Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Journey to ThaTon

Our Journey to ThaTon.....this is also known as the day we asked “how far can we go, anyway?”

The idea for the Thailand vacation came ages ago...we thought...instead of taking home leave, we could instead go to Thailand.  Two years passed, three...four....five.... we went to many other places instead, always as part of our home leave as stops on the way, to and/or from.  

One such stop was going to Senegal to visit our friends, check on the surf at the continent’s westernmost point, sneak in some snorkelling, seafood binging and sample Dakar’s pastry shops, sip machiatoos poolside at posh tourist hotels, and sample N’Ice Cream’s vanilla cones (because what other flavour is there but vanilla?).  
This photo's kind of freaking me out b/c this adorable boy looks so much like his little brother (below in 2013) at this age it's insane.  Above is at our friends' pad in Senegal in 2009 and then at their place in Bangkok.
Fast forward to 2013.  It was time.  Our friends in Senegal (*TJ’s friend from his first trip to Kenya exactly twenty years ago) had moved to Bangkok.  Hmmmm.  Convenient.  Their open invite to visit was just the extra shove we needed to finally do it. Watch out if you tell us your door is open -- we’ll eventually show up with ALL our bags.  After some trip planning, ticket purchasing, stragetic budgeting and major iteninerary-coordination and meeting shifting ... we booked the tickets thru Dubai to Bangkgok. (Just as a point of general information for when you book your tickets, the airport is "Suvarnabhumi". Please don't ask me to say that out loud or remember it).

And then we did nothing.  For ages.  TJ was busy, and I quite frankly had some kind of mental block. When I thought about the trip, looked at a map, opened the guidebook, talked to people who had lived there, worked there, took a holiday there.  The assault of options was too much.  To preserve my sanity, I put it off, and off and off. 

Finally, we nailed down a wish list of what we wanted to do -- go up north, go to the beach, and bookend the trip with time in Bangkok. When it came to planning, however, the ‘going up North’ seemed daunting.  I mentally wrote it off; “We can go another time - it’ll take too long to get up there and then it looks like we could only get as far as Chiang Mai -- another big city -- if we’re not able to get out to the countryside, why spend a whole day on a train/bus.....”  

And then I read about it more and thought, “We may as well try.”  So -- with our friends busy finishing up a what would be an award-winning story for the Associated Press we decided just to head out of town and see how far we could go.  Without a clear plan and uncertain expectations, we booked an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on a seven hour bus ride leaving at 9pm. We’d figure out where we’d stay once we got there and also, we’d have to figure out how we were getting back to Bangkok.  

Our only limitation was that we would have to be back in time to wash clothes, repack and catch an already-booked internal flight to beaches down south.  Our lack of solid dates for ANYTHING besides arriving and leaving was risky -- we could get stuck with zero options for hotels/flights/trains but we also had flexibility.  It was NOT a stragetic lack of planning to make sure we had flexibility, it was just...complete lack of planning on the part of Mr. Glass Half Full and Mrs. Glass Half Empty. (“Ah-ha!” you are saying to yourself, “This makes a full glass - perfect!” I agree. 100%.)

To stretch the story out here is the play by play of our trip: booking on the phone or online (which was it in the end?  I don’t know), of 4x one way VIP 999 coach tickets, same-day purchase and collection of said ticket receipts at the 7-11 (Thank Heaven for 7-11), one late night taxi trip to sketchy bus depot with our 7-11 receipt and NO CLUE of where to go.  A half-dozen inquiries later and we wander from depot to sketchy depot in search of some answers of where to catch the bus.  The clock is ticking, the sweat is pouring, the kids are beginning to doubt our ‘plan.’  They have already sensed that we don’t actually have a plan are are getting anxious.  Mrs. Glass-Half Full is NOT being supportive.  In fact, “she” is the worst-behaved of the bunch.  

We find the correct terminal.  Someone examines the mystery receipt.  They figure out that we need to change the receipt for an actual TICKET.  In hindsight this makes sense.  It’s the off-season for tourism here so we’re not surrounded by helpful/annoying touts or anyone who speaks English.  This was a surprise for the whole trip, in fact.  This time of year, one English-speaking guide told os their clientelle is mostly Chinese, some Thai and Japanese and a handful of Europeans who come more towards August.  Mostly the Europeans come to escape winter over the Christmas holidays.  We came to escape winter in Africa.  We’re not sure anyone ever ‘got’ that these small blonde children came from Zambia.  We’re not sure anyone knows where Zambia is.  Nor does anyone believe me when I say it’s cold here in the winter: double wool socks, frost on the grass, down-and-fleece-all-day-cold. We’re at altitude here. and also at )  

We should have carried a world map with us if just for the opportunity for geography lessons. (As I write this I’m simultaneously preparing for tomorrow’s second “Passports” geography lesson -- teaching is a compulsion I cannot seem to shake.)

NOW we had the tickets, the seats, the snacks, the thing sorted.  The bus was awesome.  It had aircon,huge, reclining lazy-boy seats, a blasting sound system and TV playing this incredible comedy show til 2am at high volume.  
The bus next to ours, I know, it's a really excellent + informative photo to include.
We slept, we snored, we drooled.  And we woke up in Chiang Mai!  It was before 7 when we arrived.  Nothing was open, no one was around.  A guy with a family hotel and a taxi found us...the only ones there without a ride picking them up-- standing, yawning and blinking at the early morning sun.  We had a nice chat.  “Why don’t you try THIS?” and he proceeded to map out a plan for us which we ended up following to the letter.  He took us to the next bus station, directed us to the ticket counter to book tickets on a tin-can, vinyl high-back seat local bus to Chang Dao.  There we could find some one to take us to the caves, see the sights, then carry on to Than Ton.  “It’s nice there. My family comes from there.”  

The boys were up for it, and so we carried on. And on and on enthusiastically!  It was a great adventure and we could not have been more proud of the boys, who rolled with it at every turn, helping with the ‘next’ decision and not complaining about a single thing.  Mr and I kept just looking at eachother over the kids heads, wondering when they were going to lose it completely.  They didn’t.  Good grief, they were even cheerful! 
Maybe this says, WELCOME to ThanThon...Last Stop.
Eventually not only were we “Up North,” we were as far North as we could go without needing another visa (to Enter Burma).  We found a great hotel (after looking at a few other empty or nearly-empty options).  

The view from the hotel in Than Thon. You can see temple #9 at the top o f the ridge
The hotel was empty besides us.  This was a bit worrisome but worked out great.  Dinner there that first night was the best for the entire trip -- not only was it completely & unexpectedly delicious, it was a feast and like nothing we’d ever tasted.   We stayed a a big old grand place on a lush bend of the Mae Kok River in the tiny town of Than Ton.  
The bridge over the Mae Kok River
The town is quiet and steamy hot.  From our perch we could see a series of temples...turns out there are 9 major temples along a 4km hike.  We ventured up to the first one, the second, the third. It was not a leisurely venture.  It was hot, and steep.  But the temples were incredible and the views only got better.  We turned back to get to the hotel room for aircon, dinner and to sleep.  

We had the place to ourselves.
By the next morning we’d been able to do a little more research and figured out what we wanted to ‘do’ in this sleepy town (which, by the way, was exactly what I wanted -- to see the countryside), how to carry on with the trip -- we needed to make our way down Chiang Rai.  The guidebook said there was a boat, there was a bus, there were vans.  We asked about the boat.  The water level was low so we weren’t sure about the feasibility of such a trip.  The ladies looked at us a bit sideways.  Not encouraging.  

They suggested (or at least we think they suggested b/c no one really spoke english and our Thai is uh, nearly non-existent.) something different.  Somehow we organized two things for that day:  a ride to the temple #9 and a private long-boat to Chiang Rai with stops if we wanted at some tourist-traps -- the elephant sanctuary, a hot springs, a Karen Hill tribe village, etc.  The tourist traps really were not up our alley.  Elephant trekking....was for a lot of reasons not on our wish list. (I can defend this position another day.)  Plus, the trip would be 4-5 hours without the stops/detours.  Again we looked at the boys.  Would they be such rock stars again?  Could we possibly expect such enthusiastic cooperation? What does this boat even look like? and what about the ominious grey sky in the direction we were headed? 
I have to add the side-note note that where-ever we were in Thailand...we were truly NEVER without a free wifi signal and/or phone reception. TJ was texting Seattle while on this tiny boat on the river at the Thai-Burma border.  I’m at home right now in a capital city of 3 million people where I am paying thru the nose for our internet connection which is presently not working. The ‘customer care’ line is down. We’re SOL.  Productivity comes again to a grinding halt here regularly b/c SMS do thru a day after you send them, this phone company and that, they all use the same lines so no one is online, no one can call eachother or get a single thing done: you can’t open your email, you can’t do any research or access your cloud-computing reference library (brilliant when I’m able to connect but completely useless right now), you can’t use your credit card or get money from the ATM.  They all use the name spotty, faulty, GD crappy network which must be held together with shoprite baggies and strips of rubber made from old bicycle tires.  I SO wish I was joking.  I am not.

And so, I give you at long last, the snaps from Chang Dao, Than Ton and the incredible Mae Kok River.

Chang Dao is famous for it's caverns...there are 12 km of linked caves -- we took a tour thru 5 of them.  It was steamy hot and pitch black so taking photos was tricky -- and I didn't have a battery charger with me.  yessiree I left it in Bangkok.  Along with the spare battery.  TJ: "Did you really?" (read between the lines...."YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS?!"  "Yes, honey." I have some packing issues.  Bless my husband for just pulling a face, one single sour-puss-crinkled-nose-of-disbelief-face at that brilliant move and dropping it.   moving on....

Chang Dao Caverns sit at the base of Doi Chiang Dao mountain above the Memam Ping Gorge.  Only after we left did we hear of the 'Coffee Academy" and the story of Doi Chiang coffee the history of the area's Akha Hill tribe.  The coffee is for sale up in Vancouver BC -- look for it if you are up there- it's lovely arabica coffee with a great 'story' to go with it.

The small, over-run-by-dogs temple at Chang Dao was one of the first we encountered -- we saw about a billion more but we were honestly so unclear about the 'rules' of photography that typically we just walked around with our mouths agape at all the gold and statues - there are simply an insane number of temples.

The bus station where we re-grouped before figuring out how to carry on to Than Ton.

We travelled further north by local bus -- picture a sardine can with wheels.  But it was fine, lovely, charming, exciting.  Once we got to Than Ton we were on foot....until we realized we would never see much if we didn't get in a vehicle so we hired this lorie and got up up up up the hill to the series of temples.  We tackled the 9-temple trek at dusk the previous day but it was so hot, high, was a good choice.

This is the view over the city from the second temple (looking down river, toward Chiang Rai (below) and straight down.  Our "riverview hotel" was on the opposite shore far out of the frame and up river/to the left

Taking the truck meant we went straight up the 'trekking path' to Temple #9.  It was really something.

Why, Hello, freaky gold tiger!

The temple is open to the public and photography was allowed.

Looking up at the dome thru the serpentine spiratl staircase

Near the Temple were two ginormous serpent sculptures.  One gold one silver.  There was NO 'interpretative information" about them in any language.  (This was a frustrating running theme -- all these amazing sights and really we were clueless). Only now am I learning that the the temple is part of a huge monastery and this temple, on the 9th hill is the Crystal Pagoda / Chedi Kaew. It's not strictly a temple which perhaps explains whey they allow photography.  It's the project of a famous architect and highlights a combination of Thai and Chinese styles of temple construction.  It's lit up brilliantly at night and can be see for miles around.

Before we left the kids got ambushed by the Akha Hill tribe ladies.  I did NOT buy these hats and am absolutely KICKING MYSELF. How Awesome are they? The ladies were hysterical.  The boys bought really awful, I mean, really nice, necklaces from them but somehow it didn't occur to me that the area was so remote and the tribe so small that this was our one and only chance to buy anything. 

Not exactly a 'traditional' style but how funny.
This was our transport down river to Chiang Rai...4.5 hours on the water...How was it? you ask?  In short: Awesome.

Another transport option -- tourists having lunch on a raft.  I was a little jealous about the lunch, especially b/c our dinner the night before was so incredible.  But we were still stuffed.

Speaking of STUFFED:
During the tourist season the river is busy with kayakers and inner-tubers and packs of people headed to the Elephant conservation Center for elephant treks and to 'visit' the Karen Hill Tribes.  What did we stop for?  a meet and greet with some grape Fanta, a mangnum bar, and a boa constrictor that weighed as much as finny -- this was the small one,  the other one they had was pale yellow and white and weighed the same os O and Finn COMBINED.  I touched it.  I didn't hold it.  I held this really had a 'good' hold on Finn -- we had a little/big nervous freakout over this.  it started wrapping and squeezing the second they plopped the snake on these boys (without asking them or me!) Egads.  The kids were confronted that day with 2 things they are very scared of from growing up in Africa.  Elephants and Snakes.  You really don't mess with either one in Z.

The elephant trekkers.  Everyone said it was a MUST experience but we passed.  you thought I was kidding about the grape Fanta? Never joke about grape Fanta.

Just down from the Fanta/ice cream/snake stop our friendly awesome boatman parked the boat on the beach and indicated we should get out.  And then....he took off!
Eventually we figured out what was going on and started walking.  The river was too low and there were some rapids and he needed to 'run' the river without us, We met him on the other side a km or so downstream.

We made it to Chiang Rai. Found the perfect little hotel. and crashed. 

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