Hiking through the hills west of Chiang Rai was one of my highlights

Mark & I came to Chiang Rai once before, back in 2009, but we really didn’t get to experience Chiang Rai itself or why people get so excited about it. On that trip we stayed at a fancy resort some 40 miles northeast of the city, right where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar come together. This time we stayed just a mile or so outside the city on the lovely Kok River (yeah, that’s really the name) so we could experience the city more fully. Sadly, we still don’t quite see why people get so excited about it.

First, Chiang Rai is a city of about 200,000 people some 530 miles north of Bangkok; it is the most northerly large city in the country. Lonely Planet describes it as “delightful” with great local food. As we looked around town we saw a lot of cheap backpacker food and knock-off western place, but not a lot else.

Le Meridién Chiang Rai, a very pleasant place to spend a few days doing nothing

With that said, we still had a pretty nice time. As I said, we stayed at a nice place just out of town that was quiet and pretty. We had lunch there pretty much every day and – in contrast to most resorts – the food was good and not that expensive. There was a nice pool and pleasant walks into town when you wanted to.

The city wasn’t particularly interesting but I had great fun getting a haircut at SHAQ. She (and I think she was a she, though I was never certain) was a ton of fun. For a haircut!

For me the highlight was a big hike out into the hills a maybe 20 or 30 miles west of Chiang Rai. The best time of year to do that hike would be November or December, after the rainy season is over but while things are still green and lush. February wasn’t bad, though, and we had some nice views and one very refreshing waterfall. I was annoyed when the guide told the group that we were going to split up at one point, that whoever wanted to tackle going up and over the big hill in front of us would go with one guide, while others would go around it with him. He explicitly turned to the oldest guy on the hike, a 68-year-old from New Jersey, and said “You’re coming with me.” Mr. New Jersey took that as a challenge and said he was going up and over. Everyone else except me was going to take the less challenging route so up the two of us went with our guide. Except that it was a genuinely challenging climb and we had to stop a lot – sometimes every 25 yards or so – for Mr. New Jersey to rest and catch his breath. Ultimately he made it, but what was supposed to be an hour-long hike took us well over an hour-and-a-half. Grrrr…

One big surprise on the hike was a great lunch. On a lot of these hikes lunch will be rice with maybe a little chicken or egg mixed in, but these guys did it right. They had hollow bamboo sections and filled one with raw eggs and veggies, another with marinated chicken pieces, and another with mixed vegetables. They stuffed leaves in the open end and then set them over a little fire they’d made. When the stuff was cooked it was absolutely incredibly delicious. Enough to make me want to try it at home. If I had large bamboo pieces. And a home.

Part of the trail just went up and up and up. Apparently the Thais haven’t discovered switchbacks.

Mark, you might note, wasn’t able to make the hike. He was a little under the weather recovering (we hope) from what turned out to be a case of bacterial folliculitis, and infection he got back in Sri Lanka. After weeks of hoping it would go away, and then getting some creams from both a pharmacist and later from a dermatologist we met in the Maldives, he finally went to the hospital in Chiang Mai where the doctor asked him a few questions, made the diagnosis, and gave him a prescription. Total cost of the whole thing, including the prescription? $25.13. It’s as though you can’t afford not to get sick in Thailand.

He was at a real hospital – for $25!

Mostly, though, it was an uneventful five days. There was a nice place for dinner just up the river (the Kok River, did I mention that?) from our hotel where we ate every night, a place called De Lanna. And the ride out of town was interesting. We hired a car through the hotel to get to Chiang Mai, our next destination, with the driver scheduled to stop at a couple of temples. The first was the White Temple, a modern Buddhist temple just a little out of Chiang Rai that can only be described as trippy. Lots of bright white paint and mirror chips and fantastical ornaments. Inside, instead of the stately pictures of the Buddha the architect painted one wall with crazy contemporary scenes including, among others, Superman, Keanu Reeves from The Matrix, planes crashing into the Twin Towers … just lots of crazy stuff. And then several miles further on we stopped at the more traditional but still big and gaudy Saeng Kaeo Temple.

The trippy White Temple

All in all then Chiang Rai was perfectly pleasant and all that but ultimately I don’t suspect it’s a place I’m likely to return to. Unless we happen to be in the neighborhood in November or December and I want one more try at a hike in the lush Thai hills.

Baht (means money in Thai) was my guide

Some great views when you got to the top of the hills

Another view

One treat of hiking in northern Thailand is that there are lots of waterfalls. Here I am getting totally refreshed after a challenging climb.

And my new friends on the way back. That’s Louise sitting next to me and Emmanuel in the blue shirt. They had both hiked the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain in recent years (separately) and raved about the experience. Suddenly I’m inspired again!

Oh, and I can’t forget lunch. These are the bamboo sections filled with raw food and cooking on the open fire. Combine that with a cute little stream flowing by and you’ve got one great lunch!

Meanwhile, back at the hotel we stopped for drinks one night at the bar before trying their dinner. The drinks were pretty meager and the Italian restaurant wasn’t even that good. It was pretty, though.

After that experience we had dinner every night at De Lanna, pretty much just right next door to the hotel. The food was good and the price was about a third of what we paid at the hotel. I don’t think we saw a single other person from the hotel coming over, something I just can’t understand. It was maybe a five-minute walk away and a great experience.

And here I am at De Lanna waiting for food with the Kok River flowing by right beside me

OK, this was strange. Tables at De Lanna had this notice that sure seemed to have some lawyer’s handwriting all over it. It warns you that Thai food is spicy and you may not like it. If you wait more than 10 minutes after service to complain you’re out of luck. We’ve eaten at many, many restaurants around the world and never seen anything like this.

I learned after taking this that you’re not supposed to take pictures inside the temple. This, though, shows just a little segment of the strangest Buddhist Temple. What Keanu Reeves is doing there is a mystery to me.

Another view of the White Temple

And yes, we were here nine years ago. Since then I’ve lost some hair and, it seems, a fair amount of me.

A more traditional Buddhist Temple on our way to Chiang Rai

Finally, on a walk around Chiang Rai I went through some abandoned park with these cute little elephants. It makes me like Chiang Rai just a little bit more!

Mark enjoying a Perfect Manhattan at Eat Me, one of our favorite restaurants in Bangkok. And just for the record, the drink was perfect; you don’t find that often outside the U.S.

Yes, by my count this is our ninth stop in Bangkok since starting this adventure in 2013, the most separate stays of any city as we approach our fifth anniversary on the road. As much as we love Paris, we’ve “only” made six stops there. (To be sure, we’ve spent 45 nights in Paris during that time compared to just 34 in Bangkok so it’s fair to say we love Paris more than Bangkok.) Over that time, to our surprise, we’ve come to genuinely like Bangkok. Despite the crowds and dirt and chaos and noise and poverty and heat … there’s something very cool about the city.

Mark loved this picture. It somehow epitomizes Bangkok….

On the other hand, we don’t have a lot more pictures to take here and there’s not a lot more to write about Bangkok; it seems as though I said it all in the last Bangkok post I wrote a year ago. We’ve found good restaurants, good bartenders, nice hotels, and even malls we like. OK, it’s hard to say that we actually like the malls but this stop in particular required a lot of shopping. Both my AppleWatch and iPhone were dying. Neither of us had bought a pair of shorts in a couple of years. We needed t-shirts. Toiletries! Just the basics but this is the place to find it all.

That was pretty much it. We revisited some of our favorite restaurants, got a lot of shopping done, and just enjoyed the scene. We even had lunch with Adam and Steve (owner and staff member, respectively, at Grasshopper Adventures, our favorite Asian bicycle tour company), proving that those right-wing Christians were wrong; God did create Adam and Steve! From here we’re making a bit of a tour around Thailand, first north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, then down to the beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui. Before one last stop again in Bangkok. Maybe we’re just addicts.

Oysters at Eat Me. How’s that for First World cuisine?

Me and the orchids at Mango Tree, another great restaurant we love

A selfie in the unbelievable water of the Maldives. Think we’re having fun?

Mark & I both observed that going into our six nights in the Maldives we felt as though we were kind of “checking off a box,” as in you have to go there at some point and since Sri Lanka is the closest country might as well do it now. It’s not that we weren’t looking forward to it, it was just that it seemed unlikely we were going to be that excited by it. Six nights later and it may now rank as the most fantastic, beautiful, perfect resort we’ve ever stayed at. That’s saying something. If you’re fortunate enough to travel in tropical islands – the Caribbean, the Greek islands, whatever – you’re always looking for that beach that’s just like you see them in the travel magazines. We found it.

Our own kind of semi-private beach with a little path headed up to our stunning suite

First, you have to acknowledge that the resorts here are ridiculously expensive. We did the whole six nights on Hyatt points earned long ago, staying at their Park Hyatt, the top property in their chain. Even with free lodging, though, we knew it was going to be an expensive stay; when you’re captive on an island like that (the Park Hyatt has the entire island; there’s literally nothing else there) you pay top dollar for food and drinks. And to make it worse the Maldives is a seriously Moslem country where alcohol is banned for those entering the country. That ban is lifted in resorts so you can drink, but only what they sell you at their prices. So yeah, expensive even if the room is free.

But wow, was it worth it. It started good enough, with a weekly manager’s Happy Hour on our first night that included free drinks for an hour or so along with local entertainment. We had an entry-level room and it was beautiful. On the second day, though, we were told that they were going to upgrade us the next day to a suite, a two-bedroom place with a veranda, private pool, and semi-private beach. Wow, wow! We’re not sure why us (it could have been random, or it might have been related to a certain staff person who seemed to really like having a gay couple staying there…) but now we were living large.

Mark sitting under the covered veranda on a day that was on-and-off rainy with our private pool. Sweet!

What do you do at a luxury resort on the most beautiful tropical island we’ve ever seen? Not a lot. Reading, sunbathing, swimming, napping … that’s about it. Even on the one day it rained, pretty much all day, you could sit in luxury and just drink it all in. In an unusual twist we made a bunch of friends. Our experience is that the more expensive and exclusive a resort the less likely you are to meet people; you have more space to yourself and people just stay apart. Here, though, the bar was a lively place through the afternoon and evening. Several people at least had “all you can drink” packages and some of them took good advantage of it. In our case the resort also allows you to buy an “unlimited” package on a daily basis and, as the price was less than the cost of wine with meals plus a cocktail each, we bit.

So we met James & Lidia, a fun couple from London on their slightly delayed honeymoon. Our little friendship didn’t start so well when James, an investment banker of some sort and heir of some sort, claimed to be a big fan of both Donald Trump and Brexit. Mark tactfully called him a damned idiot and then we got along great. Joe & Cassie were a fun couple from Australia who just happened to share the names of a great-great-uncle and aunt whom I remember fondly from my childhood. Probably best of all were Chas & Patty, a great semi-retired couple from St. Louis; inveterate travelers and very much on our side in the Trump flare-ups. Late in the stay we met Eran and Rhianna, a young Manhattan couple escaping the New York winter. Oh, and you can’t forget the Turkish dentist. Actually, we never talked with him and in fact I’m not sure he even spoke English (and I’m sure I don’t speak Turkish). You couldn’t miss him though, a big, bulky, heavy-set, unattractive guy who spent a week there with someone who sure seemed like a hooker. And in fact Joe said one of the staff people told him “Yeah, he comes here every so often with another one.” Colorful!

Entertainment on our first night. That’s the beautiful Cassie in the blue dress with her husband Joe taking the picture.

OK, though, back to the islands. Some interesting things about the Maldives. With fewer than half a million residents, it has the smallest population in all of Asia and is also the smallest in terms of land area. At the same time it is remarkably dispersed, with the northernmost island some 530 miles from the southernmost. As a result it’s not easy to get around: from Colombo we flew into Malé, the capital, caught a connecting flight about ninety minutes south, and then caught a boat for about 45 minutes to the resort.

En route to our island paradise

Two other quirks. The country is the world’s lowest, with an average elevation of just five feet above sea level and it also has the lowest high point of any country in the world, just under eight feet. (Quick quiz: if the Maldives is the country with the world’s lowest high point, what country has the world’s highest low point? Give up? Lesotho, in Southern Africa, a country we went to way back in late 2000.)

A picture of one of those Maldive bats – an Indian Flying Fox they’re sometimes called – we cadged from the Internet

And then there’s the time zone weirdness. The Maldives are pretty much directly south of Mumbai (and just barely north of the equator) and when we got to Malé we were in the time zone Mumbai would be in if India didn’t do that weird half-hour thing. Easy enough. When we got to the Park Hyatt, though, the clock had moved an hour forward even though we’d gone almost directly south. What’s that all about? Turns out resorts in the Maldives get to set their own time zone and they typically like to move the clock ahead an hour so sunsets are at the more civilized time of 7:00 PM rather than 6:00. Odd to give resorts such sovereign authority but they were right; it was nice for the sun to rise and set a bit later.

OK, one more last thing about the Maldives. Bats. You wouldn’t believe it. They’re the biggest bats I’ve ever seen, maybe the size of a crow or something. But when you see them flying – and they fly all over, all the time – they are indisputably bats. Ugly, scary damned things, probably five or six times the size of the bats I used to hate back in Minnesota. One night Mark wanted to take a bath in a beautiful outdoor tub we had but the bats were so heavy right over him he had to get out lest one somehow fell on him.

As always, though, our week in paradise came to a close. Of course, other people leave the resort and go back to work; we’re off to Thailand for four weeks. Nothing to complain about there. To our surprise, though, we think we’re pretty likely to come back to the Maldives some day. Far from just checking off a country we absolutely loved it here.

Sunset

A little later the same evening. Those are the over-water bungalows, a lot more expensive than most units but I can’t imagine I would like them any better than the suite we had.

The next day stormy weather blew in but it really didn’t hamper our little holiday one bit

The big public beach, where on many nights they serve a romantical dinner under the stars to some lucky couple

Our beach chairs

Mark out in the water

Jim out in the water

Our pool and veranda with just a little raindrop or two

Nothing to complain about when you pay for the entry-level room and they give you this

The main pool wasn’t too shabby

Palm trees

And finally one memorable meal. On our second night we chatted a bit with the chef and learned he’s from Armenia. “Oh,” Mark says, “We love Armenian food!” So the chef says fine, he’ll cook us an Armenian meal the next night if we want it. We did. Great grilled meats and absolutely stunning veggies. That’s service!