Thursday, January 11, 2007

A little background info...

Our messy new home, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Sometime in the spring of 2003 my wife and I decided to sell our little farm in Sebastopol, California. We’d owned the place for six years or so and had poured our life energy into renovating the decrepit buildings and various attempts to grow food. I had never thought we’d leave it. I had fully expected to die there.
But after six years of hard work, an intensely frugal lifestyle and the never ending list of essential projects screaming for my time and energy, it seemed that I would indeed die there—much sooner than I’d imagined. I wanted out. So we pushed ourselves hard to get it spruced up and by the end of year we sold it.

We decided not to buy again right away. We’d made quite a lot of money selling the place and I wanted to kick back for a while. So we moved into town and rented a (too small) house. Krista is an artist and we’d decided I would tend to the kids while she spent the year painting away.
We fixed up her folks’ old detached garage for her studio. We put in skylights and windows and French doors and a wood stove. We painted the floor a pretty green color. It was pretty nice. She got a lot of work done there, had a few shows.

But we got restless. Our house felt too crowded. And the political situation in the US was making us very unhappy and scared—it seemed like we were quickly sliding towards fascism. Our daughter India, though only 15, was approaching draft age. Fear was in the air. Like many folks at that time we began considering emigration.

We had met some nice people who had explored New Zealand. They told us stories and showed us photos. After all those years tied down to the farm I now had the travel bug. I had it bad! We decided to go and check it out.
Also, we’d been hearing wonderful stories about Bali, and since it’s so close to NZ we considered a side trip to that magical island.

The best deal I could find on airfare was a “Circle The Pacific” ticket from Air Brokers. This ticket included a stop over in Thailand. Thailand was not on our agenda. All we knew about Thailand were some vague scary stories about Bangkok and sex shows.

But hey, we had a free stop over! I began thinking maybe, just maybe, we should stay for a few days and have a look around. It seemed absurd to skip it entirely. So I got some guidebooks and invited my friend Susan over to dinner. She’d been to Thailand twice for extended stays and she painted a pretty encouraging picture. Skip Bangkok, she said. Just go straight up to Chiang Mai. My plan for a few days gradually became our plan for a full two weeks.

Around this time Krista’s mom asked if we’d mind if she tagged along! She’d apparently been following our discussions with great interest. We were delighted. Joyce is such a gracious and fun person to have around. Also, she’s a more seasoned traveler (she’d once gone solo to Egypt and she and Krista had been to Paris the year before), having her along boosted our confidence.
And she has such a great relationship with our daughters, we were certain she’d be a tremendous help with them. She was—all through Thailand and for the first five days of Bali.

And so we got our tickets. We packed up most of our stuff and rented a storage locker. Our beds, dressers, computer, TV, houseplants and cats we moved into Krista’s art studio. We were there for about a week before our departure, mainly to give the cats time to adjust. The photo above is right after we moved in.
The money we saved on rent and utilities over these three months helped offset the cost of the tickets, at least a bit. It also added a level of craziness, stress and excitement to our preparations. It was a time I’ll never forget.

I’d read some travel article which said to have a bon voyage party. So we did. And then Krista’s brother drove us all to the airport and off we went.

Off We Go

thai blog (2), originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We left San Francisco just after midnight, the morning of March 8th. We had a layover in Taipei and then Bangkok, where we caught a flight up to Chiang Mai, arriving about 20 hours or so after we'd left.

My friend Susan had recommended Chiang Mai as a good starting point. The plan was to spend a few nights there, then head about and hour further north to Chiang Dao, where we would be in the countryside and treating Joyce to some gourmet food at the Chiang Dao Nest. Then back to Chiang Mai for a few more days, and travel by train down to the ruins at Old Sukhothai.
After a day or two there we planned a stop at the Ayuthaya ruins then on to Bangkok by river boat.

As it turned out we pretty much stuck to this plan, except that we stayed an extra day in Chiang Mai and Old Sukhothai and skipping Ayuthaya (and an extra train ride) we flew into Bangkok. We never considered heading south of Bangkok to the beach resorts. The Tsunami had hit Thailand hard only a few months prior and the area was still deep in recovery along the West Coast. We met travellers going to Koh Samui on the Eastern side, and they made it sound so inviting, but to us it seemed a bit risky still. And our time was just too short. We also expected to get our beach fix in Bali, and maybe even New Zealand.

Pretty much everywhere we went we deeply wished we could have stayed longer. Especially Bangkok, where we had only one full day! An extra week or two would have been much appreciated!

Our First Hint

Thai Air Meal, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Our first hint that true weirdness awaited. Shrimp flavored crackers and what looked to be a potato salad sandwich with the crusts cut off.
We had been pretty much impressed with China Air on the way over. But for cleanliness and wonderful attendants Thai Airways put them to shame.

Tha Pae Gate

Tha Pae Gate, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Chiang Mai is a very old city, at least by our standards. It was founded in 1296 and still has the moat that once encircled the original city, along with some of the walls and gates.
Chiang Mai is home to more than 300 wats (temples).
It was nothing like I expected! Somehow I thought it would be green and bucolic (sort of like our Petaluma). A sleepy village of a city one could bicycle around. Ha!
It turned out to be gritty and urban and butt ugly for the most part. The traffic seemed insane and just crossing the street was a challenge.
I was in shock for the first day or so, until we discovered the back alleyways and little havens off the main drag.
Over time we came to really love being here and I would gladly return.

The Lai Thai

Our First Guesthouse, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

I knew we'd be exhausted on arrival, especially the kids. It was to be an almost 24 hour journey. And we knew it would be hot. Really hot.
So we booked a place that would pick us up at the airport and had a pool. The Lai Thai seemed to fit the bill.

Here's my posting from our first day:

We finally got to our hotel about 6pm local time last night. Ugh. All in all, though it was a horribly long time to be in cramped airliner seats and almost impossible to sleep and it was a little confusing and stressful filling out the visa forms in Bangkok, the trip went without a hitch. The kids did great! What troopers.

Our driver from the Lai Thai hotel was right there with a sign waiting for us. He took us on a harrowing ride through crazy third world traffic to our hotel. That ride was just a blur of weird sights and frightening near misses with scooters.
The motel is a mixed bag. The rooms are much funkier than I imagined, but the big garden area is incredibly lush and pleasant to hang out in. There are fountains and spirit houses and the pool was pretty good this morning.
Last night we went out for a walk to find some bottled water. It was very much like an acid trip, and maybe a bad acid trip. I led us the wrong way it seems and we were in a funky dark smelly part of town with lots of scary traffic and most places closed up (at 7pm?). My guts were all messed up too, probably from the bizarre food on the Asian airlines. We were all wanting that water pretty bad.

We were feeling quite lost and a little scared when we ran into this super friendly gal from Canada. She escorted us into a strange little shop (which looked more like someone's grungy living room) and showed us a cooler with bottled water. 5 bottles for 27 bhat--about 50 cents. She also gave me a little map I've been using today. The first of many Angels we are to meet, I suspect.

The weather has been pretty good today. It was balmy all morning and only a bit hot this afternoon. Not too muggy either. So far Chiang Mai is much much more congested and dirty than I imagined. But we've barely begun to look about. I'm just glad we made it alive.

Note: as of this posting, the room rates at the Lai Thai are about $20 US double occupancy, but they will pick you up at the airport for free. I still think this is a pretty good place to land.

Off to a good start!

Off to a good start!, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The pool! What a damn good idea.

Fellow Farang

Fellow Farang, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The Thai have a word for all foreigners: farang.
We met these nice folks from Colorado by the pool. They gave us wonderful travel advice and encouragement on our first day.
This was the little cafe attatched to the Lai Thai guesthouse.

Eden's New Shoes

Eden's New Shoes, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

I don't think Eden was really embracing the whole travel thing until we went to the exotic Worrorot market and found these shoes for her. They had clear heels filled with little colored balls. And silvery flowers on the toes. That was all it took.


Songthaew, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The songthaews cruise endlessly looking for passengers. They make getting around incredibly cheap and easy.

Here was my enthusiastic posting from Chiang Mai:

All we have to do to get around is walk out front of our hotel and wait 30 seconds and a songthaew will stop to pick us up. I still have that little map the Canadian gal gave us and just point to our destination, then we climb in the back and away we go. It costs 40 baht for the 5 of us (Eden rides free I guess) and they drop us off, all smiles.
On the way here we met a delightful young man from the Philippines who is here teaching ping pong (?) and a very pretty very shy school girl who bid us farewell as if we were old friends when we clambered off, even though we'd only exchanged a few awkward sentences.
By the way, a songtheaw is a little pick up truck with a tall covering and seats along both sides of the bed. It's well padded inside and has openings rather than windows and plenty of places to hold on. I have to say it's the most fun public transportation I've ever experienced! Very practical too. I do wonder what it's like in the rain, with those open sides and all.


Rickshaw., originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The bicycle rickshaw, or samlor, seems to be a dying breed in Thailand. The roads are just too crazy with cars, trucks, tuk tuks and scooters. This one was especially lovely and I wish we'd had time for a ride.

Tuk Tuks

Tuk Tuks, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We'd read about tuk tuks in one of the guide books. They got a bad rap for being loud and unsafe and having all the poluted air blowing in your face. I took this to heart and avoided them at first.
Finally the girls and I took a ride back to our hotel by the time we arrived I was completely won over. I have a video clip here of that ride. What a blast!
One night, coming back solo from the night market, I got a ride in one that had a bum starter. At one point the driver, who was borrowing the tuk tuk from his cousin, foolishly turned off the engine. I ended up pushing it to get it jump started! He also got us lost trying to find my guesthouse in the dark back alleys. I guess he was from the countryside.
I just wish I could import one for my very own! I'd drive it around all summer.

Tuk Tuk

Tuk Tuk, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Lunch Time

Hill Tribe Entrepreneurs, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We stopped by this little hole in the wall cafe and were delighted to find that it went way way back off the hot chaotic dirty street to a pretty little courtyard with a fan and flowers. Jackie, a Karen hill tribesman, was our host and so nice that I had to take his photo.

Visiting the hill tribes is a big tourist draw for Chaing Mai and somewhat controversial. Here's a pretty good overview of the situation.

Just Like The Ones Back Home

Just Like The Ones Back Home, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

When my fish lunch arrived about 5 cats showed up to politely express interest in any tidbits I might let drop. They really were polite!
The girls were enchanted and it took some of the edge off of watching me eat fish--the first time they'd seen me do it. I was merely eating cat food.

Thai Toilet

Thai Toilet, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

I very much admire the Thai toilet. It has no mechanical parts to wear out. It's easy to keep clean. It uses only as much water as necessary. And squatting is just healthier in general.
Even in modern facilities with flush toilets, there would usually be a pail under a spigot, with some sort of dipper to use.

Eden Escapes Adoption

Eden Escapes Adoption, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

So many Thai people were smitten with Eden. They would actually grab her! This women wanted to keep her and pretended to shoo the rest of us away. All this attention was surely good for my shy retiring daughter.

Bamboo Scaffolding

Bamboo Scaffolding, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

On our first walk about we noticed this use of bamboo. As someone interested in natural building I was really stoked.

Spirit House

Spirit House, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

This was our first encounter with a spirit house, at the Lai Thai guest house.
Every business and every home in Thailand has one. I wish we could've bought one to bring home with us. Then again, we were told that setting up a spirit house is a matter left to the priests. It requires certain special blessings and it has to be aligned just so.

Spirit House

Spirit House, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Spirit House

Spirit House, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The Worrorot Market

The Worrorot Market, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Our guide Poon directed us to this place and we were enthralled. It was not a tourist place at all. We ended up returning several times.
Here's my post from our first visit:

There were clothes and shoes and luggage and cosmetics and semi-familiar stuff, then there were food stands with the most bizarre assortment you can imagine, including French fried meal worms all neatly packaged. There were big bowls of green glop in numerous stalls that seemed to be selling well. A vendor warned Joyce away "very spicy!!!". Not that Joyce was really tempted I think. There were stalls selling crazy toys and supplies for spirit houses (I bought some Hell Bank Notes in 50,000 denomination). Most everything was really cheap and we were encouraged to barter if the price was too high. We were some of the only farang in the place and really felt like we were in a foreign land!

I bought several tie dye shirts here which I ended up wearing to shreds on the trip, and a little canvas camera bag with a shoulder strap, for the video camera. It became practically attatched to my hip! But best of all, Eden got her special Thai shoes here. They had clear heels with little colored balls inside, and silvery metal flowers on the toes. I think that finally won her over to the idea of travel.

Glop For Sale

Glop For Sale, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

Joyce was intrigued by this stuff. She asked the vendor is it was to eat and the woman smiled and said "Yes yes, but not for you. Too spicy!" And yes, that is a big bag of fried meal worms behind on the floor.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We HAD to buy one. But we didn't end up eating it till we got to Old Sukhothai. One problem with exotic fruit is knowing when it's ripe.

Fried Meal Worms

Fried Meal Worms, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.


So Many Choices

So Many Choices, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

The market was just packed with tiny little stalls and most of the stalls were totally packed with weird stuff for sale.

Street Market

Street Market, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

For a meat eater this place is just heaven.

If Only We'd Been Braver

If Only We'd Been Braver, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.


Poon, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We hired an English speaking guide to take us about in her air con mercedes. Her name is Poon and she was very nice. I wish she'd been a bit more fluent in English, but she was still worth her weight in gold to us.

Here's a post from Chiang Mai:

Today we hired a guide named Poon, who took us around to three beautiful wats (temples). The wats are really walled compounds with at least one amazing temple, maybe a school for monks, lots of dogs laying around in the road. We (meaning the adults) were enthralled by the gorgeous architecture and statuary and ancientness of these places--one of them was 1000 years old apparently. The kids were less enthusiastic after a while. It was pretty hot.
We went to a hill tribe cultural center/museum which was even less interesting for them, although we saw three men swimming in a big lake with their horses. Just the horse’s heads above water.
Poon also took us to a real supermarket where we could get big jugs of drinking water. That was really fascinating! I bought the kids weird popsicles and they were content.

Temple Hopping

Temple Hopping, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We saw many many temples and they all sort of run together in my memory, though each one was magnificent.
It struck me right away that these temples are part of a living working religion. Not like the tourist cathedrals in Europe.
There were at least as many Thai people there to worship as tourist there to marvel. I dimly remember that something like 90% of Thai are Buddhist. Which is one reason this is such a safe and enjoyable country to visit.
I can't help contrasting these temples to the butt ugly little cinder block fundamentalist christian churches that seem to sprout up in weedy parking lots across the US.
Compared to folks in the US most Thai are extremely poor. At least in money terms. But not in their religious sense obviously.

Using a small plastic doll to relate to foreign cultures.


Lion, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

It would be so worth it to find an excellant English speaking guide, knowledgeable in all of the temple symbolism. We had no such guide and were often scratching our heads in mystery.
For example, who is the little fellow under this lion (or is it a dog?) and what is he doing there?


Temple, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

I think the clock adds a nice touch.

Temple Art

Temple Art, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

I love this image. It was up along the walls of one of the many temples we visited.

Mystery Food

Mystery Food, originally uploaded by Robbi Baba.

We were decidedly timid about our food intake. A more daring soul would certainly have true adventures here.
I will say that before we came I never realized there were varieties of bananas. In the US we mainly just get one sort. And the sort we get are obviously bred for shelf life or some such, not for taste. The little Thai bananas rocked my world!