We left Chiang Mai (sadly) Christmas morning, taking a minibus to Soppong, a small town up in the hills. The bus ride was brutal; we wound back and forth, up and down through the mountains. I fought to keep my breakfast down, regretting eating at all. We stopped once for a bathroom and food break. I came out of the restroom to find Jeff munching away on nuts and garlic bread. When he offered me some, I looked at him like he was crazy. How he could manage to eat was beyond me. Even though the ride was less than pleasant, the views were amazing. I tried to focus on that.
We arrived in Soppong after noon and walked to the Soppong River Inn just outside of “town.” I use the term town to describe Soppong, but it was really little more than a few buildings along the road. The bus stop was a small lean-to with no front wall. Luckily, the River Inn was in much better shape and offered a wonderful view. It was well secluded, quiet, and perfectly relaxing, though extremely simple and lacking in fancy amenities… like a roof over the bathroom. Had it not been winter in northern Thailand, an outdoor shower would have thrilled me. We had our own deck hanging out over the river where I enjoyed morning cups of coffee… wrapped in a blanket and several layers of clothes. I was not prepared for the cold of the north!
After we dropped our bags and ate a quick (delicious!) lunch, Jeff and I got directions to a nearby coffin cave and set out for a little hike.
No one is entirely sure why people used to bury their dead in coffins tied up in caves, but Thailand and the Philippines are two of the only places on earth where they can be found. Of course, the remains are all gone, but pieces of the ancient wood from the coffins and some of the supports used to hold them can still be found.
After our hike, we headed back to Soppong and walked into town for snacks. Soppong’s most happening locale was the 7-11 at the far end of the road. We loaded up on goodies for less than $5 and headed back to the Inn for dinner, which was also incredibly delicious. The food was quickly turning out to be the highlight of Soppong.
Because the town was so quiet and remote, there was absolutely nothing to do at night, so we cozied up in our room to watch TV and movies on the laptop. I had spent most of Christmas day trying to forget what day it was, and it worked pretty well up until dinner and after. As good as the pad thai was, it wasn’t the Christmas feast I usually ate with my family. That night, we Skyped with Jeff’s parents and sister on their Christmas morning. We watched them open presents and chatted for almost two hours, and for a moment I was able to forget that we were alone on Christmas. We were lucky enough to also get to chat with his extended family the next morning (their Christmas night). These simple pleasures got me through a day that could have otherwise been extremely depressing. We survived our first Christmas away from home! I know it will get easier, but NOTHING will replace the feeling of holidays with family.
The day after Christmas we decided to rent a motorcycle to cruise around the mountains for a day of hiking. Soppong’s one and only motorcycle rental shop fixed us up with the meanest looking hog I’ve ever seen (please take note of the butterfly decals and pink leopard print paint job). Jeff was unfazed by this emasculating ride. We putted around through the mountains, missing the turn for our first destination and losing a couple of hours of hiking time. Our map looked like something a 10-year-old had drawn. At least the views were amazing!
We finally made it to Thom Lod cave, the largest cave system in SE Asia, and hired a guide to take us through the three caves. He pointed out different stalactites and stalagmites, telling us what animal or… human organ they looked like. We rode a bamboo raft through parts of the cave system and the fish swam along beside us hoping for the bread crumbs they often get from tourists.
The caves’ formations were unbelievable, ranging in size, color, and texture. Some formations sparkled like diamonds. Others looked slimy, prickly, or smooth. The ceilings of the caves dripped, proof that stalactites and stalagmites were still forming.
After our tour of Tham Lod, we had only a couple hours of daylight left but thought we could make it to Pai, the next town over – much larger and more touristy. We were wrong. Within an hour of driving we realized we were nowhere near Pai, and the temperature on the other side of the mountain was drastically colder, so we turned around and headed back to Soppong just before it got dark.
The next day, we packed up and headed to the bus station for our ride back to Chiang Mai. I should mention that we had tried to buy our return tickets for the minibus the day before, but the bus station manager explained to us in broken English “no more.” No more? What were we supposed to do?! “Local bus.” Local bus? His smile grew wide as he nodded, “Local bus.” I know now that that smile meant, “stupid tourists.” We asked to buy tickets and he shook his head and pointed to the clock, “10 o’clock.”
Nervous about the local bus situation, we showed up at the stop at 9:30 and ended up waiting over an hour. Already exhausted from lugging all of our bags around all morning, my spirit just about broke when the local bus (unairconditioned and spewing exhaust) pulled up PACKED to the doors with people. And there were 30 or more of us waiting to get on. About 10 people got off, and the rest of us stampeded the bus, desperate to get out on the only bus coming through town that morning.
I’d like to say I was extremely polite and well mannered in that moment, but that would be a bold-faced lie. Jeff and I ran to the bus doors as it was coming to a stop and bullied our way on as others were still trying to get off. Even with our aggressive maneuvering we had no seats and had to stand for the hour and a half ride to Pai. Personal space was a luxury none of us were granted. I had a woman leaning her full body weight against me and making no effort to brace herself on twists and turns. My face was inches from Jeff’s while our bags were clutched between our legs. I got the best ab workout of my life, trying to stay upright on that bus ride. We made the most of it, passing the time talking to a young Swedish man who had been traveling in Asia for several months.
In Pai most of the passengers got off, and we used our now-inherent aggressive tactics to secure a seat. A seat! The things I used to take for granted…
The ride back to Chiang Mai took about 4 more hours, getting us into CM a little after 6:00. But we weren’t staying. The plan was to head straight to Chiang Rai, a 4-hour bus ride north. If I could go back in time and tell past Heather one thing, it would be “Don’t do it.” I rushed up to the window and purchased two tickets on the very next bus out of CM, feeling so lucky to have found tickets at all. The guide books I used to research our trip described Chiang Rai as a charming, less touristy version of Chiang Mai where we could get a better feel for the authentic Thai way of life. How sweet.
We got into CR after 10:30 and grabbed one of the only cabs around. The driver had no clue where our hotel was. Not a good sign. After several phone calls to other drivers and one Chinese tourist’s attempt to help us by calling his sister (she had never even been to Chiang Rai…), he figured out where we were going. At that point I would have slept in the cab, I was so tired.
It was midnight when we arrived at the hotel, and the front desk was deserted, lights off. I walked in, looking around for some way to call the manager, when the light came on and a man walked in behind me. I tried to explain who we were and showed him the receipt for our room. He took one look at it, shrugged, and said, “No.” Simple as that. NO.
14 hours of traveling on buses across northern Thailand. I was sweaty, sore, hungry, and tired. I was in no mood to hear no. Just as I was about to unleash (okay, maybe I was going to cry), the man’s wife came in and took my paperwork from her husband as she casually munched on a late night snack. After a cursory glance, she nodded and handed us a set of keys. Her husband, humbled by his wife’s competency (and his complete lack of), showed us to our room in a much friendlier fashion than his original greeting. I took a shower and passed out.
We woke in the morning, rejuvenated and excited to explore the charming city of Chiang Rai. The error of my hotel choice was quickly realized (as if last night’s greeting hadn’t been clue enough) when we walked out to the main road and found that we were positioned a good 2 miles from the real downtown area. Apparently the Central Plaza we were located so close to was not what the name implied. Not central, and certainly not a plaza. It was a giant shopping mall. Should’ve done my research.
We dropped off our laundry at a nearby facility (it’s very easy and cheap to get your laundry done in Thailand) and started walking. I hoped that as we got closer to the heart of the city the feel of it would change from dirty and industrial to quaint and charming. It didn’t. It just got louder and more congested. We ate breakfast and booked a tour for the following day, then did a little sight seeing. We visited a museum dedicated to the history of the northern Thailand hill tribes, saw a couple of wats, and found a night market to explore. We decided to take a taste bud adventure and sample as much market street food as possible for our dinner. Each dish was more delicious than the last. We were starting to enjoy Chiang Rai! Well, at least the food.
I stopped at an ATM for more baht, punched in my pin number, and waited for the machine to process my request… which seemed to be taking an abnormally long time. The ATM screen went blank and a Windows screen popped up just before the entire machine shut down with my card still inside. Wonderful.
Worried that my card might spit back out at some later time, we rushed back to the hotel and emailed Wells Fargo about the problem. Within minutes I had a reply that my card had been cancelled and a new one was being express shipped to the Philippines. I take back every nasty thing I ever said about my bank.
Not wanting to give up on the night, we headed out and played a few games of pool (Jeff won) and Connect Four (I won… any bar that supplies board games is alright in my book!) at Cat Bar. On our long walk home, we passed a man parading a baby elephant down the street, begging passersby for money. After our amazing and educating experience at Elephant Nature Park, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see this, and rage boiled up inside me. Without thinking, I shouted at the man, telling him he was a “bad person” (broke out the really foul language on that one!) and to let the elephant go. Odds are he had no clue what I was saying; I can only hope my tone and facial expressions conveyed my displeasure.
Back in the hotel, I had trouble getting the image of the elephant, tethered with thick metal chains, plodding down that busy road, clearly terrified and miserable, out of my head. Tired as I was, sleep was hard to find.
The next day we set off on our guided tour. There were five of us in all – a couple from Germany and a woman from Austria. The only real highlight of this tour was the White Temple, built by a local artist. Aside from mirrored tiles, everything else was white. Parts of it were beautiful. Others were just disturbing.
The rest of the tour included a stop at the Black House, which was also built by a local artist, and contained… interesting sculptures and tons of animal skins and skulls. I enjoyed the architecture but was pretty disturbed by the decor.
We also stopped to visit hill tribes. Jeff and I had learned via our trip the hill tribe museum the day before that most hill tribe people have been over exposed to tourism, and their traditional ways of life have all but disappeared. They no longer wear the traditional clothes they make because they spend too much time creating them to sell to tourists and have no time to make them for themselves. Our museum trip pretty much turned me off to the hill tribe visit, which was even less authentic than I feared. We did a short walk through what was basically a human museum, like Living History Farms in a way. The hill tribe women were dressed in traditional clothes and jewelery, working at traditional jobs – all of it completely staged for our viewing. Some of the tribespeople had escaped horrible lives in Burma and are now basically being held hostage in Thailand because they bring in so much money from curious tourists, like myself, however inadvertent my choice was.
Our farthest destination was the Golden Triangle, the place where Burma, Laos, and Thailand all meet. This used to be a central hub for opium dealing and trading. It’s now the site of an opium museum and giant gold buddha statue. We took a boat ride across the border to Laos where we could have our passports stamped, saying we had visited the country, which we didn’t do. I consider that to be cheating; stepping one foot into a country doesn’t count as visiting!
Our last stop before heading back to Chiang Rai was at a temple in a cave. A lot monkeys hang out there because tourists come often and feed them.
We had booked the tour with the guarantee that we would be back to Chiang Rai before 6:00 so we could make our bus back to Chiang Mai that night. As the day wore on and each stop took longer than expected, it became clear that we would not make it back by 6:00. Our bus was scheduled to depart at 7:45. Our driver put the pedal to the medal to get us back in time and even drove us to the bus station, getting us their with about 15 minutes to spare. He earned his tip on that one! The Austrian woman had also decided to head back to Chiang Mai and booked a ticket on our bus, so the three of us stuck together for the night.
Back in Chiang Mai, we found a hostel and went to bed. Our plan was to go to Doi Inthanon National Park the next day, hike to the highest point in Thailand, and see some amazing waterfalls. We rented motorcycles and headed out. It took us longer than planned to get to Doi Inthanon, and the ride to the highest peak was very busy. Luckily, motorcycles are allowed to weave in and out of traffic, so we were able to cut our travel time significantly. I wasn’t all that interested in getting to the highest point because all the guide books said there was no view and recommended stopping at the park’s wat instead. Jeff and I chose this option instead while our travel companion continued on to the peak. Her pictures confirmed my suspicions: a sign and some trees weren’t worth the drive if you ask me. Our views, on the other hand, were spectacular!
On our way back through the park, we stopped at several waterfalls for short hikes.
As we headed back from our last falls, Jeff stopped in the middle of the trail and said, “Oh no. This isn’t happening” as he frantically searched his pockets for the motorcycle keys. We all headed back to the falls to search for the missing keys. All I could picture in my head was the moment Jeff had taken off his sweatshirt and flung it into the grass. Those keys could be anywhere!
After 20 minutes of searching, I decided to walk back towards the bikes, thinking it was possible the keys had fallen out on our way to the falls. As I searched, a man we had passed earlier came rushing down the path towards me. We had told him we lost our keys, and he was running to tell us he found them… still in the ignition. It’s funny now, but at the time it was anything but.
We made the two-hour drive back to Chiang Mai as the sun set and the temp dropped. Jeff and I had already booked a place to stay for the night, so we parted ways with Andrea, happy to be back to just the two of us.
New Year’s Eve
The next day we took a trip up to Doi Suthep, another national park and wat. This park was a lot busier since it was close to the city. We made our way to the wat, which was at the top of a long, steep set of stairs, then spent the afternoon hiking on side trails.
That night, we headed out for the lantern festival and night market. The streets were packed, so we bought a pizza and two lanterns and escaped back to our hotel. At midnight, we went out on the balcony to light our lanterns and make our new year’s wishes. We had watched several people light lanterns in the streets and joked that it was bad luck if their lanterns landed in the water or got stuck in a tree.
Following the directions we were given, we lit the lantern and held it upright while the flame grew and the lantern filled with air. It got harder to hold in position the more it filled with hot air, so we figured it was ready. We let go. And it immediately sailed into the tree not 20 feet from our room. In perfect comedic timing, fireworks began going off all over the city as we ran back and forth from our bathroom to the balcony with glasses of water, futilely trying to put the flame out before we burned down the entire hotel. 2013 went down in flames! It took about 10 minutes, but the lantern eventually went out all by itself, and we took the second one up to the roof.
We held this one an extra long time, hoping to avoid another disaster. As we let it go, it sailed out and dropped FAST. Below was a fiber glass roof. Our lantern looked like it was going to land directly on this roof, but just before it hit a gust of wind pushed it sideways out over the alley where it caught an up draft and lifted into the sky. As we watched the lantern float away, I started laughing. Jeff looked at me funny, expecting an explanation.
“We forgot to make our wishes.”
Our last days of 2014 held numerous ups and downs – literal in the form of mountain roads, figurative in the form of disappointing destinations and unexpected enjoyments. Neither of us expected our trip to Thailand to be flawless, so we did our best to roll with the punches and made the most out of each situation, knowing that life is a lot like this vacation: full of highs and lows. It’s all about how you handle them.