We visited Thailand back in April 2010 and we thought it would be a good place to get together with daughter Amy (who is still working in the Philippines) over Xmas and New Year. We were seeking hassle-free warm beachside relaxation as well as opportunities for Amy to explore the excellent diving opportunities in the Andaman Sea.
We had begun planning this holiday while enduring the rigours of our earlier six month 4x4 safari around northern, Gulf and western regions of Queensland.
Our skeletal itinerary was to fly direct to Chiang Mai via Singapore in order to explore some of the northern provinces bordering Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. We would then take the train down to Bangkok to meet up with Amy and then fly down to Krabi together so as to ferry it across to our chosen Andaman Sea island resort of Ko Lanta for the actual festive season. Then fly back up to Bangkok and home via Singapore.
Our trip began badly with our 2030 hour initial flight from Rockhampton to Brisbane being delayed by one hour due to inclement weather. Then we had to seek out the inter-terminal bus service at Brisbane to get us to the international airport. Our check in at Emirates proved worth the queue as we were up-graded to Business Class on account of them having over-booking their Economy seats.
Wow - members of the "AB Demographic" at last
Unfortunately our scheduled flight time of 0245 hours did not enable us to fully exploit the bourgeois comforts of our new found status......although Maria did manage to gulp down the odd Moet or two, including one for Breakfast as we were approaching Singapore. On our Boing 777-300 each business class seat fully reclined into one's own sleeping pod....surprisingly comfortable for our 7 hour odd flight. Due to the scheduling of budget flights to Chiang Mai we were forced to spend the entire next day in Singapore. This meant that we had spent our first 24hours of our holiday in airports, planes and tramping the streets around Bugis Street. I did manage to buy another great watch for about $25 - 'Casio no less'. As it began to rain we slipped back into the cavernous security of Changi airport to await our next flight.
Baggage handling @ Changi airport
Bugis Street - still good for a T Shirt
We did not get into Chiang Mai until a little after 2300 hours and it took another hour to clear customs and get a taxi to our hotel, only to be met by a sleepy night porter. We were naturally very tired and the effort to drag our bags up to the third floor nearly killed me. We went straight to bed to try and recuperate after this budget inspired tortuous trip. No more will I subject us to such torment.
Our hosts at the Jonadda Guesthouse (www.jonadda.com) (Jon and his Thai wife Mac) proved to be extremely friendly and helpful. John used to race motorbikes and sidecars in Melbourne and was just the person to help plan our future bike trip up north as well as provide directions to an optometrist (proved too expensive), a shop to provide a sim card for our phone and a 240 volt adaptor. Our budget room only had a fan and lacked a bar fridge but in all other respects the room and ensuite were clean and the place was very handily located in the old town.
We even had our own temple stupa to gaze at out of our window.
Some friendly hotel instruction
Chiang Mai Latte and Pad Thai chef
Xmas decorations outside Chiang Mai shopping centre and Maria loitering
Fruit stall and a ubiquitous Banana Pancake vendor
December and January are traditionally some of Thailand's busiest tourist periods and despite their recent floods there were still plenty of tourists about. Chiang Mai with a population of less than half a million persons is a charming place with temples dotted around every street. The old town is a maze of alleys and even alleys off alleys....it took us a while to get our bearings. While it lacks the frantic bustle and pace of Bangkok, it shares the same quirkiness. Everyone appears extremely polite and relaxed - no doubt something to do with the ever present figure of Buddha and of the saintly King and Queen watching over them. When the National Anthem is played over loud speakers at 0800 and at 1800 hours each day, all Thais stop whatever they are doing to observe this while the tourists fumble about feeling a little nervous.
The ancient wall and moat which surrounds the old town of Chiang Mai
During our first day we were able to locate a local printing firm to print off a hard copy (300 odd pages) of our North Australian safari for roughly half the cost I would have had to pay in Australia. However, somehow during the day I managed to lose my day pack containing among other things, the camera. In a panic, I reported the loss to the tourist police and quickly purchased a replacement Canon camera at a smart new shopping centre. That evening Maria convinced me that I might have left it at a stationary shop where I had sought directions to the printery. They were closed the next day (Sunday) but the following morning I rushed around there and found the bag - relief ,but now we have two cameras. I then had to return to the police station to sheepishly recant my theft statement.
Our host John mapped out what he claimed would be one of the most scenic motorbike tours of all Thailand. He would arrange for us to hire a suitable bike, loan us full riding leathers, boots, gloves, helmets, detailed maps and trip notes and act as our guide for the first 2.5 days of our planned 5 day tour. In return we were required to pay him $65/day....seemed a good deal. As our route was to be over some very mountainous regions he did not think a 200 cc bike would be big enough for Maria and I and instead selected a 400 cc Honda road bike which cost $28/day.
Jonadda's excellent promotional kit
The Bike and the Intrepid Riders
I must admit to have been a little nervous riding a bike as powerful and heavy as this, especially with Maria on the back. However, as soon as we cleared the congestion of Chiang Mai and onto some open highway my confidence improved immeasurably.
Monks at a waterfall and guide John having a ciggie stop
On the open road
Our route took us East across to Nan (first night) and then North to Bo Klua (famous for its ancient salt wells) and then through the very scenic Doi Phu Kha NP to the picturesque and quaintly named town of Pua (pronounced pooh ah).
Our guide John was also a versatile and competent musician
We had our only small accident during the second day when our guide John decided to stop in the middle of the road to look at a rather large wasp nest in an overhanging tree. I tried to pull into the side of the road only to find a deep ditch where the bike decided to fall over into. As we were almost stationary at the time we escaped physical injury - but certainly suffered a little loss of face and we broke a side mirror. It was apparent that John's idea of this bike tour was not our own. For him the exhilaration of the ride was what it was all about whereas for us it was being tourists and seeing and understanding the country through which we were travelling. John did give us time to go slower and thus be able to better appreciate the magnificent mountains and tropical forests. We subsequently stopped at a waterfall and also at a cave inhabited by a friendly and chatty monk who spoke perfect English.
Road works also had to be carefully negotiated - a lot were the result of wet season land slides
Much of the riding around the NP was on excellent road surfaces but still involved a lot of hairpin bends, very steep gradients (1:3) and then razor sharp ridges falling away perilously on both sides....one got giddy from looking down the ravines on either side of you.
Many many tight and steep corners had to be negotiated
Northern hill tribe village of Bo Klua with its ancient salt well (here they boil up the salt water in these huge wok shaped basins and scrape away the salt residues)
Maria developed a head cold up here in the mountains and had to visit pharmacy for some suitable drugs. Over dinner one night John informed us that the 1960s film The King and I had been banned in Thailand for some considerable time because of the gratuitous depiction of the royal family having to be taught how to behave correctly by a pom and a woman to boot.....I had never thought about this before but can now on reflection agree with the Thai interpretation.
Our third night was spent in a beautiful guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong River in the town of Chiang Khong. It is from this town that one can catch a fast or slow boat downstream to Luang Probang in Laos. This takes one or two days depending on your choice of boat and costs $36 (plus overnight accommodation in a Lao village on slow boat (pictured below) or $60 for the one day speed boat.
Mekong River at Chiang Khong - with the Lao town across the river from where you catch the ferry downstream to Luang Probang
Chiang Khong also had many fine old wooden houses along the river bank and each of them utilised this wonderful rubbish bin made from re-cycled car tyres
The rock strewn Mekong River between Chiang Kong and Chiang Saen with Laos on the far Bank
Our next day took us through the Golden Triangle and the heavily touristed town of Sop Ruak where the borders of Burma, Lao and Thailand converge. The viewing area of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is surrounded by a tourist market and theme park. While there is not a lot to be seen across in Laos at this point, the Burmese side is dominated by the Paradise Resort (a joint Japanese/Thai hotel and casino complex). Because hire bike companies all demand that they hold your passport as collateral it is not possible to cross over at these point unless you have already arranged a visa - ie be prepared.
Thai theme park and Burmese casino
We pressed on through the town of Mae Sai - a favourite place for expats to cross over into Burma to renew their Thai residency visas. It is also an important port city with many barges coming down the Mekong from China. Our final push that day took us along the Burmese border and over another treacherous mountain range road and the former opium growing region of Mae Salong (it is now a major tea growing area).
Tea Growing around the mountainous village of Mae Salong
Having conquered this perilous stretch we finally pulled up in the pleasant border town of Tha Ton which sits on Mai Nam Kok river. One can take a 3-4 hour river cruise from here down to the regional centre of Chiang Rai.
Hay carting down Route 107
Our final day was spent travelling down a major highway south to Chiang Mai where we managed to get lost in the outskirts of the town. We had arranged with John to be back about lunchtime so as he could arrange to have the broken side mirror repaired by a mate before I had to return the bike. The whole welding job cost $3.50 and the bike shop did not notice However, I did point out to them that the bike's rear suspension was buggered and the battery needed replacing - (Maria and I had spent the last day push starting the bike). I trust our snaps do justice to the trip and would recommend anyone doing similar to investigate having a cam corder fixed to their helmet.
After a days rest Maria booked a day at an elephant camp set up to rescue animals which were not being well-treated or who no longer were needed for useful employment. She had a wow of a day riding, feeding and washing the beasts. I meanwhile spent the day tramping around a few of temples in the town.
Then a came a spot of white water rafting for the trainee mahouts
Following her strenuous outing with the elephants, Maria felt the need to indulge in a full body massage which she reckoned was fantastic. I meanwhile had enrolled in a cooking course at ALotofThai Cooking School (www.alotofthai.com). There are countless numbers of Thai cooking schools in Chiang Mai but I chose this one on account of the good reviews it had received in Trip Advisor and on a number of travel blogs I had read. Yui who runs the school was educated at Chiang Mai University and had excellent command of English which she had picked up while living and working in a family restaurant in Hong Kong.
I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to practising my newly enhanced knowledge. What was particularly informative was the school's excursion to a small local produce market where all the varieties of vegetables, noodles, tofu, rice and meats were pointed identified together with some of their uses. There were only 8 in the class and it was run in a very friendly and inclusive fashion......I asked the most questions and probably drove our teacher batty - but at the conclusion of our day she urged me to email any further questions I might think of later.
Some of the Wats of Chiang Mai
We also used our bike hire credit to hire a small 110cc automatic step through bike to take the 30km round trip up the mountain to visit the one of the most sacred temples in Northern Thailand the Wat Phra That in the Doi Suthep-Pui NP. the temple was first established in the late 1300s.
Highly venerated Lanna monk Kruba Siwichai (patron saint of Nthn Thailand)
The 300 odd step stairway to the Temple with Hmong Village children beggars
Temple drummers and dancers
The gold-plated chedi is the temple's main attraction and devotees encircle it constantly chanting appropriate prayers
This was a great trip and on our way back down we detoured to visit a waterfall in the forest. This NP is a favourite for hikers and mountain bikers.
We spent our last night in Chiang Mai planning a return visit. There are a lot of British, French, German, US and Australians living more or less permanently in town and a lot of them are running guesthouses and restaurants and bars. No doubt the less demanding tropical climate makes it a better choice than Bangkok. However, they do bring some baggage with them in the form of enclaves of westernised food and entertainment viz televised soccer and prostitution. Most of the guesthouses in town offer fan cooled double room with bathroom, fridge and TV for under $14 while for $30 you could stay in a rather flash **** hotel. Our meals rarely exceeded $4/dish and 640ml beers $3 - the place is a bargain! The major scams are primarily related to the various tours your guesthouse will try and book for you - many claim that the small $2 commission they make is essential for their livelihood - the honest ones will hopefully steer you towards the more reputable operators and so therefore you should not be too quick to book yourselves into this and that.
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