Monday, February 13, 2006

The Elephant Farm

I am not much of a tourist, particularly when its on an organized bus tour but as the elephant farm was a couple of miles in the bush off the bus route with no tuk-tuk or taxi, I chose a small group tour in a mini-bus and I am glad that I did.

We first went to a small paper-making facility where they make very nice paper out of elephant dung!

Then to see the beasts. They were amazing and performed lots of great tricks, even doing "hand stands" and walking upright. They played soccer, had a band and painted pictures with water colour. Following this we rode on their backs through the river and through the jungle for about an hour, stopping at tree-high stalls to buy bunches of bananas and cane sticks. The long trunks came searching over their backs, until they located the food, which was then gently taken from us and, curving through the air in a graceful ark, found its target and into their mouths, bananas a whole bunch at a time!

A long lazy bamboo raft ride down the river, then a bumpy ride in an ox cart led to a huge buffet lunch in a lovely building on the rivers edge.

Following lunch we went to the Monkey School which was fun and amusing, the highlight for me being a tiny baby monkey who contentedly sat on my hand and played with my necklace.

The day ended with a visit to the butterfly and orchid farm.

It was a fun day and I can understand why its one of the main attractions for tourists coming to Chaing Mai.

How to bargain for success

Bargaining, haggling, discussing prices - its a way of life here but sometimes hard to know what is a fair price.

I have been complimented on my good bargaining skills by several vendors here so I guess I have learnt a few things.

I do know that no one will sell an item for less than they paid for it so I feel its fair to "discuss the price". I don't think that its fair to just bargain for the fun of it without any intention of buying so I try not to get into a discussion unless have some plans to make the purchase as long as the price is right.

I usually try to purchase "in bulk" I will ask "What is your best price" for one item, then having got a response I pick up several items and offer a price that works out to about half the price asked for. This seems to work quite well, so if for example I am told $2 for one item, I pick up 5 items that are similar and offer $5. Here they often ask for a bit more as "lucky money" and I can choose to say yes or no.

Sometimes the will look in amazement and say "oh no" and then I will say thank you and start to walk away. Usually they will quickly some after me and say OK. The other day a delightful little old lady, wrinkled as a brown walnut, followed me and actually took me gently by the hand and led me back to her stall. We were both giggling like a couple of school girls by the time we got there and how could I not buy from her after that?

When I had completed my purchases with her, she gave me a little carved jade elephant that now hangs on a chain around my neck, along with my rose quartz and my amethyst ball. A gentle reminder of how nice the Thai people are.

Bargaining is fun for the seller and, on the odd occasion that I felt the price was so little that I do not try and bargain, there is almost a look of disappointment on the face of the vendor

So did I get a lot of bargains - well I think I did - now if only I can bargain for more baggage allowance at the airport!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Visiting Burma

Quaint Thai visa rules insist that visitors go out of the country and come back in once a month. Hence there is an active "visa-run" mini-bus business. However on the Visa Run you only
get to stay at the boarder about an hour and I wanted to spend more time so I took the bus there.

There are three main bus services, VIP which is almost as good as first class on Air
Canada with wide leather seats that recline almost flat, padded foot rests and refreshment service. Then there is the "air-con" which is considered second class but is still pretty good and finally the cheap way, no air-con but fans and open windows. Prices vary but its about $7 for VIP, $6 for Air-con and $2 for local.

The boarder closes at 4.30 p.m. so I got the afternoon VIP bus and arrived around 6 p.m. The bus station is not too close to the boarder so it is necessary to get the "Red Bus" for a few pennies. The method of making the most money by Red Bus driver/owners, is to stuff as many people as possible inside on the two long benches then more people sitting on tiny stools in the aisle and then have as many people as possible hanging off the back. The bus does not leave until it it totally full and of course stops every few minutes.

I was the last to get off but the driver did take me to the very best hotel in town, a huge building run by a Chinese family. The rooms were first class, very clean and spacious, big TV and two phones, nice modern bathrooms and lovely "juliette" balconies. The price was a whopping $35 but did include a large buffet breakfast.

As is usual, there was a night market along the main street so that provided the entertainment for the evening. The many food stalls offered tempting dishes but, being careful I chose to go to the only restaurant that seemed to be open where I actually got at scotch and soda in a single order (scotch is usually only served by the bottle) and some wonderful prawns cooked in glass noodles and, for the first time since I left Canada, a side order of french fries. (I know, I know but one can finally get tired of rice.)

The next day I entered Burma. After leaving my pasport with some trepidation, I hired a tuk-tuk for $3 for the morning for trips to some of the temples. It was lovely, high in the mountains it was cool and the air was very fresh and smelled of jasmine.

The temples are very different from the Thai ones, no so elaborate. but very peaceful. My favourite temple had worship points for each day of the week. The guide had a book which showed, according to birthday, the day of the week you were born on. I was born on a Tuesday, which makes me a Lion so I bought flowers and candles and inscense to place in front of the goddess of Tuesday. Then I had to pour water three times over the statue and the lion symbol, then hit a small gong three times. After this I went to a huge gong on a balcony overlooking the lovely countryside where I had to hit the gong any odd number of times. My guide was a delightful man who spoke perfect English and had a deformity of two thumbs on one hand.

After my tour of other temples and a visit to the golf course and a small tourist-oriented tribal village of "long necks" (women who are forced from childhood to wear brass rings around their necks which pushes their shoulders down). I did not stay there very long I thought that it was a very cruel practice that tourism was encouraging to continue.

Then it was to the market (of course). Not too different to the markets in Thailand but quite a few beggers which is not something you see much of in Chiang Mai. Had hoped to find some Burmese Jade which often has colours of pale pink and soft green flowing into each other. I had bought some in Bangkok so guess I will have to look for the shop again to add to my collection.

By the time I got back over the boarder I had just missed the VIP bus and had to take the local bus, complete with non-working fans and lots of people leaving work, to the next town of Chaing Rai where I was finally able to connect with the VIP bus for the 4 hour journey back to C.M.

It was good to get back "home" but it was an interesting trip and a chance to see a little bit more of the world.

Hippies are alive and well and living in Pai Thailand

Pai - according to the travel books, is a small peaceful town high in the hills of Northern Thailand. What better place to visit to escape the bussle of Chaing Mai.

I went by mini-bus, up bumpy and winding roads, high into the mountains. Almost four hours later I arrived and looked for a small hotel in a quite location. I found what seemed to be ideal, on a side road, with an inside courtyard, the quaint rooms had rustic balconies surrounded by trees and tea and coffee were delivered each morning. I checked in and went for a walk.

Pai has four north/south roads and four east/west roads and is bounded by a small river, The streets mostly contain small shops, bars and restaurants, AND everywhere, MOTORBIKES, driven by topless foreign men with scruffy hair or dreadlocks (thought they went out with the ark) and on the curb dozens of hill tribe women all selling the same goods. Music blared out from bars and cafes, mostly ancient rock. The only mode of public transporation is on the back of "taxi motorbikes" no tuk-tuk or car taxis.

Seeking refuge from the noise I went back to my hotel to be entertained by the sound of Elvis blaring from a record player in the maids bedroom. I went to her door, she was fast asleep and not at all accomodating when I asked her to turn down the music.

After an expensive and not very satisfactory meal, I went to bed early, to be awakened constantly by the sounds of dogs barking, people arguing and for some reason, pots and pans being thrown around.

I thought that it could not get much worse but at five in the morning I was awakened by cocks crowing, dogs barking and the high pitch of the faithful being called to prayer by the small local Muslim community.

I left on the first mini-bus out that morning.

I think that the moral to this story is not to believe everything the lonely planet writes.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Busy Bangkok

Went to Bangkok for the weekend to hook-up with my friend Bernadette who had been to Borneo to see the orangutan. She had made reservations for the Atlanta Hotel, mostly because of the convenient location. It is close to several mass transit links which is vital in BK as the traffic is so chaotic that walking is faster than a taxi. They do have hire transportation on the back seats of motor cycles but I did not fancy sitting on the back seat of a motor cycle clutching my suitcase. Actually the nicest mode of transportation is by river boat and whenever possible I try and use the river, however it did not go anywhere near to the Atlanta Hotel.

My first clue that the Atlanta was different to most hotels was a huge sign outside the door "No sex trade tourists". It got stranger. There is a big poster at the front desk stating "We do not listen to complaints. If you have complaints then maybe you should go a stay in a 5 star hotel" and so it went on. In the dining room a sign says "Feet on the floor please" On the menu it says "do not hog the menu, we only have 3 copies" On each floor is a wall to ceiling sign denouncing tourists who come to BK for sex in no uncertain terms. I actually took a photograph of it it was so funny.

The hotel was built in 1952 and no doubt was a jewel at that time. Its a bit like a faded old lady now, clean but definitely out of date. No elevators and 5 floors to climb up sweeping marble staircases with grand iron railings. Still the beds were comfortable and the rooms were very spacious and air-conditioned. Behind the hotel was a very over-grown garden and a big swimming pool with hammocks around the sides in the shade of the overgrown trees.

On the corner of the soi by the main road was the Marriott Hotel and I was shocked to see guards with what looked like children's scooters on sticks but which turned out to be mirrors - all the better to look under the chasis of the arriving cars and taxis. Seems the threat of terrorism is everywhere there is a American Hotel.

Sitting on an outside patio in the evening I was surprised to see a baby elephant being lead by its ear, the handler selling bags of what looked like big bamboo sticks, for tourists to feed and pet the animal. It had learnt its tricks very well and almost consumed my dinner before I could get my money out to buy some food for it! All part of the hectic, crazy place called Bangkok.

The main two pastimes seem to be eating and shopping. There are markets everywhere but none like the weekend market with over 7,000 stalls selling everything from clothes to live exotic animals and birds. We managed to visit several including the "Thieves Market" and "The street that melts away your money". (and it did). I am now the proud owner of a lovely Bulgari watch, two new hand-bags and a new silk??? pant suit, plus more beads than you can imagine for jewelry making.

The highlight of a trip to Bangkok for me is lunch or dinner on the patio of the Oriental Hotel, overlooking the river. The exquisite attention to detail, the elegance, the charm of the staff - not to mention the wonderful food and drinks and, the last twice I have been here, seeing the kings' favorite car, an old yellow rolls Royce, parked outside made it a meal to remember. AND it cost less than many average Toronto restaurants!!

It was good to return to the relative peace of Chaing Mai but I do enjoy Bangkok in small doses and will have 5 days there just before I return to Toronto at the end of Feb.

 

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