Chiang Mai 2016-2017

November 2016 - February 2017
A 88-day adventure by Roch
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  • 12.5kkilometers
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  • Day 1

    Goodbye Gray Skies

    November 29, 2016 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 5 °C

    The weather report last night said Vancouver has had only five dry days in October and November so far this year. Although it wasn't constantly raining, the skies were almost always cloud filled and sun sightings were special occasions. Of course, I'll take the mild temperatures and lack of snow over the climate back east any day, but I feel my vitamin D levels need replenishing.

    And what better way to rebuild my D supply than three months in Thailand? So, at 12:50 PM today, Brenda and I fly out of YVR with stops in Beijing and Bangkok en route to our home away from home, Chiang Mai. Two years ago we spent six months in and around Chiang Mai and have longed to repeat the experience ever since.Given the health issues I faced earlier this year, we elected to limit this journey to only three months, but that will be long enough to clear the skies above Vancouver and will have us returning as the first flowers burst up through the ground.

    I love being retired!
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  • Day 2

    One More Sleep

    November 30, 2016 in Thailand ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    When we booked our flight to Bangkok, we got a pretty good deal on the airfare through Air China that came with a 3:45 layover in Beijing. Brenda was a little reluctant to fly with this carrier as their service and past safety record may have been a little sketchy. In the end, both the flight to Beijing (11 hours) and to Bangkok (4:45 hours) went as smoothly as can be expected, although it made for a very long 23 hour travel day when you factor in the time to get to and from the airports, security checks and the layover. Both flights arrived on schedule and we were fed three full meals with free refreshments, including alcohol! Overall the service was good, albeit a little unsmiling and the flights were quite smooth and without incident, which of course, was the most important thing.

    We landed in Bangkok a little after midnight and taxied to a nearby hotel where we'll spend the night before we catch our next flight to Chiang Mai tomorrow afternoon.

    I can almost taste the mangoes already!
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  • Day 6

    Sunday Night Market

    December 4, 2016 in Thailand ⋅ 🌙 23 °C

    Chiang Mai has a really interesting night market on Sunday evenings which has expanded immensely since we were here two years ago. In 2014, the market was centered on Rachadamnoen Alley in the old city, with some small offshoots on a few cross streets. This year the offshoots are full fledged branches and even the streets running perpendicular to the main market are filled with vendors. Despite the expansion, as was the case two years ago, there are so many people walking around, one can barely move.

    All the hustle and bustle comes to a complete standstill at 6:00 PM each week when the PA system announces it is time to stand for the playing of the Thai national anthem. For the entire duration of the song, the only thing moving in the crowds are the lips of those singing along. And this year, because of the king's passing in October, we were treated to another pause in the mayhem. At just after 7:00, the PA blasted out another message, but this time only in Thai. The vendors began dimming the lights in their stalls and handing out candles to each other. Then, when all the staff was holding lit candles, they began handing them out to the customers, including me! A lengthy speech was broadcast over the PA system followed by a full minute of silence for their beloved king. Very touching.

    Once the candles were extinguished, it was back to business as usual. The food hawkers, the artisans and the musicians all picked up exactly where they left off and the throng once again perused all the offerings available.

    We stopped at our favorite spot for Pad Thai at one of the temples along the main drag. We were shocked to learn that the price had gone up from 25 baht two years ago to 35 baht this year! OK, 10 baht is only $0.35, but it's the principal of the matter. That's a 40% increase in 24 months. Shameful.

    Right near the end of our shopping time, Brenda stopped dead in her tracks and said, "Look at those papayas!" Now you have to realize that there are not a lot of people selling fruit at this market, unless it's sliced, diced and ready to eat. But lo and behold, a few feet ahead of me, there were a half dozen of the largest papayas I've ever seen in my life. We decided we had to have one....... no two! bring home with us, especially when we saw one was 25 baht ($0.89) and the other, 30 baht ($1.07). We'll probably have one for breakfast tomorrow morning and that's when we'll find out if they're any good.

    Happy days!
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  • Day 27

    Christmas In Chiang Mai

    December 25, 2016 in Thailand ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    As one can imagine, Christmas, in a land where the temperature rarely falls below 20°C and Buddhism is the main religion, is a very different experience from that to which I am accustomed. In fact, it is safe to say that Christmas is a non-event here. Had it not fallen on a Sunday this year, all the stores, restaurants and services would be open for business as usual.

    Aside from the obvious lack of snow, most noticeable is the near total absence of Christmas decorations, carols playing in the malls and, worst of all, Santa Claus. Of course there is the one life-size, saxophone playing, robotic St. Nick, who dances in time to his music, but he's playing some Thai tune that is completely foreign to the Western ear.

    To cater to the expats, some of the larger hotels offered multi-course Christmas Eve dinners, complete with wine, in the $100 per price range, but none of these suited our vegan lifestyle. In any case, for $200 we can eat in our usual dining spots for two solid weeks!

    So how did we celebrate? Well, we started on Xmas Eve with a wonderful meal at Ama Vegan Restaurant. This lovely little spot only opened three months ago and is run by a very delightfully zen Thai woman who speaks perfect English. The menu is organic, Buddhist vegetarian and vegan, which means no onion, garlic or animal products are used in the preparation of the food. We ordered a noni leaf curry (the noni was replaced with another Thai green as they had run out) that was cooked to order and not too spicy at Brenda's request. It was superb. Next on our plates was a banana blossom salad that was made with flowers taken from banana tree right on the premises. Lastly we were treated to a medley of deep fried root vegetables that was served with four different homemade dipping sauces. A wonderful red, brown and black rice dish was served to soak up the juices. All this food came to 410 baht, or about $15.00CDN. Very expensive by Thai standards.

    After dinner we went home and watched A Christmas Story, which Brenda had never seen before. It was like winning "A major award".

    Christmas morning started with our annual exchange of cards,which Brenda won hands down this year with her card bearing the image of a dragon boat adorned with a single Christmas decoration.

    We jumped out of bed and headed to the JJ Market, an open air organic farmer's market that takes place every Sunday morning. We picked up some organic lettuce, passion fruit and bananas as well as a few gluten free treats to eat as dessert tonight. We also ran into some friends with whom we exchanged Christmas greetings.

    Then it was off to the gym to burn some calories in preparation for tonight's food binge.

    Once back home, we called Brenda's family and chatted with them for a while and then sat down to send emails and messages to friends and family we couldn't call.

    At around 3:00 PM, we made our way to the Lotus Hotel and spent a couple of hours at their pool, soaking up the sun and enjoying the water.

    After changing, we headed out for dinner to Imm Aim Restaurant. When we were here two years ago, we fell in love with this vegetarian place, particularly their fresh spring rolls.They have since moved to a new location and, it would seem, have brought on a new chef. We dined on spring rolls, a Panang veg curry and a broccoli,mushroom & ginger stir fry. Unfortunately, the entire meal was somewhat less than what we remembered of the place and we left quite disappointed. On our way home we stopped at Tops Market and bought more goodies to close out our evening: sun dried baby bananas in honey, fried crispy bananas, a gluten and oat free granola bar and some chocolate dipped wafers. Oink!

    We consumed the majority of our purchases while plunked down in front of the TV binge watching the end of Season 2 of Scandal. Scandalous!

    Of course it's strange to be in a land that ignores Christmas and of course we miss our family and friends at this time of year. But thanks to the wonder of the internet, Skype and VOIP, we still feel as close to our loved ones as though we were there. For me, I'm treated to exclusive access to the woman I love, cherish and share my world with. What more could one want for Christmas?
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  • Day 34

    New Year's Eve

    January 1, 2017 in Thailand ⋅ 🌧 20 °C

    We had heard that New Years celebrations here are centered around the Thai Pae gate of the Old City and, as is the custom in Thailand, food and eating go hand in hand with a celebration. Like the Sunday night market, the streets are closed to vehicular traffic and are lined with artisans, hawkers of all sorts and food stalls. We decided that rather than having a New Year's Eve supper out, we'd take advantage of all the street food on offer. Our celebration started in the afternoon with a late lunch at Aum Restaurant in the Old City where we dined on fresh spring rolls and a Northern Thai specialty, kao soi, a soupy coconut curry dish with potatoes and oyster mushrooms served over egg noodles and crispy noodles. Both were delicious.

    Since we arrived here, we've been trying to have a foot massage at one of the parlours that is run by the blind. Every time we've gone, they were fully booked and we were turned away. This time we got smart and reserved a 3:00 PM foot massage as we walked past the shop on our way to lunch. A Thai foot massage is nothing like we experience in the West. It's based on acupuncture principles and is designed to clear you body of toxins and promote good health. Extensive poking, stroking and bending is performed on the feet, and sometimes I'm inclined to cry, "Uncle!". Once your foot has been satisfactorily tenderized. the massage moves up to your shin and calf, which is also beaten into submission. The grand finale is very firm pressure being exerted on your thigh, starting at your hip and working down to your knee. A few slaps to your calves and a few twists to your feet and toes for good measure and you're done. As painful as it sounds, it's quite relaxing (I usually manage to grab a few winks during the process) and you really do feel great when it's over. And what does this 60 minute torture session set you back? Between 150 and 200 baht, or $5.35 to $7.15 CDN, depending on the shop.

    We had awakened fairly early this morning, so we thought it would be a good idea to have a power nap before heading out for the evening festivities. Unfortunately, neither Brenda nor I were able to actually doze off (I had my nap during my foot massage) so we just lazed around and chilled until we went out at 8:30.

    By the time we got into the Old City, it was already approaching 9:00 PM and we were pretty hungry. One of the first food stalls we came across had some awesome looking brownies that Brenda wanted to buy. I suggested we wait and have something more substantial to eat first. We can always come back and get them later, right? We stopped a few stalls later and bought two small plates of fried rice noodles for 10 baht each. Moving on, we each had a dish of Pad Thai (30 baht) and I had a very greasy, but tasty, spring roll (5 baht). Then we had a box of five Khanom Krok, a small round fried dumpling made of rice flour and coconut milk and stuffed with spinach (35 baht). For dessert we each had a banana & Nutella crepe before we headed back to the brownie stand to buy the coup de grace. Horror of horrors! When we got there, no more brownies were to be found! As a consolation, I sheepishly suggested we wander over to the other cake stall we saw and buy brownies there. Although we can't be sure, we both believe the other guy's wares would have been much more delicious.

    With our appetites more than sated, we walked into Wah Phan Tao where the monks were celebrating the New Year with meditation and chanting. It was a beautiful scene with lit candles everywhere and signs bearing the animals of the Chinese zodiac blowing in the gentle breeze. All the chairs that had been set out to accommodate the crowd were filled and we were obliged to stand, although we managed to secure a spot seated along side the temple wall. The chanting began at just after 10:30 and continued uninterrupted until 11:00. The three monks heading the chant took turns vocalizing the phrases and weaved in and out in three part harmony. One monk would start a phrase and the other two would respond, dropping in and out for effect. The incantation was mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. At 11:00 the chanting ceased and one of the monks addressed the crowd in Thai and English. He explained the history of the Wat (Thai for temple) and some principles of Buddhism. He discussed the benefits of meditation and the need for us all to sometimes, "put our monkey brains to rest". He then invited those in attendance to tie to their heads the string that was dangling from the grid above therm. This is done to ensure good luck in the coming year.The chants resumed at 11:30 and ran right past midnight. Never has meditation been so easy. The last thirty minutes of the year went by in a flash and before we knew it, it was 2017.

    The head monk wished everyone well, led one final 10 minute incantation and closed the evening by dismissing the students and thanking everyone for attending.

    It was a New Year's Eve like no other I've lived and one I will never forget. To share this experience with Brenda by my side made it all the more special and, of course, we shared a kiss and well wishes at midnight.

    But hey, nobody's perfect. On the way home, we stopped at Archer's Bar & Restaurant for a couple of large Chang beers! What, did you really think I'd do New Year's with no booze?
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  • Day 36

    Happy Birthday To Me!

    January 3, 2017 in Thailand ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    Holy crap! It seems like just yesterday I turned 60 and here I am celebrating my 61st birthday. In my mind, there are times that number feels like it should be reversed and someone has made a horrible mistake. I still love playing rock and roll and blues guitar and get a thrill every time I hear Hendrix on the radio. Then I look in the mirror and wonder what happened to my hair and where the hell did all those wrinkles come from. On the other hand, I'm probably in better shape at 61 than I was at 16, so I guess I can live with the telltale signs of my true age.

    On January 2nd, I awoke to Brenda sweetly singing Happy Birthday in my ear and a fantastical card that was an indicator of the day to come. We had to rise early as Brenda had booked a day trip to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, a shelter for retired or abused elephants located about 60 kilometers south of Chiang Mai.

    A driver picked us up promptly at 8:00 AM and we piled into the back of a converted pickup truck to make the ninety minute trip out of the city. We picked up eight other elephant lovers along the way, which made for a rather cozy ride. There were five Americans and three Germans, all of them in their 20's. They were a nice enough bunch and the trek passed by fairly quickly. We stopped for a break to stretch our legs about half way there and then headed right into the mountains where we seemed to climb forever. The road was quite twisty and, combined with the speed the driver handled the corners, I feared I would get to see what some of the others had eaten that morning. But in the end, everyone managed to hang onto their breakfasts.

    As we neared the sanctuary, we turned off the main road and onto an unpaved bush road that was steeper than anything we'd been on thus far. With the heavy rain that fell on New Year's day, the truck could not maintain any traction on the downhill slope, so the driver stopped the vehicle and had us all walk down the hill while he skillfully manoeuvered his way to a safer parking spot. Of course, the descent was no less treacherous for the ten of us slip sliding our way down the slope, but we all made it without mishap, despite carrying large bags filled with bananas to feed our soon to be new friends.

    The path to the camp continued downward for another ten minutes, crossing bridges and trellises made of bamboo and logs and next to a beautiful little waterfall. When we arrived at the sanctuary, we were briefed by our guide for the day, Athit, who gave a very entertaining and informative talk about the sanctuary and how to safely interact with the pachyderms. He explained we would be feeding the elephants before our lunch and then would prepare and give them herbal medicine before descending to a watering hole where we would give them a mud bath. We would meet seven elephants today, all but one of them females. The senior elephant is 55 years old and pregnant (!), there was a 40 year old, a 35 year old, a huge 30 year old, two 4 year olds and a 3 year old male called Peter, aka Naughty Boy. He is apparently quite mischievous and has a mind of his own. We were warned to stay clear of the beast's tails as they can hit hard enough to knock out a tooth. And don't let them step on your foot or you'll cry for more than three days, we were told. We were then instructed to remove our shirts and put on colorful woven tops made by the local Karen hill tribe. The elephants recognize the wearers of these garments as friends who give them food and affection. I had to wonder why none of the staff wore them!?

    We walked up a small hill and the seven elephants all greeted us (and our bananas) with as much enthusiasm as we did to meet them. We had been told to feed them one banana at a time and to hide the rest of the bunch behind our backs. Well, you can run, but you cannot hide. They know all too well you've got more food in your other hand and will try to reach around you with their trunks, which are incredibly dextrous. Some of the elephants would immediately put each banana into their mouth while others would gather up six or seven in their trunks before scarfing them down. With all this food around, the elephants' mouths were all watering and one had to frequently dodge copious amounts of flying elephant snot as their trunks whirled around searching for more goodies. All the bags of bananas we brought were consumed in short order and then we were handed large chunks of sugar cane to hand over. They were equally thrilled by this sweet treat and we could hear the hard bark being crushed by their mouths all around us. As promised, Peter lived up to his nickname by wandering off from the crowd and foraging on some leaves off a small tree.

    When all the food was exhausted, it was time for us to go to the trough and we were treated to a buffet of fried rice, stir fried vegetables and chicken for the meat eaters. It was quite delicious.

    After lunch we prepared a mixture of raw brown rice and tree bark (that we husked and crushed with a rudimentary machine that was in essence a fool operated oversized mortar and pestle), and mashed bananas that was formed into baseball sized "pills". This herbal medicine is fed to the elephants daily and helps with their digestion. We were each handed two pills and instructed to feed one to two different elephants. Apparently, they know the routine and usually all line up and wait for their meds to be dispensed. But Naughty Boy had a different plan. He charged up the hill toward one of the girls and insisted on getting his pills before the others. The guides all rushed over to get him back into line, but not before he had managed to abscond with two pills.

    Our final event of the day was bathing the elephants. We were instructed to leave our cameras behind to avoid having them damaged, but were told photos would be available online later in the day. So, unfortunately, there are no pics to share at this time. Just before stepping into the watering hole, one of the elephants decided to empty its bowels and bladder into the water. One of the guides deftly collected the floating balls of poop, which I suppose was to make us feel more comfortable!?! Uhhhhh..........Ah, what the hell, everybody went in anyway. In no time at all, mud was flying everywhere and not only the elephants were covered in it. Good, not so clean fun, I guess. We stood around and rubbed mud onto the elephants for about 45 minutes and then rinsed them off with water using small plastic bowls provided by the sanctuary. The older elephants seemed OK with the bathing, but Peter and one of the four year olds loved it. They were frolicking in the water and rolling around together. At one point, Peter sat down, curled his trunk up over his head, opened his mouth wide and invited us to throw as much water into it as we could. It looked as though he was laughing and was having a grand old time. This continued on for about 10 minutes until we were told to head over to the river to clean the mud off our bodies.

    By the time we arrived back at the camp, all the elephants had been herded back toward the forest and had already covered themselves with dust after their bath. Elephant talcum powder?

    At camp we sat around for a while and had a couple of Chang (Thai for elephant) beers while reminiscing on the events of the day. Unanimously, everyone was completely enthralled by the experience.

    A perfect ending to a perfect excursion.

    Being able to get up close and personal with these magnificent, intelligent creatures was a thrill I will always cherish. That was probably the best birthday present ever.

    After the ninety minute ride home, we took a proper shower and removed the residual mud from our bodies before heading out for a lovely birthday dinner at Blue Diamond restaurant. As good as the food was, the meal was a little anti-climactic after our elephant experience.

    Overall, a truly memorable and wondrous birthday!
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  • Day 88

    Homeward Bound

    February 24, 2017 in Thailand ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    Unbelievable, but true. Our three months under the warm tropical sun of Chiang Mai is coming to an end already. Saturday morning we set out for an overnighter in Bangkok before embarking on the long trek back to Vancouver. Once we leave Bangkok, we have a four hour layover in Beijing, which makes our total travel time, airport to airport, just shy of twenty hours. I've loaded a bunch of movies on my laptop and phone, my Kindle is chock full of books to read and all my batteries are 100% charged. Today we'll go out and buy some airplane snacks to munch on while we're in the air and then we'll come home and pack our bags.

    It's been a great three months and the weather has been typical except for about a 10 day period in January where we rarely saw the sun and had quite a but of rain. Very unseasonable. We've had some wonderful meals and made several restaurant discoveries, notably, the Reform Cafe at the Green Tiger House, Fuang Vegetarian and Aum near the Thai Pae Gate. Then there was the incredible Mixed Mushroom Burger at the Kharma Kitchen. Probably the best vegetarian burger I've ever eaten...ANYWHERE! Of course, my frequent go to place was Sangwiroon Vegetarian, where a plate of rice topped with three different curries or a nice bowl of veg Kao Soi would set me back only ฿35 (about $1.25CDN). On nights when I didn't know what to eat, I'd walk to a nearby street vendor and order a large plate of delicious and fresh made veg Pad Thai for ฿35.

    And then there was the fruit and veggies. Muang Mai market was a bottomless cornucopia of bananas, mangoes, jackfruit, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, papaya and avocado. We would go there at least twice a week and walk home with our backpacks loaded with goodies. The mangoes this year improved as the months went by. At the end we were buying huge, perfectly ripe Atualfo mangoes for ฿40/kilo. We ate lots and lots of those! This year there was a lot more durian available, but our one purchase at ฿90/kilo was not a good experience. Our plan is to return during durian season one of these years and gorge ourselves on the King of Fruit for a month or so. But that'll be a story for another day.

    Sunday mornings we would jump out of bed at 6:30 to make our way to the weekly farmers market at the JJ market located a fifteen minute walk from our apartment. It's an organic/pesticide free market where we could buy enough organic lettuce to last us the week for just under ฿100 (about $3.50 CDN). And believe me, we eat A LOT of lettuce! We also get juicing oranges for the week (3 kilos for ฿100), a wonderful sesame and soy vinaigrette for ฿100, bags of four large organic red or yellow peppers for ฿40, bags of 2 or 3 stalks of broccoli for ฿40 and softball size avocados for ฿80/kilo. Oh yeah, our big splurge there was these wonderful gluten and dairy free mushroom and tofu stuffed buns that cost ฿30 each! We'd usually buy four of them and eat them as our lunch every Sunday. At a dollar each they're dirt cheap by Canadian standards, but that's the cost of a whole meal at Sangwiroon!

    We lived pretty well here, going for massages abut every ten days and having the odd Chiang beer from time to time. We joined a gym for the three month stay where we could work out and Brenda could do yoga so we could enjoy as much of the good food here without feeling guilty or gaining any weight. Personally, I've gained back a lot of the muscle I lost during last year's hospital visit, so I'm feeling pretty good about that.

    It's going to be tough going home to the coolish Vancouver weather, but it'll be nice to see family and friends and to get back onto my bike. For a longer stay I'd consider buying one here, but for three months it just didn't make sense.

    Brenda's kept track of our expenditures here and figured we've spent an average of about $1200.00 per month here. That includes accommodations, dining, groceries, gym memberships, clothing and other miscellaneous purchases, massages, transportation around town (we walked most of the time) and entertainment. Of course, we're still paying rent back home as well as the BC government insurance. travel insurance and our flights. Still, a pretty inexpensive way to spend three months away from the chill of a Canadian winter.

    Of course, as great as this little excursion was, it was naturally made so much better by sharing it with my best friend, my partner, my lover and my one and only, Brenda. Life is so good with her by my side.

    Going home we have the wonderful Vancouver spring weather just around the corner and lots of projects to tackle when we arrive. We have to find a contractor to renovate Brenda's Kitsilano condo so we can move in there this fall. Then we fly back East to downsize our belongings, move the remainder to Vancouver and sell our triplex in Ottawa. A joyous visit to Montreal is planned for June to attend my son Matthew's wedding and catch up with old friends. Then it's back to Ottawa to wrap up our business there, maybe re-unite with some old friends and band mates from the '70s at Bluesfest before going West again to our new home.

    Pretty exciting times ahead!
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