Posts Tagged ‘Southeast Asia’
We’ve come full circle…our final stop in SE Asia was the same place we started: Bangkok. As many backpackers will tell you, you really don’t want to hang out in Bangkok for too long. We did our best to avoid the place but we had some visa issues that needed some attention, so back to Khao San Road we went. It’s funny how much your view of a place changes after you have something to compare it to…when we first flew into Bangkok, Khao San Road seemed fine; nothing to write home about, but we weren’t repulsed by it either. I guess it’s because we had no point of reference. After seeing what the rest of SE Asia has to offer, Khao San seemed like an absolute pit and we couldn’t wait to move on (next time, we think we will stay in the Siam Square area instead).
We didn’t do much else in Bangkok except take care of our visas, but we did manage to see Oak one more time. Oak invited us to stay with him and his wife in their newly-built house as their first overnight guests. It was quite a shock to go from Khao San to their gorgeous, multi-level house. Since the house is so new, it is very sparsely furnished, but you can already see that Oak and his wife Auey’s tastes veer towards the modern: everything is black or sparkling white.
It was against this stark white background that we realized: we were dirty. Seriously, we never felt so dirty in our lives…and we fancy ourselves much cleaner than other backpackers! It was embarrassing. We quickly took showers and changed into our nicest (cleanest) clothes. I even put on a pair of earrings, hoping that might distract from our disheveled bodies. I guess we had been amongst dirty backpackers for too long…our hygiene scale got a little skewed.
We also got to see Oak’s Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing) manufacturing plant, and he gave us free t-shirts from his line…so nice!
Thai kickboxing gloves at Oak’s warehouse. Buy them here: muaythaistuff.com!
Oak also took us out to a steakhouse…which was amazing! Even better, the restaurant had a Western theme, complete with wagon wheel chandeliers and Thai waiters dressed in Western gear. Thais have this strange fascination with the wild west…we saw many an “Ol’ Saloon” and “Wild West Steakhouse” in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
It was a great way to close out our trip: great food (notice that we did not want Thai food for our last meal in SE Asia) ;), followed by a night out with new friends, ending in the comfort and luxury of sleeping in Oak & Auey’s (gorgeous) house. We had a great time in SE Asia, but we’re looking forward to the next chapter in our trip: Taiwan!
Chiang Mai is the only major stop on the backpacker circuit in northern Thailand, and it seems to have a little something for everyone. For the spiritually-minded, Chiang Mai has a plenitude of wats, some offering 3-10 day meditation retreats (which we seriously considered but didn’t have time for) or afternoon “monk chats.” For the active traveler, Chiang Mai is a very popular place to book a multi-day trek to visit hill-tribe villages, including the famous “long necks” (i.e., women from the Kayan-Padaung tribe who wear brass rings around their throats, giving their necks an elongated look). And for the shopper, Chiang Mai is famous for it’s handicrafts and night markets, selling everything from embroidered textiles to paper umbrellas. With so much to see and do, you can’t go wrong, right? Well, read on, my friends…Chiang Mai was really lovely but one thing in particular really ended up being the thorn on our rose.
As a city, Chiang Mai is pretty cool. The city center used to be walled in and protected by a moat, though little of the wall remains except for the corners and the city gates. Still, it’s pretty neat! I mean, how excited would you be to live in a town with a freakin’ moat?!?
Within the walls sits a plethora of wats…you can’t walk a block without running into one, they are like Starbucks here. We spent many a day wandering around wats. The “Big Three” within the walled city are Wat Prasingh, Wat Chiang Mun (the oldest wat in Chiang Mai) and Wat Jedi Luang.
In the back of Wat Jedi Luang, there are some beautiful old teakwood buildings that contain life-size wax replicas of monks within plexiglass display cases. Needless to say, we were surprised, fascinated, and a bit creeped out by these.
One day, we rented bikes and rode out to Wat Umong, a forest wat outside of the city center, in order to attend a talk by a western monk entitled “What Buddha Taught.” It was really informal…there were only about 6 of us sitting around an outdoor gazebo listening to a monk talk about the Buddha’s teachings. Jeremy and I have been practicing meditation lately and we’ve become really interested in learning more about Buddhism. The talk was super interesting and the monk (we think he was English) was surprisingly well-versed on current events; during his talk, he mentioned the credit crisis, iPod touches, and the contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer. I didn’t take any photos at the talk, but Wat Umong itself was really lovely. It is not ornate and gilded like the wats in the city center, and the rustic nature of the grounds is thoroughly charming.
Also, this wat is unusual in that it has an assortment of tunnels that lead to little altars and shrines to the Buddha.
There are a few sights right outside of Chiang Mai that are really popular, too. You’ll have to rent a scooter (as we did) or take a tuk-tuk to get to Bo Sang, a “handicraft village” (if by “village” you mean, “street with shops”). It was kind of lame, but we did wander around some of the alleys off the main drag and there are families actually producing things like handmade paper and painted umbrellas (apparently Chiang Mai is really well known for these).
We also scooted out to Mount Suthep, where Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (a.k.a. “The Wat on the Mountain”) is located. It was a really lovely place, but incredibly crowded, too.
There weren’t any wax-figure monks in plexiglass cases at this wat, but they did have this weird thing:
Apparently whoever made this statue did not think too highly of their mother. Or there is a cultural “lost-in-translation” moment here that we are not understanding.
So enough about wats…what about the other activities that Chiang Mai has to offer? Well, we didn’t end up going on a trek because, like northern Laos, it is burning season in Chiang Mai too, and after our Luang Nam Tha experience, we decided to skip it. I think this was a good decision, because the day we rented the scooter, both Jeremy and I had problems with the smoke…I ended up with a sore throat and cough for days, and the white spots on my purse had turned completely grey. Gross!
We did, however check out Chiang Mai’s biggest tourist attraction: the markets. We were lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a Saturday and Sunday, so we got a taste of the weekend mayhem. Saturday night’s market is much smaller and more relaxed…Sunday’s market is absolutely nuts! The entire length of the main street in Chiang Mai’s city center is blocked off and the road is filled with handicraft stalls, people offering cheap massages, and snack treats. Even if you had the energy to walk from one end to the other, it would take you hours, since the wall of people is so thick. It was so crowded, Jeremy couldn’t deal with it and went home early.
So…wats, treks, and markets, what more could you ask for, right? Well, the thing is…are you ready? You might want to sit down.
Jeremy and I don’t like Thai food.
I know! Can you believe it? Us! Lovers of all cuisine! Equal opportunity eaters! We just don’t care for one of the world’s favorite ethnic foods! I was shocked to find out too! But guess what? It was a two-way street: Thai food doesn’t like us either. We had (ahem) issues in Chiang Mai…to the point where we were afraid to even eat Thai cuisine. We actually sought out Western food like spaghetti and hamburgers in Chiang Mai. I know! Us! Can you believe it? I mean, we ate congealed pig’s blood cakes (unknowingly, but still) in Penang, and something called “cockles.” And it was northern Thai food that took us down.
It was depressing. When you love food as much as we do, you can have the most amazing time in a place, but if the food’s not good (much less, making you sick), then it’s hard to really enjoy yourself. And the weird thing is, we like Thai food in the States. We just didn’t like it in Thailand.
So, there you go…that was our Chiang Mai experience: days spent lazily wandering in and out of beautiful wats, an incredibly interesting talk by a local monk, riding around the walled city on our rented bicycles…but the pea under the princess’ mattress was the food.
Sorry, Chiang Mai. Let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?
There is only one flight from Hong Kong into Bangkok via AirAsia each day, and that flight arrives in Bangkok at 11PM. We knew that by the time it we took the taxi/train/bus into the city, it would be quite late. And here’s the kicker: you can’t really make a reservation in SE Asia. Well, you can, but not if you are a budget traveler. We read in the Lonely Planet that most budget hostels/hotels/guesthouses don’t take reservations, and even if they do, sometimes you show up and your reservation (along with your down payment) has mysteriously disappeared. So, your best bet is to just show up and start looking for a room in one of the guest houses. It made me a little nervous that we didn’t have a place lined up to stay for the night, but that’s how it is here in SE Asia, and the uncertainty is part of the adventure here.
BTW, if you are ever considering traveling around SE Asia, we HIGHLY recommend that you pick up a Lonely Planet. Jeremy and I aren’t really the guidebook types, preferring to just figure stuff out along the way, but the little yellow book is indispensable here. Seriously, there is just so much you have to figure out about each country (buses, places to stay, local customs, food, etc.)—much less each town in each country—and there is no way you can figure all that out on your own, no matter how many people you talk to. Of course, we don’t take it as gospel—we’ve already found some of their comments to be incorrect in our experience, but the LP does help point you in the right direction. For example, the LP “recommended” hostels are probably pretty nice, but we haven’t stayed in one yet, because they are usually completely booked with other travelers (who also have their own copies of LP). Typically, we just look in the guide to get an idea of where the budget hostels are concentrated, and we head to that area, stopping by each guesthouse to enquire about rates and vacancy.
So that’s exactly what we did when we arrived in Bangkok…at midnight. We headed to Soi Rambuttri, a smaller alleyway off Khao San Road. We started at one end of Soi Rambuttri and stopped at each guesthouse (and there is pretty much one guesthouse every few feet on this road), asking if they had any beds available for the night. We must have asked at least 15 places for a room until we found a vacancy at Baan Sabai, and we snapped the room up right there on the spot. So it kind of looked like a prison cell and the shared bathroom didn’t come with toilet paper (actually, we would come to find out—none of the budget rooms in Thailand come with toilet paper), but it was a place to lay our heads for 290 baht (approx. US$8.25), and that was good enough for us.
Many of the guesthouses in Thailand have little restaurants attached, and in the morning, we headed down for a much-needed cup of joe and people-watched from our guesthouse cafe.
A couple things we noticed:
1. In Thailand, the street sweepers are people rather than large machines. A huge swarm of people with bamboo brooms came by sweeping the floor, followed by a large water truck flooding the ground, followed by more sweepers. The street was spic and span afterwards, too.
2. There were a shocking number of people drinking huge beer Changs for breakfast. I should mention that these people were travelers, not Thais.
After breakfast, we moved to a new guesthouse (though to be fair, we saw some of the other rooms at Baan Sabai on our way out and they looked pretty nice). We moved down the street to Bella Bella House, and our room, while nondescript, did have its own bathroom with a hot shower (though we still had to buy our own toilet paper) for 420 baht (approx. $12). And, it did have a nice view of the neighboring temple:
We weren’t in Bangkok very long. Like most people, we stayed only a few nights one our way to the islands. But, we did walk around and see a few temples:
As well as a 40 foot standing Buddha:
And we got to meet Oak, a super nice Thai guy we met through Robert, who met him through our friend Gabe. BTW, Oak runs a website that sells Thai kickboxing gear: http://www.muaythaistuff.com. Get all your, um, Thai kickboxing gear from him!
Oak took us out on the town, and we finally saw Khao San Road, which was total mayhem! There were hundreds of tourists on that tiny street, along with food vendors, contortionists, singing transvestites, people selling clothes…you name it, you can find it on Khao San. We couldn’t believe this carnival so close to our quiet little alley, and we thanked our lucky stars we weren’t staying on this street (I’m not sure how you would sleep with all the lights and noise).
We’ll come back to Bangkok, perhaps in a few weeks on our way to Burma, perhaps in two months on our way out to Taiwan. Oak has kindly offered for us to stay with him when we come back through, and once again, we are surprised and touched by amount of generosity we’ve been shown so far on this trip. If Thailand can foster this kind of hospitality towards it’s visitors, it’s gotta be a great country…even if you do have to BYOTP.