We’ve had a very weird bunch of emotions seeing you all gearing up for xmas around the world. Normally the routine is the same year in year out; go buy a tree, spend a day decorating the house, work xmas parties, getting the family together for a massive gorge on wonderful over indulgent grub followed by a food coma, maybe a few very lavish drinks (maybe even too many of these) and the mandatory dog walk around the village. For me and many of you I’m sure, xmas is all about the family and spending quality time together. Both mine and Kelly’s family live overseas and She’s not spent xmas with all her family for six years now, and because we were planning this trip we couldn’t afford to travel to the Emirates to see my family last year, so spent it at home in Essex together with her brother and partner (who were travelling Europe and happened to be in the UK at the time). It was really nice to take charge on all the xmas preparation, but it’s just not the same without all the family together.
This year though, we spent Xmas in Chiang Mai, a northern Thailand city, surrounded by glorious mountain ranges. We actually arrived in Thailand on the 19th, following a rather touch and go transfer from Siem reap to Bangkok and a flight to Chiang Mai that we ended up nearly missing due to the visa check. We both agreed at the start of our planning that we needed to do some epic things around Xmas to keep our minds off being away from family and that we did!
We started our time in Chiang Mai with a very chilled out couple of days, getting the lay of the land of the small city and he central old quarter, starting off with visiting the Sunday night market. Now if you’ve been anywhere in South East Asia, you’ll think you’ve seen markets; they are all pretty similar. The standard wall to wall stalls selling beer singlets, coconut bowls, street food to satisfy the masses, and everyone offering a “special price only for you” on everything. I’ve got to say though, this market was really different. We didn’t get hassled once to buy anything, the stuff covering the streets really seemed to be locally produced and good quality, even the clothing, which had a traditional Karen influence (Karen people aren’t Thai, but live in the mountains off the standard grid of main Thailand). The food obviously is amazing. Cambodian cuisine really bored me to be honest, and tasted like dull Thai influenced food with no chilli, but this street food really smacked in the face of Thai spicy (not something to be messed with)! Because were travelling for so long we seldom buy anything, but experiencing the markets is an important part of the places were visiting, so has to be done!
The next day we took a walking tour by ourselves of the temples. There are literally hundreds of them! Thailand is 95% Buddhist so they do temples in a big way. I know it sounds awful, but after two days exploring the Angkor temples we felt somewhat underwhelmed. I don’t want to do a disservice to the the beauty of these temples but after that it’s tough to appreciate them in all their glory. Still, worth seeing them. Kelly learned to make bracelets and necklaces whilst on the island in Cambodia and really wanted to make stuff on this trip, so we spent the afternoon exploring the haberdasher markets for materials, followed by a tour of the artistic markets. I must say, the artwork we saw being produce was truly stunning; if we can, I’ll definitely be coming back here just to stock up on art (once were proper grown ups and own our own house obviously)! That evening, we discovered a quality street food market that reminded me of the street feast setups in London (but with much better food). This was a great place to spend the evening; embracing the local cuisine but delivered to a higher standard than that you simply find on the streets or small cafes and restaurants. To top it off, there are loads of really excellent musicians playing covers of western artists, which were top quality. If you’re in Chiang Mai at any point, I really recommend visiting the Ploen Ruedee Night Market.
To really kick off the days running up to xmas day, we totally filled our days with fun: Had to be done really
I love to cook, and I really love to cook Asian food. I’ve been reluctant to do cookery classes so far on our trip because to be honest, they’ve been really generic. I do not want to pay to be shown how to make bloody spring rolls! Thailand was always going to be the place where we did a class. We decided to book onto a course with Basil cookery school. There are again hundreds of cookery schools in Chiang Mai, but this was a great price, and included a great array of dishes to please any foodie! Our coach, Pim, was so bubbly and had a cracking wit and sense of humour. To top this off she could COOK!
We started the day buying our produce from a local market then spent the day cooking everything from curry to pad Thai, stir fries to salads. Kelly and I strategically planned our dishes so she did the stuff we love to cook, and I focussed on the new stuff that was mainly seafood. It was all so good and was some of he best food I’ve made of this style. I’ll definitely be making my own coconut milk from now on!
Jungle trekking around Chiang Mai
Before we set off to India, we agreed we wanted to do a jungle trek. We found an eco tour run by Pooh Eco Tours that sounded right up our street, so booked on about nine months ago. I am so glad we did!
We spent 3 days with 6 others and our guide Ropuu. Day one started with a ride in the back of a Hilux to our starting point, followed by a trek around some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Ropuu, a traditional Karen tribesman who moved to Chiang Mai to earn some cash, was absolutely fantastic at showing us all the traditional, weird and wonderful things you find in the jungle, including what they eat (basically anything that moves). Now I’m all for trying new things, but when he started munching baby spiders after he shoved his hand in a nest was one step too far for me. Day one ended with an epic hike up a mountain to arrive at the Karen village we’d be staying at.
We spent the night with the villagers, preparing a wonderful dinner made up of local produce and the herbs we had foraged on route. Perhaps the best part of the night though was the sky. I’ve never seen the moon or stars so clearly; words really can’t describe how clear it was and how mesmerised we all were. Regardless of this, we were all in bed by 9pm ahead of a hectic second day.
Day 2 started early thanks to the rooster under our hut deciding we had to wake at 330am, (at least we got to see the sunrise I guess) but was followed by a wicked breakfast and with even more beautiful landscapes, followed by some pretty treacherous declines for about two hours. We were jointed by a few of the tribesmen, and the cutest little puppy, who stayed with us for the next two days (Kelly was very happy about this). Climbing up a mountain is tough, but climbing down through the jungle is arguably more difficult! Like our hike in Kep, really were many points I thought if we slipped, we’d have a real problem. Fortunately the tribesmen who joined us made us all bamboo walking sticks which literally saved us! After about 4 hours we finally reached the bottom alongside a lovely waterfall, which we obviously took full advantage of! An hour later trekking through the river, we reached our stop for the night, a bamboo hut. We spent the next two hours making plates, cutlery, and cups out of locally cut bamboo, and prepping another cracking dinner of yellow curry, sweet and sour veg and bamboo steamed rice. This was amazing for me, as everything we made ourselves and cooked in bamboo. It will never cease to amaze me how much you can do with bamboo, it’s such a versatile natural resource in total abundance in Thailand!
Our final day was again, stunning landscapes galore! The first two hours involved crossing rivers, climbing up waterfalls, through caves lit only by bamboo torches, rice paddies and land used for raising cattle. We finished the day with a seriously epic climb up another mountain that was seriously tough! Kelly was a machine, especially considering she was ill for the whole trip! Over the 3 days we trekked for 13 hours, 15 miles, 1km up and about 900m down. It was bloody difficult, but my god was it amazing!
Seriously, I can’t recommend this tour group higher. We had an unforgettable three days and because of the group size it was such a good price!
Xmas day with elephants
When you come to Thailand, you’ll see thousands of elephant tours. We did loads of research into a tour, because so many mistreat the elephants. Contrary to the believes of many, riding elephants is not good! DO NOT DO IT! Elephants are not built to withhold weight on their spines, and this does serious damage. Also the process for training elephants to do such things is known as “the crush” involves some horrendous activity literally designed to break their spirit. If you want to learn more watch this video (trigger warning, it’s not nice). So many places that offer rides keep the elephants chained as well as generally treating them badly, we were determined to avoid this at all costs!
We booked with elephant jungle sanctuary, a group who only run eithical days with elephants. There’s no riding them, painting them (yep, this is a thing) or anything that causes these fabulous animals distress, you literally feed them, bath them, feed them some more and just enjoy being with them. I later found out that these elephants actually roam the jungles, and just know to come for food around 10am. Whilst this domestication isn’t perfect I appreciate, only 20% of the elephants in south east Asia are truly wild; a shocking statistic!
Wow though, these guys were incredible. I know they are big but when you’re right next to them they are so much bigger than I appreciated, even the babies! I unfortunately had a close call with one when it decided to charge at me as I was the only person in the mud bath. Obviously this wasn’t the animal being mean, but wanting to play, but it was a close call, and bloody scary! Again, I really recommend doing something like this. It’s not the cheapest day, but feeding these guys costs $20 a day EACH so I had no issue paying for this day. Yet again, something I’ll never forget.
Xmas day in the sun
We were really fortunate to meet some quality people at our hostel who we immediately gelled with, so went out for a traditional Xmas lunch of curry on Xmas day. I think it’s safe to say our 2am finish the night before meant we were all quite happy to have a slower day than usual! Whilst spending part of the day with these awesome people was great, and I’m so grateful to meet them, it’s not the same. We definitely didn’t feel like it was Christmas.
However, in traditional (or nor ) Xmas fashion, Kelly and I went to get inked! I’ve always loved tattoos, especially when done well. This trip has shown me how beautiful some tattoos can be, so I decided I wanted one for sure! My family and I have talked about a family tattoo for ages, so this had to symbolise something about them, but I also wanted something about my game changing time in Asia, and to symbolise travel.
Kelly got two, cause you know, she’s greedy and stuff. One like me was to symbolise family and our time in Asia, but the other is to symbolise life. She’s had a disgustingly tough few years, with family death all over the globe, family emigration and general separation, a pretty nasty car crash and a bunch of other things.and this symbolises a new chapter of NO WORRIES! Also if you know her, she’s a Disney obsessive, so it had to be Disney related really.
So as you can see, a pretty average and generic Christmas for us! All jokes aside, this is not one we will forget soon! We’re now in Pai, north of Chiang Mai, to have a few days embracing our inner hippie. Sadly due to the new ink we can’t make the most of our infinity pool overlooking the mountains, but it’s a very cool place none the less. We’re literally staying at a circus with some seriously talented people. I’m working on my slack line.