Trekking into the Shan Hills, Day 1


Because it had continued to rain all night, Chakaphan knew that there would be too much water in the river to take the three-day trek that he’d plan, so a shorter two-day trek in another area was agreed upon.

We didn’t get started until nearly noon and a hazy mist still hung above the trees.  A minivan picked us up to take us to our beginning – a rough road uphill toward a Karen Village. It was a fairly easy walk, although some of the long hills upped my heart rate a bit. I was the “elder” on this trip and I probably should have done a little more cardio workout in preparation. Before we’d gone too far we stopped in a glade of lush vegetation, near a stream to enjoy the delicious lunch of chicken and rice that Chakaphan had packed for us. Dessert was sticky rice with fresh bananas and passion fruit.

No wading through the streams here

No wading through the streams here

Once more nourished, we resumed our uphill trek. Several motorcycles sped past us up the muddy trail. The scenery was breathtaking.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Rice paddies far below us

Rice paddies far below us

We reached the Karen Village at about three in the afternoon. Chakaphan and his entourage were welcomed into the store for a rest. It seemed to be a fairly prosperous village with many newer wooden houses, and a power generator.

We left that village and walked on up the road for a while longer before the real challenge began. Chakaphan led us up a very narrow path through thick foliage. It was muddy and slippery and it seemed we’d never reach the top. When we finally did, I took a few moments to appreciate the beautiful jungle plants while we all took a rest.

Bamboo

Bamboo

ginger plant

Ginger plant

Then we had to head down the other side of the hill. Again the path was narrow and hung precariously close to the edge, with a drop off of hundreds of feet. It had rained off and on most of the day and by now the treads of my running shoes were filled with the thick, red mud and my backpack tended to sometimes throw me a little off balance. One particular little downward slope nearly got the best of me. My feet started to slide and I could find nothing to grab onto. The weight of the bag pulled me backwards over the edge as Sarah and Kendrick behind me gasped and poor Chakaphan turned around in anguish. Fortunately there were many trees on the hill and I didn’t go far before I was turned around and had my feet planted against a couple of them. I was pulled back up and from then on Chakaphan stayed close to me, offering his hand many times. At the first opportunity he found me a sturdy walking stick.

We finally arrived at our destination, a Lisu Village, at about 6:00 pm, wet, muddy and exhausted. A warm shower and soft bed would have been greatly appreciated, but that turned out to be a pipe dream. This village was far more primitive than the Karen Village. The only “shower” was a pipe protruding from the side of the hill, hurling fresh, clean and very cold water down from above, and the children of the village perched on the hill watching, fascinated with their “white” visitors. How was I going to get out of my mud-soaked clothes and wash in that glorious water?

Lisu Village Children

Captivated Lisu Village Children

Sarah changed into a Sarong that she’d taken with her. I finally decided that I needed to get the mud off my clothes anyway so just dove under the waterfall and scrubbed the best I could. I ducked into the outhouse and stripped off my wet clothes and wrapped myself up in my towel, having to be careful not to drop anything on the mud-covered floor. Day light was rapidly fading and I knew that I would soon be unable to find my way around (I suffer from night blindness). Sarah led me to our “room”, where the women and children were all lined up on a bench, still watching! Chakaphan had to send them on their way so we could get dressed.

Once cleaned, we were invited to the Cookhouse, where Chakaphan was busy preparing an evening meal over an open fire pit.

Lisu Village Cook House

The Village dog waits expectantly outside the Cook House

Meal Prep, Lisu Village

Meal Prep, Lisu Village

We could hear the chatter of the women outside. Chakaphan explained, “They want to come in to show you the things that they make. They sell them very cheap and it helps them out.” Of course we agreed, and we were soon surrounded by smiling women spreading their wares out on the tables before us. Pretty hand-woven fabric had been crafted into little purses, eye glass cases and water-bottle holders, obviously made with tourists in mind. Sarah and I picked out a couple of items each and handed them the few baht that they were asking. They left happy. We were then served a wonderful meal of stir-fried fish and vegetables and fruit.

Using our flash lights, we once more made our way to the toilets and then off to “bed.” We all were bunked together in a large bamboo hut similar to the ones in Mae Hong Son, but this time the mattresses were only the thin foam mats that Chakaphan had supplied and the pillows were small, filled with grain, and very hard. Despite how tired I was, it was difficult to get to sleep, but I eventually dozed off, wondering what the next day would bring.

Adventures in Mae Hong Son


What a wonderful place! The noise and crowds and heavy smells of Bangkok were far behind us.

Mae Hong Son (The City of Three Mists) is the Capital City of one of the northern provinces of Thailand, and at the same time the westernmost, nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by the high mountain ranges of the Shan Hills. It is in the most mountainous province in Thailand.

We checked into the Sang Tong Huts on the outskirts of the city (it hardly seemed like a Capitol City to me). I had my own “hut” which was made of bamboo and had a thatched roof. The bed was a mattress on the raised floor and included bedding and pillows. A little table with a cloth, an electric lamp, and fresh flowers sat in one corner. What luxury! There was a porch on the front that looked into the jungle-like setting of trees and colourful, flowering plants, and mountains off in the distance. I strained to catch a view of the melodic birds that sang from high up in the tree-tops, but they were well hidden. I thought I was in Paradise.

Hut in Mae Hong Son

My “room” at Sang Tong Huts in Mae Hong Son

cabinfront porch

my front porch

View from my porch

View from my porch

Because we chose the less expensive huts (250 baht per night, or $9.45 CAD) we had a short walk along a wooden path to the toilets and showers. In the mornings I had to keep a close eye on where I was stepping to avoid the very large snails that were about, but the squat toilets and shower rooms were separate and very clean. The showers were individual stalls that were partly open on one side, away from the path and view of others, and a large water barrel that was filled from a tap. A large dipper was provided for dumping the invigoratingly cold water over one’s self. Although this was more difficult early in the morning, because the weather was hot and humid I found myself taking more than one shower a day, and the afternoon and evening ones were refreshing. This time I had my own towels, which could be hung on the porch railing to dry.

A large open common room welcomed guests with light refreshments and seating for reading books or the magazines that were there, or for just relaxing by the centre campfire. I enjoyed a bowl of granola with lots of fruit and yogourt for breakfast each morning.

The first day we walked into town to poke around the shops and tried out different restaurants for lunch and dinner. Because I have an intolerance for spicy (i.e. chili) foods, it was difficult for me to find things that I could eat, which was disappointing; Thai dishes all look and smell so delicious. It isn’t heartburn or ulcers that are the problem. It’s in my throat; I choke. Rice and stir-fried veggies became my staples.

Motorbikes in Mae Hong Son

Motorbikes line the street in Mae Hong Son

antique shop

Antique Shop

Lunch at Outdoor Cafe

Lunch at Outdoor Cafe

dinner restaurant

A more upscale restaurant for dinner

The rainy season was just coming to an end, but it was best to not leave the hut for the day without a trusty rain poncho in your backpack. We’d often emerge from a shop into a torrential downpour that might last five minutes or half an hour. During those times, we caught up on emails at a Cyber Café.

Sarah and Kendrick had planned a trek into the mountains for us, so that evening we met with our guide, Chakaphan, with whom they’d trekked before. While we sat with him in the common area, we were soon joined by other guests who had also arrived that day – one couple from Singapore; another also from Singapore, but who had been teaching in the Czech Republic for the past twelve years and had just retired; and a young fellow from Germany.  All of them spoke English and it was great chatting with them.

Our three-day trek that was supposed to begin the next day was postponed because of the heavy rains. The sun came out and we spent the day doing more exploring of the city and its many temples.

funeral parade

We came upon this funeral parade as we walked into town

guest house courtesy car

We hoped the Guest House was in better shape than this vehicle parked out front

city views

City view from up a hill

Posing in the park

Sarah and Kendrick strike a pose

Beautiful Magnolia Trees

Beautiful Magnolia Trees

Mae Hong Son temple

Mae Hong Son temple

Another temple

Another temple

Lake in centre of town

Looking across the lake in the centre of town

A huge school of fish vied for bread crumbs thrown off the shore

A huge school of fish vied for bread crumbs thrown off the shore

In the evening, though, the rain poured down again, sending us into our huts for a rest. It was still raining hard at 10:00 pm, but our guide was optimistic about the weather for the next day so it was agreed that we would strike out at 8:30 in the morning. He warned us that we’d be wading through thigh-high rivers and streams and I felt a little apprehensive, unsure that the thick soled sandals and runners that I’d packed were the proper foot wear.

Tune in tomorrow to see how that went.

Resuming the Journey


It’s beginning to look a lot like winter here today. After a few very emotional and tiring weeks, what better time to resume my trip down memory lane and feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, in Thailand?

The next couple of days in Bangkok were quiet. I experienced the first torrential rain since my arrival, which kept us inside one afternoon. We waded through some flooded streets that evening on our way to dinner at the home of the parents of another of Sarah’s students.

On our final day before heading out to experience more of the country, we roamed around the city. We visited the Isaan Village that had been set up around Government House by people protesting the building of a dam that had destroyed their fishing and their rice paddies. We had a ride in one of the Khlong* boats which carry passengers and floating markets up and down the polluted canals that wander throughout the city. Then we boarded an evening train for Chiang Mai.

boats on Khlongs

boats on Khlong

Passengers disembark

Passengers disembark

 

At 5:15 am I wrote in my journal:

“We have been travelling all night on the train to Chiang Mai.  It has been reasonably comfortable with the seats folded out into beds.  I think I went to sleep at about 9:00 pm, exhausted after our day of roaming the city.

The train isn’t air-conditioned, but there are ceiling fans and open windows. At night screens and shutters cover the windows.  I haven’t tried the toilets yet, after Kendrick’s negative description.  I’m hoping I can hold off until we arrive in Chiang Mai. Even then I’ll have to use the squat type, which I find hard to get used to.  I thought Sarah had said we’d arrive at 5:00 am, but everyone is still sleeping. A shower and some breakfast would be nice. Some people are starting to stir now.”

I soon discovered that in Thailand, scheduled time has little meaning. We were still on the train at 7:30.

“We’re still on the train but everyone is awake. The seats are back and the windows are open to a beautiful, sunny day.  The country is gorgeous – tree covered mountains, lotus growing in the ponds, and a little cooler temperatures. Our new arrival time was supposed to be 7:30 so we should be in Chiang Mai soon.”

We arrived in Chiang Mai at around 8:00 am and had just enough time to grab some breakfast at an outdoor café, where a roll of “toilet” paper set in the centre of the table served as napkins, before catching a tuktuk to the airport. Chiang Mai was not our destination that day.  We boarded a plane for Maehongson, which cost only ten baht more than my room at the Atlantis!

*The Thai capital Bangkok was crisscrossed by khlong and so gained the name Venice of the East.[1] The khlongs were used for transportation and for floating markets, but also for sewage. Today, most of the khlongs of Bangkok have been filled in and converted into streets, although the Thonburi side of Bangkok (covering areas west of Chao Phraya River) still retains several of its larger khlongs.

Central Bangkok has the Khlong Saen Saeb, which is a route for a boat service that remains a vital public transportation function in the traffic-congested capital. (Wikipedia)

Virtual Thailand Trip Temporarily on Hold


Unfortunately my trip down memory lane has had to be postponed, due to a couple of family crises. I’ve had an unplanned trip to Florida.

I will get back to Thailand as soon as I can.

A Day Spent with Buddha’s and Wats


On day three Sarah and I decided to escape the crowds of Bangkok and catch a train to Ayutthaya, an hour and a half trip.It was at the train station that I experienced my first “squat” toilet, and was surprised when a package of tissues was offered to me for purchase as I entered the stall.  I was grateful when I saw that toilet paper was not commonly used in Thailand. Instead the job was done with a bowl of water for rinsing, which often missed the toilet and accumulated into puddles on the floor!

At Ayutthaya we hired a “tuktuk” for the day and did a tour of the many Buddhist temples (Wats).

tuktuk

Our tuktuk and driver

Wat Suwan Dararam

Wat Suwan Dararam, a modern temple

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam

Ancient Palace Ruins -Ayutthaya

School girls climbing up for a better look at Buddha

schoolclass2

These giggling girls were practising their English. “Hello, you take our picture?” My daughter, Sarah, at back.

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet

Sarah in front of Wat Phra Sri Sanphet

A row of sitting buddhas

A row of sitting Buddhas

Wat Phukhao Thong

Wat Phukhao Thong

Now that I’ve  become a better photographer and more observant traveller, I’d love to do this trip again.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make notes of the temple names.  I’ve managed, I think, to identify some of them from internet pictures, but if anyone cares to help me out with accuracy, it would be appreciated.

Experiencing a City of Contrasts


The change in time zones got me confused and I was up out of bed way too early.  While waiting for Sarah and Kendrick to appear, I took in the cityscape from my bedroom window. It was difficult to fathom the contrasting sights that I saw. There were freshly painted large apartment buildings and hotels towering over unpainted and forlorn looking buildings that families called home. Even the two sides of a duplex were different as night and day – one side painted and tidy and boasting new windows, the other very much in need of some TLC. Our day was to be much the same.

After a late breakfast in the hotel dining room, I got my money exchanged and then we went to see the school where Sarah and Kendrick taught. It’s a school for the young children of international dignitaries or wealthy business men, but it’s also an “alternative” school. The classrooms are unstructured – no desks in tidy rows or teachers standing at a black board lecturing.  Instead, the children are encouraged to participate and learn by doing, with the teachers’ guidance. An annual group building project teaches research, logistics, math skills, and craft skills.

Boat House

One project, an outdoor boat house.

Children working together

Children working together

Dragon

Another project – a colourful dragon dominates the school lobby

The children all seem to be happy to learn.  I couldn’t help but think that I might have done better in a school like this! I’m sure many others can relate.

When we left the school, we made our way through the streets that were crowded with street vendors, and into the neighbourhood where Sarah and Kendrick had lived until a few days before. This was an area of small wooden structures, some houses, some shops. We met up with good Thai friends of Sarah and Kendrick, Fatima and Daeng. They lived with their five-year-old daughter in one room in the back of a noodle shop. There older son lived many hours away with Fatima’s parents where he could attend the schooling that could not be afforded in Bangkok. Fortunately Sarah and Kendrick had become quite fluent in Thai during their years there. None of their former neighbours spoke English so I was at a loss to participate in the conversations. Daeng’s only source of income was driving a song thaew, which is the most common type of public transportation in Thailand. Named for the two benches found in the rear passenger area, the song thaew is a pickup truck converted for carrying passengers and some cargo. These vehicles are regulated and licensed by the government.

song thaew

Sarah and Fatima wait in the song thaew for Bea

The four of us drove in it to pick up Bea, Fatima & Daeng’s daughter, from public school and then had lunch at “The Mall”, the first North American style structure I’d seen so far. I ordered “ice milk” expecting plain, cold milk.  What I got was more like a pink milkshake with indiscernible flavours, possibly strawberry and mint.

Ice milk

Traditional Thai lunch, including “ice milk”

The traffic in the city was crazy. There were way too many cars, very few traffic lights or stop signs. The many motorcycles, sometimes carrying whole families, drove two or three abreast, darted between and around cars and even drove on the sidewalks to get through traffic. Some drivers wore helmets; some didn’t. Courtesy was not practised; it was every driver for himself.

At six o’clock we were once more picked up by Mrs. T’s car and driver, this time to be taken to a very fancy, modern hotel on the Chao Phraya River, for an elegant and delicious dinner. We were also adorned with gifts; a beautiful diamond necklace for Sarah as a thank you gift for the teacher, and a gorgeous piece of pink silk fabric for me!

Bangkok, Day 1


 

By the time I arrived in Bangkok at 3:30 pm, I was really too tired to take it all in.  I looked anxiously around for Sarah and Kendrick, but I seemed to be alone. Just  as a friendly face at an airport kiosk asked me, in English, if I needed help, I saw the smacked-against-the-glass face of Kendrick staring at me from another area, and Sarah’s smiling face appeared over his shoulder. Oh, what joy and relief that brought! Since I had no baggage to collect (at Sarah’s directions, I’d squeezed everything I needed for a month into a large back-pack that I was able to carry-on), I was soon on the other side of the glass, embracing them. I was quickly relieved of my bag by a handsome young Thai, and Sarah explained that the mother of one of her students had insisted on sending them to the airport in her car, with a driver! He delivered us to the Atlanta Hotel, which at one time was “the” hotel in Bangkok, having the only indoor pool to boast about. The lobby was ornately decorated with colourful tiles accenting darkly stained tongue and grooved walls. A large circular red leather (or faux?) bench sat in the middle. The same fabric covered a centre columned back rest, at the top of which sat a brass pot of what appeared to be poinsettias. On either side of the doorway leading to the pool, I could see the spiral staircase that would take us to our rooms.

I dreamed of a nice hot bath or at least a shower, and a cozy bed to rest my weary body after my thirty hours of traveling in the same clothes. I was, however, on a tight budget and worried some about what such luxury might cost.  I needn’t have. It turned out that we had budget rooms, at only 390 baht, the Canadian equivalent of about $18.00, per night.  But, you get what you pay for. Our room was nine floors up, by stairs! It seemed the higher we got, the more narrow the staircases and halls became. When I opened my door and took a look around, all dreams of luxuriating in hot soapy water were dashed. The “bathroom” consisted of a small, floor-to-ceiling, no-longer-white, tiled room off the bedroom, with no door. There was a mirror on the wall, a pedestal sink with a single tap and already opened bar of soap in one corner, and a toilet in the other.  Above the toilet was a shower head and taps, cold water only! No towels or face clothes could be found. Sarah had forgotten to tell me to pack my own. Fortunately she and Kendrick had extras so were able to lend me one. My shower was quick, but refreshing and clean clothes felt good. However, in order to keep my feet clean, at least until I got my sandals on, I had to walk on the towel to get to the bed.  The floors were filthy and the paint was peeling from the bedroom walls. I had a lot of adjusting to do!

We went out to dinner with a couple of friends of Sarah and Kendrick – I have no idea what I ate. I guess I was too tired to write that in my journal. After sending some quick emails at the local Cybercafé, we were all ready to hit the sac. The hard, narrow bed with nothing but a couple of thin white sheets and two firm pillows didn’t look very inviting. The night was hot, but the whirl of the dusty overhead fan purred me to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Tomorrow would be a better day.

 

Notes: When checking online today for the Atlanta Hotel, I found many good reviews and it has been refurbished.

I will include some pictures, but unfortunately at that time I had only an old-fashioned 35 mm film camera, the latch of which eventually broke and had to be taped closed! J