|This guy was massive-notice the lady kneeling near the sign|
One hour north of Udon by motorbike is Nong Khai. Three of us American teachers had decided to take a Sunday excursion to a waterfall marked just beyond the city on the tourist map we had. We figured we'd ride the bikes part of the way and then find a taxi to take us the rest of the distance. (Your bum can only handle so long on a motorbike and an hour is a bit past my limit.) Once we got to the city though we had a hard time finding a taxi and then we finally found one who told us that the falls were another 75 km. Our map made it look much closer but that was 1/2 again the distance we’d already come. So we plan B’d it and had an amazing lunch of Indian food and took a leisurely drive home, stopping at some temples and markets along the way. Not quite the afternoon we'd hoped for but a lovely one nonetheless.
1 ½ hours south by bus is the city of Khan Kaen. My friend Jessie and I had decided to venture out one Saturday after our school camping trip for the weekend had been cancelled. Jessie had friends with an extra hotel room in the city so we decided last minute to hop a bus and join them. It wasn’t until we’d made it to the station, got our tickets and were on our way that Jessie realized they were waiting for us in Chiang Mai, not Khan Kaen. Good thing we had our guidebook with us. We quickly devised a plan of attack, made a few phone calls so they wouldn’t think we died somewhere and had a fun little un-planned adventure in a new city. We spent a couple of hours exploring some of the temples and the park in the heart of the city. We paddled boated around the lake, wandered through a few markets and had a very un-Thai dinner at Pizza Hut (sometimes this girl just needs some cheese!) before hopping back on a bus and heading home. Again, it was nice to get out even if it wasn’t the adventure we had in mind.
|look close and you can see the road winding through the middle there|
|a horrible picture but you can kind of see the campsite|
|and I couldn't get this one to turn, but here's our dinner prep|
|sunrise over a cabbage field|
|bikers racing up the mountain while we were coming down--because the road wasn't scary enough!|
|nope, not all that cold!|
And then this past weekend we finally took that school camping trip. We loaded 16 teachers (5 American, 1 Dutch and the rest Thai) and our principal into two of the school vans and drove about 4 hours south (I think!) to a national park for the night. And none of it was what I expected.
First off we had the mountains. They were gorgeous. Very high, respectable mountains, not hills masquerading as mountains as happens so often. But they weren't really forested like I expected. There was some wild growth, some bushes and small trees, but mostly they were cultivated fields. The area is known for cabbage and strawberries and the hillsides were covered with both.
Next, the roads were super steep. The last couple of miles were all switchbacks and there were several moments where I honestly thought we might die. The van stalled and proceeded to roll backwards; once into the closely following on-coming traffic, and once in the direction of the very steep cliff. When those disasters were averted our driver (bless his soul) put the van into first gear and then floored it the rest of the way up the mountain. Which meant we took some of the hairpin turns a lot faster than we should have. And you can imagine how steep and sharp those turns were...you can only go so fast in first, even if it's floored! I had horrid visions of us tipping over and rolling down the previously mentioned steep mountain cliff. It was a stressful half an hour or so.
Once we made it to the top of the mountain I expected open spaces, peace and solitude. Silly me! Instead we found more narrow winding roads, these lined with the ever-present stalls and markets, stretching as far as the eye could see. We drove past them to a crazy crowded parking lot where there were a few more close encounters with the edges of cliffs and other cars. (At one point there were 8 or 9 random Thai people pushing one of our vans up a hill in search of a parking space big enough to fit it.) No peace and quiet or solitude anywhere!
We finally drove to the other side of the mountain to a much quieter area where we were able to set up camp for the night. Steps were carved out of the hillside, each step about 10 feet deep and 30 or so feet long, that constituted our campsite so you were no farther than about 8 feet from your neighbor on both sides. We set up our tents all in a row on one step and used the other to set up our 'kitchen'. The Thai teachers threw down some ground covers and proceeded to whip up an enormous batch of Sam Tam. There was also some grilled octopus, fish and pork along with vast quantities of beer and whiskey for everyone but me. We sat around eating (and drinking) and talking and laughing until late in the night, pulling out candles as it got darker.
Once the sun set I finally felt like I was really camping. You could no longer see the camp right next to you or the hillside filled with cabbage (though when the wind shifted you could still smell it). Instead, the temperature dipped and the sky filled with stars, (and thanks to the new/no moon that night we could see millions of them) and you could almost pretend you were alone on the mountain.
The next day we got up to watch the sunrise and had camp torn down by about 7. One of the teachers' husbands' family lived nearby-ish so we trekked to their place for a home-cooked Thai breakfast of rice, vegetable soup and eggs to warm us up and then hit the road for home. A small detour was made to visit a temple along the way and to make a stop at the consistently coldest place in Thailand but otherwise it was a much less-eventful journey than the one we took to get there (going down the mountain was far less treacherous than going up!) And it felt shorter since we all slept most of the way, making up for the lack of sleep we'd gotten during the night. It wasn't the trip I anticipated but it was nice to leave the city for awhile (even if it seemed as if all the city people had the same idea!)