After our two days in Mae Sot, we caught a bus to Chiang Mai. It took just 5 hours, which was less time than expected. As soon as we got out of the bus station, we found ourselves being summoned towards a red songthaew – a ride to the centre was 30 baht. From my very limited Thai, I was sure that they were telling passers-by in Thai that it was 10 baht to the centre. Ah well, we got on anyway.
Note: If you want to read about having accidents on motorbikes and healthcare in Thailand, scroll further down.
Chiang Mai is quite easy to navigate if you’re near the centre – the map looks like a big square full of smaller streets. Within these walls are a whole ton of hostels, temples and restaurants, with so much English on signs that you could forget you were in Thailand. It seems that you can get any kind of food within a few blocks – especially if you’re looking for Mexican, American, Japanese or even British food. We found a “full English” breakfast for about £2, which is far less than you’d pay in the UK itself. As well as that, there are smoothie stands on every corner, where you can fill up on delicious fruit smoothies for 20-30 baht a pop – which would be nice and healthy if they didn’t pour tons of sugary syrup into every cup!
For the first night, we stayed at the House 11 hostel, which was pretty clean and had friendly staff. They even served free coffee in the lobby. As soon as we arrived, the owner tried to persuade us to sign up for a Thai cooking class that was happening around the corner. He was obviously getting some kind of kickback from Gayray’s cooking school, but we had intended to sign up to one of these classes anyway. Although the hostel lobby was crammed with leaflets for various cooking classes, we decided to take a chance and go with the recommended one, especially after the owner turned to us and said “If this is not the best cooking school in Chiang Mai, tomorrow I put gun on the desk. If you no like, you take gun and shoot me.” Well, talk about a guarantee.
The cooking class cost 700 baht each (£13/$22), which wasn’t bad for an enjoyable evening with a three-course meal. We were collected from the hostel at 7pm, and as we started walking towards the school, the heavens opened. There weren’t enough umbrellas for all of us, so we were given one per couple and directed over to the school. There were three rooms for classes, each one with rows of cooking space (hobs, woks etc) and long tables. Our teacher took us to the herb garden first, to show us everything that grew on site. It wasn’t really enough to feed 30+ cooking students a night, I imagine, which is why we were then guided to the local market – right next door to where we’d started. We walked around the market being shown various ingredients. A massive bag of saffron was about £1. I should have bought it when I had the chance.
We were given the options of three to four items from a collection of menus, meaning that we got to make one salad-type dish, one starter and one curry. I made pad thai, spring rolls and panang curry. The school provided us with a lot of “cheats”, such as little bowls of chicken already sliced up, so cooking was incredibly easy. The dishes we made tasted great. This is one of the reasons that I love Thai cooking – once you’ve got hold of the ingredients, the dishes are easy to make, are usually healthy and are always delicious. Plus, when you cook, you can keep the spice levels under control.
We then spent two nights at the Happy Healing Home, which I’ve written about in a separate entry.
When we arrived back, dirty and with a bag full of live ants, we walked around Chiang Mai’s main streets and “winged it” for a place to stay. We walked into a few hostels to check their prices – you can usually get a room with a fan and cold water for 200 baht (£4 or less) a night, while it’s a little more – perhaps double – for a/c and hot water. As we were on our honeymoon we splashed out on the a/c and hot water.
We ended up checking in at the G.G.Somphet house, which was 400 baht a night. The room was alright, nothing special, and we kept hearing weird sounds coming from outside – which could have been a bird, or a monkey, who knows? We started our stay by washing all the live ants from our bags with the shower. Chiang Mai is really a backpacker’s paradise, and several street corners have washing machines which cost around 1 baht a minute. You can easily buy washing powder from a 7-11 or local Internet cafes. While you wait for your washing, you can walk around or chill in one of the various restaurants/pubs. There are dryers, too, and by the end of the day my clothes were clean and ant-free!
While strolling around looking for things to do, I overheard a girl complaining to a tour operator about the mistreatment of elephants on their tour. Warming to her compassion for animals, I decided to strike up a conversation. We ended up meeting up with this couple, who were from Belgium, later on the evening and checking out Chiang Mai’s “night bazaar”. The bazaar turns out to be a bit of a tourist trap, full of clothes and crafts and paintings that you might want to buy, but you won’t be able to escape the feeling that the entire thing has been set up especially for Westerners. If you want an authentic market, land yourself in Warorot market and walk around until you lose your bearings! Otherwise, the night bazaar will give you a “safe” feeling of being somewhere a little bit exotic without really having to get too lost. Plus they serve Japanese food for much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been, including Japan.
As well as Internet cafes, restaurants and tour operators, Chiang Mai has a lot of motorbike rental shops. We found a place recommended by Lonely Planet – Mr Motorbike. It’s on the “east” part of the Chiang Mai square, Moon Muang Lane, near street 5 I believe. It’s next to Wendy Tour & Trek and a pharmacy. Now, if you’re going to rent motorbikes, please, PLEASE, listen to the following words of wisdom.
1. Get travel insurance that covers your for this.
2. Pay the extra 30 baht for motorbike insurance from the rental shop.
3. Wear a helmet.
4. Don’t drive like an idiot.
5. If it rains, stop driving until the rain stops.
I can tell you this because we rented motorbikes the next day. I was pretty scared, considering I had never ridden a motorbike before, but Jeff assured me that it would all be fine (oh, American optimism). I started out at about 2mph, and soon realised that the tiny scooter I had was not going to fall over the second I relaxed. Actually, the thing rode like a dream – all I had to do was move my wrist a bit and I was on my way!
We rode around Chiang Mai for a bit, which is the scariest part as you have to dodge traffic. I was nearly thrown off my bike a couple of times by cars veering towards me as if they wanted to push me off the road. We found Wat U Mong first, which was one of the temples that sounded a bit “different” – it has a statue of an emaciated Buddha, plus it’s surrounded by trees and is rather pretty.
After seeing the temple, we managed to break free from the city and almost had the entire roads to ourselves. We rode around all day, vaguely trying to find a waterfall that we had seen on a map earlier (but with no idea of where we were going). At one point, we found a tiny roadside “restaurant”, where a lady was steaming banana leaves full of rice. We parked our bikes and sheepishly walked up to her, pointing at the food and trying to gesture that we would like something to eat. We probably terrified the poor woman – she had no idea what to feed us, and without us being able to communicate that anything would be fine, she cooked us up something that she felt was “foreigner friendly” – rice with an omelette over it, served with a spicy ketchup.
After continuing to ride north, we eventually found the Bua Tong waterfalls that we had been looking for. I didn’t make any notes on how to get there, but a quick search on Google maps tells me that they are around an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. If you follow the road properly you will eventually see a sign to them, where you have to turn right and go down a slightly sketchy road for 5-10 minutes. After a lot of second-guessing and driving down forest paths you reach a clearing and a car-park, where there’s a cafe and a walkway down to the waterfalls. They are pretty amazing.
After viewing them, Jeff managed to lock his bike key in the seat of his bike. We thought we were completely screwed and yet somehow managed to prize the seat open just enough to grab them. This would have been a miracle if it hadn’t been for what happened later, I guess!
We were nearly back in Chiang Mai when it started to rain. We stopped, on the side of a busy road, and agreed that we weren’t really comfortable riding in the rain so we agreed to stop at the next convenient location. Three minutes later I watched my husband skid to the ground. My reaction was so fast, yet it felt like slow motion; I screamed and slammed my own brakes, which caused me to skid to the ground straight after him. I didn’t try to resist – something in the fall felt inevitable. After that, adrenaline kicked in. A random man stopped and picked up our bikes for us. A minute later, a woman appeared with tissues and water to help us stem the bleeding. That’s when we saw that Jeff’s elbow looked as if a massive chunk had been taken out of it. The woman told us that there was a hospital around 500m away, so we started walking. A tuk-tuk offered to take us there, so I offered him 50 baht not to mess around with prices, despite it being a couple seconds away.
Theppanya hospital saw us very quickly, bandaged our wounds and told Jeff that his left wrist was just fine. It cost around £20 for everything, including antibiotics to avoid infection. The receptionist asked us how we were getting back to the hostel, to which I told her I had no idea. Eventually they got a member of staff from the hospital to drive us back to our bikes, which were still there and mostly intact. Still shaken and dazed, we were then told to ride the bikes to the hospital. Talk about getting back on the horse (less than an hour after falling off). We were able to park the bikes at the hospital, and fortunately from there the hospital staff member drove us all the way back to our hostel for no extra fee.
Later than night, Jeff could not sleep as his wrist hurt too much. We researched local hospitals and decided to visit Chiang Mai Ram, which is the expat’s choice of private hospital – it’s more expensive but you can at least feel you’re getting “proper” care. We turned up at 2am. Fortunately, “Chiang Mai Ram” is easy to say to any songthaew driver, and the red ones within Chiang Mai can be flagged down and should take you anywhere for 20 baht (if they ask for more, you can usually walk away and find another). They might sometimes need to drop other people off at different locations, but I often seemed to be the only person on there.
The staff at Chiang Mai Ram saw us straight away. They X-rayed Jeff’s wrist and told him that he had fractured his scaphoid bone (in his wrist). He was to return the next morning to be fitted with a cast. However, when he came back, they told him that he was going to need surgery.
Talk about your fantasies coming crashing down. Our seven weeks of newlywed bliss had suddenly disintegrated. We thought that we would have to fly back to the UK. SCUBA diving was suddenly out of the question for him. It wasn’t a good week, I’ll tell you that. But I’ll keep it short, and to what you need to know.
We had been wearing helmets at the time. That kept us alive. Jeff’s insurance company back in the States agreed to pay for the surgery, as long as we sent them the right documentation. Chiang Mai is a great place to get injured, it turns out – the sheer number of cheap Internet cafes meant that we were able to scan the documents and email everything to the insurance company. It took them a couple of days to respond that they would pay for the surgery. In that time, we send photos of the X-rays to various friends in the fields of medicine for second opinions. Many said he wouldn’t need surgery. We went to the University hospital of Chiang Mai for another opinion, but they agreed with the Thai doctor. When we told them the name of the surgeon who would be operating on Jeff, they were very pleased and said “he’s the best hand surgeon in Thailand”.
We also had the enjoyable task of going to Mr Motorbike, covered in bandages, and explaining “uh… your bikes are at some hospital somewhere”. We had the address from the bills from the previous day, so their staff were able to go and retrieve the bikes. They were scratched up pretty badly and we had to pay around £60 in costs.
When the hospital found out that the insurance would be covering the costs, they went all out. Jeff had a massive room with a balcony and a sofa that I could sleep on, as well as plenty of choices for food. He was dosed up to the eyeballs on morphine and I spent the two days he was there reading books about Burma on his sofa and eating 30 baht meals in the hospital dining room.
The surgery went well, although when they told him the cast should be off in 3-4 weeks it turned out to be more like 8-10 (i.e. it did not come off for the entire honeymoon). But he’s not one to be easily defeated:
Anyway, the insurance company paid for the surgery – without them it would have been £3000 or so (although from the break-down of costs it looks like most of that was painkillers and the nice room). There was a $250 excess, however the 50p or so we’d spent on motorbike insurance from Mr Motorbike covered around that amount of medical costs incurred from bike accidents. We just had to show them the hospital paperwork, which we did a few days later, and once they had decided that everything was OK they gestured to two motorbikes.
“Come with us,” they said, demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge about, y’know, post-traumatic stress and all that. We realised that we weren’t going to get out of this one, and we grabbed helmets and hopped on the back of two more bikes. At least we weren’t driving this time. They swooped around corners while I had minor flashbacks and eventually took us to a bank, where we were able to get the money back – in cash, there and then. This is why I am telling you to get insurance.
Most people just use Chiang Mai as a hub while they go on other tourist attractions, and it certainly is a great place to arrange trips from, e.g. jungle trekking, elephant tours or white-water rafting (which we had initially booked on the day before the crash. We didn’t get all our money back) – while we didn’t do any of that, we did end up staying in Chiang Mai for far longer than we had planned. As Thailand goes, Chiang Mai’s convenience, English-speaking options and prices make it a good place to be stuck for a few days. We were able to wash our clothes plenty of times, eat loads of food, buy plenty of English boos about Thailand and surrounding countries and generally just hang around trying to sort out hospital stuff. (Oh, and we also took a songthaew out to the zoo. A quick note – the zoo is not the best place to heal. Just imagine a zoo. Now fill the zoo with motorbikes and imagine trying to pet an elephant while a motorbike zooms past you. Inside the zoo grounds.)