Wow, where to begin with this post? We have been in two different worlds and then, after over a year abroad, we finally made our way back home. From our last post where Thea hiked in the Himalaya and then we both chased tigers through Nepal’s remote terai region, we boarded a plane from Kathmandu to Bangkok for one last Asian stop before we would return to North America for the first time in 14 months.
Indeed the dream is coming to an end but not without some amazing adventures first so let’s recap!
Kathmandu to Bangkok
Prior to flying to Bangkok from Kathmandu, Philip was finally able to ditch his cast. He still sported a pretty serious limp but was able to trade the crutches (aka torture instruments) for a cane which was a major improvement. Bangkok with its modern roads, skyscrapers, and minimal hassle was a breath of fresh air after the bustle of Kathmandu. In a remarkable stroke of luck, we even managed to find an honest taxi driver who didn’t gouge us on our trip into the city from the airport.
Once settled into our place on Samsen Road, we found a beautiful riverside restaurant where we sipped on fresh coconut water with a view. From there, we dined on some street food and Philip made friends with some rowdy young boys in the lineup. That’s right, this particular lady’s street food offerings were so popular that she had a lineup. We would eat Thai street food again during our month in the country, but this first street food experience was one of the best.
The following day, we walked slowly around the city centre and made it to the Grand Palace. It was a gorgeous place if a little overdone at times.
We much preferred the more tranquil Wat Pho Temple which has a cute population of friendly kitties, a nice garden, and houses the famous Reclining Buddha. It is difficult to to put into words how nice the Reclining Buddha is and pictures do not capture its grandeur. It’s just so loooooong!
From there, we caught a comfy overnight train to Chiang Mai and managed to catch some Zzs throughout the night using some of the tips from our How to Sleep on an Overnight Bus post. Chiang Mai offered a slower pace from Bangkok, as well as world class restaurants and of course, more temples. In fact, Chiang Mai boasts over THREE HUNDRED temples so there’s no way you’ll be able to see them all. In Thailand we quickly learned that visiting temples is pretty much a national pastime, as is touring night markets of which we got our fill.
With his broken foot slowly healing up, Philip challenged himself climbing up the 300 stairs (physio!) to the beautiful Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple that is nestled halfway up a mountain and is one of the major attractions in Chiang Mai.
We also stumbled upon the Wat Chedi Luang temple in the old city square of Chiang Mai which is pretty fantastic and featured ancient stone carvings of elephants.
Elephant Nature Park
Speaking of elephants, Chiang Mai is home to many “elephant sanctuaries”, some being more ethical than others so good research is required before giving your business to one. The gold standard of elephant sanctuaries in the region is the well-known Elephant Nature Park.
There Thea spent her birthday pampering some pachyderms. Somesay (spelling it phonetically since I have zero skills in Thai) and Sunday were the two gentle giants that we were privileged enough to spend some time with at the Karen Hill Tribe Project. Somesay was an older, retired from forestry female elephant, while Sunday was the cutest little 2 year old former circus male elephant. Baby elephants leave their mothers at around 2 years old so she can have more babies but since they are not full-grown until they are about 20, they often get adopted by a “nanny”. In this case, Somesay was Sunday’s nanny and the two were inseparable.
The elephants are “trained” by their Mahouts using only positive reinforcements, which in this case were bananas and “elephant sushi” containing some extra vitamins. We were able to safely feed the elephants some of their favorite treats, walk with them in the forest, and then help them cool off in the river to beat the afternoon heat. While we would have loved to see them free in the wild like they were in Bardia National Park in Nepal, seeing them free from chains and bullhooks was a close second.
After our delightful and muddy romp with the Karen elephants, we cleaned up and went for a spectacular dinner at BSam Cook in Chiang Mai where we were the ones being pampered. The chef pulled out all the stops and bought Thea a dress that he had bought for her as well as some cake. Afterward, his brother gave us a ride home (seriously!). The look in his face was priceless when dropped us off at our $7 a night very basic guesthouse because he was likely used to dropping tourists who come to the restaurant at swankier ones. But hey, that’s what you have to do during long term travel – balance strategic saves and splurges. All in all a wonderful experience at one of Chiang Mai’s best restaurants.
Another Chiang Mai specialty is a dish called “khao soi” that was so delicious it may have ruined Thai food for us forever. While it’s fairly easy to find a decent curry or pad thai back home, this dish was a northern Thailand specialty and is not as commonly found on menus around the world. It is a must try in Chiang Mai.
From Chiang Mai, we took a short bus ride to the smaller, more peaceful Chiang Rai to tour the city’s famous Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple. While it provides endless fodder for Instagram influencers who linger too long at the entrance trying to get their best shot, it’s an absolute marvel of architecture despite some of the annoyances of its popularity. Reminiscent of Guadí’s works in Spain, the temple was designed with exquisite attention to both detail and grandeur.
We cycled along peaceful country roads from downtown Chiang Rai to the temple and had a delicious lunch of spicy glass noodles and dumplings. While most Thai food is delightfully spicy, it doesn’t feel so good when it unintentionally ends up in your eye as Philip learned the hard way. Luckily the lady who owned the place was quick to give him some water to flush it out and nothing but his pride was hurt.
Feeling full, we then carried on to Singha Park where they couldn’t serve us a beer before 5pm despite the park having been built by a beer company (: Nevertheless we enjoyed cruising around the park on two wheels and managed to almost dodge the afternoon rains.
We waited out the rain over a delicious Thai milk tea and then made our way back to downtown Chiang Rai where we stopped in at a delightful cat café where we made friends with some cute kitties. Following that we had one of the best veggie burgers ever, which included a bun made out of butterfly peaflower that gave it a bit of whimsy. When we finally made it back to the place we were staying, the owner scolded us mom-style for making her worry since we were out so late after dark.
In the end, we only had a couple days in Chiang Rai but we wished that we had more since it was good for both Philip’s foot and spirit to be able to do some active traveling again. The quiet rural roads just outside of Chiang Rai offer plenty of low-key cycling options as well as glimpse in to Thai country life.
Koh Tao SCUBA Diving
While we were tempted to take the overnight train again, it was actually cheaper to fly from Chiang Rai back to Bangkok where we would spend a night close to Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road before taking a long bus and ferry ride to the beautiful island of Koh Tao where we would do our last SCUBA diving of the trip.
We had heard mixed reviews about the SCUBA diving there but had a great time getting some dive days in with Master Divers. They are a smaller shop that doesn’t churn out large groups of Open Water divers aboard monstrous catamarans so no one landed on our heads like our friend had warned us might happen. Rather, we often were the only two people on the dives with the guide and got to have some of the island’s reefs all to ourselves.
We did not get to see the majestic whale shark but had a particularly memorable moment when a massive titan triggerfish decided to attack the dive master right in front of us. The fish managed to leave a mark and even draw some blood when we compared notes back on the boat. We learned that the locals call this rather hard to fathom experience “getting triggered.” While it’s much more preferable to be bitten by a triggerfish than by a shark for example, we still kept our distance from those beastly fish every time we saw them after that.
While SCUBA diving kept us pretty busy, we also found some time to collect some trash from the beaches and reefs while we snorkeled. Try as we would, we did not find any khao soi on the island but did get to tuck into some nice papaya salads and curries, including one that was so hot Thea had to abandon it early with regrets.
Koh Tao also features some nice easy hiking, cycling, and snorkeling so we kept ourselves busy and full of fresh coconut water. We made a point of catching the sunset every night since they were particularly spectacular from this chilled out little island. Koh Tao is insanely popular with expats and location-independent types and it’s not hard to see why. I am sure we will be back to dive there again someday.
From Koh Tao we begrudgingly made our way back to Bangkok where we flew a little further east before landing back in North America for the first time in over a year. We took a red eye from BKK to Narita Airport in the outskirts of Tokyo and enjoyed a 12 hour layover. We contemplated taking the train into Tokyo proper but it would have cost at least $100 roundtrip and taken about 2 hours each way so we only would have ended up with about 3 or 4 hours to explore the city. Instead, we left the airport and toured nearby Narita town which is a charming little stop and a much more enjoyable way of spending a long layover than staying in the airport.
After chatting to an incredibly helpful lady at the tourist information desk who spoke perfect English, we took a train 3 stops from the airport then walked to a cute little café for breakfast. Indeed, Japan is one of the easiest countries to travel around which makes it perfect for long layover.
After breakfast, we walked to the Naritasan Shinsho-ji Temple which is over a thousand years old and features a style of architecture not found in Thailand. From there, we ambled around the beautiful Naritisan Park where hydrangeas were in bloom and the ponds were full of fish, ducks, and turtles to feed. Again, after hours on an airplane, it was downright delightful to be outside and walking along forested paths instead of being stuck in an airport.
For lunch we ate a massive bowl of ramen then walked around some more, even finding a craft beer place until we made our way back to the airport for around 6pm. Once through security, we took advantage of our lounge access but were disappointed in the quality of their offerings so it was a good thing that we filled up on ramen in Narita!
Denver, back in North America
Several movies and a few hours of restless sleep later, we had traveled back in time to Denver where it was earlier than the time we left Japan. Feeling bogged down by jet lag, we napped for several hours before waking up at an awkward 9pm to to enjoy some late night eats and tasty Colorado craft beer. Later we were also able to catch up with a friend from one of our first experiences during this trip, a volunteer stint with All Hands and Hearts in Puerto Rico and spent a small fortune in REI to prepare for our backpacking trip to the Colorado Trail.
Denver impressed us again during our second visit to the exciting city (although it has certainly grown since we were there last!) and we couldn’t help but feel that with it’s position of being flanked by the Rocky Mountains on one side and the prairies on the other, that it was like a better, more interesting Calgary. Following some errand-running and craft beer-sampling, it was time to start trekking again.
While Philip hadn’t officially gotten an “OK” to start hiking on his still recovering broken foot, he had been told that 6 weeks after getting the cast removed would be okay to start hiking. It was 6 weeks to the day, but they likely would have frowned at extended backpacking with a heavy pack so it was a good thing we didn’t ask!
We set out from Waterton Canyon to hike a portion of one of the continent’s best long trails. For 6 days we walked through canyons, forests, along gorgeous ridges, and through picturesque valleys. We were rained and hailed on, had to toss our food up a tree to hang it at night, and roasted by the punishing sun on certain sections but overall the trail is magical. We walked through fields of endless wildflowers, dined by bubbling streams, were sheltered by trembling aspens and were peacefully woken up by chirping birds. Deep snow in the high mountain passes meant that we could only walk as far as just before Kenosha pass, so in total we completed 115km of the 782km trail.
It felt like both a little and a lot of walking, but once we made it to the base of Kenosha Pass on our 6th day of trekking and realized it was over, we desperately wanted to keep walking. Nevertheless, we didn’t feel like it was safe for Phil to be trudging through deep snow with his still-recovering foot so we stuck our thumbs out and got three separate hitches into Beckenridge where we spent a few days relaxing, riding bikes, sampling even more craft beer and taking in the 4th of July festivities.
We took a bus back to Denver, headed to REI to return a few things, but did keep the Jetboil and Nemo Ultralight Tent (this tent weighs less than 2 pounds!) after deciding that they were very well worth it upgrades from our gear still in storage back home. We had one last taste of Colorado craft beer then boarded a plane to Calgary to step foot on Canadian soil for the first time in 14 months.
Once home in Calgary it was a flurry of activity putting our lives back together; finding a new place to live, a new to us car, buying furniture, visiting people, job interviews for Phil and getting back into the swing of things at work for Thea.
Now after about a month of being back in some ways it feels surreal and almost like we never left. We would have liked to carry on travelling forever, but some stability and a bank account that will eventually start going up again is also nice. We can’t say for sure yet how this experience has changed us but one thing for sure is, we will always have wanderlust in our bones and adventure in our hearts. We also learned that as long as we are together, we can be at home anywhere and that is perhaps the most important thing of all.
So a big thanks for following along on this adventure!
One of our next posts will be an RTW by the numbers recap where we answer the many questions we have been asked since we got back. We’ll also dig into more details on some of the places we didn’t have time to write about and write some posts about our adventures in the Rocky Mountains so stay tuned!