Sukhothai

So after chilling for 2 more days in Chiang Mai I set off for Sukhothai which is the first national capital of Thailand (followed by Ayutthaya, Thonburi then finally Bangkok). My only reason for visiting this former capital was the Historical Park, declared a World Heritage Site, which has some well preserved ruins of the royal palace and around 26 temples some dating back to 800 years.

The 193 ruins are spread over 70sqms are divided into 5 zones – Central, North, South, East and West zones, and it would take a couple of days to see them all. I frankly didn’t have that much energy or interest to see all of it so I decided to do just the Central zone which has the most ruins. Even then, it took a lot of mental debate on “whether I care about seeing some more temples” or “who cares about ruins when it 35C outside!” before I decided to just go for it. I decided to take a bus to the park and then rent a cycle to get around within the park which would save me 26kms of cycling in the heat.

The ruins are well maintained especially the bigger temples, the historical park was extremely peaceful as there were hardly any tourists in the afternoon and riding a bicycle around the ponds, in the ample shade provided by the trees was actually a lot of fun. Even after having been to Angkor, it was easy to appreciate the ruins here.

The main temple Wat Mahathat
The main temple Wat Mahathat
Wat Sa Si
Wat Sa Si
Buddhas in the trees
Buddhas in the trees

The night market in new Sukhothai is also worth a visit. It took a lot of willpower to stay away from the meat section and eat only vegetarian food.

Delicious looking Chicken Curry
Delicious looking Chicken Curry

I settled for some delicious fried seaweed balls of some sort.

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These were super crispy and salty on the outside and hot and creamy on the inside. I also ate some “veggie spring rolls” which definitely had some meat in it which was unexpected as I had clearly told the vendor “no meat”. I still ate it and as a matter of curiosity went back to the vendor to ask if there was meat in the rolls and she said “no no, no meat, only little pork”. Uh huh. Lost in translation. I was a bit miffed to be honest coz if I had to eat meat I would have chosen the delicious Chinese steamed dumplings which nearly made me give up my “no meat” streak. Oh well. . For dessert I ate fried dough balls sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with sweet rice paste. A lot of fried food but I was content. It was a change from rice and noodles that I am frankly a bit tired of.

So that was Sukhothai. After that it was another 7hrs on the bus back to Bangkok where I treated myself to a hotel room so most of my 2days were spent in my room watching The Hobbit trilogy, working on my blog and heading out only to get some food or to watch the Wimbledon final. I also spent time with Joel again before he flew back to Switzerland and I flew to Motherland.

Chiang Rai

I’ve not heard a lot of positive things about Chiang Rai. Most of the people I’ve spoken to were like “meh, It’s just another city. You’ll get bored after a day”. But I wanted to see for myself and I am glad I did. The city is nothing extraordinary but not worth dissing either. There are enough restaurants and cafes and markets to keep you entertained for a few days. In fact I met a guy who got bitten by a dog and had been in Chiang Rai for more than 2 weeks and he said he was quiet enjoying it there.

On the first day Ben (who I met in Pai and who was still limping after his fall from the bike) and I just chilled in the hostel and ate in the night bazaar.

The second day we rented a bike and went to the white temple (which I was really looking forward to) and to the Khun Korn waterfall (that I was going to only coz we had the bike for the whole day and we didn’t know what else to do). The temple, in my opinion, was “meh”. I’ve not met anyone who agrees with my opinion but hey, it’s just my opinion.

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Yes the structure is beautiful but its right next to a busy road and is surrounded by parked buses, bikes, cafes and shops so there was no atmosphere at all. And the temple has a lot of oddities like skulls hanging from the surrounding trees or hundreds of hands rising from a pond giving the illusion of people drowning. I mean, what’s with that. It’s a temple and not a dungeon! So anyways, I wasn’t sold one bit.

Errmm...really?
Errmm…really?
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.

The waterfall, on the other hand, was “wow”! It was 70mts high and the fall formed a pool at the bottom in which I would have loved to swim (if I could). We walked 1mile in the national park to get to the waterfall and by the end of the walk we were dripping in sweat but it was absolutely worth it!

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We wanted to end that day with a sunset over the Singha park (as recommended by our hostel) but it being the monsoon season it was so cloudy that we could see no sun so we ended up enjoying some delicious tea harvested right from the plantations around the park.

One of the highlights of my Thailand trip would come the next day. A 163km bike ride (my longest so far) to the Mae Salong village situated on Doi Mae Salong (Doi means mountain) close to the Thailand Myanmar border. The first 30kms of the ride was just highways so nothing special but then the climb started and the scenery changed drastically.

At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong
At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong

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A lot of the times we were actually riding in the clouds and it was so chilly that I had to wear my sweater and was very tempted to put on my scarf as well. Mae Salong is a very Chinese influenced town. The houses, the music and even the food makes you feel you’ve left Thailand and entered China.

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We ate some absolutely delicious Yunnan style curry with fresh egg noodles.

I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!
I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!

It was one hell of a ride! On the downside, I don’t think my ass has every hurt that much and the 4hr bus ride back to Chiang Mai the next day didn’t help one bit.

Pai

Pai is a very small and picturesque town in the hilly region of northwest Thailand. The 3hr minivan drive to Pai is sort of uncomfortable due to the endless winding roads which prevent you from taking a nap and make you wish you hadn’t eaten anything before the drive!

The pace of life here is so slow that it seems to be at a halt, but in a good way. The town centre has a number of really good restaurants and cafes with healthy and tasty food. More than once I’ve heard people who went to Pai for a few days and ended up staying for a few weeks. There’s actually not much to do in the town except eat lots of delicious food, shop in the night market, listen to live music performance at Edible Jazz or (from what I’ve been told) smoke pot. The night market has some outstanding food from fried spring rolls to one of the best Thai curries I’ve eaten in Thailand to some delicious burritos. My fav way to spend an evening there was to eat in the night market and head to Edible Jazz and relax on a mattress or a hammock while enjoying some live music.

Ben, who I met at my guesthouse, and I went for a 100km bike ride to the Tham Lot cave close to Soppong. Although the cave was good I’ve seen much better caves at Phong Nha in Vietnam.

At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves
At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves

But the ride to Soppong and back was one of the best rides I’ve done in my 3 months in Asia. The steep ascend, the relentless winding roads, the countless hair pin bends, riding in the clouds (m not kidding!) and being on top of the highest mountain in the region and looking down on the mountain range was nothing short of spectacular.

At the start of the ride to Soppong
At the start of the ride to Soppong
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha mountain. Definitely one of the most beautiful experiences so far.
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha peak. Definitely one of the most beautiful sights so far.

This ride is not for a the faint hearted or for those who are not sure of their biking skills. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve had some nasty accidents on rides around Pai. Ben had a fall too but it was rather unfortunate as he braked hard on a slippery stretch. The fact that he had just moved off and was riding at 10km/hr didn’t help much as the bike landed on his feet! Ouch. But we managed to ride back to Pai before the pain got unbearable for him.

There are a lot more caves and waterfalls around Pai and I skipped all of these. I did however wake up at 4:45am to ride to the Pai canyon in time for the sunrise which I didn’t see it coz, as I found out later, it was the wrong spot but I had the place to myself and it was definitely worth the loss of precious sleep.

People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn't
People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn’t
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.

Chiang Mai – Mahout Training

As I mentioned in my last post, after a last minute change of plans, I decided to skip Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and head straight to Chiang Mai. I left from Kanchanaburi very early in the morning and once in BKK managed to find tickets for the sleeper train from BKK -> Chiang Mai for the same night. Usually these need to be booked a couple of days ahead but I went there around 10:30 am so there were plenty of seats available.

Since I reached Chiang Mai I did nothing, and I am not exaggerating, for the first 3 days. I found 3 really good cafes one street up from my hostel which served delicious veggie food so I didn’t have to go too far for my basic needs. I’ve been very happy just eating delicious and healthy veg food, drinking smoothies, reading, sleeping and catching up on my blogging. Yesterday though, I decided to go for the Mahout training. According to wikipedia a mahout is a person who rides an elephant.

The only memory I have of being in close proximity to elephants is when I was visiting my cousins in a very small town called Pen in India. There was this giant animal standing in the middle of a tiny road. He was with his trainer and seemed very calm and no one was particularly worried and people were just watching it, patting it and walking away. Me? I was rooted to my spot, I could not go past it (and I needed to if I wanted to get home). I was this tiny little thing, less than 10yrs old, and he was just so big! What if it “lost it ” just as I tried to go past? I could not risk it. After a while, my cousin who had already walked past it, lost his patience, came and grabbed my hand and made me cross the road.

Fast forward 20yrs….Our day started with a 1.5hr drive to a near by village, in a pick up truck converted to a jeep with 2 rows of seats at the back. The back of the jeep was open and there were no seat belts. We were told that the last 30mins of the drive would be slightly bumpy. Slightly bumpy! Ha. More appropriate would be to tell us that there would be no roads at all. It was more like off-roading at the back of an open jeep with no seat belts on! And yeah, we were going uphill. But somehow we found humour in this drive and ended up laughing throughout the “slightly bumpy” drive.

After we stopped, we had a quick 10min walk down to the village and we could already hear the elephants trumpeting. Our guide, who was the owner of the center and trained the elephants himself, told us that the animals are letting us know that they know of our approach. When we came to the clearing we could see them wagging their tail and flapping their ears, as they could see their trainer and could smell the bananas that we brought for them! The smallest 2 elephants were actually doing sort of a dance by making an 8 in the air with their head! It was the most incredible welcome to the Mahout Training Center! The first thing we did was to feed the elephants their favourite food, banana and sugar cane, so as to “become friends” with them. When we were preparing their food they stood with the trunks up and mouths open, ready to eat. Lol Feeding them was, well, icky and a bit scary. Scary coz I was wondering what would happen if they closed their massive mouths on my palm and icky coz they have this big slippery and sticky wet tongue that you have to touch when you put food in their mouth. As if that wasn’t enough, the baby elephant gave us a sloppy, muddy, vacuum cleaner type “big suction” kiss on our cheeks! Haha

 

That's me getting the sloppiest kiss of my life!
That’s me getting the sloppiest kiss of my life!

This baby, the naughtiest one of the lot, loved playing with the trainer. When the trainer got on the baby’s back, he pulled the trainer’s slippers off with his trunk. After a few seconds, he lifted his trunk in the air to return the slippers to the trainer in return for a banana! LOL

Once we befriended the animals we changed into our mahout training clothes, fed them more food and learned the basic commands for our elephants, which we would need for our ride later on. Our guide was very sweet and extremely chatty so he gave us a lot of info on how he started his “family”, the importance of elephants in Thailand, their behaviour and about the life of the mahouts. Apparently, the king of Thailand loves elephants. He is the first one in the world to have started a hospital for them and the animals receive free care/accommodation/medication when they are ill. In the past, warriors used to ride elephants to war which gave them a distinct advantage over their enemies and hence the king is partial to these animals.

The elephants are extremely intelligent and can become very possessive of their mahouts/trainers. For eg, if they see their trainer playing with his dog they will push the trainer (which happened to our guide because of which he ended up with lots of broken ribs). This display of “jealousy” is the reason that most mahouts are single men. If they are seen with their partners it could be very dangerous for the mahouts.

The elephants sleep for around 3hrs a night and eat 10% of their weight in food every day! So Asian elephants who are 3000kgs eat 300kgs of food and drink 200litres of water and African elephants which are much bigger and heavier would eat 500kgs of food!!

It was already lunch time at this point. After a heavy meal of fried spring rolls, Pad Thai, papaya salad (which we made ourselves) and some fresh fruit it was time to go for a ride on the elephants. Now, I’ve heard a lot of stories about why you shouldn’t ride elephants because they are mistreated and tortured. But the training center I went to was different. Our guide, the owner, said he takes the longer process of training the animals. They use no knives or whips to train them, which can take as little as 2 days but make the animals more prone to lashing out unexpectedly. The animals at this centre were trained with….take a guess…..bananas! Lol. It takes 6 months to train them with food and love and gentle treatment but the animals then love you back. Anyways, getting onto the back of the big elephant was scary.

Beautiful Boonie and me, ready for a walk in the jungle.
Beautiful Boonie and me, ready for a walk in the jungle.

And they are so hairy! Their hair is more like toothbrush bristles and the mahout clothes weren’t thick enough! So after getting used to being so high up and then getting used to feeling like you’ll fall with every step the animal takes, you had to get used to the hair pricking you all over your bottom. But it was incredible to ride on them, see them in their natural habitat, just going for a walk, up rooting bamboo trees with their trunks to feed on it and following their mahouts who were treating them regularly with sugar cane.

Boonie taking one of his regular feeding breaks!
Boonie taking one of his regular feeding breaks!

After a bit more than an hour the elephants made their way back to the starting point and after we got off it was bath time for them.

First, the animals are left to themselves in the pond as it’s “family time” and no tourists or mahouts are allowed to interfere. There were 5 animals with one family of mama, papa and the baby. The 3 kept playing amongst themselves, splashing water on each other, rolling around in the pond but the other 2 didn’t join in coz they too knew it was family time for the other 3! When this was over the family started playing with the other 2 elephants and the mahouts and only then were we allowed to step in to the pond with them. Turns out it wasn’t just them who would get a wash! We were treated with regular jets of cold water from the baby elephant too!

Bathing time, for all of us!
Diamond decides we need a wash too!

After this we enjoyed more kisses from the baby, had some fruit and tea, said goodbye to our mahouts and elephants and made our way back to Chiang Mai.

I know this is a long post describing the day in a lot of detail but it was one of the most incredible experiences of this journey. To see these massive animals, displaying so much intelligence, so many emotions and love and to see them treated with so much love and respect was simply heart warming. It’s something that I will never forget and I highly encourage anyone visiting Chiang Mai to go for this training!

Kanchanaburi

Next stop after BKK was Kanchanaburi which is a 2hr minivan ride away. It’s a nice riverside town with a lot of bars, restaurants, clothes stall, salons, cafes etc all along the riverside. It’s busy-ish but not manic, which makes it the perfect get away if BKK has driven you crazy.

The main attraction at Kanchanaburi is the Death Railway to Myanmar which was constructed by the Prisoners of War (POWs) and Asian workers/slaves working for the Japanese during World War II. A visit to the Thai Burma Railway Center museum gave me a better understanding of the history around building of the railway and the treatment of the POWs who had to live and work in nightmarish conditions. Around 15,000 POWs and 100,000 Asian workers died during the construction of the railway! There’s a war cemetery right across the museum where the remains of around 7,000 POWs, from the UK, Netherlands and Australia, are buried. This railway is still functional and it was pretty interesting to walk on the track itself. The track has been turned into a pathway with a lot of observation decks where people can stand and watch the train go by. The train goes real slow though as there are people who stand in front of the train, taking selfies, while the train keeps honking to shoo them away! Lol

Apparently, taking selfies is more important than letting the train pass ;)
Apparently, taking selfies is more important than letting the train pass 😉

On my second day there, I went to go the Erawan waterfalls which is around 43miles from Kanchanaburi. I was told that it being the weekend it gets absolutely swamped with locals going for a picnic but I didn’t want to wait 2 days so I decided to wake up at 5am and be there for 7:30am hoping I would miss all the tourists and locals. And I did! On all the 7 levels, I saw a group of 3 people on the 2nd level. For the rest of the climb and the remaining levels I was all by myself (except the 100 or so lizards) which was just perfect.

Perfect spot to take a break from the climb
Perfect spot to take a break from the climb

I say 7 levels but I only went as far as 6 coz for the last one I’d have to climb rocks and wade through ankle deep water and frankly, I just wasn’t too bothered. The motorbike ride to the Erawan National park was another treat as the roads, which were lined by massive trees most of the way, were almost empty that early in the day.

2nd level of the 7 tiered Erawan waterfalls
2nd level of the 7 tiered Erawan waterfalls

There is another museum that I would have loved to go to which is the Hellfire Pass. This is the pass that the POWs and the civilian workers/slaves cleared by hand, by cutting and blasting through rocks, to clear a path for the Death railway. The walk through the jungle to go down to the pass, the walk along the railway line and the audio guide are meant to be an experience to remember. I didn’t go to this museum because I realized I was fast losing interest in “doing” things. I know that Kanchanaburi is a nice town and that the waterfalls were beautiful but this is more of an objective review than how I really felt. What I felt was ‘traveler’s fatigue’. I felt like I didn’t want to go sight seeing anymore and I didn’t want to move every 3-4days. Basically I didn’t want to “do” anything for a while. So after a last minute change of plans, I decided to head to Chiang Mai and stay there for at least 10 days.

Bangkok

I was super excited to finally come to Thailand! It’s where my backpacking adventure was initially meant to begin but I moved the dates around so I wouldn’t come here during the hottest months of the year. My first stop was Bangkok. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some people hate BKK and some think it’s ok. I had surprised myself by falling in love with Ho Chi Minh despite it being very hectic so I was interested to see how I would feel about BKK.

We left Battambang in Cambodia in a cramped taxi to get to Poipet, at the Cambodia – Thailand Border, which apparently is the busiest border crossing between the two countries with people having to queue for hours in the heat. This crossing also has a lot of complaints about extortion with border officials charging you “exit fees”. Deciding not to pay these fees results in a Mexican standoff that can last hours. We decided that if it came to it we will wait it out. But as luck would have it, or may be coz we’d left super early, we finished the exit formalities in under 5mins and got our visas for Thailand in another 10. And there was no demand for “exit fees” as well! So that was easy peasy.

We then took a minivan from Poipet to BKK which took about 5hrs. Just like when we crossed into Cambodia from Vietnam, we could tell that we were in a different country soon after we crossed the border. The roads were significantly better, the cars bigger and faster and I also saw a Tesco on the way (which is a chain of supermarkets in the UK)! Once in BKK, one of the first few shops I saw was Boots which is my go-to store in the UK for any toiletries and cosmetics ! I was so excited to have these familiar names and shops around me. I actually sort of screamed when I saw Boots as did this other Brit who was traveling with me. I was already liking BKK. I knew that I was in a third world country but it didn’t feel like it at all. It’s not exactly London but it sure as hell ain’t Phnom Penh either.

For me BKK is all about walking around and taking in the vibe. On the 2nd day I did a big loop around the Royal Palace, the Wat Pho, the river and back to the hostel. I didn’t go into the Palace coz I didn’t want to pay$16 for it but I did visit Wat Pho which was just beautiful.

Beautiful Wat Pho
Beautiful Wat Pho

It was nothing like the Cambodian temples which are (or at least) look much older and are in different states of ruins. This temple was very well maintained. Also, unlike in Vietnam and Cambodia where you are not allowed to enter temples if you are not appropriately dressed, in Wat Pho there are skirts and scarves for women to cover up for free which I think was very considerate.

BKK is an attack on your senses for sure. The tuk tuk drivers, the taxis, the bikes and cars, the hoards of tourists and travelers, the street side markets selling everything you can imagine and more is just wonderful!

Hungry, anyone?
Hungry, anyone?

Khaosan Rd, the backpacker area, was a bit too much though. During the day it’s a calm street with food and clothes stall set up like anywhere else in the city but come night it transforms into one big party street. The music is so loud that you can feel it in your bones! There are people dancing on the street drinking beers and god knows what else from small buckets (yes buckets!). I much preferred the Ram Buttri street, which is just one street up and had everything minus the madness of Khaosan.

All in all, I really enjoyed BKK. It is a wonderful lively city but I’m sure the pace would get to me after a while so spending 3 days was just about right.