23 Feb

Like Kids In A Candy Store

It’s no surprise that we have been loving Thailand. We’ve been here more than two months now and seem in no rush to leave. The travel is easy, the people are friendly, the food is amazing and the beer is cold and cheap! It is also the first country where our budget and travel style match. We have been like kids in a candy store – doing anything and everything we want to do and still not blowing the budget.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Chiang Mai, where we spent two weeks doing all manner of activities punctuated by days of lazing around, playing backgammon and drinking Thai whiskey.

Mountain Biking, Chiang MaiYes, we finally got some real mountain biking in. This is something we do a lot of at home and have been looking to do since we left. Although available in many places we have visited, it has always been too expensive. The best part of this ride was that it was all single track downhill…we shuttled to the top and dropped for 2 hours. A little bit technical, a little bit steep – it was a great ride.

 

 

Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School-6We took two cooking classes while in Chiang Mai. This one was was at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. There are a bazillion cooking schools here – we chose this one because the owner is some kind of famous chef here and thought he gave the classes. Turns out he just walked through our class once…that was our brush with fame. The class was okay, the class size was a bit too big but the food was great.

 

Baan Chang Camp, Chiang Mai-27One of the more controversial things to do here is to visit an elephant camp. There are many different types, from those that train elephants to paint and do tricks, to those that only allow natural interaction with them. We chose an in-between option that allowed us to be with them, feed them and then ride them bareback. They were amazing animals to be so close to…so huge and gentle at the same time.

 

Thai Farm Cookery School-4The second cooking class we took was at the Thai Farm Cookery School. Set on a quiet organic farm out of the city, the school had smaller classes and a more varied menu to choose from. Here we even made our own Thai chili paste from scratch! The papaya salad I made was the best I’ve had in Thailand…probably because I didn’t use 10,000 chilies in it, just one. In a funny twist, the group we were with was made up of almost entirely couples doing long term travel – it was fun to trade stories and get some tips on places we’ll be going to soon.

 

Sunday Walking Market, Chiang Mai-1Chiang Mai has plenty of markets. The famous night market failed to impress us – too many knock offs and not enough handicrafts. The Saturday and Sunday Walking Markets were pretty cool though. Traffic is shut down and blocks and blocks of the street are filled with vendors selling all manner of things and food. We spent hours walking around looking and eating and then eased our tired feet with foot massages.

 

Flight Of The Gibbon, Chiang Mai-13Another fun activity was zip lining – it was a hoot to be flying through the jungle like a monkey. We loved it and hooted and hollered the whole way. This is a picture of us abseiling upside down after we said we wanted more of an adrenalin rush…it worked! That day definitely ended to early!

 

 

Our time in Thailand is finished now…today we cross the border into Laos – hopefully the good times and small prices will continue.

17 Feb

The Cave Lodge

Oftentimes, while traveling, we have met people who are doing extraordinary things. Some are traveling by motorbike only, some travel and volunteer extensively, many have relocated permanently and others have been on the road for much longer than ourselves. But the Cave Lodge, and it’s story, struck me as truly being extraordinary.

We heard about the Cave Lodge while sitting on the patio of our guesthouse in Mae Hong Son. A German fellow traveling with his family said they had just come from there and that it was simply magical. Up in the hills, nestled on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, he told us of hikes through the woods and days spent exploring local caves. We immediately changed our plans and headed there the next day.

world2007.1206430740.cave-lodge-dining-patio The Cave Lodge is rustic and beautiful, set on a ridge overlooking the river right next to a Shan village and Tham Lod, one of the largest known caves in Thailand, but  it is the story of the man who built it that makes the place magical. There are plenty of people who have visited Thailand and never left, many have come and set themselves up on a beach to stare endlessly at the sunsets, some even fall in love and marry but not many help shape the history of an area and become entrenched in the culture the way John Spies has done.

He was one of the pioneers of the northern Thailand trekking industry, but not before he had met and married his Thai wife and had spent many a year in remote villages living and breathing the ebb and flow of life on the Thai/Myanmar border during the time of rebel activity and opium trading. He is credited with discovering and naming dozens of caves in the area and has helped scientists and spelunkers alike explore them over the years.

He, and his friends, built the lodge by hand in the early eighties. It is a big, open concept building built of teak wood and bamboo with a kitchen at the back, a fire pit in the center and surrounded by bungalows.  We spent our days hiking and caving and relaxing, and our evenings around the fire pit chatting with other travelers.

Cave Lodge Fire Pit While there we heard stories of the early days when travelers would get off the bus in Sappong 10KM away and would hike into the lodge. Of huge parties, where the bamboo floor boards would snap from the strain and, at the end of the night, the floor being filled with tired partiers who would simply pull out their sleeping bags and crash. Traveling then would have been so much different than now…no mobile phones, no internet, no guidebooks…it really was the new frontier. It was easy to imagine that time as we sat in the lodge.

The Cave Lodge exuded its history. During this trip I have visited countless ruins and lost cities but nothing captured my imagination like being here. I wandered around it imagining what it must have been like to be here in those early days, to be one of the first travelers to an area, to commit to a lifestyle like that, and to still be living it all these years later. I think it was meeting the people of the stories that made the difference. It wasn’t just an old building with a story, but it was a story told by the building and the people in it. It really was magical.

11 Feb

Exploding Backpacks

The Exploding Backpacks I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know how it all gets all over everywhere so darn quickly and I have no idea how we ever get it all back in.

I’m talking about our backpacks. Inevitably we arrive at some cute (or not-so-cute) guesthouse, put  down our packs, open up the zipper and…BAM…seemingly immediately there is stuff scattered absolutely everywhere. Even when we’re only staying one night, and so are being careful not to disturb it all too much, stuff seems to creep it’s way out across the floor.

Some of it makes sense. There is bathroom stuff that should be in the bathroom, shoes should be near the door, stuff for sleeping should be near the bed etc, but it’s the ‘other’ stuff that makes the room messy. Papers and pamphlets that we have collected, empty water bottles, receipts for stuff and activities, coins, watches, books, and notebooks all spread themselves carelessly all over.

And the laundry…what to do about the laundry?!? If we are staying somewhere for a few days our room starts to resemble the bedroom of my youth…clothes everywhere, some piled on the floor, some draped over furniture, some neatly folded in various stacks. We have a mesh bag that we use for those items that are deemed dirty enough to wash…yes, deemed dirty enough…it did not take long for our general level of cleanliness to deteriorate, although not to any disgusting level…but  what to do with those items that still have a wearing or two left in them? We pile them, drape them and stack them according to an elaborate system so that we know what state every item is in. Well, we try to use a system but, typically, we apply the ‘sniff test’ to determine if something is wearable or not. I’m not kidding.

There are, however, some upsides to living out of a backpack.

  • We always know where everything is. We employ a system of ‘everything in it’s place and a place for everything’…you have to really, it would be chaos otherwise…so we always know where those nail clippers are, or a plastic bag for putting that do-hickey in, or the bottle opener.

 

  • We are used to wearing the same clothes day in and day out. It is actually freeing to have only 2 or 3 outfits to wear…I don’t fret over ‘what I’m going to wear’, if it’s clean and is appropriate for the activity then I can wear it. At first I treated my wardrobe as if I were at home, wearing something different everyday, but I soon gave that up and now wear an outfit for days at a time until it is dirty. No-one knows me or what I wore yesterday so who cares? And besides, it makes laundry management easier (see above).

 

  • We carefully choose what we will carry and what we won’t. We certainly thought that we had honed our packing list perfectly, but it turns out that there are always little lies we tell ourselves. ‘Of course I’ll wear the cute shoes’, or ‘We’ll run at least once or twice a week’, or ‘This shirt will go with everything’. Those items showed their true colors fairly soon and we either left them behind somewhere or sent them home. New items are added only after vigorous screening…’Do you really need to have it?’, ‘Are you sure you’re going to wear it all the time?’. Lugging every little thing around day after day after day ensures that everything is carefully chosen.

 

  • Neat and Tidy We can pack it all up in 15 minutes flat. We used to spend time the night before leaving a place packing up and getting ready for the morning. Now we carefully calculate what time we need to get out of bed to pack it all in a flurry of activity before leaving. We can seriously pack up both exploded backpacks in 15 minutes flat…and not break a sweat. And that is the value of everything in it’s place, wearing the same clothes day in and day out, and choosing what we will carry.
05 Feb

Criss-Crossing Thailand

After spending so much time firmly on the tourist trail in southern Thailand and Bangkok, we decided to get off the beaten track a bit and so criss-crossed the country on our way up north.

Khao Yai National Park, just northeast of Bangkok, turned out to be a bust for elephants but was a great start to our cross country jaunt as there were already far fewer tourists around than we were getting used to. The market we visited was definitely a local market as surely no tourists would be interested in cooking up some lung for dinner…yummy!

Phanom Rung Historical Park, Thailand-8 We continued east to Phanom Rung Historical Park just north of the Cambodian border. This is the largest and and best restored Khmer monument in Thailand. Our Thai visas won’t allow us to cross into Cambodia and back so we are unable to visit Angkor Wat. These ruins, although nowhere near the scale of Angkor Wat, gave us some idea of the beauty and mystique of the Khmer era temples. And it was virtually empty of tourists, if fact, there was hardly anyone there at all and, when we visited the nearby Prasat Meuang Tam ruins, we were there with only one other group of people. It was nice and quiet.

Fancy, Shmancy Beer In Kon Kaen From here we debated as to whether we should just return to Bangkok and take the train straight up to Chiang Mai or should we stay on the buses and take a more unconventional route. Deciding we had the time, we opted for the bus and headed to Kon Kaen, a small not-so-much-to-see city smack in the center of the northeast region. We didn’t like the feel of this place and found the housemade German beer at the fancy schmancy hotel (that we didn’t stay at) the best part of the city. We stayed only one night before heading on.

Sukhothai Historical Park-17 Our next stop was Sukhothai to visit more Khmer era ruins. This historical park is bigger than Phanum Rung with more ruins set among a much larger area. We rented bikes to get around and had as much fun on the bikes as we did seeing the ruins. Here, again, the ruins are stunning…I can only imagine how much more stunning Angkor Wat would be.

From Sukhothai we continued heading west until we hit the Myanmar border and the border town of Mae Sot. There’s not much in Mae Sot. We were pretty much the only travelers there…but we were not, by far, the only westerners there. Mae Sot is filled with western aide workers here to help the Myanmar and Karen refugees. So, it’s easy to find a cup of coffee here…and just as easy to feel a little guilty for not lending a hand.

Mae Sot to Mae Sariang The next leg had me a little worried. The only transportation between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang is by sorng-taa-ou….covered pickup trucks with bench seats in the back…and the winding road journey is 6 hours long!! It turned out to be not too bad though until about half way through…the driver pulled into a village and then stopped in front of a house…he asked if we would like to use the toilet and so in we went. We learned that the house was where he lived…how thoughtful of him we thought as we loaded ourselves in the back of the truck again. Soon a man came running out of the house and proceeded to get violently ill in the front yard…uh-oh, that looks like our driver! A man in the truck with us managed to get across to us that the truck would not be continuing. Now we wondered if he had driven us off the route in order to get home and further wondered where the heck we were and how were we going to continue…no problem, the driver lives on the route and, within half an hour, the next taxi-truck came by and picked us up.

Now, don’t be thinking I’m being terribly callous about the sick driver…I think it may have been a terrible hangover. No one at his house looked the slightest bit worried about  him and we’re pretty sure some friends stopped by to point and laugh.

We stopped in Mae Sariang really just as a chance to get off the sorng-taa-ou and stretch our legs. It is a nice little riverside town that offers lots of trekking opportunities without the press of travelers but we stayed just long enough to catch a bus the next morning as we had Mae Hong Son on our minds.

Around Mae Hong Son-2 Mae Hong Son was exactly what we were looking for…a pretty little town set in the mountains…nice and quiet. We spent our days on a scooter exploring the hills and villages, and our evenings playing backgammon on the patio of our lovely guesthouse. It was on the patio that we heard about the Cave Lodge…a fellow guest told us about this somewhat remote place to visit about two hours away, on the way to Chiang Mai.

And so, one tuk-tuk, one bus and one motorcycle taxi later, here we sit on the deck at the  Cave Lodge, listening to the river below and the birds singing in the trees. It’s kind of like being at camp with everyone off doing ‘stuff’ during the day and then swapping stories and travel advice at night around the fire.

Soon enough we’ll continue on to Chiang Mai and complete our criss-cross journey. It may have taken us longer to get there than most, but we will have managed to see many different parts of the country.