We got around to making a video of our time in India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. We hope you enjoy it!
Due to the vagaries of Aeroplan reward flight availability, Sandra and I were forced (forced, I tell you!) to fly ourselves to Bali enroute home. We had initially intended to head straight to New Zealand from Thailand but were unable to secure a flight home from Auckland during the busy holiday season. Or ever, really. Aeroplan availability sucks on Air New Zealand for the record. But hey -- can I really complain that we get to spend a couple of days in Bali on either end of our trip to Middle Earth? Nope.
We arrived on the 15th and headed straight to Ubud. We’d heard some good things about it: a chill town with nice restaurants and some cool things to see in the vicinity. Sounds great! On our first full day in the town we made sure to drop in to the Monkey Forest. It’s... a forest full of monkeys. Surprise! But it’s pretty cool because the monkeys just kind of wander around freely and the the park is spacious and beautiful to look at. I had a lot of fun taking pictures of these simians in all kinds of compromising positions. I’ve actually left out some of the more... romantic images of the little guys.
One highlight of the trip was when I approached a little guy and put my arm out. In my mind, this was more of a handshake gesture. The monkey promptly jumped onto my arm and crawled up onto to my head. To make sure he wasn’t going to fall off prematurely, he made sure to take a good hold on my hair. And there he sat. After a short period, an employee at the park wandered by and warned, “Make sure not to let him sit there for too long. He will pee on you.” Great. I’m torn. I like having a monkey on my head. He was really quite friendly, apart from the hair-grabbing thing. He was dropping mashed banana bits all over my shirt. But I forgave that cute little gaffer. After another several minutes, the employee returned to shoo the monkey off my back. I didn’t really have a problem with him, but I guess the guide didn’t want to watch me get peed on. Fair enough.
Oh, and another nice bit came when a recently engaged (or recently married?) Balinese couple came to the park to get some photos taken. They immediately became the stars of the show, and all the tourists started snapping photos of them. Myself included. In my defense, I did ask the photographer if it was OK for me to take some photos as well. And I gave them my congratulations. I felt that was a bit nicer than some of the other gawkers who just started snapping away without asking and then walked off when they ran out of memory card storage.
One thing I’d like to mention about Indonesia (well, Bali specifically) is how amazing the temples here are. Bali is a Hindu island within a predominantly Muslim country. Their temples are almost all decorated in a red and grey brick style and are much more geometric in design than all of the temples we’ve seen elsewhere. They’re my favourite temples so far. The carvings are very detailed, and the visual impact of the religious sites is just awesome. I don’t have any remarkable pictures. Come see it for yourself, OK? Trust me on this one. Best temples.
Also shown in the pictures is a small religious offering. These are constructed afresh every single day and offered at a temple. They’re scattered around the streets at various spots, and they’re all very lovely and colourful. Well done, Bali.
As the hardcore travellers we are, I set us up for some serious party times before departing Ubud. We were going to awake a bit early to hike up Mt. Batur for the sunrise. If you think 1:30am is early. Which I do. That’s why Sandra looks a bit grumpy in the night photo of her while we await the van pickup.
The hike was pretty tame (only about two hours), but we hadn’t planned very well for the low temperatures. I brought along a set of pants that I didn’t end up using, but Sandra happily wore them as a scarf. It was a bit chilly up there at 1700m. Not a crazy elevation, but it can get cold up there at that hour! The sunrise was gorgeous, and we’re glad we did the hike.
After that excursion we were returned back to our hostel a bit before 10am. And like the hardcore travellers we are (see above), I had planned a pickup for a ferry to the Gili Islands for 11am. We packed our bags up, showered, had breakfast, and were back outside for the pickup. It was a relatively short drive to Padang Bai where we caught the ferry to Gili Air.
The Gili Islands are a set of three islands that officially belong to Lombok Island -- a large island to the east of Bali. We’d heard they were nice, laid-back islands with good snorkelling. The ferry from Padang Bai was about two hours and uneventful.
Upon arriving at Gili Air, one is immediately struck by the fact that there are no gasoline-powered vehicles at all. Some electric scooters and many horse-drawn carriages. That’s it! The island is only a couple of kilometres in circumference, so it’s easily walkable. In fact, there’s not even a road taking you all the way around, so you end up doing horseshoe walks around the navigable perimeter. No worries.
We rented snorkelling gear for about 3 CAD each and checked out the beach on our first full day. We enjoyed some seaside meals at really low prices. And the weather was what we were expecting from the Thai islands -- sunny, clear, and warm! With a light breeze! It was a really lovely time on Gili Air and we wish we’d stayed longer. Next time around it might be fun to check out Gili Trawangan: it has a reputation for being a bit more built-up but still incredibly relaxed by international standards. Oh, and I didn’t really take any photos of Gili Air. Sorry. Imagine a tropical paradise. You get the idea. We got some snorkel footage, so if I ever get around to editing more videos you will definitely see it. I promise I’ll get to those pesky videos...
And now we’ve returned to Bali proper for our last night! We’re now in Sanur, just a thirty minute drive or so from the airport. Our flight departs just after 9pm tomorrow for the last segment of our trip: New Zealand! Strange to think we’ll be back in a predominantly English-speaking country. It’s been... well, the entire trip, really! Sandra’s looking forward to the dairy. I’m looking forward to the microbrews. We have a car rental awaiting us upon arrival. We will choose our own adventure for just over a month. Let’s hope for the best!
Signing off from Bali! Suksma for the memories! See you again in December!
P.S. - Suksma (pronounced “SOOK-soo-muh”) is Balinese for “thank you”. The locals totally dig it if you try out some Balinese. The people are absolutely wonderful here. Bali has really exceeded my expectations. I was worried it’d be a big overdone mess of tourists, but they’ve really managed to maintain a great local culture and affordable prices. If you’re looking for a holiday destination, definitely give it a look!
Sadly, it’s time for us to leave Bangkok. For the last time. This is actually our fifth time in Bangkok on this trip! But the only occasion on which we did any real exploring to speak of.
Our first order of business was running a half marathon. The Empire Tower We Run 2015 half marathon. Robin ran the mini-marathon (a 10.5km race). Immediately after arriving on our flight from the Thai islands in the south we headed to the Silom district to pick up our race kits. And after picking up those race kits, we headed straight home to bed. Why? Mostly due to the fact that the wake up time for our race was 2:30am. I guess that’s how it goes when it’s so hot in the city that races start at 4:30am. After waking up, eating some food, and taking a cab down to the area we didn’t have much leftover time!
Sandra and I finished the race with... reasonable times. Nothing spectacular, but that’s OK. We were taking it pretty easy and checking out the sights along the way. Oh, and I can also blame the fact that the run went through some of the busiest parts of the city. The race was literally traversing on- and off-ramps for highways and overpasses at certain points. At other times, we’d be held back by a police officer while he allowed some traffic to move through an intersection. In other words, unlike other races we’ve completed in cities, they really didn’t shut down traffic in this case. Bangkok mostly kept operating as super-busy Bangkok, just with the added feature of a thousand runners roaming the streets. Bizarre.
Somehow, the next day, we were convinced that it would be a great idea to give the Hash House Harriers another shot. I mean, the Bangkok Monday Hash is our mother hash! So we owed it to ourselves to try again after our initial attempt turned into a bit of a forest survey instead of a run.
I checked out the route to the start point. It showed a 30 minute estimate to get there via taxi. I gave us an hour to be safe. Of course, one hour and fifteen minutes after we called the cab we arrived at the start location to find it empty. The run had already started. Now the thing is, even for experienced hashers it can be a daunting task to start the race more than a few minutes after the rest of the group. We didn’t know that -- it’s only our second hash! So the three of us bounded away down the trail. It was easy at first because we could see lots of footprints. Follow the footprints and stay on the trail. It was all so easy. Then we hit the first checkpoint.
Now, my understanding of Hash House checkpoints is that they were written on the ground as a big ‘X’. It’s funny -- I actually noticed three X marks on a bridge that we encountered but somehow didn’t connect that with the concept of the checkpoint. We were convinced we had somehow lost the trail. After a good fifteen minutes of searching, Sandra discovered the route continuing about a hundred metres away from our present location. Back on the trail! Excellent!
And that lasted for about another five minutes. The paper trail took a left away from the river we were running alongside. As we ran down the path, a man walking toward us with a very grumpy look on his face was waving us away. “Don’t go down here”, was the message. Again -- this is only our second time hashing. We can still see that we’re on the trail because we are still seeing the torn up paper bits identifying it every now and again. But he’s waving us away. We continue a bit past him and encounter a closed gate. Dead-end. It looks like private property. Now our group comes to the conclusion that we must be on some false trail or have made a wrong turn. We run back to the river and continue in the direction we were going previously. Eventually we try crossing the river and find more paper. But it seems to be facing the opposite direction. Almost as if we’re running the end of the trail backwards. Well, in retrospect, it’s a lot like that. Because it was exactly that.
The light is now really beginning to fail. We have no phone and no money. I forgot that part, but it’s important. We’re running on a reasonably slippery elevated platform above the river, but we can’t really see the paper marking the trail anymore. As we hit a junction in the road, we encounter two white ladies running. And they speak English! One is from Canada! They have no idea why we’re running in this random area, but they live around here! They will take us to the main road and help us grab a cab! Everything is wonderful!
So we follow them. They have phones and show us a map of where we are. And the direction they start running in is directly opposite the way back home. But they’re a confident pair, and they seem like our best chance for salvation. They run for another five kilometres with us -- but again, in the wrong direction! We pass cabs on the run and I’m a bit confused as to why we’re not getting in them. We’re just running farther away from a group that could possibly be going out and looking for us. We’re very late at this point.
Eventually we arrive at “the main road”. I check the map again. OK -- I can point on their phones to exactly where we need to go. But this is with their phones. We don’t have a phone, and we don’t have money. I invite them back to the Hash House dinner with the hope that they’ll take the bait and come with us. Celebrate with beer! Nope. They’re waking up early and can’t come with us. Then one of the two ladies departs. She wants to finish her run and has to go to the bathroom. We’re entering a slight panic mode. We try to show the map on the phone to the Thai taxi drivers, but nobody really uses maps here. They don’t know what they’re looking at and can’t take us back.
Eventually we manage to pull over a third cab. And wonder of wonders, the driver has a working GPS on his phone. We are saved. I hold my shaking finger on his map. A red pin appears. I hit the ‘Navigate Here’ button. We are saved! We can pay him when he returns us to our stuff back at the start of the run! All is right with the world.
So that’s the story of how we almost got stranded in a little-known suburb of Bangkok. It was called “Perfect Place”. No joke. We didn’t think it was so perfect. The amusing epilogue to the story is that the cabbie became more and more concerned as we approached our destination. The area is quite rural, since the Hash House runs are often in less-developed regions. But I could sense our driver’s apprehension. His driving slowed to a crawl as we got within a couple of kilometres of home. “You know?”, he kept saying, trying to make sure I’d seen this area before. “Yes, yes! It’s right! Keep going!”
“You know? Right?” He definitely thinks we’re trying to murder him in a field in the middle of nowhere. His eyes are darting left and right to check for threats. The car is barely moving. Finally, his headlights catch our group of hashers long returned from the run and drinking beer in the middle of the street. The driver becomes elated. He breathes an audible sigh of relief.
“What? This? Yes?!”
“Yes! This is it!”
“Oh my God! Oh my God!”, he says.
We pay him double. He saved the day.
The remainder of our time in Bangkok was mostly spent relaxing. We shared a mojito “bucket” -- a sandcastle-quality bucket filled with alcohol. We scooted around town on water taxis to visit markets like the Chatuchak Weekend Market. And loved it so much we made the trek back again a few days later to find it completely shut down. You see, we didn’t know it was the “Weekend” market at that point in time! But regardless: get ready at Christmas time. Some of you may be receiving the fruits of our market exploration.
Robin checked out the Grand Palace, but Sandra and I were too cheap to do the same. Instead, we spent our time mingling with Rilakumma -- a Japanese storybook character now coming to Thailand. We’ve been seeing his beautiful face on 7-11 discount stamps for a while, but now we’ve met the little dude himself.
I’ve got a story about visiting the dentist in Bangkok that I’m going to split into a separate story. Suffice it to say we didn’t have the best experience. I’ll write more later. And if I forget, just remind me!
We flew into Bali today and are now comfortably ensconced in our tiny hotel here in Ubud. We had one hiccup wherein I managed to get both our brand new bottle of sunscreen and toothpaste confiscated. Sorry, Robin. Damnit. Won’t make the mistake of packing my toiletries in the carry-on bag again. You’d think I’d know this by now. But apparently not!
In Bali thus far the temperature has cooled down a bit from Bangkok highs (thankfully!), the people have been lovely, and the food has been great. I could really get used to this place! Tomorrow we’ll be visiting the Monkey Forest. Spooky? Thrilling? Lame? You decide!
What trip to Thailand is complete without visiting at least a couple of islands? We decided to visit Koh Samui and Koh Tao in quick succession. Two nights in each, to be exact.
It started with a flight to Surat Thani. From the airport, it’s easy to get a shuttle out to the Don Sak ferry terminal to catch the boat over to Koh Samui. It was definitely a “travel day”, but we made it! I took some pictures of the fading light as we made our way towards our island destination.
One of the first things we noticed about the islands is the price jump for taxis. A ride that would cost the equivalent of 50 THB in Bangkok costs about 200-300 THB on the islands. And the taxis have somehow got a racket going where they all charge “per person”. This morning, for instance, our taxi driver saw two of us and said the cost would be 200 THB to take us to the pier. I agreed. Then Robin showed up. And suddenly the price was 300 THB. Despite the fact that there’s no way he’s using that much in extra fuel. It’s really irritating, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
We only really had one full day in Koh Samui, so we took up our host’s offer at the Tamarind Lodge to take us on a day tour of the island. He dropped us into some local restaurants for breakfast and lunch and has us try various local delicacies. I really enjoyed the “Samui Caramels” -- a gel-like caramel that comes in various flavours. My favourite was the Pandan Leaf flavour. Tasty!
Between meals, our driver Ron brought us to his favourite temple, his favourite beach, and of course the “Big Buddha”. We also dropped in on the “Grandfather and Grandmother” rocks, so called due to their phallic appearance. I didn’t really take any pictures of them. After all, how many rocks could be interpreted to look like genitalia? In my mind, almost all of them. So this is not a special destination to me.
And that was basically it for Koh Samui! After our full day there, we took a quick ferry the next morning to get ourselves to Koh Tao.
One thing we noticed about the islands was the constant haze about them. It was bizarre and unlike any weather I think I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t really raining, and there weren’t any clouds... it was just hazily overcast throughout our entire time in the islands. I think that’s what you get if you visit during the rainy season. It certainly doesn’t light up the water with those magical aquas you’re probably expecting. So maybe think twice if you’re expecting picture-postcard views in the Thai islands during the rainy season.
On to the next island! We had received a recommendation for Koh Tao with regard to the excellent diving and snorkelling there. After arriving at our accommodation (the Chaantalay Hotel), we arranged for a snorkel trip for our only full day on the island.
Only the very last picture in the set above as taken on Koh Tao. We have tons of GoPro footage from the snorkelling that will be uploaded at some point. But really all of our time was spent in or around the water, and I get justifiably paranoid when bringing ye olde beastly camera along for the ride.
Our snorkel trip was done with Diamond Tour, and we had a positive experience with them. As with many companies and tour operators, there were some mixed reviews online. But we visited all of the promised sites, spent a reasonably long time in the water at each site, and had equipment in good working order.
One thing that frustrated us was when we showed up to the tour only to learn that Koh Nang Yuan would cost an additional 100 THB per person to visit. We were under the impression from our hotel staff that if we didn’t want to visit the island proper we would still be able to swim and visit the beach without paying an additional fee. But then the tour operator told us that if we didn’t pay to visit the island, we would have to sit on the ship for 3 hours while it was lashed to other ships and maintenance was performed. Not ideal. We chose to visit the island. The silver lining being that I got a nice view over the island from the viewpoint. Both Sandra and I were already starting to show reasonably fierce sunburns on our backs, so Robin went snorkelling alone while Sandra and I relaxed at the bar.
During the evening, we ate another great meal at a local Thai place where the ladies adored the Penang Curry. And on the way back home, we stopped into the Banyan Bar to check out a live band. They were fronted by a young Brit who really got the crowd going with her cover of Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic”.
After the show, it was early to bed for the group as we had to wake up just after 4am to catch the 6am ferry back to Surat Thani. We fly from Surat Thani to Bangkok tomorrow, and are generally spending the day here vegging out completely. It’s nice.
We have a bit of a surprise set up for our first full day in Bangkok. You’ll hear about it soon!
We had one last day in Chiang Mai before departing for the islands in the south of Thailand. Robin had spotted several temples in the old city that she wanted to take a look at. Our goal was pretty simple: wander aimlessly around the vicinity of our hotel and walk into any neat-looking temples we found. We succeeded! Within an hour we found three lesser-known temples all within less than a kilometre from our hotel. And I got a great picture of a cute doggy in a dress. I took all sorts of artsy shots of those, so enjoy some random photographs. Hopefully you find them pleasing to the eye.
Our evening plan was to get ourselves up to Doi Suthep -- a big temple up a bigger hill. We got a songthaew to take us out there, and it was quite the windy ride up to the top! The plan was to arrive just before sunset, and that worked out nicely. Unfortunately, the temple area doesn’t really afford nice westward views of the sunset, but it was still a really pleasant view over the city of Chiang Mai. It was quite a magical, warm evening strolling about the temple grounds. The monks were chanting with gusto, and we were surrounded by candlelight.
For our last order of business, we met up with Jon and Christina and took a gander at the Sunday walking market. It was ram-jammed with people, as expected. A band of four blind gentlemen sitting in a line (as in a canoe) and playing music for the passersby. A dance crew of eight young girls with two vocalists pumping out catchphrase-based pop-dance tunes in Thai to an enthusiastic audience.
To cap off the evening, we dropped into the mojito stand that stood near our previous hotel in Chiang Mai. This time, we were greeted by other tourists who were also enjoying the two buck mojitos. We got a round for everybody, but before long the rain started coming down. No worries, though -- the proprietor and her friends happily invited us inside to sit down away from the downpour. And before long it felt like a full-blown house party! It’s always a blast to have funny little experiences like this when travelling -- it makes your time feel so special and worthwhile.
Sandra and Robin are each in a committed, long-term and loving relationship. With Thai food. After wandering by a tour operator offering cooking classes at reasonable prices, we bit. A full day cooking class learning to make Tom Yum soup, Panang curry, mango sticky rice, and papaya salad. I went along as an “observer”. It was a fraction of the price, but I still got to take lots of pictures and eat the results. Can’t complain about that, right?
The day started off with a hotel pickup that dropped us off at a local market in Chiang Mai. At the market, we were guided to various vendors selling the wares we’d be using to cook the food during the day. Do you know what a galangal is and what it looks like? I sure didn’t. Do you know the difference between sweet basil and holy basil? Well, probably. Because most people know more about food that I do. But regardless, it was quite an education! Since I was just an “observer” to the cooking class, I spent a lot of time trying to photograph a pigeon that lived behind a sign in the market. I got a reasonable picture of it. So I was pleased.
The cooking class itself went off without a hitch. The instruction was top-notch, and everything the ladies made came out wonderfully. The teachers were nice enough to afford Sandra some extra materials so that she’d be able to cook up double-sized portions -- enough to feed me too! Fantastic! I’m expecting a lot of delicious Thai food once we return home. That is, if we can find the requisite fresh palm sugar. Which should be easy, right?
We’d definitely recommend the Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre if you’re looking to do a cooking class in Chiang Mai. We just took a tip from the tour operator who said he’d received a lot of positive feedback -- we can see why the folks at this place are so successful! Their English was fantastic, they were kind, accommodating, and entertaining throughout the day. I think maybe I had the most fun of all, since I had to do essentially zero work and just eat tasty food. This was a good day.
Oh, and we met two lovely Austrian ladies -- Viktoria and Lena. We ended up hanging out with them again in Chiang Mai and having a wonderful time with them. So hello from across the Internet and big hugs from us!
The first challenge in getting to Mae Ngat Dam is convincing a songthaew driver to take you. Well, actually, the first challenge is finding a songthaew driver who even knows where Mae Ngat Dam is. If you’re in the Chiang Mai area and you’re not going to Tiger Kingdom or Doi Suthep, you may have some difficulty getting a driver on board with your plan.
We’d heard about the Mae Ngat Dam from some online reading. It’s more popular amongst locals than amongst travellers, and that’s usually a good thing in our books! It’s just a big lake in a national park with lots of houseboats on it. You arrive at the lake, get a speedboat ride out to your houseboat, then relax and enjoy the view. And maybe go swimming!
Based on a blog entry we read about the dam, we had prices in mind for what to expect to get a ride out there. The tricky thing you need to communicate to your driver is that they have to come back at a specified time the next day to pick you up! This is important. If your driver doesn’t show up the next day, you’re standing in the middle of a national park with no easy way back to civilization.
The strange thing about that blog entry is that it claims the cost to get to the lake is 570 THB round trip. But then later in the article it recommends a specific driver who charges 2000 THB to take a group there and back. I’m not sure how those numbers work out, but we ended up paying 2000 THB to our driver. I didn’t try to negotiate much, mostly because I was talking to the driver’s English-speaking friend on a cellphone. Hard enough to communicate our destination let alone go back and forth on a price.
Everybody in Chiang Mai had told us “it’s low season -- you don’t need to book a houseboat in advance!”. Well, technically this was true. Everything we’d read about online recommended the Eakachai Houseboat, and that company seems to be the only one with consistent advertising as you approach the dam. But there are many separate houseboat companies on the lake itself. We were hoping to score a sweet deal by showing up and seeing what we could find. I’m not sure it was a great idea.
Upon arriving at the lake you’ll find... a bunch of boats. Not surprising, I suppose. There are a couple of huts to organize houseboat bookings, but they were all effectively unmanned. Everybody was congregating under one larger hut. This definitely made the idea of negotiating between multiple houseboat companies difficult. I started speaking to a girl who quoted us 1000 THB for a night. We would be three people in a single room. I appeared a bit hesitant, so she lowered the price to 800 THB. I said thanks, and expected to take that number around to some other huts to negotiate. But as I wandered between the few visible huts, it was difficult to find anybody to speak to -- especially one that spoke any English. Eventually a gentleman approached me and passed me a cellphone connecting me to an English speaking woman calling from a houseboat on the lake. She started at 1000 THB. Isn’t it funny the way the price is exactly the same as the first offer? I mentioned we’d received an offer of 800 THB and she simply matched it. No additional discount. Oh well. She offered that we could see the room and if we weren’t happy with it we could go somewhere else. No risk -- let’s do it.
Now we come to the second price discrepancy on that original blog post about the dam. It implies that the boat ride is about 170 THB. Everybody quoted us 600 THB. In my opinion, this is an absurdly high amount to charge for a 10-15 minute boat ride. Well, technically that’s the return journey as well, but still. It’s one of those situations where you’re a bit over a barrel. There are a bunch of boat drivers standing around quoting you an identical price. Don’t like it? Good luck getting to your houseboat! So that’s what we paid. I think we’ve already been fleeced several times at this point. Ugh. Not much to be done about it, though.
We arrived without issue at the Lana Houseboat. Well, I don’t know the actual name of the place because everything was written in Thai, but their WiFi was called LANA... so that’s what we’re gonna go with for the name. We didn’t have great weather on the first day, but it cleared up for dinner and we got to see a beautiful light fading over the lake.
Now for the third price discrepancy from our reading: food prices. We had read that beer and food were cheap, cheap, cheap! Beers were reasonable enough at around 80 THB for a large Chang. But the food was definitely pricier than we’d seen in Chiang Mai. Most of the available meals (at the only restaurant in the little houseboat complex, so you have no choice!) were about 200 THB. We’d gotten used to paying about 120-130 THB for good meals in the city, so the prices took us by surprise. There were a few outliers that we could choose to keep prices down, but be warned that once again you’re in a bit of a pickle: you have one restaurant choice. So you pay the prices that restaurant has. Perhaps some of the other houseboat complexes have ways of allowing you to visit other restaurants on the lake, but nothing appeared very forthcoming in our case.
In the morning, the weather had cleared up significantly. We were apprehensive about swimming in the lake after considering the fact that the houseboat waste disposal system may not be the most sanitary. We decided it should be fine, but we made sure to keep our mouths firmly closed in the water and refrained from putting our heads underwater as much as possible. And hey, we didn’t get sick. So based on our single data point, it’s 100% safe!
We had a good time at the dam, but if you’re expecting a fancy houseboat getaway, this is likely not the place to visit. Although the costs to get out there and back, take the speedboat to your houseboat, and stay in the room aren’t cheap as far as I’m concerned. Rooms were spartan and definitely valued function over form. No air conditioning and limited hours of power in the room. But somehow WiFi was available 24 hours a day. You figure it out! Overall I’d say we’d recommend checking it out, but I definitely wouldn’t list it as a “must-do” experience when visiting Chiang Mai.
Robin wanted to see some elephants. And she’s our number one priority on this segment of the trip! So see elephants she shall! That’s kind of a tongue-twister. A trunk-twister? Nevermind.
By reputation alone, the Elephant Nature Park seems to be “the place to go” for the discerning and responsible elephant tourist. That is, tourists who would like to see elephants. Not tourists who are in fact elephants. As an example of forward-thinking, the park was one of the first to explicitly disallow riding the elephants. Some parks still think this is acceptable and not harmful to the animals. It’s not really for me to say, but we were happy to just hang out with these lovely giants and forego the ride.
When booking our visit to the park, we had to select a tour package to go with. Things got interesting quickly. There’s the “single day” option for 2500 THB. A bit pricey, but sure. It’s a full day experience and seems to be regarded as a true pioneer in kind animal treatment. But what’s this? There are another three full day visit options: Pamper, Sunshine, and Care. And they’re all... 6000 THB? More than double the price? Yes! Some include a jungle walk with elephants. Others include some rafting down a river (you came to the Elephant Nature Park to go rafting?!). Anyway, we were very happy with the cheap “single day” option. I think you’d have to be a bit nuts to pay more than double for any of the other options!
The Elephant Nature Park was founded by a lady named Lek Chailert who has grown it from a small facility to a burgeoning local attraction. She appears to be an important enough figure that we didn’t actually meet her! Out liaising, I suppose. You watch all these videos about her before showing up. I gotta admit, I was really hoping on seeing the magical lady herself! Oh well. Today, the elephant herd at the park numbers over thirty animals all of whom have been rescued from various unfortunate pasts. Some were used (and often abused) for logging purposes, others have stepped on landmines. The list goes on, and each elephant has a sad story of its own.
After driving out of downtown Chiang Mai for about an hour and a half, you arrive at the park. The first order of business is breakfast. Can’t complain about that! Pretty tasty vegetarian food -- a good start to the day. Then it’s animal feeding time, where an elephant approaches the outer railing and your group feeds it various pieces of fruit. Pretty entertaining! However, our group didn’t want to give away all of our fruit too quickly. You want the experience to last, after all! But this had the unfortunate effect of our elephant wandering away several times, presumably because she was getting frustrated at us just standing and staring at her with a big basket of tasty fruit separating us. Oops.
After feeding we had a walking tour of the facility where we learned some basic elephant anatomy and met a few of the friendlies. Some are calm enough to permit touching, but in general it’s not recommended to approach the elephants too closely because they may have had some pretty rough experiences at the hands of humans in their not-too-distant past.
The afternoon included a trip down to the river to help bathe the elephants. Everybody was given a bucket and free reign to help clean the mud off the backs of the smiling elephants. It was a lot of fun to partake in!
All in all we had a wonderful day at the park. It’s really incredible to witness the power and grace of these awesome animals. We’d highly recommend that you check it out! And if you decide to spend the 6000 THB for one of the “other” full day experiences, let us know how it goes OK?
Robin has arrived! And it didn’t take us long to get the party started. She brought a bunch of goodies that Sandra has been eagerly awaiting. Examples? How does 1kg of peanut butter strike your fancy? Because it sure got Sandra excited. Running magazines? Granola bars? All of the above.
After such kindness from Robin, we only gave her one full day to relax in Bangkok before we jetted off to Chiang Mai. We did manage to check out the Mini Maker Faire in Bangkok before departure, and it was super cool to see a bunch of local startups working on 3D printing, robotics, and all sorts of other amazing projects. I’m always thrilled to see young kids getting involved, and they were attending in droves! I had a chance to ride a bicycle with the chain hooked up to a shaved ice maker. And I got to eat the results of my hard pedalling work! Wee!
Now onto Chiang Mai. It’s a city steeped in history, and it’s Thailand’s second-largest city. You wouldn’t really know by walking around though -- it has a much different feel to it than the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok! Chiang Mai feels a lot like a small town. But bigger. What a useless description... sorry.
Anyhoo, there are heaps of temples to be seen around the area. Robin was definitely in the mood for some templing as this was her first exposure! Sandra and I were slightly less enthused given the mountains of temples we’ve already been to. But it really ain’t so bad checking out these beautiful places because each one has quirks of its own!
We rented some bicycles and checked out a couple of the easily-accessible temples within the old city walls. Here’s the list:
After a hard day of cycling we returned to our non-air-conditioned room. This is my excuse for why the blog update is a bit late. Nobody wants to heat up the computer on their lap with intense photo editing and uploading in a room that’s over 30° Celcius. We could barely sleep in the room, let alone write incredible entries like these! So gimme a break, will ya?
We also managed to squeeze in an early morning run. It’s magical running through the streets of the old city to the sounds of monks chanting at five in the morning. The rats scurrying between garbage bags lining the sidewalks are slightly less enchanting, but I suppose they add a certain flavour of their own to the experience.
One pleasant opportunity we had was to speak with a monk at Wat Chedi Luang. On our way out of the temple, we were invited over to a table to sit down with a monk and ask him any questions we liked. It gives them an opportunity to practice English and lets us ask all sorts of bizarre questions. How often do you shave your hair? Some temples are once every half moon, some once every full moon. Can you stop being a monk whenever you want? Yes. What are the rules governing monks? There are many. It was really fascinating to have a chance to sit down and chat with these guys. They’re quite down to earth and chatty! I must admit: I’m pretty intimidated by them. They’re just too darn... good! I think I get worried that I’ll defile them just by looking into their eyes. But I guess this little chat helped me understand their lifestyle a bit more, and that’s a good thing! But when it came time for photos, that doesn’t mean I touched the guy. As far as I’m concerned, that one’s off the table!
Initially we had our eye on Pai (hey, nice rhyme Ian!) as a hiking destination to visit from Chiang Mai, but we’ve re-jigged our plans a bit to keep us closer to the area to make sure we explore Chiang Mai as much as it deserves. Tomorrow is a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Pachyderm parties await!
We're back in the land of speedy Internet! So now we can plop all of the images we captured in Myanmar and post them here along with a couple of stories. Enjoy!
Three Days in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
Arriving in Yangon was quite a change from Thailand! Our flight came in fairly late at night. In the lineup for customs and immigration we got chatting with another Canadian couple: Jon and Christina. With our trusty eVisas in hand, the entry process was easy as pie. No challenging questions whatsoever! After grabbing our bags and withdrawing some money from the airport ATM, we shared a cab to our respective hostels in downtown Yangon. Traffic was actually pretty nasty. We’ve heard that cars were only really introduced to the country en masse about two years ago. And now motorbikes have been outlawed in the cities, so things have gone from carless to gridlock in a very short span of time.
So, what’s there to do in Yangon?! No doubt the biggest attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It sits majestically overlooking the city and is visible from many parts of the city. We visited the pagoda on our first full day of touring through the city. Before heading into the pagoda itself, we got sidetracked into a nearby park where a political rally appeared to be taking place. We immediately got our first taste of how popular we could be with the locals. Many cameras started appearing to snap photos of us as we walked around the park. Things intensified outside the Shwedagon Pagoda where we became nothing less than D-list celebrities. Sometimes Sandra would be the more popular one, and sometimes I received that honour. The local girls (and it was mostly girls) would cuddle right up and link arms with you to have their photo taken by friends. Quite charming, really!
After visiting the “big hit”, we continued to wander around the city to visit Maha Bandoola Garden and the Independence Monument. There’s a lot of really impressive colonial architecture in the city, and I was particularly enamoured with the High Court building pictured. The contrast of the pale red and green foliage on the outside of the building was beautiful.
There are a couple of things we’ve noticed that seem particular to Myanmar. One is the newspaper basket. There are many five or six storey buildings in the city, and elevators are incredibly rare. Instead of having the newspaper delivery people climbing up and down all of these stairs, many people just drop a binder clip or basket out their windows to the street level below. Many are attached to bells, so once a newspaper or other object is placed in the basket, a sharp tug on the rope informs the resident that they have a delivery. It’s a really quirky system. I think it’s a great low-tech solution to a problem, but it also means that there’s rope hanging all over the place. Imagine five levels of small apartment buildings all dropping their own ropes down to the ground!
Another cultural habit that seems Myanmar specific is the yellow face paint that adorns much of the public. It’s called Thanakha. In theory it helps protect against the effects of the sun and improves the quality of the skin. The range of application techniques is very large. Some people prefer small circles on the cheeks, others inverted L-shapes underneath each eye -- my personal favourite. Still others seem to take the ‘more is more’ approach and cover their entire face and arms with the pale yellow paint. Regardless, it’s very cool to see so many locals espousing the same beauty techniques!
One of our favourite locations in the city was Kandawgyi Lake. It was located about a fifteen minute walk away from our hostel, and over the course of our stay in the city we visited multiple times. Sunrise runs were particularly pleasant there. The early light would catch a the massive golden floating structure called the Karaweik causing it to shimmer in the morning sun. We also paid a visit to Inya Lake. It’s a spot frequented by amorous young couples for romantic dates. Perfect. Although we found it a lot less impressive than “our” lake. Kandawgyi had a boardwalk allowing you to walk most of the circumference over the surface of the water, whereas Inya Lake prevents pedestrians from getting to the water’s edge in all but a few locations.
Culinarily speaking, we weren’t blown away by Yangon. However, 999 Shan Noodle House was a real highlight for us. I ate a delicious traditional Shan noodle soup with pork. Total comfort food and incredibly filling for about 2 CAD. What a deal! We also checked out Fahrenheit (a restaurant pioneering a fusion Burmese and Mexican food) and Green Gallery for Thai food (slightly underwhelming taste, but fantastic service and atmosphere).
Our last day in the city had us visiting Botahtaung Pagoda. It’s set up right near the Yangon River, and gave us a chance to walk through the centre of the massive gold-flaked pagoda. The central structure was destroyed by bombing in World War II, but was reconstructed later in a hollow fashion unlike almost all other pagodas. So it’s a bit of a curiosity!
The same night it was time to take an overnight bus to Bagan, Myanmar. It’s been a while since we took overnight transit of any kind, but it really is a great deal when you consider the fact that you save a night’s accommodation and save a day’s travel. Everybody’s a winner except those actually trying to sleep. The first class VIP buses were actually sold out days in advance because we were travelling on a Friday and thus many locals filled up the available spots. Bested by a weekend once again! However, the "second class” bus was still comfortable enough and got us safely to our destination. Bagan -- the land of temples!
Visiting the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan is a really incredible place. We arrived quite early in the morning around 7am from the overnight bus from Yangon. A cab brought us to Nyaung U and the Hotel Blazing. We hoped it was neither a reference to marijuana use or an impeding inferno. They kindly let us check in right away. Anud thankfully nothing was ablaze but the temperature outside.
There are three choices for where to stay when visiting Bagan: Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. Old Bagan is closest to the temples, has elevated accommodation prices, and doesn’t have a lot of restaurants. Nyaung U is a bit of a distance from the majority of temples but has budget accommodation and a bunch of restaurants. New Bagan has the best quality accommodation, but is also not as close to the sites and doesn’t have the same food scene. Nyaung U turned out to be a good choice for us.
After resting our weary heads on the morning of our arrival, we wanted to check out a sunset from one of the temples. This is definitely a “thing to do” in Bagan. The game is always to find the temple with an incredible view that nobody really knows about. In a sense, that’s not as ridiculous a goal as you might think because there are hundreds of temples in Bagan. They dot the landscape in mind-boggling numbers. It’s actually hard to NOT be in sight of one! So we headed out in search of a lovely sunset spot. We hadn’t sought out any insider tips, so I was blindly headed towards one of the larger and more famous temples. This will surely work.
We rented some electric scooters from our hotel and headed out. We made it not ten minutes down the road when we encountered a watery scene indeed. You see, Myanmar is in the midst of some terrible flooding. We actually had no idea until we attempted to cross a road that looked more than passable on the map. Except that now there were about fifty people swimming in the road and having a grand old party. Looks like we have to take another route! We backtracked onto the main road and made our way to Ananda Temple. It seemed big enough to have a great sunset presence, right? Big old temple, famous in the area. We arrived and entered... but you can’t go upstairs. So instead of admiring the sunset, we were admiring golden buddhas facing four cardinal directions in quickly failing light. Buddhas are great and everything, but at this point in time they weren’t the prime target. Needless to say, sunset didn’t work out flawlessly that first night. We would try again another day.
The next morning we headed out on a big temple run. We planned to rent our little electric scooters for the duration of the day and really take a chunk out of the local temple scene. Off we went bright and early in the direction of Shwezagon Pagoda. Not Shwedagon, like in Yangon, OK? Shwezagon. Completely different. Upon approaching the complex we were waved aside by two ladies promising they knew the proper parking location. We dutifully followed their lead. After parking, they happily showed us the “temple entrance”. Funny: it looks a lot like a bunch of stores... we walk briskly past in search of the temple itself. Upon returning from the temple, we walk again past the shops. Not because we want to: we realize that they just told us the entrance was close to their shops to force us to walk past them. On the return journey, Sandra walks past a shop and notices her sandals have been placed in front of the shop. Likewise, mine have been moved another twenty metres away to face a separate shop. This is some dirty business these ladies are up to! Surreptitious shoe relocation just to bring people by the storefront! We were unimpressed and walked off without checking out the wares. Serves them right for using such underhanded tactics!
We continued on our way and visited a wealth of temples. Much like Siem Reap, the names all run together. However, Bagan, Myanmar really feels like a fun do-it-yourself Siem Reap, Cambodia. You just rent a bicycle or a scooter and move around at your own pace. The crowds are thinner and the temples are far more numerous if not quite as imposing as their Cambodian counterparts.
Here’s a short list of the temples we found ourselves at:
Not bad, eh? Our next evening yielded a hot tip from a lovely German couple (Eike and Christian) we met on the overnight bus to Bagan. They had heard that Sinbyushin Temple was the place to be for sunsets. And they were right! Sandra and I headed over and watched the sun go down -- just the two of us. The temple was a bit difficult to find, so our German buddies showed up on the tail end of the sunset. No worries -- we still had another evening to check it out the next day! We capped off the evening with draft Myanmar mugs at 70 cents a glass. Tough day!
Our last day was a bit of a scooter disaster for me. I’d been having troubles with the bikes the day before, specifically the battery not maintaining the charge overly well. I returned the bike prematurely when I felt like the acceleration just wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Nobody wants to have their significant other blasting by them on the roads. I was completely unable to race! Unacceptable!
The next day I was given a new bike. Good -- shouldn’t have the same bum battery. A had just made it out of the driveway when the rear tire collapsed and sent me wobbling all over the road. I guess it’s better that something like that happen before I’m out in the middle of nowhere, right? Back we go to the hotel. I swap out bikes and receive the same lame-o battery bike from the day before. But I was somehow convinced that a good night’s sleep and recharge would help my little electric buddy along. Unfortunately we barely made it to Old Bagan and back before my poor baby was lifeless. These are bikes that will “go all day!”, so we were promised. It’s a good thing we didn’t try anything ambitious in the morning, because the sucker completely died about 100 metres before returning to our hotel entrance. I was reduced to turning the key off and on to try to eke out every last bit of juice from the battery. Frustrating!
I was a bit miffed about this perceived injustice, so I asked if it was possible that I receive a complimentary upgrade to the bulkier electric scooter for the second half of the day -- capable of carrying two people! The staff reluctantly agreed. Later in the afternoon when it was time to head out for our last sunset experience, I reminded them of the deal. I was begrudgingly given my shining steed.
I had high hopes. I couldn’t wait to open up the throttle and let it rip. With a forceful flick of the wrist my every muscle tensed in anticipation of pure, unadulterated acceleration. It was during this time that Sandra calmly passed me. “Is your bike alright?”. My top speed could only be described as “puttering”. How in the world this junker was expected to carry two persons I will never know. But I’d fought hard to get her and I wasn’t going to trade her in. She’ll make it to this sunset daggummit!
This time the Germans met us at our agreed-upon temple with plenty of time in advance. We had another magical sunset over Bagan. Although it’s not the season for hot air ballooning, I can’t imagine there are many better places in the world to do it. It must be incredible!
Of course the road back from the sunset was a disaster. We’d driven less than a kilometre before my frail pony proved herself incapable of ascending a grade not exceeding ten degrees. I was reduced to riding it like some kind of pseudo-skateboard, thrusting out occasionally with my feet in an attempt to maintain forward momentum. By the three kilometre mark I was in full-on skitch mode. Drive with one hand, and grab onto the back of a friend’s scooter with the other. And hold on for dear life. This is not a safe way to drive a scooter, and it also required an immense amount of upper body strength to handle any changes in speed. As we all know, upper body strength is something I possess in droves. But I digress.
This bike now had only one thing to offer me: the pedals. Yes -- this is a backup plan! You can pedal along to move the scooter manually. So now we have our little crew of four people heading back to Nyaung U in the dark of night. We’re sporting headlamps with the goal of making ourselves seen to fellow drivers. And there goes Ian, pedalling with his knees up to his chin and legs splayed out like he’s strapped into birthing stirrups. Lo, laugh as his sandals catch on the ground. And on the body of the bike. Watch in merriment as the sweat drips down his face while he struggles madly to maintain pace with his friends. And finally burst with laughter as you observe him careening back and forth, completely unable to manage the abrupt changes in resistance brought about by the scooter’s unwanted attempts to “power assist” with the journey.
We made it back alive. We ate tasty pizza. And we couldn’t exactly go a whole day without revisiting our local 70 cent draft beer watering hole, right? Right.
Goodbye Bagan! Hello Kalaw! It’s time to trek!
Hiking Around Kalaw, and a Three Day Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike
We had heard that the hike from Kalaw to Inle was quite a pleasant affair. You take three days and two nights making your way over there, staying in small homestays along the way. In order to line up our hike with our friends Jon and Christina, we decided to spend an extra day in Kalaw and do a one day hike in the area.
We got really lucky on the weather for the one day hike. Not too hot and not raining. We headed up into some villages surrounding Kalaw to visit various ethnic groups.
One of the most interesting things we encountered was a group of two kids playing a game based on elastic bands. Each had an elastic which would be laid on a flat surface. The object was to be the first person to blow on your elastic such that it came to rest touching the other person’s. If you succeeded, you took your opponent’s elastic for your own and started again. I believe the game likely ends when one person has taken all of the elastics. It was really entertaining to watch! We’ve since encountered more kids playing with elastics. It’s neat to see how resourceful kids can be when searching for entertainment.
During the 20km day hike, we also came across a common sight in the region: a vehicle with a completely exposed engine. We’ve seen tons of these. Some have bodies more like trucks, but many are glorified trailers with a big motor strapped to the front. It’s obviously a major safety hazard as there are many completely open belts whirring around within easy reach of children, animals... you name it.
All charged up from our day hike we embarked on the three day hike to Inle Lake. This time around we definitely didn’t have the weather gods on our side. The first day was actually quite nice. The sun was out! We were a bit worried when we arrived at the homestay and noticed a starfield of holes peppering the tin roof we were sleeping under. Hope it doesn’t rain. And it didn’t! Although the beds consisted of a mattress the thickness of a slice of bread sitting on top of a wooden floor. Rustic! Many of us had to shift around a fair bit during the night to relieve soreness from laying on a hip. Makes you appreciate a nice bed! Sandra also wasn’t too pleased about the fact that the outhouse was about a 60m walk away from the room we were staying in. Oh well -- it makes for a great story? Right? Kind of?
Oh, and then there were the showers. We were luckier than some in that our shower had a tarp covering the door. This was bucket showering in its purest form. Dip the bucket in the freezing water. Dump it down your back. Gasp wide-eyed in shock. Repeat. We saw other groups standing out beside a well in their boxers doing the same. So we were thankful for the tarp. Nobody likes showing in their undies!
The next morning things definitely took a turn for the worse. We picked up an Aussie named Jarrod and added him to our crew. Sorry Jarrod -- you were a bad luck charm. The skies clouded over and the rain started in no time. It followed us for the rest of the day. And since Myanmar is experiencing some of the worst flooding in years, many of the roads are already big mud-fests. Soon enough we were walking around in hikers-cum-moonboots. They accumulated stacks of mud and gained weight like boxers after the weigh-in. We’d stop to clear off some gunk on the edge of a rock, but in another ten seconds we found ourselves back in the same pickle. Lots and lots and lots of mud.
We ended up walking somewhere in the area of 50-60km over three days. A marathon hike! We finished up on the southern tip of Inle Lake, where we were treated to a boat ride across the length of the lake. We made it!
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Inle Lake was a big chill-out destination for us. After the days of hiking we definitely enjoyed relaxing for a stint.
We got lucky in that we encountered very early on the “big thing to see” in Inle Lake: the fisherman who stand-up paddle with their feet while bringing in the nets. It’s really quite mesmerizing. They rhythmically S-stroke with a paddle hooked around a foot while balancing with the other foot on the bow of the boat. Their hands deal with the fishing nets. This is multitasking!
The day after our arrival, Sandra and I had a 16km run to the next town and back. Blech. After four days of hiking the legs felt a tad sore. But we persevered!
After breakfast, we headed out to the Red Mountain Winery in Inle Lake with a bunch of friends in gang of bicycles. It was a short ride out of town, and I felt very lucky to experience an amazing optical phenomenon: my first "22° halo”! It was crazy!
On the ride, we noticed a bunch of people staring up at what appeared to be power lines. Taking pictures? I thought maybe there was an animal up there or something. Then Sandra noticed this crazy halo surrounding the entire sun. I’ve never seen anything like it, although I don’t think it’s particularly rare. It has to do with ice crystals in the atmosphere. And then some hand-waving science. But it created an amazing halo that lasted for hours. During the bike ride to the winery, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sun. Not good for my eyes, but what an amazing thing to see!
The winery didn’t get fantastic reviews from our crew (it tasted fine to me!), but the views were lovely. We grabbed a late lunch at the night market. Sandra fell in love with both the lemon salad and the tomato salad. They’re both covered in a peanut powder/paste that makes them taste incredibly rich. She’d mix them together to make one super-salad to end all salads. She’s still talking about that one.
On departure from Inle Lake it was an overnight bus back to Yangon. This time we managed to get ourselves on the VIP bus courtesy of JJ Express. We thought this would be a huge upgrade from the “second class” bus we took up to Bagan, but not really. A bit more room in the seats horizontally, but they were still crammed in there front-to-back. We had a stewardess take our food orders after the journey started. By about 9pm, only an hour and half into the trip, we pulled off to the side of the road to eat at a restaurant where our orders had been phoned ahead. It was smooth sailing after that. I made sure not to look out the windows too much, but Sandra took a few peeks and was horrified by the sights. Racing along mountain roads -- buses ripping by each other at high speed. We both managed to catch some sleep, though. We arrived back in Yangon just under twelve hours after starting the ride.
We only spent one full day in Yangon before flying back to Bangkok. I picked up a nice Myanmar ballcap souvenir I had eyed during our previous time in the city. Sandra and I played bad cop/good cop during our price negotiations. I liked it. I could just genuinely say, “You know, I really like this hat but my wife says I can’t spend more than 6000 Kyat on it.”
“No no, 7000! It can’t be less than 7000!”
“Sorry, buddy. I love the hat. But my wife makes the rules. I can’t spend more than 6000 on it.”
“... OK, 6000.”
We stopped by 19th street in Yangon to check out the drinking scene. Dinner at KOSAN 19th St. Snack & Bar, and I was really impressed! They made a lovely guacamole and burger. Miraculous for the area, really! And you could get a gin and tonic for under a dollar. I love travelling when we visit places like this!
We’ve since returned to Bangkok and await the arrival of our buddy Robin. With her, we’ll be touring for a couple of weeks around the country. Safe travels, Robin! Let’s party!