Silver Holiday

Day 302 – 28 Dec, 2016

With the holidays, it’s easy to begin feeling homesick, like nothing is familiar.  You are glad to be where you are, in tropical temperatures, where everything is new and exotic, but you wish that you weren’t alone.  So then it was perfect timing to be joined by two of my favorite people!  Ryan and Wendy flew from Chicago on Christmas night, across an ocean, in coach seats, first to Bangkok and then to Chiang Mai to join up with me a few days later.  I’m feeling like a lucky girl!
I met them at their hotel after they had so graciously offered me a place to sleep.  I didn’t even care what we did, I was so excited to catch up and explore the city with friendly faces.  None of us had much of a plan as to what we would do with our time, but Chiang Mai is chock full of opportunities and there was no chance of being bored.  The Chiang Mai Womens’ Prison Massage had come highly recommended as THE place to get a massage in the city.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of massage boutiques in the city alone, meaning there are lots of other places that don’t have the premium prices and touristy feel of this one.  However, I was a sucker for the novelty of the Womens’ Prison and it didn’t take any convincing for Wendy and Ryan to agree.  We had to go.

  

Allegedly, the women had all been released from prison and had been trained in the art of traditional Thai massage as an alternative to their criminal lives in the past.  Keeping in mind that what may be considered a crime in Thailand is not always as sinister as the crimes might be in the western world, none of the women struck me as hardened criminals.  As is customary, we were each given some loose cotton pants and a button down cotton shirt to wear before we were led into a large room with beds packed tightly together.  The massage was wonderful, as always, as pressure points are used to release tension in various muscles and your body is contorted into unnatural positions through assisted stretching.  The distracting part is that the women giving the massage are so close in proximity to each other, and perhaps a bit bored with their job, that they talk and laugh and giggle amongst themselves for the duration and you begin to wonder exactly what they are finding so funny when they have your back arched and pulling your feet toward the crown of your head….

Nevertheless, the massage was a special start to a whirlwind tour of Chiang Mai for Wendy and Ryan.  Overall, we had a very loose agenda and I was happy to discover their morning pace was on par with mine – slow and steady.  I don’t know where my mornings go exactly, but it usually involves a hot coffee and a leisurely breakfast, checking email, some Spanish lessons, and a rare workout.  This time, my dear friends even got me back in the gym that I have missed so sincerely but we certainly took our time in getting there.

  

I let my friends drive our chosen activities, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  I have a bit of an obsession with Big Cats, that is to include, among others, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and tigers so when we decided to go to Tiger Kingdom, I was slightly apprehensive.  Tiger Kingdom is a tiger attraction where you can pay a hefty fee to go inside of a cage with a “tame” tiger to touch it, play with it, and take your photo with it.  This is a highly controversial activity and I don’t wish to debate the merits of the ethics of doing so. BUT I will say that I was apprehensive for two reasons.  Because I do care for the animals and I would never want to see them treated poorly or drugged (as does happen in Asia), I investigated this particular facility and it seemed to be a good place.  While there, I witnessed large tigers that were alert and responsive, playful even.  I witnessed handlers that truly seemed to have a relationship with the animals and did not treat them roughly or aggressively.  No, I don’t especially agree with the premise of the felines being exploited for our entertainment, but these particular tigers are not fit to live in the wild.  While not as acceptable as living in a sanctuary (of which there are not near enough with capacity), if they are treated humanely, I consider it a better fate than death.  In full disclosure, I learned that they are breeding tigers at Tiger Kingdom and this practice I do not agree with in any way. As a rescue facility, I was able to hold it in higher regard, but I did not learn of the breeding program until later.

   
 

The second reason I was nervous was because tigers are wild animals and if, in fact, the tigers are not drugged, then I find it incredibly dangerous and wreckless to go inside a cage with an adult or even an adolescent tiger.  They are unpredictable and their natural instincts can take over at any time.  And because of this, it is exactly the reason we were keen to wait twice as long to visit the smallest tigers, those that are no older than three months.  When our turn came, after a nearly three hour wait, Wendy, Ryan, and I removed our shoes and were led inside of the nursery.  There were three cubs, taking a bit of a “cat nap,” sporadically active, each attended by its own handler.  Taking turns, we each had the opportunity to pet them, snap some photos, and experience the thrill of being so close to one of nature’s most powerful predators.  Obviously, our instinct is to be gentle so as not to aggravate the snoozing cubs, but the handler instructed us to be firm when touching them.  The tigers often mistake a gentle touch as a fly or a similar kind of nuisance, one that can easily be batted away with a large paw or a flick of the tail.   I was happy to see the facilities were clean and well-maintained and specifically, the nursery was spacious and open on the top.  These are truly beautiful and magnificent creatures.

   
 

Upon our return back to Chiang Mai, there was little time to spare before we were due for our cooking class at Asia Scenic Cooking School.  I love to cook, but I had yet to take a cooking class on my travels.  Thai food, one of my favorites, seemed like a good place to dive in!  Asia Scenic was extremely professional and organized.  The class began with a tour of their organic garden and an excursion to the local market, but then we were allowed to choose from several categories and were schooled in five different dishes.  We were all taught to make spring rolls and a curry, but then we were allowed to individually make a few other specialities.  I chose Phad Thai, the most common, yet apparently one of the hardest Thai dishes to master.   Thanks to the wine we had procured at the liquor store before class (who can go to a cooking class without wine?), I was a bit of a sloppy cook, but the results of our meal were delicious and fun,  with only a little bit of hard work!

   
    
    
   

For our last day full day in Chiang Mai, Wendy and Ryan were intent on some trekking.  The trekking options were somewhat ambiguous and it was unclear what might be the best choice for a day trip.  Even though we specifically said we wanted to hike, the tour outfitter recommended a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park.  We didn’t know any different so we paid our fare, hopped in the sedan with our “English speaking” guide, and were on our way.  Driving about an hour or more into the National Park, we were weaving up and up higher into the mountains.  Out the window, we could see people wearing coats, gloves, hats….considering we were dressed in shorts and tank tops, it seemed obvious we had missed the memo about the temperature change.   Our first stop was Thailand’s highest point, amidst the clouds, a temple that was more than a bit crowded with selfie-taking Chinese tourists.   The air was brisk so we quickly ran around the boardwalk pathway to keep from losing body heat.   Not what we had in mind.   The second stop included two more temples on a hill, his and hers, King and Queen.  The surrounding gardens were nice but still no hiking in sight.   The third and final scheduled stop was to a waterfall, which wasn’t completely disappointing, except that we drove straight to the base of it.  No hiking. 

   
   

Feeling disappointed with our anticipated hiking adventure, we repeatedly asked our guide if there would be hiking.  Could he take us somewhere with a short trail?  Communication failing, we went to another sad waterfall before our guide admitted that he was a “Chinese speaking” guide and seemed to be trying his best to find something we would like.  He said something in a thick accent, asking if we would like to see a different temple.   I looked at Ryan, “Did he say Sewer Temple?”  With a shrug, Ryan said, “I thought he said Seaworld.”  Knowing that wherever we were going was back toward the city and would end this lackluster tour for the day, we all agreed that yes, we would please like to go to the Sewer/Seaworld Temple.  Just back inside of the city limits, we pulled into a parking lot of a metallic shiny ostentatious temple.  I believe Wendy was the first to speak, “Ohhhh, the SILVER Temple!,” prompting all of us to burst into laughter.  And wouldn’t you know it, but women are not allowed inside the Silver Temple so Ryan was given a tour all alone before our day of NOT hiking drew to a close.  No matter, the silver misunderstanding had staying power and kept us amused for days.

   
 

Chiang Mai was a wrap for now, but I didn’t have to part ways with my friends quite yet.  We were all flying to Koh Samui to spend NYE on the beach, me flying to Bangkok, overnighting in the airport, and continuing to Koh Samui the following morning.  They would be flying like civilized travelers, on a direct flight, in 90 minutes time.   Oh, the things I have done to save a buck!

Christmas in Chiang Mai

Day 298 – 24 Dec, 2015

On Christmas Eve, I was trying to sleep on my rock hard bottom bunk when the dorm door creaked open and some drunk whispers and giggling filled the room.  I turned my back to the roommates with the intention of ignoring them.  A few minutes later, I realized they were in the same bed and clothes were starting to hit the floor.  “Oh, please no!,” I sighed.  Making my best attempt to show that I was, in fact, awake, it became clear that they just didn’t care.  Completely disgusted with the situation, I left the room for almost an hour only to return and discover nothing had changed except 3 more people were in the room apparently sleeping through this porn show.  I went back to bed, but turned my lamp on and started to read my book.  This tactic seemed to work – they finally gave up and passed out in a tangle of blankets and extremities.  Merry Christmas to me!

On Christmas morning, with 3 days to kill before friends from Chicago were due to arrive, I made it my mission to find another place to sleep….and quickly.  I decided to go on an overnight trek in a “non touristy” area.  This would be a treat for me for Christmas!  After telling the hostel that I would not be utilizing the additional 2 nights I had already paid for and explained why, the poor girl at reception offered to intervene.  She was willing to confront the exhibitionists on my behalf. A nice offer, but no thanks.  In an attempt to salvage what they presumed would be a bad review from me, they offered me a private room for that night before I left for my trek the following day.  The room belonged to their housekeeper so it was lived-in, to say the least.  Family photos and dirty laundry littered every piece of furniture.  A significant layer of dust made it clear that the housekeeper was not such a good one.  I spent Christmas night nestled into a sunken old mattress with a throbbing upper arm from where I had received a Japanese Encephalitis immunization earlier that day.  Yes, I voluntarily got a jab on Christmas Day.  I was determined that the trek would improve my weekend!

I was picked up in a songtaew, a pickup truck with seats in the back.  There were already 4 attractive guys in the back.  Not such a bad way to start!  Four MBA students from Wharton, Andrew, Bill, Colin, and David were on a 3-week whirlwind tour of Asia.  They turned out to be great fun, if not because they reminded me of people I may have been friends with in my other life back home.  We picked up an Argentinean family with 2 young daughters and we were on our way into the jungle.  The first day, I immediately noticed how hot it was.  A sauna, if you must know.  I’m not accustomed to trekking in warm weather.  Thinking back, I’m not sure I ever have.  Every trek I could recall had cool temperatures.  We stopped early in the day for a dip in a waterfall.  The waterfall itself was mundane as far as waterfalls go, but nevertheless, it was extremely refreshing.  Two things happened at the waterfall.  Andrew stepped on a piece of glass and did a number on his foot – so much blood!  Trekking for two days on a foot that probably needed stitches was not going to end well.  The other thing that happened was we acquired a pack of dogs, two of them fighting to be alpha, but all of them protecting us from I don’t even know what.  It seemed normal that the dogs must follow every group of tourists, probably hoping for a handout.  What wasn’t normal was that we also had a puppy.  One of the Argentinean girls couldn’t part with it and against the explicit instructions of our guide, she carried the puppy far enough away from home that we had to keep it.  She named her Casey.

   
   

The trekking itself was not incredibly difficult but the heat spent all of our energy.  At one point, our guide lagged behind only to return a few minutes later holding an odd-shaped rope out from his body.  I say it was odd-shaped because it wasn’t hanging exactly straight like you would imagine a rope would hang.   Oh my, that’s because it’s not a rope!  The silvery snake was still a bit coiled in spite of the machete that had so easily sliced through its head.

  

Our dinner was steamed rice and vegetables, prepared by the villagers, but the special appearance was reserved for the snake.  The chef sliced it up into thin pieces, stir-fried with lemongrass and scallion, and served it to the group in a large bowl.  Surprisingly, it looked pretty tasty so I was game for a taste.  The verdict?  It wasn’t bad (I even went back for seconds), but there were so many bones that it was entirely too much work to get to the meat.

     
   

We would be spending the night at a village homestay.  There was a long room lined with 10 bamboo mattresses and wool blankets.  The resident dogs of the village were not pleased with our pack invading their territory.  Poor Casey was caught between the two groups and suffered a nasty bite.   The pup, only about 4 months old, was learning the rules of the game way too early. Now we know why the guide wanted the puppy to stay behind.  We were kept up most of the night between roosters who couldn’t tell time and dogs fighting underneath our elevated hut.   By the time morning finally came around, we were ready to trek again.

Exiting the village required some careful maneuvering through the dogs.  Andrew held Casey out of the line of fire but her breathing was raspy and it seems like the bite may have punctured a lung.  The second day’s trek seemed very forced.  I suppose the reason it was a “non touristy” trek is because there wasn’t much to see.  We were walking through farmland and rice fields, not a jungle trek as we had expected.  The best view we had that day was at the end while we were waiting for our return transport.  The Argentinean family had booked an elephant ride so we were separated for a few hours.  They asked us to take care of Casey.  We spent a large amount of that time waiting for our guide, who was watching a soccor game.  When it came time to leave, we had to leave Casey behind.  We weren’t returning to her home and we clearly couldn’t keep her forever.  She had curled up underneath a picnic table and was sleeping peacefully.  As we walked away, I turned to see a small boy, perhaps 5 years old, throwing rocks at her under the table.  A difficult image, man’s best friend is not always treated as such in this part of the world.  Just heartbreaking.

     
 

We returned back to Chiang Mai in the evening, just in time for the Sunday night market.  I joined this group of guys for a night of street food, classic American music, and tall Chang beers, but in reality, I was just biding my time.  Tomorrow would see the arrival of friends from home and I was too excited to sleep!

The Old Capitals

Day 297 – 23 Dec, 2015

Ayutthaya is only 50 miles from Bangkok.  A minivan takes about an hour to drive there.  While I’ve taken far too many minivans on this journey, to me, they are synonymous with a rusting hunk of metal that is only a matter of time until it meets its fiery demise in a head-on collision.  So… I took the train.  The train is also a rusting hunk of metal….that barely moves.  It took us more than 3 hours to go this distance.  There were numerous unexplained delays, the lack of air conditioning would have been pleasant if we had enough breeze to blow through the windows.  Instead, a group of Thai elders, having grown impatient themselves, lit up cigarettes in my coach.  By the time the train sputtered into the station, I was dying for fresh air.

Too distracted with my immediate discomfort on the train, I realized that I had not made any plans for Ayutthaya, the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai.  There is supposed to be an archaeological park, but where?  How do I get there?  Ayutthaya was founded around 1350 and for many centuries was the trading capital of the world with an ideal location between China, India, and the Malay Archipelago.  In 1700, it was the largest city in the world with a population of 1,000,000.  But then the Burmese invaded in 1767 and nearly burnt the city to the ground, leaving only a few temples and palaces still remaining.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I arrived.  As with so many other places I had been, I only knew that it was supposed to be a nice town to visit and that somewhere, there are some ruins.  I decided to follow the Lonely Planet-toting white people – this is usually a good strategy under these circumstances.  This plan took me on a ferry across a river and right into the eager hands of a bike rental shop.  Wait, no one mentioned I would have to bike here…  The shop owner thrusted a map in my face with a highlighted route and insisted that it would be impossible to visit the sites without transportation, each site was entirely unique and I must visit them all.  While I studied the map and tried to decide if I could tolerate an afternoon of biking in the oppressive heat, he hovered over my shoulder and barked about how his price was the best I would find and that his bikes were in the best condition.

A few minutes later, I was pedaling my way to the first site.  I’m such a pushover.  The cycling certainly wasn’t all bad, but the bike was solid and the gears were rusty and the brakes were sticky, par for the course.  Meanwhile, the temples were unlike anything I had seen before.  They towered over the more modern buildings in the town with a royal presence.  The stone structures were the only ones not destroyed in the fire.  Buddha statues were prevalent throughout the park, big ones, small ones, gold ones, white ones, headless ones….  The heat was oppressive but the archaeological ruins were equally impressive. 

  
 

As the day wore on, each of the sites was beginning to look more and more like the last and it was more and more difficult to ignore the heavy bike and the unrelenting temperatures.  I had so much as decided to concede defeat when as a happy surprise, I returned to my bike and found an elephant loitering nearby.  Now we’re in Asia…

        
The next day I had a longer journey in mind – I wanted to go to Sukhothai, the first capital of Siam.  Again, there was an archeological park and fascinating ruins and a bike shop.  I took a shared songtaew, a sort of converted pick up truck where you ride in the back on a wooden bench, from the New City to the Old City.  The Old City of Sukhothai is much better preserved than Ayutthaya and isn’t littered with makeshift food carts or souvenir shops.  The layout seemed more compact and easy to traverse.  Immediately disembarking from the songtaew, a bike store was again attacking me with flyers and urging me to come inside for a rental.  I quickly scanned the map and asked the lead sales lady what was the distance of the park.  She scoffed and said it is 5 km – you NEED a bike.  To clarify, I asked if it was 5 km one way or both ways.  Growing impatient with me, she said it was 5 km for the whole route.  Decision made, I told her I preferred to walk.  As I turned to leave, she said, in disbelief, “But it’s 5 kilometers.”

   
 

I enjoyed every step of that walk much more than if I had been on a rusting junky bicycle.