Author Archives: Marce

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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Around Chiang Rai

Friends who’ve been to Chiang Rai recommended it as much quieter and more rural than Chiang Mai but as soon as we left our hotel we found the same dusty streets, the same noisy traffic, the same lack of sidewalks that require iron nerves and a purposeful stride to make it to your destination without being clipped by a motorbike. But a new town is always fun to explore and we pointed our feet toward the city center.

Right smack in the center of a roundabout stands the fanciful golden clock tower, designed and built by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat in 2008 in honor of the king. You’ll hear more about the artist in the next blog post.

We did our usual café crawl then hired a tuktuk to take us across the Kok River to the Garden of Reeds. There was a flower festival going on with an arts fair on the grounds of the adjacent cultural center. We usually miss festivals so it’s a nice coincidence that we’re here for this one. The downside is that it was crowded, this being a weekend, but it’s always fun to see events that are local and not just put on for tourists. In fact we saw very few tourists all day.

There was a huge food tent, and the roads were blocked for vehicles and lined with craftsmen of all stripes and mediums. The textiles and clothing were particularly beautiful and once again I had to restrain myself from scooping up a new wardrobe.

This is the first time we saw bugs on offer, and no, we weren’t tempted to try them.

We grabbed some bug-free food and cold drinks and parked ourselves in the middle of the cultural center among the examples of different hill tribe houses.

Then it was time to enjoy the flower show. We loved this display from the Northern Bonsai Club. I’ve always been intrigued by bonsai, and decades ago I made an feeble attempt to create one, but the art requires a degree of patience I don’t possess. Some of these examples were obviously quite old.

Jack got distracted by the longtail boats giving 15-minute rides up the river and back.

We walked through the park and admired the flower displays until it got too hot and crowded.

We walked along the river for what seemed like miles, watching the longtails zoom by, until we reached the famous Blue Temple. Sure, you can take a tour to the “important” sites, but we are the Escapees. We don’t do tours. Feet don’t fail us now.

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To market

Markets are maybe my favorite thing about travel. I love them all; supermarkets, bodegas, city markets, wet markets, farmer’s markets, art fairs, you name it. I think you get a good sense of a place when you visit its markets.

Chiang Mai has some great ones, and I’m determined to drag Jack to every one of them. The small city market near us has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, all so beautiful and inspiring that I wish I were shopping to cook.

One day we ventured outside the Old City to the biggest city market, a rabbit warren of market buildings and alleyways with hundreds of stalls offering dry goods, fresh food, crafts, clothing, household items, appliances, and so on. Whatever you need you can get here as long as you have the patience to find it. I love this kind of market but it’s not Jack’s favorite and I admit it can be exhausting. Someone told us this is called the Chinese market because it’s in the middle of Chinatown.

Behind the Chinese market along the riverfront is the flower market. There are dozens of vendors with beautiful fresh flowers, so fragrant and tempting.

Our guesthouse host suggested we visit a weekly organic food and craft market, also outside the Old City. This one is more upscale with a produce pavilion, several lovely cafés, crafts from some of the hill tribes plus beautiful clothing from local designers. I don’t usually photograph clothing or jewelry because I worry that the designers will think I want to copy their work, but it was all beautiful and well made. If I weren’t living out of a suitcase I’d have a whole new wardrobe.

Coffee is a very big deal here in northern Thailand, and making a pourover cup from single source beans is a ritual.

In addition to the traditional crafts there are lots of quirky local artists. I wish I could have bought one of these cats.

The prepared foods here looked great but we opted for ice cream, our first in Thailand.

There are a couple of daily night markets in Chiang Mai but the big one is the Sunday one on the Walking Street. It runs halfway through the Old City and along some side streets too, with several hundred vendors selling new and used clothing, crafts, food, leather goods, paintings. It’s impossible to take it all in.

One night a troop of Hari Krishnas chanted and drummed their way through the crowd. We hadn’t seen them for years.

Most of the food stalls are in the temple grounds, and there are quite a few temples along the route. You can usually find an empty table to sit and enjoy your food.

There are always lots of buskers playing every kind of music.

As the sun goes down the crowd gets bigger until it’s shoulder to shoulder along some stretches. That’s when we take a side street to get out of the fray and head home for some peace and quiet. But we always go again the next week.

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Exploring the neighborhood

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand with a population of 1.2 million people, and located in the northern highlands. There are upscale shopping malls, universities and technical schools, an international airport, museums and cultural centers, a giddying array of dining options, modern hospitals and medical centers, nearby national parks and enough recreational activities to keep a traveler busy for years.

We, however, have chosen to park ourselves in a quiet corner of Old City, the original walled and moated square mile established in the 13th century as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom. The wall is mostly gone now, destroyed and rebuilt through the centuries, the bricks pilfered by the occupying Japanese during World War II, and the remains now stabilized and protected. The moat is still there, a blessing to the character of the Old City and a curse to drivers who can only cross in limited places.

We spent our first days in Chiang Mai exploring the Old City by foot. I downloaded a self-guided walking tour and we used that as a guide.

If you’ve ever traveled in this part of Southeast Asia you know that most of the points of interest are going to be temples, and it’s easy to get “templed out.”

Since touring many of the hundreds of temples and temple ruins of Angkor Wat, we have perhaps a keener interest in temple art and architecture, and rarely suffer from overtempling. I compare it to touring Italy, where a guidebook may lead you to church after chapel after cathedral, but each is unique and beautiful, and it’s the same with temples. Once you recognize the basic elements, styles and building functions, you come to appreciate the unique features and designs.

Some of the older temples date from the 13th or 14th centuries. Many are well preserved, some are left in their natural state. This one, the largest in the old city, Wat Chedi Luang, was damaged by an earthquake in 1545.

These are all Buddhist temples, but there’s often Hindu iconography displayed, something that confused me in Cambodia, too. It seems this region was once part of the originally Hindu Khmer Empire (the people who built Angkor Wat) and much of Hindu culture lingered even after the population became Buddhist. It’s not uncommon to see the much revered Ganesh, remover of obstacles. You might remember we stumbled on the Ganesh Chaturthi festival on the beach in Fiji. You can read about that here.

Some of the temples have remarkably lifelike wax figures of monks staged inside, which more than once gave me a start.

Jack rarely goes inside the temples because he doesn’t like taking his shoes off but I go in nearly every one and sit quietly for a few moments, or walk the perimeter to see the art.

Each temple is not just a single structure, but a collection of buildings, each with its own purpose. If there are resident monks, there are also domestic buildings. It’s not unusual to find graves, or a chicken coop, or kitchen garden.

The best part about visiting the temples — except for the ones on the popular tourist routes — is the stillness within the walls of the grounds, where you can hear birds, or chanting or temple bells. It’s a beautiful break from the outside world.

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Dragging anchor

There’s a funny thing that happens in your head when you spend years on a boat at anchor.

On a boat you choose an anchor spot that’s protected from wind and waves, that takes into account a possible change in wind direction and tide so that when the boat swings it’ll still be a safe distance from the shore. Our ears are attuned to every noise on the boat and a sure get-out-of-bed sound is breaking waves, evidence that you’re too close to shore and need to move. Now.

Only once did we intentionally anchor within the sound of waves crashing on rocks. It was in narrow Baie de Hane on the island of Ua Huka in the Marquesas, French Polynesia. We sailed into the tiny sliver between rocky shores as darkness fell, a wary eye on the surf on either side, and eased in as far as we could to escape the ocean swell. We put out the bare minimum of anchor chain plus a little extra for safety and hoped for the best. The next day our friends on French Curve tucked in close behind us and we spent three days exploring this rarely-visited treasure. Our anchor and chain never budged but the constant disconcerting sound of breaking waves on the rocks kept us on high alert the whole time.

Old habits die hard. We’re in a wooden cabin perched on a steep slope above a rocky shoreline about 12 meters from the sea. When the tide comes in the sound of waves crashing over the boulders — some the size of Volkswagens — makes the muscles in my neck tense and I unconsciously wait for the tug of the anchor chain reassuring me that we’re still stuck to the bottom.

Then I remember we’re on land in a virtual tree house and we’re safe.

Since traveling on land after selling Escape Velocity we always seem to gravitate toward the water. I miss boat life. I miss the peace and privacy of life at anchor. I miss living in harmony with nature. I miss flexing the skills that became automatic with experience.

Now we’re on land looking at the water instead of on the water looking at the land. Which is better? Boat life is definitely more fun, but land life is less stressful. Maybe. I think the sea is calling us back. Time will tell.

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Walking the beat

After the hospital we moved back into an Airbnb in the same building as before but facing the other direction. We missed our water view and the balcony was smaller but the unit itself was nicer and our host was very kind and responsive. In fact the doormen were also very helpful when we came and went every day. We didn’t have a wheelchair and it was initially a long walk for Jack to the elevator, so we borrowed a straight chair from the lobby which Jack used as support, pushing it ahead of him from the front door all the way to the elevator. It made an ear splitting screech on the tiles but we all laughed and the guards always jumped up to help.

The apartment was well equipped, including a USB rechargeable stick vacuum. Eureka! we thought, this would be fantastic in the van where charging via 12v USB is so much more convenient. We’d never seen one like this and it worked great. I asked our host where he got it and he actually picked it up for us and delivered it. Then we realized it wasn’t going to fit in the one shared rolling duffle we travel with (it folds flat; boaters and vanlifers know how important that is) so we had to buy another one. Now we’re traveling with two checked bags, something we’re loathe to do, and we’ll be schlepping a vacuum cleaner in our luggage for months before we return to our campervan. “If customs asks we’ll tell them we like to do a little light cleaning wherever we go,” says Jack. Maybe we should have thought this through. It’s a nice vacuum, though.

As Jack got stronger we started walking to nearby restaurants for lunch, past the ubiquitous shrines. Penang has large Chinese and Indian populations, so it’s common to see actively visited shrines tucked into every cranny.

When Jack finished his course of outpatient physiotherapy we left our high rise Airbnb near the hospital and moved to the historic district of Georgetown where we could walk to all of our favorite haunts. First stop, Holy Guacamole for Mexican food.

Seems like all we did for the next couple of weeks was walk around, eat, watch World Cup matches when we could, all while Jack continued to regain strength and balance. He still carried the cane, but rarely used it except as a pointing device.

Six weeks after arriving in Penang we had the final appointments with the surgeon and the cardiologist and Jack was pronounced good to go. And nearly three years after the global pandemic nixed a planned sail north, we are finally going to Thailand.

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Body shop

As soon as we arrived in Penang we made an appointment with the surgeon for pre-op tests and evaluation, then set out to reacquaint ourselves with one of our favorite places to hang out. It was Diwali, or as they call it in Malaysia, Deepavali, so the big malls were festooned for the occasion.

We hoped we could enjoy a similar Diwali to the one we experienced in Trinidad where families dressed in new fancy clothes and decorated their houses with lights and handed out sweets to passersby, but our Grab drivers told us most families in Penang live in high rise buildings and celebrate at home with family. There would be nothing for us to see beyond the special displays in the shops of Little India.

We enjoyed that first week’s Airbnb with the great view toward the north and the Malacca Strait and spent our days discovering more of Penang’s famous street art.

Jack was determined to sample every kind of Eggs Benedict offered in Penang.

On the day of Jack’s appointment we joined the scrum at check-in and saw Dr. Aaron Lim for the first time in three years. He’s still the fashion icon.

During all the pre-op tests the cardiologist wasn’t happy with Jack’s blood pressure so they pushed back the surgery a few days to allow time to get it under control. Then a week after landing in Penang, we left the Airbnb and and moved to the hospital where Jack was prepped for surgery in the morning. I stayed with Jack in his room.

With the correct knee well-labeled, Jack was off to surgery. I paced in the room and occasionally badgered the nurse for updates when it seemed to take much longer than the first time.

Finally Jack was back, still loopy and feeling no pain. Later Dr. Aaron came to check his handiwork and pronounced it good. Tomorrow, the work begins.

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Wrap it up

Missing the northern lights in the perfect spot was a big disappointment but time is getting too short and we’ve got to get down to business. So back toward Glasgow we go, a place we’re starting to think of as a home base.

We drove right past the public parking lot at Balmoral Castle. You can actually overnight there in designated motorhome spots but with no spare time to explore the grounds we nixed the idea for now and drove on.

Farther west I picked an innocuous parkup in a layby on a gravelly road in the Cairngorms. With barely a moment’s warning, the predicted solar activity that failed to materialize two days before while we were in Portsoy suddenly came to life where we were surrounded by mountains and on a road with occasional traffic. I barely had time to set up the camera while keeping an eye on the dark clouds rolling in.

Despite being interrupted by headlights and eventually obscured by clouds, we saw the coveted and rare red Aurora. It only lasted a short time but what an unexpected thrill it was!

The foul weather that moved in overnight continued through next day and we skipped some planned tourist stops and carried on westward.

During the next week we booked storage for the van, did some last minute travel shopping, dug out our warm weather clothing, found accommodations in Penang, and generally prepared for living out of a suitcase, something we’ve never done for longer than a couple of weeks. All the while we stayed in some new parkups and some old familiar ones and made creative meals out of fridge and pantry leftovers.

Of course we visited yet another castle, one we’d driven past a number of times but hadn’t noticed. And of course it was closed.

At a parkup along the Firth of Clyde we saw the conning tower and rudder of a submarine sliding by. It was almost out of sight before I recognized what I was seeing. It was a US flagged nuclear sub on its way home from a summer at Faslane military base. I didn’t get a photo but you can see video someone else captured here.

We spent a night at a campground flushing the tanks and doing laundry. There’d been so much rain that we were nearly surrounded by mushrooms, some I’d never seen in real life before.

From the campground we moved to a hotel for two days while we deep cleaned the van and packed for an indefinite odyssey to mostly unknown destinations.

On departure day we dropped off the van at the storage place, got a ride to the airport, and started on our 2-day, badly planned (by me) four-flights-with-long-layovers journey to the other side of the planet.

We left the UK at 10am Monday morning and arrived at our Airbnb in Penang at 2pm Wednesday. A few hours later we were in t-shirts eating takeaway Banh Mi on our balcony overlooking the Malacca Strait. It’s been eleven months since we were here. We missed the place!

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We have a deadline, and yet we can’t seem to firm up our immediate plans. We drove to Stornaway — a legendary name in sailing circles — for the ferry back to mainland Scotland. Stornaway was a bit of a disappointment, perhaps because we were unsure where to go and what to do.

Still, we did the walkabout and took tourist photos before boarding the ferry to Ullapool.

“No one knows who they were, or what they were doing there.”

Our weather is up and down. Bright sun and blue sky followed by thick cloud cover and heavy rain. Or sometimes light rain. Or high winds. We’ve learned to be prepared for everything and keep an eye in the forecast.

With flights booked and lots to do to before we leave for six months we really should have turned south toward Glasgow to shop and prepare the van for storage. But my Aurora apps were pinging and vibrating with alerts about strong activity at the end of the week. In my latest source of Fear of Missing Out I asked Jack if he would mind driving clear across the country to a place where we might find the perfect conditions for the northern lights — a north-facing horizon, a dark sky with minimal light pollution, and no low clouds. Add that to a new moon and we could hit the aurora jackpot. I found what looked like the perfect place, but it was in the wrong direction and farther than we usually drive, a laughable (by American standards) 120 miles. “Sure,” Jack said, and we even took a longer scenic route at 140 miles.

On the way we couldn’t pass up another castle ruin, this one guarded by a large but friendly hairy coo.

Castle Roy is a 12th century fortress that only opened in 2022 after extensive work reinforcing the foundations to make it safe for the public. There’s not much to see, but the setting is lovely and apparently it’s become a popular picnic and wedding spot in the local area.

I find I’m watching the weather forecast almost as much as I did when we were on the boat, and I saw that a front is moving through with high winds predicted. We like to be in a protected spot for that kind of weather, so I found us a quiet parkup along a river popular with flyfishermen. We tucked into a corner beside a graveyard under some tall trees.

The front came through as expected with seriously high winds that made me question the decision to park under the trees. All night we were pelted by leaves and twigs and I worried a larger branch might damage our solar panel.

The rain continued the next day but the fishermen showed up anyway, undaunted, and put in the time whether they caught anything or not.

Finally on the second day the rain stopped enough for me to traipse through the soggy cemetery in search of a Pictish carved stone marked on the ordinance survey map.

After consulting a few websites I finally found the stone embedded in the wall. They say there’s a cross carved into it but the surface is so weathered and eroded you can’t really see it. I couldn’t, anyway.

With the sky clearing by the hour we turned north toward what I hope will be Aurora nirvana.

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Iron and Rock

Archaeologists have identified nineteen megalithic sites in this immediate area and while we haven’t pledged to see them all we do want to visit some of the more important or scenic ones. We’re both fascinated by the urge to erect such monuments, the effort it took, and the locations chosen.

The landscape here, especially under the northern sun, is exhilarating, and at the same time almost soothing. Being able to see long distances, where you can almost perceive the curve of the earth, is always my favorite place to be.

We have a Scottish Islands Passport app that recognizes when we visit a new island. It’s fun to get the ping and a new “stamp,” and for that reason only we drove toward Great Bernera nearby. Little did we know it would involve a sea journey.

“Bridge over the Atlantic” might have been a bit of an exaggeration but it lead to another of the megalithic sites, this one Callanish VIII, which may be our favorite. The view in either direction is breathtaking and the stones themselves are beautiful.

Jack was, as usual, compelled to summit the nearby hill. No matter where we go, no matter how much ibuprofen it takes, he will always get to the top of wherever we are. He’s a High-man.

On the north end of Great Bernera is an Iron Age Village. We assumed this would be a cutesy touristy thingy, but we forgot for a minute that we’re in Scotland and Scots don’t do cutesy. The visit was an enjoyable surprise, and while we only understood about a third of the docent’s strong dialect, she was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. The site, like others in coastal Scotland, was uncovered by a violent storm that eroded the beach in the 1990s. The reconstructed house, dating from the Pictish period sometime after 500AD, is a pretty good depiction of what daily life was like.

Back on mainland Harris we visited more Callanish sites. I could post hundreds of great photos but suffice it to say that being in the place, feeling the wind, gazing at the horizon, and appreciating the beauty of each stone from close up and afar are what make the sites worth visiting. These are special places.

Jack playing the Neolithic Witless Bass. I think he’s out of practice. I heard nothing.

We think this is the tallest individual stone we’ve seen in our travels. I keep touching these things but so far time travel has eluded me.


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