The Chance to Live in Madrid

As noted in our previous post, there was a long pause in our blog due to a life changing event.   That life changing event was the the opportunity to live  in Spain. Robert received a job offer in January to work at a school in Madrid and we just couldn’t pass that up.  Had we known what that would entail, we might have stayed in Japan.  However, I can now happily say, it was all worth it.

City of Madrid

The whole process to obtain our Spain VISAs was incredibly stressful, slow, and inefficient.  It disrupted our lives like nothing else we have ever experienced.  We’ve lived in 4 other countries and none of them made it anywhere near this difficult to live there.   We started the VISA process on the 24th of January and we finally had both VISAs on September 25th.  It took 8 months for us just to get our VISAs.  By the time we both get our residence cards it will have been almost a year!  When we moved to Japan, the whole process took less than 2 months and required maybe an hour of our time.  Kudos to Japan!

In a nutshell, we were each given a list of 14-15 different things we had to do BEFORE submitting our application to Spain.  We had to get criminal background checks from both the USA and Japan, we had to get certificates of health, and we had to prove we had health insurance.  We also had to prove we were married, that Robert had a job in Spain, and that we had sufficient income for both of us to live there.   All these documents couldn’t be more than 3 months old when we submitted them with our application.  The school in Madrid had warned us that it would take 7-8 months.  If everything went perfectly, Robert would barely get his VISA before the next school year started.  If we made one mistake along the way, we’d have to start all over and Spain would not have happened.  On top of all that, what made this process even more difficult and stressful was that the governments we were dealing with primarily communicated in either Japanese or Spanish (of which we know neither ) and, in the case of the USA, it was a 17 hour flight away which made it impractical for us to deal with directly (so we had to ask family to help us).  Working with these three different governments was truly an eye-opener.  Japan is light years ahead of the USA and Spain when it comes to government processes.

Our VISA Application Instructions – one in Japanese the other in Spanish

The background check for Japan was easy.  It required us a visit to the police station, pay $5 dollars, and get a 20 second electronic finger print scan. They had the official report ready for us within 10 days.   The background check for the USA took 3 months and cost $50.  It required getting a set of fingerprints done the archaic way where you “roll each finger in ink and place on a card”.  Do you know how hard it is to find someone in Japan that still knows how to ‘roll fingerprints’?   Surprisingly, US Embassies don’t provide this service and the closest US military base to us was 2 hours away.  Fortunately, the office staff found someone in the Prefecture Police Department that still knew how to do it.  The finger prints had to be perfect, if they weren’t, we’d have to start the process all over….so we had 3 sets of fingerprints done – just to be safe.  We mailed them to the FBI in Washington DC on Feb 1st.  Ten weeks later, they sent the reports to Robert’s mom.  She then had to mail them back to Washington DC so the State Department could give it an Apostile (which is just another document saying the FBI report was real and authentic) which took two more weeks.  How inefficient and redundant does that sound?  I still can’t believe it took 3 months for the US government to issue non-criminal reports.  How sad and embarrassing for them. 🙁

The health check was easy.  It merely required a visit to our doctor in Japan who signed a form letter indicating we had good health.  The proof of insurance and the proof of work & income involved filling out more forms, making lots of phone calls, and collecting lots of additional paperwork from the new school.  It was time consuming and at times very confusing.  The proof of marriage required Robert’s mom to go to the court house in Red Lodge to get a recent certified copy of our marriage license which then had to be mailed to Helena to get an Apostile from the State Dept in Montana.  She then Fed-ex’d all the US documents we needed to Japan.

Some of the many Documents we sent to Spain

Once we had all the required documents together, we had to get them officially translated into Spanish (and then make 3 copies of everything).  It was already April and we were running out of time.  Fortunately, the translation agency in Tokyo would accept scanned versions of the documents, and they could do an express service for us.  Four days later, we flew to Tokyo (which was the closest Spanish Embassy to where we were living) and submitted all these papers and our VISA application.  We were told it would take 3-4 months to process the applications… as there is no express service.  The applications were sent to Spain for processing.  Once approved, we had to return to Tokyo to pick up our VISA.  We had no way of tracking our applications.  Hopefully everything was right.  We later learned that they don’t process family applications together.  They do the working applicant first and then they start on the dependents applications.

Sample Spain VISA – What we waited so long for

There was a small chance that Robert’s VISA could possibly be done before July, so we stayed in Japan an extra two weeks in hopes that his VISA would be ready.  He got it the day before we left Japan.  I was not so lucky, which meant I would have to return to Tokyo from either the US or Spain (depending on when they approved it).  Every few weeks we’d email the Embassy in Tokyo to see if they’d heard anything.  We were already living in Spain (which was a little risky and presumptuous actually) when I was finally informed my VISA was approved and I had 2 months to pick it up.

Now, this is what confuses me about Spain:  Here they are in a depression and instead of enabling people to just pick up their VISAs in Spain (or anywhere close to them) they make us fly all the way back to where we applied.  Most people would pay them a LOT of money to avoid that hassle.  They could make even more money if they’d just offer an expedited VISA service.  Neither of these options would be that hard to implement.

Now, when you get the VISA – it’s not over.  Once you arrive in Spain, you have one month to inform them of your permanent address, and then go to the police station to apply for your resident card.  Fortunately, the school made this very easy for us.  We just had to show up when and where we were told.  Their lawyer met us there and we were able to skip ahead of the people waiting in line.  The residency card is only valid for one year, so next year we have to apply for a new one.  When I went to apply for my card, Robert’s was ready.  By December, I should have my card and we both should be official residents of Spain. 🙂

 

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The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap

 

 

 

 

 

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Bangkok Mishaps And Onward To Siem Reap

Lizards in the City Park

We had an extra day in Bangkok and we decided to check out more of the city.  What we should have done was just leave a day earlier for Cambodia.  As it turned out, the rest of our time in Bangkok ended up being mostly a series of calamities.  Right from the start we should have known what kind of day it was going to be when we had to wait forever at Starbucks.  After that we walked to Limphini Park where we discovered it was being completely washed down and the lawns were being watered (making it virtually unusable).  Hardly any one was there (which was actually really nice), but all the park benches were wet.  It’s a very nice park with some great views of city, but we couldn’t sit down and enjoy it.  The highlight was when a 4 foot long lizard came out of the pond and stood just a couple feet from Robert.  Robert had no idea it was there since he was totally focused on taking photos.  When he finally did notice the lizard, he jumped 3 feet high and probably almost had a heart attack.  I got a good laugh and he managed to get some good pictures of him.

Siam Shopping District

In the park we were also warned by an off duty officer that we should be careful walking around the city since they had recently released a lot of prisoners (due to the recent flooding).  He mentioned that they were targeting tourists.  That was a comforting thought so off we went to the Siam Shopping District.  This area was as modern and cosmopolitan as it gets.  It ranks right up there with Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of the number of “name dropping” stores.  There were xray machines and security guards at every entrance and exit.  The Christmas decorations outside and inside were very typical of western commercialism (and only briefly interesting to look at).  We tried to “shop” at Central World and the MKB (where they charged us to use the restroom), but we couldn’t think of anything we wanted or needed.  I did walk away with a chocolate croissant that was pretty darn good though. 🙂 Overall, I guess we were lucky we didn’t get thrown in jail that day.  Fortunately we spotted the “no photographs” sign before a police officer spotted us taking indoor photos.

Bored with the shops, we took the BTS back to the river and boarded the ferry to see about getting some lunch in Chinatown.  That turned out to be an incredibly bad idea.  That place was loaded up with people – packed in there like sardines – and we could only move in the direction of the crowd.  We got out of there as fast as we could (which wasn’t very fast), yet it still took us forever to cross the streets and get back to the ferry terminal.  We were hot, frustrated, and hungry so we went back to our nice cool apartment (which we should have never left) and ate some fruit and watched a movie.  The day ended good though, as we went to the very good Italian restaurant we found the night we arrived.  They had awesome pizza and pasta (and of course, wine). 🙂

Arriving in Siem Reap

Arriving in Siem Reap

The next day in Bangkok wasn’t much better.  We checked out at 10am and took a taxi back to the airport. The traffic getting to the airport was horrendous and we had to wait in notoriously long lines at check-in, immigration, and security.  Our flight then ended up being delayed several hours ruining our afternoon plans in Siem Reap.  At least we did eventually take off.  We were thankful to finally be out of Bangkok.  Bangkok was better than we anticipated but not somewhere we’d likely return to.

The flight was very short and our approach into Siem Reap was very interesting.  The last 15 out of 20 minutes, all we could see below us was water everywhere – including under all the trees.  I started wondering if there was flooding here or if this place was like a swamp.  It turns out, we were flying over  Tonle Sap lake (which is huge this time of year).  We landed right before sunset – which was beautiful.  I didn’t know this, but Cambodia is incredibly flat – as far as you can see, a hill there is very rare.  And whereas sunsets are beautiful lots of places, I noticed right away there is something mysterious about this place that makes them magical here.

Cambodian Treats

After deplaning, it took us awhile to get through immigration (even with an e-visa), but it ended up being perfect timing since we had to wait for luggage anyway.  A driver from our hotel was there to pick us up and in 15 minutes we were at our hotel.  I’m not exactly sure what they gave us as our welcome snack and drink…there was a green jello/gummy bear thing and a green drink.  Both were very unique tasting (actually indescribable).  Let’s just say they are not destined to be on a top 10 list anytime soon.  When we checked-in they also set up a guide and driver for us for the next day.  Our hotel had a distinct Cambodian style – lots of wood paneling and statues resembling pieces from Angkor Wat.  After a few drinks in the bar and a wonderful buffet dinner we went up to our room to get some much needed rest anticipating the full day ahead of us.

Click the picture below to see some more interesting photos:

Exploring the Streets of Bangkok
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Christmas in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho & Kukrit’s House

Visit to the Grand Palace

Christmas morning we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded the express ferry north bound for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.  The Chao Phraya river was still way above normal, and at high tide we noticed the ferry boat barely fit under the bridges.  However, there were only a few sections along the river that still had sandbags up, and only one place that we saw evidence it happened.  While it may not be the prettiest or cleanest river (especially when we were there), it flows right through the heart of Bangkok and it is a great way to see the city.  The ferries were easy to use, very inexpensive, and stopped at many of the major attractions.  During our 20 minute river journey, we recognized a lot of the buildings we saw on our bike ride yesterday, and we ended up docking just north of where we were.

The Palace grounds opened at 8:00am and we were there by 8:10.  We were hoping to beat the crowds.  No such luck… 🙁 …it was already very crowded and hard to get pictures that didn’t have a bunch of other people in them.  The whole Grand Palace complex is actually quite large and consists of many different buildings, courtyards, lawns and gardens.  Only about a third of the property is even open to the public, since much of it is still used for official business.  It’s rather expensive to get in but we both really enjoyed it.  It would be much better though if they limited the number of people in there at any one time.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

We started in the Outer Court (a huge lawn area) where we could see the spires and rooftops peaking over the wall of the temple.  Most people come to the Grand Palace just to see this temple – Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  It is considered the most sacred wat in Thailand, and it was the private chapel of many past Kings.  The 26 inch high green statue (which you can’t take pictures of and you can barely see since he is so high up) is believed to be the protector of Thailand.  Only the King is allowed to touch him (when he changes his garment every 4 months).  The buddha is actually made out of one big piece of jade (not an emerald), and this little fella has quite an interesting history (much to long to write about here).  Over the last 2000 years he has resided in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand.

The temple’s layout was similar to all the other wats we visited except that it did not have monk quarters. The grounds were completely walled off from the rest of the Palace grounds, and the inside of these walls were covered with beautiful brightly detailed murals.  By far the most memorable thing about this wat was how exuberantly ornate and over-the-top all the buildings were. There was so much detail and color going on, I felt dizzy – talk about sensory overload.  There were itty bitty tiny pieces of glass, tile, gems, and porcelain on just about everything.  The ordination hall (which houses the buddha) was huge and shimmered of gold and blue.

The Grand Palace

The elevated terrace had a huge gold chedi, a large scale model of Angor Wat, a library and royal pantheon (which were not open to the public), and all sorts of mythical characters throughout.  Anytime we glanced up we saw a sea full of spires.  Interesting statues were scattered throughout the premises as well, including the hermit statue (at the entry), the colorful guarding giants (which were rather comical looking), and various creatures positioned at entrances or in gardens.  After spending nearly three hours at the temple, we finally (but reluctantly) moved on to the Grand Palace area.  Wow – talk about a stark difference in architecture.  All of a sudden we felt like we were transported to Europe.  Buckingham Palace was the first thing that came to mind.  The only part of the buildings that looked remotely Thai were the roofs. It was Sunday and the ceremonial halls were closed. Neither of us were that interested in this bit, so we just walked around the grounds and checked out the museum before leaving the Palace premises completely.

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho was not far down the road.  Considered the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, it was also the site of Thailand’s first university and the birth place of Thai massage. 🙂  It houses over 1,000 buddhas including the largest reclining buddha in Thailand (which happens to be almost the same exact size as the one we saw in Japan – so we really wanted to see it).  When we arrived, the hall housing the reclining buddha was annoyingly over crowded, but with some patience, we did  get a few good views of him.  His feet were the most interesting part with all the inlaid mother-of-pearl scenes.  It’s supposedly taller and longer than the one in Japan but it didn’t seem that way (maybe because it is confined to the inside a building).   Even more than the reclining buddha, we both really enjoyed the rest of this wat since it was refreshingly uncrowded.  We were able to relax and move at a much slower pace to see the buddhas and the almost 200 chedi located on the property.  Given it’s proximity to the Grand Palace, many of the chedi here contain the ashes of past kings and their family members (another royal burial ground).  I  actually thought about getting a thai massage here, but we were too hungry and thirsty so we moved on to find a bite to eat instead.

Wholesale Vegetable Market

After a nice relaxing lunch and cold drinks at the Black Canyon Coffee Cafe we were now refreshed and ready to revisit the wholesale market which we zoomed through on our bikes yesterday morning.  The market was literally right down the street and we found it pretty quickly.  However, the markets were no where near as busy this time of day.  Much of the merchandise had already been moved out or bought.  We managed to snap a few good pictures while enroute to the ferry dock, but it just wasn’t the same.  We cruised back down the river and when we arrived at the central dock, we decided to take the BTS (Bangkok’s above ground train) back to our apartment instead of walking.  We were pleasantly surprised.  The BTS was extremely clean, efficient and cheap.  It was by far the best way to get around the inner parts of the city.  I hope they continue expanding the routes – and we really hope they eventually link it up to the airport.

M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home

We got off one stop early since we still had a couple hours before we had to get ready for dinner.  For something really different we decided to stop at M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage House.  M.R Kukrit was an interesting man (a member of the royal family, an Oxford graduate, a writer, actor, poet and a former Prime Minister of Thailand).  When he died in 1995, he left his home to the public.  His home is the result of 20 years of work on two acres of land in a residential area of downtown.  All the buildings on the property are authentic traditional Thai houses (some are over 100 years old).   He brought them for various places in central Thailand and slowly reassembled them here (Thai houses are built to be moved).  It’s a very unique place – as this was his actual home (which still had all his stuff in it) and not some decorated exhibition that was thrown together.  I bet it is very rare to find this kind of property anywhere in Bangkok now.  One building was an open pavillion with a stage and housed a huge collection of antique masks.  The living quarters were made up of a group of small one room teak houses on elevated poles, creating a covered living space below that was open all the way around and surrounded by lovely gardens, pounds, and shrines.  He also had an impressive collection of antique books, art, and furniture as well.  I can only venture to guess what this piece of property is actually worth today.  The oddest thing we found on the grounds was his pet cemetery which had a gravestone marked “unknown mice” (he obviously also had a sense of humor).

Back at our apartment we had plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail before going to dinner.  It was a 5-10 minute walk to a French restaurant (inside a lovely old home) at which we had our Christmas dinner.  We didn’t have extremely high expectations but both of our dinners were actually quite delicious.  As we sat there and ate, we realized just how unusual a Christmas this was.  Can’t help but think that Santa must have thought we were awfully good this past year.  Check out these amazing places yourself, by clicking on the photo below.

Day 9 – Grand Palace, Wat Pho, & Kukrit’s House
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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