3rd Week of our 6-Week Journey
DEC 16 2019 CHIANG RAI
The morning broke cold and densely foggy. The plan was to be dropped off at the Sunshine Restaurant, eat a little breakfast, and head to the river dock to catch our long-tail boat trip to Chiang Rai. When I checked us out of the resort, I told our young resort host how much we loved the cottages and the setting. She graciously gave us a beautiful smile and a couple of thank-you bows.
We loaded our bags into her car, and she dropped us off at the Sunshine Restaurant. Unfortunately, the sun hadn’t shined on the restaurant yet - it was closed. Plan B: walkover to the boat dock. Diane volunteered to watch the luggage while the rest of us picked our way through the morning street vendors to find some breakfast.
I got a touch of a head cold which became annoying when laying down at night. Thaton is a small backwater town. I jokingly announced that I’d love to find some nasal decongestant spray. Not five minutes later, we walked into a sparsely stocked general store in a shack looking for some bottled water. using the Google Translator, Wanda asked the Thai ladies at the store if they had nasal spray. They not only understood her question but led her directly to a small box with lots of Thai writing. The only English words on the box were “nasal decongestant.” It cost about 50 cents. I got it.
We didn’t find anything we wanted to eat at the market, so we returned to the dock. It was still early. Glancing around, we noticed that directly across the street was the Saranya River Hotel with a glassed-in restaurant. We checked it out, and it paid off — we enjoyed a western-style breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, a fruit plate, and hot coffee.
We met a guy just checking out of the hotel. I surmised that he was European. He spoke English but with an accent that I couldn’t recognize. Anyway, I watched him pack up a 150cc motorbike and inquired about his story. It turns out, he now lives in Bangkok, but travels around the country on his motorbike. He reported the new 150cc bikes to cost around 3000 USD. He bought his bike used and paid 1600 USD. He had tried a smaller bike, but it didn’t have enough power for cross country riding. It looked like an excellent way to travel.
Back at the dock, we met up with Dan and the Thai lady that we made the deal with. We paid her the agreed-upon fee and loaded up two long-boats. Each boat had three rows of seats. Each seat did hold two people side-by-side for a total capacity of six passengers per boat. At higher river levels and with enough people to share the cost, these private boats would be just as cheap as the public boat.
Just as we put our fannies on the seats, the boat took off in an accelerated swoosh. I was expecting a leisurely jaunt down the river. Instead, we got a hell-bent-to-a-partisan-election ride. The big V-4 engine made the old long narrow wooden boat cruise. The only problem was that I only had on a light jacket shell. It was cold. I dug around in my roller bag and found my fleece jacket to add. That worked well.
The driver hit the first set of rapids doing 90 mph (or so it seemed). The long prop shaft only had half the prop in the water, forcing up a huge rooster-tail spray behind the boat. We zoomed over gravelly rapids as if they were nothing. Pretty much the whole river was rapids. Some were far more challenging with large black boulders to dodge. The big ones rising out of the water were OK. It was the nearly hidden boulders that worried me. One boulder strike at these breakneck speeds and the wooden boat would be splinters.
The jungle-covered mountains loomed over both sides of the river. The rural landscape prevailed with an occasional river village passing by. We saw a couple of river dredging operations. It looked like they were harvesting sand - maybe for construction purposes. The dredging equipment came out of the 1920s, all rusted and beat up.
The boats made three stops: One to portage a long stretch of rapids. It turned out to be a 300-meter walk along the river bank. Lightened from their loads, the boats could get through. The second stop was at a hot spring park. The water, piped in from the ground, was 87º C (187º F). The pool closes on Mondays and Thursdays for cleaning - today was Thursday. The vendors were selling little baskets of eggs that you could put in the hot groundwater. Ten minutes would get you a soft boiled egg, 15 minutes would get you medium boiled, and 20 minutes for hard-boiled. We bought a couple of meat sticks and returned to the boats. Heinrich figured that with 2 million dollars, he could turn their natural resource into a prime money maker.
Our third stop was at an elephant riding stable. These elephants didn’t seem to have the glee and energy as did the elephants we visited at the Maesae Elephant Camp. However, we purchased some bananas and cane stalks to hand feed them before meeting up with our boats.
About a third of the way down the river, the fog burned off and the sun quickly heated us up. The entire trip was four hours long. This boat trip was one of the highlights of our Thailand Adventures.
At the Chiang Rai dock, Wanda sent a text to Miss Kamonvon, host for our new Airbnb (www.airbnb.com › Thailand › Chiang Rai › Rop Wiang) informing her that we had arrived. She sent a songthaew over to pick us up. These taxi rides are a lot more expensive than in Chiang Mai - 30 THB per person ballooned to 75 THB in Chiang Rai.
It is always fun to walk into a new Airbnb (www.airbnb.com › Thailand › Chiang Rai › Rop Wiang). This one was very pleasant. We got a huge three-bedroom apartment with a deck and swimming pool.
Our host, Miss Kamonvon, turned out to be a most interesting person. After she noticed that Heinrich had a German passport, she told us that she also speaks German. She explained that her husband is German and that she has lived in Germany for the past 29 years. She returns to her native city, Chiang Rai, a few months during the winter to manage her Airbnb, she calls the Chanraem House. She started with Airbnb a year ago, however, she plans to find a more permanent renter soon.
I asked which country she liked better. Her children grew up in Germany, so her ties are deep. However, she likes Thailand’s attitude better. “It’s too complicated in Germany,” she reports. She explained, “In Thailand, if you want to visit someone, you just show up, and everyone is happy. In Germany, you need to make an appointment to visit friends.”
She graciously drove us around the markets so we could pick up some vittles and beer. She speaks excellent English, but Heinrich and Diane say she speaks even better German.
DEC 17 2019 CHIANG RAI 2
Today was a throw away day. All four of us were bedridden with some tropical malarial dengue stomach cramp fever. I slept for 36 hours straight and touched the least. Wanda thinks we just got careless with the traveler's rules when eating food abroad: "If you can't peel it, boil it, fry it or wash it - Forget it and Don't share it."
DEC 18 2019 CHIANG RAI 3
Heinrich and I woke up the least impaired. I ached everywhere and had little energy. But, we needed to do some reconnaissance; like figure out where the bus station is, what the bus schedule to our next destination is, how to get to the famous White and Blue Temples just outside of town, and basically, get the lay of the land.
After a very light breakfast of one croissant, our Airbnb host called for a taxi. Meet Mr. Phon (sounds like Pon - rhymes with Ron). Mr. Phon (Pon rhyms with Ron) drove up in a black Nissan 2.5 DDTi VGS Turbo Calibre 4-door diesel pickup truck. We told him we wanted a ride to Bus Station #1. Chiang Rai has two bus stations. The old one, No# 1, is mainly used for local trips to nearby villages and is located downtown. The new one is located 5 km away and used for long-distance travel. Ironically, our long-distance Green Bus to Lampang operates out of the old station.
Mr. Phon fiddled around with his phone and announced that the taxi fare would be 91 THB. Hmmm, not the 300 THB that we were told was standard. We warmed up to this guy right away. We loved his English. On the way into town, he mentioned that he liked to golf. "Ha Ha Ha. Like golf. Sunday only. Play better with beer. Or whiskey." Ha Ha Ha." Heinrich padded the dashboard and asked how long he had his nice truck. Misunderstanding Heinrich's question, he replies, "That airbag. Poof. Ha Ha Ha." Mr. Phon just cracked me up. When he dropped us off, he gave us his phone number, and we promised to call him for our ride back.
At the bus station, the Thai lady at the Green Bus ticket counter did speak English. We found out five buses were doing the four-hour trip to Lampang on Friday. Two buses cost 150 THB (5 USD) with air-condition but no bathroom. Three buses cost 193 THB (6.39 USD) included air-condition and have a bathroom. We chose the bus with a bathroom for obvious reasons. We could only imagine what that toilet experience had in store for us in a few days.
A little more digging at the bus depot gave us info on getting to the White Temple. There is a bus that goes to the White Temple every half hour for 20 THB.We also found a songthaew that would take us to the Blue Temple whenever we want for 40 THB a lot less than the1800 to 2500 THB required for formal tours. The last thing we noticed at the bus depot was a city tour bus that was free. We signed up for the 1:30 pm tour. Being noon, that gave Heinrich and I some time to roam the downtown.
The bus depot in Chiang Rai was full of great art and the tourist office had gorgeous paintings.
Chiang Rai is old and was constructed like most other Thai cities. Although bustling, it seemed even more laid back than Chiang Mai. What struck me was how clean it was. For the most part, Thailand is relatively litter-free, but Chiang Rai was meticulously so. There were still pockets of poverty, lots of corrugated metal shacks, markets jammed into nooks and crannies that couldn't meet western health standards, but clean.
The night market was next to the bus station. Obviously, it was closed, but we could see how extensive it was. We hoped to check it out tomorrow night. The humongous day-market reminded us of the Chinatown markets. It wandered into tiny alleyways and pathways, all covered with tarps and corrugated roof metal coverings. The Thai food scents, which normally would have been wonderful, were not settling well with my stomach on this day.
The free bus tour lasted over two hours, allowing us to visit eight temples. These temples, however, lacked the audacious splendor that we've gotten used to in Thailand. I suspect that the White and Blue Temples will be grander.
After the tour, we called Mr. Phon for a ride back to the apartment. He quickly showed up. We inquired if he does tours. Without skipping a beat, he replied, "1000 THB. White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House, Tea farm, 1000 THB (32 USD)." What? Not 1800 THB (57 USD)? Not 2500 THB (80 USD)? I did a quick calculation in my head. Riding all the separate buses to just the White and Blue Temples would cost us 680 THB (21 USD) for four of us. Only two temples and no Mr. Phon's infectious laugh. We nailed down our appointment for 9 am tomorrow.
We hung out by the pool for the rest of the afternoon. The sun was pleasant; the gardens at the apartment were lush with big fat tropical leaves. We were feeling better. My cold had also waned. I used the nasal decongestant only once, and it was miraculous. I even chanced a Leo beer. It went down smoothly. Unfortunately, Heinrich complained that he was starting to struggle again and retired early.
Hopefully, we'll all be ready for a long day-tour tomorrow.
DEC 19 2019 CHIANG RAI 4
We woke up and assessed the damage. Heinrich, Wanda, and I felt about 80% back to normal. Diane was hovering at around 50% but was not going to stay indoors. Yesterday, Miss Kamonvon had pre-prepared a large and most beautiful breakfast only to find out we were all sick and in bed. Today she waited to prepare what we thought we could eat this morning, only toast with jam, water, and a few of us wanted an over-easy egg. Breakfast was included in the cost of renting but we were unable to take full advantage. Our loss.
We were ready for Mr. Phon (Pon rhymes with Ron) to take us to the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, ocated 15 km south of theChiang Rai. It was magnificent! A lot of money was pumped into this complex and the surrounding markets. The complex was all modern, gleaming, and unique. Even the highway leading to the White Temple was a world-class 4-lane interstate autobahn highway.
White with shimmering silver trim and mirror pieces were everywhere. All the buildings were adorned with intricate sculptures and psychedelic paintings. The themes were of a dark nature. On both sides of a bridge to the entrance of the main temple were thousands of horrid skulls and deathly hands reaching up like scenes in Dante's inferno. Skulls with moss spewing out of their mouths were hanging in the trees. Jeez, was this a Buddhist Temple?
A giant psychedelic mural occupied the entire interior of the temple - walls and ceiling. The theme was all American pop culture. There was Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, scenes from Avatar and Alien and the Matrix, and even a depiction of the 911 twin towers with one burning. All meticulously and skillfully hand-painted in bright vivid colors. Again, was this a Buddhist temple?
There was an art gallery with world-class paintings from local Chiang Rai artists. Some were psychedelic in theme, and I could see where half of my late 60s album covers originated. We found a T-shirt at the art gallery gift shop that shouted, "Must Buy!." They only had Wanda's size for 100 THB.
The rest of the grounds were equally bizarre but wonderful. The main bathroom was gorgeous, housed in an ornate golden building. A Thai person who saw my bewilderment told me that it was the most beautiful bathroom in the world. I believe he was correct.
I know that the White Temple is geared towards tourism, but it was still a spectacular and unique place to visit. Sadly, inside the main temple and the art gallery, photos were prohibited. I would have given anything to have photographed a few of the images.
Mr. Phon took us to the Singha Park - a large farming area neatly planted with a multitude of crops, including tea, rubber, pineapple, veggies, and some cultivated rows waiting to be planted. We rode a hop-on-hop-off tram and enjoyed visiting a dozen stops along the way. One-stop had a tiny zoo with vendors. Another had a small lake, a giant mouse and vendors.
We stopped at what we thought was a Christmas market with a bunch of Santas. Not even close - it was a 50's style burger stand, blaring 50's Christmas songs in a Christmas landscape. There was a tall tower that was cleverly sided with long strings of colorful plastic bottles with a zipline at the top. We did see a family getting outfitted and ready.
Next to the tower was a living-museum style tribal village with women hand-weaving bolts of cloths, without a weaving machine. It was all by hand. Yes, their bolts of material were for sale. Of course, there were vendors in the area.
Back at the entrance, we couldn't find Mr. Phon. We called, and he said he'd pick us up in 20 minutes. The entrance area had a modern mini-mall. You'd swear you were in Europe or the US. We got a homemade ice cream bar, which was refreshing after a hot walk outdoors. Our tummies were still a little touchy, so we purchased a few bottles of soda water, which helped a lot.
Next up. Big Buddha. Mr. Phon surprised us with this stop. We did not know about Big Buddha. Officially called, Wat Huay Pla Kung, the giant Buddha isn't Buddha. It is a representation of Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy.
Big Buddha stands a good 9 or 10 stories high. For 40 THB we took the elevator to the top of her head. The top wasn't the usual observation deck, although there were a handful of small portholes. Instead, the elevator opened up to a delightful dragon infested white and silver wonderland that could easily have been at the White Temple.
There were two other large temples at the site, one with a wooden Buddha, and the other with two white Buddhas. At the gift shop, we found another must-buy T-shirt. Again, only Wanda's size was available. Dratz! She ended up with two must-buys, and I was still shirtless.
The Black House was fourth on Mr. Phon's list. Sometimes called the Baan Dam Museum, is not a temple, but a weird kind of museum. It was a collection of wooden buildings scattered throughout a serene shaded setting. The buildings were filled with the artworks of Thawan Duchanee, a notable Thai artist. His art is advertised as his interpretation of Buddha's philosophy, but focusing on the suffering that Buddha witnessed on his life's journey.
With that, one would expect a dark theme, more akin to the White Temple. But I didn't see it. There were lots of statues of grinning tribal guys with huge boners. They didn't look like they were suffering. Even the bathroom signs used wooden genitals to differentiate between male and female bathrooms.
The furniture was cool with lots of skins, animal heads, and horns. Big crocodile skins were also flattened and laid out on huge wood tables. Thawan Duchanee was a celebrated artist, sculptor, and architect. He not only produced all the artwork, but he also built the furnishings and designed the buildings. Unfortunately, he died in 2014. I liked his place.
Finally, we stopped at the Blue Temple, or officially called Wat Rong Suea Ten. Mr. Phon tried to teach us how to say the official name in Thai. The me, sounded like he said Wat Yum Yum. That just cracked him up,"Ha Ha Ha, no yum-yum, Ha Ha Ha." Our drivers, Moon, in Chiang Mai, and Mr Phon in Chiang Rai, were a blast to know.
Totally different than the White Temple or Big Buddha, the Blue Temple was a more traditional severe temple, at least in reverence. It wasn't geared toward tourism. But, with most temples colored red and gold, the blues were very different and calming.
The vendors occupied a row of traditional tourist vendor stalls, nothing like the modern vendor outlets you see at strip malls. Wanda enjoyed a cup of coconut ice cream with a scoop of blueberry ice cream (it was blue, and that's what it tasted like) and sticky rice. Sticky rice just seems to go with everything.
Before returning us to the Airbnb, Mr. Phon took us to the bus depot so we could buy tickets for the next destination - Lampang. We splurged on the a ticket for the 9:45 am bus with a bathroom.
It was after 6 pm when Mr. Phon finally dropped us off. We had only expected our tour to take four hours, but he spent the whole day with us. We agreed upon 1000 THB (33 USD), but that didn't seem right after 9 hours of touring. I gave him 1500 THB. He looked astounded and tried to hand 500 THB back to me, saying, "We agree 1000 THB." I insisted, and he reluctantly gave in with a zillion thank-you bows. We liked Mr. Phon.
Even before we got to Chiang Rai, we thought that we should have booked a more extended stay. With at least one day totally wasted in bed, and a couple more days slowed way down, we missed out on a lot to see here. I would have liked to have gone to the mountain villages for a hiking opportunity. We also missed the night market in Chiang Rai. Both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai had a wonderfully relaxed rhythm to life, not to mention the people we met were wonderful.
DEC 20, 2019 LAMPANG 1
Ms. Kamonvon prepared a delightful made-to-order light breakfast while we waited for Mr. Phon to pick us up and bring us to the bus station. Diane and Heinrich enjoyed one last conversation in German with our excellent host, Ms. Kamonvon. We are going to Lampang today.
Mr. Phol showed up right on time. We talked a little more golf, "One beer good, Two beer better, Three beer bunker trees water, Ha Ha Ha." When he dropped us off, he refused payment because I overpaid him for yesterday's trip, so Heinrich slipped the 100 THB in his jacket pocket. I shook his hand and told him he was a good man and a good driver. I will genuinely miss Mr. Phon.
The bus left on time at 9:45 am sharp. Our bus was modern by Thai standards with air-conditioning cranked up to arctic setting. We rushed to our bags to get our jackets. The bus ride followed a broad plain between mountains with large swatches of lush and clean jungle. It was a nice ride, but I missed the train.
We arrived in Lampang at 2:40 pm. This time, I had written the address of our next hotel and address in both English and Thai on a piece of paper and Wanda had the same on her phone. We bypassed the taxis and went straight for a songthaew to show the driver our addresses. He scratched his head, conversed with a couple of other Thai drivers, and said, "10 baht. 10 baht. 10 baht. 10 bat. Get in." We were joined by a New Yorker and two blond Swiss girls. Along the way, we found out the New Yorker was playing it all by ear and even resorted to hitch-hiking on occasion. The Swiss girls were friends and were in Lampang as a stopover on their way to Chiang Mai. Our driver stopped at an alleyway, then pointed around the corner. It didn't look like anything to us, but he took off. Sure enough, around the corner and down the alley, we came across the hotel. Actually, it was more of a motel. A seedy motel. A very seedy motel.
We checked in. Everyone was very disappointed. Wanda immediately got on her laptop and found Lampang Residence, a hotel that just opened two months ago. It was $23 per night through Agoda. The photos looked inviting. Of course, the photos for this place also looked better than reality. What to do? It was 92º, this place was prepaid. To move would take the rest of the day and evening, and no guarantees that the photos represented reality. We went for a walk to the old town section to do some thinking.
The stretch between our "Bates Motel" and the old town was nondescript, although we did come across a small temple with three-headed dragons guarding the entrance. Diane's watch quit working, but Heinrich spotted a watch-repair shop to swap out the button battery. Finally, we found the weirdest mega grocery store. It had one small little entrance that led into one narrow twisting low-ceiling aisle after another. It was like spelunking in a maze of caves. Heinrich ordered everyone to stay in a group. Otherwise, it would take days to locate each other. We found the Leo beer shelf, and Heinrich nobly volunteered to haul four of the big heavy 22 ounce bottles in his backpack.
By this time, we were all soaking with humidity and pretty bummed. To pick up our spirits, we hailed a songthaew and gave the driver the address for the hotel Wanda had found earlier - the Lampang Residence .
Now here is where google maps doesn't shine. Thai addresses completely freak it out. I showed the driver the google maps route to the hotel. After a while, the driver stopped to confab with a group of people all scratching their heads. Wanda brought up a photo of the Lampang Residence to show them. One lady then made a phone call - I think she saw a phone number to the hotel on Wanda's phone - who knows? After lots of chatter, she re-chatted to our driver, who smiled and said: "Get in." We got back in the truck and took off in-the- opposite-direction than google maps was indicating. Three minutes later, we arrived at a brand new building with Lampang Residence stamped on it.
I'm sure the desk thought we were crazy when Wanda asked to see a room, but they complied with smiles. Diane went with Wanda and the attendant. When they came back all smiles, the rooms were booked. It was an extra $250 for two rooms for five nights, but, as Wanda said, it was our Christmas present to ourselves. The rooms were magnificent and breakfast was included. (NOTE: Wanda did go online and canceled the first motel through Agoda. Within a few days, we were given a full refund. Agoda Rocks!)
Once we got Diane settled in, the three of us went to fetch our luggage. We now knew where both hotels were located on google maps, so it was easy to plot a route for a quick 15-minute walk. Checking out of the motel was sad. I think we were the only renters. The ladies running the place were nice and perplexed with why we were leaving. Somehow, Wanda was able to tell them that it was not their fault, that the online pictures of the hotel didn't match what was on Agoda.
As soon as we cleared all the alleys leading into the motel, we hailed a songthaew.
I had a card with the address of the Lampang Residence on it. That didn't seem to help. The Lampang Residence was too new and it seems like the drivers are not aware of it. A Thai husband and wife were in the truck. The wife could speak fluent English and weighed in to help us. Three minutes later, we were dropped off with all our luggage.
As soon as we were settled in, we were all smiles. It was time for some comfort food - pizza. The front desk told us about The Pizza Company, a restaurant in the Big C Mall, just a couple blocks away. We remembered the Big C Mall in Bangkok had a decent food court, so we headed to Big C. The Pizza Company Restaurant was in the storefront in the Big C Mall. My stomach had recovered by about 80%. I was ready for a bigger but western-style meal. A large meat deluxe pizza with mushrooms filled the bill.
The mall itself was much like the Bangkok version. Best of all, they had the buffet-style food booths. When my iron stomach returns, this will be a great place to get back on the "Thai food saddle."
On the way back from Big C, we heard a band playing. Following the sounds down an alley to a bar, there was a keyboard player running tracks, and two cute young girls were singing. It reminded me of my buddy, Jeff, playing in Mexico.
DEC 21 2019 LAMPANG 2
We made it to the hotel breakfast around 9:15 and were pleasantly surprised there were western foods to choose from: coffee, dry cereal, to