Our time in Penang passes relatively quickly. Aside from the experience of Georgetown itself, there’s not a huge amount to do on the island. By the time we’ve finished roaming the streets of central Georgetown we’ve had our fill of temples and crowds. Aside from some very tasty Indian food, there’s not enough here to make us want to prolong our stay. Thailand is just around the corner and it has a lot of expectations to live up to. With this in mind, we embark on a two plane journey straight up to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand where it borders with Burma and Laos. This is our first introduction to flying with Air-Asia, the Ryanair of Asian skies. As we’re travelling with a point-to-point carrier we have to take one flight from Penang to Bangkok and another from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. We pass through immigration at Bangkok and officially arrive in Thailand. After picking up our bags from the carousel and passing through customs, we promptly circle round and go through the whole check-in process again. This time at least we’re taking a domestic flight so we don’t have to deal with immigration on either end. Thankfully Air Asia does at least allocate seats on the plane. Unfortunately the passengers on both planes go out of their way to show that assigned seating doesn’t work so well when some people can’t read their seat numbers. On the first flight three people in row 9 have to be relocated to row 19 before all the displaced people shuffle out of our seats. On the second plane some elderly man beside Brodie apparently thinks it’s all free seating like in the cinema. The air hostesses aren’t very attentive so it’s up to a German couple to shift him out of their seats.
We arrive in Chiang Mai late in the evening and accept a fixed-price taxi which gets us to our accommodation, Queen Victoria Inn. Living up to the Thai reputation, the taxi driver is that bit friendlier than in Malaysia. Weary from a long day we struggle to follow what he’s saying as he commiserates over the Thierry Henry ‘hand of god’ that just took Ireland out of the World Cup then points out temples and areas of interest. It seems he’s itching for February to roll round when the streets will be full of people celebrating in style with water fights. He leaves us his card should we want a personal tour during our stay and drops us outside the Inn. The staff there hand over a key and tell us to leave checkin until the morning as we must be tired. As we explore the ample room plus ensuite it doesn’t take long for us to be feeling quite happy to have finally reached Thailand. After some sleep we go through the lengthy checkin process with a guy we nickname Arnie due to his tendency to keep telling us he’ll be back. In actuality he’s more like the Thai equivalent of Lloyd from Entourage, complete with personality and mannerisms. He gives us some friendly warnings about people trying to take advantage of tourists, rolling his eyes and laughing when we tell him we’re already booked in for a tour the next day. Unfortunately there’s only one place doing the specific tour we want so we’ll have to take our chances. It’s either going to be an amazing trip or a total disaster.
We check out the first of our “wikitravel recommends it” restaurants for dinner. Huen Phen proves to be a nice restaurant with a menu specialising in Northern Thai food. The portions aren’t huge, but they’re nice. Having eaten our fill we return to our room to pack up our rucksacks and request somewhere to stow them for the next two days. We’re departing sometime in the very early morning to see the sights of Chiang Rai – and a long list of other places in what looks like a jam-packed two day tour. Just like our three month trip, this two day tour is going to cram in a surprising amount of things into a short space of time. For that reason, it’s 7.15am the next morning when we emerge from the inn to meet our company for the next 2 days. Our guide Tanisith (who we are to call Cha) and our driver “Jon” who is the silent partner, excluded from all group conversations because he doesn’t speak English. His status is too lowly to even associate with Cha when there are other tour guides around. His role is limited to driving, opening doors, smiling a lot and waiting around for us. As it’s just the two of us on the tour we have all their attention for the journey which proves to be a little tiring as we try to nod and comment appropriately on all that’s being said to us.
Cha is a capable tour guide who absolutely loves to talk. Mostly about himself. To the extent that he will usually cut across anyone else that tries to speak. Buried in amongst all the tales of his life and his many many friends is a lot of insight on what it might be like to live in Thailand. He’s 57 years old and portrays himself as a jack of all trades. e’s also a walking pharmacy, constantly rummaging for a pill or gel. We quickly learn that a lot of what he says can seem quite contradictory when it’s all put together. The broad gist of his life is that he grew up in a village near Bangkok. Not wanting to follow the family profession of farming he turned to Thai fighting to finance his education. Failing to achieve the high standards of entry into college he got a Physical Education certificate instead. Though he claims to have been quite successful at fighting, he retired as soon as he’d finished studying and became a teacher instead. He moved to Chiang Mai and married his first wife whom he had one son with before divorcing when the son was one year old. He says the reason for the divorce was that she was the only daughter and too tied to her family. Nevertheless, within 6 months she had remarried because she was pretty.
Cha seems to have spent some years teaching among the different tribes in the North of Thailand and has a great interest in their culture. After he remarried he worked as a taxi driver, restaurant owner for 2 years, and tour guide for most of the last 30 or so years. He often laments the fact that he will have to work his whole life and never travel outside of his country while we are seeing so much of the world. Yet he also admits to owning the family farm, running a health spa with his wife and having previously owned 5 racing horses. We suspect this is merely the tip of the iceberg. This guy has definitely seen a lot more money than most of his compatriots. He regales us with tales of his gambling woes and how much money he lost during the years before his wife set some strict limits I can’t help but think that perhaps if he hadn’t gambled away so much of what he had then he’d have had ample opportunity to explore a bit further away from home. In the interest of not destroying Thai-Irish relations I keep these thoughts to myself.
Possibly related to his easy come, easy go relationship with money, Cha has a fascination with the cost of things both in Thailand and in every other country we’ve visited. He’s also big on name-dropping. When he tells us he has an Irish friend and it turns out he met the guy twice (the first time a mere fortnight ago) we become somewhat sceptical about the multitude of friends he claims to have. He says he’s friends with every member of the last Thai Prime Minister’s family, though he never quite managed to meet the man himself. He’s buddies with the abbot of every temple we visit and especially good friends with the famous artist who created the White Temple… yet he’s not exactly volunteering to bring the great man out to meet us. Throughout the tour he’s constantly popping pills and powders like they might pass their sell by date at any minute. We must have toilet breaks practically every hour on the hour. Brodie gets a bit disturbed when he finds himself the focus of many discussions about Cha’s toiletry habits and how they change with the seasons.
Despite being a contradictory individual who likes the sound of his own voice too much, Cha proves to be a mostly interesting, if tiring, tour guide for the trip. His elaborate tales, whether true or not, give a colourful picture of what life has been like in Thailand over the last 50 years. So, with that brief description of the man who is the source of most of our information on Thailand out of the way, it’s time to move on to the tour itself…