Jim scoffs pink noodles for breakfast, giving in-flight Christmas sandwiches a miss, and getting settled in Taipei.

Day 183: Chiang Mai, Thailand & Taipei, Taiwan. This morning we had a very leisurely breakfast, while finalising details for our stay in Taipei.

Jim was very happy to find the hotel offered a buffet breakfast, which means he gets to try all sorts of weird and wonderful things first thing in the morning. He gleefully piled pink noodles, spicy minced pork, stir fried vegetables, stewed banana and a weird looking sausage onto his plate. Lil had eggs and toast.

After breakfast we finished packing and walked to Chiang Mai airport, an easy 2km stroll.

Chiang Mai airport was bigger than we expected. We couldn’t find our flight on the information screens, so asked one of the staff, who said we needed to go to the international terminal (which to be honest was only one minute’s walk away, and really just a continuation of the domestic terminal).

The three and a half hour flight to Taipei was uneventful, apart from a bored kid in front of us who screamed mightily for a large chunk of the journey, and kept reaching back to close our window shade.

Lil ordered a fancy organic brew coffee, which came with fresh coffee grounds in a filter contraption. Pretty snazzy for in-flight refreshment.

We were also amused to see that the food selection included an ‘Assorted Christmas Sandwich’. It didn’t look particularly Christmassy, and also contained a pretty odd selection of ingredients, including wheat flour, egg, ‘chicken ham’, salmon, mayonnaise, green tea, beetroot, cheese, soybean oil and wholegrain. Ho ho ho.

We landed at Taipei airport, and made our way fairly quickly through immigration and customs. Then we had a list of things to do at the airport; get some local currency, buy local SIM cards, sign up for Taiwan public wifi and buy EasyCards which make travelling on public transport heaps easier. We managed to complete everything within an hour and were seriously impressed with the efficiency of all the processes. It only took 5 minutes to sort out our phones, most of which was um-ing and ah-ing over the choice of plans, and about 30 seconds for the wifi sign-up, which didn’t even involve any paperwork.

Then we caught the MRT to our accommodation, a pretty lengthy journey but an easy one. We’re staying in an airbnb in Taipei; we met our host on the corner of the street, and dragged our bags up eight flights of stairs to get settled in.

By the time we headed out for food it was 10.35pm, however there were still heaps of restaurants and shops open. We found a local eatery, and by pointing at images on our phones we managed to order some excellent chicken noodle soup, and a couple of Taiwan beers.

Tomorrow we’ll start exploring the city – there’s certainly heaps to do and see here. And perhaps not surprisingly, Jim is already researching what weird foods he can find in Taipei.

More then.

A chill in the air at the lodge, Jim sits atop his minibus throne, and meeting folk in a local bar.

Day 182: Soppong & Chiang Mai, Thailand. We woke to a pretty chilly morning at the Cave Lodge. Mist was hanging in the valley, and for the first time this year, the fire pit in the central house had been lit. Suddenly shorts and flip flops (even with Jim’s groovy socks) seemed a little light.

We had breakfast huddled around the fire, chatting to a guy called Ian who lives on the Isle of Wight. He’s a lawyer who’s been on a business trip to Bangkok, and took the opportunity to add a side trip to Northern Thailand for some hiking and caving.

Ian was heading off on a day long caving expedition with a guide (it sounded like pretty serious stuff too, involving lots of crawling and swimming through caves). His guide kindly gave us a lift to Soppong, where we were catching a minibus back to Chiang Mai.

Tuesday is market day in Soppong (as it seems to be in a lots of Northern Thai towns). We spent a while wandering up and down dozens of stalls, mostly selling locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, along with heaps of t-shirts with witty slogans, often with unfortunate typos. Jim was a little disappointed to find there were no insects for sale.

We had lunch at a local restaurant; really good stir fried chicken with chilli and basil and stir fried tofu with rice, cooked by a lovely lady who spoke hardly any English, but had a smile that lit up the world.

Our minibus arrived early, but left late. We’d pre-booked the front passenger seat for Jim (which Lil now calls his throne), with Lil in seat 2A right behind him. She got to sit next to two Thai ladies who snoozed their way through the journey, and took up more than their fair share of the bench seat. Lil’s elbows were flapping the entire time trying to keep them out of her space.

We mentioned in a previous blog post that there are 762 bends in the road between Pai and Chiang Mai. Today we got to experience all of them in one continuous wiggle – and at often terrifying speed. The minibus driver was a bit of a loon, spending most of the time overtaking cars and trucks on very narrow roads, often with vehicles coming the other way. He managed to do 80 km/hr in a 30 zone, and at one point was rattling along at 120 km/hr.

Despite leaving 10 minutes late, we arrived in Chiang Mai an hour earlier than scheduled (for all of the above reasons). Jim hopped out with a grin on his face, having enjoyed the amazing scenery this time, with no sign of the travel sickness he’d endured on the way out to Pai. Yay to his throne.

We caught a taxi to our hotel, which is close to the airport, in readiness for our flight out tomorrow. After settling in, we headed to a local laundromat to tackle a heap of washing. While the washing machine was doing its stuff, we wandered around the corner in search of a cold beer. We found one, in the coolest little bar ever, at the front of a store selling all kinds of stuff. A young girl still in her school uniform served us.

The bar had a big fridge full of beer, and a selection of local Thai whisky which is sold by the shot. We also got to try a new snack – slices of unripe tamarind with salt. A bit mouth drying, but delicious and probably great with a nip of the hooch.

While we were sitting drinking our beers (feeling slightly precarious given our bums were sticking out onto a fairly busy street), an elderly man on a motorbike pulled up. He ordered a large shot of whisky, sat next to us and started chatting. His name is Porn (short for an unpronounceable and very hard to spell Thai name), and he’s a security guard. He’s a really lovely guy – now 72 years old, and has previously worked as airline crew, a taxi driver and a tuk tuk driver. He gave Lil his Facebook name so she can friend him (though his Facebook page is in Thai, which should be interesting).

After Porn headed off, another guy pulled up on his motorbike, ordered a whisky shot and chatted to us for a bit. His name is Au, which sounded like he was saying Oh!. He was very interested to hear where we’d been in Thailand, and delighted to hear that we loved the place. He was meeting a friend somewhere, so quickly knocked back his large glass of whisky and jumped on his bike again.

After our clothes were washed and dried, we dropped them back to the hotel, then wandered around the corner to a local restaurant and bar for dinner. We were the only ones there (perhaps not surprisingly, given it was Tuesday evening, in an out-of-town area). A pretty quirky bar, with an eclectic selection of photographs and memorabilia on the walls, a loud TV showing the Thai news, and a bunch of cats rambling around the tables.

We ordered two lots of fried rice, one with Chiang Mai sausage and the other with chicken, and a Thai beef and lime salad – our last Thai dinner for now.

Tomorrow we’re catching a flight to Taipei, which we’re super excited about. Our hotel is only 1.5km from the airport, so we’ll enjoy a leisurely walk to the terminal. And Jim, of course, is already wondering what insect delights he’ll encounter in Taiwan.

More then.

Shooing thousands of ants off the balcony, Dasher and Dancer join us on our hike, and planning the next stage of our adventure.

Day 181: Soppong, Thailand. We had a later start to our day today, feeling a little tired out after yesterday’s long hilly hike.

Lil plonked herself on the balcony outside our room with her book, after sending thousands of ants that had gathered overnight on their way, involving a decent amount of flapping and loud shrieks.

At one point a guy from one of the other chalets decided to rescue a blown-away sock by making his way down the steep hill beneath our balcony. The damp morning ground, steep incline and his not-so-great decision to make the precarious attempt in bright white Birkenstock sandals, made for a fine bit of comedy.

After breakfast we walked through the village and across a series of fields, and climbed up what is known locally as ‘The Big Knob’, a pretty steep ascent up through the forest.

Two local dogs decided they wanted to join us on the adventure.

The dogs were adorable and very friendly – we nicknamed them Dasher and Dancer, though not surprisingly, they didn’t respond to either. They were both very useful, in that they knew exactly where the trail went, which helped us to steer our way up the mountainside (they were up and over a makeshift bamboo gate before we’d even found its location) and also a bit of a nuisance, as they had a tendency to keep running back and forth, and several times nearly knocked us over in the process.

We reached the top of the trail, and after some debate decided to skip the last bit of the climb, which involved scrabbling and scaling up lots of craggy rocks. The two dogs by now were super excited and were already trying to clamber up the rock face, and Lil worried that either they’d knock one of us off, or vice versa. So we decided to call it a day and retraced our steps back down through the mountain and into the town.

We had a chilled out afternoon, reading our books, snoozing and making plans for the next stage of our adventures. Tomorrow we head back to Chiang Mai for a quick overnight stay, then fly out the next day to Taiwan, which we’re really excited about.

We’ve loved staying at the Cave Lodge, it’s a fabulously relaxed environment, with great scenery and walks and a lovely ‘get away from it all’ atmosphere. We have a feeling we may well be back at some point.

Tomorrow we pack up again, and catch a minibus from Soppong back to Chiang Mai. We’ve already reserved the front passenger seat for Jim to keep any travel sickness at bay, as we wind our way back over the mountains.

More then.

Scaling a mountain on Sunday morning, battling through a tangle of cobwebs, and Happy New Year 2013.

Day 180: Soppong, Thailand. This morning we were up and about early, having breakfast and getting ready for a long hike.

We set off towards Lod cave again, crossing the bamboo bridge and then heading up into the forest. The start of the walk was steep but glorious, with stellar views back across the village, and not a soul in sight. Even several face-fulls of cobwebs didn’t dull our bouncy moods.

We reached the top of the mountain, then walked along the ridge towards the north – some great plants along the way, though very little wildlife apart from lots of birds chirruping in the trees.

We followed the trail back down the other side of the mountain until we reached a small country road, which we followed for a few kilometres downhill. We had to hang back for a bit to avoid some cranky buffalo with their young, who looked like they were getting ready to charge at us. After they’d disappeared into a field, we scurried past and kept following the road until we reached Ban Mueang Phaem, a village of the Karen tribe.

We had a good walk around the village, stopping to admire the artwork on the outside of the kids’ school (including a Happy New Year 2013 message), and peering into wooden village huts and houses as we walked past.

There are a number of homestays catering to groups trekking into the local area, similar to those we’ve previously stayed in in Burma and Vietnam. Everyone was very friendly and waved and said hello – it must be pretty interesting living in such a small place.

Then we walked out of the village and back up the road, which was a hellishly steep climb; we had to stop to catch our breath a few times. Apart from a couple of motorbikes and one or two cars, there was hardly anyone around. And again, we soaked up the most glorious views across farmland and mountains.

We kept walking for another five or so kilometres, eventually reaching the village we’re staying in. We briefly considered extending our walk further, but the afternoon heat was really kicking in and we were starting to feel pretty tired. So instead we visited a cafe called Sweet & Salty in the local village. They grow, roast and brew their own coffee, and it was really good. We sat upstairs on the terrace in the afternoon heat, with fabulous views across the surrounding area.

Then we headed home for a rest while we waited for 5pm to arrive, so we could have a hot shower. This evening we wanderd up to the village for an early dinner at the same restaurant as last night; the food was so good we couldn’t resist a second visit. Their gorgeous cat has three kittens in tow, which we had a heap of fun playing with.

Then home for some chill time in the central wooden house at the Lodge – it’s still not quite cold enough in the evenings to light the huge central fire pit, but it must be getting close.

Tomorrow we’re planning another walk – there are lots of hikes in the local area. And hopefully we’ll avoid face-fulls of cobwebs along the way.

More then.

Off to the jungle in a mini bus, staying in a little piece of heaven, and watching half a million birds fly past.

Day 179: Pai & Soppong, Thailand. Today we were up and about early to finish packing and catch yet another bus, this time to Soppong, an hour west of Pai.

The minibus left a little late; three people who’d booked tickets for the trip did a no-show (possibly too hungover to face an early morning rollercoaster ride over the mountain). We had pre-assigned seats, and Jim got the passenger seat right up front – a blessing given he never feels car sick there. The guy next to Lil, however, lasted 10 minutes before diving on the pile of plastic bags tucked into a seat pocket, and barfing badly.

When we got to Soppong, we had coffee in a spectacular little cafe looking out over the jungle and river. It was really good coffee too.

Then we headed back across the street to try and find someone to drive us to our accommodation, 9km away in a small village called Ban Tam Lod. The guy at the bus ticket office ran up the street and found someone, who unlocked a garage and drove us to the village in his truck.

We’re staying three nights at at an awesome place called the Cave Lodge, which was set up in the 70’s by an Australian guy who is an avid caving enthusiast and trekker. It’s a spectacular place to a stay – a cluster of small rustic cabins surrounded by jungle, and a huge wooden open sided house with lots of chairs and tables, a massive central fire pit, a table tennis table and a great library of books. It’s very tranquil and feels like a little piece of heaven.

Maps and information are posted around the walls, with details of local hikes, caves and wildlife. Apparently there are snakes in one of the local caves, which aren’t venomous, but do bite, and climb over the roof of the cave by flexing around stalactites. Yikes.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and reading our balcony, looking out over the jungle and river.

Late afternoon we walked through the jungle and across a bamboo bridge, to the exit of Tham Lod cave, to see the sunset spectacle of half a million swifts entering the cave for the night. We sat on a rock by the river to wait for the show.

It was like nothing we’ve ever witnessed before – at about five o’clock Lil spotted a few birds, and a few minutes later a swarm of swifts began swirling high above, before diving down and shooting past us and into the caves behind. They were difficult to photograph with the speed and the fading light.

Then we walked back into the village through the dark jungle (thankfully we remembered to bring a torch) and had dinner at a small restaurant called Nong Luk. Wonderful food, cooked by a lovely cheery lady. Three local guys were enjoying a Saturday evening chat – they had 18 empty beer cans lined up between them by the time we left.

Hot showers at the Lodge are only available between 5pm and 8pm, so we headed back for a shower then went and sat in the communal house to catch with with stuff online, have an icy cold beer and listen to some very chilled music. A lovely finish to the day.

Tomorrow we’re planning a long hike on one of the many local trails. And we may even visit one of the caves – though hopefully we won’t encounter any roof-climbing snakes.

More then.

A village with only 12 households, climbing the great wall of China, and cats for sale at the local supermarket.

Day 178: Pai, Thailand. Today we set off to pay a visit to China – or at least to a Chinese Yunnan village called Santichon, about 5km outside Pai.

The road to Santichon winds through some glorious farming countryside, with great views across rice paddies and the surrounding mountains.

We passed through a tiny village along the way called Baan Nam Hu Hai Jai, where an information board in the village states there are currently 12 households living there, with a population of 49 villagers – 20 males and 29 females. Which seems pretty precise, but then with a population that small, it’s probably easy enough to count everyone.

The information board also goes on to explain that the name of the village comes from a local cave from which water flows, which is similar to a person breathing, so they named the community Nam Hu Hai Jai which means breathing. So there we go.

We arrived in Santichon around lunchtime, just as it was starting to get pretty busy with visitors. The village grew around a settlement of Yunnanese people who fled China during the revolution of Mao Tse Tung. Today, descendants of those early settlers still live in the village, along with Thai hill tribes and former Chinese soldiers.

The lower part of the village is now horribly touristy, with replicas of Chinese buildings including the Great Wall of China. Food and souvenirs are for sale, along with the opportunity to rent traditional Chinese costumes for dress up. We had a quick look around, then walked up a steep road through the main village and even higher up to a viewpoint.

The viewpoint was also quite touristy and had an ‘entrance fee’ – but with 360 degree views across the mountains, who’s complaining? (Actually one English couple did complain, and refused to pay the fee, saying they’re sick of being charged everywhere they go).

We had a coffee at a cafe just below the viewpoint, then retraced our steps back home, enjoying more glorious views of the countryside, and stepping over a bunch of dead snakes on the road.

We passed a supermarket selling all kinds of everything, and popped in to buy some toiletries. As we were queuing to pay, we spotted two kittens that had price stickers on their heads. We assumed someone was having a laugh, but no – the kittens were also for sale, at the bargain price of 100 Baht each (less than 5 AUD). Spotting us photographing them, one of the sales staff asked if we’d like to buy one. We said thanks, but no thanks.

This evening we had dinner in the town, then headed to the Jazz Garden for some live music – the first time we’ve had to take our shoes off for a gig. The music venue is tucked into a young hippie hostel, with most seating on the ground on cushions (thankfully we managed to grab one of the few regular tables and chairs). And the music was really good.

Tomorrow we pack up again, and catch a bus to Soppong (also known as Pang Mapha). Which will be our final destination before we return to Chiang Mai, and leave Thailand once again.

More then.

Checking out the effects of an earthquake, a snoozy dog that refuses to budge, and a hefty climb to a big white Buddha.

Day 177: Pai, Thailand. After breakfast, we wandered down the street to hire bicycles from one of the bike rental shops. The streets were really quiet compared to the previous evening; presumably most people were in bed after late nights partying on the town.

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon pedalling around the local countryside, and up and down rather a lot of hills, keen to visit as many sights as we could in one day. The scenery is outstanding, and once we got out of the town it was really peaceful, apart from bumping into the odd gaggle of tourists at the sights we visited, and occasional mopeds whizzing (or in some cases, wobbling) past.

Our first destination was The Land Split, one of the most intriguing places we’ve visited. In 2008, the owner woke to discovered that an overnight earthquake had torn his farm in two, and a massive split, 2m wide and 11m deep, now ran across the land. Until then he had a flourishing soybean farm, but his income source was now ruined. Instead of being dragged down by the disaster, he turned the geological event into a tourist destination, and now welcomes people who want to take a look at the split, and to sample produce from his farm. He’s a wonderful friendly guy.

We put some money in the donation box, sat down at one of the wooden tables and were served a variety of food and drinks produced on the farm, including sensational roselle juice made from hibiscus flowers, banana chips served with roselle jam, fresh papaya, pumpkin crisps, peanuts and tamarind fruit.

We had a good giggle as we watched two women opposite trying to turn around their motorbike and sidecar. There was a snoozing dog in the way who was refusing to budge, and their efforts to try and get around it (including nudging the dog with their feet – she just rolled over) were hilarious. Eventually one of the farm managers whistled to the dog, and she ran across the road with her puppy.

After we’d scoffed the selection of seriously good treats, we walked up the hill to take a look at the split, which is fascinating. We also wandered around the farm garden where lots of hibiscus plants and other crops are grown. We headed back down, bought a large bag of banana chips and a jar of jam, and jumped on our bikes again.

We stopped for coffee at a lovely little restaurant by the roadside, with friendly cats and dogs, and where the roof above us was made from giant dried leaves.

Next we pedalled to Pai Canyon, which is sometimes likened to the Grand Canyon, though that’s a little flattering. It’s a stunning place, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, and lots of great trails to walk around. Some of the paths are dangerously narrow, with terrifying drops either side, so we were happy to skip a few of them.

And of course there’s always one daredevil twit who has to stand on a perilously narrow cliff – and check his phone while he’s there. Stomach churning stuff.

Our next stop was the Memorial Bridge. This is the site of a bridge which was built in 1941 by the local people under control of the Japanese army, on a supply route connecting north Thailand with east Burma. The original bridge was burnt down by the exiting Japanese in 1946 but swiftly rebuilt by the locals who had come to rely on it. This bridge stood until it was washed away by huge floods in 1973 and today’s bridge was built as a memorial a few years later.

And finally we visited the white Buddha at Wat Phra That Mae Yen. The huge white statue sits high on the hillside looking east over Pai village. There’s a hefty climb up 353 steps to get there, but the view is absolutely worth it.

We pedalled back to town, dropped the bikes back and walked back to our guesthouse. We sat on the balcony for a bit with a cold beer, watching the sun set and listening to a live jazz band playing in the courtyard bar below. We also sampled some locally distilled whiskey we’d bought earlier, which was interesting, but probably not something we’d drink very often.

Tomorrow we’re planning to go for a walk to Santichon, a Chinese Yunnan village about 5km to the west of Pai. And no doubt our cycling legs will be happy to have a rest after our decent hilly pedal today.

More then.

Waking to a sea of black ants, Jim goes green around the gills, and settling down in party town.

Day 176: Chiang Dao & Pai, Thailand. We woke to an invasion of large black ants. Hundreds of them had made their way into our room overnight and were crawling across the room in a seething black mass. Thankfully Lil spotted them before she put her feet on the floor, and after a lot of flapping with the bath mat and a rug, we managed to sweep a large swathe of them into the garden outside.

We had our last breakfast on the terrace, and chatted to a young American couple who only met a couple of weeks ago in Chiang Mai, and are now travelling happily together. They’re also keen hikers, so we gave them lots of tips on places we’ve been and treks we’ve done, and they did likewise. Then we finished packing and said our goodbyes to Malee and the adorable dogs, who we will really miss. They were lining up for their morning treats as we waited for a songthaew to take us to the bus station.

The songthaew arrived, driven by a very friendly and animated guy who was determined we would make the next scheduled bus. We rattled along country roads at speed, passing a police checkpoint where he merrily shouted something in Thai and drove past, then skidded into the bus depot five minutes before the scheduled departure time. He thanked us and said ‘goodbye until next time’. Which kind of got us thinking about how many of the hundreds of places we’ve visited, we may visit again in the future.

Our next destination was Pai, one of the most popular destinations in the north of Thailand. We almost skipped it, fearing it would be horribly touristy, but decided to spend a few days there and do our best to dodge the masses. The town is only about 130km from Chiang Dao, but it’s along a crazy windy mountain road, and to get there we had to change buses at a small town called Mae Malai.

The bus dropped us in the centre of Mae Malai, which we then discovered was the wrong place to wave down the state bus to Pai. So our only choice was to get a minibus, which was leaving in two hours. To fill in time, we went and had coffee at a local cafe, then had a leisurely wander around the local market.

The market is fabulous and huge, selling all kinds of everything. The insect stalls were particularly impressive, with monster black cockroaches that looked like they’d need a decent knife and fork to tackle them. Further along, a lady was selling massive chunks of bee larvae honeycomb, nicely plonked alongside some shiny pig intestines.

The honeycomb made the one that Jim bought a couple of weeks ago fade into insignificance – this one was like something from a horror movie. Even Jim agreed it didn’t look too appetising (or perhaps safe, given large wriggling live bees seemed to come as part of the package).

The minibus was late leaving Mae Malai, which was a little worrying given the company offers some sort of on-time arrival guarantee. Late departures presumably just mean that the driver goes even faster to make sure he reaches the final destination on time. We sat in the last two seats at the back of the minibus, with a wall of backpacks piled up around us.

The road from Mae Malai to Pai is in good condition, but so convoluted it feels like being on a two hour roller coaster ride. An online article estimates there are 762 road bends from Chiang Mai to Pai, and we probably swung around at least 600 of those on our trip from Mae Malai to Pai. The driver was clearly on a mission (probably to meet the on-time arrival guarantee), and drove at nutty speed, overtaking cars and trucks wherever he could, and without worrying about what might be coming in the other direction.

A small section of the twisting road to Pai

Jim doesn’t do road travel very well when the roads are packed with twists and turns. Before long he was going green around the gills, and asking Lil if she had any plastic bags nearby in case he needed them. He was really close to throwing up, when thankfully the minibus stopped for a 15 minute break, giving him time to get some fresh air and get his stomach settled down again.

The second half of the journey was just as bad, but thankfully Jim managed to curl up in the back of the minivan with his head against the window, and doze for a chunk of the journey. And thankfully managed not to barf.

We arrived in Pai, and walked the short distance to our accommodation (Jim mostly wobbled there). We unpacked to discover some large black ants had crawled into our backpacks, and caught a free ride with us.

Pai is a very hippie backpacker town, full of western tourists and definitely not somewhere we’d want to live. But it should be fun for a couple of days, and we’ll have lots of opportunities to visit the surrounding quieter countryside.

The town is famous for its ‘Walking Street’ – every evening, food stalls set up along both sides of the main street, and there’s a huge choice of local delicacies to choose from, many of which would be tempting after an evening spent in one of the dozens of local bars. We munched on a pot of warmed butter sweetcorn as we wandered along, then steered into a restaurant for some great dinner and fresh roti which was lady was making at the front of the restaurant. We had nut curry and yellow curry, from a menu very obviously influenced by Chinese and Indian cuisine as well as local Thai.

After dinner we walked around the town, and stopped for a while at a bar with some great live music – three guys playing a mix of blues and soul. Lil reckons the guitarist looks like a younger Eric Clapton.

Then home for an early night, though we quickly found out staying in party town means listening to the sounds of music and merriment coming through the windows until the early (and even late) hours of the morning. We still managed to drift off to sleep fairly easily, tired out from the day’s activities.

Tomorrow we’re planning to rent bikes and pedal around the surrounding countryside. And hopefully we won’t wake to find our room crawling with large black ants.

More then.

Spotting fried eggs at the caves, a dog-free climb through the forest, and homemade herbal whisky all round. 

Day 175: Chiang Dao, Thailand. We woke and had breakfast on the terrace again, while psyching ourselves up for today’s hike up the mountain and through the forest.

Neither of us were convinced that the hike would work out, or that we’d even manage to get started on it, given all the reports about overgrown trails in the area.

We walked down through the village, with two of the guesthouse dogs accompanying us part of the way (they’re adorable), then started our day with a visit to Chiang Dao cave.

The cave network is pretty spectacular, and far better than we’d anticipated. There are several Buddhist shrines, some world class geology and it’s occupied by some pretty chunky bats which flew back and forth above our heads. We paid our entrance fee and headed into the cave, then around the first bend found another ticket counter, where a guide tries to sell us a tour around an unlit part of the cave, for ten times the entrance fee.

Any caves we’ve visited in the past have, for some reason, highlighted rock formations that look like animals or birds, or in one case ‘a lady’s nipple’ (a guide in Vietnam managed to tell us that one with a straight face). Chiang Dao caves are no different – while we didn’t have a guide, there was a poster outside the caves which highlighted the rock formations we could see, including a frog hole, an elephant lung and – get this – a fried egg. Perhaps they had a gap to fill on the poster.

A little bizarrely there’s also an opportunity to rent costumes for a bit of dress-up activity towards the back of the caves. Why, we have no idea.

Beside the entrance to the caves, there’s a pond with stacks of monster carp and cat fish. Visitors can buy food to feed them. We watched a couple chucking food into the pond, with the fish completely ignoring them, so we’re guessing they may be a little overfed.

Afterwards we had a quick coffee at a cafe next to the caves, then put our brave hats on, and started our climb up through the forest. More than anything, we were nervous about dog attacks – there were dozens of dogs roaming around the grounds outside the caves, and we feared there might be lots more living up in the forest. We at least had walking sticks to help defend us from any cranky canines, but thankfully, we didn’t see a single one the entire time, which was a huge relief.

The hike was spectacular – we were the only ones walking the trail, perhaps because everyone else was put off by the thought of bashing through overgrown paths. We walked up a very steep hill and weaved our way through trees and rocks and bamboo. We had to bush-bash in parts, including a particularly tricky patch where obstinate bamboo branches had grown across the track, and it took a fair bit of time to clear a way through. Thankfully we didn’t see any snakes either, so all in all, it turned out to be a very good day.

The hike finished by crossing a small dried up river, then we climbed up a small wooden ladder which took us out of the forest and into the car park next to a local wat. We walked along the road back home, tired and muddy, but hugely happy with ourselves.

When we got back to the guesthouse, we showered and plonked ourselves in the garden with our books, before heading out early evening for dinner in the village.

This evening turned out to be a pretty big one. We got chatting to a bunch of people at the Cave Bar, including the owner Buppha, who set up her bar five years ago. We also had a fascinating chat with a guy who’s a cinematographer and has worked all over the world with lots of famous musicians. He’s now living in Thailand for a bit while he plans his next moves. He told us his favourite country is Bulgaria, so perhaps he’ll end up there. It was a fabulous evening with great company, and a really nice finish to our stay here.

Buppha rang the bell at 9pm and walked around the bar with a tray of her homemade herbal whisky. We’d already had one earlier, but she insisted we have another. A bit later, she offered us another one ‘for the road’, and after that, we decided it really was time to go. Before we left, she showed us the herbs that go into the whisky, that she steeps for days in alcohol in a huge glass container.

Tomorrow we pack up and head to Pai, which by all accounts is a bit of a hippie and backpacker town, with some interesting sights and walks. And perhaps we’ll find some more caves where we can spy fried eggs.

More then.

A jolly pedal around the countryside, encountering a pack of ferocious dogs, and Jim wins multiple pool games against himself.

Day 174: Chiang Dao, Thailand. We started the day with a leisurely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the guesthouse gardens, happily scoffing Malee’s homemade bread and jam with great freshly brewed coffee.

After breakfast, we hired two mountain bikes and set off for a pedal around the local area. The bikes were in good condition and definitely fit for purpose, though most of our day’s cycling was spent on roads and reasonably good condition tracks. After the town bikes in Sukothai and elsewhere, it was luxury to have so many gears to play with. Though sadly, Jim didn’t get a ‘special’ saddle this time around, so his delicate bum just had to put up with the bumps.

We cycled to the Pong Arng hot springs – there’s not a lot there other than a few circular concrete tubs of hot water next to a river, which not surprisingly smelt strongly of sulphur. A bunch of guys were dabbling their toes to try to reap the benefits of the mineral rich water.

Nearby was the entrance way to the Wildlife Sanctuary Research Centre. We walked through and spotted a sign for a nature trail that climbs up the hill. We started to walk towards it, but a bunch of staff shooed us away, shaking their heads vigorously. We’ve no idea why, but it’s a huge shame – we’re really struggling to find any open trails in this area.

We got back on our bikes and pedalled into Chiang Doi town – the main town in the area, about 7km from our accommodation. It was time for a coffee, though we failed to spot any cafes that were open. Eventually we ended up having instant coffee at the bus station, where Jim bought a tub of weird looking gnarly sweet fruits with a sour powder coating. Who knows what they were – and at least they weren’t insects this time.

After our caffeine break, and stares from a few hopeful bus drivers who were hoping we might fill a couple of their empty bus seats, we headed on our way to check out Phra Nares wat and meditation centre. To get there we had to pedal down a bunch of very scenic small country roads and a few dirt tracks, lined with fields packed with maize and other crops. Lots of locals were out working the fields, and waved cheerily at us as we whizzed past.

We came across a new wat under construction on the way too. There will be a new Buddhist meditation centre here at some point, one of several in the area.

The road up to the Phra Nares wat was seriously steep, so we had to get off and push (or rather drag) our bikes up the incline. There were some pretty cool multi-coloured demons along the way, looking more comical than scary.

We arrived at the top, huffing and puffing, but it was well worth the effort – some great views across the countryside and a very ornate staircase up to the wat itself. Sadly the wat at the top of the steps was closed, but it was still fabulous to visit the grounds.

Halfway up the steps we spotted a very cool stick insect on the wall, just hanging out in the afternoon sun.

We cycled around the top of the hill to reach a second wat. We heard a dog barking, then two, and next thing six large black dogs were charging up the hill towards us. They were snapping and snarling and pretty ferocious – not good at all. As they reached our bikes, we started shouting and yelling at the tops of our voices, and somehow managed to get past them without getting bitten.

Pretty shaken up, we continued up the hill to another wat, though there wasn’t a great amount to see – it looks like it’s closed except when there’s a service happening. And we had to contend with another two snappy dogs, though they were nowhere near as ferocious as the earlier pack.

We pedalled around some more serene country roads, then headed home to read our books and chill in the garden. And Lil did lots of research on how to survive an encounter with a ferocious pack of stray dogs.

We had dinner in the village again (with Christmas carols playing in the background), accompanied once more by the small-helicopter-sized mosquitoes. Then we went back to Cave Bar for a beer and more of their divine homemade herbal whisky. Jim played a few games of pool with himself, and apparently won all of them.

The lovely English couple we met the previous night were there again (we now know their names are Alison and Simon) and we had a good old chat about anything and everything. They’re heading back to England in a few days, but say we’ve inspired them – who knows, perhaps they’ll also decide to give up their routine-based lives for a bit and go travelling.

Tomorrow we’re keen to try and hike one of the local trails, though our hopes of bashing our way through the overgrown tracks don’t seem particularly high. Otherwise, we’ll go for a wander around the local area, and if we meet any dogs, at least Lil will know what to do (or what not to do).

More then.