It’s an oliphaunt!
We’re well underway on our journey through southeast Asia. Thailand already feels like a different era. We’ve since moved through Vietnam and into Cambodia. We were in Thailand early-mid December for about 10 days.
As will become apparent, I clearly favor Thailand among the southeast Asia countries visited. So let’s go back in time…
The flight to Thailand is a fairly big one for us — we’re coming from Kochi, India. We’re on an overnight AirAisa plane (the first of many AirAsia flights to come). Let it be known, it is a budget airline. We flew Ryan Air in Europe several times, and the leg room on AirAsia is even more challenging. We both say a prayer that the third seat in our row will remain unfilled, and it does! Makes a tight, long flight just a bit more bearable. I think I even manage to catch a few zzz’s, which rarely happens on planes.
We get into Bangkok around 7am. The morning includes dropping our bags at Urban Hostel Bangkok (which I definitely would recommend — great value for the cost) and finding a nearby coffee shop since it’s too early to check in. Okay, I admit, it was a Starbucks. But it’s getting close to Christmas, and I’m desperate for a taste of home and reliable wifi.
We eventually settle in and take to exploring the city. We stop in MBK Center for a SIM card, and to witness one of the most busy/yet efficient shopping experiences ever. Jimmy picks up a “Lululemon” top for $6…the beginning of a lot of knockoff brand sightings. It’s all good as long as you know what you’re getting…
We head over to Siam Paragon (fancy shopping mall) for some bougie exposure. I have never, ever seen a more ridiculous food court in my life. For my midwestern friends, you probably think of “food court” the same way I do. Cheap, white tiled, overly fluorescent McDonalds/Orange Julius/Sbarro type environment.
Click here to see pictures of the Siam Paragon Food Hall. A weeee bit different. They even have a Garrett’s Popcorn!
Don’t worry, our time in Bangkok is hardly spent in shopping malls — the highlight is our visit to the Grand Palace and a few nearby temples.
For starters, the Grand Palace compound.
It’s a little expensive to access ($15/each) so we’re both groaning. But once we get in, SO worth it. It is one of the most glamorous sites we’ve seen to date. The palace grounds include the actual palace structure, as well as several others, including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Fun fact: for Buddhist temples, it’s required that all visitors wear clothing covering the shoulder and below the knee (tends to be more of a female concern, naturally). And you must take off your shoes before setting foot inside the temple.
This is fine for most people, but I have what I’ll call a “dirty foot phobia”. As in- I really despise being barefoot when I don’t know if a floor is clean. I usually wear socks, even in my own house. I actually have a few pairs of slipper socks that I wear incessantly (and Jimmy makes fun of me relentlessly).
I quickly learn that I need to carry a pair of socks with me at all times, otherwise I might be unable to enjoy some of the spectacular sights. So I’m prepped on Grand Palace day and we soak up the beautiful buildings.
We end our sight-seeing day at Wat Arun, just a short ferry ride across the river from the Grand Palace.
Our plans after Bangkok include a trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. How are we getting there, you ask? Why, a 12 hour train ride!
All in all, the train could have been a lot worse. But I do learn things about how different train rides can be outside of the western world, involving bugs and really brutal restrooms (mutually exclusive, actually). I’ll leave it at that.
We spend four nights in Chiang Mai. It quickly becomes our favorite. We stay at La Canal Boutique House, which I would tell anyone is a must-stay in Chiang Mai. It’s a great location, just outside the Old City walls and right across the street from one of the best night food markets. And it’s $20–25/night for a huge room & bathroom.
The street food in Chiang Mai is just unbelievable. We develop a meal routine:
- breakfast: fresh, raw fruit smoothies for breakfast from Khunkae
- lunch: veggie friend rice in the old city, unfortunately I don’t have the name of the place but it’s almost kitty-corner from the Three Kings monument
- dinner: pad thai & veggie spring rolls from the Chang Phuak Gate Night Market
- second dinner?: nutella/banana/chocolate/peanut butter crepes. (the lady running the stand remembers us when we come back and basically says “oh back again?” — sorry I’m not sorry
Chiang Mai also has endless beautiful temples or “wats” (a type of Buddhist temple and Hindu temple — the term comes from Sanskrit vāṭa meaning “enclosure”).
We hear another must-do in Chiang Mai is pay a visit to the Women’s Correctional Institution for their massage program. No, I’m not kidding. It’s a job-training rehabilitation program, and you can get a two hour Thai massage for $12 (once again, not kidding). It’s a great cause and the women are very kind and funny. Win win!
While the food and religious sites are top notch, the true highlight of our time in Thailand comes back to nature.
Meet the Asian elephant.
Thailand is known for its elephant adventures. Unfortunately, too often those adventures entail riding elephants or using them for circus-like acts. Most people reading this probably know, I’m passionate about animal welfare. I spent years with Heartland Farm Sanctuary in Madison. So I am really, really picky about going to see the elephants. Luckily, Thailand has a great organization called Elephant Nature Park committed to helping these incredible animals.
Our experience is a little different than visiting the official “park”. We actually go to a site that is individual owner-run, meaning that the owners are currently sponsored by Elephant Nature Park to discontinue use of their elephants for riding/unhealthy purposes.
We meet six beautiful, kind and hilarious beings. We feed them pumpkin, banana and sunflower seeds. Oh my do they LOVE sunflower seeds. It is too cute — they suck them out of the hand with their trunk like a hoover. Such a strange sensation!
We walk together for a while, and then have some fun at bath time in the river.
The entire experience is amazing. I can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park enough. Undoubtedly, it’s still sad that these animals have the past that they do — you can still see the scars from logging on one of the older females. But they are well cared for today and on the mend.
Their personalities are undeniable.
After Chiang Mai we catch a bus to Chiang Rai, a smaller, more laid back town about three hours northeast of Chiang Mai.
We’re only in Chiang Rai for two nights before catching a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam (I’m shocked to learn Chiang Rai has an airport, meaning we don’t have to double back to Chiang Mai for the plane).
Our first night happens to be a Saturday evening, which means that the Saturday Night Market is in full effect. It’s pretty impressive, especially for a smaller town! It takes us at least an hour to see the majority, including stops for street food snacking. My favorite snack of the night is a coconut/date pancake. Delish.
The highlight of Chiang Rai for us is unequivocally Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. Wat Rong Khun is a contemporary art exhibit Buddhist temple. It does have an interesting history, however, given its modern design.
My understanding is that there was the original Wat Rong Khun that was in a bad state, and the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat came in with the vision of rebuilding the temple in a grandeur way (with his own funds, no less). It’s really more of a compound than just a temple, as he has many other structures in play/being built. His vision is that it will be a sanctuary for education and meditation. Construction is still underway and may not be completed for decades.
There was also an earthquake in the region back in 2014, almost shutting down the temple permanently. Luckily it was deemed safe shortly after the event.
The temple design has a fascinating tale.
First, you cross a bridge symbolizing the “cycle of rebirth”. White hands and contorted faces reach up from the grounds below, “unrestrained desire”, a rather literal visualization of death/hell/underworld. The way to happiness is by foregoing our desires.
You then pass through the Gate of Heaven, where one’s fate is decided.
Inside the temple itself is quite different. The walls are full of colorful murals (different than the stark white exterior) incorporating flames, stars, solar systems, devils, and….. Harry Potter, the Terminator, Neo from the Matrix, and of course, Michael Jackson. In short, lots of pop culture. Why?
It’s all supposed to tie back to the inherent wickedness of humanity, in some way.
No pictures allowed from inside the temple, unfortunately.
We end this Thailand stint by visiting the Night Bazaar, which is a different take in the Saturday Night market (except this happens every night). It’s basically a big beer garden party surrounded by street shopping and food vendors. We have one last go at Thai food via cashew rice stir fry, fried spring rolls (of course) and a mango/orange/pineapple smoothie. We are not disappointed.
Can you tell we ate, a LOT, in Thailand?
Alas, our time in Thailand comes to an end (for now). We’re headed to much cooler Hanoi (60 degrees vs. 90 degrees). But we’ll be back, come mid January we head to Phuket to see firsthand exactly how gorgeous these Thailand white sand beaches do appear!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!