Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cooking and Elephants in Chang Mai

The train arrived mid-morning. I got lucky and saw a sign for Julie's Guesthouse, which the Australians had recommended. I hopped in the back of a red covered pick-up truck, the favored transportation in Chang Mai, with a few others and checked in to the guesthouse. I walked around the city with a girl I met at the hostel till the evening when I met up with Nate, another friend from Korea. He was traveling with a friend of his from home. The three of us went out for dinner and drinks and they told me about their day at the Elephant Nature Park, which I quickly decided I had to visit as well.

The next day the three of us walked around the Old City checking out wats and eating delicious Thai food. Nate headed to the airport while Cecilia and I headed for Thai massages. I had read in my guidebook that one of the best places in town to get a traditional massage was at the woman’s penitentiary, so naturally I had to check it out. We came across the prison, razor wire and all, and saw a sign pointing us across the street. It was my first Thai massage, so I had no basis for comparison, but Cecilia had already had quite a few and she said it was better than all the rest. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hoped to get many more six dollar massages while on my trip. I couldn't help but think about what my masseuse had done to land herself in prison, but she was nothing but kind and I was happy to play a small part in the rehabilitation program program.

The next day I went to Thai Cooking School. This was the activity I was most looking forward to in Thailand and it lived up to my expectations. It was called Sammy's Organic Cooking School and I was the first one Sammy picked up at 8:30. As the pick-up truck filled I realized it was all couples – I was the ninth wheel. This was a little awkward at first, but we all got along really well and had a great day. Sammy took us out to his farm where he and his wife taught us all about the food we were cooking in an open air kitchen. We each got to cook five dishes of our choosing. My biggest accomplishment was the curry paste I made from scratch, but I must say that all of the food I cooked was delicious! They sent us home with very full bellies and a book with all the recipes. I hope I am able to make some of dishes at home even if they are only half as good.

I spent the next day at the Elephant Nature Park. It is very different than most of the elephant parks, as it is a rescue
park for hurt or abused working elephants. There were some with broken backs or hips, some that were severely abused, and even one that was blind. The day was split up into education, feeding, and river bathing. It was upsetting to learn about some of things that go on with working elephants, but it was definitely overshadowed by the time I got to spend with them. I was scared to get close at first, but ended the day by putting food directly into an elephant's mouth and I even got a kiss!

On my last day in Chang Mai I took at trip up to Doi Suthep, a temple overlooking the city. This was the first day that rain had truly ruined my plans. Luckily I did have an umbrella, but it had been sunny when I left so I thought nothing of the thin light blue skirt I was wearing that quickly became see though. At least my driver got quite akick out of it. I think he felt bad so he drove me around the city a little and showed me the instant flooding that happens there when it rains. It looked like a disaster to me, but everyone was just going about their normal business.

In the afternoon I headed to Pai, a small town three hours northwest of Chang Mai.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Quick Stop in Bangkok

After a couple of mini bus transfers I got on the night bus from Krabi to Bangkok, which was actually quite comfortable. I started the trip with two seats to myself, but the guy behind me, Luke, was getting dripped on by the air-conditioner so he moved up to sit next to me. This was lucky for me because I figured I would find a place to stay when we got there, but we arrived early and in the dark I felt a bit lost. He was part of a group of five Australians who had been to Bangkok many times and they invited me to tag along with them to find a place to stay. We all ended up in single rooms a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Kho San Road. The room was just big enough to fit a twin bed and my backpack. It had only a window to the hallway, no outlets, and a shared bath, but what did I expect for 250 baht (about eight dollars) in Bangkok?

The nice thing about arriving so early was that I was up and out exploring the city before any of the other tourists. I hit the Grand Palace, the Emerald Budda, and Wat Pho all before 11am. The architecture of the palace and watswas completely different from what I had gotten so used to in Korea and I really enjoyed it.

Right outside the palace I came across a rather interesting sight - a massive barber shop set up on the sidewalk. There were tents with no less than 30 people getting their hair cut beneath them. Many of the barbers attempted to gain my business, but with no success. I walked on to the black briefcases I had read about in my guidebook.If a black briefcase is set out in front of a person on the sidewalk it signifies that he/sheis a palm reader. I knew that it was a bit of a joke, but I was fine with spending 50 baht for a little fun. The first one I saw was an older man who said he spoke English because he had been a teacher. He of course told me all good things – that I would live a long life, marry someone I loved, have children, and be very successful – all in all, the fortune I wanted to be told.

In the afternoon I walked up to Vimanmek Palace taking every side street possible. At one point I was walking along a canal and found myself on the outskirts of a small slum, I went to turn around, but the local men told me to keep going. I ended up walking on rotting wooden planks through what appeared to be people's living rooms, but everyone kept pointing to go straight. When I eventually got to what I thought was the palace it wasn't, but the woman behind the counter said that someone would give me a ride and she pointed out the door. I got in a golf cart and Joe, as he introduced himself, gave me a ride. He greatly enjoyed his 15 minute English lesson and was waiting to give me another ride when I walked out of the palace.

The palace itself was nice, but would have been much nicer if the teak wood hadn't been painted over. When you arrive you have to put everything in a locker, as they don't want pictures taken inside. The second I closed the locker I realized that I had forgotten to take out my shoulder cover up. The woman who was helping me said it was no problem that I could borrow something like many of the people that were in shorts or tank tops. The tops were all horrible Hawaiian shirts, but for some reason I was the only one with a bright orange one. Three different groups of people felt the need to point this out to me. Luckily, as everyone's cameras were in lockers, there is no photographic evidence of me wearing the hideousness that was that shirt.

I decided to save my feet for the sunset walk I wanted to do and attempted to get my first taxi. I had been warned of a couple of scams that the taxi drivers pull on the foreigners and was told to always ask for the meter to be turned on. The first taxi driver quoted me 80 baht, I said “Meter”, he said “70”, I said “Meter”, he said “60 with a shopping trip”, I said “Meter”. He went down the line to see who would turn on his meter and the seventh and last one was the only one who would. I got back for 50 baht with no shopping trip. (A shopping trip is when they are given gas money for bringing you into a shop.)

In my guide book it suggested watching the sunset over Wat Arun from the opposite side of the river. I attempted walking along the river, but there isn't a river walk like in most cities. The only place I could get a glimpse of the Wat was a boat taxi port where they asked me everywhere I was going every two seconds. I gave up on the sunset, but my walk took me through a bunch of really great markets.

I headed back to my guesthouse and met up for dinner with the Australians. We had fantastic food and I even got to try frog legs for the first time. It was a birthday for one of them, so we celebrated with buckets from one of the bars on the sidewalk.

I decided to move on to Chang Mai the next day so I bought an overnight train ticket from a travel agent. It rained almost the entire day so I spent my day walking around and ducking into cafes when it started pouring. Because of the rain I headed to the train station early figuring it would be something new to see. Hundreds of people were sitting on the floor of the train station and I joined for some people watching. Suddenly at six o'clock I heard some music and everyone stood up. I followed suit and waited till the song was over to ask what was going on. Apparently at eight every morning and six every evening the song is played and sung by everyone in public places showing respect for the Queen.

Ten minutes before the train's departure I found my cabin. It was a sleeper with four beds. I shared it with a Thai couple with a one year old and a German man about my age. The baby was super cute and would come to me every chance he got. I spent the evening talking with two men I met, an American and a Japanese. We were joined by a rather intoxicated Thai man who spoke exactly one word of English - nickname. He spent his entire evening trying to get us as drunk as he was, but was not successful as he fell asleep on the American every 10 minutes.

The next morning I found the best part of the Thai train – you can stick your head out the window! The scenery was beautiful and even better with the wind in your face.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Relaxing in Railay

Jen was heading to Railay the next day and had great things to say about it, so I decided to join her. The ferry takes about an hour and half, but there is no dock so we had to get in long boats then walk though the water. We quickly found a place to stay and walked around the island. Railay is breathtakingly beautiful. It isn't an island, but you have to get there by boat because there are limestone cliffs everywhere that make road access impossible.

The next day Jen went rock climbing, but I decided to stay behind to give my foot a rest. It was the first time I had been alone on this solo journey of mine. Over breakfast at a little restaurant I realized how much more
aware I was when I was alone. A mother and daughter, of about ten, were running the restaurant. Every electrical appliance in the place was plugged into one extension cord that was dangling from the ceiling. The little girl would deliver each person's food individually on a tray as her mother did all of the cooking. When I asked if I could take her picture she was almost honored. I felt like it was my first genuine interaction with locals.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the island's beaches and caves, before saying goodbye to Jen and heading to Bangkok. I booked a night bus with my hotel which included the boat transfer to a larger city nearby. A hotel staff member walked the group to the beach and pointed to any one of 15 long boats that were out in the water and said go. I asked which one and he pointed again at no boat in particular, so I led the group into the water. We waded thigh deep, some of us with backpacks on, others holding their luggage above their heads, till one of the boats waved us in.

Halfway through the boat journey I realized that I was in need of a toilet and quickly. I could see land so I just tried to think good thoughts. Once we got to the dock I thought I was home free, unfortunately the dock was the longest dock I've ever seen, at least it felt that way. I started to run/walk wishing there was a tree or anything that could be used. I sighed with relief when I saw a small restaurant/convenience stop and asked one of the men where the toilet was, he nodded his head no. I said toilet again with a look of desperation, he must have gotten the idea because he got on his motorcycle, turned the key, and motioned for me to hop on. I am scared to death of motorcycles, but I didn't hesitate for a second, I dropped my bags and jumped on. He took me a kilometer down the road and dropped me at a toilet in middle of nowhere. After I walked back and thanked him profusely I boarded a mini bus and started the first leg of my journey to Bangkok.