Reflections on Thailand

It feels like every trip I take teaches me a new lesson or brings new clarity about my life. And Thailand has been no different.

Firstly, I do not really like tourist traps and am not an ATM. The Thai tourism model pushes visitors along a predetermined route. Backpackers get on and off buses in hoards, tour buses and mini buses follow each other up and down highways between well-trod destinations, the big tourist sites charge a surcharge for tourists (often when locals pay nothing or very little), and older white men walking with young Thai women on their arms is a common sight (no judgement, just stating a fact). Thailand is a country where the scammers have been practicing for a long time and its difficult to bargain with locals for a good price because there will be another ATM machine walking along in a minute anyway. To put the impact of tourism into perspective, Thailand’s resident population is about 67 million but in 2013 there were more than 26 million visitors to Thailand. That means that the ratio of tourists to locals is more than 1:3.

That said, there are many beautiful and interesting places to see in Thailand and I might find myself back there one day if I need a relatively easy South East Asian country to travel. Because the benefit of it being so heavily touristed is that most Thais speak some English, public transport and accommodation are easy to organise, and there are plenty of Western food options if you get tired of Thai food (it does happen after a while).

Secondly, I love traveling with my partner. This was his first overseas trip (that’s what we Aussies call a trip to another country because we always have to cross the seas to leave our island nation) and he found us so many wonderful places to visit, eat and enjoy massages. It was amazing to share my daily experiences with someone else after traveling alone. It’s probably a big reason why I let my blog get behind.

Thirdly, I am ready for my “normal” life to resume again after what I am dubbing as my Eat, Pray, Love year. I am starting to find myself looking towards the future, rather than just wanting to break free. It’s a good sign. I have made some personal financial, career and lifestyle decisions that excite me. I have learned that I don’t need a big income to be happy. I want to be present in the lives of family and friends for more than a short 3-4 week period between trips. I want to get back into the outdoors doing hiking, kayaking and cycling micro adventures. And I miss having some semblance of a routine. I still want to travel but I want to have a life between travel too. What’s the point of seeing the world if you end up like the guy in Into the Wild?

So I have cancelled the first half of my trip to Japan. Instead of leaving on 8 March I am now going to Malaysia from 31 March for 14 days with my partner and then to Japan for 4 weeks on my own. When I return from Japan I will enrol in a TESOL or CELTA course and in a Certificate IV in Outdoor Recreation, join a bushwalking and kayaking club, and do the odd orienteering, regaining or other event. It’s time …

I still want to travel to at least three countries every year but I am going to mix it up with microadventures at home.

One final day of Thai luxury (Chiang Mai)

What do you do when you only have one final day on holidays? Why you treat yourself to luxury. And in Thailand, that means massages, first class cinemas and good food.
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After our experience of first class cinemas in Phuket I was excited to find that they were at the Maya Shopping Mall in Chiang Mai so we walked the 4km from the city to check them out. It was fantastic. We enjoyed some delicious pre-movie canapes for an hour. Then we were shown to our fantastic couples seat with independently reclining chairs. Once the King’s song and some very funny commercials were over we settled in under our blankets to enjoy the movie. The only strange thing was that I had ordered us salty popcorn but we ended up each being given a big bowl of mixed popcorn. There is something a little disconcerting about eating a mix of cheese, barbecue, salt and sweet popcorn in a darkened cinema. You never quite know when the savoury experience will be interrupted by a mouthful of sugar. Chalk it up to a funny Thai experience. The movie we watched was Jupiter Ascending. It was full of special effects with limited story line but a pleasant choice that didn’t require too much thought so we could settle in and enjoy the comfortable surrounds.
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It was already dark by the time we exited the cinema so we went up to the Maya Shopping Mall roof to enjoy the view. There are lots of bars and restaurants up on the roof but all were empty but for the staff. The views were nice though.
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We took a stroll around the big food street near the shopping centre to find some food but found that most of what was on offer was either Western food or over-priced Thai food (compared with what we had been eating in the old city). The street lighting was lovely though.
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So we took a tuk tuk back to the Old City where we dined at Khao Tom 1 Baht, which has become our favourite Chiang Mai restaurant and is well worth the wait in the queue that forms. The pineapple fried rice is particularly good.

And so ends our trip to Thailand. The next day we missed our flight home due to my reading the booking information but we managed to book an alternative flight to Kuala Lumpur, which allowed us to connect to our original flight from Kuala Lumpur to the Gold Coast.


Bhubing Palace, Doi Suthep and Chiang Mai Zoo (Chiang Mai)

We get up in the morning with plans to go to Doi Suthep and the Chiang Mai Zoo. We walk down to the temple near our hostel where the songtows wait to collect passengers. Two American girls and two European girls were waiting and we tried to negotiate a songtow with them but they were unhappy that the driver would “only” wait 1.5 hours at Doi Suthep and wouldn’t take them only one way. They also wanted to bargain hard over every last baht. Fortunately for us, two young Chinese ladies walked up and asked whether they could go to Bhubing Palace and Doi Suthep. The driver wanted 800 baht for the day, regardless of where we went and how many of us went in his truck. The American and European girls were adamant they did not want to go to Bhubing Palace and we had no idea what Bhubing Palace was. But, being open to adventure, we decided to join the Chinese ladies for the ride up to Bhubing Palace at a cost of 200 baht each (because the American and European girls walked off to find other transport options).
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Bhubing Palace turned out to be a fantastic bonus for our day. The palace is the holiday home of the Thai Royal Family and boasts stunning gardens. We both love gardens and flowers so had a field day.
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It wasn’t just the flowers that were beautiful but the whole landscaping design was amazing. There were rooms, like the rose garden, fern garden, lake garden, glass house garden and clumps of bamboo. As we walked we talked about starting our own little potted garden at the house we rent. Maybe just some peas, broccoli, leafy greens and flowers. Nothing too difficult to maintain or large, just something that we can transport if we have to move in future and something we can leave while we travel and not be worried if it doesn’t survive our absence.
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After an hour at Bhubing Palace the songtow took us back down the mountain to Doi Suthep. This is a mountain temple where you have to walk up 302 steps to reach it. The steps are quite small and the climb isn’t as bad as it sounds. It was very busy, but as usual in a Thai temple it felt calm and peaceful inside. Foreigners have to pay a small entry fee, which I don’t ever mind paying when it is only small. It reflects that tourists come to see the temple while locals come to pray (and, in doing so, leave lots of money at the temple). We have started to actively participate in the way of the temple by making small donations, buying incense and candles, and paying to pour the oil into candle holders at the Buddha images that reflect the days of our birth. The temple itself is large, gold and beautiful.
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The Chiang Mai Zoo is located at the base of the mountain under Doi Suthep. We’d read about the zoo at Dusit Zoo way back in Bangkok so had to go. What we didn’t realise is how big Chiang Mai Zoo is. There’s a reason they allow people to drive around the zoo and hire out golf carts for people who do not have cars. But we didn’t realise until it was too late. You could easily spend a whole day here at this zoo, exploring the various animal exhibits, sitting in the bird aviary and wandering through the aquarium.
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We paid about 20 baht (80c) to feed a jaguar and elephant (not at the same time – haha). The jaguar had the most amazing eyes. They were big, clear and intelligent. It’s paws were huge as it padded around its enclosure. The elephant was kind of scary because it was so big. We took turns feeing it and hoping that it didn’t break out of its enclosure, which was only closed by a flimsy post and rail fence with a chain gate. It might have been a zoo activity but feeding an elephant is a pretty cool experience. We also visited the two pandas. One was asleep but the other saw us arrive, walked down to inspect us and then wandered around its enclosure. There are only 35 pandas in zoos worldwide and very few left in the wild. Having now seen one, I know what people mean by panda eyes.
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But my favourite part of the Chiang Mai Zoo was the aquarium. I loved walking around looking at all the different types of sea life. There were mangrove fish, prawns, coral fish, small blacktip sharks and many more sea creatures. It made me want to learn to scuba so I can see these all in the wild (well, maybe not the sharks).

It was a big day of sights, walking and travel but well worth the effort. In the evening we returned to the Sunday Walking Street to buy gifts and souvenirs for home. This represents a shift for me because it means I am ready to start acquiring possessions and settling down again after giving away or selling almost all my possessions last year when I embarked on this journey of Looking For 42.

Chiang Mai Flower Festival 2015

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We had read about the Chiang Mai Flower Festival in our Thailand guide book but weren’t sure exactly when it would be on. Well, how lucky were we: it was on the weekend we were in town. And what a spectacular event it was.
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This might seem like lazy blogging but I think the photos of the floats speak for themselves.
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I mean, how can I possibly add anything by speaking to these photos.
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Thai creativity, attention to detail and visual aesthetic proves, once again, to be amazing!
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The theme this year was tourism in Thailand.
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If you have a chance, I recommend visiting the Chiang Mai Flower Festival because it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime cultural events.
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And then, at the end of the day, we watched a few traditional dances.

The White Temple and Golden Triangle (Chiang Rai)

Being lovers of all things art and creativity we had to go to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. And, given that Paul has always wanted to travel to Myanmar, we had to go to the Golden Triangle so that he could glimpse the country of his dreams. So we booked a one-day Chiang Rai / Golden Triangle tour with TravelHub Thailand. Neither of us are really tour people but with so little time remaining before we head home, it was the best option. And it ended up being a fantastic day; the tour guide really just facilitated the transport, food and site entries and gave us just the right amount of time in each location. But you don’t want practicalities. You want to know what we felt, saw and experienced.

It was a long three hour drive from Chiang Mai to the White Temple. Some of the drive was beautiful and took us along a winding road snaking across a mountain range while other sections travelled through hot dry towns slung out along the highway. But the drive is worth it because words will never do the White Temple justice. It is hands down the most beautiful structure I have ever seen. It glitters like ice and snow on a bluebird day. The attention to detail is spectacular, if somewhat disturbing with all those skulls and flailing hands. If you go there, take the time to walk around the back of the complex because, while there were hundred of tourists competing for photo space out the front of the temple, we pretty much had the sides and back of the complex to ourselves. The temple is still under construction so we could not go inside. The artist is building it as an example of modern Thai art and, apparently, the interior is being decorated to reflect the state of Buddhism in the twenty-first century, rather than the traditional historical stories.

After 40 minutes we pull out of the White Temple complex and join the convoy of mini buses heading north on the same itinerary. Don’t be mistaken here: Thailand’s tourism industry funnels everyone nicely along the same route. It’s easy to see why The Beach was set in this country because it really is like Leonardo di Caprio’s speech in the opening scenes of that movie. But that’s no reason not to travel to this amazing country. Just be prepared to join the convoy if you want to see the most famous sites.
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Our mini bus pulls into the carpark at the Hill Tribe village site. I cannot remember which tribe we visited but I am sure they are all fairly similar on this tour. There’s a big sign on the highway announcing the exit to the village and a carpark already lined with other mini buses. But it does seem as though people actually might live here from the way the huts are constructed and the washing hanging on the lines. It’s a way of life that seems so primitive. We learn that many of the hill tribes originate from Myanmar or China and crossed into Thailand as “illegal immigrants” (I hate that term). They never used to have citizenship status but now do so many work in the cities selling souvenirs at markets and their children now have access to Thailand’s education system. The hill tribe village visit is almost totally commercial in nature. We get a little talk about their houses and vegetable gardens before we are let loose in the small market under the watchful eye of the tour guide, who enquires after every purchase (to make sure the company’s commission is accounted for?). We buy a few small things. Paul has a softer heart than me and enjoys buying gifts for people so he buys a bit more.

But I guess, this is responsible tourism in a way because $2 or $4 mean very little to us at home. It won’t even buy us a coffee. But here it is enough to feed a family for a day. I mean, we donate money to charities and give coins to beggars because we feel it is the right thing to do. But then we haggle to the last baht with vendors who are actually working to feed their families. It’s an interesting conundrum isn’t it. And the prices at the hill tribe market are not extortionate so that makes us more comfortable buying.
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Another long convoy drive takes us to the Golden Triangle. I sleep almost the whole way there so cannot tell you about the scenery. Once there we eat a buffet lunch overlooking Myanmar, which is only about 100m away on the other side of the river. I have a chuckle about how one of the biggest tourist attractions in Thailand is the view of its neighbours (Myanmar and Laos).

After lunch we decide to pay the extra 330 Baht ($16) to take a boat ride on the Mekong River and to enter Laos. The river is muddy and wide. We head upstream to the place where we cross into Myanmar (on the boat). I am surprised to see a huge casino on the Myanmar bank of the river. The visa requirements for Myanmar are relatively complex so we cannot touch the shores but it doesn’t matter because I’m not into casinos anyway. The boat turns and we move towards the opposite bank, which is Laos. My excitement at being at these borders needs to be viewed in the context of my living on an island nation in Australia where visiting a foreign country requires a long flight over the oceans (hence why we call visiting foreign countries “going overseas”).
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The boat docks at an island on the Laos side of the river and we are allowed to disembark for thirty minutes. Our passports are back in Thailand and our tour guide has organised our land tax for the island as part of the 330 baht we paid for the boat trip. We are fortunate because the tall trees are bathed in red flowers. I can’t recall the name of the flower and Google isn’t helping me. The flowers drop to the ground with a thud and are then collected and dried for use as a tea. There’s a festival on the island and gambling seems to be the main purpose with all sorts of gambling games set up in the festival grounds. Nearby there is also a casino in the Laos side of the river. The locals jokingly call it Laos Vegas.
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Our final stop for the day is supposed to be the markets at Mai Sei on the Thailand-Myanmar land border but the tour guide offers us the option of going up a nearby hill to see a view over into Myanmar instead. We all readily agree and that’s our next stop. Here twin border towns flourish as vehicles cross a bridge into Myanmar. I’ve never been to a proper border town before (I don’t count border towns in Europe and the UK because you don’t need a visa or anything to cross them). On one side of the river the temples are Thai and on the other you can clearly see that they are Burmese. It’s fascinating.
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There is a massive Buddha statue on the side of a mountain near the border. It’s impressive and I wonder who it’s intended for.

It’s already about 4.30pm when we leave the border and we have a long 4-5 hour drive back to Chiang Mai. We watch the sun set over the mountains to the west of the highway and then are plunged into a dull darkness. If you are taking this trip with children or are easily bored, I highly recommend carrying something you can use to watch movies on (because you can’t quite read in the dark). The drive is broken up by a short quarter hour stop for bathrooms and snacks. We arrived home at about 9:30pm, 14 hours after leaving. It was a brilliant day and well worth the 1,000 baht ($40) per person.

But the question now is whether we can say we went to Laos? Haha

Chiang Mai Kayaking

Some days are just perfect. Today we took a tour with Chiang Mai Mountain Bike & Kayaking. As those who follow my blog will know, I rarely recommend any commercial enterprise in my posts. But today is an exception because our kayaking trip was brilliant and made possible by the tour company. While we had first hoped to do the Chiang Dao Jungle kayak adventure, the region is currently quite dry so the only trip the company could run was the Mid Valley Kayak Expedition down the Mae Ping River in the Mae Ngat Valley. It didn’t matter because the trip we took was still amazing and gives us a reason to come back to Chiang Mai to try some of the other tours.

The trip started with a half hour river flow lesson. Don’t worry, this time doesn’t come off your allowance of fun. I have been paddling for years but this was the first time anyone has ever taken the time to explain eddies and flow patterns to me. We learned some basic techniques like eddie-out, pull-out, crossing the river and how to stop from tipping out if we got caught against a rock or log. It showed that the company is serious about safety and paddler enjoyment, rather than just dropping us in the water and hoping we enjoyed it with whatever skills we already had (if any).

Once the instructions were over we loaded into the back of a songtow-style vehicle to drive an hour to the entry point. The bikes on the roof were for two guests who were doing a bike-kayak combination trip. While it looks uncomfortable, the vehicle is not too bad and the seating arrangement allowed us to get to know the other two guests on the kayaking trip a little better before we spent the day on the water together.

The put-in for the kayaking trip was under a bridge in the middle of a tobacco field. We were each allocated a sit-in touring boat. The company has different types of boats that they use depending on conditions. They have sit-on boats, sit-in touring boats and sit-in white-water play boats. We were going to experience a Class 1 river with shallow water and some obstacles like logs. The sit-in boats were perfect being easy to manoeuvre and good for sun protection. The guide gave a briefing …

And then we were off. Before we paddled downstream, the guide had us paddle about 50m upstream, cross the river and eddy-out before pulling-out and making a 360′ turn. I think he just wanted to check how much guidance he would need to give us before getting too far downstream.

And so we spent the day paddling in Thailand.

We passed farms and small Thai row boats tied up on the river’s edge.

Saw fishermen casting nets for small fish.

And generally enjoyed the river’s serenity.

About half way down the river we stopped for a short rest on a rocky bank of the river while we waited for the two cyclists to join our group. The rest was relaxing as we talked and watched the wind blow the grasses on the other side of the river.

Our guide also turned his hand to fishing for these strange shellfish that live in the river bed. They are very small and are eaten whole in omelette. But you’d need a lot of them to get enough protein or flavour to make it worthwhile and he was only catching one or two with every scoop of the net.

Once the two cyclists joined us we left the farmland behind and entered a particularly peaceful part of the river where trees grew on either side and mountains rose ahead of us. I sat on the back of my boat with my feet dragging through the cool water, only pulling them in when we had to navigate obstacles.

The trip was about 20km of downstream paddle. It was not terribly difficult but not so easy as to be dull. The guide was relaxed and knowledgeable, the group social and fun, and the paddling perfect.

Still not templed out (Chiang Mai)

After four nights at the apartment near the bus station, I make an executive decision and book us a new hotel inside the Old City. It’s not that the apartment is particularly bad but I want to be closer to clean restaurants, massages and temples. So, despite Paul still feeling under the weather, we walk into the city along busy streets where songtows mingle with scooters, pedestrians and bicycles. I should mention that, here in Thailand, most of the pedestrians seem to be foreigners like us. And, at 10am, most of us foreigners are carrying backpacks as we head to and from hotels, buses and the airport. We look like a tribe on the move and I can’t help but wonder what aliens would think if they arrived here in Chiang Mai at this moment.

I like the area around the new hotel instantly. There’s a delightful café across the road that sells amazing noodle salad. The houses here all have small potted gardens out the front and it’s quiet, despite being just one soi (laneway) back from the main roads.

Our new hotel is not far from the big temple where we watched the monks chanting the other afternoon. But there are other stunning wats here too. We explore a gorgeous unrenovated complex. The stairs are worn and the dragons at the door are faded with large black patches on them. But inside there are amazing coloured statues. And the small mausoleum next to the main temple is amazing, with its grey render and gold guilding.

But possibly the most interesting thing about this temple is the huge disturbing mural above the main entry. We ponder the story it is meant to tell. Whatever it is, it’s gruesome. But the workmanship is exceptional.

Across the road there is another small complex. The blue glass pillars outside the temple call to me. This temple doesn’t look as spectacular due to the lacklustre colours in its slightly run down interior. But it still has intricate decorations that must have looked amazing once.

Later in the evening we go for another walk. It’s our first foray into Chiang Mai at night, having spent our first few nights out near the bus station. The interesting thing is that, while there is life everywhere, it’s all foreigners. The locals are working and the tourists are eating, drinking, walking and receiving massages. I have to say, I am happy to be on the tourist side of this divide. There are so many bars, restaurants and massage parlours that it’s difficult to chose which to frequent. What’s not difficult is admiring the preparations for the 2015 Chiang Mai Flower Festival. From the work being done out near the gate it’s going to be amazing. And we’re going to be here for it.

But I think I might leave you today with this image that best sums up our night walking around Chiang Mai.