This was our first road trip abroad where we took to the open road on our own, no taxi, no guide. The route: from Chiang Mai winding through mountain towns to Thailand’s northern-most point at the Myanmar (Burma) border. After 6 weeks in the city, we were jonesing for the countryside, and our visas were about to expire so a quick border run was a must. The forecast called for constant rain (the first we’d had in months), and Lil-Sis and I were sick, but what the heck – off we went to navigate rural Thai roads and right-hand-side driving, off we went to spend 5 nights in 5 different guest houses with 5 of us sharing one room. Thank goodness for the raincoats we’ve been toting, and double thank goodness for a husband with an acute sense of direction in foreign countries.
First stop was just north of Chiang Mai for waterfall action. Mae Sa waterfall and then Bua Thong “Sticky Falls”.
By the time we left Mae Sa waterfall it was pouring. With several hours drive to the guest house, twisty mountain roads ahead, and a darkening sky, the prudent thing to do would be to bag the second waterfall and focus on getting to our accommodation before dark. Apparently, we’re not as prudent as we used to be! Bua Thong “Sticky Falls” is this amazingly fun, natural water playground where you can climb up and down an arrangement of falls covered in bumpy limestone slopes that your feet actually stick to. Climbing Sticky Falls in the rain was a little nutty and a lot thrilling! Scrapes, chills, and tears ensued at various points (signs of a hearty adventure). Bro is a cautious boy, and he’s become more adventurous on this trip. His newfound adventurous self wrestled with his cautious self that afternoon. At one point during the climb, he was very torn about how to get down to the bottom of the falls safely, and after an emotional decision-making moment, he opted for the steps rather than climbing down the waterfall rocks. In hindsight, I see that his choice was the right one – I should have insisted we all take the steps because although I’m a confident climber, as I made my descent through the rushing water, I couldn’t always figure out where to put my feet so that I wouldn’t fall. Big-Sis followed his lead to the steps. I’m the one who ended up scraped up! I should have followed him, too. My boy knew best. I learn from my kids’ instincts through our adventures.
The drive from the waterfalls to our next destination, Chiang Dao, took much longer than expected, and the road conditions were atrocious. It hadn’t rained in months and the first rain is the slickest. We passed numerous car accidents, and saw some death-defying driving maneuvers by the locals. It was very dark, very wet, and the mountain roads are full of sharp turns. By the time we reached Chiang Dao, the kids were loopy and loud in the backseat, we couldn’t find our guesthouse, and when we tried calling for directions, the kids’ noise made it impossible to understand what the owner was saying. Just as we pulled into the Baan Sri guest house (the sweetest little accommodation with a kind host who cooked us a delicious dinner), I lost it on the kids for being so loud in the car, and I screamed things at them that I never dreamed would leave my motherly lips. It was an unfortunate and yet strangely cleansing travel moment. Once the shock over my tantrum subsided, we tossed it aside and got giddy about our cute green bungalow, and the who’s-sleeping-next-to-who circus commenced.
The next attraction was the Chiang Dao caves. I’m not much for cold, dark caves, but these were pretty awesome. The caves are also a temple adorned with old Buddha carvings and statues inside and out. The combination of science and religion in a natural space is amazing! Lil-Sis got freaked out by the rock formations protruding from the cave ceiling, so we had to guard her from the “monsters”, but she made it through and we were all proud of her. Big-Sis explains about the earth science of the cave formations: “Stalagmites are rock formations that come up from the ground of caves. Stalactites are rock formations that come down from the ceiling of caves. Stalagmites and stalactites are formed from water coming through the soil. Chemical reactions that involve soil, H2O, CO2 and HCO2 and probably some other things create slowly-forming collections of rock particles that become stalagmites and stalactites.” Cool, looks like we finally fit some science into her “curriculum.”
A poem inspired by the caves by Bro
Inside the caves it is quiet.
There is no one around.
The rocks hang from the top like icicles.
There are rocks all around you like you’re in the middle of the earth.
You are lost,
inside a cave.
Inching our way north to the town Fang, we stayed at a Lahu hilltribe family-run hotel, Phumanee. We encountered such nice people everywhere we stayed! Our host played soccer in the lobby with the kids while we ate dinner. The hotel is also a little museum of the Lahu people. Big-Sis explains what she learned about the Lahu tribe: “Hilltribe people are small tribes of people who live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Some are refugees from neighboring countries. I learned that the Lahu Hilltribe people moved to Thailand 120 years ago from southern Tibet, and there are 6 different Lahu tribes in Thailand right now. The Lahu grow corn and rice, and are warriors. The Lahu are strict and serious people governed by right and wrong. Although they are strict, surprisingly, Lahu people are the most gender-equal society in the world! I found that really interesting. Jafa Chaikor was the leader of the Lahu tribe, and was the father of our hotel’s owner. Sadly, Jafa was shot, so his son Charoen Chaikor took over. The Lahu Hilltribe people have moved around a lot, having been in both China and Myanmar before Thailand. ”
At this point the rain had finally stopped dumping on us, though it was still colder than our clothing could handle, and none of the places we stayed in had heat. The ride through the mountains to our next destination, Mae Chan, was gorgeous! There were more beautiful mountain villages with sweeping, green views than I could count. We stopped at one of the hot springs in the area, where ours were the only western feet soaking in the steamy water.
In Mae Chan we stayed at another tiny guesthouse, Suancha Tea Garden, on the property of a French-Thai family’s tea farm. Said it before and I’ll say it again – our hosts were friendly and interesting people who took fantastic care of us. The kids played for hours all over their land, climbing trees and befriending their animals. The guesthouse hosts and their neighbors hung out with us by the fire pit talking, listening to the kids play their instruments, and drinking homemade rice whiskey (I declined, Tom partook). The only downside was that their dog’s stench contaminated Tom’s last clean outfit.
The border run was next on the itinerary. It was our first, and we were not sure what to expect. Turns out it was a very quick and easy experience. We had our passports stamped as walked out of Thailand, stamped again to enter Myanmar, and in less than 5 minutes we turned around to re-enter Thailand, filled out out some forms and had our passports stamped for another 60-day stay. As soon as we entered Myanmar, there was an obvious change of environment – people were begging (children especially) – which was something we’d never seen in Thailand. It was a very brief but obvious example of how prosperous Thailand is compared to its neighbors.
One final overnight stop in Chiang Rai, and at this point, with all the coughing and shivering in the night, and arguing over device usage in the car, we had just about had it. But yet again, we encountered engaging and playful guest house owners who reminded us to just be happy. Their teenage children wanted to ask me questions about America and play with the kids in the yard. These young women said they loved America, and couldn’t wait to go to Wisconsin in March for a high school exchange program. I had to admit that I had never been to Wisconsin, but tried to act excited for them.
Before heading “home” to Chiang Mai, we made a touristy pit stop at Wat Rong Khun, the “White Temple” in Chiang Rai, a modern Buddhist temple and odd art exhibit. Inside the intricate, powder-white exterior, there are paintings of demons, terrorist attacks, and famous western characters such as Michael Jackson, Superman and others. The art sends many messages about how we are destroying the world and how we are distracted from being present and peaceful, as Buddha taught.
One big bump in the road and we would have had a windshield full of corn. That’s Thailand; a place where anything goes.
And that’s it, folks. An adventurous, budget-friendly, nature-filled week in Northern Thailand’s countryside. Accommodations are less than $40/night. Food is cheap, fresh and delicious. Views are gorgeous. People are kind.
Thanks for following along!