Pic: Anchored in Lon Dalum Bay at Ko Phi Phi Don. Have you noticed...we have no neighbors; we're out in 'transitional season'.
Pic: One of the many beach bars in Ko Phi Phi Don
Pic: One of the many trees with flying foxes; we're glad we had our big sun hats on!
Pic: Our anchor spot at Ko Kuda Yai
Pic: Our peaceful anchorage at Ko Pak Bia
Pic: Sharing the channel out of KBL with a towed vessel.
Pic: a snake visit in the empty slip next to us. We believe it's of the Krait species.
We hooked up with a tour guide nearby the hotel. Tour prices at this hotel were 2000 each; our guide charged 1000 baht each. Mr Pon (085-5461945 or 081-2874615) is a retired educator, and we were driven in a new Isuzu extended cab Hilander; very comfortable and quiet. We chose our route, wanting to see Mae Chan, Mae Sai, and Chiang Saen. These three villages represent the three points of the Golden Triangle. Anyone wanting to get their passports stamped in those countries can easily cross borders and do so, crossing back into Thailand and getting a new entry stamp into their passports. The drive out from Chiang Rai went to the foothills of the mountains, with rice and pineapple fields everywhere. We just drove thru Mae Chan, not stopping, in order to spend more time in Mae Sai. There, you can walk across a foot bridge into Myanmar if you'd like. The immediate surrounding areas are all shops, hundreds of them, all selling the same things. We stood under the sign that said "The Northern Most Point In Thailand", took some pictures, bought some roasted chestnuts, and walked around for 30 minutes before meeting Mr Pon again. It was crowded; daily workers from Myanmar that come over for the day and return, lots of tourists, and lots of shopkeepers. Back on the highway, we then drove to The Hall of Opium which was built by Royal decree and depicted the history of opium production and use thru the ages. This was a first class museum and very informative (300 baht). After time spent there, we went on a Mae Kong River trip (300 baht) which is boarded at Sop Ruak, the official center of the Golden Triangle, which is at the confluence of the Nam Ruak and the Mae Kong rivers. From our long-tail, we saw the Myanmar Paradise Casino, then went across river to Laos to Donesao Island. Although part of Laos, tourists are allowed to land there, pay the 30 baht entry fee, and walk around their shops; no visas or passport stamps are required at this special economic zone. Although it was a lot of money for the river trip and Donesao Island visit, we felt being upon the river offered something special, and more so than just standing under a "Golden Triangle" sign to take a few photos. Upon our return, we had a cappuchino (have I mentioned that Thai coffee is some of the world's best, and that a cup is about 30-45 baht depending where you buy it?), then went for a late lunch/early dinner before going to to the ancient city of Chiang Saen. There, walls of this 7th century empire can still be seen. The nearby Wat Chedi Luang dates from the 12th-14th centuries, and is built in classic Lanna style architecture. We returned to our hotel at about 1800, and would recommend Mr Pon as tour guide if you're making a visit to the Golden Triangle or anywhere nearby.
We walked to the Hilltribe Museum & Education Center, getting there at their 1000 opening. Although small, it's very informative about the tribal peoples of northern Thailand. There are numerous plaques (in English) that explain about the tribes, opium production, and hunting and agricultural activities. A short film was also shown that detailed the native tribal populations as well as some of their customs. This was a worthwhile stop. We ate lunch next door at Cabbages & Condoms, which is a restaurant dedicated to getting the message out about HIV/AIDS prevention as well as donating to the PDA (Population and Community Development Association), an NGO involved in all sorts of community based initiatives thoughout Thailand. We then walked to the statue of King Meng Rai a few blocks away and in the evening took a tuk-tuk to the Saturday market for dinner and a bit more market atmosphere.
We felt that the cost of the taxi from the public boat landing to the Laluna Hotel was way too much (200 baht), but we didn't know where we were, certainly couldn't walk the distance to the hotel, and just had to smile and pay the fare. Agoda was having this crazy sale on this resort, and we booked our room not realizing we were "stepping it up", a lot! At any rate, the next morning we took a tuk-tuk to bus station #2, bought our Chiang Rai to Bangkok VIP bus tickets via The Transport Company (980 baht), then took a tuk-tuk to Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple. Do not see this wat if you happen to be tripping on any mind-altering substance. It's all white with mirrored chips everywhere, and is unlike any wat you're likely to see elsehere. The architect is Chalermchai Kositpipat, and his gallery is adjacent to the wat. This guy is a national treasure, and to say he's incredibly talented and inspired is a vast understatement. You simply must see his works, and we think you'll agree with our enthusiastic opinion. On our return to town, we relaxed a bit then walked to the night market. Chiang Rai has a number of night markets; their traditional ones, the Saturday night market and the Sunday walking street market. All of them have an incredible variety of food stalls, crafts and woven goods, as well as the typical tourist crap you see everywhere. Live music, dancing, singing, and shows are also going on, and there's a carnival atmosphere. Bargaining is taken for granted, so practice up.
We decided to take the public boat from Thaton to Chiang Mai. Although the boat is packed during high season, we were the only two passengers aboard today. Departure is once daily and cost is 350 baht. It travels down the swift flowing Mae Kok river, and what a trip it is. The first two thirds of the trip were thru the mountains and the scenery was spectacular. Much of the area is agriculture, with crops planted up steep hills and down to the river. We passed several small villages and towns and everyone waved. The water buffalo were cooling off in the river; at times only their heads and shoulders were visible. Along many areas of the river the depth was so shallow that rapids and over runs were common, but the flat bottomed longtail took them in stride. It was surprisingly quiet too; we could hold a conversation the entire trip. Although we thought it would take 3.5 hours, we arrived at the dock in Chiang Rai in 2.5 hours. The last little bit was thru much flatter areas, with some of the houses on the river looking pretty grand. The best comparison we could make was that today was like being on a 2.5 hour Disney boat ride! This is something we are so happy to have experienced, and recommend you take the ride if you're in these parts.
It was an interesting day going from Pai to Thaton yesterday. We took the public van-bus from Pai (80 baht) to Mae Malai, getting off and changing to the bus that went to Fang (65 baht). The only way to go direct to Thaton was to backtrack from Pai to Chiang Mai (remember those 764 curves?) for the direct Chiang Mai to Thaton bus. We took the road less traveled. The country is basically jungle, broken up by agricultural areas and small towns. This is a very beautiful part of Thailand, and we were happy not to be driving so we could look around. At Fang, we got on a local yellow song-taew (20 baht) that went to Thalon. All told, we spent about 6 hours transit time, but were happy to get out at our destination in daylight. We had booked at the Old Trees House Resort in Thalon (www.oldtreeshouse.net) and Paulo picked us up for the 5 minute ride to the resort. What a beautiful place! He and his wife, Nid, built 6 bungalows just outside town. There's a view of the Mae Kok river, as well as mountains and rice fields. The private bungalow with king-sized bed, free wifi, satellite TV, free stocked mini-bar, and pool all helped relax us after the drive. Breakfast is also included, and this morning, Paulo mapped out a trekking route for us, then dropped us off about 8 km (?) up the mountain side out of town. We walked the back trails thru the Kentung village, and eventually reached the beautiful chedi (Wat Thaton) that sits high atop one of the hills overlooking Thaton. The views over the valley, river and town were broken up a bit by the haze, but the sun was shining and we took our time walking back to town for a late lunch. After getting back to the resort at 3:30, we arranged an oil massage for both of us (250 baht/hr); a very nice way to wind down the day.
We took the van-bus from Chiang Mai to Pai (pronounced "pie"; prices ranged from 180-250 bahts at this time) and were picked up at the bus station by Aad, our host along with his wife Noi from the Pura Vida Resort Hotel. After the van-bus negotiated the 764 curves along the route (yes, someone must have counted them all; the 764 number is on T-shirts sold in town, so...) just getting off the bus was nice. We met one guy who took Dramamine before the ride; another hitchiker wasn't so keen on the never-ending curves either. At any rate, sailors know motion, right? The Pura Vida Resort is a quiet sea of tranquility about 6 km outside Pai. The gardens and pond with connecting canals reminds one of the Netherlands, where Aad is from. This was just the quiet we were seeking. The area of Pai and its surrounds have about 24000 people. There's a lot of New Age stuff around, and the farangs are plentiful. It reminded Sue and myself of Port Townsend, Wa. in the late 1970's; talk about a flashback! Pai itself is in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. It's Vegetarian Festival thruout many parts of Thailand this week, so finding veggie dishes was easy. We, on the other hand, had a wonderful hamburger at the Hamburger House. Heathen, right? After walking around town the next day, we walked back to the hotel to get some exercise, arriving in the late afternoon. We made arrangements to go to Thaton, and basically just chilled. Aad and Noi's hospitality is lovely, and we highly recommend you check them out if you come this way (email@example.com).
At about 9:30 pm last night we finally decided on which elephant encounter experience we wanted.
E-mailing Ran-Tong, I received an immediate response asking me to reconfirm, and by 10:00 pm our reservations and hotel pick-up were arranged. The trip out to the center took 1 1/4 hours, and we saw some countryside that was how things must have looked before cities and urban development happened. When we arrived at the Center, the eleven of us in the van got out and were introduced to a few of the elephants by feeding them bananas. We were then instructed as to the five most common commands (in Thai) we'd use that day; stop, go, left, right and lie down. We were given a change of clothes to wear; Karen tribe shirts, then learned how to get up on one (bareback), and keep our balance while she (in this case) followed our, but mostly the mahouts (trainers) commands. Not so easy for a few of us...We then followed a jungle trail, sometimes muddy and boulder strewn, for about a one mile circuit; most of us two to an elephant, one fellow by himself. What fun! We got back strained a bit, dirty a bit, but willing to do more. The scenery on the side of the hill with the valley below was spectacular. Lunch followed; pretty good. After lunch we rested a bit before mounting up again for the long ride to the river. It was funny to have some of the animals listen, some refuse to go forward, most all stop off to grab a branch of bamboo to eat or take a small drink of water...it took a while to get to the river. The mahouts treated the animals well, and no animal was mistreated in our presence. At the river, we all got in and helped bathe the elephants, inbetween water fights and general frolicking around. The elephants seemed to really enjoy the water, certainly enjoyed the bath, and the baby elephant (was he adorable, or what...) had been trained to spray everyone with water, so it didn't take long for us all to be soaking wet. Lots of pictures were taken, we all got elephant kisses and hugs (OK, let me hear you all say "ahhh") and it was then time to mount up and head back. Our butts and inner thighs are just a bit sore, but the slight rolling motion didn't take long to adjust to. (At first, most of us held on for dear life, then relaxed as familiarity set in.) After changing out of our wet clothes, we got back in the van for the trip back to Chiang Mai. Our pictures will get sorted into an album later, but the memories of the experience will be with us forever. Riding an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand...whodathunk?
After a short 20 baht song-taew (this is a public truck taxi; it's a pickup truck with two facing bench seats in the back bed; fares are usually published, but if not, can be negotiated) ride, we transferred to another song-taew going up the mountain (doi) to Wat Phrase That (known as Wat Suthep), a 40 baht fare each way. The road wound 15 kms up the mountain, eventually coming to a large car park near the temple complex. The original temple was built around 1380. There are 300 steps going up the Naga Serpent Staircase, ending at the golden spire and various temples and shrines. The White Elephant shrine and Emerald Buddha statue are found there, as well as numerous plaques and offering sites. Folks taken up round-trip by the red song-taew were given 1.5 hours to view the area, which we felt was just long enough. There are other paid rides to several waterfalls, the Royal Palace at Phra Tamank Phu Ping (the winter palace with it's surrounding gardens) and other trekking trails. You could spend an entire day thruout the National Park and enjoy the beauty. We returned to the Chang Puak Gate (the north gate), and walked around the perimeter of the old city, an area we hadn't explored before. We ended up eating lunch at a...are you sitting down?....Mexican food restaurant. That's right...come to Chiang Mai and eat Mexican food? It sounds a bit incongruous, but the city is known for its diverse culinary delights and incredible number of international restaurants. The one we chose was, to be kind, OK...but we wouldn't recommend it to anyone. We've picked up our mini-van tickets to Pai, and leave Saturday morning for the more remote areas of the country.
Our long-term visas require us to report in to the Immigration office every 90 days. We arrived at the local Chiang Mai office at 0735, and there was already a long line snaking around the entrance. Although office hours were from 0800, we were given ticket number 46, and those folks who had tickets higher than number 55 were instructed to return at 1300. It pays to arrive early to any Immigration office early! When we got back to our hotel we checked out and rolled our bags a few hundred meters down the street to the Chiang Mai Gate Hotel for a change of scenery and rooms. After, we had coffee at Baan Bakery just down the street from the hotel. The owner mixes his own brew of coffee beans that he gets from northern Thailand and bakes all the goodies. It is one of the best coffees we've had, and I arranged to buy a half kilo of beans from him. The rest of the day was essentially spent planning our trip northwards and walking around the old city. In the early evening we walked in the rain to a small bar/restaurant called My Place for spinach panini sandwiches; lots of garlic on those!