Archive: February, 2012

Couchsurfing, Spicy Joe Bungalows, & Snoop | Chiang Mai

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

I was planning to catch a bus to Pai to attend an annual reggae festival, but after waiting 4 hours at the “bus station” (it’s not a bus station if you have to frantically flag down your bus on the side of the road, is it?) and being told by some old ladies (in mutually agreed upon sign language), that I had missed the last bus, I had no choice but to shack up in the little town of ihonestlyhavenoidea. It was just one of those days. I grabbed some beers, fried chicken, and chocolate, and hunkered down in my room, where I stalked you all on facebook and enjoyed a much a needed shower (not at the same time).

While I was reveling in my little one-woman party, I got a call from Samart, (aka Spicy Joe) a couchsurfer I had contacted and spoken with a few weeks earlier. He invited me to his bungalows, pointing out, “the reggae festival will be too hectic… and who likes reggae music anyway?” Well, I do, but since I was alone, I saw it as chance to be in good company and gain some local perspective.

I rose at dawn and grabbed a tuk tuk pointed towards Chiang Mai. (Sidenote: I was freezing the whole way because, in one of my trademark, lackadaisical moves, I left my only long sleeved shirt in Bangkok). When I arrived, Samart greeted me casually and welcomed me into his home. Samart is a long haired, laid back, multilingual, former monk with a passionate love of the word “spicy” (you like spicy women, don’t you? he would later ask me…) He is the ultimate traveler, trek leader, and all-around-adventurer, as well as one of the most active participants in couchsurfing that I’ve met in my travels. His walls were covered with letters, cards, and photos from travelers he has hosted and guided on treks, many of which included phrases like “best time of my life.” At one point I asked him, “isn’t the revolving door of people and the constant goodbyes emotionally difficult for you?” He responded simply, “yes, it is,” and gazed off into the distance.

Also staying with Samart was a couple from California, Christine and Steve …. They are app developers traveling around the world for “2 or 3 years,” and their backpacks for this epic journey were the size of a carry on suitcase. I wish I had taken a photo. Samart made us a scrumptious breakfast (he even read my mind and brought me coffee—did I mention he is a freelance mindreader?), and afterwards, we (Samart, his driver, and a Slovakian couple) hopped into the van and headed towards the bungalows. On the way, we stopped at a market where Samart wanted to “pick up a few things.” Apparently, “a few things” means a giant knife, a dozen baby ducks, some fish, and the cutest puppy in the entire world.

This is where my love story begins. When you travel, you always wonder in the back of your mind, “will I fall in love on this crazy adventure?” Well, I did. His name is Snoop, (I named him) and well, he is a dog, he is a Snoop Doggy Dog, but that’s a minor detail. We’re in love, and I miss him terribly. My arms feel empty without him.

When we arrived at the bungalows, I knew I had made the right decision. These are not just bungalows, but an official backpacker destination called Spicy Joe Ecovilla and Bungalows. Built by hand from the ground up (mostly out of bamboo), this beautiful ecolodge and organic farm sizzles out earthly and spiritual magic. There were a handful of volunteers staying there, among them a couple from the UK and a woman from New Hampshire. We all bonded and chatted about our experiences at home, and in our travels. We collected rocks at the river to mix with sand and cement to create stone pathways around the bungalows. When we were utterly filthy, we headed to the waterfalls for an evening shower and swim. It was deserted. Chilly, but just perfect. I count this—standing under a seemingly secret rushing waterfall—as one many moments on this trip that have felt surreal.

The next afternoon, after more cement projects (including a lopsided BBQ…how’s that coming Samart?), we went on a lovely tubing adventure. I brought my cheap underwater camera, which I will probably forget to develop for 3 years. Of course I went the wrong way and finished last, but it’s not a race! We spent the evenings drinking Thai Whiskey and a special potent plum alcohol the Slovakian couple provided. We cooked, ate, played games (one of the games involved knowledge of European country capitals, at which I was dismal), and of course I spent copious amounts of time with my love, Snoop. I even convinced Snoop to do some Yoga Tune Up work so I could show off his little yoga physique and skills to my friend/yoga teacher Ariel Kiley.

Upon returning to Chiang Mai, we had one last hooray together at Samart’s favorite Thai BQQ buffet. It was a massive, bustling place, and we selected fresh raw meat and fish to cook on our little BBQ. On the way home, we blasted some classic rock and roll, and sung out the window. I enjoyed my time with Samart and the little piece of bungalow heaven he has created immensely. I am confident our paths (and mine and Snoop’s path!) will cross again. If you have stumbled upon this blog while researching South East Asia, and you are interested in one-of-a-kind accommodation, volunteer experience, tours and treks, I highly recommend, Samart. Check out Next Step Thailand for more information, and to book, contact Samart directly at spicywildpumpkin at

Though I wanted to stay longer, it was time to head to to Phuket to shoot my first destination wedding… and afterwards, cross the boarder into Laos. Stay tuned.

trying before buying…

fried crickets which are actually quite delicious

welcome to spicy joe’s ecovilla

the best bar in town

um, obviously i love this man


wifi is everywhere…

building a BBQ

one of the dozen baby ducks got sick… it couldn’t hold it’s little head up.

i tried to keep it warm in my shirt….

snoop tried to keep it warm too! but it just didn’t make it. rest in peace little duck. (and yes, i’m obsessed with this picture).

he loved yoga tune up balls!

snoop did too!

trying to install solar panels…


Thanks for reading!

The Secret Valley of Phrao

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

I was determined to visit the hidden valley of Phrao. Or was it Phayao? Or Phrae. Shit. Where was I trying to go? The chicken scratches in my journal became my enemy as I tried to make my way to this tiny off-the-grid town. From Chiang Rai, I took a bus to Phayao only to realize Phayao is not Pharo and Phrao is where I wanted to be. After taking a look around, I decided to continue on to Mae Salong.

After my adventure with Gilles in Mae Salong, I made my way back to Chiang Rai to try to catch a bus to Phrao…again. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who confuses Phayao with Phrao, and I almost ended up on a bus BACK to Phayao (I was literally about to get on and then my gut told me to get out my map and point to Phrao). Eventually, someone at the bus station informed me that I had missed the last bus and I would have to get one tomorrow.

Funny enough, I ran into the Gilles at the bus station, and he was nice enough to take me to the secret $5 a night guesthouse he had stayed at the week before (getting there on his motorbike was a balancing act since both of us had our backpacks). I spent the day wandering along the bar-lined streets of Chiang Rai, had a couple beers at a Rasta bar, and treated myself to surprisingly good Italian food.

The next morning, I made my way back to the bus station, only to be told once again that there were NO BUSES to Phrao. My patience dwindling, I literally dragged the woman at the information “desk” to talk to the bus drivers, (who were all telling me different things), and after an extended conversation, they determined that I could get a bus to the town of Wiang Pa Pao, spend the night there, and get a bus the next morning to Phrao. It became clear through all this chaos that not many people go Phrao, which amplified my curiosity…

My night in Wiang Pa Pao ended up being a blessing. After arriving, I set out on a bicycle ride (when I asked for a a motorbike, the guesthouse owner proudly presented me with an actual bike, and I decided a little exercise wouldn’t kill me…). While biking, I came across a group of rice field workers eating and drinking on a platform near their rice field. I waved to them and they waved me over, insisting I join them. They had just finished their long workday and were happily taking shots of Thai Rice Whiskey (and insisted I do so, too). I knocked back a couple, spoke the 10 Thai words I knew (I counted to ten twice and they all counted with me), and continued biking. On my way back, I met one of the same guys I met earlier, this time with his wife and daughter. I took a couple more shots of Thai Rice Whiskey, as they (drunkingly) talked my ear off, not seeming to care that I didn’t understand a word they were saying.

When I finally arrived in Phrao, I was immediately struck by its tranquility. I was the only traveler in sight; and I didn’t see any the whole time I was there, even at my guesthouse. The German owner of my guesthouse, Doi Farang Bungalows, explained that the place was empty tonight, but tomorrow I would have to leave because a team from Google Earth was coming for the weekend. They come every weekend, he said, working to put Phrao, quite literally on the map.

The scenery was absolutely stunning as I slowly puttered along on my motorbike. Beautiful, bizarrely shaped mountains surrounded me on all sides. Glowing green rice fields went on for miles. I passed through the small village of Ban Haui Sai, or “Sandy Stream.” It is a peaceful settlement rarely visited by outsiders, where locals make their living farming tobacco and rice in the valley’s fertile ground.

Later in the evening, I found a high hilltop to watch the sunset, and I barely have words to tell you how dazzling it was against the mountain range. It changed colors from minute to minute, and I just stood there alone watching it creep behind the landscape. I’ve been to many countries and watched many sunsets, but this has to be one of the most stunning I can recall. I sang out loud, and did a little “I love life dance,” and thought of family and friends as the sun took its final breathe before disappearing into slumber.

Phrao offered me a look into the unspoiled Thailand that I longed to see. Pristine and free of tourism, it is by far one of the most traditional, rural regions in Thailand at the end of the 20th century. Until recently, the only way to reach this village was by longtail boat (the road, though it doesn’t seem new, is new, and perhaps that’s why it was so hard to get there). As I went to bed in utter quietness, I couldn’t help but wonder what changes Phrao would see in the next decade. Part of me didn’t even want to make this entry (there are barely any blogs or online information about Phrao) because I’d like to go back one day and have it be the same…

The next morning I rose early and made my way to Chiang Dao where I visited the Chiang Dao caves. I didn’t take too many pictures because I didn’t want to bring my flash, and I wanted to experience the cave more than photograph it. I did a 500 stair walking meditation to the top of a temple where I did another meditation and a bit of yoga as the sun set. This was a beautiful part of my trip, during which I spent all my days alone. I think part of why people are afraid to travel alone is the inner thinking that it sparks; being alone without family, friends, and significant others, navigating unfamiliar cultures and languages, flips your thinking inward. As I’ve made this journey, I have asked many questions about myself, the state of the word, our shared future in these tumultuous times, but I’m also learning to shut down my mind, which has always been a challenge for me, and especially when it’s just “my thoughts and i.” I feel so strongly we are in a time of great transformation, both in our personal paths, as well as our collective journey as communities, nations, an earth, and a universe. This manifests in a multitude of ways, but as my dear friend Emily eloquently wrote to me a few weeks ago “It’s as though I can barely breath one minute, and yet in the next, I find my deepest breath ever.”

I can’t explain to you what I’m experiencing and I don’t know what you are experiencing as I write this, (I don’t even know who reads this) but we are experiencing something together, and that might be our most important experience of all.

got a little too close before i realized they were beehives…

this is one of my favorite pictures right now, and has inspired an idea about a photoseries….

did i mention i got lost? ended up on some fairly rocky, steep terrain


the sunset from the hilltop

my bungalow

i’m doing a photo series on mothers and daughters

chiang dao caves

i started my 500 stair walking meditation here.


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