A Travellerspoint blog

Mountain passes and the best restaurant in Thailand

Sublime dining in the border jungle of Thailand and Burma

semi-overcast 32 °C

After a four hour flight that felt much shorter than our recent twenty minute hop from Lombok we arrived back in familiar Bangkok.

Spending only one night in Bangkok the next evening we settled into our First Class compartment on the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Having taken the train before we had soon organized a Thai supper from the attendant and had our bunk beds made up. Nowhere near as gentle as the Trans-Siberian Express we once again find ourselves lulled to sleep as we lurched and rocked through darkened countryside.

Awoken somewhat early by a shuddering stop we were soon to learn from our carriage attendant that there had been ‘an accident’ and we would not be able to continue to Chiang Mai by train. Which is why at 6am in the morning we found ourselves heading back towards Bangkok and the nearest station that could accommodate our train. We were never to find out what kind of ‘accident’ occurred. As there was no mention in the national press it could not have been serious. However, with the huge amount of flooding affecting this area of Thailand currently something monsoon related would not be a surprise.

At some small, typically desolate station we jostled for the brightly colored double decker buses waiting to transport us the remaining couple of hundred miles to Chiang Mai. Arriving late, but at least arriving some four hours later we were back in Chiang Mai. Familiar with the city we took a before reminder tour before picking up our rental car. The little Honda Civic that we were given was to see us through the mountains of northern Thailand, along the Thai-Burmese border and back to Bangkok a week or so later. This would be our last adventure of our nine month trip. No formal schedule or plan just a general idea of where we wanted to go.

Landscaped gardens at the coffee shop en route to Pai

Landscaped gardens at the coffee shop en route to Pai

Pleasant coffee shop

Pleasant coffee shop

Our first destination was the lovely, laid back mountainous town of Pai. Nestled near the Huay Nam Dang National Park Pai proved a delightful town some three hours drive from Chiang Mai past numerous coffee stores, rainforest flora and fauna and steep winding curves (there are some 796 between Chiang Mai and Pai).

En route to Pai

En route to Pai

Water crashes down muddy slopes

Water crashes down muddy slopes

Recovered from the journey we were quick to explore the small town packed with small bars, restaurants, massage emporiums and boutique shops. This being the wet season the town was decidedly quiet. A few stores were closed until October, most just appeared accepting of the small volume of visitors.

Kicking back in laid back Pai

Kicking back in laid back Pai

Driving into the outskirts of the town we soon located hot springs, available for bathing and the surprising local transport. Exiting one corner we nearly bumped into a lumbering elephant. With a mahout on his back a refreshing afternoon dip in the brown and engorged ‘Mae Nam Pai’ river was calling. Passing slowly one was reminded of those inconsiderate drivers that speed past horses and their riders. I doubt many would want to upset the elephant. The awesome power and might in their massive body was all too apparent to see. Passing further along the road we came across a number of elephant camps where for a small fee one could ride with the elephants and help with the daily bathing, feeding or general exercise.

Available for rides

Available for rides

Look who we met on the street

Look who we met on the street

Thoroughly enjoying the town we spent three days exploring Pai. At night a small unpressured night market appeared. Unlike Bangkok and Chiang Mai we were not continuously cajoled into buying with the legendary ‘just looking’ phrase. Prices here were realistic allowing every purchase to include a gentle barter rather than the hard bargaining that is often required in more tourist dense towns.

Outside of shopping Trey found an excellent massage school that would happily work on her back, whilst I undertook a relaxing foot massage. So good was the masseuse that Trey had to return two days running, for therapeutic reasons you understand.

The mouintains of northern Thailand

The mouintains of northern Thailand



Slightly sad to be leaving it was a wet morning that saw us hit the road for Mae Sot. Our long day began with the scenic, mountainous road to Mae Hong Son. Within kissing distance of Burma over 1,800 curves of the road finally saw us arrive in the town early morning. Stopping briefly to stretch our legs a variety of village tours, visa runs and river trips were on offer. Yet, with little time to spare a brief walk up the main street gave us a view of this quiet Thai town. With little tourist appeal in the town we were soon back on the road heading south now through Khun Yuam and Mae Sariang and other sparsely populated, frequently barely distinguished from the mountainous vegetation towns and villages.

The flooded rivers of northern Thailand

The flooded rivers of northern Thailand

For much of our drive during the day the roads ensured a modest speed. Steep corners and random potholes ensured we maintained focus. Rarely did the road surface allow any attempt at speed, indeed it was some 3 hours into the journey before we reached 100kms an hour and that was for barely a few minutes. With the wet season upon mudslides and flooding were also a concern. Frequently, we could see rainwater washing over muddy cliff faces but fortunately we were never affected. Yet, whilst the number of vehicles on the road were limited the high percentage of off road equipped vehicles was a little disconcerting for travelers in a very low riding Honda Civic. Relief came periodically as we met ‘normal’ saloon cars. With only one road in the area surely this meant that it was passable.

Small mountain village en route to Mae Sot

Small mountain village en route to Mae Sot

In Mae Sariang a missed road sign saw us drive an extra thirty minutes before the next road sign helped identify our mistake. Just what we needed! Fortunately, the further south we drove the better the roads. Some seven hours after leaving Pai we finally found ourselves on straight, relatively fast roads. Yet, dusk was falling as finally arrived in Mae Sot. Our three hundred mile journey from Pai had taken over nine hours. With no desire to tour the town in search of accommodation we checked in at the first relatively pleasant looking hotel that we came upon. Subsequent reading of the Lonely Planet guide was to identify our chosen hotel as the ‘fanciest’ in Mae Sot for it had both swimming pool and tennis courts – neither of which we utilized.

Restaurant in the jungle

Restaurant in the jungle

Our whole purpose staying in Mae Sot was to sample a restaurant, that we had been assured of by a friend who knows Thailand better than most, was the best in the country. Khao-Mao Khao-Fang a restaurant that offered gentrified jungle dining easily lived up to this billing. Designed by a Thai botanist, chandeliers are replaced with hanging vines, orchids and plenty of water. With an interesting Thai menu are travel tired taste buds were more than ready for the delicacies they had to offer – yellow curry with roti, rice crackers with red curry pork and pork with garlic. Reflecting on these dishes my mouth still waters. With aplomb this was easily the best meal we had eaten on our trip to date. Our only problem were the gargantuan mosquitoes that tried to obtain their own evening feast from ourselves. Yet, this dining experience certainly lived up to our expectations. Remote and time consuming it maybe. Worth the trip? Definitely.

Strolling in the restaurants jungle after an excellent meal

Strolling in the restaurants jungle after an excellent meal

The next morning we explored all that Mae Sot had to offer, outside of its excellent restaurant. As a border crossing point to Burma there is a strong ethnic mix – Burmese men in their longyi, Hmong and Karen women in traditional hill-tribe dress, bearded Muslims and a variety of travelers exploring the area or focused on their brief ‘Visa run’. The river border post is much the same as any border post in Thailand. An indoor market supplies a variety of Thai and Burmese goods whist the requisite barbed wire tries to ensure that residents of both countries do not move too freely across the Thai-Burmese Friendship Bridge.

With Trey’s passport away on its own Indian Visa obtaining holiday in Bangkok crossing the border into Burma is not an option. Across the river Myawadi does not appear a particularly inviting Burmese town. So, with little reason to stay another night in Mae Sot, well apart from to dine at Khao-Mao we decide to continue our journey south. Depending on traffic we should be able to reach Bangkok or at least Ayutthaya before night fall.

Once we cross through Lan Sang National Park the winding, pot-holed roads that we have become used to transform into the virtually smooth national highway 1 – the main road between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Finally able to travel at speed the miles are soon ‘eaten up’. It is not until we reach Nakhon Sawan that the flooding in central Thailand that we have been reading about affects us. Attempting to follow the ring road around the city we are stopped by flood waters that have inundated the dual carriageway, to such an extent that children are now swimming in the outside lane.

Further along the main highway the extent of the flooding becomes apparent. Vast flood plains present themselves for mile upon mile. Once habitable housing is now virtually submerged. On the sides of the road the results of the flooding are most visible. Hastily erected plastic roofed shelters house entire families and the remnants of their worldly possessions. Yet, in Thailand devastated flooding such as this is almost expected. Whilst the human tragedy we are seeing is an important feature on the local news none of the international news channel that we have access to make any mention of it.

By mid afternoon we were approaching Bangkok. With no detailed map and our geography of the city based on public transport and walking navigating to a hotel (for we did not have one booked) proved to be an interesting challenge. As anyone who has ever visited Bangkok knows the roads are replete with all manner of motorized vehicle at all hours of the day. Approaching at rush hour this was sure to be the case. Cars, trucks, scooters and buses jostled for position on the roads. Yet, as is often the case an turning off the freeway prematurely we accidentally found a road that followed the overhead tracks of the BTS. Knowing this train network intimately navigating through the city by following this easily identifiable landmark allowed us to found our preferred hotel without significant issue – if one does not mention driving the wrong way down a closed off street an issue.

Riding the express ferry on the Chao Phraya

Riding the express ferry on the Chao Phraya

Not very tempting supper

Not very tempting supper

The flooding that we had seen in central Thailand was clearly following us. Raised boards and sandbags were being positioned all along the Chao Phraya river. Yet for us they would not impact. With the final few days of our nine months of travel spent busily doing nothing much it was all too soon time to leave.

A most excellent Phad Thai - Eating on the streets in Bangkok

A most excellent Phad Thai - Eating on the streets in Bangkok

For Trey she would head on the overnight train to Vientiane, Laos for myself it would be a return to a cold and wet England. Yet, what memories we would have. Frolicking on the golden sands of south Pacific islands, crossing continents by train, over-landing through southeast Asia and of course having the luxury to take ones time and enjoy the new found places we were exploring. Ready to return to ‘normalcy’ it would not take long for ‘normal’ life to feel all too boring and a return to the hardships of long-term travel to call. As it was, for now, a cup of tea and a little gentle reflection was required. Fortunately, the butler at our hotel could accommodate a request for tea and biscuits. Oh the privations of international travel!

Posted by jamesh1066 15:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Avoiding taxis and scooters in Bali

Trying not to pay ridiculous prices for taxis and not hit scooters around Bali.

sunny 31 °C

Lombok to Bali, Indonesia

Travelling the few miles between Lombok and Bali proved much harder than one might imagine. We were advised, before we left our hotel, that the 20 minute flight was ‘rescheduled’ until later in the afternoon. On arriving at the airport later than originally planned our plane was then delayed further. By the time we eventually took off we had been delayed some five hours since our original departure time. Annoyingly a variety of other companies had managed to send their Denpasar bound flights off on time. However, given our experience this ‘simple’ flight of twenty minutes was easily the worst flight we have experienced during this nine month trip, both inbound and outbound. By the time it was over we felt as if we had just completed the red eye from Phoenix to New York.

Arriving at Denpasar we had the usual fight to secure a reasonably priced taxi. With the official taxis essentially operating a cartel that allowed them to demand twice the appropriate fare we eventually found an illegal taxi who knew where our hotel was. At least he said he did. Yet, as is often the case once we had agreed a fare, close to what we knew the rate should be, we were soon aware that our driver did not really know where our relatively new hotel was located. Naturally, this begs the question how he can agree a rate in the first place! Once he actually understood our destination we had the usual discussion about it being far away, not where we said, the price needing to go up etc. Needless to say it did not. Paying our driver what we had initially agreed, once we finally arrived at the hotel, he put up an excellent pretence of being unimpressed with the agreed fare that we had now paid. Feeling little sympathy for his cause we headed to check in after a surprisingly long day of travel.

Pools at the W Hotel

Pools at the W Hotel

Crazy on the balcony!

Crazy on the balcony!

For our stay on Bali we were accommodated at the extremely trendy W Hotel. Recently completed it is now considered the flagship of this ‘hip’ chain of hotels. With our delay we arrived at the hotel in the late evening. The long bamboo lined drive to the lobby tastefully lit and the rumbling, wooden bridge over the artfully lit lotus pond provided a visual feast for our arrival. Within the hotel strategically located multi-colored lights lit the communal areas to provide a feeling of modernity, chic and fashion. Given the designer outfits that passed through reception and the immaculate tailoring of the staff, two long term travelers were not necessarily the target customer of this hotel. However, we were soon checked into our suite overlooking the vast pool, beach and crashing ocean with an unfortunately strong undertow which discouraged swimming.

Hindu temple - Ubud

Hindu temple - Ubud

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

For our time on Bali we rented ourselves a small Toyota car. This allowed us to avoid the constant overcharging of taxis and of course the freedom to explore where we wanted, when we wanted. For much of our time this involved driving to the interior of the island to the now unfortunately extremely touristy Ubud. As a centre for arts Ubud is located passed verdant green rice fields and swaying palm trees. Yet, where I remember a relaxed town it is now clearly on every Bali visitors list of places to go. However, we will still able to wonder its curious streets, recovering from our frenzied drive away from the coast.

Hanging out at the Hindu temple

Hanging out at the Hindu temple

Lotus pond at the Hindu temple - Ubud

Lotus pond at the Hindu temple - Ubud

As in Lombok driving is not necessarily a non-contact sport. With few roads of any size on the island the unsettling sight of a scooter heading directly for one’s car, whilst trying desperately to overtake something on their side of the road, becomes almost normal. Merely the time and space between returning to the correct side of the road and one’s own car appears to diminish. Scooters swarm the roads like giant ants. With apparently little care or consideration for themselves or others they squeeze into almost invisible gaps, undertaking and weaving as necessary. It was one of these scooters unfamiliar with the meaning of a cars left hand indicator light that hit the rear passenger side of our car. Leaving a big scratch on the car but the scooter apparently undamaged the driver let out a stream of Indonesian expletives as he struggled to keep his scooter upright. Yet, with the traffic as it is and a general lack of driving skills our only surprise is that comings together such as this are not more frequent. Happily our car was already scratched in the area that was hit so on returning the rental no comments were made!

Getting on down at an impromptu W pool party

Getting on down at an impromptu W pool party

The rest of our time on Bali was spent wandering the beach around our hotel, which happily, locals were still able to access or relaxing by the pool.

Relaxing by the pool

Relaxing by the pool

Strangely, perhaps the fondest memory of an island that neither of us would particularly enthuse over was the small tea house outside of our hotel. For the first time since leaving the UK I found somewhere that could prepare and serve a proper cup of tea, in bone china. What a joy. It is fortunate that one can drink and drive after tea. I certainly drank my fill!

At long last a decent cup of tea

At long last a decent cup of tea

Sun sets on the island of Bali

Sun sets on the island of Bali

Posted by jamesh1066 15:28 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Taking a break from travelling

Relaxing on the island of Lombok

sunny 30 °C

Senggigi, Indonesia

As we have on a few occasions on our trip, today, we allowed ourselves a break from travelling. With morning blue skies turning to rain later in the day this was perhaps a wise decision. Our hotel nuzzled the sandy shores of the Indian Ocean whilst a warm and inviting swimming pool afforded us the opportunity to swim, away from the surprisingly cold seawater.

The Beach at Senggigi

The Beach at Senggigi

Our suite had a large balcony perfect for relaxing, whilst a few strides down the beach were a couple of beach bars that we could relax at with a cold beer – avoiding brief monsoon rains in the afternoon.

On the beach at Senggigi

On the beach at Senggigi

For supper we found a much better restaurant than the previous night. Located on the beach their second floor seating area afforded us views of the wooden outrigger, multi-colored fishing boats that lined the beach. Or at least it did when the power was on – which was sporadic for most of the evening. Our elevation also allowed us to avoid the hawkers that were working the beach with few tourists to even take any interest in their wares.

The beach at Senggigi

The beach at Senggigi

Whilst most of three days on Lombok was spent simply reading, catching up on emails or wondering the beach and small town on Senggigi we did take one day out to explore a little more of the island. Renting a car with driver, which given the lack of road signs and manic overtaking maneuvers was probably a wise decision, we headed into the islands interior. With no major tourist destinations planned it was more to give us a view of the island and a feel for how it might resemble its very close neighbor, Bali.

Fishing Boats

Fishing Boats

Fishing Nets

Fishing Nets

Compared to its Hindu neighbor, Muslim Lombok does feel palpably different. The streets are quieter, the tourist sights fewer, the villages and towns more laid back. Yet, as we drive through the countryside we are still passed on every side by scooters, scurrying passed like furious ants. Frequently, oncoming traffic overtakes directly in front of us forcing a hope that their suicidal overtaking maneuver is completed quickly to avoid the inevitable head on collision.

At the suggestion of our driver, which we should have ignored, our first stop is at the pottery village. As ever in this situation our optimistic translation of this phrase was inaccurate. Hoping to see a small village preparing pots in some time traditional manner we are instead taken to, essentially, a shop. Whereas the promise of seeing pottery being produced was made it was not delivered. Along with three naked children playing happily with a running hose pipe in the back yard all that was visible by way of pottery making was a large Dutch tourist furiously making a clay rabbit, well it could have been a swan, as her husband happily videoed the ‘real adventure’.

Nasty merchandise for sale at the pottery village

Nasty merchandise for sale at the pottery village

We soon departed for the second (and final!) suggested by our driver itinerary stop. A weaving village. As anticipated, before exiting the car, a guide was with us to show us around the village. As one might expect in an Indonesian village dwellings were rudimentary but clean. However, with concrete roads, electricity and plumbing it appeared ‘richer’ than many of the villages we are passed on our journey from Senggigi, through rice field countryside, to this village.

Expensive weaving

Expensive weaving

Weaving village

Weaving village

Traditional Lombok dwelling

Traditional Lombok dwelling

Local children

Local children

Entering the inevitable shop at the end of our village tour it was easy to see where this wealth came from. After asking the name of our hotel (to judge how much we could afford to spend) the sarong set (two pieces of hand-woven silk) that Trey tried on was quoted at over a hundred US dollars. Clearly, our hotel was adjudged five star! Showing no intention of buying the price quickly dropped with pleas of ‘what can you do to help the village’. Having viewing the relative wealth of the village I should have responded that there were many others in greater need. Instead we departed our driver once again receiving no commission for delivering two travelers to the tourist village. However, we could hardly blame him. I suspect many tourists enjoy seeing ‘real life’. It is only after travelling to some of the more ‘exotic’ locations that we have that one often realizes how fabricated and Disney like these villages are, with real life bearing no similarity.

Trey in her hundred dollar sarong

Trey in her hundred dollar sarong

From these centers of tourist activity we were soon away from the path of the massed hordes (although there were very few tourists anywhere on the island) and heading inland, passed rolling green rice fields to Tetabatu. Bordering the southern boundary of Mount Rinjani National Park this small town offers a quaint and scenic rural area some five hundred meters above sea level.

Rice fields - Lombok

Rice fields - Lombok

In many places fields of tobacco provided a lucrative seasonal replacement to the thirsty rice in the dry season. Yet, even with a lack of rain plenty of rice was still being grown. However, in recent years this new crop has become extremely profitable with its bright green foliage.

Tobacco Fields

Tobacco Fields

Tobacco drying house

Tobacco drying house

Trekking, briefly, through working rice fields the vistas both along and down the valley were panoramic. Yet, the hoped for view of Mt. Rinjani was not available, due to low cloud cover. However, our drive up to the village, along roads with no sign posts or navigational aids, was beautiful. Maybe the hoped for view would have to wait until a return trip to Lombok. With afternoon now well upon us and a relatively long and slow drive back to the hotel in front of us our driver was soon heading back down the mountain. Yet, at least we had seen some of the island.

Terraced rice fields of Tetabatu

Terraced rice fields of Tetabatu

Hot chillies

Hot chillies

As we had planned, the following day we spent relaxing at our hotel, taking walks along the beach and generally taking a break from travelling. Our GM’s beach cocktail party in the evening provided a great setting to watch the sun slip over the horizon as a welcomed lazy day came to an end.

The following day we would awake to an early morning massage, Lombok style, with both Trey and myself being pummeled and rubbed by two excellent masseuses on the shores of the ocean, the gentle breaking of the waves being the only sound to penetrate our contemplations. In the afternoon we would depart for Bali a journey that was to take some time!

Posted by jamesh1066 16:14 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Early morning departure + Full flight = A long travel day

Leaving Bangkok for Lombok, Indonesia

sunny 29 °C

Bangkok, Thailand to Senggigi (Lombok), Indonesia

Departing the hotel at 4am Bangkok, was for just a few hours still asleep. Always bustling streets were deserted. No food vendors lined the small alleys. Tuk-tuk drivers were not jostling for passengers or position at the traffic lights. Even the roads were easily navigated without wild overtaking maneuvers or scooters flashing passed like scurrying ants.

On various recent airport trips we have had to swap taxi’s mid journey when extortionate fares were demanded. Fortuitously this, early morning ride, was without incident. Suvarnabhumi airport was reached in record time and for once without an argument about how much the fare should be.

Even at this early hour the airport was busy with fellow passengers yet we processed quickly through check-in, immigration and security. Departing our favorite city on time four hours later we were landing into Denpasar within touching distance of our destination – Lombok the next island in the Indonesian archipelago.

Unable to purchase a flight ticket on-line or over the telephone we were forced to wait until our arrival in Denpasar to purchase our onward flight to Lombok. This seemed crazy but we had no choice. Of course all the flights we wanted to take were full, leaving us no choice but to book with the more expensive national airline – Garuda Indonesia. Yet, whilst expensive their service on this 15 minute flight was excellent and the Boeing 737 essentially brand new. At least they would allow us to reach our island destination, today.

The journey from Bangkok had taken us 12 hours, with connection time. For such a relatively short journey this had been too long. However, at least we had arrived. Happily the airport taxis worked on a set fee and quoted a rate that agreed with what we had been told the cost would be, unlike Denpasar where taxi drivers dream up fares based on what they believe they can extort.

Arriving at our hotel in the early evening we were happy to check in and head straight out for supper. Finding a promising but ultimately disappointing restaurant on the road I had a poor excuse of a Nasi Goreng, which was disappointing. Yet, a cold beer helped as we returned back to our hotel along the beach spotting much better looking restaurants for future nights. After our early start and day of travel sleep came without issue. Tomorrow we would be able to take a better look at our new island home.

Posted by jamesh1066 16:12 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

A quiet day in Bangkok

Catching up on our chores

overcast 31 °C

Bangkok, Thailand

Returning to the city, which for the purposes of this trip we consider home, afforded us the opportunity to catch up on a few chores – sorting laundry, shipping souvenirs and the like.

Raining gently for most of the day we spent more time trying to stay undercover than exploring anywhere new. Although a late lunch at our favorite plastic chair restaurant allowed us both a great Pad Thai and view of the brown fast flowing Chao Praya river.

With light rain still falling in the evening we ventured across the Chao Praya to a locals market that we had looked down onto nearly every time we had stayed in Bangkok. Taking one of the boats that simply ferry passengers from one side of the river to the next we soon determined that there was little of interest at the market – clothes, shoes and the like. However, it provided the opportunity to stretch our legs under relative cover from the rain.

Returning to the hotel early we packed ready for our early morning departure the following day to Indonesia and the fabled islands of Bali and Lombok.

Posted by jamesh1066 15:10 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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