Gap Year Days 289 – 297
Normally when I write these diary posts they are easy! It’s finding the time in the first place that is often the hard part. Once I get started, it all just flows. This one though has been hard to get started on. Thailand just seems set to be a challenge for me.
This was our second visit, and I really didn’t love it after our first visit. That time we went to Bangkok and Hua Hin for about a week in total. I have mostly put our less-than-fantastic visit then down to both kids being sick with colds. They really didn’t like the heat, and the tour group crowds at the Grand Palace were the worst I’ve ever come across.
So this trip was to be Thailand’s redemption in my eyes. We were going to Chiang Mai for six days, mostly as a rest stop, then two days in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple.
Our time in Chiang Mai is a little hard to write about because mostly we didn’t do a lot. We slept in, walked to cafes for coffee or lunch, saw a temple or two then head back and lay by the pool for the afternoon. Most evenings we went in to the night markets for dinner and to soak up the atmosphere.
Chiang Mai really is a city of temples. They are everywhere, and many of them are absolutely stunning. We didn’t choose any particular ones to visit, just walked around and popped into the ones we saw. In fact I didn’t even record which ones we visited because we were just wandering around with no purpose.
We came across some great street art in the streets of Chiang Mai too. I was actually really surprised to see as much around as we did. This had us ducking down alleyways and finding places we otherwise would have missed. Driving around we saw a lot of other great pieces of art too, so I am sure there is a lot more to explore if you have the time.
After a couple of these lovely, relaxing, unplanned days, we decided we had to get out and do something. We decided to book a day hike with Thai Eco Trek Adventure. We were becoming very conscious that in the very near future we were going to be climbing a mountain, and I knew I was no where near as fit as I had been when we started this trip. A hike would at least be a step in the right direction with that preparation.
We would be driving to a local Karen hill tribe village, then hiking to Thajeko Mountain for lunch before passing through rice fields on the way to some waterfalls where the hike is over and we can relax. Sounds easy right? Oh, so wrong! We didn’t just hike to the mountain, we hiked UP the mountain! It was a steady 90 minute climb, over a slippery leaf-strewn path. Often we were using tree roots and other hand holds to pull ourselves up the slippery mud banks. The path was barely a path – if we didn’t have our guide, it would have been easy to loose our way. When I could breathe well enough to look around, the jungle we were hiking through was dense and lush.
We had lunch at the top of the mountain overlooking the surrounding valleys. In the distance we could see the tallest mountain in Thailand and a rock known by locals as Tiger Rock – looking at it it is easy to see why they called it that!
While going up the mountain was hard because, well, it was going up, going down was hard thanks to all those lovely fallen leaves. It made it really slippery as the leaves moved around under our feet. It was such a relief to finally reach the waterfall and have some time to relax. The water was way too cold to consider swimming n it, but it was nice to get close to the waterfall and be splashed by it just enough to cool off.
On the drive back to town we stopped off at a local farm growing coffee, and got to have a look at the racks of the beans out drying in the sun. The smell was absolutely delicious. The local farmers here have created a co-op and their beans are sold to the Starbucks in Thailand, so you’re getting local beans when you buy coffee there. Not what I expected from a big multinational company.
For the next day we had booked ziplining – and it was a good thing that we booked in advance because our legs were a little sore from the day before and we probably would have bailed if we hadn’t already paid. We went with Skyline Adventures and spent two hours on 24 different ziplines, 2 abseils, and a few shaky bridges! It was great fun – oh, except maybe when they dropped us off the edge of a 50m platform to pretty much freefall the first 40m of the drop! We had some young couples with us, and each of the girls screamed and clung to the platform until the guides basically threw them over – all while their boyfriends/husbands giggled and filmed it all on their phones. The longest ziplines were 900m and it was so much fun gliding along over the jungle treetops.
Our next stop was Chiang Rai, about three hours further up the road. We got a local bus there for only a few dollars. We were only staying two nights, and the only purpose of the stay was to see the White Temple. I say “only purpose” because I hadn’t even googled Chiang Rai, but I had seen some amazing photos on the internet of the White Temple and knew I wanted to see it.
As we got off the bus and walked to our accommodation we passed a cat cafe, Cat ‘n a Cup, and I just had to have a cuddle! We dropped off our bags and headed straight back to the cafe, for a coffee and a cuddle! The cats were all really relaxed and happy to hang out with the customers. Many people had cats on their laps or sitting nearby. Unfortunately they didn’t give me a lot of love, but Simon ended up with a small Siamese kitty curled up on him. I’ve had a cat pretty much all of my life, so it was nice to get just a little time with some of them.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sorting out the boring details of our travel life, like finding a laundry, buying some basic supplies and deciding what we were going to do the next day. As the sun went down we made our way to the night markets to grab some dinner. On the main stage were some cultural performances. Music was played on traditional instruments and girls were on stage showing off the traditional dance of Thailand. Food is plentiful and cheap, and it’s well worth getting dinner here if you are in town.
In the morning we were up nice and early to catch the 7:10am local bus to the White Temple. The bus runs only about once an hour, and I wanted to be there before the gates opened at 8am to beat the crowds. The bus costs only a few cents and is easy to catch from the main bus station. It does take a surprisingly long time to get there though.
We were dropped off on the main road and had to walk about 100m down a side street to reach the entrance. Already there were groups of people milling around, and a few tour buses in the car park. I was glad to be there early, but still hadn’t managed to avoid all the crowds. The clouds had also come over, so no photos of this white building against beautiful blue skies for me!
The White Temple, or to use it’s correct name, Wat Rong Khun, is a relatively new temple in Thailand, only opening in 1997. It’s not just one building, but a whole complex, with lots of little bits and pieces to see. The whole thing is not expected to be completed until 2070, which is totally believable with all the detail going into every little thing. Some things did leave me a little confused though – like the superheroes and other movie character masks hanging in the trees!
Entry to the White Temple cost us 50 baht ($2AUD/$1.60USD) each and we were there for around an hour. This is one place that will be on my list again if we are ever back in the area. I would love to see the changes that will be made over the years.
See my full post on the White Temple for more photos
We walked back out to the main road and stood at one of the two bus stops there. I hadn’t thought to check the schedule for the returning bus, but after a few minutes a bus came along. I have no idea if it was the same route as the one we initially caught. This one was a much older bus, with a much more local clientele. The cost was the same and it got us back to the main bus station as we wanted!
Once back in town we ventured a little further afield. Mostly we just explored the streets. I was half looking for a massage, but couldn’t find anywhere that only did a 30 minute foot massage. We did come across the fancy golden clock tower in the middle of one of the big intersections. When they do gold here in Thailand, they really do it properly!
We followed some signs that we saw to a second hand book shop located in (I think) someone’s house. We weren’t quite desperate for reading material, but Simon has a few series he’s working his way through, so we’re always on the lookout for the next book. As we walked back I remembered I had read something about a great local restaurant called, strangely I thought, Pho Chai (Vietnamese soup and tea?). A quick check of Google Maps and we discovered we were only about 50 metres away. We grabbed some delicious local noodles and a drink, for less than $5AUD between us. Fabulous!
We continued our aimless wandering, trying to decide if we wanted to go to the Black House or not. We were low on cash and would have to visit the bank if we decided to go. We were leaving Thailand in the morning, and we try to have as little extra cash as possible when we leave to avoid another set of currency exchange fees. We randomly asked a few tuktuk drivers how much they would charge to get us there, wait, then bring us back. 350 baht was the standard answer, but we knew we could bargain that down to 300. We were walking away from one group of tuktuk drivers, doing the sums in our heads, when one of the drivers chased us down, pulling up alongside! He would take us for 250 baht. The easiest bargaining we ever did!
So off we went to the Black House. This is kind of a macabre art museum, with things made out of bone and horn and skin. There are also things carved out of wood, and stones too. There are about a dozen little buildings filled with all sorts of displays. Some could be entered, others we just looked through doors and windows. It was a bit of an unusual attraction, but after seeing umpteen temples in Thailand, it’s a nice change.
After an hour we found our driver again, and as we started the trip back he offered to take us to the Blue Temple too – but it would be 300 baht. Since we had worked out our cash situation and had already decided to give him 300 baht, we agreed, even though we were getting rather sick of temples.
The Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten) is certainly blue! In fact it’s a beautiful, rich, totally-can’t-miss-it blue. This is another new temple, and we could see construction still going on. It is totally over the top, but really beautiful in it’s own way too. By the time we left I was glad our driver had suggested it or we would have passed this by.
For dinner we again made our way to the night market. I had a delicious plate Pad Thái and Simon stuffed his face with chicken skewers. For the entire day we had spent less than $15AUD on food and drinks for us both, but had eaten large serves of tasty, local foods. I just love eating in this part of the world.
We ruined our cheap food day by calling into Cat ‘n a Cup again on the way back to our hotel. We had admired the waffle stack advertised in the foyer the day before, and decided that would make a perfect dessert. We ordered one with three layers, and a coffee each, doubling the day’s food spend! A word of warning – if there are only two of you, do not order three layers of the waffle stack – it is absolutely huge! There was no way we were going to be able to eat all of it, but we gave it a really good go. It was delicious, and we both felt a little sick afterwards because we couldn’t stop eating it.
Early the next morning we were at the airport for our first flight of a long travel day. We were flying down to Bangkok, and had about six hours to wait there before our next flight. Unusually, we went through the Thailand immigration process in Chiang Rai. There were only a few of us on our flight that did this, and we waited in a seperate area to board the same flight as everyone else. Once in Bangkok, the group was met by an airline employee who took us straight to the transfer area. This is the first time I had come across immigration in a regional airport while still flying on a domestic flight! We could have booked an earlier connecting flight had we known, but oh well, got a few work hours done in Bangkok instead.
See my other post for more things to do in Chiang Rai
Well, I still don’t love Thailand, but this wasn’t a bad visit. I would go back to this area again, and I particularly enjoyed our short time in Chiang Rai. It’s a smaller town with more of a relaxed feel, and I generally do like that better than big cities.
It’s no secret that Thailand is cheap. We stayed at a name brand hotel, which was nice, but I really think we would have been better off choosing a local hotel to get better value. We also didn’t do a lot while we were in Chiang Mai so that kept the costs down too.
We didn’t use much public transport in Thailand, but the bus between cities and the buses in Chiang Rai were really cheap and seemed reliable enough. It’s not five star, but it got us to where we were going with no hassles.
Wifi in Thailand is so-so. Some places were excellent, others had none at all or it barely worked. It is definitely possible to get away with wifi only, but you will need to plan your day in advance in case you don’t come across any good wifi during the day.
Mercure Chiang Mai
183 Changpuek Road, Chiang Mai, Chang Phueak, Thailand
1911THB ($79AUD/$61USD) per night including breakfast
Wiang Inn Hotel
893 Phaholyothin Road, Muang District, 57000 Chiang Rai, Thailand
2160THB ($90AUD/$69USD) per night including breakfast
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.