All posts for the month February, 2018

Trails in Thailand aren’t exactly up to U.S. standards when it comes to water crossings. Fortunately we both made it across this without incident.

From Chiang Rai it was about 120 miles southwest to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. As with Chiang Rai we’d been here in 2009 but so far out of town we never really got a sense of it. People rave about Chiang Mai so we wanted to give it another chance, scheduling five nights so we’d have plenty of time for hiking and exploring. To my surprise, as with Chiang Rai, I’m left a little puzzled; it just didn’t live up to its hype.

To give the city its due, it is a nice combination of old and new with a pleasant river running through it and lots of hiking and other adventure options in the area. There’s a walled-in old town in the center that was the capital of the old Lanna kingdom and its various successors from 1296 right until the 20th century. Amusingly “Chiang Mai” means new city, in contrast to the old capital of Chiang Rai. I don’t think of a 13th century city as exactly “new” but that’s the name and they’re sticking with it.

Chiang Mai is no Bangkok, but it still has its share of garish bars with, umm, attractive young women who seem real friendly

We did one day-long hike (Mark having recovered sufficiently to join me) that was … OK. Lonely Planet describes November to February as the best time to visit Chiang Mai but by the time of our visit the landscape was more than a little parched already. What was particularly annoying is that we didn’t start hiking until more than three hours after we were picked up; there were multiple stops to pick up others and more stops to wait for another truck and then a stop to … I don’t know why, but another stop.

Once we finally got going the hike was OK. There were three little waterfalls that were worthy of a swim or shower under the water flow. This was supposed to be one of the nicest day hikes available, though, recommended by our hotel, and it just wasn’t that good.

Our first swimming hole was a lovely little stop

The other big deal in a city like this, of course, is the food. On our first day Mark observed that there was a well-regarded Indian restaurant on TripAdvisor, Rajdarbar, just two blocks from our hotel, so we figured we would try it. It couldn’t have been more nondescript, just a hole in the wall with a few tables, but the food was so damned good. We had lunch there every day we were in town except the day of the hike, trying different dishes and they were all just excellent. Low prices, cheap cold wine, and great food – that’s the kind of place we love.

Mark at Rajdarbar, our favorite Indian restaurant. All three of those dishes were amazing, but the one in the middle had fresh green peas that were heavenly. And that red wine is chilled, just the way we like cheap wine.

Dinner was more hit-or-miss. One night we went to a Thai restaurant, Dash!, that catered to tourists but had good reviews. Terrible! Thai food for Westerners who are afraid of Thai spices. Another night we went to David’s Restaurant, a very upscale place that was rated #1 on TripAdvisor with perhaps the most highly skewed ratings I’ve ever seen; nearly 3,000 “Excellent” ratings compared to 255 “Very Good” and practically none below that. Naturally we went. Results? Meh. There was nothing bad (OK, the vegetables that were a substitute for potatoes were actually bad), but far from the excellence I’d expected. To be fair, it’s pretty unusual to find genuine fine dining this far from a major city, but especially considering the price it was disappointing. On the other hand, I didn’t write (or at least haven’t yet written) my own TripAdvisor review; I just didn’t want to be that nasty guy who says bad things about something everyone else raves about. David, the proprietor, makes a practice of stopping by your table to chat a bit and who wants to dis him once you’ve met him?

David’s take on a Salade Niçoise. Lovely and good, but nothing great.

Chiang Mai’s culinary reputation was saved by Kat’s Kitchen, where service can be slow because Kat cooks everything herself. Another one of those utterly nondescript places that you’d never know about but for TripAdvisor reviews, but this one lived up to what we’d hoped for. And at literally one-fifth the price of David’s.

Otherwise we did what we do best in Thailand if we’re not at the beach. Mark got a lot of massages, mostly foot massages, since they’re cheap and usually pretty good. I’m working my way through some books on 16th and 17th century French history that are keeping me entertained. Oh, that and making plans for a spin through the U.S. coming up soon, when we leave Thailand. We’re going to do something we never, ever did when we lived there: we’re going to do a long road trip, in this case from Duluth to Key West, visiting friends along the way. That’s giving us something to get excited about!

Our final waterfall stop on the hike was a chance for a refreshing – OK, freezing – shower. You can’t see it but the rocks under my feet were treacherous; moving in and out without a nasty fall was a challenge.

Another one of those risky crossings

Mark loves the wildlife on these hikes, and she seems to be returning the interest

We stayed at the Le Meridién where one of Thailand’s Princesses was also hanging out. For a time there was a LOT of security.

And finally if you’re not hiking or getting a massage or just walking around there was always the hotel pool, a most pleasant escape from the Thai heat

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