Jan
19

The Ultimate Homeschooling Field Trip

It all started over a lovely dinner with friends before our family left home for Asia.  Sitting around the dinner table, sipping wine and drinking beer, we started to discuss the possibility of having the two families we were dining with come to travel with us in Asia.  That seed of an idea sprouted and the two other families solidified their plans, talked to bosses and partners, figured out the time off work and funding, and bought tickets to Bangkok!

The B family (who has their own blog, BackwoodsMama) will be with us for one month.  The W. family will be with us for two months.  So for the rest of our time in Asia we will be in good company!

We welcomed our very good friends to Thailand yesterday.  Mike met them in the wee hours of the morning at the airport and arranged two taxis to get to the hotel we had booked for them.  With no early check in available the 13 of us huddled up in our one hotel room giving hugs, and discussing the journey.  Mike and I had groceries on the ready and we had a self catered breakfast.  We had an easy first day with a bit of exploring and shopping and our friends had a very early bed time as they are recovering from their jet lag.

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We are all homeschooling families who have a very strong relationship with each other.  My hope for this trip is that we will inevitably be drawn closer together as friends.  Our children will learn together, learn from each other, and experience a journey together that will be truly amazing.  In our first month we plan to show our friends “our city” Chiang Mai and then head to the beach for a few weeks.  In our second month with the W. family the tentative plan is to explore Vietnam together.

Six adults and seven kids.  The Ultimate Homeschooling Field Trip.

Jan
18

Our Kid Friendly Siem Reap Top Picks

Everyone goes to Siem Reap to see the majestic Angkor Wat, but there is so much more to do there if you have the time.  We spent 13 days in Siem Reap and only three of those days were dedicated to the temples.

So what else is there?  Here are our top picks for Siem Reap with Kids:

The War Museum

The War Museum was actually a highlight for our family.  The actual museum part of it was just OK, although the kids really loved seeing all the war machines and guns (me, not so much).  The memorable part of The War Museum was meeting Mr. Soon, one of the free tour guides.  Mr. Soon took us through some of the exhibits while he told us his life story.  Mr. Soon was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. His family fled in fear and were caught by the army. His father was killed. His mother and sister were taken and he never saw them again.   He was taken to an army training camp and was trained to be a soldier.  He fought for the Khmer Rouge in the Killing fields and later in the war against Vietnam.  He lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine during the war with Vietnam. His story was so incredibly sad and moving.  Visiting The War Museum gave our children a glimpse into the atrocity of war from a first hand account. When they touched the guns they understood that those guns actually killed real people. When they saw the land mines on display they understood that those are the same mines that took Mr. Soon’s leg.  This museum gave them a deeper understanding to a difficult subject.

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Phare Circus

The name of circus is misleading here. Yes there are acrobatics in the performance but that is the only similarity.  Instead of a true circus I would describe it as performing arts.  The performance that we saw portrayed a powerful story about a young woman who lives through the war.  It was beautifully enacted and I admit I shed a few tears on more than one occasion.  This is definitely worth the money to see ($56US for our family of four), as the profits go to help this NGO put at risk youth through school.


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The Land Mine Museum

When we visited there were no guides on duty which was a shame after our learning experience at The War Museum.  We took the self guided tour which meant walking around reading the signs on display.  There were some personal, touching stories from land mine victims and this gave us a glimpse into the lives of the many amputees that we saw in our time in Cambodia.  The money from the admission ($5 per adult) goes to help fund the dismantling of land mines in Cambodia as well as an orphanage for young land mine victims.

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Walking Pub Street

Three million tourists a year come to visit Angkor Wat and at some point in their trip most of them will end up on Pub Street.  Restaurant after restaurant line the streets and alleys in the centre of Siem Reap and it is an attraction in itself.  Whether you are looking for a place to eat, a place to drink, or a place to watch all the people, this is the place to come.  It is also, by the way, the place to come if you are looking for fried tarantulas, snakes on a stick, or deep fried crickets.

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Eating For A Cause

There are many NGO’s working in Cambodia helping to relieve the poverty of this country.  We saw so many beggars on the streets.  We also learned that the women we saw with young babes asking for help to buy formula were actually a part of a scam. The women have deals with the stores and would return the formula to the store and receive 50% of the money.  We all want to help when we see people in such dire circumstance but giving money to beggars only perpetuates the problem.  One of the ways we found to help was to frequent restaurants that were a part of NGO’s.  Our two favourite places were Marum and Haven.  Both of these places help at risk youth by giving them food, shelter, education, and training in the restaurant business so that they can go on to find jobs in the tourist industry.

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If you find yourself in Siem Reap, give yourself time to do more than just the temples and you will be rewarded!

 

Jan
12

My Advice For Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat only recently came onto our list of things we wanted to do with our children.  We needed to do a Visa run from Thailand.  Airfares were expensive to everywhere we looked at so we narrowed it down to either Laos or Cambodia as these are easily reached overland from Thailand.  We weren’t keen on Laos, not that we didn’t like it but because we have been there with the kids already.  So the decision was Cambodia.  We would bus it over from Bangkok and show the children the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat.

I am so glad we made this decision as it has become the highlight of our trip so far.  We ended up buying a three day pass to the ruins for $40 per adult (kids under 12 are free).  There was also an option to do a seven day pass but we felt like after three days (and possibly after one!) the kids would be totally templed out.

We had three full on days of exploring. Each day we spent between six and eight hours in the hot, hot, hot, sun.  We clambered through ruins, climbed their steep stairways, and explored their dark corridors.  Our kids surprised us with their sheer enthusiasm and energy.  The only complaints we got were usually a the end of the day when they were so exhausted they just wanted to get back to the hotel to cool off in the pool.

We learned so much from our time at Angkor Wat.  Much of what we learned we learned from reading our guidebook as we walked through each ruin.  We also hired a guide to take us around the main temple (the one that is actually named Angkor Wat) and learned even more of the history and stories of the Hindu legends that inspired the building of these temples.

Our children were enthralled with the stories of the Angkor God-Kings, their wars, their drive to build bigger and better temples.  They asked questions about the Hindu stories and loved to hear about Vishnu and Shiva, Naga and Garuda.  They interpreted stories from the ancient carvings that line the walls and giggled at the beautiful half naked Apsara dancers who smiled at us everywhere we looked.

We walked through corridors and wondered what it would have been like to live here in its heyday when its inhabitants were said to number one million.  We imagined what it would have looked like in all of its splendour.  We touched the stones and felt the energy of this magical place.  We marvelled at the power of mother nature in the places where she has not yet been pushed back from her slow assault on the temples.

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And so my advice to you, if you are ever thinking of making the journey to Angkor Wat, is:

GO!

Jan
10

In Which We Get Ripped Off

I thought I had the procedure for the Cambodian border crossing down pat.  I researched all the possible scams for the notorious Poipet border crossing online and researched the different options for transportation.  We decided to go with the new bus route offered by Thailand’s Transport Company Ltd which is government run (buy tickets at Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Terminal).  According to my research this is the only reliable bus option that takes you all the way through from Bangkok to Siem Reap thus avoiding the tuk-tuk, fake borders, and taxi scams.

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Our bus left Mo Chit station at 8 am and the journey took us 8.5 hours from start to finish.  The bus was comfortable and the ride was smooth. We were given snacks on board (juice, pastry, cookie) as well as a luke warm 7-11 lunch of fried rice.  We avoided the first scam when the bus stopped before the border at a travel agency so we could “conveniently” buy our Cambodia Visas at an inflated price.  Yay us!  We are too savvy to fall for that!  Ha!

Then the bus continued on to the actual Thai-Cambodian border.  We stamped out of Thailand without a hitch.  Next came the rip off.  When I had done my research I had learned that children under 12 are not charged for their visas.  However, when it was our turn to get our Visa’s the border officials claimed that we needed to pay $30 for each of our visas including the children’s.  I argued, saying that children were free and the very stern looking border guard explained that in fact children were only free if they were traveling on their parents’ passports.  Hmm. I faltered.  The border guard stayed his ground and would not budge.  Ummm.  OK then.  I could continue arguing but from the look on the guard’s face I knew he held all the power.  I paid.

After all the kafuffle, another line up where we got stamped into the country and fingerprinted (what?), we had the chance to look at the full page visas in our passports.  Guess what it said on the kid’s visa?

Gratis.

Yup. Those border guards lined their pockets with an extra $60 US from us.

And here I thought I had all my bases covered.

 

Dec
31

The Anxious Traveller

I am an anxious traveller.  I’m one of those people who stress about pretty much everything. Things that have happened, things that have not happened, things that might happen but probably won’t.  I have always been a worrier from as far back as I can remember. Worry seems to be my natural state.

I had my first anxiety attack when I was pregnant with my second child.  Having no idea what was happening I thought that I was going to die. The room closed in on me, my heart raced, I felt like I couldn’t breath.  It was one of the scarier moments in my life. Since then I have had only a handful of attacks and, thankfully, none of the same intensity.

Although my anxiety is in no way debilitating, I do suffer from it in some form most days when we are traveling.  There have been many mornings where I wake up with a knot in my stomach and an unexplainable feeling of unease.  Luckily this feeling usually dissipates quickly as I start my day but sometimes it will last into the day or into many days.  Sometimes I will have a good cry (luckily my man has a welcoming shoulder to cry on).  Many times I can’t even explain or understand why I am anxious while other times I know what is causing the stress and I can talk it out with Mike who has an amazing ability to put things into perspective for me.

Travel brings out the worrier in me in full force.  I get so stressed out when we don’t have a plan.  Since we left Chiang Mai a few weeks ago we have been flying by the seat of our pants.  We went to Koh Phangan to see friends but the weather was stormy there and we didn’t get along well with the island so we left.  We came to Bangkok without much of a plan.  Now we have to do a visa run but we didn’t know where we should go. (As of this morning we have decided on Cambodia. Phew!)  I do not do well with uncertainty which seems quite counterintuitive to travel.

I’m worst off when we have to fly somewhere.  I have always hated flying.  My mind goes through all the bad scenarios and I work myself into such a stressful state all I can do is count the minutes until we land.  Mike always takes over for me on planes and takes full control of the care of our children because I just don’t function well enough to take care of anyone while we are in the air.  With the recent air travel tragedies in Asia my fears have grown even more.

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So why am I still traveling if it causes such a stress reaction?

Blissful moments.

Can you remember a moment when you were perfectly happy?  A moment when all there is is that moment?  Where life’s energy shines from your soul and there is only bliss?  I have found those moments are few and far between and they are fleeting moments.  I have them no matter where I am but when I travel I have more of them.

Like the moment our family was riding on a scooter at nightfall in Chiang Mai.  There were hundreds of birds singing their night song as we cruised down Suthep Road. The cool breeze tickled my skin and I held out my arms to the night. In that moment, bliss.

Or when we visited Mae Sa Waterfalls.  We hiked into the jungle to find our perfect spot. The kids swam and splashed, hooted and giggled.   Mike and I sat down on a rock to watch these little humans that we made enjoy a perfect afternoon.  In that moment, bliss.

Or when I sat with my friend Jenn sipping from a cold coconut on a beach chair in Nai Yang.  The crystal blue ocean kissed the sand while the sun kissed my face. In that moment, bliss.

Or when we stood on a pedestrian bridge over an overpass in Bangkok watching the hoards of traffic zoom by underneath us.  In a moment that had nothing really special about it except for its exoticness in the mind of this small town girl.  In that moment, bliss.

These moments are what propels my desire to travel.  These moments are addicting because in them I feel truly alive.

And I travel for my children.

I cannot think of a better way to educate my children than to travel with them.  When I think of all of the things they have been exposed to through our travels all my worries about if we are doing a good enough job in educating them seem to dissipate.  Is there a better teacher than the world?  I find peace in those beautiful little moments when they are doing currency conversations from Thai Baht to Canadian dollars to understand the value of an item, or when they wai (bow with hands together) and say Kup Kuun Krap (thank you) to a Thai person who has done something nice for them, or when they are learning about an elephant by sitting on its back, touching its thick skin and coarse hair and marvelling in its gentle beauty. We travel to give our children an out-side-the-box education where experiences take the place of book work and the world becomes the classroom.

I travel for all the good things that travel brings us.  I travel for the experiences, the people, the food, the culture.  I travel to learn.  I work through the anxiety because it is worth it to do so.

It would be easier to stay at home.  But it would be much less rewarding.

Dec
23

Merry Un-Christmas

Today we are wrapping our very few, small presents with bits of scrap paper we have drawn on or made lists on.  The kids have been working hard on a Lego Christmas tree and clay figurines.  We danced around in our hotel room to a few Christmas Carols before bed last night.  Tonight we will watch our first Christmas movie of the year.

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We have been exposed to very little Christmas commercialism this year.  Chiang Mai certainly had more than Koh Phangan.  In the big city of Chiang Mai we got our pictures taken with a Thai Santa, saw Christmas decorations in the mall, and heard Christmas carols at Starbucks.  Even that was extremely tame to what we would have experienced back home where you really can’t go anywhere for the entire month of December without hearing Christmas music and seeing decorations everywhere.

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Here, on this island in Southern Thailand, the Christmas decorations are blown up balloons, some Merry Christmas signs, and a very tropical looking pine tree decorated sparsely in decorations.

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Full disclosure:  I am not a fan of Christmas.  Sure, I enjoy getting together with family. I love that.  And the food.  The food, the food, the food.  Yes.  But almost everything else I could leave behind.  I HATE the commercialism of the holiday. The pressure of presents, both giving and receiving.  The mounds of garbage that go out to the curb on boxing day.  I dislike the decorations as I feel they are a waste of both money and resources. I dislike the lights as they are a waste of energy.  My husband thinks I am a Scrooge but I just can’t get behind a holiday of wastefulness.

In some ways we are able to create our own family traditions and do our best to keep the commercialism out of our Christmas but of course it is impossible to avoid entirely when our lives are intertwined with the greater community.  And that is why I so enjoy spending Christmas overseas.  We are entirely able to make our own tradition. To make our Lego Christmas trees.  To choose small presents that will need to fit into our backpacks. And to make the day about doing something special with our family (we are hoping this storm we have found ourselves in for the last week will soon pass and we can go snorkelling for Christmas day.)

How about you?  Do you love Christmas?  Do you enjoy making your own Christmas traditions?

 

Dec
16

Old and Grumpy

Last night was the first night since we left Chiang Mai that I have had a decent sleep.  Seems like I have been running on fumes for the last four days.

Our first night we were kept awake by a crying baby in the next door room.  The room we were in was one of those rooms that attach through an interior door to another room. That door was a hollow core wood door so when the little babe in the next room wailed from 1am to 5am it sounded as if it was right in our beds with us.

The second and third night I lay awake in new surroundings in a bungalow that our friends had booked for us on Koh Phangan.  The smell of must, and air freshener (which gives me terrible headaches), hard beds, lumpy pillows, and the sound of a tree knocking on the roof in the wind kept me awake.  Those bungalows were not suitable for our family so we moved house to a small resort a few beaches over.

Haad Salad is a busier beach and on our fourth night we were kept awake by obnoxious, drunk men singing songs at the top of their lungs.  To their credit they sounded fabulous and I liked the folky songs in some language I didn’t recognize, but not at 3am!

I am feeling old.  And grumpy.

I’m not quite digging the Koh Phangan island feel.  There are too many young people here to get their party on.  When we were here 10 years ago we avoided the infamous Full Moon Party and felt the island gave a good dose of laid back island life.  Now, ten years later, there are not only Full Moon Parties, but half moon parties, new moon parties, shiva moon parties, acid moon parties…the list goes on and on.  It seems I have a very low tolerance for the young backpacker crowd who travel half way around the world to get wasted.

We are also feeling quite stressed with Christmas around the corner.  Our resort is fully booked over Christmas and it seems most other places are too.  The prices seem to double from the 23rd until New Years and we aren’t sure what to do.  Keep pounding the pavement?  Pay a ridiculous amount for a room?  Leave the island and fly to Bangkok?  Maybe head up to Prachuap Khiri Khan?  The planner in me is freaking out for not having a plan!

Of course it’s not all bad;

Now that I have had a good night sleep I am hoping this anxious feeling I have had since we got here will subside.  Our hotel is a beautiful three star place with all the modern conveniences.  It is right on the ocean (I’m typing this on my balcony watching the waves pound the shore at 6am while my family sleeps).

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We are very lucky to be surrounded by friends.  Our friends from back home are the reason we came to this island and we have been hanging out with them every day.  We also have friends staying in this resort with us whom we met at dinner one night in Chiang Mai.  Having friends for our children to play with makes traveling SO much easier.  Traveling with friends is like having a babysitter, our children are completely entertained and only come to us when they need to eat.  The adult company has been pretty darn sweet too!

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Have you been to Koh Phangan?  Did you like it?

Dec
11

Chiang Mai’s 3D Art Museum

After seeing photos from a friend of ours at the Art in Paradise exhibit in Chiang Mai, we knew we had to take our kids to go check it out and hopefully get some equally awesome photos.  The entire gallery is dedicated to 3D art and it was pretty darn rad.  The admission was a bit steep I thought (but not compared to western prices) at 300 baht per adult.  Kids are 200 baht if they are under 120 cm tall which our children are not so we had to pay full adult price for them.  The Thai price was written in Thai alphabet so this is one of those places where they charge a reasonable price to locals and an inflated price to foreigners.

Here is our time at the 3D Art Museum in pictures:


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Dec
07

A Waterfall All To Ourselves

One of the things we love about Chiang Mai is that when we want to escape the city we can head out from our apartment and be in nature within an hour.  Jungled mountains surround Chiang Mai and they beckon us with promises of fresh air, mountain hikes, cool streams, waterfalls, and picnics.  We were invited out with friends to enjoy a morning hike to a “secret” waterfall….secret only because it is not well signed nor well known.

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After driving for about a half hour outside of Chiang Mai (see directions below).  We began our hike on the unmarked trail through the jungle.  Our children imagined tiger attacks and star wars battles as they trekked through the jungle with their friend.  Even though they had good company they still whined about the hike as it was a lot of up and down through the jungle heat. I think “How much longer?” said in a whiney voice over and over is a universal complaint amongst children that all parents must bear!

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It took us a good 45 minutes to reach the waterfall and the cool, cascading water was a welcome sight for our sweat drenched bodies.  The boys and I changed into our swim suits to play in the falls.  Once we worked up the courage to go right under the falls we were rewarded with cold water pummelling down on us at a force that took our breath away.  We could have spent hours here if we had brought more food!

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Once we returned down the path and drove back down the dirt road to Huey Teung Thao Lake we stopped at one the numerous eateries for lunch.  Coming out here just for this experience alone would be worth the drive.  We sat on a bamboo platform at the waters edge and enjoyed a very authentic Thai lunch.  Afterwards the adults lounged while the kids played in the water.

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How to Get There

Without the help of our dear friends we would have never found this waterfall.  Indeed I am not even sure of the name of it as the only signs were in Thai, nor am I sure that my explanations could even direct someone else to it.  This waterfall is not on the tourist trail. In fact the trail that it is actually on is not well maintained, with fallen logs frequently crossing the jungle path that we had to scurry under or over. Getting here is half the adventure though so if you find yourself in Chiang Mai, anxious to escape the city, see if you can find it!

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To find this waterfall, head up Canal Road past the Chiang Mai Sports Complex and turn at the signs for Huey Tueng Thao Lake.  There is an entry fee of 20 baht per person (our kids were free).

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You can stay to the right or the left, both roads lead around the lake.  On the North East corner of the lake there is a dirt road veering off.

DSCN2129Take that road past the rice fields and into the jungle.  Stay left.  Eventually you will come to a ranger station. Park here.

DSCN2090On your left you will see a concrete damn. This is where the trail starts.

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For the first half of the hike keep the river on your right.  Eventually you will hop across the river at about the half way point and then you will keep the river on your left up to the falls.  There are trails leading off of the main trail at various points in the trip but if you stay close to the river you should stay on the right path.  It is a good hike and should take a fit person between 30 and 40 minutes.

 

Dec
04

Feeling Pampered

At home I don’t spend money on pampering myself.  I have never been to a fancy salon. I think $30 is the most I have every paid for a haircut.  I have been to the spa twice in my life the first was when I was part of a bridal party and the second was when I was the bride.  There are just too many other expenses back home to be able to justify spending that much money on a lovely, but frivolous thing.

Here in Thailand, Mike and I have been getting massages a few times a week.  Oh, how lovely it is to take an hour to yourself to get pummelled by a small Thai woman!  Massages here start at $5 an hour for a traditional Thai massage.  Ever had one of those?  It is in between massage and body contortion.  It is like massage mixed with aided yoga. They stretch you while they massage you. They use their hands, their elbows, their feet.  Sometimes they will even stand on you!

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We have had many massages of varying quality. Sometimes it is much too light and I am thankful I only paid $5 for the hour, sometimes I wonder if the massage is going to leave bruises, and sometimes it is just right.  Hmmm. Sounds a bit like Goldilocks!

Yesterday I was able to enjoy an afternoon of pampering all to myself. Mike took the kids to the movie theatre while I went to my favourite salon in Chiang Mai, New York New York (on Nimmen Soi 13, GO THERE!)  The salon is modern and lovely, owned by a Thai/American woman who really knows her stuff.  I was a walk in customer but only had to wait a half hour before being pampered by a team of Thai stylists.  First I got my hair washed in the most comfortable hair washing chair I have ever sat in.  No neck cramps for me, oh no!  But wait! It wasn’t just a hair wash it was a head massage!  Lather, massage, rinse, repeat. Condition, massage, rinse. Hot towel, massage, rinse. Oh my!

The stylist who cut my hair was meticulous. It was the longest hair cut I have ever had and I have yet to find a stray hair that was missed.  Once the cut was finished I was sent back to the washing area for another rinse, and yes, one more head massage!  Then my hair was blow dried by my stylist and her assistant at the same time. Then I was styled and ready to roll.

This is probably one of the more expensive places in Thailand to get a hair cut.  When we took our son to the barber for his cut we paid just under three dollars!  This exercise in pampering cost me a whooping $15!  Ahh. Life is good.

After my haircut it was time for me to make my way to the mall to meet up with my family.  I window shopped as I walked and passed numerous Thai massage parlours.  In a spur of the moment decision I decided that I might as well pull out the big guns and make the delight of my haircut carry on into the delight of a good massage.  I texted Mike and told him I was going in for a two hour massage and I would find my own way home.

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I chose a nice looking place and stepped inside the cool interior of the room to ask if I could get a one hour foot massage followed by a one hour thai massage.  I was promptly ushered into a lazy boy recliner and my feet were placed into a warm bowl of lime filled water.  The foot massage that followed was pure bliss and I closed my eyes, sat back, and smiled.

After the foot massage I was taken to an upstairs room that had raised beds with curtains. There were quite a few Thai ladies in there getting Thai massages which made me happy I had found a place that the locals like.  I was rubbed, pummelled, contorted, and stretched for the next hour.  My masseuse used just the right amount of pressure and by the end I felt like a rubber doll…in a good way.

The cost for such pampering?  Another $15.

Have I told you how much I like Chiang Mai?

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