After Lindsey’s flurry of posts – nothing. My bad. We’ve been moving around a fair bit over the last few weeks and haven’t really been in much of a routine – still no excuse! Where were we? Oh yes, Lindsey with Covid and a swim up room. All very odd.
One thing significant happened for me while Lindsey was doing her 10 day stretch which was that I had to go to Bangkok by myself to see if I could get our group’s visas for Myanmar. I actually met up with a colleague coming from a different city in Thailand – Chiang Mai and we went in together. This time we had a much smoother process with the one annoyance of having to go to a nearby bank to pay the fees and then come back to prove we paid. After that we could leave and come back later that day to collect our visas. Drum role – we got them! The only bad part was that we only got a 75 day visa so if anything went wrong with our plan to get into the country in early January, we would have little time to fix it.
After getting released from pool jail, there wasn’t much time until our December break. Three weeks to plan. Normally, Lindsey would have thrown herself into this and we would be doing some high falutin’ safari to see cloud leopards (yes, they’re a thing) or something like that. Thailand is a funny place. If beaches are your thing (or bar girls) then it’s great but we have always found it difficult to know what to do there that would attract us. In the end we decided on a multi-destination break to try out a few different things. (I say ‘we’ as if I had anything whatsoever to do with the planning – spoiler alert, I didn’t).
Before the holiday even started we were rather unceremoniously kicked out of the Thai Bordello. This was a few days before school ended so we treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the fancy hotel on the beach. This was not before an almost tearful goodbye to Cat-Face. We hoped the Russians that were due to follow us would treat her well and not try to drown her in the pool! The Nai Harn Hotel was lovely. Thirty years old now but in an art deco style that hadn’t really dated at all. All open plan with open air restaurants and walkways. I imagine there would be some issues when it rained but it was good weather when we were there so all was good.
Then we drove north (about 3.5 hours) to go to visit an eco lodge on an island called Phra Thong Island. Unlike Phuket it was devoid of thongs! We had a beach landing where we were picked up by a vehicle. We drove along the beach itself to the small lodge area. Immediately on walking to our lodge I saw a very interesting lizard and made everyone stop so I could take photos. The guide was rolling his eyes and rightly too as it turned out these lizards were everywhere – still very impressive looking. The other nature plus was the hope to see hornbills and in fact the staff t-shirts had a hornbill design on them (I now own one). The hornbills did not disappoint. We heard them before we saw them but then easily could find them. I love a hornbill and for once, so does Lindsey. There wasn’t too much to do except walk along the beach and enjoy a nice sundowner cocktail while small hermit crabs shuffled around. At one point one of the staff members noted our interest in hermit crabs but pointed out that the ones we were seeing were very small. Later that night he took us to a nearby spot where they feed them and the ones there were really impressive – softball sized at the biggest.
The highlight was a morning ride to see the sunrise in a nearby area known as a savannah. The landscape was actually fascinating because the dry savannah was littered with lagoons all over the place. This made for some interesting birding with the most impressive bird being the Lesser Adjutant (read humungous). We snuck up on it only to spook it but did see it taking off which was like standing next to a helicopter taking off.
Our next stop was Krabi which was a rather tortuous 4 hour drive south and east. Some friends had stayed in a nice hotel there so we stayed there too although on balance we thought Nai Harn was better. From there we did a rather steep climb on a trail up to a panoramic view point. It was slightly more arduous than we expected so much so that on the way down a rather non-plussed looking person asked us, ‘tell me this is effing worth it!’ Near the top we did see some wild carnivorous plants which we didn’t see anywhere else so that was good.
Then back to the Phuket airport where we said goodbye to our hire car ‘Snow Piercer’ and off to Chiang Mai for the last part of our trip. We didn’t really have a fixed plan for our time in Chiang Mai (probably because I was supposed to be organising it). We had both been there before we met and both remembered liking the place without really remembering why. Even on the way from the airport we both had a good feeling about the place. We stayed in a fairly lively area (Nimman) which was full of bright looking restaurants and bars and we passed a night market on the way. That night we headed straight for the night market and wondered around looking at all that was on offer. Eventually we stopped at a street food type place that had the best smell. It was cooking a minced pork dish that was simply divine. After eating it I went up to pay and thought he said 75 baht (about £1.65 or $2.25) but it ended up being only 25 baht! From a food point of view that turned out to be somewhat of a theme. We couldn’t find a bad meal or an expensive meal – great combo.
Lindsey had booked us into an AirBnB house which was simply delightful and perfectly located. This really made all the difference as we could use this as a base and then visit other places. We hired a car which was quite funny in itself as they didn’t have a car but said I could hire ‘the boss’s’ car until mine was ready. That was the first time I have ever hired a car when no one asked to see my driving licence! The boss’s car turned out to be a rather swish Honda something or other and in fact we decided to keep it for the time we were there.
Our first foray was to a national park (Doi Khun Tan) about 1 hour 15 minutes drive south of Chiang Mai. The last 10 kilometers or so was on pretty small roads. When we got there they asked to see our covid tests by which we thought they meant our vaccination records. It turns out that in fact what they wanted was a lateral flow or ATK test! We were a bit flabbergasted to be honest. They wanted a lateral flow test to go for a walk in a massive park with very few other visitors. They said there was a ‘mini-hospital’ about 10 km away but didn’t give us any other directions. We decided to go and look for it and after asking at a golf course eventually found a random clinic in a small village. They were pretty shocked when we showed up but did eventually agree to give us the tests at a painfully slow pace. Finally, armed with our negative tests we went back and I think the lady was pretty shocked we managed it. The hassle turned out to be completely worth it as the hike we did was lovely on very well managed trails. I even managed to see a few more birds that I’ve never seen before.
Next up was Chiang Dao Wildlife Reserve about a similar distance north of Chiang Mai. As it wasn’t too far we went for a day trip with a plan to stay overnight a few days later. We got to the obvious car park where there were lots of people queuing up in a number of different quite official looking lines. They all had special cards and were carrying back packs. The whole thing looked very suspicious but we queued up anyway. When we got to the front of the line they were checking names off but couldn’t find ours. We said we just wanted to go for a walk but it turned out that to go into the park you needed to have done a 3 hour orientation the day before! Then you show up and go through a series of lines to register before whisked away on the back of a truck for an hour before starting your 2 day hike. Come on – all we want to do is go for a walk! It turns out they are going for UNESCO status or something so are being particularly crazy about letting people in. Oh well, at least the cloud leopards will be happy.
Just beyond where we were there was a temple and we asked if it was OK if we walked around there. They reluctantly agreed so we strolled along to what was a beautiful temple with great views of the mountains all around and great birding to be had. There we met a French couple who recommended a coffee shop in the village where the owner had planted bird friendly plants. This was true and fantastic for birding. Lindsey could drink coffee while I geeked out with my camera and binoculars. Our second trip there was equally nice staying in an eco lodge. At one point we even had to put on a sweater – unheard of!
Back in Chiang Mai for New Year’s Eve where we stumbled on a bar right where the fireworks were going off. So much so they were landing on our heads! I forgot to mention Christmas Day before. We planned on a fancy restaurant but the queue was going to be 2 hours so we started trawling around for another place but couldn’t really find anywhere until we spied a small place serving Khao Soi, a local speciality. We literally sat on a box to eat our meal. Not the most auspicious Christmas dinner I’ve ever had but very tasty.
Two other places to mention. One was this trail called the Monk’s Trail just in the west part of Chiang Mai. The entrance was barricaded up but that seemed to be to stop trail motorbikes and as we saw a few people we thought we’d risk it. The walk was very shaded and pleasant but the treat was the temple at the end, Wat Pha Lat. This was one of the most serene and lovely temples we’ve ever been to with waterfalls and little pagodas all over the place (and a few temple dogs). We even had the pleasure of reading that there was a Bagan style temple there and recognising the style from Myanmar.
The final place to mention was this park called Huay Tung Tao. It is clearly mainly a place that local families go with little huts on the water that you rent out for a picnic. It had these hilarious huge sculptures made out of straw as a pull for the locals (and me). It was also brilliant for birds and especially snipe which were all hidden in a dilapidated rice field. I could walk within about three feet of them without seeing them as they were so camouflaged. Eventually I got enough photos to identify three separate species, a real treat.
That was about it for Chiang Mai although I didn’t mention the zoo – good panda action! Next stop – Yangon…….