Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…

 

Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

Our Final Days in Chiang Mai

Worarot Market

Worarot Market

Our week in Chiang Mai flew by.  We only had two days to really relax and just enjoy the city.  One day after a yummy “French-Thai” lunch (and an awesome pomelo salad!), we walked the streets of the neighborhood.  We headed straight for the huge local markets we saw along the Ping river when we were returning from Chiang Dao.  On the map it is called Worarot Market –  it was nearly void of tourists.  This is where the locals come to shop – as most items for sale were practical day to day goods.  The market’s main building, which is over 100 years old is three stories tall.  The first story is all food: meats, fish, vegetables – from fresh to dried, preserved, and packaged.  The second floor was filled with clothing and fabrics, and the top floor looked to be toys, furniture and more clothes (we actually never made it up there).  The “market” however, is not just confined to that building.  All the adjoining streets and buildings house more shops containing all sorts of items for sale:  Electronics, kitchen goods, sewing repair shops, tools, jewelry, shoes, etc.  It’s a maze with little alley walls and halls leading everywhere. I’m pretty sure only a local resident could find the same shop twice around here.  Just when we thought we were out, we quickly realized we were in the flower market.  Adjacent to that was a “food court” and the butcher shop…are you getting the picture?  Finally we did find our way out and ended up at the Chinese Shrine, Pong Thao Kong.  Here I read, that this section of the city is where the largest number of Chinese settlers took up residence and started their businesses, so the whole area is also referred to as the China Town of Chiang Mai.  This whole area was so interesting, we decided to plant ourselves atop a foot bridge nearby and hang out for a while.  It was fun watching the vibrant city below us and the everyday activity of it’s people.

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

Wat Doi Suthep Patrons

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we hired a driver for half a day and went up the mountain 8 miles west of the city to to see Wat Doi Suthep.  A wat that was built because a white elephant caring the magical self-replicating buddha statue came up here, trumpeted, turned around three times and died.  Personally, I think they built it here for the view.  From up here you can also see the whole city of Chiang Mai (which is best right before sunset).  We went mid-morning, so the view was still mostly obstructed by morning rays and haze.  The mountain also has waterfalls, trails, birds, and the king’s palace (which if we had more time I’d come back to explore).  Despite the excessive number of visitors, the wat really is worth seeing.  It’s packed with tourists.  Vendors are lined up all along the streets right to the base of the stairs.  There are tour buses and cars everywhere.  I felt like I was at Disneyland.  Fortunately our taxi driver knew a great spot to park not far from the entrance and we managed to avoid most of the mayhem.  We spent nearly 2 hours here, so obviously there is a lot worth seeing.   The stairs up are pretty cool.  The railing on both sides is a long green undulating serpent dragon with four serpent dragons coming out of it’s mouth.  Local mother’s come here with their young children dressed up in traditional dress who will take their picture with you (hoping for a tip).  When you get to the top, it’s a double bonus.  The outside courtyard is wide open and beautiful…almost worth an hour itself.   The inside is a different world (and totally worth the 30 baht ($1) entrance fee) – ornate and loaded with religious artifacts.  The gold plated chedi, the murals, the emerald buddhas, and religious relics of all sorts.  There is an amazing number of intensely devout subjects who come here despite all the tourists taking pictures.  How they managed to block us all out, amazed me.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Our last stop was Wat Suan Dok.  This is the wat where the famous white elephant (mentioned above) started it’s journey.  From these grounds you can easily see Wat Doi Suthep up in mountain.  The name Suan Dok roughly translates to “Field of Flowers” – how nice is that?  We really enjoyed this place.  There were only a handful of tourists, lots of monks, and it was so different from the others.  It had a huge, long prayer hall that I couldn’t even fit in my camera lens. Instead of the prayer hall being enclosed, it was open on all sides so it didn’t feel confining or too formal.  Next door to the hall was a huge burial ground – a forest of white reliquaries….containing the remains of Chiang Mai’s past rulers/leaders (the national royal burial grounds!).  The whole place is also very photogenic as well.  But, the absolute best thing about this place, was the little restaurant hidden just off the grounds.  Our cooking instructor mentioned it, and I had seen it mentioned in a couple other local blogs, so I was hell bent on finding this gem – and fortunately we did.  Pun Pun was, without a doubt, the best place we ate in Thailand.  It’s all organic yet incredibly inexpensive.  The presentation of the food is impeccable, the service friendly and relaxed, the atmosphere casual and fun, and the food was mouthwatering fresh and flavorful.  I hope this place is still here when we return.  We had an absolutely amazing time in Chiang Mai, and we really weren’t ready to leave.  It’s easy to understand why there are so many repeat visitors.  We barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do here.  We’ll definitely come back here someday.

Day 6 – Doi Suthep & Wat Suan Dok

A Day Among Elephants

Patera Elephant Farm

During this vacation, we realized there were lots of things we did in both Thailand and Cambodia that we would never be able to do in the USA (mainly because of “safety” laws/regulations).  Riding elephants bareback in the mountains is one of them.  Of all the fun activities we did on this trip, our experience at the Patera Elephant Farm had to be the most thrilling.  Spending the whole day “owning” one  these amazing creatures is almost beyond words.

To be in the mountains and see elephants roaming around freely is in itself pretty incredible.  We had the added bonus of being there only a couple days after the newest member of the herd was born.  We got to spend time with the  3 day old baby elephant and her mother.  The baby was already walking – her legs a little wobbly and skin a little baggy.  She was still small enough to walk under her mother.  I’m not sure what she thought of all of us, but we all thought she was adorable.  Her eyes were so big, her trunk so tiny and her little hair was spiked up.  She stayed close to her mother who was obviously being protective, but she still let us feed both of them bananas.  It wasn’t very long before a 10 week old baby elephant showed up – jealously wanting all the attention (and the bananas).  There was another 10 week year old roaming around nearby, but he stayed closer to his mom.  We were told 5 elephants were born on the “farm” this year and that another one was on the way.

Washing MayBooDee

We headed across the river to a covered pavilion where the head mahout (trainer) spent about 30 minutes talking about the Thai Asian Elephants and the Patera Elephant farm.  He went over their history, their dwindling numbers, and the different parks and programs around Thailand trying to protect and increase their numbers.  He also gave us a brief run down of the day’s activities.  Meanwhile the 10 week old elephant was wondering around getting into everything, knocking things over, and bothering the chickens and roosters (which he was actually afraid of). 🙂  While he looked “small”, he was so strong that it took two full grown men to move him when he went somewhere he shouldn’t.  It was delightful entertainment.

Eventually we all put on our mahout outfits and were assigned an elephant (and their corresponding mahout).  We learned how to approach them, feed them, check their health, and to clean and bath them.  Maybodee was our elephant’s name and she was 28.  She was very calm, trusting, healthy and BIG.  She was one of the largest elephants there.  I wasn’t nearly as intimidated by her as I thought I would be though.  However, I was very much aware of her size and strength and knew she could easily crush me into a pancake if she wanted.  Like a human, she seemed to be very aware of their surroundings and looked like she was constantly watching and thinking.  Like a dog, I think she knew who she could trust.  Over time, we slowly got use to her size and I think she really liked us.  She ate two huge baskets full of food (bananas, sugar cane, and straw), we brushed the dirt off her and then took her into the river for a bath.  Bathing her in the river was hard work.  She was so big it was hard to get all of her completely clean.  After we gave her a bath… she gave us a bath. 🙂

Riding to the Waterfall

We all met back at the pavilion, where we were given instructions on the commands we needed to know in order to ride our elephant.  There were quite a few, so we wrote them on our forearm for reference.  We were then shown three different ways to mount an elephant, and where to sit.  Robert & I shared an elephant so we both had to get up.  I got to ride up front while he rode on her back. It was actually pretty comfortable and not nearly as high or scary as I imagined.  Of course they are so big, it’s more like sitting in a boat than on a horse.  After we were all on, we went for about a 30 ride through the forest until we came to a spot in the river near a waterfall.  It was easy to dismount because there were some large rocks that Maybodee just went right up next too so we could get off easily.  The elephants were led away while we had a nice lunch outside on a big rock near the waterfall.  We were starving and there was all kinds of food for us to try…fried chicken, fruits, rice balls mixed with various beans/vegetables, pumpkin bread, and other goodies.

It was a much needed break, and the weather was perfect for relaxing and enjoying the outdoors.  Surprisingly, there weren’t even any bugs.  We were all sitting around chatting when the 10 week old baby decided to join our little party and finish our leftovers!  The other elephants started showing up and some got in the river.  A couple of people decided to get in the water with them, as did both of the 10 week old baby elephants.  It was so cute watching them play with each other in the water.  I’m not sure how long we were watching them, but I could have stayed all day.  Eventually, we had to leave and we all got back on our elephants – this time Robert was up front and I was in back.  The ride getting here was easy, so I took my camera out to take a few pictures.  Then I saw the hill we were about to climb and immediately put it away.  Seriously, the next 30 minutes I was in disbelief that these animals could climb and descend hills that steep…so steep that even I wouldn’t have hiked them.  We both trusted Maybodee completely, and she was amazing.  I knew she would have no problem, but the incline from where I was sitting was nearly vertical at times and I felt like I was going to slide right into Robert causing us both to fall off.  My whole body was sore for the next couple days from holding on so tightly.

Baby Elephants Playing in the Water

Fortunately we made it back to the camp intact.  We dismounted, had some water (and Advil), and paid our dues.  We thanked our mahouts, played some more with the babies, said goodbye to our wonderful new friend, and took some final pictures before heading back to the big city.  We were exhausted but so glad we had the opportunity to do this – we wish everyone could.  They say that an elephant never forgets, well neither will we.  They truly are amazing animals and we certainly hope the world doesn’t ever lose them.

One of the staff at Patera Elephant Farms took pictures of all of us there that day and provided us with a CD.  So, in addition to our pictures you can see lots of thiers too:

Day 5 – Spending A Day with Elephants

Time to Cook – A Lot of Thai

Our Cooking Class Limo

We both love food and we both love to cook but neither of us had ever been to a cooking class, so we decided to try one.  Chiang Mai must have 50+ cooking schools and it was a great way to spend the day (especially if you like Thai food).  All of the schools were rated highly on Tripadvisor, so it probably didn’t matter which one we actually chose.   In the end, it ended up being a fun and very economical way to spend the day since it went from 8am – 6pm and pretty much included breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We meet some interesting people and we also ate some of the best food we had in Thailand.  Hopefully, our newly acquired knowledge (and the included cookbook) will help us re-create these dishes when we get the urge to eat Thai food again.  The hardest part of making Thai food at home is actually locating all the ingredients that give it that uniquely Thai flavor.

Robert Cooking

We booked our class with A Lot of Thai.  Yui has been teaching these classes for 10 years, and she only teaches 8 people at a time.  We registered for the “Popular” dishes course (which, not surprisingly, included most of our favorites).  We were told not to have breakfast, but we did anyway (there was no way we were passing up that).  Our pick-up was suppose to be at 8:30, but they were running late and didn’t get to us until 8:45.  When the van drove up, we chuckled.  We could tell right away that this was going to be interesting day.

After we picked up one other couple, we arrived at her house by 9am.  The class was actually held in her long covered patio area which was bright, tropical and very homey.  Everything was already set up for us and we each had our own cooking station.  Everyone was introduced and we put our aprons on.  Our class consisted of a couple of bee farmers from Canada, a father and daughter from South Korea, and a young couple from London (he was Indian and she was Swedish).  The first dish we all made was Chicken Pad Thai.  Yui first explained all the ingredients and then she demonstrated how to cook it.  We each got to try what she cooked and then off we went to our stations to replicate it.  As we cooked she walked around and would repeat steps outloud and correct us if we were doing anything wrong (or adjust or stoves if it was too hot/cold).  Our first dish was a success!  After we finished cooking, we’d go back to the little picnic area, eat our creations and talk.  Having lived in Chiang Mai for so long, she was a wealth of information about the city – especially the good restaurants.

Red & Green Curry

The next two dishes we made were Tom Yum Soup and Red/Green Curry.  The soup was incredibly tasty in spite of the fact that it only takes about 15 minutes to make.  There are lots of ingredients in it, but all we really ate was the shrimp and mushrooms and drank the broth.  The rest of the ingredients were mainly for flavor.  If I made it this at home, I’d probably strain the big stuff out right before serving it.

The curry dish was quite involved and had more ingredients than I thought it would.  Robert made the red curry and I made the green curry, this way we could compare.  They were both fantastic with the green curry being a bit more spicy than the red.

After cooking three of the six dishes, Yui took us to the local market.  This was great timing for several reasons.   First, it gave us a break from cooking.  Cooking is hard work, and at times stressful – especially if you are competing with your spouse.   It also gave us time to build our appetites back up.  While the serving sizes we made were very reasonable, rice, noodles, and coconut milk are filling, so a chance to walk around felt good.  Finally, it also helped us learn and remember what we saw at the market.  Since we just used many of the ingredients we could locate a lot of them on our own. The market also gave us an opportunity to purchase hard to find ingredients that we could take home with us.  Yui went over a lot more than just what we just did in class.  We meet several market vendors, had ice coffee made, watched fresh coconut being ground, and so much more!

Yui & Us

After about an hour, we headed back to the house to do our next three dishes: Chicken with Cashew nuts (yum!).  This one was pretty straight forward with no difficult ingredients, so I’m pretty sure we can do this one again.  Our fifth dish was spring rolls (which ended up very crispy – not greasy).  We usually don’t make fried food, but this one seemed pretty healthy the way it was done.  The last dish was  my complete and utter favorite – Mango with Sticky Rice.  And it was SO incredibly delicious, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Even without mango this dessert is so good.  I know it sounds like it would be easy to make, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make it that good again.  The rice she used I’ve only ever seen in Thailand…..but I’m not going to give up, because even so-so versions of this dessert are so worth the effort.

It was 6 o’clock by the time we finished and we were all full.  No one had made plans for dinner – except us.  We had pre-arranged a meeting with friends at 7pm.  We did warn them however, that we probably would not be eating, just drinking – and that’s what we did.  What a great day!

Check out the rest of our pictures by clicking on the photo below:

Day 3 – Thai Cooking Class

Wats in the Old City of Chiang Mai

East Gate

Sunday we decided to spend the day in the Old City of Chiang Mai.  The whole city of Chiang Mai has some 300+ Wats (temples), and we wanted to see some of the oldest and most popular ones.  We were a little sore from biking, so we figured walking would be a great way to loosen up our muscles.  We did take our time getting ready and enjoying another delicious breakfast though (this time I had the French toast with Strawberry cream – yum!).  We then slapped on the sunscreen and headed out.  All we had for navigating the town was a small map from the concierge.  There wasn’t much detail on it, so hopefully we’d be able to find all the places we intended to visit.

Very early on in the day we ran into a postman who was really excited to see us.  He wouldn’t stop talking about everything to see in his city.  He asked for my map and he highlighted the “must do’s” (which we already planned).  He also warned us not to go to any tailors.  We thanked him and moved on.  There were wats every couple of blocks on the main street into the city and we kept getting side tracked because each one is so interesting.  One we visited had a Donald Duck statue in it and a woman trying to sell us caged birds so we could set them free.  Chiang Mai was full of bizarre little things like that.  We eventually made it to the East Gate.

Wat Chiang Man

The East Gate (Thapae) is the main gate into the old city.  The old city is over 700 years old, and was once entirely surrounded by brick walls and surrounded by a moat.  In the middle of each walled side was a gate.  Parts of the wall still remain, and so does the entire moat (which is now like a park surrounding the Old City).  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like before this big city surrounded it.  When we got inside, I almost wish we didn’t have a plan, because there were shops, cafes, restaurants, cooking schools, little alleys, and all sorts of other wonderful distractions we could have spent days exploring – oh well, maybe another time.

The first Wat we wanted to find was Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai (built around 1270).  It served as a camp for the King while they built the city.  The wat’s grounds were pleasantly quiet and uncrowded…it felt more like a little community park.  The structures weren’t overly ornate and the buildings were simple and not very big.  The best part was the “elephant chedi” which was in the very center.  The base was constructed with the front halves of full size elephant statues all the way around.  And the murals inside the wihan (shrine hall) were also very attractive.  We saw lots of dogs and cats wondering around the grounds here as well – and people reading.  We tried to sneak out of this complex to avoid the tuk tuk driver who caught us when we first came in.  He begged us to let him take us to the wats in town, even though we told him we wanted to walk.  After a few minutes we just left, telling him we’d meet him later (which we never did).

We continued on our way through the old city to the North Gate (Puerk) – probably the most attractive entrance into the old city.  It had a set of topiary elephants to great everyone and fountains in the moats.  We then headed back to the city center.  We stopped briefly at the square in the center of the city where the Monument of the 3 Kings stands (it is devoted to the 3 Kings that were responsible for building the city).  We took a right down the main street to the west side and Wat Phra Singh.  This wat was like the “wat cathedral” –  it’s a very large complex, with lots of big buildings and it was very busy.  It’s one of the largest wats in Chiang Mai and it’s been restored several times.  While impressive in it’s size, it lacked in personality.  The highlight of this complex was Ho Trai (the temple library) and Wihan Lai Kham – because of their classic Lanna style architecture and the building details both inside and out.

Wat Luang

After a short break, we headed toward the West Gate (Suan Dok).  We walked all the way along the moat until we got to the South Wall.  As soon as we could see the southern gate we slowly made our way back into the city center.  We only got side tracked once (a small local wat – which was a good find).   The last wat on our list, Wat Luang was next.  Even though it was a large wat, it wasn’t busy.  We went inside and checked out the towering gold buddha and his extravagant alter and then headed out the side.  Expecting to see similar buildings as before, we weren’t prepared for the huge, beautiful, old and damaged chedi standing in front of us…what a sight!  Guess we managed to save the best for last.  The courtyard around this chedi was the main focal point of Wat Luang.  We spent a lot of time slowly going around it, relaxing on the benches in the shade admiring it’s size and details (it use to be 270 feet tall – and is slowly being restored).  There was also a huge tree near the small but very intricate city pillar.  Legend has it that as long as this tree stands, Chiang Mai will be protected.  By 2pm, it was getting warm, and we were getting tired, so we relaxed a bit before heading back to our hotel for a quick siesta.

Sunday Market

On the way back to the hotel, we noticed they were already setting up for tonight and we could tell it was going to be huge.  The famous Sunday market was tonight, and we were not going to miss it.  I’m glad we had a couple hours to rest up before it started.  We were told to get there early – to beat the crowds.

We got there about 5pm.  The traffic was horrendous – we almost couldn’t get across the street.  The market was huge.  It actually started several blocks outside the Gate…and then went on for nearly a kilometer on the inside.  It branched off down side streets and into the wats.  There were food courts, areas set up for foot message, areas for entertainment.   And the variety of arts and crafts for sale was incredible.  You have to see all the pictures to believe it.  All the food looked awesome…we snacked on a few things while we walked through it all.  We tried a soft chicken taco (thai style), some homemade vanilla ice cream, and of course, the pad thai.

We noticed that the quality of the products seemed to decline the further we went.  And, as it got darker, the crowds grew to the point where it was hard to walk as well as shop.  When things get that busy, we tend to leave, so we decided to head out of the city and down to the river to find somewhere to relax and have a nice drink and another bite to eat.  We came upon a place called Deck 1 which was new and very modern looking.  They sat us on these nice, big, soft cushions on their deck overlooking the river.  It was so nice and quiet and the mojito I had was SO good.  It ended up being exactly what we needed – and a great way to wind down our day.  🙂  All the day’s pictures are here:

Day 2 – Exploring Old Town Chiang Mai

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

We’re Off to Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Thais' Love Their Monarchs

I’m finally getting around to documenting our Christmas vacation trip.  It was great!  I highly recommend both Thailand and Cambodia to everyone – they are amazing countries with wonderful people.  We spent a week in Chiang Mai.  There is SO much to see and do there (hiking, biking, rafting, elephants, cooking classes, scenery, markets, food, city sights, etc.), we could have easily spent our whole vacation just there.

We had an 11am direct flight from Fukuoka to Bangkok on Thai Airlines (which, of course, left on time – I do love Japan for that).  The plane was nearly empty.  I cannot recall the last time I was on an airplane this big with so few people.  Of course the cost of flights out of Japan are ridiculously expensive so I really shouldn’t have been too surprised.  However,  it was a Friday nearing the holidays, and I really expected at least a few more people.  The same thing was true on our flight back on New Years Day.  I’m not sure how much control Thai Airlines has in the matter, but they really might want to consider lowering their prices.

Sunrise from Our Hotel Room

Anyway, after a pleasant and uneventful 5 1/2 hour flight, we landed in Bangkok and had well over an hour to make our connection to Chiang Mai.  I must say I was quite surprised to see we had a Boeing 747 for our short 1 hour flight to Chiang Mai.  I never imagined a 747 being used for such a short domestic flight.  There are plenty of daily flights into Chiang Mai and it’s only a city with about 1 million people…could they really fill this up?  The answer is yes – and there was not one empty seat on the plane.

We arrived in Chiang Mai at 7:30pm Friday night – an hour and a half later than anticipated.  The Queen had landed right before us which pretty much shut down the airport for an hour and left us circling above the city.  The King & Queen spend their winters in Chiang Mai at their palace near Doi Suthep.  The Thai people love their King & Queen – there are huge billboards all over the city with their faces, stickers on the cars, and they all speak with such pride about them.  I was surprised to learn that King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX) just celebrated his 85th birthday, and he is the longest reigning monarch alive – 65 years (that beats Queen Elizabeth II by 6 years).

Chess Board in the Lobby

We went through immigration in Bangkok, so all we had to do when we landed, was wait for our bag, clear customs and find a taxi – which all went smoothly.  The taxi thing was a little weird because you pay them upfront at the counter, they give you a cab number and tell you to wait outside for it (which took about 5 minutes).  Mr. Dang, our taxi driver, spoke pretty good English, and he was equipped with his own business cards and plenty of information on different tours around the area.  He kindly tried to set something up with us while we made our way through the bustling city.  If I hadn’t already made so many other arrangements I probably would have, but we only had a few ‘discretionary’ days left, and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with them.  We had his card and we told him we’d call if we decided to take him up on his offer.

Lobby Entertainment

It only took 15 minutes to get to our hotel.  We knew we were going to like it right away – they sat us down with a cool drink and cold hand towel.   We filled out our information sheet while they made copies of our passports.  The architecture of the hotel (which was previously the British Embassy) was stunning – begging to be photographed.  Very Zen like and peaceful.  We couldn’t hear any noise from the city while on the premises. I’m not sure where the British Embassy is now, but I can’t believe they gave up these beautiful buildings on such a beautiful piece of property.

While we were waiting, one of the hotel staff briefed us on the resort and showed us where breakfast would be served.  We were then escorted to our room on the 3rd floor which had a great view of the river & pool below.  Our bags arrived shortly afterward and we quickly high tailed it out of there to get some dinner since we were both starving.

Our photogenic hotel

We walked across the street and found a cute restaurant called Pom’s (it’s a cooking school during the day), so we decided to give it a try.  Beers for $2, dinners for $2 and all of it was quite tasty.  Had we not had a bike outing set up for the next day, we would have stayed out much later, but we decided to forgo the night walk knowing we had plenty of nights left to see the neighborhoods.  We headed back to our hotel and fell fast asleep.

On a separate note….it seems WordPress’ latest update, doesn’t allow me to insert photos from our fotobook at the moment, so if you want to see more pictures of our incredible hotel, check out our web album on our Picassa page by clicking the image below:

Chedi Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand