Chiang, Chiang and Chiang

Chiang, Chaing, Chaing. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. Chiang, I now know means ‘city’ and these three cities are all a time honoured part of the ‘banana pancake circuit’. The banana pancake circuit being the well worn route followed by tourists through this part of South East Asia. It is marked by the constant trail of banana (or pineapple as is our preference) pancakes served by restaurants oriented to western clientele throughout the region.

But banana pancakes were not all that was on the menu in the chiangs. In Chiang Mai our feet were good for a snack as well. If you’re a fish that is. Strolling the streets one afternoon Amy noticed tanks full of little fish with a bench seat positioned so that your feet could hang in the water. ‘What’s that and can we try it?’ she asked. Sure why not. When in Rome…

So we indicated to the attendant Thai folk we would like to stick our feet in with the little fish, slid our shoes off, planted our behinds on the bench and dipped our feet in the water. The fish, hundreds of them, swarmed; attaching their little mouths all over our feet and legs and coating them with leech like protuberances.

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Everyone loves a photo of feet!

It tickled like crazy as they darted and nibbled every nook and cranny, getting right in between each toe. I burst our laughing and couldn’t stop. I laughed like I haven’t laughed for years (see the video – I hope it works). Deep belly aching laughs. Emma, Amy and Oliver soon followed suit, but I’m not sure if they were laughing at me or the fish. It stopped the street. Passers by halted in their tracks to laugh at us, or with us, as we laughed at the fish. Diners in the restaurant opposite stopped eating to watch us with amusement. The day spa owners urged us to use our antics to rope in more customers.

Feet munching that day was preceded by eating of another kind. The sort of almost home cooked meal that comes with Thai cooking classes. It’s all about ‘emotion’ our instructor told us in her broken English. ‘No measuring, you just add the flavours according to your emotion. If your food is no good – no one to blame but your emotion’.

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Great hats for the tour of the kitchen garden before we cooked!

We must have been in a good mood, all of us, because our food was great! We pounded out curry pastes, deep fried spring rolls and banana (a particularly tasty treat) and stir fried noodles and other dishes. But no banana or pineapple pancakes, this was the real Thai deal. Another of Amy’s great ideas on things to do.

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Cooking with emotion…
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A perfect spring roll

We needed good food in Chiang Mai to keep us warm. We went out of our way to get accommodation with a pool only to arrive in the middle of a cold snap that had the thermometer hanging around 10 degrees with cloudy, rainy and overcast skies. It rained so much one afternoon Emma and I brought plastic polka dotted rain ponchos! Amy and Oliver had raincoats. The ponchos worked but I couldn’t bring myself to be photographed in one. Good thing we don’t know anybody here.

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Chiang rain – still smiling here…. it got worse
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At a temple in Chiang Mai in between showers

The elephants around Chiang Mai also seem to have a healthy diet. This we discovered through a visit to the ‘Elephant Poo Poo Paper’ park, which has perfected the art of turning elephant poo into paper. The whole concept appealed very strongly to particular portions of our party and we spent several hours participating in the process and making our own elephant poo poo paper cards.

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Stirring the poo
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Coloured poo ready for spreading on screens

By the time we hit Chiang Rai my appetite for walking around crazy busy urban environments had well and truly passed. I hit a bit of a low patch. Maybe it was the Chiang Mai weather. Maybe it was the rolling in to town but not really knowing why we had come. For the life of me I couldn’t think how I was going to enjoy three more days hanging out in another chiang with its whizzing scooters, congested footpaths and all the rest.

Our Chiang Rai residence did its best to compound my low mental blood sugar. The Akha House River Lodge was a lesson in do your research before you book. Sometimes, even in Thailand there is a reason why a hotel is cheap. We arrived home one evening to discover we had locked the key to one of our hotel rooms, in the room (most hotels don’t have rooms with four beds so you have to get two).

No worries right? Just pop down to reception and get them to open up with a spare. I however almost went spare when reception’s answer to our dilemma was to pull out a carving knife and a fork and spend 15 minutes trying to break in to our room for us! I couldn’t work out whether to be delighted or furious that they couldn’t get in! I kid you not, they did not have a spare key. I’m pretty sure they also didn’t have a mop, feather duster, bathroom cleaner or plumber.

When it became apparent we were looking at a night sleeping on the streets I took matters into my own hands, climbed the 2-metre-high wall separating one balcony from the next and lifted the glass sliding doors at the rear of the rooms off their tracks. Problem solved, but add security to the list of features missing from this particular residence.

It is however curious how each day unfolds. Four different sets of ideas on what we could, should or would like to do together with the unknown opportunities a new place has to offer, means it is impossible to predict what will unfold.

In Chiang Rai opportunity lead us to a hire car and we soon left the buzzing city streets and drove off to the green countryside beyond. Here we found twisting, winding, mountainous roads with tea plantations and perilous drops on the side of ridgeways, hot springs (hot enough to boil an egg), rice paddies, crazy White Temples and waterfalls in the jungle.

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Great bamboo bridges
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Stunning waterfall
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Jungle waterfall

 

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The White Temple near Chiang Rai
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Beautiful scenery
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We ate some of our best Thai food at this place overlooking the rice paddies
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Cooking eggs at a hot springs
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Workers at a tea plantation
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High above Chiang Rai

Even Chiang Rai itself lured us happily back into its fold with its Saturday night walking market. The main street closed for a kilometre or so and a mobile shopping strip emerged from the tarmac. Food stalls and stalls of every other kind soon abounded and the locals all emerged in their droves to create a really festive atmosphere. There was literally dancing in the street! Lanterns lit the night along with fairy lights in the trees from the accompanying flower festival that also happened to be in town. It was soon hard to imagine why I had felt any doubt.

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Chiang Rai Walking Street
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Chiang Rai Walking Street food

The next day a little girl on the bus from to Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong had clearly eaten her fill as she threw up all over her poor mother. But hey, all we parents have been there. This however was not enough to put me off the ride. It was the coolest bus I’ve been on. I’m sure it was built in the nineteen sixties. It was tumble down and rickety and packed full of locals and westerners like us on the banana pancake trail. The door immediately adjacent my seat opened and closed at random as we whizzed along ensuring a plentiful supply of fresh air and no unpleasant smells from the poor little girl that had been sick. The spew itself was washed away by the attendant by pouring a bottle of water all over the floor as we drove along.

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A most interesting bus ride
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The crew on the rickety old bus

In Chiang Khong we experienced the benefits of a more carefully chosen accommodation choice as we checked into the Teak Garden Hotel. An ‘infinity pool’ perched above the Mekong River provided Amy, Oliver and I a beautiful view while Emma tapped away at the laptop at the poolside lounge, planning our next moves. The sun set casting a golden light across the river and onto the buildings in Laos on the other side. Tomorrow we would be there, all going smoothly at our first border crossing that is. But that’s another story.

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Looking at Laos – the view at breakfast

‘Bangkoken’

‘Bangkoken’. It’s what they speak in Bangkok according to Amy and Oliver. I didn’t know what to expect of Bangkok. I thought of it as a great big dirty city swarming with people, smelly and generally unpleasant to be in. Cities are not normally my/our thing. Add to that a general lack of preparation, we had not the faintest clue what was there or where anything was, and it really was a leap into the unknown.

Oliver thought the overnight train from Lang Suan was ‘cool’ as soon as he spotted his bunk and after discovering that when you did your business it fell straight through on to the tracks whizzing by below. Emma and I equated the train ride to the Perth – Canberra red eye. Fluoro lights blaring all night made the rocking and clickety clacking of the train less sleep inducing than it might otherwise have been and we emerged in Bangkok a little bleary eyed.

Upon arrival at the suitably hippy Shanti Lodge I whipped out our laptop and held it up in front of the whirring fan while standing upon Oliver’s bed, hoping in vain that it would dry out and the trackpad would start working again. It had given up the ghost during a torrential downpour and probably 90% humidity back at Pak Song. It didn’t get wet, at least not directly, just not designed for the jungle it seems.

Putting the laptop temporarily aside we ventured out into the city in search of a temple or two without really even knowing whether to turn left or right out the hotel door. I tried asking at the desk but got the distinct impression our presence at this particular hotel was a bit inconvenient for the staff. So we went left.

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Khaosan Rd Bangkok

Those of you who have been to Bangkok will know that the streets are a jumble of sights, sounds and smells. It’s hot and humid and aromas, good and bad, waft past like invisible clouds. There are people everywhere, traffic whizzing by, cars, busses, taxis and scooters, scooters and more scooters. Tight little laneways disappear between buildings packed with people and an uncountable number of tiny businesses.

Food markets seem to be around every corner selling weird and wonderful things. The electricity network looks as though every resident has their own individual power cable and the guy that set it up couldn’t be bothered cutting the wires to the right length. People sit on gutters on the edge of roads selling… stuff, and at no point anywhere are you more than 15 metres from someone selling something to eat or drink. Drinks are served in plastic bags and then carried off to be drunk with a straw sticking out the top… of course… why didn’t we think of that?

Rather than hating all of this I found myself reveling in it. Emma on the other hand felt a little off colour and I don’t really know what Amy and Oliver made of it all. Amy seems to go with the flow, taking it all in, her hand never to far from mine or Emma’s. If she is concerned about anything it seems to be primarily about how we will get to where we are going and what we will do if we end up in the wrong spot. Fair enough. These thoughts, they go through my head too. Her hand will slip into mine and she’ll look up and ask how we know where to get off in a way which just makes me want to squeeze her tight and never let go.

Oliver seems to bumble along, laughing and silly one minute, soaking something in the next and occasionally grumbling about something after that. He seems to love it when we sit for more than 10 minutes and he can stick his head back into his book. Or better still we sit for twenty minutes and I read him some book in which case he snuggles in, rapt, in a way which makes me want to squeeze him tight and never let him go.

We navigated our way to Tha Thewet (Thewet Pier) on the main river where the chaos and buzz shifted from land to water. Long tail boats of all shapes and sizes along with barges, junks and speedboats ran up and down the choppy river. It was a calm day, but there was a three-foot swell on the river as the wake from all the boats bounced back and forward off the concrete river edges. Rows of huts made from bits of boards stuck together lined the banks with massive concrete bridges and tall buildings sitting behind. The boats themselves are crude, colorful and noisy. Overpowered engines roar and churn the dirty water as ferries pull unceremoniously into piers before ploughing on.

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Sights on the Bangkok waterways
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Bangkok waterways

We boarded a long tail with monks robed in saffron, locals heading who knows where and 20 or so of the 26 million foreigners that visit Bangkok every year. Amy quizzed me on how we would know when it was time to get off and I pointed the camera at everything that moved but couldn’t capture what was going on.

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One of the ferries – ours was this crowded too

We picked, almost at random, Wat Pha Pho to visit. It was, as far as we could gather, established 400-500 years ago and is most famous for its 48 metre long golden reclining Buddha. I was wowed by it. It barely fit within the massive surrounding building. The hall the housed it was scarcely big enough and there are only a few spots you can get an uninterrupted view. The broader temple complex contains the largest single collection of Buddha’s in Thailand and it wasn’t too long until we had collectively had our fill.

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A big Buddha
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One of the glimpses of the Buddha’s face

We retreated to a park down the street looking for some space to decompress, but instead watched a tree snake make its way from tree to tree, probably staying away from the huge goanna like critters that also made the park home. Remnants of the jungle in the concrete jungle. We soon found ourselves inside a ‘Gloria Jeans’ coffee shop. More for the air-conditioning than the drinks and ironically left after half an hour to warm up!

That evening Emma and I reluctantly conceded that our laptop was not going to come good, which was bad. We just can’t do this trip without a laptop and Wi-Fi. So began an epic trek through the malls of Bangkok.

Six kilometres from where we stayed is Bangkok shopping central, though the trip can take up to an hour! The malls seem to be organised according to the depth of your pockets. MBK is the everyday persons mall, bargains abound but the computer repair places seemed dodgy. Think pawn shop. Siam Central is a step up and Siam Paragon a step up again. Think Gucci outlets, Rolex watches and the like. Why, you could even buy a McLarens car if you wanted too. A step up again takes you Central Embassy where the shoppers are few, the malls large and super schmick.

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Traffic near the shopping malls
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Few people – high end shops

At MBK, we were pointed to Siam Central. At Siam Central to Siam Paragon. At the Paragon we were directed to a repair shop back next to Central. We got lost, then found, and finally found the I-Service centre. Here, predictably we found out that it would take days just to diagnose exactly what was wrong with our machine. So we bit the bullet, decided to buy a new one and made our way back out into the malls, where we got disoriented again before making our way back to the Apple store that had sent us to the repair shop. It was epic, but we headed home after a celebratory game of ten pin bowls (you know – as you do), the proud owners of a new 11 inch MacBook Air. 

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Bowling!!
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Relief – waiting at the taxi rank after a long day of shopping

The next day we were booked on a tour of the Bangkok floating markets. For a while Emma and I thought we had made a classic blunder, signing ourselves up to something which we had not researched sufficiently. We boarded a mini-van for an unexpectedly long and totally uninspiring 2 hour drive out of town. I thought it was a ‘Bangkok’ floating market?

But then we arrived at the markets and despair turned to elation. What a hoot! The floating markets sit amongst a seemingly massive canal based irrigation area and I can only assume they were at one point a genuine exchange point for agricultural goodies. Today however they exist solely for the entertainment of tourists like us. But that’s ok, cause we were well and truly entertained. It was madness, as we were shuffled along onto our own traditional style market boat and shown around up and down canals while having clothes trinkets and food foisted upon us from all sides. It was great fun, see photos cause there is just no way I can adequately describe it.

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Stallholders at the floating markets
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Floating markets chaos!
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Floating market stall
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In our boat at the markets

Day three and we retreated to our hotel room for some R&R before heading down town to see my older brother Paul who just happened to be here for work. Paul’s accommodation was on the opposite end of the comfort scale to ours and we reveled in a swim in the swanky hotel pool.

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Luxury at Paul’s hotel

We had such a great time, we caught up with him again the next day where he led us on a merry chase through yet more malls in pursuit of necessary laptop accessories. Amy and Oliver called him the locomotive cause we could hardly keep up as he strode through the Bangkok masses.

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With Paul between shopping malls

He also showed us around Lumphini Park with its painted elephants, massive monitors, running hordes, and catfish which make the water boil when thrown bread scraps. Lumphini is a bit like Sydney’s Centennial Park, or New York’s Central Park. Except the whole place comes to a complete standstill at 6pm each evening while the play the Thai National Anthem.

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Traffic in Lumphini Park
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Amy and a big lizard!
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Amy and a little elephant

Paul sent us off with the following well wishes (posted on facebook). Paul it was great to see you.

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sunshine warm upon your face

The rains fall soft upon your fields and

Until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Where the wild things are…

‘Amy… Amy!’ I heard Emma scream. Or it may have been a call. Perhaps somewhere in between, either way it had a degree of urgency that meant all was not as it should be.

We were at TCDF Eco-logic, a lodge run to support the Thai Children’s Development Foundation up in the jungle wilds of southern Thailand. Amy, Oliver and I were riding the rapids on a truck tyre on the little river in front of our bungalow. Emma was supposed to be having a shower.

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River fun!

Emma, was calling Amy who could be seen from the bedroom window. Amy called me and together we raced out of the river with Oliver close behind, to see what was going on.

‘I’ve been stung by a scorpion!’ Emma said. Well that can’t be good! Scorpions are poisonous. Aye, aye, aye. I raced off for help while Emma clutched her side. The Eco-logic staff were soon on site with sting kit in hand and were busy trying to suck whatever was in there out.

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Shower scorpion

Now this all sounds rather dramatic. And it was! Being stung by a scorpion was not on my list of things to avoid but it should have been. It’s right up there with things that will cause stress levels to instantly rise while travelling overseas with your family. Fortunately for Emma, and the rest of us by virtue of associated stress, the scorpions in this part of the world are not poisonous. They do however, Emma assures us, hurt!

Turns out that the scorpion had decided Emma’s towel was a great place to hide. When Emma got out of the shower and wrapped it around her middle the scorpion struck, and then ran back into the shower so I could take its photo! I guess this is what you get when you stay in Eco-lodges in the jungle with outdoor toilet and showers. At night we often found ourselves going to the loo beneath a bat about the size of a fist who also thought our loo was a great place to sleep. Not to mention the snake that wriggled its way across our path one afternoon and the squirrels who jumped from trees as we walked to dinner.

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TCDF Eco-Logic dining area

Creepy crawlies aside our Eco-lodge was really very nice. We met some fascinating people. One character by the name of Josh befriended us and particularly Amy and Oliver on our day out bamboo rafting down one of the local rivers. He won me over when he sidled up to me during a swim break to tell me what great kids we had! He kept splashing Oliver, whacking him with his life vest and tipping our raft sideways. Oliver was lapping it up.

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Bamboo rafters
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Beautiful scenery

The bamboo rafting turned out to be less bamboo and more PVC. It was also a little bit sinky. We had to stop on numerous river corners while our Thai guides emptied water and refloated the rafts. Still it was great fun floating down the river for a couple of hours in the Thai jungle.

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Raft repairs

All this took place on Amy’s birthday which we celebrated with birthday banners, emails from all of you at home (thanks!) and cards and presents brought along with us. It was topped off with cake and a restaurant of now almost close friends singing their hearts out for our gorgeous girl.

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Happy Birthday!
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Celebrations
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Oliver and Josh

While at the Eco-lodge Amy and Oliver also managed to get in some soccer and badminton with the local school kids and we were all won over by the effervescent Pee-mai. Pee-mai was the four year old son of the manager and must be the cutest kid in Thailand. He kept running round the restaurant being ‘Kung Foo Panda’ and sticking his head into our card games.

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Soccer
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Badminton
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Cards
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Always smiling with Pee-Mai

Of course all of this came after the effort of getting from our island down near Phuket up to Ranong and then further on up into the hills. Moving, we are discovering, is a mildly anxiety inducing experience (but not as bad as scorpion bites – our new anxiety yardstick). At home it was familiarity with everything that made travel appealing. Now that we are travelling, a little familiarity would go along way! Especially when trying to get from somewhere to somewhere else.

To get to our Eco-lodge we caught a private car, (the taxi didn’t show up) a speedboat ferry and a taxi to get from Kao Yao Noi to the Phuket bus station. We also procured bus tickets and boarded our bus. All with a little knot of anxiety down in the stomach. ‘Did the taxi driver really understand where we want him to take us? Cause it feels like we’re going in the wrong direction… But then again, what would I know? Oh thank God, there’s the Bus station…’. These thoughts, they run through my head.

The little knot in my stomach disappeared once we were on the bus. Although it briefly reappeared when the bus was stopped by gun toting Thai soldiers checking passports (not ours fortunately) at various points along the journey. Between these stops I concentrated on my Thai pop star skills. A screen at the front of the bus played the equivalent of Thai MTV with Karaoke style subtitles, also in Thai, loudly for the five and half hour journey. I entertained myself, but not so much anybody else, by trying to sing along in Thai. Fail.

The bus from Phuket dropped us in Ranong, where we caught another taxi (of unknown fair value) into the unknown. Relief settled in as we found the hotel, but left again as we steeled ourselves to brave the streets in search of food. Yep, a little of that anxiety again, just to go in search of dinner. We perused the street in front of the hotel which was buzzing with traffic and street vendors selling unfamiliar forms of food.

We settled on a place where we could actually sit down and ordered two fried rice for the kids, a plate of stir fried veggies and then spent ten minutes trying to communicate that Emma and I would like steamed rice to go with the veggies!

The food was great and we returned to the hotel feeling elated at our success. Yep elated, because we were able to buy dinner! Breakfast was a whole other adventure. Cold noodles with peanut sauce for $4 for all of us as it turned out.

Oh yes, in case you were wondering (and why wouldn’t you be?) we did manage to get tickets for the train to Bangkok. But only with the help of our local Thai friends who went all the way to the station to buy them for us the day before we left. We are now in Bangkok. But that’s another story!

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One of many many dragonflies (Greg’s fav photo)