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An Unexpected Souvenir From Nan

An Unexpected Souvenir From Nan

As our five month sabbatical in Thailand slowly winds down, we’ve made it a priority to squeeze in every last ounce of travel we possibly can, like two frenzied tourists attempting to cram just one last sweater into an already overflowing suitcase, because you just never know.

By now, we’ve managed to streamline our weekend travel routine into somewhat of a predictable science. Depending on our class schedule, we’ll shoot to catch the bus by mid afternoon on Friday, with hopes of arriving at our weekend destination on Friday evening or Saturday morning (if we have a layover) at the latest. Once we’ve settled into our weekend digs, we’ll do a little research (best eats, national parks, walking streets, etc.), fork over the 3000 THB deposit for a motorbike rental, and commence our explorations. This past Friday, on the suggestion of our dear friend and Thai travel expert, Jinnapat, we made last minute plans to explore Nan, a “city” teeming with stunning Buddhist temples and national parks, located 3 hours south of Phu Sang, in the neighboring province of Nan. (Somewhere in there, there’s a witty joke about Indian naan waiting to be discovered…)

Friday, February 22, 2019:

Per usual, on Friday morning we wrapped up our classes a few minutes early, donned our 60L hiker’s backpacks, and hopped on our motorbike headed for the Chiang Kham bus station. I almost wish I had photo evidence of how absurd we looked on our bike with two humongous backpacks in tow, but then again I’d rather not give my mother a heart attack (you’re welcome, Mom). We made our way to the bus station and left our bike with a Thai man who would keep it stowed away in his garage for the weekend. I should point out at that the term bus “station” is probably a little generous in this situation. The Chiang Kham bus station is essentially a parking lot with a few stone pews and several numbered parking spaces for buses. Truth be told, when we rolled up we weren’t exactly sure how to buy our tickets for Nan. We knew that the bus was “scheduled” to leave around 11:45 AM (I use the term “scheduled” loosely), so we made sure to arrive before then. But we had made the assumption, based on previous bus riding experience, that the bus driver would herd all hopeful passengers headed for Nan by shouting the destination out moments before the bus would depart, thereby sending said hopeful passengers into a panicked frenzy as they aggressively beelined their way on-board. Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

The Chiang Kham bus station!

Turns out, it wasn’t actually a bus that was headed for Nan, but a van...and the van was full. Looking somewhere in between crestfallen and confused, an amused onlooking Thai food vendor pointed me in the direction of the Greenbus office across the street. (Sidenote: Greenbus is a popular bus company in Thailand and our favorite one! The representatives typically speak conversational English, the buses run on time, and the onboarding and offboarding processes are very efficient!) I walked into the office patiently awaiting my turn to speak to a representative. It was then that a petite Thai woman (not associated with Greenbus, but a fellow traveler like me) approached me. Our exchange went something like this:

Woman in the Greenbus office: “Where do you want to go, madam?”

Me: “We are trying to go to Nan.”

Her: “Oh, I am going to Nan too! We cannot take the van here. My friend will take us to Chun and then we will take the bus from Chun to Nan. Ok?”

Me: *Looks at David*

David: “I think we should send it.”

Me: “Okay, yes.”

The Greenbus ticket office! The staff is always amazing.

And so it was twenty minutes later that we found ourselves in the back row of a pickup truck on our way to a town we’d never heard of before. We learned that the woman who had approached me was named Air and that she visited Phu Sang often to speak with local farmers as a part of her work with Thailand’s Department of Agriculture. On this most recent trip, Pee Air (Sidenote: “Pee” is a Thai word meaning something like older sister. It is a sign of respect to use this term when calling a friend, who is older than you, by name) had been visiting with Phu Sang’s local sugar cane farmers. In classic Thai fashion, while en route to Chun, she whipped out a bag of sugar cane and coconut snacks she bought at the farm and pushed them towards us, saying “you can try!” (they were obviously delicious). It turned out that Pee Air was originally from Nan and was returning home for the weekend to spend some time with her parents, although her permanent home is in Chiang Mai. Pee Air’s friend (and driver of the pick up truck), was an equally delightful woman and head of the “informal” school system in Phu Sang (...still not quite sure what this means). We wound up spending about an hour at Pee Air’s friend’s coffee shop in Chun (I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone  in Thailand has somewhere between 1-5 side hustles), where she treated us to coffee and snacks. We then headed to a local eatery for a lunch of pad thai (apparently, the best pad thai in Chun!). In quintessential Thai fashion, Pee Air and her friend refused to let us pay for anything. The commonplace of Thai warmth and generosity never ceases to amaze me!

After lunch, Pee Air’s friend dropped us off at the bus station in Chun. As she left, she told us we were lucky to have met Pee Air, a sentiment we couldn’t have agreed with more. We hung out with Pee Air at the bus station for the next hour until the Greenbus to Nan pulled in the parking lot. The journey to Nan was a three hour, comfortable ride in a mostly empty bus and a beautiful one at that. As we drove through rolling green mountains (especially during the last 30 km or so), I found myself brimming with gratitude for the pre-Thailand Kristen and Dave who bravely took inspired action (a lot of action) to make our dream of living abroad and trying something totally new come to life, even if it didn’t make sense to other people. Around 6PM we had finally made it to the bus station in Nan “city”. We had planned on walking to our accommodation, a boutique hotel about 15 minutes away, but Pee Air suggested we take a songthaew with her instead. She negotiated a rate for us with the driver and off we went.

We arrived at the Nannakara Boutique Hotel and bid our farewells to Pee Air (in between profusely thanking her of course!). We exchanged Line (a popular Thai text messaging app) information and a customary wai and proceeded to the hotel lobby to check in. Per usual, Dave found this particular hotel through the accommodation site we’ve exclusively used in Asia, known as Agoda. At about 5000 THB for two nights ($156 USD), this hotel was a bit more expensive than what we typically spend on weekend lodging, but it was well worth it. Our room was spacious, clean, comfortable, and stylish. There was a small “living room” with a couch and a TV, a bedroom (with another TV...cause why not?), and a bathroom with a tub and a shower (and the most gorgeous tile on the wall!). The grounds were beautifully maintained and the location was a perfect two minute walk to the night market, the first activity on our weekend agenda.

By 7PM we had worked up an appetite, so we freshened up and wandered to the busy strip of road that had been temporarily blocked off for the weekend night market. Navigating a Thai market can be a bit overwhelming if you’re lacking experience (and for many tourists in Thailand, it’s their first time; so why would they be experienced!?). Lucky for us, we’re basically market pros by this point. The Nan night market boasted the usual goods we’ve seen at other markets across Thailand - traditional Thai clothing, jewelry, purses, random knick-knacks (like expletive phone cases), toys, and trinkets. That being said, the best advice I could ever give someone planning to visit a Thai market is this: come hungry! Our favorite part of any market is undoubtedly the food section and the Nan night market was no exception. We scoured the food stalls and picked up a few things...some pad thai, shrimp fried rice, fried pork, sticky rice, another noodle dish, and two bottles of water for about 200 THB (okay - so not a few things per say, but for a whopping $6.25 USD, well worth the price!). We then joined the masses of people slipping off their shoes and parking their bums around small wicker tables, open for the taking in the designated eating area. This unique aspect of the Nan market raised the cool factor several notches and made for great people watching. The ambiance was further enhanced by live music (including the harmonica! I’m a sucker for a good mid-song harmonica cameo) and the proximity of Wat Phumin, one of many swoon worthy temples in Nan.

Post main course(s), David fetched us a minion shaped pancake and some coconut ice cream, which we ate until we reached peak fullness (well, at least I did!). After our historic “carbo load of 2019”, we ambled our way up the Naga (mythical Thai serpent) flanked stairs of the aforementioned Wat Phumin. Judging solely on the temple’s nondescript exterior, an average passerby might be inclined to wander right by, never guessing that upon the temple’s interior walls resides an exquisite mural, reminiscent of the artwork adorning the walls of European churches, as well as four golden Buddha statues. The mural is believed to have been painted in the late 19th century and depicts the going-ons of normal daily life in that time period, as well as the past lives of the Buddha. The mural is weathered in many places, a quality which only emphasizes the sense of reverence evoked by the holy structure. Perhaps it was the late hour of our visit, but I felt as if we’d scored a secret invitation to observe an untouched part of Nan’s sacred history (side note: if temple night tours are not a thing, they definitely should be! Something about seeing a sacred space at night time heightens the experience overall!).

Next to the ubosot (the main structure of a temple which houses the Buddha) lies a dome like structure with an open doorway. Our curiosity was peaked at the open, yet pitch black doorway to this dome, which seemed to beckon us forward. Despite the omnipresent darkness that surrounded us, we wandered inside. Using our cell phone flashlights, we illuminated the center of the dome, surprised at the sight before our eyes. It was as if Tim Burton had unleashed his creepiest cast of animated characters onto center stage. We witnessed a display of odd figurines including men with chicken heads, a man being burned with oil, men being cooked in a large vat, and a whole host of other freaky anomalies. We dwelled only long enough to snap a couple of pictures then promptly left, relieved to be re-acquainted with the fresh air. Unbeknownst to us, we had wandered into a depiction of Buddhist hell. And let me tell ya, Buddhist or not Buddhist, it’s not a hell I ever want to return to.

Afterwards, we went for a stroll around the town, tossing around the possibility of stopping for a drink somewhere. We walked by a noisy club that seemed a bit misaligned with the chill vibe we sought, so we decided against it. We wandered around Nan for a bit discussing life after Thailand, a conversation which occupied us all the way back to our hotel and then some, as we ended the evening in the outdoor seating area across from our room.

Saturday, February 23, 2019:

On Saturday morning we enjoyed a leisurely wake up time and headed to the town center seeking guidance on the best place to rent a motorbike. Eventually, we found our way to a rental company situated near the bus station. For 400 THB ($12.61 USD) we rented our biggest, most badass motorcycle yet - a neon yellow and black 155CC bike. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know much about bikes except for the fact that we usually rent bikes that are 115CC and the one we use in Phu Sang is closer to 100CC. So 155CC was an upgrade in speed, size, and style! We hopped on and headed to check out the nearby Tham Pha Tub Forest Park, known for it’s natural caves. The park was practically empty, which made our cave hopping experience an intimate one. We stopped by three different caves, the third one being the largest and most interesting. Within the cave there were several Buddha statues, a small stage, and a pair of brass bells with a couple of wooden mallets. We took advantage of the opportunity and made use of the mallets, flinching as the gong of the bells reverberated off the cave walls. Afterwards, we headed back towards the bike with our sights set on lunch.

Our badass bike for the weekend.

Our badass bike for the weekend.

Northern Thailand is known for a curry based noodle dish called Khao Soi, which happens to be David’s current obsession. Even though I like to rag on him for the lengths he’ll go to get a good bowl of the stuff, he still shares it with me and I usually enjoy it almost as much as he does. Per his research, we wound up at a hole in the wall restaurant, called Wanda, serving up all of the traditional Thai dishes. We ordered two bowls of Khao Soi Moo (with pork) and shared a bottle of coke. The beauty of this dish is that each restaurant makes it slightly different, depending on the methods of your chef you could end up with a soupier version of the dish or something more akin to a thick curry sauce. You never really know what to expect, which adds a bit of excitement to the ordering experience. The dish we had for lunch was on the soupier side of the spectrum and darker in color than we expected, but delicious nonetheless.

If Dave’s new obsession is Khao Soi, mine is Thai cafes. I love getting a hot cappuccino (even in the 90 degree heat...call me crazy!) or a cha Thai and partaking in some good ol’ fashioned people watching, while getting a hit of free WiFi. Sadly, I’ve come to discover that majority of the baked goods that I love in America (brownies, cookies, cakes, etc.) are not that good in Thailand, as they’re lacking a certain sweetness (I know, shocking considering the affinity for condensed milk and sugary drinks that exits here!). One exception to this rule is banana bread or banana muffins - basically anything involving a banana is far superior to any banana laden treat we have back in the States. That being said, my lackluster experience with Thai baked goods never stops me from trying them at a new cafe. After lunch we took a 20 minute walk across the Nan River to a cafe and art gallery, called Cafe Soodgongdee, for an afternoon pick me up. Dave got a nitro cold brew and I opted for a slice of orange cake (which actually turned out to be pretty tasty).

Post cafe pit stop, we decided to follow Pee Air’s suggestion and visit a temple in her neighborhood, Wat Phra Koed. We sent her a text on Line to let her know we were headed that way and to see if she was available to meet us. As soon as we rolled up to the temple, we were greeted by a friendly, older Thai lady who took us into a small office where locals were making Thai prayer flags, called Toongs. In a method involving a hammer and a chisel, intricate designs of the Buddha are etched onto the flag that is then embellished with gold paint, resulting in a beautiful and sacred decoration to adorn the temple walls. As we explored the ubosot we saw many of these prayer flags hung on a rod forming a holy curtain of sorts. The Buddha sat front and center on a small stage surrounded by plants. It was one of the simpler temples that we’ve seen, yet the reverence and passion of the locals for their lord Buddha permeated the air. As we exited the ubosot, the friendly Thai woman invited us to see the temple’s museum, housing ancient religious artifacts and seemingly random non-religious items as well. As we walked through the museum, our tour group of 2 was adorably expanded by a group of 5 or 6 giggly, school aged Thai girls. Seemingly fascinated by our farang-ness, they curiously asked us where we were from and upon our response, enthusiastically demonstrated their skils at doing “the floss”. For the rest of the tour, we donned our teacher hats and taught them new words about the items on display. Halfway through the tour we were delighted when our friend Pee Air showed up. We then learned that the friendly Thai woman who had greeted us upon our arrival at the temple was Pee Air’s adolescent English teacher!

The Lanna style prayer flags known as Toongs!

When the tour was over we thanked the woman and hung around to chat with Pee Air for a bit. As if we’d been friends for ages (and hadn’t only met mere hours ago) she looked at us and matter-of-factly said, “Ok, now you come to my house.” A short walk across the street and we found ourselves being introduced to Pee Air’s 80 year old parents, two of the cutest people I’ve ever seen in my life. Pee Air showed us around the house, lingering in the garden to explain the different kinds of plants and tree flourishing around us (including the tree that rubber is made from!). She showed us to the outside terrace, where we sat and chatted for about an hour. Of course, she offered us snacks - dried prunes and Danish butter cookies from a red, circular tin. Over our conversation, we learned that Pee Air and her father are avid readers and that they love reading books that are popular in other countries. When I inquired more about this habit Pee Air said, “I just want to know more about other countries.” A fact which only made me love her more. The world would be a far more welcoming place if we could all be a bit more like Pee Air. At the end of our visit we made plans to see her the following weekend in Chiang Mai, as she was returning home and we were planning to spend the weekend in the city. Hopefully, we’ll have some success in attempting to treat her to lunch or dinner in Chiang Mai, as some small token of our immense gratitude for her friendship and generosity.

Pee Air showing us around the garden at her house in Nan.

When we left Pee Air’s, we headed back to Nannakara to shower and relax. Around 5:30 PM we hopped back on the bike to catch the sunset at a beautiful temple perched atop a mountainous hill, Wat Phra That Khao Noi, known for it’s hefty staircase and golden statue of a standing Buddha looking down upon the valley of Nan. The view from above was well worth the climb. The golden Buddha stood like a king looking upon his courtship.  As the daylight began to fade the sun became a tropical shade of pinky orange painting a dazzling picture in the sky...until a cloud emerged and promptly ended our hopes of witnessing a sacred sunset. Honestly, the sunset was crap, but the temple was breathtaking. We wandered about snapping photos until half past six, at which point we cut our sunset losses and descended the grand staircase back to our motorbike.

About 7PM we returned to the Nan walking street hungry for dinner. Adopting the mentality of “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” we opted for part II of our previous night’s meal. We picked up some fried pork, sticky rice, fried rice, and noodles and sat around an open table while we happily grubbed on our carb heavy supper. Earlier in the day, whilst enjoying our afternoon pick me up at Cafe Soodgongdee, we noticed the shop had a nice selection of craft beer. In need of a post dinner stroll, we finished eating and decided to head back to that same cafe for a nightcap. We grabbed a table on the second floor, with a view of the river. I sipped on a Japanese espresso porter, while Dave sprang for a German beer made by the world’s oldest brewing company (or so the bottle claimed). When we had drained our glasses, we languidly made our way back to the hotel to enjoy the luxurious air conditioning for the remainder of the night.

To our unexpected delight around 10PM, Dave’s phone rang with an incoming Whatsapp video call from our good friend, Mike, whose fast approaching the 6 month mark of his 2 year stint in the Peace Corps. Currently stationed in the remote country of Timor Leste, Mike is our only friend who happens to be in the same time zone as us! We caught up with him for close to an hour chatting about work and adjusting to life in Asia. Turns out, Mike is dealing with some pretty interesting challenges in Timor, like learning how to effectively communicate in a country/industry that employs five different languages on a daily basis and even simple things, like figuring out where/how to get enough protein in his diet. Despite his challenging circumstances, Mike has maintained a great perspective and of course, from what he tells us, his friends in Timor Leste have fallen in love with him as much as his friends in the States have (no surprises there!). PS - Mike, if you’re reading this, we’re sending your box next week. And I’ve got two words for you: Peanutbutter...Nutella.

Sunday, February 24, 2019:

On Sunday morning we packed up our things, checked out of the Nannakara hotel, and headed to the bus station to catch a 9AM bus back to Chiang Kham. Unfortunately, it was the only bus heading to Chiang Kham that day (and perhaps more unfortunately, it broke down for about two hours in the middle of our journey home!).

Regardless, we left Nan feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity we had to explore a new part of Thailand and the unexpected souvenir we brought back with us, our new friendship with the incredibly kind and interesting woman we now call Pee Air.

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