Bangkok : April 12-16
After months of looking forward we finally took off with KLM to Bangkok. Reasonably well prepared, even though the past few weeks have been overcasted by all the logistics regarding our move from Switzerland back to Holland.
Our first hours in Bangkok leave these impressions behind: traffic, noise, heat, street food booths and smells. This is really something different then the Swiss mountains. We have booked a nice guesthouse for 3 nights in the Pin Klao district. It is located a bit further out of the centre, which we notice by the fact that we hardly see any other foreigners. A great modern shopping plaza in the neighbourhood provides all facilities we need during our first day to get used to our new environment and time zone (during the night Michiel was awake from 23.00-3.00 making drawings and continuously asking when it was time for breakfast …)
The second day we have been exploring the west of Bangkok a bit. People are celebrating Thai New Year all around us by, amongst other things, throwing buckets of water to each other from the side of the road. Our specific instructions to the tuk-tuk driver about not wanting to get wet were not very successful; after that drive we were soaking wet from head to toe and there was nothing else we could do but go back to the hotel and change.
The next day we visited a few temples, booked our train tickets to Chiang Mai for the next evening, but then fled from the centre again. The Thai New Year festivities have reached its peak and the Khao San area is just a complete madhouse !! All the shops are closed and the streets are packed with people throwing water at each other, firing water pistols/cannons and smearing mud on each others face. Fun to watch, but we are just not ready for participating in this yet and decide to withdraw to the pool with its nice patio at our hotel.
Ever done one of the highlights of a country when this nation has its public holiday? We did!! It seemed like millions of Thai visiting their own Grand Palace in Bangkok. We were there and so were they. Wearing two trousers (the first wasn’t long and holy enough) in 30+ degrees with the kids in desperate need for water, which off course we didn’t have at that time. Doesn’t sound appealing, but it was impressive. Much to see and much to explain to the kids. Particularly Saskia and Nadine showed a great interest in the whereabouts of Buddha. After strolling around Bangkok - Thannon Khao San road – we had to catch the night train to Chiang Mai. Not sure why they call it a sleep train, because the last thing I did was sleeping. Michiel, Nadine and Saskia though were very exited. Anyway after a 14-hour train trip and 800 km further up North we arrived in Chiang Mai and headed to our guesthouse.
Chiang Mai: April 17 - 23
After we checked in we decided for a boat trip on the Ping River. A stroll over the day market; the children have stopped complaining (maybe even noticing?) about the smells. Chiang Mai is Thailands second largest city, but funny enough compared to Bangkok it is more a large village, with again quite a bit of traffic.
As far as our guesthouse: we managed to stay there for one night, the place was clean, but after a day and night without towels, a only partially working fan, no toilet paper and beds hard as a rock and the children with 100 mosquito bites each, Monique and I came to the same conclusion: the backpackers hardship is fine but not necessarily for us. We searched the net (a challenge if the search takes at least two hours and you have three little kids getting bored and temps are rising beyond 35 degrees) and Monique managed to find a great authentic (very reasonably priced) Thai place (it looks like a shrine, Saskia said) a bit away from the center of Chiang Mai surrounded by a very nice garden. It is called Baan Tai Hotel (www.baantaihotel.com) After a nice swim, which ended in a free formatted dance in a tropical rain shower (the first in 4 months time), we started with our first teaching attempts with the girls. A great moment to realize we are just at the beginning of something you’ll never forget!
We did a round trip of the handycraft street, a big field trip for the children. After that we gave our selves a treat with a great Thai foot massage. The kids just loved it! Next is our trip into the hills. Michiel is extremely interested and worried at the same time about the tribe called "Long necks", which he sees on pictures everywhere.
We are starting to just love Chiang Mai! The whole atmosphere is so relaxed, there’s much to do, an enormous choice in type of food and restaurants, and the people are very friendly and with a good sense of humour. We can really notice that it is low season; we never have to worry about availability or space problems with whatever we want to do. It also makes bargaining a lot easier. Our hotel has turned out to be a good choice. The facilities are quite basic, the whole complex is an old teak style house. Occupation is very low, which means that we have the biggest asset of the hotel almost to ourselves: the pool. After a busy day of activities there is no such treat for the kids (and parents as well by the way) as a dip in the pool. Temperatures have been rising above 35 degrees (today it was 39) during the past few days …
We had a great day with a safari trip to the North west of Chiang Mai, Doi Pui National Park, which included bamboo rafting, an elephant ride (Jan-Rene and Nadine’s elephant was clearly not in a good mood which made it quite scary, and all I could here from the front was Jan-Rene shouting: “ I want to get of it now, right away!” The elephant caretaker just ignored him and there was nothing else left to do for him, but to sit it out) Saskia, Michiel and I had a good time though ….), a visit to 2 hill tribe villages and a swim at a waterfall. The look on the face of Saskia and Nadine was priceless, when they heard that in those villages they share two TV’s for 25 families, after which they quickly counted how many we have for just our family …
We have also started working with the girls more seriously by now and have managed to find some sort of a structure. It is not easy though; first trying to understand the Dutch school books and its system (what a labyrinth!), secondly convincing the girls that they should accomplish the tasks given by us without complaining and moaning too much …Great respect for those teachers!
And then the food part … as many of you know our kids are not particularly the “will eat anything type of kids”. However, as far as we have gotten by now, western food has been widely available, but we are slowly trying to move to eating more local food. Michiel is doing the best; he is all into spring rolls, pad thai, and shrimps. The girls still stick to the steamed rice and fried chicken with not much other variation. We miss our whole wheat bread and plain vegetables, but thank god there is a lot of fruit to eat.
Yesterday we ended the day with a shopping session at the “night bazaar” (Jan-Rene’s favourite activity…). Although he had great fun buying football outfits for Michiel, while I was shopping with the girls.
Today we visited a beautiful temple complex (Wat Phra Doi Suthep) on a mountain peak just outside of Chiang Mai. It was refreshing in many ways up there: above the pollution, a beautiful and peaceful scenery and somewhat cooler. The children really like visiting the temples and the Thai people keep on involving them in their prayers. They have had many blessings by monks so far.
The high so far was the Night Safari. This is a brand new initiative, where they have created a sort of “night zoo”, set in a very scenic environment where you can get very close to the animals. Many different animals and wildlife can be seen while walking a trail and taking a bus drive during nighttime. And it all ends with a spectacular water ballet / laser show.
Tomorrow we will be leaving Chiang Mai and moving further up North.
Well, that is to say, things went a little bit different. Nadine had a nasty fall on the stairs in the evening. After she had calmed down and we iced an explosively swelling lip, we noticed to our great concern that the damage to her front teeth and gum was worse than the cut in her lip. The next morning we decided she needed to see a dentist before we could travel on. Nadine herself was ok by then; her lip hurt a bit and she was just not using her front teeth. The dentist found 3 loose teeth and advised (after having made an x-ray which clearly showed two undamaged new teeth already lined up) to have the 2 front ones extracted in order to prevent abscesses and infections, also in view of our upcoming travel route. After a quick telephone consultation with our dentist in Holland, who acknowledged the Thai dentists opinion, the front teeth were pulled out after a very gently applied local anaesthesia. Nadine was very brave and is completely fine again!
Chiang Dao, Tha Ton, Chiang Rai 25 April- May 1st
So, one day later we set of by local bus to Chiang Dao, 1,5 hrs further op north. We stayed at a marvellous place called Chiang Dao’s Nest, a small resort with 6-8 simple bungalows set in a (remote) beautiful mountain scenery with an excellent restaurant. We were almost the only guests and had 4 staff running (eh well, moving I mean) around the kitchen just for us! We visited an intriguing, very peaceful (quite isolated) monastery up in de hills (509 stairs) at walking distance from our “Nest”. And we enjoyed doing nothing, reading a bit, and listening to all the strange jungle/forest sounds.
We also had the Tham Chiang Dao caves complex at a walking distance, which is said to extend some 10 km into Doi Chiang Dao (2285 m). This was quite spectacular: a 740 m tour through huge interconnected (by sometimes extremely small passage ways, which we had to crawl through), pitch dark, quite slippery caverns with an appointed guide carrying a pressurised gas lantern. All of this combined with quite a few bats made the whole thing a bit spooky and we were relieved to see the daylight again after 1 hour of walking through the damp dark …. Also the fact that (again) there were almost no other tourists gave it all quite an unreal atmosphere.
After that we boarded the bus to go further up north and 3 hours later we arrived at Tha Ton. We hadn’t booked any accommodation in advanced, and quite a few things we had planned for turned out to be either closed or too expensive. So for one night we were back to the basic type of no sheets/hard beds/smelly towels type of guesthouse with a drunk Thai guest who passed out and slept in front of our door.
This is the boat we took to Chiang Rai
Tha Ton, a very small town high up in the North near to the Burmese border offers again trekking tours, but these were just a bit too ambitious for us as a family. We planned to move on to Chiang Rai by bus, but that turned out to be very complicated and lengthy. So we changed our plan to taking a boat trip on the Mae Kok, which turned out to be an extremely enjoyable experience. Curled up in a long-tail boat with a few other travellers and some young Thai who were on their way to visiting one of the remote villages along the river, we had a very pleasant and scenic trip that lasted almost 5 hours. We passed by many little villages, with a lot of young people bathing and playing in the river, and saw water buffalo’s and elephants and enjoyed the diversity of typical northern landscapes. During the trip we had two stops along the way; one at a very remote and to be honest a bit filthy village (definitely the worst toilets ever) and another at a touristy Karen village where Saskia had a dream come true: holding 2 live snakes (pitons) of more than 100 kilo’s.
In Chiang Rai we had a relaxing time at a Thai family hotel and spent time preparing our upcoming trip into Laos. Then we took the bus up to Chiang Khong. Every time we have taken the bus so far, we have been the only non-Thai and we keep causing some commotion with our children. They all smile at them, start talking very rapidly, pet them and feed them cookies and sweets, including the monks. It is almost as if we are the tourist attraction!
Chiang Khong is quite a funny little, but busy town at the Laos border, where we will be entering Laos by crossing the river. We found this extraordinary guesthouse along the Mekong with views on Laos. It is a huge teak wooden house with an unbelievable amount of space, in a very laid back atmosphere, run by a talkative and heartily mother and son. Tomorrow, May 1st, we will board the two-day slow boat to Luang Prabang.