sabato 12 gennaio 2013

Fourteenth and Fifteenth Days, Dulcis in Fundo

The sweet is at the end. Or also, take the dessert at the end. Dulcis in fundo. This ancient saying applies also to sticky rice cooked in the bamboo on the fire at night in an elephant camp in the middle of the jungle. The sweeter part is at the end.

Let's go in order.

The last two days of of the #piovonontheroad trip were mainly spent in the jungle.
We were a group of eleven people plus two guides: six girls from Ireland, a couple from Germany, a Belgium, a French, and an awesome Sicilian.

We were picked up at the hostel and carried far far away. First stop at a waterfall, where we had a short glacial bath. Then to some pools of thermal water, where we had a long warm bath.

From the thermal poos we left for a 9k trek in the middle of the jungle. Up and Down three gorgeous steep hills. The first slope left me with a tremendous will to run. The second slope I didn't resist and started. Adrien (Belgium), Guillaume (France) and Nu (one of the guides) followed straight away. Somewhere on Facebook there must be videos of these fast downhill runs. Guillaume is on a 8 months journey around the world, has uploaded over 5000 pictures and videos so far.

On the way we stopped at two villages. We were supposed cross villages of the Karen Tribe. If you check on Google, Karen Tribe is the hills tribe where women have long necks after the rings which were applied since the were kids.

No trace of long necks. Better for them, I must say. The reason was, as always, religion. Karen tribes used to be all animist. As it was explained to me by Loso (the other guide), who is from the Karen tribe, when people got sick they sacrified a chicken to nature. Then a missionary came from France, 50 years ago, and he brought medicines. Now the six villages of the Karen Tribe of that area are catholic. No more long necks.
Villages were quite amazing anyway, for us people from the cities. No electricity, terrace rice fields, and animals hanging around undisturbed. What do you think when you see a big black pig lying peacefully on the ground? I got hungry.

We reached the base camp. Five buildings where two men, one woman and a baby waited for trekkers. Our dorm, like all the buildings we had seen on the way, was in a palafitte.

It was already a little bit cold. The bravest (or the dirtiest) took a cold shower with the water pumped from the river nearby. A piece of fabric avoided debris to fall with the water.

Our dinner was luxurious. Three main meals with steam rice. For the joy of the Irish girls, there were also some potatoes, floating in the chicken curry.

We warmed up at the fire with Adrien playing any kind of unknown song (including Tryo "Hymne de mon Compaignes" and the main theme of 1970s Italian tv show Pinocchio). A good help for warming up came from the "happy water", a home made methanol rich rice liqueur. And of course the sticky rice: rice coconut milk and sugar stuffed in a bamboo, closed on top with a banana leaf, and cooked on the fire.

We went to bed at 22. At midnight I woke up. The cold night was barely stopped by the thin cover we had been provided with. The humidity had wetted the mattress. I woke up again at 1. At 2. At. 3. At 4. At 5... At 6.30 I thought it was enough. There was enough light to understand where my frozen feet where. Went out of the dorm and walked around the camp. Everything was under a thick fog. Surely thicker than our cover. The river streamed placid. Everyone and everything was asleep. I missed my running shoes.

At 7 the first human beings showed up. At 8.30 we were all awake, having a massive breakfast around the fire with eggs, toasts, tea and coffee. And sticky rice, of course.

Then came the elephants. Two, big, calm. Guided by two skinny and skilled locals.

We collected our stuff and divided in two groups: the girls left with the elephants. The other five and the guides left with a long bamboo raft, and the will to ride the elephants.

After 45 minutes we changed means of transportation. Me and Adrien went on an elephant, Guillaume, Nikol and Antja went on the other.

I was against riding elephants. But they're treated with a lot of care in Thailand. There are governmental programs to protect them, and when they get too old to carry people they are brought to specific camps.
Riding an elephant in an organized trip is like when you were a kid and they made you ride a pony. With the difference that an elephant can squeeze you.

There are two places when you can stay, on an elephant. On the comfortable chair safely tied to its back, or directly on the elephant's neck, keeping your knees behind its ears.
I stood on the neck. And found out muscles of my legs I didn't know to exist (I would have been happy also if I remained ignorant).

The elephants carried us along the river. Often crossing the river and sometimes climbing up and down of scary hills.

After 45 minutes of childhood I had to leave the elephant's neck. It was extremely painful. Emotionally: to come back to a life without an elephant. Phisically: to have my inner legs devastated John Wayne style.
We took another raft and all together navigated the river for another 2 hours. It was very funny, with some rafting and some race. Everything in the quiet and placid streaming of the river in the forest. Some poop of elephant floating from time to time (they are huge).

After two hours we reached the final camp, had lunch and headed back to the hostel.

I was full of energy for the days spent in such a great atmosphere. There was only one thing I could do: run.
Old Chiang Mai is surrounded by a squared canal and some remainings of the walls which protected the city. The whole perimeter is 6,4k, I found out. Started and never stopped. The elephants, the rafting, the new friends. The humid and cold night. Altogether there with me and my legs. I climbed the walls, where it was possible. And came back at the hostel tired and fully satisfied.

The evening went on with a solitary dinner in a restaurant which served typical northern Thai food. It was advised by the guide. The first meal was a raw sausage with fresh salad. Very good. And I'm still alive, chances are I won't die even this time.

After the dinner, a goodbye drink with the adventurous mates of the jungle trip.

Piovonontheroad is at the end.

Pictures of these two days will be posted later, on a Picasa album attached to this post. [Done on 17 January 2013]

The very last day, the sixteenth one, was spent in four airports. Chiang Mai International, Kuala Lumpur Budget Terminal, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and Changi Airport Singapore.

Not much to say about it, apart that it left me with a great desire of home. And of running. Well, for the second thing it's easy. Just need to upload this post, share it, and I'm ready to hit the road of Botanic Garden, Singapore.

See you soon on Piovono Runners.

mercoledì 9 gennaio 2013

Thirteenth Day, Chiang Mai Vice

There are days when you feel a little bit tired. Yesterday was one of these days.
I'm close to the end of this trip. The many things done plus the idea that everything is going to finish. Our life, I mean...

I'm depressed because I was sexually harassed.

Let's go in order.

This morning I woke up at 7. Very slowly. I had a big breakfast and organized the next two days. I haven't done much to organize them, to be honest. Just booked one of the adventurous travels set up by the guest house where I'm staying. I'll get to this point at the end.

Lazy day. Hanging around the old city of Chiang Mai. Temples, temples, temples. Still don't know if there are more temples or 7eleven in Thailand.

I simply walked around, getting lost in the tiny lanes of the old city and finding the way out with the GPS.

After the third beautiful temple (skipped the fourth that three was already a good number) I stopped for lunch. The place was very nice, but it was infested of mosquitos. When I went to the toilet I found out why.

The ceiling was completely covered by a thick web, with a big white spider supervising the works. On the door a note with the name of the spider. "harmless for humans, maybe it can catch some mosquitos from time to time". Let nature take its course! One day the spiders will spread to the dining area and we will get rid of the mosquitos. This must have been the idea of the restaurant guy.

Sexual harassment.

I wanted to try the famous Thai massage. Chiang Mai is famous for that, even more than Bangkok. The guide says that.

The guide says also where is the best place to take a massage. It's an international school of massage, right outside the clearly defined perimeter of the old city.

The guide doesn't tell where it is. It reports the name of the street (a long street), and then that the school is in front of a certain building. No reference of the school or the other building on the map of he guide. It's Rough Guide, by the way.

After a lot of wandering around I finally found it. And I was sexually harassed.

Have you ever tried a Thai massage? It's not the massage I had in mind. They stretch twist and punch you until your body surrenders and decides to relax. The body pretends to be dead, so that maybe they will stop the torture. Opossum strategy.

The lady didn't speak a word of English.

She gave me a shirt and some loosened trousers to wear. Should I keep or not the underwear? I opted for no underwear.

She started with the leg. The left leg. I love my legs, they make me run. I'm left foot, I need it to kick at football. You can imagine how much I was concerned about my running and football career, when she started punching the left triceps.

"They are muscles, no cramps, no cramps" I wanted to say. But to whom?

She indulged a couple of time on the groin area. Apparently she had to. But still, I didn't like her "accidentally" touching my weenie.

It was as uncomfortable as when she touched her boobs with my feet.

Then I had the proof. When she finished the lower area she slapped my bottom. Yes she did. And no guru of massage can convince me that that was a step of the ritual.

I must say though, that slap boosted my self-esteem. Even a 40-50 year old Thai masseuse can appreciate the bottom of a runner.

The upper part of the body had less critical points.

After an hour and a half my body was conquered. She mumbled something in Thai, and I thanked for the slap.

If there's time after the jungle I may take another massage there. Next time oil massage, maybe.

Right, the jungle. Tomorrow I'm leaving for some trekking and other activities in the jungle. It's a two day trip, we will sleep in some place far from Chiang Mai, where the Hills Tribes live.

It is foreseeable that tomorrow, 10 January 2013, I will be without wifi for the whole day.

If you don't see any new post on 11 January it may be that I'm dead. Either the Hills Tribes turned out to be cannibals, or I was squeezed by an elephant. Or simply my mobile fell into the river during the bamboo rafting.

I really hope it's not the last case, I can't live without my smartphone.

martedì 8 gennaio 2013

Twelfth Day, Sukhothai Quanto T'Amai

Which means: Sukhothai how much I loved you. In Italian, not in Thai.

A very good day spent in Sukhothai.

Like all good days, it started with a run. 7k, apparently a man can't run more when he eats spicy Thai food.

First I ran along Yom river, where rice fields were enlightened by a clean rising sun. After the tenth strayed dog who followed me, and the fifth fighting cock, I decided to move back to the city. Rabid is one of the scary diseases the guide suggests to avoid.

On the way back I made a stop at the bus station, where I bought the ticket to Chiang Mai.

Big surprise of the day, between the bus station and the hostel there was a local market. Fresh meat, live catfish, fruit and vegetable shown to anyone who wasn't a farang (a foreigner). There is no mention of this market on the guide, of course.

I bought a dragon fruit and a big pineapple for 40 baht (1 euro). Didn't even bargain, usually I can't have them together for less than 2 euro.

At the hostel I asked for a breakfast set (yoghurt and coffee), a dish and a knife. They brought me a big one. Peeling the fruit was even more enjoyable than eating it.

This amazing breakfast had an undesired effect: when I left the hostel was already 9.30.

The plan for the day was to visit the archaeological site. Sukhothai was the first capital of the unified kingdom of Thailand. It didn't last long, but it was a powerful and wealthy city. Its power declined in the XIV century, when its last king was more interested in Theravada Buddhism than in maintaining law and order. Which means also that during his reign several temples were built. All in Sukhothai.

I arrived at the historical park at 10.30, after a ride in the slowest and strangest bus I've ever seen: a sort of big tuk tuk, with engines slighter more powerful and room for twenty people.

The sun was already strong when I rented the bicycle. But it didn't matter much. Most of the streets around the temples had leafy trees and the many canals and lakes helped refreshing the area.

The site was very well kept and the audio guide extremely useful. Nothing compared to Angkor, Cambodia, for magnificence, but still worth visiting.

I was back to the new town already at 2 p.m.. I tried to eat in two places highly recommended by the guide. Both closed, though they weren't supposed to be.

I stopped at a local cafè; ran by nice young girls. The coconut curry spicy soup was Thai spice, definitely not western spice. Never sweated so much for some food.

The atmosphere was very easy and pleasant. Bossa nova music as back ground, a local guy watching The Big Bang Theory on his iPad, and no one who bothered you. A place where the young middle class of Sukhothai can relax in a mild western atmosphere.

Another great place of Sukhothai was the guesthouse where I was staying. It is worth mentioning it. Ban Thai Guesthouse. All in teak, nice clean and quiet rooms, good breakfast, very friendly hosts. I stayed there for one night and they let me keep the bag in a safe place for the whole day. I spent another hour there, before leaving by bus, charging my mobile and having some rest. They didn't ask for anything and greeted me nicely. I tried to leave a tip at breakfast, for the big knife, and the host declined it. Definitely a friendly place.

The bus to Chiang Mai was an ordinary one. Less fancy than the bus from Bangkok to Sukhothai, but still decent.

I fall asleep right after sitting there. Unfortunately my sleep didn't last long. The same can't be said about the travel. 6 long hours on safe but noisy roads.

I was so looking forward for having a hot shower in Chiang Mai.

And finally I had it. Right after a warm pad thai at a hawker next to the guest house.

Chiang Mai is much colder than Bangkok, or even Sukhothai. At night temperature can go down to 15 degrees. Wait a second, what's the weather like in Italy right now?

Enough for the day. See you tomorrow in Chiang Mai.

lunedì 7 gennaio 2013

Eleventh Day, Road to Sukhothai

You define life by its end. This is one of the things that ancient Greeks taught to humanity.

The end of Bangkok was a taxi driver singing songs from the radio and checking Facebook, while driving.

Taxi drivers in Bangkok are supposed to go by meter. The price is cheap for an European, but it's more than enough for a Thai.

But taxi drivers want to profit more with tourists. They propose you a fixed price, and you need to bargain. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes annoying. It depends on your mood and the attitude of the taxi driver.

Usually I don't like to bargain with taxi drivers. They have to go by meter, by law. It is as if a taxi driver of Milan had different prices for Italians and for people from Germany, or from Bahrein. Usually they are richer, they can afford a higher price. Discrimination of prices, it's more efficient. But isn't this also racist?

I needed to take a taxi to the bus station. It is quite far from the hotel. Every taxi driver next to the hotel asks a high fixed rate. 20m far from that street you can find honest taxi drivers.

The third one accepted to carry me using the meter. I had to pay extra for the highway, fair enough.

He was a great guy. He showed me the pictures of his friends on Facebook. They were on their honey moon in Italy.

And he sang (or pretended to sing) every song from the radio.

We arrived smoothly at the bus station and I gave him a good tip (for Thai standards).

Best way to leave Bangkok.

The bus to Sukhotai took way longer than expected. We left at 12 and arrived at 20, with half an hour break to eat. Padang food: rice with one choice of meat or vegetables. I chose the wrong meat: minced meat and bones super spicy. I don't care about the super spicy, but the bones weren't supposed to be minced, I think.

The countryside of northern Thailand seems wealthier than the south one. Villages had all free wifi, and we could spot some beautiful villas. Outside the villages it was all rice fields and temples. Perfect for sleeping.

Sukhothai is a nice village. A modern one, developed next to the old capital. It's touristic but pleasant and quiet.

My guesthouse is built in teak, and it is next to the Yom river.

I went to the night market to eat. I didn't find the place advised by the guide. Instead, I stopped at an open restaurant ran by two chubby nice Thai ladies.

The noodle soup was delicious. But the best part was the company. A German 70 years old guy speaking only Thai and German. At the beginning only Thai. He knew English, just didn't want to speak it.

He was wearing a jersey of Juventus F.C., which made him look very foolish. Apart from that he was a nice guy.

We had some talks and he praised Sicily's beauty. Ich habe auch ein bisschen Deutch gesprochen, aber es war kein gut.

Enough for the night. Tomorrow running, sightseeing and travelling to Chiang Mai.

Auf wiedersehen.