28 Mar

Thai Visa Renewal Time

Hard to believe but we’ve already been here in Thailand for 60 days! Time really does fly; it doesn’t matter what you’re doing so you better be making the most of it.

Our 120-day-double-entry visa is actually two 60 day visas. This means it’s time for us to do a Thai visa renewal involving exiting and re-entering Thailand in order to activate our second 60 day visa. There are a few ways to do this; different exit/entry points, going by bus or train, or employing a service to take you. We thought it would be fun to do it ourselves and so planned a 5 day moto-scooter trip that would take us not only to the border but also on a short tour of Northern Thailand.

As there would be two of us on the scooter we had to pack light. I wore one small backpack and we could fit a couple of things in the basket at the front. To save space I decided not to bring my ‘big’ camera so I apologize for the picture quality – I won’t be making that mistake again!!

Thai Visa Renewal

On the bike, ready to go.

With 243 KM from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai our first day proves to be the hardest. Having spent time in northern Thailand before we were expecting winding roads, sweeping mountain vistas, and fresh clear air. Turns out that the highway is nothing but a soul-less strip of tarmac stretching from one city to the next.

Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand

Soul-less highway.

To make things worse it is the hot, dry season here and a combination of forest fires and farmers burning their fields has resulted in a hazy, smoky atmosphere making visibility limited and making those fabulous mountain vistas just out of reach.

Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Thailand

Can you imagine how stunning it would be without the smoky haze?

The ride passes easily enough though as we pass through nameless towns and larger centers intent on reaching Chiang Rai by cocktail hour. At an average speed of about 50km/hr it’s going to take a while.

Stopping For Gas, Thailand

Stopping for gas along the way.

Stopping to rest my burning ass! I can go about 2 hours on the outset and then must stop about every one and a half hours.

After 5 ass-burning hours on the bike we make it to Chiang Rai. We’re hot, sticky, and tired so quickly find our guesthouse and relax in the garden with a beer.

Baan Bua Guesthouse, Chiang Rai.

The smoky haze makes for pretty sunsets though.

The next day we set out for the border. Being only 60 KM away it only took a little more than an hour. Thankfully this resulted in minimal ass burning.

The road to the border was fairly straight forward but it always helps to stop and be sure.

Traffic got thicker, and more unpredictable, as we neared the border. People getting dropped off and picked up, tuk-tuks over-burdened with product to import/export, and many just like us who were just trying to figure our way through the choked roadway. Like any border town the energy was frenetic with people to-ing and fro-ing every which way. Everyone seems to have a purpose, commerce is everywhere, and we’re always on high alert for any scams that might befall us.

The actual Thailand/Myanmar border.

Importing goods to Myanmar. Could he fit any more on there?

When we first saw the blue archway we thought it was just a checkpoint so we merrily tried to motor through causing a bit of a hubabaloo. Apparently you can’t take your rented scooter into another country. Oh well, we zipped it around, found a parking spot and headed through on foot.

It is, like most border processes, a two step process. First we exit Thailand; a quick process whereby the border officer simply stamps us out. Then we cross what must be a no-mans-land where we’re no longer in Thailand yet not quite in Myanmar. In this case it’s actually a bridge crossing over a river. Once on the other side we entered into a small room where our entry into Myanmar was processed. There is a 500 Baht ($18) fee to enter Myanmar.  As we planned on staying an hour or two they took our passports and issued us temporary visitor permits.

It’s important to note that you cannot actually enter greater Myanmar from this border crossing. You can cross to Tachileik in Myanmar and you can stay up to 14 days but you cannot leave the small province you enter into. Make sure to do additional research if you plan on visiting Myanmar proper.

In the no-mans-land heading into Myanmar.

There are plenty of touts on the Myanmar side offering goods and services, tours and moto rentals; some people don’t like touts but on a short trip like this they can really provide you with what you need without too much trouble. Surprisingly to me they mostly spoke very good English.

We pushed through though, walked through the market a bit, and stopped to have some lunch.

Lunch, and beer, on the Myanmar side.

The way back through to Thailand was just as easy. We stopped on the Myanmar side to return our visitor permit and pick up our stamped passports and then continued on to the Thailand border officer again. When entering Thailand you must fill out an entry and departure card; the entry card is kept by the officer and the departure portion is stapled into your passport to be used on your departure. We filled out the cards, handed our passports over, and were stamped into Thailand once again. IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure that the officer marks the correct date for your departure. Many people come looking for a 15 day extension and we had a 60 day visa. We checked to make sure that our expected departure was marked for 60 days. A mistake not caught here could be very difficult to rectify!

Stamped passport. Does two hours in a country ‘count’ as a country visited?

With the business end of our trip complete we scooted back to Chiang Rai to visit the sites around town. The White Temple is a big draw here with plenty of tourists choking the place while the Black House is a much quieter site to see. I will write more about each of these later, only because they were each so weird.

The White Temple. Glaring? Garish?

The Black House. Beautiful architecture. Just plain weird inside, believe me.

The following day we packed up and headed out into the hills for a technology retreat. We spend inordinate amounts of time on our computers and needed a chance to just relax, hang out, and read. I found the perfect place just 25 KM from Chiang Rai.

Driving out of town streets thick with guesthouses and bars turned into neighbourhoods with schools and corner stores and then melted into a winding road through the steep mountains surrounded by bamboo and palm tree jungle. With time to spare we followed some random signs pointing to a Buddha up one of the hillsides. Pushing the bike as hard as she’d go we climbed the steep roadway up through tiers of hills until reaching the massive statue at the top. South East Asia’s ability to build massive sculptures continues to amaze me; here, in the middle of nowhere, stands a perfect Buddha image accompanied only by a few shacks to house the monks who stand guard.

Massive Buddha on the hillside.

Exploring complete we headed to our home for the next few days. The Bamboo Nest sits atop a hill surrounded only by other hills and Karen tribe villages. No electricity, no tv’s, no wifi, no distractions. Time is spent hanging in the hammock, reading, and chatting with other travelers. Heaven. I will write more about this place in another post but suffice it to say that if you find yourself in this area you should seek it out.

The Bamboo Nest. A perfect clutch of huts on a hillside. You should go.

We climbed on the bike again the next day for another ass-burning 200KM journey to Chiang Dao. This time, however, is much more fun.

This is what we were hoping for; winding roads, little to no traffic, small villages, farmland and towering mountains. We swooped around corners, climbed hills, and stopped only when the smiles on our faces could no longer soothe the burning in our asses. Too. Much. Fun. The only downside was that this was the smokiest, haziest part of the trip. We passed by fires burning right on the side of the road, the flames licking the pavement as we whizzed by holding our breath. I only hope we can return once the smoke has eased so we can see more of the scenery. It would be worth a return trip.

We didn’t actually enter into Chiang Dao proper. We only stopped here to offer some relief to our butts and avoid a super long day. Super glad we stopped though. Staying at the Chiang Dao Nest 2 guesthouse was a perfect treat.

Perfect bungalow at Chiang Dao Nest 2.

Nestled right at the base of the mountain it is perfectly shaded and away from the hustle and bustle of town. The bamboo cabins are scattered over the grounds so that it seems as though you are in your own, perfect, paradise. There is a cave nearby to explore if you feel the need to walk. We didn’t. We had a drink on the patio, wandered down the road to Nest 1 for another, and then returned for dinner. The restaurant served fabulous, fine, northern Thai food and we enjoyed a great meal set that included all the best that this area has to offer. Well worth the stop.

After coffee the next day we set out for a relatively short ride back home.

Coffee on the patio. The perfect end to a great trip.

It was a great trip and I’m glad we did it on the scooter despite all the ass burning but once was enough. I abhor tourist vans and buses but I think next time we’ll find a local bus to Chiang Rai, rent a scooter there for the run to the border, and then return by local bus. It’ll be a different experience but will involve far less ass burning and that can’t be bad!!


18 Mar

Monday Moment: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Starting at the base of a mountain just south of Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Taisha (or shrine) snakes up and through the trees providing a serene, contemplative mood. Thousands and thousands of vermillion orange toriis line the pathway making for an astounding and elegant display.

Most people keep to the bottom trails but climbing to the top will afford peace, quiet, and stunning views. It’s perfect for an afternoon away from the city.

15 Mar

Our Budget: One Month In Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’ve been in Thailand almost two months now; actually it’s two months next week when we have to make a run to the border to activate our second 60 day visa. (Yay! Scooter trip!)

We came here, after quitting our jobs and selling all our stuff, to settle for a bit while waiting for our Big Plan to come to fruition. Having been here before we knew that the cost of living here is affordable, the weather is great, and the food is amazing; it wasn’t a hard decision to return!

Although we’ve been here two months it is really the last month in Chiang Mai that is a good example of what living here costs. By ‘living’ I mean staying in one place, renting an apartment, and not taking part in all the stuff that we might normally do as newbies to the area. That’s why we wanted to settle in a bit and so chose a familiar place; if we had gone somewhere completely new then the desire to see, and do, more could quickly overwhelm our meagre budget.

Keeping Track

Chiang Mai Budget

Totally boring expense spreadsheet. Fascinating, eh?

Whenever we travel we keep a detailed account of what we’re spending. We used to use a small notebook to meticulously record every expense and then input it into a spreadsheet but we’ve since discovered the Trail Wallet; a nifty app that allows us to do way with the notebook as we can track, and categorize, every expense right in our phone. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how you do it, the point is that keeping track is essential.

We track the following categories and put all the data into a spreadsheet so we can look at trends, annotate large or uncommon expenses, and see where we’re at at a glance.

  • Food & Drink. This is all groceries, meals eaten out, snacks on the bus, beers, bags of ice and bottles of whiskey. We don’t separate out ‘in home’ costs to ‘eating out’ costs or have a separate category for alcohol (that would be inviting unneeded introspection!).
  • Accommodation. For the apartment it’s a one time monthly cost but if we’re staying somewhere just for a night or two we’ll track the cost per night.
  • Transportation. Buses, trains, planes, taxis, moto-scooter rental, songthaews etc. If it gets us from point A to point B it goes in here.
  • Entertainment. Movies, temple fees, TV shows, trivia night fees etc. If we’re out having fun and it’s costing money we track it here.
  • Miscellaneous. Everything else. Usually all of these entries are annotated so we know what they are. Laundry, haircut, postage stamps, camera repair etc.

How’d We Do?

I think this was a really good, representative month for living here in Chiang Mai. We found an apartment we love, were able to partake in all the activities we wanted, and pretty much stayed in the budget we had set for ourselves. Yay!

Our goal budget? $1500/month for both of us, or about $50/day.

Our actual budget? $1717.48 for the month, or $61.34/day. The difference comes to two outstanding costs that I’ll discuss below.

Where It Went

  • Food & Drink. $751.92/month, or $26.85/day. We have coffee and breakfast at home every morning. We visit the grocery store every few days to stock up on fruit, yoghurt, muesli, and coffee etc an are able to start our days in peace and quiet. We eat lunch and dinner out every day; usually one meal is a quick noodle soup of some sort (about $1/bowl) and one meal is a bit more substantial, probably in more of a restaurant setting,  and usually includes beer (around $14 for the two of us). Usually what happens is we have a few really cheap days of eating at the market or at the street stalls (which are all amazing!) and then we’ll splurge and try a new sit-down type place which usually costs more. We seem to be eating Western food about twice a month (this month was sandwiches and pizza) so those costs aren’t too high. We do like our beer though and, although we don’t track that expense separately, I can say that our costs in this category would be less if we didn’t.
  •  Accommodation. $516/month, or $18.39/day. We found a beautiful, new, studio apartment in the northwest of the city (outside of the old city). It’s costing us $400/month + $33/month for weekly cleaning + $16/month for wifi + $7/month for water + $60/month for electricity (which would be less but we spend a lot of time inside and have the AC on a lot as it is hot season). You could definitely find cheaper and you could certainly spend more but we love where we are, enjoy spending time in the apartment and feel it’s worth the cost.
  • Transportation. $140.16/month, or $5.01/day. We rent a moto-scooter by the month for $100 (about $3.50/day) and, although we may not use it every day, I love having it. We are able to get out to the lake and run, or scoot into town, or explore other areas freely. It is totally worth it. We sometimes take a songthaew into town if we want to have a drink and not worry about driving; it’s cheap (about $1/person each way) but it would add up if we had to use it all the time. This month we also took a taxi across town when we ‘moved’ so that adds to the expense and don’t forget gas too; it all counts!
  • Entertainment. $76.31/month, or $2.73/day. We have visited a few temples, went to a trivia night a couple of times, and attended an expat club presentation (by John Spies of Cave Lodge; super interesting!). Mostly we do free things or hang out at home. We have been watching movies and TV though that we buy and download; I think this is where most of this expense is going (damn you Downton Abbey and The Good Wife!!)
  • Miscellaneous. $292.83, or $10.46/day. WHAT HAPPENED? This category is for incidentals that don’t fit anywhere else. Laundry, stamps, my weekly foot massage, birthday gifts, haircuts etc. It should really be much less than this but a couple of things came up this month. First off the LCD screen on the back of my big camera broke and needed repairing (to the tune of $75) and then I needed some documents shipped to me from home as I absolutely had to sign the originals and submit them; it was super important that they get to me in a timely fashion so we swallowed the $80 shipping fee and had them sent. It will make a difference in the long term as these were financial documents so it was worth it. It teaches a good lesson though about travel and budget; always have room for these unexpected expenses. We got hit with two in one month but you never know what’s going to happen and when you might need to cough up a bit more than you expected.

 Within Expectations

I would say that our monthly spending is within our expectations. Although we are $217 over the $1500 we thought it would cost it is those two unexpected costs that put us over. Without those our monthly cost is $1559. 81 -> close enough for me! I expect things to be about the same this coming month; we don’t have any apartment startup costs (we had to buy dishes etc here) this month and hopefully won’t have any unexpected expensive items but we are doing a 4 day trip to the border which will increase our accommodation and gas costs plus border fees etc.

It’s certainly doable though. Many people live here for much less and others for more. We like our budget and what it allows us to do and are glad that we can afford to do it.


07 Mar

How I Manage Travel With Chronic Illnesses

This is it. Everything we have with us.

RTW BaggageAnd this is the tower of medication that I have to bring with me. In one of those bags.

I have had psoriasis since I was 14 years old. It can be difficult to treat in Canada, where it’s cold and dry, but here in Thailand it clears up fairly quickly due to the sun and humidity. Even so, I carry a couple of tubes of ointment and cream as well as a (heavy) bottle of special shampoo in case I need it.

I developed Crohn’s Disease when I was 21. This is the biggy. I am extremely lucky to be in remission with medication but I MUST take the medication or relapse will occur. Relapse is always ugly but the big fear is that it will never resolve again and I would be faced with surgery or worse.

I was diagnosed with high blood pressure about 4 months before we left Canada. Not surprising given my family history but annoying and it means more medication to carry.

It’s definitely a love/hate relationship. I simultaneously hate that it all takes up so much space and yet I am grateful that my conditions are treatable by medication. I am basically healthy on a day-to-day basis so, for me, managing chronic illness on the road comes down to five simple steps:

1. Be Prepared. I went to my doctor early and discussed my travel plans. We agreed that she would provide me with a one year prescription for each of my medications (the most she was able to do by law). I visited the pharmacy early too as they don’t keep that much stock on hand and so had to order it in for me. As a side note I had to pay for 9 of the 12 months medications myself as my insurance only covered three months at a time; this is important for the budget!

2. Pack Properly. As tempting as it was to throw all similar pills into baggies for ease of packing I didn’t. All the medications are in their original, sealed, labelled containers. Luckily, other than needing to stay dry, they don’t need any other special care. I also have a copy of the original prescriptions with me; firstly in case I have any trouble at borders or immigration and, secondly, for when I need to have the prescriptions renewed. I only have a one year supply with me so I’ll need to visit a foreign doctor at some point and this will help.

3. Take The Medication. This isn’t specific to travel; it’s proven that those with chronic illness often stop taking their medication when they are feeling well. This is definitely something I struggle with. I feel well and normal most of the time so taking mouthfuls of pills seems redundant. Lets just say that I have ‘experimented’ enough with this over the years that I am now committed to taking the damned medication!

4. Listen To Your Body. As Crohn’s is my major problem I mostly listen to my gut.  I want to avoid a stomach bug as much as anyone but have the added worry of possibly triggering an attack. Luckily I don’t have to be any more careful than a normal person and, quite frankly, I’m probably less careful than most vegetarians or celiacs I know. I do tend to need a lot of sleep though so, although I would rather stay up later and get up earlier, I let my body sleep as much as it wants. And I nap often.

5. Don’t limit yourself. While it’s good to be honest about what you can and can’t do, don’t use your illness as an excuse for not doing anything. I’ll admit that once, after being really sick, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do anything like this but once I broke it down and dealt with each issue separately I couldn’t come up with a reason not to. What if I get sick on the road? I’ll see a doctor. What if I feel crappy for days on end? I’ll slow down and rest. What if things get really bad? I’ll go home. What will I do when my medications run out? I’m not sure yet but I’ll figure it out. Future Gillian can really worry about all that; this Gillian just has to take care of the now. Don’t limit yourself for any reason. There is a way through it and, even if the end doesn’t look exactly as you planned, you will still be moving forward and that’s what matters.

Managing chronic illnesses while travelling is a very individual pursuit. Obviously there are some conditions that are far more limiting than others. I definitely consider myself lucky but also wanted to show that it is possible.

Do you travel with a chronic condition? How do you manage it?


04 Mar

Monday Moment: Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi

This small shrine sits just beside the much more picturesque Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kem Lake in Hanoi. While the temple justifiably receives much attention from visitors, tourists, and strangely, brides having their photos taken in elaborate get-ups, this shrine received a fair amount of attention from locals who burned money at the base presumably looking for good fortune and wealth.