Back in Bangkok

On our way south through Thailand, we knew we would end back up in its capital and largest city, Bangkok. You may recall that we already visited once in January, but we didn’t see all of the main sights, so we spent a few more days to discover more of what this immense metropolis has to offer.

Getting There

We were coming from Ayuthaya, which is pretty close to Bangkok – only about an hour or so by bus. Since we had done many long distance buses in a row, we decided to switch things up and ride the train into town. We had no idea what this entailed beyond that there were trains every hour or so. We were shocked at how low the price was: 15 baht (50 cents) per person! But this made a little more sense when we discovered that this was not a luxury train but a basic train car with open windows and old electric fans. It was pretty crowded, so at first we weren’t able to sit next to each other, but as the stops went on the crowds thinned out and we were able to be together. In the end it dragged a little bit and probably took longer than the bus would have, but it did take us into the heart of downtown and to a MRT subway station that was convenient for getting to our accommodations.

Where We Stayed

If you search on the Internet for travel blogs about Bangkok, you are bound to stumble upon a good number that rave about their stay at the Lub d Hostel. We had read enough about it that we decided to see for ourselves if this slick, modern hostel was all it was cracked up to be. We booked a “railway twin” room at the Silom location. The design scheme of the entire hostel felt “industrial chic,” with plenty of metal railings and exposed ductwork. The shared bathroom was large and nice. There was a bar and common area down below. We were very excited that they had a washer AND dryer for use for a small fee. They also had a movie room – but strangely no DVDs that one could borrow, so it seemed somewhat pointless.

With all these amenities and all of the rave reviews, we were expecting to love the place. But, as we have discussed before, high expectations are hard to live up to. We felt the service, especially at check-in, was a little slow and impersonal (they kept us waiting for about 10 minutes while filling out unnecessary paperwork, made us bring up the receipt on our phone even though they clearly had it on the computer, and didn’t bother to tell us to remove our bags or that our rooms weren’t ready until we had been standing there, sweat dripping, waiting to head up the stairs with our bags for over 10 min). The place was so big that we never made a connection with anyone (although I guess we could have tried to party more down at the bar…). It seemed like a lot of other travelers really had a good time though, so maybe we just discovered that the large, slick hostel is not our scene. It was also very expensive. We got a deal somehow, booking through agoda.com. But, the room that we were splurging on by paying $25/night (for almost no room, bunk beds, and shared bathroom) was apparently really worth $37/night. WAY too much. Especially since Della’s parents booked a ginormous room at a place with included breakfast, a jacuzzi, and a pool for $50/night. Lesson learned.

What We Did

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace – We had missed the city’s main attraction on our first stop in Bangkok so we made sure to visit this time. It was a visual spectacle, but also so crowded that we aren’t sure we’d recommend going out of your way to see it!

Getting there was a bit of an adventure. The grounds are located in an area that is not served by the Sky Train or metro system, so to use public transportation requires a bit more advanced planning. From the Silom district where we stayed, it seemed like one of the fastest and most interesting ways was to take the public boats that run up and down the Chao Phraya river. We lost a little bit of time by heading to a stop that is not currently operational (which begs the question of why stop 2 is still a numbered stop in the first place, but we digress). Once we got to the right stop, we got to see the intriguing loading of the boats for the first time. They try to move very quickly, so they zoom up to the docks, quickly tie a rope, and then back into place. You have to be speedy if you want to hop on or off!

We got off at the Tha Chang stop and headed with the crowds to the palace entrance. We paid our steep (500 baht = $15) entrance fee and headed into the first part, Wat Phra Kaew, a.k.a.the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We first explored the colorful chedis, then braced ourselves and dove into the big crowds squeezing in to see the Emerald Buddha itself. The statue was pretty, but far away and a little small, so we didn’t linger.

We left the wat and then walked through the grounds of the palace. This was formerly the residence of the Thai royalty, and there are many fancy buildings that show a mix of Thai and Western architectural styles. Most are closed off to the public, but a few of the throne halls are open, so we wandered through them to see the splendor and take a brief respite from the heat.

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We followed a tip from Wayne and Peggy, who had visited the previous day (they chose to come to Bangkok while we did Ayuthaya), and finished our visit at the slightly out of the way Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which allows free admission with a palace ticket. Our first intention was just to take advantage of the AC and uncrowded bathrooms, but we also checked out the exhibit on the Queen’s fashion and were fascinated. Apparently, before a world tour in the 1960, she helped revive some classic Thai styles and designed nine different outfit styles that are still used by the Thai women today. There was also an activity room that described silk fashions, and Della got a chance to try on a traditional outfit.

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Wat Pho – Next door to the Palace is this major attraction in town, and one that we turned out to enjoy even more than the higher billed Palace. The highlight that you encounter when you first enter is a large, reclining Buddha. We took the prescribed route around, admiring the decorations on his feet. The rest of the grounds also proved peaceful and interesting to stroll through. Highlights were colorful royal chedis, monks leading schoolchildren in classes, and old educational inscriptions that helped serve the purpose of educating the populace on a variety of topics. The visit here was much calmer (and much cheaper) than the visit to the palace, so if you only have time for one, we think we’d recommend this one!

Saw a Movie – We had heard that the Thais love heading to a movie, so we thought we had to try and see a film while we were in the country. Each of the fancy malls has a nice theater, but we opted for a vintage experience and headed to the one-screen Scala theater. Luckily, it was showing a movie that we intended to see anyway: Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent series. (Funny that both movies we have seen on the road are sequels in YA dystopian series). The inside of the theater felt old-school, with red velvet seats and ushers in yellow suits escorting us by flashlight to our assigned places. The screen and sound system were nice and modern however. One interesting experience unique to Thailand was that after the previews, they played the national anthem while showing a montage of clips of the king, throughout which the entire audience stood out of respect. The movie itself was good. It diverged (get it?) quite a bit from the novel, but in a way that made it have more action so it was pretty exciting.

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Danced in Lumphini Park – We joined Bangkok residents in their nightly workout routine!

Where We Ate

The Silom neighborhood where we stayed is more of a business district than a tourist district, so our cheap restaurant and street food options were a little limited. The Lub d staff did point us to one alley, Silom Soi 20, where there were some stalls and a few restaurants set up. We ate here twice, both times choosing restaurants with indoor seating to get out of the heat.

After visiting the Palace and Wat Pho, we decided to check out the Khao San backpacker area in the Banglamphu area to see what we were missing out on. We hoped to be able to find a lot of cheap street food, but we were looking in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t see nearly the variety that we had hoped for. We ended up choosing a small sit-down restaurant that was open and had Della’s preferred dish, pad see ewe.

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Before we saw the movie, we decided to visit a mall food court for lunch. We decided to branch out (the last time we had visited MBK’s two courts), so this time we went to “Food Republic,” the food court on the upper level of the Siam Central. It felt a little fancier than the cheaper court in MBK, but the prices were reasonable and the selection was pretty good. Della was able to get a pad thai and Eric had green curry with roti (Indian fried bread) instead of the standard rice.

Final Thoughts

We’re glad we had a few more days to see more of the sights in Bangkok. It’s a big city, so we still didn’t even see everything on our list! The heat and humidity made it hard to want to push to see lots of things, so we’d like to come back when it’s a little cooler. It was nice to be back in a big city and have easy use of public transportation as well. Bangkok’s a little frenzied and the climate isn’t the best, but we think we like it!

Dancing in Sukhothai and Bangkok, Thailand

The heat of Sukhothai was sticky and oppressive, even though it was finally dark. Despite that, we were excited about the prospect of visiting a new town, and hungry for some delicious Thai street food. As we exited the hotel, we saw lights dancing across the river and could hear the bass booming. Something was going on! We wandered across the bridge and found ourselves in a lively night market, boasting all sorts of yummy Thai delicacies- most of which we didn’t even know what they were. We browsed the choices, noticing coconut drinks, fried squids, unidentified balls of something squishy (and delicious, it turns out), Sukhothai style noodles, and frying Roti. After stuffing ourselves, we found our way out of the market into the adjoining park where people we relaxing, working out, and watching a dance performance.

 

About 20 women, wearing what looked like cheerleader uniforms, were dancing together in the middle of the park in front of the stage of musicians. The dances looked memorized and rote, as if they were well known line dances and occasionally other women from the audience would join. The music was loud, the lights were flashing, and people were watching. We settled ourselves down on nearby steps to take in the sight.

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It wasn’t long before a local man – gregarious, bearded, and possibly drunk – ran up to to us, bringing plastic chairs. They somehow had appeared and he wanted us to have them. He found more and more till each of us had a seat. Then, he waggled his eyebrows, wiggled his hips, and threw out a hand to Della. Somehow, he must have known that it is impossible for her to say no to a dance. He led her to the stage, where they joined in with the rest of the women who were now doing some sort of circle line dance.

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The man wriggled and shook, and sort of followed the group. Della tried to pick up the steps and after a few shared smiles with the other women felt like part of the group. A few laughs were shared through a few more dances until the friendly man brought her back to the family. With a quick smile and bow to Eric and Wayne, he disappeared back into the park to join his friends.


As in Phnom Penh, the ladies of Bangkok (and some men) enjoy a good dance aerobics class. We had enjoyed Lumbini Park on our first trip through the city, and were pleased to learn that there should be dancing in the evening there. After a bit of a lazy, more at home kind of day, which consisted of sleeping in, heading to the mall for lunch, and watching a new release movie, we took a train to the park.

There was slight wind, which was a great relief as it wafted by us, slightly cooling our sticky bodies. We wandered through the throngs of joggers, walkers, and general exercisers until we found an area with big speakers set up. We stopped to wait, assuming we had found the place, though there seemed to be no gathering people. We entertained ourselves by watching a group of young Thai men practicing their acrobatic skills – running and flipping off of the rocks on the grass.

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As it got a little later, people began to converge on the spot, and suddenly, the music boomed out and it was time to start. The group became huge, close to a hundred dancers, with up to 3 or 4 leaders, spread out so all could see. We danced hard, working up quite a sweat. The routines were simple and easy to follow and we felt in our element.

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But, all too soon, after only about 25 min, there was a quick stretch and the music stopped. What? So soon? We drank down a bunch of water, trying to rehydrate after we had sweat all of water out, and began to pack up to head home. But then, the loudspeakers played the song we had come to recognize. The music must have said: prepare yourselves, it is almost 6 pm, it is time for the national anthem and respect to the king to be paid. Movement continued, people continued to talk, joggers kept jogging until 6 o’clock on the dot. The anthem started to play and the entire moving park came to a stop. The streams of runners, the walkers, dancers, and even the acrobatic kids were still for the anthem – about a minute. And then it was done, the pause button unpressed, and life moved on.

Our dance class started back up. Part 2 was much harder, much more complicated! They must do the same class every evening, but there were those around us who knew exactly what to do, with almost no instruction. It became more and more tricky with long sequences back and forth and even turning around in circles. We flailed around, not really able to keep up with the group, but enjoying our clumsy attempts. Another 30 min passed, we admit this one went a bit slower. We were relieved, sopping wet, when the stretching finally came.

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Once again, we really enjoyed participating in a non-tourist activity, and seeing a community come together to exercise in the evening. All these cities in Asia really have it right!

 

The Ancient Thai Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya

In between Chiang Mai and Bangkok are two sites of special historic significance in Thai history: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. Both were the seat of ancient kingdoms that are seen as predecessors to the modern government of Thailand, and now both are UNESCO World Heritage listed sites. We debated only visiting one, but ultimately decided that we needed to see both to better understand Thai history.

Sukhothai

The Sukhothai kingdom came into prominence in the mid-13th century AD after the Khmer empire (the one that was based in Angkor) began to decline. It grew into a strong regional power and is known today for the unique artistic style that can be seen in the remaining temples.

There are a large number of ruins to be seen which are spread out over a moderately-sized range. We rented bicycles by the entrance booth to make sure that we could reach the further-out sites. We also rented audio guides, which proved to be quite helpful both for understanding what we were seeing and helping us choose which of the sites to focus on. (One tip for future visiting couples – each guide player has two headphone jacks, so if you bring an extra pair of headphones you can share a player).

The park is split into a few different zones that each require their own ticket. We focused our visit on the Central Zone and the Northern Zone.

The Central Zone contains the majority of the interesting sites worth visiting. One of the most impressive is also the biggest: Wat Mahathat. There are many ruined columns of old gathering places, and Buddha statues and chedis (a.k.a. stupas, cone-shaped structures that hold a relic).

The biggest attraction of the Northern Zone is Wat Si Chum, which contains an impressive large Buddha that is a great example of the Sukhothai style of art. The location of this image helps amplify its impact: at first you can only see the face, until you slip through a narrow passage and find yourself at the base of the immense seated figure. Buddha’s tapered fingers are now golden after having gold leaf applied to them.

There are many other temples worth seeing in the two zones as well. We visited the different sites listed as stops on our audio guide. One interesting feature we noted was the influence of the Khmer empire was still felt: many of the temples had towers that would have looked at home in Angkor Wat.

There is also a National Museum on the grounds that we visited mostly to try to understand more about what we had seen but also to escape the oppressive sun and heat outside! The air-conditioned space had a decent presentation of artifacts from the various periods of Sukhothai history.

Ayuthaya

The kingdom of Ayuthaya, located on an island in the middle of a river about 50 miles north of present-day Bangkok, came into prominence a couple of centuries later than Sukhothai. It was the capital of the kingdom of Siam and the major trading port with the outside world. An invading Burmese army destroyed most of the city in 1767, but some restoration has been done.

The sites in Ayuthaya can be divided into two areas: on the island and off the island. We rented bicycles to visit the sites on the island, and took a boat cruise to see those off the island.

The largest and most important site on the island is Wat Phra Si Sanphet. It is just south of the what’s left of the palace, and its convenient location made it a popular temple for the kings to visit. Today the most important pieces remaining are three large chedis that house the remains of former Ayuthaya rulers.

The other big temple to visit on the island is Wat Phra Mahathat. It was also an important temple during its heyday, but now is a big tourist draw because of a unique and curious sight: the head of a Buddha image wrapped up in the roots of a tree. No one is sure how this got here.

At both of these two large sites we rented an audio guide. Whereas in Sukhothai the guide covered multiple sites, in Ayuthaya they had detailed guides only for the two big sites.

We also took short visits to the modern Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which houses a large bronze Buddha statue, and Wat Thammikarat, which has a chedi with lion statues at the base. Unlike Sukhothai, which sold a pass for each zone, Ayuthaya charges a fee at each site, so there were a few larger temples we just admired from a distance.

There is a national museum on the island, but instead of paying money to visit it we decided to follow the Lonely Planet recommendation and visited the Ayuthaya Tourist Center, where we got more information about what to see (they are really good about giving maps in Ayuthaya) and also enjoyed visiting a free exhibit about the history and culture of the site.

Our accommodations in Ayuthaya offered a boat cruise to see a few of the different sites off the island and just off the river. Our small boat took us and a few other people on a big loop around the island, stopping at three different places. Wat Phanan Choeng had a large Buddha image and a platform out on the river where one could earn merit by feeding the fish below (and the fish certainly knew this). Wat Phuttai Sawan  had some ancient ruins, a reclining Buddha, and a large Khmer-style prang.

The highlight of the boat trip was definitely the last stop at Wat Chai Wattanaram. It also felt very much like something that could have been plopped down in Angkor. The setting sun made for some nice light against its different Khmer-style prangs.

Logistics

In Sukhothai, we stayed in the town of New Sukhothai, which is about 10 km away from the historic center but has the majority of the accommodation options. To get to and from the historic park, we took the local “bus” which was basically a large pickup. We stayed at a slightly fancier place, Pai Resort, than we would normally because it had a pool. We took advantage of this in the heat of the afternoon each day and it was quite appreciated.

Our dining options in Sukhothai turned out to be a bit frustrating. We were staying near a few different restaurants that were in the guidebooks, but they were all closed on both days we were there! It seemed like the town was already shutting down for the low season. We ended up eating at a neighboring guesthouse twice because they were the only ones open. We did enjoy one nice meal at the night market, where we had a variety of street food. The most fun part of the market was when Della got to dance… (more on this later).

In Ayuthaya, there were plenty of accommodation options on the island that the historic park is on. We chose to stay at the December House, a small guesthouse that is a bit far from the park but is very near the ferry that will get you to the train station. They also rent bikes which allowed for a quick ride into town.

We ate dinner in Ayuthaya at two different night markets. These were a little smaller than other markets, but had a decent variety of food. We ate lunch during our day of temple exploring at a local noodle shop where we were able to get a basic noodle soup for very cheap.

Final Thoughts

On one hand, we are glad that we visited both sites to be able to understand more about the Thai history and to see the evolving styles of art and architecture. On the other hand, by the end of our time looking at temples we were starting to get a little burned out, and the sites weren’t that different from each other. It’s hard to say which is “better”: the tourist infrastructure and town of Ayuthaya seems to be set up better, but the ruins in Sukhothai seem to be in better shape. So we can’t give a simple recommendation, but can assure you that whatever you chose, you won’t be disappointed!

Making Links to Refugees from Myanmar in Mae Sot, Thailand

Most people only head to Mae Sot, Thailand for a visa run from Thailand or as a border crossing into Myanmar, but we had different reasons for heading to this border town. Mae Sot is located near some of the larger refugee camps on the Myanmar/Burma and Thailand border. Because such a large percentage of Della’s students are refugees from this area, we thought we would come see if we could make some connections that would help her better serve that population back home.

Originally (before we left home), Della had hoped to visit the camps herself. However, after a lot of unanswered emails, and research, it seemed unlikely. We had read that Mae Sot was a good place to meet NGO workers who might go in and out of the camps. We had hoped we could meet someone who worked in the camps who might be able to give Della a little bit more of an idea of what schooling for refugees might be like.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really succeed in our goals. However, we still really enjoyed our time in Mae Sot.

Where We Stayed

We found the excellent Pha Nu House in Lonely Planet and online. We booked via phone and were very happy with the place. It was a good location in town and the rooms were spacious, lovely, and had nice ensuite bathrooms. We really felt like we got a lot for our money.

What We Did

We had read a couple of blogs that mentioned hanging out with NGO workers at the “Canadian Bar” in town and at the Exppact Café. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out that the Exppact was closed. We had also heard about the BorderLine café and store which sold crafts made by refugees.

After an afternoon arrival, our first stop was to head to the Borderline. We enjoyed perusing the crafts, books, and documentaries about the situation in Burma. We chatted with one of the workers, asking if they had any information about schooling for refugees. She indicated that her boss would be there the next day and that we might be able to talk to him. We agreed to come back at 1 pm the next day.

Our next stop was the Krua Canadian restaurant in the main downtown area. This place is run by a Canadian immigrant and we had heard that it might be a good source for local information. We first started with drinks while we tried to decide if we would eat there. The wine was pretty cheap so we split a carafe with Peggy. The menu was a gigantic book, so we had a hard time deciding what to eat. We split a “Maesot” poutine for an appetizer and then for dinner we both got Mexican food since it had been a while! Eric got enchiladas and Della got a quesadilla.

We eventually talked with the owner and while he didn’t know much about education, he was able to give some general information about the camps. One of the more interesting things he mentioned was that he thinks the camps will be shutting down by the end of the year. He mentioned that because some of the world leaders (including President Obama) have given a sort of “all clear” relating to the current situation in Burma, that the money for the NGO support and camps is drying up. He didn’t know what might happen to all of the current refugees. He also told us that Thai school was out for the semester and he believed that the camps probably followed a similar schedule, so we began to doubt whether we would necessarily find someone currently working at the camp schools.

We headed home feeling slightly bummed that we hadn’t met anyone from the camps, but optimistic about our meeting at Borderline the next day.

The following morning, we headed out and went to the local market, which we had heard was quite lively. And that turned out to be true! It felt like we were back in Myanmar – almost everyone seemed to be from there, with lots of thanaka face paint and plenty of Muslim people. There were all sorts of food, clothes, and other goods. It stretched on for multiple blocks. At one point, we were excited to find a stall that sold Burmese/English dictionaries and some posters with Burmese/English letters. Della bought some! We went through some large market buildings and also down some small side streets. Finally we reached a point where it felt like it was ending so we turned around and made our way back through. We took a slightly different route to get out and thought we had found a dead end until we saw a local squeeze through a narrow alley to get back to the street! Overall, this was one of the more exciting street markets we have ever been to!

We then headed back to the Borderline. Unfortunately, the time we had been given was wrong and the boss had come by earlier that day so we missed him. We were bummed, but there wasn’t much we could do. Instead, Della struck up a conversation with one of the other workers who was, herself, a Karen refugee who had grown up in the camps. Della learned a bit more about the schools and the curriculum used, though not a lot that was hugely helpful. The most fun part of the encounter was when the woman agreed to help Della add to her new posters with Karen lettering. Now the posters have Burmese, Karen, and English. Della thinks her students back home will enjoy them! We bought a few souvenirs and then headed back to our hotel.

Where We Ate

Our favorite meal was actually at the Borderline where they serve vegetarian Burmese food. For a drink Eric got Burmese iced tea with lime and Della got ginger juice. We shared a wide variety of dishes: ginger salad, pickled tea leaf salad, potato curry, fried noodles, Mandalay noodle salad and curried chickpeas. All were good.

 

For dinner we decided to try another Burmese restaurant we had seen listed on TripAdvisor called Wadee. This was in the other direction and about a 15 minute walk away. The menu was much less interesting unfortunately. We got mango smoothies for drinks, then Eric got a chicken curry and Della got a big plate of fried noodles (she even had some leftover).

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We also enjoyed the Krua Canadian listed above for something a little bit different.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t exactly meet our expectations of magically connecting with a teacher in the refugee camps, but we really ended up enjoying our travel there anyway. It was fun for us to relive, ever so briefly, our trip to Burma. We had a lovely place to stay, met a few nice people, and ate good food. The market was one for the most interesting we’ve ever encountered, so that was worth a lot.

 

Flashback Friday: Beer Bike

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances!

March is Beer Bike month! What is Beer Bike you ask? Well check out this post to learn more. In short, it’s a yearly event at our alma mater that we both really enjoyed. Eric served on the pit crew for many years and Della was a biker, chugger, and coordinator of the event over time! It’s always fun to reminisce about our college days!

She’s 40 yards out, she’s 30 yards out, ready, set, suck! Suck! SUCK!SUCK!

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Did We Love Chiang Mai, Thailand?

We had high expectations for our visit to Chiang Mai, the biggest city in the northern part of Thailand. We have read about many people that have fallen in love with the city and chosen to move there, so we anticipated that we would have the same feelings during our five-day visit along with Della’s parents. But did we??

Where We Stayed

Choosing a place to stay in town proved to be tough, not because there weren’t enough choices but rather because there were too many. There were quite a few fairly highly rated places in town, with none standing out above the rest.  So we shifted our strategy and only pre-booked two nights at Nonni Guesthouse. This turned out to be a nice and friendly place, although it was on a fairly busy and noisy street and our room was tiny (and had a shared bathroom). So, on our first evening in town we scouted out other locations in the old city area and found the Anoma BB 2 on a quiet side street. It was only a few dollars more and had a private bathroom and included breakfast, so we spent the last three nights there.

What We Did

Chaing Mai’s importance stems from its history. It was founded in the 13th century AD as a new capital for the Lanna kingdom which covered what is now northern Thailand. Chiang Mai had its own independent monarchy up until merging with what is now Thailand in the early 20th century. Many of the sights around town date from the era when it was the capital of the flourishing kingdom. The “old city” in town was originally the center of the Lanna government. Today it is still surrounded by a moat and a few crumbling walls and gates.

Elephant Experience – There are a plethora of opportunities to play with elephants around Chiang Mai. We were pretty happy with our choice!

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Check the above link for more!

Cooking Class – We also took advantage of a fun cooking class in town!

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Check the above link for more!

Wats in the Old City –Within the walls are a large number of wats (Buddhist temples), since the Lanna kingdom was Buddhist. We visited the two biggest wats: Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. Wat Phra Singh is the home of the Phra Singh Buddha image, although we got a little confused because we expected the image to actually be a lion (Phra Singh means Lion Buddha), but instead it was just a Lanna-style Buddha.

The main attraction of Wat Chedi Luang is the remains of a large chedi (the same thing as a stupa, a large conical structure that holds relics). We also found the wihan (the main hall) to be pleasing.

Over the course of our wandering we also found a temple made of teak (Wat Phan Tao), a temple made of silver (Wat Sisuphan) and a few other scenic ones scattered about.

We also got to observe some fun events surrounding a celebration at the wat near the Nonni Guesthouse. In honor of its anniversary, there were many events, including one evening where there were multiple processions with dancing, music and monks. The dancing was pretty interesting to watch: there were some groups dancing a traditional Lanna dance with long metal nails on their fingers and then one small group of Hmong women doing their own style at the same time.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – One of the most famous wats in Chiang Mai is not in the city itself but rather in the hills to the west overlooking the city. One evening we shared a taxi with some travel friends from the slow boat and headed up the curving road to the base of the wat. From the parking lot, we took the 300 steps straight up the hill to the site of the impressive wat. The main attraction is a large gold chedi which looked especially splendid as the sun began to set. There was also a nice viewing platform overlooking the city, but the air was so hazy from the farmers burning their fields that we could hardly see anything.

History and Culture Museums – Chiang Mai has three museums in the center of the city that one can visit using a combination ticket. We ended up visiting all three. The Chiang Mai Historical Centre told the story of the city from its founding to modern times with some nice modern displays, although it was a little hard to follow some of the translations. The Lanna Folklife Museum had various informative displays on the customs and artwork of the Lanna people. The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre was a bit of a combination of the previous two, with some history and some cultural information, although it felt a bit more dated than either of them.

Museum of World Insects & Natural Wonders – A friend back home recommended that we visit this quirky museum set up by a husband and wife team that have dedicated their lives to the study of mosquitoes and malaria. It’s kind of hard to describe what we found here as a museum; it is more like the personal collection of the couple of any natural object they found interesting, including rocks and many different types of beetles. Also scattered through the displays were some of their paintings and some information about mosquitoes, their history and advice on life.

Thai Massage – After a successful first massage for Eric in Bali, we decided we had to check out the Thai massage to compare. After a little bit of research, we discovered that some of the most popular and cheapest places to get massages in Chiang Mai share one thing in common: they are staffed by female convicts or ex-convicts who have gotten trained as part of a rehabilitation program (seems like it might even incentivize someone to go to jail so they could get a job!). We went with the company staffed by ex-convicts. Beyond the interesting story about the personnel, we did notice quite a bit of difference between the Thai and the Balinese massage. This time we were wearing a provided outfit, no oil was used, and the massage felt like much more of a workout than the relaxing Balinese one. They bent us into a few shapes that were pretty extreme!

Wayne in the special provided outfit getting ready for his Thai massage

Wayne in the special provided outfit getting ready for his Thai massage

Where We Ate

We continued to enjoy the relative cheapness and good variety of Thai food to be found on the street and in small restaurants. For the most part, we ate at small restaurants because it was pretty hot and humid outside, and a little relief with shade and fans was appreciated. One notable exception was a meal of street food we picked up at the Saturday Walking Street, a large night market on Saturdays that was just around the corner from the Nonni Guesthouse (a little too crowded for our taste though). None of the restaurants stood out over the others: all had a good selection of fried noodles and curries. We did have an annoying trend for a few days where one person’s dish would take way longer to arrive than anyone else’s.

Final Thoughts

We obviously found a lot of fun things to do in the city – we spent five nights and didn’t have much downtime. The people were friendly and the food was affordable. Nevertheless, we’re a little sorry to say that we only just liked Chiang Mai, not loved it. The heat and the haze from the fires outside the city were pretty oppressive, the narrow streets made the pace a little hectic at times, and it was a little hard to get around without having to call a cab. Maybe it is an issue of expectations: if we had come in not expecting to love it, we may have decided that it was a fun place to visit with an interesting history. Or, maybe it was  an issue of timing; if we had come at a time when it wasn’t as hot and hazy, we might have enjoyed exploring more of the city. But since we had heard such great things, we instead just had to say it didn’t quite live up to it.

Tasty Thai Food at Tom Yum Thai Cooking School in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Food in Thailand – yum! This has been one of our absolute favorite places in the world when it comes to eating.

Della is in heaven eating her fried noodles – whether it be pad thai or pad see ewe – every day! Eric has loved all the different kinds of curries! Everything is delicious and we could probably eat here forever.

For that reason, we were super excited to do a cooking class. We had some time in Chiang Mai and we knew that there were several classes offered. Della picked one where one of the main offerings was Pad See Ewe.

The one we chose was called Tom Yum Thai Cooking School and we loved it.

Our first step was to get picked up by our teacher Oun from our hotel in a minivan. He brought us quickly to one of the markets in the city. Here he showed us many of the different vegetables and herbs we needed to know for cooking Thai food. Some of the more interesting things we learned were:

  1. Ginger and Galangal are almost the same, but different.

    Ginger and Galangal

    Ginger and Galangal

  2. Raw turmeric looks a lot like ginger.
  3. There are 3 different kinds of basil used in Thai cooking: holy, lemon, and sweet. (We mostly used sweet)
  4. There are a ton of different kinds of eggplants – the Thai ones we used were tiny.

    two different kinds of tiny Thai eggplants

    two different kinds of tiny Thai eggplants

  5. Long beans in Thailand are truly long!

    Loooong beans

    Loooong beans

  6. Palm sugar is a thing and can be sold in different ways.

    this is palm sugar

    this is palm sugar

We also just enjoyed wandering the market with someone who knew what everything was.

After shopping for our food, we hopped back in the van and headed to Oun’s house.  Here we quickly got dressed up in our aprons, ate a quick snack of prawn crackers, and then began to cook.

Eric and Peggy getting ready to cook!

Eric and Peggy getting ready to cook!

Throughout the cooking class, we had the chance to cook and eat 5 different courses. For each course, we had a choice of three different things to learn to make. For the most part, because it was Eric, Della, and Peggy taking part, we each did something different.

Course 1: Stir Fry

Della learned Pad See Ewe, but both Eric and Peggy learned Pad Thai. For each course, we learned our ingredients, the best way to prepare them (chopping, smashing, etc), and then the order in which to cook. We won’t tell you too much more: you’ll have to go take the class yourself! Cooking these dishes did make us want to buy a fancy wok when we get home.

Course 2: Soup

Della learned Tom Kha (chicken in coconut milk soup), Eric learned Hot and Spicy Pork Soup, and Peggy learned Hot and Sour Prawn Soup. The base of the different soups was actually quite similar, and there were only a few ingredients that distinguished them. For example, Eric’s soup did not use coconut milk but the others did.

Course 3: Salad

Della learned Cucumber Salad, Eric learned Mixed Fruit Salad, and Peggy learned Papaya Salad. All of the salads used the same homemade dressing, which was a flavorful mix of sweet, sour, salty and spicy ingredients.

Course 4: Curry

Della made Green Curry paste, Eric made Khao Soi Curry Paste, and Peggy made Panang Curry Paste. After all the pounding and grinding to get the paste, we each made the corresponding curry. Eric’s was slightly different as his was more of a curry noodle soup (a Chiang Mai specialty) and his was quite a bit more complicated. He was also the only one in the class who chose this dish so had to do the grinding of the curry paste all on his own! He didn’t report being too sore though!

Course 5: Dessert

We all learned how to make Mango Sticky Rice. Yum! We learned a lot about making sticky rice that we didn’t know: for example, it is steamed, not boiled!

One of the best parts of the class was that we got to eat everything we cooked. It was all delicious and we were quite stuffed by the end!

IMG_6153

Enjoying our meals

 

We can’t wait to get home and try out our new, mad Thai cooking skills. We are hoping that we are able to find all of the proper ingredients at home in Denver. We know we might be making quite a lot of trips to HMart in our future!

Excellent Experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

We knew we wanted to experience some time with elephants while we were in Chaing Mai, Thailand. It was something that had been on our (especially Della’s) list for a long time. However, we had read a lot about elephant tourism and the pro and cons.

Choosing an Elephant Park

One of the biggest negatives we had heard about was some of poor practices that have traditionally been used in elephant tourism. Often elephants are ridden or trained to do shows for tourists. In recent years, there has been a lot of effort in educating tourists on the dangers some of these things cause for elephants. We had read several articles like this one by the blogger Nomadic Matt with the same theme: elephants have been treated poorly during training, so we were thinking hard about the place we would like to visit. Almost all of the articles mention the Elephant Nature Park as a place using proper practices.

But, as we arrived in Chiang Mai and saw the plethora of options available to us, we decided to do a little more research. The most highly rated elephant park offers elephant riding (without a seat), feeding, and bathing the elephants. After reading several lovely reviews of that park though, we came across this blog. It describes a counterpoint experience between two places and mentions that the most highly rated camp both chains its elephants and uses bull hooks on them. This turned us off. However, the description of Elephant Nature Park, while lovely, seemed a whole lot like an experience we had in Africa with actual wild elephants. We weren’t sure we needed to pay for that.

But finally, we found a brochure for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and further research led us to this blog. We scoured the pictures and saw no chains or bull hooks. It also showed that the elephants were rescued by and living in a Karen village. Many of the students Della teaches are Karen refugees so we were excited to visit an active village in Thailand. That sealed the deal.

Visiting the Park

We were more than excited on our day to visit the elephants! We were picked up by Ken (maybe Chem) in the morning in a songthaew and drove the almost two hours up to the village. The majority of the road is highway, but the last hour or so were on curvy mountain roads. We were very happy when we arrived as we were on the verge of car sickness. We walked a short way through the currently dry rice fields to arrive in the village. We were given our uniform for the day: beautiful Karen shirts!

Our group consisted of 9 people plus our leader Ken. There were about 2 other groups of about the same number. Each group headed off to a different group of elephants. The first group we met was a male and female elephant, both retirees of logging. Ken explained that they were “boyfriend and girlfriend” and enjoyed spending time together. The female elephant was indeed pregnant and we were told she had one year left to come to term. We enjoyed feeding the elephants bananas and stroking their trunks. They were calm and friendly and we saw no chains or hooks. The mahouts used verbal commands when needed. Each elephant wore a bell, which we were told was how the mahouts locate them at night as they are never chained. Ken also pointed out many times that both the elephants seemed fat and happy. He showed us some remnants of their time as logging elephants though, as shown by their ragged ears.

Our next stop was to visit what we’ll call the Old Lady Elephant. She was very calm, but loved her bananas!

Our final feeding stop was really the most exciting. We met two momma elephants and their two babies. We can’t quite remember the ages, but we think the larger baby was more than a year and the smaller one was less. The larger baby was quite rambunctious and enjoyed shoving some of the mahouts around. We truly enjoyed interacting with these super cute creatures!

After feeding the elephants, we headed back to the main area of the village for lunch. It was delicious Karen food which we enjoyed while overlooking the river. With a little time to relax, Wayne headed down to take a swim (of course)!

The next part of the day consisted of the “mud spa.” The mahouts brought down Old Lady elephant and Momma elephant with the Big Baby. They were SO excited to enjoy the mud. It was a lot of fun to go into the mud and experience their glee! They would pick the mud up in their trunks and fling it all over themselves, catching us in the process sometimes. They rolled around and rubbed their faces on the mud wall. We were invited to help them by throwing mud on them and rubbing it on their bodies. We really enjoyed this, as did all of the other tourists. The only thing we worried about was that the elephants (particularly Momma and Big Baby) were so excited that they were practically running around. Without keeping watch and being ready, we could see an accident happening. The mahouts believed that the elephants would never have trampled the humans, but we were content to keep our space while they were moving and hope that future visitors will also be thoughtful about not getting themselves in dangerous situations. The elephants are clearly happy and well treated here, but we are concerned that this might change if there was an accident with one of them hurting a tourist.

After the elephants (and us) were thoroughly muddy, we headed down to the river. The elephants loved splashing and rolling in the water. We were given buckets and scrub brushes to help clean and cool them off. We never got on top of the elephants, and we kept our distance when they were so excited that they were rolling their big bodies around and climbing on top of one another.

At the end of the day, we cleaned the rest of the mud off in the river and headed back to camp. We were given the opportunity to buy Karen souvenirs before we headed out. Della bought a Karen bag and Wayne wanted a different kind of souvenir. He asked for and was sold an elephant bell!

A new elephant bell for Wayne

A new elephant bell for Wayne

Overall, we absolutely loved our experience here and everything we saw indicated that their elephants are happy and treated well. We hope that future visitors will show proper respect to the animals and make sure not to get in their way so that no accidents will happen!

Logistics

The cost of the day was 2400 baht (about $73) per person (so quite a splurge!!), but when we booked through our guesthouse, they gave us a small discount.

The trip up and down took about 2 hours each way, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road.

Wear swim suits that you don’t mind getting muddy. The mud stained some of the white portions of Della’s suit.

Be careful and enjoy these amazing creatures!

Flashback Friday: Winter Rendezvous!

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances!

If we were at home, we would have been planning and enjoying the 4th Annual Winter Rendezvous at our cabin during March. So, we thought we’d flashback to the very first Winter Rendezvous! This occurred in 2011. It is nice for us to see some pictures of snow while we are sweltering in 100 degree heat here in Bangkok and off the chart humidity. Oh snow, how we miss thee!

 

Black and White in Chiang Rai, Thailand

To our email subscribers, we are sorry for the email you received of this post before. It came in error. This post, however, should have all functional links!

After Laos, our next plan was to travel through the northern part of Thailand back down to Bangkok. We debated which towns to include in that journey. We considered heading straight to the large city of Chiang Mai, but pictures and stories of quirky white and black temples convinced us to head to the far northern city of Chiang Rai for a couple of days.

Where We Stayed

We found a nice place online called the Jansupar Court Hotel with two large AC rooms with their own private bathroom. We were happy to take advantage of the cheap washing machine and also enjoyed some late afternoon drinks in the small bistro onsite. The family that runs the place was also fun to interact with. The main downside of Jansupar was that it was located somewhat far outside of town – about a 20 minute walk – so sightseeing wasn’t as convenient as it could have been.

 

What We Did

The two main attractions in Chiang Rai provide a nice counterpoint to each other – one white and one black. We took a local bus from the main bus station to both which was really quite easy to figure out!

We first visited Baan Dum, the Black House. This attraction houses many different somewhat traditional structures, most painted black. It was built by the Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee using his own money. The interior decorating for the buildings was mostly done with furniture made of animal bones and plenty of animal hides. We could only go inside the largest temple-shaped structure, but could see into many of the smaller buildings.

The next day we took a visit to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. As the name suggests, this is a large, elaborate temple painted in all white (plus some shiny mirrors). This is definitely a modern take on a temple, with some very strange designs on the outside. It was constructed by a different Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, also using his own money. The main temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a sea of outstretched hands said to represent desire. Inside the temple itself, we spent a long time trying to decipher the murals. At first glance it seemed like typical Buddhist scenes, but the lower level included many images from popular culture, including Neo from the Matrix, Darth Vader, Michael Jackson and Elvis. We never could quite figure out what it was supposed to mean. In this room and on many of the other buildings we could see visible damage from the strong earthquake that hit the region in 2014. We were a bit bummed that we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.

Outside the main temple, there are a few other small attractions in the complex that were worth a visit. We paid the equivalent of a dollar to buy a charm to we wrote a small message on and hung up with others. Even the bathroom building was quite fancy.

We had a fun experience on the way back from the White Temple. We had visited with another couple that we had met on the slow boat and we ended up having to wait for the bus back for a long time. It just wasn’t coming, so we tried to hail a songthaew , but the only one that came by was too full for 6 to fit in. Finally, a man in a truck drive by and asked if we wanted a ride. We thought he might be a songthaew but we were confused when we asked how much and he sort of shrugged. We clambored in the back and rode off towards town. Wayne had gotten in the front and chatted with guy who was enjoying the company and trying to teach him Thai. Wayne told him the way and he took us all the way back to our hotel (even stopping once to ask directions). We tried to give him money at the end, the equivalent of what we would have given the bus, and he even tried to give some back. It is times like this when our hearts are warmed that there are people who just want to meet others and help!

Our ride back from the White Temple

Our ride back from the White Temple

We only saw a few of the sights in town itself since it was somewhat of a walk to get there. Wee did walk by a pretty clock tower in town – it looks quite a bit different from the ones we saw in Europe! We visited the Hilltribe Museum, which felt a little similar to the museum in Luang Prabang but focused on the Thailand hill tribes. There was also a large display here on the opium trade, since the “Golden Triangle” area nearby was once an epicenter of production by the hill tribes. Della was quite excited because she found a new wallet in the gift shop after many years of searching! On the way to the Hilltribe Museum we came across an interesting city park filled with mannequins dressed up in fairy tale costumes made from fake flowers. There was also a night market where both Della and Peggy both bought scarves (yes… more scarves!)

Where We Ate

Everyone talks about the cheap and good street food in Thailand, so we were excited to again have to the opportunity to try it out. Our favorite meal was probably some fried noodles we ate from a stall in front of one of the ubiquitous 7-11s (where we got a cheap beer to wash it down with).

Street noodles!

Street noodles!

We also ate a dinner in the night market food court, which was filled with stalls offering many different items. The most popular seemed to be a hot pot that allowed you to cook at your table, but we stuck with fried noodles here as well.

One day for lunch we found a simple place near us (that we later think we learned was recommended in Lonely Planet) and got a nice noodle soup. Each one of these meals cost us about a dollar each!

Enjoying our khao soi

Enjoying our khao soi

Final Thoughts

Compared to larger cities, Chiang Rai may not have had as much to offer, but in terms of unique attractions it seems to have a plethora! We are glad that we spent a couple of days here to experience the white and black sides of Thai art.