Monthly Archives: December 2019

Chiang Dao

We spent the last few days of our tour in this small village north of Chiang Mai, resting and getting ready to transition back to our “normal” lives. We got massages, walked to temples, explored caves, and attended closing circles. It was the perfect way to wrap up an amazing journey. 

19 December, 2019 – from elephants to mountains

 We left TECC after lunch and made several stops on the way north. Val found a drum like the one she played with the mahouts, Shar purchased a record number of scarves at the silk store, and we all bought cases for our Yaks. After hearing Katherine’s story about how a Yak protected her home, we all wanted one. While we were walking with elephants, Khack found us some Yak pendants that had been blessed by monks. Our last stop was along the Ping River where we sent wishes on beautiful bouquets downstream, as is done during the Loi Krathong festival which occurred in early November this year.

Running late due to all our stops, we went right to dinner before checking into our rooms at the Nest, perfectly timed for the weekly barbeque buffet. The chicken satay and grilled pineapple were especially yummy. Our lodging is the most luxurious of my trip, little cottages with two bedrooms, separate bathrooms, and a living room. I shared one with Judith-Kate. They are nestled not far from the base of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, one of the highest mountains in Thailand.

20 December – hot springs, temples, and massages

We met a 7:30 and got a ride to the hot springs, a series of round cement pools of varying temperatures. After breakfast, Val and I walked to a nearby temple and admired the Buddhas carved into the limestone hillside. In the afternoon most of us met in a square gazebo to talk about our experiences on this tour. I thanked Jami for adding time to the end of the trip in this relaxing place to process my experience before reentry into the rest of my life. And I’m grateful for all the people we met who are dedicating their lives to saving elephants. Though they have much less than we do in a material sense, they have much more in terms of acceptance. Overall, they seem happier than most Americans and have not lost their ability to experience wonder and joy. They certainly smile more.

I then went for my last massage, the only options being two hours with oil or balm, I chose oil. Val and I both had to get up about three-quarters of the way through to run to the restroom; my bladder was not ready for a tummy massage. This brought my trip total to 18 massages, about one every other day!

We all gathered in Judith-Kate’s and my cottage before dinner for show and tell, so we could see some of the goodies we had each purchased along the way. I had the least amount of clothes, and possibly the greatest number of elephant-related souvenirs, though we all had some of those. Trunk up, good luck, trunk down, long life. I have some of each.

21 December – more temples and caves

We met at 7:00 and walked in silence to Wat Tam Pha Plong, a small forest temple reached by ascending a rolling 510 steps. Along the way were many signs with Buddhist wisdom in both English and Thai. The gold-topped chedi was closed for renovation, but we were able to see the monks chanting and being fed breakfast on a set a rolling trays. We were invited to eat in the kitchen, but declined.

On our way back, Val and I detoured to Wat Tham Pak Piang, a temple dedicated to Quan Yin. The nuns were busy with the construction of a new Buddha and we were welcomed into a cave filled with statues. We could easily have lingered longer, there was another cave to explore, but we were hungry and didn’t want to miss breakfast. We got back just before the dining area closed at 10:30. I had crepes with fruit and a glass of lime “drinking yogurt”.

We packed a bit, then headed back to the Chiang Dao Cave which we ran out of time to enter yesterday. There are two routes through this cave, one is well-lit and easy to walk through, the other requires lanterns, a guide, and a bit of scrambling. We only did the former. Both the stalactites and the Buddhas were fascinating. Afterwards, I picked up a Thai ice tea (waan noi, “little sweet”), skipped lunch, and finished packing.

We met in the late afternoon for a closing circle. I was overwhelmed with emotion and my eyes filled with tears as I walked through the door of Shar and Suzette’s cottage where we were meeting. After spending two weeks with these women, it was sad to say goodbye. Kupkumkaa (thank you) to each of you for your beautiful presence. We were thrilled to see Jami surprised by her farewell gift, a panel with elephants that we all loved at the silk store.

Our final dinner included a yummy dish I hadn’t had before: Meung pla tuna. The vegetarians had it with tofu. We also had fried morning glory salad, two types of fish, soup, and vegetables. Aroy mak mak (very delicious)! I have eaten Thai food every day for a month and I am not tired of it. I definitely have to learn to cook some at home.

22 December – a rough trip home  

We ate a light breakfast and headed to the airport. Three of us were on the same flight to Taipei, the other two leaving later in the day or the next. Jami is staying in Thailand with a three-week break between tours. I started feeling worse on my first flight and by the time we landed, needed to run quickly to the restroom. We found some couches and during the four-hour layover, I lay shivering under a blanket, getting up only for the bathroom. Worried about my ability to survive the upcoming flight, I tried every herbal and mild remedy in my medicine bag before taking one of the Azithromycin I carry with me for travelers’ diarrhea. I was miserable but made it home with only one urgent trip to bathroom. I didn’t eat a single bite on the ten-hour flight. Eva has more leg room than China Airlines, so I was able to sleep a bit.

I later learned that three of my fellow travelers got sick, at different times, on different flights. I don’t think the cause was our last dinner together, most of us would have gotten sick sooner than we did. The only common denominator we can find is beverages at the Chiang Mai airport, or perhaps special meals on the plane. I’m glad I didn’t mention that I wasn’t feeling well; Judith-Kate was banned from her second flight and needed to get a doctor’s release to continue. She got home a couple days later than planned.

Sage and Timbre, my dog and cat, greeted me at the door. It was good to see them. After a shower, nap, and a cup of peppermint tea, I felt a bit better. Out of new habit, I threw my toilet tissue in the trash. Alex, my son, delivered ginger ale and crackers. Fortunately, I fully recovered in time to host Christmas dinner. I love to travel and I love to get home, though I’m already missing elephants and temples, and craving a massage.

Sawasdee Pii Mai Ka! Happy New Year! (The ending of many phrases in Thai varies depending on the gender of the speaker, so if you are a man, you would say Sawasdee Pii Mai Krab). May we all find all Peace, Health, and Happiness in 2020.

Lampang and Elephants

After a relaxing day in Lampang, we immersed ourselves in the world of elephants. A century ago there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, with several times that in the wild. Today only about 4000 remain, with more than half in captivity. We spent five days at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), dedicated to increasing conservation and knowledge about elephants.

14 December – Lampang

We had free time in the morning, so I took a walk with Sharmon and Suzette. We found a shimmering temple, crossed a bridge, walked along the Wang River, and went to see Wat Ponc Sanuk Nua. On our way back we came across what was once a beautiful teak building, now decaying. We reconnected with Judith-Kate and Valerie who had been having massages, and got a van ride to lunch to meet Richard Lair, a renowned elephant expert. He regaled us with stories about his 40+ years in the elephant world, starting at Marine World when it was in Redwood City. Since, sadly, there are more domesticated than wild elephants in the world, he made them his specialty and has worked hard to train mahouts and others in the proper care of this amazing animal. Perhaps due to their long lives, about sixty years, elephants have not been selectively bred as have other domesticated animals, so they retain their wild nature.

After lunch those of us who had not had massages in the morning got dropped off at the Herbal Center for one-and-a-half-hour balm massages. The first half was like a traditional Thai massage; in the second half we got padded with hot balls of herbs. My legs remained yellow for several days thanks to the tamarind they contained.

Jami and I got dropped off at an ATM on our way back to our hotel, for one last withdrawal from my checking account. On the elephant tour part of my trip, most of my cash has been spent on souvenirs since meals are included. I immediately made a purchase on my way through the street market, spending about $3 for a cute cotton jacket. We ate dinner on the patio cooked by our host’s staff: delicious chicken, fish, jackfruit salad, vegetables, and a couple small meat dishes.

15 December – meeting our elephants

It took about an hour to get to the primary destination for this tour, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). The center has about 120 elephants and more mahouts; each of these men paired with an elephant. We sang a few songs on the way. When we reached the center, we unpacked at Home Stay, my bamboo hut is dark and musty, and changed into mahout suits: large, baggy, denim outfits.

We were then introduced to “our” elephant, all female. Mine is named Wanalee, she is 22 years old, and one of the shorter elephants. Her mahout, Tiam, is one of the older ones. The elephants were happy to get a break in their routine. Four of them, including Wanalee, are usually in the elephant show, and the fifth is a “taxi elephant” giving rides to tourists. They eagerly greeted their friends as we headed to the forest, one of them trumpeting goodbye to an elephant temporarily confined due to a leg injury.

We hiked about six miles with Wanalee bringing up the rear, eating the whole time. One of her favorites was bamboo. She pulled down the stalks, stepped on them and stripped off the leaves. She weights 3000 kg (6600 lb); this is more than three tons, about the weight of two cars. For her size, she has been deemed to be a bit overweight, so she and a few other elephants now have a daily walking routine so they can lose a couple hundred kilos.

The elephants were staked out in various spots in the forest while we had our lunch break. For our walk, most wore a chain around their right front foot which was draped across their neck much of the day. We were served sticky rice and chicken, tofu for the two vegetarians, wrapped in a banana leaf. I saved the leaf and much of my rice for Wanalee. The elephants were dusty when the mahouts gathered them, so they had them lay on their sides and we helped sweep them off with leaves. On our way back to the village, the mahouts climbed onto their elephants and walked them into the water to bathe them. They liked that.

We got back down in the mid-afternoon and the elephants were returned to their overnight spots. We picked up cold beverages and snacks at the tiny village market and changed out of our mahout outfits. I must be jinxed when it comes to showers because for the third place in a row, I had no hot water, so my hair is still dirty. Someone reset the heater afterwards, so hopefully I’ll get a warm shower tomorrow. Dinner was delicious: green curry, vegetables, and rice, with sweet potato balls for dessert.

16 December – learning about TECC

Jami lent me a Thermarest pad to add to the hard mattress so I slept fairly well. A few roosters started crowing around 4:00 a.m. but they stopped soon and I got back to sleep, until the whole chorus began at 5:30.

We walked up to collect elephants at 7:00 and watched the mahout routine. Tiam gave Wanalee a pile of hay to eat while he raked the area around her. Lots of food in means lots of dung out. He unchained her and had her lie on her side so he could sweep her off; I helped by swatting her with a rag. We walked down to the body of water, nicknamed Poop Pond, where the elephants got bathed. I rode with Tiam and we walked Wanalee into the water. I got soaked to my waist, while he rolled up his pants and stood on her back and stayed dry. I continued my ride to showgrounds, where she and others were stacked and fed, ready for the three short performances they do each day.

I took a hot shower before breakfast and changed into a new mahout outfit. We had rice soup with bowls of chicken, egg, cilantro, and garlic to add. A truck picked us up to give us a ride to the mahout training center, a few of us rode in the cab instead of the back. The muscle I pulled in Chiang Mai bothers me most when I sit on hard surfaces. Our first stop was the camp where they keep the dangerous elephants (16 males and two females), those who have broken their chains and frightened or harmed people. They are handled by experience mahouts, with a team of two each time they are moved. Male elephants in musth must also be handled carefully. During these hormonal periods even the most placid elephants can become aggressive.

At the mahout training center, Pune (“Bun”), a retired mahout, oversaw our production of medicine logs for elder elephant: rice, roots, bananas, and lot of herbs crushed together with a foot-pumped pestle. We also stopped by the hospital. TECC provides free medical care for any elephants brought to the center. Two elephants were recovering from surgery. Both had been overfed unhealthful foods and their babies died in the womb, too big to be delivered. Giant slings were available to hold the elephants upright while anesthetized.

After lunch, we watched the elephants bathe again, this time with paying tourists riding in and getting soaked, then saw the elephant show. The show is more educational than entertaining. It demonstrated how elephants were used for logging, and some of the things they can do with their trunks which contain thousands of muscles. Afterwards we walked or road with them back to their night spots. The rest of the afternoon was spent resting, drinking beer (some of us), chatting, and enjoying another tasty dinner.

17 December – another forest walk, baby elephants, and a museum

This morning we collected our elephants at 6:30, ate breakfast, and headed out into the forest. I road on Wanalee for the first fifteen minutes just to have the experience of seeing the world from that vantage point; it was more comfortable than I expected. On our way to our lunch spot, a bamboo platform in the middle of forest, we stopped to visit two baby elephants, each in a large pen with their mothers. Moonbeam is two years old and Baiboon is one. We played with Baiboon for quite a while. She is so cute! (There is a chance that Wanalee is pregnant, since she had a “honeymoon” with a male a few months ago. Her first calf died after birth about five years ago.)

After a leisurely lunch break we got picked up in a truck and went to see the TECC museum. It has exhibits about the different types of elephants and their history. Mammoths, African and Asian elephants have a common ancestor. Asian elephants are the smallest ones, though I wouldn’t consider them small by any other definition. The ones we are meeting are of the Indian subspecies. Based on a small carving found in Pakistan, elephants have been domesticated for at least 5000 years. They have been part of the Thai culture for centuries and used for many purposes, including war, transportation, and logging.

We went to a few markets and while the cooks purchased dinner ingredients, we shopped a bit. Judith-Kate bought one of the brooms we’ve all been admiring. Back at TECC we helped with a bit of chopping for dinner: yellow chicken curry and delicious veggie soup. We then had a party. The mahouts rolled out a couple bamboo mats in the middle of the street and the Mahout Band played for us. Val joining in with the drumming. There was singing and dancing in the street, with shots of white whiskey (the worst I’ve tasted yet) passed around. We all laughed watching the mahouts perform the elephant dance. Great fun, all rolled up and quiet by 21:00.

18 December – camping

The camping portion of our visit was almost canceled due to drought and we would have missed a wonderful day. Instead it was shortened from two nights to one and large barrels of water were trucked in for the elephants. The elephants wore long lengths of chain around their necks so they could move about while staked out in the forest overnight. We reached our camping spot before noon. Our gear was delivered by truck so we didn’t need to carry much. I walked almost seven miles today, possibility the furthest since I started my trip.

When we arrived, we honored the spirits of the land, lighting incense and putting food in the spirit house. Lunch was served at a picnic table with large banana leaves as a tablecloth; I later fed some to Wanalee. We set up our bedding on a bamboo platform inside mosquito nets, two women per cube. I shared one with Val.

After a welcome siesta, the fun began. We helped cut wood for the fires and bamboo for everything. We admired the mahouts carving ability as they made bamboo cups and stirring spoons for us. Dinner was served in bamboo troughs on a large tarp, and with translation from our guides, Fern and Amnat, we learned move about the mahouts’ lives. Most had never finished school and came to this work due to lack of other options and a love of elephants. They would like to see more trips to the forest and less time in the elephant shows. They toasted Jami for all the joy she has brought over the years. This is going to be her last year leading tours in Thailand; she will be missed. The dishes were shoved to the middle and singing and dancing began. We observed and half-way learned some crazy dances, including a chicken dance and one about fruit, each one speeding up as it progressed. They got a kick out of the hokey-pokey and when Shar mentioned that we don’t go faster and faster, that’s just what we did, laugher all around. The fun switched to card games after we farangs (white people) retired around 9:00.

19 December – goodbye to the elephants and all the wonderful people at TECC

I had a rough night, even with a Thermareast on top of a thin pad, my hip hurt. Fortunately, I was spared the biting ants that got into Shar’s bag. Pune, who never stops working, had a fire going by the time I got up at 5:00, and boiled water for us in large bamboo columns. It was scooped out with bamboo dippers. We ate breakfast, rice soup again, just after sunrise, packed up and headed back. Tiam took a video of me walking through the bamboo with Wanalee following behind. I am definitely much more comfortable around her, and the other elephants, than I was when I first met them. We posed for a group pictures and bid a sad goodbye our elephants and mahouts. I left my sandals with Tiam.

It felt great to remove my mahout clothes and take a hot shower. We had a final meal, kao sai, with our guides and I got an iced Thai tea for the road, yum. We said our final goodbyes, climbed into the van, and headed off to our last stop, Chiang Dao.

Elephants and Sukhothai

My almost two-wek elephant tour in Northern Thailand has begun. I’m traveling with five other women, including our tour leader, Jami. We are all from the west coast of America: California, Washington, and Vancouver. We loaded into a van and headed south from Chiang Mai. We started with a couple days observing elephants in the forest at the Boon Lot’s Elephant Sanctuary, and toured the ruins of Sukhothai, capital of Thailand before Ayutthaya.

Published late due to lack of WiFi.

9 December – a travel day

Our driver, Khack, picked us up after breakfast and took us to Suan Doi House (Garden Mountain House), where Jami lead us in an opening ceremony. I’ve had an affinity for elephants for decades, as evidenced by some of my home décor. Asked about what attracts me to them, I replied their wisdom and compassion. They live long lives, have great memories, take care of each other, and their intelligence ranks up there with chimps and dolphins.

One of our first stops was 7-Eleven for change. ATMs dispense 1000 bhat notes (about $33), but most vendors don’t have enough cash on hand to accept these. On Jami’s advice, I bought a spicy tamarind treat which I really like. We also stopped to sample goi, a.k.a. yam yam, a tasty treat made with yam, coconut, sesame, and sugar. I liked both the hot cooked version (which we requested with less sugar) and the thin crispy chips. After photographing dozens of elephant statues, I saw my first live one when we stopped for lunch at TECC, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center which we will be visiting later on our tour.

I sorted Chiang Mai photos in the van as we continued south towards Sukhothai. I wish airline seats were this comfortable. We had dinner at Boon Lotts with Katherine (Kat), a Brit who founded this elephant sanctuary along with her non-deceased Thai husband. She, with the help of her five young children, mahouts and staff, provides a home for about a dozen rescued and retired elephants and many other animals. She told us a beautiful story of an elephant who spent the last year of her 60-year life at the sanctuary, grateful for the welcoming fruit she received, and departed on the wings of a butterfly. We also heard about the python that she found in her house this year; that would send me packing.

10 December – Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)

We are staying at a guest house a short distance from BLES. Like most places in Thailand, it had no heat and I needed two quilts to stay warm. We got picked up in a van, along with a young couple also visiting there this week. After a simple breakfast, we spent the whole day with elephants. Three females, nicknamed the Gossip Girls, came down from their night enclosure and hung out nearby, chatting with each other, making a purr-like rumble. We prepared rice patties filled with meds for the oldest elephant. She was used to the routine and came over waving her trunk wondering what was taking so long. I’ve never been this close to an elephant before. Next stop: the medical hut, where Kat and the mahouts treated a couple elephants, one for a foot problem and one for a sore that’s not healing in her back leg. Kat injected fluid in the wound and punched the leg to get out puss.

We walked into the forest with the elephants and their mahouts, and spent hours observing elephants. These huge animals are vegetarians, eating grasses and leaves all day long. They don’t like dirt mixed with their greens; I saw one whack a bunch of grass on the ground until all the dirt came off the roots. Lunch was delivered via truck and we ate it in a treehouse. We walked back to the house and climbed in the back of a large truck to run errands: picking kids up from school, cutting banana trees for the elephants, and picking up live fish for the crocodile who only eats weekly. After a vegan dinner, and a few purchases from the gift shop, we sat around a fire, drinking shots of home-brewed rice whisky and listening to stories about elephants. We left around 20:00 and got a ride back to our guesthouse.

11 December – more elephants

This morning we were picked up in the truck and shivered on our way to BLES. Kat shared more elephant stories with us over breakfast, then we walked back into the forest and watched the elephants for a few hours. Kat, her two youngest sons, and the mahouts then joined us for a goodbye snack at a nearby reservoir. We were able to ask questions and learned that the mahouts like both their pay and the elephants. Each is dedicated to one elephant for years, forming a strong bond of trust. We bid farewell and drove about an hour to Sukhothai.

12 December – Sukhothai

I figured out when I’m getting bitten by silent, unseen mosquitos: in bed at night. This explains why the bites are mostly on my neck. I’m going to start using insect repellent in my room.

Today we toured the ruins of Sukhothai, the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th-14th centuries, one of several political entities that later joined to form Thailand. Our first stop, Wat Saphan Hin, was reached by a short walk up a stone path. There we were greeted by a large standing Buddha gazing down at a beautiful view, a peaceful way to begin our day. Wat Sri Chum also contained a large Buddha, this one in a seated position; here we spent a few minutes seated below it, next to a huge hand on which visitors had rubbed gold paper. After a quick group shot in front of the elephants at Wat Sorasak, Jami rented bicycles for us and we set out to explore the walled center of this small city. I made it to the main temple area, which I think it called Wat Mahathat, before my rear brake failed and I could no longer move my bicycle forward. Several people, including Val, helped me find the nut and bolt which had fallen off, and a couple security guards helped put it back together. In the interest of caution, I headed back our rendezvous spot early, using the extra time to shop for souvenirs. In this case, I got a small Ganesh carving and a couple scarves.

We had the afternoon free and most of us got massages in our rooms. While relaxing, the Thai oil massages aren’t as deep as the ones in Cambodia; I’ll probably stick with the traditional Thai massages going forward.

13 December – travel day with stops

Heading back north, we stopped at Si Satchanalai, “City of Good People”, founded in 1250 as the second center of Sukhothai Kingdom and residence of the crown prince. We rented bicycles to explore this small, flat city. The weather was perfect and my one-speed bicycle worked fine.

After lunch, which included a steamed fish with a delicious lime sauce, we continued our van ride, stopping at a fabric store where everyone bought something. We reached Lampang in the late afternoon. Our teak guesthouse is in a lovely spot overlooking the Wang River. We had drinks on the patio, took a short walk to a restaurant serving New York style pizza; the owner has never been to that state; he’s from Oregon.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai,  “New City” in Thai, was founded in 1296 as the new capital of Lan Na (a state that existed in Northern Thailand from the 13thto 18thcentury) after the former capital was flooded. It is sometimes referred to as the “City of Temples”, or as one guide joked, the “City of 7-Elevens” since they are everywhere. I stayed in the city center, a very walkable square 1.5 km surrounded by defensive walls and a moat that may have once contained crocodiles. I enjoyed a very relaxing four days here visiting Wats (temples), cooking, cycling, and wandering about.

5 December, 2019 (2652 BE, Buddha Era)

I used Grab App to get to the Bangkok airport, with surprising little traffic heading away from downtown. I met another Siriporn in the VietJet line; she was heading back to her home town for a funeral. We spent the next couple hours having a lovely conversation; she treated me to breakfast. My plane arrived before noon and it was a short taxi ride to my hotel close to Wat Phra Singh, the Gold Temple. After settling in, I headed out to explore and immediately got hooked by a tuk tuk driver who wanted to take me shopping. I agreed and negotiated a price based on the condition that I get to see how things are made and get dropped back near a temple. He took me to see silver making, silk making, and painting. Each place of course tried to sell me something but I resisted except for a small painting of an elephant, my weakness. Back in old town, I wandered around until almost sunset, finding a temple on almost every block, and bought handmade paper for use in art projects. I wrapped up my day with a Thai massage.

6 December – sunrise at Doi Suthep

 I was picked up at 5:00 a.m. for an awesome tour of Doi Suthep, a large, beautiful temple near Chiang Mai, on top of the 5500’ (1700 meters) mountain of the same name. Before a road was built in 1935, it took a steep ten-kilometer hike through the rainforest to get here. Legend has it that a king put a Buddha relic on the back of a white elephant who led him to this location for a temple. Our small group, guided by a former monk, was one of the first to arrive, getting there before sunrise while the monks were still chanting. The glowing gold stupa felt magical in the peaceful morning stillness. After lighting candles and offering flowers, I circled it three times, clockwise, while focusing on happiness, prosperity, and well-being for all. I was blessed by a monk and am wearing a string around my left wrist containing his blessings. We exited the temple just as the tour buses were starting to arrive, and had a bowl of khao soi, a Northern Thai dish with yellow curry, for breakfast.

About halfway down the mountain, we stopped at another temple, Wat Palad, where our guide had lived for about decade. He referred to it as the Hidden Temple, though as more tourists discover it, it is no longer hidden. The forest path to the top comes through this tranquil spot. Continuing down the mountain, we stopped at Wat Umong to walk through a short section of the tunnels previously used by monks for meditation. The walls used to be plastered and covered with murals.

After lunch, I negotiated a tuk tuk ride to Warorot Market, a huge three-story building filled with hundreds of shops. I bought fabric and dried mangos; I wish they were this soft and delicious at home. I walked back to old town and got yet another Thai massage, this time focused on back, neck, and head. It was wonderful. As I was leaving the spa, I got a call from Jami, the tour leader for my upcoming elephant adventure. We had dinner together, sharing two of my favorite Thai dishes, green curry and morning glory (a vegetable I encountered for the first time on this trip), and a bottle of Chang, the Thai beer with an elephant on the label.

7 December – yummy cooking class

I was picked up at 8:30 for a full day cooking class. There were eight students, six Americans and two Hollanders, mostly men. Our first stop with our fun teacher, Gift, was to a market to learn about different types of rice and spices. We then went out to an organic farm with a great setup for classes. After touring the farm, where many of the ingredients are grown, I learned how to make Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, Green Curry, stir fry, and bananas in coconut milk. We were able to determine how spicy we wanted to make them. I choose medium, which for Thais is very mild, and reduced the sugar in all dishes. We consumed each dish after preparation, and I was pleasantly surprised to find them all delicious. Hopefully I can replicate this success at home with the cook book provided.

Two more of my fellow travelers, Sharmon and Suzette, have arrived. I met them for dinner, or rather they ate dinner and I drank a beer, too full to eat another bite.

8 December – cycling through countryside

Sharmon and I took a half-day bicycle tour. It’s much cooler in Chiang Mai than the other places I’ve visited on this trip. I wore shoes for the first time last night and this morning I was glad to have packed my thin puffy jacket. I wore it for the first couple hours of my bike ride and would have added a hat and gloves if I had them. Except for the first few and last minutes along a busy road, we were primarily on back roads. Our first visit was to an island in the Ping River that was formerly the McKean Leper Asylum, founded by an American missionary in the early 1900’s. This quiet area, filled with small cottages, is now used for rehabilitation and retirement. We continued through farmland, hearing roosters along the way, stopped at a local market, and visited a couple temples along the way. We saw how sticky rice is cooked in bamboo and sampled this tasty treat, sold at many roadside stands, Our tour ended after lunch, a bowl of kao soi.

I took a break afterwards, then headed out to find an ATM and visit the Sunday Market. Many streets were closed and filled with vendors selling clothing, food, and a variety of trinkets.  As afternoon became evening, it became more crowded and harder to navigate. Just as I was negotiating to buy an elephant figurine, music started playing on loudspeakers and everyone, vendors and shoppers, stopped and stood still, it was the Thai national anthem. I made my way out of the crowd and found my way to Dash, where I met the rest of my travel group for dinner. The food was delicious, especially the sea bass, and women welcoming.


I can’t really say I visited Bangkok, but rather I stayed in Bangkok and visited temples. This sprawling, smoggy, noisy city of ten million people contains about fifteen percent of Thailand’s population and probably 80% of cars. With permanent gridlock it takes forever to get anywhere and I spent much of my time in transit. Motorcycle taxis that dart in and out might shorten travel time, but I did not dare try one.

2 December – an enjoyable chat on a long car ride

Siriporn, a friend of a friend of Judith’s, picked me up at the airport (we connected with the location feature of WhatsApp). After waiting for the airport police to document the scratch another driver put in her car, we spent most of the day on the road. Siriporn wanted to avoid driving in Bangkok until after commute hour, though as far as I can tell that never ends. Along the way we snacked on Thai fast food and shared stories about our lives, families, and spiritual practices.

She drove me all the way to Pattaya, a tourist destination on the Gulf of Thailand. It was crowded and dirty and we didn’t even get out of the car. Apparently, its reputation as a sex capital is totally deserved; I suggest staying far away. Our next stop was much more peaceful, a monastery where Siriporn volunteers. I met with Ajahn Suchart Abhijato, an English-speaking monk who has published a handful of YouTube videos and books about Buddhism; he gave me one.

We made a few brief stops, including a visit to Siriporn’s home. It’s typical of what I’ve seen in my lodgings, white walls and white ceramic tile floors, cool and easy to clean, but hard on my bare feet. She bought me some spicy Pad Thai, and we began the long drive back to Bangkok. It was after 8:00 pm by the time I reached the disappointing Airbnb where I stayed, near the Thong Lo BTS station. I was exhausted.

3 December – gaudy splendor

With the help of Google Maps, I planned my route on public transit: two lines of the SkyTrain (similar to BART, but cheaper and more crowded; fortunately, we don’t yet have annoying video advertisements playing on the trains), and a fast, bumpy boat ride with a driver who yelled at passengers. A friendly German tourist helped me find my way from the dock to my destination. It took about an hour door-to-door.

Wat Pho is home of the famous Reclining Buddha, a 46 meter (150 foot) gilded statue of the Buddha entering Nirvana. He looks very peaceful. It fills the entire building and is hard to photograph. I arrived shortly after it opened and had plenty of time to explore the lavish, colorful structures that fill the temple grounds.

I was not so lucky at the Grand Palace. My capris were deemed not long enough, so I had to buy a skirt to cover my calves, and busloads of tourists filed the grounds. Everyone wanted to see the 26” (66 cm) Emerald Buddha, I was relieved to see the line moving quickly; photographs weren’t allowed inside the temple so everyone wasn’t stopping to take a selfie or group shot in front of it.

After wandering amongst the fantastical spires and figures, I was too hot and weary to continue to other sites, or retrace my steps, so I sought out a café with WiFi, not as easy as elsewhere. I settled for a grilled sandwich and a delicious berry yogurt drink, and used the Grab App to call a taxi. I knew it wasn’t going to save me time, but figured it would be more relaxing. Unfortunately, the driver dropped me off at the wrong place and I didn’t realize it until he drove off. I walked to the closest SkyTrain station and got back that way. An hour-and-a half door-to-door.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with Judith and Siriporn for dinner, but sadly the Bangkok doctor told Judith that her bones are misaligned and he recommends surgery. She is making plans to fly home and has decided to spend her remaining time at a meditation center. It looks like I will be traveling alone for more than anticipated on this trip. Instead of dinner, I treated myself to a nice massage at a new place nearby using a 50% off coupon I found online.

4 December – Ayutthaya, an ancient city

I went to Ayutthaya and toured more temples today. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam, as Thailand was formerly known, for about 400 years, until it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. In spite of the fact that half our time was spent in the van, getting out and back into Bangkok, I had a good time. I was the first to be picked up, at 6:00 am, and ate breakfast and napped in the van. My fellow passengers hailed from the Philippines, Germany, France, and Greece. I got back in the late afternoon, taking the SkyTrain for the last segment to avoid some of the endless traffic. A late lunch was included with our tour, so I picked up a snack at 7-Eleven, skipped dinner, and spent the evening in my little apartment, making plans for the next setp in my adventure, Chiang Mai.

Khao Lak and the Similan Islands

This coastal town was my starting point for a dive trip, where I completed nine of the thirteen scheduled dives. I was a concerned when the weather app showed thunderstorms every day for a week, but we only got a bit of rain. I was the oldest and one of the least experienced divers. Though certified as a teenager, until I went to the Great Barrier Reef about­ five years ago, I hadn’t been diving in decades. Since then I’ve taken a refresher course, been certified for nitrox, and gone on a handful of dives. This is by far the most concentrated diving trip I’ve ever taken. Most dives were near the 18-meter/60’ limit of my open water certification, though I dipped below 20 meters a couple times.

I then spent a day enjoying the beaches and sights around Khao Lak, a nice low-key location.


26 November – reaching Khao Lak

I took a two-hour ferry from Phi Phi to Krabi then a “bus” (series of three vans) to Khao Lak. This gave me more than enough time to finish Sightseeingby Rattaweu Lapcharoensap, a Thai American. This book of short stories gives a perspective on Thailand not seen by tourists. After I checked into my hotel, the manager gave me a ride to the dive shop to check-in and get fitted with gear.

After showering, I had an early dinner, then took a stroll on gorgeous Nang Thong Beach across from the hotel. I was enjoying the sunset when I got a message from Judith, she’d broken her wrist, apparently falling off a log while taking a picture! They transported her to Trang, a couple hours south of Krabi. For once our local phones worked and I was able to talk to her. I went to bed feeling bad that she was alone in a strange place with few English speakers.

27 November – three dives in the Andaman Sea

When I awoke I learned that Judith had her wrist set in the middle of the night. It appears to be a clean break, in two places, so she won’t need surgery. She is leaning towards continuing the trip, with a follow-up x-ray in Bangkok, where we meet in a week.

I ate a boring breakfast at my hotel, not realizing that I would be fed again onboard. There are sixteen passengers on a boat large enough to hold twenty-four. I’m sharing a cabin with a Thai woman named Ann on the main deck. We have our own bathroom.

It took us about three hours to reach our first dive site, Koh Bon, one of the Similan Islands. There were five of us in my first group, including two dive masters. We did three dives and while the coral wasn’t impressive, I saw many fish I haven’t seen before. The last dive was in the dark, my first, and possibly last, night dive. Even using a torch, I can see more during the day. I also feel bad about disturbing the fish, though I saw a couple we hadn’t seen earlier and several moray eels on the move.

28 November – two dives on Thanksgiving Day

The other two Americans, originally from Russia, reminded me that today is Thanksgiving; I had completely lost track of the days. For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m not eating turkey today. Thai food is delicious so I can’t complain, especially since I’ve already arranged a turkey dinner for Christmas when I get home. It’s quite an international mix onboard. Many of the crew members are German, which makes sense given the name of the boat, MV Bavaria. I also counted Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, the UK, and Thailand among the countries from which passengers and crew hail. Lucky for me, English is the common language.

I skipped the early morning dive since I woke up congested, darn that troublesome right sinus! I was assigned to a different group today, only four of us, including our master, Heinz, and a dive master in training. Fortunately, my sinus cleared up in time for the second dive, a nice one at Tachai Pinnacle where the curious batfish came to greet us. We saw many different types of fish and a few corals. The next dive wasn’t as nice, the current, or currency as Heinz called it, kept us from swimming far and it stirred up the seafloor making the water murky. I skipped the night dive.

After dinner, delicious snapper, we had surprise entertainment. One of the crew members dressed in drag and did several musical performances in various outfits getting most of us up dancing.

29 November – three dives at Richelieu Rock

Dive, eat, nap, repeat. I did that three times today, skipping the third dive to rest up for the fourth. To that I could add shower and download pictures. I’m using underwater housing for my little Sony RX100 VI; it goes deeper and takes better pictures than the Olympus Tough, though cloudy conditions, in both water and sky have not been optimal for photography. I now learn that late February to mid-March has the clearest and calmest waters, during the hot season.

Of the first two dives, early morning was best, before other boats arrived with hordes of divers. This is apparently the most famous dive spot in Thailand. I saw a great variety of fish, from tiny to large, and more coral than at our earlier locations. The water was quite murky and the “currency” was stronger.

I also went on the sunset dive, enjoying the first half more than the second, confirming that I prefer diving with sunlight rather than darkness. Towards the end we spotted an octopus and while juggling my torch and camera, the later slipped off my arm. As I ascended I anticipated going without it for the rest of the trip and filing an insurance claim. To my surprise, it was in the bin of water reserved for cameras, torches, and dive computers. The ship engineer had spotted it pop to the surface, in the dim light, and swam for it. J

30 November – a wreck dive, return to Khao Lak

Both of the last two dives were to Boonsung, the wreck of tin mining platform that fell down right after installation and broke apart in the 2004 typhoon, the same one that wiped out the infrastructure on Phi Phi and caused me to cancel a planned return trip to India. It was our murkiest dive yet, so hard to see anything that I decided to skip the second dive. I avoided the lionfish and enjoyed seeing a variety of puffer fish, one of which swam around checking us out.

The boat returned to the dock after lunch and we were transported back to the dive shop. My hotel was only a couple minutes from there so I walked. It’s older and smaller than my last one, though closer to shops and restaurants. Someone carried my suitcase up to the fourth floor for me. I got settled, published my Phi Phi post, and went for a walk. The beach is further and not quite as nice the first one. I treated myself to a massage before going to dinner at the Loma Restaurant next to the dive shop, where we were offered a free post-dive meal.

1 December – sea turtles, rafting, and beaches

 I was served more than I could eat for breakfast: eggs, bacon, shrimp, and a half dozen types of fruit. I was then picked up for a half day tour. There were only two other tourists, a couple from Germany.

Our first stop was the Sea Turtle Conservation Center where four species of sea turtles are raised. When eggs are laid on the beach, volunteers guard them from predators, and when the baby turtles hatch they are brought to the center and cared for until ready for release back to sea. The center also treats sick and injured sea turtles.

Next was a bamboo raft ride through the jungle. My insect repellent worked; I heard no mosquitos. The snakes in the trees made me a bit nervous, but overall it was a pleasant, relaxing ride. Our final stop was a small waterfall. I had to wait for a few people to finish posing for dozens of pictures before I could take one. I waded in the coolest water I’ve felt in this country. Along the way I saw trees bearing guava fruit wrapped in individual bags and sap being collected from rubber trees; now I see where my latex mattress comes from.

I had a late lunch, Indian food, then Kai, the manager of the hotel, dropped me off at Coconut Beach. After a nice walk, I bought a mojito so I could use a lounge chair, and enjoyed a few relaxing hours reading and napping, with a break to swing on a swing hanging from a palm tree. Kai picked me and a couple other guests up and took us to Memories Beach where I wandered until sunset. Shh, don’t tell the world, if you are looking for long, uncrowded beaches with fine sand, and warm, turquoise waters, Khao Lak is the spot.

2 December – off to Bangkok

Kai insisted on sending me off with fresh lemongrass and other herbs used in Thai cooking. The taxi ride to Phuket took about an hour and a half, on the best roads I’ve seen yet. Unlike in Cambodia, the cars drive on the left side of the road here. When I went through security I found the hotel key in my pocket. Oops. Maybe I can mail it back from Bangkok.