Chiang Mai Adventures: Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep

We ended up spending two and a half days in Chiang Mai before heading to Pai for two nights (currently on the minibus heading back to Chiang Mai). Even at first sight Chiang Mai is so much more relaxed and friendlier than Bangkok. The airport is only 15 minute drive away from the downtown square. There is a shuttle bus available for 40 bahts per person. The counter for this is at the very end of the airport near door 12 (by the international side) however this has limited capacity and when we went we were told there would be a 40 minute wait. There are lots of counters that offer taxis for a fixed price of 150 thb to get into town which isn’t too bad particularly as we were sharing between two.

We chose a hostel at the east edge of the main downtown Square to stay called Thunder Bird Hostel. In fact we’re staying there tonight on our one night stopover. The hostel wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch with its scandi inspired decor with lots of minimalist metal work. It’s clean, good toilets, hot showers, has a small rooftop and a comfortable chill out lobby where they serve the included breakfast as well as have a piano and guitar for those musically gifted to have a strum (or even those who just fancy a tinkle). Prices are not extortionate, a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm is 315 baht per night. The hostel is a little hard to find but just use the GPS on Google maps to navigate your way there. There is also a lovely food market right outside the hostel with plenty of fresh fruit that you can devour.

The first full day we were there we set off on a self-trek to Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep. If you’re up for a day of adventure in some stunning sceneries and seeing some awesome temples, it’s definitely worth a go. We followed the directions in this article as well as used the GPS on Google maps. Whilst the first bit is useful, the directions for the actual trek was a bit foggy and we got lost multiple times so ended up taking all day to trek up to Doi Suthep. I don’t know how much has changed since that article but the path is certainly not as easy as following the trees with the monks’ markers as there were multiple routes that had it. My main advice would be:

  1. Follow the trail, it doesn’t suddenly turn off at a 90 degree angle
  2. One thing the article really didn’t make clear is that the trek to Doi Suthep continues FROM Wat Pha Lak. Don’t walk back out to try and find the area with the plaque that suggests you sit down before continuing the journey. It’s just misleading.
  3. Once you’re through the grueling hike after Wat Pha Lak and have hit the second road and near Doi Suthep, walk on the main road. We ended up going up a smaller road which we thought was a pedestrian road and I think ended up trespassing on alot of people’s village/properties!

Make sure you arm yourself with some sustenance and water – it can get hot and if it takes longer than you planned you don’t want to get caught out. There are stalls up at Doi Suthep so it’s easily to fuel up when you get there so only take enough to ease any hunger or thirst on the journey. And despite monks doing the trek in flip flops, I would definitely recommend trainers as a bare minimum as there were a lot of mild scrambles and steep dirt tracks.

Wat Pha Lak is definitely worth seeing with its beautiful waterfall setting. We ended up staying for quite a while just enjoying the serene sound and quiet. It is significantly less busy than Doi Suthep as it can’t be reached directly by transport so tour groups don’t stop there. There are also good toilet facilities there.

Doi Suthep is also worth the 30 baht entry fee, with its ostentatious gold circle and also insane view of Chiang Mai. This is the point where you feel an amazing feeling of accomplishment when you see the radio antennae where you first started the hike and realised how far it actually is!

There are plenty of songthaews (red taxis that hold up to ~10 people) up here which offer rides back as far as Tha Phae Gate (the east gate of downtown) for 80 baht per person so that’s a good option if you’re not wanting to do the hike back down.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

After a short stay in Bangkok we’re just on our way to the airport to fly to Chiang Mai. Bit of a cheat I know but when you can get return flights for £65, you have to ask yourself if it worth spending 8 hours on a train…

My travelling partner and I aren’t particularly city people so planned only a short stay as we predicted we wouldn’t particularly love Bangkok and we were right. I do have to say though that the street food is incredible, so I didn’t hate everything about it.

I was born in Hong Kong, spent my early years there and have since been back roughly around once every two years to visit family. Bangkok had lots of things that reminded me of Hong Kong but also was more rundown and dirty. We stayed at a hostel called Bunny Burrow (which was great, it’s not a party hostel but we weren’t looking for that) that is about ten minute walk south of Chinatown. I don’t know what the sewage systems are like but alot of the places we walked you would get the faint waft of sewage every so often. Coupled with the heat and exhaust fumes from traffic during the day, it makes Bangkok quite an unpleasant city to walk. Tuktuks are all involved in some sort of syndicate so it’s nearly impossible to get a cheap tuktuk unless they’re driving you to the pier to try and coerce you to buy one of the extortionate tourist ferry “tours”. Metered taxis can actually be cheaper than a tuktuk.

Khao San Road, the notorious tourist/backpacker Road could be lifted straight out of some Spanish holiday destination. We popped there briefly for a spot of quick shopping but didn’t stay for the bars and restaurants.

We also went to the Wat Pho temples which was interesting to see. It’s amazing how intricate Thai designs are. We tried to get to the Grand Palace (having initially mistaken Wat Pho for the Grand Palace), but visiting hours had finished by the time we got there.

Overall, apart from the street food, I wasn’t overly in love with Bangkok. However we did only spend a brief time there and trying to travel on a modest budget I don’t think suits going to a city like Bangkok. Anyhow, sitting waiting to board the plane to Chiang Mai and looking forward to breathing some clean mountain air.

Onwards to Bangkok!

Writing this post whilst sitting on another ferry, this time leaving Koh Tao for Chumphon and onwards to Bangkok for two nights.

I have mixed feelings about Koh Tao. I’ve absolutely loved doing the open water diver course which now means I’m a certified autonomous diver (although, I’m not sure I’d want to be completely autonomous after just four dives). The dives were awesome with some amazing marine life here – we even saw a stingray yesterday! But the island is essentially a tourist island. Everything I’ve seen here is geared towards catering for tourists. On the one hand it’s good but on the other, it gives it almost like a theme park feel. And on our walk to the pier we saw deforestation to make way for more resorts and holiday homes. It is definitely a place that will change a lot in the next three to five years.

We stayed near Sairee beach and dived with Mojos. That area of town, particularly with the amount of beach bars etc. on a busy night feels a lot like somewhere like Magaluf. I do however recommend the duck places that do amazing roasted duck on noodles and rice.

The diving itself… most signs I’ve seen advertising open water courses sit at around 8,000 thb for the three and a bit day course. A lot of the dive shops will offer four nights accommodation included for 9,000 thb which is pretty good. Not that I have anything to compare it to but I really rated Mojo Divers. The staff were friendly, knowledgeable and they really look after you to make sure you get your certification even if that means switching around dive schedules or going out an extra day. We even got bought a beer when the dive boat arrived back late so we ended up setting off much later than originally planned.

Diving is an amazing experience, the amount of marine wildlife we saw was incredible. I’m looking forward to doing it in the Philippines!

End of the First Leg

Currently sitting on the boat to Koh Tao having left Tonsai this morning. It was probably a good time to leave as there were numerous cases of Tonsai tummy (myself included) and, more worryingly, Dengue fever cropping up.

It was my first time doing such a long climbing trip and it was really good but I don’t think I was prepared for quite how mentally tiring it would be. Majority of the visitors to Tonsai will be there for climbing, most casual holidaymakers would choose Rai Lei which makes sense – the sand is nicer and there are more resorts. But it does mean that it is nigh on impossible to escape the climbing talk save from locking yourself in your room.

But that is the main complaint (which really isn’t much of a complaint really) I have. I very much enjoyed my two weeks staying and climbing in Tonsai. I definitely felt like I made a lot of progress on the trip having managed to redpoint Stalagasaurus (6c+) on my fourth time up on the wall. My goal of 7a is definitely achievable. The most important thing I have gained is thinking I’m capable of it.

If you’re going for a short time or have a little more money, I would certainly recommend staying at Dream Valley Resort. It’s a bit more luxurious than the non air conned cinder block rooms at the other places but still very affordable by western standards (I think we paid £32 per night, sharing between two). When you’re putting yourself through the heat and humidity of being at the crag and climbing all day, it was definitely a relief to be able to get back to a comfy hotel room that offered WiFi and air con. In Tonsai this seems far and few between.

Favourite dish was definitely the noodle soup with big noodles at Andamans. Super moreish but also really good food for when you have a dodgy tummy. I would definitely taking precautions for in case you get the infamous Tonsai tummy.

So anyway. That’s Tonsai done for now with plenty of progress and also projects for future. Onwards to diving in Koh Tao!

2nd Rest Day Update

So at the end of rest day number 2, I haven’t quite managed to finish Stalagasaurus clean yet although I feel better today than I did when I pumped out yesterday. It’s such a big mental game. The height, the gradient, the possibility of success, the potential of falling… It’s all factors that intimidate me. But I know all it takes is just to keep pushing through until you get used to the height, the gradient and the falling. The possibility of success… Well, that’s not something to fear but I do come across it every so often. The slight hesitation of “if I finish this, then what next?”. It sounds silly, but I hope I’m not the only one who gets it.

Rationally I know I am physically capable of redpointing the climb. I’ve done all the moves separately with absolutely no trouble – three times in fact. It’s just stringing it all together and not over gripping. Sport climbing is still such a new ballgame to me but I’m as impatient as a toddler who’s just learnt to walk. I want to get better, I want to push my grade. These will be the thoughts I need to hold onto when the pump is on and I’m battling to finish my project.

My first attempt on Stalagasaurus

Off ya go! 

Just finished day 4 of the first part of this trip. Arrived late on Saturday, had three days climbing and then had a rest day today.

The first two weeks I’m out in Tonsai with my friend Ed out to sample the rock in the area famous for its climbs. The area is beautiful with red, streaky behemoths of limestone rising out of the sandy tropical landscape decorated with green foliage on top and in the large caverns.

To get here we flew to Bangkok and then changed to Krabi, flying a total time of 14 hours. Once you get to Krabi Airport, look for the shuttle bus that gets you to Ao Nang pier for 150 bahts. This should take between 45 mins to over an hour. Once there, you can get a boat to Tonsai. During the day this would be 100 bahts per person but after around 6pm, it goes up to 150 bahts pp. The boat will only go once they’ve managed to get ten people – the boat guys won’t make the trip for less than 1,500 bahts per boat so we ended up having to share the cost of the last boat (9.30pm) with another couple, making it 375 bahts per person. At the time of writing, the exchange rate we got was roughly 43 bahts to 1 GBP.

Tonsai is a funny place. It reminds me a little of Masouri on Kalymnos in Greece in that it’s heavily geared towards climbers except in a much more bohemian and hippy sort of way (every bar here seems to be equipped with slack line and barman with dreadlocks). It’s also much smaller. 

We’re here in mid Jan and even now it is hitting highs of 33 degrees during the day with 100% humidity most days. It does make friction a little less of a companion. I’m fairly well accustomed to hot temperatures (often preferring to climb in warmer climates) and even I’m struggling a little with the heat. 

The rock is good with interesting features. We’ve had three days of climbing so far and at two different crags. So far, I would say that the climbs are hard for the grade – that’s accounting for the tougher conditions from the heat and humidity. I will revise this first impression later on. Hopefully now that we’ve had a few days to acclimatise to the timezone and weather we might just strap a pair on and start actually working on some harder stuff. So far we’ve not climbed above a 6b.

I would recommend sport climbing in a three, as I would for most climbing trips as I find it helps pace the days much better. Unless you’re an aggressively athletic it’s very easy to over climb and burn out in a pair whilst anything above three means too long of a break in between climbing. Luckily Chloé, someone I knew from a bouldering gym back home, happened to be here in Tonsai at the same time so we’ve managed to snap her up. Particularly when the days are uncomfortably hot and humid, it’s always good to have an extra person that’s enthusiastic to keep up morale. 

After a pretty relaxed beach, stretching and slack-lining rest day, we’re back to it tomorrow. There looks to be rain in the afternoon so hopefully we can be quick with getting some climbs in in the morning! 

Photo Debrief: HK Feb 2016

Hi all, sorry for the quiet period after getting back from HK. It took me a while to get over my jet lag and by then the full force of reality had hit me and I was back to my endless cycle of working, seeing my boyfriend and climbing with my friends.

Today I’ve got a little bit of time to myself so I’ve taken this opportunity to post up the highlights of my little HK tour. Sorry this post is a little low on the word count but I hope that the HD photos will make up for it.

Enjoy!

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Talking about TripAdvisor’s #4 of 717 things to do in Hong Kong

Yesterday was spent resting from the previous night’s late antics and seeing family and eating. So much eating.

So today will just be a fairly quick one discussing the tourist attraction that is currently TripAdvisor’s #4 thing to do in HK, out of a listed 717. That is the Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin monastery.

Standing at 34m tall, the Tian Tan Buddha was finished at the end of 1993. It is quite iconic of HK, and usually one of the main things I get asked by people in the UK “have you been to see the big Buddha?”.

I can’t say I’ve ever understood what the fuss is about. Yes I have been as a little girl, and yes it’s a big statue of Buddha, what’s the big deal? G, of a mainly western background, wanted to see it so I thought it’d be good to go seeing as my years of living was probably in the single digits last time I went.

A good tip is, if you’re looking to go via cable car from Tung Chung, I strongly recommend booking in advance. If not, then you should definitely turn up early (we got there at 8.45 and there was already a thirty people strong queue waiting for tickets). Getting there early is definitely worth it as it is the quietest in the morning.

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For those with a fear of heights, there are buses available and also a walkway along the bottom of the cable car route for those looking for a gruelling start to the day.

The views from the cable car are stunning and absolutely breathtaking on a nice day.

As soon as you hit Ngong Ping, things get a little strange. They’ve now constructed a new “village” at the base where the cable car terminal is which houses eateries and gift shops – all of which is, of course, extortionately priced.
The entire construct is like a theme park and it’s run by Hello Kitty. This character that has no mouth but the seeming ability to charm the world appears in multiple scenarios ranging from the glass bottomed cable cars, to a large figurine of her in the centre of Ngong Ping village. There is even a wishing tree that is made partly from plastic. It’s super tacky and encompasses everything I dislike about tourism (and no I think tourism is a good thing in general).

After the gate, things start to feel less sparkly and plastic and a bit more authentic.

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We stop off at the temple first to pay our respects and to explore the beautifully crafted building. And it is an absolutely beautiful no-expenses-spared compound.

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I quite enjoy visiting religious buildings; I love seeing the detail and effort people go to in order to build something for a cause they’re passionate about. I’m not religious but I do understand passion and the motivation it provides. The moment that the visit to Po Lin temple really turned it off for me was when I saw the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas:

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Yes it is impressive, yes it is magnificent but something about it feels perversely garish to me. The tiles on the walls above and below the gold line of buddhas, each tile is a Buddha donated by someone who has their name on there. Personally all of it just feels wrong to me. If you like spectacles of grandeur though, this is definitely one.
Po Lin monastery does have some good food. All of which is vegetarian. We didn’t have lunch there but stopped for some mid morning sweet treats:

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At $25 for the lot on the photo, it is definitely worth a taste.

After that we visited the Buddha which is a steep climb of 268 steps (I looked it up, I didn’t count as I was too busy complaining 😂), so it really isn’t suitable for anyone with mobility problems.
The view from the top is totally worth it though, and I’m not talking about the statue.

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Lantau island is itself an amazing natural setting, if I were to go back, it would be for a hike up the peak of the island.

If you don’t mind it being overly touristy, then I would recommend going. If you, like me, prefer going to places less obviously geared towards tourism, Wong Tai Sin or Man Mo temple are probably the best way to experience the religious traditions in Hong Kong.

恭喜發財! It’s the year of the monkey!

Happy New Year!

It’s been a busy two days here in Hong Kong! On Tuesday, we did tai chi in the morning, yum cha with my grandma and exploring the market streets in Mong Kok like Goldfish Street.

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It’s an interesting place to see but probably one to avoid if you’re a big animal lover. I don’t know what their conditions are like during their tenancy at this shops but seeing a puppy or kitten in a small glass cage is pretty cruel. There are plenty of other market streets around here that are suitable for exploration and lots that have quirky souvenir ideas.

Today, started off with dragging G along with me (sorry G) to the Just Climb bouldering wall near Diamond Hill. I normally climb three to four times a week so was definitely needing a session having not been since last Monday. It was a small but good bouldering centre which makes the most of its space by having a lot of challenging routes mainly on vertical or overhang walls. I did find the routes a tad confusing though as each hold in a route was marked by a tag near the hold and not by the colour of the hold itself which is the more helpful practice – it’s hard to see the tags when you’re on the wall. It was also a lot more expensive in comparison to climbing in the UK. In London, the average place has free registration and shoe rental plus entry is ~£13. Here it was $158 for entry, $100 for registration and $40 for shoe rental if you need it which works out about ~£26. Although having looked at another climbing wall in HK, it seems like this might be to do with the local market.

After climbing we visited Wong Tai Sin Temple on the way back. It’s a beautiful old temple which sits in the midst of lots of high rise residential blocks of flats. Like most landscapes in central HK, it is a pleasant clash of nature, traditional culture and modern day city.

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If you fancy visiting this large, beautiful place of worship but hate lager crowds, any time before midnight on CNY is recommended. Chaos breaks out at the stroke of midnight as people try and be the first to offer incense to the Gods as thanks for looking after them in the previous year and for any wishes that were made and granted. Getting the incense down as early into the year as possible shows a high level of sincerity to the gods so all temples for at least the first week after CNY tend to be full of hustle and bustle. Wong Tai Sin is one of the most popular for people trying to lay the incense down first.

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Last night we went round my mum’s family for a traditional reunion dinner. This happens on the last day of the lunar year and traditionally is the main day of the year families would make the effort to all eat together (usually they would eat at different times according to needs on the farms). We had a Chinese Hotpot (although not sure if it’s called hotpot) which had all the ingredients cooked in the same pot – the traditional meal ate on this day.

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No the picture does not deceive. It was a gigantic metal bowl full of everything. Chicken, prawns, fish balls, squid, pork belly, turnips, beancurds, dried fish, mushrooms, hair moss fungus thing, dried mussels etc. Literally everything.
For dessert we had rice balls, another traditional food for today.

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The roundness of the balls represent unity of the family and symbolise the family gathering.
After midnight and letting off some fireworks (and surviving the one that went rogue), we headed back via a flower market.
These flower markets are pop up stalls that open in local community areas like basketball courts and are open up until CNY selling goods to help celebrate the new year. The goods sold vary by market but generally it’s flowers, toys and food. Last day of the lunar year is the last day these stalls are open so from evening onwards, these vendors will greatly reduce prices in order to shift their leftover stock. By 1am when we arrived, it was havoc as they were trying to flog everything so they could go home.

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The flower stalls in particular have the best deals as obviously they deal with perishable goods. One store was offering vases for $100 and then allowing those customers to fill the vases with all the flowers they wanted. Another was (forcefully) pushing literal armfuls of flowers into the crowd for $50. “Grab all you want and just pay 50, I want to go home!” Shouted the man.

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If you like a good bargain and a bit of a chaotic environment, I would definitely recommend visiting one these markets at night at the start of CNY.