Monday, September 30, 2013

36 Hours in Chiang Rai, Thailand

White Temple Buddha
Story and pictures by Prisana Nuechterlein

From eating field rats to discovering a sacred belly button - Chiang Rai offers travelers a taste of authentic Thailand.

Far from Bangkok’s chaotic pulse, Chiang Rai, with its glistening rice fields, quaint city streets and golden spires, promises an escape into the distant past of a bygone era. Upcountry, time has a different quality – it flows sweetly on the banks of the Mae Kok River, where simple pleasures abound and nothing is rushed in its passing. 
A colony for painters, sculptors and ceramic artists, Chiang Rai’s alluring beauty has inspired a number of Thailand's most famous artists including Chalermchai Kositpipat of White Temple fame and visionary Tawan Duchanee (the creator of Chiang Rai's remarkable and equally disturbing Black House). At the core of the city’s artistic soul is a place forever creating itself with a vision of both the traditional and historic past and the more abstract and contemporary present.

Historically, Chiang Rai belonged to the Lanna Kingdom, founded by King Meng Rai in the 13th century. Lanna means 'land of a million rice fields', which aptly describes the emerald plains of this legendary city. Legend has it that King Meng Rai founded the capital city in 1262 when his elephant veered off a trail and took him to a scenic spot on the Mae Kok River, where he saw the military potential of building a town. Thirty-four years later, the King founded Chiang Mai as the new capital, but always regarded Chiang Rai as his most beloved city. After several hundred years of being ruled by Burma, Chiang Rai was finally officially a Siamese province in 1939.

Chiang Rai's much revered statue of King Mengrai

Today, Chiang Rai has arrived into the modern era after a few sleepy decades of thankfully slow progress. Situated about one and a half hour's drive from the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge, the city offers a perfect gateway to explore the mighty Mekong and the ethnic hilltribe villages of the region.

The White Temple 


Designed by famous Thai Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the stunning White Temple (053-673-579) is one of the most photographed temples in Thailand. The creator works and lives at the temple and if you are very fortunate, you may get the chance to meet him. He speaks fluent English and is usually surrounded by his friendly entourage and adoring fans. Entry is free and be sure to visit the museum and gallery.

You can easily hire a driver to take you to the temple, located along Phahonyothin roadside at Km816, approximately 13 km from the city or take a public bus from the Chiang Rai bus station for less than $1 (20 baht). To return, flag down a public bus or songthaew (red truck taxi) from the police station on the left side of the road leading back to the main highway. The bus ride is approximately 30 minutes.

Treat yourself to a small snack of coconut ice cream and head back to Chiang Rai for lunch.


There are plenty of noodle vendors serving Kao Soy, Chiang Rai’s famous Burmese style chicken curry and noodle dish, but the most well known vendor is Po Sai located just opposite Wangcome Hotel.  Typically eaten for lunch, the restaurant closes at 6 pm. Kao Soy is served with yellow noodles brimming in a rich milky curry soup and topped off with crispy fried thin noodles. Be sure to add the pickled cabbage, small red onion and lemon slice. An absolute treat and costs only 25 baht which is less than $1!

Flower Blossoms Mae Fah Luang Garden

Known by locals as Thailand’s Switzerland, Doi Tung (‘Flag Mountain') is an alluring mountain-top destination located near picturesque Shan, Akha and Lahu hilltribe villages. Doi Tung was traditionally Thailand's thriving center for opium production until Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, (the late Princess Mother of Thailand), initiated The Doi Tung Development Project in 1988.  Inspired by her son, His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose efforts to end opium cultivation began two decades earlier, the Princess Mother recognized the root cause of the people's struggles was their impoverished lack of options for legitimate livelihoods. By introducing other sustainable crops such as coffee, strawberries, cabbages and macadamia nuts, opium production levels fell significantly and the project was a great success.

Stroll through the vibrant hills of Mae Fah Luang Garden (053-767-0157, adjacent to the Royal Villa in Doi Tung. Inspired by fond memories of her earlier years in Switzerland, the Princess Mother built her last residence – the Doi Tung Royal Villa in the cooler climes of Chiang Rai province. With an impressive collection of over 70 species of different flowering plants, the garden is a blossoming abode to her former European home, with sweeping views of the majestic valleys surrounding the Royal Villa.

Located an hour's drive north of Chiang Rai, The Mae Fah Luang Garden is open daily from 7 am to 5 pm. 

Mae Kok River


Enjoy the view of the Mae Kok river at Favola at Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort (221 / 2 Moo 20 Kwaewai Road, Phone: 053-603-333 Great Italian dishes and excellent service. 

Chivit Thamma Da's two dogs greeting customers.
Saturday 8 am –  CHIVIT THAMMA DA

Ideally located on the bank of the Mae Kok River, this delightful café (081-984-2925179, Moo 2, Rimkok, and spa serves fantastic salads, decked out sandwiches, homemade bread, dreamy desserts and delicious coffee drinks. The price range is around $5 - $15 per dish. After dining you could choose an aroma massage at their spa, however, be prepared to pay a high bill for such luxury.

Wat Phra Sing



Historic Wat Phra Sing (Temple of the Lion Buddha) and was once home to the sacred Lanna-style Buddhist statue Phra Buddha Sihing, before the famous image was moved to a temple in Chiang Mai, bearing the same name. A smaller replica of the revered statue sits in the elaborate ordination hall. The temple was founded in 1385 during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma.

Red Truck Taxi (Songtaew)

The Navel City Pillar of Chiang Rai

Locals refer to the Navel City Pillar as the "belly button" of Chiang Rai, while others have viewed the monument as the heart of Chiang Rai. Constructed in 1987 to commemorate the 60 years birthday of His Majesty the King and the 725 years celebration of the City of Chiang Rai, the pillar stands on top of Doi Chom Thong inside the grounds of Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong.


Doi Chang Fresh Coffee is a great place to unwind, catch up on your emails with free wi-fi, eat lasagna or a Thai dish. It's conveniently located in the center of town at the intersection of Paholyothin and Rattankhet Roads. Look for the Fat Free Bicycle shop (542/2 Baanpa Pragarn Road, T. Wiang, 053-752-532, 089-755-4676) next door where you can rent a bike or opt for a cycle tour after lunch. Contact Khun Chumpoo for details on cycling tours. Everyone in the shop is friendly and knowledgeable and they have a great selection of newer bicycles.

2 pm - WAKE ZONE

If you're looking for something a bit different and enjoy waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing or banana boat rides - check out Planete Wakeboard,  (129 M.5, Huesak Mueang, 053-918-076 Located 15kms from Chiang Rai, the lake is small enough for glassy conditions and food is available at the restaurant.


Few people literally run into their dinner, but if you are extremely fortunate you may come across a tasty field rat. Considered a delicacy up north, Thais are known to catch them and transport them alive on sticks to keep them fresh.

Bon Appetite and Sawasdee!

Blog Quote of the Day:

“But there was more to it than that. As the Amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats. And the difficult part of it was deciding who the people were, and who were the rats.”

― Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents


Village Farang's excellent blog provides a useful map of his favorite places in Chiang Rai:


The Legend Chiang Rai
The Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort & Spa (124/15 Moo 21 Kohloy Rd., 66-53-910-400, is ideally located on the Mae Kok River and only a few minutes drive from the city center. Room rates start at $110 (3,300 baht). The serene and stunning setting and elegantly designed rooms are a winning combination.

Agoda ( has some exceptional deals on hotels throughout Asia.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Flying for Free

Maui Airport
I learned a new word today: churner. Apparently, what I've been doing for the past 5 years to earn free flights is called "churning". What is a churner? A churner is a person who applies for numerous credit cards for the main benefit of earning as many reward points as possible and then cancelling the cards usually within the first year of getting their sign up promotional points. Some churners are so successful, they've earned over 1,000,000 points which translates into an impressive amount of free flights. I have yet to earn a million points, but in the past 5 years, I have managed to earn enough miles to circumnavigate the earth for free about a half dozen times.

What amazes me is how resistant most people are to churning. The greatest misconception is that this practice will ruin their credit scores. I can only say from personal experience, my credit score has not been affected in the slightest.

By carefully managing your cards and choosing the best offers, you can fly to Thailand for free or anywhere that your points allow you to go. I mainly flew back and forth to Thailand, since my husband Eric and I have been living in both the US and Thailand for the past 5 years. Not only was I getting free travel, Eric was also flying for free.

If you plan carefully, you can also book two trips in one by taking advantage of free stopovers. One year we routed our trip on United Airlines from Denver to Switzerland, staying for 5 days in Geneva and then continuing onward to Bangkok. The next year, we routed our trip from Denver to Hawaii, staying for a week in the islands and then onward to Bangkok.

An important point to remember is that both you and your spouse can earn points by applying individually for the same card deals. There are plenty of great websites that explain the process and will keep you updated on the best deals out there.

My favorite one is The Points Guy at If this strategy is completely new to you, I recommend that you start by reading his Beginner's Guide. He will walk you through the process with an easy to follow step by step guide.

Some points to remember to be a successful churner:

1. I always pay off my cards to avoid paying any finance charges.

2. Almost all cards offer a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, which is why I cancel the cards within the first year before being charged with the normal annual fee.
3. It's best to sign up for the mileage program first and then apply for the credit card. Delta Airline's mileage program is especially advantageous because your miles never expire. The downside however is that you need more miles to earn your award tickets than with United Airline's award program. Hawaiian Miles is definitely worth applying for, but their award travel can sometimes be a bit nuts. My craziest experience with them happened earlier this year. We were in Maui and had a ticket from Maui to Denver, but since our return ticket to Denver originated on the Big Island, we were routed from Maui to Honolulu, to the Big Island and then back to Maui to catch our plane to Denver! Confused? So were we.

4. I usually only apply for cards that offer more than 30,000 sign up bonus points. On a few occasions, I have been offered 60,000 sign up bonus points. Most airlines offer a free round trip ticket internationally for 65,000 points. 

Flying for free isn't nearly as complicated as many people believe. In fact, now that I have accumulated all of these award miles, what I need is free time to actually use them. Any tips on how to accumulate free time?

Blog Quote of the Day: Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.” ~ Terry Pratchett ~

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kingdom of a Million Elephants

Prisana Pipatpan finds plenty to appreciate and ponder over as she visits the Plain of Jars and the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang.

This article was first published in The Bangkok Post on April 25, 1993.

Sunset on the Mekong River
Copyright Prisana Pipatpan
The moment I arrived at Hualampong Railway Station, I knew I had made a mistake. I stepped into the crowded concourse, shortly before midnight and was immediately consumed by a massive flow of people, pushing and shoving their way to platforms, luggage carts and any available floor space. There was no direct stream of traffic, just a claustrophobic movement of sweaty tired bodies, crammed together without the luxury of airspace.

However, the chaotic scene I witnessed was not your average night. It was the night before New Year’s Eve and a massive exodus was underway. Surrounded by a sea of weary travelers, I slowly made my way to a filthy corner of the station, seeking refuge inside a dingy restaurant.

Our destination was Nong Kai, located on the banks of the Mekong River, where a short ferry ride would take us to our ultimate destination: Laos.

By the time I crawled into my second class, air conditioned berth, I did so with utmost relief. I awoke six hours later to a quiet sleepy compartment. A soft early morning light filtered into the train and I could smell the welcome aroma of coffee being served.

Upon our arrival in Nong Khai, we gathered at Tha Sadet pier. This was my first chance to actually meet a few members of our multi-national group, mostly made up of Bangkok residents. We grabbed our bags and made a steep descent down the narrowest steps in all of Thailand. A quick ferry ride across the Mekong landed us in Laos, where we filled forms and smiled at bored immigration officers. Outside the small office, Jit, our young lean Laotian tour guide, efficiently herded us onto a brand new mini-bus.

As we passed the Friendship Bridge under construction, Jit began his tour speech; “Laos has four million people, 10% live in our capital city Vientiane. 85% of our people are farmers…”. The magnificent Friendship Bridge loomed to our left; a monstrous steel apparition which looked distinctly out of place, rising from its humble surroundings into the 20th century. When completed in 1994, the bridge will link Laos with Thailand for the first time in history.

Some 125,000 people live in Vientiane, in modest homes and buildings which rarely rise above one story. Traffic was light and most of the commuters were on motorbikes and bicycles.

“I’m sorry,” Jit announced nervously, at the end of his speech. “The Lane Xang hotel is full. We will be staying at another clean and comfortable hotel, I believe you will enjoy.” I cringed at his description, having slept in various clean and comfortable Asian rat holes, however, the semi-new Asian Pavilion Hotel, was not what I had imagined. On the contrary, it turned out to be much nicer than the famous old Lane Xang hotel, named after the ancient name for Laos: the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.

Wat Xieng Thong (Golden Tree Temple)


Five minutes after stepping into our hotel’s empty lobby, we were whisked away to the airport. Jit had arranged for a helicopter to fly us up to Xiengkhoung, where we would visit the Plain of Jars. This news came as a welcome surprise, since I had never flown in a helicopter before.

“When do we leave?” I asked Jit, after sitting in Vientiane’s airport for well over an hour.

“When helicopter comes,” he replied smiling.

I soon learned that in Laos there are no set schedules. Our group meandered through the airport, eating fresh loaves of French bread and taking pictures of one another. I was just about to click off a few myself, when our Thai tour leader intervened and warned me otherwise.

“It is forbidden to take pictures at the airport,” he said.

I looked around and saw dozens of people snapping pictures and replied: “If it’s forbidden, why is everyone taking pictures?”

“Because they don’t know it is forbidden.”

“What will happen if I take pictures anyway?” I asked.

“They may take your film away,” he said. “It depends on their mood.”

Eventually, the Soviet-built ME-8 helicopter arrived and once again our entire group took pictures of each other standing in front of the copter. I stood there forlornly, wondering whether to shoot or not to shoot? I didn’t care if my film was taken, but I definitely didn’t want to offend my protective Thai guide.
We crawled into the copter’s empty grey belly. A loud whirl of blades turned overhead and suddenly, we were lifted straight up, far above the green Vientiane plain. I looked at my companions, who sat rigid on the vibrating floor, with their eyes closed as if in prayer. A few passengers had cupped their hands over their ears as well, trying to block out the chopper’s continuous loud whirling drone.

Unfortunately, the copter lacked windows except for two small holes on the floor in the back of the belly. Someone asked Jit if we could take pictures out of the door and to my amazement, he agreed. I quickly crawled over to the front of the copter and crouched behind a Laotian man who sat inside the doorway, with his legs hanging outside the helicopter. He was wearing large earphones and stared vacantly out at the open space. Jit wisely, was the only other passenger wearing ear plugs.

While the copter’s roar pounded in my ears, I rapidly shot off a roll of film, trying not to hit the Laotian man’s head with my zoom lens. It was a difficult task, considering he was sitting directly underneath my lens. Far below, I saw dozens of oddly placed ponds scattered throughout the countryside. A moment later, I suddenly realized that the hundreds of small “ponds” I saw, were not ponds at all. They were bomb craters.

Inside the Russian-built ME-8 helicopter, flying to the Plain of Jars.
Source: Janchai Pipatpan

"BOM U.S.A."

When we landed I was in a solemn mood, unable to shake off a hundred questions firing inside my mind. I wondered what thoughts and questions must have haunted the men who flew the B-52 bombers over Laos. Journalists during the Indochina War-era called Laos, the Land of a Million Irrelevants. The buckshot landscape I sadly witnessed from the sky, clearly revealed the horror of such “irrelevant” bombings. In fact, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during WWII: it therefore tragically earned the distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the history of warfare.

We drove in a green rickety “school” bus down a winding dirt road towards the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of massive dark stone jars dating back 2,000 years, dotted the windswept grasslands. The largest concentration of jars were scattered across the gentle slopes of two small hills.

Our group leisurely strolled among the giant hollow jars, some of which stood over five feet tall. Approximately 300 jars escaped destruction during the Indochina war, and as a reminder of who bombed the Plain of Jars, several craters were marked with a small wood sign post which read: “BOM U.S.A.”
French archaeologists believe the jars were once used as stone burial urns. Ashes, stone axes, bronze ornaments, ceramics and other artifacts have been discovered inside the jars, which experts speculated were reserved for high ranking officials.

Plain of Jars, Laos
Source: Janchai Pipatpan

"A Manhattan with holy men..."

The next morning we flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the former royal capitol of Laos. Founded in 1353 as the royal capitol of Lan Xang, this alluring little city was truly a dream world, nestled amid green rolling mountains on a sharp curve on the Mekong. Indeed, it was a hidden Shangrila, where you could disappear for a walk along the serene Mekong banks, or stop and talk with young Buddhist monks gathered around small campfires inside hushed temple grounds.

Luang Prabang was once described as a “tiny Manhattan” by Norman Lewis, “but a Manhattan with holy men in yellow in its avenues, with pariah dogs, and garlanded pedicabs carrying somnolent Frenchmen nowhere, and doves in its sky.”

Today the charming city remains much the same, though the somnolent Frenchmen have ventured elsewhere, the saffron-robed holy men still make their daily procession through the early morning mist, carrying shiny alms bowls and flickering candles.

Young Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, Laos
Copyright Prisana Pipatpan
Shortly after dawn, I climbed 329 steps to the top of Pousi, also known as “Marvelous Mountain”, a rocky hill which dominates the town’s skyline. From Wat Chom Si, a small temple at the hill’s summit, I gazed out over the early morning mist at Phousang, the city’s most mysterious and legendary mountain.

According to one legend, a famous cave called the “Flamingo Cave” exists inside the mountain, where hidden treasures are believed to be protected by “Nyaks” or guardians. However, no one has ever reached the cave’s entrance, even by helicopter. Supposedly, those who try to enter will die, either by a severe nose bleed, or suffocation.

In 1861, Henri Mouhot, the first Frenchman to arrive in Luang Prabang, climbed into Phousang to study the wildlife inhabiting the area. He died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of 32, while exploring the unknown region. Villagers are still afraid of venturing into the area, fearing such inexplicable deaths and many believe that Phousang is where powerful ogres continue to live, acting as the guardians of Luang Prabang.

As the morning sun burned off dawn’s hazy mist, a clearer 360-degree view came into focus. Below me, the multi-tiered roof of Wat Mai glistened in the sunlight and the golden spire of the former royal palace of King Sisavong Vong rose above tall palm trees. Built in 1904, the palace was converted into a museum shortly after the 1975 Revolution, and houses the famous golden Phra Bang Buddha image.

The sacred standing gold Buddha image was presented to the city’s founder, Prince Fa Ngum, by the Khmers in the 14th century and inspired the capital’s name. Under his reign, the Kingdom prospered into the14th and 15th centuries, but increasing pressure from its neighbors and internal strife caused an end to the Kingdom’s Golden Age.

Crossing the mighty Mekong.
Copyright Prisana Pipatpan

In the late afternoon, I sat on some rocks on the banks of the Mekong and watched a family bathing together in the emerald green water. To the right of me two men carried bicycles across the river on their shoulders. To the left, children splashed each other joyously. The scene was utterly peaceful and made me wonder about the Laotians and their future. The winds of change are blowing in Asia’s least developed country; a place currently isolated in an enchanting time capsule.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Underwater Rock Stars

Picture by Mike Johnston

Hin Daeng, a relatively unknown diving destination in southern Thailand offers divers rare encounters with whale sharks, manta rays and giant eels. 

Author's Note: This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post in 1996.

I was just about to ascend when I saw John Williams, co-founder of Siam Diving Center, frantically pointing into the dark blue depths. Scanning the water below, I knew almost without a doubt that his "look here" gesture could only mean one thing: he had spotted a whale shark.

We were diving at Hin Daeng (Red Rock), 48 nautical miles southeast of Phuket. Topside, the rocky outcrop is easily recognized, jutting a few meters above the sea. Below, a vertical wall dropsan abrupt 55 meters on one side and gently slopes on the other, creating an ideal underwater seascape for encounters with larger marine life. Common to this area is the gray reef shark, giant schools of jacks, fusiliers, tuna and barracuda.

In our three days of diving at various "hot spots" from Shark Point near Phuket to Red Rock, we had seen an amazing array of marine life; leopard sharks, nurse sharks, giant eels, octopus and a magnificent variety of colorful reef fish. Still, our greatest desire was to encounter a whale shark.

Aside from John and Frank Hebert, our equipment manager on the Daranee, (a live-aboard dive boat we had booked from Phuket) the other members of our dive group had never seen a whale shark. In fact, John had been diving for 15 years before his first whale shark encounter in the Similan Islands a few years earlier.

Although whale sharks are considered rare, in recent years the number of sightings by local dive operators has increased dramatically. A few companies reported more than 12 encounters in a single month. A member of the species Rhinocodon typus, the whale shark is the largest fish in existence. However, these gentle giants are harmless to divers, feeding on only small fish and plankton. Most often they are found cruising near the surface, where their food source is most abundant.

Pumped with adrenaline, our dive group raced toward John, glancing at each other with excitement. And yet, as we approached closer, I still couldn't see anything in the dark, gloomy water. I stared out into an empty blue void, wondering if the mysterious creature had possibly already vanished. Then suddenly, a dark shadow emerged underneath John and I saw the unmistakable white markings of a whale shark!

Our group finned rapidly trying to keep up with the "baby" shark, which was about three meters in length. Adults can grow up to 15 meters and weigh more than 20 tons. With his camera in tow, John managed a face-to-face meeting with the shark, clicking off one shot of the shark's wide mouth before it shot off into the murky distance.

The young shark was obviously startled when another diver touched his dorsal fin. While older sharks will let divers "hitch-hike" on them, and even appear to enjoy playing with divers, young ones are less tolerant and are easily frightened. 

Emerging from the water, our group beamed with joyous smiles. We soon learned that Frank was the only member of our dive group who hadn't seen the whale shark.

"Oh, did you see Oscar?" he asked, as if we'd run into an old friend.

Apparently "Oscar" was another young whale shark he'd seen on several occasions at Hin Muang, the dive site we'd explored the previous day.

Lying close to Hin Daeng, Hin Muang’s uncharted pinnacle is completely hidden 6 meters underneath the water’s surface. Appropriately named Purple Rock, Hin Muang is covered by brilliant purple soft corals and sea anemones. On one side, a vertical wall plunges 60 meters to the ocean floor, while the flat top of the rock measures about 15 meters across.

The highlight of Hin Muang, of course, is the possibility of meeting Oscar or one of his friends. Whale shark encounters here are nearly on par with Richelieu Rock, a world-class diving destination located near the Surins. Possibly the largest whale shark, a massive 14 meters, was seen at Hin Muang. The impressive rock is also teeming with an amazing variety of marine life, making it one of the best dives in Thailand.

Picture by Tim Sheerman-Cha

During one of our deep dives, a giant moral eel appeared snaking through the open water. His body was easily the size of a man’s thigh. Inspecting every crevice of the sheer wall, I later discovered the less common yellow moray eel peeking out of its dark burrow.

The ocean drama was spellbinding. Shimmering clouds of baitfish darted around the rock face. Numerous lionfish floated beneath bright orange sea fans. On a clump of coral, an intelligent octopus displayed its amazing ability of camouflaging by changing the texture of its skin and color, to perfectly match the coral background. On occasion, giant manta rays have been seen flying gracefully through the waters surrounding both Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.

Another compelling dive site is at Koh Ha Yai, the largest in the Koh Ha archipelago of five small islands. Lying a few hours north of Hin Daeng, Koh Ha Yai’s main attraction is its underwater sea caves. Night dives are truly spectacular at this unique location where a 20 meters descent brings you to the wide mouth of a large cavern, connected to another similar cavern by a wide archway. Ascending to the surface of one cathedral, you emerge inside a huge enclosed air chamber with shimmering crystallized limestone “waterfalls”.

Turning off our torches, we easily made our way to the surface where water shimmered brilliantly underneath a full moon. Streaks of neon blue phosphorescence flashed around us as we made our way back to the Daranee. It was a spectacular natural light show and without question the best night dive location in Thailand.

Our last stop was at Koh Rock Nok and Koh Nai, two beautiful twin islands separated by a channel approximately 15 meters deep. Strolling along Koh Rock Nok’s immaculate white sand beach, we came upon a unique shrine of sorts, constructed by local fishermen. A large number of phallic symbols adorned the shrine, expertly crafted by its worshippers. 

Reaching these remote dive sites in the Trang region is perhaps easiest from Phuket or Phi Phi, where regular departures on live-aboard dive boats can be booked from November to April. However, those who prefer a more adventurous commute can hire boats to Koh Lanta, southern Thailand’s dive base, from Krabi and Trang.

The stunning range of dive sites in the Andaman Sea waters surrounding Hin Daeng and Hin Muang is definitely worth looking under. You might even be fortunate enough to meet Oscar.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In the Shark’s Den

A diver found herself preparing for a boxing match with sharks during a recent visit to the Similan Islands.

Leopard Shark Copyright Uwe Schust

“Die! Die! Die!” shouted our smiling boat boy, urging us to jump quickly off of the dive platform. It was a shocking sendoff, especially since we were preparing for our first and deepest dive of the day – the exciting, if not crazy, 7 am pre-breakfast shark dive. A second passed before we realized that the young Thai man wasn’t actually shouting for us to hurry into our next lives, but rather he wanted us to “Dive!” into the water.

We bobbed in the calm sea waiting for the rest of our group. My Japanese dive buddy Rioshi gave me a wicked grin and asked me if I knew what to do in case of a shark attack. I shook my head. From what I’d heard, the sharks here were nearly harmless. In fact, some of the “friendlier” sharks even had names like “Snoopy”.

“You punch them in the nose,” Rioshi advised, with all the authority of a shark expert. 

At that point, I couldn’t quite imagine having a boxing match with a shark and winning. I was about to learn.

Dive Instructor Eric Nuechterlein on Scuba Cat liveabord

Rioshi, myself and nine other divers had all come to the Similan Islands aboard the Scuba Cat, a catamaran live-aboard dive boat with an excellent if oddly named, mostly Thai crew including; Captain Nut, Chef Pooh and Noisy, the charming and surprisingly animated mute first mate. The crew’s only farang, or foreign member, was my American husband Eric, who tirelessly worked as Scuba Cat’s cruise director and PADI dive instructor. Eric had more than two thousand dives under his belt and would be leading us on this morning dive to the secret shark den some 35 meters below.

Lying approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of the resort island of Phuket, the enchanting Similan Islands are idyllic – not only for divers, but for anyone seeking pristine white sandy beaches and an escape from the maddening crowds. Visitors can snorkel in the clear turquoise blue waters of the Andaman Sea, explore lush tropical jungles, climb among the large granite boulders lining the shores, sea kayak, sail or dive in an underwater world teeming with marine life.

The diving environment is especially dramatic on the western, seaward side of the islands. Imagine an aquatic Angkor Wat with Mother Nature as the architect, submerged for aeons with a stunning seascape of archways, coral “alleys”, caverns and rocky swim-throughs. These ancient stones pulsate with ceaseless marine activity, inhabited by small flitting reef fish, lumbering sea turtles, brightly colored nudibranchs and countless larger marine creatures.

Clown Fish Copyright Uwe Schust

Diving on the east side, the boulder-less underwater terrain is vastly different, but equally spectacular. Gently sloping thickets of branching hard corals dominate this region. The rich reef supports a diverse profusion of colorful reef fish; including vibrant schools of snapper, yellow damselfish, garden eels, neon blue and yellow angelfish and the regal lionfish. Eastside currents are usually slight and appropriate for divers of all levels. By comparison, Westside diving conditions are much more challenging, where currents are frequently changing in strength and direction. Visibility can vary greatly and wet suits are recommended for the chilly thermoclines.

Over the previous six days we had encountered an amazing array of sea life. At Beacon Point, while diving close to the ocean floor, I was startled when the sandy bottom began moving. Like a flock of birds taking flight, dozens of small blue-spotted stingrays emerged from the sand in circling groups. I was mesmerized by the stingray’s swirling ocean ballet. A moment later, a larger fantasy stingray appeared. With a wingspan of nearly three meters, it flew ahead of the smaller rays and then over a huge orange gorgonian sea fan.

We were diving four to six times a day, rarely remaining topside except to rest between dives and fill up our bellies on mouthwatering Thai meals. Throughout the day and into the night, Chef Pooh would shuffle up to our outside dining area, carrying trays overflowing with pineapple, bananas and papayas.  Pooh’s garlic fried prawns, imaginative squid dishes, green chicken curry and spicy shrimp soup, were heavenly. Our days would end with cold beers up on the moondeck; under a brilliant starlit sky, reliving the day’s exciting dives and sharing stories late into the night. 

Turtle Rock Sunset Picture by Prisana Nuechterlein

One early morning at Elephant Head Rock, an extremely popular dive site, I had an unforgettable encounter with a creature I had waited six years to see. I was ascending to the surface at the end of my dive, when I suddenly felt something watching me. I turned in the water and was beyond startled, when I saw a giant manta ray hovering in the sunlit water only an arm’s length away from me. The elusive flying creature eyed me for one of the longest, nirvanic moments of my life, almost as if it was waiting for me to rub its belly. I must admit, I was tempted to touch it, but instead I floated absolutely still, enraptured by the graceful swooping flips the manta made over and over. After giving me one last look, the huge manta flew off into the infinite blue expanse.

Manta Ray Copyright Uwe Schust

On our final day, Eric took us to Christmas Point - his own personal favorite dive site where he had discovered the secret shark den. Only moments into our dive, I heard a familiar metallic plinking sound, meant to alert us when Eric saw something worth sharing.

At first glance, the creature swimming near Eric appeared to be something shark-like, but as I finned closer and closer, I realized it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The genetic marvel looked like an alien fish, with big round eyes protruding from a stingray-shaped head, attached to a shark-like body. 

Rioshi looked at me with an expression that mirrored my own thoughts: What is that? Later we would learn that the mysterious otherworldly fish was the rarely ever encountered bowmouth guitar fish. 

At 35 meters depth, a strong current was taking its toll on me. I felt nearly exhausted and had given up any attempt to conserve air. Ahead of me, Eric and Rioshi finned with irritating ease, unaware of my private struggle to keep up with their pace. Kicking with all of my strength, I began to wonder if we would ever reach the shark den. Perhaps we had already missed it. Or maybe today, the sharks were elsewhere.

My legs began screaming in protest as we made our way in between large boulders and shivering thermoclines. The visibility was almost nil. Why not just ascend and forget the shark den? Just as I was about to signal Rioshi that I wanted to go up, Eric stopped and made the “shark” sign over his head, pointing into the gloomy water. Barely visible below us was a two meter white tip reef shark resting on the sandy floor. Elated, I quickly scanned the rocky area and counted a total of six other white tips and one leopard shark. Adrenalin raced through me when I realized we were actually floating in the middle of the den!

One by one, the sharks began slowly circling beneath us. I watched awestruck as one shark rolled on the ocean floor trying to scratch its back. Was it possible, I wondered, that we had found Snoopy? His behavior reminded me more of a dog than a fearsome predator. Without any warning, the dog-like shark suddenly stopped rolling and headed straight toward me with alarming speed. My entire body tensed, gripped with a moment of panic. I even attempted to fin backwards. Only a scant moment before a face-to-face encounter, the curious shark veered off with a powerful flick of its tail. I was ready with my right hook, but I was glad that I didn’t have to use it.

Author's Note: A longer version of this story was originally published  in Sawasdee Magazine (Thai Airways International Magazine) in 1998. Sadly, shark encounters in the Similan Islands has decreased significantly in the past decade.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Flying High in Chiang Mai - A Ziplining Adventure


There is nothing more exhilarating than flying through the lush rainforests of northern Thailand on a zip line that will make you scream with joy. 


For years I’ve learned that when my old friend Glen says that something is amazing -- it probably is. Glen is an expert in more areas than most, but his true expertise is in all things north. Meaning Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Thailand. Although my Canadian friend lives in Phuket , it is obvious that he left a part of his heart in Chiang Rai, his former home from yonder Peace Corps years. Every time we swap stories about northern Thailand, his eyes light up and he get’s this Chiang Rai grin on his face, recalling his adventures up north with great delight.

So when my husband and I were making plans for Chiang Mai, of course I relied on Glen for good advice on what to do and see. I had already been to Chiang Mai numerous times before, but I had a strong feeling that Bullet Rash (Glen’s Hash House Harrier's nickname given to him shortly after his plane was hijacked whilst he was working for the United Nations) could recommend something new and exciting for our upcoming trip. 

“You should definitely try Flight of the Gibbon in Chiang Mai,” Bullet Rash offered. “It’s amazing!” 

I was surprised that I had never heard of the zip line adventure that Bullet Rash was enthusiastically describing. But I was ready to be amazed. 

Hearing the Great Call to Save Gibbons and the Rainforest


Aptly named, Flight of the Gibbon's zip lines are situated in the midst of a breathtaking and ancient 1,500 year old rainforest, located about an hour’s drive east of Chiang Mai. It's a perfect habitat for gibbons, where the gibbon’s great calls can often be heard in the early mornings and just before sunset. Aside from organizing spectacular treetop adventures for young and old alike, Flight of the Gibbon is also actively involved in rainforest restoration and primate rehabilitation projects in the area.

Flight of the Gibbon was founded by a group of nature-lovers who spent their weekends engaged in conservation projects throughout the mountains of northern Thailand. In 2004, they discovered a few gibbon remains while they were photographing the gibbons of Doi Intanon. According to their guide, the remains were most likely the result of poaching. Baby gibbons are a valuable commodity either as pets, or as a bar side attraction, but the only way to capture a baby gibbon, is to kill the mother. This was disturbing news and was followed by another sad event in 2007, when a pair of captive white-handed gibbons were discovered abandoned and near death on a roadside -- dumped by their previous owner of five years without any more regard than throwing away trash. Shockingly, the two gibbons were still locked in their cage without any food or water. 

Learning of Tong Dee and Tong Lord's sad fate, the group of conservationists vowed to find a way to rehabilitate and release the pair back into the wild and to keep them protected. Consequently, Flight of the Gibbon, was founded with "a very clear mission" to protect Asia’s endangered wildlife and rainforests.

Mae Kompong Village


We arrived at charming Mae Kompong village early in the morning, having signed up for the one day Flight of the Gibbon zip line tour. We were tempted to book the “Rock the Gibbon, Wet Gibbon and Curious Gibbon” tours as well, but our wallets were short on cash, so the rock climbing, river rafting and trekking tours were out of the question – at least for this visit. 

After a quick breakfast, we strolled through the small mountain village, taking pictures of the Thai wooden houses with their quaint flower boxes while our English speaking Thai guides; Cash and Mr. B, were busy securing helmets, harnesses and other equipment. Minutes later, kitted up in our helmets and harnesses we climbed up to our first platform where Cash conducted our safety briefing covering every aspect of zip lining, and emphasizing over and over that we should NEVER ever grab the zip line steel cable with our hands.

Safety First. Humor Second.


I could feel my heart racing a bit faster as we waited on the platform for the group in front of us to finish their zips. Obviously, zip lining can be dangerous, so I found it reassuring watching the guides carefully sticking to a safety protocol that had long been established. In total, there were eighteen treetop platform stations, skybridges and lowering stations connected by 2 kilometers of exciting zip lines. Cash clipped my harness to the zip line and then gently pushed me off the platform. Weeeeeeeeeee……..! The jungle whizzed by me in an exhilarating blur as I was flying from one treetop to another. On my next turn, Cash asked me if I wanted to go backwards. Absolutely! I was on an endorphin high and with each turn, I felt braver and braver and even managed a "no hands" zip and a "Buddha" zip! 

When we reached the last platform, Cash playfully said: “Ok now you both go upside down.” My husband and I thought that he was just kidding around but he really meant: upside down. Hmmm. We were perched on top off a 50 meters high treetop and the jungle floor was faaaaaaaaar down below. Cash gently belayed us off of the platform, while Mr. B took pictures of us with our camera. What VIP treatment! Hanging upside down wasn’t nearly as frightening as we had envisioned and the new perspective gave us a terrific view of the broad expanse of the jungle ceiling and sky above us. 

Bullet Rash was right. Flight of the Gibbon was truly amazing! There is nothing quite like two zippy zany Thai guides and an endless amount of thrilling zip lines to awaken your inner gibbon.

Seven Rivers

A Karen hill tribe legend warns that if you kill one gibbon, you leave seven lonely rivers, because the gibbon’s great call can be heard across seven rivers. Thanks to the conservation efforts of Flight of the Gibbon, which donates 10% of their profits to rainforest rehabilitation and to the protection of gibbons and other native primates in northern Thailand, several successful conservation programs like "Giving Back" have been launched in recent years, ensuring that the great calls will not be replaced with the sound of silence. 


Recommended Adventures

Flight of the Gibbon
Phone: 66 899 70 55 11 

Chaing Mai Mountain Bike and Kayaks
For reservation please call:

66-81-024-7046, 66-53-814-207, 0871823642

Where To Stay

Yesterday Hotel
24 Nimmanhaeminda Road, Chiang Mai

Sakulchai Place Hotel  
10 Soi Plubplung , Huay Kaew Road, A. Muang,
Huay Kaew, Chiang Mai

Excellent budget hotel with rates starting at $16 a night for air con room, cable, 24 hours guarded parking lot, quiet and central location.

Ping Phu Place
6/1 Soi JanSap, Huay Kaew Rd., Changpuek, Muang, Huay Kaew, Chiang Mai

Good Eats 

Smoothie Blues 

32/8 Nimmanhamin Soi 6 CornerRd, Chiang Mai

Great food stalls with excellent Thai and Burmese restaurants can be found next to the Hillside Condotel within 3 minute's walking distance of Yesterday Hotel. Price range is $1 to $3.
Check out this blog for more great tips on Where to eat in Chiang Mai:

Sea Canoeing in Southern Thailand


The limestone spires of Phang Nga Bay have always exuded an air of mystery. Sea canoeing expeditions open up the very hearts of these islands, where wildlife and nature abound.


Story and pictures by Prisana Nuechterlein


Exploring Phang Nga Bay


“Look up, but keep your mouth shut,” Joe whispers. I look up at the dark cave ceiling, trying to see the bats I hear squeaking overhead. They flit and flutter in the dim beam of my flashlight under sparkling stalactites that drape down the cave wall like a glistening ice curtain. Then suddenly, it is pitch black. The flashlight has gone dead and we bump up against the cave wall in the blinding darkness. 

“Don’t worry,” Joe says reassuringly, “I know the way out.”

Joe, a young Thai sea canoe guide, has taken hundreds of guests into Bat Cave over the past two years. They have all survived, despite having “Crazy Joe” as their guide. Like most Thais, Joe loves drama. Earlier in the day, we had nearly paddled over a giant crocodile. The ‘giant crocodile’- a viciously jagged rock, was yet another creation of Joe’s vivid imagination. A short time later we encountered a ‘wild elephant’ – a limestone formation that actually did look like an elephant’s head.

Escaping from Bat Cave


After a few moments of drifting in total darkness, I begin to feel like a bat. The pungent odor of bat dung envelopes us. Joe turns the canoe and we hit another cave wall. He grabs the flashlight, fumbles with it until it comes back to life. 

“Watch your head,” he warns. 

I duck just in time to miss a low hanging stalactite. Slipping underneath a rocky archway, we suddenly emerge into the blinding sunlight of Bat Hong. 

The dramatic limestone islands of Phang Nga Bay are regarded as one of Thailand’s most mystical and stunning seascapes. A compelling geological masterpiece; the colossal spires are world famous for their collection of what once was described as “secret” hongs – hearts of islands, containing natural sanctuaries of unsurpassed beauty.

Lying only an hour away from Phuket, the hongs (literally meaning “room” in Thai) are hidden tidal lagoons, completely enclosed by sheer limestone cliff walls. The only way to access these amazing hongs is through sea caves – some so narrow they resemble rocky cocoons.

We glide over the calm water inside Bat Hong, absorbing the primeval world around us in quiet meditation. The hong buzzes with swirling insect noises and melodic bird songs. Towering mangrove trees soar above us covering the jungle-fringed cliffs. Joe points to my left. A large owl stares down at us. Mudskippers jump across giant mangrove roots. Tiny silver fish dart under our canoe. We retreat to a shady corner and sit in silence absorbing the marvelous view around us. Joe continues paddling, taking us through a narrow passage into smaller hong. He taps my shoulder and points up into the treetops. I see a brown blur and then spot a group of monkeys sitting atop the branches. 

Back on board the support boat, the delicious aroma of lunch greets us. Boom, our talented chef, has prepared a feast of spicy prawns, lemongrass-coconut milk and shrimp soup, grilled fish, ginger chicken, mixed vegetables and fried rice. We are in culinary heaven, practically licking our plates clean.

 John "Caveman" Gray

Sea canoe trips to Phang Nga Bay first began in 1989, after conservationist John “Caveman” Gray, also known as "Ling Yai" (meaning big monkey in Thai),  discovered several sea cave windows leading into the hongs. From the vantage point of his trusty sea canoe, Gray observed the tidal movements at various caves and diligently recorded the intervals between their closing and opening. After months of exploration and observation, his findings provided him with the tidal knowledge necessary to lead sea canoe excursions.

Today, there are numerous sea canoe companies competing for space in the once pristine hongs. Occasionally, there is even a “traffic jam” of canoes waiting to enter the caves. It is a far cry from the secret world Gray first shared with his truly fortunate guests, but still well worth the trip to Phang Nga Bay. 

We head out to Mangrove Hong and enter a sea cave scarcely large enough for our sea canoe. The tide is high now, making the “window” or access way inside the karst monoliths, nearly impossible. “Please lie back and keep your arms and legs inside the canoe,” Joe warns. The jagged, oyster encrusted opening passes only a meter above my nose. I imagine what Caveman must have felt upon entering the cave for the very first time, not knowing where the dark claustrophobic cave would lead him. For us, it is a thrilling adventure, especially having an expert like Joe to guide us.

Back out in the open sea, we circumnavigate Koh Hong. The sound of the ocean echoes eerily, rocking back and forth underneath the limestone overhangs. Joe spots a huge sea lizard climbing out of the slapping water onto a rocky ledge. The lizard freezes for a moment, gives us a curious glance, then scrambles away into the water.

After a brilliant day of hong exploration, we return to Phuket quenched with a wondrous feeling of having seen the best that Nature could create. 

"This place is perfect nature,” Joe remarks. 

Perfect in every way.

Recommended Sea Canoe Company


John Gray Sea Canoe Co., Ltd.
124 Soi 1 Yaowarat Rd., Taladyai, Muang, Phuket 83000, Thailand
Tel. (66-76) 254505-7 | Fax: (66-76) 226077