I have been looking forward to visiting Thailand ever since I last left it, eight years ago. The country is so rich in culture, ancient ruins, beautiful beaches and delicious food. We began our trip on the sandy shores of White Sand Beach on the island of Koh Chang. I had been here on vacation when I was teaching overseas and was anxious to show Jasper the beautiful shores, turquoise waters and eclectic collection of colourful ramshackle beach huts. On first impression, I noticed that many of these huts had given way to modern, up-scale resorts. I was worried that my special little paradise was lost to gentrification, but, after a day or so of exploring, we found that many of the old beach huts did still remain on the north end of the beach, including the very one in which I had stayed with friends on my last visit. We were certainly there on the tail end of the tourist season, so there was not much partying or nightlife, but for the two of us on our world trip, it was the perfect laid-back, low key stop to spend four days resting, swimming, snorkeling, eating on the beach and getting massages.
We were glad to have the downtime before moving on to fast-paced Bangkok, where we spent three days, which was plenty. We hit up the major attractions: the presidential palace (which, though overpriced, was a spectacular blur of sparkling tiles and gold tipped roofs), the giant reclining Buddha – among many others- at Wat Pho, some of the smaller temples, the chaos of restaurants, bars, shops and debauchery that is Khao San Road and we caught a performance of the tradition theatre called Khon, which is somewhat like an opera, but more ‘musically spoken’ than outright sung. It was a good experience and the costumes were beautiful, but it was a bit slow moving and likely only something you need to do once. We went out one night on Khao San for some obligatory bucket drinks and dancing and then we were more or less ready to move on.
We took a long bus up north to the city of Sukhothai, which was the capital empire of the Mekong region immediately after Angkor Wat. It was a mighty hot day (38 degrees, sunny and humid), but we rented bikes and drove the 45 or so kilometres to and around the old ruins, temples and Buddhas and it was one of the most beautiful bike rides you could do (or so I, as an inexperienced biker, would imagine). We nearly dropped from the heat at the end so we stopped in an air conditioned café for iced coffees and to wait for the room to stop spinning before heading back to our hotels. We also visited a night market for dinner, where there was live music and a lively atmosphere and, graciously, virtually no other tourists. We were very happy to make a stop that felt a little less on the beaten path and experience authentic Thai culture a little better.
We arrived in the northern city of Chiang Mai just in time for Songkran (Thai New Year). Basically, during this week, and especially on the 13th of April, the whole city shuts down and becomes a massive water-gun fight. Kids and adults alike line up along the old town river and fish up bucket after bucket of water to throw on passersby. Trucks drive around all day with people in the back tossing out water at others on the sidewalks and it is virtually impossible not to be completely saturated after about ten minutes. We bought guns and buckets and spent the day playing along and dancing in the streets to live music. It was a definitely highlight to be able to participate in such a fun and energetic holiday. We need to bring this back home to Canada!
Other than Songkran activities, Chiang Mai has a beautiful old town that is chock-filled with temples on virtually every street. We spent the better part of a day exploring them and probably didn’t even make it to half. New and old, wood, stone and synthetic, there is a temple for everyone in this city. We had also planned on spending a day tubing down a river outside of town, but, sadly, the company that had been offering this had closed down two months prior to our arrival. Instead, we went to the ‘Grand Canyon,’ which is a former mining dredge that has been filled with water and made into a bit of a fun park for cliff-jumping, swimming and lounging around. In this extreme heat, it was a bit of a godsend. We booked a room with a fan rather than AC and all I can say is – NEVER AGAIN. I probably lost five pounds in sweat alone. 🙂
Luckily, the temperature dropped to a merciful 30 degrees when we went to Chiang Rai, which is further north still and in the golden triangle (bordering Laos and Myanmar, a former gateway for the opium trade). We arrived on a cloudy afternoon and went to the one restaurant that was open as most things were still closed for Songkran during the day. The family of the restaurant owners were out front throwing water buckets at passing cars (who were also armed) and invited us to join along. They were incredibly friendly, offering us snacks and drinks, and we spent some time playing and trying to communicate with them.
The next day, we rented a motorbike and took off to explore all of the attractions lying around the city including the modern and elaborately designed White Temple, with mirrors lining all of the curves making it really sparkle. It was a bit morbid as well, with grotesque porcelain heads hanging from trees and gnarled hands reaching out of a pond. Though from a distance, it shines like a diamond. We visited, next, it’s macabre counterpart, the Black House, which is multi-building project by a local artist and every building brings its own brand of dark and sinister décor, including animal hides, bones and skulls. We shivered our way out of there and stopped at two more beautiful temple complexes. One was entirely blue, and one had small temples with blue, deep red and gold embellishments. Both had massive Buddhas inside and, for the new year, large piles of sand out front decorated in tree branches and streamers. Our final stop was the giant, 7-foot-tall, Goddess statue and adjacent temple and pagoda. I joined others in pouring water into the hands of monks to wish them a new year before riding back to back. We visited the Saturday night walking street for a final Thai dinner of pad thai (what else) and then walked back in the rain for our final sleep before heading to Laos.
Almost everything I have eaten here has been delicious and I only regret that I could not eat more things (or more of the same things). My favourites were the curries – green, yellow, red, padang, pad thai, cashew nut chicken, mango sticky rice (mango anything, really!), fresh fruit smoothies, basil pork, tom yum soup, spicy pork noodle soup with wontons and Kao Soi, a local Chiang Mai dish, made with noodles in a thick curry gravy, crunchy noodles, chicken and pickled veggies. I will miss each and every one of these things and am grateful that Toronto has so much Thai food to ease my return. ❤