Thailand part 2 - The North

07th March 2017
The middle chunk of our trip was spent around Chiang Mai, Thailand's northern capital. Though we were sad to be leaving the glorious beaches and coastline of the Andaman Sea there was plenty we wanted to do and see in the mountains of the north. And as it turned out this was my favourite part of the entire six weeks away.

On arrival in Chiang Mai we checked in to a hostel and reluctantly headed out in to the hustle of the night. So far on the trip we'd managed to avoid any big cities but thankfully Chiang Mai is pretty mellow as far as urban centres go and the night bazaar was actually quite enjoyable. We spent our first full day getting lost in the Old City, a moated square within which are tens of temples and quieter streets. Hip caf├ęs and innumerable street markets are scattered between the holy Buddhist monuments, so if trying to find less materialistic enlightenment isn't working you can go out and consume to your heart's content.

The temples around Chiang Mai offer endless photo opportunities. Like with most human constructs all over the world symmetry is the measure of beauty and it's present on every scale.

Beautiful bowls made from mango wood. One of the stand outs from hundreds of stalls we stalked past.

Close up detail of Sareerikkatartsirirak Pagoda.

After two nights in what turned out to be a strange uber-Christian hostel we'd had enough of the city. Early the next morning we took the long, nausea inducing minivan trip north to the Pang Mapa district, deep in the forested mountains. Here we stayed in a place called Cave Lodge. My cousin had recommended this area and I'm glad he did. We spent four fantastic days based out of the superb accommodation here and enjoyed some of the best experiences of the trip. The lovely bungalows sit on the hillside above a quiet river valley, centered around a beautiful wooden communal area. The mornings and evenings were refreshingly cool, the river was great for a swim, the staff were lovely, the food was tasty, the surroundings were quiet, there were no mosquitos and the organised activities were simply fantastic. If you ever end up in Thailand and you're up for some adventure then don't skip this place. I would have loved to stay longer but we had other things planned...

One of the simpler trips arranged from Cave Lodge is a sunrise excursion to a nearby hilltop that has amazing views of the surrounding area. After fifteen minutes in the back of a pickup we were served hot tea while the sun rose over the wooded hills. A lovely way to start the day.

Stacked to the horizon...

Close by to Cave Lodge is Tham Nam Lot, a spectacular cave system open to the public. You need to take a guide to enter, which is good as it keeps people from doing whatever they want in there. Caves are fragile places and many of the features take thousands of years to form so it's important to tread softly. Our guide spoke no English but was very nice and quite patient with my regular photo stops.

Looking back out towards the entrance. There was no time for anything as time consuming as a tripod so all these photos were testing my camera and steadiness to their limit. It was a fun challenge. The things you could do in a place like this with remote flashes and no time limits would be amazing.

The other entrance of the cave, where the river flows out. We came back here that same evening to see the swifts coming home to roost.

Stalactites. My geography teacher in school had a good method of teaching the difference between stalactites and stalagmites - tights go down. That seemed a pretty easy thing for a teenage lad to remember.

Bamboo rafting back to the cave entrance. The guides' lanterns are the only sources of light inside, which is nice. Places like this are best left without being electrified to show them off I think.

Tham Nam Lot is home to around 300,000 swifts and every evening they come back from a day's hunting to roost in the cave's ceiling. It was an incredible spectacle to watch that amount of animals congregating together. We sat with our necks craned to the sky for the bones of an hour as a river of birds flew into the cave, swallowed up by the darkness inside.

Next day we went on a 35km kayaking trip organised from Cave Lodge. It was a fantastic day that took us through some superb mountain scenery and down some fun stretches of easy but exhilarating rapids. The inflatable kayaks were great, and certainly more forgiving than a plastic boat when it comes to hitting rocks.

We were on the water for more than six hours and enjoyed some lovely light towards the end of the day. This is such a nice way to travel, letting the world take you where it wants to go.

The adventures continued the next day as we followed another river, this time for a much shorter 3.5km. The thing is it was all underground in Tham Nam Hoo, a long cave passage pioneered by the owner of the lodge. This was one of many impressive chandeliers.

Most of the river was less than knee deep but there were a few sections that had to be swum. It wasn't cold but it wasn't warm either!

One of my favourite images from the entire six weeks, though I'm not sure many others would pick it. This is a close up shot from the feature pictured in the next image.

A fine curtain of calcite formations, over 3m high. Our guides were very helpful when it came to lighting up some of the more impressive features. As one a group of twelve I could hardly demand we all stop whenever I wanted to make a photo but I did get more opportunities than I expected. I left the SLR in our room for this day, relying on my Sony RX100 instead. I'm glad I did. Firstly, the big camera would have been too cumbersome, and more importantly the little Sony's fast lens meant it was much more suitable in the dark of the cave. Nearly every image from this cave was shot at f/1.8, and with the smaller sensor the images are pretty sharp for the circumstances. I'm very impressed with that little camera, which is now in its fifth edition. Unfortunately my mk1 didn't make it home alive, but more on that later.

More mental rock art. Places like this are so alien that everything begins to look like something else, because none of it is in any way familiar. Where the cave eventually becomes impassable 3.5km into the side of the mountain we turned around and had to return by the same route. I was amazed at how deep in there were bats. There must be some small hole in the ceiling somewhere that lets them in and out.

After six hours of subterranean fun it was a pleasure to be back above ground, where the warm light of evening was washing the woods. The border with Myanmar is on the distant ridges.

The good times continued after arriving back in Chiang Mai. Less than an hour outside the city sits Crazy Horse buttress, one of the best sport climbing destinations I've ever been to. I spent two full days here exhausting myself on its perfect limestone. Though not a huge crag there are plenty of routes to do and in a variety of styles and grades. The stone is as good as you'll get anywhere and the grade spread suited me perfectly. I climbed 17 pitches over the two days, most of them rope stretching and nearly all world class. And as if all that wasn't good enough the crag scene was brilliant too. The local club in Chiang Mai have set a world class benchmark for crag care here. There are toilets, there's free drinking water, the trails are low-key and well maintained, as are the bamboo huts to hide from the sun in. There are flat belay platforms where there would otherwise be awkward sloping ground at the base of some routes. I saw next to no litter - a caretaker is paid to clean the place up. The bolting is done very well too, being very friendly for beginners learning to lead outside. Plus the CMRCA have a bus that will drive you to the crag and bring you a filling mid day lunch for a small fee. AND! There are two sound crag dogs knocking about the place. I climbed so much that I took next to no photographs, just like a proper day at the crag should be. But I was asked to take this picture by a certain lover of dogs...

My arms needed a break by now and Jasmine was very keen to see some elephants so we booked a trip to the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. The Asian Elephant is the national animal of Thailand and they draw a lot of attention from tourists. Most elephant tourism involves getting up on the back of one for a trip through some jungle but neither of us really wanted to do that. It's funny how it would be fine with horses but not with elephants, especially as the majority of elephants in Thailand are 'domesticated' beasts of burden anyway. That's what you get for having notions I suppose. As machinery has mostly replaced working elephants many animals are now being used in tourism instead. Some of the luckier ones like the three we met have been bought from their former owners and given the elephant equivalent of early retirement. It was a nice day out in the sticks. The sanctuary itself is a lovely mix of buildings and outhouses made from local materials. The area is occupied by a Karen hilltribe, one of the bigger cultural groups in rural Thailand. We fed the elephants and took part in a giant mud bath, followed by a river swim to wash it all off (this is something elephants do in the wild, just in case you're wondering). Afterwards we walked downriver a bit for more bathing under a wide waterfall.

All of the animals at the sanctuary were female, and all had sad looking eyes. That's just my silly anthropomorphising talking though.

A great place to cool down.

Our last day in Chiang Mai was spent doing nothing, which was just what was needed after a pretty active week. I could have happily gone home at this stage, such was the satisfaction from the previous few days. I hadn't expected to enjoy this stage of the trip as much as I did but I was pleasantly surprised. Though tourism is well developed in the area it generally feels a lot classier than some of the places in the south, and as a base for adventure activities it was perfect.

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