Thailand — Beyond the Beaches, Parties and Markets

This was a much longed for holiday. A break from the hustle-bustle of work and commuting that fills most of my days. I wanted to disconnect, take in some fresh air, get off my butt, and yes wear out some of that belly fat. I wanted to forget about artificial intelligence and insurance, retail and workplace transformation, and just be.

Thailand is a famous destination especially to Indians. The beaches, pubs, and the shopping are what the hordes head for. Not us. Thanks to my friend Jasmine — a huge travel enthusiast, we planned an adventurous trip off the beaten path.

Flying a lantern in Chiang Mai

We flew from Bangalore to Bangkok, and then took an hour-long flight to our first real destination — Chiang Mai. This city in Northern Thailand hosts the annual world famous lantern festival or Loi Krathong, and we simply wanted to feast our eyes on thousands of lanterns floating high above in the night sky. So we booked ourselves into a tiny yet warm guest house and bounded out into the streets at dusk.

Soon we were one among the rush of people, all walking towards the tiny Nawarat Bridge — though the river flowing under the bridge is little more than just a large rivulet. There were thousands of us, mostly tourists, buying these paper lanterns in white and red, writing messages on them, lighting them, taking pictures as the lantern drifted off, and urging it on with much cheer and clapping.

One glance at the night sky and lo and behold, the sight — thousands of lanterns gently drifting like a calmly flowing river, it was surreal. You could take in this sight for hours. There were many folks buying little handcrafted banana leaf baskets filled with flowers (called krathong) and setting them afloat on the river. An offering to the god of the water.

The next day we trooped off to visit a few temples. Some of these were, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Umong, and Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep all within close proximity of each other. Each temple was filled with ornate murals from floor to ceiling, depicting key events in the life of the Buddha and surrounded by all kinds of birds, animals and motifs. What I simply loved though were the intricately carved high wooden doors and window shutters. These were often painted gold and had protective transparent plastic over them to prevent damage. I particularly liked the Wat Sakithaka which is on the outskirts of the city and besides a large garden, has a beautiful waterfall near it.

A statue at Wat Sakithaka

In the middle of each temple was usually a cluster of statues of the Buddha, in different poses, sizes, and materials. Periodically, we kept seeing the brilliant emerald Buddha. The Buddha’s were adorned with bright yellow sashes and surrounded by artificial flowers that could easily fool onlookers for the real ones. Each temple was surrounded by a courtyard and this created a serene atmosphere. Most visitors like me can’t help but be in awe of the beauty of these large, airy temples that stand out majestically in the shade of a Bodhi tree. The tinkling of the wind chimes in the gentle breeze adds to the balminess, and you cannot help but feel agreeable and very peaceful. Personally, I am a great believer in the tenets of Buddhism and so, spending a few moment in the hallowed presence of these huge statues of the Buddha were very moving.

Another major attraction of the lantern festival was the night market. A cluster of stalls, you can taste a variety of foods and shop for little nick-knacks and curios. This is where I tried crocodile meat as a sate. It hardly tasted any different from chicken, except a bit tougher. Delicious Pad-Thai noodles are a must try, and there are a number of sweets that can be savored, besides the roti.

The night after the festival was followed by a huge parade. The floats were glittering and gorgeously decorated with opulent art work. I for one could not take my eyes of the slim, elegant boys and girls dressed up as princes and princesses. They wore elaborate ethnic outfits, crowns, and neatly coiffured hair. Covered in dazzling gold, they made for a fantastic sight when the floats actually got moving to loud music and cheer. People tightly packed the streets to watch the show and the street vendors did roaring business.

After hours of standing and walking, it would be a mighty surprise if your feet weren’t crying for rest and some warm water to relax in. But that’s not how it’s done in Thailand. This is the land of the famed foot massage. I immediately headed to the first available chair and put when my tired feet up on a low stool. These massage outlets are just a row of chairs along the street where the lantern festival is held. And I could choose from a 30 or 60 minute massage. After my feet and calves had been pampered in fragrant oil by the experienced and kind masseur, my stomach remembered food and I headed to the nearest roti stall. These roti’s are finely rolled dough roasted in lots of oil and you can order an egg roti, Nutella roti, banana roti and a host of others. They are addictively good and I didn’t worry too much about the calories for we were going to be walking them out anyway.

Chiang Rai — border of Thailand

A couple of days at Chiang Mai and we were on our way to Chiang Rai. Approximately three hours by taxi or bus, Chiang Rai is a much smaller city than Chiang Mai, is surrounded by lovely green hills and borders Myanmar and Lao. Here we visited the famed White Temple or Wat Rong Khun. This is a modern temple, which is really a great business idea. You pay a fee to enter and in keeping with its name is all white and inlaid with thousands of pieces of glass. This gives the temple a unique glitter especially in the setting sun.

The White Temple, Chiang Rai

At the entrance of the temple is an installation of concrete hands and begging bowls reaching out and pleading for redemption, and then a flight of steps flanked by two large dragons. You walk into a small temple with a large Buddha occupying the central position. The temple is located on large grounds, surrounded by pools filled with large gold fish.

Installation at the entrance of the White Temple, Chiang Rai

The White Temple is a visual feast, but interestingly, they had saved the best for last. For when you walk out of the grounds of the main temple, you enter an adjoining walkway and the roof of this walkway is made up of hundreds of thousands of metal Bodhi leaves hanging from chains. It’s breath-taking for its kitsch beauty and testament to the extensive effort that would have gone to create it. They even had a metal Bodhi tree full of more of these metal leaves.

We planned to cross over to Laos from Chiang Rai and so off we went early the next morning after our visit to the White temple. We were looking forward to visiting the poorer neighbor, but one that we read was just as beautiful.

Bangkok

We returned to Bangkok from Lao five days later. The plan, to shop till we dropped, and really take in the city’s nigh life. Besides Chatuchak market, which is an assemblage of 8000 shops, I loved Khao San Road which is row upon row of pubs and restaurants, with music blaring until late into the night. I also loved the huge frames of the recently departed king which line the broad, palm fringed streets. These were ornate and the Thai people rightly venerate this visionary king.

Besides shopping, we just about made time to visit one temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho, which is a beautiful complex. The main attraction here is a large golden statue of the reclining Buddha.

But before we get to the fantastic time I had in Laos, let me share a few things that struck me during my five days in Thailand.

1. The government has definitely invested in infrastructure — the roads are well-maintained and broad, the cities are clean and well planned — they have gardens, tree-lined sidewalks, and romantic boulevards.

2. The vehicles have no horns — so there is no honking. Yes, what a drastic change from noisy chaotic horn crazed India.

3. The people are cultured, kind and courteous — always willing to help with a smile of their face, and were extra polite I think when they learned we were from India. Forever will they be grateful to the land that gave them the Buddha.

4. The food is lovely, low on spice and oil, light on the stomach — a welcome change from my regular Indian food. I ensured I ate only Thai food, binged on the tropical fruits and drinks and made the most of the culinary options. The food is relatively cheap as well. We kept eating street food as we walked and each meal costed anywhere from 50 to 100 baht.

5. The Thai love their pork — I think they slyly add it to these sweets as well. Besides the noodles and fried rice, contrary to internet guides, Thai food includes a tasty array of sweets, far beyond the sticky rice with mango, they have all kinds of pancakes and the coconut ice-cream was yum.

6. There were lots of tourists especially European in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. We also met folks from neighboring countries of Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam who had come to celebrate the lantern festival and do Vipassana meditation courses.

7. Vipassana some of you may know is the meditation technique by which Buddha got enlightenment. For thousands of years the technique was thought to be lost to the world. Until it was learned that a small set of monks in Myanmar had been practicing it for thousands of years and thus kept it alive. Then, it was available only to monks. Since its recent revival, anyone who aspires to be a better human being and live a life of awareness and equanimity can do a course at the many Vipassana centers around the world.

8. A 7 Eleven is never too far — this is a popular supermarket chain you find everywhere you go and we stepped into them a number of times, collected discounts stamps and even redeemed them. It is from a 7 Eleven that I got a couple of tuna and corn puffs, a great snack when you are traveling, and totally yum.

All in all I loved Thailand, and hope I have the opportunity to visit and see more of this beautiful country.