On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai“ friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.
Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.
The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.
Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.
Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.
We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner - green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.
In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.
We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.
Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).
I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.
Up on the earlier side to go to dim sum again, and was much busier. We sat in the street with Penny, and talked about Bali’s attitudes towards women. We got the egg custards today, and they were the best we’ve ever had. Went back to the 75, where we called into DYC’s house warming party. We were two heads on a wall in Berkeley, a video call from 16 hours in the future.
This was the beginning of my journal entry from Oct. 24th, just four months ago. We’d arrived in Penang a few days earlier, having taken an overnight “VIP” bus from Malacca that dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. We finally talked down a taxi driver who was genuinely helpful, and after saying that we could not afford his friend’s hotel, promptly took us to the Travellers Lodge, better known as simply ‘the 75‘.
The first thing that any Malaysian guidebook or traveler will tell you about Penang is that it is a food-lover’s paradise. Most of its culinary delights are found in Georgetown, on the northeast corner of the island. Our Chinatown guesthouse was conveniently situated near Little India, with the best that both worlds had to offer within easy walking distance.
Our introduction to real Indian food in Singapore only wet our appetite for more. On our first night, we found ourselves in the most upscale of Indian restaurants, as evidenced by their enclosed air-conditioned dining room and sizzling brownie sundae dessert. While the food was certainly very good by American standards, it wasn’t until we discovered a little hole in the wall a couple of nights later that our bar for Indian food was forever raised. Lured by a streetside dosai-maker, a tout pulled us into the waiting arms of Krsna where the chicken and potato dosai was crispy and flavorful.
Lest you think we limited ourselves to just Indian food, fear not. Not only did we enjoy dim sum almost every morning at the same restaurant with a fellow traveler, but we sampled our way around town, from one street cart to another. Our favorite vendor may have been the one on Kimberley Street that would serve up char koay teow to order. We watched as his practiced hands fed the coals and cooked up a stir fry in 49 seconds.
Then there’s ais kacang. On top of scoops of grass jelly threads, sweet corn, red beans, and palm fruit, build a mountain of shaved ice in a bowl. Then drizzle root beer and bubble gum syrups over it, and finally, a ladleful of evaporated milk. It’s actually pretty awesome. So wonderful, in fact, that it inspired an idea for a Burning Man art project, as you can see from the diagram in my notebook.
While Georgetown may not be the prettiest of destinations, it has its charm, and it has decent lodging and great food, to be had for a bargain. You can even catch Bollywood movies at the Veenai Odeon. We spent longer in town than we’d planned, deciding on where we were going next. Two weeks before the elections and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release , Burma seemed like a poor choice. The islands off the coast of peninsular Thailand seemed expensive. So after five days, we left Penang on two overnight trains to Laos, in the middle of which we cast our November election ballots electronically, from the internet room in the Bangkok station.
Of all six countries that we visited on our Southeast Asian Adventure, it was Laos that was the most challenging. The least developed of the lot, roads were not always paved, the language barrier was more pronounced, food quality was more questionable, and we narrowly avoided drowning in a river.
It all started in the quaint village of Nong Khiaw, nestled along a bend in the Nam Ou. We had decided to take an overnight kayak trip back down to Luang Prabang, 150 km to the south. The trouble began when we booked our tour with Green Discovery, one of many adventure specialists in the area; they charged us a higher-than-average commission for using a credit card and a lower-than-average exchange rate. Clearly, the “green” that they “discovered” was American dollars. That said, had that been the only issue, the most expensive activity of our trip would still have been worth the $360.
We were up early at 7am on the day of our departure, having already packed the night before. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a couple of hard boiled eggs. We walked over to the Riverside, the one upscale resort in town where Green Discovery’s tours depart from. We met our guide, Tung, and proceeded to gather the supplies and take them down to the river where the kayaks were waiting. Despite being on-time for an early departure, we didn’t leave shore until 9:30.
It was a gorgeous day. The air was warm, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining down on the dramatic karst hills that flanked both sides of the river. Kayaking downstream was slow and peaceful, quite unlike the small, loud, and overcrowded hellboat that we took upriver a few days before. Dragonflies and butterflies flitted around us, and a large spider hung from the bow of our guide’s kayak, its legs skimming the water. We passed fishermen and giggling children along the riverbanks.
A few hours later, we pulled to shore for lunch at Ban Huihang, a small Khmu village. We hiked up the embankment and into the rustic settlement, where we were immediately beset upon by dozens of children. While Tung set out our lunch in the shade underneath a stilted house, we ‘falang‘ were the main attraction. Liz engaged them by taking and showing photos of them with her iPhone. While we ate our lunch, their gazes never left us. I decided to offer them their own diversion, and laid my iPhone on the ground, with ‘Bloom‘ set to ‘Create’. While the children seemed intimidated by the simple camera of the iPhone, Bloom spoke for itself with just a few taps from me to show them how it worked. It not only provided distraction from us eating our lunch, but it was fascinating to watch the understanding of how the completely intuitive UI and repeating patterns fell into place.
Finally it was time to get on our way, so we packed up and were escorted back down to the river by a few of the kids who waved to us as we paddled away. A couple of hours later, we stopped at Ban Houaikoung, another Khmu village on the prescribed tour itinerary. After a longer break than was necessary, we set out again and that’s when everything started to go wrong. We had navigated through some rapids throughout the day, but they were mere ripples compared to the turbulent whitewater that we soon encountered. To our novice credit, we did pretty well at first, shifting our weight and paddling down and over and around, attempting to remain upright. Then we collided with the other kayak and lost our balance, capsizing in the fast-moving river, our feet bouncing off rocks. My first instinct was to grab the drybag with my precious camera and hoist it above the waterline. Tung took the bag and helped us right our kayak and` get back on board. Our adrenaline pumping hard, our hearts beating fast, we caught our breath on the other side of the rapids and thanked Guanyin for keeping us alive. Had that been the extent of the day’s adventure, we might have even looked back on it as exhilarating fun, but it gets worse.
The sun had already dipped behind the jagged limestone peaks to our right, and soon after the colors in the sky revealed that it was setting behind the horizon. We called ahead to Tung and asked him how far until our stopping point for the day, another small riverside village where we would spend the night in a homestay. “Only 15-20 more minutes,” he reassured us. An hour later we were still paddling furiously downstream as full-on darkness descended upon us. Apparently, our guide had never run the route during the dry season when the river runs slower. We had no lights and under a sliver of a moon we could barely see our guide three meters in front of us as we navigated even more rapids. Our nerves were wracked and we didn’t know what to do. Finally, even Tung realized that the situation was dangerous and we were just not going to make it to our anticipated destination, so we pulled to the shore where we could see a single dim light of a village.
We trudged up into a dark settlement behind Tung, who asked around for the village elder. Finally, we were directed to the vice-chief’s house, who would put us up for the night. The simple two-room house with wicker walls and a corrugated tin roof was a welcome relief. Off the kitchen, we changed into dry clothes in the bathroom area, delineated only by a 5-foot-high concrete wall. We sat in the livingroom as they arranged mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor, and waited for dinner to be ready. We ate in silence, and the rest of the evening was spent in an awkward state of feeling like an imposition. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the turn of events – we had been looking forward to our homestay, and presumably our intended home was looking forward to visitors, instead of feeling obligated due to circumstance.
Once again, had that been the last complication and we managed our time better on day 2, we would have chalked it up as a colorful anecdote. Unfortunately, Liz became violently ill in the middle of the night with travelers sickness. While we ate the same meal, I was thankfully spared, but she was up for much of the night visiting the squat toilet all too frequently. I woke up with the rest of the village at 6:30a as the monks’ morning drumming in the wat next door sounded a slow beat at first picking up tempo over several minutes. Arriving at night, it was disorienting waking up in a strange place. A man walked by carrying fresh caught fish, and women with baskets of rice called “Sabaidee” through the open doorway. The vice-chief’s teenage daughter got ready for school, primping herself in front of a small mirror on the wall of the livingroom. I walked down to the small village pharmacy to get some medicine – we never knew what the discolored expired pills were, but they seemed to help.
Sick and unable to continue downriver, we waited for a couple of hours for the van that was supposed to pick up the kayaks in Luang Prabang to come and take us the rest of the way. Finally, it arrived, the kayaks were loaded, and we left Done Nun. The road followed the Nam Ou, and I could see it occasionally through the trees, wishing that we were on it rather than beside it. Eventually we made it back to town, we checked into a guesthouse, and Liz spent the rest of the day and evening recovering. What should have been a pleasant, slightly adventureful kayak trip turned out to be everything but. Thankfully, we have the memory of those children in Ban Huihang and the beauty of the river valley as some consolation for the stressful hardship we endured.
Have you had a similar experience of an activity going horribly wrong? Have you wondered if you would be lost at sea, dashed to rocks, or worse? Share your travel horror story!
Exactly one week ago, we were landing at JFK after 29 hours of travel from Chiang Mai. This included a 5 hour layover in Seoul between 6a and 11a, followed by 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac waiting for the plane to leave the gate, be de-iced, and inserted into the take-off queue, before 14 hours of flight time during which we watched 5 movies. Were it not for Christmas, we would have probably spent a week and a half relaxing in a beachside bungalow on the island of Koh Mak before flying home to San Francisco. As it is, we are now in Hawthorne, NY, about 30 minutes upstate of Manhattan, where it has been hovering around freezing – a good 55 degrees colder than what we’d gotten very used to in northern Thailand.
Re-insertion into American life has been interesting. We’re cold, jetlagged, and we find ourselves converting every purchase into Thai Baht, where every $1 is a bowl of noodles and every $4 is an hour-long massage. The first time I put on jeans and closed-toe shoes (and socks, coat, hat, and gloves) felt very odd. I’ve let slip a ‘khob-kun-krup‘ more than once. On the other hand, being able to drink tap water and flush toilet paper have been a welcome change.
Despite the chill we feel, necessitating being bundled up both indoors and out, our hearts are warm this holiday season. If we close our eyes, we can almost feel the bathtub waters off Gili Air where we snorkeled among multicolored corals and fish, the oppressive heat of equatorial Malaysia, or the warm fur of a baby tiger in Chiang Mai.
However, as is always the case, the real warmth comes from the people that we are blessed to know. We met so many wonderful people in our travels, making new friends in strange places. There was Kristie & Matt, whom we met on the boat from Bali to Lombok, Penny in Penang, with whom we shared dim sum with every morning, Katie who was waiting at the gate to Kong Lor and reading a book, and Peter & Claudia who shared the hell-boat with us up the Mekong and Ou rivers. With five weeks during which we entrenched ourselves, we met dozens of people in Chiang Mai. Between students of ITM, residents of WaLai House, and members of Team Chiang Mai, we made many friends that filled our days and nights with companionship.
Holding those we met in our hearts, they are joined by those who were already there, our family and friends that have welcomed us back into their lives. As soon as we exited Korean Air flight #81 last Friday, we were met on the jetway by a family member who works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at JFK, who escorted us personally onto American soil. Liz’ mom was waiting for us in the terminal with coats. At a family holiday party the next day, everyone was excited to see us and asked about our travels. We had tea with a Boston friend passing through on her way to NJ. Christmas Day will see even more family, and next week we fly home to San Francisco, where friends and cats wait patiently to welcome us home.
Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Solstice, the reasons for celebration are the same. We illuminate the darkest nights with candles and lights, looking forward to the days getting longer. We revel in the company of family and friends, sharing in the joys of the season and a continuing presence in each others’ lives.
Happy Holidays to everyone, and may you all be surrounded by love and laughter.
Mid-afternoon on November 13th, we arrived in Chiang Mai intending to stay for just a week, ostensibly so that Liz could take a massage class and we could be in town for the Loi Krathong festival. In fact, we had already purchased train tickets to Bangkok for the 22nd and plane tickets to Hanoi for the 23rd with plans to explore Vietnam. Five weeks later, we are still here, having received a 50% refund for the train tickets, and our airline seats left without us.
Needing a break from harrowing adventures and moving around every few days, we quickly found ourselves at home in Chiang Mai. It’s a very easy city, offering great food and lodging at all price points. There is a plethora of activities to choose from, such as massage and cooking classes, yoga, elephant riding and training, interacting with tigers, and both on- and off-road cycling. Street food costs less than $3 for two people, and an hour-long Thai massage can be had for only $4. The city is relatively small and easily navigable, and transport across town costs between $1 and $5. Its central location makes a great home base for exploring all of mainland Southeast Asia. Despite a large population of both transient and long-term foreigners, it retains its character, a modern Thai city with deep Lanna roots. It’s no surprise why it has moved up to the #2 spot in Travel & Leisure’s “Top 10 Cities” list (behind Bangkok).
We have met some exceptional people during our stay here. We’ve met ITM students from South Africa, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Japan. Our home-away-from-home, WaLai House, has its own community, expanding outwards from the two proprietresses. We had a Thanksgiving party, and several nighttime outings spent dancing the night away to reggae and hip-hop. We’ve been blessed to become a part of Team Chiang Mai, a group of folks living in or just passing through the area. I’ve met two more Vagabonding Case Studies in person; Bessie & Kyle, and Inderjeet. We had dinner with the extraordinary archivist, Victoria Vorreiter, whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this summer.
Not surprisingly, food has been a highlight of our stay here. Noodle dishes such as Pad Thai are light years beyond what we’ve had in the U.S., and a new favorite is Pad Si Ew. Chiang Mai has its signature soup, Khao Soi. Of course there is also fried chicken, fried spring rolls, and pork balls. Fruit shakes (cantaloupe or honeydew and coconut being the best) and fresh guava, jackfruit, and mangosteen. And I could not forget my rotee addiction.
As you can see, there’s a lot to love about Chiang Mai. We already look forward to returning.
In half an hour, our first RTW will come to an end. A taxi will arrive to take us to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Then we have a flight to New York, via Korea. Flying east across the dateline, we gain back the day we lost three months ago, and we arrive at JFK twenty minutes before we leave Seoul tomorrow morning. Tonight will be a very. long. night.