Click on Shillong and Chiang Mai above photo to see album
After completing my travels in Southern India I returned to Calcutta on route to the far NE of India. I used Calcutta as a travel hub due to it’s close proximity to NE India and Thailand. After my inauspicious arrival in Cal (see On to India blog), it surprised me that each successive trip there I began to like it more and more. It has a warmth and character quite different from any other city I have been to and is well worth checking out for a few days.
From Cal I flew to Guwahati in the far NE. My hope had been to take the train from Cal to Darjeeling, which is reputed to be an amazing journey, spend a few days there sipping tea while gazing at the Himalayas, then carry on by train to Guwahati. The month leading up to this I read in the papers the railway tracks to Guwahati got blown up, twice. I saw this as a sign, better just to fly to Guwahati. The NE of India is very tribal and majority Christian. It has been oppressed by the Indian central government for ages and there are tribal issues I won’t pretend to understand. Throughout India there seems to be quite a bit of unrest, you just don’t hear about it much in the west. Thankfully my destination, Shillong, has been peaceful for a number of years now. The three hour shared taxi ride from Guwahati to Shillong is hair-raising with lots of steep hills, sharp turns and crazy driving. It is worth it though as this hill station is a wonderful place. The people are so different from the south you’d think you are in a different country. They look different, with somewhat Chinese features, and act different as well. Unlike the south, people were friendly but not constantly in my face and they are honest so I didn’t feel I had to haggle for absolutely everything. I loved getting into the shared taxis and just giving my destination and paying the standard 10 rupees ($0.22), no five minute negotiation required.
After settling in to my hotel the first thing I did was call my friend Robin who I met on my first Indian trip four years ago. Robin has a wonderful family and they are great fun to hang out with. His wife Parteii is fantastic cook and her home cooking was much appreciated after my South India weight loss experience. Robin has several thriving businesses and is currently building a hotel in the heart of the city. There is still a fair bit of construction to go but I have already booked a suite 😉 After two weeks I felt I should move on to Thailand as I was itching to start my massage training. I regret not spending more time in Shillong and area, I should have left the south sooner. C’est la vie.
My flight from India to Thailand was from Calcutta’s humble international airport. The flight was leaving around two in the morning and there was one other flight leaving around then. Around midnight they started check in for the flight. After standing in line for about an hour to check in I finally got to the gate area only to find there are not enough chairs for everyone so I get to stand around some more at this ungodly hour! Imagine, for a city of 13 million there are not enough seats to accommodate two large flights leaving at once. I arrived at Bangkok early in the morning and had to catch my connector flight to Chiang Mai. I left myself 3 hours between flights because I wasn’t sure how long customs, finding my gate ,etc. would take. Well, in all of 15 minutes I was sitting at my departure gate. The airport itself is brand new and looks like something built by NASA. My gate, one of dozens, was almost as large as the entire departure area of Cal. There were loads of benches with no armrests so I could have a little lie-down and two computer terminals with free internet access. And clean enough you could eat off the floor. It was a nice welcome back.
When I was in Thailand four years ago I thought it was tremendous that you could go into a 7-11 to buy a SIM card for your phone and be making calls in 5 minutes flat. Well this trip they kicked it up a notch. I arrived at Chiang Mai International airport and was waiting for my bag at the carousal and there was a nice young man offering free SIM cards to all the new arrivals with enough credit to make a few calls. My phone was working before I left the airport. How wicked is that! I can’t imagine this happening anywhere but in Thailand. In India, I and many other yogis got Indian SIM cards after much struggling with bureaucratic paperwork and most of us were later threatened by the phone company to be cut off because they hadn’t received said paperwork. Grrrrr!
The Thai guesthouses were great too. On arrival in Chiang Mai, I had an airport pick up to take me to the Vanilla Place Guestbouse, which I stayed at my first time through and really liked. After a couple of days I told the owner Mr. Kem that I was taking Thai massage training and was going to have an extended stay Chiang Mai. He said he would love to have me stay at his guesthouse but I should find a cheaper place closer to massage school and made some suggestions. He didn’t want me spending all my money but still wanted me to stop by for a coffee whenever I was in the neighborhood. I did find a great and very affordable guesthouse, Banilah., and ended up staying there for over a month.. I got a spic and span double room with AC/wifi for under $14/night and they even threw in a bicycle for me to use. The staff at Banilah are really wonderful hosts. They had great dining suggestions, often hand drawing maps and writing down exactly what you should say to make your order in Thai. They even rounded up a few friends and made a little dinner party for me on my birthday at a great restaurant, with cake and all.
I started right into Thai massage training and really liked it. I find it really complimentary to yoga, in fact sometimes getting a Thai massage feels like doing yoga but someone else is putting you in the stretching position. The first school I studied at was Nerve Touch Massage. They teach a fairly traditional Thai massage with some time spent teaching how to use steamed pouches of medicinal herbs to enhance the massage, a nice touch. After I completed my one week course there I moved on to study with the master, Mr. Sinchai. He is a kind and patient blind man who has been massaging/teaching for over 40 years. His classes are informal and he has a more diagnostic approach than most IE: if the client has sore shoulders, you do these moves. I liked his classes so much I went for a good four weeks. I feel privileged to have studied with such a master. There is still much to learn but I have a good foundation.
Just before I left it was the biggest festival of the year in Thailand, the Thai New Year/Water festival. Chiang Mai is the epicenter of this celebration and they stretched it out to about five days. During this time everyone in the city goes quite mad for water fights with water guns, bucket of ice cold water, hoses, you name it. I have to say after the first day of riding my bike and being soaked relentlessly I had had my fill. I never thought I would be thankful for the +40°C heat but these days I was as it helped dry out quicker. Note to self, try avoid Thailand in March/April as it is crazy hot.
When it came time to head back to the West, I spent the night in Bangkok airport awaiting my early morning flight. This was just after the Iceland ash cloud appeared and there were Europeans sprawled out all over the airport, some of them had been there for days. In the morning the reality that I was leaving Asia sunk in (sniff,sniff) when I went to put on socks for the first time in ages.
I spent a wonderful week in Vancouver to slowly acclimatize to Western ways. I am back in the flat-lands of Saskatchewan now but like the littlest hobo, I may just keep moving on.