Friday, May 28, 2010

Last Weekend in Chiang Rai With a Birthday Party, Le Meridien, and a Waterfall

As my time in Chiang Rai grew short, I kept myself off the computer and in conversations or sightseeing. So as you can imagine, this update is going to be quite a long recap of my remaining days in Chiang Rai (from Friday to Monday night back in Bangkok). It's also being posted a bit late, but what I've discovered about leaving Thailand for Vietnam is that it is incredibly hard to type on the computer while traveling on the buses--moments in my travel where I've found the best time to spend a few hours and type up a few posts--because it is much bumpier and more crowded on the buses here which is something, I guess, I took for granted while in Thailand. Anyway, I just felt the need to explain that the next few posts might be a bit longer and the days will be blocked together. Also, the internet in places we've been since leaving Thailand is pretty crappy, so I cannot do it any other way.

. . .

Despite only a few days left in north Thailand with Rachie, there was still a whole weekend ahead of us, but Christa, Deirdre, and I still needed to get back to Chiang Rai. Rachel and Nate were not ready to leave Chiang Mai because little Tipsuda was still in recovery, so we made our way to the bus stop Friday morning in order to enjoy nearly a full day with Brady and Zach in Chiang Rai.

After the long bus ride (and another chance to type up the last Dandygram from my adventures in Chiang Mai), we were greeted by Brady and Zach at the bus stop in Chiang Rai. We dumped our goodies and gifts from all the shopping in Chiang Mai at the house, and Christa, Brady, and I went straight to a rental place to get some scooters. With two sets of stylish wheels now ours for a few days, we rode them around for a quite while to get some wind in our hair to cool off. Brady had a great idea to visit a pool at one of the local hotels, and oddly enough, it was probably the first time I had been swimming in an incredibly long time. Being in a place like Southeast Asia, even the luke warm water felt completely refreshing.

We later got word from Nate and Rachel saying they would be headed back that night, so with wet shorts and suits, we rode back to the house and made plans for dinner together. What we didn't know is that over dinner and two bottles of 100 Piper whiskey later, we would create a new game called "That's What You Did!" Now with six motorbikes and each of us hungry for intimately local Thai food, the gang of "Freedom Riders" cruised around the lake next to Rachel and Nate's house (the same one from a few days before when practicing motorbike turns and accelerating) to their favorite restaurant that serves food fresh from the lake.

Our decision to go out to eat that night wasn't necessarily a bad one, but there had just been one of the three biggest Buddhist holidays that day, so many places were closed. As you might expect, their favorite restaurant was closed, but we managed to find another one just around the lake where we settled into a table on the front patio.

We enjoyed some very tasty food, and for the first time ever, I ate fish off of the bones with head and tail still attached. It was incredible, but there were definitely a few items I tried that I didn't really know what they were (or liked). I think I was able to momentarily convince Deirdre that one dish were bugs.

As we got settled into our table and ordered our first bottle of whiskey, we immediately began our routine of saying the joke, "That's what she said" (A joke widely attributed to Michael Scott in NBC's The Office). It had become so commonly used among our group that you sometimes really think about what you are saying before you say it, but it still doesn't help because every time you say something that could be easily twisted into something a women might say between the sheets or after sex or about something sexual, somebody will add it to the end of your statement, story, or comment. It's truly a funny thing.

A week into our stay, our group had become pretty insightful and intuitive with the way we used the joke, so Rachel and Brady started talking over dinner about how to establish a game that could be something like "That's What She Said." We all brainstormed over a round of 100 Piper in soda water with Sprite, and here's what we came up with:

This game is probably best played over dinner with a small group of people (5-10, let's say). To set it up, you must send away each person one at a time, and while they're away, the remaining members of the group decide on two things about the absent person. First, they must decide on a physical mannerism that is commonly done by that person (like scratching the beard, adjusting the glasses, tilting the head to the side, or a certain hand gesture while talking). Then, the group must decide on a verbal mannerism that is commonly said or talked about by the absent person (like talking about politics, getting everyone's attention for a grand story, or saying a specific phrase like "so sick" or "hey guys," etc.). You get the idea.

With everyone sent away one at a time and the remaining members choosing the two mannerisms, everyone is then part of the game with two things about themselves that they do or say that now everyone is going to be observant of throughout the dinner. And now it gets interesting . . .

As the meal progressed that night, the seven of us were then very cognizant--both about our own quirks but also of others--because whenever anyone would perform their mannerism--either physical or verbal, the person who noticed would be obligated to throw their glass up and say "Cheers to __(player)__!" depending on who just did what.

The best part of the game followed because you could never say what it was the person just did--physical or verbal--that you're drinking to, but the person who just did their quirk could then try to guess. However, every wrong guess required THEM to take a sip of their drink. As you can tell, it's no wonder why we went through two bottles of whiskey in no time at all. It was a fun game that got us laughing incredibly hard, and I swear, I woke up the following day with very soar abdominal muscles! As we ate and drank, some guessed theirs very quickly but others had no clue as we ended the game and paid the check. I definitely suggest getting a game going with some close friends or family some time, but just know it could go south very fast (that's what she said) unless you choose harmless characteristics/mannerisms/quirks.

It was an early night following our little dinner party and celebration for Deirdre's birthday because the next day (Saturday), we were heading to the Resource Center early for three hours of English lessons.

. . .

Saturday morning's English lessons with Deirdre have really taken flight. This particular Saturday was structured a bit differently than last week's; instead of doing two-hour blocks with each level all at once, Deirdre and Zach arranged to have Level 1 students arrive at 9am for an hour lesson, then Level 2 students come at 10am for an hour, and then finally have Level 3 students come at 11am for a final hour of instruction. This was a more practical way to do it because Nate and Deirdre (as well as myself and Christa this week) could have better one-on-one time with the students during each hour as well as gauge their progress better. However, after three hours of English lessons, we were drained and hungry, so we rode the motorbikes back into Chiang Rai meeting Brady at the local golf course to get American-style chicken burgers and fries while we hit some balls. Great way to spend lunch anywhere, but it was relaxing after three hours with 6-15 year olds.

With full stomachs and finally feeling recouped from morning's work, we were all now in full party-planning mode. Saturday night was to be the official birthday party for Deirdre and also have a chance to get other falangs over to Nate and Rachel's house for a night of games, food, and drinks. We still needed many supplies, cake, food, and drinks, so we hit the remaining balls at the course, divided up the tasks and money, and got on our way to make everything come together for a night with friends. Deirdre, Christa, and I were tasked to get the beer and liquor, and on motorbikes without baskets, it can be a tricky ride back.

We were all back to the house, showered, and getting food prepared with time to spare. As guests started to show up, we made numerous introductions and heard many stories about life in Chiang Rai. As the night progressed, we started playing games like Apples to Apples, Mafia, Guesstures, and believe it or not, TWISTER! We sang a very LOUD rendition of the Birthday Song to Deirdre and another great night with great people. Here's proof!

Partying until midnight or 1am by Chiang Rai standards is late, but with great people and games continuing late into the night, it's hard to know when to call it quits and let it all catch up. Needless to say, Sunday morning was a VERRRRY late morning for us all. By the time we were all up, the consensus among Rachie, Deirdre, Nate, Christa, and I was that we were to go to La Meridien in Chiang Rai for brunch. Yes, you read that right . . . a La Meridien IS in Chiang Rai, and it's about 12 minutes from where Nate and Rachel live. As well, it was where they went for Valentine's Day, so it was incredible to experience such a special place for them and to taste the magnificent food choices. Interestingly enough, that Sunday was the last brunch they'll be serving until August when their tourism picks up. According to the one of the staff members, there were only seven guest/rooms being vacated in the entire hotel. Regardless, the chance to experience 5-star dining (quite similar to a fancy Mother's Day brunch) at a very low price on global standards seemed to good to pass up. Here are some of the pictorial highlights:

After brunch, we made our way back to the house, Christa and I jumped on our motorbikes to meet Brady near the Resource Center and visit the waterfall. This was by far one of the best places to see in all of Chiang Rai.

It was a beautiful ride to the fall. Once we rode a few kilometers, the weather cooled and shade started covering the road.

According to Christa and Brady, there had been a 7-foot snake laying on the road and soaking up the heat from the pavement. I'll take their word for it because I think I was busy trying to take the above picture to notice the serpent. Eh, probably best. Once we arrived into the park at the base of the trail leading up to the waterfall, we parked our bikes and took a few minutes, asking other tourists where the path to the waterfall was. We eventually found it and started to make our 1 kilometer trek up to the waterfall.

It was a fairly rigorous hike up, and had we prepared better, we probably wouldn't have worn flip-flops. I have to say, the investment in a new pair of Rainbow flops before I left was a very, very wise investment. After about an hour hike, we started to hear rushing water and could nearly feel the mist from the fall . . .

Few words can describe this scene, but I'll try . . . amazing, epic, and quite possibly majestic. Anyway, it was simply breath-taking and has remained the best part of my time in north Thailand. Here are some of the highlights of our time spent swimming at the base of the waterfall, getting completely refreshed in the coldest water I've felt since being in Thailand (but still warm by American standards), and finally, a few pics with the self-timer in an attempt to capture our disbelief in the amazement of being in such a setting. As well, there's a few shots of us getting completely behind the fall.

We decided to leave before we made arrangements to live by the waterfall forever and made our way back down the path (a much faster hike I might add). We hopped on the motorbikes and headed home, and once there, we gathered a few more--leaving Zach, Rachie, and Nate behind--and headed into town for dinner, a last night at the night bazaar, and had the last few last drinks at the Peace House. It was truly a great (and EXTREMELY late) last night in Chiang Rai, for the next day, we were to leave Chiang Mai later in the evening for Bangkok to meet Elliott and Ruben to fly out the next morning for Hanoi, Vietnam.

Next up on The Dandygram: Arriving in Ha Noi, Bus Ride to Ha Long Bay, and the Three Day Cruise.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our Trip to Chiang Mai & Elephant Rides, Tiger Cuddling, and Muay Thai Boxing!

Okay, I am not going to lie . . . I had a pretty rough start to Wednesday morning. I was definitely feeling the previous night celebrating with the Westmont group as soon as I woke up, but I'd like to think the crappy feeling wasn't just a hangover from the beers I drank at the Peace House. I think it largely had to due to the fact that I had spent the entire day working in the heat because I was also incredibly sore, dehydrated, and sunburnt. (Thank GOODNESS I didn't also have a case of "Thai Lovin!")

Anyway, I was sincerely looking forward to the fact that I was about to spend three hours on a bus to Chiang Mai, but it was a very slow start because I still needed to pack, eat, shower, and of course, I had just slept in until the very last possible minute. Needless to say, I managed to eat and pack... We rushed out of the house to catch our bus and arrived with only a few moments to spare--enough time, however, to make a few snack purchases, so I purchased the essentials that I thought would cure my symptoms. They. Didn't. Help.

As you've previously read, I took the time on the bus ride to update The Dandygram while getting mildly nauseous. I owed it to you and to myself. I have responsibilities (sort of) . . . I mean, of course I have responsibilities, but it is easy to forget them when on vacation and be footloose and carefree (thanks for the reminder, Brady). Once I realized I needed to get some updates posted, I felt guilty, so I made up for it by typing two days worth of posts and nearly puking on my Macbook.

Thanks again for your patience, and allow me just preface this massive two-day post by saying that our adventures in Chiang Mai will definitely blow you away. Even now, I am still elated by what we experienced as I type up this Dandygram!

After the bus ride, jamming out to music, and typing away while trying to hold back my breakfast, we FINALLY arrived in Chiang Mai around 1:30pm--just in time for lunch and for Rachel and Nate to get over to the hospital to visit little Tipsuda. Tipsuda is one of the younger children from the village, and she is a very active student who participates in all of the SOLD activities and programs to her fullest potential. She is an amazingly bright little girl, and The SOLD Project--quite knowledgeable of her potential--has recently offered to pay for corrective surgery in order to repair one of her eyes that has lost most of its vision.

Tipsuda left for Chiang Mai with her mom the day before we did, so when we arrived to Chiang Mai, Rachel was very anxious to see her before surgery the following morning. This was the main reason Rachel and Nate left their home in Chiang Rai, and it completely worked out for Deirdre to join Christa and I who were anxious to be tourists and see another great city in northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai is a much bigger city than Chiang Rai, and Nate even mentioned how being in Chiang Mai makes him feel like he's from a quiet little town (in reference to living in Chiang Rai with Rachie). After being there for a few hours and taxiing our way from the bus stop to our hotel, the Lanna House, the observation was quite accurate.

The city is bustling. The roads are wider and busier; the buildings and downtown area was much more expansive, and the night bazaar was incredible. Our first night in the new location was low key, and after checking into our hotel, Rachel and Nate left to rent a scooter to visit Tipsuda at the hospital.

As complete tourists, the three of us (Deirdre, Christa, and myself) walked to get lunch and then went for an hour foot massage (a-mazing!). We met Nate and Rachel a while later for dinner, and kept the evening pretty low-key because we all had an early morning ahead of us: Rachel and Nate were going to the hospital right away because Tipsuda was undergoing her surgery in the morning. As well, Deirdre, Christa, and I were headed out to the mountain first thing in the morning to ride elephants and cuddle with tigers!

. . .

Fast forwarding through the night at the hotel in Chiang Mai, and we were now up early and on our way to the mountain! Our first stop: Maesa Elephant Camp about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. This place was breathtaking. Well, I say that not in the sense of the scenery as is often commonly associated with that phrase but instead of what we witnessed.

Upon our arrival, we purchased two sets of tickets: first, we booked tickets for the elephant show, and then we booked an hour ride on the elephants around the mountain. The elephant show was like nothing I have ever seen before in all of my days visiting the zoo, Disneyland, or Disneyworld. These elephants performed so many different tricks--from playing soccer, hula hoop, throwing darts, and PAINTING!

The elephant show.

Elephants painting! This was SO fascinating!!!

A finished piece fresh off the easel.

After the show concluded, we made our way directly to the platform to get into our buckets on top of the elephants. Christa had her own while Deirdre and I shared one, and I swear, we were cursed with the most stubborn elephant who had his own agenda, ate grass and weeds every 5 minutes, and completely took his own paths--making stops at random places near the edge of the trail on the mountain. It definitely did not feel safe at some points, but as we tried to read the terrain while we approached it, Deirdre and I just made the necessary adjustments and held on for dear life. It would have been about a 12 foot drop, as you can see below.

After our fill of elephants and some lunch there in the park, we found our patient taxi driver in our all-day taxi (10 US$) and made our way over to the neighboring Tiger Kingdom!

We initially thought we'd pay to see a large adult tiger and the baby tigers, but with all the trinkets we just purchased (another t-shirt for me), Christa and I opted for just fifteen minutes with one adult tiger while Deirdre enjoyed a coffee and watched. We took numerous pictures, but it was hard because the moments inside the cage and play area were absolutely breath-taking. Being (and LAYING) that close to such an animal, whose temper and agility are completely different from an elephant, was a bit scary and nerve-racking. This was the sign we read just before entering the caged area:

Now, you'd think these kitties would be drugged up to some extent, but what changed that thinking for Christa and I was the fact that after our 5 minutes or so laying with the rather lethargic beast, the trainers then went on to play with him in a pool just feet away using a large bamboo toy similar to the one used with cats at home on a plastic rod with a feather and a bell (or something like that). As you can see in the pictures below, the cat became very active with Christa and I just yards away once the trainer started swinging the toy around. . .

With this part of our day and long time dreams to play with animals in such an intimate setting now complete, we decided to get back into our taxi and to Chiang Mai in order to see the huge night bazaar and possibly catch a match or two of Muay Thai. I needed a siesta at this point because it had been another day in the sun, heat, and quite a bit of adrenaline had just been pumped through my system! Exhaustion usually sets in around 3 or 4pm--the hottest part of everyday.

After grouping back up at the McDonald's with Nate and Rachel who, I might add, brought great news of a successful surgery for Tipsuda, we made our way to a nice little indian restaurant for lamb and curries and naan. It was very filling, and was probably the largest meal I've had (meaning the most food and fullest feeling) since here. It tasted like I was back in Berkeley at one of the many amazing Indian restaurants off Shattuck.

After letting our meal settle for a little bit and recapping on the adventures on the mountain with the animals, we got on foot to experience the night bazaar--a must-see when in Chiang Mai. They have incredible things to buy from tablecloths and bed spreads to puzzle games (my favorite), watches, and of course, t-shirts!

Deirdre and Christa realized they needed much more time than the rest of us, so Nate and I took Rachie back to the hotel. Quite fittingly, we did it "Thai Style" for a bit on the motorbike Nate and Rachel rented to make trips to the hospital. It's commonplace for three Thais to be on a bike, and matter of fact, just yesterday I saw a mom one handing it with a kid in front, one behind her, and then her phone at her hear. Crazy. Along those standards, we played it safe despite me without a helmet. Sorry Mom.

Nate has now been here nearly a year and has always wanted to see Muay Thai. We did, and again, it's another must-see. I have friends who participate in this sport, and a few months back when I was planning this trip, I had a friend from my days on the flight-line at Beale AFB who has been out here every summer to train in south Thailand with Muay Thai studios. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make it out this year, but Shane, this was SO rad. Proud of you brother.

At the end of night (and after this day), I was nothing but smiles and was glad to share some time with Nate doing something he has longed to watch. We saw a K.O. in the last fight, and had front row seats for a few bucks. What a great way to end the day.

Next up on The Dandygram: Back to Chiang Rai, Scooter Rentals 2.0, and TGIF!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Concreting, Dredging, Painting, and Celebrating!

Tuesday was an extraordinary day despite being the earliest morning since I came to Chiang Rai. I can understand that from reading The Dandygram, it might seem like I am portraying each day as better than the last, but this day was simply awesome in so many ways. We knew from the night before that Nate and Rachel were going to leave very early to meet the Westmont group (who had spent the night in the village) at the Resource Center, so Christa, Deirdre, Zach, and I were up at 7am in order to meet the rest of the group in the village by 8am.

After a 20 minute ride via scooters, we arrived to find everything in place for the full day of work ahead of us, and it was incredible to see the 20 Westmont students ready to work. However, you wouldn't have known this by the groggy looks on their faces and sluggish start due to the little sleep from the night before. With only a few minutes to catch up and hear stories from their home stays, we were quickly divided into groups and put to work on three main tasks for the day of volunteer work for The SOLD Project:

First, we needed to dredge the pond which meant clearing out the water and pulling out the weeds and sticks that were under the water and around the edges. Although we didn't get to lay any sort of foundational base at the bottom of the hole, Nate plans to get about 20-30 long bamboo sticks to lay down, thus creating a base for a layer of gravel and rocks to settle onto. That way, there will be minimum amounts of mud and sludge that will settle on the bottom layer of the pond. We managed to clear out the water within the first few hours, but the best part was how many crabs, shrimp, and frogs were discovered at the bottom of the drained pit once the water was out, and the few Thai villagers that were there helping us throughout the day were absolutely delighted by these finds. We helped them catch every last creature for some lunch (shrimp) and their dinner (crab and frog's legs!). The shrimp was prepared with sticky rice brought in from the village (used to scoop a helping of the shrimp), and it was delicious--much better than anything in the boxed lunches brought in!!!

Second (and by far the most strenuous and physically demanding task of the day), we needed to pave the entire first floor of the Resource Center. This started while I was still at the bottom of the pond pit, but with that wrapped up shortly before lunch, I joined the group of cement mixing Westmonsters. Now, I was personally excited about helping in every way I could that day, but I was completely blown away by the motivation and eagerness from the students who had just come to the Resource Center from a night of very little sleep and were now spending their entire day under the hot sun mixing batch after batch of concrete. A Thai man from the village was there as the only one smoothing the cement floor once buckets of newly mixed cement were transferred to him from each batch. After the first few loads, all the cement mixers could easily see that the day was going to be a long one. At the end of the process, I think it took about 30 loads to pave the entire floor, but the first part of the morning we only one set of hoes and one mixing container. What seemed like a slow start (one 7 x 9 foot rectangle being mixed, transferred, and smoothed as pavement at a time), the day of cementing REALLY picked up after a rhythm was established, an extra mixing container was delivered, and about twice as many tools were purchased to help mix two batches at once. This process took nearly everything out of us, but at the end of it all, the floor looked great! We shared much laughter while we carried buckets upon buckets of rocks or sand for the concrete mix--substituting for each other at every stage of the process in order to get a break from mixing or carrying buckets. Sometimes, you got the chance to just sit beside a container and keep track of how many buckets of rocks had been added. Now being three days later, I am still so SO sore in many places. Two hour Thai massage . . . here I come!

Finally, the bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor needed to be painted. Right from the start, there was a dedicated group of painters--both in the morning and then again after lunch who (I think) were committed because of the intoxicating smell from the oil-based paint they were using. In all honesty, the rooms they painted (bathroom and bedrooms) turned out great, and it was hilarious to be in the middle of concreting and see a random painter pop out onto the patio for a break to breathe some fresh oxygen and clear their lungs. The top floor of the Resource Center, as I have probably already mentioned, is going to be a place for work and long-term living. As the first full-time volunteer staying in the village, Deirdre is going to stay in one of the rooms, and then a married couple will be arriving shortly to occupy the other room to start working with Deirdre and SOLD. It's going to be a very nice place to live and work, and I plan to get some photos up of the finished work once the ladders and tools are cleared out, the ceilings are finished, and Brady's lighting work is completed, but for now, enjoy the pictures from the day!

Preparing to dredge the pond . . .

Dredging while loving every minute of it.

Taking a break from oil-based paint!

The first three loads of concrete . . .

Getting the rhythm down!

All finished!

Ready for some SHOWERS!!!

Showered, drinking, and celebrating a great day.

While the day of concrete mixing hit a few snags when we realized we needed extra cement mix and another load of sand, we still managed to finish the all three tasks by 3pm. It was, in every since of the word, a wholesome day of dredging, concreting, and painting--with heart, sweat, blood, and HEAT all mixed in. Man was it hot, but with a continuously refilling supply of bottled water, short breaks to get into the shade, and a light rain late in the day, the heat wasn't as cumbersome as I had imagined it would be. Plus, we got smart after the first few batches of cement were mixed to move the container into the shade and under the top floor!

Since we were all covered in our respective work (paint, pond, or cement), incredibly filthy, and some starting to stiffen up from the layers of cement on legs and arms, we cleaned up the Center and headed back into Chiang Rai for showers, dinner, and a celebratory night back at the Peace House. After the day we had, you can barely manage to keep going, but the heart and soul of the group--along with the camaraderie that had continued to grow among the students--didn't keep us from spending a few more hours together. I was so delighted to share a few last minutes with my new friends because Christa, Deirdre, and I would accompany Rachie and Nate to Chiang Mai the following day and leave the Westmont group to continue on with their trip to the next stop. It really is fascinating to follow their adventures and to take in all of the stuff that has been planned for their time here in Southeast Asia. With Santa Barbara only a few hours away from UC Berkeley, I don't doubt I'll be seeing that group again soon!

First name Trevor, middle name Michael.

Next up on The Dandygram: Our Trip to Chiang Mai & Elephant Rides, Tiger Cuddling, and Muay Thai Boxing!