This is part of a longer TR that begins in Bkk
and onto Luang Prabang
A River Trip
and finally Chiang Rai
We slept in our last morning at the hotel La Luna, then killed time until we took a songthaew to the bus station for our 12:15 bus to Chiang Mai. We arrived at the open-air station – clean, modern, efficient – about 45 minutes early. We piled our luggage and ourselves on a bench for some extended people-watching. Our bus arrived about ten minutes before our scheduled departure time. We checked our larger suitcases, climbed aboard and were soon rolling through a countryside that was at once both overgrown and desiccated. The ride was fairly smooth except when the bus labored over the small mountains separating Chiangs Rai and Mai. Once our pace slowed to a near standstill; I thought for a while that everyone would have to get out and push. The far side of the hills was somewhat greener due to the flooded rice patties – beautiful but, after our stay in Chiang Rai, my thoughts inevitable turned to mosquitoes.
Our bus arrived as scheduled in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was a Sunday, no ground transportation was in sight of the station. Eventually a tuk tuk driver motioned us to his vehicle out on the street. We followed him out of the bus station parking lot only to return immediately due to too little room for both our modest luggage and ourselves - and, as well, an absurdly high asking price. The driver did not take our refusal graciously – it was probably the only time we had a rude interlude during our entire stay in Thailand. Finally, we ran across a songthaew that could take our two suitcases and us to our hotel, the Pak Chiang Mai. The Pak Chiang Mai is located just inside the central moated old city of Chiang Mai, on the southern side near the Chiang Mai gate. It was fabulous, a small hotel behind an old surrounding wall. The interior courtyard was beautiful; our room – one of two upstairs suites - was large, had beautiful furnishings, a designer bathroom, a king-size bed on a raised platform and its own computer. (For the duration of our, stay there, I didn’t have to share YT’s iPad.)
After we’d unpacked a bit we set out to explore the town. Chiang Mai holds an immense night market on Sundays. It was just setting up on Phrapokklao Road near the hotel. We stopped for some ice coffee, then headed up to Ratchadamnoen Road, where the market was in full swing. The variety of items offered was just incredible: t-shirts, designer clothing, traditional clothing, silks, jewelry, crafts, carvings, antique items, traditional musical instruments, CDs of traditional music, all kinds of food. The quality of many of the items was head and shoulders above anything we’d seen previously or were to see for the remainder of the trip. We started making our way west on Ratchadamnoen Road towards the immense Wat Phra Sing complex. The streets, almost empty an hour previously, were now jam-packed with people. A little before 6:00, without any prior notice, a voice came over a loudspeaker system and every Thai person froze in place almost immediately as the Thai national anthem started playing over the loudspeakers. It was an incredible scene, almost like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, a crowded street filled with motionless people, some of them in the middle of sales transactions. After the music ended, everybody resumed his or her business.
We bought a few gifts and some snacks, and then asked for directions to the Morradoke Restaurant, which we understood to be on Ratchadamnoen Road. No one knew at first, but a kindly woman at a travel agency looked it up for us. And it was on Ratchadamnoen Road - at the very east end, almost at the Tha Phae Gate, about as far from where we were as one could get while remaining within the confines of the old city. It took us over half an hour to make our way about half a kilometer down Ratchadamnoen Road towards the restaurant. We paused to see blind singers, traditional musical groups lined up behind one another in the street, various vendors and, in an oddly anachronistic scene, a young Scotsman in a kilt who was attempting to play a set of bagpipes but being stopped by the police before starting. (I believe it was a matter of prohibited foreign competition, not of taste; we saw him two days later outside the Tha Phae Gate, playing to a crowd of puzzled, bemused and/or appreciative Thai and foreign listeners.)
I finally spotted the sign for Morradoke, at almost the very end of Ratchadamnoen Road. We made it through the crowd to one of the better meals of the trip: Pork with holy basil and duck with pineapple in a coconut curry sauce. When we left, rather than again brave the impossible and impassable Ratchadamnoen Road, we took the road inside the moat around the city back towards the Chiang Mai gate. (Old Chiang Mai is a square, bounded on all side by a moat; this actually made it easy to find one’s way around.) Our route, down Mummuang Road took us past several bars with a clientele of older American and Australian men paired off with young bar girls.
The next day was the start of Chinese New Year’s. We devoted it to touring wats, first on Phrapokklao Road and then Wat Phra Sing on Ratchadamnoen Road. It was a bit overwhelming. After the first four or five, it was difficult for us to tell which wat was what. Fair to say that we were stupa-fied by the sheer excess of wattage. After we visited the Wat Phra Sing and the nearby Rachamankha Boutique Hotel (exquisite!), we walked down Rachamankha Road for lunch at Huen Phen restaurant. We had pork in local curry sauce and fried spare ribs. I loved it. YT did not. After lunch, we returned to our room to escape the heat (~35 C) and napped.
That evening we took a tuk tuk to Chinatown for New Year’s festivities. After some meandering, we arrived at the Chinese Night Market. It was very crowded and the stalls sold imported plastic trinkets. The New Year’s fireworks didn’t start until much later. We gave up and left, taking a tuk tuk to Aroon Rai restaurant by the moat on the eastern side of the city. Tasty meal on a rickety table: Curry noodles, pork curry with ginger, papaya salad and a beer – all for less than 10 U$D. We walked back to our room, avoiding Mummuang Road on the other side of the moat.
The next morning, we left our packed luggage in preparation for a move to a new room – our wonderful suite was booked that night. (It felt like a demotion…as we later discovered, the new room was small and exposed to external nights and street noise. Stick to the two suites at Pak Chiang Mai or, failing that, the upstairs rooms away from the street-facing side.) The previous day, at Wat Phra Sing, we’d been solicited by a taxi driver to take us out to a variety of craft factories and showrooms on the road towards Bosang. The price was a rock-bottom bargain, so we agreed. We were bit surprised when the cab showed up – we had a different driver, the cab driver’s son, who appeared all of twelve years old. He looked so young that we had the management at Pak Chiang Mai confirm that he was of an age to drive legally. He was and we spent the morning being ferried from factory to show room to factory. At a silk factory, I found a perfect fit in the sale rack – a double-breasted iridescent purple silk jacket with contrasting black peaked lapels. It cost the mere equivalent of 33U$D. I couldn’t resist: I had YT snap several photos of me modeling this shiny ready-for-Vegas creation. Then I returned it to the sales rack. I hate peaked lapels.
After buying yet more gifts, we had our youthful driver return us to Chiang Mai and drop us off by the Tha Phae Gate (it was here that we finally saw the improbable Scottish bagpiper in action). We had lunch at the nearby Morradoke restaurant, our newfound favorite in Chiang Mai: Pork with holy basil (again), shrimp in sweet/sour sauce, and shrimp ravioli – very good, all of it, although I would have preferred it a little spicier. While waiting for our food, we struck up a conversation with a regular, a French-English businessman. He was nailing a framed color photograph of a young Thai King and an even younger Elvis Presley to the restaurant wall – “Two Kings” he called it. It looked only a little out of place amidst the existing profusion of old black and white photos of Chiang Mai. I’d had some concerns about tomorrow’s planned activity – driving the curvy Mae Hong Son loop in a rental car on the left hand side of the road. He reassured us that we’d love it.
Afterwards, we started walking back to Pak Chiang Mai to flee the intense sun. On the way back, I finally took up YT’s ongoing dare and stopped at a “fish spa.” Fish spas involve inserting one’s feet into a tank with hungry minnows that then proceed to nibble the dead skin off your feet. The process begins with a lengthy cleaning and rinsing of your feet – don’t want to give the hungry little critters foot and mouth disease, I guess. It was such an odd sensation, having these ravenous little minnows nibbling at your feet. It felt like a mild electric current. We returned to our (new) room and napped until YT had to leave for her spa adventure. Throughout this trip YT felt it her responsibility to sample the array of spa services offered. This particular spa was recommended by the owner of our B&B and was fabulous. YT was picked up by a driver and delivered to a paradise. It reminded her of the attempts in N. California to emulate Asian spas, but this was the real thing. She later said her experience was sheer pleasure, but she was gone so long I was pacing outside the B&B by the time she returned many hours later. While she was gone, I went out again to take photos at “Baan Phor Liang Meun’s Terra Cotta Arts,” right across the alley from Pak Chiang Mai. This terra cotta shop had an extensive garden filled with plants and various terra cotta objects – mostly pre-stressed reproductions of images from Hindu and Thai Buddhist mythology. They photographed beautifully in the late afternoon sun. Later still, I went out solo for food while YT sprawled in lassitude in our room. Everything nearby was closed, perhaps for the Chinese New Year. I finally ended up far from our hotel at Jansom Restaurant – not quite sure on what street - to have a quick dinner of yellow noodles and mussaman curry. It was superb and extraordinarily inexpensive.
The next day was to be the beginning of our Mae Hong Son loop drive. We bade a temporary goodbye to Pak Chiang Mai and its wonderful staff and took a cab to the Chiang Mai airport to pick up our rental car. As it turned out, Budget, where we had a rental reservation, was not in the airport proper, but somewhere nearby. Instead of dragging our suitcases around trying to find the Budget office, we canceled our reservation and opted for an Avis rental at the airport location for the same amount. Within minutes, we were in our car and nervously finding our way around the exterior of the old moated city to the northern national highway. (Fortunately, road signs are in both Thai and Western scripts throughout Thailand.) Thailand drives on the left hand side of the road – and it had been almost thirty years since I’d driven a right hand drive vehicle. I did well except for continuously cutting on the windshield wipers whenever I wanted to make a turn – their placement on the steering column was reversed from what I was used to.
After perhaps an hour, we turned west (left) on route 1095. The road was in great condition. We made good time and stopped at a roadside stand for delicious Thai coffee and had a lengthy conversation with the proprietress. She asked about our origins and ages and pronounced YT a “beautiful, young” woman and me a “strong” man (who presumably should still be working rather than retired.) We bought some wonderful spiced plantain chips and snacked on them as we drove down the increasingly curvy road.
We arrived in Pai about three and a half hours after leaving Chiang Mai. The drive turned out to be less nerve-wracking than I’d feared, in part because of the absence of traffic. I found Pai to be a pleasant and prosperous riverside town that was a backpacker haven filled with youthful Australian and European travelers dressed in a colorful mix of denim, hill tribe and Thai garb. I understand that some older travelers dislike backpackers with a passion, citing their fashion sense, party-hearty sensibilities and cannabis use as alienating to their hosts (and their elders). I do somewhat dislike their insularity – they largely congregate together and eat in restaurants that serve familiar western fare - pizza, pasta, salads and tons of baked desserts (baked for the baked?). However, I believe that they play the same role in travel as urban pioneers did in revitalizing run-down urban neighborhoods: By their presence they ensure the eventual development of an infrastructure to support the visits of the less adventurous who possess an aversion to truly primitive and uncomfortable conditions (e.g., YT and myself). Some people view Pai as inauthentic, corrupted by backpackers. I find it difficult to understand the concept that efforts on the part of a previously impoverished rural people to escape a life of penury and privation somehow have rendered them inauthentic. In my view, if anything is inauthentic, it is the belief of certain types of western travelers that they can achieve a vicarious authenticity via interactions with people living “authentic” traditional lives that reflect a living standard only slightly above mere subsistence.
YT Note – While not disliking Pai as strongly as some people GotT described, I did not care for it. I felt it was overrun by foreigners and we could have been in any town on any continent in any country. I loved our hotel (misnamed in the logistics portion above – it was Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai) and thought the area beautiful, but could have done without the inhabitants of Pai itself.
When we’d arrived, we’d inadvertently driven past our hotel on the main road through town. We stopped at another hotel and were cheerfully given a map and directions to our hotel, “Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai.” We arrived at this riverside hotel by slowly – very slowly - driving down what the map identified as a “walking street,” a narrow one-way street filled with backpackers, vendors, motos, bikes, dogs and the occasional monk. Hotel des Artists was at the very end, overlooking the River Pai and a bamboo footbridge. The stylish but traditional hotel was a former nobleman’s house, which accounted for the solid construction of old growth woods. We had booked a “River View” room. It was fabulous. The room was filled with antiques, crafts and silks. We could lay in the king size bed and watch foot traffic across the bridge and on the far shore. The bathroom was spacious, nicely appointed in a style that I can only describe as Thai modern. There was an immense orchid by the sink. This room (and suites at the Pak Chiang Mai) were the most pleasant rooms we had in Thailand.
After unpacking, we left and wandered the streets. YT stopped at a hair stylist’s and they recommended a restaurant called “Na’s Kitchen” for dinner. After some more wandering, we went there for an early dinner (we’d skipped lunch). It was superb: Curried egg noodles with chicken, chicken with cashews, and a kind of local sausage as an appetizer. (We liked it so much, we returned the next night for a meal of curried noodles with shrimp, chicken curry and a tofu appetizer.) After our dinner, we walked down the night market on the “main street” per the map. As we arrived, we heard the call to prayer from the local mosque; it sounded something like the wail of a trapped wounded animal, a perception reinforced when a local dog began howling in counterpoint. The night market had loads of food vendors, t-shirt vendors and craft sellers. We returned to our hotel, our room and our fabulous bed. Across the river, lanterns mounted inside balloons slowly ascended into the night sky.
The next morning, we had breakfast at our hotel and then drove to a local park (I didn’t note down the name and the admission ticket is written in Thai). We walked around for a while. A viewpoint had spectacular views across the Pai valley. From there we went back towards town and headed out to Mae Peng waterfalls. Mae Peng had some unspectacular falls, but it was a fun place to spend a few hours. After parking we chose a path that led us to the top of the falls. We watched as young backbackers slid their way down to the bottom of the falls. We figured - why not, give it a try. We gingerly made our way down the slippery rocks and somehow made it to the bottom without either of us taking a fall at the falls. YT was quite proud of herself as she blazed a path that was followed by many of the young frolickers. Guess age pays off sometimes. We returned to our room in the afternoon for joint massages; YT has always liked massages and I was slowly becoming a convert.
The next day, Friday, we drove to Mae Hong Son. There are, if the t-shirts are to be believed, 1,864 curves on Route 1095 between its intersection with Route 107 (the National Highway) and Mae Hong Son. Most of these are between Pai and Mae Hong Son. By now acclimated to driving on the left (if not to using the turn signal), I enjoyed driving the sinuous serpentine road. Contrary to some statements on the travel boards, I found that Thais drive in a remarkably cautious style for a people who share a near-universal belief in reincarnation; perhaps they were worried that their cars would not be reincarnated with them.
The road to Mae Hong Son took us over several mountain passes with lookout areas, through the roadside town of Saphong, and finally down into a valley. Mae Hong Son is less tourist-oriented than Pai, an actual Thai working town. We found our hotel (the Fern Resort) by the now standard means of stopping at the first hotel we saw and asking directions; we always found the staff to be unfailingly helpful. Fern Resort was a bit out of town up a side road. It’s sited on a now-converted rice farm and comprises a series of terraces surrounded by converted bungalows. The effect is strikingly beautiful, albeit a haven for mosquitoes due to the half-flooded fields. Unfortunately, our room proved to be a bit down at the heels: hard beds, thin small towels, dim lighting, a general air of slight decrepitude coupled with the overwhelming wintergreen scent of a cleaning fluid that reminded me of the smell of a urinal mint. We left and drove around a bit, going into a park that that took us up a hill on a road to nowhere…the road became progressively rutted and then turned into a dirt track. We turned around and headed back towards Mae Hong Son. After a great deal of puzzled driving on side streets, we eventually found the central lake and its two wats. We found it attractive but a bit underwhelming. We’d skipped lunch again, so we had an early dinner at the nearby restaurant Salween River, which served Shan-style food. We started with crispy tofu strips (called “pappadom,” I think) and a dipping sauce; it was reminiscent of chips and salsa. Then on to pork salad and a chicken dish. It was all pretty good and the restaurant was the highlight of the little we saw of town. (In retrospect, it’s odd how one can be away for nine weeks and still not have enough time for a given site.)
We returned to the Fern Resort for a cocktail (a beer, actually) and a sunset view from the bar. Then we sat in the lobby to catch the Wifi signal, soaked in DEET and being dive-bombed by mosquitoes that veered away, confused, at the last minute. After some debate, and a lot of time on-line, we decided to cut our visit to Mae Hong Son short. If we stayed there a second night, we’d have to drive all the way back to Chiang Mai in one go – a drive of six plus hours by the shortest route. So we made a reservation in Pai for Saturday night and notified the Fern Resort that we were leaving a day early. Later that night, as we lay in bed, we heard laughter and voices as someone tried to insert their key into our lock before realizing their mistake. Readers of our earlier report re traveling in Chile will be pleased to know that I had my pillow at the ready to repel these intruders.
We left quaint Mae Hong Son the next morning, first driving up the hill to Wat Phai Doi. This is a large white temple that overlooks the town. We admired the view from the overlook – we were so far up that Mae Hong Son Lake looked like a puddle. YT then vigorously rang the temple bells by beating on them with a large wooden paddle. (She had been harboring a desire to do this since first encountering temple bells in Bangkok.) Then back down the hill to the curvy road. We stopped at the Fish Caves, bought a bag of mixed fish food and hiked to the cave to feed the fish. They seemed especially partial to lettuce leaves and large water bugs.; had I known in advance I would have prepared insect lettuce wraps.
We arrived in Pai without incident and headed down to the river edge via the “walking street.” This night’s lodging was at the Pai River Corner, across the street from the Hotel des Artists Rose of Pai. We had room 16, with a lovely view of the river and the footbridge, although the room itself possessed what had to be one of the world’s oldest, saggiest mattresses. One took care in turning over in bed to avoid impaling oneself on the springs. Otherwise it was a nice room in a nice hotel with attractive grounds. We walked out to town to find YT an air-conditioned massage place…the one we were familiar with was unfortunately situated next to a bar hosting a mid-afternoon performance by the world’s worst funk/reggae band.
That evening, based on a recommendation by Hanuman on this board, we went to dinner at Baan Benjarong. It was a long walk up to Route 1095 and the outskirts of town past both 7-11s (they’re ubiquitous in Thailand). Our greeting was less than cordial.; “indifferent” comes to mind. (The owner is something of a notorious curmudgeon.) The food, though, was superb, some of the very best of our trip: Banana flower salad, crab “dip” (more like a soup), shrimp in tamarind sauce and pork with crispy herbs. It was all very good, but the banana flower salad was outstanding. A Thai diner told us that this was “old” Thai cooking, from an era when cooking oil had been prohibitively expensive for most people and used only rarely and sparingly. We accompanied our meal with tamarind and fruit juices and finished with banana fritters with ice cream. As we were finishing, we struck up a conversation with a British couple that’d just arrived. They were part way through a yearlong trip around the world. They’d spent several months in an ashram in India and were now exploring Thailand. After that they planned to visit Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Los Angeles, Costa Rica and New York City before returning home. I had a serious case of travel envy, a condition I had not known to previously exist. The guy worked/works as a (sound, I assume) engineer for the Who/Peter Townsend. I asked him to give my regards to Mr. Townsend. Unfortunately, I didn’t get their names.
We walked back to town by Route 1095, better lit and safer than the side street we’d taken most of the way out. The night market was in full swing and much more crowded than it had been earlier in the week. We listened to traditional music, and saw Rastafarians of various nationalities, including Thai, some unfortunate mimes, a fellow who was dressed like Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” tattooed backpackers and a Muslim food vendor dressed in full jihadi regalia including a suicide vest with tubes of bamboo in place of the traditional high explosives. He was carving meat off a standing spit with an enormous sword. We slowly made our way back to our room. Once there, we listened to the woman beneath us in the two-story bungalow smoking pot with a friend - interlaced coughing and giggling.
The next morning we left early – for us, that’s any time before 10:00 a.m. – to return to Chiang Mai. We stopped again at the roadside coffee lady’s. She didn’t remember us, but again pronounced that YT was “beautiful” and that I was “strong.” We finished our coffees and got some more of the fabulously spicy plantain chips to take with us. We were soon back on Route 107 and barreling towards Chiang Mai. Traffic was at first light, but became increasingly heavy as we approached the city. I found driving in that traffic with lane changing cars and darting motos to be far more harrowing than the curves and ups and downs of Route 1095. Once in Chiang Mai, we made it directly to the airport without getting lost once, quite an accomplishment given the unfamiliar streets and some of our past epic misadventures. We turned in our rental car, bundled ourselves and our baggage into a taxi and returned to our previous lodging at the Pak Chiang Mai. We again had a suite, a different one (#32 versus #31), although our planned early departure the next day precluded us from unpacking and strewing our stuff around the place, as was our customary practice.
Later, we walked down to the Sunday night market as the vendors were setting up. We stopped for a half hour foot massages (about 2U$D apiece) and then wandered the market for a while. (It reconfirmed my opinion that this is the best market in Thailand, beating out even the overly large Chattachuk in Bangkok.) We decided on an early dinner - we’d skipped lunch once again – and first tried Huen Phen then backtracked to Morradoke. Both were closed. (I was particularly disappointed in not being able to photograph the “Two Kings” picture at Morradoke. I couldn’t help but wonder at what set of circumstances had brought together Elvis and the slightly appalled looking King of Thailand...I later learned that the photo was taken on a Hollywood movie set.)
We had neglected to bring any information with us regarding restaurants and walked from the closed Morradoke to the nearby Hotel Amora to try to get on the Internet to research Chiang Mai dining. Then we remembered the Chedi. The Chedi was an ultra-luxurious hotel with a high-end restaurant recently built on the banks of the Rover Ping just outside the old city. We took a tuk tuk there. The hotel was architecturally spectacular, a fusion of Western modernism and Thai style. The grounds were beautiful and the open-air restaurant atmospheric in the candle-lit twilight. Dinner was superb, but very expensive – about 50U$D – for Thailand. We lingered briefly and then took a tuk tuk back to the Pak Chiang Mai to end our last night in the north.