Thailand

2nd Week of our 6-Week Journey

 

 

DEC 10, 2019  CHAING MAI
Yep, taxi No# 21 showed up at the Phitsanulok Airbnb at 6:35 am. Pim, our Airbnb host, even got up to see us off. She is a lovely lady and a super host. Ten minutes later, we were dropped off at the Phitsanulok railway station's ticket office, buying our 65 THB (2.10 USD) ticket to Chiang Mai.

The train scooped us up from platform #2 almost on time. All the cars had those scary hand loops hanging down from the ceiling for the Standee Only tickets.  So far, we have been pleasantly surprised that all the train ticket personnel speak English. The ticket agent assured us that we didn't need to worry about finding seats. She was right. I plopped down on a window seat and remained there for the entire trip to Chain Mai. However, we were confused about the first train tickets we purchased as Standee Only tickets. Later, we discovered that we could have asked for an assigned seat for an extra 20 BHT -- well worth the price. On the next train, we were confirmed assigned seats before we even asked for it. On this train, we were told there weren't any assigned seats -  just pick a seat as soon as we board. What I did get is that our cost from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was 245 THB (8.38 USD) each.That's a deal!

The ride from Phitsanulok to Chiang Mai was stunning, especially after we went through our first tunnel and came out in the mountains. We had one surprise, though. After traveling 1/3 of the trip, we were told that we had to change. Huh? The conductor repeated the word, "change, change." Then added, "follow her," and pointed to a lady across the aisle. She smiled and nodded, "yes." We guessed that we had to change trains to get to Chiang Mai. The train stopped, the lady got off and went right on an empty train, one track over. We followed and the new train immediately took off. Whoa! Was that the correct move? At the next station, we saw a sign that pointed back to the direction we came from with the word "Bangkok" and pointed forward to the direction we were going with the name "Chiang Mai." That was a good sign.

Gone were the low flat rice fields. In the hill country, it was mostly small fields of corn, and what I swear was marijuana. I consulted with google and found out that hemp was legalized in 2017, and north Thailand was bracing for a boom in hemp agriculture.

The northern countryside was rural, clean, and very scenic with pockets of the jungle. For seven hours, the train edged north. An army of vendors strolled up and down the cars singing out something that meant, "I have food, buy some food." We did buy something. Wanda bought, what she thought were those semi-dried bananas for a snack. They weren't. They were some kind of fat brown jellied legume with a flavor that was just too foreign for us to eat. We did buy some hot fried chicken legs and packets of sticky rice, all homemade by the lady vendor just before she boarded the train.

The train engine revved up to a roar whenever it had a chance to air it out. The racket reverberated throughout the entire train, causing a lot of  vibrations. The train clawed its way up the mountain grades and zoomed down the mountain hills. Passengers came and went. The whole seven-hour scene was glorious and almost sad when we pulled into the Chiang Mai station, just 5 minutes late at 2:40 pm.

The toughest part of the day was finding our Airbnb in Chiang Mai. We had to go by taxi. We showed a cab driver the address. He exuded the kind of confidence of someone who's "got this" and quoted Wanda 50 BHT per person (1.65 USD) - steep for Thailand, but what the heck, he knows where to go and we don't. However, as soon as we jumped into the cab, he asked Wanda to type the address into his phone's google maps. OK, that kind of made sense. We started to get apprehensive when we saw that he had google maps set to "walking." Of course, his command of the English language was limited to three or four stock words, which is vastly larger than our Thai language skills.

Thai addresses are very weird and complicated. They don't seem to nail down a single house. It's more like a general neighborhood. Halfway to our destination, Wanda was able to have him hand his phone over so she could change google maps to driving mode. Once we arrived at the destination, nothing looked remotely like the Airbnb photo. Wanda found two more pieces of the puzzle: the phone number for the Airbnb host, and a street number - 121/5. The driver called the Airbnb host, and after some back and forth in Thai, he brightened up and took off down another road - apparently, we were on the wrong street.

We stopped a couple of times at different places, but nothing matched Wanda's photo nor the 121/5 address numbers. We got out and showed some people milling about the address. They shrugged, but pointed in a general direction. Soon, we felt that tingling sensation you get when think you are close to a major breakthrough. We were zeroing in on it. Finally, we all looked down a tiny alley to another side alley and recognized, from the photo, the front of the Airbnb. Because the cab driver saw it at the same time that we all did, he took the credit for the find and hit us up for an extra 100 BHT (3.l25 USD) for his Sherlock Holmes-like sleuthing. Oh well, it was worth it, we would never have found it without him. The Airbnb was another two-bedroom bungalow apartment.

By the time we got settled into our Airbnb and gobbled up some fried chicken and sticky rice, it was already pushing 4 pm. It was time to explore our new neighborhood. We kneew we were located 15 minutes walking-distance from the "Old City."  Chiang Mai is a walled-in square with lots of recommended sites. It was too late to explore the old city thoroughly, so we saved that for the next day. Instead, we just wanted to see where it was and find a restaurant to complete our supper.

Just a half a block away, we came across a little neighborhood store deep inside a dark shack. The proprietor didn't have much inventory, but he had Leo beer in the big bottles, and bottled water. We bought liters of both and walked it back to the apartment.
 

Enroute to Chiang Mai's Old City, we passed many shrines with fresh food offerings, a small but exquisite temple surrounded by colorful dragons and were mesmerized by what seems to be the standard electrical grid that we have seen since Bangkok.

We also ran across a large market that was just closing up and made a mental note to check that out later. The Old City is guarded by a wall or at least parts of the old wall. There are only a handful of gates through the wall, one or two on each side of the square. Each side of the square is about a mile long with a moat paralleling the wall. We entered from the Suan Prung Gate, one of the southern gates.

We immediately noticed western tourists. Throughout much of our tour so far, we were the distinct minority tourist wandering around, even in Bangkok. Chiang Mai is truly an international city with tons of expats and tourists. The Old City also had several ultra-high-end hotels, something we haven't seen until now. On the whole, Chiang Mai is very clean, even in the poor areas. There still are the corrugated metal and wood shacks, but there are a fair number of modern buildings and homes. It is a lot like Bangkok.

The hardest part of finding a place to eat in Chiang Mai is the choices are so plentiful. One smart restaurant had their menus with lots of big photos and prices on the sidewalk. All of us found something attractive on the photo-menu before entering.

I got snow pea pods with shrimp, and Wanda got a shrimp noodle soup. Both were excellent. The soup had a light, clean flavor with noodles and perfectly cooked sprouts. The shrimp in both of our dishes were jumbo. The sauce in my dish was incredible. Again, fresh, but with a light smokiness. We ordered a big side dish of rice for 5 BHT (.15 USD). Heinrich and I split a Leo beer, and Wanda got a lemongrass tea. For dessert, Wanda and I split sticky rice and mango desert. I was stuffed. Our bill was 325 BHT (10.75 USD) - not bad for two seafood dishes, desert, and drinks.

It was dark when we finished supper. We weren't quite ready to return to the apartment. While aimlessly roaming up and down the streets, we stumbled upon a vast temple complex, Wat Phra Singh. The main temple was closed, but the gate to the grounds was open. Near the back of the complex was a humongous golden chedi bathed in floodlights,  nearly blinding us.

On our way back to the apartment, we saw more and more restaurants jammed with tourists. Chiang Mai is, indeed, where the expats go.

 

 

DEC 11, 2019. CHIANG MAI Day 2

Wow, what a day! We walked a total of 10 mile trekking through a big chunk of Old Town, New Town, and Chinatown. We ate every goofy snack that caught our eye and toured a million temples.

But, before we left, Wanda was hell-bent on getting our clothes laundered. Online, she found Washdrop, a laundry pickup and delivery service and arranged to have all of our dirty clothes picked up by 9 am this morning and delivered tomorrow morning by 9 am. I was skeptical if the pickup person could find us because of all the trouble our taxi driver had. I needn't have worried - it was a young driver who came by on his scooter. With Wanda smugly smiling, we were free to leave the Airbnb and discover Chiang Mai.

It was decided earlier to try breakfast at a little neighborhood bar down the street. We all ordered the boiled chicken and rice with clear chicken soup on the side. We only had positive things to say about eating chicken and rice for the first meal of the day.

 

Back to the big golden chedi at Wat Phra Sigh in the Old Town, along the way, Wanda spotted a hair Salon that interested her. She hasn't cut her hair in two years and was ready to get it shortened. In Chicago, she paid up to 80 USD for just a trim. Here they wanted 400 THB (13.23 USD), a lot for Thailand, but it was a high-end salon worth trying.

 

Just outside the Wat, we found a songthaew driver that agreed to take us to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep mountain temple tomorrow at 11 am for 400 THB (13.23 USD).

Wat Phra Sigh was just as impressive in the daytime as at night. Sadly, the huge main temple was closed for renovation, but the big golden chedi gleamed in the sunlight. There were lots of young Buddhist monks walking about. One side note on the Wat: To use the toilets, you had to take off your shoes. Granted, the floors were polished.

There is a unique walking street through the Old Town. It's more of a walking route as it entails a couple of streets. The main drag is Ratchdammoen Road. We headed down that street. The eclectic collection of restaurants, hotels, shops, temples, and street vendors was astounding - from classy to funky to cobbled-together. The food all looked terrific and inviting. The expats, tourists and young backpacking couples were everywhere.

The next temple complex we found was Wat Chedi Luang was another very Mayan-like pyramid.This Wat featured the ruins of a giant stone chedi, guarded by ferocious dragon gargoyles. It was more of a four-sided pyramid than the typical bell-shaped chedi. On each of the four sides, way up on top, was a Buddha.

A cool feature at this complex was a booth staffed by Buddhists Monks where you could walk up anytime to ask questions about Buddhism and Thai culture. Sadly, we didn't take advantage of this opportunity. I'm still kicking myself for that.

We took a side street and found the best smoothie shop. Diane and Heinrich each got an orange-lime-pineapple smoothie. Wanda and I split a mango-passion fruit smoothie and a chupalata. In Mexico, we fell in love with paletas that were similar to the Thai chupalata; fruit purée on a stick. Our chupalata was mixed fruit and yogurt and scrumptious and slightly different than our Mexican favorite.

The next temple was Wat Phan Tao. Although temple complexes are laid out with one main temple; a chedi in the back of the main temple, and several side temples, each compound has its own very distinctive style making it endlessly fascinating to check each one. Wat Phan Tao had its own wonderful flavor.

Next, the Three Kings Monument. The monument itself was rather small, but it looks over a large plaza bordered by The Cultural Museum. Chiang Mai was hosting its first annual ceramics art show where several ceramic sculptures were on display.

 

We exited Old Town through the Thapae Gate, which gave way to another large plaza before coming to the main thoroughfare through New Town. Just off Thapae Road, on an alley, I noticed a currency exchange shop. We've been monitoring the exchange rates along our walks hovering around 33.54 THB to the Euro. This shop was pegged at 33.40 THB to Euros. We jumped on it. I exchanged 500 Euros for 16,700 THB - that's a wad of bills!

After about a dozen or so temples, we finally arrived at Chinatown. Nearly as large and as intricately laced with back alley markets and gold vendors as Bangkok's Chinatown with the same exuberance.

Chinatown markets in Thailand are special. First off, a street vendor caught our eye as she poured a green pudding-like substance on a pancake'ish batter sizzling on a grill. When sufficiently browned, she pinched the side together - they were ready to serve. She also had tiny hots dogs, and giant fat hotdogs wrapped up in a thin pancake-like "pigs in a blanket." We bought a bunch of each and enjoyed the new flavors. The green filling was a mildly sweet pudding.

Next, we found a vedor grilling tiny bird eggs in a round bubble griddle. She supplemented the eggs with cooked sticky rice on a stick. I bought a dozen of the tiny grilled, poached eggs and sticky rice. We enjoyed it all.

Our mission in Chinatown was to find the bus to Lamphun, a historic town about an hour away. We were looking for a bus station, but all we found were endless rows of songthaews. When we asked the drivers about "bus Lamphun?" they all replied in rapid Thai and pointed towards the nearest walking bridge over the river. Eventually, we found a songthaew with "Chiang Mai - Lamphun" printed in big white letters. I guess that was the bus.

It was starting to get dark, and we were at the farthest point away from the apartment. It was time to head back. But first, we stopped for more pigs in a blanket. At this time, Chinatown was going through a changeover from day marketers to the night marketers. We found our pigs-in-a-blanket vendor was still there. We also sampled some dried mangos, grapefruit peel, and strawberries. The strawberries were sinful. The grapefruit peels were surprisingly tasty.

Watching the night market take shape as we slowly started walking back was mind-boggling. All of the vendors were a blur of motion as each booth had billions of wares to put on display.

We hit a couple more temples on the way back, most notably Wat Bupparam. The main temple's architecture had more than the usual frills, curls, gold trim, and roof levels.

 

Wanda's salon was still open when we returned. She barely stepped foot indoors when she was whisked away to be pampered beyond belief. For 400 THB (13 USD), she experienced a 20-minute shampoo with neck and shoulder massage then led to the styling chair. A different specialist started the hair cut. Once the cut was completed, two girls took over to blow-dry a style. One stylist stretched a strip of hair lengthwise while the other directed the dryer over the strip of hair. Once her hair was completely dried, the first hairstylist returned to give a final trim. Wanda claims the experience was well worth the 400 THB (13 USD). I think my hair is getting a bit unruly.  

While Wanda was getting pampered, Diane, Heinrich, and I had a couple of Leos at a nearby restaurant while we people-watched. A young couple caught our eye. When they got up to leave, they hoisted the biggest, fullest backpacks any of us have ever seen. The young lady not only had her giant turtle shell wrapped around her back, but she also had a spot for her baby to ride in. Jeez, I got a backache just watching. But, a couple of Leos back at the apartment loosened up the back.

 

DEC 12, 2019. Chiang Mai Day 3

At 9 am sharp, our laundry arrived crisply folded and wrapped in cellophane. It cost 242 THB (8 USD).

At 10:45 am, we met up with our songthaew driver at the agreed upon pickup location. He said something that sounded like Moon, so that’s what I’ll call him. Moon is a jolly round Thai man. He was tickled to see us. Right after we gave him the 400 THB (13 USD), he pulled out a worn, laminated sheet with a thousand thumbnail photos of adventures we could add to our itinerary. We saw an obscure picture of some people riding elephants. One item on Diane’s bucket list is riding an elephant. I immediately pointed to the elephant riding photo. He brightened up. “No problem, elephant ride, no problem, go now.”

Moon’s enthusiasm was so sweet. I’d have gone just about anywhere with the guy. Through lots of sign language, pointing at pictures, broken English, grimaces, and you betcha’s, we thought we had a schedule set up. First, we were going to the elephant sanctuary because it operates only until 1:30 pm. Then go to the mountain temple at Doi Suppeth National Park because the national park stays open later. Somewhere in the conversation, I heard him say 250. I assumed that he meant 250 THB extra for the added attraction. OK.

We crawled in the back of his songthaew. In Chiang Mai, the songthaews are much smaller than the big trucks we rode Sukhothai. These smaller trucks are glorified tuk-tuks with little headspace. He laughed and said something to the effect that the tiny Japanese fit nicely in the back, but not us. His funny, cheerful manner made me wonder if he wasn’t Buddha in disguise.

After an hour of travel, with the last several miles up a switchback mountain road, he stopped at the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary NO RIDE & WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE. Oops.  We picked up the laminated sheet in the songthaew and with gestures, broken English, and pointing showed him the photo we requested. With an enormous grin, he proceeds to the private Maesa Elephant Camp another 10 km away.

After, what seemed like 30 km, we pulled into the Maesa Elephant Camp. This time, the ticket office indicated elephant ride tickets for sale, and they were expensive. I offered to sacrifice my ride and kick in towards Diane’s ticket so she and Wanda could experience riding an elephant in Thailand. With the proper display of guilt, she agrees. However, she still pays for her ticket - yeah gotta love her. It was just past noon. Moon curled up in the back of his truck and said he would sleep. The rides didn’t start until 1 pm, so we had 50 minutes to roam around.

 

Here we learned that Thailand elephants have a special protected status as the national animal of Thailand. Historically, elephants were used in logging teak wood. However, logging teak wood is now banned, leaving thousands of domesticated elephants in limbo. Domesticated elephants can not survive in the wild without drifting back to human communities, so several sanctuaries exist to protect and care for them.

Some of the booths sold bananas and sugar cane stalks for folks to feed to the tamed elephants. The elephants watched us purchase their treats, and immediately signaled their eagerness. Each had a whisperer to guide us in the proper way to hand-feed the gentle-but eager-giants. We took pictures of them hugging and kissing us with their trunks. The personal engagement was really cool.

Soon, it was riding time. Diane and Wanda got up on a small seat on an elephant’s back, with a barefooted elephant whisperer squatted around its neck. The elephants picked up a wad of fat grass stalks laid especially for them at the start of the trail. They proceeded to stroll toward a jungle path munching their mouthful of green stalks. The elephants seemed to love it. Wanda, Diane and the others in the line, certainly enjoyed the experience. Once on the hilltop (maybe a half block away), another pile of fat green stalks was waiting for the round-riders.To keep the humans entertained while the riders grabbed another mouthful of greens, their whisperers took selfies for everyone in line — Scratch one more thing off of Diane’s bucket list.

An elephant show started a few minutes after the rides were completed. In an amphitheater, the elephants performed several skits and skill demonstrations, including; soccer, dancing, playing the harmonica, and even painted pictures.

Three of the elephant-Picassos each created a painting in full view of the audience. Granted, all had the same theme, but each was unique quickly sold after the show for 2000 THB per picture (60 USD). We were truly amazed.

 

In a dart-throwing skit, Wanda was picked out of the crowd to compete with an elephant. Two targets of balloons were set up about 20 feet in front of the contestants. When Wanda hit three balloons, and the elephant only popped two, the elephant defiantely stepped up to her balloon-targets and popped them all. It looked like all the elephants were enjoying hamming it up.

I had read that some of these camps have a dubious reputation of being somewhat cruel to the elephants. In the short time we were there, it all seemed delightful. I never felt like the animals were treated aggressively - at least that was my impression and hope.

 

All the elephant parks collect elephant poo to process into paper products called poo-poo paper. The paper that the elephant-artists painted on was poo-poo paper.

Moon, our. songthaew driver was delighted that we were pleased. He offered to take us to other nearby attractions; including a village with a tribe of people where women stretched their necks with a set of neck-rings. We were in the Ma Sae Valley, where many mountain villages and waterfalls exist. We probably should have just stayed in the valley, but it was already 2:45 pm and our plan was to visit the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep mountain temple today.

 

It was another hour’s ride to Doi Suthep mountain, and much of it was climbing another mountain switchback road. The jungle was lush and gorgeous. Moon dropped us off at a huge line of vendors at the foot of the 305-step stairway to the temple complex. Moon then pointed to the stairs and then pointed to a funicular (a tram-like elevator that goes up mountains on a steep angle). We choose the funicular and agreed to return in an hour.

 

The ride up was 20 THB (.60 USD); the temple entrance fee was 30 THB (1 USD). Both were worth it. Although Wat Phra That Doi Suthep had turned into a crowded tourist site, the complex on the top was beautiful, with tons of gold and jade. The view, overlooking Chiang Mai, was stunning. The grounds were lush green. One thing did crack me up. There was an area filled with lovely-but-artificial flowers. They were high-quality fakes - you had to look close up to detect it.

Before hopping back into the truck, we got a few snacks. I found a lady cooking the tiny quail eggs and bought a dozen. Another vendor had corn on the cob. That would have been too messy. However, we did purchase a cupful of corn kernels to eat in the back of the truck.

When we were dropped off at the end of the day, we gave Moon an extra 500 THB (16 USD). Thai people have the most endearing way of showing thanks. They put their hands together in front of their chest and make a slight bow. We got thank-you bows for the smallest things, like purchasing a little snack or moving out of the way of someone taking a picture. Our 500 THB (16 USD) tip got us a 5-bow thank you and a huge grin. What a cool guy.

Before heading to the apartment, we stopped off for supper. I ordered fried peppers with chicken and a side of rice. Wanda got a Pad Thai shrimp and noodle dish. We split both and both were good, but I liked the grilled peppers better. The sauce was spectacular.

 

 

DEC 13, 2019. Chiang Mai Day 4

We've been in Chiang Mai for a few days. It's time to nail down where are departure bus station is located. We plan to head north to Thaton by bus, spend one night, and ride the four-hour river trip in long-boats to Chiang Rai. There are three different Chiang Mai bus stations scattered throughout the city. Diane's research found that the bus to Thaton operated out of the Chang Puak Bus Station. Google maps pegged the location of the bus station to be just north of Old Town. I was still nervous because of our difficulty in finding the Lamphun Bus Terminal, which turned out to be nothing but a couple of songthaew parked by the river in Chinatown. Oh yeah, songthaew sounds like song-TOW (rhymes with wow); there isn't a plural for songthaew - that will drive me crazy.

Before leaving the Airbnb, I wrote out a bunch of locations and addresses on paper to help when hailing a driver. With Google translator, I was even able to copy & paste any address in Thai to have both English and Thai versions of the same address displayed on my iPad. The iPad visually enhanced the addresses to show to drivers quickly in high traffic, or just in case verbal communications weren't working. It was evident that even when we know the name of our destination, our pronunciation still confuses. It was also evident that some of the older Thai drivers had difficulty reading either version. One more trick we used was the voicebox of Google translator; talk in the speaker, then press translate on speaker and it would translate your verbal sentence(s) to your designated language. This worked great, if you had cell coverage. Anyway, communicating using Google Translator was actually fun.

 

As soon as we emerged from our Airbnb a songthaew drove past us. We immediately hailed him down.
I had the Chang Puak Bus Station written out, and I showed the driver. He took us straight there and pointed out the ticket window. The driver spoke a bit more English than most, and we got across that we were going to Chinatown afterward and needed a ride there, too. He understood and waited to take us to Chinatown.

We found out that several buses make the Thaton run. We wanted to purchase our tickets in advance, but tickets can only be purchased on the day of departure. We did nail down that we wanted to be on the 9 am bus. It's a four-hour trip. That would get us to Thaton in the early afternoon.

Next, it was off to Chinatown. We were dropped off by the river, right next to the Lamphun Bus Terminal. Before getting in the songthaew to Lamphun, we picked up some snacks from the street vendors. This, of course, included the familiar pigs-in-a-blanket snack at our favorite vendor.  Wanda found another vendor with a chicken-rotisserie machine. It could only handle half chickens, so the lady had to whack a whole chicken in half before hanging up the chicken halves in the rotisserie. Wanda bought a stick full of six white round balls of unbreaded grilled chicken on a stick along with a baggy of sticky rice. The meal was actually good tasting.

The 30 km, one-hour ride to Lamphun cost a measly 20 THB (0.65 USD). This songthaew holds ten people comfortably, but the drivers will crowd in more when they need to. How can they make a profit unless the drivers are subsidized? It was the same in Mexico. The collectivo drivers charged so little that they, too, had to be subsidized.

After he packed the four of us in the truck with six other folks, lashed down a few boxes on the back ledge of the truck, and tossed a box labeled "Honda" on the top carrying rack, we were on our way to Lamphun. I believe a songthaew makes this trip every half hour. Wanda figured out how to talk into her phone's google translator app to get a written or verbal translation in Thai. Using this, we tried to find out when the last bus returns to Chiang Mai from Lamphun and found out there was a  5 pm and a 7 pm departure. We decided on the  5 pm schedule to be on the safe side.

The entire highway, highway 106, was one long market lining the highway with vendor after vendor. Stops were made along the way to drop off passengers and deliver the Honda box. He dropped us off in the middle of downtown Lamphun; there wasn't any discernible bus stop. Wanda pulled up Google Nav on her cellphone, tapped our location (the blue dot)  then tapped "Save your parking" to mark our drop off spot on google maps when we return. Hopefully, this is where we will be picked up, as well.  (TIP: To use Google Nav to return, bring up Google Nav on your cellphone, tap the search field, then tap Parking Location. You'll now of directions to the saved start-location.)

Lamphun is a small, clean, quiet town. We liked it right away and headed to Wat Sri Bun Rueng, the main temple complex in Lamphun. On the way, we stopped at a street vendor making fried chicken - my sister is a very picky eater but likes chicken. Next door, at Lamphun Ice Coffee Shop, we got a frothy milked green tea. The friendly young Thai guy swooshed and stirred and shook until he had a bright green, slightly thickened liquid to pour over ice. He added a large dab of white froth on top. It was refreshing. Thai guy also spoke English, and when we asked him where the bus stand was, he was going to leave his shop and take us right over. Of course, we said "no" to that. After our purchase, we got at least four thank you bows - one for the purchase and three for not making him leave his shop. We also found another vendor selling grilled, miniature coconut pancakes - heavenly.

Wat Sri Bun Rueng was impressive. Lots of gold, lots of Buddhas, a huge temple, a giant chedi, and several smaller temples. This temple complex required shoes off for much of the grounds as well as the toilets. The main temple was the typical ornate beauty that we've come to expect.

Diane read about a handicraft market with vague directions. On our way to look for it, we came upon a long covered bridge over a wide river. Inside a covered bridge seems like a good place for vendors, right?

 

You betcha! We picked up some dried pineapple, strawberries, mango, langdon berries, and Thai cherries. Langdon berries grow on trees in Thailand. They are the size of cherries but green. Diane will guard them, so we will have them for the 4-hour boat ride from Thaton to Chiang Rai.

A lot of vendors were selling fancy handmade clothing, mainly colorful dresses. Along the outside of the covered bridge, on both sides, hung a narrow lane for scooters. What a great bridge.

After poking around the neighborhood on the other side of the bridge, we found an open wooden building with 4 or 5 looms and a couple of ladies working on two of them, weaving intricately designed bolts of cloth. We found out that the bolts ranged from 1200 THB ($39 USD) for a plain material to 2500 BHT (81 USD) for a patterned material. The expensive one would have made a great table cloth. But, we are traveling light.

Across town was a big indoor market that was calling us. It was closing up when we arrived, but enough vendors were still opened for us to give a peek. Heinrich found a pair of weird crock-like shoes to wear at the Airbnbs. We are noticing a unique trend that the Airbnb houses in Thailand have wet-baths. Like RVs, the shower is the whole bathroom. That means the entire bathroom gets wet and stays wet for most of the day after you take a shower. That also means you need to wear flip-flops to use the toilet for most of the day or night. Inside our Airbnb, we usually walk around in socks. Heinrich figured it would be easy to just slip on a pair of crocks to go pee. They were only 150 THB, but when we got back to the Airbnb, he discovered they were defected - bummer.

We visited a few more temples and monuments before taking another stab at locating the bus station. Across the street and down a half block from where we were dropped off, we noticed two benches on the sidewalk about 50 feet apart. The first bench had three young monks sitting on them. The other bench had a couple of people milling about. We asked the monks if their bench was the bus stand. They looked quizzically at each other and then pointed to the other bench. At the other bench we found a piece of paper with some times written on it. The last entry was 5:30 pm. If that was the bus schedule, so much for 7 pm as the last bus to Chiang Mai. It was 4:30 pm, so we plopped down and waited.

Soon enough, a songthaew pulled up to the first bench and picked up a bunch of passengers. We ran down to meet it. The truck was pretty full, but we squeezed in. In the next two blocks, five school kids grabbed onto the narrow back platform and hung on. So, a truck set up to carry ten rumbled down the road with 14 passengers inside and five passengers hanging on the back. The kids only went about two or three miles, but can you imagine doing that back home?

 

Once we got close to Chinatown, I tracked our truck's progress on google maps. His route took us close to Old Town,  so we pressed the doorbell on the ceiling to let the driver know that you want out, at the next stop.

Like many cities, Chiang Mai was especially fun at night. There was a different pace and a different set of revelers out and about. The street vendors' bathe their wares in bright glows, and the shops look even more inviting. We ambled through Old Town, gawking at everything. The trinkets in Thailand seemed more authentic, less plastic, less mass-produced, and less touristy than most of the countries we have visited. About every third or fourth shop, we would see something truly unique.

On our way to our favorite soup cafe, we noticed another restaurant advertising a beef soup with noodles. Except for the burger we had in Phitsanulok, we haven't had beef for ages, so we bit on it. The soup was OK, but we all wished we had the soup from our favorite spot. However, I ordered a veggie stir fry with rice that was 2-die-4 and split the soup and the stir fry with Wanda.

We returned to the Airbnb, had a couple of Leos, and called it a day.

 

DEC 14, 2019. CHIANG MAI Day 5

Today was supposed to be a day to relax. I spent the morning going online to pay bills and do some research. When I posted a credit card payment, I noticed that it displayed the payment for December 13. But it was December 14. That's when it hit me how far ahead Thailand time is from Wisconsin time. Thailand is 13 hours ahead of the US central time zone.

By noon, we were all bored. We thought we'd check out the Chiang Mai Zoo. We had read that it was kind of cheesy, but it was easy to get to via songthaew and small enough to go through quickly since we will be starting the visit late. Out the door at 12:30 and hailed down a passing songthaew within minutes. Songthaew are a great way to travel. There are zillions of them buzzing everywhere, so you never have to wait long. We haven't tried the city buses, which I suspect are cheaper, but the songthaew are just so convenient to hail down. At 30 THB (1 USD) per person, it's a good buy. The trick is, once you find a driver that speaks passable English, you can ask them on the spot to be your songthaew driver for the day. You can set up rides in advance as we did with the jolly Thai guy who took us to the Elephant Camp. He will also pick us up tomorrow and take us to the bus station.

The Chiang Mai Zoo was about as cheesy as we expected it to be; the tram was closed and some cages were empty. With a little cash infusion, the zoo could be turned into a nice facility. However, it was located in a beautiful and hilly jungle setting. I believe the Chiang Mai Zoo is slowly being transferred to the newer Chiang Mai Safari Zoo, which offers both day and night safaris. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to check the Safari Zoo.

Wanda discovered another taste sensation. At the zoo, she saw a freezer chest with ice cream bars. There were the familiar popsicles and Magnum ice cream bars, but she tried the Black Hojicha ice cream in a cone with a black label. Of course, I scoffed, "That doesn't look like much." Wrongo! It was a new taste sensation of vanilla ice cream with lots  "beads of strong chocolate with a hint of coffee ." Anyway, I ate crow - again.

At the ticket office, we discovered that there was an aquarium in the zoo. For an extra 200 THB (6 USD), we could check that out. We did, and it turned out to be the best part of the outing.

There were lots of aqua tanks of all sizes with a variety of fish - including the land crawling fish that has feet. The main attraction was a long tunnel through a giant tank, advertised as the longest aquarium tunnel in the world. I was at the Atlanta aquarium a few years back, and they had a similar aquarium tunnel, but not even close to the size of this one. The enormous tank was well stocked with stingrays, sharks, sea turtles, and a vast array of other fish. When you walk through the aquarium tunnel, there are fish on your right, your left, and floating above. It's kind of like snorkeling among the fish without getting wet. We got there in time to watch a couple of divers feeding the fish.

At 5 pm, we walked to the entrance gate and found a songthaew to take us back to the Old Town district where we found another restaurant to try. This one, run by a tiny hyper-active woman, was too affordable to pass up. The food turned out to be the usual great. The best part was that the mango sticky-rice dessert for only 40 THB (1.30 USD) and just as good as the 90 THB dessert.

About three blocks before we reached the apartment, we noticed huge crowds gathering. We turned a corner and, voila, we came across the weekend-only night maket - the largest imaginable. It stretched for over a mile down the street and spilled into every side street, alley, park, and available empty lot.

We couldn't help ourselves. It was so good that we giddily stuffed ourselves. Let's see; there was banana roti - crepes filled with banana slices and chocolate sauce and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. We also tasted the Tai crispy pancakes, a few pork shish-kabobs, fresh fruit smoothies, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a variety of meats-snacks-on-sticks. There were so many more temptations, but we didn't have room. Had we known about this market, we would not have stopped for supper. There was one food vendor; however, that didn't leave us smacking our lips - fried insects, including some pretty meaty roach-looking bugs. 

The craftsmanship of the wares displayed was also exquisite. Many were handmade and originals. Some were being made at the booths. The lights dazzled, the crowd was thick, the food scents were intoxicating, the goods were fascinating. It was all magical.

There is a guy in Door County that has a shop in Fish Creek. He lives in Chiang Mai for eight months. In the summer then runs his Fish Creek shop stuffed with unique crafts from Chiang Mai. I now understand where he might have purchased some of his items. These vendors had quality handmade unique crafts - just the kind of stuff that the Fish Creek shop stocks.

We barely ate our way through a third of the night-street market when we turned around to head back to the Airbnb. The morning ride to the bus station will arrive at 7:50 am tomorrow, and we still had to pack. Dratz! Usually, we'd have stayed until the last vendor packed up.

Observation: So far, Chiang Mai has been our favorite Thai city. The overall air quality is better than Bangkok, more laid back but still offers a lot of adventures. If we ever come back to Thailand, I'd rent a scooter for eight bucks a day, and spend a month in Chiang Mai as a base hub. Every morning, we would take in a different direction.

While at the zoo, we met a young male tourist from London traveling around Asia with just a small daypack hanging from his shoulders. Wanda swears that the next time she vagabonds Chain Mai, she is going to travel ultra-light. Since clothes are so inexpensive, she would pick up a few things to wear here then leave them behind when returning to the airport to go back home. I did pretty well, My roller bag is small to start with, and I don't have to sit on it to close it. And I still brought twice as much as needed. Next time!

Also, hotels were extremely affordable but not listed on the Airbnb or Agoda lists. It would be easy to schedule the first night's accommodations before arriving, then look around for a favorite place to stay for the rest of the month.

 

DEC 15, 2019. THA TON

We walked out the door at 7:35 am. Our favorite songthaew driver was waiting for us.

The ticket office at the bus station was very particular about purchasing tickets. They start selling tickets 30 minutes before the scheduled departure and not one second earlier. Our 4-hour bus ride to Thaton cost 106 THB  (3.50 USD) per person.

The bus turned out to be an older but decent vehicle with a shiny chrome interior, like an Airstream Camper, turned inside out (or outside in). The route took us further into the mountains. There were more tight switchbacks and climbs that the underpowered bus struggled to make. In the countryside, the jungle ruled. There was very little agriculture. The mountains were rugged and lush.

We were the only passengers left on the bus.  Google maps indicated 25 minutes left to arrive at Tha Ton, yet the bus stopped at a dusty, empty lot and announced "Tha Ton." The driver quickly unloaded our luggage and started his long drive back toward Chiang Mai.

Dazed and confused, we looked around for a taxi, a tuk-tuk, a songthaew, a bicycle - anything. We were pretty much alone. Tha Ton looked like it was on the other side of a big river, the same river that will take us to Chiang Rai tomorrow.

Suddenly, a guy in a Toyota Helix pickup drove up to check us out. It turned out he owned the Saranya House Hotel and thought we were probably his customers. When he heard that we had reservations at the Phusangtawan Resort, he kind of snorted and said that it was 5 km away, and offered to take us there for 20 THB. We jumped on that offer. (Note: Saranya House Hotel is located directly across the street from the boat dock, provided a small hotel cafe and located in town.)

The Phusangtawan Resort, the first place that we booked through Agoda instead of Airbnb, was the best place we stayed to-date. Airbnb did not have any accommodations in Tha Ton. Wanda found out that Agoda is the Asian version of Airbnb and wanted to try them - so far, so good.

The Phusangtawan Resort was made up of a half dozen large one-bedroom cottages. The setting was peaceful and woodsy, the cabins were cozy with AC, the bathrooms had regular shower stalls, and the staff was friendly.

Wanda and I wanted to go to the river dock to check on the Thaton-to-Chiang Mai boat trip cost and departure times. While there, we would pick up some supper to-go. We asked the young Thai lady at the desk for directions to the dock; she looked incredulous. "I take you," she said. Again, we jumped on the offer. At the dock, she dropped us off and said she'd be back in an hour to bring us back to the resort. Friendly staff.

The big sign at the ticket office at the dock practically shouted out everything we wanted to hear - 12:30 daily departures, 400 THB per person. I strode up to the ticket window and ordered four tickets for tomorrow. The girl replied, "No public boat. River too low." What? No! Can't be. This was another experience on Diane's bucket list. Mine too, now that I think about it.

She said we could hire a private long-boat for 2500 THB (80 USD), and the boat could only take two people - maybe four without luggage, but not with luggage. I saw the long-tail boat in the water. It looked tight from where I was standing, but I thought we could all fit. She said the water was too low for all that weight, and we'd have to walk many rapids. As it was, we would have to walk one 200 meter stretch. She was probably right, the part of the river I could see was all shallow rapids. I didn't know how a motorboat could get through this first stretch.

But, 5000 THB (160 USD) for four people? Ouch. After she saw that I was carefully not biting, she came back with 4000 THB (128 USD) for two boats. I countered with 3500. She laughed and walked away. Damn, she was good. But just as we were walking away, she re-countered with 3800. I relented, I really wanted Diane to have this experience. Then, a young solo Brooklyn traveler showed up and agreed to partner up. One boat could take three lighter people. So, 3800 THB (121 USD) divided by 5 people = 760 THB per person (25 USD). We booked the two boats for 10 am tomorrow.
 

Our new buddy, Dan from Brooklyn, told us about the Sunshine Restaurant a block away. Like clockwork, we found ourselves at the Sunshine Restaurant and ordered four meals to go. Our ride showed up and returned us to the Phusangtawan Resort. We had the to-go suppers together with Diane and Heinrich on the deck of their bungalo, in a peaceful and green setting. All is good.