Chiang Rai-nbow City

This post is long overdue! I’ve been pretty slack on blogging- it’s been busy and I rarely take my laptop home with me after work. Either I have something on in the evening or I want a quiet night in- laptop isn’t really needed for that… so the blogging has suffered a bit.

Time to catch up a bit!

In early October, there was a Buddhist holiday which coincided with a long weekend and so, Lisa, the amazing CEO of Thai Freedom House decided to take the staff on a trip to Chiang Rai and invited me to come along for the ride! And what a ride it was! I’m so grateful that I was able to go on this getaway, Chiang Rai was amazing and it was so lovely to get to know Lisa and some of the staff/students of the cafe better.

We hired a car, and started the long drive to Chiang Rai, stopping along the way to have coffee at the famous NGO Cabbages and Condoms which provides sexual health education to Thai people, gives out contraception and encourages safer sexual practices- especially in high risk places. Their cafe/hostel was super cute, lush and green- especially considering it was just off the highway, but the true drawcard was the creative and… appropriate decorations! Amongst the giant statues of condoms and posters with clever slogans, there was also this well dressed young lady-

IMG_2695

Not sure if I’ll buying the dress, but I certainly admire her ingenuity. While there I grabbed a postcard, resisting the condom related merchandise which I’m sure have made excellent souvenirs for people the world over.

We continued on, dropping our stuff at our super cute hostel called “Breakfast in the Garden” which did indeed, serve breakfast in their cute little garden, before picking up a student of ours who has now gone on to study English for International Communication at Chiang Rai University- one of the best unis in Thailand- and certainly the most beautiful! Sadly, she has to pay international student rates (much more expensive than Thai nationals) and freshmen cannot work through the term, meaning she needs to rely on donations and support from Lisa and TFH to pay for her accommodation and tuition. If you’d like to donate and support her education, please visit our website (thaifreedomhouse.org and note what the donation is for (Shan Student University Fund). It was so special to see her passion for her education and the joy she has in studying. She showed us around the university (which was SO beautiful) and the pride she had in it was really lovely to experience- I’m grateful I got to meet and spend time with this vibrant woman and I pray she can continue studying to achieve her dreams of setting up an NGO in her home town so children can receive the opportunities she has had.

Once we had taken a tour around the uni, we all hopped in the car and visited the spectacular White Temple or Wat Rong Khun which is the creation of a Thai artist and is like no other temple I’ve ever seen before. It’s entirely white, covered in glass which seems to be constantly being cleaned or replaced, and extremely ornate. Surrounding the temple itself are beautiful gardens and then, in distinct contrast, the lake of hell which thousands of hands are reaching out from. Hanging from the trees around the temple are the heads of various famous characters and people including, but not limited to Gollum, Hellboy and random old people (they’re probably people, I just don’t recognise them…).

 

The interior of temple is just as fascinating as the outside- inside is a beautiful mural which covers the entire room, starting from the back which depicts a hellish sort of state of modern society, littered with illustrations of pop culture figures- featuring Harry Potter and Voldemort, Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, Micheal Jackson, Marilyn Monroe and so many more- it became a sort of game to find all the different references as you moved around the walls. Remember, it is a place of worship so it’s best to stay reverent and not squeal when you find something- keep it to an awed “ooh…”

As you move toward the front of the temple, closer to the Buddha the picture moves to one of a heavenly paradise- I assuming a state of nirvana- which was so intricate, colourful and beautiful! You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple itself, so spend sometime soaking up the images and the selfie stick free atmosphere… because it’s the only place in Chiang Rai which you won’t see one!

After checking out the White Temple we headed back to the hostel, driving around the city to check out the layout of the land before having dinner and having an early night after our looooong day.

The next day we woke up to pouring rain- which thankfully abated after breakfast (but not before we had to get an uber about 500m because of the random torrential downpour which we were blessed with! Today was to be spent at the Black House and Blue Temple- it seems everything in Chiang Rai is named after a colour of the rainbow, although not entirely unjustifiably!

The Black House is an art installation which is set over a large property comprised of about 30 or so different buildings, built in traditional Thai Lanna style, but with non-traditional interior design. The Black House is a shrine to the darker side of humanity with the idea that by revealing the dark side, we can stop fearing it. Cue lots of bones, vulnerability, death, phallic imagery, and decay. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and explore and by this stage, we were blessed with bright sunshine- it would have been creepy in the gloom of the morning… but also miserably wet. Most of the installation is outside, making me exceptionally glad for the sunshine!

After lunch and exploring, we moved onto the stunning Blue Temple which is newly built and painted with the most incredible blue iridescent paint which, in the light of the sunset, was absolutely phenomenal to behold. Definitely worth a visit!! We also popped into a super cute little cafe that was styled just like a British Tea House and was perched upon the river. It was clearly a popular place and like everywhere in Chiang Rai, a selfie hub!!

On our final day, we visited the most amazing tea farm, perched on undulating green hills, with a beautiful blue backdrop. The kiosk was perched on top of these hills and had the most beautiful views- we sat outside and had a picnic, watching the tourists come and go, taking lots of selfies and doing some of the most hilarious poses. It was wonderfully entertaining.

After this, it was time to say goodbye and start the drive home, but on the way our interest was peaked by an interesting looking roadside temple which had menacing sculptures of mystical beasts eating people guarding its doors. Undettered (mostly) we drove in and hoped for the best. Somehow we stumbled into a HUGE and beautiful temple complex with so many different monuments to different Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses, all who are responsible for different aspects of ones life. It was a truly Thai experience- Lisa and I were the only white people I saw there- everyone else was Thai but we were all in states of awe over this pristine, brand new, vibrant theme park of eastern religion. Honestly, it felt like being in Disney land (Buddhaland) if you will- it was a total hit on the senses… overwhelming, especially after a weekend full of intense sensory experiences from the food, to the stories, to the scenery, and the COLOURS.

IMG_2936

We navigated the Chiang Mai traffic, arriving home in the early evening. I was planning to see a film with friends after getting home if I made it in time… and I did… but I didn’t see the film. After such a hectic few days, I truly relished the early night, market food and bed which awaited me.

I had an incredible time in Chiang Rai and am so thankful that I was able to go with the team from FBC. Massive thank you to Lisa for giving me the opportunity to go and truly feel like a member of the Free Bird family.

Advertisements

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, outdoor

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.

Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

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.

Image may contain: tree, outdoor and nature

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.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

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!

Image may contain: one or more people, outdoor and nature

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

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/

 

Dream days to nightmare nights…

After I got home and cleansed myself from my cycle tour on Saturday, I explored George Town in the dying hours of light. It was a beautiful, beautiful evening and the light was that of a poetically, ambiguous sky. I wandered around Armenian Street, browsing through the market which had popped up there, and got my first henna tattoo!

Image may contain: one or more people and close-up

As the girl deftly patterned my skin with the thick reddish brown goo, I closed my eyes and surrendered to the world around me- the mix of languages filling my ears, the smells of the street food wafting around me- still not appealing to my rebellious stomach-, the damp heat and the cool breeze from the port brushing my unruly hair from about my face. I heard children laughing, the call to prayer, street vendors calling, live music from a nearby busker… it was a cacophony of easy, unassuming joy.

After getting my henna and nearly smudging it off immediately (thankfully I remembered just before ruining it completely), I walked around, snapping pics of the famous street art scattered around and perusing some little museums which were housed in coffee shops offering a break from the chaos of the market laden streets.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor

Still not hungry, I stopped for a tea at one of these coffee houses and pulled out my guide to the George Town festival. There was a show on at an art space a few doors down from my Airbnb, starting in about half an hour. Excellent. I called them, asking them to put aside a ticket for me, and meandered back to Lebuh Malayu to see some local drama.

The play was a one woman show centred on a woman writing a letter to her daughter on the eve of her wedding. It was performed in Chinese with surtitles presented on a screen behind the actress. It was a really interesting piece, filled with insights about the cultural differences between the Chinese and Malaysian cultures, expectations on Chinese women when they are married and especially during pregnancy and childbirth, and then generally, on expectations for women in general. The actress was excellent and I really enjoyed the show. By the time it finished, I was well and truly ready for bed and made my way back home, filled to the brim with deep thoughts (and no dinner.)

I awoke the next morning hungry. I was excited but didn’t want to push it so I thought I’d wait for a while, set myself up for success and go hire a bike from a little shop near me (stop laughing at me for hiring a bike the day after an all day bike tour). The bike was a bit of a shock to the system after the incredible bikes I’d ridden on the Matahari tour but it did the job fine. I cycled around, taking pictures in the early morning sun, getting snaps of the graffiti minus the tourists who are much better at sleeping in than I am. But I was on a mission. Breakfast time. I cycled to Little India (also the home of more amazing street art) and settled on a little outdoor roti, chai and dosa/tosai spot which was filled with chatting Indian men. A good sign which I did well to heed. I had an egg dosa which was served with a sambal and some soupy curry to dip it in. It was delicious, not greasy and the perfect thing to fill me up for the day ahead. I then rode to the wet market, got my fill of utter madness and crowds for the day and experienced a slice of the ancient/modern contrast Penang has come to embody in my mind.

Image may contain: 2 people, food and indoor

I rode down to Beach St where another market was taking place- it was kind of small but in it I saw something I never had- a massage being given with giant knives. I had to get one- event just for 10 minutes. It felt strange, although that’s perhaps because I knew about the knives… it was nice nonetheless. There were also some flashmobs going on which was pretty cool and some cool market stalls. I had some nutmeg juice, bought a pair of leggings (which I would later come to love more than anything in the world) and stumbled upon a church service but it was already half way through.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing

I then hopped on my bike to go and visit my mum’s old home- I’ve already waxed lyrical about this in another post, but the ride itself was quite lovely. The traffic in Penang is much less intimidating than CM and I was able to ride along the coast for a while which was absolutely stunning.

Image may contain: cloud, sky and outdoor

After visiting the old RAAF bungalows, I rode back, aiming to make it to the hipster artists market. I got a little bit lost (predictably) but eventually made it there and was glad I did. There was more amazing street art, cool live music, some awesome local craft, a few baked goods to sample and I got to chat with a lovely lady who remembered the days when the RAAF was in town. She was about my mum’s age so I’d like to imagine they would have been friends.

I stayed at the market for a while before eventually riding home, checking out more street art on the way before going to Little India and settling on a vego place called Woodlands. I had a tali plate and a salty lassi- both fabulous. Honestly, the Indian food is so good in Penang and much less oily than the Malay food, it was all I wanted to eat. I sat and read in Woodlands for a while before heading back outside, only to find that the sun which had scorched my skin all morning has now clouded over and the rainy season was about to live up to its name. I pedalled hard to my bike rental place, said goodbye to my little fixie and proceeded to walk around the rest of the city, finding the last of the street art pieces on foot. Soon, the downpour became too much so I went back to my airbnb, picked up my backpack and found a cafe to sit, read and people watch in, as I finished up my time in beautiful Penang.

Image may contain: people sitting, food and indoor

Eventually, I braved the rain, had dinner (Indian again) and caught an uber out to the airport, farewelling this city which had totally seduced me.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. My flight was delayed from Penang, and then as my fb friends will know, I missed my flight from KL to Chiang Mai (not because of the delay but because of a case of mistaken gate identity) which led to me spending over 12 hours in KL airport. I do not recommend this particular travel adventure. Especially not when you have finished your book, your phone is dying fast and you don’t have a Malaysian adapter. I bought a portable charger (excellent device, a must for travelling, especially when using the GPS- it sucks the life out of your phone), a lot of tea and walked around the airport a lot.

It wasn’t the perfect end to my trip BUT my flight back to CM was super smooth, it wasn’t that expensive to change my ticket, and I had no one next to me. I also got a ST driver who was clean cut, honest and nice on the way home, and the sunset when I arrived in CM was stunning.

Travel teaches you a lot and even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t have changed any part of my trip.

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.

Displaying 20170902_092727.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_082726.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_094916.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_105244.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_120536.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_132527.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_145349.jpg

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.

Displaying 20170902_152239.jpg

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.

Image may contain: ocean, sky, outdoor, water and nature

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, bicycle and outdoor

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.

Image may contain: indoor

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.

Image may contain: plant, house, tree and outdoor

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.

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and water

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.

Image may contain: sky, tree and outdoor

//

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.

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature

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.

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, outdoor and nature

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.

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

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.

Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor and nature

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!

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

Image may contain: mountain, outdoor and nature

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sunglasses, sky, cloud, outdoor, nature and close-up

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.

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature

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