Arriving in busy Bangkok, our kayaks increased our appeal to the legion of taxi touts waiting in the airport lounge – they knew we weren't walking anywhere with the boats in tow. We walked right past them, though and straight to the left luggage counter where for a tenner we were able to store two kayaks and a rucksack securely. With a lightened load, we braved Bangkok with Mr Joke at the meal. It was late, but our hotel was welcoming – good quality hotels come cheaply here and we slept well – we'd need it. The following morning we were up early, enjoying our hearty breakfast and we then headed to the train station to book a space in the air conditioned coach on the night train to Chang Mai that evening. With two seats secured we wandered out into two, with no real plan. We ended up wandering through China town to the river where we joined locals on the river ferry. A Buddist monk in his saffron orange robes asked us where we were going and then later came and found us to warn us that our stop was next – a refreshing change from the other Thais who had asked us where we were heading, they usually used it as the start of a sales pitch.
From the ferry we winded our way through tiny back streets that locals insisted on navigating by moped – I think Thais in cities may have forgotten how to walk – and ended up at the Royal Barges Museum. Fantastically ornate ceremonial narrow boats with gold guilded figure heads rose high out of their dry docks and sat along side relics of boats bombed during WW II and models of the strictly adheared to processional order, still used on state functions today. Crossing the river, we found ourselves in the Backpacker's mecca – Khao San road. There was a Boot, Subway, lots of Neon signs and hundreds of market stalls selling tourist tat. We left and wandered among quieter streets back to train station.
The overnight train was empty and quiet, we slept better than we thought we might are were rewarded with a beautiful hazy sunrise over distant mountains shortly before we arrived in Chang Mai. We'd been recommended a place to stay, but they were full so we turned to our trusty Lonely Planet bible and found the Siri Guest House, a wonderfully welcoming place right in the centre of the old city. Wandering around the Chang Mai was great – there are stil (restored) remains of the 12th Century city wall, and the moat still has water in it. After so long in New World countries, it was pleasing to be back in a place with real history. One of the Budda images we saw in a Chang Mai Wat (temple) dated back to about 500BC, and the night markets we wandered around that evening are (now very touristy) remnants of the trading caravans that used to transport cargo between China and an Indian sea port.
To make the most of our limited time we headed out on a hillside village trek early the following morning, walking up steep paths to get to a traditional village that used to make it's money from the Opium trade, but now serves tourists with hand crafted goods and poses for photos next to their authentic wooden shacks on stilts. The terrain and flora were reminisant of Fiji and the trek we did there. The elephants weren't. We'd been awed by the elephants we camped near in San Diego Wild Animal park and now we were up close to these huge creatures. It's quite a scary experience to be perched atop a large elephant as it negotiates a tiny trail that switchbacks up the hill and back down again, but it's wonderful to see them up close. Following a failed bamboo rafting attempt in Fiji (too much rain) we were glad that todays rafting wasn't cancelled. After riding the elephants we headed to a waterfall for a post lunch swim and then rafted back to the bus down a shallow river grade 2 river. It reminded me of a less civilized version of punting in Cambridge.
Another early start the next day took us to a Thai Organic Farm where they run a cookery course – we learnt a lot and ate more scrummy Thai dishes. We even had a doggy bag that we could take back to Bangkok with us (another overnight train) containing spring rolls that Sharon had proudly made from scratch. THe night train was more crowded and we slept less well than previously (I'd opt for the earlier train which has proper beds, rather than reclining seats next time) so caught a few hours sleep at our hotel before heading out into Bangkok again. This time we took in some temples, saw the massive reclining Budda and the Marco Polo statues that guarded the enterance. The temples and Budda images are, like their barges, studded with coloured gem stones, gold leaf and bright red and green paint. It's those colours, along with the bright pink, purple and orange taxis that we'll remember when we leave tomorrow. Travelling around Thailand has been a brief insight into South East Asia, but it's shown us we love this area and will return. But for now we're heading off to Nepal for some different Asian culture and almost as importantly, some whitewater.