Chiang Dao and Greater Chiang Mai


I had three and a half days to myself before my next visitor, Claudia, arrived.  Claudia and Ashley used to work together in Chicago and were excited to reunite.  We celebrated Claudia’s birthday with a day trip to nearby Chiang Dao to see the famous caves.  Opting for the public fan bus rather than a more expensive minibus with air conditioning, we knew we were going to be on the lechero for sure.  But this one was something special.  The inside looked like it had been decorated with household items salvaged from a garage sale, complete with frosted glass sconce lighting, 360-degree rotating fans, and a mounted clock.  I thought perhaps this was one unique individual’s take on bus décor, but the bus we took on the way back was furnished the same way in a different color scheme.


We were let off the bus by the side of the road, presumably somewhere in Chiang Dao, feeling a bit like we’d been mistakenly thrown out with the trash.  It was unclear where the caves were, how we would find them, or even how to get transportation.  Luckily, a nice Thai mom chaperoning a group of teenage girls could tell we were lost and offered to share a ride with us.  She led us around the corner where a songthaew was parked, rattled off some instructions to the driver in Thai, and off we went.  Once we got to the caves, things were looking up.  Or down?  I guess that depends if you’re a stalactite or a stalagmite.  You know the difference, right?  Stalactites hang down from the ceiling and have to hold on “tight.”  Stalagmites are on the floor, trying “mighty” hard to reach up.  Bohbie taught me that one, and I will never forget it as long as I live!


Chiang Dao means City of Stars, and the mountain there is the third highest peak in Thailand.  Inside the caves, which tunnel under the mountain, we hired a tour guide to take us around by the light of an oil lantern.  With the exception of a contained, well-lit area, exploring on your own is not permitted.  The network of caves is so extensive that it is possible to get lost.  When planning our trip to the caves, we joked that if we couldn’t find our way out, we would survive by eating bats.  It wasn’t so funny once my mind started churning out worst case scenarios.  What if there wasn’t enough oil in the lamp?  What if our guide hit her head on an overhanging rock and knocked herself unconscious?  Would anyone hear our screams?


Fortunately, our guide was very competent, although her pace seemed rushed at times.  She pointed out various rock formations and their names.  Pretty much all rocks in Thailand are named after either an animal or a body part of the Buddha that they resemble.  I think there was something called Elephant Rock, and the one pictured above might be called Buddha’s Lung, although looking back through the photos, most of them just look like rocks.


Ashley spreading her bat wings and checking out her shadow


And now, for the psychedelic portion of the journey.  The walls are totally melting, man.  I think whoever designed this light display has been to a few too many Full Moon Parties.


It wouldn’t be a cave in Thailand if it didn’t have Buddha statues.  We found a quiet place to meditate at a shrine near the former hermitage of a monk.  It was completely silent, as though sound had never existed there.  That was until a group of tourists showed up.  They were very respectful, actually.


The following day, we hiked up Doi Suthep.  All the way to the top.  Here we are, sweaty and exhausted, but feeling triumphant.  Possibly more difficult than the hike itself was just getting someone to take us to the trailhead.  We had several people laugh at us, tell us that we didn’t really want to hike there, or insist that it wasn’t possible to take us there.  Finally, we found a driver who knew what we were talking about.  (The key is to say you want to go to the end of Suthep Road.)


In a previous post, I documented the first half of the Monks’ Trail, which I did with Natalia and Ashley.  This time, Claudia and I were determined to go the distance. The second half of the trail is a little more difficult to find.  You exit the monastery through the driveway, walk up the main road for a few minutes, and look for a small clearing on the right where the trail starts again.  There is an orange strip of monk’s robe tied to a tree, but it’s not easy to see.  This part of the hike climbs up a steep incline and is more demanding.  It’s buggy and sticky, but there’s nothing like walking out of the forest and realizing you’ve made it.


When we got to the top, I introduced Claudia to the new love of my life: passion fruit juice.  (In Colombia, they have passion fruit, but it doesn’t taste as sweet.)  Then we were approached by two university students who needed to talk to English speakers as part of an assignment.  The girl interviewing me asked different questions about my background, including why I wanted to come to Thailand and how many seasons we have in the United States.  I told her I was happy there is no winter in Thailand, but she was interested in snow because she had never seen any.


Our last excursion in the Chiang Mai area was to Bua Thong in Sri Lanna National Park, better known as the Sticky Waterfalls.  It was yet another ordeal trying to get there.  Our first songthaew driver (yes, there will be more…) drove us in circles while on the phone trying to get directions.  As usual, I was in the throes of another one of my worst case scenarios, imagining that we’d never find the waterfalls and miss out on having the best time of our lives.  Meanwhile, Claudia and Ashley had already made peace with the possibility that the whole thing could be a flop and they would still have fun anyway.  Like TLC once said, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls.”  Eventually, the driver gave up and had us talk to a second driver.  When this driver’s price was way off the 1000 baht ($30) we expected to pay for the round trip, we tried to get a better deal, but it went nowhere.  Although I hate negotiating, my dad finds it thrilling, particularly when it comes to buying cars, and gives advice to anyone who will listen.  I have overheard the spiel many times now, so I am familiar with the cardinal rule of the Dan Bernkopf School of Negotiating: be prepared to walk away.  We hailed a third driver, and after only a moment’s haggling, we were finally on our way.


The Sticky Waterfalls are so named because the mineral buildup on the rocks makes them not slippery.  Here you can see Ashley and Claudia climbing up the waterfall with a rope, but most of it you can free climb because the rocks are easy to grip.


There are three levels of waterfalls.  We climbed the whole thing twice in about an hour.  Be prepared to get soaked.


The view from the top was grand, but the backlighting foiled my attempts at a group portrait.  This one will have to do.  Being with these two girls is the best case scenario imaginable!

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