Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 7 – North Thailand

Crossing the Mekong river

On the other side of the Mekong river from Laos is Thailand. We have followed the river from South to North, and back to Vientiane, seeing glimpses of the greener country on the other side. As we cross the border on the bridge, we wave cheerfully:

– Bye, bye Laos!

An old chinese saying states, that you can’t cross the same river twice, but you can certainly cross a border bridge three times, if the border officials on the Laos side are to laid back to stamp your passport out. Luckily, after biking back againts the traffic, persuading the surprised Lao officials that we would like to have an exit stamp, and forward again, we are allowed into Thailand.

What we think will be a quick pit-stop to locate a thai sim card, and a map, turns out to be a lengthy affair, and the sun is descending, when we pedal off, into the countryside. Trying to keep in mind, that the traffic is now left handed.

Thailand seems so rich in contrast, one of the first sights, that surprises us, is school girls sitting with laptops in a small town cafe, sipping lattes. You can have whipped cream in your latte, well, you can have a latte, and there are flush toilets, and actual car traffic on the road.  The houses are bigger, more opulent. Portraits of the king everywhere, the king standing, the king reading a newspaper, the king looking ahead. Even on a train station, or in the cinema, the national anthem is played, everybody on their feet, honoring the king, and the country.

A week in the saddles

We meander trough Isan, the untouristy province in the north eastern corner of Thailand. People are cheerful, smiling, waving, honking the horns, as we pedal by. We spend a whole week, without meeting other white faces.

Where are we?

Our GPS has apparently got stuck  on adventure mode, it keeps getting us off the map.

The GPS seems to have a special adventure mode, that picks tiny, sandy roads winding trough rice paddies over anything asphalted, and our map is worthless, as most names of the smaller cities on the map don’t exist, instead we keep arriving into cities that are not on the map.

With some genius planning and map reading skills, we end up bicycling trough the most hilly and cold province of Thailand. Hotels are hard to find, the smaller places have signs in thai only, we learn to look out for the words “wifi” or “24”.

When we are particularly tired from the adventures supplied by our GPS, and wet from the unstopping rain, we discover that asking around in a village for homestay, leads to people pointing fingers to the next village, and then the next. Apparently, they all agree, that tourists belong in hotels.

The rain has been ongoing for 3 days in a row, when we arrive in a larger mystery town, not on our map, with a bus station, and ask around for a ride to Loei. There is none, all the buses go back, in the opposite direction, in the end we manager to barter with a pickup truck to take us for the two hours drive along a wet, potholed mountain road, a high pass, and a winding descent to the province capital of Loei.

The province happens to be the most mointanous in Thailand. And the coldest. We spent the remainder of the rainy day in Loei, resting, enjoying the feeling of not having to pedal. From extreme into extreme, the rain stops, the heat bakes down onto us, as we keep fighting the ascent up to the next mountain pass. A car stops, and a worried driver gets out, asking if we need assistance, maybe a lift. It is a discussion topic for the rest of the day, why all of us have declined the ride.

The hills start to flatten out, the ascents are not as exhausting as they have been, we bike downstream along a river, have a beautiful stop in the country side, next to a water fall with lots of swimming pools, enjoy they local thai tourists, but feel alienated among all the friendliness, so little english is spoken.

Finally, we arrive in Phitsanulok. The last 20 kilometers are not enjoyable, as we roll trough the industrial suburbs, past factories and malls, before we find the train station.

The adventurous GPS can tell us, that we have covered 560 km on our bikes. We are tired. And we want to get to Chiang Mai. We have heard, that in Thailand, you can load a bike onto the train, and inquire about this:

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Hobbit sized seats in a Thailand overnight train, III class.

– Yes, you can take the bicycles on the train.

– No, we don’t have any sleepers left.

So, if we want to go, then it is on a IIIrd class night train. So we load our trustworthy horses into the cargo car, and sit trough the night in tiny seats dimensioned for hobbits, miserable, tempers worn thin.

Then we discover:

– It is January 15th. We left home half a year ago.

– Happy half year of travel!

I have never in my life been less fond of traveling, moving around, as in that weary moment.

The train progresses trough the night in what feels as an unending  series of stops and jolts, and with the last jolt and stop, it is Chiang Mai station, it is 4 AM, and the world feels unreal, and we are three travelers with zombie faces, that unload the bicycles, and pedal trough the city’s night streets.

Growing roots

We have rented an apartment for 3 weeks in Chiang Mai, a break in moving around the world, a pit stop to recover some of the stamina lost on the way. Traveling should bring freedom, break you free from the routine, but now we find, that we long for a routine, look forward to waking up on the same spot every morning, for the next 3 weeks.

I  enjoy the city from the very first moments, and keep wondering why, where does this sense of connection and belonging come from. We have rented an appartment in Nimmanheim, the hipster quarter, far away from the tourist touts, small side streets lined with cafees, coffee shops, designer outlets and co-working spaces.

Roots grow quickly, nourished with a daily routine of activities that we each cherish and love: climbing, yoga, music and dance lessons for Magdalena, martial arts classes for Pawel.

I could live here, and it would be a fantastic life.

When the time comes to leave, when these precious 3 weeks have flown by, it is with a wish to stay longer. And a decision to come back, definitely.

Crazy Horse Airlines

Chiang Mai is a destination on the climbing circuit. The crag is called Crazy Horse, beautiful lines in fantastic limestone formations. The climbing circuit means, that like a current in the ocean, traveling climbers tend to follow the same path, and faces you have seen in China become buddies in Laos, and best friends in Thailand. Again, and again, I am surprised by how small the climbing world is, and rejoiced by meeting with these precious people. So as we arrive, my best buddy from Laos, Marcel, is already waiting and ready to climb.

OK, Yah, 6a+

OK, Yah, 6a+

The crag is extremely well maintained by the local climbing shop, CMRCA. Their guide contains a cartoon about how to use the crag side squat toilet, the bolting is dense, no dangerous clips.

There are two choices, either to stay in Chiang Mai town itself, as we do, enjoying all the creature comforts of the city, like yoga classes and espresso, and commute 40 kilometers to the crag, either with CMRCA‘s excellent red-truck service, or on two rented wheels. Other people opt to stay next to the crag, in village of Mae Om, peacul and quiet, complete with hot springs, where you can cook you evening eggs.

We work trough the routes, taking care to follow the shade.

I try to keep to a schedule of climbing 2 days, and resting 1 day, finding it a sustainable pace for the body, and family time.

There is a route, called *Happy Birthday*. My birthday is coming up soon, so I figure that I should try to send it. But it is nasty, pumpy and cruxy in a really mean way.

Marcel is confused:

– Why do you wan’t to project this route? It isn’t event fun?

– Because of the name.

– Because of the name?

– Yes, I find names important. They shape our reality.

He shrugs, apparently dismissing me as a nut case, but still happy to belay me whenever I feel masochist enough to give it another go.

One day it happens, Marcel, my trustworthy buddy, leaves.

It is a pang of emptiness, I don’t like goodbyes.

I climb on with Guillame, the Crazy French Guy, that we met, when hanging out at the crag.

First time I fall off, he laughs:

– Welcome to Crazy Horse Airlines, we hope you have enjoyed your flight!

He teases me into trying and sending some 6b’s, and 6b+’s, which I do with the moral support from Crazy Horse Airlines.

But despite sending many other routes, my infamous project ‘Happy Birthday’ avoids me, clearly a reason to come back again.

Happy Birthday

It is the morning of my birthday, my teenagers have been behaving really suspiciously the last few days, whispering together. We are living together so closely, that secrets seem impossible.

But still, I am surprised, when I am woken up in the morning, to the singing of our traditional polish birthday song:

– Sto lat, sto lat …

39 magic candles

It is wonderful to turn 39, surrounded by family, friends, with a content heart that does not wish for anything more, another destination on the journey called life.

An enormous bouquet of flowers hovers over me, breakfast is ready, I get a set of UNO cards, and my heart is melting from happiness already so early in the morning.

We have rented scooters for the day, one of my treats is that we get to spend the day together doing my favorite activity – climbing.

The plan also includes a visit to the nearby hot springs.

At lunch there is a birth day cake, that was supposed to be a secret, but it somehow slipped out. My favorite friends arrive to the bamboo hut, there is a rose wine to pass around, and the cake is lit with 39 candles.

I smile blissfully, and take a mighty blow. What I didnt know was, that the party arrangers have supplied magic candles.

They cheer:

– Blow, blow – as I fight against the fire, that meekly surrenders to my mighty blow, only to reappear a breath later, the top layer of chocolate is more like melted lava, my breath all but gone, when I manage to blew out all 39 magic candles.

Without setting the bamboo hut on fire.

It is wonderful to turn 39, cheers with rose wine in a plastic cup, surrounded by family, friends, with a content heart, that does not wish for anything more, happy to have arrived at another destination on the journey called life, curious to explore what this stop has in store for me.

Yoga & Love

Led by an impulse, I decide to try a class at the Wild Rose Yoga Studio among the abundance of yoga studios, that Chiang Mai has to offer. The website says, it is a practice of the heart, and warn to be prepared to get lost on the way there. I arrive trough the labyrinth of small streets, the place is beautiful, a dark wooden house, a small garden, fragrant air.

Wild Rose <3 ... being loved and supported

Wild Rose ❤

I am standing in the line to register, the dark haired woman looks up at me:

– Did you take a moment to wash you feet?

– I am afraid not – I reply, feeeling disgrunted, and walk off to the bathroom, thinking what an exaggeration it is, to have the customers wash their feet, before even acknowledging their registration.

I take a moment to pause, and examine this feeling of disgrutment.

– Why am I angry?

– There is nothing wrong with washing feet, it is hygienic, it is looking out for each other.

I find such a moment rare and precious, the ability to stop, and examine an automatic, negative reaction, and transform it into a positive intention. I feel, that I have learned something important at this very moment, about being humble, and looking out for each other, like we do in a family.

– Sorry, I didn’t get your name? – I ask the dark haired woman, when I reemerge with clean feet, and pay for my class.

– Rose – she replies with a beautiful, soul warming smile.

– This explains the name of the studio – I laugh, and we hug, and now I can associate the fragrance in the studio as a smell of the love, that is in the air. Every class is a journey into the depths and mysteries of the mind, every class is filled with love and support to the brim. At times a class is popular, then the mats are crammed impossibly tight, and with every breath and move, you have to be concious about the other students around you, as our feet kiss each other, and our hands stroke our neighbour.

Something comes together for me. A relationship between the breath, and the spine. Knees touching the floor, a different awareness in the body. A new destination on my yoga journey.

Coming to the studio usually equals to several wonderful hugs with wonderful Rose, an exchange of energy, support, care.

The suffering art of goodbyes

Travelling is wonderful, one of the upsides is awesome people you meet on the road.

One of the downsides is the goodbyes, when paths that have happily merged, are parting again.

Goodbye to Marcel, my trustworthy climbing partner for three countries in a row. The day before Marcel had to leave, he makes a strategic move from Mae Om the village, to Chiang Mai – the city with a bus station. We manage to cram Marcel, the climbing equipment, the big backpack and myself onto my scooter. He stays over the night in our appartment, when we are woken up in the middle of the night by a fire alarm.

The corridors are filled with smoke, we are on the 7th floor, the fire smoke is coming from the 5th floor.

The kids disappear running down the staircase, we stroll out in a more steady pace, collecting keys and passports. When we are down, we realize:

– Damn, we could have abseiled out of the window.

– We have enough rope, two in fact.

Having thus missed an opportunity to show off, we mingle with the neighbours, in sleeping gowns and slippers, waiting until the fire fighters declare the fire under control. Next morning everyone is sleepy and heavy headed after the nightly disturbance. A last pizza, and it is time for Marcel to leave. I feel a pang of emptiness, as I cross the road, having waved goodbye.

Goodbye to Rose, my beloved yoga teacher, how can you build up so much love in such a short time?

Goodbye to our enthusiastic thai teacher Lanwa, the co-working space of Mana, with its sweet owners, new fast friends among expats and travelling couchsurfers, and the goodbye to those from the gang of climbing buddies, that leave the circuit for now.

It is hard to leave. It hurts to say goodbye to people, that have found a place in your heart. But once you have bought the tickets, the mind is set on going.

I look out of the window, as the train slowly moves from the platform, tickets in hand, mind set of going, a piece of heart left behind, in Chiang Mai. I think we have this places, where our heart belongs, dispersed around the globe, and travellng is about finding them, and reuniting with the energy and inspiration, each place where we belong, can offer us.

For me it is a view on a lake in Northern Lapland, a mountain summit in the polish Tatra mountains, a monastery in Tibet, and now also a dark wood yoga studio in Chiang Mai.

Southwards

We are moving to the next stop on the climbing circuit, the next destination is Camp Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailands most cozy climbing camp, only one hour by train north of Bangkok.  together with Terry, Marianne, Mary and Dan, some awesome climbing friends, and I admire the patience of my children, as they have to adapt to yet another climbing destination, not being into climbing at all.

We bike the 20 kilometers from the train station to the camp, it is too hot, we are melting, have pitstops along the way with water and fruits, decide that bicycling is not fun at these lattitudes.

Nam Pha Pa Yai is a relaxed playground, the camp built around a riverbend, we sleep in our tents, the familiar portable homes, the inside being the same, whether we pitch them in Denmark, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet or Thailand. Every morning, after a late and lazy coffee and breakfast, as the crag gets into shade 11’ish, we zip to the crag on the provided zip line, the approach must be nominated as the funniest. In the evening, everybody plays “monkey”, guests and staff, it is a game of throwing pegs in the evening, I send my first 6b+ onsight, with the beautiful name “Local Solution to Global Confusion”, whose significance I can discuss with my climbing buddy Moose.

Four days pass quickly when playing, and having fun, and an early morning we break up camp, and hurry to catch the morning train to Bangkok, and the next chapter of our family adventure.

Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.

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The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.

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George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.

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It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.