I am writing this post from a slow boat on the Mekong River. I thought I should share my latest adventures while the beautiful scenery floats past me. It has been a very busy few days and I have a lot to share with you! As a side note, I have received a lot of positive feedback on the videos, so I am going to try to include more of them! Please let me know if you like them or not in the comments. I know it can make the page load slower for you (and the upload time longer for me), so don’t be afraid to tell me if it’s too much!
So during my time here in SE Asia I decided to take an organized tour through a company called Intrepid Travel. They are known for being an ecofriendly company that is conscientious about respecting the local people, environment, and cultures throughout the world. They offer low cost trips with basic accommodations and experiences. I felt good about supporting their company, and am very happy to have some additional people with whom to travel.
On Saturday I met up with the group for the first time and after a brief orientation meeting we all grabbed a traditional Thai dinner at a restaurant down the street. We shared a few local beers, and lots of laughs getting to know each other. We total ten consisting of other travelers from Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, three of us from the US, and our Cambodian trip leader. It is a fun group and I have been enjoying the company so far. We have a range of ages from 27 to over 60, both couples and singles.
Our first day of adventure started early the next morning at 8:00 AM. We walked over to the pier to catch a Thai longtail boat and head down the Klong river through the center of Bangkok. It was a great way to see part of this huge city and quite enjoyable to observe the diversity of lifestyles on the river. We cruised past women rowing boats on their way to the markets, several temples, and riverfront homes perching precariously on stilts. Others had concrete foundations and looked quite solid. You quickly get an idea of the damage that high waters can do to this city.
We made a brief stop near one of the temples to feed the abundant fish. The fish flock (do fish flock? Or is school also a verb?) to this area because the waters in front of the temple are protected and they won’t be netted. I think the tourists feeding them has a little something to do with it as well. They were nearly jumping into the boat to get the small pieces of bread we were throwing them.
We continued down the river and stopped near Wat Po. Wat Po is a university and temple dedicated to the healing arts including traditional Thai massage. Inside the main temple there is a massive gold plated reclining Buddha with beautiful mother of pearl inlay covering his massive feet. As we were admiring the beautiful paintings on the walls and the bright colored Buddha I noticed a rapid “tinging” sound throughout the temple. I was wondering what it was when I rounded the corner and saw a series of metal bowls lining the wall behind the Buddha.
There were a few monks selling coins and I was told that if you put a coin in each bowl you will guarantee yourself good health. I grabbed a quick video, and learned that you can only tilt the camera for pictures and not video. So don’t be deceived by the what you see on video, the law of gravity is a universal one and does indeed apply here in Thailand…
We wandered around the temple grounds and then some of the group decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel (it was about 96 degrees F and extremely humid – blech!) and four of us decided to head over to something called the Golden Mound. After a harrowing tuk-tuk ride through the city, we got to the base of a huge hill in the middle of the city.
The video below does not properly express the crazy experience of taking a Motorcycle mounted taxi through the streets of a busy city severely lacking in traffic laws. During the scariest moments, filming was not on my mind, so this example is rather tame comparatively speaking. Let’s just say that in this situation you must always keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. If you don’t, you are likely to lose them on a car or motorcycle that we tear past like a bat out of hell.
Back to the sights. The Golden Mound is a gold painted temple built high on a hill (aka Mound). It was heavily forested on the way up and there were a series of bells lining the stairs. People were ringing them one by one as they went past and occasionally there would be a platform with a large gong.
It was quite the noise, but made for a very interesting atmosphere. Adding to the overall ambiance of the temple there were many monks coming and going.
Once we made the long hike to the top, the views were breathtaking! You could see nearly the entire city of Bangkok! It had been a long hot day, and we took a cab back to the hotel to get our stuff packed for a train ride that night. We left the hotel at about 4:30 in the afternoon and headed for the train station.
The plan is to spend the night on a 14 hour sleeper train trip up to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I was expecting some pretty rough conditions, but was pleasantly surprised. Other than being quite dirty initially, the train was nice and comfortable while we were hanging out during the evening. Nothing a few antibacterial wipes couldn’t fix, well, except the bathroom, which was pretty gross after about three hours into the train ride.
We had dinner on the train, which was about what you would expect to get on an airplane. When we first arrived on the train we placed our order and specified the time we wanted to eat. They were there with our meal promptly at the time indicated and the food was hot! After a few beers and some laughs, we started to wonder how to turn these booths we were sitting in into a set of bunk beds.
Luckily, one of the train attendants came by and made them up for us. They had curtains, sheets, blankets and pillows all ready for us. The bed itself was not uncomfortable, but the train was less than stable. It was swaying, clicking, and once in a while the driver would slow down rapidly. It made it hard to sleep, but we all managed to get at least a couple of hours worth. We didn’t have much time to lament about our tired selves before we launched into a really busy day again!
The Chiang Mai region of Thailand has a rich history. Because of it’s prime location and surrounding fertile lands, the valley was settled by several different ethnic groups including some hill tribes that still live traditional lives to this day. We took a minibus up to the hills around Chiang Mai to see some of the local hill tribes.
As we wound our way through some rice paddies you started to get a vivid picture of rural life. Once we made our way into the village there were several people working on handicrafts to sell to tourists. There were very distinct tribes in the area, each with their own little villages.
One tribe you might recognize is the Caren tribe that uses metal rings to elongate their necks. They were all very friendly, and of course welcomed the tourist dollars. At the end of the main area of one of the towns there was a large catholic church and we were told that they learned how to make many of the items by the missionaries and most people in this particular village were Christians.
We walked down small streets and over precarious bridges to see all of the various hill tribes. One of the tribes had decorated gates located on either end of their village. The gates are believed to be protected by a spirit and if it is touched by any humans it has to be cleansed by the sacrifice of a black cat or black pig. Yikes. Won’t be touching that one.
After a long hot walk we hopped back into the minivan for a short ride over to a Tiger conservation center. The tigers were trained and tamed since birth to be friendly to humans so that tourists could pay to have their pictures taken hugging, petting, and lying on them. I chose not to because I have strong feelings about wild animals needing to be wild, and Siegfried and Roy taught me a valuable lesson about tamed Tigers. I watched from afar as the guys in the group took pictures with the massive tiger!
While I was waiting, I decided to get a fish pedicure. The fish are supposed to eat all the dead skin off of your feet leaving them refreshed and like new. I decided to give it a try because after many weeks of traveling I was in desperate need of some pedicuring. It tickled like crazy as they pecked at my feet (this is not for you ticklish feet types, Tracy), but after about 40 minutes, my feet didn’t look much different. Oh well – it was only a couple bucks! Still something fun and new!
We all loaded back into the minivan to meet up with the rest of the group for a trip to a local temple to watch the sunset. We got caught in traffic so what should have taken 30 minutes actually took about 2 hours, so we arrived at the temple just in time to watch the sunset and hear the monks doing their evening chanting. This was one of my favorite temple experiences this far. It was mostly the active worship and chanting that made it special. But it also provided beautiful sunset views of Chiang Mai.
The temple and monastery is called Doi Suthep. It is situated on a tall mountain in the Northwest of the city.
I thought the story of how it’s location was chosen was quite interesting. A relic of Buddha was placed on a sacred white elephant’s back. The elephant was allowed to roam freely until it came across a place where it trumpeted and circled before laying down. That was taken as a signal that it had chosen an auspicious place for the temple to be built. So they built one! Supposedly the relic and original stupa is still located under the newer golden stupa.
I would have enjoyed having additional time to spend in Chiang Mai as it was much mellower and easy to navigate compared to Bangkok. We went out for dinner and drinks after and had a lovely time. That night we stayed at a small guesthouse and I fell asleep almost immediately after a long exhausting day.
We woke up early again the next day and took a long minivan ride to Lao. It was about a seven hour trip, but we made a few stops along the way to break up the time. One was a pecan farm where we learned about how pecans are processed and grown.
The second stop was one of the most beautiful and unusual temples I have ever seen. It is called the white temple by most and was designed and created by a classically trained Thai artist who has set out to build the most beautiful temple in the world.
It was extremely intricate and was meant to highlight the balance between good and evil. The grounds were covered with macabre images of suffering and intended to represent the depths of hell. Then you crossed over a bridge and entered a temple which represented the pathway to leave hell behind and subsequently arrive in heaven. You couldn’t take pictures inside of the temple, but on the main wall is a fairly traditional shrine of buddha images. On the opposing wall facing the Buddha was a mural of a detailed and unusual demonic face.
Throughout the demon painting there were representations of well known movie heros and villians including several comic book characters such as Spiderman, movie icons like the aliens from Avatar, and in the center of each of the demons eyes was another image – George W. Bush in one eye and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Creepy!! It was really strange to say the least and was actually being painted when we were in there. I walked away a little confused, but appreciative of the beauty and hard work that went into building this ongoing project.
Back on the minivan to go to the river crossing between Thailand and Laos. The Thailand side is Chiang Khong. There we got stamped out of the country and were sent down to the shores of the river to catch a boat over to Huay Xai, Laos. It was not the steadiest boat in the world. Crazy to think this is the only border crossing in the North of Thailand. Once we arrived on the Lao side we were shuttled from one line to the next to get our Lao visa. One line for turning in the paperwork, one line for paying the visa fee, and another line to exchange money, and one line to get the heck out of there!
Everyone was in good spirits and you could tell our leader was much happier being in Laos than in Thailand because he had a few beers with us for the first time. We all went out and had some drinks before retiring for the night.
The next morning we hopped aboard a slow boat down the Mekong River for a two day trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. I am writing to you from the boat, but I will have to leave you hanging as to what happened during and after the boat ride until my next post! I wish you could all be here with me, I am having the time of my life!
Take care! Love and miss you all!