TOP 10 of THAILAND (PART 1):

1. Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festival of lights in Chiang Mai

We were very privileged to be in Chiang Mai for the annual Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festivals of lights (which dates co-incided) on 14th November 2016. The Loi Krathong festival involves the release of thousands of beautifully coloured floating bamboo lanterns (krathong) into the local river and the Yi Peng festival involves the release of thousands of candle-lit paper lanterns (khom loi) into the night sky both to honour the Buddha. We stayed in a hostel where they taught us to make our own traditional krathong with bamboo leaves, bright flowers, incense sticks and a candle which we later lit and released into the river carrying our good wishes for the year. Then we walked around, stopping off at food stalls, and viewed the release of hundreds upon hundreds of paper lanterns into the night sky. It was magical. And “yes” I did think of the potential of fire hazards and the polluting factor of the lanterns.

Lantern festival
Lantern festival

2. Zip-lining in Chiang Mai

A zip-lining adventure has been on my “bucket list” for a long time and in Chiang Mai we got to experience a combination of about 20 ziplines, abseiling, sky suspension bridges and forest walks that was absolutely thrilling. My nerves settled after the first zipline and then flying through the tree canopies like Tarzan became incredibly addictive. Besides the 850m long zipline, the scariest one had to be what they called the “Superman” experience because the zipline was attached to your back and allowed you to fly. The group christened my ziplining style as “tinkerbell” because apparently I pointed my toes and looked like a fairy flying. It could have been worse.

3. Bustling Bangkok

Bustling Bangkok, as one’s first introduction to S.E. Asia, is an assault on the senses particularly the cloying humidity, unidentifiable pungent smells and vast numbers of people and traffic. I had limited time there so I booked a private tour guide who raced me through the canals, temples of Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and markets of Bangkok. I learnt about the symbolism of the temple carvings, various mystical creatures and the Buddhist teachings. Apparently each day of the week (corresponding to the date of your birth) is assigned its own colour and Buddha position. The recently deceased King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was born on a Monday and so his colour is yellow and his Buddha is called Pang Ham Yati (“pacifying the relatives” or as I called it “stop – hammer time” Buddha).

4. Mourning of the King

It was a unique time to be in Thailand with the recent passing of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the 13th of October 2016 who had reigned in Thailand under a constitutional monarchy for the last 70 years. The Thai people were devastated and mourned him by all dressing in black with some white, decorating all buildings/bridges in black and white ribbons and waiting up to 13 hours to pay their respects to the body of the King resting in-state at the Grand Palace. But it was heartwarming to see the Thai people galvanized into a community spirit in the mourning of their King. The Thai hospitality was extended to us foreigners which included free water, fruit, tamarind sweets and even fried noodles for lunch.

5. Pad Thai in Bangkok

I have always been a big fan of the classic Thai dish of pad thai (fried noodles with egg, yellow tofu, bean sprouts, tamarind sauce and often served with chicken and shrimp). I had the best pad thai of my life in a nondescript place in Bangkok with plastic chairs and tablecloths which included sides of sugar, salt, lemon, chilli flakes and nuts to create your own unique flavour profile towards your taste preferences balancing the sweet, sour and acidic flavours.

6. Beauty of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya is about 80 km north of Bangkok and once was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and an impressive trading port (being in the centre of three rivers) from 1350 to 1757 when the Burmese invaded it. Now it is a modern city with a number of archeological sites of temple ruins and palaces hinting at the former grandeur of this city. We took a boat around the main temple sites and spent the afternoon walking to a few more including Wat Phra Mahathat which features the famous tree grown around the Buddha head.

Wat Phra Mahathat
Wat Phra Mahathat

7. The white temple of Chiang Rai

On our way out of Thailand, we stopped to visit the Wat Rong Khun temple (aka the “White temple”) of Chiang Rai. It is a privately owned temple constructed in 1997 as an art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. The main building at the white temple is called “the bridge of the cycle of rebirth” and is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolise unrestrained desire and therefore the bridge represents that the way to happiness is by foregoing these desire (greed, temptation, avarice, lust). Definitely a belief that was not subscribed to by a number of the tourists.

White Temple
White Temple

8. Night train to Chiang Mai

From Ayutthaya we took the 12-hour night sleeper train to Chiang Mai staying in 2nd-class with its two-level bunk beds, curtain dividers and bright lights that stayed on all night. After a rowdy game of cards, I settled down for the night with my eye mask and ear plugs and began my successful history of sleeping horizontally on modes of transportation included trains, mini-busses, boats and speed boats. I had been dreading this night train experience for years because I had heard about it from friends and family and was pleasantly surprised by it.

9. Monk chat in Chiang Mai

We visited the central temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang, and were able to participate in the programme of chatting to a Monk about his life. The monk explained that becoming a monk for a number of years was a very popular means for free education for the poor, young men in Thailand allowing them to eventually leave monkhood with an employable degree. It made sense to me combining service with a tangible benefit like education.

10. Elephants in Chiang Mai

Riding of Thai elephants was the popular thing to do in Chiang Mai for years until the living conditions of these elephants came under the scrutiny and criticism of the international community. So now, the riding of elephants is out, but the feeding and bathing of elephants in “reserves” and “sanctuaries” is in. Many foreign tourists even spend a week volunteering at an elephant park and pay a hefty sum for the privilege of working (feeding, cleaning up the poop etc.) with the elephants. I took part in the popular day-activity of visiting an elephant sanctuary and although I absolutely hated the experience, it gave me pause to reflect on why it evoked such a strong negative reaction in me while for all the other tourists it was an absolute highlight.

Perhaps it was because I was the only tourist that was used to seeing elephants in the wild and I didn’t like seeing the elephants in confined stalls unable to interact as a herd. The park I visited claimed that they have to do this because if the elephants were allowed to roam freely they will raid the crops of the neighbouring farms but I wasn’t convinced. I also thought it was unnecessary for us to feed the elephants (I got into trouble when I tried to move a basket of bananas closer to an elephant so it could feed itself) or require the elephant to passively lie down while we bathed it (I am pretty sure elephants can wash themselves). It disturbed me that when we saw an elephant clearly in distress, the workers told us that it was doing its “happy dance”, but I know my ellies. However, my instinct proved to be correct after this same elephant mock-charged a group later when it was being washed. But I really didn’t like that the experience allowed us to feel morally superior because we were not “riding” the elephants but yet were forcing them to interact with us in unnatural ways for our pleasure and entertainment.

The “elephant issue” provided a great topic of discussion throughout my travels. One of my travel buddies shared her frustration that the international community was more focused on the plight of the “poor” elephants while ignoring the harsh economic disparities of Thailand and the ability of poor people to generate an income from the elephants. Thereby placing the welfare of elephants above that of people.  She complained that people seemed to care more about the riding of elephants than the infamous sex trade in Thailand which had many foreign men riding local Thai women. Fair point!