10 Jun

Monday Moment: BOH Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

BOH TeaHouse, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands of Malaysia are a cool oasis from the hot, humid lowlands below.

I was surprised by the modern architecture of the BOH Tea House on the grounds of the plantation. I don’t know what I was expecting but it sure wasn’t this Frank Lloyd Wright reminiscent piece of work that jutted out over the tea fields below.

Others might have expected something a little more rustic, but I think it added to the scenery perfectly.

27 May

Monday Moment: Turkish Hammam

Turkish Hammam

1481.

That’s more than 500 years ago! The sense of time and history in Turkey was often lost on me as I tried to imagine what the world, and life, must have been like when this hammam was constructed oh-so-long-ago.

I wanted to experience a piece of that tradition and history while in Istanbul and so researched one of the oldest bath houses in the neighbourhood.

It was one of the most…ummmm…interesting experiences of my travels and, without doubt, spawned one of my favourite travel stories.

Read All Cleaned Up to hear more of the soapy tale.

 

13 May

Monday Moment: Novice Monk Procession, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand Monks

Waking to the sound of Thai blaring from the mammoth speakers in the back of the truck we stumbled out to the patio to see what all the hub-bub was about. The truck passed slowly shouting indecipherable commands to the empty early morning street. In its wake residents soon emerged setting up small tables with juice and food packets obviously waiting for something to happen.

We watched from on-high, as we often do, searching for clues to help us understand what is happening around us. In a country such as this, whose culture and traditions are so far removed from our own, we often don’t do well at the guessing game but we are happy to wait it out.

A minute later, in complete contrast to the noisy introduction, a procession of novice monks rounded the corner onto our street. Silently, in bare feet and vermillion robes, they padded along the street stopping only to receive merit offerings from the waiting residents.

In a moment they were gone, leaving only the incantations of the more senior monks giving blessings to those waiting.

09 May

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Where I’m from street food conjures up images of late night street corners, drunken frat boys, and hot dogs that have taken one turn too many on the merry-grill-round.

Here in Thailand street food is the epitome of everything we’re looking for; fresh, whole food, individually prepared, and some of the tastiest, cheapest noshing available.

Set up in what are parking lots during the day, night markets transform the landscape at dusk. Stalls emerge, tables are set up and full on food courts are born. I love the efficiency.

We visit these markets nightly but tend to stick to what we know. Familiar vendors who create the usual suspects; paad thai, khao soi, pork and rice. We’re intrigued by other dishes we see but lack the language to, #1 know what anything is on the written menus (that often don’t even exist) and, #2 ask.

We’ve evolved a little though. We sometimes point at other patrons and just have what they’re having without ever knowing what it is which, of course, means we can never have it again…because we don’t know how to ask.

And so, after three months of being here, we decided to try a street food tour. A guided walk through the markets and stalls that are familiar to us and yet still so unreachable.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours got its start just this year. As a former hill trekking guide, Chai saw the need when clients would ask him about all his favourite places to eat after trekking. Realizing that street food seems daunting and inaccessible to visitors he got started showing them around.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

We started at the Chiang Puakor North, gate where the stalls are all lined up on the side of the road, for ease of drive by take-away, and tables are strewn across the former parking lots.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Vendors spend their days prepping and preparing for the busy evening rush. Bowls of mild chilis, roasted pork, onions, garlic and greens await use in various dishes.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Besides learning what each stand offers we are schooled in how to order.

“Ao khao ka moo” stutters Jason. The girl listens ever so patiently and then looks to Chai for confirmation of the order. Pointing and ordering is so much easier!!

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Pork, simmered in cinnamon, soy sauce, sugar, and five spice for hours, arrives at our table. We add the gingered, spicy, sauce ourselves. Not all Thai food is hot and often it’s possible to control the spicy-ness ourselves.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Pork sausage strings are served with cabbage, chilis, and vinegar sauce. The sweetness of the pork complemented by the crunchy heat. We hadn’t tried these before but we’ll be having them again!

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

Pork buns. At least once a week we drive by the North Gate Market and pick these up for a light dinner. I think I’m addicted.

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

It is the efficiency of these stalls that amazes me. With very little space and often only one burner they churn out some of the best food in the world. How do they stand over those woks for hours on end? To protect themselves from the chili vapor some wear face masks too. Stifling!

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

At the Chiang Mai gate we found seats away from the crowd while trying Chinese curry noodles. By this time I was so full I could only manage one, tasty, mouthful!

Chiang Mai Street Food Tours

The tour was excellent. We tried many dishes both savoury and sweet; many we hadn’t tried before. Now we can add a few more places into our regular dinner rotation.

If you go I suggest you bring a sense of adventure, and skip lunch.

 

29 Apr

Monday Moment: Paharganj, New Dehli, India

Paharganj, New Dehli, India

It’s no secret that we really struggled with our time in India.

It’s a time that I still frequently think back on as I try to impart the lessons I learned then to my traveling life now.

It comes up more often now, of course. We’re meeting new people all the time; hearing stories of their travels, and telling stories of our own. India is always a source of fascination; whether a person has been and is interested in comparing experiences, or if they have not been and want to know what it was like.

I always try to tell our story emphasizing that it is our story and point out that there are many, many, factors that lead to a persons experience in any place. India is indeed hard but she wails a siren song that is difficult to ignore.

This picture is from the Paharganj area of New Delhi. We were staying just down this street a few blocks. I have no idea why the metal detectors are there as I’m sure they didn’t work although once in a while we were directed to walk through. Oh, India!

25 Apr

Dis-connecting At Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Leaving Chiang Rai would be like a breath of fresh air. Except that there isn’t much fresh air to be had at this time of year.

Farmers are burning their fields and the still air offers no relief from the unrelenting smoke that fills the air. In fact, as we follow the river out of town and climb into the hills it seems to get worse. Soon, not only is the air so thick we can taste it, but huge black ash pieces flutter through it making their way to the ground.

It is, in fact, nothing like the stunning-vista’d getaway I had envisioned and is, instead, every bit a post apocalyptic movie sequence.

Pressing forward up ever steeper hills we realize just how remote our home for the next few days will be. Past the elephant camp and the massive Buddha in the hillside we are able to stay two on the bike until we reach the Lahu tribe village at the bottom of the single-track steepest hill leading to the red earth, pot-holed, ‘road’ to the finish. Here I must jump quickly off the back so that Jason can gun the engine and climb ever-so-slowly to the top.

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

We made it.

“Sawasdee-ka”, we call to the seemingly empty clutch of bamboo huts sprinkled on the hillside.

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Noi is surprised to see us. A small, thin, wiry, man, he emerges from one of the buildings and immediately starts muttering as he rushes over to greet us.

“What is the date?” he asks as he searches on the endless keychain for a key that will finally unlock the reception door.

“It is the 22nd”, we say.

“And the day?” he follows up with.

“Friday.”

“Ahhhh”, he sighs while slowly nodding his head, “we thought today is the 21st…Thursday…not Friday the 22nd. Your room is not yet ready”.

Not surprisingly, in this somewhat remote setting, he and his wife Nok have forgotten what day it is and weren’t expecting us today but in what would be their tomorrow. No worry, he points us to a sitting platform and gets busy preparing one of the huts for us.

*****

Bamboo Nest lives up to its name. Nestled on a hillside the half dozen or so bamboo huts are tucked around a garden carefully tended by the couple. Here they grow bananas and pineapple, flowers and, not-surprisingly, bamboo.

The huts are rustic but surprisingly comfortable. Built by labourers from the village at the bottom of the hill, they are constructed entirely of bamboo. Floors, walls, roofs, porches and beds; all made from grass!

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Our room is soon ready and we easily settle in to do, well, absolutely nothing for the afternoon. There is no electricity (save for a little solar power), so no lights, no tv, no wifi. This is why we have come; to unplug for a few days, get our noses out of our computers, maybe even read a book!

*****

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Surfing the line between asleep and awake I come to shore to the sound of a truck grunting its way up the track. With a practiced hand Nok guides the 4X4 up the narrow road while new guests hang out the windows wondering how the vehicle is clinging to the roadway.

Yay, more people!

As much as we like our own company, it’s been a while since we’ve shared a conversation with others and we’re looking forward to the interaction.

Making our way through the garden to the common area we meet our new friends for the next few days; two couples from France and a fellow from Denmark. We pass the evening learning about each others homes, travels, and future plans while enjoying a home cooked meal. Later on Noi builds a fire which we all eagerly gather around sharing travel stories and advice until sleep calls.

It is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening. It reminds me of our time at the Cave Lodge, another northern Thailand getaway reminiscent of early travel and adventure.There is definitely something to be said for unplugging from technology and reconnecting to each other.

We fall asleep that night to the sounds of jungle frogs and crickets; the cool mountain air a welcome relief from the heat we’ve been experiencing in Chiang Mai.

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

The next day, following some lengthy lounge time on the patio, we manage a hike to the local waterfall. There are plenty of hikes in the area; many possible on your own or Noi can arrange a guide for single or multi day excursions. The hike is easy. Over cultivated hills and down into a valley before rising again along side the waterfall. Just enough activity to say we’ve done something to earn our beer but not entirely taxing.

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai

The evening follows the same pattern as the previous. Our group is joined by two young English gap-year chaps; amused by their naivety while at the same time longing for some of it ourselves we again spend the evening chatting and laughing and enjoying each others company. Perfection.

Bidding good-bye early in the morning, we make our way back down the treacherous hill in the cool light. It’s been a tremendous retreat, a great way to reconnect with traveling and travellers, and a welcome respite from technology, but it’s time to head back.

There are a tremendous number of luxury resorts in Thailand but, if you want to get off the beaten track and really get away from it all then somewhere like the Bamboo Nest is perfect. If you’re in the area I recommend you stop by and spend a day or two reconnecting.

 

15 Apr

Monday Moment: Bus Stop In Northern Turkey

Northern Turkey

We were outside of the tourist bus routes while traveling in Northern Turkey so hopped on the commuter buses that run from town to town. Not only do these buses travel slower (and skip the mandatory tourist rest stops along the way) but they allowed us to see parts of the country we might not have otherwise.

I spotted this guy from inside our bus as we waited at a small depot for the bus to fill up with passengers before leaving. It’s one of my favorite photos.

11 Apr

The White Temple And Black House Of Chiang Rai, Thailand

Coming from a western world there is plenty of strange and unusual to be found here in Thailand without having to look too hard. There isn’t a day goes by without my head being turned by something or other. I try to learn, though, and can usually figure out some reasoning behind what it is I’m seeing.

Both the White Temple and the Black House in Chiang Rai defied all reasoning.

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

The gleaming white exterior of the White Temple

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Gloomy exterior of the Black House

Although seemingly polar opposites of each other (even being located at opposite ends of the town!) they actually are quite similar.

The White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Hell’s Gate walkway to the White Temple.

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Surprisingly white out buildings at the Black House.

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Altar (?) within the white domes at the Black House.

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Close up of Hell’s Gate at the White Temple

Mostly it’s a weirdness that just defies description. A seemingly macabre bent that sits strangely in these places billed as temples.

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Standing guard at the White Temple

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Skulls, drums, and skins ‘decorate’ this building at the Black House.

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

‘Welcome’ to the White Temple

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

In the main hall of the Black House. Adorned with horns from I don’t know what, long stretches of snake skin, and creepy statues.

But also, a certain beauty.

White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Peaceful Buddha image at the White Temple.

Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

The sun pokes through a smoky haze at the Black House.

 

 

 

08 Apr

Monday Moment: Chumphon, Thailand

Chumphon, Thailand

To say we visited Chumphon would be an overstatement. We stopped in for one night in order to catch a ferry to Koh Phangnan the next day.

Just off the main strip of the town is a small river; a quiet getaway from the traffic in town. I spotted this small fishing boat as we crossed a bridge on our walk.

01 Apr

Monday Moment: The Berlin Wall, Germany

The Berlin Wall Today

The recent protests in Berlin this past week reminded me of my short time there. I found Berlin, and Germany, to be fascinating as they try to keep moving forward while trying to honor, and learn from, the past.

Perhaps a small misstep last week as part of what remains of the Berlin wall was torn down to make way for a residential complex. I wonder if some design feature couldn’t have been made of this historic piece? On the other hand must we continue to be drawn back? Is there enough memorial and should we instead be looking forward?

What do you think?

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!!