Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chiang Dao

            It had been an awesome, yet hectic two weeks – the most recent week being filled with seminars dealing with further educating the Thai teachers – meaning that the upcoming holiday was much needed. We were given just over a week off for Buddhist Lent, which Emily and I were determined to take full advantage of. There are always little mishaps along the way of any traveling escapade when it is not planned out ahead of time (we decided to go on this trip the night before and of course did not book anything in advance), but those mishaps have to be overlooked or else you’ll drive yourself crazy. We were headed to Chiang Dao, about an hour north of Chiang Mai, to go hang out with Mother and Brother Nature for a few days. The only thing that stood in our way was the mere fact that all buses to Chiang Mai (you cannot get to Chiang Dao directly) were sold out. We could not waste any time, so we hopped on a mini-van to an unknown town about halfway between the bus station and Chiang Mai.

Mini-van rides are a form of Thai transportation that I, along with Emily have begun to resent. Since we never plan ahead, we always get stuck in the back row. These mini-vans do not allow for “seat reclining,” they are always cramped, and they always have insane sound systems that they crank up to 11 regardless of what time it is. For some reason, Thai people also always refuse to sell one less ticket, so there are always four people squished in the back (two of those four always being Emily and me) and the other two being the two biggest people in Thailand. I also forgot to mention that my 5 foot 11 frame gives me NBA status over here. Also, unrelated to that, Thai people do not have body hair; I have a freakish amount of body hair which adds a dollop of “circus freak” status to join my NBA height. Essentially, given the language barrier, I am “Andre the Giant” to the Thai community. So, back in the van, Emily, myself, and two other large Thai people were in the back row of this van on a 6-hour ride to an unknown town. Babies were crying, one guy was puking in a bag, every bump on the road created a bump on my head when I levitated from my seat – the ceiling preventing any further ascension, and I had to listen to the Thai version of Spiderman belting it’s sound effects into my ears, followed by Thai karaoke until 2 in the morning. If you put all of that aside, it honestly is not a terrible way to travel, but it is a pain in the coolito.  


That mini-van arrived in the unknown town at 2am. Originally, at the first bus station, we were told buses ran all night from this unknown location. When we arrived, we found out we had to wait until 6am for buses to go to Chiang Mai, so we ended up staying in a hostel for a couple of hours until buses were running again. When all was said and done, and we arrived in Chiang Dao (we got there at about 5pm the next night which made it close to a 20 hour trip), every little annoying thing that happened on the way there was completely erased from our memories.

Chiang Dao is a breathtaking mountain town about an hour north of Chiang Mai. It is home to Thailand’s third highest mountain, Doi Chiang Dao, which is just over 7,000 feet high. Unfortunately, the mountain is not open during the rainy season months (June-October), so we will absolutely be returning in the fall to hike it. The mountain is such a cool addition to the town because you can see it from almost everywhere. Given the weather conditions, it usually also takes on this ominous and mysterious blanket of fog at various points throughout the day.

This vacation was essential to prevent mine along with Emily’s heads from exploding. If you have seen the film, “Mars Attacks,” I picture it to be quite similar to when all of the alien’s heads explode in their helmets. The month preceding our Chiang Dao getaway, we had been willingly thrown head first into the wild world that is Thai Education. Being a foreigner in a place like Tha Bo is incredibly odd – we are put in an interesting situation where we are expected to hold the magical remedy to cure all ailments. Being a small town located in the far northeastern region of Thailand, we are literally the only foreign people that live in the town. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we are on display.  It can be difficult to escape our duties at work when, at times, there is an incessant amount of overflow into our personal lives.

We work very hard at our jobs at school, and we also participate in a great number of community events, including, but not limited to: volunteer teaching afterschool on the weekdays at a village school; tutoring monks at a university on Saturdays; tutoring students afterschool; teaching additional classes throughout the week to help teachers learn Classroom English they can incorporate into their everyday classes; leading seminars, as described previously; and also attending a wide spectrum of events where we only occasionally understand a word or phrase of Thai (in which case we excitedly lean over to one of our other foreign teacher friends and confirm something like, “Oh, yeah, they must be talking about the bathroom” – or, “He just said something about the number 50.”)

 We are very fortunate to be invited to attend Thai culture festivities, and to witness different customs and practices. We learn so much by being immersed directly in all sorts of different traditions and ceremonies in our town. Because we are eager to take in all of these cultural experiences, and because we are also eager to really become a part of our community here, as opposed to just some Farang passersby, we had trouble remembering the importance of simply saying “No thank you” once in a while.  What I want to describe to you is simply how overwhelmed we can feel occasionally, and how much needed this 10-day-vacay really was.

Being surrounded by the surreal, picturesque view of Doi Chiang Dao and escaping the world of ESL teaching felt amazing. I love my job and enjoy it everyday, but I also love being outside. We found out about Chiang Dao a mere 2 nights before we decided to go there, but from what we read, there were some cool places to stay, with a ton of landscape to lay our antsy feet upon. It is a simple little town, with a ton of natural beauty, and endless amounts of fun to be had in surrounding areas. So, our plan was to hang out, eat good food, see cool things, get some sleep, and introduce ourselves to northwestern Thai hospitality. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what we did.

Malee’s (Mah-Lee’s) Nature Bungalows – residing about 7 kilometers out of town – is where we decided to lay our heads for our jaunt in Chiang Dao. About 7 kilometers out of the main town, Malee’s, along with a handful of other establishments were scattered around this unbelievable area. It was like driving through a fantasy world – with winding roads and tall, towering trees. I found myself constantly awestruck by my surroundings and I knew from the start that this would be a very difficult place to leave. Malee’s was well equipped with everything you needed for an awesome getaway: An incredibly friendly owner (Malee was super nice, knew all the cool hiking spots in the area, was a great cook, and made hilarious, sometimes culturally indecipherable jokes whenever we crossed paths), a relaxing and aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, a saltwater pool, garden, and playful dogs to hang out with (they sat like frogs - just as Emily’s dog, Toby does - and it was quite humorous).

Frog-Dog: Exhibit A
Frog-Dog: Exhibit B

We stayed there for four nights and three days, and everyday was an adventure chipped from a different block. On the first day, we set out in search of the notorious “Chiang Dao Cave.” Apparently, it was accessible by two different routes: one being the road – which unless it is a dirt road or a long, windy road, does not seem very adventurous – and the other was a trail through the surrounding jungle; the latter seemed like a more worthwhile option. We spent a while looking for the base of the trail due to the map that was not even close to scale, and the vast majority of people who seemed to prefer the “road” option. We found out that the reason why it took so long was mainly because the sneaky little entrance was hiding behind nearly 8-feet of tall grass. WILD HUH?! Luckily, an incredibly unrealistic large snake did not eat us, nor did a realistically poisonous Thai snake bite us during our time trudging through this unkempt knoll. 

"According to the map we've only gone about 4 inches..."

That trail was a slippery son-of-a-gun, full of mud, muck, bamboo, and a wild amount of bugs! There were millipedes, centipedes, these fuzzy bugs that look like wooly bears, crazy amounts of ants, and of course, cool lush veg. Since it was rainy season and it did rain a good amount the previous night, we knew (and we were also told) that the trail would probably be slicker than John Ralphio. Also, like I exclaimed earlier, the map we had was not to scale and the directions we were given were a bit lax, so we weren’t expecting to waltz over to the cave entrance. We were on a mission to have a great time and hopefully stumble upon Chiang Dao Cave and possibly the slightly smaller, less touristy “Bat Cave” – where the original Bruce Wayne spent his earlier years and developed into the billionaire, super-hero, cash cow that he is today. Unfortunately, we got lost while on our journey and did not find Bruce Wayne, or the Bat Cave. Also, I unfortunately made up those facts about the Bat Cave. But, fortunately, we did happen to accidentally stumble upon the village area where the cave entrance was located.

Big Millipede
Not too sure what he is...

We followed yellow for a majority of the way, then somehow ended up on white.

Wooly Booly!
Huge nest. Probably some kind of bee or wasp. Caution: Do not disturb this nest or you're gonna have a bad time.

Yes, Chiang Dao Cave is a major tourist attraction in the area and it does require a guide. Yes, there are lights throughout the cave and it did not have the tranquil, desolate feeling of the natural caves that scatter throughout the Soppong-region. Yes, it was still “belly-bump-high-five-combo” level awesome. Our guide was this hilarious, plump, tiny Thai lady. She was essentially like eating an ice cream in a waffle cone: sure, you can eat ice cream from a regular cone, but why not have a deliciously, exaggerated version of what you need to eat an ice cream? We didn’t really need a charismatic Thai person with an outrageous giggle to take us on our caving escapade, but it did make our experience THAT much better. We spent our wonderful hour in that cave chatting with her in our sub-skillful Thai, and she did her best to teach us as many new words and phrases as she could. We learned the word for “bat poop” and “watch your head.” I have since forgotten both, but at the time, I was really great at speaking those words.

Our guide was great. She was always laughing.

Matmuang (Mango) shaped rock formation. I tried to eat it.

Looks kind of like that little punching bag in the back of your throat.
The cave turned out to be pretty breathtaking, despite the touristy fa├žade that engulfed the entrance and surrounding village. We crawled into secret passageways, ducked under rounded overhangs, and observed the overhanging bats, being sure to watch for falling guano. I always like to imagine what it would be like if all of the power went out and our lanterns ceased to do their jobs. Apart from the entrance, there is not one iota of light that creeps into that cave and when you just spent 30-minutes taking every twist, turn, and secret passage you could, you can’t help but think of what would happened if every form of light disappeared. Terrifying, yes, but also pretty cool to think about – you are unable to see your hand when you put it directly in front of your face, so how are you supposed to find your way out? I’m not exactly sure what would happen, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It would take about 3-weeks before the new inhabitants of the cave would turn into a creature. I’m not sure what kind of creature, but I picture something like “Golum” mixed with the monster from “Jeepers Creepers.” So, while caving, be very careful, and don’t lose your lights, fools!

After the cave and hiking adventures, we had some great times in Malee’s saltwater pool. There weren’t many people staying in the bungalows while we were there, so we entertained ourselves in the evenings by playing cards and swimming in this phenomenal addition to the property. We raced, had underwater handstand and flip contests, as well as had a great time slow-motion ninja fighting and falling off a fake cliff (also in slow motion – it’s pool science). This became a common theme for the nights we stayed at Malee’s, and it was awesome.


Faktong (Pumpkin, chili, egg, and Chinese Broccoli

On our second day, we rented a motorbike from Malee and explored the crazy landscape of the surrounding areas. We drove through the windy, mountainous roads of Chiang Dao and got some excellent sunburn. I wore a wristwatch tan for close to two weeks after, which I am so proud of that I decided to write about it. There was also a ton of time spent cruising around the farms. Little side-roads lead you into the farmland, and it is well worth checking them out. The northwest is known for its abundance of crops that are eventually distributed throughout the country when they are harvested. Tobacco, chilies, rice, and tons of fruit are just some of the great resources that are produced there, and it is well worth some time to rent a bike and explore it if you are ever in the area. If you want to avoid the sunburn, always bring long sleeves when you go on long bike rides on sunny days in Thailand.

Rice fields and Mountains - an A+ aesthetic combination

We found the most unbelievable coffee shop/restaurant on the way home. Overlooking a huge field that had a wild view of Doi Chiang Dao, it is the perfect place to get a meal, a beer, or a great cup of coffee after a long day …or one of these other two incredibly appetizing and appealing options, if you so dare. The place is huge and if it is too hot to sit on the deck, there are plenty of tables nestled within trees and plants growing around the restaurant. There are really cool fountains, wooden statues, “Chia-Pet-esque” plants dangling from the ceiling, and other great decorations that really add to the natural ambiance the place already emits. After we stumbled upon this utter gem, we became regulars over the next two days and will absolutely return if we go back.

Example: Chia-Pet-esque plant, in case you were having trouble picturing them.

Meet Jeb - the traveling Mantis. He was real friendly and would not leave me alone.  
He really liked the shades...

Longan Fruit - sweet and refreshing. They are everywhere in the northwest.
Gideon and Paul: This Chili is for you as a true token of friendship
On our last day we took a 30-kilometer motorbike ride to Chiang Dao National Park. There is nice waterfall there with a great trail walk to do. There isn’t much to say about it besides it is worth checking out if you are in the Chiang Dao area for a couple of days. There are cool bugs everywhere and the surrounding landscape along the trail is full of amazing views – a common trend in this region of the country. 

Leaving Chiang Dao was incredibly difficult. We had an awesome weekend with our teaching staff ahead, but the mountains of Thailand will always be a place that stays at the top of my all-time favorite list. The people, the food, and the scenery are things that my words and pictures can only touch on how surreal this area actually is. If you ever find yourself in Thailand, spend a significant amount of time in the northwest in and around the Chiang Mai region. Get your “tourist” on in Chiang Mai, then go explore what the primitive and rugged surroundings have to offer. You will not be disappointed and you will see an area of the country where the simple life remains intact. Sometimes, simple is just what you need to have an awesome vacation.

On a side note, we had quite the adventure traveling back to Tha Bo at the end of our trip. We caught the bus back to Chiang Mai early Wednesday morning, then had to wait for a night bus to Udon Thani which was leaving that night. We decided to pay about $10 USD more to get the VIP bus – it basically gets you a bathroom on the bus, a bit more leg room, a comfortable chair that reclines quite far, water, and snacks. About 2 hours into our journey on the night bus, we were going up a pretty large hill, and the bus came to a rumbling halt. In my head, I knew the bus had broken down, and my thought was confirmed when the bus began to roll back down the hill. Luckily, the emergency brake worked and we stopped. After 30-minutes of attempting to huff and puff up the hill, the bus came to a stop for good.

We fell asleep and were woken up roughly six hours later at 4am and moved onto another bus that would take us to the promise land. After a total of 17 hours, we made it to Udon Thani, where we took another hour-long bus back to Tha Bo. We arrived back in Tha Bo with enough time to do some laundry before going to bed and waking up at 5am to get on another van for an 8-hour ride to our next destination with the English Department. The water in the town was not working when we arrived home, but eventually came back to life in the evening. This just goes to show you that no matter what happens during traveling, the bottom line is: you are traveling! Embrace the annoying things that happen and then take a look at all of the amazing things that happen. Overall, they outweigh the annoying things by a landslide. Don’t whine, have fun, and enjoy the ride!

THIS is a very cool street lamp. 



Yes, let's!