Our train arrived to Bangkok
at 6 am. The most interesting part of our taxi ride from the train station to our hotel was seeing the Thai monks ‘morning alms round’. Buddhist monks live in the many temples that are scattered around Bangkok. They should not accumulate food (like in a kitchen) and cannot cook either, so every early morning they go out walking close to the temples where they live and people offer them prepared food. For Buddhist people, giving food to monks makes them accumulate merit which would be like good karma they receive from doing good acts. Also when the monks receive the food they bless the people that gave the food to them.
So that morning, for the first time in Thailand, we saw several small groups of monks walking around and receiving food from people. It was very interesting and particular custom of the Buddhist religion.
We arrived to the Khao San Road area, which is the backpacker’s hub in Bangkok. It is an area of about 10 very congested blocks with budget hotels, cheap restaurants and bars, internet cafes and tour booking agencies. The Khao San Rd. area is also as well known day/night market
with clothes, second hand travel gear, travel books and all sorts of good priced souvenirs. Pretty much everything and anything a backpacker will need will be found in the famous Khao San Road. Another interesting thing they sell in Khao San is fake licenses and fake diplomas. You can buy a Colorado license for less than US$5! They had licenses from almost every American state, as well as Canadian, European and several other countries. You can also get diplomas from reputed American (or other popular) universities with your name on it. All these documents looked very real! It was kind of scary to think about the consequences of having a false doctor if you are the patient!
Our stop in Bangkok was primarily to get the Lao visa and a few vaccines that we need in order to keep traveling, to India, for example. We were a little bit lazy to do all this “work” (a lot of work for a backpacker!) so our first couple of days were spent just “hanging out” in Soi Rambutri, which is adjacent to Khao San Road. Being there felt like sightseeing because of all the people watching and entertainment.
One half day
was spent getting our Laos visa in the Lao Embassy. In Khao San Road there are several travel agencies that advertise the service of getting travel visas for every neighboring country. For us, it sounded scary to give your passport to some unknown travel agency in Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto, so we decided to do it ourselves. We took a 30 min. ride taxi to the Lao Embassy. When we arrive it is 12.30 noon and they are closed for lunch break but there are at least 40 Thai or Lao people waiting outside of the main door. When we arrived there, they all turned to look at us wondering what we are doing there??? I guess every other foreigners do use the travel agency services! Fighting off the feeling that we may have made a mistake, we turn around and decide we will go have lunch and come back when the Embassy opens in 30 minutes.
We walk around the area looking for a place to eat, but there are none except for a small group of local food stalls. The food they serve all looks very strange to us (the kind that makes you wonder if you will get
sick if you eat it). All the menus were in Thai and no one spoke English. It was either that or a 7 Eleven hot dog, so we decide to try the food stalls. After several attempts of explaining in Thai English, the cook understood that we wanted rice with steamed chicken! We flushed it down with some fresh coconut juice. I think the whole thing costs us like US$2.00! That is a big plus of being outside the touristy areas, and it was actually fun trying to communicate!
After lunch we went back to the Embassy hoping there is a way to get our visas today before all the other 40 local people. I go to the front of the queue and show the policeman our visa form; he tells me we can go in right away! It turned out that all those people were waiting for something else. We felt so relieved. Once we were inside, the embassy was almost empty and we sat and wait for 1 hour, after which we got our Laos visa via express service!
The next day we went to what we were told was the best medical university in Bangkok which
has a Travel Clinic with bilingual doctors and we received the Typhoid and Japanese B Encephalitis vaccines. Ouch! It only costs US$ 14 each! We are so glad we didn’t get it in Australia/New Zealand where it was like $120 each.
While we are in Bangkok, the Red Shirt protests were taking place. This group has been protesting for almost 8 weeks since we first arrived to Thailand. They were requesting that the House be dissolved and that new elections take place to choose a brand new Prime Minister. Several times while being in Bangkok we had to pass by the exact place where the Red Shirts were based. But everything was very calm while we were there. Unfortunately, things did turn more violent a few weeks after we left to the north of Thailand.
That night we decided to go to the famous Night Markets in Bangkok. We spent a while strolling around this area that is known as Patpong. In the market area you can find all sorts of pirated goods and surrounded by it is one of the city’s Red Light Districts. Sadly, Thailand is very well known for its sex tourism but we were
lucky not to have to experience much of its exposure.
Our last day in Bangkok, we visited “The Grand Palace”. This is a complex built in 1782 and it consists on the Royal Residence and throne halls, some government offices and the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It is one of Bangkok’s must see.
The Borom Phiman Mansion was the Royal Residence since 1903 and even the present King used it before moving into their new Residence some years ago. We have some really pretty pictures of this site. You will see in the pictures we have weird clothes; this is because it being a Buddhist temple you have to cover yourself up (shoulders and legs below the knee), therefore they lend out clothes for tourists like us that came with shorts or a sleeveless shirt.
That afternoon, our time in Bangkok comes to an end as we go to the Hualampong train station to purchase a Bangkok-Chiang Mai ticket for the popular 2nd class sleepers, which we read on our guidebook is the best budget but comfortable choice. We were looking forward to having a comfortable sleep and ride for this 13 hour (ouch!) train
At 7:00 p.m. we board the train and we are so disappointed to see that the 2nd class sleepers, look just like spacious seats. I can’t believe we are going to be seating for 13 hours… why would they call it sleepers? We look around at other people’s faces to see if we are the only ones disappointed by the look of the seats. It seems like we are the only ones, they must know something we don’t.
In addition to that, we realize two things: our car is right next to the restaurant kitchen, so we may be smelling Thai food for the whole journey and the door separating the kitchen from our seats is broken, so it will not close automatically. Every time a person passes by the door, they leave it open… it is very noisy when the door is open. We decide to fill up with patience and enjoy the first sleeper car train ride of our around the world trip!
Just as we are starting to get tired around 9 p.m. a train employee comes by and asks something in Thai to the person seating next to us… the person nods and the employees
starts moving the seats and all of the sudden… A BED! He even starts taking out sheets and nice pillows. Wow! It was all very well hidden and we are so happy to know that we will be able to sleep tonight. Our sleep was pleasant but we did learn a lesson, next time we take a train, pick seats far away from the doors in case they don’t work. We do have to say that overall the train ride was very comfortable!
Our stay inChiang Mai
was a very relaxing one. We did little sightseeing and truly enjoyed our nice room with free wi-fi in Baan Ramida Hotel. A very nice boutique hotel with a garden and fairly cheap rooms!
We went to one of Chiang Mai's night markets that seem to go on for 20 blocks and feel more like a festival because they are so full of people (tourists and plenty of locals shopping too). The food stalls were awesome. We tried several yummy dishes and fruit shakes.
During our stay in Chiang Mai
, we also visited some of their gorgeous Wats (Buddhist temples) where we had some of our coolest thai
experiences. A Monk Chat! It is actually what you read… an informal chat with a Buddhist monk.
Monk chats are common in popular areas of Thailand. Usually, monks are interested in practicing their English and sharing the religion and culture to anyone interested. The conversation is very open; you could talk about the weather only if you wanted to. But since arriving to Thailand and seeing the strong religious elements of the culture everywhere you turn, we were delighted to meet a monk and learn more about the religion and also the Thai culture. Our conversation was very interesting and it even turned out that the monk was trying to learn Spanish during his free time, so we got to practice a little bit with him.
We learned things like, the fact that every male that practices Buddhism is expected to become a monk for a short period of time during their life (from 1 to 3 months). It shows respect for the family and gives also some “prestige” (something to be proud of) to the family you belong to. Therefore, being a monk is quite different from being a priest in the Christian religion. There are many senior
monks that are monks for a lifetime, but most monks are not.
Our last day in Chiang Mai was a very memorable one. We booked a tour with the Elephant Nature Park
that was recommended to us by several people. They are a non-profit organization that is like heaven on earth for Thai working elephants. In Thailand, elephants are considered working animals just like cattle or horses are. They are trained since very young to work in the logging and tourism industries. Unfortunately, they are sometimes treated very poorly, to say the least. Also, being a very expensive animal to feed (they eat so much) are not well taken care of. It is a very sad situation and this organization is working to make a difference in this aspect.
All the elephants here have a story. You will find an elephant that was blinded by there former owner with slingshot, an elephant with a missing foot from stepping on a landmine, an elephant with a broken hip or broken back. They have all been rescued from overworking or a sad and unloving environment.
We spend a whole day watching the (adopted) families of elephants interact together, we
feed them tons of food twice a day and we got to wash them also twice. It’s hard to explain in words how special it was, but I can only say it was a very wonderful and even spiritual experience to share all that time with the elephants! They are incredibly smart and sweet animals. They can also be intimidating because of their size but you do get a 20 min. speech on what not to do when the elephants are around. If you keep to the easy rules it is very uncommon that they will attack you.
Rustin loved this experience so much, he really wanted to go back and do a 1 week volunteering program with the Nature Elephant Park. He did go back and he will tell you all about his experience in a future blog!
We were now headed to Pai
, a small hippie village in the middle of the northern Thai mountains, very close to the Myanmar (Burma) border. It is about 4 hours by bus from Chiang Mai. It is one of the coolest little towns we have been in during our trip.
The mountains around Pai are surrounded by trees,
hills and waterfalls. Unfortunately when we were there it was the dry season in Thailand and the scenery was not as gorgeous as it usually is, but still pretty.
We stayed in a cute little guesthouse with nice colored rooms and a nice bathroom with its own little garden inside. Our guesthouse was right in front of the river that surrounds Pai, so it was a pretty and calming view from our front yard.
As you walk around Pai you notice more and more that the restaurants, shops and bars are all run by hippies. People from all over Thailand and the world have found an extremely relaxed and peace/love vibe in this town. A lot of the restaurants are organic/vegetarian and have a super relax atmosphere to them. You can see people with dread locks and bohemian clothes walking around the streets, usually they are locals living there.
We joined the relaxed atmosphere of the place by spending a couple of days just hanging out in the several cool cafes and restaurants, reading books or on the internet. After all this rest, we set out on a motorbike adventure around the Pai mountains. We got one
motorbike for each of us, so we would have the freedom to go at our own speed. Rustin likes to have fun and speed a bit while driving, but Xiomara prefers to go very slow. Xiomara was amazed at how easy it is to ride this motorbikes/scooters! You just have to be careful with the traffic sometimes. The scenery was pretty but unfortunately the waterfalls were dry because it is the dry season in the country.
That night in Pai, we met our friends Tammy and Peter by chance in a restaurant, they are a super nice couple that we met when we visited the Nature Elephant Park. In South East Asia it is not uncommon to find travelers' along the way that you have met before. We had a nice dinner and a long chat.
The next day in Pai, we decided to rent bicycles and get to know the different streets and roads in the little town. It was fun and a tough exercise in such heat (40 C - 103 F). That night we had a really cool encounter with Thai people. Two rooms in our empty guesthouse were all of the sudden occupied
by a big family. That night we went back to our guesthouse to change and shower before going out to dinner and the family was out in the guesthouse's yard and common area eating some snacks and drinking. When they saw us, the first thing they did was say hi and invite us to have a drink with them. After changing we went out to meet them. Only one of the people there spoke good English. The rest spoke very little or none, we were lucky because at least we had one translator! At the beginning of our conversation it was only 3 young men and 1 elder men, drinking some whisky, at the end, the women and kids joined us too.
They were extremely nice to us, asking about where we come from and how long are we traveling for in Thailand. The elder man really enjoyed talking to us and told us that he always wants to talk to foreigners but he cannot because of his lack of English. He talked to us about their culture and the political problems that Thailand was having at the time, among other many things. It was good fun.
we would have our drink glass down to half, someone would fill it up with ice and more whisky! You just couldn't catch up. We even ate some of their snacks, which were some fried slices of pork that had probably been sitting in the table for hours and some crispy steamed rice that you had to take out of a bag and ate with your hands! They were all so nice to us and the elder man, after a few drinks, told us that he felt we were part of his family. So nice...
We could have probably partied with them all night but we hadn't had dinner yet and we didn't want to be rude and eat all their snacks so we said goodnight and went out for dinner at a cool rustic restaurant by the river.
The next day, it was time for Rustin to leave to the Elephant Nature Park to volunteer for a week. I wanted to volunteer there also, but I had been thinking about doing a Buddhist meditation retreat for a long while and decided it was a good time for me to do this while he was volunteering. It was hard
to say goodbye for 1 week, but we knew it will give us both happiness to do what we wanted and we thought that, some time apart, will allow us to miss each other. Something we haven't felt in a long time after 6 wonderful months of traveling together.
Xiomara's meditation retreat was to start 3 days later, so she was to spend another 3 days on her own in Pai, when she met again, her friend Tammy who was also alone in Pai for the next few days too! So they hung out together.
From the 13 to 15 April, it was New Year's celebration for several countries, including Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, this celebration is called Songkran. It is the most important holiday of the year! The festivities involve a lot of food, music and playing with water. The water symbolizes a cleaning process from last year to the new year. For my fellow Panamanians, it would be super similar to what " Carnivals" is! People get out of their houses with big buckets and tanks of water and the water fight begins! It last pretty much all day long for 3 consecutive days.
A lot of fun!
For the first day, Xiomara and Tammy got a bike and went around the town, getting completely soaked each time they passed by a house or business.
It was a lot of fun spending all that time with a girlfriend and just sitting and relaxing by herself.
Xiomara was looking forward to the meditation retreat somewhere in the mountains of Pai. After the elephant volunteering and meditation retreat, our days in Thailand, a wonderful country, are coming to an end. We will post the end and following adventures in future (soon) entries.
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