Time in Chiang Mai

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Long Journey for a Short Trip

5:15 AM in the airport is the time of bleary eyed travelers. That’s what time my whirlwind journey to Thailand for my friend’s wedding started. In the next 40 hours, I would spend 35.5 hours in airplanes and airports.

Denver to San Francisco was mostly spent sleeping. Except for the screeching child in the row in front of me. I’m forgiving of children crying on takeoff and landing because I’ve had times as an adult where the air pressure change was almost unbearable. This child felt that mid-flight was the optimal time for a tantrum. After a few sleepy hours in San Francisco, came the long haul to Beijing.

Walking off the plane in Beijing was like opening the door to a freezer. Outside the temperature was -1C or 30F. Inside the airport wasn’t much warmer. In an effort to stay awake and warm, I spent most of my layover walking around and around the duty free shops. And just in case I wasn’t cold enough in the airport, our departure gate was actually a bus that takes the passengers to the plane where you walk across the tarmac. I was the last one on the first bus and the first one into the plane after the flock of passengers heading for Thailand made a mad dash through the freezing cold. Only once I sat down, ready to pass out from exhaustion, did I realize that the time for my flight to Bangkok had actually changed by almost 2 hours (24-hour time format and a sleepy brain are to blame). So instead of arriving at 11:45 PM we arrived at 1:45 AM. I slept.

Heat and humidity were the ambassadors in Bangkok. 28C or 86F and a wall of humidity, even at 1:45 am. Following my well established routine after 11 trips to Thailand, I cleared immigration and customs, got a sim card for my smartphone (first time using a smartphone in Thailand instead of a simple travel phone), picked up a snack at 7-11 for the morning and went to get the shuttle to the hotel. Checking in at 3 AM, I begrudgingly requested a space in the 8 AM shuttle to return to the airport for the last of my flights. A shower, 3 hours of sleep, another 2.5 hours in an airport and a 1 hour flight, I finally arrived in Chiang Mai.

A Country in Mourning

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Memorial to the King at Suvarnbhumi Airport.

In October, King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away. At age 88, King Adulyadej was the longest reigning monarch, having reigned for 70 years. The King was deeply revered and honored by all of the Thai population, not just symbolically. He was their father, attaining something of a saint-like status for his support of the commoner and the advances he brought to their lives. For most of Thailand, King Adulyadej is the only king they have ever known.

All of Thailand is a portrait of black and white in mourning. Government buildings, schools, temples, bridges and shops are graced with black and white bunting and black and white portraits of the King. As a show of respect and mourning, the people are dressed in black, or black and white. At the very least, a small black bow is pinned to their shirt or dress. Even the clothing displayed in big stores and night market stalls alike are predominately black and white. To see the love and honor bestowed upon the King is such a dichotomy from the current political situation in the United States.

Chiang Mai Routine

Visiting a destination multiple times becomes more about routine and less about adventure. I check in, get a motorbike, and go to the specific places I need to go to get the things that I know I need to get. Especially this trip where time is in short supply.

My days of staying in the Old Town Chiang Mai are over. A few years ago CM Blue House, where I had stayed since my first trip in 2008, closed. Finding a new place is not necessarily easy. Not that there aren’t plenty of guesthouses and hotels to choose from. It’s about location and bed firmness. Easy to determine location on a website, impossible to determine bed firmness, even from reviews. Asian beds are a level of firmness ranging between marble floor to firm soil.

Baan SongJum Homestay was my home for my 2 nights in Chiang Mai. Despite the beds having the firmness of linoleum flooring, I am glad to have found this new home. Located down a narrow soi (alley) just off of Kaew Narawat road, Baan SongJum is a lovely oasis where you definitely feel at home. Still close enough to walk down the small streets and sois to get to the Old Town to rent a motorbike but far enough away from the tourists and heavy traffic. Nui, the owner, makes you feel at home the minute you walk through the gate (which is always kept shut since her dog Lanna is a fast escape artist.)

Instead of having a motorbike delivered, it was better, cheaper and faster to walk to the old town. 15 minutes of uneven “sidewalks” down narrow sois (alleys) and I was at the old town. Seeing a new area on foot was actually a welcomed change. I found the Lanna Thai Massage Medical School and cataloged it as a place to potentially get a massage later. At the moment, I had more pressing activities to attend to.

A distinct advantage to having a smartphone on a motorbike is the ability to pull over and access the Maps application. This feature alone has made my tried and true, heavily taped together map now obsolete. Having the Maps application does not negate the fact that I still missed at least one intended turn. A small 30 minute and several kilometer detour later and I finally found where I was going.

Time with Friends

While in Chiang Mai, seeing my good friends was a priority. Most of my friends here I have known going on 6 or 7 years. Life has changed for many of them. Of my closest friends in Thailand, only one is still working at working for Elephant Nature Park/Foundation.

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My wonderful friend Lek and I at dinner

Wednesday night I got to see my sweet, wonderful friend Lek. Picking me up on her shiny new motorbike, a bigger model than anything I have ever seen her drive before, we went just a short distance down the road before turning into an alley nestled between two buildings. By alley, I mean a narrow spit of sidewalk just wide enough for a motorbike. No farang (foreigner) would have guessed there was a quaint restaurant perched on the banks of the Mae Ping river at the end of it. No farang would have probably even thought to turn there in the first place. We picked a table under a tree literally at the edge of the river bank. Any more erosion and the bench I was sitting on would no longer be at the table. The location was a perfect milieu with the lights of Chiang Mai reflecting off the surface of the river on the warm, clear evening. Lek ordered us a plentiful feast of som tam (papaya salad), tom yum goong (soup), kow pat mu (pork friend rice) and crispy fish with herbs. Over the course of the next hour we ate, discussed life and reminisced about the times we have had together. It was a beautiful evening and a great reminder of how rich my life is with friends around the world.

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Chet and I at dinner eating mugata.

Thursday evening Chet and I went for mugata (literal translation is grilled pork). Mugata is the Thai version of a hot pot and a distant cousin of fondue. A metal pan looking like a small pointy hat surrounded by a moat is placed over a burner. The moat is filled with a light broth water. The pan is prepared by rendering large chunks of pork fat that keeps food from sticking and adds flavor to the broth as it runs down the pan. Then you cook your food, either grilling meats, or boiling vegetables, seafood or other food items. As the food is cooked, you eat it with a variety of dipping sauces. Chet introduced me to mugata several visits ago, so it always seems appropriate that it is our meal of choice. Having not seen Chet in over two years, it was great to see him again. I am happy for him and the opportunities he has had to grow in his work. He dreams of traveling and that dream is coming true.

 

Making New Elephant Friends

No trip to Thailand would be complete for me without at least a little time with elephants. Having been to Elephant Nature Park so many times and wanting to support different projects of the Elephant Nature Foundation, I opted to make new elephant friends going to the Hope for Elephant program. Hope for Elephant is a new day trip program where the Elephant Nature Foundation is working with several elephant camps to change how they use the elephants for tourism. The elephants that are now part of the project are free from saddles and giving rides and are subjected only to being fed, bathed and having thousands of pictures taken of them as they walk with the tourists around the hillside. As with all Elephant Nature Foundation projects, the mahouts (elephant caretakers) have relinquished their bull hooks and now use food for reward and control.

Instead of waiting to be picked up by the van, I opted to go to the Elephant Nature Park office so I could say hello to a few more friends. Once they had gathered the others in the group, we traveled about 1.5 hours southwest of Chiang Mai to the village of Mae Wan. After 7 years of the same video about elephants in Thailand and the Elephant Nature Park project, I was ecstatic to see a new video and an entertaining animated video about elephant safety. So much has changed since my first day trip in 2008.

Once in Mae Wan, we cleaned three baskets full of cucumbers and cut bananas off the stalk as offerings for the elephants we were about to meet. Then, piling in the back of the pickup truck, we headed into the hills to meet the elephants. A narrow road, only wide enough for one truck at a time, climbed up and down the hills. In one place the dirt road is replaced with two cement tracks, the solution to several rainy seasons washing away the road.

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Feeding Fah Sai.

Food is always the way to an elephant’s heart. Elephants eat a tenth of their weight in food each day, which means they are constantly eating something. Banana plants, trees, grass, whatever plant or vegetable available, they will eat it. Our introduction to the group was through feeding them. Three elephants belong in the group we visited. Fah Sai is the youngest at 7 years old, Kahm Mun is 25 and Moyo is 35. To make feeding the elephants on the project safer and controlled, they have built a small low fence that keeps the elephants at bay from the food and keeps humans from becoming the filling for an elephant sandwich.

Walking with elephants is anything but aerobic activity. Much of the time along our relatively short and unchallenging trek, was spent watching the elephants roam and eat. Kahm Mun was the most active of the group in roaming and eating. Fah Sai often was Kahm Mun’s shadow, at least as far as eating went. Moyo stayed close to her mahout and his copious handfuls of food pellets. Along the way we had copious photo opportunities and time to interact with the elephants. Despite a collection of several thousand elephant photos, I still can’t help but take more pictures. You never know when you are going to capture THE shot. Plus, these are new elephants.

Part of the experience was a mini cooking lesson in making som tam (papaya salad) for our lunch. After lunch we made an afternoon snack for the elephants, starting with pounding corn in a traditional hill tribe manner. The hill tribe people use a human-powered mill to pound the husks off the corn. That rice was added to cooked rice, tamarind, bananas, cooked pumpkin and salt, and mushed together by hand.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, bathing elephants never gets old no matter how many times I do it. Initially a bit on the cold side, the water was a refreshing break to the beating sun. Kahm Mun and Fah Sai took to the water eagerly, lying down in the water and rolling in it to wash off the freshly applied mud. So beautiful to be able to get so close to these amazing and beautiful elephants.

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Fah Sai and Kahm Mun reapplying dirt after their bath.

After their bath and a new application of mud and dirt, applied by rolling in it and using their trunks to coat their bodies, we got to feed them one more time. Seeing the transformation of the others in the group in just a few hours is so gratifying. One person even commented that she could see why I come back so many times. Eventually we said goodbye to our new elephant friends and headed back to Chiang Mai.

 

 

Wat Else

Only 48 hours in Chiang Mai affords very little spare time to just wander. I did manage to sneak in a little bit though. On Nui’s recommendation I went to Wat Ket Karam, or the dog temple. Wat Ket Karam is located just down the street from the guesthouse and is frequented mostly by Thai, making it a quiet, reflective place to be. Still, I didn’t spend very long there. Just long enough to walk around the grounds and go into the main hall for a few minutes of reflection.

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Worowot bridge with black and white bunting in honor of the King.

One errand I didn’t manage on arriving in Chiang Mai was satisfying my quest for my favorite Thai peanut snack. It’s a delicious mixture of puffed rice, coconut, peanuts and sugar. Looking out from Wat Ket Karam, I discovered that I was just across the memorial pedestrian bridge to Worowot Market. The cement bridge was originally built by a Chiang Mai governor in honor of his wife. Since then it has been rebuilt twice, once to convert it to concrete and just last year to repair damage. The white cement bridge is bedecked in the black and white bunting to honor the King. A quick stroll through the market paid off and I procured my peanut yummy goodness (not even a translation of the name.)

No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without a trip to my favorite temple, Wat Inthakhin. Wat Inthakhin I often refer to as “the temple in the middle of the road”, mostly because I can never remember the actual name. Nui provided the history for how this temple came to be located in the middle of a road. In the time of the Lanna kingdom, this wat (temple) was part of the royal complex. When the kingdom fell to the king in Bangkok, they wanted to debase the local people by destroying the royal palace and building their government buildings in that location. To add further insult to injury, they put a road through the royal temple. At the temple, I made an offering and got my fortune. Fortunes are made by taking a canister of sticks with numbers on them, and after a moment of prayer to ask what you want to know about, you shake the canister until the first stick falls out. The number on the stick is correlated to sheets of paper with your fortune (in Thai and English). My fortune was very good this time.

Running on schedule, I had just enough time to return my motorbike and walk back to the guesthouse, stopping at the ATM and to get a long overdue massage. 60 minutes was not nearly long enough. Unfortunately that was all the time I had. The therapist was adept at addressing several key muscles that had been much abused. As I meandered the rest of the way back to the guesthouse in a state of post-massage bliss, I reflected on the benefits of getting off the motorbike every now and then.

On to the Wedding

My quick tour of Chiang Mai came to an all too quick end and I headed off to Mae Sai by bus. Looking forward to seeing my friend Chai and attending his wedding.

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Visiting Elephant Island

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Adventure in Getting There

After my trip from the Surin Project in Ban Tha Klang to Koh Chang, I’m not certain that I buy into the whole “it’s the journey not the destination” philosophy when actually traveling. On a map, the distance between these two locations is not that far. My mistake was in thinking that there would be an easy route to get between the two. Trusting Ocha’s directions, I boarded the Nakonchai Air bus around 9 PM in Surin. The plan was to take the bus to Rayong and from Rayong it would be easy to catch a bus to Koh Chang. At least that’s what he said.

As we were sitting in the Surin Nakonchai Air bus terminal waiting for the bus, Ocha tells me to make sure that I get off the bus at the main Rayong Bus Terminal on the outskirts of town, not the separate Nakonchai Air terminal. Despite the comfort of my seat, I spent the next 8 hours in spurts of that trance-like sleep where you aren’t fully asleep but aren’t awake either. Having no concept of where the stop for Rayong was along the route factored heavily into that sleepless equation. Turns out, the bus doesn’t actually stop at the main bus terminal in Rayong. So at 5 AM, bleary eyed and confused, I finally ask a songtheaw driver to take me to the main bus station. The driver was not willing to bargain on the fare, insisting on charging me 150 baht (about $5). Based on where Ocha said the main bus station was relative to the Nakhonchai Air terminal, I figured was the price was high, but what is a couple of dollars when you are tired and confused. The driver took me to the terminal located inside the city about 10 blocks away. Upon arrival, I watched him laugh about the con he had just pulled on me. He watched me get my minivan ticket and continued to smirk smugly in my direction. Hopefully he felt the daggers that my look sent him. I also hope that my wish that his actions be returned to him ten-fold was fulfilled.

Feeling hopeless and seeing that my only options were minivans to get to Koh Chang, I purchased my ticket for 200 baht and waited for the 6 AM minivan to leave for Koh Chang. Technically the minivan goes to Trat and from there I needed to take a ferry over to Koh Chang. By the time I got on the minivan, I discovered all the regular seats to be filled and had to settle for the very back, less padded seat. On the upside, for a good portion of the ride I was able to lay down on the seat and rest. After about an hour or two, I really can’t tell you how long it was in my sleep deprived state, my stop apparently came up. My stop turned out to be a small building at a corner on the outskirts of Trat. The driver took my suitcase up to the building for me, said something in Thai to whoever was supposed to be there, and off he went. As I stood alone in the building, I took some solace in the sign to buy a ferry ticket.

After a short time, a man and two women arrived. The man said abruptly, “You wait for more people”. I said ok. Then after a few moments a minivan pulled up. Again the man said abruptly, “You buy ticket.” Quickly, I bought my ticket and got in the minivan. Without waiting for any more passengers, we were off for the 35 km drive to Leam Ngob where the ferry goes to Koh Chang. Arriving at the ferry, I was summarily dropped off. Looking disoriented and weary, a kind man pointed me through a door. I handed my ticket to the woman and wandered up to the ferry that was in dock. Being the only person that was on foot, I wasn’t sure if I should board or not. After a bit of hesitation, I walked up the car ramp and onto the ferry. After staking out a place where I had a great view, I purchased an ice coffee and took a deep breath.

With careful orchestration, cars loaded onto the ferry. Eventually the ferry engines started churning and we departed for Koh Chang. Arriving on the island, the last hurdle was getting to my hotel. The white shared taxis at the meeting point insist on waiting until there are around 12 passengers to make the journey. Again, I was told to wait for more people. I joined another couple in waiting. Two more ferries arrived and still no more passengers. Finally, as though sensing my palpable desperation to get to my hotel, the drivers decided to make a deal with us to pay more than the normal fare instead of waiting. Initially, he said 200 baht. Less than 3 minutes later, while the other couple was debating the offer, the driver said 250 baht for me. Still stinging from the exchange with the driver in Rayong, I challenged him on the change in fare. Agreeing to 200 baht and the other couple agreeing to their offer, we loaded onto the taxi and finally were off. An arduous 16 hours after leaving Ban Tha Klang, I arrived bleary eyed and sleep deprived at my destination, Bailan Bay Resort.

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Elephant Island

Koh Chang, translated as Elephant Island, is situated off the coast of Thailand, near the Cambodia border. The island is a lush green rainforest rising up out of the turquoise blue water of the Gulf of Thailand, looking like a herd of elephants loitering in a lake. Maybe it’s like finding shapes in clouds in that we see what we want to see.

Elephants are not indigenous to Koh Chang. Koh Chang got its name from the elephant shape of the headland. The elephants that are here have been brought here to cater to the tourists, giving elephant rides and doing trekking. Sarot (the head mahout from the Surin project) has family that moved to Koh Chang to give rides in Ban Kwan Chang on the east side of the island. Never approving of elephant riding, Sarot opted to stay behind in Ban Tha Klang. Going past the elephant riding camps, my heart aches for the elephants and the families that are broken up in the name of the tourist baht.

The second largest island in Thailand, Koh Chang is roughly 30 km long and 14 km wide, its highest point is 744 meters (2,440 feet). Most of the central part of the island is virgin rainforest, leaving the inhabited areas to the coast. Wanting to be further away from the main tourist areas, I chose Bailan Bay as my destination. Bailan Bay Resort is a quaint resort about halfway down the western side of the island. The individual bungalows cling to the hillside on the sharp 100 meter (328 feet) descent to the water. In a land of several resort hotels, Bailan Bay Resort is somewhere in between the fancy and the cheap.

At the end of the path of uneven step-stones, tucked away behind a pair of mangrove trees and nestled into the hillside is bungalow #20. A sea-view room with a fan, it is about 20 feet from the water at high tide. The side of the bungalow facing the water is graced with two large windows and the small wood porch ensures an ample view of the bay. The bungalow is typical of most Thai bungalow architecture; a wood structure housing a single room with a thatched roof. The attached bathroom is almost like a concrete after thought.

Bailan Bay Resort Bungalow #20

Bailan Bay Resort Bungalow #20

My bungalow is as far from the reception and restaurant as possible. To get to my bungalow I follow a cement walkway running parallel to the hill, then down a steep flight of 52 stairs with varying rise and run. The cement is textured like tree bark to as though to blend in with the natural surroundings. At night, the path to the room is illuminated by lanterns attached to poles. Where the lanterns have been broken, they are replaced by light bulbs protected by plastic bottles attached to trees. The lights lend an almost fairy tale like quality to the walk.

What Bailan Bay Resort lacks in upscale amenities and maintenance, was made up for by its location. Taking the easy route of cutting around a mangrove tree, across the beach of the neighboring property, through the property up to the main road, and a short walk down the main road, I was at the small gathering of shops and restaurants that could be called Bailan Bay Village. I don’t think the village technically has a name. The best part was the distinct lack of tourist crowds found in the other coastal towns and beaches.

The Rough Life

Visiting Koh Change is like being in a postcard for a week. The verdant greens, the aqua and turquoise blue water, the clear skies. Mangroves dot the shore to help keep the island from eroding into the water. Vines drip from the trees as they reach toward the sky seeking the sun. The gentle waves of the Gulf of Thailand gently lap at the shore. Stump tailed macaques playing in the trees adding their chatter to the sounds of geckos chirping.

Every day I made it a point to take a swim in the bath-like clear blue water. Even on the day that it rained, only the top couple of inches of water were cold, the lower layer feeling as though it was still being warmed by some geothermal source. Among the rocks lining the bottom of the bay, I saw many fishes darting for cover as I passed by. Though not as vibrant as some areas that I have had the opportunity to snorkel, I got to see quite a variety of yellow and black, all black, blue, brown, big and little fishes. Black eels lay on the bottom like large cucumbers. As the water became deeper, I swam through fields of sea weed. The tree-like plants ebbing and flowing in the tide, giving the water a yellowish cast. Eventually the water became deep enough that I could no longer see the rocks, despite how clear the water was.

Bailan Bay

Bailan Bay

The changing tides were evident in the bay. At high tide, the water covered the many rocks and most of the beach. At mid-tide swimming became a bit of a challenge weaving around the rocks. At low tide, the water recedes almost all the way out of the shallow bay. The rocks and sand exposed like an alien landscape. The ground offering burbles and pops as the water gave way to the air.

Rounding out each day was watching the golden sun dip below the horizon, its last rays turning the water shades of oranges, pinks and purples. The sun growing large and red as it moved closer to the water. Sitting on the beach, the peacefulness and beauty was perfect.

Seeing the Island

My attention span doesn’t lend itself to spending multiple days on a beach doing nothing. So after a few days of decompression and hoping to make this blur of a trip slow down, I headed out to see the island. Heading to the little village just over from the resort, I rented a motorbike, put some gas in it and off I went.

Driving on Koh Chang’s roller coaster roads was a thrill at times. The yellow “steep slope” sign, displaying a truck over a 30-60-90 triangle representing the slope, didn’t seem to do the steepness justice. Going down several of the hills, my toes were pressed firmly against the front of the motorbike foot area to keep me on the seat. Conversely, going up the hills, occasionally it felt as though I might slip right off the back causing me to grasp the handlebars as tightly as possible. The ups and downs are punctuated by sharply twisting turns. One particular hairpin turn between Bailan Bay and Lonely Beach has a double hairpin turn. A sign at the top informs drivers heading down the hill to give opposing traffic the right of way, since it is pretty much impossible to stay in the lane and make the curve.

Double hairpin turn on a steep hill

Double hairpin turn on a steep hill

Loving the freedom and feel of riding a motorbike, I have been known to go long distances. To get the feel of the motorbike and hoping for less steep hills and sharp curves, I headed about 10 km south to the southwest point of the island. Or, at least to the point where the road seemed to end. Turning around, I zipped my way north 25 km along the coast, up and down hills, around curves, feeling more comfortable with the motorbike. Along the way I stopped at overlooks, the tops of hills, to see a gathering of cute but really evil macaques, and to visit a shrine or two. Proceeding down the east coast, I found much flatter roads as I rolled through groves of coconut, lychee and rubber trees. Occasionally the fruity floral scent of plumeria blooms would catch my nose. 25 km later, I reached the end of the road at the southeastern point of the island. By the time I returned to my hotel, I had managed to ride about 100 km, all on an island. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to ride that far on an island, yet, I somehow managed to do it.

Driving 100 km requires several liters of gasoline. Gasoline “stations” on the island typically consist of several recycled Hong Thong (a whiskey drink) or liter soda bottles filled with gasoline on some type of stand or table with a sign that usually had “gasoline” spelled correctly. The typical cost was about 40 baht ($1.30) for about 750 mL. Coincidentally, the color of 91 octane gasoline and Hong Thong are about the same color. I don’t recommend confusing the two.

Gasoline stand on Koh Chang

Gasoline stand on Koh Chang

Stump tailed macaques are indigenous to Koh Chang. Macaques may be cute to look at, they are generally quite mean. At one point, as I came around a corner, a bevy of tourists were gathered gawking and photographing a gaggle of stump tailed macaques putting on a show by the side of the road. I stopped for a picture or two as well; however, I didn’t stay long. As I was looking eye to eye with a macaque, I got the sense he was working through the options of pouncing on me or not. I made the decision for him and sped away.

Within the virgin rain forest on Koh Chang are several waterfalls. At 20 meters, Klong Plu Waterfall is the tallest waterfall on the island and is easily accessible from the main road on the west side of the island. Listed as one of the “Top 16 Things to do on Koh Chang” on Trip Advisor, even in dry season, I opted to pay the 200 baht fee for foreigners and hiked to the waterfall. After paying 10 baht to park my motorbike at the insistence of the friendly locals to park outside the gate, I discovered free parking just inside the gate.

The trail leads through the rain forest to the waterfall. Having had some rain the two days prior, the ground and trees were moist and everything was lush green. At the end of the trail, the area opens out into a vista with a terrific view of the cascading waterfall. As a popular spot to visit, I was not alone. Many tourists and Thai were wading or swimming in the water, jumping off the rock face into the deep swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. Escaping some of the tourists by scrambling over the rocks, I was able to get a closer and more peaceful view. And as the Trip Advisor review indicated, even in February it was worth the time to go visit.

Klong Plu Waterfall

Klong Plu Waterfall

Kai Bae View Point is purported to be the most spectacular spot to view the sunset on the island and at every tourist shop you can find postcards taken at this spot. On a cloudy day it is a nice view. On a clear day it is an absolutely gorgeous view. The first time I stopped at the view point, it was overcast. Two days later the weather was clear and sunny. Despite gut wrenching cramps from food poisoning, I ventured around the double hairpin curve to go to the view point. Looking out over the turquoise and aqua water glistening in the sun and the smaller green islands, I was reminded of how beautiful the place the island is and how fortunate I am to get to take these adventures.

The postcard shot from the Kai Bae Viewpoint

The postcard shot from the Kai Bae Viewpoint

For those of you that have been following my tales since the beginning, you might recount my first experience driving a motorbike on a Thai island and the resulting “Phuket tattoo” (burn) from a small mishap that I had. In the past almost exactly 7 years, my motorbike skills have improved dramatically. Probably helps that I only use automatic motorbikes at this point. Three days of riding on the steep roller coaster hills with their hairpin turns and no mishaps to report. Phew.

Heading Home

The trip leaving Koh Chang for Bangkok was much less harrowing than the trip getting to Koh Chang. Svuarnabhumi (prounounced: soo-wan-a-poom) Bus Company offers a trip from Koh Chang island directly to the Svuarnabhumi airport for 600 baht ($20). Staying at the resort farthest down the coast, I was the first to be picked up by the minivan on the morning of my departure. We made our way back up the coast, stopping at several resorts along the way until the van was filled with other tourists starting their journey onward. From there, they gave us white tickets and took us to the center point ferry. Dropping us off with our luggage, we were herded onto the waiting ferry and directed to go ahead and leave our bags gathered along the side with the cars, and head upstairs.

Weather beaten and rusty from the salt water and sun from the hundreds of trips back and forth, the ferry churned through the water, leaving Koh Chang behind and heading for the mainland. The weather was beautiful, giving me one last fill of turquoise water and lush green island. Taking a few more pictures, I said goodbye to Koh Chang. Arriving at the dock on the mainland, I watched in awe at the skill of the ferry pilot in bringing the ferry into dock. With incredible precision and timing he swung the ferry around and docked it seamlessly.

Centerpoint Ferry Dock on the mainland

Centerpoint Ferry Dock on the mainland

Gathering our luggage and watching the finely orchestrated dance of cars being directed off the ferry, we made our way to a shuttle bus. This bus took us the length of the pier. Unloading and gathering bags one more time, we transferred to the big bus to go to Bangkok. I managed to snag a window seat. Lena, a nurse from Sweden, asked to sit by me. Much to the probable chagrin of the passengers around us, Lena and I hit it off splendidly. We talked pretty much the entire 7 hour bus ride, including the stop for food that the bus makes half way to Bangkok.

As though breaking my computer and camera on this trip weren’t enough, I managed to finish the trip with a flourish. Arriving in Svuarnabhumi airport, I said my goodbyes to Lena and went to 7-11 to get some juice and yogurt for the morning. As I went to pay for my purchase, I discovered that my change purse was not to be found in my bag. Filled with panic, I paid for my purchase with other money that I had, scurried out of the shop to the nearest place I could and dumped the contents of my bag on the floor to make sure I didn’t just miss it. For some reason, when something is misplaced I think it is human nature to check in even the most unlikeliest of places. I checked my backpack, which I hadn’t opened on the bus or since being in the airport, and my bag a third and fourth time. No luck.

Rushing down to the bus counter, I asked if the bus was still there. No, it had already left to go over to the main bus terminal for cleaning. Pearl, a Thai woman who happened to be standing there, was a wonderful help. She made phone calls for me and wrote out my situation in Thai to make it easier for me to communicate with the people at the main bus terminal. Anxious and hopeful, I got on the shuttle to the bus terminal. I kept telling myself “jai yen yen” (which means to keep a cool heart and not get excited) but I wasn’t listening very well. They pointed me to the bus and despite it already being swept and half mopped, they still let me look under and around my seat. No luck.

While upsetting and annoying, nothing that was in the change purse is irreplaceable. I’m grateful that I still had my passport and I had money to travel. Arriving at my hotel, I called and cancelled my credit card that was in the purse and when I return home, I will get a new drivers license. These are the events that make a journey and adventure.

Swiftly Passing Week in Chiang Mai

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Hello Again

Chiang Mai is changing. Sometimes change is good and at the same time bad. Immediately noticeable is the increased cost of taxis from the airport into town, the uniformed drivers and their new cars and the increased number of cars in general on the roads. I know my perception of whether the change is good or bad. Really I wanted to know what the Thai think about it. Both people I asked said that it is good for the economy and bad for the culture. Long, the woman I met at one of the Body Pump classes I attended, summed it up saying that there are so many more Westerners and Asians, in Chiang Mai that she felt came here for what it was and have made it what they want to be. She is saddened by the changes.

In an effort to avoid the touristy and changing old town, and to give me something new to write about, I decided this time to stay somewhere new. The fact that CM Blue House, the guesthouse that has been my home in Chiang Mai for the past 5 years, recently closed also aided that decision. So I opted to stay at Inspire House, just a short distance from Sunshine Massage School.

Inspire House is actually not very inspiring. From the funky stale smell in my room to the tears in the fabric of the sofas in the lobby, it just didn’t make a very good impression on me. Perhaps a fresh coat of paint and a good cleaning of the mold in the bathroom would do it wonders. (To be fair, the fight against mold is a tough one in this climate.) After a day or so, what it lacks in aesthetics was more than compensated for by the luxury of daily housekeeping, two bottles of water a day and a primo location for me. Although lacking strong English speaking skills, the staff was kind and helpful. They helped me get a motorbike the evening I arrived, even though I thought I had arrived too late in the evening to rent one.

Daily Routines

My propensity for making Chiang Mai my home was definitely enhanced by being outside of the old town. During the day I took my massage class. In the evening I worked out, ran errands and went and had dinner. Having such a routine existence made the days fly by.

Having taken several days off of actually working out, the lengthy walks through both Svuarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports on Thursday and Sunday notwithstanding, I needed to go do some exercise. Fitness Thailand offers classes in the evening and Monday and Wednesday were Body Pump class. The instructors are pretty good at leading the class in some combination of Thai and English. Enough English that it wasn’t hard to follow along at all. Also helps that I have been doing Body Pump classes at home so knew the general pattern and moves.

Wednesday evening I arrived at Fitness Thailand running a little behind due to unexpected traffic and a slight navigational issue. When I went to pay I discovered that I didn’t have my wallet with me. No money and no ATM card. Pleading my case to the receptionist, she let me take the class on the promise that I would come back and pay. So after class, I jumped on the motorbike, zoomed back to Inspire House, had a slight moment of panic when my wallet wasn’t where I thought it might be, found my wallet hiding in my backpack, grabbed my wallet, and zoomed back to Fitness Thailand. Times like this are when I am extremely happy to have a motorbike to get around and am generally familiar with Chiang Mai roads.

My inner mermaid was starting to get cranky about not getting in the water, so Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I opted for swimming. Eco Resort, a common location for many Sunshine Massage School students, has a beautiful 25 meter pool. Generally the pool is not crowded, making it fairly easy to swim laps. Sophie, one of the students in my class, was staying there and was at the pool on Tuesday and Thursday. Both days she made the comment that I never stop after watching me jump in the water and swim around 1000 meters each night. The clean, lightly chlorinated, cool water was a welcomed way to end my days.

The most important errand of the week was getting my computer repaired. Upon Lek’s recommendation, I took my computer to the second floor of Panthip Plaza where I found Chiang Mai Notebook Repair. Presenting my computer to them and explaining the tragic incident that had befallen it, I looked at them hopefully and asked if it could be fixed. To my great relief, they said yes. The price for the repair would be 800 baht or about $27. The relief of having my computer fixed and not having to type on my phone washed over me like a wave. The prospect at having to find an alternative or paying a large amount had been weighing on me.

No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without going to the Sunday Night Walking Street (unless you are not there on a Sunday). Walking street is a market that materializes every Sunday evening covering several blocks running right through the middle of the old town. Walking is a relative term, as the number of people squeezing their way between stalls makes a turtle seem like a speed racer. Armed with a list but lacking the desire to do much shopping, I did my best to plod my way down the street and back up. Eventually I gave up and headed back to Inspire House, the realization that I would be forced to do more shopping at the Night Bazaar at some point during the week.

The Night Bazaar is probably my least favorite place to go in Chiang Mai. Pretty much I view it as a feeding grounds for vendors as they ply tourists for their money. Probably doesn’t help that I don’t like to bargain for what I want to purchase, yet know that I have to as the prices the vendors give are inflated to catch the unsuspecting and inexperienced tourist unaware. Tuesday night, after eating dinner and meeting a new friend, we decided in solidarity to head to the Night Bazaar. Generally I was successful in getting several of the remaining items on my list, most specifically the massage tools that I have only ever found here.

Learning Something New

My general motto is to never stop learning. So this year I returned to Sunshine Massage School to take Thai Massage Using the Feet. Our class was the largest I have had there, 20 massage therapists from all over the Europe with a couple people from America and Turkey. Almost everyone in the class was a practicing massage practitioner with several years of experience. Having that much experience in the class was so beneficial as each of us brought a wealth of skills and perspective to the new techniques we were learning.

The week of learning passed very quickly. When learning massage, it is important to work with as many different body types as possible. On Thursday I had the opportunity to work with Rogier. Rogier does a form of acro-yoga massage. As the name suggests, acro means in the air. The short term for acro-yoga massage is “flying”. Toward the end of our session, Rogier did some of this type of work. The experience was truly incredible. To be suspended in the air and moved through different positions requires a certain amount of trust and release of control. The most loving and tender part of the time was the ending where he returned to the ground surrounded in a hug. As he was doing this part and I looked around, almost the whole class was watching. Several people commented on how incredible it was to watch. And while I’m sure it looked incredible, it felt even more incredible to experience this type of work.

Flying with Rogier

Flying with Rogier

The People You Meet

One of the most beautiful aspects of traveling is the people that you meet and connect with along the way. People come into our lives at specific times and for specific reasons. And even though your paths may briefly cross, sometimes that person can have a profound effect, like a stone being thrown into a pond changes the water with the ripples it creates.

My normal haunt for dinner is the Chiang Mai Gate market. True, it’s not very adventurous to eat at the same place every night; however, it is a lot like cooking your own food every night, just without the effort. Tuesday night at the market was crowded, with all of the tables filled. At one of the tables was an individual dining solo. Not being particularly shy and knowing it is generally a custom in a lot of countries to share a table with strangers, I asked him if could join him at the table. He said I could so long as I didn’t mind sitting among the trash. As I watched him try to eat his pad thai, I finally couldn’t take it any longer and gave him a lesson on the proper way to eat the noodle dish gracefully. Mike, an American turned Canadian, and I talked for a very long time about a broad array of topics interspersed with moments of very cerebral humor. The capricious amount of witty banter was much appreciated. It was the start of a very interesting friendship that grew over the next few days.

Wednesday night we met again for dinner. When eating at the street vendors it is custom to order your food, eat and then pay before you leave. Mike is just one of those people where conversation comes easily. We were so engrossed at the end of dinner that both of us said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fortunately I was taking the long way around the outside moat road looking for a gas station, when I realized that I left without paying for my dinner. Taking the next turnaround I zipped back to the night market and paid for my dinner amongst a profuse amount of apologies. The vendor laughed when I apologized and said she forgot too.

Massage class is a petri dish for meeting and connecting with people. The advantage is that everyone is there for a common purpose and has the fact that we are body workers in common. Having 20 people in class made it difficult to really connect with the group as a whole. Even by the last day there were a couple people whose names I didn’t even know. At the same time, it was possible to establish some very strong connections with people. Justine, a cheerful and kind woman from the UK, and I hit it off almost immediately. Sophie and Melody were also quick connections. The deepest connection I had was with Rogier, a wonderful and kind man from Holland. A testament to when the timing is right; we didn’t actually connect until we worked together Thursday afternoon, yet that connection had the most profound impact on my week.

Just as important as meeting new people is seeing old friends. Many of my friends from Elephant Nature Park have moved away from Chiang Mai. Lek and Chai are the two friends that I have seen most consistently over my travels. Even though we don’t talk as regularly as we used to, we are still friends and still make a special effort to see each other.

Friday night Lek and I were able to meet. She picked a meeting location that she knew I could find, just down from where I used to stay. I parked my motorbike, grabbed my helmet and jumped on the back of her cute orange, almost vintage looking, motorbike. First stop was dinner at a small place on Sirphon Road (the north inside moat road). I took one look at the menu which was entirely in Thai and told her to order for us. We had tom yum goon, fried fish with garlic, and vegetables. We spent dinner catching up and talking about the fact that we have known each other for 5 years already.

After dinner, Lek felt like going to Zoe in Yellow, a bar that is popular for farang (foreigners) and for dancing. A friend of hers was there and invited us to join them at the table they were at. In retrospect, ordering the bucket of mojito for Lek and I might not have been the best move. Somehow by the end of the night, we did manage to drink the whole thing. In the process we ended up actually dancing for awhile. I haven’t danced like that in a long time. Was really nice to relax and enjoy spending time with a very dear friend. At the end of the night, which was about 1 AM, Lek drove me to my motorbike. From there she followed me all the way back to Inspire House just to make sure I made it ok.

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Chai travels for his work, which is driving a van for tourists. Most often he is in Chiang Rai. In the blur that was my week, I forgot to contact him and let him know that I was in Chiang Mai, just in case he was able to meet me. Friday morning Chai saw the post of Lek and I on Facebook. Turns out he was in Chiang Mai for the night. Unfortunately for me, he had to work almost all day on Saturday. The beauty of my Thai friends is the lengths they will go to in an effort to see me.

Typically I am ok with Thai time. When it comes to travel arrangements and Thai time, I struggle somewhat. Chai offered to pick me up at Inspire House and take me to the bus station so that I could see him for a few minutes. Saturday happened to be the day that the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade was happening, making traffic a nightmare. The trip that would normally take maybe 5-10 minutes ended up taking him about 30 minutes. As the time grew nearer for me to catch my bus he finally said that it might be better for us to meet at the bus station instead. Arriving at the bus station at 6:05 for my 6:15 bus, I checked in my luggage and anxiously waited for Chai to arrive. Not having been to the bus station in a long time he didn’t realize that Nakonchai Air now has its own terminal in the bus station complex. Mere moments (6:11) before I needed to be on the bus he made it there to say hello. It was good to see him and I felt guilty that we didn’t get to spend more than those few brief moments.

Even More Ruins

At the end of a very full and very quick week, it was time for me to head south to Buriram. The bus ride from Chiang Mai to Buriram is a 12-hour overnight trip. Fortunately the buses Nakhonchai Air uses are very comfortable, especially the VIP seats at the front. For $24, the VIP seats are worth it as they almost fully recline. Part of the bus experience in Thailand is the sometimes too loud Thai music and then short movie. Fortunately with the overnight trip, about 3 hours in they turn the tv off so everyone can sleep. Until then I made a valiant attempt to drown out the noise using my iPod.

Ever since I have come to the Surin Project, I have wanted to make a trip down to the Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung ruins. Generally my travel plans have prevented this from happening, so this time I made a special effort to get there. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is a former Khmer temple that was part of the Khmer empire that extended from Angkor Wat in Cambodia deep into Thailand in the 9th to 11th centuries. The temple is also the best example of Khmer architecture in Thailand.

The ruins are located a mere 70 kilometers or so from Buriram. The options for getting there are to take a bus to a small town and then a motorbike taxi from there, hiring a taxi from Buriram or renting a motorbike. As is my way, I opted for the motorbike. When I went to rent a motorbike from the place I was staying, you would have thought that I suddenly sprouted a third eye the way the woman looked at me. After emphatically suggesting the taxi approach and me emphatically insisting on motorbike, she helped me locate a place to rent a motorbike that included a helmet. Jintana Resort, where I am staying, has a motorbike to rent but no helmet. In Thailand, helmets are compulsory even if this law isn’t always particularly enforced for Thai. For farang (foreigners) the law is almost always enforced. Not to mention the safety factor.

Armed with a not-to-scale map and a practice of holistic navigation, I jumped on my yellow and black motorbike that I immediately nicknamed Bumble Bee Jr. (after the transformer) and headed off. For those unfamiliar with the concept of holistic navigation, it is the practice of heading off in what you assume to be the right direction and hope for signs that you made the right choice. Occasionally this method has resulted in some interesting adventures to places I didn’t expect. This time, according to the blue tourist attraction signs, it worked out pretty well.

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Zooming down the road on a motorbike through the sun bleached plains, sometimes strange and interesting sights briefly catch your attention: cows grazing on the side of the road; dogs lying in the sun; motorbikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road; cars coming at you passing another car on a bridge where the road narrows, a large concrete Buddha being constructed on what I’m assuming is the site of a future wat (temple); tourist attraction signs for Thai Silk Village; large fiberglass crane statues marking the entrance to a bird sanctuary; the Thai Cowboy Hat Factory. (Who knew there was a Thai Cowboy Hat Factory?!) The most interesting phenomenon was the waves of cool air fighting with the hot midday sun. Even though the fields looked dry and brown, enough water must have been present to create a swamp cooler effect.

Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is situated at the top of a dormant volcano. “The approach to the temple is pretty dramatic [when approached from the east]”. Unfortunately I read that part in my guide book after parking at the west entrance. To get the full effect I opted to climb down to the eastern entrance and then come back up to the main prang (temple building). The guide book was definitely correct. The approach is symbolic of the journey to the heavenly palace of the gods. The 200-meter-long avenue is paved in large stones leads to several flights of stairs leading sharply up the mountain. Along the way are bridges adorned with 5-headed naga (serpent) balustrades and the feet of what were once guardian sculptures protecting the path.

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

While definitely not on the scale of Angkor Wat, the architecture that has been immaculately restored is impressive. The Khmer practiced Hinduism. The Buddha statues typical of Thai religious buildings are replaced with Shiva lingam, the sacred symbol of Hindu worship. The ornate carvings that adorn the inside and outside of the prang depict Hindu creation myths. The use of primarily stone in the construction has allowed these building to persist for centuries.

Next stop on my tour was Prasat Muang Tam, located about 8 km down the other side of the hill. While not as impressive as Prasat Hin Khao Rung, the ruins are still fantastically preserved. One of the features of Khmer or Hindu architecture is the symmetry of the buildings where the doorways between galleries and the inner buildings all are in alignment, creating an endless path that diminishes into the horizon.

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Again reaching my fill of ruins, I began the journey back toward Buriram. Relying on my holistic navigation and the desire to see a bit of potentially different countryside, I continued in what would be a loop back to Buriram. Doubting my sense of navigation at one junction in a small town, I opted to actually ask which direction to go to get to Buriram. Again, you would have thought a third eye suddenly materialized on my head as I told the gentleman that I asked that I was going by motorbike. He kindly pointed me in the right direction (which is the direction I would have taken) and after a typical chat of “where are you from, “what is your name” and “how long are you visiting Thailand”, I was back on the road.

About 10 km outside of Buriram, I came across the Khao Kradong Volcano Forest Park. In no real rush to get back to Buriram and needing a break from the motorbike seat, I stopped for a visit. The steep 101 step staircase lead to a very large gold seated Buddha keeping watch over the plains. The view from the top was impressive and dramatic as far as how quickly the dormant volcanoes rise from the flat plains. After a short tour of the few buildings situated around the Buddha statue, I made the much easier climb back down the mountain and back on my motorbike.

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Festival Time in Chiang Mai

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Festival of Lights

Since starting my adventures to Thailand in 2008, the Loy Krathong Festival has been on my bucket list of Thai experiences I needed to have. The amazing beauty of postcard images of hundreds of sky lanterns glowing orange floating up into the dark night sky was something I wanted to see with my own eyes.

Held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this festival is celebrated by lighting and releasing khom loy (paper sky lanters) into the sky, hanging colorful fabric or paper lanterns and setting krathong (offerings made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle (krathong has no actual translation)) off down the river. The paper sky lanterns that are launched into the sky and the krathongs that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and provide the opportunity to say prayers asking that wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled.

Northern Thailand combines the Yee Peng Festival with Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is the Lanna festival of lights. And in true Thai fashion, the whole festival lasts for 3 days and is filled with events and people lighting off fireworks and firecrackers. Hotels and guest houses fill up early. In fact, having forgot to make my reservations when I booked my trip in September, I actually found myself staying at a new place for the first two days of my trip. The Western House Hotel was pleasant, but not the same as coming home to the CM Blue House.

The highlight of the celebration for me was going with my friend Lek to the mass launch of khom loy at Mae Jo University. Designed primarily as a photographic event, thousands of people turn out to participate. Many are tourists and all the anouncements are made in Thai, English and Chinese. Lek picked me up around 4 PM to give us ample time to wind our way through the heavy traffic in the hopes of claiming some piece of turf before the whole massive expanse of green was covered in people, lighting torches and khom loy. Definitely glad Lek was driving the 13 kilometers to Mae Jo. As she expertly wove her way through the heavy traffic, I was able to truly appreciate the variety of smells and sounds of the city and countryside. The sweet smell of flowers wafting on the light breeze competing with the sour smell of exhaust from the cars.

Entering the compound, we were given plastic sheeting to sit on and greeted by the chorouses of young Thai girls welcoming us to the festival. The field was layed out with rows and rows of torches containing candles that would be lit at the right moment in the ceremony and used for lighting the khom loy, most of them surrounded by early comers. We staked out a spot, I by a torch, Lek in a spot not too far from me where she would hopefully have a good vantage point for snapping photographs. After claiming my spot, off I went in search of a khom loy to purchase. A never ending monologue (in all three languages) was broadcast over the loud speakers, explaining the purpose and meaning behind the ceremony. The grey skies threatened rain. While it didn’t actually rain, it did provide a dramatic backdrop for the first early khom loy that were released while waiting for the event to begin.

The ceremony began around 6:30 PM with a demonstration how to properly light and let the khom loy fill with warm air to carry it off into the heavens. Following was a demonstration on how to pray and bow according to Thai tradition, including a couple of practice bows by the entire audience. Finally, a very long sermon was given, the gist of which was about stilling the heart and allowing for inner peace and happiness in your heart, your friend’s hearts and the hearts of all people everywhere. Maintaining focus on a long sermon given all in Thai is not easy and it was often that I would find my attention drifting to the steady stream of khom loy that were being launched into the dark sky.

After the sermon and the circumambulating with candles, it was time for the big moment. The spotlights lighting the field were turned off. People were instructed to light the torches and their khom loy and then to wait for the cue to release the lanterns.

Lighting a khom loy is definitely a two or more person process. A girl from Australlia helped me with mine. Once the parafin ring is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and slowly begins to rise. The heat from all of the khom loy becomes a bit intense with that many people so close together. The orange glow is truly magnificent. While holding the lantern, prayers and wishes are said in preparation of relase. On cue, all the lanterns are relased, floating up into the night sky carrying wishes and prayers and honoring Buddha. As the lanterns reach altidue and are caught by the wind they make a road of wishes drifting off into the distance.

Just like the postcards and images I had seen, it was truly a beautiful and amazing spectical to behold!

Holistic Navigation

Usually one of my first orders of business upon arrival in Chiang Mai is to get a motorbike. The freedom a motorbike provides is unparalleled. I’m not tied to finding a tuk tuk or a songtheaw (shared taxi) to get to where I want to go, especially when I have a whim to go to Tesco Lotus (department store) for this or that or need to actually get to somewhere specific since street pronunciations are not among my strength in speaking Thai yet.

The trade off though is that it is easy to miss out on the details of being in Chiang Mai. Or the chance encounters that can occur. Since I figured traffic would be miserable with the festival, I opted to not get a motorbike right away. Which made for a lot of time in my shoes, with many benefits. The biggest benefit has been running into people that I would have otherwised missed if I was zipping here and there.

So after two days on the back of a motorbike or on foot, I got my motorbike. And for the first trip since 2008, I have found myself without my trusty Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai with its cheerful, colorful maps and tips for things to see and do. Being without my trusty friend feels a little sad. We have been together through many Chiang Mai (and surrounding areas) motorbike adventures. To be fair, my map is being held together by a lot of tape and doesn’t fold very well anymore. Perhaps it is time for a new map. In the meantime, I am making due with the free tourist maps that are definitely lacking in detail (like streets and a consistent scale).

After so many kilometers on a motorbike during my past trips, I have a pretty good feel for most of the roads around Chiang Mai. Still don’t know them quite as well as the back of my hand, but I’m working on that. The combination of no map and a vague sense of the streets makes for a bit of what I call holistic navigation. Using holistic navigation methods, I follow the other motorbikes and cars that generally look like they know where they are going and hope I end up where I want to be. For the most part this type of navigation has been successful. When it fails, I find myself exploring parts of Chiang Mai that I haven’t seen before, which is not a bad thing.

Being a Non-tourist

One of my aims for this trip is to just exist in Chiang Mai. To not fill my time to the brim with tourist activities and motorcycle adventures. Some days are dedicated to training. Outside of those days, I have no set schedule. So far this approach has been fruitful, both mentally and in having experiences I might have otherwised missed.

On Sunday night, as I was making my way along the inside moat road admiring the little candles being placed along the sidewalk as part of the Loy Krathong festival, I ran into two of my friends Aek and Mix. They were on their way to meet friends to go to Amooga, a Thai barbeque restaurant, for dinner and invited me along. And by invited, I mean they told me I was coming along. I never made it to where the main festival activities were taking place. Instead, I had a much more satisfying evening spent with friends and experiencing a meal I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience otherwise.

Thai barbeque is a type of hot pot meal, although instead of boiling the food in the water, the steam and heat are used to grill the food on the top of the plate. The cooking plate is placed over a burner on the table and the trough around the edge is filled with water. To start, everyone fills a plate (or two or three) with whatever types of meats and vegetables they want to eat. The meat options ranged from steak and chicken to squid, and everything in between. Still not sure what half of the options were. Then the cooking and eating begins. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Not to worry though, the boys took care of finishing all the food on the table (much to my astonishment) and two bottles of SangSom The whole meal, including non-alcoholic beverages and coconut ice cream for dessert, cost 199 baht (or just under $7).

On the way back to the old town, we stopped to launch a krathong. My krathong had banana leaves folded into intricate points, giant yellow marigolds and purple orchids. I lit my joss stick (incense) and the candle. Keeping the candle lit proved to be a futile task in the light breeze that had started blowing. Placing a few strands of hair on the krathong, I made my wish and let it go in the Mae Ping (river). Sadly, I don’t think my krathong made it very far as it had trouble catching the current and ended up bunched against a branch with several other krathong. Still, just maybe my misfortunes will be floated away and my wish will be granted.

Rain, Rain Go Away…

November is a transition from rainy season to cool season in Chiang Mai. The warm daily rains of the wet season are replaced with sporatic cooler evening storms. Many days the clouds just threaten. The last two nights though we have been graced with torrential rains. The first night I was caught on the other side of the old town with my motorbike. I had forgot how cold riding a motorbike in the rain can truly be. Even on the short journet back to the Blue House, I found myself trying to take as much advantage of the heat of the other cars as possible.

One of the Loy Krathong events is a parade showcasing brightly lit, highly ornate floats bearing the winners and contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest. All of the floats and participants were staging when the rain started falling. All the beautiful women, dressed in their finest were rescued from their floats as fast as possible and all the parade participants went scurrying for cover. I headed home as quickly as possible, lacking either a rain poncho or an umbrella, assuming the parade was cancelled given the torrential rain that we had all night.

The other downside to the rains is the number of mosquitoes. The voracious mosquitoes take any opportunity to grab a drink of blood. Finally resorted to buying some mosquito repellent. I think the mosquitoes are just laughing at it though as I’ve managed to continue to amass welts from bites.

I am also now the proud owner of an adorable blue umbrella with a polka dot trim. Hopefully I don’t have to use it too much, especially while riding my motorbike.