Chang Rai Cycling, Elephants, and temples.

Moving along though Northern Thailand from Chang Mai to Chang Rai closer to the Golden Triangle, we were looking forward to another great change of pace to get into the areas where there are still jungles and wildlife in the area. Our first day in town had us wandering around like we always to in order to get our bearings – and right near bridge over the Kok River we noticed some LadyBoy and mtn bikes in front of a shop: turns out to be the best bike shop in Chang Rai: Fat Free Bike Shop. Returning the next morning, we talked to the crew there and rented two quality Trek bikes to tour around town. This quickly changed when we chatted up the guys looking for a 1-2 hour ride somewhere. They all agreed a nice countryside ride along the Kok River on quiet roads would be ideal, and quickly gave us directions to a popular relatively car free cycle route: we were off!

Over the bridge and first road to the left – follow along. It was great rural countryside with lots of rocks, cliffs, statues, and buddhist temples along the way. We may have stopped at one or two of them – finding an abandon cave temple, before we found the legitimate “Cave Temple” we saw signposted along the roadway. Too tempting to pass, we parked the bikes and climbed the stairs to check this out, and were delighted at this accidental find. This came complete with a resident Monk, as well as locals doing their prayers and chanting in the caverns: quite a magical effect! There is also a section where you can purchase a bell for a 20Baht donation, and hanging this on a veranda with your names: Judy could not resist: any good luck is always welcome!

Getting back on bikes, we continued our hot ride in along the riverside, stopping at a few viewpoints along the way. It was probably 30C, and the 1L waterbottles we had definitely came in handy! We were heading in the direction of a National Park, but were never quite sure how far we got until we stumbled apon an Elephant Camp beside the roadway. This was a Thai tourist spot, with a few foreigners here as well taking brief elephant rides along the jungle and riverside – with a short stint along the hwy back to the main base.

There are alot of western opinions about these types of sites: being cruel to elephants and making them provide rides to people on these chairs. many of the locals point out these are now unemployed elephants that are not able to work in the recently banned lumber trade in the jungle. Used to hard work and heavy labour, the efforts here are a lot simpler, though the area they were contained in was constrained. Sadly, these creatures also need 100+ lbs of food/day: so need to provide some income during tourist season to augment their costs. We declined taking rides, but when we saw sugar cane and bananas for sale to hand-feed the elephants, we though that would be a good compromise! The elephants were fairly excited to see the goodies, and did not hesitate to snag anything we held up for them with grace and care. Hiding food behind your back did not help – that trunk knew exactly where to go!

Getting tired and weary, we decided to head back and stop in at some sights we passed along the way, as the initial objective this morning was to find The Blue Temple! We started to head back, and were admiring the short reddish groves along the way: a young pineapple field in the hillside. while heading back, we also could not resist pulling over and crossing a river stream on a rickety bridge to a large white impressive Buddha: probably 50 feet tall, and we were the only ones there at the site. Also found some go-carts and merry-go-round pieces, so looks like there are plans to create a festive plaza nearby. Our final stop/distraction was at a cave temple that had statues carved into the rocks themselves. Looking fairly abandon, we approached and climbed the staircase into the vaults holding more buddhas – no power at this site, and lots of dust on the floor: we found out later this was Wat Tham Tu Pu that is maintained by a solitary monk, and his cats.

Starting this morning, we indented to find The Blue Temple: Wat Rong Suea Ten. It was getting late afternoon, and we finally arrived. Touring the site, we definitely agree this is very blue! It was getting to be a super long and hot day, so we rode our bikes back to Fat Bike Rentals, and returned our cycles – delighted at the recommended route and the our discoveries today!

Heading back to our hostel, we passed through town and through the closing flower market once again. One thing I love about Thailand is the smells and colours: in this case the fragrant flowers at all the stalls as we headed home. Resting up and replenishing our fluids (beer?), we headed out to the nearby Night Bazaar for another festive dinner. Tonight we opted for Khao Soi Gao, which was a hot and spicy curie noodle soup with crunchy noodles. Washed down with a icy pineapple shake to keep things in check, this is another ideal evening winding down in Thailand.

El Pilar – Mayan Historic site

Looking to get off the tourist beaten track in Belize, I’ve had my sight set on checking out some of the more out of the way sites. Talking to Judy, we agreed on the nearby El Pilar destination: a mere 12km from San Ignacio, heading up a new direction through Bullet Tree Falls. As dedicated DYIers, we took the local bus from the main square to Bullet Tree Falls, and hopped off at the local bus stop. From here, hoping to rent bikes, or hitch a ride from a contact identified in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a possible tour guide. We walked through town along roads, asking for directions along the way, and got to our destination: Parrot Nest Jungle Lodge. Though the owner not able to take us on a guided trip, he called some friends, and we hung around till the guide and vehicle arrived.

Hopping into the vehicle, we make a short but very slow and bumpy ride up the ‘road’ that took us to El Pilar. Was definitely a 4WD experience, and a few spots along the way in the deep jungle were a bit sketchy with mud deep in spots. The road also runs parallel to the Guatemalan boarder that can be as close as 500m through the dense jungle – and our guide indicated he would not be stopping for any pedestrians along the way: it’s a spot where muggings have taken place. Great local advice! Getting to the El Pilar Archeological Reserve, we paid the entrance fee to the lonely guard (we are the only visitors today), and started the trek with our local guide.

First mapped out in 1983, and initial excavation of this site only begun in 1993 this has a true lost world experience. Historically, this site started around 800BC, and was abandon at around 1000AD. The surveys indicated there are around 25 plazas and hundreds of building under the jungle hillsides covering an area of 50ha, with only a few fragments excavated – and very little restoration efforts have been started. It’s a true Indiana Jones experience. Being on the boarder of Guatemala, there’s a military/police presence here to prevent looters to keep the site protected and intact: there is a mind boggling amount of work to complete at this single site itself!

Weaving our way through the paths, our guide took us to some of the excavated locations throughout the site. The jungle has claimed all the features and sites: though there are signposts throughout labeling the Ballcourts, Plazas, and Pyramids that are buried under the rich canopy. With some small clearings in the area as well, our guide is also able to find birds along the canopy: both parrots and the always entertaining toucans. After touring through Plaza Axcanan, Plaza Copal, we get a short briefing on restoration efforts by the park rangers: with portions excavated and some selective restoration completed – which requires less maintenance than a complete reconstruction. We’re also told that the local farmers use these sites themselves for harvest festivals! Keeping the site buried is the most effective way on maintaining the historic site!

One of the recovered and restored sites is vaulted tunnel into a pyramid, with paintings and carvings on the interior stones still visible. Climbing up to a the summit of a covered pyramid, we go to take brief view of the surrounding jungle: and our guide reminds us that 500M out is the unpatrolled ‘boarder’ of Guatemala.

Wrapping up our trip, we take a break at some of the huts used by the rangers to maintain and protect the site. There are a few clearings about, and always some interesting jungles forests maintained. Oddly enough, we had few problems with mosquitoes, though we can also say that there were ants and beetles scurrying over almost everything, so watch where you sit – the jungle is alive! Back in the car-park, we reamined the only vehicle here today. We thanked our guide for the excellent tour, and made our way back along the 4WD roadway. We did see a car pulled off to the side, though as the driver did not recognize the vehicle (he knows everyone in Three Bullet Falls), we opted not to slow down and keep heading to town!

Dropped off in Three Bullet Falls at the bus stop, our lift came almost right away – and we paid the $2BZ fair each to get back to San Ignacio on the local bus. With Sam still feeling under the weather, we decided that we would take a well deserved break and recap at one of the town restaurants along the main square – along with a bucket of Belkin’s for the thirsty explorers.