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Category Archives: Thailand

Starting and ending my Asian adventure in Bangkok was ideal in that it showed me how the last couple months changed my outlook. When I arrived, I thought the city was big, loud, dirty, and full of aggressive locals trying to squeeze every penny they can from foreigners. Twelve weeks later, I still think all of the above to be true, but I’m cool with it.
Whenever I thought of what it means to be a developing nation, I thought in terms of making gains in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. Of course these things are present, but there is also the human factor. A developing nation, at least in southeast Asia, is a nation, a people, and a culture experiencing a radical transition. The implementation, or imposition, of foreign technologies, innovations, practices, and values creates an impact zone. The current working age generation has lived through war, genocide, corruption, and about everything else you can imagine. They weren’t fortunate enough to have the education (that only some) of the children and young people now have. This is truly a lost generation in a time of drastic cultural transformation. Their options are to do manual labor, work in a factory for slave wages, or try to capitalize on the influx of foreigners and their cash. Working professionals in Cambodia make less than $1,000 a year. In Vietnam, if you have a 4 year degree and a few years of experience you are lucky to make $10,000 a year. Granted, the cost of living is proportionate to their income, but when you have tourist coming from places like the US where the median annual income is over $50,000, something has to give.
My advice to keep your cool (and your sanity) when visiting these places is the following. Know that you’re getting ripped off. There is no way around it, most of the time you will be paying much more than locals. It is still good to comparison shop, do research online, talk with other travelers, to make sure you aren’t getting it too bad, but you will pay more. Also, know that the difference between what you and locals pay isn’t very much in western terms. If it is something like a bus/train ticket or food, you will be paying an extra couple dollars. This is cheaper than a coffee at starbucks and means a whole lot more to someone living on a few dollars a day than it does to you or I. My last little pearl of wisdom is that it’s not their fault. For the most part, even in the touristy areas, these are not bad people; they are victims of circumstance. They did not ask to be born into a war zone and abject poverty. They did not have the things that we take for granted, most importantly an education. I don’t think their childhood ambition was to wait around all day in hopes of giving tourists a tuk tuk ride or forcing their daughters into prostitution.
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are all amazing places. The farther you get from the impact zone, the more authentic that place becomes. The tide of development/westernization/corporate colonialism/whatever you want to call it is spreading and will eventually cover the entire region. Between the 4 countries, and within each, you can see the effects of outside influence. Whether you are in a major city like Saigon, Phnom Penh, or Bangkok, or a sleepy little place like Kong Lo, Mae Sarang, or Don Khon, people are still people and have a lot to offer. For me, the best way to observe foreign influence and the cultural/societal impact has been in the villages. Electricity, satellite dishes, cell phones, motorbikes, and tourists change places fast and the differences are astounding. Relatively untouched villagers, like the ones I came across in some treks, look confused as to why you would want to be there and are curious/shy/friendly. People in villagers with heavy tourist traffic, like in Sapa, will sprint to you, attach themselves to you, and try to sell you handicrafts the entire time you’re there.
As inevitable as the change is, it is also irreversible. The shift from subsistence agriculture to a commercial economy, especially when that economy is tourist-centric, is drastic. As visitors, the most we can do is help preserve the culture as best we can. You can vote with your wallet while traveling. I choose treks that are owned and operated by locals whenever possible. If that is not an option, I go through agencies that compensate guides and the villages they visit fairly. If animals are involved, usually elephants, I make sure they are treated humanely and not being abused. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s in the states and wouldn’t dream of patronizing a foreign chain while abroad either. You get better food at a better price and the money goes to a much better cause when you eat local.
There are many things I could have done differently, added, or done without over the course of the trip, but I am very happy with my time spent in southeast Asia. I had some amazing experiences and met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travelers. The highlights are too many to mention and the regrets to few. The monetary cost was not that much (unless you’re Cambodian), and the experience I gained is priceless. If you can do a similar trip, I can’t recommend going for it enough. If you think you can’t to a similar trip, think again because anything is possible!

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Mae Hong Son city is the capital of the province with the same name. It is located in the far northwest of Thailand, not far from the Burmese border. The city is a very nice size, more than just one main strip, but still walkable. There is a small night market each day near the center of town. One of the vendors, Amnot, freehands the graphics on all of the t-shirts he sells and even dyes the fabric himself. The food was good, but was not among the best I had on the trip. It was nice to try Burmese cuisine. I stayed at Prince’s Guesthouse because it was 200 baht (just under $7) per night and had in room bathroom and wifi. The British ex-pat owner had zero personality and no concern for customer service, but I didn’t find any better options.
MHS is a great staging point for day trips and treks. On my first afternoon, I came across Mr. Chart. He is a trekking guide and quite a character. Him and his trek sounded like what I was looking for, but unfortunately, no one else was interested in doing a trek while I was there and it is price prohibitive to go solo. Mr. Chart did let me know where to eat and where to go on my own for day trips. Having a motorbike was essential to taking full advantage of what MHS had to offer.
I took a cruise up to the Chinese village of Mae Aw, located on the Burmese border. Mae Aw has an interesting history. It was established as a safe haven for anti-communist Chinese refugees at the time of the Chinese revolution. They specialize in growing tea and make the best Chinese (Yunnanese to be exact) food I’ve ever had. I had a dish called moo pan pee that consisted of pork over some seriously spicy greens that ranks among the best pork I’ve ever had. There is also a border crossing in Mae Aw, but it is not your typical one. There are no police, military, or officials. In fact, there are no people working the border at all. I strolled right into Burma without my passport or a visa. There is a school and a village right on the border and I walked around for a bit. When I returned to Thailand for lunch, I recognized some people that I had seen in Burma 30 minutes earlier. Outside of the Burmese people, I was the only other foreigner in Mae Aw and it made me very happy.
On the way to the village, I stopped at the Foa Sua waterfall. It was very big and nice, and I didn’t see another person there as well. After Mae Aw, I stopped at a palace, 2 towns, and a long neck Karen village on the way back to MHS. The only other visitors I saw were at the Karen village. The palace wasn’t very palatial. The buildings were very modern and not imposing at all, but the grounds were beautiful and very well maintained. The towns I visited were surrounded in pine forest and featured large lakes and traditional houses. I had debated whether or not to visit the long necks. They are being exploited by the Thai government and it’s not right. They were relocated to their current villages, where the Thais charge 250 baht ($8+), which is a lot for Thailand, to visit. Only a handful of older women had neck rings on, all of the men had western clothing, there were cell phones, motorbikes, and satellite dishes. The people didn’t seem happy either, there were a lot of -pardon the pun- long faces. I almost didn’t go on moral grounds, but I cracked because I had to see the long necks. I also took a day trip south to Nam Tok Mae Surin National Park. There was a nice, and not easy, trail that took a few hours and was very scenic. Towards the end of the loop, there are a couple nice sized waterfalls. I saw 2 other people during the four hours I was at the park.
The city of MHS was very nice overall and the surroundings make it an outstanding travel destination. There is enough tourist infrastructure where you can have wifi and other modern conveniences, but the city still has a soul.

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Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, is Bangkok‘s kid brother in the north; just as seedy, but not quite as overbearing. Like Bangkok, I honestly didn’t care much for Chiang Mai. The big cities I’ve visited this trip have taken the worst things from the west and used them to exploit local people. The tourist area is your stereotypical Thailand: old western guys with hot young Thai girls, prostitutes (many of whom were not born women), shady massage parlors, girly bars, grossly overpriced food, etc. Outside of the rather large whore-zone, there is a decent sized night market, a ton of great local eating establishments, and some of the best cooking classes in Thailand.
Because the cooking classes have such a great rep, I decided to take one while I was in town. I went to Siem Rice Cookery School and had a very nice time. Along with 8 other people, I did the all-day class and made 7 dishes (curry paste counted as a dish). In typical cooking class fashion, we started with a trip to the market where the driver explained Thai ingredients that no one other than he and I were familiar with. The class itself lasted 5 hours and was taught by a very funny, rather rotund woman named Nan. She was awesome and the class did not have the stuffy/formal (professional) feeling that you may find elsewhere. It seemed like we were hanging out with a family (her husband is the driver/assistant), joking around, cooking, eating, and having a good time. You are allowed to choose from several options for each course and everyone in the class doesn’t have to make the same thing. I went classic with tom yam soup, pad thai, spring rolls, holy basil chicken, massaman curry, and young coconut with sticky rice. For the saute course, where I made the holy basil chicken, we got to make a huge flame in the wok, which was very exciting. The class was great and worth the money, but I had a better overall experience with the amazing Miss Vy in Hoi An.
Chiang Mai was also the start and end point for my ten day motorbike journey of the Mae Hong Son Loop and serves as a starting point for some great trekking. Since I had the best possible trek with Mr. Chart, and was out of time, I didn’t do a trek out of Chiang Mai. I’ve long grown tired of the temple/palace thing and did not visit any while I was in town, but they are there if you desire.
I hadn’t researched a guesthouse and it took a while to find a suitable place, but I ended up finding one of the best guesthouses I came across. I did not want to stay in, or in the immediate vicinity of, the tourist area. La Maison Verde is a 5 minute walk to the start of the madness that is far enough away to have some peace and quiet. As the name suggests, the owner is French. Thierry and his amazing Thai girlfriend Jang run the place and are topnotch hosts. My experience has shown that “guesthouse” is often little more than a euphemism for “cheap hotel.” La Maison Verde is one of the few places that I genuinely felt at home in. Jang is one of the sweetest people I have ever met and Thierry is honest, polite, and truly cares about his guests. I found them by chance, walking down a side street on the night I arrived and they did not officially open for business until a week after I arrived. They have big, clean rooms, free wifi, and shared bathrooms. There are only 3 rooms in the guesthouse so the shared bathroom thing is not an issue. Jang is finishing up her menu and will be opening the kitchen very soon. If you are going to Chiang Mai, I highly recommend staying with these great people at a true guesthouse.
If you are going to northern Thailand, that means you will be going to Chiang Mai. I think it is a good start and end point to a relatively untapped part of an amazing country. I strongly suggest renting a bike from Tony’s Big Bikes and hitting up the Mae Hong Son Loop. It’s not a bad place to spend a couple days to check out the night market, take a cooking class, or see what a non-Bangkok big Thai city is like.

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I heard mixed reviews about Pai. Many people said I would love it and others said it is similar to Vang Viang or Sihanoukville, my two least favorite places in se Asia. There are certainly Vang Vieng-ish elements to Pai, but I enjoyed my time there. Pai is a city that, in the last decade, has transformed into a backpacker/new age/hippie haven. I do not consider Pai to be very Thai at all, but it certainly has redeeming qualities.
I spent my first night in Pai at the Villa de Pai Guesthouse. For just under $7, I had a private bungalow with a hammock and wifi. Life was good, until the rain came… There was a pretty substantial flood and the Villa de Pai was forced to evacuate and close. I found a suitable replacement about 1km outside of the center called Farmer Home Guesthouse. It also offered private bungalows with hammocks and wifi. I only had one meal at FH and it was a really good Thai style fried catfish.
There is a waterfall about 5km from town and I went to see it on my first afternoon in town. On the way to the waterfall I was flagged down by 5 different local families trying to sell me drugs. The waterfall itself wasn’t great and was crawling with tourists. There is a Yunnanese village similar to Mae Aw on the way back from the waterfall and I stopped for some moo pan pee. It was good and very spicy, but nowhere near the level of goodness as the moo pan pee I had in Mae Aw. As I had my dinner, I got to watch throngs of tourists snapping photos around the village. Welcome to Pai….
It dawned on me that I was in a different place than the rest of the Mae Hong Son Loop and had to take it for what it was. I went to the new ageist place I’ve ever seen, The Art of Chai, daily for the rest of my time in Pai. It is a cool little place downtown that specializes in fresh chai. The tea was great, I met some really cool people there and the owner, a Thai dude named Otto, was very cool as well.
There is a tex-mex place called The Mexican Grill that is supposed to have the best Mexican in Thailand. Rather than pay 3x the price for tourist oriented Thai food, I gave it a shot. The food was decent, which equates to Amazing considering the fact that I was having enchiladas in northwestern Thailand. It was also the most expensive meal of the trip. A 3 way combination plate was just under $8 and a margarita was $5. The Texan owner was another story… Despite never serving in the armed forces, he spent a great deal talking about war, the military, and the necessity of using nuclear weapons. His portrayal of women, especially in Thai women, led me to believe he is not a feminist. He also dropped the n-bomb… 3 times. Nothing like a little taste of Americana for you.
Outside of the ignorant, racist, misogynist, expat scumbag, the people were very friendly and welcoming. There is no doubt that Pai is a tourist town, but the people don’t try to really stick it to you as they do in so many other similar places. I’ve only gone for a few nights out this trip and had one in Pai. There is live reggae and chilled out bars that stay open until after the sun comes up. The highlight of my time in Pai was a 2 day/1 night trek I did with Mr. Chart. The trek was so amazing that it warranted it’s own blog post.
I enjoyed my time in Pai and think it’s definitely worth a stop. I met quite a few people that went for days and have been there for months or years. It reminded me of 4,000 Islands, Laos in that respect. It’s a laid back place that is tourist oriented, but not overdone. It’s important to take Pai for what it is: a place to relax, chill out, and take a break for a while.

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I wanted to do the final trek for my time in se Asia on the Mae Hong Son Loop and did my usual research online. I found Mr. Chart in Pai and he looked perfect. He offers the most rustic, primitive trekking experience I have come across and is an incredible guy. It’s hard to say that one trek was my favorite, because they all have been incredible, BUT if I had to choose one it would be my trek in Pai with Mr. Chart.
I had planned on doing a 3 day/2 night trek with him, but torrential rain made that impossible. He laughed at me when I showed up in his office in the pouring rain asking if we could still go out the next morning. In order to do a trek, you typically need a minimum of 4 people and the smaller the group you have, the more money you have to pay. No one else wanted to go on a trek and Mr. Chart did the unthinkable, he took me out alone on a private trek for the normal price ($50/day, pricy but well worth it).
Mr. Chart is no ordinary guide and this was no ordinary trek. All of his treks go to places that he uses exclusively. There are no other foreigners, no wide walking paths, and the people in the villages he goes to don’t try to sell you stuff. Because it was only a 2 day trek, we spent the night in the jungle and didn’t visit any villages. We crossed and walked up dozens of streams and went through dense jungle.. It was incredible. He brought hooks on string and we fashioned fishing rods out of bamboo and went fishing in the river, in heavy rain, as we made our way to camp. Because it was just the two of us, we used a bamboo structure covered in banana leaves that he had constructed with his last trek 5 days earlier. We gathered wood and made a fire in the rain. Food was cooked in bamboo and we ate out of bamboo. We even ate bamboo shoots. It was so cool eating bamboo that was cooked in bamboo out of bamboo plates in a bamboo building. I later found out that Mr. Chart’s youngest son is named bamboo. The food was really good. We had rice with every meal. He wrapped the rice in banana leaf pouches and cooked it inside of water filled bamboo. We also had grilled beef with every meal. We had a jungle curry that was really spicy and really good, fish stew made from the fish we caught, bamboo shoots, and a spicy chili sauce. Mr. Chart is also a skilled hunter and will take you hunting for dinner upon request. Before each meal, he left a food offering to the jungle spirits.
The jungle was very jungly and was teaming with wildlife. We saw a group of monkeys playing in the trees near camp, deer tracks, a pig sleeping area and poo, and bamboo that was munched on by monkeys. On the second day we followed the deer tracks and Mr. Chart used grass to make deer calls. On the same day, we stopped by the waterfall. There is a big waterfall a few hours hike from town and we saw several groups of tourists trying to find it when we were on the way back. The waterfall was impressive, but the “short cut” we took to get there was the best part of the trek. In addition to the normal river action, we went through extremely dense jungle. Before we headed out, he said, “we’re not babies and we’re not old” and “you can go fast like me” then left me with the warning “you should have worn pants and long sleeves.” We went at a very nice pace and he was able to navigate us around some crazy terrain and follow animal tracks at the same time. This time, there was no trail. We were so far off of the beaten path that there was no path at all! Mr. Chart pointed out numerous plants and told me their medicinal value or other practical applications. I was totally blown away by his knowledge, ability, physical conditioning, and him as a person. The trek was a perfect finale to my adventures in se Asia.
The Mr. Chart experience did not end when we got back to town. After showering and changing, I went back to Mr. Chart’s home/office for dinner. I helped him prepare a beef curry. We also had bamboo shoots with pork and oyster sauce and tripe soup. We washed the really good food down with copious amounts of homemade whiskey. While we were eating, several people came buy to eat and drink with us. Mr. Chart seems to know everyone in town and his home is a meeting place. He is an extraordinary human being that offers a once in a lifetime trekking opportunity for adventure enthusiasts. If you are serious about trekking, go to Pai and look up Mr. Chart. He is the best in the business.

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The plan had been to spend my last 2 weeks in SE Asia traveling around Northern Thailand before heading back to BKK for my flight to ATH. I had no clue what those two weeks would entail, then I heard about the Mae Hong Son Loop. The loop begins (and ends) in Chiang Mai and goes through Mae Hong Son province for about 400 km. You can do the Loop by bus, minivan, or motorbike. It is regarded as one of the premier motorbike trails in the world and motorbike is the preferred mode of transportation. The road itself has a few thousand bends in it and goes up, down, and around mountains. I had never driven a motorbike and the MHS Loop seemed like a perfect place to give it a shot.
I rented a bike through Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai. The other popular option is Mr. Mechanic. I went there first and was not impressed by the service or the price. A 10 day rental with insurance on a Honda Wave-X 125 was $40 with Tony and I went with that. I had a very difficult time starting the bike and stalled several times leaving the parking lot as well as on the main road. I quickly got the hang of it and was on my way! I decided to do the loop clockwise and headed southwest.
About one hour outside of the city I saw a giant reclining Buddha on a mountain and went to investigate. It was part of a temple and there was no one there; no monks, no visitors, nobody. It was really neat having such a place to myself. A couple hours later, I left the main road to check out a waterfall. It was about 20km down a very, very rustic road. The waterfall was actually a series of waterfalls with a tourist infrastructure set up. There was an information kiosk, restrooms, a restaurant, and well-defined paths with railings, but like the temple, not another person there. It was really bizarre, but totally awesome. You drive through a small village on the way to the falls and as I was driving back there was some traffic coming in the opposite direction. I got a little distracted looking at the village people and didn’t notice the giant pothole in front of me. We all got a good laugh when I dropped the bike and fell. Luckily, I was going extremely slow and the worst injury was a tear to my beloved Vibram Five Fingers. The giant lump I got on my left hip isn’t painful at all.
Two hours later I made it to Mae Sareang, where I spent the night. There isn’t much going on in the sleepy little village and there were plenty of guesthouses to choose from. I got a room with a view of the river at Riverside Guesthouse and had dinner next door at Sawaddee Restaurant. The food was good and they had wifi that reached my room at Riverside.
The following day I made it to Mae Hong Son in about 5 hours. The drive was more curvy and scenic, but I didn’t do any excursions to check out waterfalls or temples. The Loop was off to a great start and, despite the little accident, I was comfortable on the bike.

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This trip officially kicked off in BKK. Bangkok would be the starting point and ending point for the se Asia leg of my vacation. The hostel I stayed at, NapPark, was very close to the tourist hub of the city, Khao San Road. It was the highest rated hostel on the hostel booking websites, but was still lacking. They turned off the ac in the rooms from 12-6 everyday and did not do anything to facilitate travelers getting together. There were no tours, pub crawls and no rooftop bar. I made friends with an American dude about my age named Craig that was staying in the same room. We were drinking buddies for my time in BKK and added a Canadian named Ryan that was also staying at NapPark a couple days later. I checked out Chinatown and had lots of delicious and cheap street food. I went to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which was HUGE, and spent 6 enjoyable hours. They sold clothes, housewares, art, pets, gadgets, food and all kinds of other stuff. I would walk around and browse, get some food, have a beer and people watch, then repeat. There was a cool bar in a prime spot to observe the sights of the market while listening to some really good electronic music. If you are an animal lover, I would avoid the pet section. The animals are not in treated well… Craig and I hit up Sukhumvit, which is one of the major red light districts. We sat at a bar facing the street and had beers while watching sleazy middle aged plus western dudes do what they come to Bangkok to do. I checked out the major tourist sites of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. They were really nice and lived up to the hype. Wat Pho is also home to the best massage school in Thailand and I got my first real Thai Massage at their affiliated studio. It was only $8 for an hour of pure bliss. I decided then and there that I would get a massage whenever possible while in se Asia. On my last night in the city, a police officer stopped me in the street in front of my hostel and gave me the most thorough pat down/search I have ever had; he was very thorough to say the least. I spent 4 days in Bangkok and that was more than enough for me. It had its high points, but was not my kind of place.

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