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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

Bangkok: Definitely not the silent city

We got to Thailand in the late afternoon and bought a sim card for the googling. 7 days, 5GB of data….179thb. For those of you keeping track at home that’s about $6. We got a taxi to our hotel being prepared to get extremely ripped off but the taxi driver was very friendly and told us how he loved picking people up from the airport because he loved when people came to visit his home country for there first experience to be a good one. We got our hotel, White Ivory Bed and Breakfast, and checked in.

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White Ivory bed and Breakfast. The place itself is nice but tucked in a back alley pretty far from the heart of the city

Not exactly the place the internet had made it seem but the A/C was cold and the bed was super soft. We left and took a stroll down to the water and got dinner. I had my first introduction to Chang, a new staple of my Thai diet, and some of the best food I’d had in a while. Honestly some of the food we have in the states shouldn’t even be allowed to be called Thai food. But I digress. After a night of walking and a couple of beers we headed back to our comfy cold room and crashed. 

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Obligatory Chang photo. Sorry for the out of focus, taken on my “new” POS phone (learn more below)

I woke up in the middle of the night to a huge thunderstorm going on outside. I went to check what time it was on my phone, which I had left on the bedside table only to find it wasn’t there but instead out on the floor, 2m from the socket with the charging cable stretched eerily dead straight. Reached down and hit my phone. Nothing. Weird. Sat up and unplugged and repluged. Nothing. Then as I was sitting there I saw the outlet turn blue. 100% truth, blue, followed seconds later by a clap of thunder. And that’s when it hit me. The rats nest of electrical wires and phone lines I had seen on telephone poles that night probably didn’t have surge protectors…my phone was fried.

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Who woulda thought there’d be a power surge with such first class electrical wiring. photo credit: https://mashable.com/2016/06/27/bill-gates-thailand-cables/#VD71tq2uuqqW

Then next morning we were changing places from a “hotel” to a hostel closer to Chinatown and the there there in Bangkok. We woke -and after me trying everything I could thing ok to resuscitate my phone we up and packed our crap which had inevitably exploded and set off. A walk and a ferry ride across the river and we made it there.

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Ferries and riverboats on the Chao Phraya are one of the primary modes to transport in the city.

Our “private room” had a spectacular view…not. But hey it’s just a place to rest your head right.

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The glorious view from our room at “River View Guest House”

We dropped our stuff and went exploring. Right under the hostel was a market where I got my first real taste of Bangkok street food markets. It was the first “oh shit toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment of the trip and it was awesome.

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Street food is by far the cheapest way to eat in Bangkok, but you’re always taking a risk at how long its been sitting out…not being kept warm….with flies

The rest of the day was spent trying to go to markets and find some good lightweight pants so we could go check out temples and to see if there was a place to get my phone fixed. 3 hours later and 2 “istudio” shops later we found out it was beyond dead and BUT under warranty in the US, however they can’t send apple US won’t send warranty replacements to Thailand so shit outta luck. We went to DHL and shipped it back home to get fixed so I could have a phone when I get home. And luckily while we were there we met an expat who mentioned we should check out MBK for a possible replacement. So we went on another walk. MBK is a mega-mall complex where individual vendors sell everything from fake jewelry to “hugo boss” clothes to just my luck used phones .

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Fourth Floor MBK Plaza. Photo Credit: artography1976/shutterstock

And on the 4th floor is a slew of stands that buy and resell old phones. I managed to pick up an old iPhone 5 (with a truly shit battery) for about $90. At least it was something to listen to music and download photos to on the many long bus/train/plane rides to come. And that was pretty much all of the day so we headed back to our place and got drinks and food on the rooftop bar of our hostel. 

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At least the view from the roof top bar was pretty killer

The next day we headed to the grand palace. We jumped on a ferry that took us up the river. What a bustling river that is. Boats going every which direction but somehow not colliding. We got to the grand palace and had planned knowing the strict no shoulders or legs dress code had planned on wearing a sarong to cover my legs so I didn’t have to wear hot pants all day. Nope. We got turned away and had to go buy pants for me and a shirt for Athena at the overpriced street vendors outside. But it was worth it. The grand palace is somethin’ for sure. Sooo much gold. You could pay for a tour guide but we went it on our own and picked up facts here and there from other groups in passing. I heard tours in at least 6 languages, which is pretty impressive. 

 

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All gold all day and the detail work is pretty amazing

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Us and the 10,000 other people there that day.  #you’rejealousofourelephantpants

After the grand palace we hopped back on a ferry over to Wat Arun. Super cool porcelain temple with multiple levels and supposedly a great view of the city. Sadly the upper levels were closed so no view for us, but still and incredible place. 

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Wat Arun!!
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It’s made out of plaster with inlaid pieces of tiling the sparkle in the light

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We grabbed lunch and headed back down the river to our hostel looking for a quick A/C break from the overbearing heat of Bangkok. At this point Athena and I both decided that while it was a cool city it wasn’t exactly our speed so we went back to the rooftop and planned our journey the next day (by bus) to Sukhothai. 

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My lovely travel partner doing her best interpretation of “I don’t know you’re standing there with a camera”

The day being not quite done for the day we decide to check out the temple of the golden Buddha just 5 minute walk from our place in Chinatown. Many of the Buddha statues in Thailand are painted gold, some even using real 24 carrot flake, but the Buddha at Wat Tramit is 100% solid pure gold. Originally this Buddha was housed in the old capital of Thailand but right after it was made it was encased in plaster to conceal it from being plundered by invaders just on the capitals border. And so it sat as an unknown treasure for some 400 years until a piece of the plaster broke when the Buddha was being transported to a new temple. Pretty cool eh?

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100% solid GOLD!

For dinner we had heard about a vegetarian festival going on down in the Hindi neighborhood and we both thought it was time Athena got a proper meal. We ended up stopping at a place called “cheaper and better street food” and it was pretty good food but even better they had signs for their affiliate business “cheaper and better Thai massage” so after a long day we said “why not” and followed one of the employees three streets over to a hole in the wall where we got 1hr massages for both of us for 400THB or about $13 not to shabby. 

The next day we woke up and took the subway north to Chatuchak Park. We walked through the park and made our way to the bus station. We didn’t know exactly when the bus would leave but we managed to find our way there and get a bus ticket for the 8hr journey there north to Sukohthai. I used the hour and a half we had in the bus terminal to update my “new” phone with some music so I wouldn’t go insane and filled up on 7-11 munchies for the road. 

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Mo Chit is Bangkok’s northern most bus terminal and serves pretty much anything north in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar

Apart from the ungodly terrible smell the permeated the whole bus anytime someone opened the bathroom door, it really wasn’t that bad. The bus made a stop about 3 hours in for a bathroom break and some food which came included in the price of your 300THB ticket. As we got closer to Sukohthai we looked out the windows to find the open rice fields and jungle covered mountain sides. We both new immediately this was much more the speed of Thailand we were expecting. 

 

Japan: The Prolonged Layover (part 2)

Eating Sushi In Fujiyoshida

I’m sorry to say there are no pictures to go along with this story but once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why.

So I’ll start with some unpopular opinions. Personally I’m not the hugest fan of seafood and sushi has never been my first choice of meal but when in Japan of course I was going to try it. That combined with Athena and my complete and utter lack of Japanese conversing skills lead us to the conclusion that classic Japanese conveyor belt sushi was the way to go for us. We could wait, choose by sight and have limited embarrassing interaction with sushi chefs who would think us uncultured swine. That being said at least we did our research before hand in some basic sushi etiquette, which ended up being helpful, but not enough.

The sushi place our hostel manager had recommended was indeed conveyor belt sushi, but having not eaten much all day and being starving that we were we went in at about 5:30/6 and it was EMPTY. Like not a single other person, conveyor belts not rolling, just a host and two sushi chefs at a bar sitting and hanging out. Yes they were open and we were sat at the bar right between the two chefs. And so began one of the most delicious, awkward, comical and minorly humiliating experiences of my life. I had become unfortunately spoiled by most Japanese peoples ability to understand and typically speak fluent English. Our two sushi chefs in fujiyoshida….not so much. They gave us a menu and thank god there were pictures to communicate and with them both staring down at us from above we managed to order some food. Silly me being the American that I am who says thank you every time a waiter comes to the table in the US, kindly origato-ed to each dish he served causing the sue-chef to chuckle and smile at us and point to say “Canadian?” And so began a non lingual conversation of hand movements and occasional English words on their end. After we’d eaten our fill, and still with not a single other person in the restaurant we managed to mime “check” and thanked the chefs one last time as we walked to the counter to pay with the two of them stifling full belly’s of laughter as we left.

As to the quality of the sushi though, this was something next level to anything I’ve ever had before pretending to be seafood. Eel that melted in your mouth, delectable fatty tuna with just the right about of wasabi, and the best damn pickled ginger over ever had. That and a full meal for two came out to about ¥1800 or about $16.50! Satisfied and mortified Athena and I made it out the door and broke out into laughter of our own, but hey first awkwardly delicious foreign meal in the books! Sorry for the lack of photos but I couldn’t bring myself to photograph my food with two chefs chuckling and staring down at us.

Japan: The prolonged layover (part 1)

Tokyo: The silent city

We got off the plane after the 11 hour flight from LAX and made our way through customs. It was one of the easiest customs experience I’ve ever had. Everything is streamlined for maximum efficiency. No visa application needed and within 25 minutes of getting off the plane Athena and I had our first stamp good until the 9th of January!

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 As soon as we were through we headed over to the tourist information center and bought a Japanese SIM card with 8 days of unlimited data usage for ¥3500. We’d heard there was WiFi all over japan but a lot of places require a Japanese SIM card to get on it. That and a google maps crutch was reassuring for me traveling in a country where, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to read anything (more on that later).
We got train tickets for the Skyliner to Nippori station and we were off! I know this was no bullet train but holy hot cakes it was cruisin. We were both beat after the 28 hours of travel with a 5.5 hour nap in the middle, but my brain was working full tilt to take in as much as I could as I practically got whiplash swinging my head back and forth at high speed. A quick 40 minute ride later and we’re in Tokyo!
The hostel we stayed at was about a half mile walk from the Nippori train station so we decided to stretch our legs a bit and take a walk. A minute from the station and we were walking through tiny back residential streets and the first thing we both noticed was….it’s soooo quiet. Sure it was residential, but I grew up in a similar metro residential area in Boston but here there was NO hustle bustle of the city. There was the occasional clip-clop of a train passing but other than that…silent.

We got to the guest house and checked in to our “capsules” and took a shower. The dormitory capsules were stacked 2 tall and about 5 long down each side of the room. A really cool concept on hostel beds. After cleaning up a bit we decided to take a little walk and after a bit of googling I realized we were about 30 minute train ride from the real there there on Tokyo. We were both dead tired and Athena was trying to beat the last bit of a cold that struck right as we left Boston, so we decided to stay local and talk a walk around the neighborhood.

It was now about 5pm local time so we grabbed some food on the go and people watched as business men made their walks home from work and mothers picked their kids up from daycare and ran errands on specially designed electric bikes that could carry 2 kids and the nights groceries. I don’t know what I was expecting to find but here are a couple of the quick things I noticed in my first few hours in Toyko.
1. There is no unused space. Houses are practically on top of each other, but simultaneously there high rises are few and far between. Rooftops of low rise apartment buildings have netted areas that my masterful powers of deduction have concluded are used for some kind of exercise. Even in the residential areas like Nippori there is a vast mix of residential and warehouse/industrial intermixed and on top of each other on the small back streets. Parking lots are barely the size of the buildings around them but all have elevators to stack cars 2 to 5 tall. Gas stations in the heart of the city feed from the roof so pump stations don’t take up excess space. This amazed me and brought me some funny looks from locals at the weird guy taking lots of pictures of the gas station.
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2.Cars are tiny. Like comically small boxes with 10in wheels, but anything bigger wouldn’t fit down many of the narrow one way back streets that zig and zag every direction.

3.Bicycles are everywhere. Makes sense in a tight city where parking is expensive and hard to find but the shear number caught me off guard. Walking past these strange kiosks a man came up to me and explained they are bicycle storage elevators that go underground and can hold UP TO 600 bikes!!

4.Vending machines are on every other corner. And they sell anything you could think of  from your favorite soft beverage to cigarettes.

5.It is sooo freakin quiet!

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Bicycle is the primary mode of transport on tiny back streets

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We passed out by 7pm to get a good nights sleep before getting up the next morning to head down to Fujiyoshida hopefully to get a glimpse of Mount Fuji!
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7-11 pancake sandwiches are delicious!! Also all the signage is in Japanese, English and sometime Chinese too.
Waking up early wasn’t hard and we packed our day bags for a night as we planned to spend a night in Kawaguchiko and come back the next day. We stopped at 7-11 for some snacks for the road and oooh my god I’ve fallen in love. 7-11 in Japan actually has some pretty decent and cheap food. Rice balls of all different flavors make a great snack but my favorite thing by far were these mini pancake sandwiches stuffed with butter and maple syrup that are DANGEROUS!!
Headed over to the train and made our way to Tokyo station. Remember how earlier I said I though I wouldn’t be able to read/understand anything. Well almost all the signage was also in English and in the one instance were we got completely lost transferring trains, people were more than friendly and helpful in pointing us back in the right direction. But once again, it is silent. The trains were stuffed to the brim with commuters and everyone is lessening to their music or reading manga on their phones (seriously sooo many people) but there is not a sounds. When we made it to Tokyo station got off the train and entered the mass that is the central connection point for most of the trains and busses in Tokyo the only noise you could hear was the thunderous clomp of shoes on the floor. No street performers. No conversations in passing. No advertisements or even announcements. Just shoes. After wandering back and forth in what I thought was the right direction we finally found the JR bus ticket office and 10 minutes later were aboard a bus headed to kawaguchiko. We got onto the highway heading southwest and for the next hour we were still in the sprawling urbanization that is Tokyo proper. Then through a tunnel and suddenly we were surrounded by green!

Fujiyoshida!

Our original plan had been to come down to Fujiyoshida and take a relaxing day soaking in a traditional Japanese onsen overlooking Mount Fuji. But as I’m sure we’ll figure out soon, travel plans rarely are what ends up actually happening. The journey there was pretty and green but as we approached there were some dark angry looking clouds in the sky. But more importantly from about 15 minutes away Athena recognized something she loves arguably more than soaking in hot water….roller coasters! In the distant loomed Fuji-Q Highland, Japan’s favorite theme park at the base of a mountain. We continued on to our stop deliberating on what to do with our day. Getting off at Kawaguchiko station we walked past our hostel, 5 minutes away to familiarize ourselves with the area and decided, Fuji-Q here we come. It was a quick 25 minute walk again through small gravel back roads barely a tiny-cars width wide but here in between houses were scattered small local gardens. It was amazing how in that short walk from a main bus terminal to a large amusement park you could feel so instantly like you were in the country.

We got to Fuji-Q and it was awesome. Cheaper than any amusement park I had ever been to in the states with half the lines and just as many wild rollercoasters.
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It seemed like every ride there boasted the steepest drop in the world, or most spins in the world. We even took the Ferris wheel and for a moment in there the sun broke through the clouds and we could see the top of Mount Fuji. It was an unexpectedly awesome way to spend the day. Sure the weather wasn’t spectacular but even so the surrounding mountains and hills around Fuji are beautiful with the natural Grey clouds rolling over their peaks. That and now I know I just have an excuse to come back and hike to the top of Fuji when the suns out and I can really see the valley for what it is.
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Ferris wheels, roller coasters and giant swings make for a great time at the base of Mount Fuji
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But the sun showed its face for a hot second too
After a day in at the amusement park we walked back to the hostel and got checked in and man what a cool place that was. If you’re ever in the Fujiyoshida area I highly recommend checking out the Kagelow Mt Fuji hostel. It’s got a modern industrial shic vibe with its own restaurant and lounge and operated by the nicest group of guys. We asked one of them his favorite local place for food and his words “well if I’m going to eat out around here of course it’s going to be sushi”. And he pointed us in the right direction. It was still a little early so instead we walked down to the lake front and hung out in a park that overlooked the lake and rising mountains beyond. After a bit we decided it was time to head back and try our first sushi in Japan!

MORE ON JAPAN SOON!!