Visiting Hours

Yes I know. Sadly neglectful is the best narrative available for my posting habits. And now that Thanksgiving Day is just about here (well, not really here since the Pilgrims never landed on the shores of Phuket), it’s high time to catch up a bit. Hosting our first visitor to Thailand kept us busy for a week and although I planned more activities than my friend did (I’d hoped it would be the other way around), playing tour guide got us out and about and we searched for some good food, went north to the beautiful Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens and hiked to a waterfall the long way. Remembering what a pain in the ass it is to vacate the spare bedroom when it actually acts as the place where I often sleep, keep all my clothes and even have my own bathroom, the first task was housecleaning. Scrubbing the bathroom to an adequate level for female guests proved sweatier than anticipated but I did receive a thumbs up seal of approval. Leaving it cleaner than when she got there, it reminded me why Diane prefers me staying out of the master bathroom.

Children always make my day in Asia

Unlike Penang and for the first time in our marriage, we live a stone’s throw from the airport. Given our lifestyle discrepancies where I’m asleep by 11 and Diane stays up almost two and a half hours longer, we clearly learned our lesson in Malaysia where getting to the airport ranked up there with root canal surgery and tax audits. Not bothering to ask seven months ago when my friend booked her plane ticket, I shuddered when I saw her 10:40 PM arrival time. Unaware there was any other practical way to Chiang Mai from the west coast of North America, I learned that Korean Air flies a non stop to Seoul from Seattle and allows a quick 50 minute turnaround for their daily four-hour jaunt to our backyard. Given how few Koreans we’ve come across in five months, I’m unclear how they justify that route but it’s almost $800 less than the only other practical option with two non stop flights (Cathy Pacific to Hong Kong and DragonAir to Chiang Mai which departs from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver). With its dirt cheap economy fares and less than stellar reputation, I’d never choose that option but then again we live quite cheaply compared to Seattle residents and in fact, we’re even splurging for Premium Economy next year for our Seven Year Itch trip back to see my neurotic parents in Brooklyn.

So thanks to our handy-dandy Thai driver’s license, Uber is nothing more than a scandal ridden company that’s not our main mode of transportation. And Chiang Mai airport is one hell of an improvement over anything Malaysian. Checking the arrivals online about an hour before my friend’s flight arrived, I saw her plane was scheduled to land almost 40 minutes early. Quickly dressing, we headed north on Hang Dong Road where I marveled at how much less traffic drives at 10 PM than any given hour of daylight but paid careful attention to the motorbikes since many of them don’t bother with headlights. Or any lights at all. Pulling into the small parking area, we parked right in front of the exit and collected our ticket. With parking fees less than bus fare in Penang, it has to be the easiest place in Southeast Asia to pick up visitors. Barely arriving at the airport before my friend texted she’d landed, we headed to the uncrowded arrival area and watched the small collection of mostly Koreans waiting for their passengers. Unclear how anyone travels 8,000 miles without checked luggage, I guessed she’d be the second person out of the gate and I was wrong; she was first.

Diane and Julia heading up the trail to a great waterfall

Home and in bed not more than an hour after we left, I quickly re adjusted to life with Diane in the same bedroom and fell asleep quickly. Offering my friend an option of doing anything she wanted, she was already going on a two-week tour after staying with us so I suggested we hit the local food court for some Khao Soi and then make an afternoon visit to Wat Umong. Known as “Tunnel Temple” for its system of tunnels built 700 years ago, its peaceful forest location make it a popular outing away form the noise of the Old City. It’s full name is Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, which translates to “Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden”.  An active temple housing resident monks, they renovated the abandoned temple in 1948 and one of the more interesting features are signs with Buddhist proverbs hung from tress in both Thai and English that I always photograph and post to my Facebook friends stuck in the highly troubled Divided States of Trumpmerica.

The Chedi at Wat Umong

Wat Umong’s unique history dates back to the 13th century when King Mangrai, first ruler of the Lanna Kingdom and founder of Chiang Mai regularly consulted a monk who used a tunnel to meditate in peace. When the city grew larger, the monk found it harder to meditate and the king wanted to accommodate him so he ordered a series of tunnels built on a man-made mound in a forested area bordering Doi Suthep Mountain. Hosting weekly free talks by monks discussing Buddhism and followed by a Q & A session, they offer one of those things we haven’t gotten around to attending but vow not to miss before we leave Chiang Mai.

The tunnels of Wat Umong

Knowing our friend’s tour would take her to Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s biggest and most beautiful tourist attraction we decided to avoid any duplication and headed up to a waterfall that’s amazingly close to the main drag but not very visited due to its unreasonably high 100 Baht per person and 30 Baht per car entry charge. Like most others, we’ve opted not to pay an admission fee to see what’s free in much of this beautiful nation but when visitors offer to pay admission and gas, what the hell? Reached by a five kilometer paved road right off the main drag up to Doi Suthep, Monthathan Falls is a picturesque albeit unspectacular site that’s got two options. Most people park the car, head into the small Visitors Center and walk about 1/4 mile up a paved path to view the falls. Opting for the more challenging one hour hike up a very steep forest trail, the fully shaded forest offered us one of our first hiking experiences in Thailand. Given that we’ve lived in the Canadian Rockies and hiked some of the most beautiful trails anywhere in much cooler and comfortable temperatures, we’ve been avoiding the weekly hikes offered by many Facebook groups.

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By the third day I started to long for my bathroom back and Diane began her usual mutterings of how many of my small body hairs make it to the floor of the shower. As it turns out, my friend asked to stay an extra night due to an apparent miscommunication about when and where her tour was starting. With so many reputable tour companies in Thailand, I’m unsure how that would happen but I’ll simply avoid any potential complaints from readers by not endorsing the one she chose. With an unplanned extra day, I suggested we go into the Old City. Surrounded by an ancient wall and moat similar to the ramparts of Quebec City, the hub of Chiang Mai’s tourism industry lies there and while we love visiting, parking and driving can be challenging at times so we welcomed the opportunity to spend an entire day playing tour guide. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t seem very enthralled with the thought of walking around all day to visit multiple wats since history and religion didn’t seem to be her biggest interest so we stopped at whatever sights were closest to my parking spot and took some pictures. Thankfully for us, Diane and I enjoy the cultural aspects of life in Southeast Asia and find the history that they don’t teach westerners fascinating.

Often thinking we don’t take advantage of the city’s weekly “walking streets”, I decided to hang around and do dinner among the touristy but fun night bazaar that spans about a mile and a half. Twice as crowded as it was the last time we went back in rainy low season, the crowds continue to be overwhelmingly Asian and the once packed European backpacker crowd either lost interest or no longer appreciates not being the dominant group in Chiang Mai. Unable to convince my friend that 80% of the world eats insects, she pretty much freaked out when she saw the scorpions on a stick and wouldn’t touch the silkworms or fried grasshoppers. Her loss.

I haven’t tasted these yet but I will some day

Most interesting item of the night

Unpolitically correct Asia

About an hour north of Chiang Mai is the Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens. Set in a forested hillside, its official purpose is to conduct and promote botanical research, biodiversity and promote Thailand’s natural plant resources but most people come to view the various greenhouses. Not as resplendent as Canada’s Butchart Gardens or as impressive as the Singapore Botanic Gardens, it’s nonetheless worth a drive up there and we’ve been waiting for “cool season” to arrive. Sadly, November has almost come and gone with only three days of that famous “cold weather” where the Thais don parkas and scarves and the humidity remains as torrid as Malaysia. Featuring a canopy walk that’s well constructed but not remotely close to a real rainforest canopy like the ones we’ve experienced in Ecuador and Borneo, this one is mostly a nice view and a bunch of well dressed “high-so Thais”  from Bangkok visiting and taking selfies. But there was an impressive array of flora scattered throughout the grounds so I still recommend it if you live here and like flowers and plants.

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Wrapping up our last dinner as tour guides, I decided on a place in the Mae Rim area I’d read about. Draped with beauty, Chiang Mai province has lots of stunning rice fields and one of the nicest pieces of property we’ve come across is Anna Farm and Eatery. Driving down narrow country roads that pass local wats, small village farms and roadside stands to reach it, the restaurant sits in a beautiful rice field and has one of the nicest sunset views you’ll find in Chiang Mai. Mostly written in Thai only, the English reviews of the food are hit and miss and unfortunately, they “pulled a Malaysia” when we arrived. Allowing me to translate, that means at least 30% of the items on the menu are “not available”. Plaguing dozens of restaurants in Penang, it usually means they never had the item or had no intentions of ever having it but it looks nice in the picture so it’s on the menu. While this practice isn’t as bad in Thailand, they didn’t have half of what we wanted so we enjoyed the view but decided not to endorse the food.

Anna Farm Eatery

reflections on the water in the rice fields

Stunningly similar to the Napa Valley, albeit much hotter, the beauty and serenity make it worth a drive if you’re up here but leave at sunset and go have ribs at Sea Paek, the best meat option in Mae Rim.

On our friend’s last day, Diane offered to take her for a yoga class at our local gym. Knowing the Thai do yoga with no air conditioning, I’ve been postponing my return to downward dogs and opting for the slightly air-conditioned weight room. Watching a rare victory by our beloved but sadly struggling Edmonton Oilers while they went to yoga, I looked forward to getting my bathroom back and remembered that hosting people is fun but often tiring and hard.

Next up is our third U.S. Thanksgiving Day in Asia. Unlike Penang where it’s almost impossible to find Americans and turkey in the same room, Chiang Mai has many options for real Thanksgiving. Opting for our friend MIke’s all you can eat dinner event, this one promises to be a plentiful bounty of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, and pies worthy of any American dinner table. Wishing anyone celebrating the day a festive time, we’ll be paying only about $18 for our dinner which is high by Asian standards but turkey is an item sadly absent from Thailand so it’s worth the cash. And some of you may remember last year’s bizarre mock Thanksgiving Dinner cooked by an interesting Swiss guy in my honor. Literally following everything we did to get an MM2H Visa to Malaysia, he was a bit odd but fun. As Experimental Expats now in Thailand, we expect this year to be radically different, more filling and probably better than anything I can whip up in our small kitchen. Cheers.

Happy Thanksgiving from tropical Thailand

 

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