Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part One: Mumps in Thailand, Boat Down the Mekong

From July 2002 to July 2003 I was in graduate school in Singapore.  Over the winter break I took seven weeks to travel solo in northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma.  I sent out fairly regular email updates to my friends and family during my trip and these are the edited stories – a combination of email and diary excerpts, reminiscences from my admittedly faulty memory, and thoughts from today.  I find it curious, with the passage of time, what I wrote and took photos of, what I have remembered and forgotten.

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The border crossing

I had plans to stay only a few days in Thailand before heading to Laos.  I meant to spend 3 weeks in Laos, starting with a Mekong river voyage, some two weeks in central Laos, and then a third week down the slender tail where the Mekong hugs the border between Thailand and Laos to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area.  But things did not go at all as planned.  As so often happens with travel—and really one of the key reasons to do it—I could not have anticipated the people I would meet and the adventures, including coming down with a serious viral infection for which I had been (supposedly) inoculated against as a child…

On Friday, November 23 I flew from Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand to begin the first phase of my journey.  After checking into my guesthouse, I notice the right side of my jaw is swollen; it looks like a gumball is lodged in there and it feels tender and sore to the touch.    I write: I appear to have a minor bout of the gout.  The next day I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai.  My jaw hurts even worse; I feel ill and uncomfortable on the flight.  As I disembark at my destination it takes nearly all my energy to drag myself from the plane through the airport to transportation to take me to my Chiang Rai guesthouse.

At the guesthouse I can barely drag myself from check in up the stairs to my room. I know I should see a doctor and ask at the front desk.  The man informs me there is a clinic just 300 meters away, within walking distance.  I tell him I cannot make it.  He insists it is not far.  I walk a few steps, my knees buckle, and I vomit.  In an extraordinary show of kindness from a stranger, the man gets his motorcycle and takes me to the clinic.  He waits with me there and afterwards takes me to a pharmacy, then back to the guesthouse.  With medication and some beverages, I hole myself up in my room and fall asleep.

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The slow boat — aka, my ride

The doctor told me I had Mume.  The following day I head to an Internet café to see if I can learn more about my illness.  Since my face is so swollen I grab a hoodie so I can wear it to mask my face.

I type in my symptoms and what should pop up but mumps!  I almost laughed.  That is if laughing were not so painful.  Both sides of my jaw are completely swollen.  It is very painful.  I cannot eat.  The day before in a fit of desperation I bought a bag of potato chips.  I ate about 10 and was sorry for over two hours, my jaw throbbed horribly from the effort.  I stood in front of a restaurant yesterday staring at the food through the window, then went to buy instant ramen at 7-11 which I gobbled up with great glee back in my hotel room.  I carried the little cup with boiling water the three blocks back to my guesthouse like it was my most precious possession. 

I spend two days in my room.  I read a book.  I play solitaire.  I write in my journal.  I nap.  I think about eating but do not dare because it hurts too much.  But slowly I begin to feel better.  I make plans to move on.  I buy some supplies, check bus times, and prepare to collect my passport with my visa to Laos.  But the next day was not to be.  I could barely drag myself down to the travel office and when I did it was closed.  I gave up and went back to my room.  Later someone brought my passport to my room—I merely rolled over in bed, unlocked the door, took the passport, closed the door, and went back to sleep.

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One of the few times I saw people along the way

The next day I wake at 6 AM and head to the bus station to catch the first bus to Chiang Kong, the Thai border crossing.  The slow boat down river departs at 10:30; the bus should arrive on the Thai side at 10 AM.  But it arrives at 10:15. I quickly catch a tuk-tuk to the boat landing, but then the immigration official takes a short break.  Then shoots the breeze with his colleague.  10:30 comes and goes.   The slow boat has surely departed.  I head up the steps to Laos immigration and then wander in to town.  I went into a guesthouse to ask a woman about the boat.  She told me “It already leave.  Stay here.  Stay the night.  You are tired, right?  Don’t you want to rest?”  And she lured me.  Because I was tired and I did want to rest.  My first day in Laos was not off to a good start.

The Laotian town of Huay Xai is a one road town.  A road into town and a road out, a single intersection.  There were a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to all the people who “missed the boat” (literally!) and that is about it.  Seemed a nice enough place to rest up for the two day boat ride commencing the next day.  There were speed boats, but the riders are strapped in, immobile, with life vests and crash helmets, their baggage pinned against their feet as they hurdled down the river for six hours with the deafening motor in their ears.  While I thought for adventures-sake this might be fun for all of maybe 5 minutes, and interesting for maybe an hour, but with my stiff neck, swollen jaw and extreme tiredness, I could not think of subjecting myself to that torture.  It was to be slow boat torture for me.

The next day the slow boat departed at 11:15 AM.  I could have made it the day before.

We were packed in like cattle, sixty of us, sitting on hard wooden benches.  I left my book in the hotel.  Few people were in the mood to talk.  Looking around every available space filled with a person with a book balanced on their lap; I was so envious.  I would try and look out the window for awhile, to give my bum a rest from the plank, and within fifteen minutes my knees felt as if they were welded to the wood and moving them was extremely painful.  The muddy river, the green banks, slid by minute after minute, hour after hour with little change in scenery.

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Colonial building in Luang Prabang

After six hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng, where we stayed the night.  I still was not 100%.  I had some soup but I could not sleep.  Under a mosquito net I felt too hot.  I thought a shower might help.  There was a huge cement cistern.  And a shower head.  In the corner a huge spider sat on the wallI had my glasses off so I could not make it out very well, though I kept my eye on it as well as I could.  The water was so cold I felt unable to stand and found myself squatting on the floor, shower head in hand, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, just to brace myself against the icy coldness of the liquid running down my scalp and neck. Shampooing up, I didn’t know if I could stand to run the water over my head again to rinse, but again in silent screams I washed my hair.  I was certainly cooled off then and fell into a lovely slumber, despite the sound of rats scurrying overhead…

I thought the day before as I got off the boat that someone would have to drag me kicking and screaming to the boat the next day, with me screaming “no, not the boat, not the BOAT!”  But I walked on of my own accord the next day.

The second day on the boat was much like the first, except that I managed to procure myself a book.

I am on the boat again – we have been going for four hours, though I do not know what that means in terms of the journey as there is a debate over whether we are to travel six hours or eight today.  I sincerely hope it is only six.  I inherited a book from another person and read the whole thing before noon…The boat meanders lazily down the Mekong.  The water a muddy hot tea with milk color, on both sides thick green jungle.  Only rarely does a house appear, and even more rare, people.  It always surprises me when there are people because they appear smaller than I expected, dwarfed by the scenery around them.   I cannot even begin to explain the mind-numbing boredom of those two days.  Nor how much my bottom hurt from sitting on the wooden plank for so many hours.  And I paid for the experience.

We pulled into Luang Prabang 7 hours later and I gratefully got off the boat, scrambled up the bank at a sprint, and never looked back.

 

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A Krabi Chinese New Year

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The confusing duck display at Pudong Airport.  Our first year seemed to be the year of the ram/sheep/goat/deer so I guess for the Year of the Rooster any fowl, water or land, will do

It is Chinese New Year again and our third (and final) one in Shanghai.  Having already done our Chinese New Year in the city penance once, it was time to get out of Dodge yet again.

Initially the plan was to visit to a new country.  I mean a new-for-me country and that is becoming increasingly hard for me to do in Asia.  I had a few ideas.  I had been debating about someplace in the Middle East, particularly a country where a good friend is posted, but as I was bidding one country in the region I decided to hold out until after I had secured my onward assignment.  Having waited until that auspicious time I discovered it was going to cost me an arm and a leg and maybe a few digits to make that trip, so I started to look closer to home.  I hemmed and hawed.  I recalled a friend from Shanghai had visited Krabi.  I looked up the ticket prices.  Yikes!  Chinese New Year price gouge.  I closed my eyes and hit “purchase.”

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Long-tailed boats in Ao Nang Bay.  Nope, not a mistake to come here.

This will be our last big trip from Shanghai.  It comes in the middle of the crazy wrapping-up-my-work-and-life-in-Shanghai and preparing-to-move-across-three-continents period so I wanted it to be easy.  I have been to Thailand so many times I have lost count (I can say that about no other country).   Although I had never been to Krabi, and that appealed to me, it is, for the most part, just a beach destination.  As a result there was no pressure to go here and there to see things.    I made few plans other than to book a resort hotel with kids amenities.

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The magical and wonderful Kids Club

This vacation has turned out like no other.  First it is because of the kind of hotel where we stayed.  While we did stay at an all-inclusive resort hotel in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in October 2015, this is not my common travel practice.  That hotel too was quite isolated.  The Holiday Inn Resort Krabi Ao Nang beach is not.  It is located on the main strip in the beach town.  We have options to head out and about.  But for the first several days I simply chose not to do so. Secondly, C is finally old enough to go to the Kids’ Club all by herself.  I had no idea how this would impact the vacation, but my goodness, what a change!  She spends hours and hours there coloring, making crafts, watching kid-friendly television and movies, playing with LEGOs, and making friends.  The very first day she won the title of “dancing queen” at the Kids Club dance party (complete with crown and snack prize) and was invited to a birthday party to be held at the club the following day.  This has led to the third difference in this vacation- the amount of things that I have been able to do on my own.  Unfortunately, given that this trip comes at a time when I am under a lot of pressure to manage our move on top of other commitments, I did bring some “work” with me.  In the course of the week I have written three blog posts (this one included), completed uploading a huge number of photos from my computer to a cloud storage (and in so doing learned just how incredibly slow my Internet is in Shanghai), have reserved several hotels for during my home leave in popular places where hotels are likely to sell out, started and finished my next book club book, and started and completed my taxes!

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Do not feel too bad for me.  This was my view as I did my taxes.

I know, I know.  Not exactly the things dream vacations are made of.  While my daughter was at the Kids Club I did also go for an ill-advised run (my first in months) in the sweltering noon heat and took advantage of the hotel spa more than once for some very much-advised massage.  My daughter and I also were able to spend a lot of quality time together in the pool, at meals, walking along the beach or to shops in town.  I asked her about her time in the Kids Club and she shared her artwork and stories with me.

We also did some special activities together.  On the fourth day of our vacation C and I went horseback riding.  C loves horses and the only brochure to catch her eye at the nearby travel and tour booth was the one with horses.  I grimaced.  She’s 5.  In most of my online research, places generally allow horse riding from 8 and a few places from 6.  I quietly informed C of this and she burst out in tears.  I told her we would ask.  We sat at the booth with baited breath as the attendant made the call and had what felt like the longest conversation possible to find out the answer to what seemed a simple question “what is the minimum age for this horse riding activity.”  C patiently waited the verdict.  Just kidding.  She asked me every 5 seconds if she could go horse riding.  Imagine my surprise when the woman told us that C could in fact go horse riding as all of the horses are led.  C gave a few fist pumps and danced for joy.

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C on the beach during our ride

We waited in the hotel lobby for our pick up.  C scanned every vehicle and immediately noticed the truck with the pictures of horses when it drove up.  We sat in the back of the songthaew, on the long benches, a side for each of us.  There were no other passengers and we made no stops to pick up anyone else.  The wind blew through our hair and C let out whoops of delight.  I felt an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.  At the riding center, some 15 minutes away by truck, we disembarked and were quickly given our mounts.  C could hardly contain her excitement — her own horse!

The ride was one hour along the beach.  I felt fairly confident that C would grow bored with the riding after 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops.  But she did not.  We had gone a full 50 minutes before she told me that she would like to go back to the barn.  The beach was okay — the tide was high and there was little beach at all, with the horses stepping into the shallow water to get around low hanging branches.  There was little scenery.  A few long-tailed boats floated near the shore and a few of the iconic rocks jutting out of the sea that Krabi is famous for were visible in the distance.  Yet none of that really mattered.  My horse followed behind C and as I watched her sit proudly on her very own horse, chatting away to no one in particular(the horse? the Thai boy who led the horse?  To me?) I simply felt happy.

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C helps this elephant take a bath

When you ask C what her favorite animal is she will tell you that she loves ALL THE ANIMALS.  But I know she does have a particular fondness for cats, horses and elephants.  To round out our holiday I decided on one more activity–elephant riding coupled with an elephant bath.  This time the truck that picked us up would pick up 8 more passengers, filling the back of the songthaew.  There were no other children and though at first I worried about this – is this a child appropriate activity? what kind of mother am I? – I soon felt an absurd amount of pride to be able to give C this kind of experience.  We set off on the elephant trek through the jungle, crossing some streams.  Our elephant ride in Chiang Mai was 15 minutes and plenty long enough (ooh, my bum!) so I had some concerns about a full hour but again it was just right.  After the ride we were given fresh pineapple and water but C had disappeared – I found her sweeping up leaves with a Thai mother and her 2 year old son.  We all then headed to the river to help a playful 7 year old elephant take her bath.  The laughs we had!  Some of the best money ever spent.

It was not easy to leave Krabi after such a wonderful week especially now that I am back in cold, grey, poor air quality Shanghai.  We relaxed.  We played.  We had adventures.  I wrote.  C made friends.  I saw a glimpse of C’s increasing independence (and mine).  It was just what C and I needed and I am ready (sorta, kinda, do I have a choice?) to tackle the last ten weeks here.

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(I am also VERY happy to report that I neither forgot to pack something for the trip nor lost anything, which given the last few trips and all that I have on my mind is a major accomplishment.)

 

 

 

The Trip in Inappropriate Shoes

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As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school to travel in Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

I started this trip with only one pair of ill-advised shoes — a pair of cheap sandals I had purchased in a mom-and-pop store in northern Bali the spring before.  They were two inch high pieces of foam rubber with a wide blue band with no grip whatsoever on the bottom.  One time while walking in Lovina, the town in northern Bali I lived in for several months, I slipped on the sidewalk and landed on my behind in 2 seconds flat.  These were clearly some high quality shoes and just perfect for some backpacking.  I have long wanted to write a story of this trip with this title, though the shoes are only a minor actor in the tale.

On January 1 I flew to Bangkok.  I was exhausted and did not have the energy to do much searching for a cheap place.  The place I stayed the last two times appeared to be closed so I went a few doors down and paid $8 for a room.  I believe this is the most I have ever paid for a room in Thailand.  I did not do much for the next two days but eat and sleep and read.  I needed a rest.  Then I booked a bus ticket to Siem Reap.

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Me and my backpacks at the Thai/Cambodian border

The bus was supposed to pick me up at 6:45 am.  I was a little anxious as the last time I was to be picked up early for a bus in Bangkok it failed to arrive.  But at 10 til 7 a man showed up in front of me and asked “Siem Reap?”  I nodded and I was moved about 10 feet from where I had been standing.  Ten minutes later another person came up and asked “Siem Reap?” I nodded and was ushered along with another group of groggy foreigners shuffling down the street.  We walked about 10 minutes and crossed a rather busy road to wait in a highway circle.  There were buses there but the herders made no move to get us on them.  We stood for about 15 minutes and then the selection process began.  We were asked to show our tickets.  Some people got yellow tape or a badge to place on their shirts.  I received neither and was held back in a smaller group.  I began to wonder what was going on.  Then we were motioned to move onto a second bus.  The first bus looked more posh, but ours was less crowded and I actually had two seats to myself.  Our tickets were checked again and we were given orange pieces of paper, and then we were off.

We drove to the Thai/Cambodia border where we disembarked for lunch and visa applications.  We went through immigration on the Thai side and then walked across to the Cambodian side.  It seemed a strange border as all kinds of people were simply walking across without checks.  Unfortunately one person from our bus was denied entry and had to return to Bangkok.  We changed to a mini bus on the Cambodian side and our orange pieces of paper were collected.  Unfortunately some riders had lost the paper, were berated by our “guide” and were forced to pay more money to continue.

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Me among the ruins of Angkor

This time we were squeezed in shoulder to shoulder and the road was incredibly worse, if it could be called a road at all.  We were told we would arrive at Siem Reap at 7 pm, but instead finally made it at 9.  The trip had been fun for the first few hours and then it became very tiresome.  I guess that it is part of the beauty of travel, it was easy to get there then some of the fun is lost, at least then fun in re-telling the journey, and everyone would do it.  Again, exhausted, I took the first guesthouse I found.

I stayed three days in Siem Reap and saw the incredible temples of Angkor.  I spent hours examining the amazing carvings in the largest of the temples and clamoring over ruins in those ridiculous shoes of mine.  And yet I wrote very little of this part of the trip. 

On January 8, I had a 5:30 am pick-up for a truck to take me to Tonle Sap lake and then the boat to Phonm Penh.  I had a choice seat in the back with my legs crushed awkwardly under other people’s backpacks.  As we bounced over the steadily worsening road, I was sure I was going to bounce out backwards into a rice paddy, but after some 30 minutes we all made it safe and sound.  We boarded small boats to ferry us out to the “BIG” boat, which turned out to be not all that big.  I sat in the very last row in the back of the boat where the boat vibrated so loudly I could not hear the Cambodian karaoke movie properly (a blessing?).  I tried sleeping bu the vibration made my nose itch beyond control.  Instead I read my book (which I left behind and I will never know what happened in Mexico) and watched the mute videos.  Four hours later I gratefully disembarked in the capital.

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The sobering country map at Cheoung Ek

The same day I went to visit the Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek.  After a bumpy 25 minute motorbike ride I arrived at the field where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of people, bludgeoning them to save bullets.  There is just the excavated graves and a pagoda with 17 shelves of skulls, almost 9,000 of them.  And 43 graves yet to be excavated.  My guide lost his parents there.  The weather was beautiful – a sunny day with blue skies, the fields green.  It reminded me of when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.  On the 9th I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, which used to be a school but was turned into a prison for interrogation and torture.  Not a day of lightness.  Is it strange that this country boast the architectural achievements of the Khmers in monuments of beauty and grace and yet is also home to some of the sites of the most atrocious horrors done by humans to other humans.  Not uplifting, but it should be seen nonetheless.

I flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, stayed one night, and then flew to Phitsanulok in Thailand, where I took a bus to Sukhothai.

As soon as I step off the bus in Sukhothai I am accosted by a woman who demands to know where I want to go. I look at my guidebook.  Yupa guesthouse?  OK.  Forty baht.  I look at her dubiously but agree.  As we head to the “taxi” I realize it is a little truck, a songtheaw.  I also notice another songtheaw full of Thai people though I am being led to an empty one.  I aks her, how come all the Thai people are over there?  Farang (foreigner) 40 baht and Thai 5 baht, I ask her.  She laughs as she helps me into my own personal truck.  You must walk far if you take Thai truck, this truck right to door, no walking!  I wearily agree and off we go.

I do not have much energy for the day so I have lunch and take a nap.  I meet a woman from Belgium and we agree to have dinner.  She tells me the truck from the bus station is 10 baht.  The woman from Belgian tells me that the guesthouse is blissfully quiet.  I can hardly wait.  As I lay down to sleep after a furious storm a concert begins.  It is Children’s Day and some pop star from Bangkok is in town and there is nothing more enjoyable to do on Children’s Day then to set up a huge outdoor concern and keep all the children and everyone else in town awake until after midnight.  I put in my earplugs and try to get some sleep.

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A bridge at Si Satchanalai

iOn January 13 I decide to visit Si Satchanalai, another town 56 kilometers north of Sukhothai, where there are some nice ruins.  I consult someone at the guesthouse down the road and discover I can take a bus in the direction of Chiang Rai.  The owner of my guesthouse gives me instructions to the bus station.  He tells me “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I look at him.  He repeats “PingBaBaBuKaLa.”  I repeat after him.  He looks at me.  I realize he is saying “Pink Purple Bus Color.”  Ah ha!  I am set.

I write nothing about my time in Si Satchanalai or Sukhothai.  I am always curious of my choices to record some things and not others.  I remember renting a bicycle and riding around the ruined city and my ridiculous shoes constantly fell off as I cycle and I walk right out of them when I get stuck in some mud. 

I travel next to Chiang Mai.  I take part in a Thai cooking course.  I take a three hour Thai massage introductory course at the handicapped center.  I visit Doi Suthep, the temple on the top of the mountain, where I assist an Italian woman bitten by a dog.  I then follow it with my unexpected trip to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which I chronicled in another post.  As I sit in a hotel room, once again in Thailand many years later, I feel nostalgia for this trip, for the kind of travel I used to do.  Though this time I have some better shoes.

 

 

 

 

Chiang Mai Times

Way, way back in June I was thinking about vacations.  Well, daydreaming mad hard about vacations actually.  I had returned from my R&R a month before and I knew there was the long, busy summer of Shanghai-style visa adjudications and the G-20 timeframe ahead of me.  I would need something to sustain me.  Planning vacations makes people happy.  Studies have shown that even planning vacations can have longer term happiness benefits than the vacation itself.    I certainly wholeheartedly embrace this.

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Thailand: worth visiting just for the food (pineapple curry chicken rice served at a riverside restaurant)

I looked at November.  Thailand came to mind.  My daughter likes elephants; although she tells me that “all animals” are her favorite animal she definitely has a top three: horses, cats, and elephants.  I recalled my friends JK1 and JK2, who had served with us in Ciudad Juarez, were in Chiang Mai.  I sent a quick message to JK1 and she confirmed they would be in town and would love us to visit.   I booked the tickets.

I first visited Thailand the winter of 1995/1996.  (Holy moly I am getting old) I was participating in a student/volunteer program at Trinity College of Quezon City and I traveled to Thailand to meet up with friends I had previously taught English with in Korea.  We hung out together in Bangkok and then went our separate ways.  I traveled north to Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and then south to Koh Pha Ngan and Khao Sok National Park, and then west to Kanchanaburi.  Over the years I traveled several more times to vacation around the country.  A week in conjunction with a week in Malaysia, another week combined with a trip to Cambodia, and a week along with a trip to Laos.  I also had several short trips to Bangkok–long layovers between Japan and Europe, a few days stopover to get a visa for Burma or to head to Brunei, and on my last trip several days for a counter-terrorism conference.   As I thought about it, I found it surprising that although I have a Masters degree in Southeast Asian Studies and used to spend quite a lot of time in the region and in Thailand, I had not been to Southeast Asia since joining the State Department over five years ago.

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Signs like this – in remembrance of the king – were all over the city

Less than a month prior to our trip the beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had reigned over the country for over 70 years, passed away.  The people of Thailand were overcome with grief and the government announced a one year period of mourning.  For the first 30 days people were to avoid celebrations and bright colors and this would include some and perhaps all of the activities associated with the Loi Krathong Festival to be held around the time of our visit. Packing my suitcase full of somber colored clothing felt odd.

When we arrived it was raining.  It seemed fitting.  All around people were dressed predominantly in black and white.   And yet…although the clothing was subdued there was still a lightness in the air.  As we walked out of the terminal to see my friend JK2 and Little JK, I too could feel myself lighten.

We headed to a late lunch to meet JK1 who had finished up work at the Consulate.  The lunch was fresh and delicious.  The conversation and company more than worth the trip.  Afterwards we headed to a mall near their home and C and Little JK enjoyed some time crawling through a giant kids jungle gym while JK1 and I tried in vain to keep up.  Then we headed back to the JK homestead, a beautiful two story home with two car garage surrounded by a yard full of lush green tropical foliage.  They put us up in a cute little guest cottage connected to the main house by a wooden deck.  It did occur to me that I might have made a mistake not bidding on my friend’s job.

The weather forecast for the second day too was rain.  Thailand in general and Chiang Mai in particular is more of a place with outdoor pursuits – traipsing over historic temples, lying on tropical beaches, hiking through jungles and/or mountains in search of hill tribes or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas or all of the above.  JK1 suggested we check out Art in Paradise, a 3D art museum where visitors can, through a bit of illusion and creativity, place themselves into the artwork.  I had no other ideas and a quick online search suggested it was or had once been the world’s largest 3D museum and enough visitors gave it a thumbs up.  So off we went.  I could hardly imagine that we would spend more than 2 hours there laughing and shooting photos that seemed to place us in some fairly outrageous scenarios.

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Just two of the fun photos taken in the Art of Paradise 3D museum

Our museum experience was followed by yet another amazing lunch in a simple but attractive riverside restaurant.  We then headed to the mall.  Because the JKs needed to get some items for Little JK and I, in my pursuit of clinching the Mother of the Year Award before the year ended, needed to purchase C some underwear having forgotten to pack a single pair except for those she was wearing.

Before I was a mother I rarely forgot to pack items nor did I lose things.  Alas now I am very adept at both.  Soon after our successful clothing acquisition disaster struck:  We lost White Cat. You may recall from our trip to Hong Kong in January we lost beloved Black Cat, C’s most precious stuffie.  White Cat became the new favorite and accompanied C everywhere – to dance class and preschool, out to eat, to Disneyland, and on every single vacation.   If you look carefully, White Cat is in each of the photos above, clutched in C’s hand.  But we went into an arcade and the sights and sounds and games were enticing.  C put her down to play a game.  Less than five minutes later and I was uttering “Where is White Cat?” (easily the sentence I have said more often than any other since January).  I looked down the aisle we had just walked.  I looked at each of the three game locations we had been before.  I crawled on my hands and knees (in a kids’ arcade!) looking under each and every machine.  I knew she was gone.  I had little doubt that some other child had snatched her up.  Despite her once white but now grey and matted coat, her scratched eyes, her lost whiskers and the small hole in the back of her head, she was still a very cute stuffed animal.  I looked for 20 minutes at least and JK1 and JK2 looked as well, inquiring with staff and arcade management.  We did not find her.  And for the next hour or so we were all treated to C’s forlorn and gut-wrenching wails as we walked to the car and drove back to JKs’ home.

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Lanna fabrics at the traditional market

The next morning I woke up in the cottage to absolute silence.  I looked around and C was gone.  I found the sliding doors open but saw her shoes were sitting neatly side by side in front of the doors to the main house.  I thought of going in after her but there was something peaceful and not ominous about the quiet (and anyone who has a small child will know what I am talking about) so I slipped back into the cottage and enjoyed the peaceful solitude another 30 minutes.

Little JK and C were playing companionably together — Little JK had won C’s heart when he offered up two of his own favorite stuffies for her to hug the previous night as she slept.  After breakfast JK1 took a call from a colleague and our day’s plan began to form.

We met JK1’s local colleague, his wife, and 5 year old daughter at a traditional Lanna market.  Apparently this market occurs only once a year and we were lucky not only to be in town but also for the glorious weather.  C immediately took to 5 year old Witta and the two ran off together with Witta’s mother in tow.  The market was lovely — makeshift bamboo and straw stalls or tables set up on both sides of a narrow road, in green grass yards to the side of people’s homes.  For sale were traditional fabrics, handmade dolls, clothing, foodstuffs and beverages like the very refreshing and eye-poppingly purple colored Butterfly Pea iced tea.   Then the JKs and C and I headed to lunch.  We ate at yet another fantastic restaurant – set in an idyllic green location near the Chiang Mai Night Safari.  Besides delicious food, the restaurant had a grassy picnic like area and a children’s play area.  As JK1, JK2 and I sat in pleasant conversation at a shaded table by a koi pond complete with small waterfall and bridge, C and Little JK made friends with the Thai and Thai-Chinese children at the playground.  At that particular moment I could not imagine ever returning to Shanghai.

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Sunset across the lake at the Chiang Mai night safari

Although it was not yet night (in fact only 2 PM) we headed next to the Night Safari.  Outside the gates you can pet and feed deer that wander around the parking lot and area by the entrance, and also feed giraffes.  The 40 baht(US$1.12) I paid for the giraffe food and chance to feed them and take photos was so much more affordable than the AUS$25 (US$18.34) I paid in Sydney.  The park opened at 3:30 and JK1’s friends and daughter once again joined us.  The zoo is in a beautiful setting around a large artificial lake with Doi Suthep (Mt. Suthep) rising in the background.  We rode the two trams and walked the 1.2 km Jaguar Trail around the lake.  I generally avoid zoos in developing countries, but I found the Chiang Mai Night Safari to be pleasant with pretty good enclosures; the animals appeared, to my untrained eye, to be well cared for.

We woke the next morning in our hotel room.  I loved staying with friends but I also try to be really conscious of the toll a guest can take on hosts.  JK1 is one of the hardest working Foreign Service Officers you might meet and I felt she needed a weekend day to relax with her family.  I too needed a break.  The weeks leading up to the vacation — the bidding process and the election — had taken their toll on me as well.  C and I spent the morning at the hotel pool where we met a local Scotsman, 15 years living in Chiang Mai, and his 4 year old son Felix.  They invited C to join in the game of “diving for the tamarind seed” in the pool.  Felix had brought a hard, dark brown burnished tamarindseed about an inch in diameter and the tossed it in the pool and dove effortlessly to retrieve it.  Although C is a pretty good swimmer for 4 she could not out swim the fish-like Felix, yet he still made sure she could play.

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This handsome feline was one of the stars at They Call Me Cat

Afterwards C and I walked about 15 minutes towards the old city.  I pushed the stroller across a two lane traffic bridge over the Ping river, and along some very uneven sidewalks, to the They Call Me Cat Cafe.  I have only anecdotal evidence, but I would guess that the two countries with the most number of cafes where one can dine with cats (or bunnies or other cute animals) would be Japan and Thailand.  I had to give it a try.  They Call Me Cat did not disappoint.  A small cafe with some 10 very fancy felines and some surprisingly delicious fries and smoothies, the place was just what we needed for a light lunch. For the rest of the afternoon we rested at the hotel until 7 PM when we boarded the free hotel shuttle to the Chiang Mai market.  Although it had been over a decade since I had been there last it felt instantly familiar.  I had no agenda, no plan to buy anything.  We browsed a little.  The striking kathoey (ladyboys) passing out flyers to their show fawned over C.  Then we stopped at a restaurant to enjoy yet another amazing Thai meal as we watched the activity in the market and C enjoyed the restaurant singer.  I felt so content.

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Apparently elephants paint better than me

On Monday, our last full day, C and I went out to the Mae Sa Elephant camp.  Our arranged driver picked us up at 8:30 AM for the 50 minute drive.  I know that some people have criticized Mae Sa as a tourist trap with poor treatment of the animals.  I did a lot of reading beforehand reading reviews from both sides and conducting some of my own research.  Looking at the other elephant experiences (and there are so many), there did seem some smaller outfits with higher ratings for fun and compassionate experiences.  Initially I had signed us up for a jungle sanctuary experience with elephants — but the 6:30 AM pick up and 2 PM drop off times, actual mud bath with elephants (bring a change a clothes!) and photos of bikini clad backpackers, made me think this was not the experience for 4 year old C and me.  Mae Sa too had been where I had had my first such elephant experience nearly 21 years before.  There we first watched elephants enjoying a bath in the river.  This was followed by a short show with several elephants kicking a giant soccer ball and then painting pictures.  C and I then took a short 15 minute trek on an elephant.  We went in search of the baby elephant nursery with bananas and sugar cane in hand but ended up handing over the foodstuffs to two other friendly pachyderms.  We were back in Chiang Mai just after noon in time to have lunch with JK2 and Little JK.

The evening of November 14 was the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festival – a celebration of lights.  Once celebrated separately, the two festivals, one with baskets of flowers, incense and candles (Loi Krathong) set afloat on rivers, and the other with white wax-coated paper hot air lanterns that soar into the sky, are now held together.  As the 30 day ban on festivities ended the day before, the light festival could carry on.  I booked for C and I to join the hotel celebration including a massive buffet dinner, several dance performances, and included a krathong for each guest to place on the river.  I had imagined taking amazing photos of the Yi Peng lanterns but although I could see them in the sky we were far from the launch area.  The dinner was too long for C although I luckily snagged us two seats at the table nearest the stage for the dances, which C really enjoyed.  Once outside we had to wait in a very long line to launch our krathong as only two guests at a time could venture out on the hotel pontoon.  It took over an hour for our turn and by that time C was extremely grump, and admittedly so was I.  Still, although if I were to have the opportunity to experience the festival again I would probably choose another location to participate, I was nonetheless glad to have experienced it even if in such a small way.

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Traditional dances and a lantern

On our last half day the sun shown brightly and the sky was clear.  The view across the city was spectacular–the muddy brown Ping river, the cluster of low-rise homes and businesses, spreading to the base of Doi Suthep, and the sacred temple of Wat Phra That visible on the mountain’s slope.  We both had contracted colds.  The tropical warm weather and cleaner skies not something our bodies were ready to handle.  I wanted to stay longer but it was time to return to Shanghai.