Day 36-37 – Slow boat to Laos

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The van came to a halt on the side of the road, followed by rapid fire Thai from our driver speaking loudly into her mobile phone in a tone suggesting urgency. Rice fields stretched out into the distance on either side, and we could see mountains in the distance. We were about 45 minutes into our journey towards the Thailand/Laos border, and without explanation, our diver turned the van around and headed back towards Chiang Rai.

Day 36 – A Slow Start to the Slow Boat

11 February 2020: Luke, Miriam and I awoke that morning at 5:00 AM in the Mercy Hostel and tried our best to vacate the 8-bunk room without waking everyone else up. The tour company van that was to take us to the border was scheduled to arrive between 6 and 6:30 AM. The van was a few minutes later than expected, but by my calculations, we had at most a two and half hour drive to the Thailand border town of Chiang Khong, leaving us at least a couple of hours to get through customs and to the 11:30 Slow Boat in Huay Xia on the other side of the border.

Of course, the fact that we were now turning around and driving back towards Chiang Rai destroyed whatever sense of calm we had about the timing of this morning. As the driver did not seem inclined to provide updates or explanations in English or any other language, we were left to speculate with the other passengers packed into the van as to the purpose of the detour. The van appeared to be running OK, so logically we assumed that we were running back to pick up a missed passenger. Or maybe the driver left the stove on in her house…I don’t know.

It turned out to be a missing customer. We had to drive back 30 minutes in the opposite direction, and though they sent the missing passenger outbound in a taxi to meet us midway, the original timeline was shot. This brought on the predictable litany of anxious questions from Luke regarding the likelihood of missing the boat, and what if we do miss the boat, where will we stay, what if we can’t find anywhere to stay, will we get our money back, will we take the boat the next day, etc. etc. And honestly, based on our last border experience, I wasn’t that confident about our chances of getting through customs and making the boat.

We arrived at the Thai border facility after 9:30 AM, which was making me nervous. Processing out of Thailand was very quick though, and we were being helped along by a new guide from the tour company who met us at the border and was cheerful and confident and happily answered our questions.

Chiang Khong Thailand border facility

After exiting Thailand, a shuttle bus pulled up and took us through no-man’s land across the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai Friendship Bridge over the Mekong river and dropped us at the Laos inbound facility. It was at that moment that I became truly grateful for the guide who directed us through a variety of border crossing steps that I imagine would have otherwise been fairly confusing to navigate.

  • Coronavirus temperature check (no coughing Luke!)
  • Next, get in line to present your passport and Laos entry card. In this line they take your photo and take your passport and entry card from you.
  • Get in the next line and wait for them to return your passport with the full-page Laos visa pasted into it. Also they give you a QR code to use for payment of the visa fee.
  • Get in yet another line to make the visa fee payment. (About $52 AUD per person)
  • Welcome to Laos!

I guess it was lucky for us that there weren’t many people crossing the border that morning. It was only slightly chaotic, and our guide, conscious of the time, moved our group through the lines efficiently. Soon enough, we were all in the back of a songthaew headed for Huay Xai, Laos. Before taking us to the docks, our tour company briefed us back at their headquarters, gave us the chance to change our Thai baht to Lao kip, and to buy snacks. We also took the opportunity to quickly buy some new SIM cards. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that this has typically been a challenge for us, and we have been stranded without SIMs while wandering through malls in an endless search. Here they were offering Laos Telecom SIM cards, which I read was the best for coverage in the country, so we picked up 3 for the family along with a data-only plan to get us through the next few days.

There was a lot of confusion down at the longboat docks. Our guide had suggested that there would be assigned seats on this leg of the journey, but with the chaos of multiple tour groups and hundreds of people boarding, this was thrown out the window. Unfortunately, we were close to the back of the queue, and wound up quite far back in the boat, close to the raging boat motor, and wedged into some impossibly narrow seats that appeared to be ripped from an old bus and haphazardly installed on the boat.

Boarding the crowded boat

I sat next to a tall Dutchman who looked quite concerned about the lack of leg space and what it might do to him over the next 7 hours. We were able to jockey the seats around a little bit to get enough leg space to at least sit down without contortions, though with packs and bags of food wedged in around us, it looked to be a snug journey indeed.

Once underway, after the stresses of the border crossing and fighting our way to seats, I began to relax. The roaring boat motor just behind us wasn’t exactly the peaceful accompaniment to the journey I had envisioned, but I did grow accustomed to it, and even found the dull roar hypnotic and eventually calming. All along the Mekong there were jutting rock formations pushing up diagonally from the water or lining the shores, interspersed with long sandy beaches.

Cow Beach

Some of these beaches had cattle lounging about or going for a swim. Most of the Mekong shoreline we saw from the boat appeared empty of people, except for the occasional, isolated hill tribe with their shacks appearing within the trees high along the banks. Near these small villages we’d see people fishing with nets from the rocks or puttering about in little boats. Occasionally our long boat would stop and pick up locals who needed to jump down river.

The experience of the slow boat was not quite what I had pictured in my mind. I suppose I had this vision of a lazy, drifting boat, partly filled with colorful locals carrying produce or chickens or whatever. I know, stupid, but in fact it was jammed to capacity with over a hundred of us westerners, and I was surprised at how much of a party scene it was. Take Christian, for example, the backpacker bro’ sitting across from us- loud enough to be heard throughout the entire boat, mixing whisky in his drink bottle and offering it to every “mama” around him, puffing his cigarettes, and fist bumping everyone up and down the aisles.

There was a regular procession of repeat customers, increasingly inebriated, making their way to the back of the boat where they were selling large bottles of Beerlao. Worse yet, there were several unbelievably rude cigarette smokers puffing away in the middle of the crowded boat, oblivious to the poison they were spewing into everyone else’s air. One “polite” European did that thing where she would shoot the smoke kind of out of the side of her mouth, towards the railing of the boat, as if directing it away from everyone, but of course that smoke merely poured into the back of the boat choking everyone behind her.

Pak Beng arrival

We arrived at the midway point after maybe a 6 hour cruise. Christian was stumbling around looking for his shoes and cursing, “I can’t find any of my sh**t!” There was a great chaos of bags and backpacks being thrown from the boat, and a precarious plank to reach the shore.

Miriam had wisely already booked us lodging in Pak Beng, so we had only to weave our way through the many touts attempting to lure those disembarking to various guest houses and start up the hill. Our lodging for the night, The Pakbeng Guesthouse, was the very first guesthouse on the way up the hill, an easy walk, thus avoiding another trip in the back of a truck. We’ll just say the guesthouse was rustic, but the staff were very friendly, and the beds clean enough, though we were besieged by the usual swarms of mosquitoes.

Docked at Pak Beng

Unfortunately, Miriam’s stomach and sleep woes were continuing. This had been going on for several days now, so we were ruling out a food-borne bug and worrying about other possibilities. Miriam crawled under the sheets and sent Luke and I out on our own for dinner. The main road in Pakbeng winds upward from the river forming a narrow lane of guest houses and restaurants.

Pakbeng at night

Dad, can you rip it?

We found an ATM and used our new international charge-free card to withdraw a few million LAK (aka kip). We felt like millionaires for a minute, though really this only added up to a couple hundred dollars. Luke asked his usual first question after receiving the new money, “Dad, can you rip it?” He’s been impressed with the various currency technology, especially money that is durable and hard to rip.

After an Indian dinner surrounded by a few of our fellow boat passengers and several stray cats, Luke and I wound our way back down through the quiet little river town. We passed families eating their dinners cross-legged upon mats on the floor, their homes with wide open doors and windows, TVs glowing within, sometimes living right next to their motorbikes in what could be garages, many with open cook fires and steaming woks at the roadside. There were glowing lanterns hanging from the guesthouse eaves and bright stars above us, with the occasional puttering motorbike weaving its way through the streets, dodging the stray dogs who were seeking whatever scraps luck might afford them.

Day 37 – Packed Up in Pak Beng

12 February 2020: we were determined to not sit at the back of boat again, so I went on an early reconnaissance run to determine the new boat location and get a sense of the queue. A few people were wandering down even before 8AM for the 9:30 departure. We accelerated our departure preparations, and as Miriam and Luke packed up, I had the guesthouse staff pack up some to-go lunches for the ride.

Morning on the Mekong
Pakbeng Guest House

We boarded the boat early enough to get seats about half way up the boat, and with considerably more leg-room. The second day, with its early start and its far-better seating, was much more enjoyable for us. I managed to do some blogging and some reading, while periodically looking up to see the jungle hills and limestone mountains going by.

The boat was generally more subdued on day two, perhaps due to the early start, or maybe having to do with hangovers. Even Christian was uncharacteristically quiet. We arrived in Luang Prabang after 7 pleasant hours on the Mekong, climbed the stairs up to the arrival point, and joined the queue for tuk-tuk tickets, after which we were hustled along to one of the many waiting drivers prepared to bring us downtown.

Luang Prabang arrival
Tuk Tuk

We were dropped at our lodging where we were greeted by Mr Bill, the chief of the Khoum Sieng Thong guesthouse. Mr Bill brought us some plates of fresh fruit and briefed us on the house and city. We were paying a little more than usual to stay in a private room in Luang Prabang, and the room was very nice indeed for the money. The lower patio featured a pond with some monstrous koi, and another with spotted rays. We wandered the evening streets of downtown Luang Prabang, through a seemingly endless night market, had a quick meal at a corner food stall, and circled back along the river. A charming town, but more on that later.

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Luke’s view – day 19/20

The start of this day was so exciting! First, because we were taking the overnight train to Bangkok, and second, after our trip from Georgetown to the Butterworth train/bus/boat station we had Auntie Anne’s again at the station!

The funny thing is that the train to the Thailand border crossing was the exact same type that took us to Batu caves in Kuala Lumpur. It even had the Kuala Lumpur train map on board!

At the border there was a huge crowd of slightly creepy, totally white-dressed people and I was worried they would be on our train and we would be the only normal people on the train for the whole 16 hours! Luckily, they split up from us at the stupid, confusing, long border crossing and got onto a different dodgy train.

The train for the night was purple! If people don’t know, purple is my fourth favourite colour! After pink, light blue and red. I loved eating our delicious food and watching the scenery go by.

When they converted our seats into our beds, I chose the top bunk and was so excited to sleep in this tiny little bed! I sadly didn’t sleep amazingly because whenever the train stoped at a station I woke up. I didn’t mind it too much though, because I love trains!

Look down the train and in my tiny bed

In the morning, a nice man who showed us a photo of his son bought me some pad Thai. Which was a bit spicy but surprisingly I’m getting better at handling spice than I used to. This is probably because we have been having some really spicy food and a little spice doesn’t almost kill me anymore. This was the best train ride ever! It’s just totally different from an Amtrak train because you don’t have your own room and I really liked having a different experience.

I’m slightly offended that my dad didn’t mention what a good sense of direction I have in his Bangkok blog. We were looking for our air b&b and I clearly saw that we walked past it like 10 times and my parents didn’t believe me and still asked someone for directions! I was right the whole time!

Inside the Bangkok train station

Days 34-35- Chiang Rai – Fancy Clocktower, Fancy Temple and a shack Bus

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Day 34 – Off to Chiang Rai

9 February 2020: We bade farewell to the meticulously clean Stay Thapae with its beloved waffle iron, flagged down a songthaew and were off to the bus station. There we bought tickets on The Green Bus line, and only had to wait 30 minutes before departing for the 3 hour ride. Keeping up my commitment to sampling foreign junk food, I bought this item called Khaotan with its alluring “pork and spices”. It is best described as a Rice Crispie Treat with spicy dried pork on top. I was willing to share, but for some reason Miriam and Luke wouldn’t partake.

Khaotan

We were heartily courted by songthaew drivers upon our arrival in Chiang Rai, but our hostel was less than 1 km from the bus stop, so we decided to hoof it. We arrived at the Mercy Hostel, another winner, where we were shown to our 8 bunk shared dormitory. While there was no waffle maker, there was a swimming pool, a ping pong table, and billiards to be found in the common areas.

Mercy Hostel

Chiang Rai Clocktower

We headed out to look for a bite to eat as the sun was setting. It is impossible to miss the Chiang Rai Clocktower, which erupts in an ostentatious upwelling of gold, with curlicue tentacles spiralling skyward, and elaborate, dragon-winged and leafy ornamentation covering every surface. The main boulevard we walked along was strung with festive lights draped over equally ornate stantions. We found our way to a night bazaar and food court where we were briefly entertained by some local dancers as we ate an inexpensive meal amongst a heavily local crowd.

Chiang Rai Clock Tower

The next-destination discussion continued to churn and spin fruitlessly over the course of the evening. It wasn’t helping matters that Miriam’s stomach woes continued. She had also joined the hacking cough club, and was having trouble sleeping. Her patience for logistics was short, and she seemed too tired for decision making. We still hadn’t reached any conclusions, other than that we were headed next to Luang Prabang in Laos.

We could fly, though this would cost nearly $1000. As usual, information regarding buses and border crossings was scattered, conflicting, and inconclusive, and would involve at least another 15 hour ride. Tickets did not seem to be available online (similar story to the overnight bus from Bangkok). Also, I had read more than one account of the perilous Laos roads and the frighteningly dodgy night buses with terrible safety records. We were also aware of and were discussing another option to take the Slow Boat from Huay Xia to Luang Prabang along the Mekong River. This is a solid 2 day trip with its own comfort and endurance challenges. We went to sleep without a decision, befuddled by the options.

Day 35 – Chiang Rai – A 30 Second History

10 February 2020: We were really only using Chiang Rai as a launching point for Laos, so we had just one day to spend there, which unfortunately is not enough time to take the measure of any city. Still, I’ve learned a little. Chiang Rai was founded by a guy you might remember from our post on Chang Mai, the mighty Mangrai. He founded it in 1262 and it was the original capital of the Lan Na kingdom, though he later built a cooler, bigger fort at Chang Mai which took over as the capital later in the century. That’s the sum of my knowledge about Chang Rai- maybe just enough to get me through Jeopardy.

Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple

Chang Rai is inevitably associated with Wat Rong Khun, The White Temple. As confessed tourists, we decided to use our day to see the biggest tourist attraction in town, and we were not disappointed. It is hard to tell if it is a temple or an art exhibit, or maybe it is both. The land is privately owned by the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who designed the temple and surrounding buildings. He describes it as an offering to Buddha and believes the project will give him immortal life. While the temple is stunning and bewildering in so many ways, it is hard to tell if it is a heartfelt religious gift, or a gigantic monument to himself.

Shack Bus 1

The cheapest way to get to the temple was to wander over to the bus station and catch the local bus for 20 Baht ($1). Luke immediately proclaimed it a “shack bus”, which he refused to ride. These refusals typically last about as long as it takes for Miriam and I to board the bus without him. This one was fully packed with local riders, and we wedged ourselves into the last three remaining seats.

Shack Bus 2

We didn’t have any idea what to expect of the temple, so we were surprised upon approaching the long, entrance bridge described as The bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”, to discover a sea of ghostly, outstretched hands reaching skyward from the pit, grasping, greedy, lustful, interspersed with horrific ghoul’s faces and skulls. The white bridge rises above this sea of desire, demonstrating the path to enlightenment which rejects temptation.

White Temple

The decorations inside the main temple were no less fanciful, with the back wall devoted to an energetic amalgamation of apocalyptic and pop-cultural references, including Michael Jackson, Yoda, The Terminator, Spider-Man, and many others adrift in a sea of nuclear warheads, fire and disasters. It’s hard to know what any of this is saying about Buddhism, but it was certainly fun to look at.

The walkways around the wat are hung with millions of “lucky bodhi leaves”. You can purchase these small metallic leaves for a few baht, and write a message on them, after which it is suspended somewhere on the grounds. We each bought a leaf, which we’ll always think back on how they are hanging somewhere with the millions of others in Wat Rong Khun in distant Thailand.

Lucky bodhi leaves

Over the course of the day we decided that we would take the slow boat along the Mekong River to get to Luang Prabang, and we would pay a tour operator to manage the asssociated logistics required to get there. This would cost a little more money, but still cost a lot less than flying, and took the anxiety out of travelling over the next couple of days.

That afternoon I went out into Chang Rai to forage for supplies to sustain us on the boat ride. You are reportedly on the boat for 7 hours each day and about all they sell is beer, so you need to be ready with your own food. I stopped off first at a nearby used book store which is owned by a German expat who has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years. He greeted me with an exaggerated enthusiasm born perhaps of a paucity of visitors. The shop itself couldn’t be harder to find for average shoppers. It’s residential, set back from the road, down a dead-end lane, and well away from any main road.

Orn’s Bookshop

Whilst perusing the stacks, though with no intention to buy anything as I already have several pounds worth of books to cary, I struck up a conversation with a retiree from Wales. He came from Hay-on-Wye which he described as a “town of books” with over 29 book stores. We walked together through town discussing the merits of paper books and eccentric bookstore owners. Hay-on-Wye sounds like a nice spot for a future vacation, especially for this book lover.

I left the Hay on Wye guy and went on to the sprawling Chiang Rai market. In addition to purchasing some fruit and snacks for the trip, I managed to sample multiple fried and grilled items along the way.

Chiang Rai day markets

We had our final Thailand meal at an open-air place across from the elaborate, golden clocktower in the center of the traffic circle. We learned that the clocktower, unveiled in 2008 in honour of His Majesty the King, was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the same artist who designed the White Temple. Across the way, the clocktower began changing colours to the amplified sound of a grand, classical piece. This was the nightly clocktower light show which you can enjoy while traffic continues roaring by on the roundabout. Cute, but not quite up to Luke’s expectations which were formed early by our Singapore light-show experiences.

Luke had campaigned extensively throughout the afternoon for a trip to Pizza Hut, and the compromise was that we would eat in both locations. We finished our Thai meal, which unfortunately was one of the least enjoyable of our Thailand time, and brought our American franchise tester straight over to Pizza Hut for round two of dinner. It was a 2 for 1 deal, so we brought home an extra pizza. We walked home past the many Thai massage places, and a long stretch full of darkly illuminated bars, where scantily clothed Thai women beckoned us to come have a drink. As enticing as that might have seemed, we had an early start the next day to make our way to the Laos border and the long boat trip ahead.

Last Thai meal

Day 31-33 -Chang Mai – Cooking elephants and flowers

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“It’s an elephant nursery, medical clinic, day care, retirement home, and mental hospital all in one”. This is how Job, our Elephant Nature Park guide, described our destination as our van drove north out of Chiang Mai.

The price you pay

But the elephants will have to wait as I take a slight detour here to talk briefly about travel finances, a subject that probably deserves its own separate post, but is relevant to our Chiang Mai stay. One obvious and important piece of advice we have for any traveler, is to seek out the best international travel cards you can find, both for credit and banking. I’ll spare you the insane details of our struggle with the inflexible, unhelpful, bureaucratic machine that is Capital One, and note that we settled on an Australian credit card with no international transaction fees, and a Citibank debit card for similar reasons.

The problem we now faced is that for a a variety of annoying reasons, we couldn’t get our Citi debit card delivered before leaving on our international tour. As a result, since departing, our standard Australian Combank debit card has been killing us on international transfer fees. Every withdrawl, in addition to being hit with local, inescapable ATM fees, comes with at least a 20 dollar international transfer fee from the CBA blood sucking machine. So far we have racked up over $200 in these fees. Eventually, our new debit card did arrive at our old address in Australia where our former landlord passed it to our trusted friend Bianca, who arranged to have it sent to our hostel in Chiang Mai Thailand as soon as we were confident of the address. We paid a few extra dollars to hopefully help speed it along, thinking mostly of how much it could save us in the long run. But we had no idea how long it might actually take for the card to reach us given the vague nature of international mail.

So anyway, this was our second day in Chiang Mai, elephant day, the second day since the card went in the mail, and we were prepared to hunker down there for as long as it would take for the card to arrive. Luckily, from what we could see so far, it looked like a great town and a nice place to be stranded for a while.

Day 31 – She sells elephant sanctuary

6 February 2020: Elephants are a big deal in Thailand. For one, the elephant is the national symbol of Thailand. Elephants are also common in Buddhism where they are a sacred symbol, and associated with Queen Māyā of Sakya, (the Buddha’s mom). She had a wacky dream one night foretelling her pregnancy where a white elephant featured prominently, which somehow symbolised that her kid was going to be a rock star.

As you might have seen in our last post, elephants have been kept by Thai royalty, especially white ones. Incidentally, this is the origin of that sense of the white elephant as we know it in modern times. Kings would sometimes make a gift of a white elephant to rival monarch, which was both a blessing and a curse. Supposedly the elephant would confer great power to the king by association, but you couldn’t get rid of it or really put it to work, and it cost a fortune to buy all that Purina elephant chow for the rest of its life. The Thai people have creatively enslaved them in a variety of ways; used in war, forced to drag logs through forests, made to labor on farms, and more recently, tortured into submission so they can give rides to oblivious tourists.

In the olden days, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into an elephant. It is estimated there were some 100,000 in the mid 1800s. Today there are less than 5000, with under 4000 in captivity and maybe 1000 in the wild. It became an endangered species in 1986.

Elephant Nature Park

Fortunately things might be changing for the better for the Asian elephant. Chiang Mai is plastered all over with signs for “NO RIDE” Elephant tourism. There are heaps of ethical elephant experiences to choose from. Miriam’s research found that the Elephant Nature Park is one of the best of the lot.

Job, our guide for the day, led us from the van into the buildings of the ENP where we were to pay the balance of the cost of the tour in cash. It is not a cheap experience, costing around $375 AUD for the family for a day at ENP. Job was apologetic about asking for cash, but explained that every day they spend a large amount of money to pay farmers for produce used to feed the elephants, and rural farmers don’t take bank cards. I was a bit taken aback by the cost at first, but it is one of our goals on this trip to see native animals as best we can, and our thought is that most of that money will go to continue helping these elephants who’ve really been treated pretty poorly and deserve a break.

We started our experience with a morning feeding. Our group was given a big basket of bananas, cucumbers and pumpkin with which to feed first a “baby” orphan elephant (4 years old), and later a group of 6 more who showed up for brekkie. You hold out the food and they use their prehensile tips of the trunk to curl around, grab the food, and lift it up into their mouths, where you can see the huge pink tongue guide the food back to their molars.

Feeding the Elephants

After the elephants finished their snack, Job led us around the grounds to visit several of the resident elephants. We started with “Grandma”, a 75 yrs old elephant rescued from a tourist circus, and her best friend and favourite hang, another lady elephant of 60 years. All of the elephants that Job introduced us to have been living here in peace and around humans for enough years that you could stand near them and gently put your hand on their shoulder if you wanted.

Miriam with new BFF

Next, Job led us to a convalescent area where we saw an elephant with a foot mangled by a land-mine, one with a broken hip, and one other who had been somehow blinded. It felt really encouraging to see them there contentedly breaking up their greens and shuffling slowly around as they recovered from their injuries.

Blind girl and an injured foot

There are some elephants that are so traumatised, that they understandably don’t want to be around humans at all. We saw elephants that were rescued from tribal villagers, tourist riding outfits, roadside attractions, many with ragged, torn-up ears. Job explained that the elephant ear is very sensitive and cruel trainers will often inflict pain or tears in the ear to force the elephant to submit.

Poor old lady with a broken hip

The sanctuary also rescues dogs and cats. We visited Cat Kingdom to pet some kitties, and saw several dogs with mangled back legs running around with those wheels strapped to their back ends to give them mobility. The highlight of the day for me, though, was watching four elephant friends frolicking in the river on this hot and dusty day. I’d have liked to join them, but these are some big girls!

Day 32 – Cooking Thai (not elephants)

7 February 2020: Job, San, Johnny, Mac, Bill – In the Thai tourism operations manual, choosing a short, easy for westerners to remember name must be on the checklist. Their real names are usually more complex to the western ear, and while I’d like to be able to use and pronounce their real names, the simplification is appreciated.

Today we were picked up in a songthaew by a driver who introduced himself as “Off”. He was to guide us to our Thai cooking class in the countryside. He took us first to the Chiang Mai train station, where we were put on a local train and joined by our chef/instructor named บันทึก ความทรงจำ, though let’s call him “Bob”. The train trip was meant to give us a brief and colorful taste of Thai rail travel- of course, having travelled 16 hours overnight on Thai Railways, we already earned our degree in that course, but where Luke is concerned, there is never too much train travel.

The train to Pa Sao

After a 30 minute train trip, we were dropped in Pa Sao, a smallish rural town about 16 km south of the city. Off picked us up again along with Chef Bob, and we went to the local morning market where they purchased supplies and explained about the various ingredients we’d be using to cook with today. They picked from a bounteous, rainbow palette of sauces, vegetables, and spices including lemongrass, rice noodles, Thai garlic, a variety of different coloured tofu, oyster sauce, galangal (Saimese ginger), fish sauce, kafir lime, holy basil, coconut milk, young papaya, radish and more.

Off with veggies

The songthaew brought us out to the farm/cooking school, where it appeared we were to be the only students for the day. Luke did his usual thing where he said, “Don’t you think it’s weird that we are the only people here? I’m scared!” My unsympathetic reaction is to take it straight to the ridiculous location his brain is going, responding, “Of course we’re the only people here, because how else would they be able to kill us with no witnesses, and bake us into meat pies like Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd?”

Thai chefs at work

We were each given the opportunity to choose a soup, stir fry, and curry to cook. Guided by Chef Bob, we set about chopping, banging, stirring and frying for the next three hours. Some the highlights were the chicken in coconut soup made by Luke, my own Pad Thai stir fry, and Miriam’s Khao Sois curry.

Cooking team with Chef Bob

Back in Chiang Mai, we were not suprised to find that our bank card had not arrived- after all it had only been a couple of days. Luke and Miriam took some downtime in their sleep pods, and I went out for an evening walk through the town. I love these cities at sunset. The shadows lengthen, the lanterns come alive, restaurants begin to hum.

I walked through the north side of the old city, through a narrow night market alive with buskers with wooden flutes and twangy, rustic stringed instruments, along past brightly illuminated temples where inside I could hear the chanting of those on the eightfold path.

I finished at the east gate where I was surprised to find an explosion of flowers beneath clouds of mist. This was Friday night and the start of the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival. A trio of Thai musicians played Simon & Garfunkel in the square, and the crowd sang along to “The Boxer” as hundreds of people snapped photos of the flowers.

Day 33 – A Red Letter day

8 February 2020. We awoke to the sound of the thundering drums and blaring horns of marching bands making their way down Thaepae, just 20 meters away from our hostel. This was the sound of the annual Flower Show Parade. It lumbered slowly along, with dancers in traditional garb, prancing horses, flower-petal floats of psychedelic Buddhist stories, each float with a glowing, beatific beauty queen sitting statue-still on a throne, and of course, the many marching bands. Honestly, I was surprised at the number and size of the marching bands, as I had always thought of this as an American phenomenon, you know, with 76 trombones leading the big parade. Here we had rows and rows of the finest virtuosos, the cream of ev’ry Thai band.

The Flower Show Parade

Due to the impending letter arrival, We had already extended our stay for an additional day, which found us waking up to the unexpected occurrence of the Flower Festival. I assumed that we’d likely have to extend through Sunday and into Monday (at least) before the letter might find us.

The parade continued on for several hours. Luke and I knocked out some maths and watched the last 30 minutes of the parade. Miriam did some writing while Luke and I went out to grab some lunch at a boutique coffee house that I thought looked architecturally interesting. While Luke and I relaxed in the cafe with cold drinks I was stunned to receive a text from Miriam that our card had arrived in the mail! I really had thought we’d be waiting around for a few more days.

The boutique coffee house

The problem was that now that the card had arrived, we were faced with making a decision about where to go next. Looking back, travelling through Malaysia was so simple- it is a peninsula and you just keep working your way up city by city. Our travel decisions since entering Thailand have become more laboured and painful. We are excellent at coming up with options, and horrible at choosing any. We’ve gotten to the point where decisions are so last minute that we sometimes leave a city with no clear plan.

We had worked our way up to north Thailand, The decision we had to make now was whether to jump over to northern Laos, and if so, how to do it, or maybe head back south and over to Cambodia, and should we take a bus, or book a train, or expedite and spend money to fly, or maybe go to another nearby town, say Pai or Chiang Rai. It would be easier if any one of us had strong opinions. Instead we engage in circular arguments, present lots of facts, lots of counter-facts, arguments for, arguments against, a list of dangers, decision anxiety, uncertainty, cost assessment, safety, around and around. I’m not sure how we ever get anywhere.

But in the end we always wind up going somewhere, and after all the pain of deciding, I suspect it scarecely matters where we go because we always wind up making the best of it. In this case, our decision was to defer the next-country decision and bus up to nearby Chang Rai. Realistically though, this jump further north more or less committed us to eventually making our way to northern Laos, one way or the other.

The Lost Book Shop – Chiang Rai

We enjoyed the rest of our day, walking through the Old City over to the Flower Festival grounds. We stopped off at a superb bookstore called The Lost Book Shop, where we bought a few books, and wished we could carry many more. At the festival grounds I found my new favourite Thai country/roots band, though could find no evidence of the band name anywhere.

Thai Band
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Luke’s view – day 17

What I expect from a breakfast is a nice pancake, cereal or waffle. To actually be honest with you, I just think peanut butter and jelly in Asia is dodgy. (No offence). So when I saw the spicy foods to eat for breakfast in the Penang morning market, I decided I would go for the only non-spicy thing at these markets, a doughnut!

I thought the clan jetties were so cool. If I could live there that would be epic. Well, in some places, actually not. I wouldn’t live there because there are places where it looks like the jetty floor is going to collapse and dump you into the dirty water. Here is a very big thing my dad missed like he usually does. We had the most delicious lychee ice cream I’ve ever had! It might be partly because I’ve never had lychee ice cream but it was still really good.

On the side passages of the jetties where people live with some dodgy floorboards

On the horizon I saw a Princess cruises smokestack and that meant it was time to go to view that cruise ship immediately. We hopped on a bus to get there, but wait! We stopped the trip a stop early because I saw the Starbucks and of course requested that we go there. There was no yoghurt parfait though, which is one of my favourite things about Starbucks! I was enraged but still got a delicious cold chocolate drink and a banana chocolate chip muffin. Starbucks Malaysia-complete. I was so excited to see a good cruise ship docked there with all the slides, rock climbing walls and so much more! It was the Sapphire Princess.

Not the best out there, but certainly better than the one last night!

I was impressed by the huge Peranakan mansion and the museum but I just don’t understand how this guy in the mansion lived without any air conditioning. I mean killer!

Day 28-30 Chiang Mai – Night Bus, Serpent Deities, and a Monk Chat

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Day 28 – The long and bumpy road to the north

I was nervous about our travel arrangements to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, and our next chosen destination. Nervous because even as we were leaving the island, we had neither transportation nor lodging booked. I was starting to have visions of our family walking through the night streets of Bangkok, begging for alms.

3 February 2020: I spent hours online researching with 12go.asia, Easybooking.com, and a wide variety of blogs and travel sites trying to decipher the transportation options from the island up to Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, our first preference, the overnight train from Bangkok, was already fully booked. Information about the return bus service out of Koh Chang and about the long distance Chiang Mai bus out of Bangkok was maddeningly conflicting and confusing.

When we had finally wrestled our backpacks out the door of the New Coco Sardinia (good riddance), I was in no state of mind to play negotiation games, and apt to overpay just to get us moving forward. We started by overpaying the first taxi driver who must have seen it in my eyes and said “500 baht, take you boat right away. Zoom zoom!!” We also skipped the cheap government bus, which left too late, and so overpaid to ride the earlier tourist Boonsiri bus to Bangkok. The Bangkok drop off 5 hours later was in the heart of the traffic clogged old city and we needed to get to the Bangkok north Chatuchak bus terminal, aka “Mo Chit”, ASAP, to ensure an overnight bus berth. Once again, we overpaid a taxi driver to get us there quickly. At Mo Chit, I was fortunately able to book us a “VIP” government bus for the overnight trip to Chiang Mai. Soon after that, Miriam booked us into a hostel, and we all relaxed a little now that plans were in place

Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Station (Chatuchak)

Miriam’s stomach was still iffy, so Luke and I went off on our own to investigate the culinary offerings at the Mo Chit bus station. We found a group of food stalls where all the descriptions were in Thai script and didn’t even have any of those grainy, discoloured food pictures to give us a clue, leaving us with little recourse but to blindly guess what to order. We resorted to waiting for someone to buy some food that looked reasonable, then jumped in and pointed wildly at it and back at ourselves while waving money. This worked pretty well, with Luke getting a not-too-spicy bowl of noodle/meat soup. I pointed to what looked something like chicken with a spicy sauce, but I think I might have inadvertently ordered some more animal organs, or perhaps tendons or cartilage, as what was served was unusually textured and chewy in a way I can’t say I much enjoyed.

Mo Chit dinner

The Transport Company VIP Bus

We boarded our bus at 9:45 PM and learned what the 999 VIP service was all about. The seats are reasonably spacious as they are only 3 across all down the bus. There are multiple buttons on the arm rest that control various aspects of the seat position, including an ill-conceived massage feature where a metal bar rolls uncomfortably against your posterior. The seats allow you to recline pretty far back which is nice, though the seats themselves were surprisingly hard, the headrests especially so. I felt like I was resting my head on one of those porcelain pillows that those opium smoking Chinese in the Han Chin Pet Soo museum would use. So we rumbled on through the night over consistently bumpy roads. Early on they brought out the VIP food service, which was a prepackaged shrimp fried rice, and while it might not have been a white linen service, it still hit the spot at that moment.

The Transport Company VIP Bus

Day 29 – Chiang Mai arrival

4 February 2020: On an overnight bus trip like that, you sleep, but you don’t really sleep. I’m sure I slept for 5 or 6 hours of the 8 hour trip, but I felt dazed and fatigued upon our arrival at the Chiang Mai bus terminal with the sun yet to crest the horizon. We were greeted with a coronavirus check at the gate, and Luke and I were able to suppress our hacking coughs long enough to pass the temperature check and get out the door.

We were immediately approached by a songthaew driver who took us into the city, as the station is a few kilometres outside the main centre. A songthaew is one of those pickup truck taxis that were also all over Koh Chang. It was still only 7AM upon our arrival at Stay Thapae hostel, and nobody appeared awake or at the desk just yet, so we went over to a nearby convenience store to find some coffee and kill some time. After an hour we were able to leave our bags at the hostel though we couldn’t check in until later. We headed into Chiang Mai Old City and settled on visiting the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Center to get some perspective on the history of the area.

Southeast Bastion

Chiang Mai – 2 minute history

The documented history of the Northern Thai people starts with the Lan Na (or Lanna) kingdom which was around from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Mangrai (he has just one name, like Cher or Madonna) was the son of a local chieftain. He was an effective unifier of regions who also enjoyed conquering his neighbours in his spare time. He established Chang Mai as the capital of the Lanna kingdom in 1296. The city is situated in the foothills of the Doi Suthep mountains and strategically located along the Ping river.

They had some interesting, wacky ideas about setting up their cities back then. Chiang Mai was a fortified city, with its exterior walls and moats forming an almost perfect square oriented to the points of the compass. They believed in this system of sacred cardinal points, with the locus of power being centred in the north, which is where the King would enter and where they put up cool lion and white-elephant statues. The western gate was supposedly the bad luck gate and so only funeral processions, the ultimate bad luck scenario, went in and out of there.

During a new king’s coronation, the king would hop up on his elephant, and head to the power-focusing north entrance, the “Gate of the White Elephant”. But first they would send a native Lua resident through the gate with a black dog. If the dog barked, this was considered a very bad omen, so everyone would just go home and try again some other time. I’m sure this must have ticked off their event planners to no end.

Much later the Lanna kingdom would tangle with and be conquered by the Burmese who had the run of Chiang Mai for over 200 years. Eventually, after the Burmese-Siamese war, they kicked them back out. There followed a time where Lanna was a satellite state paying fealty to Bangkok, though eventually the kingdom was united with Siam in the south and formed what we know today as Thailand.

Finally, we learned of the several indigenous ethnic tribes living in the hills surrounding Chiang Mai. Many of these had originally migrated from China and Myanmar and to this day maintain quite a different culture from the rest of the city. Famously, this includes a Kayan group from Myanmar, which has women who wear those neck rings that deform their growth and make it look like they have extra long necks. There are heaps of tours that will take you to see these groups, but I’ve read that they have become purely tourist machines where any hint of their true, unique culture has long since been packaged and commodified.

Stay Thapae

Suffused with our new cultural information, we checked into our hostel and then went out looking for food. A few blocks from us was the requisite night bazaar and food court. I sampled something called the “Chiang Mai Sausage” with spicy dipping sauce. This sausage is distinguished by its unique spices which include lemongrass and galangal which is an Indonesian ginger that has a piney and sharp taste with a strong citrus flavor. Feeling lucky, I also tried some fermented pork sausage. Somehow, fermenting meat strikes me as a questionable idea, but it tasted pretty nice and tangy, and I had no health problems after consuming!

Day 30 – Wat Pha Lat

5 February 2020: We were pretty happy with the Stay Thapae hostel so far. It is not too big, has a cool modern feel, and is kept extremely clean. The beds have the isolated pod design that we’ve come to prefer, and Luke votes it number one for best breakfast, as they have a waffle maker!

The Monk’s Trail (Pilgrim’s Path)

Our plan for the day was to take a hike on the Monk’s Trail, which is a short drive outside the city. We called a Grab to take us on the 15km ride, and they charged 325 baht, which seemed like too much, and likely we would have done better with a songthaew. As our Thai driver took us up a winding road into the foothills of Doi Suthep, I realised that I had pinned the destination in the Grab app somewhat inaccurately, though in my defense, there is no geographical landmark called “Monk’s Trail” on the map, and I was going largely on info from blog posts. Between the language barrier and map confusion, I couldn’t find a way to re-route us, so we were dropped at a remote restaurant up the wrong road. But the day was sunny and not too hot, so we enjoyed an extra 2 km walk to get to the start of the actual path.

Getting back on track

One of Chiang Mai’s most famous temples is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and you can hike the Monk’s Trail all the way up to the top of the mountain where this wat is situated. But we had our destination set somewhat lower, especially considering all of the twisted ankle, coughing, sneezing and digestive tract symptoms of late.

Wat Pha Lat

Dead White Elephants

The path ascends first to a lower temple, Wat Pha Lat, which is nestled in the mountainside about half way up. The story I read about this temple says that in 1355 a white elephant belonging to King Kuena took a break to rest on the future site of this Wat Pha Lat before dying further up the mountain at the future site of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Thai kings are obsessed with white elephants, and so when one keels over, you have to do something, so the king ordered temples constructed on both sites. This hidden jungle temple became a rest stop for monks making the pilgrimage to the larger, more opulent temple above. I guess the lesson is that when hiking you should rest here so you don’t die from the hike to the top! Today Wat Pha Lat is a a monk’s residence and meditation site.

The temple has a little stream that makes its way through the grounds and tumbles down granite rocks, passing many weathered statues swathed in vine. Compared to the city wats we have visited, this felt supremely peaceful, filled with the trickling of water and trilling of birds. I enjoyed the mysterious Naga statues. The naga are protectors of the Gods, inhabitants of the Mekong river that runs through much of Southeast Asia. These semi-divine serpents, half human half cobra, are bad-ass creatures said to live on the border between the human and netherworld, patrolling the rivers and haunting dark forests.

Naga

Monk Chat

All over Thailand you can see orange and brown clad monks wandering the streets holding their alms bowls, or maybe sometimes a mango smoothie. We had been reading and hearing various things about these Buddhist monks our whole time in Thailand, and have been curious about some of what we’ve heard. For example, we heard that every Thai man is required to be a monk for a while, and that monks can’t be touched by a woman or walk behind a woman, and monks have to shave their eyebrows. We were enthused when we heard about a program called “Monk Chat” where maybe we could learn more.

After our jungle temple hike on the Monk’s trail, we made our way back to town and found Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, which is located in the heart of the Old City, and where the Monk Chat program is run. They started to build this wat way back in the 14th century, though they’ve always had structural problems preventing it from getting it completed. Ages ago an earthquake brought down the highest tower, and though they tried to rebuild it recently with UNESCO funding, nobody could quite agree on what it should look like, so it is kind of half-finished.

Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan

It was at this grand, broken wat that we had our monk chat. We sat down at a picnic table with 4 novice monks, only two of whom seemed comfortable speaking English. Miriam and I had a ton of questions, and I led off with an important one, inquiring as to how comfortable those robes really are, because they look real comfy to me.

The discussion was more practical than philosophical, and what we came to realise is that these were essentially university kids. They worked on laptops and had iPhones, and weren’t at all inclined to drop heavy koans on us. They head home on the weekends to see their families, and are happy to be getting an education and learning English. They practise Theravada Buddhism, which is followed by a whopping 94% of Thailand’s population. If accidentally touched by a woman, they will not explode into flames, and they all still had their eyebrows as far as I could tell.

Monk Chat!

That evening we diverted from our typical night-market dining, and ate at a lifestyle restaurant, the Daifa 4289 Lifestyle Cafe. I’m totally rolling my eyes right now at this “lifestyle” monicker, which just screams precious and overpriced. I have a bad habit now after eating in Southeast Asia for a while of thinking that any meal over $10 is overpriced. And while Daifa was overpriced by local standards, the food was decent, and the restaurant was beautifully decorated. I will leave you now, as I wrap up this post, with a few photos.

Daifa Lifestyle Cafe

Days 25-27 – Koh Chang – Seeking the elusive island experience

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Day 25 – Russians, Waterfalls, and a couple of Drips

The yellow room is poison. The yellow room is lassitude and lost screen time. When looking at hostel photos online, I don’t recall seeing this jaundiced chamber. I’ve come to realise that the impression you form about a hostel before arrival is largely an incorrect fantasy you piece together from photos, descriptions, and online reviews, and rarely approaches reality. Reviews for the Coco Sardinia mentioned the warm, helpful Italian and his Thai wife. Somehow this had tranformed into an idea in my head that we’d be living in something like a Tuscany villa, sharing warm dinners with the gracious, worldly international hosts.

Reality: Our room lacked warmth, with pale yellow walls, decaying ceiling tiles, brown comforters, a struggling air conditioning unit, and fluorescent lights casting a cold glow over the depressing scene. The wet-bath (combined shower/toilet) didn’t seem to drain properly and so every trip to the bathroom our feet were soaked in pooled shower water. The whole hostel had a flavourless, utilitarian feel, and neither the hosts nor any of the guests had anything to say to us. The aforementioned Italian owner was a surly fellow who was either on his computer or napping wheneven I saw him and had no interest in starting up a discussion despite my friendly hellos.

31 January 2020: I’m blaming our troubles this morning on the yellow room rather than bad parenting or anything like that. It was a long struggle to get Luke moving so we could get out the door and start seeking the elusive island experience. This, along with heaps of bratty behaviour, whinging, and impatient parents led to the typical screen-time loss, tears, and Luke’s impassioned defence of his behaviour where he can’t see how he’s done anything wrong, and he’s been grossly misunderstood and completely misjudged.

Things started looking up as we exited the hostel and escaped yellow gravity. We had a pick-me-up breakfast and coffee at a nearby shop, and went out to find one of those crazy pickup/taxis to give us a ride. I asked the first driver I found how much to take us to Khlong Phlu falls, and when she said 200 baht, I reckoned that was too much, at least in comparison to our much longer ride from the piers the previous day, I told her it was too much and walked away. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any other taxi around to take us! I was standing there dumbly trying to decide what to do, when the same driver pulled around and said “150 baht”, and so we jumped right in. It’s kind of ridiculous when you do the calculations. Saving 50 baht is the equivalent of about $2.50

Khlong Phlu park enterance

Khlong Phlu falls is one of the few places on the island where you can find a marked hiking trail, though it is only maybe 1.5 km to the falls in the National Park. We were dropped at the National Park entrance and paid 500 baht ($25) to enter. It was definitely not a secret waterfall, and we shared the trail with a steady stream of hikers. The waterfall itself was lovely, pouring down into an isolated basin and then falling further down into a larger pool perfect for swimming.

We all jumped in the cool, dark waters and enjoyed a swim amongst some large black fish circling lazily around the pools. I was starting to notice that we were surrounded by quite a few Russian tourists enjoying the falls, broad faced men with enormous sunburned bellies wearing little budgie smugglers. It was easy to hear the deeper, throaty cadences of Russian speakers after hearing mainly Thai and Malay speakers for several weeks.

Miriam & Luke off to the right

Miriam turned her ankle and took a tumble on the hike back down. Her ankle swelled up immediately, though she was able to put weight on it and hobble back down the trail. We had a taxi driver drop us at the north end of Khlong Prao beach near our hostel. We set up underneath some lovely shade trees along a public section of beach, one of the few areas we found without a beach bar or massage table in sight. Miriam limped along with Luke and I into the sea for a bath-warm swim in the shallow, blue waters. Luke and I used the drip technique to build a drip castle.

Drip castle

With those gentle beach breezes, a sunset, and our earlier plunge into the jungle waterfall, I imagined we were starting to feel something of that mysterious island energy. If only we could stay away from that tourist strip of restaurants and hostels! We thought maybe if we ate at one of those roadside stalls we could avoid the overpriced meal experience from the previous night. As we walked up to a Thai roadside stand, the owner picked up a large styrofoam cooler lid and used it to vigorously wave away about 30 flies that had alighted upon her meat and vegetables. This was a few flies over our healthy fly quota, so we quickly walked on by. Unfortunately, hanger was looming, and we diverted to the quickest alternative- another overpriced dinner along VJ Island View & Plaza lane.

Khlong Prao Beach

After a passable though pricey Indian dinner, Miriam limped back to the hostel and I went on a shopping trip to get ibuprofen for her and snacks for the next day’s excursion. In the pharmacy, I found myself in a queue with 10 voluble Russians. Later, in the grocery, I was again colliding with Russians in the aisles. I guess for whatever reason, Koh Chang is a place where a lot of Russians go for holiday. There are also Russian families at our hotel, which probably explains all the empty vodka bottles on the front porch, and, come to think of it, why we aren’t having too many great conversations with people. Luke started to inquire of everyone we passed, “Do you think they are Russian?”

The VJ grocery was amazing. This little island store catered to every tourist type you could think of and was evidently stocked based on decades of unique tourist requests. You could find two-for-one seaweed snacks, Frosted Flakes, mysterious Chinese lollies, Italian biscotti, snacks with Cyrillic packaging, Tim Tams (Australia!) and amazingly, I found a Roberto Bolano novel that has been on my book list for a few years.

Day 26 – Koh Chang – Scuba Dawgs!

Dawgs Headquarters

1 February 2020: Miriam booked us in on a “fun dive” with an outfit called “Scuba Dawgs”. The Dawgs sent a truck to pick us up at 8AM and brought us down to the south part of the island, a once quaint fishing village called Baan Bang Bao. There they have a setup resembling the Clan Jetties, though built by Thai and not Chinese. There, a bunch of houses and stores are connected together with planks along the fishing piers. While maybe subsistence fishing was once the residents primary activity, fishing for tourists seems to have replaced it now. Walking along the covered pier you can find shop after shop of the same T-shirts, trinkets, and beach souvenirs that are available all over the island.

Scuba Dawgs boat

The lead Dawg for the day was our dive master Alejandra, a young Chilean woman living in Thailand. They were to take us out to two locations, where Miriam would scuba dive, and Luke and I would spend time snorkeling in both locations. There were 8 of us on the boat, which could have accommodated many more divers. The boat puttered along at about the speed of one of those electric scooters you see in retirement homes. It took us 90 minutes to arrive at the first dive spot off another nearby island called Ko Rang.

Miriam in pre-dive discussion with Alejandra

Miriam had only recently obtained her diving certification, so she was understandably a bit nervous about whether she was going to remember all of the critical checks and procedures, all of which is kind of important when you are about to submerge yourself beneath tons of water exerting intense pressure on your body. But our dive master patiently helped her review everything, and Luke and I were proud to watch her jump into the ocean in all her gear to begin her intrepid exploration of Poseidon’s realm

Miriam takes the plunge

Luke and I enjoyed snorkeling along the reef, which wasn’t extensive, but had plenty of brilliant fish and coral to examine. The second dive of the day was even better with a bigger reef. We saw rays swimming on the sandy bottom and swam above an enormous school of thousands of glittering fish (yellowback fusilier) in a massive swarm that Luke aptly described as “A wall of fish”. Luke didin’t want to get out of the water. “Dad”, he asked, “Can we just float here above that school of fish for a while? I really like hovering above them and watching them swim.”

After our diving adventure, we were feeling incredibly satisfied and relaxed in the back of the Scuba Dawgs taxi taking us home. We drove back north with the sun setting and the island transitioning from the lazy beach rhythms of the sun baked day into the party thumping mode of the approaching night.

The end of the pier at Baan Bang Bao

We randomly chose a Thai restaurant well off of our home strip, the dreaded VJ Island View &. Plaza lane, and were happy to discover some affordable, spicy Thai food and a friendly atmosphere. The owner was really outgoing, and knew how to charm the tourists. She came up, looked at Luke and exclaimed loudly, “He handsome boy!!!” Luke smiled and blushed in equal measure. It was a great day, and I thought maybe we had moved just that much closer to understanding the island experience.

Day 27 – Koh Chang – Land of the Lost

2 February 2020: Luke’s illness had been lingering around for a while in diminished form, and unfortunately I now had started to exhibit the same symptoms resulting in a restless, coughing, sniffling night. I didn’t feel in good enough shape to do much, so we all had a lost day trapped in the yellow room. I slept through half of the afternoon, Miriam worked, we did some maths, and finally made a late afternoon trip to the beach, hoping to salvage a bit of our last day.

We left the hostel and walked past the elephant statues flanking the entrance to VJ Lane. “Chang” means elephant in Thai, and the island is named as such because if you look at a map it reportedly has the shape of an elephant’s head and trunk if you squint and turn your head just right. Elephants are not native to Koh Chang island, but they have brought a few over here and enslaved them as a tourist attraction. You can see these poor elephants trudging along over rocky roadside paths carrying loads of people on their backs.

VJ Island View & Plaza (lane with hostels and tourist restaurants)

At the beach we strolled along past packs of Russians who were smoking madly and drinking shots from their 4 foot tall Absolute Vodka towers, along past the beach massage joints, the infinity pools, the fake bamboo huts, down to the quiet end of the beach where we again enjoyed a sunset over the Gulf of Thailand. Unfortunately, it was now Miriam’s turn to get sick, and she went back to the hostel with her guts in turmoil, leaving Luke and I to forage for dinner on our own.

A boy and a castle

I suppose that what I’ve accepted is that there is no such thing as the elusive island experience, or vibe, or authenticity- not anywhere. Everywhere you go there is going to be beauty and commercialism, calm nature and boneheaded bro’ backpackers, delightful cuisine and overpriced slop, Russians and Italians and Americans and everyone else in the mix. Unless you are airdropped onto the steppes of Siberia and live in a yurt with a nomadic tribe, chances are that wherever you go you’ll be there with a pack of other tourists trying to escape their own lives for a few days. Hopefully you can take away what is best and ignore the rest.

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Luke’s view – day 16

Don’t you think the hotel guy Zul deserves a better place to sleep than behind the front desk on a thin mattress with only a fan to keep him cool? Maybe his boss, Chor, should get him his own room. For all the work Zul does keeping the place kind of clean and everything 24/7 he should definitely get Zul a nice room.

The bus trip to Penang was by far the nicest we’ve had in a while and probably also just the best trip we’ve had on all of our travels. I know I haven’t said any thing about the previous 2 bus trips but they were not very nice.

As soon as we got to the bus station in Penang we spotted an Auntie Anne’s pretzel place, which was so exiting!! The reason this was a bigger deal than like McDonald’s, for example, is that there is no such thing as soft pretzels in Australia. Auntie Annie’s obviously has the best pretzels and lemonade on earth and because we hadn’t had it for a year we got it! YES!

As we were coming into Georgetown on the boat, I noticed a very 💩 cruise ship in the dock but thought it might be worth a couple photos. By the way, I’m obsessed with cruise ships.

The back of the extremely bad cruise ship

After all our delicious food we took a walk around town and saw 2 very interesting things. The first was the Starbucks which I insisted we were going to the next day. I said this because I told my parents if there was a Starbucks, we had to go to one in every country. We went to one in Singapore so we don’t have to worry about that location. The second interesting thing was the fire in the middle of the street.

This fire was also extremely dodgy. It was just out in the open and the whole city could catch on fire! If I were a mean person I would get a fire extinguisher and spray that thing down. Since I’m so nice and understand it is for a Chinese prayer, I didn’t do that. I was really worried it would spread and takeover the whole city!

Day 24 – Bangkok to Koh Chang – Tourists, Islands & Careening Taxis

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There’s something distasteful about a bunch of tourists sitting around talking about how such-and-such a place has become too touristy, and how you just can’t go there anymore because of all of all the annoying tourists, when you, yes YOU, that is WE, yes we are all tourists just waiting to foul up the next great unfound place.

I am a tourist (and so are you)

I am a tourist and I don’t pretend otherwise, and like many other tourists (whether they admit to being a tourist or not), I am searching for an authentic experience, whatever that means. I guess I mean an experience that is not burdened by the roles assigned to us by the tourist economy, where there is always an invisible and impenetrable wall between the native and the tourist. Payment is required, and once offered, the wall is in place, the roles are finalised, and we are then fed our “authentic” meals, or guided respectfully through the museum, or trucked off to the attractions, kept on schedule, hustled on and off the bus, informed of the place where we ought take pictures, and dropped at the representative restaurant. We listen to the script, but never once get a sense for what the local person feels, what they are thinking about, what it is like to live in their skin, or to be struggling to make ends meet, what it means to have fun, to live, to love and work in their country.

That is why I simply love walking/running the streets of foreign cities unguided, turning at random down side streets, where I am as likely to see a garbage heap as a temple or a tea house. Our recent flight down a rat-infested Chinatown alley in Bangkok had more “authenticity” than about anything else’s I’ve done on this trip so far.

The reason I’m thinking about this now is that it is a subject Miriam and I have been discussing often on this trip, and especially as relates to deciding what to do next in Thailand. We had decided that we want to have a Thai “Island experience” without even really knowing what we mean by that. We were reading about various islands, for instance, the well-known Phuket, and coming across many mixed reviews citing trashed beaches, obnoxious partying tourists, and anyway anything labeled “party” anything is immediately rejected.

After an extended search we settled on the island of Koh Chang, described as being largely unspoiled, with no major airport service, no multi-story condos on the beach, and most of the island covered by a mountainous national park. One other criteria for the island experience was that we should be able to go scuba diving, because my super-cool partner Miriam got her diving certification just before leaving on this trip.

The Journey to Koh Chang

We had about a 5 hour bus ride from Bangkok to get to the ferry that would take us to Koh Chang. We chose to ride with The Transport Company which is the government run bus company (under the Thai Ministry of Transport). It is often referred by Thai people by its initial letters บขส (pronounce: Baaw-Khaaw-Saaw) or just as 99 or 999

Ekkamai Station

The 999 left from Ekkamai station which happily we found was only about 1.5 km from our place. You can’t buy tickets online so you just have to show up. We made sure to get there early to ensure we got tickets and successfully booked ourselves aboard the 7:45AM bus, costing us only about 33 AUD for the family.

The bus was mostly OK, with the one downside being that we were seated towards the rear near a toilet that smelled like something emerging from the deepest depths of hell. Any time someone opened that latrine door, a vile effluvium assaulted our senses. Still, it was cheap and on time. And dropped us at the Centerpoint ferry pier in Laem Ngop. We had to wait around for a while until a rusty old bus could take us out to the rusty old ferry, all of which was eyed quite skeptically by our transportation critic, Mr Luke Simon.

Luke the seasoned backpacker chilling at Centerpoint

On the ferry ride on the way over we had a good chat with a Kiwi couple who were returning to their home on Koh Chang. They decided to leave New Zealand and retire on Koh Chang. They reported that at first they lived in a western style house, but they found it too confining and so now they live in a house that is “all outside”, meaning no walls and open to the elements. I imagined them walking around naked all the time or something. I guess they, too, were looking for something authentic. I later read that natives are leaving the island because outsiders are willing to pay millions of baht for a tiny shack, and you can imagine that malls, Starbucks and lifestyle condos can’t be far behind.

Koh Chang

Upon offloading from the ferry, we were hearded to a queue of taxis awaiting the ferry arrival. These taxis, which are the only public transport on the island, are modified pickup trucks with benches in the back and luggage racks on the roof. The operators try to jam as many people in as possible. 12 would be barely comfortable, but in ours they managed to cram 16, including one brave fellow who nonchalantly hung off the back, standing on the bumper while clutching the side rails. It’s not like with this precarious load of luggage and passengers the operator exercised an extra measure of caution. The driver drove over the winding mountain roads as if he were late for an important dinner date, causing collective gasps as he accelerated around the curves. I could see Luke mentally adding this to the ever growing list of outrageously dangerous transportation experiences he never wants to repeat.

Getting to Koh Chang

We were dropped at the New Coco Sardinia guest house, a hostel located in Chai Chet beach down a lane crammed with restaurants where a surprising number of them served pizza. We allowed Luke to make the dining choice that evening and so wound up eating….that’s right, pizza, at an Italian joint right next door. This simple meal of pizzas, pasta and salad was easily the most expensive of our entire trip thus far.

New Coco Sardinia

We attempted to walk down to the beach after dark, which required cutting through the Coconut Beach Resort, or maybe it was the Paradise Beach Resort and Spa, where we discovered that at a beach bar far away on an island in Thailand, one may still be subjected to a warbling guitarists singing Eagles cover versions. We wandered down the beach which was illuminated by strings of festive resort lights, and lined by beachside bars. We dipped our toes in the warm waters and played on a giant swing hanging from a tree by the ocean. We walked back along the road which was teeming with streetside food vendors, bass-thumping taverns, sunburned backpackers queued up at the 7-11, massage storefronts beckoning, and every restaurant busy. All interesting but maybe not quite what we were expecting from the island experience (whatever that is).

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Luke’s view – day 14/15

Since you already know about Kellie’s Castle, all I’m going to say about it is that I really enjoyed exploring the ancient grounds and hallways. I thought we might see or hear ghosts because supposedly you can hear them. We didn’t hear or see them but I’m pretty sure it was too hot out for ghosts.

Kellie’s Castle

When we went out to have lunch we wound up going to this slightly smelly restaurant. My parents didn’t think it was smelly but I did. (I’m pretty sure they are losing their senses very fast.) Anyways, when I asked for water to drink, it took like a long time, and finally they brought it to me and it was hot water! Do kids in Asia like hot water? That’s a question I need to search up.

I think my parents were in a bad mood that day because they wouldn’t let me get cotton candy/fairy floss again from Concubine Lane! Well, maybe I’m actually just getting to used to sugar, and my parents are actually being very bad parents and giving me too much sugar. Yes, I think that’s right.

Day 15

At first I was happy that we couldn’t go on the cool water cave tour because it seemed scary. When I saw the pictures though I changed my mind very quickly. The dry tour was still really fun and cool to do.

My dad seems to think that I was scared of the 100-year-old Mercedes. It was dodgy how it had no seat belts and no air conditioning. Seriously though it wasn’t that scary.

I don’t want to make this multiple paragraphs.

I liked both museums, but the tea museum a little bit better. The honey ice ball was delicious. I had a really bad night’s sleep at the Chor Lodging Inn because the tea kept me up all night! Oh and I had peanut butter and jelly for breakfast again. I mean come on seriously parents! Why?! Oh well. On the evening of day 14 we noticed that there were old ladies walking around selling tissues. Not 1 person bought them as far as I could tell do they ever sell any? It just seemed to be an odd thing to be selling on the streets.

Day 21 – Bangkok – Lost in Luxe-land & Finding Wat Pho

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I had this nightmare that I was lost in a luxury mall, endlessly going up and down escalators, misdirected by broken information kiosks, forever unable to locate the item I am meant to purchase. Oh wait, that wasn’t a dream- it happened to us in Bangkok.

27 January 2020: We had researched it and learned that AIS is the SIM card that has the best coverage throughout Thailand. We wanted to avoid repeating the shenanigans of Malaysia with those cheap SIMs, misleading adverts, and insufficient plans, resolving to buy the best we could find. We were directed to the EmQuartier mall only a couple km away. Upon arrival we used the electronic info-kiosk that directed us to an AIS store on the third floor located in something called the “Power Zone”. Upon arrival we discovered some AIS kiosks that looked like ATMs. It appeared, theoretically, as if you might be able to purchase a SIM through the machine, but unfortunately there was no English language selection and it seemed unlikely that we would be able to manage the transaction guessing our way through the Thai options. Could it be that this was really the only AIS store?

We reconnoitred a bit more and were relieved to discover an AIS store one floor down. But after a very incomprehensible, gesticulating conversation with the employee there, we began to realise that it wasn’t actually an AIS store, rather, one that re-sold AIS plans that didn’t resemble any of the ones we saw in online research. We returned to the electronic info-board and debated the instructions presented there. It was becoming clear that the instructions were pointing us towards another different luxury mall across the street called The Emporium. And so, whistling the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket”, we headed over to this second luxury mall. Similar multi-floor confusion ensued, with no AIS store appearing, and conflicting advice received from different mall employees that we consulted.

We decided finally to return to the original EmQuartier luxury mall just to be sure that we hadn’t missed the AIS store from the original instructions. We were somewhat embarrassed to find that right next to the AIS electronic kiosks we investigated earlier was a large store called the “AIS Dream Bar”. We had missed it because it looks more like a day-spa than a mobile provider storefront. Once inside we were treated to coffee in a lounge and a very helpful employee walked us through the process of purchasing and installing our SIM cards. All told, we spent about 3 hours on this errand!

Wat Pho

Mobile enabled, we jumped on the subway and headed to Rattanakosin, which is the old cultural centre of Bangkok, and home to its best known temples and tourist attractions. We were keen to see Wat Pho, also known informally as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It’s official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawiha, though I just call it “The Pho”.

Miriam, Luke and some chedis

Wat Pho is one of Thailands oldest temples. They aren’t even sure when the first original temple was built there. They do know that in 1782 King Rama I built his super-mega-Grande Palace there next to Wat Pho, and decided that Wat Pho was looking a little run down and in need of a makeover. He initiated extensive renovations, requiring all of the Buddhist monks to go check into a hotel for a while, as they needed to shut off the hot water.

Rama I is also known as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Paramoruracha Mahachakkriborommanat Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok, though I bet his friends just called him “Ram”. In 1782 he took the throne back from rebels to unite Siam, crowned himself king, founded Rattanakosin (now Bangkok), and still had time to sire 42 children with a variety of women.

In addition to the large temple buildings, you can see in the accompanying pictures all those pointy, tower looking structures which are called chedis, also known architecturally as stupas. There are over 90 on the site. The 71 smaller chedis contain the ashes of the royal family, and 20 larger ones clustered in groups of five hold Buddha relics.

More chedis

The Reclining Buddha

Rama I did a heck of a job with the first Wat Pho re-do, but later Kings like Rama III and Rama IV wanted make their mark, and so expanded the grounds and buildings considerably out to current size. Rama III was responsible for the really quite very very big, enormous and large Reclining Buddha, and undertook a 16 year renovation, which I don’t know a whole lot of folks who would put up with that where they live.

The Reclining Buddha

The reclining Buddha is a common theme in Buddhism and represents the Buddha in his last illness before reaching Nirvana. The Buddha’s enormous feet are decorated with inlaid mother of pearl showing scenes depicting the various forms of the Buddha. At the center of each foot is a circle representing a chakra or ‘energy point’, which I also imaging could be used for focused tickling.

We were lacking in energy and creativity after the latest mall and temple excursion, so we returned home to eat once again at our neighbourhood night market, Soi 38. Too easy. But I have this to say about this night market- I could easily eat there for every dinner in Bangkok as the food is delicious and once again, we were able to feed our family of 3 for about 7 USD.

Soi 38

Day 19/20 – Penang to Bangkok – Night Train!

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Confusion and delay prevails at the Malaysian/Thai border crossing. At least it does for clueless American families. 4 hours ought to be enough time to negotiate the border crossing (we thought). 4 hours would leave plenty of time- heaps of time– WAY more than enough time before our 6PM train. Looking back, I think the problem is that we left ourselves too much time.

25 January 2020: We left the Cocoa Mews that morning and retraced our steps to the ferry back to Butterworth. We were lured in again by Auntie Annie’s pretzels at the ferry terminal, but we weren’t especially worried about stopping with all the extra time we had allotted. The train station is co-located with the bus and ferry, which was easily negotiated. There, we purchased same-day commuter rail tickets for a 12:45 departure to Padang Besar, which is the border town where we would cross over into Thailand and catch the overnight train to Bangkok.

Padang Besar Border Crossing

2:30 PM: Upon arrival in Padang Besar we asked around and were directed down a flight of stairs, where some Malaysian officials met us and sent us down along a train platform to a customs transfer area. Strangely, there didn’t appear to be anyone around at all, and while there were both Malaysian and Thai border kiosks on the platform, nobody seemed to be manning them. We were the only ones there. We eventually found a Thai border employee who looked at our tickets and instructed us to go sit in a waiting area and said eventually someone would be around.

3:30 PM: Over time people started to trickle in, and after another hour, a huge group of young adults arrived, all of them clad from head to toe in white. These cult kids, or religious acolytes or whatever they were received instructions from the Thai border guy and suddenly they were all queued up along the platform for some reason unknown to us. Next I noticed that everyone but us seemed to be filling out border transfer cards, and so I looked around for anyone that looked like they might speak English and was directed to a lady who had the forms who then pointed for us to go sit outside, though still unclear as to what, if any, procedure we were to follow.

Back of the Queue

4:30 PM: The problem with using the wait around and look stupid method of getting where you need to go is that you often wind up at the back of the queue. Eventually the Thai border guard came up to us and urged us along with flapping and waving of arms over to where we finally started our way through the Malaysian exit process and Thailand border check. No worries though, we still had maybe an hour and a half before the train was due to leave…though progress was proving to be maddeningly slow. We were shuffled inexplicably between queues, instructed to move from one line to a longer more slowly moving line. As the time ticked away, tedium and anxiety increased in equal measure.

6:00 PM: The train pulled up right on schedule and we were still 10 people deep in the queue. There didn’t seem to be any way to get an update or ask if the train was going to wait for us, and Luke’s constant narration didn’t help, about about how we were going to miss the train for sure, and Dad, Dad, Dad, what are we going to do when we miss the train? Dad, where will we stay, Dad will we lose the money for the train? DAD!?

Upon reaching the immigration kiosk at the end of our never-ending queue, it took all of 3 minutes to process our family through, making me wonder what was taking everyone else so damn long. I had read that you needed to be able to prove your financial independence by showing the equivalent of 10K Baht to the border gaurds, so I had heaps of Ringgit on me, but they never asked to see anything like that. As an American tourist with a USA passport, you get an immediate Visa exemption. They snap a photo of your passport and send you straight through.

The train did not leave without us though we were close to last onboard. As you would know if you’ve read earlier posts, Luke loves trains and you could see the excitement as he walked around investigating our living quarters for the next 16 hours. The berths were reasonably comfortable, but unfortunately there were no power points available for charging devices. My own phone was running low on power, so my plan to fill the hours catching up on blogging and email didn’t happen. Additionally, with all of the confusion and delay of our border crossing, we were unable to change our Malaysian Ringgit for Thai Baht, meaning that while there was a constant stream of vendors walking the train with interesting looking Thai food, we had no money to buy any of it!

Night Train to Bangkok

The Thai vendors unknowingly taunted us with the smells of their foods, which they advertised with repetitive chants as they roamed the aisles. Otherwise, the train trip itself was uneventful, and I slept well, gently rocking to the rhythm of the rails. We were sharing a seating space with a kindly Thai man, who had a little English and showed us a picture of his son, who is around Luke’s age. In the morning, perhaps sensing our dilemma with the food, he purchased a container of Pad Thai and gave it to Luke, who was hungry enough that he ate a good portion of it despite significan’t spiciness.

Bangkok Hua Lamphong station

We arrived in the cavernous Bangkok train shed at 10:30 AM and went immediately in search of a money changer to get some Baht and then straight to get some food! Luke was still super-hungry and after eating some kind of pizza role, started in on the sugar packets from our coffee, even inadvertently trying to eat a non-dairy creamer packet that he thought was a sugar packet.

Malaysia is a soft landing for an English-only tourist, with quite a large segment of the population speaking at least a little English. We sensed immediately that Thailand had much less of this, though there are quite often English descriptions next to the Thai language signs which use the Thai alphabet which looks like this. ประเทศไทย I love the look of the Thai alphabet with its loopy, curling script, though I can’t make a bit of sense of it.

We spent the better part of the afternoon negotiating the train, or actually, the multiple trains required to get to our Air BnB. We started on the MRT subway, but had to transfer to the BTS elevated train, which appears to be operated as a separate company with different machines and tokens. The Air BnB we booked turned out to be reasonably nice, though it operates more like a hostel, with private rooms opening up off of a shared foyer and with shared bathrooms and showers.

We are located in a Bangkok neighborhood near the Thong Lo train station, which is a 10 minute walk and 20-30 minute train ride outside of the older central parts of Bangkok. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t full-on traffic, throngs of people and urban insanity everywhere you walk, though. Happily the Sol 38 night market is just around the corner from us, which is where we had our first proper Thai meal after arrival. Having filled up with spicy minced pork and vermicelli, dumpling soup and satay, we plotted our moves for the next day.

Day 17 – Penang- Spicy Breakfast & Clan Jetties

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Where breakfast is concerned, Luke is a pancake with maple syrup man. Unfortunately, pancakes were not anywhere to be found on any menu around the hawker stalls where we were searching for breakfast. We had tried to get on a free tour at the visitor info centre, but it was full up when we arrived, so it looked like a self-guided day, starting with spicy Asian breakfast.

Breakfast in Georgetown

Sri Weld Food Court

From what I can see, there doesn’t appear to be much distinction between breakfast food and just any old food that you find at other times of the day in Southeast Asia. At the Sri Weld Food Court I saw locals starting their day slurping down bowls of laksa, or devouring plates of spicy noodles with shrimp. Not a waffle or bowl of Captain Crunch in sight. Miriam and I opted to eat some nasi lemak, which came from a stand that appeared quite popular with the locals. It consists of coconut rice with hard boiled egg, anchovies, salted fish, squid, or prawn with sambal (a spicy sauce) poured over it and wrapped in a banana leaf to go. I quite enjoyed it, though Luke opted for a fried donut instead, which admittedly was pretty damn good coming right out of the wok full of bubbling oil. Not likely to win parents of the year with the two-donut breakfast, but then we hardly feel good about force-feeding Luke fiery noodles and watching him choke and sweat.

The food court is located in the city’s commercial centre, Beach Street (Lebua Pantai) and seems to cater to an earlier crowd than some of the other evening hawker markets.

Spicy Breakfasts

The Clan Jetties

We decided to walk over to a Clan Jetty. In 1882 they built up the Quay on the Georgetown waterfront, including a number of short public jetties where boats could land and conduct commerce. Over time, certain Jetties came to be dominated by clans of Chinese. Houses were built up along the jetties up on stilts above the water. The houses and jetties were connected by wood-plank walkways, forming a haphazard community of shacks over the water. The Clan Jetties evolved into unique and fiercely competitive communities with each of the 7 main Jetties representing a different Chinese clan. Some jetties are quite commercialised today, and others like the one pictured below are more community minded.

Clan Jetty

Today’s heat remediation involved stopping in a store called The Book Nook. Entering, we were hit by a blast of cold air and a collection of used books that kept me very happy browsing the stacks. We had hoped to find Luke a book to help keep the iPad time down, and I found something for him as well as for myself.

Book Nook

Georgetown has a free hop-on hop-off bus that circles the main heritage areas. This bus trip worked out a lot better than our experience in Kuala Lumpur for sure. We took the bus across town for the slightly embarrassing reason that Luke has requested that we try to visit a Starbucks in every country we visit. We’ve decided to put Luke in charge of verifying the authenticity of American franchises, and anyway, we’ve been getting some really lame coffee in Indian and Asian restaurants lately, so why not give Seattle a try? In true American style I ordered a venti which felt shockingly large after years of normal sized cups in Australia.

Local colour

Penang Peranakan Mansion

In the afternoon we visited the Penang Peranakan Mansion– This elaborately decorated mansion belonged to Kapitan Cina Chung Keng Kwee, an interesting guy- millionaire businessman, philanthropist and leader of the Hai San Chinese secret society. He was another of Malaysia’s successful tin men, though he had many other business interests and was respected by both the Chinese and British communities. He bought up a couple of properties on Church street and converted them into his personal office and residence which he called the “Sea Rememberence Store”, including a personal temple adjacent to the residence.

Peranakan temple

The mansion is wonderful, with Chinese carved-wood panels everywhere, English floor tiles and Scottish ironworks throughout. The mansion has been restored in the style that would have been lived by the Baba Nyonya of Penang, aka The Peranakans, aka The Straits Chinese. These were a prominent community of Malaysian Chinese who selectively adopted ways of the local Malay and the colonial British. Baba refers to the male and Nyonya to the female Peranakans. We’ve been seeing and sampling Nyonya dishes throughout Malaysia which are a blend of Chinese and Malaysian cooking.

Walk around the Peranakan Mansion
Peranakan Mansion Dining Room

The museum also has sections devoted to Chinese jewellery, glasswork, and beadwork, all of which are downright amazing. Chinese women passed on through generations the ability to craft intricate, beautiful patterns from tiny colorful beads. In the pictures below, you can see first an example of a slipper with an estimated 10,000 beads, and a table placement made with over 60,000 beads.

10,000 bead slipper
60K Placemat
60K Placemat closeup

The bright blue in the headdress seen below is unbelievably made from Kingfisher bird feathers. if you go to the second image below which is a closeup and zoom in on it, you can see the tiny feathers affixed to the intricate metal lattice.

Kingfisher feathers
Feather Headdress Closeup

We decided to eat Indian for dinner, an easy choice for us while staying in Little India. The restaurant we chose served OK Indian food, but nothing to write home about. We walked home through the pulsing streets, alive with blasting Tamil music, so many colours, religious paraphernalia, flower garlands, traditional outfits swirling in colour and glitter, fabric stores, henna tattoos, jewellery shops, and of course the smells, street food, samosas, curry, sizzling, and trying not to get run over before bed.

Little India Clip

Day 16 – Ipoh to Penang – Night walks and prayer fires

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It was time to say goodbye to Zul and Chor lodging. Maybe not the best place we’ve stayed, what with the persistent mosquitos and worn out decor, but we did appreciate Zul. I found out from him that he sleeps on a mat down on the lobby floor and he stands behind the door to pray when the call goes out. Not even an air-conditioned room for poor Zul!

The mighty Zul
Television sculpture at Chor?
Chor reception but also Zul’s bedroom

Packed up, took Grab to bus station, drank really bad coffee in a bag, and then an hour and a half bus ride to Butterworth, which is the town just across from the island of Penang. You can cross a bridge to Penang but it was more convenient for us to stop in Butterworth and hop on the ferry which is right there at the bus station, and only 6 RM to cross over to Georgetown, the main city on Penang. We were extremely excited to find an Auntie Annie’s pretzel shop in the bus station and without hesitation purchased pretzels and lemonade as is our frequent custom at home.

Bag o’ coffee
Penang Ferry

It was only a 10 minute walk from the ferry landing in Georgetown to our hostel, the Cocoa Mews. Thematically, the hostel gets its name and branding from the resident strays that the owners have adopted. One of the co-owners, Howie, checked us in, giving us a rapid fire information dump, maps, food ideas, hostel tour, house rules, and led us to our room on the third floor. The private room was nothing special, but it did open up to a neat balcony where we could look down on the thriving street below, lined with Chinese lanterns, Indian restaurants, dress shops, herbalists, and abuzz with motorbikes and an endless stream of people.

Cocoa Mews

For dinner we sought to expand our Malaysian food experience at the Chulia Street night market, just a couple blocks away. Luke loved the oyster egg omelette, and I devoured some char kway teow, another fried noodle dish with duck egg and prawn. After dinner we took a walk around the old part of Georgetown, along Love Lane, narrow, crammed with restaurants, decaying Chinese shopfronts, crumbling colonial houses, towards the waterfront, along past gleaming white buildings of an older western style such as Penang City Hall, coming finally to the walls of Fort Cornwallis and the cruise ship terminals.

Penang City Hall

Luke, by the way, is obsessed with cruises and cruise ships. Scarecely a day goes by without him imploring us to immediately book a family cruise, and he frequently lets us know that he would really rather be on a cruise right now, preferably one with cool water slides, laser tag, bumper cars, etc. While we aren’t booking a cruise anytime soon, the least we could do was to walk over to take pictures of the ship currently moored at the terminal. Nothing too impressive or interesting compared to the mega-ships of today according to our resident expert, but worth a couple photos.

As we headed back towards Little India where the hostel is located, we came across a strange bonfire pretty much in the middle of the street. Luke was kind of upset and remarked that “This really isn’t very safe! They should put that out!” A Chinese couple was throwing various paper products into the flaming pile, and when Miriam asked what they were doing, they said, “Praying”

We’ve since seen quite a few of these street fires, usually out in front of Chinese temples or shrines, and a little Googling helped me to understand that this is not just some good-time bonfire, which is about the last thing you’d want on a 95 degree day, but rather is a way of honouring the dead. This fire activity is ticking up as we approach the Chinese Lunar New Year. Families throw fake paper money into the flames to ensure that their dead relative are getting good luck in the afterlife. I also read that in these modern times, there are all sorts of paper products manufactured to be burned as offerings, including paper iPhones, paper luxury cars, paper buildings, etc.

All the way home we listened to Luke’s reasons why we should definitely be worried about the fire, insistent that these things can get out of control pretty quickly, and aren’t a lot of these old buildings made out of extremely dry and flammable wood? Aren’t they Dad? Luckily the flames were kept under control and we had a peaceful night of sleep.

Day 14 – Ipoh – Kellie’s Castle

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We were arguing again. We were sweating again. And we were stranded, and hot, and cranky, with no ride back to Ipoh. I though that illness or local political tensions might be factors that could end our family journey early, but now I wonder if the heat will be the end of us. And it is only going to get worse as we continue up into Thailand and Cambodia.

Kellie’s Castle

20 January 2020: We decided that our main trip for the day would be to to Kellie’s Castle, the ruins of an enormous, partially completed mansion about a 30 minute drive outside of Ipoh. We didn’t get going quite as early as we might have liked, and so were trying to hurry up, purchasing a diverse 7-11 breakfast featuring a variety of heavily processed foods prior to calling up a Grab car to take us out to the castle. I wonder if Luke will consider this a traditional Malaysian breakfast?

7-11 Brekkie

The “castle” was designed and partially built by William Kellie-Smith, a Scotsman who came to Malaysia in 1890. A civil engineer by trade, he made a modest fortune working for a surveying company clearing land for government contracts. He purchased 1000 acres of land in the Kinta Perak region and dabbled in tin mining and rubber trees, which I guess were popular hobbies for rich colonial chaps back then.

He brought his sweetheart Agnes over to Malaysia in 1903 and you really have to wonder how he was able to convince her to come to what was basically an undeveloped, brutally hot, mosquito infested jungle. “The humidity will be great for your skin darling!” One of the many historical signs noted that servants would often have to take Agnes up into the hills to try to escape the tropical heat. Based on my own experience so far, I can only imagine the daily discussions Bill and Agnes must have had during those sticky-backed, broiling afternoons.

William Kellie Smith

The crumbling mansion is fun to explore and it is interesting to look at the architecture. William had eclectic and diverse tastes, wide-ranging enough to include Roman, Moorish, and Indo-Saracenic influences. There are Mughal horseshoe arches over the doorways and windows and vaulted gateways alongside details you might find in a medieval church. He was so taken by designs he had seen in India, that he brought in 70 workers from Madras, and imported Indian stone to build with, as well as Italian marble mixed in with local materials, all of which he hoped would really impress his friends.

But the truth is that William was using his wife’s money to build the castle, and word had gotten around to this effect, so behind his back they would call it “Agnes’ Castle” or “Kellie’s Folly”. After all, William had started only with a modest fortune, and not all of his business interests turned out so well. He had to sell off a large portion of his land holdings around the turn of the century, and the government departments he worked with previously had come to the view that he was a business man of the Donald Trump variety- unreliable and more likely to lose money than make it. “I’ll show them,” I imagine him saying, “I’ll build a massive, incredibly expensive, castle mash-up in the jungle using all of my wife’s money in the process!”

Find Luke in Kellie’s Castle

William Kellie Smith also appears to have had a bit of a paranoid personality streak. The building reportedly has multiple secret tunnels built beneath (unable to verify this on the tour), and various hidden passageways that provide quick egress from the mansion in the event of…whatever. As a colonial fellow trying to succeed at the expense of the natives, perhaps he had some thought that things might turn sour at any moment.

A lot of things got in the way of completion of the mansion. World War I made it impossible to get supplies for building, and they even had to grow their own food to survive, which I’m sure Agnes loved. Later, the influenza pandemic called the Spanish Flu killed most of his skilled Indian craftsmen, which obviously slowed down progress considerably.

Walking through Kellie’s Castle

Lastly, I should mention that there are many reports that the mansion is is haunted. These vague reports typically feature William Smith or Agnes, or even one of his children haunting the bedrooms and grand halls of the mansion, despite the fact that none of them died anywhere close to the building. William died of pneumonia while travelling in Portugal, and Agnes almost immediately sold off the mansion in the jungle, which I think demonstrates pretty clearly how she really felt about living in Malaysia. She retreated to England where she lived happily in a luxury apartment with her kids.

That brings us up to the anger, confusion and delay described earlier. After a sweaty hour and a half of walking around the mansion, we discovered that we could not reach any drivers with the Grab app for the ride home. We were also finding it difficult to decide on a course of action for the afternoon, leading us to cranky, pointless arguments. Luckily, prior to strangling each other, we were able to find an English speaking staff who made some calls to get a driver to come pick us up. We were driven back to Ipoh in what amounted to a mobile oven driven by an Indian woman with her sister along for the ride. We had finally agreed to go to the Han Chin Pet Soo museum back in Ipoh but when we emerged from 30 minutes of baking in that car, we were dismayed to find it closed on Monday- certainly a planning fail on our part.

We fled to the nearest restaurant we could find with aircon and cold drinks. Miriam and I had some nice laksa soup with beef. Luke elected to eat spaghetti bolognese, which is his go-to, reliably unspicy meal when it is available. Perhaps we should have taken Luke to Italy instead.

Once returned to normalcy with heat and arguments dissipated, we returned to Concubine Lane in search of Ipoh desserts recommended to us. We bought a few more biscuits including kaya and salted egg puffs and some caramel custard which we ate down by the Kinta River which flows through Ipoh.

Salted egg puff pastry

We walked down Mural Arts Lane (more of an alley really) on the way back for our typical afternoon cool-down. I find that I can’t sit around for too long though, so I headed out for a further stroll around town. I also wanted to locate a shoe store so that we could buy Luke some proper footwear to go in the caves the next day. I walked for a a couple hours through the city, located a huge shopping mall, and enjoyed a stroll through the Japanese Garden in DR Seenivasagam Recreational Park

Mural Art Lane

In the evening we met up with Awani, another traveller who was on the danger tea tour with us in the Cameron Highlands and is tracking along through Malaysia in the same northbound direction. We had randomly bumped into her in the street at the Ipoh night market the previous night and decided to meet up for dinner. The original plan was to get some of the Ipoh specialty salted chicken at a nearby place we had walked past earlier, but we found it closed early (curses, closed again!).

We needed to get to the mall before closing at 10 PM to get Luke some new shoes, and I had spotted a hawker area in that direction earlier in the day, so we made our way to Tong Sui Kai, literally “dessert street”. It is a long lane with more than 50 food stalls. We enjoyed mee goreng, which is a large flat noodle dish, fried with tellur (egg), and a couple varieties of wan tan mee, which is a noodle dish which can be in soup or dry form, I had char siew wan tan mee, where char siew is a form of Chinese barbecue, in this case, duck.

Tong Sui Kai Hawkers Area

I won’t bore you with a description of a trip to another mega-mall, but I will say that the malls in Asia rock late into the evening, and the aircon was quite welcome at the end of the day. The might even have been some Baskin Robbins involved.

Day 12 – Cameron Highlands – Danger Tea Tour & Garbage Rivers

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Narrow, serpentine roads, winding ever upwards through thick mountain mist. I could hardly blame Luke for being terrified after multiple close calls with speeding cars coming around the blind curves, in one case sending a mountain biker into a skidding crash in the middle of the road. Luckily the biker hopped back up with just some scratches…

18 January 2020: The preceding paragraph describes us on the road up to the BOH tea plantation as part of a half-day tour of sites around the Cameron Highlands. Now, I’m not really a tour guy- I prefer to go at my own speed and I’m stubbornly unwilling to pay people to tell me about things that I can just as easily learn about on my own. Still, to be able to get around the Cameron HIghlands, and see what there is to see, we’d have to rent a car or book in multiple taxis, and honestly, I think we were feeling a bit lazy and happy to have the logistics of this sorted out for us.

BOH Tea Plantation Tour

We were picked up by our tour guide in a rugged Land Rover and headed north out of Tanah Rata towards the tea plantation. Having survived the harrowing trip up there, we were dropped at the entrance and given time to stroll leisurely along the road through fields of tea down to the village where the tea workers live. Our guide explained that many foreigners come and work on the plantations, where one of the benefits is that the company provides housing and other perks for the labour. It sounded to me like a tough life- 6 Days a week from 7AM to 5 PM, harvesting tea leaves all day for which they receive a small amount per kg of tea delivered.

The Cameron Highlands were so named when they were surveyed by geologist William Gordon Cameron a British soldier and colonial administrator who evidently got tired of constantly having to launder his sweaty uniforms, and headed for the cool climate of The Highlands. The BOH plantation was started in 1929 by the British business man J.A. Russel who used a single steamroller and a team of unfortunate mules to carve the first stepped plantation out of the raw, undeveloped jungle.

The Honimills in an Ocean of Tea Trees

We tried some of the BOH tea in their tea room, a pot of Palais Supreme. I’m no tea expert, but it sure tasted like tea to me. BOH reportedly supplies 70% of Malaysia’s tea. We had a quick tour of the tea factory where you could see the tea making process, and here is my memory of the process as demonstrated to us:

  • Rolling the leaves. This is basically a machine that roughs up the poor little tea leaves, breaking them down so that the flavour comes out. The factory featured a big, gyrating, pulverising machine, with a worker shovelling tea into the smasher. This was definitely the most exciting part of the tour.
  • Oxidation: After beating up the leaves, they are left on their own in a temperature controlled room where chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. How long the tea is allowed to oxidise is what determines the characteristics of the tea. Darker teas require longer oxidation times. Oxidation is not quite as exciting as leaf rolling.
  • Drying/Fixation; The tea leaves are heated which stops the enzymatic oxidation. Further drying, usually by baking, brings out additional flavours in the tea. This part of the tour was considerably less interesting. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “About as interesting as watching tea dry”.
  • Sorting: The final product is sorted out into batches where the size and quality of the leaves determine the form of the final product.
Selamat Datang! (Welcome)

If you haven’t yet closed out this deeply compelling tea break-down and switched over to that other blog about the radical wing suit jumper or the great white shark hunter, then you are in for a treat, as we are about to get back into high adrenaline mode as we climb back into the Land Rover and our tour guide takes us further up the mountain into the Mossy Forest.

The Mossy Forest

The driver, while wrestling with the wheel and the gear shift, still managed to carry on a conversation on his mobile, a point not lost on Luke, who wondered aloud to the rest of the vehicle whether or not this was a good idea, and isn’t that kind of a dangerous thing to be doing. After the driver finished his call, Luke said, “Dad, I think I liked it better when he was on the phone, because he drove slower!”

The Mossy Forest

Luckily we made it to the Mossy Forest alive. This tropical, evergreen, montane and very moist forest is constantly cloaked in mist from low lying clouds. This results in trees covered top to bottom in moss and lichen with ferns growing over everything, and orchids and pitcher plants popping up here and there. You can pay an additional 30 RN to go walk on a boardwalk in the paid section of the Mossy Forest, which several people including the tour guide advised us is not worth it. And so we turned around and headed down the mountain.

Walking in the Mossy Forest

We made a brief stop at a strawberry farm. The weather in the Cameron Highlands is perfect for growing so many things, and there are endless strawberry farms all over the region. We bought and consumed a punnet of berries before heading back to the Bunker.

Garbage Trails #9 and #4

Miriam settled in for a rest and Luke disappeared into his pod to cuddle with his iPad, leaving me to decide on what to do with my own personal time. I decided to embark on some running tourism. Putting on the sneakers and going for a jog is one great way to see more of a region.

Hostel Shoe Shelf

On the local map I had noted a couple of waterfalls that didn’t seem like they would be too far to run to, so I started out to search for Jungle Trek #9. Turns out it was not at all easy to find. It is hidden behind the Animal Feeding Rainbow Garden, marked by an obscure sign I challenge you to locate in the picture below.

Once on the trail, the destination was Robinson Falls. To get there, you have to duck under branches, and pick your way along the overgrown path. Alongside the path, accompanying you the whole way, is an enormous rusty pipe. There are additional black pipes and cables strung along in the cascading river itself and a fair amount of garbage caught up in the vegetation along the banks. Upon reaching the waterfall, it is a lovely, noisy cascade, pouring over a steep rock face. It is really amazing that this area is touted for its natural wonders, rivers, waterfalls, etc, and yet the actual natural wonders are mistreated, mismanaged, and neglected. This should be a wonderful spot for all to enjoy, but it is impossible to find, and totally trashed.

More Quality Signage

I tried my luck next with Trail #4 to Parit Falls, This is another lovely spot that is diminished by rafts of accumulated garbage at the base of the falls and around the pond. A pervasive, sewery smell strongly suggested to me that I keep my shirt on. It makes me wonder what it would take for Malaysia, or Tanah Rata to clean up its natural resources. I remember a time in the USA when people found it acceptable to finish your fast food while racing down the interstate, and to toss the trash out the window onto the side of the highway. A large government awareness plan was needed to change the public’s attitudes and behaviours. I’m sure the government here has a lot more pressing problems than litter, though as a tree hugger, I can’t help but find it disappointing.

Parit Falls – Zoom in to see the garbage in the falls

Day 11 – Cameron Highlands – Jungle Treks #10 and #6

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Plants were whipping and scratching our legs with every step through the jungle. Miriam and Luke were spending a lot of time on their backsides, sliding down the steep, eroded trail. We sweated our way through the narrow corridor of tropical plants, trying to remember what was fun about this kind of trekking.

The Jungle Trekking Plan

Earlier that morning, Miriam and I awoke in the Travellers Bunker, quickly obtained cups of coffee and settled in at a table in one of the common areas to plan the day. Soon, other travellers were awake and many impromptu discussions were held, with everyone swapping travel tips and opinions about different countries and cities, talking about personal backgrounds, hometowns, politics, etc. Luke was still asleep, demonstrating his continuing slide towards teenager behaviour.

We settled on one of the “Jungle Treks” that are detailed on maps of the Highlands. That morning we chatted with a German woman who had tackled the “#10 to #6” trek, and while she said it could be a bit tough at times, she had enjoyed it. Luke and Miriam are experienced hikers, so I didn’t really worry too much about handling the toughness of the trail.

Yong Teng

First, we fortified ourselves with breakfast at a restaurant named “Yong Teng”. The food was pedestrian, but the couple that runs the place were quite charming in their own way. The owners are both deaf. The woman serving us had a very efficient way of taking orders, using a set of gestures, including pointing, thumbs up, thumbs down, OK, and a few other signs. Frankly, I think she collected our orders more clearly and efficiently than when we order with our voices!

Taking orders via signs at Yong Teng

Jungle Trails #10 and #6

Stomachs fully loaded, we set out to find the #10 trail. We have started using the map.me app, which lets you download a fairly detailed map of a country in its entirety so that you can see your location all the time without using data. The app clearly displayed the jungle trails. As we are accustomed to the reasonably well-signed and marked trails of Australia and the USA, we found navigating the trails of Tanah Rata amusing and challenging. Most signage is of the “Yard Sale this Saturday” variety, on cardboard or plywood, or sometimes written in marker on small strips of plastic- that is, when they exist at all.

Interesting Signage at the start of Jungle Hike #10

The #10 Jungle Trail starts off behind a garden shop with only a tiny, hand made sign to direct you, and proceeds up over what looks like a construction site heaped with mounds of earth and rusty machines. Eventually the trail reaches a more forested environment and proceeds steeply uphill. Apparently they haven’t heard of switchbacks here, with the trail going basically straight up and over an obstacle course of roots and eroded hillside.

Ascending the #10 Trail

Unfortunately, when we were getting the briefing from the hostel staff on which trails were best and which to avoid, Luke overheard some comments about how on some trails there had been problems with vicious dogs, and possibly some harassment by locals. Despite being on what was described by the staff as a safe and popular hike, Luke kept up a constant series of anxious questions about what we were going to do at the moment when that pack of rabid dogs descends upon us and begins to tear the flesh from our bones. When I was unable to satisfy him of his safety on that front, he moved on to questions about all of the dangerous characters who were likely well-armed and waiting behind trees to rob us of our tourist maps and water bottles.

Luke, thinking perhaps of wild dogs

After an hour and a half, we gained the summit of Gunug Jasar, a peak that tops out at 5564 feet (1696 meters). Some clouds had moved in and were beginning to sweep over the mountain. We still had a fine view back down on Tanah Rata, though the romance of obtaining the peak was somewhat diminished by the presence of a massive electrical tower looming over us at the top.

There at the top, the #10 intersects with the #6 which follows the power lines as they drop off the other side of the mountain. It was at this point that we began our slipping and sliding downhill journey through the thick foliage, occasionally breaking through to traverse the concrete pedestal of another electrical tower. The steep and arduous descent ended at a creek in a deeply shaded glen beneath a canopy of banana leaves. After this, the trail broke out onto an open, winding road through various plantations and small farms. We walked along passing tea trees, hot peppers, and other unidentified mystery vines. Occasionally we would pass some humble shacks that appeared to be housing for labourers and villages constructed of whatever materials might be found.

Forest village

The last part of the trail cuts through private land that includes the Bharat Tea Plantation.

Hiking through the Bharat tea plantation

The exit point of the #6 trail is 5km down the road from our hostel in Tanah Rata, and definitely not a road that you’d want to hike on. We were about to call a taxi when one luckily happened by and took us back to the hostel for 15 RM. Having survived the flora and confusion of the Jungle trek, and the gauntlet of imagined canine and human threats, we felt we had earned our dinner. We celebrated our victory by feasting heartily at an Indian restaurant named Singh Chapati. I suppose that is what we like about a tough hike- the satisfaction of completion and the culinary rewards!

Singh Chapati in Tanah Rata

Luke’s view – days 21-24

Day 21

My favourite part of the trip to the luxury mall and Wat Pho was either the train that took us there, looking at new phones or the food at the AIS store. I guess I liked the temple as well.

I don’t understand why they have to make it so hard just to get a stupid SIM card. Like why can’t they just call it the ‘fancy AIS store?’ The fake AIS store looks literally like it’s an AIS store because in big letters outside it says AIS. The real AIS store said in small writing, AIS, and in huge writing it said boutique or something.

I enjoyed seeing the first reclining Buddha on our travels and thought it was interesting starting to learn the beliefs of Buddhism.

Reclining Buddha

Day 22

The Jim Thompson house history was interesting. My favourite part was wondering how he disappeared in Cameron highlands and seeing how the house was laid out. I think the ways he could have disappeared is either he fell of a cliff, got shot, got attacked by a wild animal or died because of a heart attack.

Now this crazy, speeding boat that went up this tiny canal was the second dodgiest transport vehicle we’ve been on this trip after the Malacca monorail. I have 3 reasons for this. Reason number 1: You could literally fall into the dirty water trying to jump onto the boat from the dock. Reason number 2: The engine literally sounded like it could explode any second. If the people that run the boat are reading this I need to let you know – get new engines for your boats! Reason number 3: The boats pass approximately 2 inches apart and could crash any second!

After the walk through Chinatown, we ended up in this alleyway with these huge rats dashing around. This path was the quickest way to the train station apparently but I didn’t care and refused to go further and wanted to turn around. Of course my parents did that thing where they walk off without me. So I quickly caught up with them and clung onto their arms the rest of the way down the alley.

I thought our first train, the subway was crowded but when I saw the skytrain I thought the subway was a nice, comfortable and spacious ride. The platform was jam- packed and once we actually made it there 4 trains went past before we even got packed into ours.

Day 23

My dad wanted to take a walk through the amulet markets downtown. I thought that was the name of the neighbourhood it was in or something. It turned out it was some sort of thingamabob and after going there I still don’t know what an amulet is.

I loved going on the boat on the main river of Bangkok not one of those dirty little canals from day 22. The boat was no Brisbane ferry (the Brisbane city cat is very nice.) but nicer than the shack canal boat (no offence.)

The millennium Hilton. This is a photo that reminds me that we could be staying in much nicer places.

Since we started the day late we already were looking for dinner and we wound up going to a pig organ soup place!? Now I know I tried jellyfish and pig ears and liked them in Australia but this was a nice, trusty restaurant. This place was not very modern and was in smushed up rice so I didn’t have anything.

Day 24

The bus ride to Koh Chang was nice. I was so excited to try out these weird taxi things and our first ride was by far our best ride. It was jammed with people and people were hanging off the back going up steep hills. Now that was fun!

Arriving at Koh Chang in the car ferry

Day 32 – Tears in My Soup – Miriam’s View

One of the reasons I wanted to take a Thai cooking class is that I fear the kitchen. The idea of making a meal more complex than bean and cheese burritos or sausages and salad send me into angst-y planning mode. I have to look at a zillion recipes, eliminate those that sound too complicated or contain ingredients like fresh yak’s milk and run to the store at least twice because I will inevitably forget one of those ingredients.

This anxiety stems from never learning how to cook. My mom taught us how to bake, so I can make a decent pie crust, and I am orthodox about sifting flour, but that’s where my expertise ends. Put me in a kitchen where I have to tend to multiple dishes at once, and I become Lucy in the chocolate factory.

A lesson from a Thai chef could help me slow down and enjoy the experience of putting a meal together, I thought. At our cooking school, we were each allowed to choose a soup, a curry and a stir-fry dish. I chose the Thai vegetable soup because vegetables have been hard to come by in much of Southeast Asia.

Our teacher told us that the vegetable soup is believed to cure hangovers and other ailments. First, we chopped Thai garlic. About the size of a peanut, a clove of Thai garlic is smaller than traditional garlic. Thai cooks leave the skin on it to create a crispy texture in the dish. We also chopped Galangal, also known as Thai Ginger. Like Ginger, Galangal is a rhizome, a type of plant that shoots out underground to create offspring. Turmeric is also a rhizome.

We ground all these spices with a mortar and pestle. Before this, I thought the only possible use of a mortar and pestle was To have a cool way to make and serve guacamole. As our teacher encouraged us to bang harder and harder with the pestle, the spices gave up an earthy aroma. We then made a simple chicken broth with a bouillon cube, then added the spices and vegetables.

Breathing in the fragrance of the soup, I found myself crying a bit, thinking of my mom and how much she hated cooking. She worked and cooked for five kids every day, only to have us whine that we didn’t like the meal. She once grew so angry that she smashed a plate on the kitchen floor and stormed way from the table.

As a child, I never understood this. Now that I’m a parent, I do. You commit your life completely to your children. You do everything for them, and they complain. I wish my mom could have experienced the joy of Galangal, chicken broth, and vegetables, stirred over an open flame on a Thai farm with chickens squawking in the background. My mom is no longer here to do that, but I want to tell her that if we were ever able to cook this dish together, I would not complain. I would tell her that I love her and every dish she ever made for us.

Luke’s view – day 18

After going to get dumplings at the jetty food market and taking a nap, I was so excited to go up Penang hill and couldn’t wait to get there. After the 50 minute bus ride, my parents were taking their time to head over to the train so I hurried them along.

There was a hallway where on the walls there were cool things about the train. Like how it has the steepest railway tunnel in the world. Every morning workers arrive at 5:00 in the morning and walk the whole track to check that it’s working. There was a history of the railroad and the first train was outdoors and it took an hour to get to the top! Nowadays, it takes 5 minutes.

I was surprised at how fast the train went up the hill it was soooooo fast! I thought it would be like in Wellington, New Zealand where it went about 5 miles per hour. This one seemed like 50 miles per hour.

Train starting it’s journey up the hillside

The view from the top was amazing. Seeing the city turn from day to night was so cool. Going back down on the train was even more fun than going up! My favourite part was when it went over a crest and got even steeper!

View from top

When we were on the bus home, I was dozing off when all of the sudden I saw the Chinese temple, Kek lok si! It was amazing how it was lit up like an insane Christmas tree, or a Vegas casino! I pointed out to my parents and they were like let’s get off the bus! I complained because I was totally about to drift off under the calming noise of the bus engine. Well, I was actually happy we got off because it was by far the best temple we’ve seen.

Kek lok si