Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 3: Chiang Dao, Tathon, Mae Salong, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai

We arrived in Chiang Mai on a Wednesday morning and completely bypassed the smoky, trafficy city by taking a taxi straight from the airport to the bus station and then a 2 hour bus ride to Chiang Dao. Chiang Dao was one of mine and Eric’s favorite places during our motorbike trip and we were looking forward to going back. Although it was smokier than it was a month before, it was still the same beautiful and relaxing place. We stayed at Malee’s again, but this time opted for a bit of a nicer bungalow (well my mom and I did, while Eric camped in his tent on the lawn). We took advantage of the pool again and returned to Nest for another wonderful California style meal. There is a pretty large monastery up the road from Malee’s, which we had seen parts of our first time in Chiang Dao when we did our hike around the monastery’s perimeter. This time we checked out the whole thing, which was amazing! It was set into a small mountain so the main area where the monks pray, chant, meditate, etc was actually in a small cave. It was very beautiful and what I would picture when I think of a monastery. There was another the other direction, which also had a cave prayer area so we were overall very impressed with Chiang Dao’s wats.
Monastery in Chiang Dao

Our spot on the river complete with papaya tree and pineapple bushes
After two nights in Chiang Dao, we headed out to our next stop a couple hours north in Tathon. Tathon is a small town on the Mekok River and is really close to Burma/Myanmar. We stayed at an awesome place (Areeya Puree) on the river, which had a big enough pool to swim laps and cheap rooms! We spent a lot of time relaxing next to the pool or river, swimming, and reading. We also walked up to another wat/monastery, but this one was much more stereotypical tacky than the ones in Chiang Dao. The views at the top were still beautiful regardless of all the smoke and we were looking out at Burma. We went on a walk up the river our second day in Tathon and am pretty sure we actually walked to the border, which we didn’t realize until we read how close Tathon was to the border. After two nights in Tathon, we moved on to Mae Salong, but fortunately were able to leave our big bags at Areeya Puree since we were going to stay another night in Tathon between Mae Salong and Chiang Rai.

Smoky Mae Salong
Mae Salong, which is not so elegantly called the “Tourist Village” on signs, was once a big poppy/opium growing area and is set along the ridges of some mountains at around 4,000 ft. When the Thai government started to cracked down on the drug trade, it switched farmers from opium to tea. So the main street of the town that winds along the ridge is lined with tea shops where you can just barely show any interest in what they have and they are handing you little cups of tea samples. Over the two days that we stayed in Mae Salong we probably tried twenty different teas and many of them over and over. We made sure to spread out our tea purchases so we wouldn’t feel bad tasting and not buying anything. There are a few different hill tribes around Mae Salong and they definitely got in on the Tourist Village. The road was lined with women with their stalls of colorful purses, clothing, hats, belts, and jewelry. Unfortunately some of the women became a bit aggressive with their selling, which made my mom and I a little scared to even look, but of course we did and of course we made our purchases. Besides tea tasting and shopping, there isn’t much to do in Mae Salong. The first day we walked the 714 steps to a wat of some sort, which gave us a good view of the smoky town and the second day we walked around a tea field a bit outside of the main part of town. It is amazing how removed Mae Salong feels from “civilization” just because it is off the main road half an hour, but Tuesday morning we got on a song taew and were lounging by our pool in Tathon within an hour and a half.
Tea Tasting
We left Tathon Wednesday for Chiang Rai, but we went in style! After a bit of confusion about arranging our transportation, we set off down the Mekok River by long tail boat. It was a bit expensive (1,500 baht), but really worth it. It was really fun motoring down the river making a great breeze and seeing the beautiful scenery go by. There were a lot of kids swimming around almost the entire way to Chiang Rai (2 ½ hours) as well as men fishing and people from the small towns on the river enjoying themselves. They dropped us off in a somewhat random part of Chiang Rai a little outside of the city, but within walking distance so we eventually found our way to the Garden House guesthouse we stayed at our last time in Chiang Rai.

Our first day and a half in Chiang Rai was pretty much all about the markets and we thoroughly supported the Chiang Rai economy. They have a night bazaar, which is more of a tourist attraction, but also a relatively large morning market that sells all types of food, clothing, cooking tools, etc. When we needed a shopping break, we went to Wat Pra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha was discovered before it was eventually moved to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It is the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand, but it is actually made of jade, not emerald. Eric couldn’t quite hang with my mom and I as we continued to shop and we took advantage of his absence by eating all the Thailand treats we love instead of real meals. This included mango and sticky rice, banana rotis, coconut ice cream, kanom kruk (another coconut treat), and Thai tea.

On Friday morning we decided to check out the Black House (Baan Daum), which we had heard about from our friends. Eric and I visited the White Temple last time we were in Chiang Rai, which most people see with the Black House. They are both made by artists, but Eric and I thought the White Temple was pretty weird and touristy and were expecting somewhat the same of the Black House only in the opposite color. It turns out the Black House is beautiful and awesome! It was definitely dark (besides the color) since it is decorated with a lot of skulls, animals skins, etc., but was on such a beautiful piece of property and all of the art was really interesting. After the Black House we went to the Hill tribe Museum and learned a lot about the hill tribes in and around Thailand. There are tons of tours here where you go to a tribe’s village (especially the Karen Longneck tribe) and Eric and I never wanted to go. I am really grateful we didn’t because we really got an idea of how much the people are being exploited, especially the Karen tribes. 

We heard music outside of the museum and conveniently walked out to find that the start of Song Kran parade was beginning! Song Kran (Thai New Year, which is actually a Buddhist celebration so it is celebrated anywhere there are a lot of Buddhists) is officially April 13-16, but Chiang Rai began celebrating on the 12th. Although it is a religious holiday, it has developed to become a nation wide water fight (and actually we got hit with water for the first time on Tuesday). We walked around for the rest of the day getting hit by buckets of water, by water guns, and other gently sprinkling water on our shoulders.

Mom at the Khao Soi place next to our hotel (very typical restaurant setting)
We left Chiang Rai Saturday morning for Chiang Mai, which is probably tied with Bangkok as the most popular place to celebrate Song Kran. We arrived at our hotel and were happy to find that we were staying on the river, next to a Khao Soi restaurant, down the street from the start of the Chiang Mai Song Kran parade, and a few minutes from the night market! We enjoyed another parade where we were splashed with more water (and tricked into paying to be blessed with some mud stuff and a flower necklace) and watched Thais splash scented water on all of the Buddha images in the parade. 

Our last afternoon and evening together in Thailand was spent walking around and getting soaked, hanging out next to the pool at our hotel, eating some of our favorite foods (whole salted fish, pad see ew, mango and sticky rice, and 7-11 ice creams), and shopping around at the night market. My mom flies home tomorrow and Eric and I are will be in Laos tomorrow night! It has been a great last couple weeks in Thailand and I am so happy I was able to see and do so much. At some point I will write a more conclusive post, but am handing my computer over to my mom so I will not be updating my blog quite so often. Happy Song Kran everyone!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 2: Bangkok and Ayutthaya

Very hot at the Grand Palace

The second phase of my mom’s visit was all about sight seeing after almost a week of relaxing on an island. We took an overnight bus from Ranong back to Bangkok where we parted ways with Eric for a few hours. He went on to Ayutthaya to reserve us a guesthouse and we went on to the Grand Palace. A trip to the Grand Palace was part of our orientation when we first got to Thailand and both Eric and I tried to convince my mom that she really didn’t need to see it, but she was persistent and eventually I stopped fighting it. It costs 500 baht each to go to the Grand Palace (which is a lot to me) and it is definitely a hot experience, but I actually really enjoyed my second trip there! My mom and I didn’t take a guided tour, so we were free to walk around the palace area at our leisure, which is what I think made it better than my first experience. It is definitely an impressive complex and we both really enjoyed the museum for the Queen’s project, which showcases her dresses and gives information about her initiatives to employ Thai women as weavers, embroiders, etc.

After about 3 hours at the Grand Palace, we walked down the street to Wat Po, which is famous for a really big lounging Buddha. After spending so much time at the Grand Palace, I wasn’t that impressed with Wat Po. The lounging Buddha is huge, but it seems like more of a tourist attraction and I don’t really know what the actual significance of it is besides just being a very large Buddha (but that is enough to make something noteworthy in Thailand). We were pretty exhausted after our touring (which was on top of an overnight bus ride), so we headed back to the bus station to get to Ayutthaya.

We woke up relatively early our first morning in Ayutthaya to take advantage of the cooler time of day (still probably at least 85 degrees though) and rented bicycles to see the ruins. It was Eric’s and my third trip to Ayutthaya, so we were kind of pros at that point knowing which temples were the coolest and where it was fun to ride bikes. My mom was really into the ruins and we all enjoyed riding bikes around the park areas until we were too tired and hot to see any more. We took advantage of our A/C room in the lovely Baan Lotus guesthouse and didn’t really emerge until dinnertime.

The next morning Eric had to go to Suphanburi to pick up our salary from March, so my mom and I went shopping at the floating market. I had been to this market before, so I knew what to expect, which was a hilarious tourist attraction next to the market including elephant rides, drugged tigers for photo ops, goats and koi fish to bottle feed, among other things that Thais think foreigners will love. The market itself isn’t really a floating market, but has shops set up on a circular pier/dock. We ate some amazing coconut ice cream and did some shopping before watching a very entertaining (and free) show put on my the culture department. Everything was in Thai, but we think they were reenacting some of the battles between the Ayuttayans and Burmese complete with fancy swordplay, fire, and a small child who was killed in the end and dramatically leaped off the stage.

After the market we went on the long boat tour around Ayutthaya, which stops at three different temples (one active one and two with ruins). This was my third time doing the boat tour, but it was still fun and I was finally able to walk around what I think is the coolest ruin in Ayutthaya since the other times I had been they had been working on renovating it. We said goodbye to Ayutthaya for the last time Wednesday morning to take a van to the airport in Bangkok to catch our flight to Chiang Mai and begin the northern leg of our trip. My mom really enjoyed our time in Bangkok and Ayutthaya and I was a little surprised that I had so much fun too considering we did things that I have done before (sometimes multiple times). 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mom Comes to Thailand Part 1: Ko Phayam

Eric and I said our goodbyes to Suphanburi, to our favorite Thai teachers, to Wattana, to Nay, and to our smoothie lady and left for Bangkok on a Friday after finishing our week of tutoring the math and science teachers. My mom’s flight got in at 10 am on March 23rd and we surprisingly didn’t have any problems finding her at the airport! She was alert (impressive after such a long flight), excited to be in Thailand, and came bearing cookies and brownies. We took her to Chatuchak Market so she could be sufficiently overwhelmed with a huge Thai market and do some shopping.

Aow Yai--Our beach in Ko Phayam
We then made our way to the Southern bus terminal, which was much easier to get to than expected so we spent a few hours hanging out at the bus station before boarding our 8:30 pm overnight bus to Ranong. We got to Ranong and took a taxi to the pier at around 5 am and had another 4 or so hours to wait until the ferry left for our destination-Ko Phayam. It was then a 2 hour ferry ride to the island, a 20 minute motor taxi ride to the beach we would stay at (Aow Yai) and some walking from bungalow to bungalow trying to find a good deal. We were hot and exhausted after all the traveling and couldn’t wait to put our backpacks down and jump in the ocean. (By the way, my mom’s modes of transportation count in two days was 9)

Our Bungalow
We went for the cheapest bungalow option, which was a very basic bungalow at Ko Phayam Coconut Resort. We easily slipped into the island lifestyle of waking up and going on a run, walk, or swim, more swimming, breakfast, reading, more swimming, etc. One day we rented a motorbike so we could see the other part main area that people stayed on the island and Eric played taxi driver shuttling my mom and I to the different beaches. The other beach was in a bay as opposed to our long, wide beach (great for running) and was very beautiful. The water was very shallow and Eric and I were able to walk almost all the way to where the bay met the open ocean!

Buffalo Bay before the tide went out
Ko Phayam is way less developed than most islands in Thailand. There is only electricity in the evening and they turn off running water at night (and sometimes at random times during the day). These two aspects of the underdevelopment were a bit inconvenient at times, but it was so nice to be on an island with a huge open beach and very few tourists relative to the rest of Thai islands. The food was still expensive as on all islands, but it was actually really good which isn’t always the case in areas where there are a lot of tourists. Our favorite dish was Burmese pickled tea salad, which I will definitely try to recreate at home. We ate a lot of great seafood every single day, which is always a treat.

Beautiful sunsets every night
Mom shell hunting 

My mom did a great job fitting in with the many 20 somethings traveling in Southeast Asia with her backpack and ability to handle far from glamorous living conditions. She probably could have stayed on Ko Phayam for months spending a few hours each day collecting shells (which ended up being a large tuppleware full for her to carry around the rest of her trip) among the other relaxing beach activities. We were a bit sad to leave Ko Phayam, but after 6 nights it was time to move on to the next leg of our trip.  
The street we called town nearest to our beach where we walked to get good coffee for mom, shop a little, and rent the motor bike.