Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Hill Tribe Trek

Friday, July 27th, 2007

The day after Songkran finished, we set off on our Hill Tribe Trek. They had given us backpacks to use for trekking and we left the rest of our luggage in our hotel room. We decided it was easier just to keep the room for the night of the trek, and good thing we did because I’d changed the dates!

When I originally booked this trip, I had been pretty undecided about whether to take Jessica trekking. I knew that we could simply take turns as we had done with the diving, but I really wanted her to experience this and looked high and low to find a trip suitable for children. Finally, I happened upon Wayfarer’s Travel a small company who organized private trekking parties and had one trip that was geared to people who couldn’t physically do much trekking, but still wanted the experience. I thought – perfect! We will have a gentle walk for a couple of hours and we’ll be on our own so we won’t be holding anyone up.

Thus far, the company had already impressed me with their professionalism. Their emails were prompt and they had no problems at all rearranging the dates of the tour at the last minute to accommodate my illness. Obviously it helped that we had a private trip, but I’m still really pleased with the service. They sent our guide over for a briefing and to drop off our backpacks just before the festival.

This guide has become our tour guide gold standard! What a truly lovely man! His name was “Hey” (not sure of the spelling) which he joked about immediately. He was a wiry little man a head shorter than I am, with a lovely, and seemingly permanent, smile affixed to his face. Jessica delighted him and he talked about how she was his youngest customer thus far and now he could tell everyone about it. We left the tour briefing with the feeling that we’d be very well taken care of and with Hey’s contagious smile on our faces.

Hey arrived promptly on the morning of our tour, with no confusion about the change in our hotels as we had feared might happen. Unfortunately, it was also a Monday…so we were in the midst of coercing Jessica to take her Malaria meds when he arrived. (You have to take it with food and water and we were at the breakfast buffet) It was a bit of an ordeal getting Jessica to take hers, but nothing like the previous week where I had to force the issue. Still, we were all in a fairly grumpy mood as we set out trekking, thanks to the meds. We had yet to learn to take them at NIGHT!

We were grateful for the comfortable van as we drove out of the city, and the rock-star service of a private tour. Some of the cheaper trekking parties take tuk tuks out to the starting point of the trek, and people were still throwing water even after the festival. Hey laughed at them and said they’d be soaked by the time they started trekking!

We stopped at a local market to pick up some drinks and snacks for the trek and I also bought some pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the village children. She was a bit put out that they weren’t for her to keep, but she got the idea eventually. At the market we finally figured out what Durian is and why they don’t allow it into the hotels. This stuff STINKS to high heaven and we could never bring ourselves to actually eat it – although Jessica did have a candied version in Malaysia that was much less stinky!

The first stop on our tour was a local cave which had a temple built inside it. The air was foul inside and I couldn’t wait to get out. As far as caves go, this one wasn’t terribly spectacular and the highlight of the short tour was the hilarious signs with awkward English warning tourists not to venture off without lights or a guide:

“Tourist foreigner, if you no have guide don’t go alone or by one self, because if to have happen dangerous by the temple and the committee will not responsible”

After the cave, we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was pretty typical of most Thai restaurants with the seating area outside. There were so many flies on the food it was hard to eat and, of course, there was nothing Jessica would eat. Good thing I pack snacks for her everywhere we go! They brought tons of food to the table and most of it wasn’t bad. I ate a bit and then got tired of trying to keep the flies off the food. Grant had a beer and ate nothing. Hey was a bit dismayed at the amount of food left on the table and I had to reassure him that the lunch had been fine but we’d all had a big breakfast…mostly true anyway!

We carried on in our trusty van to the starting point of the trek which was a nearby village. Getting out of the van, we were mobbed by little kids selling cheap bracelets. I finally gave the most persistent of them some money because she’d followed us for ages and was so polite and cute.

Our porter named Pong arrived to carry some of the food for our stay and we learned that we’d be sleeping in one of his two houses once we arrived in the village. The driver left and we carried on from there on foot. It was still smoky from the fires in Northern Thailand and Laos, so the scenery wasn’t quite as spectacular as it could have been. Still, we were all alone in the relative wilderness with our guides, which was really cool.

When I had originally booked the tour, I had assumed that we’d carry Jessica partway and she would walk some of the way. It was only a two hour walk maximum and there wasn’t much in the way of hills to climb. She liked to go for hikes and she walked a lot of the way when we were hiking in Australia, and it was super hot there too. Perfect, I thought. She lasted about six seconds on foot before begging to be carried. We were already both carrying daypacks stuffed with our personal drinking water and all our clothes and toiletries for overnight…not to mention Jessica’s stuff and snacks for everyone. So, the last thing either of us wanted to do was carry a kid along with everything! We carried her a little way and then set her down again to walk for awhile; telling her to walk for a little while and then we’d carry her again when she got tired.

Well. She was NOT impressed. She begged and cried to be picked up. Hey offered to carry her, but I wanted her to walk on her own and was sick of (Daddy) capitulating to her every whim to avoid a “scene” in public. Perfect, I thought, we’re in the middle of nowhere and only Hey and Pong are around to be annoyed by this kid…and we’re paying them! Let her spaz all she wants, then! So, I figured let her walk a bit and she’ll cry for awhile until she realized we won’t pick her up and then she’ll get over it. What I didn’t factor in was the effect of our malaria meds on everyone. Our tempers were unnaturally short and Jessica was in a truly foul mood.

Jessica threw a spaz like I have never before witnessed. She cried, she screamed, she threw herself on the ground and kicked. We tried to put her down several times and this happened every time her delicate little feet touched the ground. The more she screamed, the more determined I became that this child WILL walk and I will not give in to this!! At one point I just walked away and left her lying on the ground thinking she’d get up and catch up. But, she was screaming and crying so hard she started choking and nearly threw up. Great – a lovely family trip – wonderful experience for everyone! Hey was a trooper and kept smiling through all of it, and showed Jessica cool things along the way like ant houses and different kinds of bugs. But eventually Daddy had just had enough of both our pigheadedness and carried her on his shoulders for the duration of the trek, where she fell asleep just before we entered the village.

The village was a small settlement of a few hundred people nestled in amongst the hills. People didn’t stare quite as much as I’d expected, but I think this village sees a lot of foreign faces. In fact, there were a few other farang staying there that evening in a different part of the village. Jessica was still crashed out on Grant’s head and all we wanted to do was lay her down somewhere and dump our stuff off. Pong led us through the village to “our” house for the night.

Upon arrival, Hey sprang into action and eagerly began showing us around our accommodations. The house was a one room affair that stood up off the ground on short stilts; presumably to keep out some of the marauding insects, snakes, and assorted livestock that seemed to roam though the village at will. It also functioned to cool the house somewhat in Thailand’s hot climate. This latter was facilitated by the gaps between the floorboards and the cracks between the boards that formed the walls of the house. The roof was made of grass and there was a rather lot of sunlight shining through it for our liking…we said a short prayer that there would be no rain that night!

There were a couple of old candle stubs for when it got dark, (Uh-oh, thinks Mommy…a three year old in a wood and grass hut with candles stuck to the floor….) but at present, there was enough light coming in through the multitude of cracks to provide adequate illumination.

Hey eagerly showed us to our beds, which consisted of three narrow woven mats on the floor of the hut, and an old, but clean, blanket each. Hey added a sleeping bag to each of these and enthusiastically showed us how we could use these for extra padding provided that the night was not cool enough to require a blanket. I asked about insects and he explained that Pong would bring out a double mosquito net before it got dark and that we must tuck this firmly under our mats. Before he left us to our own devices, Hey made sure to show us in great detail the “security features” of the house. This consisted of a door (made of the same crack-riddled construction as the walls) that closed – mostly – and a tiny little sliding bar lock. He was so earnest and helpful that I managed to keep a straight face until he left before cracking up at the idea that this tiny bar lock would make us feel secure at night!

The bathroom facilities were far less luxurious than the sleeping quarters. It consisted of a small building made of rough cement with a dirt floor divided into two tiny rooms. One of them had a squat toilet inside, with a candle stuck in the corner for light. The other space had a big plastic rain barrel full of water (PERFECT for breeding mosquitoes thinks Mommy) and a narrow shelf along the back of the room holding another candle and a dipper. Hey demonstrated how we were supposed to “shower” using the dipper and cautioned us to try not to get any soap into the clean barrel of water…easier said than done given the size of the space! For obvious reasons, there were no windows, but the large cracks in and around the doors let in enough light that we wouldn’t need the candles until nightfall….I said a short prayer that Jessica wouldn’t need the bathroom in the middle of the night. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the relative security of our mosquito netting, try to find my headlamp, and stumble down the rough wooden ladder with a sleepy three year old to use the ‘facilities.’

By this time, Jessica was comfortably sleeping on one of the mats and we’d divested ourselves of our packs and assorted gear. Grant went off for a walk (read: smoke) and I decided to hang out at the table outside our house and take in the scenery where I’d be close enough to hear Jessica if she woke up.

Hmmmm….the nice ladies that had welcomed us upon our arrival were now setting up a market beside the house….some actually UNDER the house. There was now nowhere to sit where I would not be inundated with appeals to purchase local handicraft. I had fully expected to visit a local market at some point during my visit, but I certainly hadn’t anticipated one set up purely for my benefit…and on MY doorstep! I was tired and just wanted to sit down and have six quiet minutes to myself and maybe a coke from the rather promising looking cooler nearby. I could have handled friendly curiosity and maybe a visit from the locals, but the LAST thing I felt like doing was shopping, never mind friendly bargaining.

Not only that – now I couldn’t have a “shower” without all the assembled women and children being able to see just about everything I was doing through those handy cracks in the door. The women were all gathered with their kids between the house and the bathroom, and it looked as though they were settling in nicely. I opted for a face wash, and as discreet as possible use of the toilet.

I went back inside figuring I would spray Jessica’s long pants and shirt with insect repellent in anticipation of a mosquito filled evening. The directions said “well ventilated area” and I figured the hut probably answered that description admirably! The clothes were filthy by the time I finished because the floor was so dirty and there was nowhere else to lay them flat to spray on the stuff. Oh well. Not looking to win any fashion awards and at least that should keep the mosquitoes at bay!

Grant returned from his wander through the village and Jessica woke up so we went outside to visit with the locals and – whether we liked it or not – shop for handicrafts! I half heartedly looked at a few scarves and things that I didn’t really want just to be polite. We’d just spent so much time in the night market in Chiang Mai that neither of us was much interested in buying anything. I thought I might as well pick up something small as a souvenir of the trek and sort of as a thank-you to the village…..and discovered that prices were WAAAAAYYYY more expensive than in the city. I was not in the mood for friendly bargaining and the starting price was way too high, so I decided to find out which one of these ladies was Pong’s wife and buy from her later.

Meanwhile, I had brought out the pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the kids. Soon the little square in front of our hut was filled with kids busily coloring and frustrated adults trying to sharpen the crayons with the cheap little sharpeners I’d purchased. I actually got a blister from sharpening so many darn pencils! Jessica had fun playing with all the little ones even though they obviously didn’t speak the same language.

At one point, I went into the hut to get something or other and there on the sleeping mats was an ENORMOUS spider about the size of the palm of my hand. I called Grant in to check it out and Hey came in as well and helped me to chase it away. I didn’t want him to kill it if it wasn’t poisonous (though I’m pretty sure Grant did!!) so we just chased it out a crack in the floor. Once again Hey assured me that the mosquito net that Pong was bringing later on would keep out the critters.

Pretty soon it was suppertime and, thankfully, the ladies packed up their impromptu market so we could have our meal. Whew. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable about not buying anything. We sat down at the rough wooden table outside the door of our hut, enjoying the relative quiet after the market had been packed up.

Hey had been busily preparing our meal in the nearby kitchen. (and I use the word loosely) I didn’t look too close at the kitchen knowing it would do bad things to my appetite later on, but Grant poked his head in earlier to chat with Hey and decided to skip dinner as well. Hey brought dish after dish out of the rudimentary kitchen and some were quite lovely. (although the fish with head and skin still intact was a bit creepy) They’d even brought peanut butter for Jessica as I’d requested!! Jess had a few bits of dinner and discovered a Thai fruit that I can’t remember the name of but that we christened “hairy berries” from that point forward. Once again there was a LOT of flies. I ate a bit, but didn’t even make a dent in the massive amount of food they’d brought us. Grant had another beer for dinner.

We’d invited Hey to join us for our meal, but he’d declined again as he had done at lunch and gone off to eat with Pong. So, we called him over to take the leftover food to someone who wanted it. He was quite upset that Grant wasn’t eating anything at all, so I told him that Grant just wasn’t feeling very well and that the food had been lovely. Which it had….but the flies were just a bit too much. I felt I had done a pretty good job of keeping them out of the food amidst much hand waving and napkin covering, but Grant informed me later that the kitchen had been completely full of them, and none too clean either. Precisely why I didn’t look all that closely before dinner! Between the flies and the dirt, and the smells of the livestock running everywhere it’s no wonder we didn’t have much of an appetite!

After dinner we all had a wander through the village. I’d had a brief walk before dinner, but Hey offered to show us around a bit more. I marveled at the rudimentary huts with satellite dishes sticking out the sides of them and the juxtaposition of the primitive toilet facilities and the teenagers taking pictures of each other with their cell phones! It was a weird mishmash of old and new….emphasis on old, however. Lines of washing were strung everywhere, the roads were made of dirt, and cars were few and far between. Kids were playing with old bicycle tires and other home-made toys, although the odd professional soccer ball made an appearance.

This was not a wealthy village and most people looked as though they lived in quite simple wooden houses with minimal modern amenities. Animals shared living spaces with people and as I looked at the proximity of the many pigsties to the houses and the families of chickens running everywhere, I realized how difficult it would be for this part of the world to control a bird-flu epidemic…if not completely impossible! Chickens were everywhere and I warned Jessica again not to touch them or pick up any feathers. This was hard because there were tiny chicks everywhere and it would have been really nice to let her cuddle some.

We wandered back to our hut and we sat outside for a while watching Jessica play with the local children. She was having a blast, and I’d changed her into her somewhat grubby long pants and long sleeved shirt because it was starting to get dark, and I was worried about malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The little boy she was playing with found some charcoal from an old half-burned log nearby and they merrily decorated the fence and got completely filthy in the process. It was starting to get dark so I cleaned Jessica up to the best of my abilities and we headed in to bed.

Pong had been setting up the mosquito netting while we were outside visiting so I was feeling pretty confident about a bug-free evening. Until, of course, I actually SAW the net he’d set up! There were more holes in it than a swiss cheese…some big enough to stick my hand through. (and, thus, let that big ass spider in!!) It was ancient and had obviously been mended many times over with varying degrees of success. There was tape stuck to it all over and some resourceful individual had even used band-aids to cover some of the holes. I was really upset and worried about mosquitoes and both Hey and Pong helped me “fix” the netting by gathering the material and tying twine around the holes. The net got smaller and smaller as I watched. Eventually I just told the guys to give up or we’d end up with no net at all! It was going to be a tight enough squeeze with the three of us in a double netting as it was. I slathered everyone with repellent and made Jessica wear her long sleeves and pants to bed despite the warm evening, and how dirty they were!

It was NOT a comfortable night. Jessica was wired for sound because of her nap earlier. She was wiggly and squirmy and alternately hungry and thirsty and needing to pee and there wasn’t really much room for the three of us on those narrow mats. It wasn’t as hot as I’d suspected it might be because the cracks in the ceiling and walls let in lots of breeze…unfortunately they also let in random whiffs of the nearby pigsty and all the nocturnal noises of everyday village life. At one point some guy was shouting at his TV at the top of his lungs – must have been some sporting event on or something. When we did finally sleep, our lovely malaria meds kicked in and gave us some brutal dreams! But, there didn’t seem to be any mosquitoes around and none of us woke up with mysterious bites, so I considered the night a grand success!

We were a bit groggy in the morning after our less than successful night’s sleep and barely made in out in time to have breakfast and buy a few things (finally) from Pong’s wife. We got to meet the newest addition to Pong’s family, his little daughter who – surprisingly – was blonde!

After a hurried breakfast….which Grant again did not eat to Hey’s great dismay, we had a quick wash and packed up our things to get ready for our elephant ride! We’d ridden an elephant before in Cambodia, but that was only for about 15 minutes and this was meant to be a trek through the countryside for an hour and a half to two hours. I was pretty excited!!

We bought some bananas to feed to the ellie and Hey led us to where we were to mount. THIS ellie was a LOT bigger than the one we rode in Cambodia. We fed her the bananas and then climbed up the platform to get into the basket mounted on her back. Wow, were we up high! I can’t imagine what riding an African elephant would be like if the Asian ones come this big! Once again, we were seated on a small platform with a low railing around it. This was perched rather precariously on the back of the elephant, while the mahout rode on her neck, using his feet behind her ears and a small switch to steer.

NOT a comfortable ride, I must say! It takes a while to get used to the elephant’s gait because we’re sitting on a platform that tilts quite dramatically every time the animal moves. It’s not like riding a horse where you can anticipate the horse’s movements and move with them. Jessica is sandwiched in between us, but I’m very worried she’s going to fall out. I don’t let her ride a tricycle at home without a helmet on and here she is on back of an elephant with not even a seatbelt to hold her in! So, I’ve got a death grip on Jess, while trying to maintain my own balance, AND hold her damn box of milk that she’s finished but that I don’t want to toss onto the ground! How, exactly, am I supposed to take photos?? The platform is nowhere near as cushy as the one in Cambodia had been, and the metal bar is banging our backs with every step. After a few minutes, though, we figure out the stride and start to relax a bit and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

About half an hour into the ride, the mahout asks if one of us would like to change places with him and ride on the neck. Grant looks horrified at the thought, but I’m all over that!! Amazingly, we manage to change places without any major mishap and I’m riding astride the elephant’s neck! Oh very very very cool! THIS is an entirely different experience than the silly old platform. She kept flapping her ears around my legs and they are way stronger than I anticipated. I think she could sense that I had no idea what I was doing and was helping me keep my balance. I was grinning ear to ear for the remainder of the trip, although it did a number on my inner thighs. I thought that the mahout would only let me ride a little while, or that Grant would take a turn, but I ended up riding up on the neck for the remainder of the trek. YAY!! Happy happy Tammy!!

When we arrived at the next village that was our destination, I looked around for the boarding platform that I – as an “experienced” elephant rider – had come to expect. We were on a narrow path in the middle of a forest, and Hey was standing (beaming, of course) waiting for us. Just as I was beginning to wonder how on earth we were going to get down, the mahout told the elephant to kneel. Now, I’m sitting on the neck, which was precarious enough while she was walking, but I had no idea how I was going to dismount with any sort of grace at all. My legs were cramping and my bum was asleep by this point and I figured I’d settle for not breaking my neck on the way down. There wasn’t even a mane or a rope to grab onto and I wasn’t sure she’d take too kindly to me hanging off her ears to dismount!

Everyone hung on tightly as the elephant slowly kneeled on the ground and then the mahout helped Grant and Jessica off of the platform while I – somehow- managed to slide off her neck without injuring myself, or (hopefully) annoying the elephant. We unloaded our bags from where they were tied on the back of the platform and headed off for a short tour of the village in which we had arrived.

This village was fairly similar in nature to the one we’d experienced the night before and we wandered around for a little while. It was a bit more “modern” here, though, and I spotted several solar panels dotted here and there amongst the houses. We had another walk ahead of us before the van picked us up, but we were all in a much better mood than the previous day, if a bit sore from a night on those mats and a couple hours on an elephant!

We walked for maybe an hour and Jessica was cheerfully walking this time. (we promised her a foot massage if she walked enough to get sore feet) Grant did carry her some of the way, though, just to speed things up a bit. But, overall, a MUCH more pleasant experience than the previous days’ trekking had been. Pong made us all laugh by making himself a silly sunhat out of a big leaf, and we all had a nice walk through the countryside.

After our walk, we met up with the van and our driver in yet another small village. A quick tour of this village and we were on our way to the river for a ride on a traditional bamboo raft. I had bought along Jessica’s life jacket again but was completely amazed when Hey pulled a child-sized jacket out of the back of the van that looked as though it would actually fit. This company really did cater well for children – peanut butter AND kids’ life jackets!

I didn’t get any photos, unfortunately, because I didn’t want to chance getting my camera wet. The raft was just a bunch of bamboo lashed together with some larger bits of bamboo tied on top to sit on. Again, not the most comfortable sort of transportation, and our legs and bums were numb by the time we finished our hour and a half ride. The scenery was lovely along the river, though, and we acquired a small hitchhiker along the route in the form of a local child. Another kid tried to sink us when we passed a group of them playing in the water and our river guide had to kick him off the raft. Jess had fun and we were all hungry and ready for lunch by the time we got back.

Hey brought some lovely western-style boxed lunches out and we all had a picnic lunch at some tables nearby. To my great amazement, Jessica actually ate an entire cheese sandwich. Guess she was hungry! Once again, Grant didn’t really eat much, and Hey was getting very concerned. After lunch, we headed back into the city and Hey told us funny stories about his experiences as a tour guide on the way back. We gave him a huge tip and were really sad to say goodbye to our lively little guide.

We were very happy to see our big comfy bed upon our return to the Novotel. A night in the village has certainly put an end to any of Grant’s complaining about less than perfect hotel accommodation!

Our final day in Chiang Mai was spent primarily at UPS shipping all the stuff we bought in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand home. One thing I totally forgot to budget for on this trip was shipping fees….and boy do we spend a lot of money on shipping!


Thursday, July 19th, 2007

We were pretty happy to see Starbucks and McDonald’s upon arrival to Chiang Mai, although Starbucks doesn’t do my favorite drink in Thailand. It was nice to have food that tasted familiar…even if familiar is crappy junk food! We took Jessica to McDonald’s to help speed her recovery after her traumatic hospital experience, and then got her nails done and headed to the night market for some shopping.

The night market was amazing! We spent a few evenings wandering around there taking it all in. Several square blocks of people selling everything imaginable, open-air massage parlors (of course, Jessica had to have a foot massage and the ladies thought this was adorable!), food stalls, and tuk tuks lining the streets vying for business. There was a free dance show going on in one of the food courts that Jessica loved, and we wandered around browsing for more stuff we didn’t need.

Grant bought a pair of shorts and ended up going back to exchange them THREE TIMES because they either didn’t fit or the zipper was broken…the guy was getting so sick of him, we were almost afraid to walk past that stall! I bought a sparkly t-shirt and was a bit put out by the teeny woman who laughed at me trying on a medium: “NO NO for YOU a size LARGE!”

There were stalls and stalls full of artwork by extremely talented portrait artists. All of them seemed to be copying the same few famous photographs from National Geographic, with amazing skill and accuracy. We decided to have Jessica’s portrait done and the guy took her photo on the spot and agreed to have it finished within 24 hours. The price was so reasonable we didn’t even bother to bargain, so he shook his head at the stupid tourists and gave us a “discount.”

We returned the following day to pick up Jessica’s portrait and she was SO excited to see it! It was really well done, but lacked that certain something that made it perfect. Jessica loved it though, and every time we passed that stall in the following nights she kept asking to see her picture.

There was one shop selling some really wonderful wood carvings. They had a massive display of an aquarium entirely made of wood. They even had a panel full of water across the top to give it the proper lighting effect. I am sad they wouldn’t let anyone photograph it – a truly amazing piece of work that belongs in a museum. We debated buying something really impressive, but worried about it cracking in Calgary’s dry weather. Some of the pieces in the shop had already started to crack in places, so we contented ourselves with a cool carved elephant’s head and crossed our fingers that it’ll remain intact!

Jessica’s bartering skills were improving daily by this point. She was already negotiating most of our tuk tuk rides…much to the delight of the drivers!

Based on our lousy experience with the overnight train in Vietnam, and our really positive impression of the budget airlines in Asia, we had decided to limit the number of places we visited in Thailand and Malaysia and fly between them rather than take the train as I had previously intended. We’re also finding it a lot easier to spend several days in one place rather than packing up every night or two. For this reason, we ended up spending ten days in Chiang Mai, instead of the four I had planned. The hotel we were booked into had been full and we ended up switching hotels halfway through our stay from the Holiday Inn to the Novotel.

Turns out we arrived in the midst of the New Year’s festivities and they really swung into gear just as we switched hotels. As a result they were playing some truly horrific, repetitive music in the hallway of the Novotel. It repeated itself every few minutes and was loud enough to hear throughout the room. I called the front desk two days running to complain and they turned it down for me. THEN I find out it’s some sort of traditional celebratory thing and I feel like a big jerk for complaining!

We hadn’t done too much the first few days aside from visiting the hospital and recovering from food poisoning, so we kind of missed our opportunity to see the city before it was completely taken over by the New Year’s events. Thankfully, our tour company had allowed me to change the dates of our hill tribe trek to after the festival because I was sick during the originally planned dates. But this left us only the days of Songkran to really see the city and surrounding area. Well, ok then! Let’s celebrate New Year’s – again!!

Now, in Thailand it is customary to throw water on someone to wish them luck in the New Year…much like we’d experienced in both Fiji and Laos…..but NOTHING could have prepared us for Chiang Mai’s version of the custom! The day before the festival we went out and bought some cheap water guns so we could join in the fun. People were already gearing up and there were a few gangs of little kids set up with barrels of water on the sidewalks soaking the passers-by. On the walk back to the hotel we got a bit wet and had a blast shooting passing cars and mopeds with our guns. We even got into a shootout with a cop which was a bit unfair given that we had cheap little water pistols and he had a garden hose! Jessica loved her water gun and was quite excited by the whole prospect of shooting people with impunity. We had to pry it out of her hands when we got back inside the hotel and she only relinquished it when we promised she could shoot some more people the following day.

We made plans to get out and see the elephant camp and the monkey school on the Sunday of the festival weekend because we had no other day to go and do it. We attempted to book a taxi the day before, but they were either busy or more expensive than we wanted, so we ended up grabbing the first tuk tuk that we could find on Sunday morning. We agreed to hire him for the afternoon for some stupidly low (to us) price and set off.

Now….a word about this tuk tuk. It was essentially a motorbike with a bench seat in the back that was barely wide enough for the three of us to sit comfortably. There was no roof, but the day looked like a nice one – not too sunny as to sunburn our heads and not too cloudy to as to rain. Perfectly overcast, in fact. We figured that we’d get a bit wet on the drive through the city because of the festivities and associated water play, but there was a half hour drive through the peaceful countryside on the way to the elephant camp in which to dry off. Of course, I’d dressed everyone in their quick dry clothing for the occasion and packed a towel and a spare t-shirt for Jessica, wrapped my camera gear in plastic and we were ready to go play. To our great delight, the tuk tuk driver had thoughtfully equipped his vehicle with a big barrel half full of water so that we could reload our weapons at will! Plus there was a small pail if we really wanted to get serious about it. Water pistols in hand, we set off on our afternoon adventure.

Everywhere you looked there were people shooting each other with water pistols and lining the streets with huge barrels of water and buckets – some people even had high powered hoses! Trucks filled with teenagers cruised the streets with barrels of water in the back and people shot each other from the back of mopeds…it was one massive city-wide water fight! COOL!!!!!!! Out came our guns and we were ready to do battle! The fun lasted – oh – about ten minutes.

Ten minutes into the ride we were soaked to the skin and freezing to death, and we’d pretty much given up shooting back with our puny little guns. People thought it was great fun to add ice to the water. So not only was it cold, sometimes it actually hurt. Apparently loads of people die every year due to traffic accidents caused by the water fights, and I can believe it.

The tuk tuk driver gave us an umbrella to try and shield Jessica from the worst of the onslaught. She was, by this time, huddled in a small wet bundle on the seat between the two of us freezing half to death. Of course Mommy didn’t think to put on her rain suit! It’s only a little water and it’s hot in Thailand, right? Well, with the addition of ice to the water we were all pretty cold and wet and miserable by the time we hit the edge of town. The umbrella was ruined within a few minutes and we had no protection at all in our topless tuk tuk from the overzealous teenagers in the back of pick up trucks who pulled up alongside and blasted us with water. We began to look forward to the buckets that weren’t icy cold….at least they warmed us up a tiny bit!

Eventually we left most of the pick-up trucks full of teens behind as we headed out of town towards the elephant camp. We had a water-free few minutes and the wind was starting to dry us out a bit. We had a laugh at our naivety and we were looking forward to the elephant camp when we pulled into the little town that surrounded the camp. Uh-oh….stretching ahead of us was a veritable gauntlet of water buckets and manically grinning Thais. Jessica squealed and dove for cover and our former ally – the tuk tuk driver – who had previously attempted to avoid the worst of the onslaught…..STOPPED dead in front of the first of the bucket brigade. An entire five gallon bucket full later we were all soaked to the skin again, Jessica was screaming, and we had only just begun….

Several very wet minutes later we pulled into the elephant camp with a seriously annoyed Jessica. We noted that the water level in our bucket was actually HIGHER than when we started out – despite our best efforts at fighting back! We went inside and were just in time to catch the final show of the day. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours drying off while we watched elephants kick soccer balls and paint lovely flower pictures. Of course, just as we were about to leave……it began to rain. Well, pour is really the word for it. Fantastic. We have a topless tuk tuk and it’s raining and we have a 45 minute drive back to the hotel. Ah well – we were wet anyway, right? And hopefully the rain will have driven most of the water throwers indoors, right? Not so much. We ran the gauntlet again back towards the monkey school which we had passed in our haste to make the last elephant show.

Wet to the skin and shivering, with Jessica screaming blue bloody murder, we arrive at the doors of the monkey school – again just in time for the show. Might as well go inside because at least there’s a roof and maybe the rain will stop. The monkey show is a bit hokey, but fun. They show us how they train monkeys to pick coconuts and they do various tricks like ride a bike. Grant asks if he can hold one after the show and the lady brings out a little one for him to hold. For some reason it doesn’t like Jessica at all and every time she reaches for it, he swats her. Then it was my turn to hold him and he tried to do some unmentionable things to my ear whilst Grant laughed his ass off and kept filming!! Thanks for the help mister!!

It was still raining when we left and we decided to give the adjacent snake park a big miss. Our valiant tuk tuk driver had ripped apart two broken umbrellas to give us the material to wrap Jessica in. (I put her in shorts why?) We bundled her up in them and stuffed her in between the two of us, took a deep breath, and headed off into the downpour. What a nightmare. Sheeting rain and cold wind from the drive, interspersed with buckets of ice water coming in from all sides. There was more traffic this time, so we got stuck beside even more of those delightful teen-filled ice-bearing trucks!

Jessica huddled between us, giving a little moan now and then to let us know she was still alive. Once in a while we’d hear a plaintive little voice at a stop light: “Is THIS our hotel now?” (I am convinced THIS was the start of the ‘are we there yet?’ trend that we’ve been enjoying since.) I spent the ride cursing the entire Thai community under my breath (mostly) and huddled in my seat trying to simultaneously protect my camera and my daughter’s head. Grant varied between fighting back with our puny little guns (he’d long since broken the driver’s bucket) and cowering under the onslaught.

We tipped the driver almost as much as we’d agreed to pay him for the afternoon. Poor guy was completely soaked and freezing. I can almost forgive him the stopping in front of the one bucket guy!

“Wet to the skin” does not do justice to the state we were in when we arrived. Even the bills in my wallet were wringing wet. Thank GOD I thought enough to bring a plastic bag for my camera. Even though it was covered in plastic, the case was still wet. The hotel staff had a good laugh as we squelched our way through the lobby. We jumped into a hot bath, ordered a pizza, and didn’t go out until evening the following day!

I have few pictures of this event given the high probability of my camera being ruined but you can check out this link for some idea: Songkran

Welcome to Thailand

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

It’s our first day in Thailand – Chiang Mai, and I am sick. Run to the bathroom every ten minutes, cold sweats, think I might die, kind of sick! The suspiciously pink Moroccan sausage I had the previous evening in the nicest restaurant in Luang Prabang is a likely culprit. Typical – pay a fortune for a meal (relatively speaking) and get food poisoning! I promised Grant I’d go to the doctor if I still felt this awful in the morning. Thank GOD we’re not still in Laos where there’s no good health care and I’m just very very thankful we have a toilet that works unlike the one in the guesthouse we JUST left.

Morning came and I felt a bit better but still rough enough that I thought I should get it checked out. I called International SOS for advice on a doctor in the area. I figure if I’m paying that much for my membership, I might as well get some benefit from it! They recommend that I go to a hospital across town rather than the one right next door to the hotel we’re staying in. Oh well, apparently the Doctor speaks English so hopefully that will work out. Just to be on the safe side, I get the front desk to write down “I need to see Dr. Whats-his-name” in Thai for me.

I sent Grant and Jessica off to the Chinese embassy to try and get our visas for China and jumped in a tuk tuk to head for the hospital – a bit worried about exactly what a Thai hospital might be like! I shouldn’t have worried about it. There were enough English speaking staff around to help me out and the Doctor was really professional and spoke excellent English. The place was sparkling clean, super organized and I was in and out of there in an hour, prescription drugs in hand, for something like $30 US. Amazing!

Food poisoning, the doctor thinks, but we’ll keep an eye on it in case it’s Dengue, Malaria or who-knows-what-else! After all, we’ve been in Southeast Asia for over a month and Cambodia is having a Dengue outbreak. At least the rest of the family isn’t symptomatic, and the Doc agrees that the Moroccan sausage is a likely culprit. No worries.

No worries, that is, until Jessica has blood in her poo the following morning! Given my symptoms, I’m slightly worried. But, she’s been a bit constipated (and – how to say this delicately – been going through a “bum exploration” phase lately) and she’s having no other symptoms. I decide not to worry about it. This lasts about ten minutes and I end up calling International SOS for advice, hoping they’ll tell me not to worry.

Once again, I’m immediately connected to an English speaking doctor for advice. This membership is starting to pay for itself just in peace of mind! The doc says: “Blood in her stool? Hmmmmmm…… I’d take her to the hospital to be on the safe side. We’ve seen some weird stuff come out of Vietnam… never able to diagnose it, of course. But still…” So, off we go to the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital…again!!

This time I think I know the drill and ask for the same doc I saw the previous day, thinking he knows my symptoms and I know he speaks excellent English. This throws the whole system into a schmozzle and they usher me into a waiting room while they find someone with enough English to patiently explain to the annoying tourist that the doctor I have requested is, unfortunately, in the emergency room today and would I mind seeing the resident pediatrician? Ok – we’ll go to the pediatrics wing then!

Once again, I shouldn’t have worried! The English speaking pediatrician is wonderfully competent and not too concerned given Jess’s lack of other symptoms. But to be on the safe side we need a stool sample. Uh-oh. Jessica just went, and given her almost constant state of constipation, is NOT likely to go again for a LONG while. Well then, we’ll stick this pill up her bum and force the issue.

Jessica bares her bum for yet another inspection (one by me, one by the doc, and now the nurse) and up goes the pill. “THAT HURTED ME!” Many tears and a VERY affronted little person, and immediately she says she has to poo. We make a half naked dash across the hospital waiting room to the lab (which is in the hospital itself thank God and not six blocks away like it would be in Canada!) where I’m handed a teeny plastic cup and a miniscule stick and shown the bathroom. We’ve left Grant behind somewhere, but no time to stick around to explain. Hopefully someone will tell him where we are!

How, exactly, does one take a screaming, panicked three year old and a tiny cup and get a sample? Not easily. She doesn’t want to poop on me and is convinced that if she poops they will stick something else up her bum. Twenty hysterical minutes later, Jessica starts to calm down. I decide I’d better let Grant know we’d be awhile, so I open the door to look for him. He’s in the waiting room opposite the bathroom. Thankfully he’s sorted out where we’ve gone.

As I’m talking to him, Jessica sticks her fingers in the door jamb and I partially close the door on a little finger. Fantastic!

Now we’re BOTH in tears but the finger is ok and we get an ice pack. We’re still in the bathroom, Jessica naked from the waist down: a poop time bomb sitting on my lap. Why didn’t I grab the emergency diaper or a spare set of clothes? Not to mention the fact that I am still sick, and would REALLY like to use the toilet. But, the only toilet around is the one my daughter (hopefully) will need soon, and she won’t settle for Daddy at this particular moment so I can go off and find other facilities. So, I grit my teeth and wait, and wait, and WAIT. Half an hour for this pill to work – I don’t think so!!

Jessica falls asleep on my lap, and the half-hour time frame for the pill to work it’s magic is long over, so I take her out of the bathroom hoping she can have a little sleep on the bench Grant is sitting on. Nope. She wakes up immediately and a nurse spots us and comes over to take a scraping from a strange insect bite on her leg. We’d decided to get the bite checked since we were there anyway, and it had been there for ages without clearing up.

The bite is on her ankle, so the nurse asks Jessica to lie on her tummy so she can examine it. She’s not falling for THAT one again! I had to promise to hold her bum so that nobody could stick anything more up it. I figure they’ll use a cotton swab, but out comes the scalpel. They scrape and she screams, and screams, and screams! It’s just a little scrape but she’s had more than enough of this place by now.

We resume the poop watch. Finally she has to go, but she’s afraid it will hurt. After more hysterics, she finally poops and I – amazingly – catch some in my hand (those plastic “sanitary disposal” bags came in handy) to deposit into the teeny cup. Hurrah!

We wait with a fairly grouchy and bum-sore little bean for about half an hour. The tests all come back OK and the pediatrician prescribes some antiseptic cream for the bite and something to help with constipation.

Amazingly, the whole thing only took three hours! The hospital staff was all friendly, helpful, and spoke a LOT more English than I do Thai. The hospital itself was clean, extremely efficient and it cost about $50 US for all the lab work, three types of meds, and the exam fee. I had been concerned about the quality of medical care available in Thailand, but I’d have to say Canadian hospitals could use some pointers from the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital!

Jessica has weathered the experience fairly well – she’s had her nails done and a foot massage and she’s a new woman. She is also now taking the “do not put things in your bum” warning most seriously!!

One night in Bangkok and one in Phnom Penh…

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Well. I’ve fallen so far behind on this blog; I almost don’t know where to start anymore! For the record, we’re just having too much fun to take the time to write!

The night before we left Vietnam, Jessica realizes that we’re about to leave for another country….where they speak YET ANOTHER language. She’s quite distraught and insists that I immediately look up how to say hello so she can talk to people when we get there. Over the course of the evening, she made me tell her several times so that she’d remember. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we’ll only be in Thailand less than 24 hours as we were passing through Bangkok on our way to Cambodia! This is to become a theme on our trip – every time we hit an airport she’s asking how do you say hello HERE then? I’m quite proud that she’s so interested in learning a bit of the language and customs of each country!

We arrive in Bangkok in the late afternoon and wait ages for our baggage. We’re both super grumpy from taking Larium and Jess is extremely hyper. This has proven to be our typical reaction to the medication. Both Grant and I get really impatient and snappy, and Jessica becomes a hyper-spastic little monster…for about 24 hours. This is followed by a poor night’s sleep because of the weird and wonderful dreams that come with the Larium.

Just for fun, it turns out that most of our traveling is done on a Monday. THIS Monday was especially bad as we were due to fly into Bangkok for only a few hours before catching a really early morning flight out for Phnom Penh. NOT the best day to be short on patience and traveling with a small child. I’m also annoyed because we have this stupid layover only because I had to have flights booked out of Vietnam before we got our visas and I couldn’t book any of the easy, direct flights from outside the country…but I digress. Suffice it to say NOBODY is in a really great mood.

We grabbed a taxi into town that took almost an hour to get there and cost 450 baht. Thankfully we were booked into a really nice hotel with a lovely dinner buffet which is expensive, but worth every penny. Two big comfy beds and a big, quiet room – the perfect place to catch a few winks before we have to fly out. Also, free wireless!! Hooray!! We have to be out of the hotel by about 4am in order to make it to the airport in plenty of time to check in. Ugly. Grant decides not to sleep at all and it takes forever to get Jessica to sleep. So, in the end, none of us gets much sleep and Grant stays up all night surfing the web and wandering around the hotel.

Our cab arrives on schedule and quotes us a 600 baht price to get to the airport. Grant says no way I’ll pay you 450 like I paid to get here.  He’s still a little gun shy with cabs because taxi scams are a way of life in Hanoi, where we’ve just come from! There’s NO traffic, and the guy is going 140 km/hr down the freeway. Yikes! Jess falls asleep in the cab but otherwise she’s a pretty cheerful bean for being up at that hour. She’s a pretty mellow traveler most of the time (except for Mondays…) which is fantastic.

In the cab, Grant insists that he’s going to “deal with” the cab driver. He is expecting (as might happen in Vietnam) that the driver will try to change the agreed upon price once we get there. Lately, I’d been handling the arguing with the drivers and he wasn’t pleased with how often (in his opinion) I got ripped off. So, he’s primed for argument before we even get out of the car.

We get to the airport and Grant is rummaging around in his wallet for cash. He asks me if I have any money and I tell him I don’t have anything smaller than a 1000 bill. (Roughly $30 US) He takes the bill from me, adds in some from his wallet and I figure maybe the guy doesn’t have the right change so Grant is trying to help him out. Grant pays 4000 for the taxi and thinks he’s gotten a sweet deal because the guy originally wanted 6000. The driver smiles and is out of there like a shot and I’m thinking – hey, that was easy no big argument maybe Grant should handle all the taxis. Then I ask him: “HOW MUCH did you just pay that man?”

The look of shocked comprehension on his face as Grant realizes he’s actually paid TEN TIMES the going rate for a taxi is hilarious. I wish I’d had a camera!! It really probably didn’t help that I completely peed my pants laughing at him…but after enduring all his recent rants about how I “let myself get walked on by taxi drivers” and how “he’s going to handle it from now on….” OMG funny!!

The guy at the taxi stand is seriously angry when we complain to him, but we didn’t get the driver’s number. He calls the Sheraton and hands us the phone – Grant remembers the driver’s first name, and we’re pretty sure they have cameras everywhere in the hotel. Within an hour they have emailed me saying they’ve gotten our money back for us, and we can pick it up on our way back through Bangkok. (Which we subsequently did with no hassle whatsoever) THIS is a most pleasant change from Vietnam where nobody would have been at all indignant on our behalf, much less done something to get our money back!! Grant was starting to see the funny side of this – especially now that we knew our money would be returned to us. I, of course, will never let him live it down!

The new international airport in Bangkok is really nice. Check in was smooth and the flight uneventful and fairly short, but we’re exhausted by the time we hit Phnom Penh. Jessica has by now realized that we’re in a THIRD country and is still pestering me for words. She also remembers the candies they had at customs in Singapore and now asks all customs officers for candy, much to Mommy’s dismay when we happen to get a particularly crusty customs officer!

They have a sign in the airport in Cambodia that I loved. “We apologize for all delays that may be caused by the new computer system!” Classic! I need one of those! Visa processing is REALLY fast and we were totally impressed by the service. I had honestly expected a wait of up to several hours and was NOT looking forward to hanging around in the airport that long. But, we were whizzed right through – I think we got visas and cleared customs (two separate processes) FASTER than it generally takes us to re-enter Canada.

We check into the California 2 guest house in Phnom Penh. The place is clean enough, but the street sounds are LOUD and there’s only one double bed for the three of us and it’s lumpy and springy…not to mention the flea bites we end up with. BUT they have our reservation and we can check in really early. We’re only there overnight so we get our tons of laundry done first thing – it arrives back early the same afternoon all perfectly clean and dry and folded, for a stupidly cheap price. NICE! The ladies at the guest house are so fantastic that Jess wants to stay with them when it comes time to leave the following day: “I want a new mommy and daddy you guys are getting old!” The food is really good and cheap too. We wish we were staying longer than one night even though the bed is truly awful. They have air-con and hot water and satellite TV for $18 a night, including brekkie!

The morning of our arrival we didn’t do much just napped and watched TV. I made everyone get up at 3pm so we could see something of the town. I went out and bought raid for the room because of mosquitoes. The smell when we got back was pretty awful, but nobody got bit! (Aside from the fleas, of course) We saw the local museum and then had a yummy dinner. Grant bought a guidebook on the street for $2 that became his bible for the next week. He’s become a lonely planet convert, and keeps exclaiming over how USEFUL guidebooks are! Looks like my ability to dazzle him with my vast quantities of knowledge are coming to an end…

The next morning, Grant went to the Tuol Sleng Museum on his own while I let Jessica sleep in and got us mostly packed up. I didn’t want Jessica to see all the photos of torture victims of the Khmer Rouge, so we decided to let Daddy go on his own. When he got back we ate our yummy free breakfast, checked out, locked up our bags and hit the Russian market. Grant promptly lost his mind upon seeing all the $1 cds and I bought two silk bedspreads for Jessica and some pretty pillow covers in raw silk. It was getting hot and sticky and we still had the silver pagoda to see before our flight so we got out of there. Too bad, because there were many deals to be had and it was the best market we’d seen so far. Had lunch at the hotel – really yummy and cheap again. The ladies played with Jess again, much to her delight! Then we had a quick dash around the Royal Palace to see the silver pagoda, etc. They had the most AMAZING Buddha covered in diamonds and the floor was tiled completely in silver.

We were really sad to leave Phnom Penh so soon and in hindsight we should have stayed another day or so. Originally the plan had been to be there for two nights, but the flights didn’t work out properly. Oh well…on to the main attraction in Siem Reap!