Part I: The Heart of Thailand

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016- I was ready to check Thailand off my bucket list and step foot on my 5th continent! I was not, however, ready for the 15 hour flight ahead of me or the dreaded jet lag.

CHIANG MAI

Two important things I instantly knew about Thailand: the people are INCREDIBLY friendly, and the death of their King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October has had a tremendous impact on the country. The mourning period is one year from the date of his death, though with the amount of Thai people you see dressed in black or adorned with black ribbons on their clothes, his memory will live on long after that. He was loved fiercely during his 70 years as King, and as I found out more about him, it’s not hard to understand why.

 Tropical beaches, glittering temples, ancient ruins, royal palaces, rich culture, and not to mention the food- these were all reasons why I’d been wanting so badly to visit beautiful Thailand. On my first day, I woke up to a delicious breakfast-  Thai sweet blue sticky rice and mango, toast, juice, and coffee. One of the first things you’ll learn when you go to Thailand is etiquette- especially when it comes to taking off your shoes. I knew this to be true before entering temples, but also when entering homes and some businesses. It’s the same in hotels and hostels. Also, particularly in northern Thailand, it’s common to eat while seated on the floor (which I personally loved). As a girl who grew up in the country and would be barefoot 90% of the time if she could, I didn’t mind it one bit.  The reason for all this? The head is the top of the body and where the spirit resides, so it is thought to be the most important. Your feet are obviously furthest from the head, and therefore believed to be the lowest part of the body spiritually as well.  This also means you should be careful to not point your feet toward others, especially Buddhas and monks. No matter your beliefs, it is best to be polite and sensitive to the culture of the people and places where you are. Also, any attempt to speak the language is appreciated. A simple “sawadee ka” (for women) is a polite greeting and can get you far. Although Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” and its people are friendly and forgiving, being respectful of the culture will not only set you apart from most tourists, but also help enhance your experience.

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Breakfast is served!

After eating, I set out to explore. Chiang Mai’s Old City is in the shape of a square, and is surrounded by a moat and walled with four gates. Although this seems simple, as I figured I’d just walk around the square, there is so much to see around every corner! I stumbled upon the Nong Buak Haad Park, where orchids sprawled across the green lawn, fish swam in the small lake, and many people were using the exercise equipment placed throughout the park . I wish I could describe the moment the first temple came into view. I had never seen anything like it! I saw many temples including Wat Phra Sing (near my hostel) Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Pa Prao Nai, Wat Dab Pai, Wat Sumpow and countless others.  The temples were so incredible….not only stunning on the outside, but so peaceful in all their golden glory. You have to of course remove your shoes before entering, and be dressed modestly  to go inside. Shoulders and knees must be covered. (AKA: no shorts/tank tops, etc.) Many are open grounds where you can just walk around, and are free! These pictures are only quick snapshots and don’t do ANY of them justice.

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Sweet & sour chicken- my weakness.

Since I had the time, I figured I would visit Doi Suthep, which was recommended to me. This temple is atop the mountain of the same name, a national park that you won’t want to miss if you visit Chiang Mai. You can take the shared songthaew (taxi truck) up from the North Gate for about 50 baht each way.

The road up the mountain was very winding but not unpleasant. We stopped at a viewpoint for pictures and then at Huai Rap Sadet waterfall on the way down. The temple at the top of the mountain is actually named Wat Phra That Doi Suthep RatchaWarawihan (but often just called Doi Suthep). It was breathtaking- both in its beauty and the 300+ steps it takes to climb up to it!

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The city of Chiang Mai behind me.

 Wat Phra That Doi Suthep RatchaWarawihan

When I returned back to the heart of the city, I wanted to try khao soi, a soup-like dish with egg noodles and curry sauce, which I had heard so much about. It’s a dish that northern Thailand is known for. Very spicy but mouth-wateringly good. Note to travelers: although cards are accepted at many businesses, it is best to get out cash. Some businesses don’t accept cards, and (especially coming from the U.S.) things are so affordable that the minimum amount you need to charge won’t be met, anyway. Plus, it’s always good to have some Thai baht handy!

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Delicious khao soi

Remember how I said Old City is just a simple square? Well, it seems like there is still a lot I missed, and I haven’t even gone outside the gates yet! So off to explore more.

I found out that there is a Chiang Mai marathon on Sunday! Wish I was staying one extra day to run in it. Walked around and saw a couple more temples: Wat Chetawan, Wat Buppharam, Wat Upakhut. Crossed the Nawarat Bridge over the river to visit Wat Ket Karam. Saw two markets, the night bizarre, so so much stuff, lots of clothes and jewelry and street food.

Side note: my definition of being “close” in traffic has completely changed. Walking in this city is no joke as is driving or even being a passenger.  And EVERYONE and their mother has a motorbike. Many people wear masks for the pollution.

For dinner, I had red chicken curry with rice and a berry smoothie. As you can imagine, much of Thailand’s food is so spicy and delicious, but you also eat it praying that it doesn’t burn right through you. I walked through the park on my way back, and enjoyed entertainment from some street artists.

So, have you ever seen photos of people who visited Thailand and rode elephants? Lots of my friends had gone and came back with the same amazing photos. What an experience, right? But after looking into how the elephants were treated, I decided it was unethical and I could never ride them.  At the last minute, however, I did decide to visit an elephant sanctuary where I fed, bathed, and played with the elephants. Guys, I can’t even tell you how incredible it was…  Once I got there, Miriam ( a volunteer from Germany, now a new friend) and I immediately started to feed them bananas. Doesn’t matter how much they eat, they’re always still hungry. (My spirit animal.) They were reaching deep into my pockets with their trunks and getting into my bag looking for more!  They were gentle giants, so incredibly beautiful. And lucky me, I had all four elephants to myself! I was a little apprehensive at first just because they’re so big and unfamiliar and I had never been this close to them.  Their caretaker is called a mahout, and they are bonded for life. It’s amazing to watch them interact.  We changed into the jean outfits shown below with our bathing suits underneath and went for a walk. Miriam showed me mimosa, a plant that closes up when you touch it. Then we walked further through the jungle along a river. I tried passion fruit straight from the vine. After our walk, we helped bathe the elephants in a watering hole. The water was so fun, splashing each other!  Then they got all dirty and sandy again, of course. (They put dirt on their backs for sun protection.) At the end, the oldest elephant lifted me up by the trunk, and I was given a kiss. And it was a kiss. Like a suction cup. (See bottom left photo.) The whole experience was truly surreal.

Maerim Elephant Sanctuary

Miriam and I changed out of our wet clothes and had a cup of tea. We made spicy Thai noodles- noodles, cabbage, soy beans, cilantro, garlic, ginger, then choice of protein, crushed peanuts, tomato paste, oil, etc. all delicious! Only cook for 10 seconds. (That’s a dinner I can get behind.) I had two big bowls and fresh watermelon for dessert. We talked a lot about our countries and education and travel. It was a refreshing conversation.

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Yum!

After I’d returned back to the hostel, I repacked my bag and prepared for my next stop- Bangkok!

Despite Chiang Mai being my first stop in Thailand, I already had a feeling it would be hard to beat…

BANGKOK

Once I touched down at Don Mueang  International airport and checked in to my hostel, I quickly found and walked down the famous Khao San road- a backpacker’s delight. It was already nighttime, and people were pouring through. I’d heard a lot about this area, and decided to see it for myself. Tons of hostels, street vendors (clothing, jewelry, food, Thai massages, etc.) lots of live music and also pop/techno party music blasting from the bars. People drinking out of buckets,  or workers advertising them with signs that said, “Very strong cocktails, and we don’t card you!” scorpions tourists pay to eat or photograph, etc. It was jam packed and wild, sweaty frat boys and drunk girls, people of all ages and races, so close together that you could barely walk through. Definitely a sight to see, but once was enough for me.

 

 

My goal while in Bangkok was to make it north to the ancient capital city Ayutthaya, and I did just that. My first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, one of the landmarks of Ayutthaya. Honestly such beautiful gardens and ruins, and a reclining buddha there as well. (See photos 3 & 7 in collage below.) Next Wat Mahathat- where flowers bloomed among the ruins (photo 8), stretching as far as my eyes could see, along with this famous Buddha face in the tree:

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Wat Mahathat

 

Then Wat Lokayasutharam- a white reclining Buddha on the outskirts of Ayutthaya (Photo 1).  I also made it to Wat Phu Khao Thong and Wat Phra Si Sanphet, some of my favorite sites that you can see in the photos below.

Important if you go by tuk tuk: be aware of the driver telling you temples are closed. Most likely they aren’t, and the driver is just trying to rip you off.

When I returned to Bangkok, I changed my shoes at the hostel and headed out to see the Grand Palace. Just crossing the intersection was terrifying. Not only because of the manic driving, but the heavy amount of traffic. Pro tip: Go in a crowd and act like you know what you’re doing. And at least that way you’re less likely to get run over in a crowd of people. But really.

I took the river ferry for 3.50 baht and saw Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). It was under construction, but I got there just as the sun was setting.  One of my personal favorites in Bangkok was the gorgeous Wat Pho/Temple of the Reclining Buddha (top left picture) that I managed to explore after the sun went down. (Photo 4)

The next morning, I set out to see the Grand Palace going the way I knew from the night before. There were so many Thai people are dressed in black mourning the King’s death. It was a spiritual silence that I could feel and resonate with, even as an outsider.  Important: Be exceptionally respectful of this mourning period and of the King. Do not speak ill of him, and if you want to talk about him, it’s best to ask the individual first if it’s okay.

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Dressed in black for the period of mourning.

 

A look inside the Grand Palace:

 

 

 

After a long and eventful morning, I decided it was time for some R&R. I hung out at the pool for an hour to soak up some sun before heading back to the airport.

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Although I’ll admit that I didn’t have the highest expectations for Bangkok after hearing it was like other big cities (crowded, dirty, etc.), I’m still glad I chose to explore its hidden gems. Next stop, Phuket! And then, a surprise destination…stay tuned!

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