Category Archives: Thailand

Thailand Part 4: Chiang Mai

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The final leg of our trip to Thailand was Chiang Mai…14 hours on the OTHER side of the country! And despite being forced to spend the night “sleeping” on the chairs in a freezing cold train cabin (all the sleepers were full), Josh and I were determined to go.

Way up in the north near the mountains, Chiang Mai is known for its beautiful scenery, culture and jungle treks. Though the city itself was nice enough (it did have some interesting temples), Josh and I quickly signed-up for a two-day tour, which included an elephant ride, trek, white water rafting, bamboo rafting and visits to local mountain tribes, including a one-night stay with them.

Now, for me, the main attraction of the whole thing was the elephant trek. Instead of a short, once-around-the-ring circus ride, we actually got to ride the elephants for an hour through a trail in the jungle, and I was delighted to get the chance to ride on the elephant’s neck without a seat! But the part that left the most impression on me (and my body) was the three-hour jungle trek up the mountain to the tribe.

I hate hiking.

For many on our trip, the trek was the main event, a chance to really get in the jungle and experience the wildlife of Southeast Asia. But after more than six months in Malaysia where banana trees and exotic plants are everywhere, the jungle trek to me was more like three hours of Stairmaster Hell in a sauna. Did I mention it was three hours UPHILL? And I learned a valuable lesson that day: yoga does not make you physically fit!

I stupidly thought a commercialized, group package tourist trap tour would take us through easy trails designed to suit those of all levels of fitness, but somehow I found myself climbing over rocks, uneven terrain and really steep hills. Frankly, the only thing I wanted to see in the jungle were wild animals or exotic bugs, but all living creatures appeared to be on vacation that day, which meant it was just us and plants. I know this whole rant sounds terrible and many people loved the trek, but who are we kidding? I am NOT a nature girl.

So after a long day hiking, sweating and building buns of steel, we finally made it to our destination: the hilltop tribe. I gotta say, it was pretty cool. Despite the pain flowing throughout my legs and feet, the mountains and the view from the top were beautiful, and the location is so remote you actually feel as if you’re on some real adventure and not some carbon copy tourist tour.

Our accommodation

Our guide led our group to a separate cabin at the top next to the village where we’d be staying: a two-room house full of thin mattresses, blankets and mosquito nets. Delightfully rustic! Then it was time for showers. I swear to you, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was covered in sweat and dirt, I’m not sure I could have done it. Even Josh, Mr. I-Don’t-Mind-Cold-Showers-They’re-Refreshing, found the liquid ice coming from the outdoor, wooden stalls to be a bit too refreshing. I think they were the quickest showers anyone in our group had ever taken! 🙂

After changing, we all enjoyed a really lovely evening together, sharing a nice local meal on the floor of the cabin then just relaxing and chatting. It was so dark outside, the stars were just gleaming. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in my life. It was beautiful.

At one point, some of the village children came to visit us and sing us some local songs. Somehow, we found ourselves forced to return the favor and ended up singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the only part of Christmas Day that actually resembled the holiday. It was all great fun, definitely my most exotic Christmas ever!

Thailand Part 3: Kanchanaburi

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So Kanchanaburi was one of those off-the-beaten-track places I found in my guidebook that caught my eye. It’s a couple hours away from Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but is unfortunately not on the main train route to Chiang Mai. But after reading about the city’s little gems and history, I was determined to go! Luckily for us, our guest house from Ayutthaya was offering a 9 a.m. minivan ride to Kanchanaburi, which would arrive by noon and give us a good day and a half to explore.

For those of you who enjoy World War II history, Kanchanaburi  is famous for its part of the “Death Railway” or “Burma Railway,” a 415km railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) built by Allied POWs and local conscripts under the harsh hands of the Japanese. The Japanese nearly starved the workers and forced them to work all day long in unsanitary conditions with regular beatings, and more than 100,000 men died in the process. Specifically, Kanchanaburi is famous for its Kwai River Bridge, part of the Death Railway and also the basis of the 1957 Oscar-winning film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that tells the story of the bridge’s construction. (I still need to see it).

Petting tigers at the Tiger Temple

As interesting as all that was, the real draw to Kanchanaburi  for me was its Tiger Temple, a temple a little ways outside the city that lets visitors get up close to and pet tigers.  The “temple” (I didn’t actually see any Buddhas anywhere) claims to be a sanctuary for orphaned or displaced tigers and now also breeds its own cubs from birth. Others, however, say they are operating an illegal breeding program and say the tigers are abused.

While the tigers seemed to be treated well enough while I was there, it was quite an expensive outing for Thailand and the temple seems to be milking its attraction for every cent its worth. For 600baht, about $20, you go into the grounds individually with a guide (the temple is actually run by a mixture of monks and international volunteers) who walks you to about 20 different tigers, tells you where to pet it and takes your picture with your camera. The tigers are all “napping” at this point, and most don’t seem to notice you (and dozens of other tourists) are touching them. Most of them are also chained to a pole in the ground. The temple claims tigers naturally sleep during the afternoon, though others think they’re sedated, who knows…

I’ve got to say, it was pretty cool. Even though the grounds were full of volunteers/tourists and the tigers were chained up and “sleeping,” there’s definitely an adrenaline rush being that close to a wild animal that could potentially rip you to pieces. At one point, there were two tigers lying on a rock and one of them had just woken up. The guide kept telling me to grab their tails to take a picture, but I swear to you, the awake tiger looked back at me with this “touch it and see what happens” look. Let’s just say I moved on quickly :). What was more interesting than the little photo session was that you could actually go and visit the younger tigers and spend more time with them actually petting them, awake! The ones I found were chained up, and though they were only about six months old, were already the size of a large dog! And sadly, I found out later that if you get to the temple early enough in the afternoon, you can pay to hold, feed and play with baby cubs for 45 minutes! When I found out I missed the opportunity I was completely crushed, that would have been my dream! My only condolence was I got to pay to watch the evening exercises for the adult tigers where they put you in this fenced in area where you get to watch the volunteers play with the tigers as if they were big cats. It was kind of fun, but I would have preferred the babies :(.

The next day, Josh and I joined one of those packaged tours that would allow us to see lots of different parts of Kanchanaburi in one day. Many of the packages offered elephant rides or bamboo rafting, but since we were planning on doing that later in Chiang Mai, we opted to visit the seven-tiered Erawan waterfalls, which also happened to include a visit to the Hellfire Pass or Konyu Cutting, a particularly sad point in the history of the Death Railway. Honestly, I had no interested in seeing this Hellfire Pass and just wanted to play in the waterfalls, but in an interesting twist, the Hellfire Pass ended up being one of the most memorable parts of my visit to the city.

Me and Josh in front of one of the tiers of the Erawan Waterfalls

The day started with a morning trip to the falls, which I will admit, were quite stunning. There are seven main, large waterfalls throughout the grounds, and you have to hike a ways to get to each one of them. Each one has its own unique design and each was full of clear, light green water. Unfortunately for me, the pools were also full of something else: fish, and lots of them. For those of you that know me pretty well, I am extremely grossed out by fish and will not go into water if I see them around. So while Josh and most of the other tourists were splashing around, playing in all the pools, I was sitting on the rocks admiring the scenery and cursing those nasty little things who had the nerve to infringe upon my vacation. Hmpf!

Hellfire Pass

I actually found the second part of the day much more interesting. After the waterfalls, our guide took us to the Hellfire Pass, a part of the Death Railway through solid mountain that has a particularly brutal history. Before viewing the Pass, you go to this little museum full of information on the Death Railway, and it was fascinating! It talks all about the lead up to World War II, the details of the conditions of the POWs, the process of making the railway, the importance of the link to Burma and why it was so hard to make the railway because of the rough terrain. I could have spent an hour or more reading everything, and tried to, but our guide said we were pressed for time so I didn’t get to finish the story :(.

Anyway, viewing the actual Hellfire Pass is quite breathtaking, especially after reading the history. To start, you’re in the mountains, surrounded by bamboo trees and the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. But then you look up and see this solid wall of rock that has been cleared away to make room for this railway (which has since been dismantled) and you realize all the backbreaking labor that went into it. The men had to work 18 hours a day with rudimentary tools and clear through a 17 by 110 meter section of solid rock. It is called the Hellfire Pass because, at one point, the Japanese rushed the project’s deadline and forced the men to work through the night, with only the light of torch fires to guide them, suggesting a scene from Hell. Today, the Pass is remembered through several memorials and parts of the railway that have been left to preserve history. Of everything I saw in Kanchanaburi, I think that afternoon might be the thing that sticks with me most. In the end, I was definitely glad we took our detour!

Thailand Part 2: Ayutthaya

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So after our stay in Bangkok, Josh and I hopped on the train for a day-trip to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s fallen kingdom that dominated the region from 1350 to 1767. Originally I was a bit hesitant to go there, since I hadn’t heard much about it and was not that interested in seeing old ruins, but I am so glad that I did!

Ayutthaya just might be my favorite city in Thailand. It had the feel of a quaint, friendly small town that just happened to be covered with old ruins. In a welcome contrast from Bangkok, our guest house was friendly, charming and had hot water!  And despite having some of the country’s most interesting sites (in my opinion) it wasn’t yet destroyed by tourists.

Wat Phra Mahathat

One of the best ways to explore Ayutthaya is by bicycle, which can be rented cheaply at any of the shops around town, and we found them to be in pretty good condition. You just bike around the city and you’ll see ruins everywhere, and the best part is, you can go right in and walk all over them! You could spend days exploring all of them, but honestly, many of the ruins looked quite similar to me. When the Burmese took over the kingdom in the 1700s they burned and destroyed everything. What remains today are crumbling piles of bricks and chedis (big bell-looking things) that still hold some of the majesty and glory of their golden days.

Inside one of the chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Holding my breath, but smiling :).

In the interest of saving time, Josh and I just selected a few of the main ones. Our first stop was Wat Phra Mahathat, a beautiful temple with iconic images such as a peaceful Buddha face surrounded by tree roots that just happened to grow around it. Next was Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, home of Thailand’s largest seated Buddha (yet another awe-inspiring moment) and next door to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the former site of the ancient royal palace when it was located in Ayutthaya. This palace/temple has three massive chedis that hold the ashes of former kings. One of chedis had this little entryway in it, and though I tried to convince Josh to join me to check out the inside, he refused (something about not wanting rabies, whatever). Luckily, I found some braver tourists around to join me and managed to enter into the little dirt hole long enough to grab a photo, ignoring the creepy-crawly noises around me and the overwhelming smell of excrement.

Wat Chai Wattanaram

Later that day, Josh and I joined some other travelers at our guest house for a boat tour of some of the ruins off the island. This was pretty fun. Our non-English speaking guide drove us around this long, canoe-like boat and dropped us off at random places with virtually no explanation, simply saying “20 minutes.” Luckily, we managed to find Wat Phanan Choeng, home of another MASSIVE Buddha, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, a smaller, less impressive temple with an old chedi, and Wat Chai Wattanaram, the most picturesque of them all. Wat Chai Wattanaram was absolutely gorgeous. Of all the ruins we’d seen, this one seemed the most intact, the most symmetric and was, surprisingly, sparsely populated with tourists. We were there around sunset and the whole thing made just a beautiful silhouette against the sky. It was a great way to end our tour. Next stop, Kanchanaburi!

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Thailand Part 1: Bangkok

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It’s been a couple weeks since I returned from my Christmas trip, and let me just say, Thailand is AMAZING! Seriously, it is by far the most exotic, interesting country I have been to yet in Southeast Asia.  I must admit, as much as my mind loved the country, my body was not always a fan. Over the course of a week and a half my allergies were terrible, my face broke out, and I got diarrhea on several occasions, not to mention I was forced to take several cold showers and totally got my butt kicked on a really strenuous jungle trek. But in the end, everything was worth it, and I got to see some of the coolest sights of my life.

So it all started in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital. Josh, one of my best friend’s from high school, was meeting me there from Tennessee to join me on a two-week, Thailand/Malaysia adventure. Since Josh’s first flight was canceled due to snow, I found myself with an extra day in Bangkok to see some of the sights he hadn’t been interested in. As I made my way down Khao San Road, the touristy/backpacker area near where we were staying, I started to get really excited. Khao San Road was so cool! All up and down the street, the road is filled with markets selling, surprisingly, really interesting stuff including clothes, food (deep fried bugs, yum), paintings and a whole bunch of knock off goods. At night, all the restaurants play pretty good live music and the street performers come out, and it’s just a really fun atmosphere. Before we left the city, I already had bought a t-shirt, a dress, funky Thai pants, a backpack and a Buddha wall hanging, it had been a much-enjoyed shopping trip!

Our room in Bangkok. This was the farthest back I could get without leaving the room, it was so small and the mattresses were so hard!

But as I was walking down the street that first afternoon heading to the bed and breakfast we had reserved, I soon became acquainted with the room accommodations in Bangkok. Our room at the Tuptim Bed and Breakfast was one of the smallest rooms I had ever seen in my life. It came with two twin beds (with hard mattresses) merely a few feet apart and was so small we could not even open the door completely before hitting one of the beds. Not only did this room not have a bathroom, it didn’t even have a closet, and our luggage space was limited to one shelf with a bar overhead. The place had promised hot showers in the community bathrooms down the hall, but as I soon found out, that was often a myth in Thailand. (According to an American woman who was living in Thailand, the water heaters are quite expensive but break easily and no one knows how to fix them, so they just don’t). Thus began the first of many cold showers that would punctuate my Thailand trip.

Anyway, after settling in, I went to the place’s restaurant to order my first official Thai meal: green curry chicken, rice and chocolate milk with ice. It was absolutely delicious, but as I soon learned, don’t drink the water, and ice counts as water…  Things were fine until I reached my first destination, the Jim Thompson House. On first arrival, things were fine. The house is beautiful. It is a mansion made of teak wood comprised of several traditional Thai houses, with quite a collection of art and china. Jim Thompson was the American who made Thai silk famous in the west by organizing the silk production using traditional hand-woven methods. He disappeared in 1967 in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and, to this day, his death is still a mystery.

Things were fine and dandy until my stomach started cramping up, and I found myself regretting part of that first Thai meal I had found so delicious. Seriously, it was quite embarrassing. Every time I would stand in line to wait for the next tour group, I found myself running to the bathroom! The only thing I can say is I was eventually able to make it through a 25-minute tour with no problems and was grateful I found myself at a relatively high-class, well-maintained tourist attraction with clean, well-equipped bathrooms.

As I took a cab back to Khao San Road (most of the cabs are delightfully bright pink!), feeling weak, exhausted and dehydrated, I decided to take it easy the rest of the night and chuckled to myself that of course this would happen on my first day, such a stereotypical travel story!

Josh’s plane arrived later that night and by the next morning, we were both semi-well-rested and ready to really hit the ground running. Our first stop was Ko Ratanakosin, Bangkok’s former royal district. Let me tell you, this was one of my absolute favorite sights in Thailand. The grounds are full of temples and former palaces/royal buildings that are absolutely beautiful, full of architecture that I had never seen before. To start, the temples are huge and often come with a “chedi”, a large, bell-shaped tower that often hold relics of Buddha or a Thai king. The temples are covered in gold, colored tiles and mosaics that just sparkle in the sun. They are also full of images of mythical creatures with tails and strange faces that was really just unusual and interesting to see. And unlike all the churches in Europe, these temples are well-maintained and look like they were built yesterday.

Wat Pho, Bangkok's oldest temple housing Thailand's largest, reclining Buddha.

Next we headed to Wat Pho nearby, Thailand’s oldest temple and home of the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. After having spent a couple hours in awe of the buildings in Ko Ratanakosin, I was delighted to find myself in awe once again: the Wat Pho Buddha is HUGE!  Seriously, as Josh and I waited in line outside the temple, I got a glimpse of Buddha’s head through the window slit, and I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. This Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, with my head making up the size of just one of his toes!

Wearing the sarong I was forced to buy to enter the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.

Later that afternoon, we headed over to Dusit Palace Park, Thailand’s current royal district containing the Vimanmek Teak Mansion, a former palace from the early 20th century full of Victorian-like décor after the Thai king got inspiration from Europe. More interesting, however, was the old parliament building turned museum, Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. The museum has a pretty interesting collection of Thai arts and crafts, including some really cool-looking gold thrones/decorations and some really intricate, iridescent green tapestries colored from beetle wings. What I found both interesting and irritating, however, is that I was forced to buy and wear a sarong to enter the building! Now, just to be clear, I was already fully-dressed including long blue jeans, closed-toe tennis shoes and a t-shirt with my hoodie JUST IN CASE I had to cover even more. Not to mention the fact, I wasn’t even in a temple! But no, on King’s orders, all women must be wearing a skirt or something, so I paid the 40 baht (about $1.30) and wore the sarong, over my jeans. Yeah, I looked hot.

After all the excitement and beauty of day one, I must say day two was a little bit of a letdown. The day started off just fine. Wearing my brand new, super cute (super cheap) Thai dress, Josh and I headed out to visit Wat Arun, a temple full of tall, spire-like buildings covered in porcelain tile. The buildings were beautiful and you can take extremely steep, dangerous steps to walk all over them overlooking lovely views of the Chao Phraya River.  From there, we took an hour-long boat tour of the river to reach another part of the city, where we were treated to a relaxing ride viewing modern Thai houses and giant lizards sunbathing on the rocks.

Bangkok tuk tuk driver covering his nose and mouth while driving around Chinatown

All was great until we reached Chinatown, when all the negative ideas I had about Bangkok being crowded and dirty suddenly came to life. The sidewalks are so full, you can’t even walk down them without touching people and the air is so polluted a lot of people cover their mouths and noses as they walk or drive down the street. Furthermore, the stuff they’re actually selling is mostly a bunch of tourist junk, nothing interesting at all. And worst of all, it is never ending!  I swear to you, every time we turned a corner in the hopes of leaving Chinatown, we just found more Chinatown! Finally, I told Josh we just had to grab a cab and get the hell out before I went crazy. I finally was able to get some much needed peace at Wat Traimit, home of a three meter tall, solid gold Buddha where I was able to “meditate” (Josh called it napping, whatever…).

Our day ended with an evening of Muay Thai boxing, a very long evening… Unlike American boxing, in Muay Thai boxing boxers can use all parts of their body (except the head) to hurt their opponent, including the more fun parts like elbows and knees. Honestly, after expecting a really brutal fighting match, I was a bit disappointed that a bunch of the moves ended with the guys really close to each other, almost “hugging” it out. Not that I’m really interested in watching people beat each other for entertainment (not enough testosterone), but if I’m going to sit through five hours of this stuff, I’d at least like to see someone get knocked out or something. Of course, that is exactly what happened during the most interesting fight between the current champion and his opponent. That one was quite exciting but the guy got knocked out in the third or fourth round, so it was over pretty fast. All in all, I’m glad I saw it, but find it unlikely I’ll ever do it again.

So thus ended our stay in Bangkok (at least for a few days). Then Josh and I headed back and prepared to visit Ayutthaya!