January 29, 2020

Burmese Border Shopping in Mae Sai, Thailand

Mae Sai, on the border of Burma, is well-known in Thailand for its shopping markets. It's also little traveled by American tourists, so we decided to take a scenic ride on public transportation to check it out.

We've been taking Green Buses, to SEA what Alsa is to Spain. There are certainly more local inter city buses, we see them at the bus stations. Smaller, a little more rinky dink, undoubtedly cheaper. But impossible to find information about them online, and so a bit of a mystery to the overwhelmed foreigner.

Green Bus has an app you can purchase your tickets through, but there was no way to do a child discount, so we went to the bus station Terminal 3 in Chiang Mai to buy our tickets. It saved us about 100 THB for the child discount, and round-trip tickets for 3 to Mae Sai cost about 1300 THB, or about $40 USD.

There are a bunch of different Classes of bus, the cushier the more expensive of course, and the front 4 rows have more leg room for extra, too. With no idea what the different classes meant, we bought our tickets and hoped for the best.

The bus was perfectly fine, it had AC and we got a free bottle of water. On the 5-hour bus ride, we made one pit stop, but had no idea how long we were stopping for (turned out it was about 15 minutes), so we dared not step foot off the bus.

Getting into a questionable hotel room in the dark makes everything look seedier. We felt deceived that the Piyaporn Hill Paradise Hotel did not have a restaurant as advertised. Nor did any of the pictures look anything like the place we found ourselves in. There was no coffee provided. Luckily we'd learned this lesson already and had brought our own Instant Coffee. To get hot water, however, I had to tote our two provided water glasses down to the lobby to get hot water from their tank. To their credit, they did offer to give us their water boiler for our room when they believed that was what we were asking for.

The door hung crooked, letting in light, sound and probably mosquitoes. The bathroom floor was constantly wet and there was no mattress pad on the mattresses, so we slept on towels. The wifi was so bad as to be nonexistent. The first night we discussed asking for a refund, but we would surely not be able to get that message across, as no one spoke any English.

In the light of day things looked slightly better. We were a block from a huge market and close to anything we wanted. Many of the market stalls appeared to be selling the same exact imported merchandise, but some unique bargains are to be had.

Many merchants were selling Mae Sai Winery wines, so we tried a few. Most bottles were sugary water. One so syrupy we had to dump it out, the other little more than kool aid, and not even alcoholic. The one decent bottle tasted a lot like a bad port. There's a reason most Thai people stick with lao kao (rice moonshine).

We were shopping hard for a flat sheet to travel with, but found only duvet covers, fleece blankets, beach towels and sarong/skirt type rectangles of fabric with unfinished edges.

We had fun looking for things we didn't need, but we set goals for ourselves. We wanted to get Babs a necklace, and one for me too. I wanted a purse and some different leggings.

Many of the merchants were very pushy, which drove us away. Haggling is very much expected. They tell you a price, then say, "but for you, discount." Then you make an offer and they counter offer at exactly what they wanted you to pay anyway.

Mr. Go finally found a palad khik, a penis-shaped good luck token carved by monks and inscribed with blessings. A gem, to be sure.

A short walk up the road from our hotel was the Wat Tham Pha Chom temple with a small cave shrine. We were accosted for selfies with Babs at the gift shop, but the climb up to the platform with the Big Buddha on top of the hill was quiet and picturesque.

We visited again the next day to explore more of the grounds. At the other side of the monastery, the cave shrines ensconced you in such complete solitude it made the ears ring. Wholly different from the bustling Batu Caves in Malaysia, these caves were small, you had to duck into them. The almost eerily deafening silence of all sound outside the cave made you aware of the beating of your heart and rushing of your blood. We sat and breathed in front of the Buddha and re-entered the clucking air outside feeling reborn.

Each morning in Mae Sai, we ventured out for coffee and a bag of chestnuts, which are for sale from innumerable carts roasting them in hot pebbles.

Hot Tip: Look for chestnut (or other street food) vendors with prices listed on their carts, otherwise when you ask "how much?" they can be subjective.

Hot Tip #2: Look for vendors who are busy. The locals know where to get the best stuff.

We ate our chestnuts by the river, keeping an eye out for fishermen. Mr. Go had a conversation with a bait-shop owner and bought some gear but after casting into the water a few times, understood he would not be catching anything.

We did see, however, several Thai people who'd bought bags of fish from the market, releasing them back into the river.

We took our walks up to the temple, then had lunch each day at Lom Vi Seth, a quiet place with several small, sweet dogs running about. I had a spicy coconut curry one day and a spicy pad gaprao the next. It was clean, peaceful and delicious.

We would go back to our hotel room for a rest in the afternoon, then head out again around 4:30 in search of dinner.

One evening we stumbled across a local food market, which we called the Thai drive thru. The street was not closed off to motorbikes, and they zipped and weaved through people to stop by a stall, grab a bag of food and take off.

Browsing unknown foods while also not getting mowed down took all my brain power. We bought bags of food to take back home one evening and discovered the dish we saw many Thai people order, and so we copied them, was indeed gai (chicken) as advertised, but gai feet, which we discovered in Malaysia was not to our taste.

The next night we avoided that market and meandered around. We ended up eating at one of the food stalls that pop up along the main road each night around dinnertime. The pad thai was a tad spicy (the first time that has happened) but it was the cart's specialty, indeed the ONLY thing it served, and so

Babs stuffed her mouth with bean sprouts after each bite.

We changed hotels for our last night in Mae Sai, to the Maekhong Delta Boutique Hotel, which was the nicest digs we'd had recently, and should be, for a whopping $42/night. We haggled with the receptionist for a good price to do our laundry ("for you, discount").

We binge-watched season 2 of Lost in Space, ventured out for lunch and dinner, got invited to a man's wedding the next night (we had to catch a bus unfortunately, but chok dii na kah).

Our side-street dinner restaurant was a hidden gem that I can't even find on Google Maps to recommend to you, unfortunately. The Thai staff once again enlisted the help of an English-speaking patron (thanks again, Jimmy) to help us order. When he placed our order for us, he came back and told us: "The cook say you cannot order this. Too spicy for you." To which Mr. Go of course said, "try me."

I appreciated their concern, though, because they take great pride in their food and wanted us to be happy with our meal. Since the pain has now passed, I can say it was very tasty. It wasn't as spicy as papaya salad, but it was a close second.

The next morning we hoofed it back to the bus station to grab the 5-hour bus back down to the Baan Lucksana (highly recommend) in Chiang Mai for the last two nights of our stay in Thailand.

January 23, 2020

Tak, Thailand

Relishing the freedom and convenience of having our own rental car, we drove from Lampang to Tak, on our quest to get rural in Small Town, Thailand. Mr. Go found us the Ko Luang waterfall in the Mae Ping National Forest to visit.

It was a 2-hour round trip drive out of our way off Highway 1, zooming through switchbacks that were more trafficked than you might expect, and by larger vehicles than seems strictly safe.

It cost us 9 USD to enter the National Forest and there weren't many points of interest open at this time of year. But we found the waterfall and hiked some 500 meters to it.

There were a dozen Thai tourists there already and you had to (Maybe it was optional? Signs made it seem like a requirement) rent life jackets. Walking five steps down to the water took the temperature down 10 degrees cooler. I sat on the rocks in the middle of the river while Mr. Go and Babs swam.

Curious fish nibbled at my toes while my family swam over to the waterfall. We wandered down to a smaller waterfall 200 meters down, but it was too muddy to swim.

Refreshed, we hiked back up into the heat and drove the same windy road 1 hour back to the highway. We picked up a gas station dinner of vermicelli-in-a-cup on the way and hoped to arrive before dark, but the GPS pin on Airbnb was not correct, so we had to message our host and get clearer instructions.

Hot Tip: Don't trust the Airbnb GPS pin. Ask to clarify directions before you arrive, especially if you're driving yourself in a foreign country after dark.

The host greeted us warmly and had a couple of their home-grown young coconuts cut and chilled in the fridge for us. Her son, Mak, also 5, seemed very shy, but the next day, he and Babs played All Day Long. We sat on the farm and read, Kan showed us the different stuff they were growing. We were instructed to pick and eat whatever we wanted, so we tried some starfruit, picked a lime for lunch and Mak kept handing us sprigs of mint to eat.

We took a drive to the Hill Tribe market to pick up some groceries, then went to the Tesco, the big grocery store chain for some thinly sliced pork. Meals of rice and meat are so prevalent, I was constantly on the lookout for vegetables, so I fried up some bok choy in their detached kitchen and it was so relaxing to not have to go out in search of food.

Once it cooled off enough, we went for a walk in the evening. Mak was missing Babs, so his mom took him on a bike ride to find us along the road, then we all walked together.

They had to leave the next day for Bangkok, so we took their bikes out for a ride. The National Park nearby would cost too much to enter, and we'd done our waterfall already, so we just biked around.

We stopped to get a couple cold drinks and sat on the curb at the lady's little shop to drink them. When I showed the lady the picture below, she giggled behind her hand, and it added 5 years to my life.

On our wanderings through the rural neighborhood, we came across fields of cows. Not the same type of dairy or cattle in the U.S. These cows had a big hump on their back and gnarly horns. They also seemed super territorial. They watched us as we passed, pawing the ground and huffing.

There are chickens everywhere, either running around or chilling under dome-shaped woven baskets. Maybe they're for eating or maybe they're for fighting, we couldn't decide. There are dogs everywhere, too. Most are strays, but some have collars and homes they return to at night. I only had to chase one aggressive dog off and we were always very quick to pick Babs up if any dogs seemed cagey. We were told to bend down and pretend to pick up a rock, even if there were no rocks, and the dogs would scatter. We also primed Babs (who then taught Mak) to make herself big and say "NO," to any encroaching dogs.

In this neighborhood, we also stumbled upon a soup shack. We weren't hungry, per se, we'd just sat at a picnic table behind a lady's random roadside BBQ grill and had spicy sausage (Mr. Go's new favorite food-- it tastes like spicy fruit loops and I don't know why), but it had no signage and was packed with locals, so we stopped anyway.

We said the couple Thai words we knew and there was a lot of pointing and nodding. It was essentially rice noodles in broth with fish balls, bean sprouts and your choice of meat. All the tables were full, but some people waved at us and budged over so we could sit. Babs introduced herself and then had to smile between mouthfuls of food for a bunch of pictures everyone wanted to take of her.

Kan's dad, Poomchai, took care of us the last day. He gave us a bag of some weird grape-like fruit (it was longan). You have to peel the hard shell off to eat them and be careful of the pit inside, but they were super good.

One of the main attractions of a hotel/Airbnb is if they have a washing machine. We have a Scrubba bag to do our laundry in emergencies, but I tried to work it so every other stay had a machine. So we were very excited to do laundry at the farm.

Five minutes before I went to put our load in, the maid started using the washing machine. I asked her if, when her first load was finished, I could do ours before she put her next basket in. I think she believed I wanted her to do my load for me, and she totally would have with a smile and nod, but I just wanted her to show me how to use the contraption. Despite not speaking a word of the others' language, she then adopted Babs. For the rest of the afternoon they, as the Thai seem to love to do, swept fallen leaves off patios together.

Poomchai bought rice porridge (congee) for us for breakfast the next day. It came with a soft boiled egg (still in the shell) that I didn't know what to do with, so we just ate the porridge with grated ginger and spring onion.

At the end of our three night stay in Tak, we drove back to return the car in Lampang. Apparently we had driven outside of the agreement area and "damages" would be our "responsibility."

The nice car rental lady gave us a ride directly to the bus station, and we headed back up to Chiang Mai for a 1-night stopover before our next adventure, 5 hours north to the border town of Mae Sai.

January 20, 2020

Lampang, Thailand

Lampang is a 1-hour bus ride southeast of Chiang Mai. We went to Chiang Mai bus terminal 3 to speak to someone to buy our ticket, because we didn't trust ourselves to buy via the 'GreenBus Thailand' app, but we probably could have.

Smaller towns are a favorite of ours, and while we did run across two or three other groups of westerners, it was certainly far less than Chiang Mai.

We stayed at Kanecha's Home guesthouses, which was absolutely lovely and I feel comfortable highly recommending. We realized when we arrived that Grab was not available there and songtaeows to the attractions we wanted to see would cost us 2000THB. Renting a car was cheaper.

Grab, the Uber-esque ride service is not available in Lampang.

We had only 3 nights in Lampang, and 2 of the days were spent on day trips out of the city, so we had limited time to explore the city. But what we saw of it was lovely. Horse-drawn carriages pull Thai tourists around the city. We got curious stares from Thai people who I'm guessing probably don't see American kids very often. Babs did her tricks, saying chun chu Annabelle and khop khun kha to make them laugh and pinch her arms.

Our first night in Lampang, feeling a bit exhausted by rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we stopped in to Mr. Lasagna Lampang, which promised authentic Italian food (perhaps even cheese?!!?). My salmon salad was nothing special, but Mr. Go's spinach and mozzarella bake was refreshing in a way that made me question how dependent we Midwesterners are on cheese products. A European man came out from the back and sat at the bar drinking a beer, so Mr. Go stood up to say arroy mak. Turns out Simone, the Italian chef, also speaks passable English and we worked through a hilarious and delightful conversation in which we almost made plans to go with him out to his pig farm.

We'd seen a little girl popping in and out, and Simone said it was his daughter, Gisela, also 5, and told Annabelle to go on upstairs and play. So she did. We then chatted with Simone for another hour, during which time we lamented our tragic cheese deprivation and Simone brought us a plate of INCREDIBLE truffle cheese and HOMEMADE gorgonzola. I don't even like gorgonzola, but that cheese was incredible. He set a bottle of Limoncella on our table and we all drank.

When I retrieved Babs from upstairs, Gisela's Thai grandma was watching them in the play room and we chuckled together at the girls, who had been playing with makeup. Gisela's eyelids and lips tastefully colored, while Babs had painted her face to look.. .. like a cat.. .. ..

The next day we had a car delivered to Kanecha's Home (from this very nice company) and took off for Wat Chaloem Prakiat, a temple high in the mountains. The drive was delightful, there was hardly any traffic. We stopped off for coffee and to make sure we were going to the right place. The barista gave us a 2020 calendar, then another one and drew us a map to point us in the right direction.

You park at the base (here), get some meat on a stick if you're feeling peckish, then buy tickets. The price of the songteow up and back is included. Online research suggested kids cost 100baht, but the ticket booth people told me "baby free."

Prices seem to be subject to the feeling of the day, whether the tourist in question is dressed appropriately, and how cute the child is. Lucky for us, we take great pains to be culturally respectful and our child is incredibly cute.

We saw only 2 groups of English speaking tourists, the rest were Thai tourists. The climb up was slow and easy, they have metal stairs attached to the mountainside the whole way. We were there in the afternoon, the hottest time of day. I highly recommend going as early as you can in the morning, to avoid both the heat and the people.

There were plenty of people, but after the crowd at Doi Suthep, this crowd felt like nothing. The views from the temple were spectacular. You can ring the bells and gongs as much as you like. I didn't see any monks, but I'm sure they were there. Remember to take your shoes off before approaching a Buddha shrine. Walk slowly and speak quietly.

At the parking area, if you walk up the paved road behind the food stalls and ticket booth, you'll find a monastery with several temples that no one bothers to visit, because they're focused on the big temple. It was quiet and beautiful. [See above picture.]

We returned to Mr. Lasagna that night, hoping to pay back some of Simone's generosity with the cheese. We'd already had dinner at Aroy One Baht (popular with Thai people, very busy, cheap, small plates and pretty good too), but wanted to stop for a cheese plate for dessert (and see if our hints at wanting tiramisu were received).

Tragically, there was no tiramisu and Simone was busy cooking, but the waitress informed Gisela that Babs was in the building and she came downstairs to fetch her. We ate our dessert cheese gratefully. When I fetched my daughter again, her face was entirely smeared with makeup. We had a talk about it.

The next day we took ourselves 40 minutes northwest to the Elephant Sanctuary. For under 200 baht per person, we caught the morning elephant bathing and the optional elephant show. First, you take the trolley to the bathing site. The elephants come up with their mahouts on their backs and you can buy baskets of food to feed them, or just get up close and pet them. They're on the other side of a wooden railing, reaching their trunks out to you hoping for food. Babs was leery of getting too close, but she fed them gingerly and I got to pet their scruffy trunks.

A lady with a karoke speaker told us in Thai-glish about the elephants and we watched the mahouts balance on their backs as the big beasts dipped in the river, sucked water into their trunks and sprayed themselves. We sat at the river's edge and as the elephants paraded out of the river, some mahouts instructed their elephants to spray water at us, to everyone's delight.

The elephant show demonstrated how elephants were used for logging before the practice was banned in 1989 and how the Conservation Center now provides sanctuary for elephants displaced by humans. Elephants picked up objects dropped by their mahouts, placed hats on their mahouts' heads and even painted a couple different pictures, which you could then of course purchase.

We encountered the same group of American tourists at the center as we did at the temple the day before. The ladies (Texans and a Minnesotan) were on a guided tour and were very happy to see us again.

Back in Lampang, we wandered long enough to find the market. My favorite market of the whole trip, so far. It was blocked off so vehicles couldn't enter, not even motorbikes, and there were no elephant pants for sale. There were some new clothing vendors, but many second hand, too, plus hand-carved wood, hand-hammered metals and of course, a million food stalls selling fresh veggies, meats on sticks (do I even have to say it anymore?), quail-egg wontons, soups and fried foods of all kinds. We tried bacon-wrapped tentacle-looking-mushrooms (we'll pass on those next time) and some mini-pancakes.
We got double-takes, people elbowed each other and nodded in our direction.

One afternoon, we went down to the river near a dam someone told us might be good for fishing. A stall was set up along the road with low tables on sitting-mats, so we stopped to eat. The chef immediately recruited the table next to us, one of whom spoke English, to help translate, a fact which we sort of resented-- we can use google translate and pronounce pad gaprao just fine thank you.

We pointed at some Thai words on the menu, hoping for the best, and Mr. Go was instructed to choose some things on sticks for some reason? The pork salad I ordered was actually just pork rinds drizzled with a sweet soy sauce dressing. Not what I was looking for, but delicious nonetheless. The table next to us discreetly took a selfie to get us in the background and posted it on Twitter. She also gave Babs a hot dog on a stick. The kindness we encountered in Thailand has been incredible. Though people are kind everywhere, if you're just open to it.

There were plenty of fishermen with their harpoon crossbows for Mr. Go to harass while Babs and I went to find some ice cream.

We extended our car rental so we could drive further south to Tak, where I discovered a farmstay on Airbnb that looked cute, and so we could continue our quest to get rural and immersed in Thailand.

January 18, 2020

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is a perfectly nice place and we enjoyed our time there. But cities aren't our favorite, and being catered to a level inside our comfort zone isn't our idea of 'experiencing local culture'. Menus written in English and shabby chic, whitewashed pallet decor is cute and everything, but I flew halfway around the world to see Thailand, give me bamboo and banana leaves and coconut shells.

After leaving our extremely luxurious digs in San Sai, just northeast of Chiang Mai city, we realized just how extremely luxurious we had it. We stayed at the Wangburapa Grand hotel, right on the mote road by Therapae Gate. A short walk takes you around the southeast quadrant of the city and all manner of restaurants, shops, walking streets and markets.

Wending our way through the little alleys inside the city, Mr. Go found a meticulous barber (we would later realize meticulous is part of the Thai way) and I found a storage-unit seamstress to make me a dress. (More on that later.)

We quickly came to realize that the shops selling elephant pants and brightly patterned dresses in one-size-fits-all style were all carrying the exact same things, imported from China for the European tourists who thought that was what an experience in Thailand meant: coming home with beaded bracelets and balloon pants. You know who I didn't see wearing elephant pants? Thai people.

I don't mean to run down on tourists, because I know that, while we strive to be respectful and blend in, we are also tourists. But as we made our way to some of the temples, we ran across Canadian tourists who, despite having been in Thailand for two weeks, were just learning how to say hello and thank you in Thai. We certainly didn't study Thai as much as we should have, or nearly as much as we practiced Spanish before our Spain adventure, but polite greetings were the first thing we learned, within our first two days in the country. The simple courtesy of saying arroy mak (very delicious) to our chefs has earned us respect (and one time, a plate of jackfruit, my new favorite food).

Anyway, in Chiang Mai, there are temples every 200 meters, all beautifully gilded in gold and carved with curving serpents. (And crawling with tourists.) Being properly dressed for Thai culture, but especially for visiting temples, means ladies cover their knees and shoulders, meaning I was sweltering uncomfortably for many days. But it's a small price to pay and as I mentioned, we do our best to blend in. We spotted tourists wearing shorts so short their butts were hanging out the bottom, not even trying.

We found the Buak Hard park on the southwest corner of the city, and an even quieter park just on the other side of the mote from it, and let Babs play there for a while before wandering around.

Trying to find restaurants on Google Maps only ended in frustration most of the time. Places that have a presence on Google often cater to Westerners, and reviews can be deceiving. Westerners are the ones who tend to write reviews, and "no English speaking staff" is often a reason to knock off stars for them, while for us it would be an indication of authenticity.

The big, once a week walking streets proved far too crowded for our tastes. (Walking Streets are essentially closed-off streets with pop-up vendor stalls selling food, clothes and other random souvenirs.) The Wua Lai Walking street was impossible to navigate. Being herded like cattle through stalls is not conducive to stopping to peruse the odd table here and there with unique wares worth perusing. Same for the Tha Pae walking street, though the earlier you go the better it is (though some stalls may not yet be open). It gets more crowded later on.

Chiang Mai seems to be a backpacker's party town. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar area hosted mostly seedy-looking bars. We didn't spend much time there. In general, anything right on the mote road seems to be more expensive and more apt to cater to Westerners.

One of the most fun dinners we had was after we bailed on the walking street and wandered around to find dinner. It was going to rain, so when we saw a hunchbacked old lady whipping things around in a wok with three tables set up behind her, we ducked in. No English on the menu. Perfect.

We pointed at some pictures on the wall and the lady's husband got us some beers (Singha, the best Thai beer). He apologized for the slowness of the service, but we were like that's cool, don't rush the lady, she's old. Babs ordered herself a gai pad thai (rice noodles with chicken, egg and bean sprouts), while I had pad see-ew (fat rice noodles with veggies) and Mr. Go ordered the old standard pad gaprao (basil and pork with a side of rice).

The rain came down in buckets and the "restaurant" such as it was filled up to standing room only, with people hanging out waiting for the old lady to box up their takeaway. A sliding glass door partitioned the eating area from the living area of their home. The food was amazing and cost us a whole 1.50 USD per dish.

On every Chiang Mai block is an office with signs advertising elephant experiences, which cost upwards of 1,000THB/person. After our discussion with our pet-sit people, we opted to wait on the elephant experience for a different area.

New Year's in Chiang Mai, we stayed out until midnight. Front-desk staff said the 'fireworks' would start at 7pm. We were confused, but when we started seeing specks of orange light floating up into the sky, we realized 'fireworks' meant Chinese lanterns. People bought them and set them off, but companies were also setting them off, so a steady stream of lights bobbed against the stars all evening.

We wandered down into a Thai NYE festival, with the obligatory food stalls, but also a stage where young girls performed traditional Thai dance, a Thai band sang traditional songs, then a jazz band performed some covers of Strumbellas and The Beatles before going into original material. We sat and enjoyed for a while, then wandered through the market back to the mote, where at midnight, some small fireworks were lit off from several places.

January 1, 2020, we would take a bus south to Lampang, begin escaping the tourists for more rural areas and some of our best adventures to date.

January 15, 2020

Pet Sitting in Thailand

We took an early flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand and by pure luck found the airport bus that took us (for 30 baht/adult, kids under 6 free) to the Nimman neighborhood, closeish to our Airbnb villa. I showed the driver my google maps, with much pointing, nodding and smiling. When we arrived at the closest stop, he motioned, smiling, that we were to disembark. It was a good start and a sign of the friendliness to come.

Mr. Go wanted to move to Thailand immediately when we realized how many places require you to remove your shoes before you enter. What a good idea! It should be universal! Shoes are disgusting!

We walked down to the Old City, heading toward a park and thought a TukTuk drive around the mote would be cool.

Hot Take: tuktuks on busy roads aren't cool. Getting blasted in the face by songthaew exhaust made me realize why so many people wear those surgical masks. Turns out, the air quality in Chiang Mai is not great.

We were tired, so we ate at a well-rated Mexican restaurant (it was really good). I went out for coffee the next morning, as packets of sugary cappuccino mix and dried tea without bags (how do?) were all that was offered by our villa.

House/Pet Sitting

Our house sit (again through TrustedHouseSitters.com, more on that in this post) began the next morning. The lovely American couple offered to make us breakfast, so we Grabbed out there. They really were the loveliest people, and they and their two sons made us feel welcome. Their two dogs were the sweetest and their house was amazing. It felt like a luxury palace after the cramped, sketchy digs of the last week.

TIP: Our people told me about this Chiang Mai House/ Pet Sitting Facebook group, a private group where you can find other house sits as well.

Mark took us for a tour around the neighborhood, pointing out good restaurants, where the markets were on which days (hard to keep straight at first-- every day here, only sunday here, only tuesday here).

The next 9 days were infinitely relaxing, and a great place for Babs to get sick, which she did. A high temp and a cough, though that didn't slow us down much.

Our hosts told us we would get odd looks for walking around the neighborhood, and we did. Everyone takes motorbikes or drives. The odd pedal bike here and there. But despite feeling a little fish-out-of-water, everyone we met was super friendly.

We got Thai massages from a Muay Thai boxer, a woman named Pon (Pawn) who was friendly and extremely strong. She graciously gave me the option of soft, medium or hard. I chose medium and shudder to think what the hard option would have felt like. "I hurt you, you tell me," she kindly offered and I nearly took her up on that. I was sore for days. Mr. Go said he felt like he'd just had a big cup of coffee afterward, jittery from increased blood flow.

Chiang Mai Zoo

The Chiang Mai Zoo was pretty neat. You could get closer to the animals than in American zoos, and their enclosures did NOT seem as secure. Going by the tiger, pacing in his enclosure, all that separated him and us is what amounts to a ditch that is definitely NOT wide enough to stop him if he really wanted to get to us. His eyes followed us as we passed. We walked a little faster.

We paid for a panda ticket, too. The panda enclosure is just one building with two separate spots for pandas. We got to see a panda munching on some bamboo. We'd never seen one before so it was something new, but I couldn't help but think, "Is that it? That's what we paid for?"

After the zoo, we walked the 500m to Huay Kaew waterfall. It was pretty. Probably a nice place to sit in the shade and enjoy the sounds of nature, but we didn't stay too long.

We walked down a dirt alley to find the restaurant I'd flagged on Maps which was more expensive than I thought. Without knowing any better, we ordered two papaya salads. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was the spiciest thing I've ever had in my life. It was painful. Neither of us could eat much of it. Luckily Babs was smart and ordered gai pad thai and we split that.

Pro Tip: Order dishes mai pet (not spicy) pet ni noy (little bit spicy) or request only neung phrik (one chili).

Wat Phra Lat & The Monk's Trail

The Monk's Trail was a highlight. A 3km or so hike through a jungle trail to a secluded temple with beautiful rolling hill views. Go as early as you can. By 10am it was beginning to get crowded. Apparently there are some waterfall offshoots, but we must have missed the trails.

Make sure to tell your driver you want to go to the Monk's Trail and start at the bottom of the hill. If you say Wat Phra Lat they'll take you to the parking lot in front of the temple, as we saw one poor backpacker arguing ineffectively to his driver as we left.

Doi Suthep

Since we were on that side of the city, we decided to grab our very first songtaew (Thai taxi-- a red truck with benches in the open back) up to Doi Suthep, a main temple attraction.

The drive up nearly made me hurl, wending around mountain switchbacks far too fast with no seatbelt as the tropical air heated up to midday. Trying to look out the front windshield instead of the back or sides helped a bit. At the top, Mr. Go bought me some strawberries and we started the climb up the steps.

Foreigners have to pay 30 baht/adult for admittance to the temple, then we had to shuffle around all the other tourists snapping pictures. It was beautiful, all ornate gold sculptures and I appreciated its significance, but I just kept thinking about how we were contributing to the degradation of its secluded charm by touring it. How could anyone meditate their way to nirvana with tourists who can't read the "don't push bells" sign ringing the ancient chimes?

We got crammed into a songtaew with more and more and more people for the ride down (including a nice couple from Toronto & Sault Ste. Marie, MI). Mr. Go made fun of me to the other riders re: my motion sickness, then we hopped off at the zoo at the bottom of the hill to hit up the restaurant we saw the day before and regretted not eating at. We got laughed at for trying to speak Thai, but in a nice way.

Thai Farm Cooking School

I took a solo Grab (thrilling) to the nearby Ruamchok market (an excellent open-air supermarket with veggies, fruits & fried foods) and met the Thai Farm Cooking School people, who'd already collected the other 9 participants (All american and 2 british) from their hotels. We drove about 15km north to a farm where we learned about the ingredients and made 6 dishes. The day cost me 1500 THB, or about 50 USD.

There are plenty of Cooking School experiences in Chiang Mai, and I can't attest to them, but I loved my experience. I would recommend doing the full rather than half day.

I'm certain I'll never be able to recreate the dishes successfully, without access to the incredible fresh sweet coconut milk, Thai basil and green chilis. But I'll surely try. I brought a small bag of leftovers home for the fam. Babs is still not doing great with the amount of heat in even the most mai pet of dishes, but here's hoping her tolerance will improve. A girl can't live on rice alone.

Huay Tong Tao Reservoir

It costs foreigners 50 baht each to enter (6 & under free). We strolled around the reservoir, stopping to chill on a towel and let Mr. Go fish for an hour. There's a weird park with hay sculptures of gorillas that was fun, if overrun with tourists. We had lunch on a bamboo raft just off the shore and appreciated the misty rolling hills and cool breeze, and also the fact that we have such easy access to that kind of lake experience at home in Michigan.

In the afternoon, it starts to get hot and crowded and loses a bit of its charm.

After 9 days, our pet sit came to an end. We left the enormous, spotless house with the playroom of Legos and went on to adventure in Chiang Mai city.