Welcome to Cambodia! Siem Reap to be exact. We flew out of Chang Mai VERY early and made our way to Siem Reap. Here, we would spend 5 days and then head to Phnom Penh….from the long ago capital city to the new capital city. My plan is to structure this post a little differently, so feedback is always appreciated. Unless you are a history or archeological buff, I figured you might not want to spend a lot of time reading this post. So, I am going to give you some quick highlights of the first half of our trip and let the pictures tell the rest of the story…..
We had arranged to have our own personal tuk-tuk driver take us around over the next 4 days. He took us wherever we wanted to go and waited at each stop we made (all for $20 per day….how awesome is that!). Upon our arrival, and despite me being sick, he advised us to get our tickets for Angkor Wat rather than waiting until we planned to go, as the lines were notorious for being very long. After purchasing our tickets for the next 3 days, we headed to a temple in the heart of the city and a memorial to one of the killing fields that took place in Cambodia in the 70’s. To see the skeletal remains and read the horrific accounts of what was done to these wonderful people was very gut-wrenching, to say the least.
That evening, we went to this amazing Cambodian circus (Phare). It was nothing like the circuses in America. There were no clowns or dancing animals, it consisted entirely of phenomenal acrobatic stunts, skits, and dancing by young Cambodian artists. Definitely check out the pictures and video of this show – we were very impressed.
Our next 3 days were spent touring the temple ruins of Angkor Wat which is the biggest religious structure in the world. Each day was blistering hot (and humid), and we spent hours trekking and climbing the very steep, stone steps of about 11 different temples. After each day, we returned to our room for a much needed nap from the heat and exertion. What follows is a brief account of the first two days (we had decided to start with the smaller temples and save the granddaddy temple…Angkor Wat itself….for a sunrise visit on the third day).
Day 1: Our starting point was Pre Rup. This temple was commissioned by the Khmer King Rajendravarman over 1,000 years ago and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. From here, we head back in time seven years to East Mebon, which honors the parents of Rajendravarman and is best known for the relatively well-preserved elephant statues watching out from the corners of the temple. Our next stop was the slightly newer Ta Som, which is being captured by strangler figs. This was an amazing sight to see. Next was the serene Neak Pean. You reach the temple (which sits on a man-made island) by crossing a rickety boardwalk over an eerie, tree-filled lake. The last temple on the Grand Loop is Preah Khan – a huge complex of corridors, sunny terraces and Greek-esque columns.
Day 2: Knowing that the first temple on our list today was the filming site for the movie “Tomb Raider” (which neither of us had ever seen), we made sure to watch the movie the night before. I can’t say that it really helped me to identify with the temple. I can say that it made for a ridiculously crowded experience which was not to my liking….especially for such an amazing temple :(. So, first stop was Ta Prohm, considered the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor Wat. It’s appeal lies in the fact that it has been swallowed by the jungle (although well manicured around the temple to preserve it) as you will see in the pictures. Ta Keo was next and built entirely out of sandstone. The summit of the central tower is 50 meters high. This temple was never completed, and one theory is that it was struck by lightning which was considered a bad omen. From there, we headed to Sra Srang and Banteay Kdei. Sra Srang was considered a pool of ablutions reserved for the king and his consorts. Banteay Kdei was constructed in the 12th century. It is believed that much of the temple is in a ruinous state due to hasty construction. Our final stop of the day was Ta Nei. This was considered similar to Ta Prohm in that it is moss covered and wrapped in the tentacle-like roots of the trees. This small temple captured the atmosphere of Ta Prohm without all the crowds, making it a quite enjoyable place to experience. This ended our first two days of temple tours.
As we made our way back to the hotel, our driver suggested that we do a sunset tour of a temple that sat high on a hill overlooking a huge lake and surrounding rice paddy fields. Despite being exhausted, we thought this sounded like a good plan. By this time, our driver had figured out that I did not like crowds and really appreciated sites that were off the beaten path….this was definitely off the beaten path! What we did not know is that we would be dropped at the base of a tremendous amount of stairs (no, I did not count this time) which then spit us out 1/2 way up the hill. From there, we were told it was another 2,600 feet to the temple (all uphill, of course). Then, wouldn’t you know, more stairs! We finally reached the top! We were both a hot, sweaty mess….yuck. The temple was nice, but the goal was to snag a spot for a picture perfect moment. Needless to say, that was no easy feat either. We had to climb down the other side of the mountain, perched on rocks, to find our ideal spot to watch the sunset. There were definitely very few tourists here, and it was quite a sight to see. We ended up pretty beat up by the time we made our way back down to our ride. We actually asked our driver if he was mad at us (totally in jest, of course! He laughed…..hmmmm).
Day 3: Known as the “small circuit,” this was one of the most intense of our three days at Angkor Wat. We began our journey at 5 a.m. in order to be at Angkor Wat (the biggest temple in the world) for sunrise. Silly me figured it would be quiet and peaceful for a sunrise viewing. After all, who in the hell wants to get up at 5 a.m. if you don’t have to??!! Well, apparently everyone going to Angkor Wat! Dan and I (and 1000 of our closest friends) all descended on Angkor Wat in the dark to try and snag the ideal spot for sunrise photos. It was beautiful, but definitely not the serene, peacefulness I had hoped for. Angkor Wat is literally the symbol of Cambodia and with good reason. This huge, and well preserved, complex starts with a walk over a man made lake. The temple was built over 1,000 years ago! Unusual for Hindu temples, Angkor Wat is west facing and is dedicated to the god Vishnu. For this last day, our tuk-tuk driver hooked us up with a fantastic guide. Once we finished with sunrise, we left Angkor Wat to the Bayon temple and would then return to Angkor Wat to fully explore it. Our hope was that by the time we returned, the majority of people in Angkor Wat would be headed to Bayon. Our plan worked perfectly, and the crowds were far less overwhelming than they would have been following the usual pattern of flow. Our first stop was the imposing South Gate of Angkor Thom. We hopped out of the tuk tuk before we went through so that we could see the demon and guardian god carvings, as well as the ancient city gates. Angkor Thom isn’t a temple per se, but rather an ancient city with a number of temples inside it. Next was the Bayon temple, famous for its towers and carved faces which look out in all directions. The upper levels of the temple have the towers and faces while underneath lies the cool, quiet and dark corridors. Once finished, we made our way back to the temple of Angkor Wat where we spent several hours exploring the temple and its grounds. By the time we returned to the hotel, we could barely walk from all the trekking and climbing. Our entertainment for the evening would be a dinner and Asapara dance show. Once again, our fabulous tuk tuk driver took great care of us and booked us front row seats.
All in all, we really enjoyed Siem Reap and were sad to be leaving it behind, but the adventure must continue. Tomorrow we would hop a propeller plane (yikes) and head off to Phenom Phen for some new adventures. Stay tuned for some wildlife adventures and a more in depth look at the killing fields of Cambodia.
Hold on to your Lunch? You may be thinking….what a weird title….but here is the story. At the end of our last post, I told you that we had rented a motorcycle and were planning a 4 day loop in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai. The loop can be driven in as short as 2 days, but they are brutally long days and missing many great sites. It was highly recommended to plan to do the loop in 4 days, and so we did. We headed over to the bike shop where we had reserved a Suzuki V-Strom 650cc. We loaded up the saddlebags with our essential belongings for the next 4 days and stored the remainder of our luggage with the shop. For today’s ride, our plan was to head to the rural town of Pai. This would be a 4 hour ride (with some scenic stops built in) up an extremely curvy road. In case you think I am exaggerating, here is how some sources explain the road to Pai: “It is no secret that the 3-4 hour drive to Pai is a daunting one.” It is a steep and winding road that will make you feel every single one of it’s 762 vomit inducing turns. This was truly no joke. I can honestly say I have never been on a road that was nearly non-stop serpentine/hairpin turns. I have also never seen so many cars, pulled over at various points along the way, with someone out vomiting. I found this to be even more of a hair-raising experience, after I was strongly warned by Dan (repeatedly), that as the back passenger on a motorcycle it was imperative that I lean into every turn. By not leaning into the turns with him and the bike, I would put us at risk for crashing. Uhhhh, say what????
Out into the city bustle, we headed. For me, this was probably the most stressful part of the drive (well, maybe). We are having to really concentrate on which way to watch for traffic since we are driving on the opposite side of the road. In addition to that, scooters come roaring up on all sides of you and wiggle their way in and out of traffic. Oh, and let’s not forget me holding on to the iPhone to give Dan directions from Google maps while trying to hold on for dear life. We finally made it out of the city and into less traffic. No sooner had I begun to relax when the hairpin turns began. The number of serpentine signs we passed along the road was almost comical. I was gripped onto Dan’s shirt so tight, my knuckles were white and eventually began to cramp. My head bobbed from side to side in order to see around him and prepare for each “lean” I had to be sure and complete. In hindsight, it was quite comical. However, at the time, I was scared out of my mind (needless to say, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been on the back of a bike). As we corkscrewed our way up the mountain, we made our first stop at a waterfall. This required climbing some steps and heading uphill (go figure…it was a waterfall). I was struggling with this quite a bit since I had managed to blow out my knee with our crazy jungle trek. The waterfall was a beautiful sight, and we got a real kick out of the sign posted before you enter to swim. Check it out in the pictures….translations to English always turn out so funny!
Anyway, after the waterfall, we jumped back on the bike and continued on our journey. Our next stop was to a geyser. Once again, we trekked into the jungle through some amazing scenery….me, hobbling my way along. The geysers were all relatively small compared to others we have seen, but they erupted continuously which was kinda cool to see. Afterwards, it was back on the bike. You may be wondering at this point….how did you guys fair on those vomit inducing turns? I am happy to say that neither of us ever felt sick or got sick! Go team Muzich!
We finally arrived in Pai as they were beginning to set up the night market. This seems to be a big thing in Thailand. The streets are filled with various food carts, crafts, trinkets, etc. People wander the streets noshing on street food and checking out the sights. These night markets are quite lively events and very crowded. We checked into our hotel which was about a 10 minute walk from the center of the action. After our long day on the bike (our bodies actually ached after those 4 hours), we laid down for a rest before heading into town. Since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, we were both quite hungry and stopped into a local restaurant for some dinner. We quickly learned that was a big mistake (not because of the food or the restaurant….we had not yet been to a night market and didn’t know any better). After dinner, we headed to the market only to be overwhelmed by the delicious sights and smells….all hot and fresh. Who knew??!! We were novices and totally messed this up. Obviously we were too full to enjoy any of the many food delights that surrounded us, so we just wandered around admiring everything….feeling a little blue that we were unable to enjoy the delicacies of street food. This little town was bustling with backpackers and had so much going on. In hindsight, we have decided to come back to Pai and spend several days next year. One day was just not enough 🙁
The next morning, we gathered our things and headed to the bike. Today would be a 3 1/2 hour jaunt to the town of Mae Hong Son. This would mark the 1/2 way point of the loop. From here, we would be making our way back to Chiang Mai. Wouldn’t you know, this leg of the trip was non-stop serpentine as well. By now, I was becoming more comfortable on the bike (for the most part). I was still clinging to Dan for dear life, but leaning into the curves a lot more naturally. On our way to our next hotel, we stopped at a fish cave (Tham La fish cave). This took us along a path through some amazing nature and ponds. As we progressed past the various ponds, the fish became larger and larger. In the last pond, there were these very large fish. They looked a little bit like cat fish in that they had whiskers, but they also had this beautiful, shimmery blue tail and midsection. We were sold a big head of lettuce to feed the fish. Lettuce? Really? They LOVED it! They came in swarms, racing into one another, to grab pieces of lettuce. We walked up to the “cave” to find a small monument to Buddha and a small inlet with more fish. I put the term cave in quotes because it wasn’t really something that I would classify as a cave 🙂 We wandered the loop back through the lush landscape and climbed back on the bike. I was still hurting pretty bad, so we skipped further waterfalls and caves (more to see and do next year). We stopped at a couple of overlooks and headed to our next hotel. Once again, the night market was being set up. Needless to say, we would not be making the same mistake twice. This time, dinner would be street food! We checked into the hotel and decided to rest before heading out. I decided to try my first massage here in Thailand. It was amazing and just what the doctor ordered. I felt remarkably better (including my knee!) I had explained to her that my knee was injured, and I needed her to be careful around it. Next thing I know, she was using some mentholated rub on it which really helped. When all was said and done, I had a fabulous 1 hour massage for a whopping $15 including tip! OH hell yeah! This might be my new daily routine!
Feeling like new, we headed to the night market. If we thought the one in Pai was amazing, this was the Pai market on steroids! In addition to the tons of food carts with every Thai food imaginable, there were fruit and veggie stands, clothing, arts, goods, souvenirs, and several stages with live music. The largest stage seemed to be having some sort of Thai rock contest. It featured various artists playing really loud music and several tables of judges. It was awesome and echoed throughout the whole market. Further down the road was a smaller stage. Here, they seemed to be playing more traditional music (like folk music). The performers were in a variety of time period (and possibly regional) costumes playing old-style instruments. This was my first viewing of a couple of lady boys as well (lady boys are young men who are dressed and made up like women and perform as women). Many of them are incredibly beautiful. We watched some of the shows and tried our luck with the food carts. We tried to be very careful with the items we chose in order to avoid getting sick. We came across a number of stalls selling a variety of fried bugs. We DID NOT eat any of those. I am willing to try a lot of stuff, and do some crazy things, but eating bugs will never happen! I draw the line there. Our UK friend from our hill tribe stay had showed us a video of her trying a skewer of different bugs. It looked like she struggled to get them down, but she said it really wasn’t that bad. Ack…no thanks. We finished up our exploration of the night market and headed back to our hotel. It was so much fun!
It was now time for our 3rd leg of the journey….the town of Mae Sarieng. About a half hour outside of our 2nd hotel, we headed to the Kayan long neck village. This was a refugee tribe from Burma where the women where brass rings around their neck (many, many brass rings). Once we parked the bike, we had to cross a river in a long tail boat in order to enter the village. As we walked the hill that was flanked by their bamboo huts, we encountered many of the villagers. The women were busy weaving on stick looms and selling a variety of clothing, scarves, hand carved items, and various other souvenirs. We stopped an talked with one young woman who explained to us that the rings are put around the girls’ necks at 5 years old. As they get older, more rings are wound around their neck. She had a 1/2 stack of ring with fabric to tie it around my neck (theirs do not tie on….the metal is literally wound around their neck over and over again). I was shocked at how heavy the half band of rings was. I could not imagine wearing a full band of rings all the time….and I do mean ALL THE TIME! She said her rings would be changed out after 5 years. This was done by unwinding the metal from her neck before winding a new set of coils. It was amazing. The other remarkable thing was that this woman spoke impeccable English and was very easy to understand. We have encountered many people who spoke really good English, but we often struggled with the thickness of their accent. The Kayan were very friendly, kind, and open to sharing about their culture. We made our way back to the road for our 3 1/2 hour ride to our next stop. Along the way, we stopped at a few more viewpoints to check out the mountains and valleys. Oh, bet you couldn’t guess that this leg was almost entirely serpentine curves as well! At this point, I am rockin’ this motorcycle thing….I am actually resting my hands on the saddle bags instead of squeezing the life out of Dan!
By the time we got to our 3rd hotel, every inch of our bodies hurt. We were now it the small town of Mae Sarieng. We had only made the one stop, so we got in fairly early and did not see much happening. When we asked at the front desk, we were told that there would be a night market about a 3 minute walk from our hotel. Yeah! This time I talked Dan into getting a massage with me. We asked the front desk of this guest house if we could get a massage for 2. She told us it would not be a problem and that they would come to our room since our room was air conditioned. Not long after, 2 women showed up at our room for our massage. Okay, this was a little weird. They had us both lay down on our bed where they commenced our massage. It was a little awkward (nevermind Dan wanted to chat through the whole thing….I’m going to need to train him in the peaceful silence of massage). Once again, we had an hour long massage for less than $15 each! It was very relaxing, but definitely not the quality of the one I had the day before. Dan, on the other hand, really enjoyed it….I had now sold him on the beauty of massage. Afterwards we headed to the night market for dinner. This market was much smaller and more subdued. It was still fun, but we found ourselves much more selective in our street food. We were very careful to stay away from meat that had been sitting out. It was a small market, so after a couple of snacks, we headed to a restaurant for dinner. We stopped at a hotel restaurant along the river. We both ended up ordering SUPER spicy dishes. Unfortunately, Dan opted for a soup (I think solely based on it’s name!) which we think made him sick. What was the soup, you ask? Tom Fu** soup (I kid you not!) It is the only thing that we did not both eat, and he ended up sick the next day 🙁
Well, we have reached the final leg of our journey which is a 4 hour ride back to Chiang Mai. Dan is not feeling well, and both of us are hurting after 4 days on the bike. We decide to forego any additional sightseeing stops as this will make our day over 6 hours long. Neither of us is up for that. As you can imagine, the beginning of our journey home is full of hairpin turns that eventually disappear and turn into fast paced “highways” with lots of big towns and traffic. In the end, I would say 85% of this loop was serpentine/hairpin turns. Most of the road was really good, but there were some really sketchy areas where the pavement was really rough and rutted. After 4 days, we were totally in sync with the bike. We even mastered communication through sign language when I was giving him directions through the various cities and into Chiang Mai. We made it back safe and sound and had an absolute blast. We are now thinking that next winter, we want to overland via motorcycle! It was truly a great way to see the countryside. Once we were settled back in Chiang Mai, we headed into town for another massage. This one was very much like the first one I had, and Dan was in heaven. While he enjoyed the first one, this one was done by truly skilled professionals, and he immediately saw the difference. They did such a great job, we are going back for a 90 minute massage tomorrow! I think I could get hooked on this….unfortunately, you can’t get $15 massages in America (and therefore NOT in the retirement budget)…..*insert super sad face here!
Sadly, this brings to a close our time in Thailand. It was a great adventure, and we hope to return next year now that we know a little bit more about what we are doing. Our next stop is Cambodia. We hope you will stick with us as we continue our explorations of Southeast Asia.
Welcome to day 6 and 7 of our adventures in Chiang Mai. I am doing my best to live blog this almost immediately following each experience which is why the story may seem to switch frequently from past to present. So, we checked out of our hotel room and waited for our pick up to take us to the elephant sanctuary up in the mountains. A tuk-tuk arrived (this time it was basically a pickup truck with an open air cover and two long benches running the length). We climbed in and were surprised that we were the only ones in this tuk-tuk for the next hour and 15 minute drive up into the mountains. When we arrived, we jumped out with all of our bags and headed across the suspension bridge to check in. This giant suspension bridge spanned across a wide river and bounced around with every step. Below we could see elephants playing in the water. It was magical. Once we checked in, we were greeted by our mahout (elephant handler). As we walked over to the deck to feed some of the elephants some treats, one of the handlers was coming up from the water with an elephant. I’m pretty sure he could see my unease because as I tried to step away out of the elephant’s path, he kept nudging him toward me. Round and round in circles we went…me trying to escape the big elephant, and the handler giggling and nudging the elephant to get close to me. I finally found escape in the middle of a group of people.
At this point, my sole experience with elephants has been on our self guided safari in Africa where we were repeatedly warned about the elephants and their aggressiveness (never-mind the several tourists I had heard about being killed by an elephant simply by accidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Needless to say, those memories haunted me, and I was quite uneasy around these giant creatures. After feeding the elephants some treats from a platformed structure, our mahout gathered us up and we headed out for a trek. We were quickly joined by a family of elephants (mom, dad, and an 8 month old baby) on our trek into the jungle. First we stopped in an open field where we were handed large bunches of bananas. The mahout told us to feed them the bananas one at a time. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the male and female who were both assertively seeking the bananas. This definitely had me freaked out, as I was standing between these two magnificent beasts, and they were nudging me and wrapping their trunks around me in search of the bananas. The next thing I knew, the male had manhandled the whole bunch out of my hands. What the hell???? I felt bad that he got the best of me. The mahout brought me more bananas, and I started to get more creative at hiding the bananas behind my back and out of his sight. This did not keep him from using his trunk to try and get this golden treasure from me. It was quite funny (and also somewhat scary). They gobbled up bunch after bunch, leaving us slightly slimy and somewhat sticky.
After an amazing number of bananas we consumed, we headed out for our trek. At this point, the baby had shed some of his shyness and was ready to play. He was absolutely adorable and behaved so much like a human toddler! He played hide and seek with the mahout and bounded around with such energy. At one point, he came eagerly running full speed up to Dan and just about landed him on his butt. Imagine an 800 pound toddler coming to snuggle and play with you. He loved to have his hindquarters scratched and would plunk down at your feet. After many games and playing, he decided it was nap time and laid down at his mom’s feet in the middle of our trek. We didn’t have much farther to go, so the handler got him up and we headed to the river. In the river, they rolled around in the water playing. We tossed water on them, and they tossed water on us. It truly was a magical experience.
After a quick Thai lunch, it was time for our bamboo raft trip down the river. We took a quick ride up the road and hiked down to our raft. It was a 45 minute ride down the river with our guide directing our raft through the boulders and rapids. The water was quite crisp, and the scenery was right out of Jurassic Park…..very lush….very giant sized tropical.
At this point, we were done with the sanctuary, and it was time for our homestay in a tribal village. We would be spending the night in a bamboo hut, up in the mountains, with the Karin hill tribe. Our guide, a young 20 year old, took us to his village where we learned to weave fabric on a loom (holy cow was that hard!), learned how the ancient villagers cleaned their teeth (with a black charcoal type leaf….their teeth lasted forever without a dentist…but they were black), and how their huts were built back in the day.
We then went down to our hut overlooking the valley. It was a cement stilted hut with a mattress on the floor and mosquito netting surrounding it. There was no electricity and no air conditioning. There was a toilet in a room behind the hut, but no running water. Thankfully it was a western style toilet (US style) and not the typical, porcelain hole in the floor. It did not have a flushing system, so you needed to pour pots of water in to “flush” the toilet. We were then treated to a Karin dinner cooked over an open fire out in the jungle. After dinner, we sat by the fire and admired the millions of stars visible in the very dark sky. Tomorrow we would be taking a jungle, waterfall trek (no details provided)…..this can only end well, right????
We awoke the next morning (well, I didn’t really sleep….and here I was complaining about my “Flintstone” bed…haha…I was missing it) to a wonderful breakfast prepared by our new friends. After packing up and fueling up, we headed out. Each of us (we had a new UK friend who had joined Dan and I) were given a freshly cut bamboo walking stick. Off we went. I am once again going to give you the cliff notes version of our trek. It was 4 1/2 hours and 6+ miles. This was the hardest hike I have ever done. We climbed and descended steep hills, crossed log bridges with rickety bamboo railings, slid down rock faces, climbed straight up root strewn cliffs, climbed over and ducked under giant trees, hopped rocks, and navigated bouncy bamboo bridges. After seeing all the amazing waterfalls, we then had to head straight up hill in the hottest part of the day and in the blazing sun. Our guide, a wonderful 16 year old boy named Boi (I’m sure I spelled it wrong but it’s pronounced boy!), treated us to this very sour fruit that his people use for coughs (he said they never go to the doctor). We also tried a fresh bean (longer than a green bean) right off the vine, and tamarind that had been made by the local indigenous women. This was very sour but quite tasty (and probably a sure fire way to get sick since it was mixed with a bunch of stuff in a very unsanitary environment). By the time we made it to our rest stop to pick up the tuk-tuk, we could barely walk. It was an amazing trek but seriously painful with some scary moments. This was one of those excursions that was dotted with moments of, “Are you kidding me? You want me to do what???” and sprinkled with a lot of pain and stress on the body, but in the end…..it was an exhilarating experience and a huge sense of accomplishment.
Our next adventure here in Thailand is another mountain adventure. This one in particular we are doing on a motorcycle up in the mountains. We have been told there are over 700 hairpin turns to the first stopping point of this 4 day loop. We hope you will stick with us on our final days in Thailand!
After the hustle and bustle (and horrendous pollution) of the big city of Bangkok, we were more than ready to explore the countryside and mountains of the northern part of Thailand. We hopped a flight and headed for Chiang Mai. Fortunately, the flight was just under an hour and a half since this was the squishiest, big plane I have ever been on. I am not a very tall person, and my knees were jammed into the seat in front of me. I felt really bad for Dan and his super long legs. Other than that, the flight was quite painless. Our hotel sent a driver to get us, and in 30 minutes we were nestled amongst the rice paddies in our bungalow. The grounds were beautifully tropical, and the bungalow was spacious. From a comfort perspective, I felt like we had just rented Fred Flintstone’s house. For those of you unfamiliar with the American cartoon “The Flintstones,” they are a Stone Age family living in house made of stone and completely furnished in stone. You think I am kidding, but the base of our bed is a cement structure topped with a mattress that feels more like a box spring. This was going to be rough on my old body!
Since we had been on the go since we arrived, we decided our first full day would be a day of rest…..and rest we did. We hung out by the pool (had it all to ourselves), got some sun and did some swimming. By the next day, we were back to it. We walked 2 miles, past the small town, and up the hill to the base of a very large temple. After climbing 300 steps (yep, 300 hundred! I counted each one of those suckers!), we arrived at the base of this magnificent temple. We climbed another bunch of steps to explore the temple grounds and took a peek inside (I was wearing shorts which is a no-no for women). Dan and I separated and wandered in different directions. As I rounded the corner of the temple, I stopped in my tracks. I just about had a heart attack. Ahead of me sat what looked to be 10 monks posed in deep prayer. I panicked! (There are a number of rules/expectations when encountering monks, and I did not want to offend anyone or screw something up). I turned on my heel and booked it back down the stairs to head around the other side of the temple. By the time I got to the same spot I had been (but on the opposite side of the temple), I ran into Dan. I told him about the monks I almost blundered into and showed him where they were sitting. Dan tells me he doesn’t think they are real and proceeds to wander over by them. I, of course, am freaking out now…..he is walking right up to this group of praying monks! At this point, he calls me over (laughing) because wouldn’t you know….they were not real! Check out the picture! They look totally real, don’t they?!
We continued our exploration of the grounds which took us to another area with a giant Buddha. Much of the two additional areas were still under construction but still beautiful sights to see. It was amazing to see the time, effort and detail that goes into making these temples and monuments. We stopped for a quick lunch on the grounds which was really tasty (despite being cooked in a shack). From there, we climbed a very steep hill, and a bunch more steps, to see another Buddha monument under construction. We then trekked down the hill to a big, white Stupa still under construction as well. By now, the day had become brutally hot as we made our way back down the hill. In the end, we had walked almost 6 miles and climbed 28 floors in temperatures that were in the mid to high 90’s. By the time we got back to our room, we were both overheated and exhausted. It had been such an exhausting day that we skipped dinner, and I fell asleep by 8:30! Pathetic!
The next day we had planned to visit the Tiger Kingdom (a place where you could interact with tigers and potentially feed the cubs), but decided to push it to a later date since neither of us had slept well and both of us were pretty sore. Instead, we opted to rent a car and head into the mountains. This was a little unsettling since the roads are narrow, there is a lot of traffic, the drivers seem to make their own rules, the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, and you drive on the opposite side of the street than we do at home. Once we got out of the city, it wasn’t so bad. However, if you are prone to motion sickness, this is not the drive for you. We basically had 4 hours of winding, hairpin turns up the mountain and back down again. The scenery was absolutely prehistoric looking (picture Jurassic Park with giant, tropical trees/plants). There were a number of attractions that sounded interesting…..like the monkey reserve and the cobra exhibit….but after reading the reviews about how mistreated the animals were, we decided that we would not support those kinds of tourist traps. Instead, we headed to a waterfall and hiked to the various flows. Given that this is the dry season, the water flow was extremely impressive. I can’t imagine what it looks like during the rainy season!
As we made our way back to our hotel, we decided to stop at a market to pick up some things for our room. One thing we had discovered is that alcohol is not an easily accessible thing in Thailand. Well, let me clarify that….it is not an easy thing to buy outside of restaurants or bars. The first time we headed out in search of a bottle of wine for our room, not only was wine nearly impossible to find, but the one crappy variety that we did find was over $20 for a bottle! No thank you. Things were not a whole lot different here in Chiang Mai. We learned very quickly that wine is practically non-existent or extremely expensive. Believe it or not, Johnny Walker whiskey was priced substantially less! Anyway, we stopped into a grocery store on our way back to pick up some things for the room. This was by far the biggest market we had found so far. We grabbed some fruit, snacks and juice for the room….along with a bottle of vodka. As we were checking out, the girl pulls the vodka and wags her finger at us while shaking her head no. No? We are now completely confused. It’s Monday (maybe that is like our Sunday in states that don’t sell alcohol?). It is also Chinese New Year’s Eve…..could that be the reason? What do you do when you are lost for answers? Google, of course! I search, “buying alcohol in….” The third line in the list is buying alcohol in Thailand. Apparently, we are not the only ones confused. So here is the scoop….you can buy drinks any time in restaurants or bars. You can buy alcohol from stores, markets, and mom/pop joints everyday except between the hours of 2-5. It was 4:30. Yeah Google! Question asked and answered.
We were now on our 5th day in Chiang Mai. The adventure planned for this day was a Thai cooking class. We would be picked up in downtown Chiang Mai at 8:15 a.m. in a tuk-tuk for full day of Thai cooking. This required us to leave our hotel by 6:50 to make the 40 minute drive and turn in the rental car from the day before. Once picked up, we were joined by 6 other people….all American, but 3 who were living and working in China. Our first stop was a big open air market where some of the most amazing fruits and vegetables could be found. There was also a variety of fresh meats and seafoods. When I say fresh…..the frogs were jumping around in the buckets and the catfish were splashing around in their buckets. There were also some less than appetizing selections such as chicken feet, giant livers, and plucked chickens with the heads still attached. In addition to all of this, there were many, many vendors of fresh cooked Thai food. Our instructor (Benny) started us off with a sample of an amazing sausage and a coconut pancake. Both were extremely tasty. Once we finished at the market, we loaded up the tuk-tuk and headed to Benny’s house for class. On the way, we were each given a slip of paper and a descriptive menu, so that we could choose the type of dishes we wanted to make. Dan and I plotted together so that we each made something different and therefore could try both. We chose an appetizer (he chose fresh spring rolls, and I did chicken satay). We also chose a curry paste that we would make for our curry dish (he chose Panaeng, and mine was Kaw-Soi which was native to Chiang Mai). We chose a soup with meat (Dan chose Tom-Yum with shrimp, and I made Tom-Sab with shrimp). We chose a noodle dish (Dan chose Drunken Noodles, and I chose Pad-Thai). Finally, we chose our dessert (Dan chose mango with sticky rice, and I chose steamed banana cake).
Once we arrived at Benny’s house, we headed over to a large open air kitchen where she conducts her classes. The cool thing about this is that each one of us had our own cooking station and materials. We started off with a refreshing beverage made with Butterfly pea flowers….quite tasty and refreshing. When you squeeze the lime into the drink, it changes color! Then, it was time to begin. Our first task was to make our curry paste which would be used later in the day to make our curry dish. First, Benny demonstrated what we would do, and then we were all sent to our stations with our ingredients to do some chopping. Once that was done, we headed to our mortar and pestle and began to grind and pound until our ingredients became a very smooth paste. Next, she demonstrated how to make the appetizers and we were turned loose to replicate her steps with our own ingredients. Once those were set aside, we followed the same process for our soup. We chopped, boiled, and mixed. I went a little nuts on my tiny chiles (she said they call them rat poop), so my soup not only sent me into coughing fits but also had my nose running…..but still, oh so good! We all sat at the table to dine on our appetizers and soup. After everyone was finished, it was back to the demo table where Benny showed us how to make our noodle dish. The Pad-Thai actually turned out to be the most complex one to make. When our noodle dishes were complete, we once again sat down to enjoy our creations. At this point, we took a nice 40 minute break to let our food digest and just relax. We had an awesome time swapping stories and hearing about everyone’s various travels. This also gave our host and her family a chance to rest and have their lunch. Before we knew it, it was time to make our final two dishes. We started with the desserts and those were set aside (mine had to steam) and then went on to our curry dishes. Between the 8 of us, we had chosen 4 different curries. This time, my chosen dish was one of the easiest to make. After watching the steps, we headed to our station to create our curry using our homemade curry paste. Mine was Chiang Mai Curry noodles with chicken (native to the area). The most important part about preparing curry is that if you burn it, or cook it too long, it becomes very bitter. Just as before, we all sat down and enjoyed our curry followed by our dessert. It was one of the greatest cooking classes I have ever experienced, and I HIGHLY recommend it. We left with a cookbook of all the dishes that were made by everyone, along with some extra recipes. Dan and I are very much looking forward to trying our hand at this on our own once we get home. We loaded ourselves back into the tuk-tuk and headed back to town to our respective drop off spots. We sadly said goodbye to all our new friends and made our way back to our hotel another 40 minutes away. It had been an 11 hour day from start to finish, and we were both completely exhausted, yet again. This would be our last night here before heading off to the elephant sanctuary for day 6 and day 7.
It feels like it’s been forever….but it really hasn’t. As you will recall, Zoe was taken out of the water and put on the hard (on dry land) for the winter. Dan and I returned home for the holidays and to spend some much needed time with family and friends. After several months of us being US bound, we were very eager to continue our exploration of the world. It wasn’t long after we returned home, that we excitedly began planning a trip to Southeast Asia. I use the term “planning” very loosely. The only thing we had booked was our flight to Hong Kong! There were no flights booked to the places we planned to go see, no hotels booked, no excursions booked. We were truly winging it! We decided we wanted to spend anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks on this journey visiting several different countries.
Fast forward to January 27th and our scheduled departure. Boy, if we thought getting to Croatia was a complicated endeavor, Southeast Asia really took the cake. The easiest part was the one hour flight to Los Angeles! From there, we had a one hour layover before catching a 15 1/2 hour flight to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong, our plan was to fly stand-by to Bangkok. Unfortunately, flights were very full, and we ended up sitting in the airport for 5 hours before finally catching our 3rd flight. Mind you, we have now been traveling for about 26 1/2 hours. We also did not have a hotel booked until our flight was pushing back from the gate in Hong Kong! By the time we landed, we both looked like death warmed over. Whew! That was brutal! But we had finally arrived. After collecting our bags, we headed for a cab to take us to our hotel which was 30 minutes from the airport. Oh silly tourists! Did no one tell you about traffic in Bangkok? Holy cow….our cab ride took over an hour (with much of it spent sitting at a dead stand still). By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was ready to crawl out of my skin! NEED SHOWER! NEED SLEEP!
Okay, so enough of the travel horror stories. Let’s get to the good stuff. Let’s face it, by the time we finally got to the hotel, our day was history. We fought our body clocks to force ourselves to stay awake until a whopping 7:30 p.m. before we both crashed hard. Unfortunately, this also meant the inevitable 3:30 a.m.wake up by our internal clocks. We forced ourselves to try and sleep some more and got up at a more respectable 6:30 a.m. It was now time to plot out our day. We decided that today would be spent touring the Wat Pho Temple and the Grand Palace. We grabbed a cab and were on our way. Well, sort of. As we were heading out, our cabbie was busy trying to convince us that we needed to go to the floating market (an hour away) and then to the temple. We explained to him that we did not have time for the floating market today, and we just wanted him to take us to the temple. After several rounds of telling him NO! No market! He finally gave up and took us to the temple. Oh, did I forget to mention that our 7 mile cab ride took over 45 minutes thanks to Bangkok traffic! I highly recommend a visit to Bangkok…..just be prepared for the ridiculous amount of traffic….ALL THE TIME!
As we exited the cab, we were immediately greeted by a charming young man very eager to help the wayward tourists. After making small talk with us, he gave us the lay of the land along with a free map. On the map he told us the places to go, and the maximum amount we should pay for each thing he showed us. Such a warm and caring fellow! You can already see this coming, can’t you? Next thing we know, he is telling us that the monks are in prayer, so the temple is closed until 1:00. He has a Tuk-Tuk (a motorcycle with a decorative cart attached to it) ready to take us to several other places before bringing us back to the temple by the time it opens. Hmmm….Dan quickly recalls the warnings in our guidebook about this little game. We politely thank him and tell him we are just going to explore, and off we head to the temple. Shocking….it was not closed for the monks’ prayer time.
As you enter the temple grounds, the sight is absolutely breath taking. All around are beautifully ornate buildings which are brightly colored, their gold and jewels glistening in the sunlight. Sadly, as hard as we tried, pictures just could not do justice to what the eyes beheld. Along with the glistening structures, there were a number of halls which contained a multitude of statues of Buddha. Another building housed the reclining Buddha which was 150 feet of reclining, gold splendor. This statue is the largest Buddha in Thailand. It was quite a sight to behold (ask any of the hundreds of people clamoring to get pictures of the giant Buddha). I can honestly say, I have never seen so many statues of Buddha (or any one thing for that matter) in one place. In addition to the spectacular buildings, the multitudes of Buddhas, and the many other stone states that adorned the temple, there were also a number of beautiful little gardens scattered throughout the temple. As I have said in many other posts, my words cannot do the Wat Pho Temple justice, so I will let the photos do the talking.
The day was extremely hot, so following the advice of our guidebook, we headed to a restaurant with a deck overlooking the river to enjoy a cool cocktail. This gave us the opportunity to sit, relax, and cool down before heading to the Grand Palace….home to the King of Thailand. Apparently EVERYONE decided today was the day to visit the Grand Palace. The roads had been barricaded in order to funnel everyone into a Disneyland style queuing set up. Again, if you know me at all, this was a very unhappy place for me….haha. We entered the palace grounds with thousands of other people and attempted to capture a few cool pictures over the heads of the many. By now it was not only painfully crowded but brutally hot (and somewhat humid). We did not last long here and decided not to pay the fee to enter the interior of the palace grounds given that much of it was closed off due to renovations for the King’s upcoming coronation in May. We grabbed a cab and headed back to the cool comfort of our hotel room. We cleaned up, checked out of our room (a late check out of 4 p.m. was awesome!). We moved on to our next hotel room a little deeper in the city. Once again, a 5 mile cab ride took 45 minutes thanks to traffic. I have never seen such horrendous and constant traffic. I was really grateful we were not driving ourselves around!
We had booked a Bangkok food tour for the evening. On this tour they take you around by Tuk-Tuk, making 6 different stops over the 4 hour tour. We rested up a little bit more before meeting our guide and driver. He quickly explained our 6 stops and off we went. Our first stop took us to a small little local eatery (no tourists here) where a variety of dishes were placed before us. There was a soup with some type of meat. I am guessing lamb or pork based on the size of bones that the meat was attached to (do not say dog or horse or you will make me cry!). There was a spicy salad dish, a ground meat dish, a spicy pork dish, and rice. All the dishes were typical of the area of Thailand near the Laos border. All were quite delicious. Our next stop was to a well renowned chicken and noodle bowl place. The guide suggested we try one with cooked egg topping and one with runny egg topping. I ended up with the runny egg one which made me a little uneasy. He must have not liked the way I was mixing it all up because he took my chopsticks and vigorously mixed the egg into my dish. In the end, the runny egg dish was much tastier than the fully cooked egg. After we ate, he took us out to the back alley to show us how the dish was prepared (probably better to see that after you have eaten rather than before)! It was quite fascinating to watch.
Our third stop took a break from food (thank god….I was already full)! We headed to the flower market. This was the largest flower market I have ever seen. Our tour began with our guide giving us a lotus bud which he then showed us how to gently pull the petals down and fold them into this most amazing looking bloom. The women in this market spend all day folding petals on various flowers, weaving banana leaves, and creating the most intricate and beautiful arrangements and adornments you can imagine. The amount of flowers they move through this market is overwhelming and most appear to go to the many temples as offerings. As we made our way out of the flower market, we stopped at a street cart where our guide offered us slices of rose apple and miniature pineapple slices that had been decoratively sliced. As I watched the man slicing the fruit in his bare hand, my mind told me this was a really bad idea! But my heart said, “don’t be rude.” Needless to say, I tried the offerings and prayed I wouldn’t get sick. The fruit was sweet and delicious (and I did not get sick….bonus!).
Next was the Wat Pho Temple which we had been to earlier in the day. Although we could not go into many of the places we had accessed during the day, the brilliance of the colors and gold really shined in the lights that lit everything up. It was also amazing to explore without the throngs of people. You will see what I mean about the colors when you compare the day photos with the night photos.
Our last two stops were going to be a drink on a rooftop bar overlooking the river and to the most famous Pad Thai restaurant in Thailand. Our guide explained that because the line for the restaurant is typically over an hour, he asked if we would mind if our driver went and picked it up so we could enjoy our Pad Thai at the rooftop bar. Hmmmm, not standing in line for an hour or more….I was totally game. Dan, on the other hand, was worried about them doing the old “switcher-roo.” Well, this was a total switch in roles! I am usually the one who questions whether or not we are being duped. I guess it could’ve been that I wasn’t really hungry and therefore didn’t really care where the Pad Thai came from (shhhh…don’t tell him I said that). So, we ended our night at a rooftop bar that overlooked the river and the brightly lit sights of the temples and the Grand Palace. It was a really great tour and a lot of fun. We struggled to understand our guide through his thick accent which is why I am lacking a lot of details on things. Needless to say, by the time we got back to our room, we both crashed hard from our long day of exploring.
The next day, we hit the ground running once again (seems to be a common theme on our trips). We booked a full day tour, 8-5, to the city of Ayuthaya. This was over an hour drive north of Bangkok, and one of the original capital cities of Thailand. Our itinerary on this day would be to visit 6 different temples, some of which were now ruins, and a floating market.
Our guide, a very nice young man who spoke impeccable English, picked us up at our hotel, and we were on our way. Our first stop was the Wat Niwet Thammaprawat Temple. It is located on a small island near the Bang Pa-In Palace. This particular temple was built by the 5th king of Thailand. We climbed aboard this little wooden “gondola” that cabled us across the river to the temple grounds. The temple was very different from the typical Thai style. We were told that the king had visited Europe prior to it’s construction, loved the European style, and erected the temple in a similar style. It is very easy to see that it is unlike any of the other temples we had visited.
Our next stop was the temple of Wat Phanan Chong which was built in 1324. The highlight of this temple was the 19 meter high Buddha which was created in 1324 and is surrounded by 84,000 small Buddha images. Outside of this beautiful temple is a Chinese shrine which shows their own depiction of Buddha (quite different than the Thai’s version). This was a very colorful and ornate shrine….quite a sight to see! By now, it is beginning to get quite toasty out and the crowds are starting to pick up. If you come to visit, the morning is the best time to come see the attractions. From there we headed to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (I couldn’t even hope to pronounce most of the places we saw). This was built in 1357 for use by monks who had returned from ordination in Sri Lanka. This temple was built in honor of the Thai victory over the Burmese. Here you will find a 7 meter long reclining Buddha. Many of the temples we have visited to this point have been built by some of the earliest kings of Thailand. As we continue through our tour of the temples, they are becoming more and more ancient ruins (still absolutely amazing to see what humans were capable of constructing). By now, we have wandered through 3 temple grounds. The heat is becoming more and more oppressive and the crowds continue to grow. We are wearing out quickly. Like any well planned tour, our guide tells us it is time to go to the floating market and have some lunch.
As we make our way to the market, we pass many large elephants that are beautifully adorned and carrying around local visitors. While it is a sight to see, it makes me feel really sad watching these majestic animals being used in such a manner. We fully plan to visit an elephant sanctuary during our stay, but it will not be one that has their elephants perform tricks or be ridden by visitors. Anyway…..we arrive at the market and wander the wooden platforms along the river. The platforms are packed with vendors hocking souvenirs, treats, and a variety of eats. Our guide takes us to an area along the river where we are able to sit down and relax. It is still ridiculously hot despite being by the river and under the canopy of trees. Our waitress notices my red, sweaty face and was kind enough to move a fan very close. We enjoy a fabulous lunch, selected by our guide, and a very cold glass of beer. It feels really good to sit and rest for a bit. After lunch, we jumped onto this gondola type boat which was powered by a big water pump. This was a quick cruise around the river (not really worth the line and crowds on the boat) before heading off to our final 3 temples.
Our final 3 temples, in no particular order, were Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mahathat, and Wat Chai Watthanaram. Since I am pretty sure you are not reading this for a Thai history lesson, I will give a brief synopsis of each as they are listed above. The first one is noted for its 3 stupas (the pointy looking monuments) and one of the holiest sites. This was built in the 15th century. This was Ayuthaya’s largest temple and once housed a 16 meter high Buddha covered in 143 kg of gold. Sadly, the Burmese conquerors melted down the gold. The second temple was founded in 1374 by the first king of Thailand. This was the seat of the supreme patriarch and considered the kingdom’s most important temple at the time. A sandstone Buddha head is held above the ground by tree roots. When taking a picture in front of the head, you must sit on the ground so that you are below the Buddha. It is considered unacceptable to stand in front for a photo as you should never be elevated above the Buddha. The final temple is comprised of a 35 meter high prang (the more rounded style of monument) still in very good condition. This was built in 1630 and took around 20 years! It was built to honor the king’s mother and is noted for it’s resemblance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia (also on our list of places to visit this trip). So that was the splendor of 6 magnificent temples in the city of Ayuthaya….cliff note version 🙂
As amazing as all the sights were, we both dropped into the back of the car roasting hot and extremely exhausted. Lucky for us, we didn’t have to do the drive back to Bangkok and could just chill out. Our guide dropped us off at 5:00, and quickly warned Dan against eating the street food around our hotel after Dan expressed an eager desire to have dinner at the cart vendors! Needless to say, we heeded that warning! Tomorrow would bring a new adventure as we hop a flight to the northern city of Chiang Mai and head off the beaten path to the countryside and mountains….now that is my kind of paradise!