Here is a new video in Della Dances Around the World. Those of you who have taken my Zumba classes should know this dance inside and out! Stand up and dance it out with me! Here is Danza Kuduro from all over the world!
Here is a new video in Della Dances Around the World. Those of you who have taken my Zumba classes should know this dance inside and out! Stand up and dance it out with me! Here is Danza Kuduro from all over the world!
This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Thailand. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!
In Thailand we used the Thai Baht. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 3 baht to $0.01.
We stayed in several places in Thailand. Our first time was in Bangkok for a few days in January before we headed to Myanmar. We returned to Thailand on the the 5th of March and we stayed mostly in small hotels or guesthouses. Much of our time in Thailand, we were traveling with Della’s parents. There was one hotel that we stayed at for 2 nights that Della’s parents paid for as a gift.
We only count alcohol costs when it is not purchased with other food.
We loved the food in Thailand and often ate out for lunch and dinner. Only a very few of our accommodations included breakfast, so we often purchased that as well.
This included a lot of added toiletries as well as several souveniers. It is amazing how many things we start to buy when we know that we can send it home with Della’s parents! 😉 We also had to purchase a new battery for Eric’s fitbit.
We traveled around a lot in Thailand! This cost is actually quite low when you think about where we went. We traveled by bus from Chiang Rai, to Chiang, Mai, to Mae Sot, to Sukhothai, to Ayuthaya. Then we traveled by train to Bangkok. After that, we flew to Koh Lanta.
This divides out to $61.53/day which is under $100/day budget! Now that’s what we were hoping for in Asia! We even felt like we splurged on activities and accommodations, and we were able to remain this low, so it just goes to show that Thailand can be an inexpensive place to travel.
“Mountains or beach?” That’s a question many people ask each other when making small talk. Generally, we choose mountains (as you may have guessed given that we live in Colorado – Della can provide a whole rant if you want), and we haven’t made a big effort thus far on the trip to spend a lot of beach time. Still, we figured it would be a shame to miss out on the world-class Thailand beaches, so we built a few days into the end off our time in Thailand to do so.
There are a huge number of beaches in Thailand, and we only wanted to see one. This meant sifting through a vast maze of information, from the recommendations of friends and family to guidebooks and online resources. So many data points just served to confuse us. And, just when we thought we’d made a decision, we’d discover something that turned us off. Wow, this island looks amazing… but it sounds pretty hard to get to quickly. Or This beach would be really easy to get to… but it doesn’t sound like there is much to do once you get there. And so on.
In the end, the island that best fit our criteria was Ko Lanta. It seemed fairly easy to get to for a quick trip from Bangkok, it looked scenic and had plenty of stuff going on, and we could pre-book affordable accommodation. It was nice to get that decision made and get to the beach.
It wasn’t quite as easy as we had hoped, but we made it there in one piece.
Based on the recommendation of some of our travel friends, we booked a bungalow at The Hut on Khlong Nin beach. (Even once we had decided on the island, we still had to pick the beach on the island to stay on.) Our bungalow was nice and spacious, with a covered front porch and a large bed. We did have an attached bathroom with a Western toilet and cold-water shower… but no sink, which we found inconvenient. The only cooling apparatus was a fan; no A/C, which would have been nice on the hot, muggy days, although we managed to cool off enough at night to sleep. The staff was very laid-back – almost a little too much so at times, but maybe we just don’t have the correct attitude for a beach ;-). The location was not on the beach itself but just across the road, so not too bad. The price (about $15 a night) was pretty reasonable compared to other bungalows we priced out as well.
We were looking forward to some relaxing times and we definitely were able to achieve that. Both the first and second days we didn’t emerge from our bungalow until it was time for lunch. The first day we just stayed on the beach after lunch and read and took turns swimming in the warm waters of the Andaman.
The second day we intended to rent a motorbike to see some of the other sights on the island… but when we admitted to the staff at The Hut where we were going to rent from that it was our first time, they refused to rent to us. Too discouraged to try another place, we spent another afternoon lounging on Khlong Nin beach.
In the evening we headed over to check out what we had seen advertised as a free beach exercise session followed by a yoga class. We were a little skeptical, but it turned out to be exactly that! A South African named Yakut first led us through a variety of exercises he seemed to make up on the spot, many involving the use of a large volcanic rock we picked up nearby. After a refreshing swim to cool off, the yoga session started. The yoga instruction itself was a little hit-or-miss, but the opportunity to do a sun salutation towards the setting sun was pretty incredible. We also enjoyed listening to Yakut espouse some of his personal philosophies.
The third day we decided to be a little more active and book a snorkel tour to the Four Islands area. We debated which company to go with, and ended up choosing “Lanta Nature Tour” since it was the cheapest. We were taken on a small “longtail” boat along with five others, including someone from Boulder, Colorado and a German who had gone to the University of Colorado for a year of study abroad – talk about a small world! We stopped at two small islands and hopped out for about 20 minutes of snorkeling. We didn’t see anything amazing, and the coral seemed a little worse for the wear, but the water was crystal clear, and we enjoyed swimming among schools of a smaller type of fish that had no fear.
The third stop was at the Emerald Cave, where we hopped out and swam into a natural opening underneath the limestone karst. Just past the entrance we got to see where the cave got its name from, and the water beneath us glowed in an emerald-esque color as it was lit from the sun outside. After we swam about 100 meters, we emerged into an interior oasis of a small beach open to the sky. It was quite pretty, although the effect was marred a bit by the vast crowds of loud tour groups talking excitedly.
After we swam back out the cave, we headed to our final stop: lunch on the beach at Ko Ngai. This was our favorite stop; the view from our table of the longtail boats bobbing in the bright blue water above a white sand beach with limestone karsts in the distance was exactly what we had hoped to see on the beach in Thailand. We had about an hour to eat lunch and then relax in the water before we took the long ride back to Ko Lanta.
Khlong Nin has a nice selection of restaurants along the beach, and we visited quite a few of them. Since it was our last few days in Thailand, we tried to eat our fill of curries and fried noodles. Della was especially insistent on choosing places that offered her favorite dish, pad see ewe.
Many of the beachfront restaurants offered happy hour deals on beer, which was great since the beach faces west. We took advantage and made sure to find a good seat to watch the sun fade below the horizon.
We are glad that we made our way to the beach, and Ko Lanta was very scenic. Khlong Nin was the right beach for us to choose (we saw some of the party beaches on the way out and were glad we didn’t choose them). It’s hard to say if we chose the right island or not. The frustrations of getting there and the relatively high prices once we arrived soured things a bit, but we might have had similar issues at many of the other islands. So, our trip to the Thailand beaches didn’t change our affiliation as “mountain people,” but it did provide for a scenic and relaxing way to say goodbye to Thailand.
Another great month! We’re really starting to feel like the end of the trip is coming and we’re feeling more and more rushed to get through everything that we wanted to do. It’s funny how you can plan to be traveling for almost a year, but still end up feeling like you don’t have enough time =) However, we did take time this month to meet up with Della’s parents again a couple of times. They decided to have a big trip for themselves and as we write this update, they’ve been out for about 5 weeks and plan about 2 more. We haven’t stayed together the whole time, but have sort of met up and parted as our schedules allowed. We saw a lot of great things and explored a lot of new places this month. Our only complaint is that it is hot season here in SE Asia and we are REALLY hot all the time. We only have about 2 more weeks in this part of the world before we fly again to explore different parts of Asia.
Here are our stats for this month.
UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 3 (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns, Historic City of Ayutthaya, Hoi An Ancient Town) Total on RTW: 40
We traveled by 3 planes this month.
We traveled by 2 boats this month.
We traveled 5 long distance buses/minibuses.
We traveled by 2 trains this month.
~ We had an amazing time interacting with elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai!
We had a bit of a hard time coming up with this list, because for the first time we had slightly different opinions of what to choose!
~ We struggled for a long time to choose a Thai beach to go to. We had seen some really neat pictures of white sand beaches with large limestone karsts in the distance and longtail boats near the shoreline, and hoped that we could find a scene like that. The island we chose, Ko Lanta, doesn’t have those characteristics, which was a bit disappointing… but some nearby islands do! The last stop of our snorkeling tour was at Ko Ngai, and when we pulled up to the white sand beach we realized we had found just what we were looking for!
We feel like we’re a bit of a broken record here: we’re still happy with the contents of our bags. In the hot, humid weather it would be nice to have more shirts, but it wouldn’t be worth carrying them. We’ve also found that we probably could live with fewer socks and underwear because it is quite tempting to rinse them out in the shower or sink often (almost every night). Still carrying unused cold weather gear, but it’s still in hold for Nepal. We haven’t used our tupperware very much here in Asia. We find we don’t pack our lunches very often as food is plentiful and cheap (and really good!)
Della has read UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (4), A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett (3), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (3)
Eric has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4)
Eric and Della have BOTH read The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell (4), Saigon by Anthony Grey (5/4.5)
The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.
Most of our posts on this blog will be happy recollections of some moments of our trip. But life on the road won’t always be fun. We feel like we’d like to share some of these moments of misery too. (OK, and vent a little about them too…)
Sometimes travel is exhilarating and challenging… sometimes it is just frustrating. When you’re on the road, you have some relaxing days, some big adventurous days, and some just travel days. The travel days are the ones where you have to move between locations and if you’re lucky, it is a quick and comfortable trip. If you’re unlucky, it can be the opposite.
We had spent a long time deciding which Thai beach to visit and had ultimately picked Koh Lanta after reading some amazing reviews on other blogs and looking at some pictures. The only problem with Koh Lanta is that it is relatively far south of Bangkok, actually a bit closer to the Malaysia border. We had heard that it wasn’t really that hard to get to though – just a quick flight from Bangkok to Krabi and then grab a minibus from the airport that will drop you off at your accommodation on the island. Sounds easy right?
Our long day started in Bangkok where it was hot and sticky. We knew we could get to the airport via the metro/train and were intrigued by the challenge of getting there on our own. Even our hostel hadn’t known about this connection! Their first instinct had been to take a taxi! But, we thought we could do it more cheaply (and more adventurously) ourselves. This involved a 10 to 15 min walk to the metro and a quick trip (just one stop) to the Hua Lamphong stop which is also the main Bangkok train station. We bought our tickets quickly (and cheaply for only 20 baht… though for some reason they were more expensive than the train tickets we had bought a few days earlier that had taken us all the way from Ayutthaya to Bangkok), got on the train, and headed to the Dong Muang airport. It actually all went according to plan! We should have been pleased… except we didn’t take into account how horribly humid Bangkok is. We were leaving relatively early (about 7:15 am) in the morning so we had figured it wouldn’t be too hot yet. But we were wrong. By the time we arrived at the train station, we were already dripping (yes, actually literally dripping) with sweat. The train was unairconditioned. We got some seats (which was lucky) but they weren’t right under the fan which was unfortunate. So we sweated more. When the train was moving it wasn’t too bad as the windows were open, but for some reason the train stopped a lot! By the time we arrived at the airport, Della felt like she had just stepped out of the shower, except instead of being fresh and clean she was stinky and dirty.
Our flight actually went quite smoothly, no problems at all! But it was on a budget carrier (Thai Lion) that we hadn’t used prior and the space for your knees was the smallest we had ever seen!
The next part was what we were least sure about. Multiple sources had indicated to us that we could just grab a minivan from the Krabi airport straight to Koh Lanta. So, once we landed, we set out to do this. Unfortunately, information at the airport was unhelpful and told us we had to go into Krabi town. We found another desk selling minibus transfers to multiple islands. They had one to Koh Lanta, but it was 490 baht instead of the 350 baht we were expecting. They told us they could take us into Krabi town to the pier for just 90 baht. They also said that the only way to get any bus at all would be to go to Krabi town. We thought we might be able to find the cheaper transfers from there so we got the ticket.
We piled onto a crowded bus and headed into Krabi town which was unfortunately 30 min away (in the opposite direction from Koh Lanta). When we arrived in town, we definitely did not go to the pier, or even to downtown, or even where there were any businesses at all. They dumped us off the bus at their main office and we had one choice – to take their expensive minibus. Either that or to head off into town on a hot day with our bags, not really knowing where we were going or how far that might be. So, we bought the tickets.
They said they would drop us off at our accommodation at Klong Nin Beach in Koh Lanta. There was some confusion as they had never heard of our place and didn’t seem to be able to read the map we were showing them. But they threw up their hands and just shoved the tickets at us. We assumed that meant that the driver would know. After the exchange was made, it was 1:15 and we thought we were going to get on the 2 pm bus. They hadn’t bothered to tell us that the 2pm bus was full so we would have to wait for the 3pm bus. Ugh.
With nothing to do but wait, and having had no food since breakfast, we decided to eat (at their restaurant). We were a little frustrated to give this annoying company more of our money, but we were hungry so we did anyway.
At 3pm, our bus pulled up. We tried to talk with the driver to make sure he knew about our accommodation. He didn’t speak much English and walked away from us without ever communicating. Rude. But, we piled on with several other tourists. We were almost full to capacity when we left. Then we drove back to the airport! Here we picked up about 5 more people… even though we had been told when we were at the airport 2 hours earlier that this was impossible. The new arrivals crowded into the bus that only had 2 seats left… Luckily for us, we weren’t squished so badly, but others in the bus had to sit 3 or 4 to 2 people seats. Then, finally we set out for the island.
It is a long drive (about 2 hours by any calculation) with 2 ferry crossings. The first one was fine. But, for some reason, the second ferry crossing took us about 45 min. The crossing itself is quite short, but it must have been rush hour on the island or something because we waited in a line of vehicles for about 35 min before we even got onto the ferry. By this point, everyone on the bus was hot, crowded, and grumpy.
After the long ferry crossing, we headed farther onto the island. The minibus stopped at the first main beach where some people got out either to stay there or to be transferred to a taxi to get to their accommodation. Here we tried to communicate again where we were staying. Our driver still didn’t understand us so got one of the taxi drivers to come and help. We said we needed to go to our place on Klong Nin Beach. He said, oh no, this minibus doesn’t go there, you will have to pay for a taxi. This seemed outrageous to us, so we absolutely refused. We had been told we would get to our accommodation and the minibus was going to take us there.
Ultimately, it was no problem, the minibus headed for Klong Nin, and we weren’t even the last ones off the bus. However, they did not take us to our accommodation and we did have to walk a ways. By that point, we were just happy to be off the bus.
We finally arrived at almost 6:30 pm. Luckily, our room was waiting for us. It was fan only, which we knew, but we could have really used some AC just then. We were also surprised that while having a toilet and a shower, our room did not have a sink. Strange?
But nothing really went wrong, and we made it safely and in one piece. Still, days like these can be so taxing. Heat, frustration, fear of getting ripped off, and delays can really take their toll.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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??
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.
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!
Cooking Class – We also took advantage of a fun cooking class in town!
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!