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Thailand Holiday: Trains, Caves and Chiang Mai

You saw some amusing things in Bangkok, caught the train to Chiang Mai and went caving in the north, and came back for the lights festival.

Bangkok Train & Floating Market

Between the whirlwind tour of Cambodia and heading onward to Chiang Mai, you were back in Bangkok for two days down-time. Dani and Ulf were home for the weekend, so following an extravagant breakfast — with homemade jam, which is hard to get in Thailand — you all headed off to visit the train market and the floating market. Bangkok has a lot of markets.

Driving there didn't take long, and it gave you a chance to chat about the Thai royalty — a topic only discussed behind closed doors, lest you be thrown in jail. The Thai take them waaay too seriously. The prince's dog was the promoted to Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force. Further comments withheld.

The train passing through the market
The train passing through the market

The Talad Rom Hoop ‘train market’ is a corridor of small food stalls aligned along some railway tracks. The awnings are hinged and the tables are on wheels, so when the train comes chugging in things can be moved out of the way, while everything laying low is left alone. It was bizarre watching the locomotive pass within a hair's width of a pile of potatoes and a bunch or bananas.

Someone cooking seafood on a river boat
Someone cooking seafood on a river boat

The Amphawa ‘floating market’ along the Mei Klong is a section of river occupied by boats from which food is both prepared and sold, while a land-based market sprawls outwards on both sides. It is the kind of market selling such fine products as Ralex watches, Ligo blocks and Volk Swagen toys. South-East Asian knock-off brands are amusing: ‘same same but different!’

Rabbit & Carrot Service Center
Rabbit & Carrot Service Center

That night Dani got her western-food fix by making her own pasta for dinner — she seemed to at be her fried-rice and hokien noodle limit. You all ate outside on the 19th floor balcony enjoying the warm weather and gentle breeze, while neon pink party-boats passed below. The same three pop songs were played loudly on repeat. Tourists...

The Chao Mae Tuptim penis shrine
The Chao Mae Tuptim penis shrine

Early the next morning S&S flew into town, and you wandered through Bangkok for the day. You caught a river boat down a canal filled with black water and visited huge department stores with entire floors dedicated to mobile phone covers. The day's highlight was visiting the Penis Shrine; some of the group were reluctant to be photographed in its vicinity. The sunset that evening was magnificent!

On the overnight train to Chiang Mai
On the overnight train to Chiang Mai

Thet evening you jumped on the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. Clearly it was a tourist-thing because all passengers were white backpackers. It was a bumpy ride but the beds were surprisingly comfortable. The conductor didn't like people stowing their shoes on the luggage racks for some reason. He began patting his head, yelling ‘the king, the king!’. Very confusing pantomime.

Cave Lodge, Ban Tham

You woke up somewhere in the jungle as the train screeched to a slow, but very noisy halt. Sleeping on the night train had been surprisingly pleasant. Well rested, you caught a taxi from Chiang Mai train station to the airport, and met an unhelpful lady working the car rental counter. Your GPS was being similarly unhelpful, freezing at 79% while calculating a route through the windy mountain roads to Ban Tham Village. Heading north seemed like a good idea to start with, navigation be dammed.

From the first hill onwards, the mountain roads looked like a rally circuit. Most corners were steep 180° hairpins lined with black/white striped racing boarders. It was a bit sad to be driving such a wussy car that coughed and spluttered above second gear on such an exciting road.

Cave Lodge main building
Cave Lodge main building

Three hours and a little motion sickness later, you arrived in Ban Tham at the Cave Lodge — a place built by an Aussie bloke and his Thai lady in the jungle that reminded you of a treehouse. The booking system was simple: you just shoot off an email to John, who ‘will reply when the power comes back on’. He was a pretty chill guy. Upon arrival most guests wander into the kitchen and call out ‘is John around?’ If not, they would take a beer and wait until someone came back. It made you smile. That night some Belgians invited you to join their upcoming caving expedition, just before thunderstorms set in. It was an exciting night in the bungalow.

During breakfast in the treehouse you heard about the destruction the thunderstorms had wrought. A nearby village river had overflowed causing loss of power and the local motorbike shop to flood. The motorbikes, who's engines were now waterlogged, ‘would need to be sold elsewhere’ mentioned John with a hint of sarcasm. Shifty business as usual.

Trekking through the jungle
Trekking through the jungle

The spelunking guide Mr. Ong was a short Thai bloke with a smiley round face, introduced as ‘the aspiring best guide of Thailand’. The five of you jumped into a truck with bamboo walking sticks and headed to the start of the hike. The trail was decked with a heavy, sticky mud that glued layers of earth to your shoes. It made things a bit slippery, so you were glad of the walking sticks. Mr. Ong took the time to point out interesting things, like a fern that curled up when touched. Weather report: hot and humid.

Cave #1 underground river
Cave #1 underground river

Cave #1 had a huge opening and was decked with white limestone formations. It funnelled down to a metre-high muddy tunnel which connected to an underground river. The passageway had some bats, a sleepy snake and water dripping everywhere. Fourty minutes later you came up for air.

Ready to enter cave #2
Ready to enter cave #2

Another hour hacking through the steamy jungle brought you to some rice paddies and cave #2. There you met an old farmer, with whom Mr. Ong shared his lunch muffin and chewed the breeze. This cave was very narrow and had a river flowing through it leading to an underground waterfall. Before entering, Mr. Ong made an offering to the spirits (somewhat ominously). In swimmers and very wet hiking shoes, you entered the cave but didn't make it far. The high water level made passing under the low roof (5 cm breathing space for 4 m) too dangerous.

Taking utmost care not to step on the beans
Taking utmost care not to step on the beans

Moving through bean fields Mr. Ong treaded carefully so as not to damage the crops. Subsistance farming seems to be tough, and the guides made a conscientious effort not to squish a single bean. By now you had broken two walking sticks and were onto number three; bamboo just couldn't cut it over a machete.

Inside cave #3 admiring the formations
Inside cave #3 admiring the formations

Under the shade of a papaya tree on a hill with a view, you chatted about the local mountain marathon. Mr. Ong didn't get the concept of jogging through the jungle: ‘too hot to run’. Cave #3 had a bamboo ladder decent through an opening into a huge sloping cave, where you found more magnificent limestone formations and lots of bats.

At the entrance to Tham Lod

The next day you went rafting down the Mae Lang river and through the Tham Lot cave: a 1.6 km long, 400 m high cave filled with humongous ceiling to ground stalactites and stalagmites. You rafted into the cave and explored a bit while watching thousands of birds circle around the entrance. It looked just like a bandits' hideout from Skyrim.

On the other side was a smaller side-cave used by local monks for meditation. The monks enter without lights, navigating into the dark depths by following string. There they sit on thin bamboo mats in complete silence (bar dripping sounds) in literal deep meditation.

Rafting down the river
Rafting down the river

The river rapids and wier descents were fun. Downriver at the bridge the locals were doing a spot of community gardening — a.k.a. hacking away the overgrowth. You disembarked the rafts into some red mud, which to this day (7 February 2016) you have not yet fully cleaned off your shoes. The Cave Lodge sure serves some good colourful curries.

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

The journey from northern Thailand's jungly mountains back to civilisation took around three hours. The misty mountain roads were both breath-taking and wondrous. In other words, the hairpin corners were slippery and you couldn't see much. You dropped past an orchid place on the way — the flowers were pretty but not many were in bloom — and arrived in confusing-one-way-streets Chiang Mai in the afternoon.

An orchid at the orchid nursery
An orchid at the orchid nursery

After dropping your bags the the hotel, you grabbed some grub at an open-air restaurant catered by a smiley round chef. His yellow curry and deep fried papaya were really tasty, not to mention dirt-cheap. You're going to miss Thai food. Chiang Mai had just began celebrating Yi Peng: the lights festival which coincides with the nation-wide Loi Krathong (go float a basket) festival. For two nights coinciding with the full moon, khom loi (floating lanterns) are set alight and set loose into the sky. It is so huge that sky-traffic is sometimes diverted.

Lanterns floating skyward
Lanterns floating skyward

You wandered about the city and then sat in maccas for a while waiting for nightfall. Throughout the city were lots temples where monks were helping people get their lanterns aloft. Some people wrote on their lanterns while others had flame and buoyancy issues, but most people eventually got them flying lazily upward. By the time you reached the main bridge everyone was lighting lanterns left, right and center. The sky-bound procession looked like a sea of stars. The accompanying fireworks paled in comparison.

Cute local postbox
Cute local postbox

The next morning there were scattered remains of paper lanterns everywhere; as romantic as it was, it sure made a mess. You wandered about the city through its many markets and saw everything from mountains of spices to pet turtles*. Most of the day was spent walking through temples and waiting for nighttime to see Yi Peng round two.

Monks floating candles
Monks floating candles

One particular temple had singing monks performing a prayer ceremony, followed by floating candles on their pond and sending lanterns up into the sky. A regiment of pushy Chinese photographers had erected a barricade of camera tripods, effectively blocking the whole thing from view. The solution: hoisting Meike up onto your shoulders.

This bloke looked happy to be in the parade
This bloke looked happy to be in the parade

Most travel guides recommend visiting the Chiang Mai night markets, but you found them a bit overwhelming — bright blinking lights and identical stalls repeated every fifty meters. Was a great place to find some cheap, crappy knock-offs if that's what you're into. By 7 pm the Yi Peng party was in full swing and so getting back over the bridge, past all the drunk tourists and firework-wielding locals, was a challenge. A group of hare krishnas were banging out their chants and tunes, which felt a bit like festival hijacking but no one paid them much attention. It was a really happy, lively atmosphere.

The main bridge full of partying people
The main bridge full of partying people

Next day head home. Overall: good holiday.