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Chiang Mai

sunny 89 °F

Chiang Mai was different from Bangkok - in a good way. It's still a busy city, but significantly smaller, a mere 1,000,000 folks in the metro area. It's up in the 'foothills of the Himalayas' (broadly defined) so it gains a bit more comfort. Although temps were in the high 80's to 90's, the oppressive humidity of Bangkok is moderated quite a bit. In fact, if you travel up into the hills a bit, maybe another 1,000 feet, it is extremely comfortable this time of year. Traffic is also not quite as insane - but please don't take that to mean that it approaches sanity!

The really good news about Chiang Mai is that I actually know someone there. Julie is a friend I hadn't seen since junior high (!) and she kindly invited me to visit her. Having someone along who knew the town and spoke Thai was extremely helpful and the fact that we had a fine time together made it a truly excellent destination.

But enough - let's get on to sights and flavors!

First, a look at some temples

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This is one of the oldest wats and one of the most imposing with this huge stone stupa in the middle. There was severe damage after a recent earthquake and a significant fraction of the structure simply slid to the ground.

Here's the wat associated with the stupa above and another, smaller wat from down the street

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And a couple of interiors - they are less picky about photographing inside in Chiang Mai. They even have their own version of the reclining Buddha. In the temple on the left you can see monks who were chanting while we visited. We also got a blessing from one of them while we were there.

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We also traveled up the mountains above Chiang Mai to visit a famous temple with a great view, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. One thing the wat is famous for are the offering bells that you can purchase, write a request on and hang from the temple roof. And here's a picture of Julie and me at the wat.

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And here's the view of Chiang Mai from there

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Wrapping things in cloth to show respect or decorating them is a common practice in Thailand. Likewise, many houses and businesses have spirit houses out front that can be small or elaborate and usually include offerings of food or drink.

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and who can resist a good elephant?

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On a more poignant note, I spotted this statue of a monk with his begging bowl. Monks (including the very young boys) are expected to wander the city in the morning with their begging bowls; they may not ask for a contribution but are there for you to have the opportunity to act charitably.

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Chiang Mai has over 700 wats (Buddhist temples). I wondered about the amount of effort and resources called for to build and maintain them, so I tried to put it into perspective. I looked up the number of churches in Ingham County Michigan, and there is about 1 church per 1000 people, which is a higher ratio than Chiang Mai. Of course, there are non-Buddhist churches as well in Chiang Mai, but I'm inclined to doubt that there are enough to make up the difference.

On a lighter Buddhist monk note (really?) we were enjoying some really delicious chicken (chicken breast pounded flat and grilled just right with crispy skin and moist meat) and Som Tam, the classic Thai papaya salad, at a small restaurant adjacent to a Buddhist school for young monks

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when we heard their brass band practicing. It was pretty hard to tell what they were playing, but eventually I figured it out. They were rehearsing the US Marine Corps hymn, the Halls of Montezuma! Go Buddhists! Fight Buddhists! (no wait, I don't quite think that works)....

We ate very well in Chiang Mai. I will say that I violated most of the standard traveler's warnings about food - ate drinks with ice in them, ate salads, roamed into places that you would never think were safe to eat in (with Julie's guidance) and had just plain delicious food for very little money. Here's another example. It's a rice flour shell and a whole variety of ingredients including tofu, peanuts, hot chiles, coconut milk, fish sauce, cucumbers and more. Thai cuisine focuses on blending very disparate flavors, almost always something sweet, hot, umami and more. This was hanging in a plastic bag outside a market stall and cost about $1. To eat it you carefully put the ingredients inside to your taste and then take a bite, whereupon the whole thing disintegrates. Such fun!

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(Oh, yes - I mentioned food rule violations; now, several days out of Thailand, I can safely say that I emerged with an intact and functional digestive system.)

Chiang Mai is a big market town serving villages for miles around that send small trucks in in the morning to pick up supplies. Just a few quick market pictures. The first is of some largely unidentifiable vegetables and, of course, crunchy cricket snack.

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We visited the new handicrafts museum in Chiang Mai and it really was pretty well done. It has individual rooms for each craft and some nice pieces in each section. Here are a couple that caught my eye.

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On another cultural note, here's me with another Chiang Mai cultural institution - ladyboys! What a rascal I am!

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Well, it wasn't all food and sightseeing (actually it was) but we did manage to squeeze in another Thai institution; more massages. Foot massages are extremely popular and shops are frequent. You just drop in and they go to work washing your feet and then spend an hour or so giving you really nice footrubs. Here's me getting washed up prior to my first foot massage.

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We did that a couple of times (2-3 times per week seems to be the norm) and then I had an additional treat of getting a full spa treatment 2 hour massage. Again, traditional Thai massage, so pretty vigorous in parts, but overall mesmerizing.

I gave myself another treat - I had a custom suit made! That was fun as well, especially since Julie went along; her Thai and the fact that she has experience doing this (unlike me!) made it a pretty fun time. I had 3 fittings and I think it came out pretty well. Of course I now have to drag the thing halfway around the world, but not really a problem. I weighed my suitcase at the last airport and it was just over 25 pounds - not bad for 2 months' supplies!

After all that, I headed to the airport for the next adventure, a great visit to Chiang Mai behind me. Thanks, Julie!

Posted by tdeits 20:56 Archived in Thailand Tagged temples food flowers chiang mai massage crafts Comments (0)

Two excursions to the North and South of Quito

Otavalo and Cotapaxi

semi-overcast 51 °F

I really wanted to get a bit out of town as well and see the surrounding countryside so I opted to take two day trips on my own. The first was to Otavalo, a town famous for its central market and handicrafts. Buses to Otavalo leave from the Carcelen Terminal, but of course you have to get there. Pro tip- a bus that says 'Carcelen' in the window will take you the center of the Carcelen district, about a mile (downhill) from the Terminal proper. If you jump off this bus at the right time you can cut that distance in half. There are other, more efficient methods to get there by bus, but sorry, I can't tell you what they are! Once I arrived, I hopped a bus to Otavalo within about 5 minutes - at a cost of $3 for the 90 minute bus ride (very comfortable bus).

The ride itself is pretty interesting. The highway is broad, smooth and relatively new. Given the amount of erosion to which the area is subject, it must have been a monumental project. In this picture you can see a very large hillside covered with sprayed concrete to prevent futher erosion. It may be that the center section has succumbed already, so this will no doubt be an ongoing challenge. It's a scenic and enjoyable trip nonetheless.

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Otavalo is a small town that caters to tourists. It sits at the base of the 15,000 foot Ibambura volcano (resting for about 14,000 years but considered capable of eruption).

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Ibambura is revered by the local indigenous peoples, the Otavalenos, who are also responsible for the handicrafts, principally woven and knitted materials often incorporating alpaca and cashmere wool. The streets and sidwalks are nicely decorated and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels. Here's a street scene in the center of town as well as a picture of a utility access cover. Readers of my earlier blog entries, like Japan at your feet will know I am on the lookout for interesting examples wherever I go. This one features an Otavaleno child.

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Frankly, however, the big central market was a bit of a disappointment. It's colorful and fun to walk through, but the great majority of items are available in, say, the market in Quito. I did pick up some actual handwoven small textiles with an interesting design. Negotiation is expected, and I got the price down about a third, which is as I understand it, par for the course. Not something I'm experienced at or even all that comfortable with, given the initial economic disparity, but it's customary, I guess.

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Was it worth the effort to go to Otavalo? I"m about 50/50 on that.

My next excursion was considerably more entertaining.

Cotapaxi is one of the volcanoes to be seen from Quito - see my earlier post. You can join a tour from Quito or from town near Cotapaxi, but I decided to wing it. Buses to Cotapaxi leave from the Quitumbe bus station, which serves destinations to the south of Quito. I admit I did wimp out and take a taxi across town this time. It cost $10 for about a 45 minute taxi ride, so seemed to be a prudent choice.

Again, lots of buses, again about 3 bucks for the 2 hour ride. Here's another small pro tip for regional buses. Regional buses go all over Ecuador and beyond and they are an astonishingly inexpensive way to get around. One tip is that if you would prefer a bus that doesn't make a lot of intermediate stops (meaning anytime anyone wants to get off anywhere), don't ask for a 'direct' bus- ask for an 'Executivo;' they are slightly more expensive and usually slightly more comfortable (one I took showed a movie) but will get you there a little bit quicker.

Anyway, I was dropped off at 'Cotapaxi.' It turns out what that means is you are dropped off at a freeway overpass in the middle of nowhere.

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Hmmm.

Fortunately, I am likely not the first tourist to choose this path, as just up the hill was a line of pickups and guides. The first guy in line offered to take me on a tour of Cotapaxi for $40, and I said OK. He was a certified guide who has been doing this for 15 years and he and I got on quite well. Suffice it to say that we spent over 4 hours exploring the area, stopping for pictures whenever and wherever, and ultimately reaching as high as you can go without trying to summit.

The hillsides are covered with alpine flowers of all descriptions, and there is a peculiar gray granular material covering the higher ground that might be some kind of pumice derivative, but I have not been able to identify it. You can see some in one of the pictures below.

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The road winds ever higher. It gets so steep that towards the top we picked up 6 more people just to get enough weight in the truck to continue uphill (their car had reached its limit). Here's a look back down at part of the road.

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There are some spectacular erosional features, and we also got our first look at the Jose F. Rivas refuge, which in this shot kind of looks like Shangri-La, but is in fact the starting point for summiters.

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We ground our way up, parked and hiked a short distance further up the hill where I got a closer look at the refuge and at my altimeter, which showed a personal record - 15,279 feet,, almost 1000 feet higher than Mount Rainier!

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Of course, the star of the show is Cotapaxi itself at a staggering 19,347 feet in height, and after teasing us all day by staying in the clouds, the summit peeked out for a few minutes. Awesome!

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We wandered down the hill, taking more photos and stopping at an alpine lake.

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The lake was pretty, but I was most intrigued by this little bird who spent considerable time working on this hole until, finally, he unearthed a tasty grub (by his feet in the second shot).

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And no trip is complete without a picture of a cow, in this case a Cotapaxi native. As I took the shot, it amused my guide to grab his red hankercheif for a few ole's!

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My guide finally dropped me off at the same nondescript overpass and within 10 minutes a bus came by to whisk me back to Quito. Let's hear it for extemporaneity!!

So - two very interesting and fulfilling days. If I had to choose one to repeat, it would be Cotapaxi hands down!

Posted by tdeits 15:09 Archived in Ecuador Tagged flowers volcano bus market otavalo ecuador cotapaxi executivo quitumbe alttude Comments (0)

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