setting off for town. The driver clearly didn’t know his way around as we ended up driving round and round in circles looking for the various guesthouses, making for a very long trip. We were staying a short distance outside the old city in a rented house, so after everyone else had been dropped off, Ben jumped in the front and successfully navigated the way to our home for the next 2 weeks. We had finally made it, 14 hours after setting off in the morning.
We planned to try a slower pace of life in Chiang Mai, using the opportunity to reestablish regular home-school for an hour or two each morning, making sure we had plenty of days where we did ‘nothing’, letting the kids set the agenda, and working in some one-to-one time with each child. I had also hoped we might meet up with some of the expat community in Chiang Mai, having successfully joined a Chiang Mai ‘worldschool’ facebook group. Unfortunately this didn’t result in any meet ups despite my best efforts but I have found joining the global worldschooling facebook page very encouraging, reading about other families who are struggling with their children arguing, being unable to share beds together, and finding homeschooling difficult. It is very comforting knowing that we are not the only people to find travelling with kids challenging.
We had also planned to organise our visas for China and Russia during our time in Chiang Mai, feeling ready to commit at last to the timings of our home stretch on the Trans-Mongolian railway. Although we had originally planned to start this part of our journey at the end of June, we are all feeling ready to head back a bit sooner and are now hoping to arrive home in time for the kids to join in with the second half of summer term at school. We had always anticipated that getting a Chinese visa might be time consuming, however we had not realised how difficult it would be to get hold of a Russian visa. After researching it thoroughly, we have now been told that we can only get a tourist visa in London, and Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have all confirmed that they cannot grant us one. Vietnam have said that they will give us a transit visa which entitles us to travel through Russia for 10 days, but we aren’t confident enough to actually go ahead and book our train tickets on the basis of one positive email. So, we saved ourselves a couple of days of form filling and queuing for visas, but have instead spent that time generating new ideas for our route home. At the moment the top choice seems to be to complete South East Asia as planned, but to then go on to Japan instead of China, and head home by plane a few weeks later, however I doubt we will finalise any plans for a few weeks yet. Piran is very disappointed about missing Mongolia as he had visions of spending his days riding on horseback shooting a bow and arrow, and Jago really wants to do the incredibly long train journey, but if we can’t get a visa we will just have to accept that it wasn’t meant to be on this occasion, and plan another trip in a few years time.
Our accommodation in Chiang Mai was not far outside the city walls, so on our first day we rented some bicycles for the fortnight, to make it easy to get about. The kids loved riding about on them on the road outside our house and were very happy to just hang out on the bikes for much of the day. Ben and I both managed to get about easily on the bikes when travelling alone, but longer forays into town with the kids proved a lot more challenging. The traffic was busier than I had expected and Jago and Cara both lacked insight into the dangers of riding on these roads; as a result we had more than one occasion where I had to force everyone to walk home, pushing their bikes, after the kids refused to follow instructions. The older two are both so strong willed and very over-confident and do not take kindly at all to being told how to ride their bikes, becoming very rude and defiant when we try to point out the dangers. Despite them noticing so many differences in the various countries they have travelled in, getting them to acknowledge that road safety might be different here to the UK is like banging your head against a brick wall! Despite these difficulties, it was safe enough for them to ride around our quiet, local neighbourhood and they all spent many happy hours experiencing a bit of freedom away from us around here.
I wasn’t as happy as the kids were to spend endless days around our house. It was very dark indoors, with little natural light, no outdoor space and no views, and I found myself craving a more rural environment. The city was covered in smog during rice-field burning season, and we never saw the surrounding hills. One day we walked up Doi Suthep, reaching a fantastic temple half way up the hill, with water flowing over the rocks, the relaxing sounds of the forest around us, and hardly any of the gold glitz that would have detracted from the natural beauty of the site. This part of the walk was beautiful, along the path that the monks use each morning, marked with orange monks’ robes tied around the trees. So peaceful and meditative. It was quite amusing to find Ben telling the kids to be calm and quiet once we reached the temple, only to have the peace disturbed by a large group of monks chatting and laughing loudly and taking selfies on their phones! As we continued up to the top of the hill we all started to find it far too hot and struggled with the walk. When we finally reached the summit, we could barely see the city below due to the smog blocking the view, and we were too exhausted to look around the temple here- it clearly isn’t the best time of year to visit Chiang Mai. Despite all this, Ben really liked the city and would happily have stayed here longer, one of the few occasions where we have had really opposing views about a place. I think that I could have been much happier if we had been a bit further out of town with more scenery on our doorstep, and if we were coming here again I would definitely research where to stay more carefully before committing to accommodation.
Although I didn’t like the city of Chiang Mai as much as I had expected to, there were loads of activities for us to do there and we had some wonderful times. The city itself had a fabulous night market with delicious, cheap food and the kids really enjoyed being given some money and sent off to choose what they wanted to eat and pay for it themselves. We picked up a few souvenirs here, as well as enjoying our first fish foot spa, where you stick your feet in a tank of fish and they nibble away the dead skin. It took a lot of getting used to, with everybody squealing and finding it incredibly ticklish at first. It wasn’t the ‘relaxing’ experience that was advertised but it was a lot of fun. Our family Thai massage was a lot more relaxing for me with my gentle masseuse, but the kids found theirs funny and Ben looked a bit shellshocked after being walked on, bones cracked and muscles stretched at all angles. The massage girls clearly enjoyed treating the kids, especially Piran, and it was definitely a peaceful hour for us if nothing else! We tried lots of different dishes during our time here, including the delicious Chiang Mai speciality of Khao Soi, which is a kind of noodle curry soup, Papaya salad which is very spicy, made with unripe papaya and completely different to the fruit we usually eat, little crepes containing soft meringue and strings of candy floss, bingsoo which is flavoured milky shaved ice (a bit like shredded mini-milk with added strawberry/brownie/mango etc) and some amazing ice cream at the wonderful iberry garden. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to try the crickets and grasshoppers that were for sale at all the tourist sites, but I didn’t see any locals eating them either. Having enjoyed the cookery classes so much in Indonesia and Borneo, we decided to spend a day with Basil cookery class in Chiang Mai which was absolutely fantastic. We made so many different dishes and enjoyed the feast afterwards, and we will definitely be making spring rolls, green curry, pad thai and mango sticky rice regularly when we return to the UK.
As well as the delicious food, I did love finding so many temples in the city, the monks walking around everywhere (and sitting smoking in taxis), and the narrow alleyways off the main roads where you could find complete quiet and calm in contrast to the busy main thoroughfares. I visited a few of the temples and loved each one of them. The first one I went to was Wat Srisuphan, a silver temple on a quiet street near our house. Cara and I visited at 6pm, and were interested to find a ‘Monk Chat’ session about to start, which we thought would be a good opportunity to ask questions about Buddhism and the life of a monk. We duly signed the register, before realising it was actually a 2 hour course with an hour for chat and an hour’s meditation class afterwards. We had already written a long list of questions during our previous temple visits and the monk we were talking to tried his best to answer them for us. He then introduced us to sound meditation, using a gong to provide a rich sound for us to focus our attention on for 15 minutes. Unfortunately as it became dark, the room became filled with hundreds of flying ants, which kept landing on us and making it very difficult to concentrate! We eventually had to abandon our meditation, deciding that walking meditation in bare feet over a floor of small creatures wouldn’t be in keeping with Buddhist philosophy of not harming other living things. As we stepped out into the courtyard, the temple was lit up with candles, the light reflecting off the silver walls and roof, monks were sitting around the ordination hall, and chanting was being broadcast through the loudspeakers. It was very beautiful and very serene, and definitely the best way to see this temple. Inspired by this taster, I decided to sign up for a 1-day meditation course at Wat Suan Dok, a marvellous day where I learnt more about the Buddhist philosophy and was taught both concentration and mindfulness meditation, using the techniques of breathing, hand moving and walking. It seems only logical to me that we should need to rest our brains and switch off from active thought at times in the day, in the same way that we recognise the need to rest our bodies from physical activity. I also believe that practising mindfulness allows people to be more aware of their feelings, their needs and desires, and that in turn allows them either to address these issues or challenge them. In doing so, I believe we can be calmer and more content, and I hope to establish a routine of meditating every day over the next few weeks. I had been tempted to enrol on a 2 day silent meditation retreat, but I actually found it surprisingly difficult meditating for as long as 30 minutes, and I think more practice will be required before I can take that step. Another temple that I visited was Wat Chedi Luang, and I dragged all the kids along to this one with me. This was very interesting to visit, as the chedi dating from the 15th century had been destroyed either by an earthquake or during the recapture of Chiang Mai from the Burmese. It had only been partially restored, allowing plenty of room for the imagination, and it was also the original home of the Emerald Buddha before it was transferred to Bangkok. We enjoyed walking around for an hour or so before the heat got the better of us and we had to retreat to an ice-cream shop. I have learnt so much about Buddhism during my time in Thailand, and whilst there are a few elements I disagree with, I believe that the philosophies of being kind, generous, respectful, having self-control, and doing no harm, as well as the practice of meditation, are aspects that we should all fully embrace.
During our stay in Chiang Mai, Piran had his 7th birthday. We spent the day with a family who own a couple of elephants that were originally used by their grandfather and father for logging, but which are now retired and kept on as family pets. They do not get a lot of visitors, limiting it to a maximum of 8 people 3 times a week, but we were actually the first tourists to visit this year. It was important to me that we didn’t exploit the elephants by going to a large camp with hundreds of visitors every day all expecting to wash and feed them and I had spent a long time researching the different elephant experiences on offer before settling on Chiang Mai elephants. It was clear that Sumalee and her family love their elephants, and we felt happy that the elephants weren’t being put under stress when we rode bareback on them, just as their mahouts do. They were allowed to wonder about, at their own pace, stopping to eat as they wished, seeking shade, drinking water and spraying us with mud and water whilst we sat on their backs. It was an amazing experience being up so close and personal with them, feeling their hairy, leathery skin and watching their trunks move in such an agile manner, acting as an arm but with complete flexibility due to the lack of bones within. They really are awesome creatures. Lunch was an amazing feast cooked for us by Sumalee’s mother: delicious pad thai, vegetable stir fry, chicken with holy basil, rice and fruit. We all had an amazing day, and Piran was pleased that he could practice firing his new bow and arrows at lunchtime, a present he has been asking for, for the past 2 months. We finished the outing with a trip on a bamboo raft down the river which was lined with lots of teenagers drinking and splashing water on everyone who passed. We emerged at the other end soaked through but very refreshed and it was a fun way to end the trip. As we were punted down the river we could see other elephants carrying tourists in boxes on their backs, and some on short chains with no forest nearby, and the contrast with our day couldn’t have been greater. It is clear that more can be done to promote ethical tourism as many travellers think that ‘no riding’ means that the elephants will therefore be well treated, and it was easy to see the importance of choosing your outings very carefully. We finished off the day at Dukes, an American restaurant back in Chiang Mai, where we celebrated Piran’s birthday with a lovely meal. What an amazing way to spend your 7th birthday!
Whilst in Chiang Mai we did manage to take advantage of some of the multitude of activities available. Cara wanted to do an art class, so she and Jago had a 2 hour session at Noina art studio, where Noina showed them how to make sketches of their chosen photographs. They were both very pleased with their masterpieces and enjoyed it so much that we all went back the following week for another session. We all produced some great work and it was fabulous for Piran’s confidence who had been worried that he wouldn’t be any good and would ‘get it wrong’ despite my reassurances. Ben was very pleased with his pencil portrait of me, and I enjoyed using watercolours to paint the beach at Koh Bulone. This was one of the best activities we have done whilst travelling, and it has inspired us to see if we can find a similar class when we return to the UK. Jago wanted to play football and cricket; unfortunately none of the football clubs would take people on a drop-in basis, but Ben found a cricket club where he could go and practice his bowling and they enjoyed a couple of afternoons together there, one watching other people playing and one getting involved himself. The coach was very impressed with Jago’s talent and assumed he had been coached before, so Jago is now keen to take up cricket as his summer sport when we get home. Piran mostly wanted to ride his bike and play with his bow and arrow and new lego kits, but he did enjoy an afternoon playing crazy golf with me, very satisfied when he got each ball in the hole regardless of the number of shots needed. Cara and I had a lovely afternoon at the park playing on the gym equipment, chatting and enjoying a drink at the cafe, and we also enjoyed a trip to the insect museum where we learnt more about mosquitos and saw lots of different dead insects which was strangely interesting. Ben found a couple of co-working spaces to spend his days which worked much better for all of us than having him trying to work at home and getting annoyed by the distractions and interruptions. There was even an English speaking multi-denominational church in Chiang Mai so we were able to go to a service for the first time since New Zealand. This wasn’t as sociable as I had hoped and the kids didn’t really enjoy Sunday school, but it was good to revisit our own faith after spending so many months learning about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, especially with Easter just around the corner. Given that our stay in Chiang Mai was a break from all the busyness of the previous few months, we managed to fit in a surprising amount of stuff without ever feeling like we were doing too much. It has been encouraging to realise that by slowing down and travelling a bit more slowly we can still have the travelling experience we hoped for, and this realisation has helped us to summon up enthusiasm as we continue on in to Laos.
We finished our time in Chiang Mai with another white water rafting trip, something we have all enjoyed in other places, and an opportunity to get out of the hot, smoggy city and see some of the surrounding countryside. As it is dry season, the water levels were fairly low so we felt brave enough to tackle the grade III-IV rapids, with the kids sitting out the most challenging 2km stretch in the middle. We were given inflatable kayaks rather than the bigger rafts so that we wouldn’t get stuck on the exposed rocks in the shallow river. It was so wonderful being out of the city for the day, and my mood lifted quickly as soon as we retreated into the countryside. The quiet and calm of the river was such a contrast to the city, and the kids were able to relax, muck about and splash each other with water without me having to worry about traffic or noise levels, happily turning over responsibility to the guide who was paddling with Jago and Cara. He was great fun, very happy for them to get wet and stand up in their kayaks, whilst successfully directing them as they went down the rapids. The faster rapids were much more fun than the grade I we had tried before, though I found the anticipation more exciting than the reality which often felt quite tame. It was a fun final family activity in Thailand, and made me think that I might have enjoyed Chiang Mai so much more if we had stayed in a slightly more rural location; I am clearly just not designed for city life!
Tuesday of week 25 was our final day in Chiang Mai, leaving us just 1 day to get to the border before our visas were due to expire on Thursday. I felt like there was so much more of Thailand that we didn’t get to see, but that is part of travelling as a family. Our priority at this time had been to provide stability for the kids and to enjoy some more ‘normal’ activities for a while, and we definitely managed to achieve that. The Thailand that we saw was more developed and commercialised than we had been expecting, apart from the lovely Koh Bulone, and it would have been interesting to venture further into the hills in the north. As we head on towards Laos, we are hoping that we will find a simpler way of life combined with more untouched countryside, that we missed out on in Northern Thailand. What better way to start our journey than with 2 days floating down the Mekong river!