Getting off the plane at Bangkok airport was a strange, bittersweet feeling. For one, Singapore was so easy, fun and westernized that Thailand seemed like the true Southeast Asia environment. As well, I find airplanes to be a familiar source of comfort these days – strange to think but sadly true. The weight of my intentions to train Muay Thai here also caused some nerves. In lineup for immigration, I found myself inspecting the knuckles and brows of the others in line, looking for the scars of a seasoned fighter, it felt like I was walking into Frank Lee’s Gym for the first time.
We took a mini-bus to Sriracha (300 baht) where we were to meet Sam’s half brother (also named Ian!) for the first time! After a nice night of visiting with Ian, we took a mini-bus to Pattaya. This city is very busy and loud. Lots of bars and the riffraff party crowd that goes along with it. We stayed there for two nights, ate some good food (Ian and his girlfriend came into town for dinner with us), did some exploring in the markets and got the hell out of creepsville.
To Ko Larn! 45 minutes by ferry away, the little island was very beautiful, but a little touristy during the daytime (I guess that’s the price you pay for close proximity and convenience).
Our hotel in Ko Larn provided a scooter for us to get around the island on. Some of our fondest memories of the island are of exploring cobble stone roads throughout the lush, rolling landscape of the island. One night, we were exploring the island after dinner and stopped at a remote, rocky beach to enjoy the crashing tide in the twilight of the night. After a few minutes by ourselves, some local fisherman pulled up for their nightly work. “Ah! Farang!” (Foreigner, in Thai slang) the elder one exclaimed at the sight of us! Obviously surprised to see tourists at his fishing spot so late at night!
There were many beaches to visit, our favourite was Nual Beach also called “Monkey Beach”! Nual Beach is way less crowded than some of the other beaches and featured a steep cliff side, home to a family of monkeys. After purchasing a bundle of bananas from a beachside bar, we trekked up a short but steep path to make some friends. The monkeys were not aggressive at all and seemed to be very used to accepting gifts from humans. One even (somewhat gently) jumped on my back in order to be the first in line for a banana! Sam enjoyed the company of a Mom(key?) and her baby as they sat politely beside her, waiting for their comeuppance.
Another great memory of Nual beach was the parasailing ride! After haggling for a reasonable price (around $40, I think), we were taken to a remote dock on the other side of the island and boarded a motorboat headed to a large raft out in the ocean (Sam came along just to watch). When I boarded the raft I was given a felt pen mark on my hand. Reaching the front of the line I was quickly and efficiently strapped into a harness by one attendant who then handed me off to another. The next worker inspected and re-inspected the felt pen writing on my hand. He then inspected it a few more times. “No water!” He exclaimed! “OK” I replied. “No water!” he said again. This time I wondered if he meant it as a question and replied with a suitable blank stare. “No water!!”. “Well, we could if you like..” I diplomatically suggested. “No water!!!” I gave a thumbs up and was pushed over to the next group of attendants. They quickly strapped me to a parachute and before I knew it I was airborne! The initial feeling of flight was incredible – weightlessness high above a blue ocean paradise! It was over too soon though, a three minute ride was all I paid for apparently. I almost got away with another go-round as an updraft took me just as I was about to land and the attendants had to jump up and grab my feet to pull me down – damn!
Our three days on Ko Larn were over too soon though, a hazy memory of scooter riding, beach lounging and swimming in crystal blue water will be our souvenir.
After Ko Larn we headed back to Pattaya and boarded a bus to Chiang Mai, where we had decided we would settle in for a few weeks so that I could focus on continuing my Muay Thai (kickboxing) training (my main goal for our Thailand trip). It was a thirteen hour bus ride and luckily we were able to sleep through most of it. Although, at one point, we were woken from our bus slumber by a quick layover. The lights came on and some people shuffled out for their stop, or a snack. One passenger brought back “Crackers with Pork Floss”. “I want Pork Floss!” I exclaimed to Sam, to which, she responded with a dramatic shiver. Back to sleep we went.
After arriving in Chiang Mai at 6am and killing an hour in the bus station, we took a San Tael (pickup truck with bench seats in the back, acting as a bus) to “The Old City”. This area of Chiang Mai was recommended as a cheap neighbourhood, with lots of restaurants and away from the party scene. We stopped at our first choice of hotels from our Agoda.com list and got a great deal on a monthly rate (even though we would only be staying for three weeks) – 6000 baht/$240 ($11 a night)! We spent our first day wandering the streets where the strong Buddhist culture presented us with quite a few temples to visit. I even got a haircut for 60 baht! This quiet city suits us much more than Pattaya.
Our second day here was my first day of training at Chiang Mai Muay Thai Gym, a great gym that had quite a few talented former fighters as trainers and many foreigners as students. Rusty technique, the physical fitness of a traveller (which is to say, inadequate), and the task of assimilating to a new style made the session quite novice on my part. Oh well, good to have a challenge to the ego, as well as physically. I trained at the gym nearly everyday, sometimes twice a day, for three weeks and managed to learn some new things and improve. My main trainer was a former fighter named “Bang” (no kidding!) We sparred a few times over the three weeks but, he was so fast and had such good head movement, I only managed to land two (body) punches over a combined six or seven rounds, while he landed blows at will! The first time we sparred, I attempted a parry, flicker jab, left hook combination (thinking that this western boxing style of attack would catch him off guard), which he easily avoided, then proceeded to hit me with the same combo repeatedly for the next three minutes laughing the whole time!! A good lesson about the higher level of skill out here! The trainers were impressed with my punching power however, a testament to my coaches Chris and Darcy’s tutelage back in Edmonton. I learned a lot and had a great time over the three weeks but man, I was tired and worn out at the end! A once in a lifetime experience, completely worth all the sweat and bruises!
One thing that one must do in Thailand is to go see some live Muay Thai fights. There are multiple stadiums in Chiang Mai each with a card every night. We had heard that there was a good card one Friday night but unfortunately, we got the stadium name mixed up and ended up at a bit of a touristy one. Oh well, a good time was had even if all the fights weren’t of the best quality.
The first fight of the night was in the Jr division – kids around 11 years old. They came out to the classic song “The Final Countdown” by Europe! My friend/boxing coach Chris back home would be pumped! They actually put on the second or third best fight of the night! A testament to their fighting spirit as well as a knock on some of the unskilled adults on the card that night. Another highlight was the blindfold match! About 10 guys in the ring, all blindfolded and swinging wildly! The ref took the worst of the punishment but also gave back a little too! We got another chance to go see some fights a couple of weeks later when my teammate “Nam” was in the main event against an aging but crafty former champion. The card that night was much better.
We took a bus trip to the mountain town of Pai on Jan 13. What a drive! 762 turns in three hours! First thing on the list was a visit with the resident elephants at a reforestation/conservation park outside of town. A mother and daughter pair, both were pregnant at the time of our visit. We were allowed to feed them pumpkin and squash, help them take a bath in the river, then feed them more pumpkin and squash. It was tons of fun. Really special to come so close to these giant animals.
The next day in Pai, we rented a scooter and spent the day touring around. We went to the “Chinese Viewpoint” for sunrise (nice view, but full of tourists) and to Pembok waterfall. The highlight of the day was spending three hours in the Sai-ngam hot springs in the cool, early morning!
Back in Chiang Mai, our comfortable routine was punctuated by a day of scooter riding, visiting a few temples that were out of reach on foot: Wat Umong, Wat Suan Dok and Doi Suthep. The latter, situated on a mountain overlooking the city, was quite spectacular but tainted by crowds of unruly tourists. The scooter ride up the mountain may have been (was) more fun than the temple itself.
The day after, we took our trusty little scooter to “The Grand Canyon”! A man made Lake that contained a huge inflatable water park! Immense amounts of fun were had and, of course, injury ensued. Sam burned her butt on a water slide that was too dry and I did a back-flop off of a 20ft high trampoline! Ahhh my kidneys!!!
Days later, we went to a festival called “Jai Thep”, a funky hippie festival outside of town that has the best bao! It had almost everything a hippie could want. Four stages (including one that looked like something out of a psychedelic drug trip), an aerial yoga area, hammocks, river swimming, good food, good music and even some stand up comedy (comedy is hard!)
We could easily find ourselves at home in Chiang Mai. Friendly people, great food, not great air quality though. A daily routine of training, breakfast, rest or stroll, lunch, coffee, rest or stroll, training, dinner! What could be missing?! Oh yeah, work..