Even if it's just for a handful of days, hopping back into the traveling circuit is an epic feeling. I love my job and I'm happy everyday, but there's this euphoric buzz that runs through me every time I clip on my Osprey bag and wedge myself onto another box-on-wheels. My muscles cramp and my limbs fall asleep within minutes of unintentionally twisting myself into an advanced yoga pose on these clown-car-excuse-for-buses, but it has become part of the experience at this point.
Oddly, there was a bus available from Tha Bo to Loei, so travel-time to our travel-hub was quite brief - although this was the only portion of our commute that was brief. Being in Thailand for about six months has allowed me to develop an open mind when it comes to patience. The term "Thai-Time" is not just an alliterative, clever sounding stereotyped slogan - it is as literal as the word itself.
Thais are in no rush to do anything. So, a trip that should have taken three hours took closer to seven. Especially on the local transit, the bus driver always prudently picks up every person in sight on the side of the road, as well as takes every ample opportunity to stop for snacks and smoke breaks. So, the moral of the story is: "mai bpen rai" (don't worry about it) - you're in Thailand!
It's always cool to people-watch and try to chat up the locals in situations like this. I am a professional at spontaneously and chronically napping on public transit, but even that is quite the feat for a 7-hour trip. Although guilty of a few Angry Birds sessions from time-to-time, I try to steer clear of technology on transit. Thailand (especially Issan) is a place where it isn't an anomaly to sit and observe or speak to the people around you.
Yes, a large portion of the younger generation are glued to their Smart Phones (I think at this point "Smart Phone" is a Proper Noun...) just like the average American, but it's always important to take advantage of the chatty older crowd - they love foreigners and a majority of them will spend time trying to communicate with you. Also, once you start spending some time with locals it's pretty incredible how much Thai you can actually begin to pick up.
We stayed in a great little guesthouse called, "Sugar Guest House" (pronounced ‘Soo-gar') in Muang Loei. It's in a prime location; has a friendly owner, Pat (who is very good at speaking English - not very common in the Issan region); and its cheap, yet classy rooms make it an awesome choice for a trip to this part of the country. The city itself doesn't have many of the bells and whistles that accompany a backpacker on the main tourist circuit, but the natural aesthetics in the surrounding areas make it an unsung hero in Thailand.
When you're not bouncing around to the natural beauties that surround, there are plenty of stellar Thai food spots (including the phenomenal food walking street), a few entertaining watering holes, and a heaping smattering of local vendors to keep you beyond pleased with your destination choice.
Being that it's August, the rainy season is upon us, which unfortunately means that many of the national parks in Thailand close a hefty portion of their trekking and hiking opportunities until October. When I first heard the term "rainy season," I initially was inclined to believe that for the entire span of the season, it rained like it does in the movie "Rambo."
Now that I've experienced and am now a part of the latter segment of the rains, I have found out that it is the quality of the storms and not the quantity. Sometimes, it won't rain for an entire week, but when it rains, you might as well put your bathing suit on if your going to be outside (which I tend to actually do). With that said, some portions of the country experience more rain than others during this time. As far as I know, hiking opportunities close down because of the inherent danger that lies upon the slippery hills.
Now, that does not mean that the whole area shuts down - this time of year is when some of the wildest colors show themselves and it is a beautiful sight to see. On our first day in town, we rented a Suzuki from Pat and shot up 201 North to the earthy, yet progressive village of Chiang Khan. Resting on the banks of the Mekong, Chiang Khan takes on the mannerisms of Pai, yet it is way milder and has a significantly smaller footprint. A large portion of the architecture is made of timber, which gives the town a homegrown vibe. Although we only spent the better part of a day there, we still had an incredible time.
After spending the first hour walking along a path that spans the Mekong (it seems like they have plans to renovate the path into a walking strip that is handicapped accessible - which is quite progressive for that area), we stumbled upon a gem of a restaurant: Gin Sen Duh; Gin Khao Deh. Literally translated to, "We have noodles; We have rice - this simple restaurant slogan did not do the place justice. Yes, they had both noodles and rice, but it was so much more.
Decorated with vibrant, loud colors, the restaurant fit right in to this hipster, Thai town, but it still stood on its own. Run by renowned chef, Mr. Korn, it took on the atmosphere of dining in a friend's living room. After taking our order, we watched as Mr. Korn prepared a few dishes for the parties ahead of us. With a calm and collective demeanor, flames flew vertically as Thai cuisine danced in the air with a small flick of his wrist. Even with the heat of the Thai sun, coupled with the steamy kitchen, only small beads of sweat formed around this culinary guru's tiny, awesome mustache.
Mr. Korn had apparently been a big-time chef down in Bangkok for the bulk of his career. He took a holiday north and after his first encounter with Chiang Khan, his life-long views changed. It was time to open up a place of his own that made a positive contribution to a community that gave so much to him. He did just that by satisfying local taste buds on a daily basis, and making a couple of farang feel right at home.
Dining with us on that day was the worldly Chiang Khan local, "Yo." We began chatting and it turned out he had some pretty epic traveling experiences - one of those being an epic cross-country road trip across the oh-so-familiar United States. It's a shot in the dark, but maybe that's why his English was so good... While traveling, it's circumstances like that one, which make life seem so simple. All you need is some friendly people, a couple laughs, and some tasty food to make all worries whisk away.
Along with that culinary treat, Chiang Khan - along with Loei - have unbelievable coffee shops. Thailand, generally speaking, can fall on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to a satisfying and spine tingling cup of Joe. In many instances, you can find yourself sipping on an instant cup of mahogany tinted liquid that will bring you one step closer to maxing out your blood sugar content (if you don't want your teeth to rot out of your head, remember the phrase "nam tan nit noy" - which translates to "sugar, a little.")
The coffee is cheaper at these powder stands, but often there will be more sugar in your cup than coffee. So, when you see a coffee shop with an espresso machine, you are in luck. In the Chiang Khan and Loei area, there are plenty of these to choose from, all with an awesome atmosphere, and friendly staff. Personally, a good cup of coffee goes a long way for me, so having real coffee shops in the area is always a nice bonus.
My advice would be to leave the coffee for the morning or the evening, and spend your days exploring the virtually unscathed landscape that Loei has to offer. We got a chance to check out two very cool spots: Tham Moharan (Moharan Cave) and Nam Tok Huai Lao (Huai Lao Waterfall). Both spots were clearly labeled on the map to be located south of Loei, right along Highway 201, so, we figured it would be easy to find.
What we found out through trial, error, and small talk with locals along the way was that these two tourist attractions were available to the general public - you just had to be able to read and comprehend Thai in order to find them. The comical, yet surprisingly logical facet that my travel partner and I did not take into consideration was the mere fact that we were indeed in Thailand. Although it takes longer to see the sights when you can't read the road signs and your map is not to scale, it adds an extra pinch of fulfillment when you finally arrive at your destination.
Tham Moharan was an especially cool place to arrive to. Located behind a giant yellow gate (we never would have found it if we didn't decide to park the bike, surpass the gate, and adventure down the long path to the cave entrance), the cave offers quite a unique experience - it is essentially a self-guided tour. As you walk up the steps toward the entranceway, there is a switch on the wall you push up in order to turn the electricity on in the cave. Although it is slightly lame that electricity is provided in the cave, there are still plenty of awesome crevices, dips, and ducks to explore with your headlamp.
There are many impressive stalactite and stalagmite structures that will "wow" you from start to finish. Not to mention, there is a significant bat population! As soon as you enter, you will find them squeaking and swooping right over your head. Surprisingly, they tended to stay in the wider caverns, but some of them were not afraid to get pretty close! So, as you are meandering through the caverns, be wary that big bats means big "guano."
Located about 30 kilometers from Tham Moharan is the captivating Nam Tok Huai Lao. Set back from the main highway, the drive to the waterfall alone is worth the trip. Due to the dire need for a pave, it is well advised you take your time on your way there, or you'll end up walking to the waterfall. The slow-route won't bother you though because you are surrounded by rural, mountainous Thailand, in a most-unadulterated spot. Vibrant greens, beautiful farms, and giddy villagers swarm in this area, which makes getting lost quite the treat on your way to the waterfall (there are a few turns that are unmarked, so asking for directions is almost necessary).
Nom Tok Huai Lao is a 9-tier waterfall. Simply stunning from start to finish, each tier keeps you longing for what lies ahead. Beads of sweat were dripping down my face with each step and the humidity covered my body like a fleece blanket. Barrages of bamboo shot up all around the forest making for nice decoration and a fun percussive activity on the way up. When hiking in any Thai jungle, something that can easily be overlooked (literally) is the colonies of ants that spread out amongst the soil. It may sound boring, but it is most certainly not - the way they work is incredible!
Thailand is home to hundreds of species of ants who are bustling about at all hours of the day, so make it a point to check them out. Although they were a nice addition to the waterfall hike, words cannot describe the top tiers of Nam Tok Huai Lao - so go see it for yourself!
Our trip sadly came to an end the next day. It is never easy to come to terms with leaving a beautiful place, but with every excursion that ends, another follows. All I can really say now is: go to Loei, you won't regret it!