Sa Pa: A Two day Tour

We arrived in Hanoi and after serendipitously seeing an old friend’s (actually a previous professor’s) insta post that he was traveling SEA for 2 weeks we were able to meet up with my old pal Frank Cirioni and his betrothed for a beer and some dinner on our first night. We spent the next day and a half seeing the sights of Hanoi and checking the old quarter for motorbikes to buy (more on that later). I had really wanted to get up to Sa Pa, way in the north to see the mountains and terraced rice fields it’s famous for, but figuring the 10hr motorbike ride on mountain roads would be a trying introduction to our two wheeled travel for Athena I thought we should take the bus up instead. For reasons to later become evident we only had 2 and a half days before being back in Hanoi to check it out so we opted for a tour being sold through our hostel. A first in this trip! So we woke up the next morning and got on the 6 hr sleeper bus up to Sa Pa. the bus takes much less time than a motorbike or the train because it goes on the newly built highway that runs north, then about 25km away in the town of Lao Cai it turns west up a crazy twist mountain road with incredible views up to the mountain town of Sa Pa.

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Even after all the rice has been harvested this place it spectacular

We got off and had 100% no idea what to expect. Like I said this was the first tour we’d done and we’d booked it in a hurry, “2 day, 1 night sounds good”. We were met by a person with a sign of Athenas name, then got in a taxi to a hotel.  We went into the wrong hotel because the taxi driver didn’t know, and were then found and collected to go to the right place and served hot tea and lunch. After lunch we were told the trekking tour would start at 2:30 and we had 20 minutes till our guide arrived and we met our fellow trekking companion, Rink. Rink is from Holland and was quite a funny dude for our later travels. Eventually our tour guide showed up and standing tall at about 4’10” Chee, pronounced like “smile, CHEEse!”, was awesome.

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“Say CHEEse!!” Please forgive the terrible iPhone autofocus.

 

She asked us to guess her age and rink said 11, and I swear I almost said the same thing to, SHE WAS TINY!! But no Chee is 17 years old! Over the next two days I got to know her better and she has a very similar story to many of the Hmong people around Sa Pa. she went to school (sometimes) through 7th grade but her family couldn’t pay for high school so she would regularly hike down into town to sell handmade goods to tourists there. You see these kids everywhere in Sa Pa working to bring home even the tiniest amount to their families. It was selling trinkets that she learned to speak English, and quite well. Thus allowed her to become a trekking guide and she was able to move out when she was 16, but still sends most of her income back to her family. I learned that many most Hmong people marry young and if you are a woman and not married by the time you are 18, you likely never will be. But Chee didn’t have any interest in starting her own family. She was to work for the next 10 years as a guide so that by the time she was 27 she could have saved up enough to go visit “the wonderful country of Australia!” She was so funny and kind and her story more than anything else of our quick trip to Sa Pa is what stuck with me and gave the most perspective on the daily struggle of the minority people who live here.

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5′ tall Athena for scale

We started our 9km trek to our homestay walking along dirt roads and through rice fields and we learned from Chee that the fields were all empty now since harvest was in September. A great time to go as all the rice fields are a gorgeous golden yellow. Sa Pa, and the surrounding villages, can only plant and harvest once a year unlike the rest of Vietnam due to the cold (sometimes freezing at night) temperatures is gets in the winter. This means many of the local people (almost all who are farmers) have very little income and must find alternate ways to provide during the cold months. Luckily the tourism industry is strong, but even then it is important to make sure your money actually goes to the people and not just the booking companies who arrange the tours.

After a beautiful day of trekking and now that it had gotten dark we made it to our homestay in a small village down in the valley. We met up with 4 other German guys who were also staying at the homestay and talked and ate dinner. After dinner our host brought out bottles of traditional Vietnamese rice wine. Which is some strong, terribly flavored stuff. After being introduced to the Vietnamese way to take a shot (a chant that I still can’t remember…wonder why?) we proceeded to finish one bottle after the next that they brought out. Then we took the long arduous walk to the bar…next door to play pool and listen to music over a few more beers. Chee had made sure to remind us we had to wake up early before heading off to bed right after dinner.

The next morning wasn’t nearly as hard as I though it’d be. We had pancake/crepes for breakfast and many cups of tea and managed to be up and hiking by 8:15. We hiked for a bit and talked more with Rink (who almost didn’t make it in the morning) and Chee and had a great morning watching the sun break through the clouds over the valley. Honestly great weather the whole time considering it regularly pours in Sa Pa valley making the dirt hiking into treacherous ankle snapping mudslides.

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Rink and Chee leading the way through our Homestay’s village
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Rink handing out candy he bought in Hanoi to share with the locals

We eventually got back to the main road where we waited for a van to bring us back up the mountainside to Sa Pa town. A t1n sprinter no less (a vehicle near and dear to my heart). We were now cutting it a little close as our bus back to Hanoi left at 1:30 and we needed to get back and have lunch before our trip. The van left and climbed up the steep extremely and rocky road and got us about 2.5km away from town when in a particularly steep part the driver stalled. Ok not bad just start it up…but no go. We waited like 20 minutes but it was now about 12:15 and we needed to get back for lunch! So we got out and started to walk. And the whole rest of the van, whose tour guide had left them joined us. And power to tiny Chee for taking charge and trying to figure out how else to get us back in time. So many phone calls along the way and eventually the tour people told her to just get a taxi for the 3 of us back to our hotel. She even tried to help the other group who didn’t have their guide but they didn’t know what there hotel was called, who they’d booked through or where to go. That and suddenly one of them decided it just wasn’t ok for Chee to leave them, even though we she had nothing to do with their tour company and was hired as our guide. And while I understand their frustration if I was in a similar spot getting mad at not your tiny tour guide when you don’t know where to go as if all Vietnamese people in Sa Pa who speak English are working for the same company isn’t cool. But luckily right as we got in our cab the van from before appeared around the corner and was able to pick up the other group. Things just end up working out like that. We got back and had lunch with Rink and said goodbye to Chee who I had to demand accept my tip to help her dreams of travels before she ran off before Rink could give her any more. Just such a sweet, kind person who is making the most out of a very hard life she’s been given, living vicariously through the travelers she meets and someday dreams she could be.

After our speedy lunch we were put back in a cab and sent back too the bus station and were pointed in the direction of a bus office which had tickets for us under our names. We had about 5 minutes before the bus started loading so I took the time to get a couple shots of Sa Pa town.

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Women in traditional dress walk up and down the streets selling goods and offering trekking guide services.
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I like the giant burnt down building in the background.
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The center market is part tour bus parking lot, part market, and part landfill

Suddenly we were ushered into our sleeper bus and we were off back to Hanoi.

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Athena enjoying her seat in the top level of the sleeper bus

UXO LAO

I preface this with the fact I am not a perfect Vietnam war scholar and am sharing information as it was presented to me at the UXO LAO visitor center. If anything below is incorrect and you have more knowledge please email me and I will look into it further. Thank you.

I’ve mentioned before the visible impacts the varying changes in governmental structures over the last 100 years have had on Laos, but by far one of the most drastic events to shape current Laos was the second Indochina war. Known to Americans as the Vietnam war, this period of time had devastating impacts on vietnams neighboring countries. The primary supply route for the north Vietnamese was called the Ho Chi Minh highway which stretched all the way up the eastern edge of Laos along the Vietnam boarder. In an attempt to cut off the main supply chain network of the north Vietnamese the US tried many tactics to get rid of the route. Most notably bombing runs. Between the years of 1964 to 1973 the US government dropped some 400 million explosive devices on the country of Laos. Giving it the unwanted title of most bombed country in the world. Because the US was not in a declared war with Laos many articles of the Geneva convention did not apply including those controlling the use of explosive ordinance near non-military areas including villages and religious landmarks. As such bombs were littered across the country in all regions without significant regard for targets hit. Many of the exact locations of bombing runs was not disclosed until 2000 when bill Clinton declassified the US Air Force bombing records. However even these did not include covert runs, non-documented strikes, and most disturbingly payload dumps. Air Force literature indicates pilots were frequently sent out and told not to return with any ordinance left in their bays. This lead to numerous payload dumps where upon completing a mission, with no further specified targets, pilots would freely drop the rest of their bombs over random areas before returning to base.

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Each red dot indicates a published bombing site. These do not include the many undocumented air strikes.

Of the 400 million bombs and cluster bombs dropped in Laos it is estimated roughly 1/3 of those did not explode on impact. This means there are 10s of millions of explosive devices littered all over the country ranging from large bombs the size of a sofa to tiny cluster bomb “bombies” which are no larger than a tennis ball.

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These are cluster bombs. The main shell separates in air and disperses the “bombies” to rain down below. Thanks to work by the Laos government cluster munitions are now illegal under UN Law.

These devices pose a massive threat to Laotian people who come across them in their daily lives. Frequently, and not like once or twice a year but on a weekly to daily scale unsuspecting farmers using hand tools, or children playing in the forest, or mothers building fires to cook food for their families inadvertently trigger one of these set devices anything from mutilation to death. One of the hardest parts at the UXO LAO visitor center is when they sit you down for a movie presentation which interviews 5 people, four of whom are children who have been severely handicapped by UXOs going about their daily lives. One story follows a young boy who was out shooting bird with a slingshot when he ran out of rocks and came across a bombie which to him looked like a rock so he smashed it on the ground to break it into smaller pieces. The explosion blew shrapnel into his eye and his family not having the money to go to a doctor used homeopathic medicine ending resulting in a 7 year old being blind in one eye and with out three fingers for the rest of his life. One farmer they interview discusses how after loosing his arm his three children had to leave school in grades 7, 9 and 10 to help the family farm rice because they could no longer pay for food or repairs to their already bare home. It was seeing the impact of destruction caused by foreign interests some 40 years later still wreaking havoc on the lives of already impoverished peoples that really hit me.

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People are injured on a weekly to daily basis by UXO’s in Laos

But its not ALL bad. UXO LAO is a non profit organization partially funded by the Australian and Japanese government which attempts to catalog known bombing sights and defuse and remove any un-exploded ordinance (UXOs) they can find across the country. In addition to known sights they comb over areas near schools and villages with potential UXO’s to hopefully keep locals safe from hidden dangers right below their feet. In addition to UXO removal the organization also goes out to many rural villages to educate children and elders alike what to do if they find UXO’s and ways to go about daily chores in a safer, more vigilant way. They have put through school programming across the country such that most children by the age of 10 know what UXO’s look like, how to avoid them and report to elders for future removal.

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Geophysics in action! Trained personnel sweep potential UXO areas using electromagnetic detection equipment. (Fun fact: I did similar things for the US government on military bases for my job last year)
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This map shows sites of UXO’s and whether they’ve been cleared un the Luang Prabang province alone.
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Significant funding for UXO LAO programing and equipment come form the Australian and Japanese governments. Notably little comes from the US.

All that being said it is a slow going process. Each removal requires teams of people and significant amounts of equipment. Not to mention q very specific set of skills required to handle these devices. Luckily many Laotian people want to work toward clearing their country and are being educated to assist in the non-profits mission. Even with growing volunteers money and supplies are limited and even more than 40 years after the bombing of Lao ceased, UXO LAO estimates it will be another 100 years until the country is fully cleared of the effects of the Vietnam War.

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An unfortunately well known logo all over Laos

All in all this was a drastically humbling experience that I recommend any western visitor to Luang Prabang experience for themselves. None of this is taught in American schools and unless you specifically go out of your way to find it, there is no reason most Americans would every be exposed to the reality of the things our country has done. And while in this case it was definitely the fault of the American government, and of that I am remarkably ashamed to call it home,  I’ve learned something important to remember for all of life on  this trip. Having talked to many other travelers from countries all over the world, no one is proud of their government. They’ve all done horrible things at some point or ignored the needs of their people and while it would be nice if they would own up to their failures and fix their mistakes, it is not the fault of the people who live in those countries for the things their governments do behind closed doors. But still, Laos I’m sorry.

Luang Prabang: The French City on the Mekong

Laos has an interesting history. The country was under French colonial control from up until peace conventions disbanded most European colonies in 1945 at the end of World War Two. The French influence is definitely still present in this city in everything from the small quite streets and their architecture to the French style baguette breads found all over the city. Interestingly one of the cheapest meals to find is a Laotian sandwich of tofu, fried egg, and veggies on French bread for around 10-15,000 kip.

However even after the end of French rule the 73years since have had many different twists and turns for this land. Multiple regime changes, from an essentially a monarchy to today the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), enduring through foreign interference along the way (namely the second Indochina War, more on that later), and on top of all of that the country has only been open to international tourism for approximately 7 years. All of this means Laos is an interesting place with rich history, resilient people, and a truest trashed economy and all together quite different than its neighbor Thailand.

We got into Luang Prabang after the tuk tuk from the slow boat and got to our hostel and pretty much crashed. If you’ve read my last post you’ll know I got off the boat after a rather good time with some folks on the back of the boat and now I just needed some calories and a nap. A long nap.

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Stumbling off the slow boat outside Luang Prabang

We woke up the next morning an gathered our thing a to head to our next hostel. The place we stayed wasn’t bad but we typically only book for one night when we get to a new place to decide if it’s in the right area/right vibe and if not we’ll find something else. We were about to check out when they asked us why we didn’t want breakfast? 1st difference, many of  the hotels and hostels in Laos come with a complimentary breakfast unlike in Thailand. So we stayed and it was a feast! We walked over to our next place “Chill Riverside Hostel” which was very funky, set back in these little alley streets and had a great view of a river. It was also right next to this pretty epic bar/early morning yoga/fire pit hangout area called Utopia.

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Aka backpacker heaven…too bad I forgot to take a picture of the inside. You’ll just have to go check it out yourself!

That and tempur-pedic mattresses meant we were there for a bit. It’s astounding how hard the mattresses have been at some of the places we’ve stayed. But when you’re paying like $5usd a night you don’t really complain.

The first day in the city was just spent walking around and seeing some of the main sights. We stopped by the old royal palace. Used in the 1700’s when this was the capital but the building and grounds has been preserved even after the royal family left.

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Drive way up to the old royal palace

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In the Laotian flag, the red represents the blood spilt from revolution, the blue the Mekong river which flows the length of Laos, and the white the full moon rising over the river and the reunification of Laos after its civil war. 

We hiked or more climbed the straight up staircase to the top of Phou Si mountain and got some absolutely incredible views of the city over the Mekong and the surrounding mountains. While northern Thailand is definitely mountainous there’s something about the shear limestone hills here in Laos that are spectacular.

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The steps just kept going…and most were much steeper than these.
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Once at the top there’s a small temple (of course there is) with this pretty dope steeple 
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The town over the Mekong. View from the top of Phou Si

 

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My lovely lady in her natural self with the city and mountains making an excellent backdrop

We took the way down on the backside which meanders back and forth and crosses a few temples and Buddha figures along the way. Including the infamous Luang Prabang giant buddha footprint. What do you think? Worth of the infamy?

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The teeny tiny gateway to the mystical “giant foot”
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Sadly no banana for scale, but its about 10 feet across

In our long walk that day we made it down to this place called Ock Pop Tok, a free weaving museum and restaurant. The names means East meets West and for the last 14 years this riverside vista has been offering classes in traditional Laotian weaving  and giving tours explaining the processes behind harvesting silk, creating dyes, and the cultural meaning of weaving in Laos. It was a pretty cool place about 1.5-2km south of the main city and a great spot to grab lunch.

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Lunch with a view at Ock Pop Tok
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River boats cruising by at Lunch

Back in the city we decided the top of Phou Si had such a great view of the city during the day we should go check it out for sunset. So we grabbed a beerlao to split at the top and started the climb up. Near the top we realized we and everyone else in Luang Prabang that day had had the same thought. The top was PACKED!! But the view was incredible and the sunset spectacular. A prefect place for a beer and a moment to relax after a long day of walking around.

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Sunset from the top is just magical

That night we went to the main night market in town and got some cheap food and did some light shopping, it’s crazy how even small relatively cheap souvenirs for family and friends can take up so much space in a tightly packed 35L bag.

The next morning we woke up and ran into our friend Jimmy, an Australian lad we’d met on the slow boat. He was talking about how yesterday he’d gone up to the Kuang Si waterfall and it was a great place to swim so we decided to rent a motorbike and check it out. This was our first interaction with Laotian road and let me tell you, boy are they sh*t. I had taking the well paved roads of Thailand for granted because here potholes popped up at every corner, and straight, and turn. And they were all like half a meter deep (1.5 feet for those playing along in the backwards mother country). Dodging and weaving across busted roads was a hoot. You’re never going very fast because the next one could pop up at any second or better yet the whole road would just turn into a gravelly mess for a couple hundred meters at a time. 25km and about 45 minutes later we made it to the falls. We parked, got our tickets, since you need tickets for literally everything in this country and made our way in. I had done a little research before hand so knew what to expect but right as you enter before you get to the falls you walk through a moon bear sanctuary. And these guys are like the much derpier cousin of NA black bears. They saunter around and chill in trees all day. These bears are also known as singing bears and are routinely captured by poachers in the wild were they’re sold to live the rest of their lives in cages singing in front of businesses in Russia or being exploited for “bear bile” a huge thing in eastern medicine. But here they get to live and be happy. We got the chance to see two of them playing/fighting? just inside the chain link fence that blocked us from them. Hands down the least intimidating bear I’ve ever come across.

But then the falls. Oh man the water is this wild blue from all the CaCO3 (calcium carbonate AKA limestone) dissolving as the water flows over it. There are multiple tears that the water beautifully cascades over. The picture do I more justice than words could.

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The main falls is some 30 meters tall

The main pool (biggest and best for swimming) was packed when we went past so we continued on up to the main falls and then climbed up about 100m straight vertical to the top. On top there’s a smaller pool with a cool rope swing and much fewer people. We decided to take a second and enjoy a beerlao and take a dunk.

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So peaceful
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Just coolin down from the Laotian heat

Before we left I’d heard about a cave about a 3km hike in from the top of the falls. Many people opt to take a mini bus from the city to the falls but that was only like 10,000 kip ($1.17) cheaper than renting motorbike. And when you take the bus you’re on a fixed time schedule meaning you can’t explore, and so most people don’t get to make it all the way back to the caves. The hike there was pretty flat and pretty through back dirt roads and once you get to the cave and pay you 10k kip entrance fee they give you a head lamp, and a banana and say go. So we went down a little hole and explored around in this cave by ourselves for a bit. It was pretty cool I got to say. After that we headed back down to the waterfalls and since the main pool had cleared (a minuscule amount at best) we went swimming there two. There was a log that you could climb up that protruded over the pool and was super fun to jump off. Athena had fun the with action sport setting on my camera and got some hilarious pictures.

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After all of this it was already 4:30 so we headed back to our motorbike and navigated our way back to town before it was dark. That night we went to utopia bar where we grabbed a drink and ran into our friends from the slow boat. A merry lot but when they tried to convince us to keep up and move along with them to the next place we decided in favor of being able to move the next day.

Also at utopia we ran into some friends we’d met way back when at Juno hostel in Pai. Alex and Alie are from the U.K. and we’re taking a year to travel the world now about 7 months in they were doing SEA. And while I said we ran into them at utopia bar, that’s not really fair….we’d run into them at least once every single day for the last two and a half weeks from Pai, Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, on the slow boat, and now here in Luang Prabang. It became the running joke of tag, your it. I think by the end of it they were getting sick of us but more importantly it illustrated a remarkably important fact of traveling (at least here) to me. Back home before we left so many people would say “oh wow, you quite your job!? And you going to travel…for 9 months!?! Wow you’re so adventurous and wild”. But the simple fact is traveling the world isn’t that hard to achieve. You just have to get out of your rut and do it. And to the “you’re so adventurous and unique” people out there, backpacking especially in SEA has become so easy and routine that frequently you’re just running out the motions of a similar itinerary as the 50+ other people who started at the exact same time as you and who you’re bound to run into a few times over. None of this is to say it’s not fun, or there aren’t hard times, or definitely not that it’s not worth it but just that traveling in our day and age has become sooo much easier than it ever was for our parents or the generations before them. So if you can take advantage of that and get out and explore.

We decided we’d had a good time in Luang Prabang but wanted to head south the next day so we woke up and booked a 2:30pm mini van ticket to Vang Vieng. Having the day to kill we decided to take a slow morning and walk over and check out the UXO Laos visitor center but that will have to wait for now because that truly deserves a post of its own.

Chiang Rai and a Slow Boat to Laos

On the bus ride back from Pai Athena and I were stuck in the way back of a minivan surrounded by backpacks as we careened around the twisty road. 3 nauseating hours later we made it to Chiang Mai. We got in around 1pm and had originally intended to just get a bus to Chiang Rai that day but right as we got there the last two seats on the last bus sold out. So we got tickets for the first bus the next morning and went back into Chiang Mai to find a place to stay. 

We decided to check out the northern side of the old city and tried to stay at hug hostel, a well known backpacker haunt, but they were booked full. Luckily right next door was a place called Inndigo which was cheaper, had recently renovated nice rooms, and was almost entirely empty. We dropped our stuff and got lunch, then found somewhere we could get $USD to pay for the boarder crossing to Laos. This was way cheaper than the MANY people who had to exchange money at the boarder and were charged almost double. 

After lunch we were walking through a parking lot and there was an old “ruin” chedi with a fence around it in the middle of the lot. I love the contrast of old and new in the cities of Thailand. It’s quite remarkable that they’ve been able to maintain the history of the land with the rapid development and growth the country has experienced over the last 10 years.

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Old and New coexist in Chiang Mai

The next morning we were on a bus to Chiang Rai. 3 easy hours later we arrived. A quick walk to our hostel an we were unpacked. We took a walk around the city and saw the main sights, a clock tower and the waterfront. But I got to say, this city smelt terrible. It felt like by far the dirtiest of any of the places we’d been in Thailand. The next day in the surrounding area is gorgeous but Chiang Rai itself is not my cup of tea. 

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Tin roofs over the houses of Chiang Rai
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Stairs looking down from one of the many small temples around the city
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One of the main “sights” in town is the old clock tower, luckily just around the corner from our hostel

The next day we rented a scooter so we could go check out the white temple and some of the surrounding waterfalls. By the time we got there, 10am, Wat Rong Kuhn was a zoo!! It’s one of the few, maybe only? temples in Thailand that is privately owned. Seeing past the throngs of tourists poring off massive busses it’s a pretty neat place. While there’s the main section there are also a bunch of side temples to explore and hopefully get away from the crowd a bit. The theme of the whole place seems to be death and destruction. The images on the Wats depict pain and suffering and vicious overload type deities smithing all around. It makes for a wild juxtaposition against the beautifully ornate and blindingly white walls of the temple and surroundings. 

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The main temple
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Ornate skulls pop up everywhere 

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One of the guards on the bridge to the main temple
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Some more creepy imagery near the temple
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Me getting in the spirit of things

The inside of the main temple is even crazier. There are signs all over saying no photography, but there was one thing that I had to try to get a picture of. As you walk in the theme of destruction continues but when you turn around to face the wall from where you entered it gets a little…. Confusing? The top of the wall is a losing beast with huge black eyes, and below it are smaller motifs of bombs and explosions all intermixed with western pop culture characters. Everything from the Avengers to Pikachu riding a rocket or Keanu Reeves as Neo dodging bullets. Its all very strange, and then the you look behind one of the door I noticed something that really caught my eye. Two buildings one billowing smoke, then I realized this was a motif of the twin towers complete with the second plane crashing into the building…surrounded by Spiderman and an Angry Bird  also flying into the building. It was all pretty weird and I’m assuming a statement on the destructive power of western culture? Maybe not but either way Athena and I both came out and were like holy crap was that a joking image of 9-11?

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Best quick picture I could get. Make of it what you will 

After the white temple we continued on up to the Khun Kon Waterfall. A scenic 30 minute drive up a twisty road through dense jungle and we got to the parking lot a quick 20 minute nature walk later we were at the base of 100 something foot waterfall. We had both hoped we could go swimming but this wasn’t exactly the swimmie kind of waterfall. Oh well. We stuck around for a sec then headed back down.

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A gorgeous forest walk on our way to the waterfall
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Khun Kon

We drove in towards town and along the way I stopped when I saw a massive Singha sculpture on a perfectly manicured lawn. And so we stumbled on Singha Park. It is a massive gorgeous park with tea gardens and a few restaurants. We drove in and explored for a bit but by this point it was 2pm and we were both dying for some lunch. Luckily there were a bunch of little cafes that were nice and cheap just outside of the park. 

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After lunch we took the long way back around to Chiang Rai city, but somewhere along the way we saw a sign for Huay Kaew waterfall just 17km away. Turning our back to the smelly city we zoomed off to towards the waterfall. Another gorgeous mountain road up into a hill tribe village and through hillside rice fields and we were there. We hiked up to the waterfall and this was what we had been looking for earlier in the day. It was the perfect warm, clean, large pool just dying to be swum in. Sadly by the time we got there it was 4:30 and the sun was setting in an hour and not waning to have to ride back sopping wet in the dark I chose to wait for another time. But now you know, if you’re looking for a nice waterfall to chill at for a while around Chiang Rai check out Huay Kaew. 

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The sun was going down by this point so no swimming for us

After about 20 minutes we headed down and made our way back to the city. Stopping for some beautiful picturesque views.

 

On our way back into town just as the sun was setting we just happened to pass by a bright blue roof. I realized it was the blue temple and figuring we might as well stop and take a look I pulled off to the side. We went in and man this place was wild. Extremely ornate sculptures scatter the grounds and of course everything is blue. The detail on some of the figures (mostly dragons) was incredible.

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Blue and gold
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I was really digging the turtle guy
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Blueddha

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Detail work on each individual scale was awesome

Back in town we got some dinner by the clock tower and got to see a little show. Every night at 7, 8 and 9pm the clock tower in the middle of town changes color and plays music and a couple other supposes I’ll leave for the lustful traveller to find out themselves. Neither Athena nor I had any idea this happened so it was a pretty cool surprise halfway through our meal.

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Same clock tower, different time of day

Back at our hostel we were planning our trip on “the slow boat” to Luang Prabang for the next day. I had done research and looked up all about the boarder crossing and how to get tickets. Theres only one departure a day at 11am and if you miss it you’re stuck until the next day. I had heard you can buy tickets once you’re there but you’re not guaranteed a seat if the boat is full. There just so happen to be tour companies all over Chiang Rai, and Pai and Chiang Mai that sell a package tour which includes getting you to the boarder and all the connections you need to cross and the boat ticket for 1600THB each. Since on elf those offices was right next door we decided better safe than sorry and we didn’t want to be stuck so we booked the tour. 

It was nice that in the morning they picked us up at the hostel and drove us directly to the boarder crossing but other than that its a total rip off. You can just as easily take the public bus that leaves Chiang Rai every 30 minutes to Chiang Kong for 65THB then a tuk tuk to the boarder for 20THB. They sell tickets for the slow boat right at the boarder for 1000THB. 25THB more and you can get the bus across the “Friendship Bridge”  into Laos. Our tour just included waiting for a bunch of half drunk British Kids who had overstayed their visas and had to pay a fine. After we got across the boarder we were picked up by the tour group on the other side, same as the people who purchased at the boarder and shepherded off to someones house in Huay Xi.  (We had left the British kids behind at this point so we wouldn’t miss the boat) Here they sold us over priced beer tried to have you prebook accommodation and change currency from them. (All a small racket). We finally got back in a tuk tuk down to the boat were we boarded and were some of the last people on. When we booked in Chiang Rai the woman who owned the company said she partially owned on of the boats and could guarantee us seats at the front of the boat in nice seats away from the engine. NOT. We got on and barely found any seats at all. Luckily someone offered to switch so Athena and I could sit next to each other, in the wooden bench seats at the back. Finally right before the boat was about to take off the British Kids rolled up in a tuk tuk and got one, but there were no seats left, so they were stuck sitting on the floor of the boat right by the engine and bathroom. But they made the best of it getting nice and plastered.

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Our friends from the UK making the best of the situation while “Spiderman” sleeps on the food counter
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Athena getting in the spirit
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Our new home for the next two days

The boat ride itself was actually pretty nice. About 6 hours the first day down the Mekong river its a great time to read a book and take casual glances up to see the beauty that is the country of Laos drift by. After a few hours and a few beers we made it to Pakbeng the stopping point for that day and de-boarded. While places had tried to sell pre-bookings for hostels there are more than enough places to stay at all different budgets so theres no need to pre-book. The whole town of Pakbeng runs off the slow boat economy so things are cheap and easy to find. We paid 50,000 kip (~$5) for a private room that wasn’t great but good enough for 8 hours of sleeping. We heard about people who had pre-booked paying over $25 USD for almost the same accommodation.

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The views weren’t half bad
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Along the way you pass by many small villages with people going about their lives on the Mekong River
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Huge barges cruise up and down the river moving supplies, the back of which are typically full houses for the families who run them
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Finally we made it to Pakbeng
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Pulling into town at twilight

The next morning we woke up early to secure ourselves some good seats and snacks for the long day ahead. After everyone loads up and they thoroughly check your ticket the boat is off, this day is supposed to be about 8 hours. For the first two hours I sat and read my book enjoying the sights, but then got a little antsy and wanted to take a look around. I walked to the back of the boat and lo and behold Jimmy, an Australian guy we had met who was also in our tour group, and the British kids! They told me to grab a chair and chill for a bit, so I did. We were sitting in someone, the boat crews, kitchen with a 180º view out the back of the boat. Turns out these slow boots are also the people who work on them homes. Drive during the day and at the stops in between the area the luggage sits during the day becomes living room at night and sleeping mats get pulled out for a bed room. Our kitchen/ lounge was fully stocked with pots and pans and burners but they didn’t seem to mind us staying back there and leaving the people at the front of the boat alone. Before you knew it we had some more company. Two older folks who were hard partiers in their own right.  And then folks stared buying rounds of beers. 11am and we were off! While they were a bunch of wild partiers the British folk were actually pretty chill. We talked about all manner of things and passed the time by.

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Our lounge/kitchen with a great view at the back of the boat

About two hours into me leaving my seat Athena popped her head in looking for me figuring no one could take a dump that long and making sure I hadn’t accidentally fallen off the back of the boat. Many more beers, many more hours and many good conversations later we were rounding the bend in the Mekong River and pulling up to not quite Luang Prabang.

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Finally getting off the boat just outside Luang Prabang

The slow boat drops you off about 15km outside of the city from where you have to get a tuk tuk into town. Of course the tuk tuk mafia is in full force charging way more than they need to but I had read about this before hand and heard stories of people trying to boycott, but realistically it was like $2 USD each so why not? We got in our tub tub and headed to town. Landing in the center of town we walked through the beginnings of the night market as it was being set up and made our way to our guesthouse, “why not hostel” seeing a theme yet?

Pai: True Backpacker Heaven

They call it “getting stuck in the Pai hole”. Just one of many plays on the word Pai (pie) in this town. The pai hole itself refers to overwhelming sense of comfort that this tiny northern Thai town can create leading many to stay much longer than first intended and as can be seen by some of the “locals” staying indefinitely. 

It’s a strange town and while yes there are activities to do around town including many waterfalls and caves to the north, it seems as though Pai has become a self fulfilling prophecy unto itself. Most of the town makes money off the backpacker economy meaning hostels are everywhere, cheap, and gorgeous. This means more backpackers come and before you know it it’s spiraled out of control. The town itself consists of three main streets which come alive at around 5pm two of which are the “walking steets”. Similar to the Night Bazaar of Chiang Mai but on a smaller more local scale small shops sell tie-clothing and stalls serve unbelievable quality street food at cheap prices. (Being a hippie paradise the selection of vegetarian and vegan food is unparalleled). The third main street houses some 30-40 bars which rage on from about 10pm-whenever the last Parton (entirely foreigners) leaves at about 6 in the morning. All told it’s understandable how you can get trapped here. 

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Walking street adjacent during the day time hours

We had found a hostel somewhat out of the city center that we had wanted to stay at but decided to stay at a more central location for our first night in town so we stayed at Juno Hostel. 6 nights later we finally moved…..only to return a two days later. Juno is a smaller hostel run by the remarkably cool guy named Leo. He started the business himself about a year ago and prides himself on making sure his guests have a great time.

We dropped our bags and got a scooter right away since, as we are quickly finding out all over SEA, thats the best way to see the area and specifically around Pai because most things are at least 5-10km out of the town itself. We made our way down back the way we had come to check out some waterfalls and do some classic back road exploration. Headed to the Pombok falls we turned down a half paved-half dirt road that had hills steep enough to make the scooter struggle its way up. We got to the falls which were pretty cool, but I still couldn’t swim so we quickly got back on and continued up the road to “the Bamboo bridge” for which we had seen signs earlier on our drive. And man the bridge is quite something. Surrounded by rice paddies its a rickety little bamboo boardwalk that stretches out 1km over farm land with locals houses hoping up here and there in between.

After the Bamboo Bridge we went back up into town and headed over to the Mo Paeng Waterfall. A gorgeously paved road up to contrast our previous experience, this waterfall is huge with multiple levels and massive pools for swimming. The water flowing between the different levels has made the rock smooth and slippery making awesome natural waterslides that people can ride down into the pools below. As we saw the first person slide down Athena had an “ah ha moment” as she realized she had come here some 7 years ago when she was on a teen tour in Thailand. It was cool how that one thing sparked such a clear memory of a place. It had been a particularly sunny hot day and I figured I needed a dip somehow so I managed to find a smaller channel of the stream and sit myself down in it without getting my foot wet. Doing whatever it takes to stay cool!

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Swimmers for scale over the main pool
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The start of the “waterslide” is the lower left hand corner of this photo

Luckily for us we had just so happened to coincide our arrival to the hostel with that of Leo’s old friend Sebastian and the two other French girls he was traveling with, Sophie and Marion. After getting back from our long day of water falling I started chatting with them about bikes and before I knew it we were sharing a home cooked dinner with them and a few bottles of Hong Thong (Thai rum). They invited us to join them for the night and so we got the locals tour of the bars in Pai and were out until about 4:30. 

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Juno Hostel, our new home for the next week

The next day everyone was taking it rather slow and I talked with Sebastian more about how he and Leo had met working on a booze cruise in Ko phi-phi. He had been traveling all over Thailand and Australia for the last 2 years and had a ton of contacts and recommendations on places to go. Maybe we’ll meet up with him again the ko phi phi in December/ January while he’s working back down there. Leo gave me a quick history lesson on Thai politics, of which I was entirely ignorant, and the division called “red vs yellow”. I guess about 4 years ago there was a military coup and a new regime run by the army was started. Red vs yellow signifies the two groups, those more affluent and educated who support the army and the masses who are tired of the army over stretching its limits and what elections again. Freedom of speech isn’t exactly a thing over here and you have to watch for what is said against the army or you might disappear. *mystical spooky voice*

The most recent confrontation between the government and the people was about a video called   “Rap against the dictatorship” released about 5 days ago which calls out the army for all of their hypocritical backwards ways and has caused the rappers to go into hiding for fear of government retaliation. It was interesting hearing a locals perspective but more so just a reminder that government everywhere is flawed in its own way. It’s been great to take a break from the constant barrage of political news in the US but at least it’s good to everywhere has their own crap. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZvzvLiGUtw (check it out, its pretty wild)

Finally around 5 after we had recovered a bit we headed out to the walking street to grab some food re-explore the area. We found an amazing vegan food stand that made delicious fallafel hummus and veggie pita pockets. (we ended up eating there like 4 times that week). Along the way we spotted a place called Why Not Bar, and really we didn’t have a choice. We split the smallest of Changs just so we could have a place to sit and eat our fallafel and of course take the obligatory photo.

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Night time on the Pai walking street
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Of course we had to stop by

 

After a day of recovery and some more delicious street food from the walking street, we planned to hike with our new found friends up to Mae Yen waterfall the next day. It’s about a 2 hour hike (each way) through dense jungle cross-crossing over a river along the way. We got a late start but made our way to the head of the trail by about 10:30. As you may know from the last post I still had a whole in the bottom of my foot, but it was getting now and no longer hurt to walk on. I figured if I wrapped it up it should be fine. I hadn’t realized that the hike meanders back and forth across the river some 39 times before you get to the waterfall so my foot was well and soaked by the time we got there but oh well. You live and you learn. The hike was nice, mostly flat through dense jungle all around. There was one nice and steep part just before the end to get you all hot and sweaty before making it to the waterfall. The falls itself were cool but nothing out of this world special. There were A TON of butterflies and other bugs  which was both beautiful and a bit of a nuisance to the relaxation. After about 30 minutes we started back the way we’d come. 

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Mae Yen waterfall in all her glory
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These butterflies were HUGE!
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Leo, Sebastian and Marion chillin in the sun drying out their shoes

As everyone else went off to grab street sausages we stopped by the place we had wanted to stay outside of town to check it out and see if they had any space available. We booked two nights and got back on the bike and went into town looking for food since we were starving as it was now about 4 and we’d each had a slice of toast for breakfast that morning. We stopped at a fine looking place that we’d seen some people at on previous days along the walking street and each got some curry. Little did we know it would be our downfall. About 2 hours later when I was headed out on a walk Athena mentioned her stomach kind of hurt ands was gunna stick behind. About halfway through my walk I Noticed I didn’t feel super great either. So began a terrible night of hurling out guts out and…..other thing associated food poisoning activities. We both knew it was gunna happen at some point but it was wild it hit us both and so fiercely. 

We’d already made bookings for the next days so in the morning, still feeling like shit, we packed our things and moved hostels to Deejai Pai. A gorgeous hostel with some unbeatable views of rice paddies and the mountains beyond we mostly hung around all day, hoping for the sickness to stop or the world to end, whichever would come first. 

 

The next day we still stayed mostly local, taking some rides on the scooter out through the back roads through more rice paddies. We elephants for the first time in Thailand, but they were sad work elephants either in chained in small huts or working in a field. We stopped at Pai canyon, a much more impressive sight than the “Grand Canyon” of Chiang Mai and that was pretty much the day. 

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Back roads ready for exploration
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Freshly plowed fields ready for new crops
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Seriously not oversaturated, its actually that green.

We checked out of Deejai the next morning as we had made plans with our friends to come back and celebrate Halloween with them. And celebrate we did. A couple of bottles of the crowd favorite Hong Thong before we left and off to the bar street. We stopped at Leos favorite, and only haunt called always famous. They so happened to have someone doing face pain there so we all made a pact if one did we all would so Athena and I ended up a little more in the Halloween Spirit. 

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Quality POS phone camera pics

A few many bars later and it was a great night. And of course we finished off with the infamous Pai bar, Don’t Cry. “Rated number 3 of 7 must see bars in Thailand”.

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The crew all painted up. Leo was lame and wouldn’t go for the whole face

The next morning we slowly arose but rallied as we had made plans to ride our scooters the hour and some journey north over the mountains to Lod Cave. We got out by about 12 and it was a gorgeous ride. Temperatures plummeted as we got to the top and it seemed that Athena and I had been the only people smart enough to bring rain jackets which worked as lovely protectors from the wind. We has a blast racing back and forth over the mountain pass pushing our tiny scooters to the limit on the up hills, were ours lacked, but making up for it in the corners boosting my own two wheeled ego. The view from eh top was incredible. A long way back down and we got to the caves. 

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View from the top of the pass

 

The caves are pretty cool but overall pretty small. You have to pay a local guide to take you in and they take you over a small water section on bamboo rafts and then you get about a 15-20 minute tour through the caves. It was cool but we were all glad the ride there was just as much fun to make it worth it.

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The main chamber in the cave system

After the ride back we swung back by the Pai canyon and caught sunset over the mountains. Finally after more than a week we saw a sunset in Pai. Back at Juno Leo’s friend/ business partner Eck gave us all a Thai cooking course which was awesome and we played cards round the communal table.

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Sunset over the mountains around Pai Valley
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Making Pad Thai the official way with master chef/teacher Eck

 

The next morning Athena and I both decided after some 8 days we’d better make out way out of Pai before we got way to stuck. So we said our goodbyes, exchanged info and made our way to the bus station for the 3 hour nauseatingly twisty ride back to Chiang Mai.

It was a spectacular week, and we met friends were sure to see again at some point along our travels. From my limited travel experience so far I’d say if you go to Thailand make sure to stop through Pai for a few days, and make sure to say hey to the good folk over at Juno Hostel for us!

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Chiang Mai: Everybody’s Home

There’s a reason so many travelers love Chiang Mai. It has a little of everything for all different types of people. Hostels pop-up like weeds all over the city and range from 90THB ($3) to 3000+THB ($100+) a night. Every corner has a travel booking agency with activities like hiking nearby mountains, ATV rides through the jungle, elephant experiences and so many more. And then there’s the food. Chiang Mai is foodie heaven. The street food of Bangkok transforms here in the north to cheap gourmet restaurants and food stalls featured on the food network. After seven days both Athena and I felt like we could stay longer but figured we should move on as we’ll be coming back for Loi Krathong (the lantern festival) in late November. Still then here are a couple of my quick experiences in and around Chaing Mai. 

The first few days were pretty tame due to a significant amount of rain. We walked around the “night bazaar” and explored parts of the old city, taking intermittent breaks for tea or fresh fruit juices during especially wet moments.

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Tea and a fruit shake was the regular afternoon break

We stayed in the cheap backpacker area in the southwestern corner of the old city. We stayed at Diva guesthouse the first night and then off to their neighbor Julie’s, known for their pool table, cheap beers, and even cheaper rooms. Rooms were hot, showers were cold and the bed squeaked something fierce every time you rolled over. Slumming it for a bit but, hey, it was near things. On Sunday we went to the infamous Sunday night market which stretches down all of Rachadamnoen road in the old city. Vendor sell everything at competing prices so it’s a great place to get a deal on some souvenirs/gifts for family (no spoilers).

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My one blurry shot of the Sunday Market in between downpours.

It was SOOOOO wet. I was remarkably disappointed as my brand new rain jacket bought from REI for the trip soaked through in about 30 minutes of rain and left me drenched. At least it’s warm rain so your just wet not cold.  

Chiang Mai has its own set of well travelled temples throughout the city so we took a day and walked around checking out a few of them. Wat Chedi is an interesting combination of temple ruin and modern temples built up all around it.

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Wat Chedi, in the heart of the old city.

After that we walked around a bit more and stopped for a coffee beverage at a place a fellow traveller had told us about called Ristr8o. While neither Athena nor I are huge coffee people we figured we had to try some considering how much coffee comes out of this part of the world.

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World Latte Art Champions Ristr8o

The next day was interesting. I had a plantar wart on the bottom of my foot (I know lovely right) for about the past month that I had ignored and should have gotten taken care of before I left but after nitrogen freezing didn’t work I had ignored it. But now walking everyday and especially after my feet got soaked the night before it was hurting and I wasn’t sure how 9 more months of travel would go so we took another rainy day and walked over to Chiang Mai Ram hospital were I got, as Athena likes to point out, “elective surgery in Thailand”. A super easy and cheap process after an hour I was out of the hospital with a MUCH BIGGER THAN EXPECTED whole cut out of the bottom of my foot with a bunch of antibiotic cream to keep it clean. Also the hospital was pretty clean, just sayin. The doctor said it would probably take about 10 days to fully heal and we should just take it easy for a bit. In the long term I think 10 days of foot pain and slow days was better than 9 more months of babying it. (I’ll refrain from any pictures to help the squeamish, cuz it was GROSS)

Unfortunately now elephant adventures were of the table for a bit as I wouldn’t be tramping though mud anytime soon or really hiking much at all for a bit. Another easy day of good eats in the city and then the sun finally came out. Athena had a hankering for some passion fruit, and being that there were fruit shakes on every corner we figured there had to be a fruit market around. So we found the Muang Mai market just outside the old city. It was like a massive outdoor grocery store where people shopped by riding their scooters up to the stalls and there’s no such thing as refrigeration for meat. Oh and every kind of fruit you could ever think of.

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Muang Mai Market 

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Gotta spice that curry somehow
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There’s always money in the banana stand
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South East Asia might turn me vegetarian

We moved over to a classier $9 each, I know crazy expensive, hostel on the other side of town that was MUCH nicer. Even if I couldn’t walk in the mud I could still ride a motorbike so the next day we rented a scooter for 200thb and set off.

Our first stop was Tiger Kingdom! In essence a big tiger petting zoo you pay to get to hang out up close with tigers and play with them. Of course Athena’s ethical alarms were blaring but honestly the animals aren’t drugged up and the trainers aren’t aggressive or mean to them. That and now with the number of wild tigers drastically dwindling due to poaching and urban growth at least this is a place that they can still live. We got to hang with the big tigers, weighing in at around 450lbs, and some 5 month old baby white tigers. It was pretty awesome I’ve got to say. 

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Who is more viscous?
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I’m fierce….and he’s fast asleep in a mid day nap
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Sleepy baby tiger

After tigering for a bit we jumped back on our stead and headed up the ring road around Doi Suthep national park. We stopped for lunch at a small riverside “restaurant” that was tables practically in the river and run by the family that lived in the house attached to the “restaurant” kitchen. It was pretty good food.

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A bamboo mat on the river is pretty much a dinner table

We kept-a-going and the road was unbelievable. Even just on a 125cc scooter it was a blast. I know I need to rent a real bike next when we come back and do this road properly. The views were incredible all the way through going up over mountains with views of the lowlands below.

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Safety Third
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Gorgeous terraced rice paddies
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We got a badass over here

Back at the bottom we stopped by “the Grand Canyon”. With a name like that you have some high expectations but alas it was just an old sandstone quarry that’s been filled with water and houses a water park just 20 minutes out of the city.

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Much Grand

On the way back to town we also stopped at Wat Umong, a cave wat and saw monks setting up for the big Buddha celebration that evening. 

 

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Buddha in a cave!

 

 

The next day we kept the bike and decided to head up to Wat Doi Suthep which overlooks the city from the mountain above. A nice ride up we stopped at a few overlooks but nothing compares to the view you get from the temple. Yet more gold and ornamentation the temples are slowly beginning to meld together. Here we got blessed by a monk which was a pretty awesome experience in itself.

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You would think the country would have run out of gold at this point
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Cool kid over here!
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I saw this and couldn’t help but chuckle

After the Wat we continued up the mountain and down the other side to the Hmong hill tribe village. Here we got some lunch with a wild view and explored around a bit. We headed back up and originally had planned to take a back road all the way around the mountain and down the other side but it was closed for road work…or at least it was super sketchy so we turned back.

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The view from our lunch spot

We stopped at Huay Kaew waterfall for a little hike and some cool pictures. Alas mid photo shoot I tipped my head up and my sunglasses fell off my head and I watched in slow motion as they fell to their death in the swirling waterfall below. Oops. Made it almost 2 weeks :/

We hiked up around the waterfall a bit more and found a cool view of the city. After that we got back on the bike and headed back down to the hostel.

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I swear I have more than one shirt

After some chillage and meeting a few fellow wanderers we went out to get some food and I swung by the night market and got myself a pair of totally real, not at all fake, Chinese made ray-bans to replace my dead comrades. After an eneving stroll we returned and planned our trip up to Pai the next day. 

Sukhothai: The Ancient Capital

A small metropolitan area, New Sukhothai services tourism to the old city 14km west. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, old Sukhothai contains the ruins of more than 40 temples of all different sizes as it was once the capital of Thailand 700 years ago. Broken into 3 zones, the central, northern and western it offers a great few days of ruin sightseeing and countryside exploration. We took a local bus out the 14km the first day and rented bicycles (highly recommended to be able to get the most out of a day) as some Wats are pretty spread out and explored the central and northern zones.

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Bikes are the best way to see the most in one day

The central zone is beautifully landscaped around spectacular temples of varying architecture. 

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Wat Mehthat is the central piece and has been the most restored of any of the temples in the park
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Many Wats feature elephants protecting and holding up the Chedi towers
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Some close up preserved sculpting work from 700 years ago!

Signs all around the park offer tons of cool historical information. For example certain features on some of the Wats indicate they used to be Hindu worship sites which were later converted to Buddhist temples many years later.

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Wat Si Sawai, a former hindu temple

Many of the Wats are surrounded my huge moats and are only accessible by foot bridge. The water in these moats is of varying cleanliness ranging from only kind of brown to down right terrifying. 

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Long foot bridges extend out into these man made moat ponds

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For lunch we rode our bicycles out of the park and stoped at one of the little shops near by. It was pretty much 4 ladies sitting around laughing and chatting with one other table of locals eating there. But it was the best pad Thai I’ve ever had. And I’ll see if anything else beats it but as of now (a week later in Chiang Mai) nothing has come close. Oh and it was 30THB. 

The northern zone is more spread out than the center and has a MASSIVE standing Buddha sculpture which was quite a sight to see.

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A classic image all around Sukhothai, the locals call it “big buddha” (in Thai obviously)
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The moat around “big buddha” is definitely one of the scarier ones

 

Very glad that we had bicycles we were still tired after 7 hours of touring around so we headed back to the new city and took a dunk in our hostels pool. Happily not stagnant water like much of the rest around it was nice to finally dunk even if it wasn’t all that cold having sat out in the sun all day. 

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Not a terrible pool for $12 a night

We got dinner at a weird little restaurant called “Chopper bar”, a new favorite for Athena as they had a pretty decent vegetarian menu. After dinner we walked around the Sukhothai night market, which runs up the Main Street though down and houses food carts and shopping stalls the appear out of nowhere at about 6pm. As we walked deeper we found a bunch of carnival games and the worlds sketchiest ferries wheel. Of course being the carnie lover she is Athena HAD to go in the ferries wheel so we stunk ourselves into what can only be called a tiny cage not a actual car and round we went. After a few more hours of wandering evening exploration we headed back to our hot fan cooled room and slept. 

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Sketchy Ferris wheeling for Athena. Check out the literal cages

The next day we woke up around 8 and had a plan to see the western zone and more of the country-side….rent a motorbike. I was stoked to get my first moto experience of SEA and who cared if it was only a little 125cc scooter. We had looked around and our hostel had the cheapest rentals in walking distance so ~$3USD later I was the proud rider of a Honda clicks for the next 24hrs. Supplied with 2 helmets best equated to styrofoam semicircles with a plastic covering we were off. And like any new bike the first 10 minutes are a little nerve racking, figuring out how much power I had (none), seeing if the brakes were good (they weren’t), and generally trying to figure out the maze that is Thai traffic. But by the end of the day I was a pro.

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I lied earlier, Motorbike > bicycle

We headed off to the old city and explored the western zone, the highlight of which is a standing Buddha who sits on a hilltop up a 300m inclined ancient paved path. It had a pretty cool view of the surrounding jungle from up there.

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The paved path on the way up to Wat Saphan Hin is where it gets its name
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if I was just a little taller I bet I could reach!

Back of the “bike” we kept exploring and being a small, easy to ride scooter on well paved roads with very little traffic we both figured it was time Athena had her first powered two wheel lesson. And while it was definitely TERRIFYING at first she picked it up pretty quickly. Got the straight lines down and we even managed some turns without causing full buttpucker from me on the back. As the gas gauge was getting low and it was lunch time we headed back in towards town and got lunch at a little spot called Jayhae.

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Jayhae! Photo credit: Teeradon Thongkam, from google maps

After lunch we hoped back on the bike and headed back west. We kept going past the ruins and Athena practiced riding a bit more. Then as we kept going we saw a sign for a canyon to the left or a cave up ahead so we chose cave. 

30 minutes later after taking many different turns along the way we made it to Phrae Mae Ya cave. It was a cool cave temple tucked in under a rock in the side of the mountain.

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The little gate on the right is how you get in, (mostly to keep out animals from making a home)

After exploring around a bit we heard thunder in the distance and figured it was time to leave, but when we got back to the bike there was a monk standing by it who ushered us in towards a gate way and said ride the bike in. We figured what the hell so I pulled up where he wanted. And then we got a private tour of the temple that monk was in charge of maintaining. It was super cool. A huge language barrier but he showed us all of the shrines individually and mined out the history. There was a huge Buddha with jungle all around it that looked like someday it could take its own place in the Sukhothai Historic Park.

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This Buddha has a “hair net” to keep off birds. This photo doesn’t cover the huge size, but its massive.

After many “kop khun kap”‘s and a few deep wai’s we were back on the bike heading away from the ever approaching thunder. By the time we got back to the Historic Park some 30 minutes away it was a beautiful sunny day.

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Our trusty stead “click-i” sheparding us away form the rain clouds in the background

Earlier we had found a bicycle route between the old and new towns and figure it might be fun to explore that on the way back instead of just taking the highway back again. We got to the start and immediately took a wrong turn down a dirt road. but we were headed generally the right direction and I was having a blast avoiding huge washout mud ruts two-up on the tiny scooter with no ground clearance. Still counts as offloading right? When the road stared to curve in the wrong direction I checked google which somehow had these small dirt roads and righted our way back to the official paved Trail. But we both enjoyed our dirt detour deep into some rice patties far away from everyone else and most importantly the main tourist path.

After making our way back to the hostel we took showers and relaxed in the courtyard doing some Chiang Mai Research with a nice cold Chang. Some dinner and we were off bed to get up early the next morning and catch a bus north again to Chiang Mai!

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Gorgeous sunset from our last night in Sukhothai