Saturday, December 31, 2011

A roll of the dice...

 2 people × 1 bag ÷ 1 scooter + 125cc's (-15cc’s) √19,820 ft.

As we were weighing up the numbers for Doi Ang Khang, I was, more than ever, aware that maths were never my strong suit. 

“Let’s just see how far we can get”.

Doi Ang Khang was the tantalising unknown in our Pai to Christmas itinerary. A mountain town dubbed “Little Switzerland” (for reasons at that stage unknown to us), Doi Ang Khang caught our eye on the map – on the border of... practically peering into Myanmar, it was a reasonable deviation from our route north and an excursion off-track was overdue.

We needed to roll a six just to get there, and we didn’t really know what we were betting, or what we stood to win.

We skipped the town of Chiang Dao, taking the bus instead up to Tha Ton – hopefully giving us enough time to find a scooter and return the 200-odd kilometers of unknown gradient to Doi Ang Khang before sundown.  There was very little information anywhere about the place, and much less about the road there.

We expected big things from our freshly rented Yamaha “125cc”, after the gutsy effort one of its brothers put in to get us from Pai to Mae Hong Son…and back.

Where you go??” demanded the Thai lady who had the scooter ‘For Rent’ in Tha Ton. It was midday - we wanted to be in Doi Ang Khang that night, so time was of the essence. 

“Doi Ang Khang?”, I probed, hoping for an approving nod.


After four weeks in flamboyant Thailand, we now knew such emphatics were more conversational than derisive.

“No, no…it’s okay.. we’ll leave our big packs here”, I said, noticing her nervously eyeing our two 60L backpacks.


We thanked her and returned 15 minutes later.

“Okay, okay…where you go??”

“Fang” – a small town, not far away, at the base of Doi Ang Khang.

She eyed me, grinning. “hah! Humph...mmmm okay! 350 Baht!” (more than double what we paid for a much better machine in Pai).
These pics are giving away the ending, hey?
We looked at each other. It could be a total waste of time. And money…at best. But it’s all about thinking positive. 

We blew on the dice for luck – you win some, you lose some. We rented that bad boy and we hit the road.

Two hours later we were at the base of Doi (Mount) Ang Khang. As the assent began, we resolved to see how far we could make it, before it became too much for our little scooter.

We hit the first hill and quickly realised this scooter wasn't cut from the same stuff as his brother in Pai. We slowed to 20. Then to 10. Then a 5km/h crawl up the steep initial slope. Thinking light, aerodynamic thoughts, we slowly climbed up, drawing grins from the locals at the roadside stalls.

I was suddenly having flashbacks to a similar experience in Mexico, a few years ago, when we pushed poor Fred, our not-so-trusty Kombi Van to similar terrain-conquering feats.

After 30 minutes of precariously slow but steady climbing, we reached a section of steep hairpin turns. After failing to ride up together, Kimee, determined as ever, jumped off, pack-on-back, and started hiking up the hill so I could get the scooter up.

This worked for a while, but the gradient became steeper, the turns tighter (and the views more spectacular). We were resolute but doubts were creeping in, and we were getting very low on fuel. 

Just as we had achingly decided that turning back was probably best, a pickup truck stopped just ahead of us and a hand poked out, waving me up. A Thai bloke wearing a leather Acoubra and clenching a cigar in his teeth told me he’d take Kimee and the bag – I could get the scooter up. 

I look dubiously at Kimee. Trust this bloke? Kimee nods yep – the clincher: his Ute can’t get above 10km/h (Kimee later tells me he’s hauling 1.5 ton of cement in the back – incredible!)

With me as it’s only load, the scooter grew a pair of elephant eggs. I raced up behind Kimee and the local, through 30° steep hairpins and sweeping turns. 

20 minutes later, we rounded a final sweeping corner and we were there.

Suddenly, I am assaulted by sensations as we make a short decent from the summit into the town of Doi Ang Khang in the high-altitude valley below. The road is lined with spectacular cherry-blossom-like trees that the local tells us are native only to this particular mountain.

The air is freezing in my face as I follow the truck down into the small town. My head is still giddy  as I take it all in – we arrive, I’m shaking hands with the local who got us here – he’s refusing any payment for his good deed as he waves over a local boy on a motorbike, who immediately tears off, leading me to a farmer’s shed on the other side of the valley to refuel. 

Returning to town through postcard-perfect fields of trees and flowers (we later discover most of the valley is part of a Royal agricultural research project), I find Kimee – she has spent 20 minutes in the market: “HEDGE – YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS FOOD!”. I still haven’t regained equilibrium.

I follow her to a stand where an old man with a wispy moustache is smoking a huge bamboo bong (…!?), as his wife fills our hands with samples of dried dates, flavoured nuts and other delicacies. 

We look around – there isn’t a tourist in sight and no one speaks English. It’s magnificent. What is this place?? 

Finally gathering our thoughts and our bags, we find a place. Still no English. Our room opens onto a balcony that looks out over the small town and over the entire mountain-rimmed valley. Ahhh…little Switzerland! Now we understand.

We spent the long twilight riding through the Royal agricultural research project grounds. The project was developed to encourage local hill-tribes’ sustainability as they transitioned from subsistence as farmers of Poppies for Opium (as in surrounding regions, a legacy of the infamous Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) to farmers of flowering plants, temperate fruit trees, vegetables and other crops, many of which we later saw sold in the local markets.

The grounds take up most of the small valley. Poppies now grow in the company of a spectacular array of flowers – the first field was an orchard, the next a greenhouse full of Roses, followed by 6-story high bamboo and so on. A horse grazing on a grassy hill… to boot.

For those who think this is a bit too much excitement over a botanical garden – I hear you. But while I dig on a good garden, when we watched this little communities’ magnificent project disappear into a frosty dusk, high up in a place we should never have made it to, we knew we’d hit the jackpot.

Here's a few extra pics of the Royal project grounds...

Waking up to the misty-valley views.
We spent a frosty night enjoying treats such as hot, herb-infused milk and ginger tea from large clay pots, while joining the locals excitedly watching the Thai boxing on TV’s all over town. We woke the next morning to a red sunrise creeping over the mountains and through our window, to where we lay sleeping. I blinked and sat up sleepily, swung out of bed and walked to the window. When you start the day looking through your bedroom window at a crimson sunrise over Thailand’s Little Switzerland, you know life is pretty good.

After breakfast, we returned to the northern town of Tha Ton – Kimee got her morning workout hiking a few of the hills on the way. After returning our brave little scooter, we bought tickets for our boat ride to Chiang Rai, before removing our layers and basking in the sun for an hour; defrosting from our ride down. 

The orchard at the end of the garden loop - at dusk.

Heading for the Laos-Thai border, we propped in a longboat for the 3-hour ride along a scenic stretch of the Mae Nam Kok River to Chiang Rai. 

Chiang Rai was another place where we didn’t plan to stay long, but in the short time we were there, we lucked-out with a few little things.

Kimee says if I ever write
an organic garden cookbook,
this is my cover-shot. :|
In the short half-hour after our boat from Tha Ton docked, we had a free lift into town (friendly local #1), a school kid stop and ask if he could help us with directions somewhere (friendly local #2), and an older man who sauntered up to us to bash Laos for a few minutes, before telling us we should stay in Thailand and that he sincerely hopes we were enjoying it there ( get the idea).

We had dinner at a small restaurant that served only five local dishes, two of which we can attest were absolutely delicious – and that’s to say nothing of the run-to-the-store-to-buy-you-the-beer-you-would-really-like service.

Afterwards we were enjoying coffee at the centre of town, right by a gold-gilded, extravagant clock tower at the intersection of the main streets. Suddenly, tourists materialised around us. At the strike of 8, the statue came to life in a flashing light show, as a 5-minute long Thai ballad boomed from hidden speakers all around us. Tourists craned their necks and reached their cameras for a snapshot as we sat front-row – in the best seat in the house, shaking our heads in disbelief at our run of good luck.

The next day, we took a bus to the border towns of Chiang Khong and Huay Xai, to say goodbye to Thailand and find out what Laos had in store for us.

Border crossing over the Mekong,
at Chiang Khong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos.
I have to say it…over the last four days we have been racking up the points on the win side of our win/fail ledger. People have appeared when we need them, and we’ve rolled double-sixes when we needed them most, resulting in spectacular views and a really fun, very memorable part of our trip.

Stay posted for a wrap-up of our romantic Christmas-week in the very charming town of Luang Prabang. We're presently bunked down halfway between there and Vientiene in the hedonistic paradise of Vang Vieng. There may or may not be a post from here.

Love for now - Kimee & Hedge.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A slice of Pai.

Pai. It’s the little word on the Thai street signs everywhere in north-Western Thailand. I’m not short on adjectives. Pai is a sleepy little town. It is magical, it is beautiful.. but they all fall shy. Some places just have the vibe.

We came here kind of bearing Pai’s load in the criticisms we’d heard of the place. Having now been there, I don’t even feel like defending it. If the haters don’t dig on Pai, all the more Pai for us… as it were. 

Pai is just warm milk and honey on a sunny winter’s morning. Set in a picture-perfect valley, the streets are lined with homey guesthouses, a healthy smattering of charmingly worn old houses and inviting, cozy restaurants. There’s a scarcity of the sterile facades you see in most cities; a scarcity of concrete too.  It strikes the perfect balance between having the comforts of development and not having sold its soul to tourism. 
The tea that nursed me back to health :)

Over and over we’ve heard that people come here and (insert somewhere between ‘end up staying a few weeks’ and ‘retire here’). One such bloke was Dave – our host at the Evergreen home stay.

Dave’s a sandy-haired, broad-shouldered, easy going boomer-aged Aussie bloke (you know the type). He greets us off the street with a Vegemite sandwich in each hand and a hearty “How’s it goin??”  Stellar.

Five minutes later we learned he’s from my home town of Brisbane. Aspley to be exact. An Aspley High graduate to be exacterer. Hinkler house captain in his day. We couldn’t very well stay anywhere else. 

Still trying to shake our colds, the crisp mountain air of Pai was great. We settled into Pai-time pretty quickly, with some easy walks through the markets and to the picturesque river that flows through the edge of town. 

And while the tastes of Bankara Ramen house in Bangkok lingered as a vivid memory, we found the best curry we’d had in Thailand here, in a family-run restaurant on the main strip. Three generations of women and kids roamed the place, dishes come out one-by-one as they’re individually made, and nearly all of the few meals we had were top-ten finishers of our trip so far. Kimee’s red curry probably takes out the blue ribbon. 

We tried getting old-school with an ask-and-you-might-receive impromptu cooking class, but we quickly got the honest truth – between running a guesthouse, a restaurant and a family, the talents of the matriarch were already over-stretched.

Side of the road sunset beer stop
Before long, we rented a scooter. We can without hesitation recommend this as the essential vehicle for getting the most out of any trip to Northern Thailand. The combination of good quality, easily navigable and scantily-trafficked roads with everything there is to absorb beyond the town borders, especially in Pai - two wheels are an absolute must.

We enjoyed two days cruising around town and through the valley. The scenic, accommodating feel of Pai extends through the valley in the form of coffee shops and guest houses, making us feel at once far from everything and close to home. 

There are exceptional lookout points all around the valley, all with world-class views. We were spoiled for choice when it came to finding rest/coffee/snack/lunch stops – anywhere without a view of the whole valley was sub-par.

An expedition to a nearby waterfall revealed a raw stretch of bedrock carved out of the surrounding hills and jungle – a pretty spot to soak in a different hillside view.

In a different direction, a dirt track past nonchalant roadside cows ended at a small stream. Over a bamboo bridge and high above at the top of a dirt staircase, we found two Rasta dreds running a middle-of-nowhere jungle bar who told us about another waterfall, half a day’s hike into the jungle and brush behind them. We were more interested in them anyway - people live like this! These guys were a half hour out of Pai and they could've been anywhere in the world. They had a horse and a beat-up old motorbike. Living their lives, their way. 
Rasta house

For a few days we’d been poring over a big Northern Thailand road map. We were Laos-bound, but how? Over a few days our route came together. Before leaving Pai, we booked a room in Luang Prabang, Laos – check in: Christmas Eve. Pai to Christmas was a hop, skip and a few jumps via scooter, local busses, a bamboo raft and, with a bit of luck, a couple of boats. For the first time on this trip, we had an itinerary!

Our first leg was a section of a popular motorbike tour known as the Mae Hong Son loop along route 1095. Mae Hong Son is the provincial capital in North-Western Thailand near the Myanmar border. There’s a T-shirt in the market there that reads Chiang Mai to Mae Hong son – 245 kilometers, 1864 turns. Over a hundred of them must be hairpins, and we enjoyed every last one. 

At a spectacular look-out between Pai and Soppong
the photo doesn't do it justice...
Our first stop was the small town of Phang Na Ma, also known as Soppong, 40kms from Pai. Soppong’s main draw, aside from the ride there, is Tham Lot (pron. Tam Lort) – a massive, 1.6km long cave, with a towering, nearly imperceptible ceiling lined with huge stalactites and home to a daily migration of bats and half a millions swifts (small birds).

Soppong is revered online as a functioning example of the Ecotourism model. Ecotourism is the well-advertised goal of many Thai operators, especially in the north where trekking is big business, but the actual benefit to the local economy and ecology often falls short of the ideal.

At Tham Lot, there’s a great infrastructure but the whole operation is local. You rock up, pay an honest price for a local guide and they take care of the rest. Our guide lit an oil lamp and, after a short hike, we boarded a bamboo raft and began our float into the gaping mouth of the cave.
Our guide taking us through the caves
We’d bought fish food from the locals at the front – apparently I wasn’t the only one – we fed the huge, ravenous fish who swam along beside us in the glow of the lamplight, obviously up with the fact that rafts = food. One even briefly jumped onto the raft in the frenzy.

We explored three caves within the enormous dark expanse. In each one our guide pointed out spectacular individual stalagmite formations, often likening them to animals they had memorized in English to break the language barrier. Yes, that looks like a crocodile, and yes, that looks like a Buddha, but we mostly just gazed around, slack-jawed at the scale of what we were looking at. 

The camera lens fogged up as we passed through pockets of thin, humid air in the higher reaches of the sub-systems, breathing hard after a climb up a narrow wooden staircase – this trip wasn’t exactly disability friendly.   

After absorbing all we could, the boat rounded a corner to reveal the brilliant opening at the other end of the cavern. As our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw the vibrant green of virgin jungle beyond and enormous stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, far above (and a few littered in the shallows around us, just to keep us honest).

An hour later, we were back on the road, deciding to try and reach Mae Hong Son before nightfall. An equally scenic few hours later, our ballsy little scooter delivered us to the capital. Far less charming than Pai, we inspected some very seedy lake-side digs before finding an out-of-the way guesthouse, run by two friendly owners. 

Looking over to Myanmar
 The sun was sinking fast – we scootered up to where a temple sat atop a central hill and were met with a view we weren’t expecting. The ranges we’d ridden that day and those extending West into Myanmar spread out panoramically before us; bright orange monks’ robes hung on the rail in the foreground. We just sat down, silently getting our fill – remarkable we still had an appetite after a day spent at nature’s buffet.   

After sundown we snacked our way through the treats at the local market by the lake. We also bought a Thai-famous paper lantern from at the lakeside temple, where a monk attached a sparkler stream to the bottom and helped us light it before we released it into the night sky. We craned our necks to watch it disappear up, at first showering sparks, then smoldering to a gentle red glow – we watched it until we could no longer make it out from the stars. 
Hedgey and I enthusiastically anticipating take-off!

It’s hard to imagine how good it would be to experience the locals here if language wasn’t such a barrier- after our evening trip, our hosts called us over to their small fire and shared fruits from their garden (some we’d never had before) as we strung together friendly good-will in torturously drawn-out exchanges.

The next day we returned to Pai, before bussing back to Chiang Mai for the start of the more ambiguous phase of Pai to Christmas. The next blog will have stories from a highlight so far- the simple pleasures and treasures of Thailand’s’ Little Switzerland: The mountain town of Doi Ang Khang. 

Till then, love (still from around the Mekong - we're recharging!)
Kimee & Hedge

... A few extra piccies!

Seconds after this shot I was inundated by kids with
their hands out for a few Baht... Well worth it I think..

Little girl in her traditional Karen hill tribe clothing
Does anybody else think this is a dead-ringer of the Eagles Hotel California cover?? -Hedge

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangkok to Chiang Meh...

Do Monks pay for Tuk-Tuk rides??

Hedgey pondering- "hmm.. do monks pay for Tuk-Tuks?"
- a view of Chiang Mai from the lookout at Doi Suthep

This was the question that set us on the trail of the orange-robed monk through the quaint paved streets of the old city of Chiang Mai.

“I mean, they don’t earn money do they? …and I’m pretty sure they ride the bus for free”, Kimee says in my ear as we follow him, two-bikes-back.

Suddenly, his driver pulled a swifty – a sneaky U-turn before disappearing through the gates of a temple. It seemed a little too mischievous to follow. We were never to know - I guess I’ll Google it. Though if this trip has taught us anything, it’s that the unknown can be the sweetest.

But Chiang Mai was not where we left off – after a long, sleepless, smoky, music-filled overnight bus ride from Batu Karas to Jakarta, and a plane ride, we had arrived in Bangkok!

Our splurge- a room with a view in Bangkok
This is the second time we’ve been to Bangkok. Our first was a half-assed attempt to check it out tacked on the end of a lazy week in Phuket a few years back. That time, we were pretty unimpressed.

This time we really wanted to dig a little deeper.

Just looking at Bangkok – geographically – it’s central to so many powerful influences. It’s a hub, and though neither of us are big city buffs, “they” say it’s a traveller’s city – that you can’t be bored in Bangkok. After two lazy weeks in Batu Karas that sounded pretty good! We arrived with a head of steam, eager to check it out.

Our best move was staying in Thanon Sukhumvit – the international part of town, known less for backpackers than for its glitzy shopping centres. It is, nonetheless, home to little Italy, little Japan, little India, little Arabia,  little Mexico and others – and all the delights that smorgasbord of culture offers.

Did I mention little Japan? Yes… I think I did.

In a word…Bangkok was sweet!!! Somewhere I saw it written that “Bangkok worships at many alters” – though we haven’t spent enough time (or sold enough of our souls) to offer a definitive perspective on this, we saw enough. Some people are here just to rip it up for a weekend, and there are plenty of places to do just  that (whether you’re young…or old).

Our highlight?

Kimee and I are very proud to announce that we are expecting Ramen twins. One each. Even having left Bangkok it’s most delicious legacy remains – we have fat bellies. This news was a surprise to us, though we know they were conceived at Bankara Ramen house in little Japan. We’re embarrassed to admit we’re not sure which night.

Hedgey in ramen heaven- Bankara bliss
If Bankara was a win, then the elusive ‘CafĂ© the Flow’ was our fail. But you need some losses to make you appreciate the wins, right?

A three hour expedition into the grungy streets 20 blocks north of Kao San Road was a string of wrong-turns and Tuk-Tuk rides that saw us pass up a number of ‘I’d-be-okay-with-that’ street stalls in search of a place that had been well lauded but not so well mapped online.

Three hours later our blood sugar was still rock bottom and we were hating each other (don’t worry – we love each other again). Joe-average Pad Thai on Kao San Road was salt in the wound (for me anyway – Kimee had long since stormed off).

There is plenty to do in Bangkok other than eat though. We explored using the world-class sky train system that was right by our hotel. Buddhist temples are everywhere and appear just…BANG.. right there. They are a spectacle but we didn’t make the time to tour them thoroughly on this trip.

There are intriguing old stories around these temples (that are an everyday part of the Thai landscape now) that I hope to one day understand in more depth – their significance is interwoven with a history of struggles with empires and adversaries from India, Myanmar and across the SE Asian mainland. Without fully appreciating that context, these beautiful gilded places of worship were unjustly generic to us.

After a few low-key days out of action with colds, we learned our lesson in peak-season travel – the overnight sleeper train we planned to take to the Northern provinces was booked solid for the next week. So, on the morning of the King’s birthday we boarded an early train north to Chiang Mai.

I need more than a paragraph to explain the gravity and importance of the Thai King and royal family in Thailand. His image adorns entrances, places of worship and public spaces – from the most humble eateries to royal palaces. It was a hard decision to forego the festivities of his birthday in Bangkok, but we were northward bound!

After a 14 hour train ride (and having not been fed as promised), we arrived in Chiang Mai knowing we had to plan better and travel in shorter stints.

Floods were the scenery for an hour of the train ride.
The day trip did, however, afford us a close up of the still flooded towns north of Bangkok. Beyond the initial devastation, the floods told a story of persistent inconvenience – sandbagged houses, with boats the main mode of transport.

We woke up the next day in Chiang Mai, feeling a long way from Bangkok. To give a little perspective, Chiang Mai is the hub city in Northern Thailand. Paths to and from here are very well worn - it has a healthy bar scene and an a la carte selection of package tours for the steady flow of backpackers.

Retired Englishmen are everywhere – they are the friendly and helpful proprietors of guesthouses all over the city. We were never far from a bacon and eggs brekky, and there’s a Starbucks and Maccas on the main street.

All that said, Chiang Mai isn’t without its charms. The Old City’s paved streets and many temples are  bordered by ancient crumbling walls, moats and huge doors. These remnants of a city that lived under siege from Burmese and other invaders are not fenced-off historical antiquities, but features of today’s Chiang Mai.

We lingered (as long as our colds) in Chiang Mai. We enjoyed the night market and the weekend walking markets. Yep – another city, another market. There was the usual array of generic trinkets but it’s always worth a wander – unique, locally made food and crafts are the diamonds in the rough and Chiang Mai had plenty. These vendors are also the best to chat with, though unlike in Central America, the language is still often our barrier.

After three days of sickness, we had to improve our blood-fun levels. Only one thing for it!

Sweet, sweet freedom – on a freshly rented scooter we were leaning into the sweeping corners of the road up to Doi Suthep – the mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai.

We stopped at a lookout halfway up, completely brought back to life by the ride. The view was magnificent. Kimee excitedly orders us a coffee and a bag of small doughnut-balls that look like Timbits (for the Canadians reading).

Just as I’m snapping her picture with them (coffee+’timbits’+mountain views were warming her patriotic Canadian heart), Kimee expectantly stuffs down a few of the ‘sweet-treats’. She later described the contents as tasting like shrimp paste- even for a local of the country that invented Caesars, this was too much to handle. I got an action shot of the reaction (below) – it’s taken the edge of her experimental impulses since.

*BARRRRRF*- Biggest. Disappointment. Ever.
 20 minutes later we were in the mist-drenched peak roads, lamenting leaving our extra jumpers at home. My hands were frozen and we were taking turns wearing my fleece (chivalry is DEAD). We stopped to enjoy a fresh coffee in a little hut beside the road, which looked over a small coffee plantation, before continuing on to a Karen Hill tribe village.
Having a cuppa overlooking the coffee plantation on Doi Suthep
With its simple shacks and colourfully dressed women, the village was so cool to see, but they couldn’t have cared less about us. Package tours to the hill tribes are a dime-a-dozen in Chiang Mai, as are the tourists to these people’s homes. ‘Human Zoo’ could be a little strong, but despite their fascinating history, meaningful interactions are a thing of the past.

We stopped in at Wat Doi Suthep on the way back down to see close up the spectacular gilded temple that is visible from most places in Chiang Mai. Climbing the 300 steps to the entrance was the first real exercise we’d done since Batu Karas, so we did it twice.

There are, however, some experiences you just can’t pass up. The chance to get up close and personal (at least up close) with two of the regions best known natives was one such experience.

The next morning we scootered up the highway to Tiger Kingdom. We ignored the price, we ignored the tourists and we ignored being herded like cattle. How often do you get the chance to pat a tiger?

But something was wrong about the whole thing! The enclosures were a decent size, and the conditions and treatment about as good as possible when you’re caging such an instinctively wild animal.

It was that these creatures absolutely ooze power. We were in the cage with the largest tigers at the park for 15 minutes – in the rare moment that one of them acknowledged my presence, fixing my stare with his eyes – all the superlatives people use about seeing emotions in eyes went out the window. Fear? Sadness? Hunger? (thanks v. much Eric Carmen). I saw nothing. Translucent and empty as a clear glass marble. I was absolutely in-sig-nificant.

The horny, pacing male was the most raw display of animal instinct, but lying next to those huge cats, every atom of my being knew this animal could do with me whatever it pleased.

He humoured the keeper swatting him with a stick, but it was an intimidating concession. These were, none the less, cats. A long bamboo branch with some tattered leaves got its attention, directing its gaze for the best of our photos, which semi-staged as they were, we’ll gladly use…here.

We wandered the enclosures for a while. The whole time we’d heard the howling of a female in heat through the whole park. Just as we neared her, a young male Lion in a cage next to us started to talk back. I was right outside his enclosure as he let out a series of bowel-loosening roars. If you’re using the introduction to an MGM movie as a touch point – forget it. Dolby surround sound doesn’t have balls anything like this animal. I couldn’t imagine meeting one in the wild.

 Ten minutes ride up the road was the elephant village. Home to a few dozen rescued and born-in-captivity Pachyderms. No game of Elephant-soccer, dart-throwing or Guinness-world-record-elephant-painted-whatever could take much away from the experience of having two Elephant trunks wrap around your neck and shoulders – trunks that we’d watched, minutes before, lift 30-foot logs like matchsticks. Again, a euphorically unnatural feeling but entirely unforgettable.

Ivory tusks feel a lot harder and stronger than I thought – they feel like smooth stone. And watching…listening to an elephant chew crunchy sticks of sugarcane up close – think of your favourite satisfying sound and you’re there :)


Only one statistic really matters in this post.

Visits to Bankara Ramen House… x 1.

….okay.  …x2.

Definitely not x3.

Eager to check out some of the small towns deeper into northern Thailand, we’ve since left Chiang Mai for Pai – a town we first heard about from the Cabarita surfer I mentioned in our first post. We’ve since heard and read much about Pai – hippie enclave, paradise on earth, developing scene… has-been-scene. We’re completely sick of hearing everyone’s take on the place, but absolutely can’t wait to share with you ours :)

Spoiler alert: Pai was awesome. Stay posted.

For now, love from somewhere around the Mekong!
Kimee and Hedge

Stocking up on hammock fodder.
Kimee and her new found friend

I only travel in style!