Our last week in Thailand started with a bang and ended in fireworks.
Whit kept me awake from 4:00 am on last Saturday morning, so I did what any normal person would do: planned a weekend getaway. I realized with great clarity that this was our last full weekend in Thailand. All of the day trips and nearby provinces we’d heard about had been put on the back burner, and this was our last opprotunity to fry them up.
I laid awake researching two different potential locations, Pai and Chiang Rai, before settling on Chiang Rai. Yes, Pai read more as a college party town vs. the old-world culture of Chiang Rai, but my decision came down to more than that. We’d been hearing about Chiang Rai since we arrived in Northern Thailand. Every now and then we’d catch someone talking about how much they loved it, and once someone went out of their way to tell us to eat the “baby pineapple” found there. We brushed these remarks aside, until I found myself wondering what we’d be missing out on if we didn’t check it out.
Isn’t that how all great adventures start? FOMO?
Spoiler alert: our trip to Chiang Rai was amazing. It may even be one of my favorite getaways in Southeast Asia!
We are pretty adventurous, and love to go off the beaten path when it comes to traveling to new places. When I researched things to do in Chiang Rai and sample 48 hour itineraries the exact same 5 things were repeated by everyone: the white temple, the blue temple, the black museum, the downtown clocktower night show, and the weekend night market. I knew there had to be more.
Instead of directing Ben to drive to one of the much-touted tourist locations I told him to head 40 minutes away from Chiang Rai to a spot with natural hot springs. We saw a national park with a small lake so hot the steam coming off of it looked like a cloud, then visited a hot springs pool down the street where people sell raw eggs to boil in special hot springs tubs. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve boiled an egg in natural hot springs. Mmmmmmmm.
On our way back toward Chiang Rai we took some impromptu detours to visit an elephant camp owned and run by a local village, ride ATVs and a dirt bike around a fun track ($6 for 3 rounds and no helmet. Can’t be Asia!), greet a giant white Buddha built in the middle of a river, and stop at a local pineapple plantation to beg for some of those “baby pineapples.”
Did you know there are different types of pineapple? You probably did, but we sure didn’t. Turns out there are quite a few varieties, and one freak of nature only grows in the Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand. It’s called the Phulae Pineapple, and it’s charcteristically tiny, sweet and juicy, and less fibrous. I usually can’t eat fruit (especially pineapple) because the acids hurt my teeth and gums, but these little beauties are so sweet that I could have two whole before feeling effects from a third. We may or may not have read some scientific journals about how this variety grows so we could consider planting our own farm. We won’t be. We didn’t understand a word of what we read.
We topped off our first day with dinner at the night bazaar where Whit ate his first (and last?) fried silkworm chrysalis, then to see the 7-minute light and music show of the downtown clock tower. Personally, I think that gilded monstrosity is hideous, but seeing a clocktower spew colors was kind of cool.
The next morning we got up (too) early to see the White Temple before it gets popular, then headed out to the Golden Triangle. Ahhhhhh the Golden Triangle. It’s a spot on the northeast border of thailand where Laos and Myanmar are both visible across the Mekong River. We gave Whit an impromptu geography lesson as we looked at three different countries, but the poor kid is so confused. You’d think it would be easier to understand geography when physically moving so many times, but Whit just ends up confused. Everything sort of jumbles together, and the idea that you can see three countries at once without getting on a plane was too much for him. The conversation soon turned to Robers, his robot minions, and their world. Can’t blame him. Those Robers are pretty interesting.
We also stopped for a visit to a Long Neck Karen refugee camp near the Golden Triangle. This is just the latest in a string of decisions we’ve had to make on ethical tourism. The Karen group is displaced from Myanmar, having been viciously attacked by a fearful government during the Burmese civil war in the 1980’s and 90’s. 50,000 Karens have relocated to Thailand, where they were given land but no official recognition or citizenship. The members are given very few opportunities to earn money as a result, so some splinter villages turn to tourism to pay their bills.
It was a hard decision to choose to support the “human zoo” or not, but ultimately I’m glad we went. Yes, they do put themselves on display to earn money from gawkers, but that means they are maintaining their cultural beliefs. They don’t feel the need to remove their trademark accessories in favor of greater acceptance, and they are encouraged to develop their artistic skills to sell hand carvings and loom work to tourists. I learned so much about the different Karen tribes we’ve seen in magazines for years, and I’m grateful that the women were so open and kind to us.
The rest of the week we prepared for the big move. I finalized plans for our trip to Myanmar, Whit said goodbye to his friends and teachers at school, and we visited restaurants and markets we’d heard so much about. It’s amazing how much of a tourist you actually become when leaving a place!
On our last day I even found myself feeling wistful about the move. It had taken me weeks to appreciate the culture and vibe of Chiang Mai, and in that amount of time we’d made it our home. We were comfortable in our apartment, had a regular routine of places to visit, friends we saw regularly, etc. It’s always hard for me to move on from a place after building (even a temporary) a life there.
Things got all-too-real the night before we left, though. I’d spent all day packing, organizing, and cleaning so the next morning would be as smooth as possible. Then, as soon as I was starting to settle in to sleep, Ben asked me about visas.
In my haste to choose our next adventure then plan our itinerary and activities I’d forgotten this minor (major) detail. We’ve been spoiled so far with easy visa requirements. Being U.S. passport holders gets us into a lot of countries without a visa, and then others provided Visa On Arrival when we get to the destination airport. I just sort of assumed Myanmar would be the same way.
We spent the next hour in a frantic hurry to apply for evisas through Myanmar’s government website. The process usually takes 3 days to approve online, but we paid for an expedited 24 hour procedure. Then proceeded to panic because we only had 12 hours to get on a plane.
Naturally I couldn’t sleep, and tried to calm myself by seeking out as many personal experiences with Myanmar evisas as I could. I was encouraged to read that lots of people received their visa approvals mere hours after submission, but was feeling anxious when I woke up this morning to no news.
We finished packing and took our bags to the car. No news.
We did a walk-through of the apartment and settled our bills with our landlady. No news.
We got in the car and started driving to the airport (because we had no other plans…). News.
We got our evisas acceptance emails on the way to the airport!!! We had just enough time to pull over and find an office store to print out our evisas before making our flight.
As much as I hate how tight that was, I also kind of love it. I, for one, take it as a sign when things work out at the last possible second. It says something to me. If it had worked out much sooner than our flight I would have been relieved and happy, but this way convinced me that we were being blessed and protected on our journey. We are meant to go to Myanmar.
Don’t mock me, I become very fragile and grateful when travel plans get dicey!
Anyway…. Now we find ourselves in Myanmar and loving it. Next week’s update will be packed!