Meeting our bikes

It’s really happening! After 2.5 years of dreaming, we’ve made it to Delft, Holland and met our bikes. Ian was as excited as a 4-year old at Christmas. We were barely in the door after almost 24 hours of travel and there he and Amos were, ripping the shipping boxes open with glee on the driveway.

  
 
The tandems are beautiful, and a joy to ride. So much better than any bike that any of us own at home (disc brakes!)! They turn on a dime and are very light. Good family friend Joop welcomed the weary travelers and helped get the bikes set up this afternoon .We did a few trial laps of lovely Delft, past canals and garden homes and cobblestones. Naeva announced that she will be spending a year here on exchange. As we flew down a narrow street on the bike, she exclaimed: “I know why (uncle) Andrew loved living here so much!”. 

We sTopped in at the bike shop for some tweaks and to book in for some heavy work on Tuesday. Ian’s bike needs new disc breaks; I need a different handlebar/brake system if I’m not going to spend half the trip in physio. Then, Joop led us on a 14 km test ride along canals to the edge of Rotterdam, and back into town. Needless to say, the biking here is like nothing I have experienced anywhere. Protected lanes everywhere, bike racks overflowing with 100s of bikes, and bike paths leading in all directions. HEavenly. 

   At this point, we’ll likely be in Delft until at least Wed as it will take that long to get parts ordered (the downside of high-end Cannondale bikes). Joop is getting us pointed in the right direction for some test rides over the next few days. First stop tomorrow: the North Sea.

It’s 7:40 pm here. Amos is passed out on the couch; Naeva is getting her second wind. Ian and I are trying to stay up until at least 9 pm. The trip from Chiang Mai was mostly uneventful, save for an overzealous security guard who wasn’t going to let us take juice boxes on the place. (Fortunately, after running into the same bumps on the way into Chiang Mai, I’d gotten our hotel manager to write out an explanation in Thai for the juice boxes and diabetes. Phew. We needed it). We hit another hiccup in Frankfurt when the ticket agent told us that Air Canada had changed our baggage allowance since issuing our ticket and we were no longer allowed any bags. ^%%$&*%*%*. Seriously? We straightened it out (didn’t have to pay extra) but not sure what this will mean for the trip home in August. Will deal with a phone call to our lovely national carrier at some point. Ugh. 

Naeva is huddled on the couch trying to keep warm. Nothing like a 25 degree change in temperature to freeze the blood.

   
Dutch welcome dinner, prepared by CHef Joop. Note the special springtime white asparagus (spargel). Delish!

  

  

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Thailand: The Exit Interview

(As reported to Naeva, inflight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok)

WHAT WAS THE BEST PART OF THAILAND?

A: the food

N: the smoothie lady

K: A tie: the food and the smiling, gentle people

I: Songkran Water festival and smiling people

MOST SURPRISING THING?

A: how hot it is
N: Number of Asian women who love my brother
K: Soooo many tourists
I: Tie: 1. It’s quite modern; 2. How unattainable the language is

FAVOURITE FOOD?

A: Khao Soy (noodles in coconut broth)
N: Chicken coconut soup and mango smoothies
K: All
I: Khao Soy

FAVOURITE PLACE?

A: The “fancy place” (Wangcome Hotel in Chiang Rai) [KB: straight out of the 1970s, priced out of the 2050s]
N: Cave Lodge
K: poolside bungalows in Tha Ton
I: Cave Lodge

CRAZIEST MEMORY?

A: Our caving guide spearing a tarantula to take home and BBQ
N: what a big deal was made of the White Temple when it wasn’t that great (at all)
K: Traveling over mountain passes in the back of a pick-up truck
I: Songkran water fights

WHAT YOU WON’T MISS?

A: The taste of noodle soup
N: Wolf water spiders (without a doubt)
K: The mental energy that goes into keeping everyone healthy (e.g. Scrutinizing food hygiene, avoiding bad water, force-feeding malaria pills, dodging snakes/ spiders, hanging on pick up trucks, scaring off stray dogs, dealing with grumbly tummies)
I: The heat

FAVOURITE ACTIVITY?
A: Caving
N: The first part of the kayak trip (pre-spider nests)
K: Cooking class
I: Caving/ hiking trips

Good bye Thailand

 Just sitting in the air conditioned Chiang Mai airport waiting for our flight to depart for Bangkok and then onto Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Joop – a dear family friend in Delft (via Andrew’s time studying there) is going to be welcoming us with two tandems and bike gear in boxes! The shipping of the bikes and diabetes supplies to Delft did not go as smoothly as hoped so we owe Joop and my Mom much thanks and probably a dinner or three. Thanks logistics support team!

Kristina is madly researching the next phase of our adventure biking along the Rhine. Where are we going? How much will things cost? We are teyingto figure out if we might be in Wageningen, the site of the German surrender to the Canadians on May 5th, 1945, on May 5th. That would be special to join in the celebrations. 

But that is next. We spent another wonderful night and day at the Riverside House in Chiang Mai – Amos was probably in the pool close to 4 hrs of 24 – and I got to eat Khao Soi (my favourite) and Kristina mango sticky rice (her favourite) twice more and also visit the main market when everything was open and much more bustling. Amos and Naeva also got to ride in tuk tuk, eat their favourite ice creams and between us all I think we consumed close to ten mango smoothies.

We also asked ourselves what we thought of Thailand, what surprised us most and what we enjoyed. Kristina and I found it bewildering to be travelling somewhere where we could not comprehend anything. It is made particularly challenging because the alphabet is completely different so despite the number of times I went to the toilet (ห้องน้ำ) or ate Khao Soi (ข้าวซอย), I could never find these words on a sign. Luckily this is a tourist place so these words were helpfully usually written in English or some close approximation we could understand. (There were many examples of bizarre translations – still no idea what “net-net” food is, as was advertised in one hotel we stayed in).

Despite being very well travelled by foreigners Thais were almost always very friendly, not pushy and quite pleased to see us with kids – we saw lots of smiles (and eager to touch Amos or shake his hand).

It is, we understand, a quiet tourist time. Nevertheless I am not quite sure about the dynamics of supply and demand here with a seamingly over abundance of hotels, restaurants, Thai massage parlours and street vendors selling everything. Up north in Tha Ton, where the drought was very bad and the popular boat trip down the Maekok to Mekong was not possible due to low river levels, there we about a dozen riverside restaurants. We ate in a pleasant one, were served by four people, and chose from a menu with about 100 things. I think we were the only ones to dine with them that evening! That is not sustainable.

It seems like perhaps the glory days of Thai tourism are past. but maybe it is different at other times? I would like to be here when everything is more green, when there is water in the rice fields and it is not so intensely hot. We really enjoyed our time here, but maybe not so much as other places we have gone.Maybe we would have really fallen for it in a different season?

Pork noodle soup fans   

Khao Soi

Market shots

  
 
Last tuk tuk ride!   
  

 

Bugs for dinner!

OK Sean Welby, you triple dog dared Amos and Naeva to eat bugs and they did it.  The fried caterpillars were the favourite (“like French fries”); the crickets were OK if you chewed them a lot to get rid of little hairs on their legs. 

 
We’re now in Chiang Rai, a broiling hot, concrete, overpriced and otherwise forgettable Thai city. We’re still looking for the “charming” parts that the guidebooks and some friends and family (Mom?!) have told us about. Maybe we’re just basking in the afterglow of so many beautiful rural areas we’ve seen, that the change to urban Thailand seems abrupt and frantic. We did have a great meal at the night market last night: hot pots (Cook your own dinner at your table in a clay pot over charcoal fire), aforementioned caterpillars and crickets, and some of our favourites like mango salad, and mango sticky rice.  
We are catching a bus back to CHiang Mai within the hour for our last night in Thailand. Another chapter almost over. We fly to Amsterdam tomorrow night…

Too hot to move – and a wrong turn to Burma

I know the “it’s hot” complaints are probably getting a bit tired, especially for those of you still thawing out in the Canadian spring, but it is record-breakingly hot here. THe rainy season only had 5-6 days of rain over a few months, the hills are parched, the country has set records for low water and high electricity usage and the smoke (rural areas) and smog (urban) hangs over everything making the air heavier and thicker. This isn’t normal. Our plan had been to take a river boat from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai along the Mekong River, but the water levels are so low that the boats can’t go and the local tourism industry around Tha Ton has evaporated along with it.  How low? So low that you can play soccer on one of the sandbars that would ordinarily be covered in feet of water.

  
That being said, we were warned that it would be hot and hazy, and with a few modifications to our plans, we have really enjoyed ourselves. We ditched plans for moving too much (our usual hike/bike/walk approach to budget travel) and instead have embraced the “sit still and do like the Thais do – not to much” strategy. OK, so we’re still not that good at it. But working on it.  As part of our new training, we spend three glorious days in Tha Ton at Old Tree’s House, a beautifully designed set of bungalows built around a pool, on a hill overlooking the Mekong River Valley. The owner is French, has been in Thailand for 30+ years and entertained us with his Gallic opinions on everything from his home country of France (hates it, no need to go back); monks (hates them, too lazy); what Thai women, including his wife, need to be happy  (a smartphone and AC) and why he has never bothered to learn Thai (too difficult).  It was a delightfully, sarcastically French commentary on Thailand, and tres entertaining! Here is Amos in the pool, and Naeva doing homework:

   

  
 We bribed the kids up the hill to the mountain temple (thank goodness for 7-11 stores everywhere with good Popsicles – important bribery goods). It was laundry day for the local monks:

  

  

We also did a short (3-4 km) hike one late afternoon, down through an indigenous hill tribe village, past mango trees and beautiful fields. It ended at a swimming hole at the river, where we misunderstood the hand-drawn map we’d been given, and waded across the waist deep river. Unbeknownst to us, we had actually crossed into Burma. We followed the path down along the river and crossed back into Thailand. The border station was empty and no one else seemed alarmed, except for our hotel owner when we told him the story. BE CAREFUL,  YOU SHOULD NOT DO THIS he said.  So there, we’ve been to Burma (for about 50 metres).  Add that to the list!  

Here’s Amos at the swimming hole (I’m trying not to think about how much water he swallowed…):

 
 Off to Chiang Rai for a night. 

Cave Lodge

I am sitting on the balcony of the bungalow of the Old Tree’s House guesthouse in Tha Ton, looking over the town at the giant white Buddha and Chedi (temple) overlooking the town. 

I am typing on my phone – that’s right…my phone survived a swim in the Kong River! The other day we kayaked down a lovely little river that because of it being dry season and because of the rather severe drought currently enveloping Thailand we had to constantly get in and out of our boats to push through small rapids. On one occasion as I was out of the boat and horsing around with Amos the phone slipped from where I had it stored in my life jacket buckle to the bottom of the Kong. Luckily I noticed soon after and waded back up river and found it quickly staring up at me from the depths (luckily the river was clear and only a few feet deep). Turns out my ugly case (Kristina’s and Naeva’s opinion) is pretty darn waterproof. Of course if I had been keeping it in a dry bag (Kristina’s and Naeva’s opinion) the waterproofness of my phone case would not have needed to be tested. But I would have struggled to get the action shots I did before it went for its swim. So who is right? Don’t believe it ever got water in it at all, but I spent a few days drying it out just in case. The advantage for all of you is we still have a picture record of our travels which is mostly on my phone.

Before arriving in Tha Ton we spent five days at Cave Lodge. I had spotted before we left Canada as a possible good place to see the remote areas of Thailand and maybe escape the heat a bit. I convinced Kristina despite her general aversion to caves, small places and creepy crawly things that we should give it a try. Our two nights turned into five.

Cave Lodge was built by an Australian John Spies and his Shan (one of the northern Thai cultures) wife. In the late 70s and early 80s they had been leading some the first treks for western tourists into northern Thailand and decided to settle down at Ban Tham Lam near the very spectacular Bam Tham Lod (massive cave). When they built it (mid-eighties) opium was still being grown and consumed by Thais and westerners alike and their Lodge was a two day hike from the nearest town. Today there is a paved road the whole way, electricity, and cold beer and ice cream. 

Kristina and I both spent some time reading John Spies autobiography and it is full of crazy stories – murders, rapes, caving accidents, caving deaths, multiple fires, floods, nasty spider bites, amputations, bamboo raft rafting expeditions (they don’t do this anymore – too dangerous), feuds with villagers, drug overdoses, mentally ill tourists, stupid and ignorant tourists etc. Luckily we read this after being there a few days and after our trip through 3 caves – including to the top of the waterfall where a tourist had fallen 90 metres to his death. That’s right a ninety meter waterfall inside a cave! Our sprightly 63 year old guide was braced on top of the waterfall the whole time. I read later that he was guiding a second set of tourists the day the tourist fell to his death and so participated in the rescue/retrieval operation. He insisted we lead the way away from the waterfall. It seemed strange at the time but not now.

Our guide Wat was wonderful showing lots of fauna and plants both inside and outside of the caves on our very hot walk between the three caves. Naeva didn’t complain (unlike the bus ride) and Amos only a few times. As you will see from the photos it is very hilly landscape. The highlight of Wat’s many exploits was digging up and catching / killing a tarantula for his dinner. 

If any of you are cavers or at least mildly interested it attracts caving enthusiasts from around the world because of the enormous, almost untouched and spectacular caves. We saw four, skipped the fifth on our kayak trip,but were there with others who went on the more hardcore caving trips (5km one-way, walk in and swimming in underground rivers and they said they were amazing). There are dozens if not hundreds of caves near by. What we saw was pretty special and if the weather was not so hot we might have also explored some of the traditional mountain villages some more.

The swing in the main lodge.   
The view past our cabin to the little river. Too much evidence of human / cattle feces for our liking so we skipped the swimming hole.

  The main lodge / restaurant. Naeva reading. 
Typical transport mode(back of covere truck)  
The caving landscaping. Karst knobs everywhere.   
  

Ready for our first cave
 

Some of my best cave shots,  including  a very big spider.  
  

 One dirty sweaty caver.

     
   
   
  Looking down, but only half way  up the climb in the  cave, on the raft  we rode through the cave.  
  

The view over the village from the big knob that I climbed one evening.  

    
   

Caves and Hills

Hi everyone – we’re still here, in beautiful Northern Thailand, about 2 km from the Burmese border. We’ve been staying in a small village called Tam Lod, famous in Thailand and on the backpacker circuit for huge caves, inside the karst mountains. We’ve been staying at Cave Lodge, essentially a tree house, built into the side of a mountain, overlooking a stream that doubles as the local swimming pool/laundromat. Just downstream is the enormous Tam Lod cave, 5 stories tall where you ride on a bamboo raft and climb up bamboo ladders by lantern-light to see massive stalactites, teak coffins and – Naeva’s favourite- 10s of thousands of bats and swallows that nest on the ceiling. There are paths going everywhere up and down the valley, through dry rice paddies and up hills, and our hearts are pulling us to go hiking and trekking – but the heat is not! INstead we’ve had a few low key days here, enjoying the hammocks and books and ping pong table in the outdoor palapa. There are visitors from all over the world – a number of families – and we are all getting to use our French a lot!

We’ll do a separate post on some of the caving adventures and kayaking we did today. Many of the adventures involve serious creepy crawlies, and I think that Naeva is about done with the Thai wilderness. To keep you hanging, our list so far includes on tarantula, dinner-plate sized spiders in caves, hundreds of swimming wolf spiders (today’s kayak trip), wasp sting, sweat bee sting, baby scorpion, bat pee/poo, and snakes that climb cave walls. More later. The green curry just arrived for dinner!

Heading to Tha Ton, near Chiang Rai (not Mai) tomorrow.  Staying in a rice paddy, 800 m from Burma.

Would post photos but Ian dropped his phone in the water on our kayak trip today. Thank goodness there is lots of rice in Thailand to dry it out with…fingers crossed.