Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

CHAING MAI  –  Northern Thailand

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We arrived in Chiang Mai after a short 50 minute air-hop over the mountains from Hanoi.  Nothing up in this part of S.E. Asia seems very far from anywhere else… (by AIR!)

Chiang Mai is a beautiful, planned city founded back in 1285, and currently has about 400,000 inhabitants. The walls of the old town are in evidence at the corners of this well-layed out old metropolis, and the entire moat around these ancient brick walls is a very attractive addition to the city-scape.  It was a delight just walking these streets, visiting museums, exploring the many Buddhist temples, and casually taking in the sights, while eating at a number of excellent northern Thai restaurants.  And you MUST check out the great saturday and sunday markets here, where they close a number of streets to vehicles on these two evenings and and you walk for hours looking at all the goods while smelling the tantalizing foods stalls and listening to performers and street musicians all along  the way. . .

The Sunday Walking Street market was quite festive with thousands of people inching along shoulder to shoulder while looking at all the items for sale. One could easily get lost.  Locals come to shop, socialize, hang out and the crowds swell with Thai and foreign tourists.   It was the most crowded and largest night market we have been to.  There were performances of children singing and Thai dancing.  We didn’t have our camera with us, but they were delightful in their costumes.  The Wats open up their grounds for food vendors — lots of yummy food cooked right there. The whole event was quite something to see, but we were glad to get away from the crowds and have a drink in the restaurant close to our hotel and listen to some very good local live jazz (a surprise to us here in Northern Thailand), but a welcome from all the karaoke we have heard elsewhere.

Chiang Mai really seems quite modern and a definite contrast to the towns we had became acquainted with in neighboring Laos. We quickly noticed we were now back in a part of SE Asia that is doing pretty well economically.

The hotel we stayed in was very pleasant and in a very convenient location for us, just within the walls of the ancient city near the eastern-most gate (the Tha Phae Gate).

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pool

The small pool at the DeNaga Hotel was perfect for us; a relaxing place for a drink before dinner.

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temple

Temple near the Art Museum

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Lovely swing

Lovely swing to rest from walking the streets

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There is much more to explore in Chiang Mae, but we are not here long.  We found a couple of great restaurants and would have loved to try more.   A speciality of Northern Thailand is a dish of yellow noodles with chicken, chili, and crisp noodles on top.  It was so good, but the spiciest dish we have had so far.  Another great place for Thai food was “Mamory Delicious”, were we had a wonderful curry dish.

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Patara Elephant Farm

A highlight of our trip was being an elephant owner for a day at Patara Elephant Farm.   It was an amazing experience from getting to know our elephant, feeding, bathing, checking poop for health, and riding the elephant bareback.  The day is a perfect combination of education, conservation, hands-on experience, and breathtaking scenery.   You can tell by the enthusiasm of the owner and those who care for the elephants that these creatures are truly family.  The program they have for rehabilitation and natural breeding program is so humane.  Each elephant has a trainer that is responsible for the care of that elephant and is consistently tending to its care.  It was such a great day getting to know our individual elephant and learning about the elephants in general, learning the commands to go, stop, open mouth, lie down, get up, raise leg so we could climb up on their neck.  What was truly amazing is that they responded to us, visitors, even with our accents.  Elephants are very gentle and intelligence creatures.

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Mother and baby -- 3 weeks old

Mother and baby — 3 weeks old

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Adorable little girl

Adorable little girl

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The two new baby elephants -- 3 and 4 weeks old

The two new baby elephants — 3 and 4 weeks old

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Great way to start our day with elephants

Great way to start our day with elephants

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She was a leaner -- was about to push me down

Ready to suck on my hand

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Mama was a better option

Mama was a better option

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Walking in the fields to find the other elephants

Walking in the fields to find the other elephants

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Feeding our elephant to establish a bond for the day

Feeding my elephant to establish a bond for the day — bamboo, sugar cane bananas, and grasses

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Gary's is larger and older (38 yrs old)

Gary’s is larger and older (38 yrs old)

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Another one joined us

Wait-a-minute!   How’d I get 2 of ’em?     Another one joined us for the feast

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We had to check their poop -- healthy if it didn't smell.

We had to check their poop — healthy if it didn’t smell.

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Dusting off the dirt

Dusting off all the dirt they had been rolling in.

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Then hosing them down

. . . Then hosing them down

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Time to get up -- lifts his foot as a step stool

OK: time to ride!   She’s easy to get up, right?   —  Just lifts her foot as my step-stool.

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An awkward  mount and I was first one chosen to demonstrate the technique

UGH!  An awkward mount and of course I HAD to be the first one chosen to demonstrate the technique!

Made it!

I DID IT!

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Gary had a higher climb

Gary had a higher climb (and needed a little help)

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Success

Success!

Thankful to be on the elephants

Thankful to be on these magnificent creatures.

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We are ready to go

We’re ready to go

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We then took a couple of hours ride through the forest with our new friends (with many steep ups and downs to the trails, it was uninteresting trek) before coming to a waterfall and large pool, where we bathed and scrubbed our elephants.  The riding was actually quite comfortable up their on their necks with our legs behind their ears.  Bathing and playing in the water with them was great fun, as they seemed to really enjoy it.  But, mostly their trainer kept encouraging  us to “scrub harder”.

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Down the forest path

Down the forest path

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He was a pro

Gary became  a real pro at riding his.

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Time for a scrub in the river

Time for a scrub in the river

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Even had to clean her teeth

Even had to clean underneath her trunk and her teeth!

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Only way to clean the top

Only way to clean the top.    Then she decided to roll over in the water, and I got off quick!

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She seemed to be enjoying the scrub

She seemed to be enjoying the scrub

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Gary joined us and then she got up!

Gary joined us and then she started getting up!

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The elephants lined up to get the last splashes

The elephants lined up so we could give them some last splashes.

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But the elephants gave us the last bath

But the elephants wound up giving us the last bath!

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It was a surprise

Turn-about is fair play, eh?

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We then had a lovely lunch overlooking the water hole, and then took a short ride on our elephants back to where we had to say good-by to our new friend.

It is hard to describe the joy of interacting with these magnificent animals.  Truly, one of the most intelligent creatures we have encountered, and an experience we won’t soon forget.

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time for a great lunch

time for a great lunch  —  love the banana leaf tablecloth

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Watching the next group bath their elephants

Watching the second part of our group bath their elephants

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This little guy loved the water

This little guy just couldn’t get enough of the water

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As we left for our 30 km ride back down the mountain to Chaing Mai, we all had a hard time believing we had just spent a very long and tiring day taking care of these massive animals.  If you get to S.E.Asia we heartily suggest you put such an activity on your trip agenda:  you won’t regret it.   BUT, choose the experience carefully.  Elephant tourism is a big-ticket item over here, and there are a lot of promoters/operators that are in it just to make money, without thoughtful care of the animals as the basis for their operation.  In fact, many of them are mistreating the elephants so tourists can just get close to them. Hence, ‘caveat emptor’ applies: do your research before deciding where to go for such an experience.    This one is the Patara Elephant Farm and they can be found at:                     http://pataraelephantfarm.com

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All-in-all we didn’t plan for enough time in Chiang Mai.  Next time we will spend at least a  week or two here alone.  So much to see and do.

Posted in Northern Thailand | Leave a comment

Luang Namtha – Northern Laos

Way up North in Laos!

We knew we were in for a long drive, but didn’t realize it would take ten-to-twelve hours!  We found out later that we should have started at 8:00 but we had been told the night before to met our new guide at 9:00 am.  Then we had to stop at 4 ATM’s on our way outta’ town before we found one that worked, which put our start even later.  The ride was 308 Km (191 miles), and 85 km (52 miles) of the worst road we have EVER travelled; it took us 3 hours just on this one stretch of non-pavement.

We knew it would be mountainous and curvy roads, but this road was washed out most of the way with only a small semblance of paved stretches, then just rocks and dips and potholes and ruts.  We thought we would be at the Boat Landing before dark, but as it was, we drove a couple of hours into the night before arriving chilled and hungry.  It was hard enough traveling in the daylight.  The roads are narrow and there seemed to be a hair-pin bend at virtually every corner.  No wonder it took us over 10 hours to drive 191 miles.  That’s about an average of 15 to 19 mph for those of you counting!

Luckily, the last 80 Km was a brand new road built by the Chinese (see my comments on the Chinese impact here in my previous post), from Oudomxai to Luang Namtha.  It was full of trucks that transported food products back to China, along with the occasional manufactured goods from new Chinese factories here.  We were trying to be positive and hoping the long bumpy trip would be worth it.  It was an experience passing through various tribal mountain villages, where we saw people taking showers on the roadside under a water pipe and children running after pigs in every direction. The villages are built right on the road.  A tradition in the SE Asia countries, but not were I would want to live now, with ever more trucks, automobiles, and motorcycle traffic moving up and down these mountains.  There are children playing right in or alongside the road at every turn.  Scary.

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Lunch stop
Lunch stop where the two main highways meet, near Pak Mong (the start of the “miserable miles”!)
A variety of meats
A variety of meats. Can you guess?  OK: some fish from the local stream, sausages of mystery-meat, small chickens, whole frog meat, fermented pork, dog meat, and we think, some fried rat . . .
Village along the road
We stopped at this village high up in the mountains, along the road to Oudomxai.
He had to walk up a very steep hill
She had to walk up a very steep hill from where she collected her load of bamboo, back to the village

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After a good dinner and night’s sleep at “The Boat Landing” , we started our trek in the Namha Valley.

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Boating Landing
The Boat Landing cottage
River
Nam Tha River in front of our  bungalow
Boat Landing on the river
Resting after a long day of trekking.  Nothing like a cold Beer-Lao!

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We hiked to the Ban Sida village through lush jungle, groves of rubber trees, banana trees and rice fields. We saw so many fascinating plants — some edible and some not. The route we took would not have been passable for us during the wet season, but at this time of year, it gave us beautiful views of the valleys below.  We had to cross a number of streams — taking off our shoes and wading through the cold water just added to the experience.  Our guide packed a delicious lunch that we ate in a clearing on the top of the mountain in a lush forest.  He picked some banana leaves along the way and made us an ‘elegant’ tablecloth as well as containers to hold the rice. We had sticky rice, a green pumpkin dish, vegetables, and an eggplant dip.  It was all delicious. Laotians tend to eat most things with their fingers, with sticky rice as an implement to pick food up.  What a concept 😊.

There are only two villages in Laos whose ethnic roots derive from a Tibeto-Burman group.  This Sida village is one of them.  As we climbed into the village we came upon a group of  young boys riding a worn-out Chinese-wheeled toy down a very steep hill, laughing all the way down. We marveled at how simple the toy, and how great the joy…  When we arrived at the top of this hill we were next to a very small school, and all the kids were playing in the dirt yard.  We asked some of the kids if we could take pictures and they were quite shy and looked away.  I was able to take a picture of a few shy but willing children and then showed them the digital picture. After that most of the kids wanted to see the pictures and began hamming it up for the camera.  Children are the same everywhere; loving to see themselves and make faces for pictures.  They were so enthusiastic that at one point I was so mobbed I could hardly stand up, as they gathered around to see all of the images.

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Starting our trek
Starting our trek
Rubber Trees
Rubber Trees, planted and owned by local villagers
Beautiful views
Beautiful views and without trails, difficult to traverse
Jungle
Jungle!  no other word for this. The habitat is an upper montane forested ridges with great bio-diversity.  This dense forest covers more than 90% of the area here.
Lots of banana trees
Lots of banana trees, and their flowers are magnificent!  Lao people use the flower in many dishes, including salads where they cut it in small strips;  very delicious.
Lunch served Laotian style
Lunch served Laotian style
Delicious!
Delicious!
Along the way
There are wild pig in these mountains (BIG tuskers we were told) but this little guy was an escapee from the next village.
Approaching the village -- these are the rice storage huts
Approaching the village — these are the rice storage huts used to keep the new grain away from the moisture and predators.
Local School
Local School.  Kids a bit shy, but only at first.
Children loved seeing the digital photos of themselves
Children loved seeing the digital images of themselves!
Then they hammed it up
Then they hammed it up
cute kids
cute!
One of their wheeled toys
innovative use of an old moto-wheel rim.  3 sticks, someone to push, and off you go down the hill.
The adults don't want to be photographed.  But she said we could take the picture
The adults don’t want to be photographed, but she gave Gary permission to take this picture.  We hoped to capture her smoking her pipe, but think she was a bit embarrassed.
The pre-schoolers looking at us -- the strangers walking through the village
Pre-schoolers watching us strangers walking through their village.  They don’t see many farang up here in these valleys.
their homes
their typical home.  No electrify but note the pole with a small solar cell on it.
and pets
Dogs are revered here, as pets, playthings for kids and guards of their property.
The annalist signs to keep away strangers
Animist signs to keep away strangers (the dog probably helps too!)
Collecting bamboo shoots
Collecting wood; they teach them very young the necessities of life in their village
drying
drying mushrooms
village
village dwellings
interested in meeting us
A kind villager who was very interested in meeting us, though we communicated only with gestures.
This young man is carrying a very heavy pole
This young man is carrying a very heavy pole he had just used his machete to cut down in a near-by forest. Gary had him stand it on end to see if he could lift it, but decided it was at least 200 lbs!  Passed on this one.
One of several streams we had to cross
One of several streams we had to cross
on the way out
Trekking on the way out.  Quiet, a few bird songs, but peaceful
Back where we started the loop
Back where we started our loop up and over the mountain.  A good 15 km hike!

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We returned from the village and walked to the Ban Nam Dee waterfall, where we relaxed before heading back to Luang Namtha and our cottage.

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Luang Namtha Valley Bike Tour

The next morning after a hasty breakfast we started on a 30 km bicycle trip through several villages around the Luang Namtha Valley.  We had a fantastic local guide on this enjoyable outing.  As we stopped to climb to a golden  stupa high up on a hill in the countryside, he told us that an American bomb had destroyed it back in 1975  at the end of the war.  The villagers have since built a new one next to it.

We talked about the war and he said (very much like the Vietnamese), the Laotian people have moved on, and they look to the future not the past.  But it was an uncomfortable moment when he told us that his cousin had been killed from a land mine explosion as he was working to plow a new field.

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That Phoum Pouk Stupa
That Phoum Pouk Stupa

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We then cycled to the villages of the Ahka minority, Black Tai minority, and the Tai Leu minority.   These were all very interesting communities.

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Mobbed by children selling brackets in the Ahka village
Mobbed by children once again; these selling brackets in the Ahka village
They followed up through the village
They followed us around all through their village
Many women weavers
Many women weavers in the village
This man demonstrated how he was making these stools -- fascinating
This man demonstrated how he was making these stools from bamboo — fascinating.
We watched her weave for a bit
We watched her weave for a bit
And then proceeded to buy some handwoven scarves from these two young women
And then proceeded to buy some handwoven scarves from these two young weavers
Boys cock fighting
Don’t need to describe this activity.  But combatant on the right decided this wasn’t his time, and moved away.

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On New Years Eve we drove another 60 km north to the town of Muang Sing ,which was another long drive.  Muang Sing doesn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist delights,  except for a morning market which is quite large and is attended by literally dozens of different ethnic groups gathered to sell their produce and wares. It was unusual, and we didn’t see any other caucasians attending.   Definitely a market for tribes and villages to come and sell and buy what they need.

The Lotus Villa Hotel where we stayed was nice, but it was New Year’s Eve and the party gathering for the entire town happened to be right next door! . . .  so we heard loud music and singing (OMG, Karaoke!!) until well into the wee hours.  Then up early the next day to attend the market and gear ourselves for the long long ride back to Luang Prabang:  YES, the same *&#@&* stretch of road we had just travelled to get up here, all 300+ km of it!!

While we had some great experiences in and around Luang Namtha, I don’t think we would have spent two long days of traveling such rough roads to get here had we know.  Give us the quiet, laid-back comfort of Luang Prabang and time!

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Morning market just getting set up
Morning market just getting set up; its about 6:30AM
lovely produce
lovely produce, and we are already missing the great quality.
Chilies everywhere
Chilies everywhere.  and these are HOT buggers!
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Banana blossoms, ginger, onions
Sweets
‘Sweets’.  This is the morning market equivalent of the candy store.  All made fromm rice!

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We loved being back in Luang Prabang, and spent several more days exploring, sightseeing, just relaxing.  We took an excursion to the waterfall outside of Luang Prabang (see our previous post).  It was delightful.  If it had been warmer we might have gone into the beautiful pools.

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Next stop?  Northern Thailand, with a start in Chiang Mai.

Posted in Laos | 1 Comment