Monthly Archives: January 2023


We often give in to the inexorable pull of the road not taken. One hundred feet from Wayside, our Chiang Mai home, is a charming sun-dappled alleyway that on this day I just could not resist. It’s not like I had someplace to be. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a place to be. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve walked past.

Courtyards to places that I could never have imagined were on one side of the walkway but on the other side were the high walls that surround what I like to think of as “our” Temple. I could hear muffled voices, and looking over a locked gate, I could see a monk and a few people in discussion. I’d never seen anyone in this back corner of the temple grounds, even though we spend a little time here nearly every day.

Entering the grounds, we humbly approached the group and instantly figured there are major reconstruction and upgrades being made to this backwater orphan of the temple complex.

The pool over which the temple was built is still falling apart but we could see magnificent undulating creatures taking shape on a bridge over the water. We asked a young woman about the work going on and she said she’s a volunteer and pointed out the sculptor. He’s well-known and was brought in to create the traditional Naga staircase. The figures are sculpted completely freehand in concrete.

The artist was mixing concrete in a little pail and his young helper said he was sculpting according to the pictures in his mind.

He has done 16 temples and sculpts in wood as well. This project will take six months start to finish. One naga is male, the other female, and when finished one will be painted silver, and the other gold.

We never saw any plans or drawings.

The elephant temple adjacent to the pool is the oldest and most sacred in Chaing Mai, often seen with several dozens of monks surrounding it, so it’s easy to see why this temple is getting a serious upgrade.

We made it a point to visit every few days to watch the fascinating progress. The artist came to recognize us and always greeted us when we arrived. He didn’t seem to mind the audience.

With our visas expiring soon it’s a shame we won’t see the finished work.

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Lunar New Year

We seem to keep missing Lunar New Year celebrations wherever we are. In Sydney in 2017 we enjoyed an unexpected dragon dance through a market but missed the big day, and in Singapore in 2020 we watched decorations pop up around town in preparation for the event but we had to leave before the actual festivities.

This year we were determined to catch the real thing, or at least what we could, given where we are. We figured Chiang Mai is our best bet so we reluctantly left delightful Pai for the minibus journey back over the mountains to our home base in Chiang Mai.

Most of the celebrations would be in Chinatown, a long hot walk from the Old Town, so we chose to get up early and watch the start of the official kickoff parade at the East Gate.

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Songthaew Style

It’s been a while, but I wanted to take this time to talk about local Thai transportation. There’s this conveyance here called a songthaew. It’s essentially a pick-up truck painted bright cadmium red with two hard longitudinal bench seats and a bit of a roof, but open to traffic out the back.

(Photo snagged from

I include this information by way of explaining that this is the cheapest way of moving about Thailand. Designed for eight souls, I’ve never seen one with less than twelve or more cramped backpackers while circulating Pai looking for more. You go nowhere without a fully packed truck. Remember, there’s always room for one more. Somehow this all works out unless something goes wrong which would cause a lot of fun-seekers to tumble out the open back of the pickup. So far we’ve managed to avoid the songthaew.

We signed up for the rare, for us, “tour” to Pai Canyon and sure enough, it was time to become acquainted with our very own bright cadmium red songthaew. I will admit that the first step up through the doorless open back was challenging while simultaneously avoiding giving the very low roof a righteous head butt, it was obvious that first we’d be wandering around picking up more adventure seekers. Rarely has driving 12km through the Pai countryside seemed so long. We arrived just before sundown to the classic Thai carnival atmosphere. Music, food, balloons, cheap plastic Buddhas but the job at hand was a frontal assault climbing a surprisingly steep pathway up a long hill toward what I hoped was the correct way to Pai Canyon. We were fairly confident because we’ve developed a good nose for sniffing out the right way to go, and at least it wasn’t 360+ stairs.

Breathlessly summiting a dusty hilltop we were met with a strange scene of uncommon beauty.

The only thing left for all sunset lovers is to negotiate one’s way back to your ride in absolute total darkness. There simply are no lights at Pai Canyon.

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Loving Pai

Loving Pai, but in the interest of full disclosure, Yours Truly has had the unsettling sensation of being observed by a mysterious presence. Hair on the back of your neck kind of thing. In a few days, after having had the best khao soi known to man, I had a duh moment. High on a mountain overlooking Pai I couldn’t help but notice a massive white seated Buddha tucked into a sea of dark green jungle. It never failed to catch my eye. We decided to make a day of it. We would watch the sunset from the great white Buddha.

Guessing that there would be an inordinate number of stairs involved I wouldn’t have normally chosen to walk all the way to the mountain first but that’s what happened.

The walk through town was the usual exercise of dodging scooters and cars but soon we were tramping a dusty path on the edge of a well-used narrow asphalt road. Kind of the burbs of Pai.

We saw a large open air Muay Thai academy where mostly white women were showing no mercy while kicking the shit out of heavy hanging bags. We past a pool association, a weed club, where the “real party gets started” and more massage parlors than you can shake a stick at. Every step left its own cloud of dust.

The approach to the Buddha stairs was frankly intimidating. Overhanging trees hid the top of the stairs from view and I could swear it got steeper the higher you went.

I couldn’t understand why the stairs looked so unused. I use the go slow, don’t stop, head down, don’t say anything that you’ll regret later approach. As I began to flag, aching for breath, I looked ahead and sweet Jesus, the stairs we were climbing were not the actual Buddha stairs. These were just the stairs to the fancy Buddha stairs. We crossed a road and sat down, breaking a rule, I’m sure. I guess most everybody rides up to the top, leaving maintenance on the lower stairs to fend for themselves.

This began to hurt as we plodded our way up. Each step individually considered and dealt with.

Finally we summited but instead of a celebration, I had that sinking feeling. For instance where’s the White Buddha? I peeked around a little temple and to my horror, off in the distance, I could see the real staircase to the Buddha.

Things were close to mutinous but I was damn well going to see the sunset from the White Buddha. That’s just who you’re dealing with. Marce, being the loyal soldier, followed along. We were running out of time.

There were a lot of people watching from the base of the great White Buddha as the sun began to set.

Marce set her own pace and made it just in time.

On shaky legs we started down the mountain. The thing about going to see a sunset is you’re going to come back in the dark.

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From weed to wonton

We’ve had a week of relative home-like routine in Chang Mai when a travel directive came down from on high. After careful bean counting, a few baht were found surplus to our immediate needs so we turned travel arrangements over to Jackie, the patron saint of wayward wandering pilgrims and owner of the Wayside Guest House, our home away…well, the closest thing we have to a home. Jackie booked us a Hi Ace Toyota minibus to Pai which arrived promptly the next morning and began wandering through the narrow alleyways of Chang Mai neighborhoods picking up fellow pilgrims, stacking up their massive backpacks behind the fold down seats in the back, until we were packed in like spam-in-a-can and like every “chicken bus” I’ve ever been on. There’s always room for one more.

Before long we started up into the mountains and switchbacks announced their presence with authority. Back and forth we swerved, left and then right.

I checked on Marce and she was doing fine but a young boy up front was lime green. With impeccable timing, while rounding a tight turn, our driver handed his mother a barf bag and he filled it to the brim. Marce held fast. I was proud.

We found ourselves firmly at the epicenter of the backpacker “Banana Pancake Trail” where we were once on the yachtie “Coconut Milk Run.”

Rolling into Pai we had to dodge hundreds of backpackers as we fought our way into the middle of town.

In Thailand this is called a walking street, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be run over by a newbie trying to corral an out of control scooter.

Marce and I instantly felt comfortable with the anything goes, hippie vibe; after all we were once, a long time ago, flower children. We found our guest house; do they still call it a pad?

From weed to wonton, every kind of ingestible is available in this tiny town.

We decided on Khao Soi for lunch at the Sugar Cane eatery, which turned out to be the best we ever had.

No recipe, an old lady in Pai makes it for them. A quick turn around town revealed tours for any variety of extreme adrenaline-fueled activity. We chose a walk to the bamboo bridge that crosses the picturesque Pai River. Not exactly white water but then it hasn’t rained in over a month.

The character on the other side of the river is quite a bit different.

Every evening the walking street converts to a night market

As luck would have it we ran into Wayside friends dining streetside and made a date for lunch. Pai is that kind of place.

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Feels like home

We’ve grown to love Chiang Mai. We love the neighborhood we’d randomly picked online, and we love our wonderful host at Wayside Guesthouse. We have favorite cafés and restaurants, a temple down the street we visit nearly every day, a routine of market visits depending on the day. We’ve introduced ourselves to the local cats. When we walk down the street vendors greet us like friends.

After nearly six weeks in Thailand it’s time to apply for a visa extension. There are two options for this, one being a return to the immigration office near the airport, and the other going to a new office in one of the big fancy malls. We’re always up for a mall visit wherever we go, mostly to patronize some of the western food emporia that have infiltrated most countries. Auntie Annie’s, Baskin-Robbins, here we come.

Jackie, our guesthouse host, helped us print and copy the paperwork for the extension and despite a brief hitch because one of the printouts cut off essential info, we were on our way in about 45 minutes, with 30 more days to spend in this wonderful country. The charge was about $55 each. The cost of visas and extensions is something we need to budget for now. Of the countries we visited by boat we rarely paid anything for entry, and usually were granted 90 days on entry, sometimes longer.

Business done, it was time to explore the mall. There are three modern malls in Chiang Mai and this is our favorite. It’s got the biggest Uniqlo we’ve ever seen plus Marks & Spencer, H&M, and all the usual international brands you can imagine. We rarely buy anything but we both enjoy windowshopping. There’s also an indoor version of the ubiquitous street market where you can indulge in any of the foods you normally see in a night market. We still don’t know what half of it is, but the market is always busy.

I’m a sucker for stationery stores, and this one had me walking up and down every aisle, inhaling the smell of paper, examining the craft supplies. I don’t need any of this stuff but I had to touch everything nonetheless. Jack waited outside.

We were lured by the sound of a musical instrument that we initially took to be recorded but as we got closer we found this woman playing a guzheng, a 21-string Chinese instrument similar to a harp. I failed to capture a video, but it was beautiful and she’s obviously a master.

We don’t think of ourselves as tourists but rather travelers who plunk ourselves in a place and enjoy whatever comes at us. On our wanders around town we always read the tour offerings to see what people on a schedule come here for. Most of it doesn’t appeal to us. Bus tours are almost always nixed as I have an aversion to being herded and we generally manage to make our way to places of interest on our own. One place we haven’t visited yet is Doi Suthep, a large temple complex high on a hill overlooking Chiang Mai. “High on a hill” are the right words to entice Jack, who never turns down an opportunity to reach the top of anything.

Instead of a tour or a series of local buses, we took an inexpensive ride-hail car to the base of the hill where we faced the 309 steps to the top.

The temple is magnificent and there’s lots to look at.

But the real reason for us to come was the sweeping view of Chiang Mai. Even with the haze it was nice to see it from this perspective.

We soaked in the view for a long time, then wisely took the funicular down the mountain to save our knees.

And then, being the Schulzes, we ended our excursion at a café. Chiang Mai delivers.

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We find the right stuff

The good news is that as our grumpy driver negotiated his way down the steep and twisty mountain temple road, we knew that our last stop, the opium museum, was right at the base of this mountain. In a Come to Jesus meeting with the powers that be we agreed that we had to be on the road back to Chang Rai by 3:00 or be subject to certain unspecified penalties. As Marce and I pointed to the Opium Museum clearly visible on the right, our driver said no, he knows where the Opium Museum is, and apparently it’s down the permanently clogged two lane road to the left.

After 45 minutes of bumper to bumper stop-and-go crawl we broke free of town clutter and pulled into an impressive edifice featuring a large wide open parking lot that, now that we’d arrived, had exactly one car in it. After slogging up a long humbling staircase we arrived at reception barely able to speak. They wanted 400 baht apiece! This can’t be the right place but we paid because we were already there and the clock was counting down.

The place has an interesting uphill corridor with Hieronymus Bosch-like bas-relief sculpture on the walls. I think this is probably an attempt to dazzle you with distracting footwork because of the longish uphill hike.

The creepy figures seemed to be rising out of the walls, setting the tone of a web of pain due to addiction.

Turns out the backstory to the orientation film is royal propaganda about how the queen rid the nation of opium turning dope into tea. Aside from some great old film footage, this was not what we came for. What’s more, the film suggested the visit would take 2-3 hours.

Marce stormed out of the little welcoming film and demanded our money back. The tiger of Philly wins again! I will say it was quiet in the car going back but the traffic, if possible, was even worse. Chastised, our driver went where we originally said, parked where we said, and waited where we said. He even tacked on a half hour to our drop dead time.

Entering through the gift shop we paid a very small fee and entered poppy land. Ah, this is the place.

Turns out that there are just four main types of poppies that are used.

First things first was a display of the stages of poppy growth and quick D.I.Y. lesson on how to make opium. Does anyone think this is a good idea?

There is a proscribed proper position to smoke opium and apparently this is it. What you can’t see is the block under the head and the feet are in the proscribed position tucked into the butt.

Whimsical weights and scales were invented for the commerce inevitably becoming quite creative with fantastical creatures.

A few tools of the trade.

Some of these pipes are works of art.

Exiting through the gift shop we found beautiful antique pipes and paraphernalia for sale. Sounds a little like buying a prison sentence to me.

It was a frustrating day but we got the most out of it. Then it was back to Chiang Rai and a last visit to the night market for dinner.

The next day we hopped on the first class bus for the long ride back to Chiang Mai, our home base in Thailand. It was good to be back.

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Salvaging the day

We’d been assured that our driver spoke good English. He didn’t. In fact he barely knew a word. Every time we tried to communicate to him he called his brother who did speak English and handed the phone to me. That’s how I ended up having a polite but tense argument with a stranger in the crowded parking lot of a tea plantation while Jack ran to various viewpoints to take photos. We didn’t really care about the tea plantation and only added it to our list as a potential last stop for refreshments if we had time. But since our obstinate driver took the clockwise route instead of our intended counter clockwise route, we’d just wasted over an hour of our precious private car and driver day. What’s more, he refused to take us to a more preferred destination, Tham Luang Nang Non cave where a dramatic rescue saved the members of a junior soccer team in 2018. Two divers lost their lives in the rescue, and we wanted to visit the memorial to their sacrifice. But no. We were told there’d be no time for that.

Frustrated, we urged the driver to make haste to what should have been an easy and scenic next stop after the Black House, the Golden Triangle.

This is the spot where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet on the Mekong River, and the main area of opium cultivation during the 1950s and 60s. The name “Golden Triangle” was only coined in the early 70s, supposedly by the CIA, and while opium production in Thailand is much reduced now, Myanmar still accounts for about 25% of the world’s production, far behind Afghanistan.

The history of the opium trade in this region is complex and beyond my ability to summarize, but here’s an excellent treatise on the subject if you want a deep dive.

One tragic idea to note is that opium addiction and the subsequent demand for supply has been used to fund wars by the British, the Chinese, and the French, to name a few.

Thailand might be dreaming that there’s no longer opium production here, but they’ve certainly developed the Golden Triangle as a tourist destination. It’s not the most scenic place we’ve ever been, but the history of the opium trade is what brought us here, not the views.

We spent a half hour or so in the carnival atmosphere of the Golden Triangle Park, avoiding as much as possible the busloads of tourists and their selfie sticks, and declining the 15-minute boat ride on the Mekong.

We were more interested in the Temple of the Ancient Buddha of Chiang Saen, high above the river. Luckily we could drive up most of the way and avoid the usual 350 steps so many of the temples we visit seem to require as a minimum.

The temple itself is mostly ruins but the view of the Golden Triangle is spectacular.

It was time to learn more about opium at the museum we saw just at the bottom of the hill.

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Art from a gothic perspective

I don’t know if it was a language problem or just a breach of our driver’s comfort zone but it caused a certain inflexibility of attitude. We had already done many of the things on the typical Chiang Rai tour list, which seemed like poor value for money, so we booked our own driver and car which we thought would allow us to construct our own far-reaching itinerary. Like many things it started out smoothly. Or maybe we should’ve realized when he wouldn’t take the more scenic road we preferred, to our first stop. He still managed to get us to the Baan Dam Museum, better known as the Black House.

Free from temple dogma Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee felt unrestrained to plumb the darkest recesses of his mind. I was vibrating with anticipation and gladly paid the entrance fee that seems to be the first thing you do at one of these projects. Oddly, the entrance to the Black House seemed peaceful, almost reverential but at least you can leave your shoes on!

Not actually black but a dark dull stain, the Black House seems rather small, almost humble, as one enters the great hall but magically expands as you cross the threshold and your eyes follow the ladder-like steps nearly four stories up into the rafters.

One shudders at what the view from up there might do to your bladder. That’s when the assault to your senses begins to overwhelm. It’s kind of a gothic perspective on Buddhist art.

The exhibits mostly consist of the skin, horns, and bones of dangerous animals arranged in artistic patterns that seem to change their meaning somehow.

This menagerie is accompanied by a massive hoard of old Thai collectibles worthy of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the U.S.

Many of the 40 some-odd buildings can only be viewed from outside the structure.

I don’t know why it’s here but this is a completely deconstructed elephant skeleton

Duchanee is said to occasionally spend the night inside his personal apartment in what is known as “the whale.”

Volunteers and backpackers stay in these concrete yurts.

As seductive as inspecting Duchanee’s gothic nightmare is, we’ve miles to go to our next stop. We soon realized that our headstrong driver had his own ideas about our itinerary and we found ourselves taking a huge detour to see a tea plantation which was the last priority on our list, only if we have the time. All things being equal I like tea plantations, but we’ve seen the terraced valleys of Bali and you just can’t touch that for scenic tranquil beauty .

So we lost an hour and a half while trying to convey our disappointment at how this was progressing and we really ought to head north to the rescue cave as soon as possible. Our thinking was our car, our driver, our rules.

Now we dolly back, then we fade to black in preparation for round two.

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Which New Year?

We were in Chiang Rai for New Year’s Eve and we didn’t know how or if they celebrate and where. Googling sent us to check out the clocktower square in the afternoon and we were happy to find a big stage and lots of night market booths coming to life. We didn’t expect to hear a Thai version of the Miami Sound Machine doing a sound check but we’re getting used to the unexpected in music here in Northern Thailand.

I don’t think we mentioned before that the most common music we hear around these parts is jazz, followed by R&B, then classic singer-songwriters. Nearly every guesthouse, restaurant or shop greets us with cool jazz, like Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson, Mile Davis, Stan Getz. We asked a lot of hosts why jazz is so popular but we’re met with blank looks as if to say, “What else would we be listening to?”

We returned to the square in the evening as the party was getting started, joining what must be the entire population of greater Chiang Rai. The setup was like a giant night market but most of the vendors were selling beer, cocktails, and snacks. Chang Beer seemed to be the biggest sponsor judging from their marketing presence.

One band after another got the crowd going until the final group caused a frenzied surge toward the stage with a sea of phones recording the performance. We never learned who they were but even the armed police guards edged closer, obviously enjoying the privilege of their position.

As we approached midnight and the countdown the band relinquished the stage to the dignitaries and we watched the clock as we listened to what we assume were thanks to the organizers and VIPs. Note the year in this photo — 2566. That’s the new year in the Buddhist calendar. My iPad has been on the Buddhist calendar since we arrived in Thailand despite every attempt to remind it where it came from.

Finally we counted down to 2023 and we were treated to beautiful fireworks and much cheering and selfie-taking.

2022 was a difficult year of transition for Jack and me but we feel pretty good about 2023, and ringing in the new year surrounded by so much joy bodes well for the future. We wish you all a year of health and happiness. May you find peace and pleasure every day of the year.

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