It all happens in the finishing straight. Having watched some of the Athens 2004 Olympics coverage, it seems that the longer distance runs are all well and good, but it's only in the last few hundred metres that things really pick up. And so it is the case with travelling - we've been happily making our way round Australia (along with a couple of detours along the way) since January, under our own steam and at a pace that suits us, but once we had committed to a final leaving date everything seemed to go a bit mental. Oh, by the way, when I say final leaving date, what I mean is this: we've already re-jigged our flight out from Aus three times, but this time we're gonna stick to it!
So yesterday was our final straight. The day previously we had spent some time packing things away to be sent home, thrown away or donated to the caravan park for other guests. This took longer than expected and we realised just how easy it is to collect 'stuff' while on travels when you have your own transport (true backpackers in Aus don't have this problem - no room for it? Don't get it!). With most of our stuff now organised we had a few errands to run which involved chasing back and forth across the city in some of the worst possible driving weather one could imagine. This didn't seem the best way of spending a final day in any country, but we were not going to extend the flight again just to make things easier. After a day's frantic driving, I eventually dropped Manda off at the airport at 4pm. Our flight was not until 1am, but we had failed to find anywhere in the city that would look after our bags for a day and so we had to just sit it out. Well, Manda had to for a little while longer than me, as I had one last trip to do - deliver Ethel to her next port of call, hand over the keys and say goodbye. Once more I found myself driving through torrential rain, rush-hour traffic and hitting every set of traffic lights, all the while hoping that the meagre amount of petrol she was running on would be enough (well, I hardly felt like spending out now!). By 5pm Ethel was out of my hands. I did the hand-over stuff, explained any quirks that I hadn't already done and kept my fingers crossed for her. Then I had to make my way another 24kms back to the airport (but managed to get a lift, although not in Ethel, unfortunately).
By 6pm I was thoroughly worn out. Ah well, only another 7 hours until the flight to Singapore, eh!
Somehow we both managed to stay sane for that amount of time - I tortured myself leafing through the pages of VolksWorld while Manda made a start on a book that I bought her called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.
Despite the hectic day, and despite really feeling tired well before the flight, the opportunity of watching a new film on the plane once again took precedence over logic, and so I ended up staying up until 3am laughing at The Ladykillers. With just over three hours sleep, the transfer from Singapore to our next flight meant I was doing my all-time best impression of a zombie. Must. Have. Sleep.
Arrival in Chiang Mai
Both of us had been getting a little nervous about Thailand. We had got used to our comfort zone in Aus and Ethel, and it really is easy to relax there. On the flip side, we'd done most things that we'd wanted to and really wanted to see something new. So, it was a real mixture of excitement and apprehension as we got ready to land in Chiang Mai. Had we allowed too long for our journey from Northern Thailand to Malaysia? Perhaps 3 months wasn't enough? How would we cope with the heat? Should we have taken anti-malaria tablets? And just how rainy can wet season get?
On that last point, it works out that we have arrived just at the point where the most rain will fall, according to the charts. Originally we were due to arrive in late June, which would not be so wet, but would be much hotter. Having said that, I read on one website that the rainfall chart had been removed from their site because it was misleading - rain might fall for 30 minutes, heavily, but after it's fallen the temperature soon sees to it that it dries up. Time will tell, but we're at least conscious of the potential for rain and won't go anywhere too far out of the way lest it gets dicey.
We got through customs, arranged a room for one night (to see how it is first before committing to further nights) and hopped in a taxi. Moments later the air-con was on to the max and we were adjusting to the novelty of living in a proper room once more. Strangely, despite being able to spread our stuff out more if we wanted to, we didn't because we know it always has to be locked up when we go out or that we might leave at any time, so the extra room does not mean freedom to sprawl. We could sprawl more, and as untidily as we liked, in Ethel - ironic, given the small living space she afforded.
We both found the last couple of days' tying of loose ends and travel quite exhausting and ended up sleeping through to mid-afternoon. After that, I made an effort to drag myself out of the room and take a walk around the city by way of orientation, while Manda stayed in the room making the most of the air-con.
[Manda adds: After all that travelling, I felt exhausted and didn't feel in the mood for exploring. So I took it easy for the rest of the day, lounging around the guesthouse complex. I managed to finish reading my new book - it's coincidental that the book is based in Swindon (my home town), the main character is called Christopher (also the name of my nephew), who is a Mathematician (I have a background in Mathematics) and his mum went to live in Willesden Junction, London (where one of my best friends lives) - that's spooky! An excellent book that is well worthy of the Whitbread Book of the Year award].
It was by no means a thorough investigation of Chiang Mai and all it had to offer - my mission was simply to take a look at some other hostels, guesthouses and hotels and see how they compare, maybe pick up some mozzie prevention (net, spray) and some supplies. I tried to blend in so as not to attract the attentions of over-zealous tuk-tuk drivers and such like, and purposely avoided carrying around a pristine copy of The Lonely Planet - if anything screams 'gullible tourist' more than this, I'd like to hear it!
Initial reactions: a hot day, but nothing that sunscreen and a slow, laid-back pace can't keep in check; fairly civilised traffic (I'm sure we won't be saying the same about Bangkok!) despite the many moped riders who weave all over the road; Internet Cafés every fifth shop, nestled in among the many bars, fruit stalls (selling the immensely stinky durian fruit, I spotted ... or rather my nose did) and electrical repairs places whose workbenches seemed to be the pavements themselves. Everything is much cheaper than Australia, that much is immediately apparent - what we would normally pay to park up the kombi would pay for a good sized room with air conditioning, cable TV and access to a swimming pool and still leave some change. I know this because tomorrow we're going to try that place out (roughly £7 per night), have a little bit of luxury for a day or two before trying something a bit cheaper out - and it can get a lot cheaper!