Travel reboot in Thailand

Somewhere along the way Glenn and I lost that sense of awe that comes from traveling.

We no longer felt the little tingle in the pit of our stomachs that said “oh wow, look at that” or “huh, this is a new and somewhat uncomfortable situation.”

Traveling went from a grand adventure to a little bit of a chore. Actually, chore is too strong of a word for it.

Traveling just became a state of being. Neither positive or negative…just there.

Glenn and I have spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out what happened. In the end we think it is a combination of several things:

1) Too much go-go-go without a real break.

Despite our best attempts, we just couldn’t turn off long enough to recharge our batteries (except when our bodies forced the issue by getting sick). After all, we’d only be here/there/wherever once in our lives and we didn’t want to miss anything. We became fully saturated with travel experiences and just didn’t have any room left in our hearts and souls to truly embrace the what was before us. Everything became muted.

2) Touristy roadside attractions just don’t do it for us.

We spent three months in South America traveling to fairly out of the way locations that many foreign tourists never see (e.g., Easter Island, trekking in the Atacama Desert, biking the Uyuni Salt Flats, sleeping in a glass pod on the side of a cliff) – not to mention coming face-to-face with wild polar bears in northern Manitoba (Canada).

More recently in New Zealand, and later in Australia, we traveled on our own either by rented campervan or car. We found ourselves following guidebooks that led us from one roadside attraction to another. We saw some amazing sights, to be sure, but something was missing.

It wasn’t until we recently trekked for six-days through the Tasmanian wilderness on the Overland Track that we felt, with giddy delight, the return of the intimate and authentic experiences that can come from traveling off the beaten path.

3) Familiarity is the enemy of adventure.

Although we had to learn some new Kiwi and Aussie slang terms  – and learn to drive on the right side of the car, on the left side of the road – traveling in New Zealand and Australia felt very comfortable. The people looked like us (mostly), talked like us (kinda), ate like us (Vegemite aside!) and held similar cultural norms as us. Much of the scenery, especially in New Zealand, was similar to what we have at home in Oregon – albeit, on a much grander scale.

We didn’t have to stumble through how to properly greet a stranger (i.e., do we shake, kiss a cheek, bow or hug?), consult Google Translate to decipher a menu or watch the locals to figure out the safest way to cross a busy street.

Everything felt easy and familiar. As such, we lost that sense of adventure – and more importantly, the personal growth – that comes from being outside of our comfort zone.

Something needed to change.

One night, as we were hunkered down in our campervan in yet another New Zealand rainstorm, we began finalizing the logistics of the last leg of our six-month trip. We intended to fly to northern Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef and then stop in Fiji on the way back home. Although we hadn’t said it aloud to each other, neither of us was terribly excited about that plan anymore.

We were mere clicks away from purchasing our final plane tickets when I said, “what if we went someplace else instead?” Glenn looked at me and his eyes lit up. Our six-moth itinerary had been set in our heads for so long it wasn’t until the eleventh hour that we got around to asking ourselves if that was what we really wanted to do anymore.

So, we pulled out a map of the world and started discussing all of countries that were still on our “someday we’ll go there” list. An entirely new world of adventures and opportunities opened before us. Literally. We could go anywhere. Why not!

And so, on somewhat of a lark, we have landed ourselves in Thailand.

We joined an REI Adventures trip of biking, hiking and kayaking in northern Thailand, and, in doing so, recaptured the sense of excitement that comes from traveling off the beaten path and getting a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture. As you’ll see the in pictures below, it seems to be just what the doctor ordered to cure us of our travel malaise.

Chiang Mai Area

We journeyed up Suthep Mountain outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city after Bangkok, to visit the beautiful temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

After climbing 300 steep steps we were greeted with an amazing temple, glittering gold in the sunshine. Here, as part of their spiritual practice, visitors walk around the stupa (known as circumambulation), while focusing on the writings they carry.

There was something interesting to look at around every corner at the temple.

We spent one morning hiking to a great jungle waterfall. A few brave souls, like Diana, Jackie and Robin (left to right) went for a dip in the cold water.

We were escorted through the forest by a sweet gentleman from a local tribe. He wove Diana a frog out of bamboo while sitting on the banks of the waterfall.

We passed by hundreds of “spirit houses” located at the base of large trees, people’s yards, outside of businesses and along dangerous stretches of road. Spirit worship, or animism, is an ancient religious practice that is very common in Thailand and goes hand-in-hand with Buddhism. The little houses are decorated (notice the elaborate woodwork, figurines, incense holders, etc.) and placed in prominent locations to entice local spirits to live there and be happy…as happy spirits will stay out of mischief and bring good luck.

Ziplining

We spent an afternoon ziplining through the jungle canopy at a place called Flight of the Gibbon. It was a first time experience for several folks in our group, which was fun to see. Although I’ve been zipping a few times, there were some firsts for me too – including a tandem zip with Glenn and flying like Superman into a net. Below is a little video of our experience, where I giggle the whole way through.

(Want to see a sharper version of the video? Open it here and adjust the YouTube player’s resolution – click on the three little vertical dots upper right and then the grey gear symbol.)

Hilltribes

Northern Thailand is home to several ethnic minorities, known collectively as the hilltribe people. They migrated south from China over 100 years ago. With tribal names such as Lisu, Yao, Karen, Akha, Lahu and Hmong, they each have their own distinct culture, religion, dress and artwork. We spent 3 days hiking up into the mountains to visit some of them.

We started out on the valley floor, then climbed up, up, up to our first night’s stay at the village of Jatae of the Lahu tribe…part of which can be seen on the top of the hill in the distance.

It is the dry season here, so much of our hiking was through jungles and agricultural fields that were brown and dried out. It made for interesting scenery. Here the full moon watches over the group’s progress.

Wherever Glenn goes, the local dogs are never far behind.

In the glow of the sunset, two neighborhood kids came to say hello.

A beautiful sunset from our accommodations high atop the mountain.

Some of our hiking crew chatting it up while waiting for yet another amazing home cooked meal prepared by our guides.

There was a village celebration going on further down the road – complete with singing and bonfires. They launched flaming paper lanterns which, coupled with the sounds of singing and laughter from the distant revelers, were fun to watch drift peacefully over the forest. Here you can see two of them – they look like orange stars.

Cabbage, as well as a strain of strawberries that can grow in the cooler climates of these mountains, are common crops among some of the hilltribes – based, in part, on a program spearheaded by Thailand’s beloved King to discourage the growth of poppies.

Glenn peeking out of the building we slept in on the second night of our stay with the hilltribes. Every time someone rolled over in bed the whole building seemed to shake and shimmy on the stilts. It was a fun ride.

A group photo with our gracious host, Miss Duan. (Left to right: Kim, Mel, Jackie, Michelle, Brian, Diana, James, Sue, Heather, Robin, Glenn and me!)

We hiked through one village where the school children played gleefully under this magnificent tree.

The more gastronomically adventurous of our group (which was pretty much everyone but me and Glenn!) tried a local favorite of fermented tea leaves packed into their cheeks – similar to tobacco, but with a caffeine kick. Apparently, adding a slice of fresh ginger and a sprinkling of salt helped make it more palatable. Based on their faces, however, I’m not sure it helped that much.

What goes up, must come down! It seemed our three day trek was a wicked series of hills. Up, down, up, down.

Celebrating the finish of our challenging trek, our guide Tri (sounds like “three”) teaches Brian some sort of Thai hip-thrusting song and dance about various fruits…and maybe some barbecued chicken.

A group selfie in our transport out of the jungle and on to our next adventure. (Me, Brian, Jackie, Heather, James, Michelle…and Glenn’s arm!)

Biking

We spent a couple of days biking through fields, villages and at times muddy roads of northern Thailand to visit various attractions in the area.

The group setting out on our first bike ride (Jackie, Kim and Mel up front).

Glenn leads the way as we bike through agricultural fields.

I loved the look of the haystacks, with their pointy tops. Here our guide Tri (left) and Brian lead the way down the red dirt road. By the end of the ride we were all covered with a nice dusting of the red dirt.

Taking a break in one of several villages we biked through.

Our view while biking under the watchful eye of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, Thailand’s third highest mountain.

Sharing the road with friendly local bikers.

Biking through villages and rice fields never gets old.

Our iron horses all lined up at the local saloon. Okay…it was just a restaurant, but you could indeed get beer there.

One of the many benefits of biking off the beaten path is you happen upon scenes like this…a family harvesting rice, with a temple in the background and the storm clouds rolling in. (Photo by Robin)

Michelle, Diana, Mel, Jackie and me…nearing the end of a long day of bike riding. (Photo by Michelle)

The rainclouds rolled in toward the end of our biking adventures one day, making for some great lighting.

Simply beautiful. (Doi Luang Chiang Dao mountain)

Below is a video of some of our biking adventures. The second half of the video includes a ride that me, Glenn, Jackie and Brian did with our guides Tri and Som. We were the only ones of the group silly enough to head out into the cold and rain for a ride. It was so muddy that, at times, our bikes wouldn’t pedal anymore because of the clay and rocks bound up in the wheels and chains. This muddy adventure was super fun and one of my favorite memories of the whole trip.

(Want to see a sharper version of the video? Open it here and adjust YouTube’s resolution…click on the three little vertical dots upper right and then the grey gear symbol.)

Kayaking

We kayaked across part of Mae Ngat Somboon Chon lake in the Sri Lanna National Park, a large man-made reservoir built to control flooding and generate electricity.

Brian and Jackie enjoying the kayak trip to lunch at a floating restaurant.

Robin and Sue (top) and Mel and Kim (below) cruising along as well.

Michelle (seen here) hopped a ride on the motorized canoe with me and Glenn. It was a long, hot paddle back to shore and the three of us didn’t regret our decision for a second.

More of our crew paddling home. Only three more miles to go team!

Chiang Dao Caves

We visited the interconnected caverns of the Chiang Dao caves where Burmese hermit monks are said to have lived for thousands of years.

Several dogs acted as greeters at the entrance gate that leads to the caves.

A guardian statue, or dvarapala, watching over the stairs of the temple.

I found the mixture of religious artifacts and natural geologic formations in the caves fascinating.

It seemed that Buddha statues were tucked into all of the cave’s nooks and crannies.

Visitors make offerings based on the year they were born (I was born in the year of the pig)…

…as well as the day of the week they were born. Each differently posed Buddha statue represents a particular day of the week (i.e., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday).

Wat Tham Pha Plong

We rode our bikes further up the road from the Chiang Dao caves to the beautiful Wat Tham Pha Plong where a revered monk once practiced and taught. It was a magically peaceful place with comparatively few tourists.

There are 500 steps leading up to the temple, which gives visitors plenty of time to contemplate the various messages posted all along the path. Brian points out one such sign to Jackie (top left); Michelle enjoys the view of the hillside temple (upper right); The message on this sign (bottom) was particularly timely for me as we find ourselves tiring near then end of our big six-month trip.

Turns out monks have to do laundry too!

There is so much going on in the temples that it is often hard to figure out what to focus on. Similar to the caves, this temple had an interesting mix of opulent figurines against the backdrop of rugged rock walls.

I just happened to glance up to see this great scene of some monks walking up the empty road leading to the temple.

A little bit of pampering goes a long way!

Great food and relaxation kept us smiling on the biking, hiking and paddling trail. As one might expect, Thailand has amazing food, but no restaurant food could compete with the amazing spread our tour guides made for us on a regular basis. Their cooking was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

Our lunchbox on the hiking trail, filled with a delicious vegetable chicken stir-fry (still warm!)..that could be topped with homemade hot sauces made of Thai chilies for those that liked to spice things up. So simple and beautiful…and probably my most favorite meal of the entire trip.

A common sight – the crew relaxing and drinking a beer (and maybe some rum) after a long day of active adventuring.

I spent some time hanging out near this lady’s cart where she was making green papaya salad (one of our favorite dishes that Glenn and I discovered in Vietnam a couple of years ago). She and I couldn’t speak to each other, but we exchanged a lot of waves and smiles, and her salad was delicious.

Diana (top) and Heather (bottom) discovered that there is nothing like a little Thai massage to work out the kinks after a day of biking and hiking. I had never had a Thai massage before coming here and it was quite an amazing experience. Equal parts relaxing and painful (but good pain), they use their hands, elbows, feet and knees to pull and twist and stretch and knead you. I highly recommend giving it a try if you can find a traditionally trained practitioner.

A little birthday celebration at lunch one day. Here Jackie presents Brian with various treasures she lovingly collected for him while tromping through the jungle…including what affectionately became known as the “butt nut” (large brown ball), nature’s solution to hemorrhoids.

Our guides spent a few hours teaching us how to cook several of the dishes we enjoyed during our trip.

After a demonstration by the experts we were turned loose to cook our own lunches.

The pork with Thai basil that Glenn and I made didn’t turn out half bad, even if we chickened out on adding the recommended number of little hot chilies.

Robin enjoying a well earned Chang beer after a long day of hiking – it was bigger than her head! I hope she didn’t wake up in the morning with a Chang-over. Haha, get it?

We spent our final night together eating dinner while floating down a river in Chiang Mai. Cold Siberian air had settled over the area, dropping temperatures to well below 50 degrees. We had already shipped our cold weather gear home (because we wouldn’t need it in Thailand, right?!?), so Glenn and I were freezing!

Happy Birthday Brian! Now…scoot over so we can warm up next to all of those candles.

This was my view for much of the trip, as Glenn and I always seemed to sit across from James and Heather at meals (they just couldn’t shake us!). They were truly enjoyable travel companions and, since one of their daughters is now going to college in Portland, we hope to see them again soon!

A final farewell from some of our fellow adventurers, Robin, Brian, Jackie and Michelle.

While I am sure northern Australia and Fiji would have been lovely to visit, I am so thankful that we decided to change things up at the last minute and come to Thailand instead. We recaptured our love of travel and adventure, met some great people and will be heading back home (in mere weeks!) on a high note.

But, before we put our feet back on the ground in Oregon, we have a few more memories to collect.

Stay tuned! (Be sure to like this blog on Facebook and/or subscribe for email alerts about new posts.)

9 comments on “Travel reboot in Thailand

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  4. This was a great travelogue. Is it OK to call it that? I enjoyed seeing a slightly less visited part of Thailand from your perspective. I hope I can encourage Paula to return to Chang Mai to complete her Thai massage teaching credentials next February and March. She is a great practitioner of Thai massage and I strongly believe she should share her skills. I will definitely not miss visiting Chang Mai this time around.
    Thank You for sharing your experiences, Michele.

    • Thanks Keith! We could certainly use more Thai massage in the States and I bet Paula would be an amazing instructor. I look forward to keeping up with your future travels.

  5. LOVE this post!! I was just telling Alisa about flight of the Gibbon two days ago. Was awesome to see your adventures in Chiang Mai. We’ll be there mid-May! See you two adventurers soon. 🙂 Martha

  6. I am glad you are headed home but I will severly miss sharing the world with you & Glenn. Seeing it through your eyes has shown me beauty I never imagined.

    Where are you going to take me next year? I know, you haven’t a clue today but you will when you get the urge to see what is on the other side of some mountain, somewhere.

    Thanks for the memories.

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