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We arrived at Chaing Mai Railway Station a little after 7:30 in the morning yesterday (Friday) after a restless night on the overnight "First Class" train from Bangkok.  Calling the train anything special is a joke because it was ancient, filthy, and noisy.  Our compartment was tiny with no room to even stand up in; I barely managed two hours of sleep in total.  It certainly ranks far below the Beijing to Shanghai overnight I traveled on three years ago and I thought that one was pretty bad!

I'll try to bring this up to date without going into too much detail as I'm on battery power and a very weak wireless connection.

Wednesday morning, we took a taxi back to the Department of Consular Affairs in Laksi to pick up Tim's passport.  As usual, she spent the entire taxi ride talking to the driver in Thai — giving him our entire history together in addition to the most personal of details.  I really hate when she does this and any protests I make go unheeded.  I can understand enough Thai to know when she's talking about something that's extremely embarrassing to me or that other people, especially strangers (but worse when it's someone I know) have no business knowing.  Anyway, in the course of this conversation she agreed for the driver to turn off the meter and wait for us in order to take us to the Royal Grand Palace after we finished our passport business.  This cost us (me) 500 baht when if we'd just kept the meter on and taken a second metered taxi the toll would have come to less than 200 baht.  I've warned her numerous times about schemes such as this in Bangkok but she just doesn't seem to get it.

The passport pickup process was much easier than the application process.  We went to a different section of the second floor (turning right at the top of the stairs instead of the left) where there was a row of 10 or so windows.  At the first one, Tim gave her application receipt and was given a number.  When her number was called (no lighted display, just someone calling the numbers in Thai), she approached a window where she had to place her left index finger into a fingerprint reader.  They then took her photo (again?), during which she managed to hit the tripod the camera was sitting on angering the clerk who went to great pains to get the camera "just right" once again.  She was then given her passport.  I had instructed her to look at the information closely before leaving the window so any mistakes could be spotted right away but she stuffed it into her shoulder bag and walked quickly away.  I stopped her before she got too far and we checked the passport, not finding any errors.  The entire pick-up process took less than 10 minutes.

We then got back into our taxi and headed down to the "Royal area" of Bangkok.  The region surrounding the Royal Grand Palace has many government offices, wide tree-lined boulevards, impressive monuments, huge temples, etc.  When we arrived outside the palace, I gave the driver a 1000-baht note and — of course — he insisted that he didn't have change and there wasn't anyplace he could change it that early in the morning.  I was savy to this scam as well and directed him to wait while I went into a 7-Eleven across the street where I bought a Coke and got the small bills to pay him with.  He insisted he couldn't wait but in the end he did when I made it clear that otherwise I would just pay what would have been on the meter.  I hoped that Tim learned a lesson not to trust just anyone and she was a bit more careful later when someone tried to sell us a 20-baht river taxi ticket for 400 baht.

I had visited the Royal Grand Palace on an organized tour back in January so it was nice to play "tour guide" as Tim and I explored the grounds.  She was very impressed with the displays of wealth and power and we spent a lot of time looking at the huge murals.  We eventually made our way inside Wat Phra Kaeo which houses the Emerald Buddha and Tim did a small Buddhist ritual of bowing and wai'ing in front of the altar.  There were also several weapons museums on the grounds that hadn't been open during my previous visit and we had fun exploring those.

Exiting the palace grounds, we walked up to a collection of street vendors surrounding the entrance to one of the water taxi piers.  Tim had some noodle soup while I drank a Fanta orange before we continued walking south to Wat Po.

Wat Po is famous for two major attractions:  the huge reclining golden Buddha and the school which trains all of the "legit" traditional Thai massage practitioners.  We walked around the reclining Buddha in his temple, and each bought a donation cup full of one-baht coins.  You then walk along the line of offering bowls, dropping one coin in each bowl.  I forget how many bowls there are but there's supposed to be enough coins to hit each bowl.  I ended up with two extra coins.  I had promised to get Tim a massage at the school and we finally found the right place.  She kind of hesitated at the price (380 for a one-hour massage), partially because of the expensive taxi ride in the morning and also because the last massage she got — on Phuket — cost 150 for an hour.  I assured her this was okay and that this was a treat for her.  She felt great when when exited and had enough energy to do some more walking.

We walked along a row of government buildings opposite Sanam Luang, an oval-shaped park paved in concrete which had a lot of construction going on.  We passed the Defense Ministry with it's huge cannons outside as well as the Hall Of Justice and the Criminal Court buildings.  We turned back along one of Bangkok's famous khlongs (canals) which smelled like an open sewer, and turned south once again across from the Royal Hotel.  We ended up at Phra Chan Pier where we took the cross-river taxi boat to Wang Lang Pier (cost: four baht).  The boats on the east side of the Chao Phraya River go north so you have to get to the south bank in order to go south.  We then purchased two tickets (11 baht each) on the express boat to Sathom Pier (which is underneath the Saphon Taskin SkyTrain station.  It was a very enjoyable ride; the taxi stopped at about five or six piers along the way — it kind of hits the pier briefly and you need to be ready to jump off at the right moment or you end up in the river; the stops are usually very brief.  Along the way, it was fun to watch the river traffic and the buildings (many expensive hotels standing right atop ramshackle slums) passing by.  We successfully jumped onto our pier at our final destination and climbed the stairs up to the SkyTrain station, buying two Zone 5 tickets for 30 baht each.  We changed trains at the Siam Interchange Station and disembarked at Ratchetevi.

Outside of that station, I noticed a photo shop so we decided to stop and have some prints made.  We'd picked out some photos of ourselves to give to Tim's parents and I'd put them onto my memory stick and had been carrying it around for several days.  The 30 or so prints cost a total of 87 baht.  While waiting for the photos, we had some dinner (noodle soup with some sort of meat balls) at a street stall.  We then walked down to Pantip Plaza where I purchased a 60GB iPod for around 50% less than what it would have cost in the States.  I'd spent the previous several days talking myself into this purchase and had decided on the 30GB model; however, in asking about 10 dealers their prices before finally buying it I found one that had the 60GB for only 100 baht more than the lowest price 30GB version (it was a white one and the blacks seem to be more popular in Thailand).  I also justified it in that we hadn't spent a whole lot of money in Bangkok and I'd decided to buy Tim a small gold chain as a gift; I needed a gift for myself (and we can share the use of the iPod as well).

When we exited Pantip Plaza, it began to rain (it had been threatening to do so all afternoon) so we finally got to use the umbrella we'd bought several days before.  We made our way back to the hotel (taking a short cut through an interior extension of the garment district) and I spent the rest of the evening setting up the iPod.  It was pretty easy — the first time you connect it to your computer, it automatically begins downloading everything from your iTunes folder.  In less than an hour, I had over 400 songs plus several television shows installed on the iPod.  I then spent another 45 minutes or so adding selected photos from the past couple of months.  Tim was very impressed when I demonstrated the iPod to her the first time by showing her a slideshow of our photos, complete with music.  We spent the rest of the evening repacking our luggage and turned in fairly early.

We awoke very early Thursday morning.  Tim was exited because I'd told her that we were going to buy some gold this day.  We left the hotel around 8:00, although I told her I doubted any shops would be open until nine or ten.  We made our way to the Big C building, waiting outside for it to open at 9:00.  We then killed another hour browsing until the jewelry shops opened.  I had told Tim that I didn't want her to pick up anything too gaudy and that a nice thin chain (which could hold her Chinese amulet) would be nice.  The price of gold was posted at 12,500 baht for a baht (baht is also a unit of measurement as well as the name of the currency; I'm not sure how it compares to an ounce).  Tim soon zeroed in on a tasteful chain, the price of which was 13,350 baht with a 20% discount.  This was actually less than I was prepared to spend so I was happy and Tim clutched my arm the rest of the morning.  On the way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly at an Internet cafe so I could post a couple of blog entries stored on my memory stick.

Check-out from Baiyoke went smoothly and I was given a choice of a free gift; I chose a sheet of Baiyoke/Thai Post stamps as it was the only thing I thought I could fit in our already over-burdened luggage (and certainly didn't need an ugly coffee mug or cheap-looking pen).  We then took a taxi to Hualamphong Station (84 baht) where we spent the next five hours waiting and trying to stay warm (it was a cool, rainy day and the air-conditioners inside the waiting room were going full-blast).  I was fairly impressed with the range of food and other shops inside; offerings include Black Mountain Coffee, KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts.

A little after 5:30, we made our way down to Platform 5 and climbed aboard car number 11 of Special Express First Class Train Number 1 (our berths were 11 and 12).  This very ancient car featured a narrow hallway down the right side (as you're looking towards the front of the train) with the sleeping compartments on the left.  It all felt like it was constructed in miniature and I had a hard time walking through the passage and then through the door to our room.  It had all definitely seen better days and was very grimy and faded.  We did have a good dinner, however — a sweet-and-sour chicken and beef over rice with spicy Thai vegetables.  I had a hard time sleeping and woke up with a raging stomach ache.  The toilet at the end of the compartment was the Asian squat variety and I was afraid to use it because of my unfamiliarity with the technique plus the fact I thought I'd fall over because of the moving train.  Eventually, I could no longer deny the call of nature and successfully used the toilet.  I immediately felt much better.

The last couple of hours on the train were especially scenic with many dense forests and tall mountains visible alongside the tracks.  We arrived at Chiang Mai about 40 minutes late which was fine since we couldn't check into our guesthouse until noon.  The station was very nice and we enjoyed sitting on the covered (but open-sided) platform for a couple of hours.  It was nice and cool but around nine we were tired so I called the SK House to see if we could check in early.  That was no problem so we gathered our things and exited the train station only to be beseiged by an army of tuk-tuk drivers; Tim chose the only female among the group and we roared into Chiang Mai proper.  The ride cost just 60 baht.

Check-in at the guest house was very easy.  I handed the desk clerk my voucher, she asked if I was "Mr. Mark" and gave me a key.  We followed the bell hop up to our room on the second floor in the far corner at the back.  It's a very nice place built in the traditional Lanna (hill tribe) style with plenty of teak wood and interesting decorations.

We slept for a couple of hours before venturing out to walk around and see what the neighborhood was like.  We're very near the moat that surrounds the old section of town.  We had lunch at a small cafe (I had some very good French toast with honey that came with French fries!) before returning to the guesthouse.

In the evening, Tim's friend Anon picked us up.  The plan was to go shopping at the Night Bazaar but this ended up being Tim talking to her friend as I struggled to keep up; they were walking so fast that if I stopped to look at anything interesting I'd quickly be left behind.  I'd told Tim that I wanted to buy a Chiang Mai t-shirt (or else I'd have to wear my current t-shirt a third day in a row — Tim took all my other clothes to the hotel laundry while I was in the shower and they won't be back until right before we check out tomorrow!) and a surge protector so I could charge the laptop battery.  But instead, we ended up sitting in some bar where I sat drinking water, getting eaten my mosquitoes, while the two of them chattered away in Thai.  I quickly become bored with this but try to keep smiling so Tim is happy.  Several times, I indicated I'd like to go do a bit of shopping and find a shirt, etc.  This was met with, "okay, we'll go in a little bit" but then more beers would suddenly arrive at the table (I wasn't drinking and kept wondering when they were ordered).  I finally got up and said we should go now; of course, I was expected to pay the entire bill with no offer of help from Tim's friend.

After exiting the bar, we began heading back to the parking lot and I once again said I wanted to buy a shirt as I didn't want to wear the same shirt again.  This was met with, "okay, we go now."  But Anon drove us to some nightclub in a remote part of town.  This turned out to be some gay strip club with a bunch of skinny Thai men prancing around on tables.  I immediately told Tim that I wanted to leave, that I didn't like this one bit, etc.  We stayed there about five minutes before Tim and I left Anon sitting there alone.  As we opened the door, I was given a bill for 480 baht.  I said, "We didn't order anything."  Anon had ordered two beers and a water for me (which we didn't receive) and I was expected to pay anyway.  I couldn't very well refuse to pay in this situation so I paid and we left, taking a tuk-tuk on the street.  I pretty much gave Tim the silent treatment all the way home; I was seething inside but couldn't let Tim know it.  In the end, I apologized because I know trying to explain all that I was upset about would probably do no good.  Maybe someday when Tim can understand enough English or I can learn the appropriate Thai I can explain some of these things that piss me off.  In the end, we love each other very much and I need to remember to just shrug off some of these "minor incidents" because, in the long run, they don't matter so much.

Tim's sleeping in this morning (it's just after eleven) and I think we'll just do some minor sightseeing today, perhaps go to the zoo or a nearby palace.