A relation of my husband, Ming, organized a thanksgiving vacation in Chiangmai and Chiangdao (up north in the highlands from Chiangmai, Thailand), for 12 family members from US, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore. It was quite a relaxing holiday, though a little touristy, with the usual visits to gardens and temples. My husband and I have been to Chiangmai a couple of years ago, and we enjoyed the good food, spa and visits to quirky shops and the antique wholesale district (Hang Dong). But most of the group members are into sightseeing and street markets. So on the first day of the tour, we went to Bhuping Palace, the summer residence of the royal family. There are lots of beautiful gardens there including a rose garden. I was made to rent a skirt to enter the palace, just because I wore leggings.
Of course, how could we skip the most famous temple in Chiangmai, Doi Suthep, which is covered with gold. If you ask me, that’s a misallocation of resources and going against the principles of buddhism. I seriously don’t think Buddha asked for any gold covered temple to be built. That money could have gone into education and micro loans for the poor locals.
We also checked out a so-called Hmong village which has a waterfall close to it. It turned out to be one big open market with many stalls selling Hmong handicrafts, snacks, trinkets and other stuff. The market is set up along the slope of the mountain, and so it’s basically a steep walk through the market up to the top, where there is a really nice garden with a small waterfall. There are houses dotting the side of the mountain above the garden and market. Our relations didn’t go up as far, but my brother-in-law, Phil, and his wife, Lynn, did discover a poppy field nearby. They didn’t wanna pay US$25 per person for entry though. My husband joked you wouldn’t wanna be near it in case an American Apache chopper appeared on a anti-drug mission.
Anyway my husband and I tagged along most of the way, but we definitely didn’t skip our favorite spa at the Chedi resort (part of the GHM group, and also our favorite hotel) while the rest went for yet another temple tour. We are also really happy that we managed to return to the Chedi for our favorite afternoon tea. He simply loves the amazing scones, clotted cream and jam, which unfortunately aren’t available in Singapore. We brought the group there and the scones were also a hit with Phil, who couldn’t get enough of the clotted cream. We doggie-bag 3 scones back to our villa, and my husband and his brother had them 2 days later. Even after we microwaved them, they were still awesome.
In Chiangmai, my husband and I discovered another gem. We checked out the Rachamankha Hotel for dinner (recommended by the Luxe guide). The hotel was refurbished from a colonial house, furnished with beautiful, clean line, Ming inspired furnitures. We sat at the courtyard for dinner (as suggested in the guidebook) and in fact that was what the other guests did too. The restaurant serves Thai/Myanmese and also western-inspired food. We ordered the set dinner in Thai/Myanmese for 2. It was a platter of dishes like shredded mango salad, spicy beef soup, curry chicken, shredded pork, and fish cakes. My husband thought they were Nahm-like (Nahm restaurant , opened by a Michelin-starred chef in Bangkok), or even similar to the Nam Hai resort’s Vietnamese food. But of course, the food and presentation still fall short of the standards in those two restaurants. For one thing, the food wasn’t warm enough, for another, the restaurant shouldn’t be using chipped bowls. The flavor of the food was pretty good though, the salad was yummy, the beef was super tender, and chicken flavorful. I thought the fish cakes could be better prepared, the presentation wasn’t so good. But I guess for the price we paid, THB950++ (S$40++) for two pax, I shouldn’t complain. Anyway my husband checked out the room rates and found that they are rather reasonable. But in TripAdvisor, the rating is not as good as The Chedi.
We also revisited the quirky stores that we checked out during our first trip, located at Soi 1 of Nimmanhaemin road. This is a good place to look for house decor ideas and items. We especially like this shop right at the end of the road with a cardboard cut out of a fat lady at the entrance. When we were here the last time, there was a cat inside the shop, walking around as if it owned the place. But the kitty wasn’t to be found this time. The shop has some beautiful paintings. This is one that I really like.
We find the whimsical artistic talent of the Thais very interesting and unique. Even though we didn’t buy anything, it was a pleasure to browse even.
It was a long drive from Chiangmai to the holiday home in Chiang Dao. Along the way, we had the options of going to the elephant camp or the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden. (Both locations were not covered by us during our last trip.) All except my mother-in-law and I chose to see the saggy bottom mammals. We felt we could see all the saggy bottoms we want on National Geographic, and besides we prefer flowers. But for the sake of completion, I posted a photo my husband took of an elephant drawing a picture. Poor elephants make to do tricks to entertain humans like playing football, which isn’t even part of the natural activity of the animal.
The botanic garden is huge, taking up 1,000 hectares of land. We took a shuttle bus up to the glass house complex where there are numerous green houses with different species of plants like medicinal, carnivores, rare plants, wild hybrid orchids etc. There is also a beautiful rose garden with flowers more beautiful than what we saw at Bhuping Palace.
Seriously Chiang Dao is so remote that it looks like we are near the border with Myanmar. We joked that we should put up our location in our Facebook pages in case we get kidnapped. I mean, if we disappear, would anybody know? According to Ming, the main road leading to Chiang Dao is only completed this year! This place is mainly inhabited by the tribal minorities. There’s a small town where there’s a bank, 7-11 (!) and even Tesco Express. But the supermarket is so small that it’s like a 7-11. A bunch of us went there to shop for snacks, drinks and other stuff. A relation wanted to buy some beer, but found out that there are specified times for liquor purchase, during lunch time and dinner time which is from 5pm. Unfortunately it was 4.30pm then and we were definitely not going to wait around. So there was some negotiations and both parties came to an amiable agreement.
The villa where we’re staying has pretty amazing view, I guess as a result of the remote location. It’s built by a Caucasian owner, in the midst of a large orchard. He also owns the Chiangmai villa where we stayed for a few days. This is a pretty good place for star gazing. In fact on the first night we arrived, Ming and Phil even saw a shooting star. Ming has a really cool astronomy app on her iPhone, Star Walk, and we used it to pinpoint the stars and constellations. We even spotted Jupiter, which was really bright.
Anyway the climax and also highlight of the vacation was the trip to Chiang Dao caves. Only 6 of us went for it (including 2 old folks and preggie me). I was initially told not to go since it might not be suitable for my condition and I also had some reservations too. But after thinking about it, plus my husband said he would take care of me, I thought it might be an exciting adventure and went along. According to Ming, the locals discovered a Buddhist sage living in the caves for more than a 100 years and they then paid reverence to him. After he died, he was buried inside one of the caves.
The driver took us to the location where there are temples and even a church, and pointed out the direction to the caves. We went toward it and came to the bottom of a lighted stairway. There was a couple of people at a table with the sign “20 baht for electricity”. Ming had earlier told us that the caves are lighted but the generators are not reliable and torch lights are recommended. Anyway I was wondering whether we were really entering a cave since it looked more like some sort of mining tunnel to me instead, ain’t nothing like the scenes from Discovery Channel. I also noticed there was another stairway along what looked like the side of a mountain close by. I thought that seemed more like leading into a cave. Ming told us there were supposed to be guides waiting at the entrance to bring visitors in, but there was no guide to be seen. So we were standing around for a few minutes wondering what to do next. We decided to just do it, and paid what turned out to be 20 baht (S$0.85) per person, as our payment for electricity usage within the caves. The stairway is actually rather steep and high. I didn’t take the picture going up but coming down later.
So we entered this dimly lit large tunnel where there was an altar with a Buddha statue. There were a couple of women in pink sitting by the side. On the right of the altar was a lighted pathway leading down, on the left was a dark pathway leading up. There was a sign next to the altar “no guide, dangerous, no come back”. Ming said these ladies must be the guides. One of them came to us and pointed to a board and told us, “100 baht 5 persons for lamp. 6 persons, 120 baht.” I was thinking we had torch lights and iPhones, why would we need additional light? Besides there was a lighted pathway. But Ming decided we needed a guide with us, and the lady then started to lit up a hurricane lamp. She then said to us that guide was volunteer and pointed to the board again, which suggested 100 baht for tip to the guide. One of the women then took the lamp and beckoned us to follow her up the dark stone path. She said in broken English that we took the dark path first, then the lighted path after. We then realized “uh oh, we’re really going into the darkness up there?”, it was literally pitch black ahead.
As we followed the guide up the rocky and uneven ground, we kept telling each other to be careful. Thank God for the hurricane lamp, only then we realized our puny torch lights and iPhones were no match for the dark, which was seriously like plunging into total blindness. Then at the top, the guide pointed to us a hole in the wall, and said in her limited English something about going in. Huh?? It wasn’t exactly a big hole, in fact we had to bend rather low to go though it.
On the other side, we were brought to this huge cavern, which the guide called a “stadium”. Here’s how dark it was. Our relations were lighted up by the hurricane lamp. Even then, it was difficult to take decent photos inside the cavern.
The guide then brought us to another hole in the wall that leads to other caves. But when we saw it, we were like, “you gotta be kidding us! No way in hell are we going through that.” We would have to crawl through it!
There was another group behind us, seemed like Thais. After we left the second hole, we didn’t hear them following us, my husband thought they could have gone through the hole, pretty adventurous of them. The guide led us out of the dark caves, also from the same hole we came in from, and continued with the second part of the tour, this time to the lighted pathway. Well, this part of the caves is lighted by fluorescent lamps but still not really bright. It’s also wet, with dripping water. So we also had to take care walking along the path.
The guide then led us further into the caves, where the Buddhist sage burial place was. My husband and I were following the guide, and we could see some altar set up. But we also saw a white figure standing near the altar. It was a strange sight. As we walked past the figure, I glanced at it sideway and discovered it was a man who was covered from head to toe with a white towel, and he was dressed in white t-shirt and white pants. According to my husband, he had noticed the man sitting down initially and then he got up. He was moving really slowly in front of the altar, barefooted. My husband thought he looked creepy. Then suddently we heard a scream from behind us and a woman spoke in a shocked tone in mandarin, “吓死我！还以为是鬼！＂(This is scary! I thought he was a ghost!) It was auntie, who was behind us with her daughter, Nicky. We seriously couldn’t stop laughing afterward when we recounted what we saw. Nicky had noticed the figure only a few steps behind him and she had taken a few steps back in shock. Auntie was of course totally taken by surprise. Ming who was somewhat further behind them, with her father, told us later she was wondering if the figure was real and wanted to go up to poke it. I had secretly taken a photo of the figure while pretending to take a picture of the altar. When auntie saw it later, she commented, “好像啊飘！＂(looks like an apparition).
Next to the burial site was a tunnel that was not lighted. The guide told us “no light, no guide, no come back!”
My husband said the guide was scaring the bejesus out of us because she kept pointing to certain steep fall or dark tunnels and made the quote of the day. In fact it became our favorite quote of the trip. Nicky even tweeted it. I wanted to give the guide an extra 100 baht for the wonderful quote, but Auntie told me she could give it to me as many times as I like. My husband suggested I should give Auntie the money instead, but the quote had to be said with a Thai accent. Anyway don’t you think the quote reminds you of the Singapore government’s message to the people: no guide (PAP government), no light (guidance/policies), no come back (stability and prosperity). Ok, I digress, the cave trip was one exciting adventure. My husband commented it was more fun than going to Universal Studio, there was thrill and spill, combined with comedic scare.
Anyway I like to use this post to thank Ming for organizing the trip, she was the de facto tour guide for the group. Also really appreciate Phil and Lynn for taking the family on the trip as well.