Sizing Up to Nature’s Biggest [Thailand]

[This is the second of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Spirituality is Golden When All Else is Unstable [Myanmar]]

November 8, 2016 – Welcome to Thailand

Our Northern Indochina trek continued east to Thailand, to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand of about 150,000 people. We again saw many tributes to the late Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s King for more than 70 years. He blanketed every airplane magazine cover, the airport walkways and many signs along the way to our hotel in downtown Chiang Mai. Black and white decor covered the city.

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Our hotel, from an aesthetic standpoint, was much nicer than Yangon’s, however, the beds were solid as a rock! I had flashbacks to the time when I spent the night in a hut on Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia. The name of our hotel, Wangburapa Grand Hotel, became too much fun to say… “WANG-BAH-RAH-PAH,” we would shout.

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After resting a while, we went out to dinner at a place called Beetroot Stories. I ordered none other than Thai fried rice, one of my take-out/delivery favorites back home when I am lazy and do not want to deal with going too far in the brutal Chicago winters. We sat and ate in an open courtyard, where all restaurants were open to the outdoors with most people sitting outside in the pleasant evening weather. Most of the dining situations outside are basically tables and chairs made for 5 years old and under, so you can only imagine what I looked like trying to eat!

The center of Chiang Mai is surrounded by square moat. On the east side of the square is the Phae Gate, a stone wall that still stands since its founding in 1300. Historically, the wall was meant to deter Burmese invasion, but today it is the site of many festivals and events. We continued walking east of the gate to the night bazaar – an insane cluster of tents and people selling everything you can imagine at cheap prices. Our first impression of Chiang Mai was a complete contrast to what we saw in Yangon, as Chiang Mai appeared like a tourist trap lit up with neon signs and everything catered to the Western world. We quickly detoured through droves of tourists while getting some ideas of what the market was selling.

Wangburapa was calling our name. We closed out November 8, and knew that America was just getting up and voting in the 2016 Presidential Election. I voted prior to the trip, and left the country at the right time.

November 9, 2016 – Breaking through the Dark Cloud

Weather-wise, we had lucked out so far, but the morning was a torrential downpour in Chiang Mai. A few blocks away was Breakfast World, a cute two-story lodge that served brunch. I don’t think I had ever seen the sky open up like it did – it literally felt like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Completely soaked, we showed up at the breakfast place and ordered a nice spread of fresh fruits, coffee, bread, omelettes and Thai iced tea (half cream, half Thai tea).

At about 11 a.m./noon, U.S. election results began to pour in. Much of the eastern U.S. went as planned to start, with one or two swing states going to Trump. Many of the races, though, were closer than expected. As results for the Great Lakes states came in, that’s when I knew something was up. Michigan and Wisconsin were favoring Trump, which was unexpected. As our wifi-connection went in and out, Robyn and I were applying scenarios where Hillary would mathematically still be able to win. As someone who believes in equality, diversity, freedom, inclusion and respect, Trump seemed like a nightmare to most things I fight for. The reality of him becoming President began to set in, as major news outlets declared him the next U.S. president. I will not lie, the election results put a damper on the morning and day in general. Several group texts came through on my phone, all standing in solidarity.

The rain had stopped and the beaming sun came out to clear up the day. We spent most of the day walking around the city. Chiang Mai is littered with “wats,” Buddhist temples, as it seemed there was a wat every other building. Most of them are adorned with intricate roofs, gold paint and religious figurines or statues. It could be a fun scavenger hunt game to find them all!

Robyn and I were joking (but also somewhat serious) about how the election results would affect us on the trip. The locals did not say anything about it, but other tourists would ask us our opinion if they ran into us and found out that we were American. On our walk throughout the city, we saw a Chevrolet dealership and joked that it was our “safe place” as Americans :). Hell, we took a seat on the curb and had a cigarette on the doorstep of Chevy. Why not? It seemed appropriate.

Maybe the Buddhist spirits were lifting us up, but we decided to focus on having a great time. One Buddhist temple caught our eye – next to it was a long wooden bridge and lily pad pond with huge fish.

From there, we walked outside of the moat-enclosed square and found some nice shops on the west side, including a place to book our upcoming activities. As most of my family and friends know, I have loved elephants since a young age, and one of my “must do’s” on this trip was to spend time with the elephants. There were what seemed like 10 different options for elephant excursions. I’m pretty big on humane and ethical treatment of animals, so we narrowed it down to one whose practices were completely in-line with true elephant love. So, we booked the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary trip for the following day, and the Doi Inthanon National Park trip for two days later.

Feeling a bit “I don’t give a shit,” I saw a hole-in-the-wall barber shop and decided to get my haircut. Who knew how it would come out, but why not?! For $3, a woman used the clippers on my entire head. Usually, my barber uses the clippers on the sides and then scissors the top, but she went for it! In the mirror, Robyn could see my deer-in-headlights look as the hairdresser neared completion. You know what, it actually wasn’t that bad – she was so excited to meet us and of course commented on our height.

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A long day of walking had us hungry, and we walked to the southern part of the city in neighborhoods where locals lived. At this point, we were pretty fulfilled of Asian food and wanted something different. We caved and went to a tourist-esque place. Not sure why, but I ordered more Asian food (spicy rice noodle salad) with a Mai Thai.

Because, why not.

November 10, 2016 – Dreams Come True

When I travel, I normally don’t have too many rigid or required plans, but knowing that Thailand is a main destination to see Asian elephants, visiting a sanctuary was a REQUIREMENT for me. Several of my first stuffed animals were elephants, and I studied them through class projects during school. In summary, hanging out with elephants had been a dream of mine.

Robyn and I got picked up at 7 a.m. at our hotel to head to the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, a place that hosts rescued endangered elephants and provides for them in a humane way. There is no riding of the elephants, and at the end of the day, the elephant caregivers send the elephants back into the mountains. We jumped in an open truck with two Lithuanians and three Frenchmen and embarked on a 1.5 hour drive to the mountains near Doi Inthanon National Park.

It had rained so much that the mud roads up the mountain were a complete mess, sometimes one or two feet deep in red mud. The truck was slipping and sliding up a mountain, with one side of the road under construction with cement.

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Upon arriving at the elephant camp, we saw one of the elephants eating. There was a small hut that housed puppies, dogs, chickens and chicks. To begin the day, we dressed into traditional Thai garments and walked down a hill to meet three elephants; one was 40 years old, and the other two were 9 and 7, all girls. We then had the opportunity to feed them bamboo, cucumber and bananas. The trick was to say “bon,” and then they would lift up their trunk and open their mouth for us to insert the food. At first, I was nervous because of their sheer size, but they were so gentle and playful when taking the food from us. We got to hug them and touch their rough skin. One of the younger elephants was naughty and kept trying to get out to get more food. Just like humans, they all had distinct personalities.

After a nice meal, the elephants joined us in walking to a mud pit. Part of cleaning their bodies and keeping mosquitos away was to slap mud on their bodies and let it dry. We stripped down and had some fun in the mud and water. What a dream this was to be up close and personal with the elephants!

Next, we walked them down to a river and had a bath to rinse off. The three elephants jumped in the river and began rolling around to cool off and get the mud off. We joined them in the water as well. Imagine this, we 150-200 lb. humans cleansing off in a river next to 3-4 TON elephants. With any other animal I might feel more threatened of being crushed, but there is something about elephants that makes you feel safe despite their size. They are gentle, humorous animals that make a personal connection to humans. I felt their personal connection when one of the younger elephants used its trunk to spray water in my face 🙂

The elephants went back to eat more while we walked down a steep mud hill to a waterfall and cave. I spent time walking under the waterfall; the splatters on my head drowning out all sound. Many species of plants, flowers and butterflies surrounded the waterfall.

We walked back up the hill to the elephant grounds to have lunch. The buffet-style lunch included a delicious curry chicken and rice dish with fresh fruit. I sat in a hut to eat right above the elephants. In between my bites, I would feed one of the elephants watermelon and pineapple.

After a wonderful day up in the mountains with the elephants, we headed back down the mountain to a river as it began to downpour. The second leg of our day trip was a bamboo raft ride down a river. (Keep in mind, it is still down-pouring). We jumped on the bamboo raft (with me in the back for weight). The rain definitely helped speed up the ride. A man guiding the raft in the front would use a bamboo stick to push off of rocks. At times, I would clip rocks and plants during fast turns, but I was able to hang on! Despite the rain causing us to become prunes, it was peaceful as the rain clapped on the trees and plants.

It was time to return to Chiang Mai, and we hit rush hour on our way back to the city. Once returning home, Robyn wasn’t feeling great, so I went out alone for dinner to an open outdoor market. It was still down-pouring, and on my way out of our hotel, a Californian mom and grandma asked if they could join me in a tuk-tuk ride to the north side of the city square to eat at the market.

We arrived and I found a great place where I could get a bowl of wide rice noodles, pork, cabbage and broth with some spiciness to it. I sat under a tarp and warmed up with the soup while rainwater rushed around me. To top off the meal, I found a coconut vendor and had fresh coconut water with a straw. I walked home to the hotel in lighter rain to rest after a long day. I could now check off “a day with elephants” on my unofficial list of “must-do’s” in life.

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November 11, 2016 – Atop Thailand

Another early morning and another day trip, this time to Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest mountain in Thailand at 8,400 feet. I guess Robyn and I have a thing for stretching our limits at elevation. We shared the group trip with Brazilians, Bolivians and Germans in a van.

Our first stop was Karen Village, a group of tribal Thai folks in the mountains of Thailand. They grow coffee, weave blankets and scarves and raise animals.

Next, we went up the mountain even further to the Sirithan Waterfall, a massive waterfall within Doi Inthanon Park.

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Further, we hiked toward the top of Thailand, which was marked with mossy trees and stone, as well as a shrine for previous Thai kings.

The main attraction on the mountain are two lavender-colored stone chedis overlooking a lake below, one for the king and one for the queen. These were built to for the 60th birthday anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1987, and the 60th birthday anniversary of Queen Sirikit in 1992.

Behind the queen’s chedi was a beautiful garden walk with several varieties of flowers and bushes.

The king’s chedi was across the way and had elaborate stone carvings on the side of the tower.

After time at the top of Thailand, we visited the Royal Project, which showcases landscaping, plants, and flower and fern species. It was raining steadily at this point, so we tried to stay dry by hopping from building to building.

Our final stop of the day trip was another waterfall, the Wachirathan.

We ate a fresh lunch with the group and soon headed back toward Chiang Mai. We luckily did not hit rush hour traffic this time!

For dinner, we ate at Dada Cafe, a fresh ingredient shop where I got Pad See Ew and a fruit smoothie. $6 for the entire meal! After eating, we decided to hit up the night bazaar again, which was busy and lit up with food and handicrafts. I of course had to find an elephant souvenir, so I bought a wooden carved elephant head painted with gold and turquoise. Despite rainy, it was a great day enjoying the magical and calm parts of Thailand.

November 12, 2016 – Sweet Treats and Heading to Laos

Our time in Thailand had come to a close, and we were next headed toward Laos. We began the day with a yummy vegetarian breakfast with mango and sticky rice (must try if you go to Thailand). Another popular item is a Thai iced tea – I feel like my grandpa might be open to trying this given his love for iced tea! Our transportation back to the airport was again in an open truck. We found one of our favorite American sweet treats, Dairy Queen, at the airport and ordered up a Blizzard while we waited for our flight. Our flight was unfortunately delayed for five hours, and we finally left at 8 p.m. The flight was quick, and we landed on an area on the tarmac and walked to our gate. The airport seemed quite small and unofficial.

We had to get our visa permits at the airport, which was pretty efficient. They printed a beautiful stamp and pasted it onto our passport book for $35. After going through security, it seemed a bit sketchy, but we exchanged money at a good rate and booked a van taxi to our Airbnb, which was 20 minutes outside of Luang Prabang. The drive was super rural on gravel roads, but as two kids who grew up in rural Kansas, it felt just like home.

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I’ll never forget the day we spent alongside the elephants in Thailand.

-Michael

[See my next posts to learn more about Laos and Vietnam]

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