Time in Chiang Mai

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Long Journey for a Short Trip

5:15 AM in the airport is the time of bleary eyed travelers. That’s what time my whirlwind journey to Thailand for my friend’s wedding started. In the next 40 hours, I would spend 35.5 hours in airplanes and airports.

Denver to San Francisco was mostly spent sleeping. Except for the screeching child in the row in front of me. I’m forgiving of children crying on takeoff and landing because I’ve had times as an adult where the air pressure change was almost unbearable. This child felt that mid-flight was the optimal time for a tantrum. After a few sleepy hours in San Francisco, came the long haul to Beijing.

Walking off the plane in Beijing was like opening the door to a freezer. Outside the temperature was -1C or 30F. Inside the airport wasn’t much warmer. In an effort to stay awake and warm, I spent most of my layover walking around and around the duty free shops. And just in case I wasn’t cold enough in the airport, our departure gate was actually a bus that takes the passengers to the plane where you walk across the tarmac. I was the last one on the first bus and the first one into the plane after the flock of passengers heading for Thailand made a mad dash through the freezing cold. Only once I sat down, ready to pass out from exhaustion, did I realize that the time for my flight to Bangkok had actually changed by almost 2 hours (24-hour time format and a sleepy brain are to blame). So instead of arriving at 11:45 PM we arrived at 1:45 AM. I slept.

Heat and humidity were the ambassadors in Bangkok. 28C or 86F and a wall of humidity, even at 1:45 am. Following my well established routine after 11 trips to Thailand, I cleared immigration and customs, got a sim card for my smartphone (first time using a smartphone in Thailand instead of a simple travel phone), picked up a snack at 7-11 for the morning and went to get the shuttle to the hotel. Checking in at 3 AM, I begrudgingly requested a space in the 8 AM shuttle to return to the airport for the last of my flights. A shower, 3 hours of sleep, another 2.5 hours in an airport and a 1 hour flight, I finally arrived in Chiang Mai.

A Country in Mourning

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Memorial to the King at Suvarnbhumi Airport.

In October, King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away. At age 88, King Adulyadej was the longest reigning monarch, having reigned for 70 years. The King was deeply revered and honored by all of the Thai population, not just symbolically. He was their father, attaining something of a saint-like status for his support of the commoner and the advances he brought to their lives. For most of Thailand, King Adulyadej is the only king they have ever known.

All of Thailand is a portrait of black and white in mourning. Government buildings, schools, temples, bridges and shops are graced with black and white bunting and black and white portraits of the King. As a show of respect and mourning, the people are dressed in black, or black and white. At the very least, a small black bow is pinned to their shirt or dress. Even the clothing displayed in big stores and night market stalls alike are predominately black and white. To see the love and honor bestowed upon the King is such a dichotomy from the current political situation in the United States.

Chiang Mai Routine

Visiting a destination multiple times becomes more about routine and less about adventure. I check in, get a motorbike, and go to the specific places I need to go to get the things that I know I need to get. Especially this trip where time is in short supply.

My days of staying in the Old Town Chiang Mai are over. A few years ago CM Blue House, where I had stayed since my first trip in 2008, closed. Finding a new place is not necessarily easy. Not that there aren’t plenty of guesthouses and hotels to choose from. It’s about location and bed firmness. Easy to determine location on a website, impossible to determine bed firmness, even from reviews. Asian beds are a level of firmness ranging between marble floor to firm soil.

Baan SongJum Homestay was my home for my 2 nights in Chiang Mai. Despite the beds having the firmness of linoleum flooring, I am glad to have found this new home. Located down a narrow soi (alley) just off of Kaew Narawat road, Baan SongJum is a lovely oasis where you definitely feel at home. Still close enough to walk down the small streets and sois to get to the Old Town to rent a motorbike but far enough away from the tourists and heavy traffic. Nui, the owner, makes you feel at home the minute you walk through the gate (which is always kept shut since her dog Lanna is a fast escape artist.)

Instead of having a motorbike delivered, it was better, cheaper and faster to walk to the old town. 15 minutes of uneven “sidewalks” down narrow sois (alleys) and I was at the old town. Seeing a new area on foot was actually a welcomed change. I found the Lanna Thai Massage Medical School and cataloged it as a place to potentially get a massage later. At the moment, I had more pressing activities to attend to.

A distinct advantage to having a smartphone on a motorbike is the ability to pull over and access the Maps application. This feature alone has made my tried and true, heavily taped together map now obsolete. Having the Maps application does not negate the fact that I still missed at least one intended turn. A small 30 minute and several kilometer detour later and I finally found where I was going.

Time with Friends

While in Chiang Mai, seeing my good friends was a priority. Most of my friends here I have known going on 6 or 7 years. Life has changed for many of them. Of my closest friends in Thailand, only one is still working at working for Elephant Nature Park/Foundation.

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My wonderful friend Lek and I at dinner

Wednesday night I got to see my sweet, wonderful friend Lek. Picking me up on her shiny new motorbike, a bigger model than anything I have ever seen her drive before, we went just a short distance down the road before turning into an alley nestled between two buildings. By alley, I mean a narrow spit of sidewalk just wide enough for a motorbike. No farang (foreigner) would have guessed there was a quaint restaurant perched on the banks of the Mae Ping river at the end of it. No farang would have probably even thought to turn there in the first place. We picked a table under a tree literally at the edge of the river bank. Any more erosion and the bench I was sitting on would no longer be at the table. The location was a perfect milieu with the lights of Chiang Mai reflecting off the surface of the river on the warm, clear evening. Lek ordered us a plentiful feast of som tam (papaya salad), tom yum goong (soup), kow pat mu (pork friend rice) and crispy fish with herbs. Over the course of the next hour we ate, discussed life and reminisced about the times we have had together. It was a beautiful evening and a great reminder of how rich my life is with friends around the world.

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Chet and I at dinner eating mugata.

Thursday evening Chet and I went for mugata (literal translation is grilled pork). Mugata is the Thai version of a hot pot and a distant cousin of fondue. A metal pan looking like a small pointy hat surrounded by a moat is placed over a burner. The moat is filled with a light broth water. The pan is prepared by rendering large chunks of pork fat that keeps food from sticking and adds flavor to the broth as it runs down the pan. Then you cook your food, either grilling meats, or boiling vegetables, seafood or other food items. As the food is cooked, you eat it with a variety of dipping sauces. Chet introduced me to mugata several visits ago, so it always seems appropriate that it is our meal of choice. Having not seen Chet in over two years, it was great to see him again. I am happy for him and the opportunities he has had to grow in his work. He dreams of traveling and that dream is coming true.

 

Making New Elephant Friends

No trip to Thailand would be complete for me without at least a little time with elephants. Having been to Elephant Nature Park so many times and wanting to support different projects of the Elephant Nature Foundation, I opted to make new elephant friends going to the Hope for Elephant program. Hope for Elephant is a new day trip program where the Elephant Nature Foundation is working with several elephant camps to change how they use the elephants for tourism. The elephants that are now part of the project are free from saddles and giving rides and are subjected only to being fed, bathed and having thousands of pictures taken of them as they walk with the tourists around the hillside. As with all Elephant Nature Foundation projects, the mahouts (elephant caretakers) have relinquished their bull hooks and now use food for reward and control.

Instead of waiting to be picked up by the van, I opted to go to the Elephant Nature Park office so I could say hello to a few more friends. Once they had gathered the others in the group, we traveled about 1.5 hours southwest of Chiang Mai to the village of Mae Wan. After 7 years of the same video about elephants in Thailand and the Elephant Nature Park project, I was ecstatic to see a new video and an entertaining animated video about elephant safety. So much has changed since my first day trip in 2008.

Once in Mae Wan, we cleaned three baskets full of cucumbers and cut bananas off the stalk as offerings for the elephants we were about to meet. Then, piling in the back of the pickup truck, we headed into the hills to meet the elephants. A narrow road, only wide enough for one truck at a time, climbed up and down the hills. In one place the dirt road is replaced with two cement tracks, the solution to several rainy seasons washing away the road.

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Feeding Fah Sai.

Food is always the way to an elephant’s heart. Elephants eat a tenth of their weight in food each day, which means they are constantly eating something. Banana plants, trees, grass, whatever plant or vegetable available, they will eat it. Our introduction to the group was through feeding them. Three elephants belong in the group we visited. Fah Sai is the youngest at 7 years old, Kahm Mun is 25 and Moyo is 35. To make feeding the elephants on the project safer and controlled, they have built a small low fence that keeps the elephants at bay from the food and keeps humans from becoming the filling for an elephant sandwich.

Walking with elephants is anything but aerobic activity. Much of the time along our relatively short and unchallenging trek, was spent watching the elephants roam and eat. Kahm Mun was the most active of the group in roaming and eating. Fah Sai often was Kahm Mun’s shadow, at least as far as eating went. Moyo stayed close to her mahout and his copious handfuls of food pellets. Along the way we had copious photo opportunities and time to interact with the elephants. Despite a collection of several thousand elephant photos, I still can’t help but take more pictures. You never know when you are going to capture THE shot. Plus, these are new elephants.

Part of the experience was a mini cooking lesson in making som tam (papaya salad) for our lunch. After lunch we made an afternoon snack for the elephants, starting with pounding corn in a traditional hill tribe manner. The hill tribe people use a human-powered mill to pound the husks off the corn. That rice was added to cooked rice, tamarind, bananas, cooked pumpkin and salt, and mushed together by hand.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, bathing elephants never gets old no matter how many times I do it. Initially a bit on the cold side, the water was a refreshing break to the beating sun. Kahm Mun and Fah Sai took to the water eagerly, lying down in the water and rolling in it to wash off the freshly applied mud. So beautiful to be able to get so close to these amazing and beautiful elephants.

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Fah Sai and Kahm Mun reapplying dirt after their bath.

After their bath and a new application of mud and dirt, applied by rolling in it and using their trunks to coat their bodies, we got to feed them one more time. Seeing the transformation of the others in the group in just a few hours is so gratifying. One person even commented that she could see why I come back so many times. Eventually we said goodbye to our new elephant friends and headed back to Chiang Mai.

 

 

Wat Else

Only 48 hours in Chiang Mai affords very little spare time to just wander. I did manage to sneak in a little bit though. On Nui’s recommendation I went to Wat Ket Karam, or the dog temple. Wat Ket Karam is located just down the street from the guesthouse and is frequented mostly by Thai, making it a quiet, reflective place to be. Still, I didn’t spend very long there. Just long enough to walk around the grounds and go into the main hall for a few minutes of reflection.

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Worowot bridge with black and white bunting in honor of the King.

One errand I didn’t manage on arriving in Chiang Mai was satisfying my quest for my favorite Thai peanut snack. It’s a delicious mixture of puffed rice, coconut, peanuts and sugar. Looking out from Wat Ket Karam, I discovered that I was just across the memorial pedestrian bridge to Worowot Market. The cement bridge was originally built by a Chiang Mai governor in honor of his wife. Since then it has been rebuilt twice, once to convert it to concrete and just last year to repair damage. The white cement bridge is bedecked in the black and white bunting to honor the King. A quick stroll through the market paid off and I procured my peanut yummy goodness (not even a translation of the name.)

No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without a trip to my favorite temple, Wat Inthakhin. Wat Inthakhin I often refer to as “the temple in the middle of the road”, mostly because I can never remember the actual name. Nui provided the history for how this temple came to be located in the middle of a road. In the time of the Lanna kingdom, this wat (temple) was part of the royal complex. When the kingdom fell to the king in Bangkok, they wanted to debase the local people by destroying the royal palace and building their government buildings in that location. To add further insult to injury, they put a road through the royal temple. At the temple, I made an offering and got my fortune. Fortunes are made by taking a canister of sticks with numbers on them, and after a moment of prayer to ask what you want to know about, you shake the canister until the first stick falls out. The number on the stick is correlated to sheets of paper with your fortune (in Thai and English). My fortune was very good this time.

Running on schedule, I had just enough time to return my motorbike and walk back to the guesthouse, stopping at the ATM and to get a long overdue massage. 60 minutes was not nearly long enough. Unfortunately that was all the time I had. The therapist was adept at addressing several key muscles that had been much abused. As I meandered the rest of the way back to the guesthouse in a state of post-massage bliss, I reflected on the benefits of getting off the motorbike every now and then.

On to the Wedding

My quick tour of Chiang Mai came to an all too quick end and I headed off to Mae Sai by bus. Looking forward to seeing my friend Chai and attending his wedding.

Swiftly Passing Week in Chiang Mai

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Hello Again

Chiang Mai is changing. Sometimes change is good and at the same time bad. Immediately noticeable is the increased cost of taxis from the airport into town, the uniformed drivers and their new cars and the increased number of cars in general on the roads. I know my perception of whether the change is good or bad. Really I wanted to know what the Thai think about it. Both people I asked said that it is good for the economy and bad for the culture. Long, the woman I met at one of the Body Pump classes I attended, summed it up saying that there are so many more Westerners and Asians, in Chiang Mai that she felt came here for what it was and have made it what they want to be. She is saddened by the changes.

In an effort to avoid the touristy and changing old town, and to give me something new to write about, I decided this time to stay somewhere new. The fact that CM Blue House, the guesthouse that has been my home in Chiang Mai for the past 5 years, recently closed also aided that decision. So I opted to stay at Inspire House, just a short distance from Sunshine Massage School.

Inspire House is actually not very inspiring. From the funky stale smell in my room to the tears in the fabric of the sofas in the lobby, it just didn’t make a very good impression on me. Perhaps a fresh coat of paint and a good cleaning of the mold in the bathroom would do it wonders. (To be fair, the fight against mold is a tough one in this climate.) After a day or so, what it lacks in aesthetics was more than compensated for by the luxury of daily housekeeping, two bottles of water a day and a primo location for me. Although lacking strong English speaking skills, the staff was kind and helpful. They helped me get a motorbike the evening I arrived, even though I thought I had arrived too late in the evening to rent one.

Daily Routines

My propensity for making Chiang Mai my home was definitely enhanced by being outside of the old town. During the day I took my massage class. In the evening I worked out, ran errands and went and had dinner. Having such a routine existence made the days fly by.

Having taken several days off of actually working out, the lengthy walks through both Svuarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports on Thursday and Sunday notwithstanding, I needed to go do some exercise. Fitness Thailand offers classes in the evening and Monday and Wednesday were Body Pump class. The instructors are pretty good at leading the class in some combination of Thai and English. Enough English that it wasn’t hard to follow along at all. Also helps that I have been doing Body Pump classes at home so knew the general pattern and moves.

Wednesday evening I arrived at Fitness Thailand running a little behind due to unexpected traffic and a slight navigational issue. When I went to pay I discovered that I didn’t have my wallet with me. No money and no ATM card. Pleading my case to the receptionist, she let me take the class on the promise that I would come back and pay. So after class, I jumped on the motorbike, zoomed back to Inspire House, had a slight moment of panic when my wallet wasn’t where I thought it might be, found my wallet hiding in my backpack, grabbed my wallet, and zoomed back to Fitness Thailand. Times like this are when I am extremely happy to have a motorbike to get around and am generally familiar with Chiang Mai roads.

My inner mermaid was starting to get cranky about not getting in the water, so Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I opted for swimming. Eco Resort, a common location for many Sunshine Massage School students, has a beautiful 25 meter pool. Generally the pool is not crowded, making it fairly easy to swim laps. Sophie, one of the students in my class, was staying there and was at the pool on Tuesday and Thursday. Both days she made the comment that I never stop after watching me jump in the water and swim around 1000 meters each night. The clean, lightly chlorinated, cool water was a welcomed way to end my days.

The most important errand of the week was getting my computer repaired. Upon Lek’s recommendation, I took my computer to the second floor of Panthip Plaza where I found Chiang Mai Notebook Repair. Presenting my computer to them and explaining the tragic incident that had befallen it, I looked at them hopefully and asked if it could be fixed. To my great relief, they said yes. The price for the repair would be 800 baht or about $27. The relief of having my computer fixed and not having to type on my phone washed over me like a wave. The prospect at having to find an alternative or paying a large amount had been weighing on me.

No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without going to the Sunday Night Walking Street (unless you are not there on a Sunday). Walking street is a market that materializes every Sunday evening covering several blocks running right through the middle of the old town. Walking is a relative term, as the number of people squeezing their way between stalls makes a turtle seem like a speed racer. Armed with a list but lacking the desire to do much shopping, I did my best to plod my way down the street and back up. Eventually I gave up and headed back to Inspire House, the realization that I would be forced to do more shopping at the Night Bazaar at some point during the week.

The Night Bazaar is probably my least favorite place to go in Chiang Mai. Pretty much I view it as a feeding grounds for vendors as they ply tourists for their money. Probably doesn’t help that I don’t like to bargain for what I want to purchase, yet know that I have to as the prices the vendors give are inflated to catch the unsuspecting and inexperienced tourist unaware. Tuesday night, after eating dinner and meeting a new friend, we decided in solidarity to head to the Night Bazaar. Generally I was successful in getting several of the remaining items on my list, most specifically the massage tools that I have only ever found here.

Learning Something New

My general motto is to never stop learning. So this year I returned to Sunshine Massage School to take Thai Massage Using the Feet. Our class was the largest I have had there, 20 massage therapists from all over the Europe with a couple people from America and Turkey. Almost everyone in the class was a practicing massage practitioner with several years of experience. Having that much experience in the class was so beneficial as each of us brought a wealth of skills and perspective to the new techniques we were learning.

The week of learning passed very quickly. When learning massage, it is important to work with as many different body types as possible. On Thursday I had the opportunity to work with Rogier. Rogier does a form of acro-yoga massage. As the name suggests, acro means in the air. The short term for acro-yoga massage is “flying”. Toward the end of our session, Rogier did some of this type of work. The experience was truly incredible. To be suspended in the air and moved through different positions requires a certain amount of trust and release of control. The most loving and tender part of the time was the ending where he returned to the ground surrounded in a hug. As he was doing this part and I looked around, almost the whole class was watching. Several people commented on how incredible it was to watch. And while I’m sure it looked incredible, it felt even more incredible to experience this type of work.

Flying with Rogier

Flying with Rogier

The People You Meet

One of the most beautiful aspects of traveling is the people that you meet and connect with along the way. People come into our lives at specific times and for specific reasons. And even though your paths may briefly cross, sometimes that person can have a profound effect, like a stone being thrown into a pond changes the water with the ripples it creates.

My normal haunt for dinner is the Chiang Mai Gate market. True, it’s not very adventurous to eat at the same place every night; however, it is a lot like cooking your own food every night, just without the effort. Tuesday night at the market was crowded, with all of the tables filled. At one of the tables was an individual dining solo. Not being particularly shy and knowing it is generally a custom in a lot of countries to share a table with strangers, I asked him if could join him at the table. He said I could so long as I didn’t mind sitting among the trash. As I watched him try to eat his pad thai, I finally couldn’t take it any longer and gave him a lesson on the proper way to eat the noodle dish gracefully. Mike, an American turned Canadian, and I talked for a very long time about a broad array of topics interspersed with moments of very cerebral humor. The capricious amount of witty banter was much appreciated. It was the start of a very interesting friendship that grew over the next few days.

Wednesday night we met again for dinner. When eating at the street vendors it is custom to order your food, eat and then pay before you leave. Mike is just one of those people where conversation comes easily. We were so engrossed at the end of dinner that both of us said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fortunately I was taking the long way around the outside moat road looking for a gas station, when I realized that I left without paying for my dinner. Taking the next turnaround I zipped back to the night market and paid for my dinner amongst a profuse amount of apologies. The vendor laughed when I apologized and said she forgot too.

Massage class is a petri dish for meeting and connecting with people. The advantage is that everyone is there for a common purpose and has the fact that we are body workers in common. Having 20 people in class made it difficult to really connect with the group as a whole. Even by the last day there were a couple people whose names I didn’t even know. At the same time, it was possible to establish some very strong connections with people. Justine, a cheerful and kind woman from the UK, and I hit it off almost immediately. Sophie and Melody were also quick connections. The deepest connection I had was with Rogier, a wonderful and kind man from Holland. A testament to when the timing is right; we didn’t actually connect until we worked together Thursday afternoon, yet that connection had the most profound impact on my week.

Just as important as meeting new people is seeing old friends. Many of my friends from Elephant Nature Park have moved away from Chiang Mai. Lek and Chai are the two friends that I have seen most consistently over my travels. Even though we don’t talk as regularly as we used to, we are still friends and still make a special effort to see each other.

Friday night Lek and I were able to meet. She picked a meeting location that she knew I could find, just down from where I used to stay. I parked my motorbike, grabbed my helmet and jumped on the back of her cute orange, almost vintage looking, motorbike. First stop was dinner at a small place on Sirphon Road (the north inside moat road). I took one look at the menu which was entirely in Thai and told her to order for us. We had tom yum goon, fried fish with garlic, and vegetables. We spent dinner catching up and talking about the fact that we have known each other for 5 years already.

After dinner, Lek felt like going to Zoe in Yellow, a bar that is popular for farang (foreigners) and for dancing. A friend of hers was there and invited us to join them at the table they were at. In retrospect, ordering the bucket of mojito for Lek and I might not have been the best move. Somehow by the end of the night, we did manage to drink the whole thing. In the process we ended up actually dancing for awhile. I haven’t danced like that in a long time. Was really nice to relax and enjoy spending time with a very dear friend. At the end of the night, which was about 1 AM, Lek drove me to my motorbike. From there she followed me all the way back to Inspire House just to make sure I made it ok.

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Chai travels for his work, which is driving a van for tourists. Most often he is in Chiang Rai. In the blur that was my week, I forgot to contact him and let him know that I was in Chiang Mai, just in case he was able to meet me. Friday morning Chai saw the post of Lek and I on Facebook. Turns out he was in Chiang Mai for the night. Unfortunately for me, he had to work almost all day on Saturday. The beauty of my Thai friends is the lengths they will go to in an effort to see me.

Typically I am ok with Thai time. When it comes to travel arrangements and Thai time, I struggle somewhat. Chai offered to pick me up at Inspire House and take me to the bus station so that I could see him for a few minutes. Saturday happened to be the day that the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade was happening, making traffic a nightmare. The trip that would normally take maybe 5-10 minutes ended up taking him about 30 minutes. As the time grew nearer for me to catch my bus he finally said that it might be better for us to meet at the bus station instead. Arriving at the bus station at 6:05 for my 6:15 bus, I checked in my luggage and anxiously waited for Chai to arrive. Not having been to the bus station in a long time he didn’t realize that Nakonchai Air now has its own terminal in the bus station complex. Mere moments (6:11) before I needed to be on the bus he made it there to say hello. It was good to see him and I felt guilty that we didn’t get to spend more than those few brief moments.

Even More Ruins

At the end of a very full and very quick week, it was time for me to head south to Buriram. The bus ride from Chiang Mai to Buriram is a 12-hour overnight trip. Fortunately the buses Nakhonchai Air uses are very comfortable, especially the VIP seats at the front. For $24, the VIP seats are worth it as they almost fully recline. Part of the bus experience in Thailand is the sometimes too loud Thai music and then short movie. Fortunately with the overnight trip, about 3 hours in they turn the tv off so everyone can sleep. Until then I made a valiant attempt to drown out the noise using my iPod.

Ever since I have come to the Surin Project, I have wanted to make a trip down to the Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung ruins. Generally my travel plans have prevented this from happening, so this time I made a special effort to get there. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is a former Khmer temple that was part of the Khmer empire that extended from Angkor Wat in Cambodia deep into Thailand in the 9th to 11th centuries. The temple is also the best example of Khmer architecture in Thailand.

The ruins are located a mere 70 kilometers or so from Buriram. The options for getting there are to take a bus to a small town and then a motorbike taxi from there, hiring a taxi from Buriram or renting a motorbike. As is my way, I opted for the motorbike. When I went to rent a motorbike from the place I was staying, you would have thought that I suddenly sprouted a third eye the way the woman looked at me. After emphatically suggesting the taxi approach and me emphatically insisting on motorbike, she helped me locate a place to rent a motorbike that included a helmet. Jintana Resort, where I am staying, has a motorbike to rent but no helmet. In Thailand, helmets are compulsory even if this law isn’t always particularly enforced for Thai. For farang (foreigners) the law is almost always enforced. Not to mention the safety factor.

Armed with a not-to-scale map and a practice of holistic navigation, I jumped on my yellow and black motorbike that I immediately nicknamed Bumble Bee Jr. (after the transformer) and headed off. For those unfamiliar with the concept of holistic navigation, it is the practice of heading off in what you assume to be the right direction and hope for signs that you made the right choice. Occasionally this method has resulted in some interesting adventures to places I didn’t expect. This time, according to the blue tourist attraction signs, it worked out pretty well.

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Zooming down the road on a motorbike through the sun bleached plains, sometimes strange and interesting sights briefly catch your attention: cows grazing on the side of the road; dogs lying in the sun; motorbikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road; cars coming at you passing another car on a bridge where the road narrows, a large concrete Buddha being constructed on what I’m assuming is the site of a future wat (temple); tourist attraction signs for Thai Silk Village; large fiberglass crane statues marking the entrance to a bird sanctuary; the Thai Cowboy Hat Factory. (Who knew there was a Thai Cowboy Hat Factory?!) The most interesting phenomenon was the waves of cool air fighting with the hot midday sun. Even though the fields looked dry and brown, enough water must have been present to create a swamp cooler effect.

Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is situated at the top of a dormant volcano. “The approach to the temple is pretty dramatic [when approached from the east]”. Unfortunately I read that part in my guide book after parking at the west entrance. To get the full effect I opted to climb down to the eastern entrance and then come back up to the main prang (temple building). The guide book was definitely correct. The approach is symbolic of the journey to the heavenly palace of the gods. The 200-meter-long avenue is paved in large stones leads to several flights of stairs leading sharply up the mountain. Along the way are bridges adorned with 5-headed naga (serpent) balustrades and the feet of what were once guardian sculptures protecting the path.

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

While definitely not on the scale of Angkor Wat, the architecture that has been immaculately restored is impressive. The Khmer practiced Hinduism. The Buddha statues typical of Thai religious buildings are replaced with Shiva lingam, the sacred symbol of Hindu worship. The ornate carvings that adorn the inside and outside of the prang depict Hindu creation myths. The use of primarily stone in the construction has allowed these building to persist for centuries.

Next stop on my tour was Prasat Muang Tam, located about 8 km down the other side of the hill. While not as impressive as Prasat Hin Khao Rung, the ruins are still fantastically preserved. One of the features of Khmer or Hindu architecture is the symmetry of the buildings where the doorways between galleries and the inner buildings all are in alignment, creating an endless path that diminishes into the horizon.

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Again reaching my fill of ruins, I began the journey back toward Buriram. Relying on my holistic navigation and the desire to see a bit of potentially different countryside, I continued in what would be a loop back to Buriram. Doubting my sense of navigation at one junction in a small town, I opted to actually ask which direction to go to get to Buriram. Again, you would have thought a third eye suddenly materialized on my head as I told the gentleman that I asked that I was going by motorbike. He kindly pointed me in the right direction (which is the direction I would have taken) and after a typical chat of “where are you from, “what is your name” and “how long are you visiting Thailand”, I was back on the road.

About 10 km outside of Buriram, I came across the Khao Kradong Volcano Forest Park. In no real rush to get back to Buriram and needing a break from the motorbike seat, I stopped for a visit. The steep 101 step staircase lead to a very large gold seated Buddha keeping watch over the plains. The view from the top was impressive and dramatic as far as how quickly the dormant volcanoes rise from the flat plains. After a short tour of the few buildings situated around the Buddha statue, I made the much easier climb back down the mountain and back on my motorbike.

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Coming Full Circle

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Ending Where I Started

Getting to Chiang Mai from the Surin Project is a 14 hour journey. All of the mahouts gather to send of the volunteers. A flurry of “lob pop gon mai” (hope to see you again) and wais (bowing), with a few hugs thrown in much to the chagrin of the Thai, followed by a group photo and we were off. The first hour of the trip is the truck ride from Ban Tha Klan to the bus station in Buriram. Watching the green countryside roll by in the setting sun, we said good bye.

Buses in Thailand are actually pretty comfortable, especially the VIP Gold Class buses. The seats recline and have leg and feet rests. Snacks of crisps (potato chips), water, soy milk and a sandwich are provided throughout the course of the trip and the bus stops for food about 2 hours into the trip. The only uncomfortable part of this particular trip was the temperature. It was cold. Very, very cold. Once again I was grateful for the $5 wool blanket I had purchased in Nepal.

For the first 1.5 hours, I tried to type on my computer. Finally, I gave into the cold and tiredness. Huddled under the blanket provided by the bus with my other blanket pulled over my head, I slept for most of the remainder of the trip.

Christmas in Thailand

Being in a 95% Buddhist country and having traveled enough that I’m not sure what day it actually is, Christmas just sort of made itself known through the Santa hats worn by workers and Christmas carols playing at the market and shops. My plan was to spend Christmas at the Elephant Nature Park with my friends (and a few elephants.) Unfortunately for me, the park was completely booked for volunteers, overnight guests and day trip guests. But Christmas wishes do come true (and being a repeat volunteer and visitor helps.)

Every year at Christmas, the Elephant Nature Park holds a Christmas show. At the show, all the various groups at the park do a performance. The mahouts, students from the village, massage therapists, gardeners, staff and volunteers all contribute to the show.  Under the auspices of Christmas, everyone also receives a gift in appreciation for their work throughout the year. Santa (and Santee, the female Santa Claus) make an appearance to help Lek, the founder, distribute the gifts.

When Chet asked me if I wanted to go with Miss Patty to help set up for the Christmas Show at the park, I jumped at the chance. Christmas day morning, we loaded our sleigh (actually 2 vans) with the gifts, some desserts and a bottle of SamSong “rum” and headed off to the park.

Decorating for the show started in earnest after we had a chance to eat lunch. Balloons were inflated and banners hung with care. The tree was decorated with lights and tinsel, and boxes wrapped in paper and bows placed underneath. The stage was set and lights were strung from the ceiling. In short order, the feeding platform of the park was transformed into a wonderland of colors and was ready for the show.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

The local village children started the show with their traditional hill tribe and Thai dances, looking so adorable in their traditional dress. Rocky did a magic show. The massage ladies did a traditional Thai dance. The mahouts played Christmas songs with a Thai feel on their flutes made out of PVC and drum made out of a bucket. And for the fourth year in a row, Chet did his fabulous job as emcee.

The best part of being at the park for the Christmas show was the chance to catch up with friends that I haven’t seen in several months. Just like a family gathering, everyone was there. Hugs, smiles, laughter and talk filled the evening. Just the way Christmas should be.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Afternoons in the Park

Much of my last week in Chiang Mai was spent seeing what it would be like to just exist without filling my days with motorbike rides and tourist activities. Not wanting to be confined to my guest house and longing to be in the sunshine, I headed for Nong Buak Hard Public Park. A little oasis of green nestled into the southwest corner of the old town.

The park boasts a small lake with bridges crossing over it and a fountain, playground area for children (which I believe is where all of the metal playground equipment we grew up with went when it was determined it was too unsafe), and a bevy of vendors selling fish food, bird food, people food and renting mats to sit on. Inside the park, the sounds of the city fade away, replaced by the cooing of the pigeons. Stopping to rent a mat (10 bhat ($0.30) for as long as you want to use it) I headed for the south side of the lake, out of the spray of the fountain, away from the other farang (foreigners) in their bikini tops, and in the sun.

My mat in the sun in the park.

My mat in the sun in the park.

Mostly I spent my time writing in my journal, reading a book and thinking about some of the massage workshops I want to develop in 2014. I also was on a mission to start making the coin flowers for my friend Chet’s monk ceremony that will be coming up in June 2014. During the monk ceremony, hundreds of coin flowers are blessed and then thrown out to the people in attendance. Catching one is believed to be good luck (and like kids racing for candy from a piñata, a chance to tear the ribbon flowers apart for the coins at the center.) And the majority of three out of my last four trips to Thailand have been spent making these flowers.

Making the coin flowers seems like it should be a traditional craft that everyone knows. Strangely, this actually isn’t the case. Many Thai are surprised to see a farang making these coin flowers. The flowers are made by taking 4 pieces of ribbon and folding them origami style into flowers or fish or boxes (I only know how to do a couple of the flowers.)

One of the days that I was sitting in the sun making the coin flowers, two Thai girls set up their mat close to me. After a while of watching me, one of the girls came over and asked me (in Thai) what I was doing and wanted me to show her how I was making them. She spoke almost no English, so using mostly gestures and having her follow along, I taught her how to make the most simple of the flowers. When we finished one, she wanted to make more so that she would remember how to make them. Eventually her friend, who spoke more English, pulled their mat over to join mine and we spent the next hour and a half making coin flowers and talking. With their help that afternoon, I was able to accomplish my goal of 100 coin flowers for the week.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet's ceremony.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet’s ceremony.

Life in Chiang Mai

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Tourist Season in Chiang Mai

High season in Chiang Mai brings a whole different feel to the otherwise lazy and laid back atmosphere the rest of the year. The traffic on the roads is more ubiquitous, changing the ratio of motorbikes to cars. Parades of tuk tuks filled with tourists like clown cars sputter down the streets. Large lumbering tour buses attempt to navigate the sometimes narrow streets and blocking traffic as they make the u-turns from the inside moat road to the outside moat road. The Thai that work the shops and markets in this area have taken on an air of exasperation with the constant stream of foreigners. Rare is the greeting of a genuine smile and heartfelt “sawad dee ka” in this area of the old town, especially from the workers the 7-11 at the heart of the backpacker area.

Taking detours down small sois (alleys) to avoid the hordes of tourists and the exhaust from the traffic reminds me that the area around CM Blue House is more than just a collection of coffee shops, massage shops and guest houses. Well before this area become the hot destination for so many young people backpacking their way across Southeast Asia, this neighborhood was and is home to many Thai people. Even on the more popular sois, looking closely you can see the homes. Some of the inhabitants have used the boom in tourism to their advantage turning part of their homes into restaurants, laundry shops, bicycle rental places and other types of shops. The rest come and go, carrying on with their daily lives. I often wonder what they think of all these farang (foreigners) roaming about the sois.

Shopping, Football and Herbal Steams

One of the advantages of being on my ninth journey to Thailand is that I can pick and choose what I want to do with my days without having to feel like I need to fill every available moment with tourist activities. Almost every day involved a trip to Fitness Thailand for a workout and venturing out for food, usually to the Chiang Mai Gate night market. Also managed a trip to Worowot Market for some shopping, a couple of Monday morning Denver Broncos games and an herbal steam.

Worowot market is a bustling hive of shops, generally consisting of two buildings and a plethora of additional shops. The streets around Worowot market are crammed with cars, motorbikes, songtheaws and people. Both buildings offer opportunities to purchase pretty much anything you might need. The only real difference is that building 2 feels like you are trapped in an MC Escher painting. Staircases leading to ramps and more ramps leading to stairs that lead to ramps, all of them lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to housewares to food. I bought a couple of shirts and some peanut yummy goodness (a sticky mixture of puffed rice, dried coconut and peanuts) and decided to save my energy for being in a crowd until the Sunday Night Walking Street.

My Monday mornings were spent at Thai 1 On Bar and Grill eating breakfast and watching the Denver Broncos play their Sunday Night Football games. The first Monday I was pretty much by myself, other than Tony (the owner) and Chien (his right hand man). Felt a little funny to be the only one yelling at the TV about bad plays and cheering for touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure Chien thinks I’m a crazy farang (as did the group of young European tourists that had arrived to eat and play pool). When the broadcast would show views of Denver on the return from commercial, I would show Chien and tell him that is where I am from. Made him very excited to see it and he doesn’t believe that Denver and Chiang Mai are the same size.

The next Monday, Tony had the game on the TV before I even got there. That Monday I was joined by 3 guys from Chicago who were just rooting for a good football game, and 2 guys from Boston that were rooting for the wrong team. Definitely a fun way to watch the game. Guess I should have actually packed my jersey (although I’m not sure I would have had room for it in my already near full suitcase).

After two days of intense training, Jo (the other student) and I headed to Spa Mantra for an herbal steam to detoxify everything that had been stirred up by the massage work. Spa Mantra is a beautiful spa located just outside of the old town. The warm and soothing interior is dressed in lush fabrics and plenty of places to relax. Upon arrival, an ice-cold, slightly sweet tea garnished with rose petals to prepare the body for the steam is served in traditional metal cups that look like small bowls. After drinking our tea and checking in, we were led up the stairs where we were given lockers for our purses and a tray containing a sarong and a hair cover. After changing, it was time for the steam.

The 8′ x 8′ room was filled with luscious smelling steam infused with beneficial herbs so thick you could barely see across the room. After awhile, maybe 15 minutes, the helper opened the door and told us it was time to come out for a few minutes. During our break we were served a room temperature brown tea with a delicious taste that I couldn’t quite recognize. The tea helps to bring the impurities out of the body. After giving our bodies a few minutes to cool, it was back into the steam. We repeated this process two more times, each time the cool tile benches became a more welcoming contrast to the hot steam. Once we could take the heat no longer, we emerged from the steam room slightly light-headed and sweat oozing from every pore combined with the moisture from the steam. A cool shower finished the process. The treatment was rounded out with hot Butterfly Pea Tea, a delicious blue hot tea that helps to improve circulation and cleanse the blood, and a plate of watermelon.

Of Keys and Motorbikes

Keys and I have a real issue in Thailand. Last trip, I blamed the number of times I left my keys in my motorbike or my guesthouse room door on the wrong dosage of a medicine I was on. This trip, I’m lacking that excuse. And while the frequency of leaving the keys in my motorbike has decreased, I’m still finding it to be a problem. Especially when I leave the ignition in the “On” position, which is a new twist to this habit. Even more problematic is when I leave it that way for 2.5 hours, as that tends to drain the battery. Fortunately, the automatic motorbikes have a kick-starter for just such instances, so long as they are on the big kickstand. The tricky part is getting the motorbike up on that stand when you only weigh half as much as the motorbike. The unfortunate part is that I actually got good at it after I left the keys in the ignition and on for another 45 minutes the next day, again draining the battery, just not as completely.

Riding a motorbike in Chiang Mai is still an experience that I relish. The weaving amongst the cars to the head of the line at traffic lights, the crosswalk taking its role as a motorbike waiting zone. The surge forward as the light turns green. Or actually, just slightly before the light turns green in that pause after the opposing traffic light turns red. The happy smiles from other motorbike drivers. The wide-eyed stares by young children squished between parents or riding standing in front of the driver. The school girls piled 3 to a motorbike with their matching uniforms of navy blue pants, orange shirts and navy blue bows tied in their thick black hair.

Of course, the opportunity to have a small mishap is always present. Fortunately, my second incident in 9 trips to Thailand was just a minor one. I was heading home after a 35 minute ride around Chiang Mai to charge the battery in the motorbike and was turning onto the moat road. Following the motorbike in front of me, I attempted to squish by the line of cars waiting to turn. By squish, I mean that there was just a very narrow strip of asphalt to precariously steer along without scraping the car next to me. Unfortunately, my motorbike skills are not quite good enough to do that, and I ended up tumbling off the pavement. The kind gentleman on the bike behind me helped to right my bike, get it back on the asphalt and generally put the mirrors back in their more appropriate positions. The motorbike and my body both sustained a few scratches but generally stayed in fine working order.

Long Road to India

About 2 years ago, I was invited to India to visit a family that I had met at the Elephant Nature Park (2 years in a row). Each time since then that I would send one of my email blogs, I would get a short message reminding me that Delhi is only a short flight from Bangkok. So this year, I decided to go visit. While it may be a short flight, the process for getting a visa to get in the country has been long, long road for me.

Shortly after booking my flights for India in September, I started the rather confusing India visa application process through the designated visa provider in the US, BLS International. Starting mid-October I began worrying about the fact that I had not heard any word on the status of my visa. As my November 14 departure date drew ever closer, my anxiety and panic rose. My attempts to contact the helpline proved futile. Finally, 6 days (3 business days) before my departure, without a visa or my passport, I had no other option but to report my passport as stolen and procure a new one so I could at least get to Thailand.

Once in Chiang Mai, I started the visa application process again. At the same time, my initial application was approved and a multi-entry visa was issued to my now invalid passport. Apparently, invalidating the old visa and just assigning a new one to my new passport is not an option. The in-person visa application requires an interview with the Consul General, an abrupt man who uses his power to make applicants feel insignificant and seems to lack any sense of compassion. After a 30-minute berating that left me in tears about the concerns of reporting a passport as stolen (yes, I know that a terrorist could steal my identity), how I was accusing India of this situation (I wasn’t, I accused BLS International), that obviously my passport wasn’t stolen (since I had a picture of my visa) and how there was no room for emotion in this situation (once I lost any sense of composure I was trying to maintain), I was sent away to get additional proof he required for the application. I found myself thinking that it was hard to believe that a country that honors Gandhi, one of the most compassionate men ever to have lived, would choose this person to represent their country.

On November 20th, I finally managed to get my application submitted, and at that time I was informed that it would take a week to get the visa processed. My flight to India was mid-day on the 27th and I still needed to fly to Bangkok to catch my flight. The cloud of anxiety still loomed over me as I began to formulate back up plans for getting to India.

After trying to not obsessively check the India visa website (the 8 times I did between the 25th and 26th, all it said was that my application was in process), I decided to make a trip in person to the consulate on the morning of the 26th. I am still convinced that the Visa Processor gentleman is the only person with compassion at the Chiang Mai India Consulate (with the exception of the door sentry, who on the second day of attempting to submit my application said “happy, happy, no tears” on my way in.) His kind smile and gentle demeanor was a welcome contrast to the Consul General. When the processor gentleman saw me, he went to get my file, and asked me when I was planning to fly. When I responded with that evening, he asked me to come back that afternoon.

Thanks to his kindness and compassion, at 2 PM (well outside the designated hours for picking up a passport) I am now in possession of a single-entry visa and will make my flight for India. And thankfully airlines do not charge extra for same-day flight arrangements.

Festival Time in Chiang Mai

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Festival of Lights

Since starting my adventures to Thailand in 2008, the Loy Krathong Festival has been on my bucket list of Thai experiences I needed to have. The amazing beauty of postcard images of hundreds of sky lanterns glowing orange floating up into the dark night sky was something I wanted to see with my own eyes.

Held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this festival is celebrated by lighting and releasing khom loy (paper sky lanters) into the sky, hanging colorful fabric or paper lanterns and setting krathong (offerings made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle (krathong has no actual translation)) off down the river. The paper sky lanterns that are launched into the sky and the krathongs that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and provide the opportunity to say prayers asking that wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled.

Northern Thailand combines the Yee Peng Festival with Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is the Lanna festival of lights. And in true Thai fashion, the whole festival lasts for 3 days and is filled with events and people lighting off fireworks and firecrackers. Hotels and guest houses fill up early. In fact, having forgot to make my reservations when I booked my trip in September, I actually found myself staying at a new place for the first two days of my trip. The Western House Hotel was pleasant, but not the same as coming home to the CM Blue House.

The highlight of the celebration for me was going with my friend Lek to the mass launch of khom loy at Mae Jo University. Designed primarily as a photographic event, thousands of people turn out to participate. Many are tourists and all the anouncements are made in Thai, English and Chinese. Lek picked me up around 4 PM to give us ample time to wind our way through the heavy traffic in the hopes of claiming some piece of turf before the whole massive expanse of green was covered in people, lighting torches and khom loy. Definitely glad Lek was driving the 13 kilometers to Mae Jo. As she expertly wove her way through the heavy traffic, I was able to truly appreciate the variety of smells and sounds of the city and countryside. The sweet smell of flowers wafting on the light breeze competing with the sour smell of exhaust from the cars.

Entering the compound, we were given plastic sheeting to sit on and greeted by the chorouses of young Thai girls welcoming us to the festival. The field was layed out with rows and rows of torches containing candles that would be lit at the right moment in the ceremony and used for lighting the khom loy, most of them surrounded by early comers. We staked out a spot, I by a torch, Lek in a spot not too far from me where she would hopefully have a good vantage point for snapping photographs. After claiming my spot, off I went in search of a khom loy to purchase. A never ending monologue (in all three languages) was broadcast over the loud speakers, explaining the purpose and meaning behind the ceremony. The grey skies threatened rain. While it didn’t actually rain, it did provide a dramatic backdrop for the first early khom loy that were released while waiting for the event to begin.

The ceremony began around 6:30 PM with a demonstration how to properly light and let the khom loy fill with warm air to carry it off into the heavens. Following was a demonstration on how to pray and bow according to Thai tradition, including a couple of practice bows by the entire audience. Finally, a very long sermon was given, the gist of which was about stilling the heart and allowing for inner peace and happiness in your heart, your friend’s hearts and the hearts of all people everywhere. Maintaining focus on a long sermon given all in Thai is not easy and it was often that I would find my attention drifting to the steady stream of khom loy that were being launched into the dark sky.

After the sermon and the circumambulating with candles, it was time for the big moment. The spotlights lighting the field were turned off. People were instructed to light the torches and their khom loy and then to wait for the cue to release the lanterns.

Lighting a khom loy is definitely a two or more person process. A girl from Australlia helped me with mine. Once the parafin ring is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and slowly begins to rise. The heat from all of the khom loy becomes a bit intense with that many people so close together. The orange glow is truly magnificent. While holding the lantern, prayers and wishes are said in preparation of relase. On cue, all the lanterns are relased, floating up into the night sky carrying wishes and prayers and honoring Buddha. As the lanterns reach altidue and are caught by the wind they make a road of wishes drifting off into the distance.

Just like the postcards and images I had seen, it was truly a beautiful and amazing spectical to behold!

Holistic Navigation

Usually one of my first orders of business upon arrival in Chiang Mai is to get a motorbike. The freedom a motorbike provides is unparalleled. I’m not tied to finding a tuk tuk or a songtheaw (shared taxi) to get to where I want to go, especially when I have a whim to go to Tesco Lotus (department store) for this or that or need to actually get to somewhere specific since street pronunciations are not among my strength in speaking Thai yet.

The trade off though is that it is easy to miss out on the details of being in Chiang Mai. Or the chance encounters that can occur. Since I figured traffic would be miserable with the festival, I opted to not get a motorbike right away. Which made for a lot of time in my shoes, with many benefits. The biggest benefit has been running into people that I would have otherwised missed if I was zipping here and there.

So after two days on the back of a motorbike or on foot, I got my motorbike. And for the first trip since 2008, I have found myself without my trusty Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai with its cheerful, colorful maps and tips for things to see and do. Being without my trusty friend feels a little sad. We have been together through many Chiang Mai (and surrounding areas) motorbike adventures. To be fair, my map is being held together by a lot of tape and doesn’t fold very well anymore. Perhaps it is time for a new map. In the meantime, I am making due with the free tourist maps that are definitely lacking in detail (like streets and a consistent scale).

After so many kilometers on a motorbike during my past trips, I have a pretty good feel for most of the roads around Chiang Mai. Still don’t know them quite as well as the back of my hand, but I’m working on that. The combination of no map and a vague sense of the streets makes for a bit of what I call holistic navigation. Using holistic navigation methods, I follow the other motorbikes and cars that generally look like they know where they are going and hope I end up where I want to be. For the most part this type of navigation has been successful. When it fails, I find myself exploring parts of Chiang Mai that I haven’t seen before, which is not a bad thing.

Being a Non-tourist

One of my aims for this trip is to just exist in Chiang Mai. To not fill my time to the brim with tourist activities and motorcycle adventures. Some days are dedicated to training. Outside of those days, I have no set schedule. So far this approach has been fruitful, both mentally and in having experiences I might have otherwised missed.

On Sunday night, as I was making my way along the inside moat road admiring the little candles being placed along the sidewalk as part of the Loy Krathong festival, I ran into two of my friends Aek and Mix. They were on their way to meet friends to go to Amooga, a Thai barbeque restaurant, for dinner and invited me along. And by invited, I mean they told me I was coming along. I never made it to where the main festival activities were taking place. Instead, I had a much more satisfying evening spent with friends and experiencing a meal I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience otherwise.

Thai barbeque is a type of hot pot meal, although instead of boiling the food in the water, the steam and heat are used to grill the food on the top of the plate. The cooking plate is placed over a burner on the table and the trough around the edge is filled with water. To start, everyone fills a plate (or two or three) with whatever types of meats and vegetables they want to eat. The meat options ranged from steak and chicken to squid, and everything in between. Still not sure what half of the options were. Then the cooking and eating begins. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Not to worry though, the boys took care of finishing all the food on the table (much to my astonishment) and two bottles of SangSom The whole meal, including non-alcoholic beverages and coconut ice cream for dessert, cost 199 baht (or just under $7).

On the way back to the old town, we stopped to launch a krathong. My krathong had banana leaves folded into intricate points, giant yellow marigolds and purple orchids. I lit my joss stick (incense) and the candle. Keeping the candle lit proved to be a futile task in the light breeze that had started blowing. Placing a few strands of hair on the krathong, I made my wish and let it go in the Mae Ping (river). Sadly, I don’t think my krathong made it very far as it had trouble catching the current and ended up bunched against a branch with several other krathong. Still, just maybe my misfortunes will be floated away and my wish will be granted.

Rain, Rain Go Away…

November is a transition from rainy season to cool season in Chiang Mai. The warm daily rains of the wet season are replaced with sporatic cooler evening storms. Many days the clouds just threaten. The last two nights though we have been graced with torrential rains. The first night I was caught on the other side of the old town with my motorbike. I had forgot how cold riding a motorbike in the rain can truly be. Even on the short journet back to the Blue House, I found myself trying to take as much advantage of the heat of the other cars as possible.

One of the Loy Krathong events is a parade showcasing brightly lit, highly ornate floats bearing the winners and contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest. All of the floats and participants were staging when the rain started falling. All the beautiful women, dressed in their finest were rescued from their floats as fast as possible and all the parade participants went scurrying for cover. I headed home as quickly as possible, lacking either a rain poncho or an umbrella, assuming the parade was cancelled given the torrential rain that we had all night.

The other downside to the rains is the number of mosquitoes. The voracious mosquitoes take any opportunity to grab a drink of blood. Finally resorted to buying some mosquito repellent. I think the mosquitoes are just laughing at it though as I’ve managed to continue to amass welts from bites.

I am also now the proud owner of an adorable blue umbrella with a polka dot trim. Hopefully I don’t have to use it too much, especially while riding my motorbike.

More Elephant Time

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The Little Ones

The park has two new darlings that everyone is fawning over. Naavan is about 6 months old and is a cheeky little fellow. His birth was a complete surprise as Sri Prae, one of the landmine victim elephants, never showed any signs of being pregnant. This 300 kg little toddler is curious about everyone and everything.

On the first day the volunteers experienced Naavan’s curiosity first hand. The group of volunteers had just got out of the river after bathing the elephants and the ensuing water fight. Around the corner came Naavan, rushing ahead of his auntie and mom to the river for bath time. He decided to check out our group, which collectively sent us scurrying up volunteer hill (no longer called that, but that’s what I know it as.) One of the volunteers just couldn’t seem to get out of Naavan’s way whichever way he went and ended up getting chased almost to the river. Watching the chase gave us all a good laugh.

After bath time, Pom let us have a photo opportunity with the new family. Pom asked me to help her with the bananas by putting them out for the adult elephants. Naavan hasn’t quite figured out how to eat bananas, making them more of an object of curiosity to be played with than eat. What was even more curious to him was the bag of bananas I was holding. Instead of playing Tug-of-War with Naavan, I opted for Keep Away. Not that I had a chance of winning either, my odds were better with Keep Away. A few nudges from him and a bit of scrambling on my part I successfully got all the bananas out of the bag. That little guy is really strong!

The other new darling of the park is Dok Mai. She was just 16 days old when I got to the park. The cute furry little elephant is so sweet to watch as she figures out her trunk and feet, like a new baby figuring out their hands. Dok Mai is the second baby Dok Ngern has given birth to at the park.

Dok Mai and her mother are currently secluded in a shelter until Dok Mai is a little older. At around 4 to 5 weeks Dok Mai will be old enough to be around other elephants and the two will be able to rejoin the family group. In the meantime Chiang Yim, Dok Mai’s older brother, is not handling the arrival of his baby sister very well. His behavior is erratic like a child trying to get the attention he was used to. Unfortunately, when a 4 year old elephant decides to have a tantrum things can get a little crazy.

Spending Time with the Elephants

Having been to the park so many times, I definitely have my favorite elephants that I like to spend some time with. Volunteer elephant bathing time was at the end of the day. Generally this was when I got to see two of my favorites, Mae Do and Mae Lanna. Mae Do has a broken pelvis from a forced breeding program and is one of the most immediately recognizable elephants at the park. She and Mae Lanna are never far apart.

My time with Mae Do was considerably less this trip. She and Mae Lanna have a new shelter that we didn’t visit on our elephant walk, which is typically when I would spend the most time massaging her hips. (Yes, you can massage an elephant, it’s all about providing healing touch.) Additionally, with 49 volunteers it his hard to find that time where she isn’t surrounded. On the last day I had a little alone time with Mae Do and her mahout. Mae Do’s mahout always recognizes me. His english continues to improve, at least at a faster rate than my thai.

Another favorite elephant pair is Jokia and Mae Perm, the superstars of the park. Mae Perm is the first elephant rescued by the park and holds the status of reigning matriarch. She is amazingly compassionate and serves as guide for Jokia who is blind in both eyes from abuse. During our elephant walk we spent the most time with this pair. Because Jokia is blind, you have to touch her trunk first when feeding her. If you touch the underside of her trunk, she will put her trunk up and allow you to put the food directly in her mouth. The important part is to not throw the food into her mouth. Technically, feeding the elephants directly in their mouth is against the safety rules, but then all rules have an exception.

Not All Fun and Games

The volunteers at the park help offset the operating costs. Which means doing some of the work. Each day we had a morning chore and typically had an afternoon project. The typical morning chores include elephant poo to clean up the shelters, elephant kitchen to clean and help prepare the food for the day, cutting corn for the elephants’ overnight eating and mud put to make sure the elephants have sufficient mud to apply as sunscreen. My favorite morning chore is still cutting corn, followed closely by cleaning up elephant poo.

Corn cutting typically takes up the whole morning and into the afternoon. The fields are about an hour from the park and 300 bundles are needed to feed the growing herd. Cutting corn involves the opportunity to use a machete. Which is probably why I like this task so much. (Yes, I still have all my toes and fingers. Only injury to report is a blister.) Using a machete to cut corn in the middle of the Thai countryside surrounded by bright green rice fields is actually quite cathartic. It’s also a point of pride for me if I can keep pace with the Thai workers that are there to help us. I am getting faster bit still not quite as fast as they are. Maybe next time.

Elephant poo is fun because it often provides unexpected encounters with the elephants. One of the shelters we clean is the area around where Dok Ngern and Dok Mai are currently staying. Straying from his typical mantra of “more work, less talk”, at this shelter it was “more pictures, less work”. At least for a little while.

Blessings for Long Life

Lek, the founder of the park, has been rescuing and caring for elephants since the late 90’s. In 2003, through a very generous donation she was able to buy the property that currently comprises the majority of the park. Last week marked 10 years of the park operating as an ecotourism organization in this location.

On Tuesday, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 10 years. As we came up the stairs to the upstairs platform room we were greeted by a common room transformed into a sacred space. At just about head level, blessed white string made a grid. Above each cushion on the floor was a piece of string tied in a loose knot. At the front of the room a large tripod of sticks had been erected, a different offering at the base of each stick. The string from the grid wrapped around the tripod and to a Buddha image on a little shrine. The string connects us all and the tripod represents the way we support each other.

Sitting at the front of the room were six monks, one in deep red robe providing contrast to the traditional saffron robes associated with monks in Thailand. The ceremony was performed by the monks and the shaman from the village. Very little was explained about the actual content of the ceremony, so I can only interpret based on what I have seen at other ceremonies. Candles were lit, offerings were made and blessings were said. During a long bit of chanting, that even the monks seemed to tire of, a large tray of small candles were lit. At another point in the ceremony, following the lead of the shaman wrapping the string from above Lek and Derrik’s head around their head, we pulled the strings down so that they were either touching our heads or holding it in our hands while they were in a wai (hands together like a payer position.)

At the end of the ceremony we were told to keep the string as it represents long life. Some people tied the string around their wrist in several bands. Alternatively, the monk in the deep red colored robe was willing to say a blessing and tie it on your wrist. In total breach of Thai culture, I performed my wai with my hands at my heart instead at my forehead. Then in an effort to not make contact with the monk since I am a female, I managed to drop the string on the floor. While he was wrapping the string around my wrist 3 times and saying the blessing, the first loop around my wrist slipped out of his fingers so he had to very carefully, without actually touching my skin, pick it up. Hopefully the blessing is still valid despite the several gaffs that occurred. I’m sure it is.

OK, Some Fun

Doing the mud pit requires some people getting in the muddy water and breaking up the dirt around the edge with a hoe to make mud while other people bring more water up from the river. Often this chore is touted as a free spa trip, since some people pay good money to be slathered in mud. Eve and I decided to go all out and rub mud on our cheeks, nose and chin. In reality it was putting on war paint.

Rule #1: wear your oldest possible clothes. People with water and mud make for a enticing combination. Every person in the mud pit was waiting for who would be the first to start the mud flying. It begins innocently, using your hoe to splash the backs of the people on the opposite side. From there it escalates to grabbing a bucket to pour or splash mud on each other. Another tactic is to just tackle the person into the mud.

Rule #2: not even bystanders are safe. Once the people in the pit are sufficiently mud covered, the mud fight expands outward. The first casualties are the ones bringing water up from the river. The next casualties are the onlookers that have decided to actually come down to ground level.

Rule #3: do not wear your contacts. I only discovered this rule after the fact. After several buckets of mud to the face, I actually had someone with river water help rinse out my eyes. Not sure how sanitary that was, but it was better than the mud.

Once everyone was sufficiently coated in mud and exhausted from laughing and playing, we headed to the river to get the first couple of layers of mud off. As we paraded by a group of day visitors, I’m sure they thought we were crazy. But what better way to show how much fun being a volunteer can be. Three days later I think I finally have all the mud out of my eyes and ears.

Special Moments

My most favorite elephant at the park is an old trekking elephant named Jarunee. Jarunee’s back is rippled from years of carrying a saddle and tourists and she is blind from old age. For all my previous visits, Jarunee was part of an elephant pair. Last year her best friend passed away. With the arrival of Naavan, she has become one of his aunts. This lovely old lady has a new chance to get the social support and love she needs from being part of a family group.

Because Naavan’s family group doesn’t yet come to the platform for feeding, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some very special time observing Jarunee and her new family. Naavan was initially interested in us. He checked us out and then his attention quickly turned to a log that was there.

Watching him puzzle out moving the log was sweet. While using his trunk to check it out, it moved much to his surprise. Again a little nudging with his trunk and again it moved. So he gave it a try using his leg, this time suspecting it might move. After that he rolled it a few more times using either his trunk or his foot. And then he was distracted by some other new thought.

One Night in Hong Kong

The first stretch of my long journey took me to Hong Kong for an overnight stay. Since I was only in the city for a little over 12 hours, I opted to stay in the Kowloon area where lodging is typically cheaper. Leaving my luggage at the Left Luggage in the airport and armed with my Octopus card and 380 HKD, I headed into the city.

Conveniently located about 3 steps away from the B1 exit of the Jordan MTR station, the New Lucky House is a rather dodgy looking building. Readying myself for an adventure, in I went. The Hoi Shing Hotel occupies two flats on the first floor in the New Lucky House building. The rickety elevator took me to the first floor where I was faced with a barrage of signs pointing to the variety of “hotels” on this floor and eventually located my hotel. $52 does not provide for especially luxurious accommodations in Hong Kong. My 8′ x 10′ room offered two beds that comply with the Asian standard of firm, and a bathroom that is smaller than a standard size bathtub. But it was clean and had air conditioning and an adapter power strip for people travelling with US plugs.

Kowloon by night is a crazy mix of neon lights and traffic. For a few minutes I stood there with my mouth agape taking it all in. Running low on cash and the ATM’s unwilling to give me more, I wandered over to the Temple Street night market to see if I could find something cheap to eat. Fortunately, the food on my two flights was good and I decided that I didn’t really need to eat.

Hong Kong at 6 am is much different than Hong Kong during the day. The streets are virtually empty, the neon lights are sleeping and the MTR stations deserted. The whole city felt as if it was pressing the collective snooze button to delay waking up.

Until Next Time

Leaving Thailand is always a little emotional, even though I know I will return. My journey back involved 5 airports and 4 airlines. Sadly, with each progressive flight taking me further away from Thailand, the standards of food quality and amenities decreased. At least I had interesting people to talk to and an empty middle seat on the long flight from Tokyo to Seattle.

Family Time

Standard

Getting there is Half the Fun

Trains in Thailand are not especially known for their punctuality or reliability. One advantage of taking a train from a terminus is that the train generally leaves on time. Any station after that it can, and usually is, a bit behind schedule. Or a lot behind schedule depending on the reliability of the train. If you are up for an adventure, take the train. Otherwise, take the bus.

The Special Express train costs a little more with the advantage of not stopping at every little station along the tracks. The first impression of the inside of the train is that they have been in service since some time in the 60’s, or about the same time commercial air travel became possible. Vinyl seats and linoleum floors adorn the interior and fans on the ceiling aid the circulation of gently air conditioned air. Even the stewardess was dressed like she had been transported in time. Complete with metal drink and food carts offering a limited supply of drinks and food that smelled terrible and tasted worse.

Taking the train, despite the punctuality and reliability issues, is actually quite pleasant. The gentle sound off the train rolling through the countryside is soothing. The bright green rice fields giving way to the mountains surrounding the valley in which Chiang Mai is situated the further south we went.

7 Hours into my 6 hour trip to Pichit there was a sudden horrible sound and the train came to a screeching halt. Or as screeching of a halt that a train can come to. Many of the crossings are not controlled with barriers and rely on drivers to check for oncoming trains. Unfortunately, one car was not so lucky. We stayed stopped for awhile while things were sorted out and the train was checked for damage. The front end of the car was totaled and the train had a large piece of metal torn off the front carriage. We ended up returning to the previous station for repairs.

Celebrating Family Love

The second day of Songkran is Family Day. Family Day celebrates family love and togetherness. Value of family is one of the three major values in the Thai way of life. Songkran is the time when family members come together to show appreciation, love and respect as well as making merit and paying homage to their ancestors. This celebration was my main purpose for making the trip to Pichit.

The religious part of the celebration was a merit making ceremony in dedication to the late ancestors. This year was especially important as Nat’s grandmother had passed away last July. The ceremony was hosted at Lung (uncle) Bhum and Paa (aunt) Song’s house, where as much of the family as possible gathered.

Before the monks arrive at the house, food is prepared, a list of relatives that have passed away is written, offering envelopes are filled with money and wishes, the Buddha image is set up and the chedi (memorial statue where ashes are kept) is cleaned. White string is wrapped around the Buddha image and strung over to the chedi and back. The idea of the string is to pass on the blessings to all that are connected to it, either human or Buddha image or other inanimate object. All the accoutrements of the ceremony are set in place. Then Lung Buhm was given the microphone…

While waiting for the monks to arrive, Lung Buhm provided a jovial and entertaining monologue. Without understanding more than two words of his monologue, I surmised that he was talking about family and the happiness of having the family there. The two words that I understood were “MJ” and “Colorado”. His words were genuine and heartfelt.

The ceremony began with six monks from the temple arriving and taking their place on the platform that had been set up in the courtyard of the house. The beginning of the ceremony focused on honoring the late ancestors and the gathering of family. A series of blessings and prayers were said, candles were lit to honor all of our late ancestors, and water was blessed. During the middle of the ceremony, the monks took their meal. At the same time, meal offerings were placed in front of the Buddha image and the chedi. The remainder of the ceremony involved merit making and blessing the family members. The offering envelopes were given to the monks and a special offering was given to the head monk for performing the ceremony. The ceremony ended with a symbolic purification of pouring water while a blessing is being said and being sprinkled with water by the head monk.

After our meal, the bingo began. Ante was 5 baht per card for each round. We spent most of the afternoon playing. At one point I think it became important to them that I won at least one round. In the end I managed to win enough rounds that I think I actually finished ahead 100 baht. Which I lost at least 50 baht of in the evening games.

Playing bingo was an excellent way for me to practice my Thai numbers. Most the time I was able to quickly recognize the number and see if I had it on my card. The rest off the time Mea, Paa Salee or Nat would say “MJ” after the number if I had it on my card. Eventually I know I will clearly be able to distinguish yi-sip (20) from see-sip (40). For a couple of the rounds they patiently even let me call the numbers.

Songkran – Part Two

While in Pichit, my experience of the festival part of Songkran continued. This time I was part of the group standing by the road throwing buckets of water on passing cars and the occasional motorbike. This experience was much more fun than being the one in the back of the truck on the receiving end of buckets of cold water. The real fun was when trucks would pull over and an all out water fight ensued.

As the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, we all piled into the back of a truck and made a lap of town. As we would slow for another group, Nat would say “MJ, MJ…this is you.” By the end of the lap, I was soaked and happy.

Pichit doesn’t see many farang (foreigners) visitors. Accordingly, I became a source of interest to any group that stopped or that we met in town. I was offered beers and was on the receiving end of many extra buckets of water. Several people told me they loved me and shook or kissed my hand. Many asked where I was from and welcomed me to Thailand.

Khab Lob Di Moung (We are the Same Family)

Belonging to a Thai family is an enduring connection, especially with the emphasis placed on family within the culture. Nat has a truly warm and welcoming family. Many of his extended family remembered me from his monk ceremony, and instantly made me feel at home. Even Nat says I am now his oldest sister.

While many families have communication issues, ours was more of a communication challenge given the language barrier. In all my trips, I think this is the most I used my Thai phrase book. At first, just as I was hesitant to speak the little Thai that I know, they were equally hesitant to speak the English that they know. Most of the time Nat or his cousin Neung translated for me or helped me learn the words so I could almost communicate on some level. By the end of the three days, most people figured out that if they talked to me slowly and used simple words, much like you would talk to a small child, we could manage some basic conversation.

One lesson I learned is: never worry your Thai mom by feeling sick in the middle of the night. Especially when your Thai dad works at the hospital and you live in the hospital housing. This only results in a trip to the hospital at 1 AM. The words to convince her that if I just could vomit (and even after I finally did) I would be fine and that no, I didn’t need to go to the hospital were lost in translation. Diagnosis: food poisoning. Treatment: anti-nausea pills and electrolytes should I continue to be sick.

Taking me to the bus station in Pitsanulok was even a family affair. I rode with Mea (mom) and Poe (dad). Along the way, dad wanted to make sure I saw the highlights of Pichit. Mainly this meant a drive-by of the temple of the white elephant, a stop at the large crocodile for a photo opportunity, and a visit to the crocodile museum. Using simple words, accompanied by mom’s basic English and my phrase book with it’s limited dictionary, we were able to carry on a short dialogue. Mostly I think dad wanted to make sure I was happy and that I enjoyed my time there. Toward the end of the trip, he said that he believes we are the same family. Kahb lob di moung.

Hills and Valleys

Situated in the Mae Ping river valley, the city of Chiang Mai is pretty much flat. Immediately west of the city, the Doi Inthanon range of mountains rise almost 1400 meters (4500 feet) out of the river valley. On a clear day the mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the buildings of Chiang Mai. The nearby mountains also make for a nice escape from the heat of the city.

Only when getting out of the city am I reminded of just how big Chiang Mai is. At each intersection, I weave my way to the front of the traffic as is the custom in Thailand. Just before the light turns green, a revving of motorbike engines grows. As the light changes, all the bikes are off in a collective roar. The sound and knowing that I am a part of it makes me smile.

The destination for this motorbike adventure was the Mae Sae – Samoeng loop. The 90 kilometer (56 mile) route heads north from Chiang Mai, west through the Mae Sae valley, south to Samoeng, and back east to Chiang Mai. After getting out of the city and past the plethora of tourist attractions such as the Monkey Centre and snake show along the first part of the highway leading to the Mae Sae valley, the traffic was almost nonexistent.

The loop was definitely a test of my motorbike skills as I went up and down the mountains and around curves. Driving in the mountains of Thailand, three types of signs designate the types of curves coming up. The s-curve sign with its gently waving lines indicates casual turns. The angle curve sign, with the arrow containing two 90 degree angles, indicates tighter turns ahead. The Sharp Curve sign isn’t kidding. Some of the curves following this sign had the road practically doubling back on itself.

The cool mountain air was in a constant battle with the heat from the sun and pavement. Occasionally, nearer the top of a mountain, a cool bit of breeze would win. Descending down into the valley, the heat generally had the upper hand. Especially the last descent back into Chiang Mai.

The distant mountains looked picturesque, softened by a gentle haze. While a postcard would have you believe it is a mist that gives the mountains their mystical quality, the reality is that it is smoke from forest fires. Most of these fires are intentionally set to clear the land for farming. Looking at the nearer hillsides and seeing the terraced farms is a testament to this practice that is slowly destroying the forests and the habitats for the animals that dwell in them. To think that once the hills had lush jungles and were home to elephants and monkeys made my heart ache a bit.

Along the way I came across four cattle grazing on the side of the road, a small girl that smiled and waved, and the obligatory random dogs that generally believe they have the right of way on roads. The highway was lined with quaint little villages, many having only a few buildings. (I am assuming the villages had more than what was along the roadside.) I knew I was close to Chiang Mai when the villages became larger and the houses were mud brick instead of bamboo.

Time Out

Chiang Mai truly is my home away from home. With each trip I feel less compelled to rush around seeing and doing as much as possible. Several days this week I found myself doing the types of things that I would do at home. Granted, making ribbon flowers for a friend’s upcoming monk ceremony isn’t something I typically do at home. I will say that I’m getting better at making the coin offerings, although many of them still have a special farang quality to them that make them special.

On Saturday, swimming sounded like a great way to escape the 102 F (39 C) degree heat and to change up my exercise regime. Municipal swimming pools are rare in Chiang Mai. Many of the guest houses and hotels open their pools to the public with fees ranging from 100 to 200 baht ($3.5 to $6.5). The lesser known Chiang Mai Land Pool was one of the few that I found not attached to a hotel and only charged a 60 baht ($2) entrance fee. Not terribly crowded, I was able to swim several short laps and only heard one or two farang comments, mostly from kids splashing in the water near me.