Doi Inthanon

Adventure begins!

We left Chiang Mai and decided that instead of going via the 4 lane highway to get to Doi Inthanon we’d take some smaller roads. The first hour or so we were all surprised by how built up these roads were, but after that we started to get into open spaces and some lovely scenery. Even in the first hour, there were beautiful tall trees lining the road for most of the way.

Road Chiang Mai to Lamphun

Eventually we stopped for lunch at a place that turned out to be so nice that we all agreed that if the accommodation inside the National Park wasn’t great, we’d come back and stay there.

Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop northern Thailand

There was a lake and huge trees and hundreds of birds all around with houses to rent by the night, and it was just a few minutes before the turn off to the Park.

Lunchtime near Doi Inthanon

After entry to the park we drove up and up and decided to stop and see a really cool waterfall. We walked up for half an hour or so and got to a beautiful big waterfall. We clambered over the rocks to stand in the spray of the water. After considering drinking some, because it looked so clear and nice, reality kicked in and we all decided it probably wasn’t the best idea in the world. Surprisingly, there were many kinds of plants that grow in New Zealand here, with the cold and wet climate around the waterfall (at this point we were about 1500m above sea level so it was quite temperate). There were fushias, ponga-like trees, ferns similar to what you see in NZ, and many flowers that definitely grow in NZ like hydrangeas and agapanthus.

Waterfall in Doi Inthanon

Next stop was the two stupas overlooking extensive mountains, the view was stunningly beautiful and the stupas themselves were dedicated to the King and Queen of Thailand and only built about 10 years ago so they were very pristine with extensive and colourful gardens. We saw lots of birds there too and behind the stupas was just forest and in front was forest covered mountains stretching off into the distance.

Doi Inthanon beautiful stupas

Then the summit was our mission, so we drove through all the huge old trees, and finally about 45km after entering the park we made it. We walked up another 100m or so and stood on the bit that was supposedly the top but there was a government “Neuron Monitor” on the top part! At the top it was about 2500m above sea level and really, really cold.

Where is the highest spot?

After freezing up there for a while we drove back down (wearing many more clothes) to find a place to stay the night. We ended up finding a small Karen ethnic minority village that offered bungalows overlooking either the river, mountains or rice fields. So we spent the night in the National Park and woke to the sounds of birds and insects. Dre and Tim took the bikes to the market and bought us a feast of fruit for breakfast.

Karen ethnic minority village we stayed in

Today after sitting around for a while admiring the view and chatting, we returned to our respective huts to pack our stuff and leave for another day on the bikes, but we all decided at the last minute to stay here another day. It’s so peaceful and beautiful and there’s still loads of the park to explore so we decided chill out here for the day.

Wildlife in Doi Inthanon

We didn’t do much, other than discover that the Honda CB’s have a beer opener built in (perhaps not quite what it was built for… but perfect!), saw some cool birds while lazing on the riverbank and our balconies, and found an amazing caterpillar-type thing in the dark that was glowing.  We found it because the glow was so bright that when walking across the lawn from Tim’s hut to ours we stopped to see what the lights were.  We found that it could turn it’s glow on and off at will, and watched it for quite a while.  Definitely a good choice to stay here another day!

Chiang Mai with Tim

We met Tim at Chiang Mai airport and proceed to spend the next couple of days catching up and choosing our motorbikes for our journey on the Mae Hong Son Loop in northern Thailand.  Dre and Tim spent the best part of the day perusing the many bike hire shops in Chiang Mai until finally settling on a couple of different Honda 500’s.  Our original plan was to get Kawasaki Versys bikes, but these Hondas are brand new and so the boys decided this was a better bet.

Tim has chosen a Honda CB 500x, (with only 700kms on the clock!) and Dre a Honda CBR 500, (3000kms already) and the plan is to swap bikes a couple of times to see who like which bike best.

Chiang Mai the adventure begins

We also met up with Nat, one of the stray guides we know from Luang Namtha, for an awesome meal, and then David (who makes the fantastic GT Rider maps) whom we’ve met several times as he lives in Chiang Mai and often rides his motorbikes to Luang Namtha and beyond.  It was cool to meet up with these people outside of our normal turf, and David’s Mae Hong Son Loop stories have got us excited to begin our adventure tomorrow.  Our first stop will either be Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon National Park, or Pai, depending on how the mood in the morning takes us.

Catching up with Nat in Chiang Mai

Katie and Nicole’s visit

Luang Namtha's golden stupa

A few days before Katie and Nicole arrived, we unexpectedly received an email from our NZ friend Katie saying she was in south east Asia and would love to come and visit us!  We were really excited to see Katie, who we probably haven’t seen for about 8-9 years.  We worked out that we probably saw each other last time in London, when Katie was living there and we were travelling in Europe.

Luang Namtha on motorbikes

Katie and Nicole fitted into our Lao lifestyle really well, going out kayaking and trekking in the jungle, riding around with us on motorbikes and having loads  of fun.

It was great that Nicole owned a motorbike back in Australia, because it meant that driving on some of the crazy Lao roads wasn’t an issue for her and so we could go some really cool places.

Road trip!

Nicole decided she wanted to go to the Kao Rao caves on her birthday, so we took Katie, Nicole, Lizzie and Alex out to see the caves, and had a very enjoyable day out followed by many cocktails afterwards.

It was awesome to catch up with Katie after all these years and to meet Nicole,  so much so that we’re hoping to convince them to come back and help us in Luang Namtha for a while…. we’ll see what happens!

Rice fields Luang Namtha

Chill Out in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai Japanese Restaurant

We arrived in Chiang Rai for a well deserved break and spent a week eating good food, seeing movies, and visiting parks and gardens.

Chiang Rai Gardens

We spent a day riding around and went to Chiang Rai beach, where they have developed slightly since we were last there with a new Buddha and some more relaxing areas.  We also went to a couple of temples we hadn’t visited before.

Chinese New Year in Chiang Rai

We even managed to forget it was Chinese New Year and decided to visit the Chinese temple out of town on the actual day of new year! As we were driving out to it (about a 20 minute drive) we realised the mistake we’d made as there were lots of cars heading towards this temple and we’ve visited it a few times before with virtually no traffic. Oops, it’s actually Chinese New Year today, isn’t it? We considered not bothering, envisaging massive crowds and thinking it’d be much nicer to just go there next month when we visit Chiang Rai (this visit was just a random whim, we had no particular reason for wanting to go there). In the end though, we figured we might as well go, and it turned out to be a really cool day, there was lots of chanting and drums being played, and some dancing out the front, which was really awesome to see. We took a short video below:

We decided that was a pretty cool way to spend Chinese New Year, even if we had forgotten about it, it was a nice celebration to be a part of.  Now it’s back to Lao to meet our friend from NZ Katie, and her friend Nicole.

Snakes & Sunsets

It’s been the month for seeing snakes.  First we saw a baby snake just a few metres from the shop, it had a cool pink belly and Dre and Alex played with it for a while.  Only a day or two later, we walked down to the river and saw a big black and white snake, about a metre long and fairly fat.  It was hissing at us and Karen was trying to encourage Dre to stop trying to touch it, when it arched up and we thought it was going for us; it had other ideas though and bailed into the river.

Snake Luang Namtha

Not long after that, we also saw another black snake on the road when we were riding past.

Sunset Luang Namtha

We’ve been having a lot more sunset time and chill out time as we now have 4 westerners running the shop for us!  This has been so awesome because we’ve been able to finally concentrate on some other projects here and have some down time too.  Alex, Lizzie, James and Sam are doing an awesome job for us in the shop and it’s nice to go in as a customer sometimes now!

Luang namtha wildlife

The rice fields are as always stunningly beautiful, and we are starting to look forward to the new plantings and everything being green again.  We’re off for a bit of R&R in Thailand now; this time for a holiday now that the supply run is taken care of by everyone else. :-)

Happy New Year

2013 has gotten off to an awesome start!  We saw in the new year with a fun party at Forest Retreat Laos where we danced the night away.  Our first westerner Alex started helping us in the shop and we have our second person Lizzie coming this week so we are stoked to have more hands on deck.

Forest Retreat Laos opens upstairs

We  have opened upstairs and customers are loving the comfy lounge suites and balcony up there.  It’s so awesome to have so many long standing projects being finished and being able to enjoy them!

Beautiful Luang Namtha rice fields

Luang Namtha is so beautiful in the afternoons and evenings at this time of year and we’ve taken advantage of this by spending time out watching sunsets and exploring.

Nam Ha NPA monastery

We have been working with Thong to set up many new initiatives for some small ethnic minority villages here and yesterday spent the whole day out at Ban Sin Oudom, a Tai Lue tribe who live on the Nam Tha riverbank across from the jungle in the Nam Ha NPA.

Ban Sin Oudom new hut on the Nam Tha river

We have helped them to start a village homestay, as well as make 3 new trekking trails with a jungle hut and river hut also.  It was so cool to see the villagers super excited to be a part of the eco-tourism project in Luang Namtha and see them begin to reap the rewards.  Yesterday marked the official opening of the trail and huts so the villagers held a lunch of freshly caught river fish, river weed, vegetables grown in their garden and sticky rice.  We saw a 13 year old girl walk into the village after collecting plants to make brooms from the jungle and Karen tried to pick it up and couldn’t even lift it to her head (the carrying method) despite using all her strength.  These girls are so tough!

Broom making season

We also had a party at the Chinese disco to welcome Alex to the shop.  Over the coming weeks we have plenty of things planned so will update again soon.

December in Luang Namtha

This month it has finally gotten really cold in the mornings (much belated compared to last year) and we have stunning blue skies every single day.  December has seen us achieving many different things and attending quite a few events.

Baci ceremony for Bounmee and Sai's babyThe first one was Bounmee and Sai’s baby party for their newborn baby girl.  We attended the Baci ceremony and spent the day with them.

Then we went to a wedding with Thong and Paet for the son of the largest hotel owner in town.  It was exceedingly lavish with a Chinese stretch 4WD limo and a lot of non-Lao alcohol on every table.  It was quite different to other Lao weddings we’ve been to, and a good time was had by all.

Lao wedding in Luang Namtha

After this we moved into our new home, which is so big and with beautiful views of the mountains and valley of Luang Namtha.  We also spent a couple of days repairing the pizza oven, with new thick stone tiles so now the pizza is even better.  Homemade bread from the oven is now really popular too.

Forest Retreat Laos Christmas

Christmas was celebrated with the customers and staff with christmas pizza and turkey in the pizza oven.

Japanese food in Chiang Rai

We made a trip to Thailand for Dre’s birthday where we stayed in flash place and went to our favourite sushi restaurant.  This was combined with finally picking up our new sofas and chairs!  We were so excited to get the long awaited furniture for upstairs in the shop and also stopped to get some more plants to move ever closer to our Forest Retreat office in town becoming very foresty.

Forest Retreat Laos new couches

We are super excited about the upcoming months when we finally have some westerners coming to help us with the business here and having some more time to work on our next upcoming project and visit some awesome places!

Nong Kiau

Nong Kiau Northern Laos

This year we decided to spend our wedding anniversary in Nong Kiau.  We pretty much spent our time watching the river and view, eating good food and even managed to catch up with some new friends who we met in Luang Namtha.

Beautiful scenery in Nong Kiau

We also spent the best part of a day walking around and looking at all the new development in Nong Kiau as well as the limestone karsts and river.  The town has come quite a long way since we were last here with sealed roads, and lots of new accommodation and restaurants.  Once again we didn’t manage to make it up to Muang Ngoi, (each time we go to Nong Kiau we think about going to Muang Ngoi) because we were having too much of a good time in Nong Kiau.  Maybe next time…

Ken and Jude’s adventure in Luang Namtha

Pizza at Forest Retreat Laos!

No sooner had we arrived in Laos than Ken and Jude set about helping us with all things shop-related.  On the very first day Ken made a pizza bench for the girls to use to make pizza on, and made some pizza paddles out of some wooden boards bought from New Zealand and some bamboo for the handle.

At a Tai Dam ethnic minority village in Luang Namtha

One of the first things we did after this was visit a small Tai Dam ethnic minority village, where Forest Retreat was in the process of setting up  a homestay with the families in the village (this is now underway).

The ghost town of Boten near Luang Namtha

We then set off on an adventure to Boten, where after all this time we still hadn’t managed to visit.  We’d heard it had become a ghost town and were still surprised at what it was really like.  There were giant multi-apartment complexes that are empty, malls and shops all deserted and completely empty streets everywhere.  We found the now-closed casino (which used to be the town’s livelihood) and the now-abandoned hotels surrounding it.  What an interesting place, for so many different reasons than we imagined.

Rice harvest Luang Namtha

During the trip we had several stops for various Lao sights, including the rice harvest and water buffaloes.

Muang Sing (Luang Namtha) Ahka village

Back in Luang Namtha we decided to head up to Muang Sing and so took the stunning drive through the Nam Ha NPA.  While there we visited a remote Ahka village, where all of the kids performed a song and dance for us.  It was awesome!

Wildlife in Luang Namtha's Nam Ha NPA

We also visited the waterfall and saw yet another new insect/caterpillar type thing, and stopped for Jude to buy some handwoven fabrics in another village.

Luang Namtha Tai Dam village

Ken and Jude accidentally timed their visit perfectly to see some Buddhist celebrations too.  We went to the end of Buddhist Lent at the new temple, gave offerings and had our fortunes read for the year.  We also went to the Loi Krotong festival where we released Lanterns and set off banana leaf and flower boats into the river.

New Stupa at the end of Buddhist Lent Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha Loi Kroitong

Our staff loved seeing new creations in the pizza oven with Jude’s cooking and enjoyed eating them too.

Luang Namtha by motorbike

Their visit was over far too soon, we had planned to do so many more things including travelling around some more of Laos; time flew too fast though and before we knew it they had to head back to Chiang Rai to catch their flight home.  Here’s hoping they come back really soon, we had so much fun!