w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We packed our bags in Istanbul, leaving behind our winter coats and boarded the long flight to Bangkok where we would hop yet another plane for Chiang Mai. Chris and I had been to Thailand before; 17 years ago we toured Bangkok, during which time a rogue tuk-tuk driver "kidnapped" us to a dead end alley filled with shady looking men (we screamed at the top of our lungs until he finally drove us to our desired location). By the time we left the city, I was overwhelmed and overheated, with an inexplicable and raging case of athlete's foot ON MY HANDS. And then there was Ko Samui, with its gorgeous beaches, sugar cane fields and cheap waterfront massages, back before it became an overdeveloped resort town teeming with tourists. But we had never been to Chiang Mai and we weren’t sure what to expect. Later, Facetiming with the Monroe Street gang, Mike asks, “So what is Chiang Mai like?’ and despite having been there for nearly two weeks, I found myself struggling for an answer.
Here’s the thing: Chiang Mai, is in so many ways, really very ugly – its low cement buildings ensnared under a tangle of telephone wires, the city taken over by 7-Elevens and the distant green mountains trapping the exhaust of tuk-tuks and song thaews and of course, the endless stream of motorbikes. Drive 20 minutes outside the city walls and watch as the landscape melts into rice fields, the clucking of chickens, and the tin and wood shacks that line the murky Ping River. There is much to be wary of here: the mosquitos, the pollution, the stray dogs that stalk the streets, avenues choked with grungy backpackers. Despite it all, Chiang Mai is irresistible. Everywhere you look there are gilded wats, saffron-robed monks, perfect 82 degree weather (their winter!), and the kindest people we’ve thus encountered. Last but not least, Chiang Mai has a cost of living so low you could drown in Thai massages and the insanely delicious food. It’s no wonder it has become a popular landing pad for expats, adding to the diversity of this fairly intimate city.
Chris and Isoo meet an older gentleman birder, Steve, who had spent decades traveling the world. When his wife passed away, he returned to his house in Cleveland, only to realize that without her, it no longer felt like home. So he asked himself where it was that he was last happy, and boarded a plane for Chiang Mai. He’s been here for 7 years. My childhood friend, Janice, spent a decade in New York City before work and school took her to locations as far flung as London, the Philippines, Korea and Germany (just to name a few). Despite her frequent travels she found herself returning again and again to Chiang Mai, finally settling here 4 years ago. Tammy, the landlady of our villa, was a successful HK consultant who took a gap year to decompress and travel only to find herself running a small resort in the countryside of Chiang Mai.
It's Tammy’s gorgeous resort we called home for the last two weeks, but if you ask any of us, we could have stayed much longer. Who knows, perhaps years from now we, too, will find our way back.
The overnight flight to Bangkok was 9 hours. The kids hate long flights, though I’m not sure what they’re complaining about. I feel much more sympathy for their seatmates. For the record, I was wearing that sleep mask between Oona's toes before she literally kicked it off my face and then plopped her foot onto my crotch. So much for trying to sleep.
Chris sometimes uses his powers of persuasion for good. When he was able to talk Tammy into letting us rent out the entire resort for our private use while she was away on a family emergency, he used it for very, very good. The property, located 20 minutes outside the walls of Chiang Mai, is actually a small resort comprised of an outdoor kitchen, meditation Sala, the owner’s villa, main house (with living, dining and kitchen) and four one bedroom villas anchored by a swimming pool. We loved being out in the countryside, listening to the geckos and watching the fish farmers across the Ping River. But we didn’t have as much privacy as we’d thought: The day we arrived in Chiang Mai was a sweltering 91 degrees. After the sweaty business of unpacking was complete, Chris and I peeled off our clothes and jumped into the pool. The kids came running and screamed, “Ewwww! Gross! Put your clothes back on!” We later discovered the closed caption security cameras. If you see us skinny dipping on Thai Internet, the answer is yes, we know we need to work out.
The oversized grown-ups villa.
While Chris and I had a more traditional semi-enclosed bathroom, the kids' was completely open to the elements. Very cool to be surrounded by so much nature, that is unless you're asleep and a gecko falls onto your bed. Just ask Isoo.
Walking down to the river for a little birding.
Just behind the villa is the meditation sala where Chris and Oona would work on their novel.
Isoo tries his hand at fishing in the Ping River behind our house. Here is Oona reminding him not to scare off the fish.
The fish farm across the river.
In the front yard is a little “Spirit House”. A component of Animism, the Thai believe that spirits live among us, and to discourage them from haunting the houses we live in, they create a little shelter to entice and house the spirits, honoring it with flowers and incense. Every couple of days village women would refill the vases with fresh flowers. You see this all over Chiang Mai, on the outside corner next to every house and business.
Sunset over the gorgeous rice paddies near our villa. Isoo especially loved birding the fields. One note about Chiang Mai – every evening around 6pm, everything stops for the King’s Announcement. And by stops, I mean you are not allowed to walk, drive or talk. In the countryside, our small farming village also did a morning announcement at 7am. Chris and I would lie in bed, the pillow over our heads, reminiscing about alternate side parking warnings in Evanston.
We visited a lot of wats, and I mean a lot. This is the Elephant Chedi in Wat Chiang Man.
Chiang Man Wihan
The gorgeous golden ruins of Wat Chedi Luang.
Monks sweeping outside Chedi Luang.
We went to Doi Suthep to visit Wat Phrathat, famous for its undulating serpent staircase. At the foot of the staircase are a couple of Hmong girls dressed in traditional costume. They pose with tourists in exchange for money. I asked Oona what she thought of the practice and her response: "Well, they seem to be having a good time, and if they can make money to buy food for their families, I don't think it's such a bad thing." We talked about it for awhile: What happens when the girls grow up? What about respect for culture? What are the tourists' responsibilities? Should parents rely on young children to support them? I'm not sure who's being exploited here, but for me, it's a complicated and uneasy alliance, and one I find myself wondering about again and again. So for whatever its worth, yes, I took a picture.
But our hands-down favorite was the tiny teak Wat Phan Tao where we got to listen to the mesmerizing chants of the Buddhist monks.
Wat else did we do? We went to Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai's 3D museum. I found the place to be pretty stupid, but Oona, being a ham, loved it.
We also went to the Chiang Mai's super crowded Sunday Walking Street. We had a great time sampling nearly 1km worth of street food and browsing the craft stands until we lost Janice and the kids and I had a near nervous breakdown searching for them. (They had broken off to buy these sleep masks.) I have never been so happy to finally see their goofy, ridiculous faces!
Scenes from Walking Street. Please walk on the left or your will incur the wrath of Janice!
We also went to Huay Tung Tao at the base of Doi Ithanon for lunch at one of the lake front restaurants. It was a lovely day hanging out with Janice, gorging ourselves on fresh fish, playing with the local cats and birding. Afterwards the kids and I took paddle boats onto the lake. A wonderfully relaxing way to spend the day.
Me and the girl devouring the fresh deep fried ruby fish smothered in crispy garlic. Yes, I did gain this much weight - no cardio and the food here is delicious!
So many things to do in Do Ithanon, like hike Wachirathan Waterfall...
Visit the terraced rice fields at Ban Mae Klang Luang.
Walk around the traditional stilt houses of the Karen tribe.
Bird the magnificent gardens. Isoo was so overwhelmed by the number of cool birds that he exclaimed, "I don't even know which way to look first!" Chiang Mai was one of everyone's favorites.
Janice turned us onto a great organization called We Women, a foundation that helps to educate ethnic minority refugee women from Burma. Yes, we knew about the ruling military regime in Burma, but we had much to learn about the civil war between the Burmese and it's seven minority groups. We were grateful for the chance to make lunch for the staff and volunteers, and learn a little about their mission. Here are Chris and Janice trying not to set fire to the kitchen.
The kids making salad and prepping the dragon fruit. In addition to making lunch, as part of their homeschool, they interviewed recent graduate Num Mye about growing up in Burma.
Lunch with just some of the staff and volunteers at We Women. To make a contribution and to learn more, check out their website: http://wewomenfoundation.org.
Another worthwhile endeavor: a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Once revered in Thailand, elephants were free to roam wild in the forests of Chiang Mai. In more recent years, they were captured, violently tamed using arrows and hooks, and then used to haul trees in the logging industry (the cruel joke being that they played a principal role in the deforestation of their own habitats). After the national logging ban of 1989, the domesticated elephants suddenly found themselves unemployed, some left to wander the countryside no longer able to take care of themselves, others relocated to Bangkok and taught tricks to panhandle from humans, and most re-trained to ferry tourists on elephant rides. Believe it or not, despite their strength and size, elephants are not built to carry weight on their backs. In the process of training, most were injured or blinded. Others, after years of carrying around humans, suffer from dislocated hips and spine ailments. The Elephant Nature Park, unlike other elephant trekking parks, is a sanctuary for rescued and abused elephants. We didn't ride them. They didn't do tricks. But we did get to observe them in their natural habit.
A kind mahout, an elephant's best friend.
We were handed buckets and joined the elephants in the river to give them a bath.
It used to be that 60% of Thailand was covered in forests, but due to an increase in population and the thriving teak industry, only 16% of the forest remain. After a flood in Southern Thailand the government recognized the necessity of trees in preventing landslides. Laws were established to curb logging and efforts made to replant trees. However, illegal logging continues. Lek, the owner of Elephant Nature Park, enlisted the help of Buddhist monks to bless the trees. Once blessed, it is considered a sin to cut down the tree. You see the blessed trees, marked by pieces of the saffron colored monks' robes, throughout the forest.
We drove to neighboring Bosan Village for the Umbrella Festival to get a glimpse of the town's signature hand painted umbrellas. Lots of street food, a beauty contest, concert and parade. The parade, which featured floats from neighboring countries reflected Thailand's integral role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations - an economic alliance similar to the European Union) community. Here are children from some of the tribes thoughout the Southeast Asian region.
No bathing suit competition. Instead, the beauty contestants wobble by on bicycles, smiling, waving and holding their umbrella. No easy feat.
Each of the kids got to select an activity. Isoo's? Birding, of course. Oona asked to go zip lining (remind me to cut her out of the Will). Don't let the expression on Isoo's face fool you. The kids had nerves of steel; I was the one shaking!
There were 33 platforms that made for 17 zip lines (the longest was 1/2 mile, one of the longest in the world), several rope bridges and rappelling. I'm smiling here, but I was really not happy about this sky bridge.
Chris doing the Superman.
LAST PLATFORM!!!! WOO HOO!
Our girls lunch and spa day with Janice was much more my speed. Oona got her first Thai massage (ask her about it). But a Chiang Mai highlight for me was getting to hang out with Janice. She spoiled us with a fantastic home cooked lunch, gave us awesome recommendations, and we got to meet several of her very cool friends. Janice, we're definitely coming back to visit again in the future!
And Mike, to answer your question, here are some Chiang Mai street scenes for you.
I was not kidding when I said the city is crawling with 7-Elevens. Thailand just opened its 8,000th branch, surpassing the number of 7-Elevens in the U.S. despite being a country the size of Texas with one-fifth of our population. While convenient, air-conditioned, and with better snacks than our disgusting rotisserie hot dogs, they are slowly putting the local Thai mom and pop shops out of business.
Last meal in Thailand! At the hot pot down the street from our villa.
We had hoped to use our month in Rome to plan the next couple months of this trip, but because we decided at the last moment to add Paris, Brugge and London, we never got the downtime we had anticipated. So of course, we found ourselves 10 days out of Cappadocia before realizing that we forgot to purchase plane tickets. By the time we got around to it, we were shocked to find that they were $1,000. Each. Gulp.
Chris, I know, preferred to skip Turkey altogether and head straight for Asia. We'd already been in Europe for what felt like forever and after our bout of fast travel, he was itching to get to Asia and slow down in the countryside of Chiang Mai. Besides, not only was the flight to Turkey super expensive, but the planned itinerary was inconvenient, requiring three flights in five short days. But there were three things I really wanted to do on this trip: kayak the sandstone formations of Algave in Portugal, hot air balloon over Cappadocia and ride a junk in Halong Bay (cross fingers). Due to weather conditions, I never did get to kayak Algave, something I'm still lamenting (just ask Chris). I'm sure he bought the tickets to Turkey just to avoid having to listen to any more of my moaning and groaning.
Thank God I'm such a pain in the ass because otherwise we would have missed out on some of the most breathtaking vistas we've thus encountered: the rock cut churches and monasteries of Goreme Open Air Museum, hiking the Fairy Chimney's of Pasabag, hot air ballooning over Love Valley and Red Valley. And then there was the sleep-inducing Whirling Dervish show, the amazing 10-story Derinkuyu underground city, the old and new cities of Cavusin, the incredibly kind people of Turkey and some of the best meals we've had on the trip thus far. We even got to bed in a cave hotel, complete with heated bathroom floors, jetted spa tub and mini bar. We've all been keeping our own individual Top 10 List, with some favorites like the Sahara Desert (Oona), Lisbon Escape Game (Chris), and go-karting in Cork (Isoo), making some folk's lists, but not others. But Cappadocia made everyone's list several times over. Seriously, if you're contemplating your next vacation, YOU SHOULD GO HERE.
How on earth does it look like this, you ask? A jillion years ago, three ancient volcanos erupted and blanketed the region with ash that solidified into a soft rock. Wind and water acted to erode the plateau leaving behind a landscape of cones, pillars and "fairy chimneys". Throughout the centuries, mankind gave mother nature a hand, carving out the interiors to create homes, churches, sanctuaries and tunnels.
Our first stop was the Goreme Open Air Museum - a monastic complex comprised of 11 refectories and a series of churches cut into the volcanic rock.
I am not a terribly religious person, but faith, trust, belief are things I respect deeply. These Byzantine frescos in Karanlik Kilise (the Dark Church) are amazing. Sadly, the faces on the frescos at arm's reach are scratched out (the ones on the ceiling out of reach are preserved). The kids and I had a long talk about religious freedom, respect and the amazing art that comes out of faith. It was surprisingly emotional both in regard to religion and art and one of my favorite moments of homeschooling.
If you want to see the interior, you will have to come here in person to experience it firsthand.
What it's like to live inside a cave today? Our hotel suite consisted of a huge living room, bedroom, kitchenette and spa bathroom. Who knew caves could be so luxurious? Perfect for hibernation.
However, the arid weather really got to me. I draped the radiators with soaked bath towels and still woke up with sore throat.
The Whirling Dervish ceremony is a physically meditative state that focuses the body on expressing the belief that all things rotate: We live and return to the earth, we spin around the earth, blood and atoms float and return in a circle. The hat is a tombstone. A black cloak is removed to reveal a purity skirt. One hand is extended upward to God, the other extended downward to those in need. It begins with a bow, a song, a prayer and then five stages of transcendental whirling. I don't know why, but Isoo and I found the whole thing to be really sleep-inducing. Like could not keep my eyes open. But it was really cool (so say the people who managed to stay awake).
We also went to Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in Turkey. Think 10 subfloors deep, created in 7th century B.C., originally used by Christians during the Arab-Byzantine War, but also utilized during the Ottoman war during Roman invasions. The place is amazing. It's got everything from wells, wineries, graveyards, schools, a "communication system", homes, etc., housing up to 10,000 people (with their livestock!), for up to one month.
The cave is quite sophisticated. There are a series of tunnels and tubes which comprise a "telephone" system for relaying information throughout the cave. While some tunnels reach the surface (light wells), this is a water well, which reaches only below to avoid water contamination and poisoning from enemies on the surface. More details: Clay pots acted as toilets and were emptied on the surface. Animals were tied to rock formations on the first sub-floor and fed in rock cut troughs. Water was limited so no one bathed. Seriously. Animals, waste and unwashed masses trapped in a cave. Fragrant.
Every few meters you see a giant Indiana Jones rock which would be rolled to block a passage in instances of attack. It's engineered to take four men to roll it into place, but 10 men to roll it out.
Here is a typical underground "house". This small space would sleep as many as 10 people. The more the merrier as they used good old-fashioned body heat to keep warm.
Want to hear something crazy? Cappadocia was crawling with Korean tourists. I mean busloads of them with selfie sticks. Even the tiny town of Goreme has two Korean restaurants. When I told my mom about it, she said, "Oh yes, it's true. I saw them when I was in Cappadocia years ago." What? My parents went to Cappadocia and never even told me????? I didn't even get a lousy t-shirt!
We eschewed the pricey tour package and instead called a taxi to take us to some of the sights. Turns out our driver, Ali, went to tourism school and spoke perfect English. He was happy to hang out with us for the day, taking us to his favorite locations. The kids at Goreme Panorama.
Oona is happiest when she's out hiking. Jumping for joy at Pasabag.
These are the "fairy chimneys" of Pasabag. And yes, they look more than a little phallic.
Headed home after a long day of sightseeing, Ali asked, "Want to see where my grandmother used to live?" We were exhausted, but not wanting to be rude, we agreed. We were so grateful for his suggestion or we would have missed Cavusin, a small farming town where up until the 1960's, its inhabitants still lived in the pink rock wall. The city gradually migrated down not for the sake of modernization, but according to Ali, "because the rocks started to fall." We hiked up to the Flintstones like "condo" to witness the crumbling rock first hand.
When you see the modesty with which the Cavusin people lived, you can't help but feel like a jerk for complaining about an outdated powder room. It really puts things into perspective (though I do believe they all had granite countertops).
Every restaurant we went to was better than the last. So much great food and such wonderful, hospitable people. We had an early New Year's Eve dinner at our favorite - Topdeck Restaurant. The owner came out and invited Isoo to light a rocket sparkler so we could celebrate early.
We had originally booked our hot air balloon ride for early in our visit, but high winds forced them to cancel. The balloons were grounded for six straight days before we got the all clear for lift off. The van picked us up at 5:30 a.m., but when we got to the booking agency to fill out our paperwork, it started to rain. It was our last morning in Cappadocia and we feared it would be Algarve all over again. But after 2 hours of waiting and coffee drinking, we got the green light!
When we got to the launching grounds the balloons were still being inflated. Up to 100 balloons are allowed to alight each day. To wake up to the sky filled with balloons is like waking up to a dream.
Taking flight over the Red Valley. I was too excited to remember that I'm terrified of heights.
Things were a little tense in the basket when we got caught in a cloud bank. It took an extra 20 minutes for the hot air balloon operator to googlemaps his way back toward the landing pad.
Landing a hot air balloon is fascinating. A flat bed truck is driven close to the descending balloon. A rope is tossed down and then a couple of big guys literally pull the basket toward the ground and onto the flat bed. Then the balloon is batted down, folded, tied into the basket and driven away. Isoo and Oona lending a hand.
Toasting a successful landing! A quick sip before dashing to the airport. What a great way to start 2015!
We were all a little sad to leave Cappadocia for Istanbul, and was even more so when we saw our Airbnb digs. Knowing we only had one full day to explore the city, we opted for location over space and booked a super cheap studio in the heart of happening Beyoglu. I don't want to spend a lot of time bitching about the studio (though I could) because I plan to write a longer piece about Airbnb vs. Hotels at a later date, but let's just say it's true that you get what you pay for. Still, we hit the ground running (or in my case, limping, as sleeping in a cave is very dry and I woke up with a terrible cold). We ran through Istanbul on a quick "Greatest Hits" tour, taking in the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and the Hippodrome. I have to admit, as wonderful as it all was, I was feeling pretty crappy and a little anxious about our upcoming overnight flight so our day of sightseeing felt more like a job than a pleasure. (Now I know how the kids feel). The next day, we managed to squeeze in a quick ferry ride for a fantastic lunch and a stroll around the Asia side before heading back to the airport. A lovely, relaxed ending to a mostly frenetic trip through Istanbul.
But despite it all, we felt for the first time that we finally got the hang of this travel thing. And it only took five months! Despite missing friends and family, we are all having a blast and psyched to keep going. What works for us? A mix of fast and slow travel (2 or more weeks in one location), Airbnb plus the occasional hotel, comfortable housing (a must), lots of nature, a bit of exercise, scheduled lazy days and a relaxed approach to homeschool (apologies in advance to next year's teachers). Most importantly, Chris and I realize that the whole "showing the kids places we love" is not nearly as much fun as discovering a new place together as a family.
The minarets, domes and tiles of the Blue Mosque are gorgeous. After hearing the Call to Prayer five times a day during our weeks in Morocco and Turkey, I was eager to finally get a glimpse of the inside of a mosque.
In addition to removing shoes and for women, covering one's head, Muslims must wash in preparation for prayer. Here are the washing stations located just outside the mosque. (When water is absent in the desert, Berbers use sand.)
The Prayer Room.
Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is stunning; the frescos, the lights, the domes. I acknowledge its beauty, but it was so crowded and covered in scaffolding that we opted for only a quick visit.
The Basilica Cistern is essentially a giant underground water tank built in 532 B.C. to service the Great Palace. It's made up of 336 symmetrically placed columns, many of which were salvaged from other buildings. Once the Great Palace was no longer occupied, the cistern went unused. It was rediscovered 1,000 years later, when locals reportedly caught fish from hatches in their basement floor. Over the centuries, it was everything from junkyard to graveyard until 1987 when 50,000 tons of mud was hauled up, platforms were built and the cistern opened to the public. Of all the sights, this one was my favorite. It's absolutely eerie with mysterious droplets of water, faint outlines of giant swimming carp, and the sideways and upside down columns of Medusa heads.
We interrupt this report for a shot of super strong Turkish coffee (equal parts coffee and grounds) and a couple dozen Turkish Delights.
Granted, I was pretty wiped out toward the end of the day, but Topkapi Palace was one I could have skipped. It may have been the home of Ottoman royalty for 400 years, but now it's a museum with a pretty uninspired display of royal artifacts. BUT, the one really cool thing is that the palace grounds offer outstanding views of both the Asia and Europe sides of Turkey. Here we are standing at the midpoint (and me looking like death warmed over).
After a cold, sleepless night in our dumpy little studio, we jumped on a ferry to Kadikoy where we saw tons of fishermen lining the docks and bridges.
Evidently, the fish were biting! I should've made a video so you could see these little suckers flopping around. Talk about fresh.
While in Cappadocia, we'd met a family that suggested we try Ciya Sofrasi for traditional Anatolian food. You go up to the glass counter, peer into a couple dozen vats and point. The chef serves it up and brings it to your table. While this format is great for most non-Turkish speakers, it's terrible for Chris and I, as our eyes are always bigger than our stomaches. I'm pretty sure we had two of everything on the menu.
We really loved walking the Asia side of Istanbul. We didn't encounter any tourists, just locals going about their business: shopping, working and drinking Turkish coffee in one of the numerous cafes.
Sharing bread crumbs and saying good-bye to the birds of Istanbul. Till next time!