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Two Weeks in Thailand

 Bangkok Impressions:

While a lot calmer than Shanghai or even Beijing, Bangkok is still a dense, crowded city of 8.28 million, with poor air quality and assaultive noise from motorbikes and trucks. It’s also quite cosmopolitan, with many neighborhoods that mix Chinese and Muslim influences, plus restaurants from several European cultures. Traffic is fairly constant, and there aren’t a lot of signaled intersections. On some streets, pedestrian bridges make things easier—but otherwise, crossing the streets is a challenge.

Tourist services are moderately high, but if you’re willing to shop like a Thai, prices on many items are amazingly cheap. Patterned women’s pants, 100-300 bhat (about $2.75-$8.55 US at the time of our visit). Pad Thai the national dish of rice noodles and peanuts) starting at 100 bhat. A full hour of vigorous Thai massage can easily be found for 200 bhat.

Western companies are all over the place, both with retail outlets (especially 7-11 and Starbucks, which are everywhere) and tech company offices (Apple, HP).

Other than the temples and a few older mansions, the city architecture is mostly nondescript. Some old-style wooden buildings remain, and there are several very distinctive modern skyscrapers (including one that looks like it was built with Legos and another resembling a gold pyramid with the top chopped off) but most are concrete. The city is full of construction sites, and our guide told us she barely recognized the city because so much had changed even in the past five years.

People here are friendly and accommodating and seem to joke a lot. Many also smoke a lot.

However, this would be a difficult city to visit if you have walking disabilities. Even escalators are often up a short flight of stairs. Curb cuts are rare—and sometimes much too steep where they do exist. Many of the attractions also involve many stairs.

Day 1: Reclining Buddha Temple and River Cruise

Among Bangkok’s thousands of temples, Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha Temple) is a great place to start. Rebuilt in 1783 as an expansion of an older monastery built around 1656, this large campus features the third-largest Buddha in the world. You enter at the head and follow the massive golden statue several hundred feet down to its toes—while making sure to look at the paintings and smaller sculptures that cover the walls and ceiling. It commemorates the Buddha at the end of his life, two weak to stand, but still sharing his teachings. The main prayer hall is also open, in a different building, and similarly adorned. Between them, pass a long row of sitting gilded Buddhas, each using a hand gesture that signifies a different attribute. The campus is crowded with stuppas (called “chedi” in Thai, often memorializing loved ones who died recently. The Thai calendar starts 542-543 years before the Christian one, with the death of Buddha.

Across the river is another massive temple complex, the Dawn Temple. We crossed on a crowded ferry and only passed through the edge of it, but I was impressed with the fancy gardens that seemed to combine bonsai and topiary.

Temples, small and large, are everywhere in Bangkok, especially along the Chao Phraya River, which separates Bangkok from other municipalities (the Bangkok side is much more heavily developed). We also saw quite a number along a side channel that went through a historic section and is reputedly natural rather than man-made, though these days, it has concrete walls to keep flood waters at bay.

And we spent the next hour on that river, cruising in Long Tail: a smallish boat with a repurposed automobile engine and transmission a very common boat type here). Boats drive on the right, but cars drive on the left. Our boat pilot stopped a couple of times to show us first a baby monitor lizard, and then a much larger specimen, which he described as medium-sized. Both were several feet long and the adult had a red crown at the head.

The pilot let our group off at the Saphan Taksin Sky Train station, which we took to connect with the Metro (two different systems, two payments) back to the Lumpini Park neighborhood where our hotel is located. Our guide referred to this area (Sala Daeng on the Sky Train or Si Lom on the Blue Line) as “the food paradise of Bangkok”—and it was after 2 p.m. and our stomachs were rumbling—so of course we separated from our tour and did a quick explore. After rejecting a few that seemed to have little or nothing for vegetarians, we settled on a pop-up food court in an indoor mall. There, we found lovely filled buns. We bought an assortment of five for 100 bhat (about $3 US): pumpkin, red bean, black sesame, taro, and purple sweet potato. All were quite tasty, as was a pudding of multicolored tapioca pearls in coconut milk, served over a fried egg. 

In the evening, we enjoyed a very nice dinner with our group in the Aetas Lumpini’s Hourglass Restaurant (where we also start our day with a huge breakfast buffet combining Thai, other Asian, and western foods). As the only two vegetarians in the group, we were very pleased that the hotel staff gave us a substitute for every single thing our companions received, even making us our own vegetable-mushroom soup. Two of the dishes were just exquisite: a salad of grated green papaya and peanuts in a tangy lime dressing, and a large slice of lightly fried tofu in a fantastic and very coconuty green curry, with water spinach on the side. The main course was a large portion of tofu, cashews, and vegetables, and there was fresh seasonal fruit for dessert. To digest the large meal, we walked for several blocks around the hotel, finding one street filled with neighbors at family-style food kiosks with plastic seats around card tables, and another lined with inexpensive Thai massage studios (200-250 bhat for an hour!).

Day 2: Grand Palace/Emerald Buddha Temple

The massive Grand Palace complex was built over many generations starting in 1782, when Bangkok became the capital. We spent most of our time in the part related to the Emerald Buddha. Carved from a single block of jasper in Northern Thailand, this statue was discovered in Chiang Rai in 1464, moved to Chang Mai 17 years later, sojourned in Laos from 1552 through 1778, and then brought back to Thailand, where it is still considered the most important Buddha in the country. It’s been at the current temple since 1784.

The exquisite statue, only 66 centimeters (about two feet) in height), is atop an ornate raised platform and illuminated; the green color is so vivid that it appears to be made from emeralds.

Getting to it from the entrance involves passing many chedi that combine architectural styles from Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, while many of the palace buildings incorporate British, French, and other Western elements—all of them also including several Thai elements. This was apparently part of some earlier kings’ approach to diplomacy: make conquered people feel welcome, and make foreign powers believe you have powerful allies among their peers, so you can negotiate from strength. According to our guide, this is why Thailand, alone among its neighbors, was never conquered by a Western power. We also passed libraries, belfries (used to keep time), and shrines aplenty.

Unfortunately, most of the actual palace buildings was closed off to us—more than usual, because the body of much-loved King Rama IX, who had reigned 70 years and died just 82 days before our visit, was lying in state and that section was closed off to non-Thais. Massive numbers of black-clad Thais lined up for as much as 12 hours to spend their two minutes paying their respects. Once done, they were able to get free food and water from volunteers, who also contributed everything from medic services to translation to cooking and cleaning.

The entire country is lined with memorials to this king. His portrait (mostly as a much younger man) is everywhere, usually with flowers below it. It hangs on enormous billboards, across boulevard-width arches, and in small cards taped to shop counters.

Part of his veneration is based on his long history of good works. According to our guide, he initiated more than 2300 betterment projects in the country, ranging from starting a local strawberry industry to clean hydropower to literacy and education. In Bangkok, he endowed two neighboring hospitals: one for the wealthy that subsidizes one for the poor. He chose to spend his final illness at the one for the poor. However, according to Wikipedia, he was also very closely allied with often-repressive military movements.

After lunch, we walked back to Sala Daeng via Lumpini Park. The walk along Rama 4 Road was horrible: ugly, polluted, and noisy. But the park was an oasis of beauty and serenity—a car-free walk with lovely tropical trees, used heavily by walkers, joggers, and a few bikers—and home to many happy birds. After the park, we treated ourselves to a full-hour massage and then wandered through the Night Market—which mixed cheap souvenir shops, stalls with counterfeit CDs, DVDs, and branded fashion merchandise, taverns with a decidedly 70s feel, sex shops—many with what appeared to be uniformed prostitutes hanging out on the street in front (some of the stores even gave them name tags), people mixing up smoothies and selling the raw fruit, and a few restaurants. On the warm winter Sunday night of our visit, the pace was slow and the energy not-too frenetic, with only a few touts, a crowd that seemed to be about three-quarters Thai and the rest Western. Compared to Beijing’s, it felt utterly calm—but not all that interesting.

Day 3: Floating Market and River Kwai

About two hours from Bangkok, we stopped first at an organic coconut orchard/animal rescue center (where we learned that coconut sugar is made from the flowers, of all things) and then the legendary Floating Market, where locals come to buy fruits and vegetables directly from the growers, who line up two- and three-deep in small boats on the canals and pass their wares out in small, long-handled wire baskets. Our favorite discovery there was a delicious homemade (and probably vegan) coconut ice cream topped with roasted peanuts.

The next stop was a small museum in Kanchanaburi about the Bridge Over the River Kwai, and an accompanying graveyard for more than 6000 construction workers enslaved by the Japanese during World War II, most of whom died of preventable or treatable diseases like cholera and malaria. The exhibits examined the actual and planned Japanese invasions of most of Asia, and how construction of the railroad through intense jungle was a part of that. Oddly enough, I didn’t see any part about the Allies’ attack on the bridge, other than a cursory examination of why the bridge was so strategically important. World War II buffs will definitely want to stop there, but if that’s not your thing, this one would not be your best choice.

The bridge itself has been rebuilt, and it’s not difficult to walk across the river over the tracks to a Chinese pavilion full of elaborately carved and colorfully painted demons, snakes, etc. That was fun to explore, and we had the whole place to ourselves.

From there, we got off the main road (a nondescript thoroughfare) and into some lovely mountains: jagged, curvy, full of crevasses, and not that much higher than the road. And farms or orchards lining both sides of the road. The plant life here is very much like the Latin American rainforests we’ve been to: a dense, high canopy of strangler figs, palms, tropical fruit trees, even something that looked like Costa Rica’s Guanacaste tree.

This took us back to the Kwai, where we boarded boats for a speedy cruise to the beautiful River Kwai Resotel eco-resort. The accommodations are private huts made of bamboo and other native materials, very comfortable if you can manage with so-so hot water and erratic Internet (wi-fi at the reception/dining hall is only a short walk). Staff is friendly and helpful, the restaurant is vegetarian-friendly, and the vibe combines serenity and fun. Whoever did the landscaping should win a medal. It actually feels like the rainforest around much of the property, while a palm arboretum with numerous species creates an especially restful effect.

Day 4: Erehwon Waterfalls

About an hour’s drive from the resort’s mainland boat dock, a national park called loudly. While most of our group either went on the Bridge Over the River Kwai train to Hellfire Pass (another war museum) or hung around by the pool, we and two women 35 years younger hired a car and driver and went off to hike. Driving alongside fields of tapioca, banana, sugar cane, papaya, we took in mountain vistas and drove through a few small towns before reaching our destination.

And the drive was so worth it! It’s a climb up a steep mountain with seven different sets of waterfalls. At first we worried that it would be too crowded and too fake, because the lower third of the trail was paved (though not at all wheelchair-accessible, with long flights of steep steps in several places). But then around the third set of falls, the paved trail turned to dirt and most of the crowds fell away. It was about two-and-a-half hours of hiking, plus a short swim break that we aborted; as soon as either of us put a foot in the water, a large number of fish swirled around, and they were biting hard.

The trail is quite slippery and a lot of people (including me) were falling. If I were doing it again, I’d bring a walking stick, better shoes, and clothes I didn’t care about. Normally, in a forest, I just grab a stick off the ground—but in the rain forest, a lot of them are so waterlogged they disintegrate when carrying any weight. I did finally find one, and even so, I fell in the mud twice. Still, it was a very rewarding hike, especially welcome after the paltry exercise we’d gotten the previous day.

Day 5: Ayutthaya: King’s Summer Palace and World Heritage Site

Once an independent kingdom and later the capital of a united Siam (as Thailand was called until 1949) before it moved to Bangkok, Ayutthaya province has a lot to offer a one-day visitor. After a long drive east through some mountains and then rice paddy plains, we arrived at Bang-Pa-In, the summer palace of King Rama V (son of the king immortalized in “The King and I”).

Unlike the Bangkok palace, several key buildings in this large and beautiful compound are open to the public. Most of the buildings, including the one used for state affairs, are European style and were furnished from Europe as well. It’s quite a contrast to see these graceful marble mansions with their 25 or 30-foot ceilings surrounded by rainforest plants.

An even more jarring contrast is the king’s actual residence: fully Chinese (as is an accompanying observation tower). We’ve seen a lot of Chinese architecture around Thailand, and it’s quite distinct from Thai. Where Thai structures often favor angles, Chinese favors curves; Thai colors are muted, while the important Chinese buildings are gaudy.

We were told that the best place in our whole itinerary to buy textiles was at the small market just outside this palace, so with only a few minutes left before we had to depart, we didn’t climb the tower and went shopping instead. And indeed, we each found a beautiful and very reasonably priced garment: A white sarong with large purple irises for Dina, and a rust-colored pullover shirt with one subtle elephant for me.

After lunch, we stopped at the Ayutthaya UNESCO World Heritage Site  and visited two of the ruined temple complexes sacked and burned by the Burmese during one of the many wars between the two. And the next day, during the long bus ride, we watched a movie about a character in one of those wars, a princess who sacrificed her life to save her country—directed by Francis Ford Coppola, of all people.

Day 6: Sukhothai

Another early capital, Sukhothai, lies several hours north of Ayutthaya (so several days on horse- or elephant-back, in the old days). The ruins here (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) are architecturally similar to those at Ayutthaya, and many of the statues and walls are similarly blackened. But nobody sacked and burned them. When Ayutthaya united with Sukhothai, the northern capital was largely abandoned except for small farming communities. The jungle and occasional earthquakes and severe storms took their toll, however, and they are badly decayed. Both at Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, I found the ruined temples and palaces sharply evocative.

The group went around in a tram, but Dina and I discovered that we could rent bicycles for 30 bhat (less than a dollar US) and follow the tram around.

In the evening, Dina and I walked around and beyond the beautiful grounds of the Sukhothai Heritage resort, which include an egret pond and a rice farm that was just stunning in the sunset, with the rays reflecting in the water. There’s also an organic vegetable farm but it was closed for the evening. However, we enjoyed its bounty at dinner and breakfast—best vegetables of our trip, so far.

Day 7: School, Indigo Workshop, and White Temple

Before leaving the Sukhothai area, we visited one of the schools our tour company (Gate 1) subsidizes. After watching a band performance and participating in morning exercise, we were each “adopted” by an individual student and brought to the classroom for some simple friendship exchange activities. Fun, and it’s nice to know that our travel dollars help make a real difference in people’s lives.

This is about where the scenery started to get a lot nicer, as we went up into the mountains and left behind much of the endless highway businesses and cheaply constructed homes that had accounted for far too much of the scenery, other than around Kanchanaburi

Next, a small indigo workshop, where a 76-year-old woman runs a dye shop using traditional (chem-free) processes, mixing a tea made from a concentrated deep blue paste of indigo leaves with ash and lime, hand-stamping designs onto fabric using hot wax, and then immersing the cloth in die buckets where it first turns bright green, and then rapidly blues up. She has a small shop open only to tour groups, and her clothes (both traditional and modern designs) range from a fairly pale blue to a deep purple. The rest of her output goes to fancy hotels and airline duty-free shops. We all got to try our hand at hand-stamping, which is much harder than it looks.

The highlight for me was the White Temple on the outskirts of Chiang Rai. Imagine what Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia basilica would look like if Gaudi had been an Asian Buddhist. This beautiful temple is modern, started about 40 years ago and still under construction. The artist is 62 and says he may not finish it before he dies. The entire main chapel and most of the outbuildings is gleaming white, with bits of mirrored tile reflecting the dazzling sunlight. A few buildings are gold-colored, including a large and ornate public bathroom; we also drove past a gold-colored temple immediately next to the White Temple. The artist is often on-site, but we didn’t meet him. He also operates a commercial gallery within the complex, featuring pop icons like Michael Jackson, which we arrived too late in the day to see; the main chapel was a far higher priority. So far, this was my favorite temple of all those we saw in Thailand, by orders of magnitude. I would have liked more time there.

Day 8: Golden Triangle: Thailand, Laos, Myanmar

They call the three countries of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (a/k/a Burma) “the golden triangle”—because this is where opium was exchanged for gold, a kilo for a kilo.

The three countries all come together at the Mekong River, where both Laos and Myanmar have built Thai-owned casinos to lure their neighbors who have none of their own. It’s not like Vegas, though. Myanmar has one in that area (on an island) and Laos, two.

The Thai side has a small village containing a souvenir market, a huge statue of Buddha on a boat, flanked by 30- or 40-foot high gold-plated emblems of the king and queen, and a fully bilingual museum of opium, which we toured (allow half an hour).

We didn’t enter Laos at either of the casinos, but at a tiny shopping village selling the usual Thai textiles. I didn’t see anything that seemed distinctively Laotian other than the jars of homemade whiskey embalming snakes, scorpions, ginseng, spiders, etc. One preserved animal to a jar. Our (female) guide told us that one shot gives you health and a second, “your wife will not get any sleep tonight, you will be like a horse.”

The main street was full of touts, even with only 32 in our group. We moved one street over for a much more relaxed experience, and even bought a beautiful tapestry. But still, it didn’t really feel like being in a different country.

Between border crossings, we drove in tuk-tuk minivans called etans, across territory far too rough for a tour bus, to lunch at beautiful La Vallee. The road there was the last part was a bumpy dirt track, and then we arrived at this spectacular eco-resort to have our best meal in Thailand so far, built around vegetables so fresh they might have still been in the ground as we drove up. The glass noodles were particularly delicious. And the grounds are lovely to walk through, full of bamboo, rainforest plants, and glimpses of the mountains.

Crossing Into Myanmar

A lot of subtle but significant changes when you cross from Mei Sai, Thailand to Tachliek, Myanmar (Burma). Some things I noticed:

·         Temple architecture is much more strongly Chinese-influenced.

·         The market included all sorts of unfamiliar, interesting-looking fruits and vegetables

·         Many people live in very primitive shacks; a few live in mansions.

·         When I asked our guide why steering wheels are on the right even though they drive on the right, she told me that in many parts of the country, including the capital, Yangon, people drive on the left.

·         On one section of the international bridge, only one vehicle can cross at a time, so it can switch to the correct side of the road for the new country.

·         Outside of Bangkok and Chiang Mai where I saw a number of European luxury cars added to the mix, Toyotas, Nissans, and Asian Chevrolets dominate Thailand’s streets; cars from Europe or North America are very rare. Tachliek has even a greater percentage of Toyotas, but mostly more expensive models: Crown and Corona sedans, various SUVs. Far fewer Nissans, but lots of Hondas. A very high number of Lexuses. I saw one Jeep and one late-model Ford truck. License plates are in English.

·         Thailand’s streets are quite clean; this border town was filthy on the Myanmar side.

·         Kids are extremely happy to see and wave to foreigners.

·         Babies are everywhere.

·         Burglary is clearly an issue; many houses have barriers of razor wire or broken bottles.

And some that our guide pointed out to me:

·         There really isn’t a middle class. Most people are poor; a few are rich.

·         Cars cost less. Yet fewer people have them.

·         Food is less spicy, using paprika rather than chiles (though we saw plenty of chiles at the market). And while the food is very similar to Thai, there will be fewer choices.

·         Thai and Myanmari Buddhists share the same prayers (taken from ancient Sanskrit), but they’re written differently.

·         Myanmar has essentially no non-agricultural industry, importing almost everything (mostly from Thailand and China).

Our visit included visits to both a Buddhist nunnery and a temple. In both, many of the nuns and monks were just kids. They pledge their lives to service of their faith because it’s one of the only ways many of them could afford an education. Still, it’s a rigorous lifestyle. For the monks, our guide told us that they take two meals before 11 a.m. and then no solid food the rest of the day, abstain not only from sex but from any bodily pleasure (including underwear, according to our guide) or thoughts about those pleasures. Many are vegetarian. They have about 600 rules to obey.

Although we were only there about two hours, I felt like I had a much more real experience of Myanmar than Laos. However, people in our group who’d spent time there told us not to judge Myanmar by this squalid, but interesting, border town—think of a very tiny Tijuana.

We concluded our day at the sprawling Chiang Rai Night Market and Flower Festival in the center of town. The flower festival is a once-a-year event that takes over an entire park. Flowers arranged in 30-foot walls, live entertainment, and lots of people. It borders the Night Market, which stretches for about 7 blocks and offered us an authentic Thai snacking experience with no pressure. We sampled several small items from different vendors: friend black rice with sesame paste, a banana waffle, taro pancake, and an amazing avocado smoothie, among others. I think we spent under $5 combined and felt very well-fed.

Day 9: Hill Tribe Village and trip to Chiang Ma

Riding in a song thaew—a pickup truck converted to a minibus with benches along the two sides of the bed and up the middle—we bumped our way through the mountains to one of the development projects of the late king: a craft village with small communities from six of the hill tribes, including the Karen, famous for the “giraffe women” who wear up to 50 pounds of gold-colored brass rings on their necks, which appear lengthened (in reality, the huge weight compresses their shoulders and spine), as well as the Mien, whose textile artistry is simply stunning. The different tribes live together in harmony, and the king ensured running water and other amenities, some of it solar-powered.

We brought gifts of milk and other goodies, and passed them out to the children who followed us eagerly. Many of the kids were trying to sell friendship bracelets for 20 bhat (about 60 cents). But we chose to patronize the adult weavers, whose stunning scarves, tablecloths, and other textiles were extremely reasonably priced. A piece that took a year to make was going for about $60. A quick but gorgeous scarf went for just 150 bhat (about $4.40). These were the loveliest crafts we’ve seen here.

One of the down sides of an escorted tour is the tedious stops at various high-end craft galleries catering to tourists (prices about half of what you’d pay in the US, but many times more than buying on the streets). You do get to learn a bit about the craft, and that part is always interesting—but then a staff member follows you around for half an hour showing you different items to buy. In China, these were almost a daily occurrence. Here at least, three of the four (precious stones, silver, and silk) were ganged together in one afternoon. We took advantage of time off the bus and exited the workshops following the quick introductory explanations to walk around the neighborhood. Handicraft Street itself is a massive, smoggy boulevard lined with enormous shops. But we turned down a residential side street and walked along a park. We both feel we need far more exercise than the trip provides, and have been taking long walks pretty much every night.

But we inside long enough to discover something we never knew: silk requires killing the silkworms in their cocoons. As silk-loving vegetarians, this creates a moral crisis for us. I’m afraid we have to stop buying silk.

Day 10: Elephants and Orchids

Half an hour out of Chiang Mai, we visited an elephant rescue center and got to know some elephants. Their intelligence and strength are well known, but they’re also very playful. They like to be petted, sometimes they hug back, and they think it’s funny to gather a trunk full of river water and spray water all over their visitors. They do some tricks, including passing money to their mahouts and giving kisses with their trunks.

We mixed a snack for them of tamarind, palm sugar, salt, and ginger, and fed it to them along with sugar cane stems. They also constantly ate plants they harvested themselves. They eat constantly, and a mature elephant can consume about 500 pounds per day. To feed an elephant, either put the food on the ground, in the nozzle of the trunk, or directly into the mouth.

Several of us tried riding bareback. It’s scary to climb up so high (I had help from the mahouts), but once aboard, I found it very soothing (at least at the very slow pace we were going). We also took a short ride along a jungle trail on elephants outfitted with benches, which we mounted by climbing stairs to a platform.

But then later in the day (not through the tour, obviously) we met elephant activists who are on a campaign to end elephant rides and told us to look into http://www.saveelephant.org/ (which offers volunteer opportunities across Asia). They warned us not to confuse it with the Africa-focused savetheelephants.org), which, they say, is less concerned about ending elephant servitude. We might very well volunteer in the future, but I confess, I’m glad we got our morning with the elephants before this conversation.

Lunch was at another organic farm with great food. This one ran a commercial orchid growing operation, and we learned a bit about propagating orchids before sitting down to a grand buffet surrounded by these magnificent flowers.

For dinner, we drove out some distance to a beautiful country mansion that doubles as a cooking school. After touring the organic garden and getting a lesson in making a five-minute green curry with vegetables, we sat down to another bounteous meal of fresh natural foods.

Then the owner’s son (a gracious man in his 30s) gave us a tour of the beautiful teakwood house, built in 1999. Knowing that teak harvesting was outlawed in 1938, I asked if the wood had been recycled from an older building. He told me that it was new wood, legally obtained; they had purchased licenses for each individual teak tree in the project. The lower floor is a grand room housing the cooking school. Many traditional Thai homes are elevated at least a few feet with the bottom open to the elements, and they decided to elevate it enough to create usable space. Upstairs, three suites each with living room, bedroom, and bath, plus a room for the Buddha and family memorabilia (including many photos with members of the royal family, going back generations).

Day 11: Chiang Mai Herb Garden and Old City

We broke off from our tour group, which was heading to a mountaintop temple and then to a jade shop, and spent the day touring on our own.

Our Chiang Mai hotel off Nimmanhaemin Road—a tourist-oriented entertainment district of fancy hotels, western-style nightclubs, and such—was only a block and a half away from a lovely park affiliated with Chiang Mai University. Better still, there was a traffic light at the corner before the park. As in Bangkok, this is very important in Chiang Mai. At unsignaled intersections, it works like this:

1.      Look for a 20-foot gap in traffic coming from your left.

2.      As soon as it opens, step out, catch the eye of the next driver, and hold out your hand in the stop gesture (hand vertical, palm facing out)

3.      Go half-way across.

4.      Turn head to the right and repeat.\

Not fun!

But we made it safely in all our numerous crossings using this method.

Inside this park is a large and woodsy medicinal garden that we enjoyed immensely. Across the street was a large field full of flowers, and beyond that, a view of that mountain with the temple at the top. And around the corner, a lovely and brand new

 

Chiang Mai Old City

Most of Old City Chiang Mai, behind a moat and with a few small remnants of the old city wall here and there, are actually quite new. However, scattered among them, over a dozen temples and some old teak houses remain, hundreds of years later.

 

Where the theme in Bangkok’s temples seemed to be mostly snakes, Chiang Mai is all about dragons. We visited two: Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Pra Singh. Chedi Luang is quite extensive: a whole campus with many buildings on several acres. Both the current main temple and a smaller building reserved only for men are exquisite. Every inch of interior wall in the men’s building is covered with intricate story-paintings. But the site is dominated by the original ancient pyramid temple, several stories high and with a huge Buddha niched near the top of each of its four sides. I don’t believe this is still in use, but it’s very much venerated. Behind it, lovely palm gardens.

 

Off to the right (facing the old temple from the gate), you can participate in the “chat with monk” program, where young student monks are happy to practice their English with you for a few minutes. We talked to several, all of whom joined the order for the educational benefits. It seems quite common for monk novices to decide at the end of their training to rejoin the outside world, and not even all that uncommon for men to leave the order after some years. In fact, I read that the new king was ordained as a monk before leaving first for careers first in the military and later as a civilian jet pilot.

 

Wat Pra Sing is smaller and more angular, with beautiful grounds and amazing amounts of gold statuary.

 

Once we got templed out, we took refuge at the Thamonwan herbal tea shop, a new venture specializing in Thai herbs. Great vibe and friendly owner who sold us some packaged tea as a gift and then let us taste demitasse cups of both the one we bought and another blend. 138/1 Ratchamanka Road

 

Good walking tour: http://thailandforvisitors.com/north/chiangmai/old-city/index.php

 

Day 12: Return to Bangkok

Our tour ended with a return flight to Bangkok with a free afternoon and evening. We took the subway to Sukhumvit, where we enjoyed a delightful, worry-free meal at May Veggie Home, 8/3 Ratchadapisek Road (at Asoke, across from the Exchange building), http://mayveggie home.com . After lunch, we walked about two minutes farther down that road to Benchakiti Park, where we rented bicycles (40 bhat for an hour) and rode laps on the dedicated bike path around the lake. If you’d rather be on the lake, you can rent a swan boat. Exiting the park, we followed the street that runs through Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, avoiding busy Rama IV Road as long as possible, and walked back to our hotel without incident.

Thai Massage

Every city we went to had several blocks with multiple inexpensive massage shops, most of them offering one-hour massages; all took walk-ins. Thai massage is an aggressive combination of stretching and deep pressing using elbows, knees, feet, and legs as well as hands—usually without any gentle warm up, beginning by stretching your feet as far as they can and pressing hard immediately. All of the massages focused a lot on legs and feet.

We tried four of these street massages in three cities and one Swedish-style spa massage that cost six times as much. Our clear favorite was ZY Massage, Rama 4 Road Soi Ngamdupree, Bangkok, very close to Exit 1 of the Lumphini Metro station (yes, the train system spells it with an h). Sanitation standards were somewhat lax, as they are in most of these places, but the massage therapists were male and strong, and the work they did on my neck and shoulders was amazing. While they cater to a gay male clientele, they had no issues about working with my wife and me.

Shel Horowitz’s most recent book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World. He is the Editor of Global Travel Review.


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