Thailand

Thailand travel tips

Jordan and I were able to spend about a week and a half in Thailand. We enjoyed our time in the country and hope you have a great time in Thailand also. It’s practically where backpacking was invented, back in the 1970s, and it’s a rite of passage to travel through these days.  Thailand has a lot to offer to a wide group of people: 20-year-old partiers, retired culture and history aficionados, and everything in between. We met plenty of travelers that were passing through for their third, fourth, or even fifth time.

So here are little nuggets of advice from us to you.

  1. Book train trips several days ahead of time. It’s difficult to book online (and only possible through third-party companies) but do your best if you have a strict schedule to keep.
  2. Don’t miss the north! I know southern Thailand is calling with its beaches and booze and jaw-dropping island views, but northern Thailand has amazing food, gorgeous mountains, friendly people, and diverse cultures. Chiang Mai was our favorite stop in Thailand and we recommend a visit.
  3. Do your best to research elephant tours, indigenous people tours, and the like before you go on a trip. I absolutely don’t want to guilt trip anyone, but sometimes these tours are good and sometimes these tours are awful. It would be a shame to spend a lot of money on a tour that you end up hating yourself for taking part of, so do your best to know what you’re getting into before you book the tour.
  4. If you’re interested in traveling the entire peninsula, it is possible to start in Chiang Mai and take a train all the through Western Malaysia and arrive in Singapore. It’s not a one-ticket journey, so you will have to book legs at a time, but it’s possible.
  5. The taxi drivers and bus hawkers in southern Thailand can get pretty aggressive. One yelled in Jordan’s face because Jordan said he wasn’t going anywhere yet and didn’t need a taxi. We’ve never had that happen to us before in our travels. Most tuk tuk and taxi drivers are fine, but know that they’re charging an arm and a leg for their services (especially at the ferry for the Phi Phi Islands).

Have fun in Thailand!

Has anyone traveled there before? Got any tips for the rest of us?

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Bangkok

Bangkok is everything I imagined it would be: big, fast-paced, glitzy, loud, varied, and advanced yet traditional. With a population of around 14 million in the city and surrounding area, it’s the biggest city in Thailand and one of the largest transportation hubs in Asia.

For us, it marks the end of our time in Thailand, and we decided to take the city at a slower pace. After arriving around noon from the train station, we checked into our hostel and rested. Because we were still tired yet didn’t want to waste the day, we decided a stroll around a shopping mall and then a movie was a perfect compromise. Bangkok’s MBX shopping center is an odd mixture of sleek, western stores arranged in a familiar mall-like structure and wide-open spaces for stalls and vendors to sell their wares like a normal outdoor market, except in the mall. In the center of the mall was a massive portrait of their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (better known as Rama IX). We have seen photos, shrines, and posters of him throughout Thailand, often with his wife Queen Sirikit.

Just before we watched the movie (The 5th Wave–Jordan has mixed feelings about it), an announcement before the movie instructed us to rise for the king’s anthem. We stood silently as a song played, the screen showing photos of the king’s New Year’s photos and cards he sent to his people. When it finished, we sat back down, and the movie began. Have I mentioned they love their king?

Our second day in Bangkok was more traditionally tourist-y. We found street food, then got a tuktuk to the Grand Palace. Through all of the traffic of the city it was about a 45 minute drive from our hostel (in what’s considered the “hostel district” by tourists) to the Grand Palace by the river. Once there we stared in amazement at the golden roofs and multicolored eaves. We also stared at the hordes of Asian tour groups that congested the streets, sidewalks, and palace entrances.

Built in 1782, the palace is primarily for tourists, museums, and official occasions, and the king lives in Dusit Palace a few blocks away.

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Within the boundaries of the palace is also Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and one of the holiest temples in Thailand. (I suggest going earlier in the day, before the massive tour groups get in the way of all your photos and breathing space). The temple buildings truly were some of the most magnificent I have seen yet in Asia, with painted teak, sparkling walls, and gleaming chedis. The humongous statues of the Yaksa Tavarnbal (gate-guarding giant/demons) were also great to look at, though we’ve seen examples of them at almost every Thai temple.

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This Buddha was carved from one large piece of jade in the 15th century, and has been housed at the royal palace since there was a royal palace of Bangkok, in 1785. Despite (or perhaps because) the special status of the temple and the Buddha image, the temple feel into disrepair. It took quite a while to get everyone agreed on renovations, but Queen Sirikit led the work, beginning in the mid 1980s. She decided that some of the old artifacts were interesting enough to merit a museum, so one of the buildings in the palace complex now houses some of the old statues, wood carvings, china pieces, and other decorative parts of the old temple. While these demons below are modeled after the original decor, they are only a couple of decades old.

 

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The most interesting thing to Jordan (and I) were the two piles of elephant bones they unearthed during renovations. Elephants are the most sacred animal to Thai people, especially a white elephant. When a white elephant died, they were buried on temple grounds.

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As I have said, the palace is split up into small museums or is a museum itself (like the ceremonial throne hall), and Jordan thought the weapons museum was fascinating.

Across the river from the royal palace is Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn. The outside is more unique than the inside, and we’ve been into countless temples at this point. Jordan specifically wanted a good photo of the temple across the river, but unfortunately this is all we got:

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When the Brumese destroyed the previous Siamese capital Ayutthaya in 1767 and the court moved south to Bangkok, the temple caught the eye of the king as they passed by at dawn. He vowed to restore it, and as time went on other kings have added to it, now making it truly a temple that shines at dawn.

We discovered that it may be beautiful, but not when under construction. And it can be difficult to get a good angle across the river. Afterward, we got a tuktuk driver outside the palace walls to take us to Chinatown for 80 baht. I think that was a pretty good deal, considering how much traffic there was between us and our destination.

Jordan and I had planned to eat street food in Chinatown, but were unable to find much. Instead, Chinatown is riddled with alleys and back passages that lead into sweltering shopping malls, dim gem stores, hawkers selling fabric, and anything else you can imagine. I felt like I was in the back storeroom of Hobby Lobby or Claire’s, judging by the amount of quilted bags, shabby chic lamps, and cubic zirconia earrings on all sides of me. It was fun though, getting lost in the market and finally seeing where all the “made in Thailand” paraphernalia comes from exactly.

Chinatown is, of course, more than just backstreet markets run by great-grandmothers. There are temples, a hospital, community center, and schools. We walked through until the edge of the district, where we saw the ceremonial/cultural gate that Chinese immigrants built long ago.

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Besides that, we saw Siam Niramit, a cultural dance show that we highly recommend (if you can afford it–we bought tickets using credit card points). Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any photos. They actually patted everyone down, checking for cameras, before letting guests into the theater. But it is worth the money and the pat-down, and we were happy to end our two-and-a-half days in Bangkok with a dinner show that taught us more about the Thai culture.

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Island paradise

About a month ago I got into my head that I needed to see a bio-luminescent beach. We had already planned our trip to Thailand, so I searched online and found an overnight sleep-aboard island tour that included glowing plankton. Well, all that was left was buy tickets and convince Jordan this was a good idea!

We left northern Thailand behind for the sun-drenched islands of the south. It took an overnight train and an all-day train to get to Surat Thani, then a bus from Surat Thani to Krabi Town, and a ferry from Krabi to Phi Phi Don (this was not all done in a 24-hour period–the trains alone took 22 hours).

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For those interested in logistics and prices, here’s an abbreviated version of what we did:

  • After getting off the train in Surat Thani we got on the public orange bus that took us to bus station number 1 for 20 baht apiece
  • The next day we got on a minibus that went to the Krabi bus station for 280 baht apiece (too much, I think)
  • We got a taxi to our hotel for 220 baht (overpriced, definitely)
  • We booked ferry tickets at our hotel for 300 baht apiece, which included a transfer to the Krabi pier
  • We waited until on the island to buy return ferry tickets (a smart decision, I think) for 250 baht apiece on the 10:30 ferry run by Andaman Wave

Phi Phi Don is a breathtakingly beautiful yet highly-touristy island off the western coast of southern Thailand, the largest island in the Ko Phi Phi archipelago. It’s the starting point of tours and party central at night. We arrived on the island a couple of hours before our tour began, and wandered through the streets, seeking a relief from the almost-oppressive feeling of tourists, overpriced flip flops, and beer cans. We hiked to the top of the viewpoint of Phi Phi Don and discovered that it costs 30 baht apiece to actually enter the viewpoint. They really should warn people before they climb the hundreds of stairs (though they would get less customers that way).

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After resting in the shade for an hour, watching lobster-red tourists frolic in the waves, we went to meet up with tour, Maya Bay Tours, on their boat. They are the only tour company that spends the night out at Maya Bay (made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach). We slathered on sunscreen and enjoyed the boat trip away from the crowded pier of Phi Phi Don to the jaw-dropping beauty of the island cliffs, emerald waters, and coral reefs.

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We snorkeled during the low tide of a full moon, which was a great way to get close to the reef. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to cut your foot on some of the reef (like I did). Our captain took us past the more famous tourist attractions afterward, and our guide explained the cultural significance of the area, as well as the food delicacy of bird’s nest soup. The birds that live in the crags of the cliffs make the famed nests, and during harvesting season Thai move out to the caves in the cliff sides to find the nests. This soup is usually very expensive, but the Chinese love it and will gladly pay whatever price is set.

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Finally, we reached Phi Phi Lee (or Ley) in the late afternoon and came into the bay. Although it was still crowded with many other tour groups, the beauty of the place was astounding. It really was paradise.

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Our tour ate dinner and drank on the beach, enjoying the sunset while everyone else left. Jordan and I strolled through along the small island, gazing at the full moon (we’d never seen a moon so bright–it was almost like daylight) and wading in the ocean. Because Maya Bay is part of a national park, there are rules against sleeping on the island, so we all headed back to the boat to pull out sleeping bags and mats (provided by the tour company). Before going to bed, however, we put our snorkel masks on and jumped back into the water. The bay is so clear and the moon so bright that we could still see far below to the coral beneath us.

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“Wave your arms! The plankton are motion activated!” our guide yelled to us.

I had envisioned glowing water, a sort of milky brightness that sparkled. I’m not sure if my expectations were too high or this wasn’t a good representation of bioluminescence. I’ll research more and get back to you (but I think it is the latter). Jordan and I kicked and splashed and wriggled in the water as much as we could, and were rewarded with what looked like tiny fireflies floating in the water with us. Beautiful, certainly–though only visible beneath the water, so we have no photos.

Sleeping with 24 other people on the deck of a boat in the wind isn’t a good way to get sleep. But we rested as best we could, because we got up early to sea the sunrise on the beach, where we breakfasted.

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The tour returned to Phi Phi Don at 9:50 am, just in time for us to buy ferry tickets back to Krabi so we could get our next night train from Surat Thani. We both noticed a distinct difference between southern and northern Thailand’s hospitality. In the north, we found, people were more laid back and easy-going with tourists, but in the south there are more scams, hawkers, and what we call “swarming.” So although Jordan and I loved the mountains and seas of southern Thailand, we were relieved to get back to Bangkok. The trouble of getting south and sorting through legitimate deals and scams was absolutely worth seeing everything, it was just a little frustrating. Still, our photos of the Phi Phi islands are my favorite of our trip.

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Elephants and rafting

Elephants! We were so excited to finally see elephants!

We booked a budget-priced full-day tour that included elephants through our hostel in Chiang Mai. I had heard some of the debate surrounding elephant camps, riding, and possible abuse of the animals, and hoped to pick a good camp. The “most humane” sanctuaries in the area are also the most expensive, and so out of our price range. So we picked from a book of options at our hostel, talking with the hostel employee about a good choice.

“This one, Thong Elephant Camp,” he suggested, which included river rafting, lunch, and more for the easy price of 1,290 baht a person. “Six English people went yesterday. Said it was good, that they could tell the animals were well treated and there weren’t any chains.”

“That sounds good,” I agreed.

“You get to ride them too,” he added. “But just on their backs, not in a carriage.”

That also sounded good to me. I’d read that riding elephants can be harmful for them. Personally, I think, as long as the elephant is in good condition, one or two people on its upper back or neck shouldn’t bother them. A carriage, obviously, is heavy, especially for the places on their back that isn’t very strong. But one or two light people shouldn’t be a problem if the animal is fed right and has no previous injuries.

More and more backpackers (primarily Europeans) refuse to visit elephant camps as they read about abuse and mistreatment. It’s always good to be aware of what you’re getting into ethically, but it’s also good to keep things in perspective. Jordan and I talked it over and decided three things:

  1. They’re animals. They were used for hard labor in the past (probably), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  2. Westerners still use horses and other animals for labor purposes. For goodness sakes, we put bits in horses mouths to guide them, so a simple rope harness around an elephant’s middle shouldn’t bother Westerners.
  3. Elephants with obvious scarring (at least, recent scarring) and oddly shaped hips/spine, as well as elephants with chain marks on their legs or previous injuries are most likely being mistreated and we don’t want to support that.

In a later conversation with a dorm mate, we learned that many of the handlers aren’t actually Thai, but Burmese migrants.

“Here’s the thing,” our new Irish friend said. “Personally, as long as it isn’t carriages, I don’t really care about people riding or not riding elephants. It’s quite popular these days to have the moral high ground, but you’ve got to remember that most of these owners are just trying to feed their families. And they’re losing a lot of business because of the elephant riding aspect. Backpackers sit in hostels and talk all day about animal cruelty and like, but no one’s talking to them about it. If we talked to the tour guides and elephant handlers, if they learned that the riding is keeping people away rather than drawing them, that could really change the market.”

Our tour had four other people, and three of them knew Spanish(!). I got to practice Spanish with them, which was wonderful. I had just been thinking how much I missed speaking Spanish, so it was a lovely surprise. I stumbled over far too many words and the past tense, but at least I was still able to speak.

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Our first stop of the day was at the orchid and butterfly farm. It’s a pretty small place and only worth a visit if it’s included in a larger tour. Their butterflies were pretty lethargic, and I wondered how the constant surge of visitors through a small enclosure impacted them. The orchids, however, were absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never paid much attention to orchids, except to know they’re expensive, but these took my breath away. We wandered the rows of orchids for about ten minutes, enjoying the patterned petals, and then left the way we’d come.

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On our way out was the souvenir shop, where we learned that the broaches and earrings were actual orchids, lacquered, painted, and edges coated in gold. I’m not a big jewelry person, but that knowledge made me look closer at the gilded and speckled petals. Jordan noticed a few butterfly necklaces and broaches, which made us realize this was an actual farm. As in, harvesting butterflies and orchids for making jewelry.  Grimacing a little, we hopped back in the truck and wrapped ourselves in jackets as our driver took us on to the “sticky waterfalls,” or Bua Thong.

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Water cascades over white rocks near a national park. Thai people believe the spring is sacred, so we were instructed to keep quiet as we gazed into the clear water and treat the spirit house nearby with respect.

“But you can yell at the waterfall,” our guide said with a grin.

And whoop we did. After a hike down the hill beside the falls, we took of our shoes and stripped to our swimsuits and waded into the small pool. The water was warm, and we edged our way to the white rocks of the falls.

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“They aren’t slippery,” our guide called to us. “You can climb them. Go ahead!”

I put my foot on one of the rocks, still unsure about the idea of climbing and falling, and was surprised when the friction was strong enough to step on it. Climbing the waterfall wasn’t difficult, but I did have a sense of accomplishment when I stood at the top, grinning down at Jordan.

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We drove another 30 minutes (almost every stop was 30 minutes to an hour away from one another) and grabbed lunch (which was included in our tour). Then we went off to see the elephants! Everyone was really excited but a little nervous, each person hoping we had picked an ethical place.

After another 30 minute drive, we arrived at a small Thai/Burmese establishment on the river, a family business. They had six elephants of different ages, ranging from 10 to 45 years old, and I began looking them over for pink scars, which is evidence of the handlers using spikes to direct elephants. None of them had any, thankfully, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My money seemed to be going to a poor family running their own business rather than a smuggling ring that abused animals.

All the elephants wore a rope harness around them that disturbed four of our group. They quickly changed their minds, deciding that they were uncomfortable and didn’t like the situation. I’m not really sure what changed their minds, but I got the feeling that none of them had ever really been around animals before, besides the family dog. A few of the boy handlers yelled commands, but verbal commands were all that was given–besides holding on to the lead rope, they never touched the elephants.

In the end, only four of us rode the elephants. Jordan and I shared an elephant, with him up near the elephant’s neck and me, the lighter of the two, on it’s back. This also seemed to be in line with a more humane treatment. We only road them for about 15 or 20 minutes, and it was actually very bumpy and not that fun. At the end Jordan confided that he’d have rather walked beside the elephant, perhaps with his hand on a leg or side, to understand just how big elephants are. We don’t regret riding the elephant, but if we had another chance, we probably wouldn’t ride again (we were pretty sore the morning after!).

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After spending about five minutes wading in the river  with the elephant and pouring water on her (they were all females), we gave them bananas. Everyone loved feeding the bananas, from the tourists to the elephants. I plucked a banana off a cluster and handed it whole and unpeeled over to the elephant, who took it daintily with her trunk (it was very soft and wet), then promptly stuffed it in her mouth. Eager, she switched back and forth between Jordan and I, determined to get as many bananas as we would offer.

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When our guide called us away we climbed back into the truck and went to the whitewater rafting. I wish I could remember the name of the river. I’ve never been rafting before, though Jordan had been on the Illinois River (not exactly Class V, but more than I had done). This was a Class II during this time of year. Four of us climbed in a raft with a guide. We were required to leave everything in the truck, including our shoes, so we don’t have any pictures to show. We wore helmets, but those were more protection against the oars of our boatmates rather than the water or rocks around us.

Our boat captain was either more inexperienced or less intuitive than I was, or he just enjoyed tourists making fools of themselves. He splashed us with the oar, told us to lean right when we should’ve leaned left, and didn’t steer until it was too late to avoid rocks. This was particularly annoying for Jordan, who had a little experience and not only knew how things should be done (that’s a pet peeve of his) but also how fun the activity can be when done well. In Jordan’s opinion, we had one moment glory when he and I ignored our boat captain and paddled how we felt we should, and our boatmates followed along behind us. Then the boat captain didn’t steer and we wedged ourselves against a rock. It wasn’t a particularly fun experience in and of itself, but it did whet my appetite for real whitewater rafting.

“When it’s done right, it’s so much fun,” Jordan promised me. “We’ll do it for real one day.”

Our ride was about 45 minutes downriver, then we transferred from our boat to a bamboo raft and were poled downstream by another guide. We were all cold and tired and not really sure what the point was.

“If we had our own rafts,” one girl said to me, “and they taught us how to pole, that would be really cool. But if it’s just this I just want to go back to the hostel and sleep.”

But there was one stop left before we returned to Chiang Mai, and that was a small village in the mountains. The Akha people are an ethnic minority in Thailand. This village has 40 families that have lived there for almost 200 years. Before that, the Akha were in Laos and originally in China.

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Talented farmers, the Akha live in these remote hills growing bananas and other plants. The school bus arrived at the same time as we did, a pickup truck with a covered bed (also like us) and 17 children poured out of the doors. Four remained with the driver, going further into the village. These children are the only people in the village who know how to speak Thai–everyone else speaks the Akha language to one another. Our guide took us on a quick loop of the village, pointing out older homes on stilts, grapefruit plants, and the four religious buildings (Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, and Animism–that’s quite a lot for just 40 families).

And then we piled back in the truck and started our hour and a half trip back home. We were all exhausted, but happy to have gone and satisfied with meeting the elephants.

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Mountain city of northern Thailand

At 8 am we arrived in Chiang Mai, a popular backpacker’s stop in Thailand after a nine-hour bus trip from Ayutthaya (it cost 580 baht per person buying from a travel agent, 500 if bought directly at the bus station).

We hopped off the bus, paid a truck/tuktuk 150 baht (too much, I think) to get us to our hostel, and headed toward the Old Town of Chiang Mai.

The best part of Old Town, besides the winding narrow streets and the numerous temples, is that you’ve got to cross a moat to get into it. The old city walls are mostly crumbled, though portions of the gates remain. Built in the 13th century, Chiang Mai benefits from the mountainous region with cool weather, beautiful views, and lots of ethnic diversity. In the past, this region has been pretty tribal, with lots of ethnic minorities living on hillsides around one another. Chiang Mai was the capital of the Kingdom of La Na (or Lanna) until a Burmese invasion in 1538. When Siam (of Ayutthaya) helped push the Burmese out of the Thai mountains in 1775, they took ownership of Chiang Mai, though it wasn’t repopulated until the threat of the Burmese died down a couple of decades later.

Chiang Mai has around 300 temples altogether, though only a handful of them are in the Old Town.

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Wat Chedi Luang is not the oldest temple in the area, but one of the most important. Built during the 14th century, it was the center (ninth) point of the cardinal directions. According to Lanna understanding, a city wasn’t just a collection of buildings, but a living entity with a soul. Points of the city were respresented by body parts, such as the royal palace and important buildings seen as the head, and therefore in the northern part of the city. This temple was the city’s anchoring point, similar to the heart in a human body, and it was here that yearly religious ceremonies were performed.

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An earthquake in the late 16th century destroyed much of the temple, but it has been partially restored for both the Thai people and visitors to enjoy.

Next to the temple is a Buddhist compound, made up of a worship area, library, museum, and local area for the monks. They have an interesting program, the “monk chat,” which encourages visitors to sit with monks and ask any question about Buddhism or monk life. We made our way to a covered table, sitting with a young monk dressed in his brown sabong and an older English man who served as translator for more difficult questions. We didn’t know about this place beforehand, otherwise I would’ve read up on Buddhism (I haven’t read anything about it since high school)! Jordan and I asked whatever questions came to mind, though the monk was shy and not very talkative.

His name was Chala, and he was 26 years old and had been a monk since he was 20. Although many boys become novices first, then later monks, he said he became a monk without going through any novice program. He wakes up at 5 am every day to meditate, then goes to distribute food. In the mornings and afternoons he spends his time at the outreach “monk chat” center, which helps him practice English, and plans to be a monk all his life.

Finer theology points were a little beyond his English comprehension and our knowledge base, so after about 10 minutes we smiled, bowed, and left.

Most museums are closed on Mondays in Chiang Mai, so we wandered around the Old Town, passing current temples and beautiful Thai artwork. They have a practice of embedding mirror shards and other reflective properties into walls to add sparkle to them–it’s very striking at night.

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Jordan and I were also very impressed with the artwork and geometric designs everywhere, in the boldest and brightest reds and golds. The door below leads to a Buddhist temple, though it is decorated with designs of Thai legends and mythical creatures. 20160118_151251 low

We had discussed going to see the “long neck women” tribe, a settlement of the Karen ethnic group, but decided against it after reading two articles suggesting that the Karen people (especially the women) feel pressured to invite tourists into the homes because of their refugee backgrounds the Thai government keeps reminding them of. However, this blog post is a nice rebuttal, I think. Jordan and I both dislike both of the extreme ends of the debate “it’s unauthentic and a human zoo!” and “take a picture of the exotic people!”. We thought (and still do think) that if done well, a tour can be very enlightening. I mean, we travel to learn about other cultures and people, right? So as long as a visit is done respectfully, treating the Karen people with the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, it can be an awesome way to learn more and help them develop economically. We’ve done the tour-to-the-indigenous-village before and really enjoyed it. However, the trick is finding the right tour group. We didn’t really know how to go about finding that, so we decided to pass.

But, we said, we were definitely doing the elephants!

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Kingdom of Thailand (and Ayutthaya)

A word to the wise: Book your overnight train tickets through Thailand three days in advance, especially if you want a bed and not a hard seat.

We knew all of this, but could do nothing about it. Thai railways doesn’t allow booking tickets online. There are a few third-party companies that can do it for you, but we didn’t have a way to contact them.

And so, we arrived in Bangkok after a grueling 10-hour trip by minibus and crazy drivers, on the far side of the main railway station. After an hour of transfers through the sky train, MRT, and something else (I don’t remember what), we arrived (breathless) at the ticket counter, hoping and praying there were two second-class berths left on the overnight train to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

There weren’t. Nor were there any seats left on sleeper buses.

When they say Bangkok is a live and hoppin’ big city that draws lots of backpackers, they aren’t kidding. I saw more backpackers on our journey through the public transportation system than the entire time we were in Cambodia (minus Angkor, I guess).

We did some quick thinking, trying to land on our feet (and still get north, sticking with our tight itinerary) and ended up getting on a train to Ayutthaya. All I knew about the place was that it was around two hours north of Bangkok and had “cool tree roots,” thanks to a short conversation with a fellow backpacker on the Cambodia/Thailand border.

For two hours we had a break, until we arrived in Ayutthaya at 8 pm with no hostel reservation or idea of where a good hostel even was. Jordan spied four backpackers that had been on the train with us and tapped one on the shoulder.

“Uhh, excuse me, where are you staying? Is it cheap?”

Two of the four turned and looked at us. “Yes, we are staying in a hostel. I don’t remember the name.”

“We don’t have a reservation or really a plan,” Jordan admitted.

“You can follow us,” one of the girls suggested.

“Really?” I asked, smiling.

“Come ride with us in our tuktuk,” one of the guys invited.

So that’s how we ended up following three French and one Belgian backpackers at night to a random hostel that might have space for us. In the end, the hostel didn’t have space for us, but the owner drove us to another property and we stayed there.

Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I say. The other backpackers were all studying at a university in Taiwan and were on winter break. One was studying business, another Chinese. It was lovely to talk and get to know some other backpackers in our trip. They invited us to get drinks with them after we settled in, but we were exhausted and a little far for walking.

“Maybe lunch?” I facebooked one of the girls after we checked in.

“Yes. We are free,” she responded.

The next morning we surveyed the area and learned that Ayutthaya is known for its temple ruins, the remnant of the capital city of the Kingdom of Siam. Although traders tended to call the people Siamese or Ayutthaya, some scholars believe they called themselves the Tai people (which kinda makes sense, considering the country is now called Thailand). The kingdom was founded in 1351 and ended in 1767 when the Burmese army sacked the city. Not only did they destroy the city of around 1 million people, but they interrupted major trade routes between Europe and Asia. At the time, the king of Siam had good relations with the king of France, and the city was said to have rivaled Paris.

After learning a little history, we met our new friends for a late breakfast, then went out to see the temple ruins. They had reserved a tuktuk for the day, to take them to all the sights, and for six people it was 1,500 baht.

We first visited Wat Maha That, an old Buddhist temple in the old city. Ayutthaya today spans both sides of the river that runs through town, but during the Siamese reign the city was mainly on an island in the river. In the 14th century, when built, the temple oused the Thai patriarch of Buddhism.

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Today it is famous for a Buddha head embedded in a tree.

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Tourists come and get photos with this stone head, famous just for being so unique. Some time when the temple was abandoned, perhaps when the Burmese destroyed the city, the head of the Buddha image fell off and rolled into the roots, creating what we have today.

We next visited Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, which is right next to the Ayutthaya Historical Park. A lovely restored temple, it houses one of the largest bronze Buddhas in Thailand. (I’m in the lower left corner of the photo with our French and Belgian friends.)

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The image was built most likely in 1538 and was moved from place to place until its final resting point here, in Ayutthaya. When the Burmese destroyed the city, they burnt the temple to the ground. It was left in ruins until the 1920s, when plans for reconstruction began. This was how it looked prior to the renovations:

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After exploring the grounds of the temple, the six of us moved over to the historical park, which was the royal palace and state temple (used exclusively for royal religious ceremonies) until it was destroyed in 1767. So this is pretty much all that remains of Wat Phra Si Sanphet.

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Our driver took us to a famous reclining Buddha image, which we quickly snapped a photo of and moved on. Unique, right?

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At this point we began refraining from taking photos of every ruin with every Buddha statue because we’ve probably already got too many. Jordan and I had planned to do a river tour in the afternoon, so we peeled off from our friends, thanking them for their company, and went to the boats.

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The tour was 200 baht a person, booked through a local travel agency, and was two hours long. It included three stops, two of them were temples with famous Buddha images and adjoined monasteries. The last stop alone was particularly noteworthy, we thought.

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Wat Chaiwatthanaram was a former Buddhist temple, on the banks of the river, and probably the most well-known temple in town. Built in 1630, it was a royal temple where weddings, ceremonies, and funerals for the royal family would take place. It was, like everything else, destroyed in 1767. It partial restoration began in the 1980s and ended in 1992, so we can enjoy it. The stone and brick are best viewed, Jordan thinks, at sunset, where the colors really come alive.

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And that’s pretty much all of Ayutthaya! We bought bus tickets for the 1st class bus (similar to a cama bus in South America) that took 9 hours overnight to get to Chiang Mai. We were on our way to northern Thailand.

 

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