New Year in the North

With a week left of our Thailand visa, we continued north toward our planned border crossing, though still undecided of whether to go to Myanmar or Laos. Tom, Steve, & I caught the morning train to Chiang Mai, which turned out to be a small commuter train, with fairly limited seating considering we had another 6 hour trip ahead of us. We snaked our way through the mountains of northern Thailand, enjoying the snacks sold by train-hopping vendors along the way.

Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, we went our separate ways with Tom, having already booked separate hotels. After a busy week of traveling, Steve & I needed some down time to catch up on writing, photos, and travel planning. It worked out that the first days of rain we experienced in Thailand coincided with our planned days off. Our room included TV & cable, with 4 English channels airing many good B-list movies.

Chiang Mai offers a large variety of outdoor activities, including trekking, cycling, rafting, elephant tours, zip lining, rock climbing, etc. But we decided to keep our relaxing schedule. So finally, after declining hundreds of offers over the past 3 weeks, we treated ourselves to our first Thai massages. With a plethora of parlors in the city, we wanted to opt for a place with a little more flare. We went to the business which employs the women who have completed their training through the prison trade school and have been released from prison. The hour-long Thai massages combine massaging with lots of stretching, making for a much more active masseuse compared to traditional massages. At such an affordable price, I’m sure we’ll be taking up those Thai massage offers a bit more often now.

We expanded on our budget-friendly week by heading out to Pha Daeng National Park for a couple nights of camping. We realized we were on our way to a much smaller national park compared to our previous park considering a majority of the locals weren’t sure of where we were talking about, even though we were only 30 km or less from the park. Fortunately, we took the correct buses & trucks to arrive at the park for lunch. Though it was much smaller than Erawan, the village food stands were less than a 1/4 mile from the park, so finding some local grub wasn’t a problem.

Being the only guests in the campground, we had free reign of playing in the Sri Sungwan waterfalls during the afternoon before retiring to our tent for some rounds of rummy.

The next morning we made our way down the road to the Pong Arng Hot Springs for a revitalizing soak. Being another low-visited area of the park, only a handful of people were walking around the hot pools and even fewer in the water. The only others in the pools were a Thai family on holiday from the city, who ended up offering us a ride the 5 km back to our tent. The afternoon was spent taking photos, working on some trail maintenance, and more rounds of cards in the tent.

Though we were already near the border of Thailand/Myanmar/Laos, we had to travel back down to Chiang Mai to catch a bus up to Chiang Rai. Once we were out of the mountains, we used the limited cell service to book a room in Chiang Rai, knowing the town would be very booked up for New Year’s Eve. Once that was accomplished, we enjoyed the scenic 12 hours of bus travel.

We arrived at our hostel around 8pm, only to find out they had overbooked the hostel, but without cell service or Wi-Fi while on the buses, we didn’t get the notification. We found another hostel a few blocks away with 2 beds left, so we booked it online to secure the beds. Upon arrival at hostel 2, they also had overbooked the beds, leaving us without yet again. They called a friend who owned a hostel a few blocks away & confirmed they had two bunks available for us. By 10pm, we were finally settled in & ready to see what Chiang Rai had going on for NYE festivities.

We were just a few blocks from the main street party. The clock tower was lit up in various colored lights with a countdown to 2561/2018. The Thai Buddhist calendar begins 543 years prior to the Western Christian calendar, so both New Years were being celebrated throughout Thailand that evening. The festivities included 4 different stages with various types of performances and entertainment.

Hundreds of party-goers sat around tables covered in green Chang tablecloths which were covered with empty Chang beer bottles and half-empty Chang beer towers. Beer girls in green Chang dresses were selling overpriced beers at Chang beer tents, while street food vendors lined the street edges to make some money off drunk celebrants. If all the green Chang was switched to blue Bud Light, we would have been smack dab in Midwest USA.

The next morning while on our hunt for some baked goods, we stumbled upon the Chiang Rai Flower Festival. Walls, carpets, and statues created entirely of flowers were on display in this park. It was quiet a beautiful event to happen upon.

The two main things I wanted to see in Chiang Rai were the White Temple & Black House. These were listed in the guide book as oddities not to miss. So naturally, those comprised my agenda. Apparently, they were on everyone else’s agenda for New Year’s Day, too.

The White Temple was swarmed with people excited to buy the good luck medallions to start their year off on the right foot. The pure white temple is a new temple, decorated in quite modern murals and sculptures, like hanging tree planters of Spider Man, Jack Sparrow, and Hell Boy. The inside murals have traditional Buddha paintings alongside the likes of Charlie Brown and SpongeBob. Quite a beautiful, yet quirky, temple that is still being expanded.

The Black House, though not linked, stands as a polar opposite of the White Temple. These older buildings are dark and traditional in style and decorated in animal skins and skulls (obviously on my list to see!).

Then since we were on a color theme for the day, a Chinese couple we met on the bus to the Black House asked if we were going to the Blue Temple as well. So why not? This new temple is a beautiful temple still under construction with exquisite coloration to the building and statues.

We ended our first month of Thailand relaxing in the hammocks of the new hostel we moved to that morning (4th hostel for those keeping score at home). The laidback commons area was a nice way to socialize with the other guests while swapping travel stories and creating new itineraries from their suggestions. We were headed to Laos the following morning, with no set plans, but intentions of returning to Thailand soon, as we’ve really grown to enjoy and appreciate this country very much.

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