Do you Tuk Tuk too?

Chiang Mai is filled with cool stuff to do, no matter what you’re into.

There are stunning, flower filled gardens, ornate temples, interesting museums, fabulous food tours and cooking schools, beautiful hiking trails, stunning, ancient ruins, markets galore, malls, river cruises, kayaking, cycling, mountain biking, dirt bike riding, ziplining, volunteer opportunities… the list really is endless, and has something for everyone. I would have said that all bases had been covered and a truly different activity would be impossible to establish.

I would have been wrong.

Recently, I had the good fortune to win a trip with a newly established tour company:  “The Tuk Tuk Club”. These guys have worked in the industry for years but recently, saw a gap, had a brainwave and made their dream happen. It must have been hard work but it was worth it- their company and brand is exploding and their idea is amazing.

In short, you get to drive your own tuk tuk.

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Yep. One of those little open cab-cum-motorbike things that buzz around SE Asia. You actually get to learn how to drive one and then- once the guides are sure you’re not going to kill yourself or anyone else, tour around the countryside doing loads of super cool activities and seeing in close up the beautiful green vistas of Northern Thailand.

Our day started with a pick up from the centre of town before heading out into the suburbs of Chiang Mai (roughly 1/2-3/4 hr out of town) to meet our very own three wheeled tickets to total bliss. Although, this bliss wouldn’t be immediate. First, we had to learn how to drive these things.

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Anyone with a license can learn, but they are manual (or stick), so it will be easier if you’ve dealt with a clutch before. That said, the guides are super patient and soon, we all got our heads around the idea of accelerating with your right hand, pushing the clutch in with your left food, braking with your right foot and handling the gear stick with your left hand, regardless of where we came from or how long it had been since driving any sort of car.

After our training session, we headed out onto the roads- I was the front of the pack and started the day off with a bang by revving a little too hard and screaming out of the carpark like a bat (or tuk tuk) out of hell, but apart from my over zealous departure- we all handled this step up remarkably well.

Our first stop was two beautiful temples a few minutes away from each other- one of which catered more to the locals and one which was a bit fancier and more spectacular. The first involved a beautiful walk up to a natural cave area where a reclining Buddha lay and a gorgeous view awaited us. We could see the road which we had driven up to reach our spot- which was super cool in and of itself- but more than that, we could see where we were still yet to travel. This route in mind, we scrambled back down to our waiting tuk tuks and got back on the road again.

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This was a much longer journey, winding up and down mountain roads, going round bends and over crests. The road was smooth, easy to drive on and, for someone who hasn’t driven anything other than a pushbike in over 3 months, extremely enjoyable to explore. We drove in convoy at all times and our tuk tuks had been suped up so there was never any doubt that we would be able to reach our ultimate destination.

Soon, we turned off road and our tuk tuks showed how much grunt they actually had as we drove through a village- mud trails and pot holes included- before stopping at the Elephant Sanctuary. I was initially apprehensive when I won the tour as I knew there would be an Elephant Experience and I am morally, ethically and in all other ways opposed to elephant riding or elephants acting in a way which is unnatural for them. Thankfully, I had nothing to fear. This little family run organisation was far removed from the elephant parks who aimed only to entertain tourists. Their focus was on their elephants and what was best for them. While we had lunch, our guide explained that years ago, the existing park which used to be a riding park was bought out by someone else who had explained to the locals how damaging and cruel the practice was and the fact that very few tourists are interested in riding the elephants anymore. Sadly, some still do- and we saw tourists riding elephants later in the day, but this practice is, thankfully, dying out. The locals were a little skeptical but were eventually convinced, stopped any forms of cruelty and transformed their business to a rescue zone. This was particularly obvious with the 4 year old baby elephant who had clearly never been broken- he was too playful for us to go very close to him and the connection with his mahout- or carer- was clearly one of love.

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After lunch, we gave the elephants some of their lunch before walking behind them to the river- we couldn’t walk alongside these creatures as they’re wild animals- especially the baby- and super playful. Once we reached the river, the majesty of elephants came into full view and as we washed them, the game became to dodge their trunks, legs and sometimes bodies as they frolicked- an odd word when considering elephants but strangely appropriate!

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Much too soon, we left the elephants under the capable care of their mahouts before hopping into the back of a ute which took us to another river bank where we boarded some bamboo rafts and in a style reminiscent of the Venetian punters, floated down a meandering river. It was here we saw the riders and the contrast between these beasts of burden and the freed elephants we interacted with was palpable.

After relaxing on the river, we soon found ourselves floating in front of our majestic tuk tuks, patiently waiting for us to continue our journey. We drove back down the mountain, the wind blow drying our hair, the clean air and freedom cleansing any worries we may have had previous to this day of unique adventures.

Eventually, we reached home base, farewelled our noble steeds of tuk tuks and hopped back on the van to go back to the city.

I don’t know about the others but that night, as I walked home after dinner, I definitely looked at the tuk tuk drivers calling out to me in a different way.

‘I could do that! In fact, I did!’

It was such a fab day, filled with awesome people, a super professional tour company and the most unique transport I have ever experienced. I would do it all again in the shift of a gear.

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I won a competition with The Tuk Tuk Club and won a free trip with them so did not pay for this tour (obviously). This review is entirely based on my experiences and in no way reflects the free nature of the tour. Check out their tours- 1 day or 11 day. I’m sure you’ll have a great time. https://www.thetuktukclub.com/

 

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Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.

 

Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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//

Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.

Recent happenings…

I’m currently on my way to Mae Sai to do a border run, necessary to keep my visa valid. I could have done a 30 day extension in town, but that’s 1900 baht, plus the cost it takes to get there and back (unknown but red trucks aren’t always super honest about places beyond the old city) and it’s super unpredictable in terms of wait time etc. 

I decided instead to just commit to being out for the day, do a border run (the tickets cost less than 500 baht return) to the Burmese border, pay my (hopefully) $10 to go into Burma (or 500baht- but the USD is a bit cheaper… but not always accepted so we’ll see!) have some lunch and a bit of an explore around the border town before hopping back on the bus. Yes, it takes longer but in the end, I think it’ll be a much better experience than sitting in an immigration office surrounded by other expats! Plus the drive is offering up some beautiful views!

Some things which have been happening recently: 

  • I organised a trip to and hiked through Doi Inthanon national park! It was an adventure from the moment I posted the notice asking if anyone wanted to join, but definitely worth it! In the end there were 7 of us who took the plunge and went on the tour, ably led by our guide “Mr P”. Throughout the trek, he told us about and showed us various herbal medicines, bush tucker (Thai style) and tools which could be found in the jungle. The hike itself was really chilled, gently undulating with some pretty intense downhills at points. There were a few slippages here and there but no one was seriously injured… despite the threat of mudfoot/bootmud/wetboot… all the names we came up with when trying to remember what trench foot was called after falling into a waterfall and soaking our socks and shoes. One highlight of the day was finding out about Mr P’s life- he was a monk for 12 years as a teenager and went into the service because it offered free education, food and accommodation. I found this really interesting and wonder how many monks do the same for the same reasons and if this has ever been a consideration for Christian ministry in the past- particularly in places like Ireland etc. Another highlight was the food. Mr P and our two porters cooked us up a true feast of chicken and tofu roasted over the open fire, sticky rice and the most amazing vegetables which were wrapped in a banana leaf pouch and steamed over the fire also. They were amazing. We ate our fill of this, and beautiful fresh fruit under the canopy of the jungle, waterfall in the background, while sitting on a tarp of banana leaves. It was pretty magical. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend doing a tour with Pooh’s Eco Trekking. They’re absolutely wonderful. 
  • At work, we’ve farewelled Jack but welcomed a new face to the team! Jing, who used to work in the kitchen is now back in Thailand so her little boy can go to school here! She’s so lovely and it’s been great getting to know her. P ohn, our current chef and my student, will be leaving us soon 😞 but Jing is super great so I’ll recover.
  • I went to an amazing dance performance which I understand less than half of. But it was very cool and I loved seeing the different styles of story telling they utilised 
  • I’ve been tutoring P ohn and Yim for the last two weeks, going over the menu and looking at our vocab words- linking verbs like slicing and dicing to the dishes they’re used in. We’ve also watched some videos which they narrated- naming the ingredients and actions of the chefs. 
  • It’s been really good to start getting to know Yim and P ohn a bit more- Yim showed me a video of her presenting her mum with a Mother’s Day present and P ohn told me how she was spoilt this weekend too. I showed them some pictures of my parents and am reliably informed that I look like them- a cross between, which is a good thing!
  • My bike tyres go flat very quickly which can make it very hard to ride with confidence. 
  • I’ve met some amazing people over here- the latest being a documentary film maker whose new project sounds so amazing I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing it nominated for awards in the very near future
  • Speaking of documentaries, if you haven’t seen “I am not your negro” then you definitely should. Important and beautifully made and devastating film. I wish it weren’t so relevant. 
  • We’ve had some groups come through recently and it’s been cool to meet people who are so invested in helping grassroots organisations like FBC. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai with a school group or similar, please consider booking a visit with us! You get lunch, a talk and a q and a session. I also got to hear Seng Lao’s story for the first time. She’s one of our ex students who then worked in the cafe, kitchen and then in the office while preparing for uni- which is where she is now! The adversity which she has had to overcome makes me feel exceptionally guilty for any complaints I made about my own education experience and her gratitude and maturity are well beyond her years- though she’s lived through more than most of us ever will. 
  • I used this service called wash drop to wash my sheets and it was the greatest thing ever. I love clean sheets. 
  • Waxing is still an adventure every single time.
  • Thai massages are the best way to recover from hiking- but be prepared for tiny ladies to dig their elbows into your calves and hamstrings because they’re “so tight”. 
  • Only seen 4 rats. Heard more but walked into the road to avoid any chance of seeing them. Good life choice. 
  • Booked my River Kwai trip! I finally got the hotels.com issue sorted after a lot of (reasonably) calm but clearly pissed off interactions. I have decided I’m just doing it myself because then I can decide what I want to see and when. Accomodation is all sorted too! I’m staying in a bungalow on the river (not a hostel!)
  • Almost finished creating resources at work! I wish I was able to use existing stuff but I’m much too much of a control freak for that
  • Finally got to talk to my bestie this week. Makes a huge difference, even if it’s just a short burst 🙂 
  • Said goodbye to my new friend Jennifer on Sunday 😦 I’ll miss our foodie adventures and shared outrage over old white men being gross
  • Have slightly fallen in love with 10baht bags of chia seeds, collagen jelly (both with no sugar) filled up with hot soy milk. It’s so lovely- especially after getting caught in the rain! 
  • I’m getting better at avoiding/being prepared for the rain
  • I bought a cactus for my room! Well, it’s a family of cacti. I’ll introduce them soon. 
  • I have a watch tan. 
  • I’m constantly shocked by the smallness of the world. I visited a new church on Sunday (which I think will become my church) and I met a couple there who knows the Conibear family really well and hosts the group from Maranartha which comes everywhere- which I went to a trivia night to support when I was back in Melbourne! This is the second time I’ve met people with intimate connections to students. What even. 
  • It’s hard to update your voting details while overseas. Regardless, I’m trying! Voting is a right people died for and even in a non binding, non compulsory, totally unnecessary plebiscite, I intend to honour the responsibility that it is to vote. 
  • I have two sets of little dumbbells! Along with my TRX and resistance band, they’re making workouts a lot more fun!  
  • I did the fish spa thing. It was very weird and my friend Larissa and I were very giggly the whole time. 

Hopefully that’s a bit of an update on life in Chiang Mai! Miss you all- although apparently it was Parent Teacher Interviews recently so… not that much 😂 

Love you! 😘😘

Doi Pui- a day to remember.

There are some days that you’re just not going to forget, no matter how long it’s been since that fateful day and how many bumps on the head you have endured in the passing years. Yesterday was one of those days. As you know if you’ve been following this blog at all, I’m a bit of a fan of hiking and I’ve been loving weekly hikes to various spots in Chiang Mai. I’ve done Doi Suthep a few times, last week was a hike to PhuPing Palace and then yesterday, my walking group and I did the big one- Doi Pui. Over the course of 6 and a half hours, we traversed 16km of jungle terrain, both up and down (mostly up) and saw not only beautiful landscapes, views and villages but we also got to see some 13th century ruins, local farms, and insane trail runners taking part in a 160km “fun” run which lasts for three days.

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The hike, as usual started at 7:30, so I hopped on my bike around 6:45 so I could make it with plenty of time to pop to the market for a carb loading breakfast of plain sticky rice and boiled pumpkin (BEST.) and grab some snacks (almonds, apples and dried mixed fruit) for our epic adventure. I would later regret riding to our start point, but to be honest, it was nice to run the legs through the motions on the way home as a bit of active recovery!

As the clock ticked over to 7:30, our extremely efficient and organised leader hustled all 26 of us onto two songtaews who drove us to Huey Tung Tao Lake where the hike would begin. It started reasonably innocently; a flat field of ripening bananas stretched before us, leading to the base of some… significant… mountains. These were our destination. As we walked toward our start point, we joked about snakes until someone pointed out a, thankfully, headless one on the side of the road.

Right. I would NOT be advertising my Australianness nor would my eyes be straying from the trail too much. That said, I wasn’t overly concerned as our group was huuuuge and with the amount of noise we were making, I’m impressed we saw any wildlife at all. No live snakes materialised through the hike and the only encounter we had with any sort of animal was a leech on someone’s pants, mosquitos for days every time we stopped to wait and the obligatory rivers of ants which crisscrossed along the trail.

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Far too quickly, we reached the trailhead and started our relatively easy ascent to our first stop- the Helipad. This section of the hike was reasonably well marked, steep but smooth, and reasonably easy. For those playing at home, it was about the level of the lyrebird track in the middle… and the view was worth any discomfort. It was beautiful from the helipad and we all enjoyed snapping selfies, sharing our snacks and swapping stories about our backgrounds and what brought us to Chiang Mai. I always love this part of the treks- meeting everyone and hearing their stories. So many different people from different walks of life come to the mountain and trekking binds people together in a way that nothing else seems to. It must be the fact we see each other in all our sweaty glory- any pretence, language barrier or class fades away on the trail. All that matters is that you put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.

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After a while, everyone started looking much too content and relaxed so our fearless leader prompted us to continue up the trail… and this- he warned us- was the hard part. And the snakiest bit.

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His warning was not unwarranted. BUT our next stop was the hill tribe village which had coffee so many people were definitely spurred on by this promise. It was an extremely steep climb and it was unrelenting. There really was, at many points, no end in sight, and it felt like you were just going to have to climb forever. At this stage, most conversation was at a minimum as we all focused on the path in front of us, the person in front of us, the poisonous snake that COULD be in front of us… But then we reached a ridge and we were suddenly between two valleys, overlooking fields and jungle. The views were unparalleled and completely different to those at the helipad, even within the same hike!

Image may contain: sky, cloud, ocean, plant, mountain, tree, outdoor and natureAfter a while, including many false finishes, we reached the hill tribe village were some workers deemed us crazy (we all agreed with them at this point) and we all had some coffee or tea. Some hikers also partook in some Thai energy/electrolyte drinks which they said certainly had an effect on them! The coffee the shops was using is grown in the hilltribes themselves and is apparently, excellent. Some trekkers bought some beans to take back with them. It was really amazing to visit the hill tribes- it wasn’t touristy and there was barely anything catered for “farang”, just the few coffee shops we spread ourselves between. It was clear that these people weren’t being exploited by trekking companies and being “sold” as living monuments but this was just their life and they acknowledged that sometimes, insane hikers would come through and coffee is always a big seller!

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After this, we set off to our highest point- the view point of Doi Pui. Our leader warned us that this part was also extremely steep- but that we wouldn’t notice because of the view. Now, to be fair, I think my legs noticed, but my breath wasn’t just taken away by the hike but by the landscape which stretched out far below me when we reached the top. We were above the clouds and the serenity was overwhelming. It was very peaceful and the mountain vistas were seriously calming. A cool breeze was ever present and all of a sudden, I felt like I could hike for days.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, mountain, sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

Luckily, because we still had more to go.

Most of the rest of the way was downhill (not my fave) but this trail offered its own surprises like 13th century ruins and a cute little campsite which seemed to be basically abandoned- not many people came all the way up here. We eventually scrambled down to Phu Ping palace, slipping on muddy slopes and making me extremely glad that we had all agreed to take a songtaew from PP back to our meeting point. I hate down hills and today’s hike only confirmed that they hate me too.

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So, we hopped in the back of our red trucks, trundled down the hill and finally, after 6.5 hours reached our original start point. It was an incredible hike, a beautiful day, and an experience I’ll never forget. Many thanks to our fearless leader, the lovely Aussie I borrowed a long sleeve shirt from when it started to become EXTREMELY chilly and to the whole group who constantly encouraged each other through the hard bits and the easy bits.

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Next week, I’m going on a paid trek to Doi Inthanon and I’ll be honest, it’s going to have to be pretty amazing to beat this one, but I’m sure it’ll be incredible in its own spectacular way.

Missing you all. Will post a general life update soon.

Mwa!

Amy xx

Chiang Dao, or “The Day I Spent Emulating The Proclaimers”

I am on a budget- though, if you looked at the amount of money I spend on fruit, you probably wouldn’t get that impression- but I still want to do and see all the amazing things Chiang Mai and its surrounds has to offer, so when I had an extra day in my weekend due to the start of Buddhist Lent, I knew I wanted to make the most of it. After looking at some excellent blogs (like this one and this one) I knew I had found my cheap day out- and cheap it was! Not including food I spent under 500b. With food, it climbed to around 800b. A super budget day out. Now, as the title suggests, I spent A LOT of my day walking, which is partly why it was so cheap, but I actually loved this aspect of my day and while it was tiring and certainly a long day, I got to see parts of Chiang Dao that you never could on a bike- motor or otherwise.

I started my day early and caught the 40b 6am bus from Chang Phuak Station to Chiang Dao. The bus is really comfortable, not air con but with lots of fans on the ceiling which circulate the air so that it’s not stuffy in the slightest. That said, it was 6am and the bus was relatively empty- I had a seat to myself and many passengers were curled up across the 3 (lol) seater benches having a nap. I preferred to stare out the window and take in the changing landscape from city to highway to mountain jungle. It’s a beautiful road and if you can get a window seat, do.

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Once I got to Chiang Dao, I went and found a cute little spot for a traditional Thai brekky. I even got to practice some of my Thai, although I was also immensely grateful when the woman responded to my inquiries in perfect English. She said I was doing well though and everyone smiled when I commented that my food was “aroy makht” (very delicious!).

Full from my delicious larb and mango salad- not som tam but something slightly different- I decided to start my journey to the caves. My new favourite app ever, maps.me took me on a route which can only be described as “off the tourist track”. I was walking along roads which were passing behind local house, local farms, people just living their every day life. It was a fascinating walk and honestly, it was so interesting to see how these wonderful people lived and the lands they survived off. There were fully laden mango and jackfruit trees, bananas and longans drooping over me and SO much corn, EVERYWHERE.

The walk took roughly an hour, I would say and before long I found myself at the caves. I actually tried to do a “nature trail” but it was so unmarked that I couldn’t even tell where to go, 5 minutes in and my shins were already plastered in clay from climbing up muddy ascents. I quietly admitted defeat, turned around and to save some face, asked the bemused looking Thai man at the entrance of the caves, where the bathroom was. I quickly realised this probably meant it looked like I had just climbed through the jungle in search of a toilet, but I said it perfectly (for a farang) and he responded in kind.

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Anyway, after I recovered my pride, I ascended into the temple, paid my 40 baht entrance and was struck, as always, by the intricacy and beauty of the carvings, statues and icons which are features of every Buddhist Wat I’ve seen so far. Upon entry into the cave, I paid another 100b for a guide and then 100b as a compulsory tip? which I didn’t mind giving because those lamps are HEAVY and extremely HOT. It’s like, less than $3, who am I to begrudge a volunteer- my lovely lady was also disabled from birth- less than what I would unthinkingly spend on a chai back home? It’s easy to get pissy about being “ripped off” or “paying too much” because you’re a foreigner but honestly, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

The caves themselves were beautiful and eery. I loved being shown all the different cave formations, the guide explaining what they sort of looked like as we went through. There were bats on the cave roof but they didn’t bother me at all and it didn’t smell too bad.

The highlight was actually the unguided section where I was able to sit and reflect on my time in Thailand so far in absolute silence. It was so quiet that my ears were ringing, I could hear every move I made and it was just so… focused.

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After the caves, I made my way (on foot) along the road to the beautiful Wat Tham Pha Plong, taking in the stunning rainforest which surrounded me. The temple itself is set into the limestone caves with a few lookout points and peaks being built into the mountain. Once you get to the temple, it’s an easy climb of about 510 steps (and halfway there’s a rest stop if you need with an encouraging message of “you’ve climbed the hardest  2__ steps, only 3__ [easier!] steps to go!” Super cute!) which is lined in trees and proverbs from the Dharmma. Once again, it strikes me how similar some of these proverbs are to those in the Bible but how they’re all missing that overarching idea of grace- in Buddhism, one is always striving to be better and reach that ultimate place of “oneness”, whereas in my faith, we strive to be better because we’ve already been accepted- it’s a sense of gratefulness and desire to live the way God wants us to which drives our bettering… One thing I’ve always been grateful for, in regards to travel, is how much we can learn about our own selves and our own beliefs when they are placed next to those we do not subscribe to or which are foreign to us.

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Regardless, the temple itself was a stunning piece of architecture and offered beautiful views across the Chiang Dao Valley that I count myself blessed to see. The day was cloudy and drizzling all day but it didn’t dampen the views, my spirits or the beauty of the countryside. If anything, it just made everything seem even more lush!

After this, I’d definitely worked up an appetite and after walking past the beautiful Nest 2 on the way up and reading about how good the food was from every travel blog about Chiang Dao ever, I knew I had to stop there. The blogs did not lie. The service was impeccable; the setting, gorgeous; the food, delicious. I got a coconut (gotta get them electrolytes in) and a stirfried tofu dish which was so flavoursome! It was packed with galangal, lemongrass, mushrooms, greens, kaffir lime leaves, holy basil, and of course, a lot of chilli. It was absolutely divine and made according to my request of “farang spicy”. The hardest thing was choosing what to have! Yes, it’s more expensive than most of the places I eat in CM, but the serving size and the quality of ingredients certainly made up for it.

Feeling full as a coconut (not the one I had just quenched my thirst with), I made my way back into town, the same way I came- or so I thought. My app, which I still love, took me on a slightly different route which led me… DSC02358.JPG

literally into the middle of corn fields. I felt like I was in Fellowship of the Ring as I trekked my way through these fields, not knowing if I was even allowed to be in them. I was also getting worried at this point because all the photos I was taking and the use of my navigation system had worn my phone down to 1%. And I was in the middle of a field. It was a little terrifying. So, I took a lot of glances at my screen, trying to figure out how long it would take to get to where I needed to turn right and left in order to get to the bus station (which, btw, the bus didn’t drop me at in the morning, he just let me off in the centre of town). Halfway, roughly, to the station, the inevitable occurred and my phone died. I was here

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It was a little terrifying but I figured, as long as I followed the path- I’d be ok. And eventually, probably a lot longer than maps.me originally estimated, I got to the “suburbs” of Chiang Dao. Tired, nervous and seriously wanting to get to the bus station I happened upon a man sitting in his open front house, selling knick knacks and drinks. “Bus station?” I queried- not even bothering to try in Thai. “Yes, behind, behind.”

It was literally right behind me. The was just one barbed wire fence between me and the station. It was like the time Mum asked the policemen where Flinders St Station was while standing on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins (disclaimer: this was in our first year of being in Melbourne. Not recently.).

The man looked very amused as I celebrated, “Thank God! How do I…?”

“Tiny gate- just there”

It was not a gate. It was a gap between the barbed wire fence and the wall next door. But it looked like a well worn gap and no one official looking was around so I thanked him- in Thai- and squeezed my way through the gap.

And then the bus arrived. Literally 3 seconds after I did. I have no idea how many busses run from CD to CM in the afternoon but I was so grateful that I was on this one that I almost cried. I paid my 40 baht and hopped on a vastly different bus to the first one I experienced. This one, I was sharing a seat which would have sat 2 people comfortably, with 2 other people. Luckily, these Thai people were stereotypically tiny so we all fit… albeit very tightly.

I suddenly became extremely aware of how muddy I was and how ridiculous I must have looked but to be honest, I was too tired to even care.

That night, I was in bed by 8pm and 100% asleep by 9:30 at the absolute latest.

It was a stunning day and I loved every second of my adventures… especially how cheap it was! It just confirmed to me that you don’t need to spend big bucks to have a good time in Thailand. You just need to be willing to stretch those legs and see the world at a slower pace.

Have a blessed day!

Missing you all lots!

Amy x

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Random happenings in Chiang Mai

I feel quite settled into my new normal now.

For those of you who know me, you know I struggle massively with FOMO- fear of missing out. I want to do and experience everything. I want to go to every event, every exhibition, every gathering… but I’m also acutely aware that I can tire myself out by doing this… and I’m also prone to not wanting to be around people. It’s hard balance to figure out… especially when you’re in a place as magical as Chiang Mai. It does, at times, feel like a minute spent in my apartment is a minute I could be exploring, wasted.

But being here for 6 months, becoming part of this culture, is definitely freeing. It’s not like when I was in New York and waking up at 5:30 every morning and sleeping after midnight every night was normal and indeed, I would argue, necessary. It’s imperative that I get good sleep here because if I don’t my students and my volunteering work will suffer. That is not ok.

So, I’ve settled in. I’ve started to be ok with chilling out in my apartment and reading some nights. I’ve been going to bed nice and early and waking up early so I can get my workouts in before it gets too hot.

There are still things I want to do- the cabaret show, watching a boxing match, doing boxing classes, doing a few yoga classes, going to the elephant nature park, visiting the sticky waterfalls, going to Pai for a weekend, cycling to Huey Tung Tao Lake… but I have a long time here! I can do these things I just need to pace myself.

And honestly, just walking and cycling around this city is so magical the FOMO isn’t hitting me too hard.

On Sunday, for instance, as I rode home (in the rain I’ve just come to expect) I noticed a marching band on parade on the main street behind me. It seriously reminded me of a similar occurrence in NOLA, but with less glitter and more monks. I didn’t linger for this one though- my desire to stay dry and get my new yoga mat and lunch box home was a little too strong (again- self care progress!).

And, while on my weekly (when I’m in town/not otherwise occupied) hike up Doi Suthep we happened across a large group of university students who were also hiking up but had stopped to paint each others faces?? and were singing what sounded like a classic camp song, but in Thai.

 

Last evening, on my walk home, I stumbled across a stadium which was filled with people running around a track, a bunch of soccer players training, a muay thai boxing area, ladies dancing with umbrellas and MOST IMPORTANTLY, what appeared to be a join in zumba/aerobics class. I’m going that way again tonight to see if I can join in.

On my morning runs, I’ve noticed intricacies of the moat walls which I’ve missed while in songtaews or walking purposely, too focused to be looking at the scenery- which is all I do while running because you know, distraction is important when running.

I’ve started attending weekly Documentary Screenings at a cafe across the city and occasionally attending their Monday Night Movie night too. I’ve met some really interesting people through that and I’ve learnt loads too. Plus, the food at the cafe is delicious and super healthy.

I’ve found a couple of amazing markets very close to me, one of which has two huge salad bars where I can raw and steamed veggies, grains and beans for 10baht for 100g. I’ve learnt how to say “no sugar” when ordering fruit shakes and som tam. I’ve found super cheap fruit being sold in front of houses with no signage or any indication of a shop even existing.

I’ve visited two churches and while I liked both I think I’ll be attending the second, simply because it’s closer and therefore more sustainable- I can EASILY ride there and it’s very local. It’s also an earlier service which works for me and allows me to do more during the day.

At work, I’ve been developing a curriculum which can either be followed as is or deconstructed as teachers need it to be. I’ve just finished the intermediate class and tagged it for easy access. Next will be the beginner class which I’m a little nervous about because I have a tendency to pitch up (as seen in my overly ambitious plans for my work with Enrichment students during the first half of the year) and these students wouldn’t benefit from that at all. It will definitely be a challenge and one which I’m excited to take on. There is a wealth of resources available online and I’ll be tapping into those to get ideas before writing my own lesson plans.

At 1pm each day, we break for lunch which the kitchen staff prepare for us. It’s always DELICIOUS and I’ve tried things that I haven’t seen on any menu. It’s always fresh, healthy and super, super delicious. A favourite has been the mustard greens soup, the burmese paste (made with tomato, onion, chilli, peanuts, parsley… lots of delicious things!), the tea leaf salad… honestly just everything is so good.

I’ve also started learning Thai… slowly. I’m still very slow and I need to put some real study into the notes I’m taking but I feel like I’m making some progress. I know some words but I’d like to be able to hold a brief conversation with my uber driver or sticky rice vendor before I leave at the end of year.

Workout wise, I’ve put together a pretty good flow- Saturday (unless I have other plans) is a hike, Tuesday is a run, and then the rest of the week is an at home workout with my new yoga mat (thanks Daiso!), resistance band and my newly acquired fan (trying not to use my air con to save TFH money and also save the environment). I also did a workout with a friend I made at the girls nomad group which meets as the cafe Wednesday lunch  times! As much as I love working out by myself, it’s definitely a lot more fun with a friend and I really enjoyed our time together.

Speaking of friends, it’s been remarkably easy to make them. I’ve had a few dinners out with some girls, and the people I hike with are great value. I’m hoping to go out with one of the ladies in that group who’s been in town for a while soon so she can show me one of her favourite cafes/restaurants- which doesn’t have an English menu (basically a massive win in my book). Like I said, I’ve done a workout with one of the ladies in the group and went for a run with another, finishing with a market breakfast which was super delicious and resulted in a ridiculous amount of leftovers! But, it’s also been great to become (even more) comfortable in my own company. It’s a lot more acceptable  here to be by yourself and people no longer comment how brave I am to come over here alone- I’m just another nomad here… not a working digital nomad, but a nomad none the less. This is nice.

I’ve done some seriously cool stuff while here- I’ve been to the Lanna Fest which was a big cultural expo in International Exhibition and Cultural Centre which housed so many incredible stalls I didn’t get a chance to see them all. It was a little hard at times because it was CLEARLY a Thai event and as a farang, I struggled to communicate at times, but it was awesome anyway! I even got to taste some foods that I hadn’t wanted to buy a full one of because it didn’t really appeal which was very exciting.

I’ve also visited a variety of markets, one of them was an organic farmer’s market which is just around the corner and open on Sundays! I don’t anticipate my Melbourne ritual of Market-Church-Chill to be changing any time soon. While there, I got to experience my first “freeze frame” anthem play. At first I didn’t realise what the loud speaker was saying but it suddenly became clear when the chords started blaring and literally everyone in the market (99% Thai) stopped whatever they were doing and stood at attention. I had forgotten how respectful people in this country are toward their national anthem and their (royal) leaders in general. Different to say the least.

I’ve also been to the Saturday Walking Street… Sunday is next on the list… and the Night Bazaar. On Friday, I’m planning on heading to the Friday morning market which is  predominantly Chinese-Muslim and has some regional specialties that are very hard to find elsewhere. And then on Friday night is our graduation night for the last term!! I’m so looking forward to seeing the students in their traditional dress, being celebrated for their achievements.

Saturday is also something I’m REALLY looking forward to- a cooking class! I’ve missed cooking a lot since being here- though less than I thought I would- maybe because the food is just SO damn good- and I’m really looking forward to getting back in front of a wok. The class I’ve chosen is the Thai Akha Cooking Class which not only teaches you the usual things but also teaches you three Akha (a hill tribe in Northern Thailand) dishes. I’m really looking forward to learning the difference between this region and culture and “normal” Thai food.

I’ve also organised a little day trip for myself for Monday (as we have the day off) up to Chiang Dao caves. I’ll be taking the local bus and then exploring the town when I get there! I’m so looking forward to it and it should be a real test of my adventurous, independent spirit.

Keen!

Hoping you’re all well, surviving the freezing cold, and embracing the Melbourne vibes which I actually am missing a bit.

Love you all lots,

Amy xx