Phayao & Chiang Saen: Temples, freedom and a Thai style night out

I left the temple about 9am, Ajahn & his friend left me pretty inspired. Next stop Phayao … some 200km away. It was still a bit chilly (well, it is winter after all … also in Thailand), but the scenery made up for it. I was on some sort of highway and the road was actually really decent. Much better than what I’d come across on Koh Phangan. 

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There was an abundance of possible stops on the way including many temples, waterfalls or simply nice views of the often hilly and always green Thai country side. The kilometres were just flying past me and the little 125ccm beast was using up the petrol pretty quickly. The tank is small (c4l) and I had to get petrol 4x on my 380km tour today. But that basically meant 4x 100THB … so EUR11 all in. Not too bad. 

Once in Phayao i was one of only a handful of tourists. The first thing that you’ll find is the lake. The largest in Northern Thailand. I stopped to take a picture of the double dragons (Kwan Phayao) and returned later for lunch and a peep at the island not too far off the shore line with the sunken temple (though I skipped having myself rowed over). My research suggested one temple in the city to visit (Wat Khomkam), which had the largest Buddha statue I’d set yet. Pretty impressive. 

Afterwards, I visited Wat Analayo located some 10km outside Phayao city. Its a nice climb up the stairs decorated as large the dragon tails. Up on the hill are temples galore! And more huge statues. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Best temple yet. And some nice villages to pass through on the way back to Phayao. Loving the freedom on the bike. Every bit of it.

After lunch I felt like using the time on the bike a little more and listened to Spanish podcasts … advanced level and hence not easy, but I got the gist of it. In theory i wanted to stop at Phu Sang national park on my way to Chiang Saen though the late time meant I skipped it and head straight for the town close to the golden triangle. As the sun set, I kept on stopping to take in the scenery. Amazing. Rice fields, mountains, clouds, the sun … you name it. Freedom again. The most important thing in my life was abundant here!

Eventually I made it to Chiang Saen following the mighty Mekong river for the last kilometers with Laos situated on the other side. Check in to the hotel was quick and off I went to downtown. I figured the 6am start, begging with the monks & 380km ride deserved at least one beers and helped myself at the first 7Eleven I came across. Then dinner at the market (pork noodle soup … delicious) and I felt already much more energised.

The Mekong River

The Mekong is one of the items on my bucket list. I would love to paddle it all the way from its source on the Tibetan plateau all the 4,350km to its delta in Vietnam. Its the 12th longest river in the world and fascinates me. But this has to wait.Different to other rivers I intend to paddle (like the Yukon), this one is considered one of the wildest in the world, has rapids and waterfalls and is not so straightforward to navigate. Depending on dry and wet season, the river can actually change flow direction in the golden triangle area.

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On the way in to Chiang Saen I had spotted two bars, a bit outside the centre, and decided to have a look after dinner. It was Friday after all. Both had life music (either Thai or english cover) and not one tourist (at the market I saw maybe 7-8 foreigners). After some time listening to an amazing singer in the first bar, I moved over and got in touch with a few locals though with little english skills. We could talk football at least as my chelsea shirt gave me away. Turned out to be a fun night and also the first time i really felt to hang out with locals. Thanks to DJ Em Harry for giving me a lift home. 

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Gone begging. For food. With a monk.

If there is one issue I have with Thailand then it is how little one feels integrated here. It’s like tourists and locals don’t mix at all. Culture, but probably more language present a huge barrier. That is in stark difference to my experience in Colombia where a 3w language course kick started a pretty local experience. But as so often in life, things can change rather rapidly … and that’s what happened to me in my first day in Chiang Mai.

But first things first. After few goodbye words to Team Kiel, I had a pleasant and on-time journey from Khao Sok to Surat Thani airport. In fact, I arrived so early that i couldn’t even check-in my bag yet. Big mistake as it turned out, as by the time I queued up again, all the full moon party goers had returned from Koh Phangan (well, those that were able to move). Anyway, by 3.30pm I was already way up North in Chiang Mai.

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Chiang Mai felt different right away … ahh yes, the beach tourists have no reason to come here. Closest beach is more than 500km away and in Myanmar. Perfect. I shared a cab with two israeli women into town in order to pick-up a scooter for the ‘Northern loop’ I had put together in the morning. Since Mango bike rental (1,100-1,200 per week for 125ccm scooter) didn’t have any left, I went to Bikki bikes around the corner. THB1,500 for 6 days. Hardly a steal, but that’s life. What was more annoying is that the bloke tried to give me a really shitty bike. Tachometer suggested ‘only 700km’ … until l got on it and found that the tachometer didn’t work (hence the 700km). Engine didn’t have much juice either. I swapped it, with no pushback, for a better bike. Hope all goes well since they now have my passport and scams are common I read. I will find soon enough.

Indicative schedule – 1,000km of Northern Thailand

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Once I was on the road it felt awesome. First stop was the Bo Sang, a suburb of Chiang Mai. Here they produce the most incredible and colourful umbrellas. Unfortunately I arrived a touch too late to witness the manufacturing process for myself. After that I had no clue, no booking … just the general direction of Phayao some 220km away.

The first rice fields and mountain ranges came into sight and so did a buddha statue some 35km outside Chiang Mai. I stopped to take a picture. A monk approached me and to my surprise spoke english. Initially i was inclined to continue, but then I figured i can’t miss out on one of the few english speaking Thai’s. So I stayed.

Who is this monk?

His name is Ajahn and he is 69y (looking 50 tops!). He is in charge a buddhist temple, be it a very modern one that looks like a meditation center, and lives here for the past year. His past is rather colourful. More recently he was a teacher in Malaysia including the art of Qi Gong (check here on youtube). But why did he turn monk? As he told me, it was only after he had a stint as a communist who was fighting the government more than 30y ago. Once amnesty for the rebels was granted, and considering his mum’s wishes, he turned monk at basically about my age. He has remained since and looked pretty happy about that decision.

Back to last night. Ajahn showed my around the property (quite big with many different houses & lots of plants) and teaching me quite a few things there, including his view that he sees the German culture (esp. philosophy) as quite similar to Buddhism (he has got a long-term German student who has now finally relocated to Thailand). For anyone interested to meet him too, just facebook him.

Buddhism in one chart byu Ajahn (I refrain from explaining it here)

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We also met the only other person living there. He is a carpenter and left his past life behind him (unsuccessful marriage as i understood) to grow food to feed people for free. Ajahn met him on one of his ‘begging’ trips and now they are some sort of shared household whereby the monk retains his status (e.g. he always eats first).

6 elements of Buddhism: earth, fire, water, wind, space and consciousness.

After dinner i quickly washed the dishes and then the carpenter (whose name i sadly forgot) took me to the hot springs nearby in his slightly outdated yet functioning car. There were three different pools with warm to very hot water. We opted for the latter and washed us using a large & small bowl. You can’t sit in the pools as they aren’t very deep and muddy at the bottom (worthy of some construction effort in my view … a la Iceland or Hungary). It didn’t need much to fall asleep also given first time normal temperatures and much less humidity. I didn’t even mind the little visitor.

Going begging in Chiang Mai

The next morning started bright and early at 5.45am (4am for the monk who has his first meditation session at 4.30am). We had two eggs each for breakfast, which the carpenter had boiled in the hot spring. As you can imagine, the water we also used for washing wasn’t that hot and the eggs still pretty liquid (but no problems for the stomach).

Afterwards we drove to town for the daily food collection. We visited small stalls, the market of the suburb and shops/restaurants. All the people were prepared and had a little bag with food handy. He knows his sheep and doesn’t ask random people. Once handed over to the monk, he gave them a blessing and shared his teaching of how to live good buddhist life … a long and happy life and apparently also wishes good looks. Learning to give is a very important part of that teaching.

The tall blond guy following him caused some excitement and he explained that I am German who stayed with him. Felt really part of the whole experience. Quite amazing. We got loads of food … basically filling a large shopping bag (which i gladly carried) including anything from rice to vegetables and drinks. This will be the three meals for the two guys (for me just breakfast).

Once home, the monk eats first while the carpenter and myself we cleaned up leafs and burnt them. And then it was already time to say goodbye. What a wonderful experience. Will keep me thinking for a while and is, after my Islamic experience in Bahrrain, yet another religion that I understand very little (well, now a little more).

Thank you both for everything. And of course, see you another time!

Guatape deja-vu: Khao Sok National Park

I had first come across the park overhearing other travellers the night I first arrived in Surat Thani early January. Its meant to be beautiful. Further, after three days in (beach tourist packed) Krabi I figured outdoor makes for a nice cure. As it turned out, the artificial reservoir comprising of many islands looked akin to Guatape near Medellin, Colombia, which I visited only in Nov’17. Just not the same nice viewpoint and certainly no Pablo Escobar property.

Memories of Guatape, Colombia

Day one coming here was mostly lost on travel. While I took the first transfer out of Krabi, this one didn’t leave before 11:30am (300THB) and was then also taking longer. By 4pm I checked into the hostel (khao sok secret), where I met team Fulda – two fellow German travellers called Alex and Julian. Given my late arrival, I only managed brief 2h walking tour on day together with my new German friends. However, we didn’t get to see much more than bamboo jungle, loads of monkeys and a brief river swim. There was no time for waterfalls either, but i had a nice refreshing swim.

We ended up spending the rest of the evening together and shared plenty of travel anecdotes (they had already been in Vietnam on moped and Cambodia) and probably touched on all other current issues over pizza & Chang+Leo beers.

Khao Sok National Park 

  • Park boasts rainforest, waterfalls, limestone cliffs and island stubbed lake
  • Established 1980
  • Located in Southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province covering 739sqkm
  • Highest level of rainfall in thailand at 3,500mm/year

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Day trip to the lake: Given that solo jungle experiences are actively undermined here as elsewhere in Thailand (less money), I opted to book a day trip to the lake (1,500THB excl. THB300 daily park fee) for convenience. I takes 1,5h drive to get to Ratchprapa dam from where you go by long boat across the Cheow Lan lake for about 50min (c25km). Pretty scenic stuff from here.

25km boat ride across the lake + 7km jungle/cave hike

By 11:30 we stopped at the floating houses, enjoyed a swim in the (warm) sweet water lake and finally had lunch (the usual & fried fish directly from underneath your bottom so to say). From there its a few mins further by boat before the 3h (7km) jungle walk to the cave begins. Pretty slippery stuff. I went on my five finger vibrams, which was great in the cave but not in the jungle mud. Best rent some of the rubber shoes (THB50) at the lunch place.

What to take?

  • Rubber boots (trainers, vibrams)
  • Swim suit
  • Camera (ideally water proof case)
  • Sun screen
  • Mosquito repellent (i was ok without)
  • Dry bag as water is chest high in some places in the cave
  • Head torch
  • Light rain jacket (if getting wet on the 2x50min boat rides bothers you)

The cave is some 800m to walk and host to loads of spiders with shiny eyes once you point your torch on them. There are also plenty of bats – never i have seen them as close up. Cool. The stone formations are pretty average and getting through the cave not a huge physical challenyge though by no means a walk in the park. By 6.30pm i was back at the hostel. Nice day.

The end of the was a bit akin to the night before – this time not team Fulda, but team Kiel (Anna & Valentine) shared their stories and were patient enough to listen to mine. Good place this hostel here. Recommended.

A few days in Krabi (2): Kayaking & Railey beach

The kayak tour on Sunday afternoon appeared to have almost exclusively Asian participants at first until Inna arrived on a separate bus. Born originally in Odessa, Ukraine, she now lives in Berlin and spends a 2w holiday in Thailand. We shared a kayak and took in the scenery together. Enjoyable views and conversation as we paddled along.

After the tour I relocated to Krabi town and made it to the guesthouse just in time before all floodgates opened and it rained heavily. I didn’t manage to do much more than a brief dinner and a call with Alex before getting to bed. I was dead.

Krabi town: Come here to get a more local experience as tourists & locals mingle, enjoy the food market (big night market on weekends), visit the Kaewkorawaram temple and stroll along Krabi river. As in Aonang, you can connect here to surounding islands & start daytours.

Inna and I met up the next day and headed for Railey beach. While this beach is not located on an island, it can only be reached by boat (THB150 one way). There you can visit caves, enjoy nice beaches (though they were busy), do rock climbing & caving (not for us as Inna nursed a twisted ankle & I a broken toe) as well as some rather adventurous hiking to one of the many viewpoints (note of caution … difficult path!).

So who is Phra Nang? There are different theories about Phra Nang and how she came to be associated with this particular cave in Krabi. One legend says that an Indian princess was killed in a shipwreck offshore and her ghost occupied the cave. Another story says that Phra Nang was the wife of a local fisherman. One day her husband set out to sea but never returned. According to this story, the woman lived out the rest of her years living in the cave and looking out to sea waiting for her husband to come back.

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Good Luck Offerings: Fishermen and boatmen still make offerings in the form of incense and flowers to ensure a safe journey. More curious though, are the phallic symbols or lingams that are in prominence at the entrance to the cave (pictured). Lingams are a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva and are associated with fertility and virility. In Thailand, Hindu and animist beliefs are incorporated alongside Buddhism. Over the centuries, Phra Nang cave has become associated with fertility and the lingams placed here take the form of carved wooden penises. Local folklore says that if somebody carves a wooden lingam and releases it at high tide anywhere along the Krabi coast, it will eventually end up in Phra Nang cave.

By the time I got home in the evening I was shattered. Too much fresh air, too much hiking and way too much sun. I got myself a take away pizza, booked a ticket to Khao Sok National Park for the day after and went to bed. So tired again. I am getting old man …

A few days in Krabi (1): Aonang & Koh Phi Phi

My trip south to Krabi was not entirely of my own making, but a good location to meet my good friend & former Morgan Stanley colleague Ioana. She works in Singapore nowadays and jetted over for the weekend. My journey from Koh Phangan was a straightforward 4,5h boat & ferry combo (seemingly as much time as Ioana needed to clear immigration ;o).

We actually didn’t stay in Krabi town, but rather Aonang (the main tourist hub) some 15km to the west. While there was much to catch-up about, we didn’t last too long on Friday and retired fairly early after a brief look around town, some (Indian) food and a bit of live music. I really loved the aircon, a hot shower and nice bed linen in our ‘kokotel oasis’ hotel after three weeks in a very basic bamboo hut on Koh Phangan. Sleep tight!

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For Saturday we decided on a day trip to the Koh Phi Phi islands by speedboat. It wasn’t straightforward to locate the boat, but worked out eventually. The whole trip (THB2600, lunch/water included) is pretty scenic, gets you to a few different islands and involves some snorkelling too (well, for those that brought their swimsuit). The typical 8hour tour includes stops at monkey beach, maya bay (featured in Leonardo Di Caprio movie “the beach”), viking cave (locals collect swallow nests here), lunch at Phi Phi Don, Bamboo island and Pileh Bay (beautiful lagoon ).

Not sure it’s really good value for money, but given we had done little research beforehand it was a good choice to spend the day. I even got my Russian homework done while we hopped from island to island … puhhh. Initially we thought to just take the ferry to Koh Phi Phi (much cheaper), but unless you go there only to hang out on the beach or to stay there it’s not advisable in my view.

After some ok-ish Thaifood in a family restaurant, Ioana managed to get her Thai massage (a steal for anyone knowing Singapore price levels at ca USD10 per hour) while I enjoyed some good live music in one of the many pubs / bars in Aonang. I kept wondering though where the Thai people were given there were mostly tourists around (which I found reasonably annoying to be frank).

Sunday was already the last day for Ioana in Thailand (though she will be back shortly with her family up North in Chiang Mai). We went down the cultural route and visited the Tiger Cave Temple involving your typical temple buildings, a jungle trek and (for me at least) a 1,200 step hike to a viewing point. The steps are very steep (think of a staircase in a Dutch canal house) and together with the heat make for a good work out. There is free drinking water at the top.

And so quickly time was up! Ioana jetted off to the airport while I made my way back to the hotel for my Russian skype class and pickup for the sunset kayaking later in the afternoon.