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700 days of travel: Reflections on the last 100 days

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This is our seventh time reflecting on a set of 100 days of constant travel. After 700 days, it seems silly to refer to this major life event as a trip, really. This truly is a lifestyle, even if we gave it all up tomorrow – which we absolutely have no plans to do.

And yet, these past 100 days have been some of the most vibrant, intense, emotionally charged days yet. This period of time has been spent immersed entirely in South East Asia, wrapped up in all of the chaos, glamor, spice, color, ups, downs, shocks and peace that co-exist in this part of the world.

Countless wow moments

700 days ago, we would most likely have imagined that climbing into a cage of four two-hundred pound tigers or bathing massive elephants in a river would be a major event in any 100-day period, but this experience was just one of a handful of moments that really got our adrenaline pumping in these last 100 days. Thaipusam, the Hindu festival based on self-mutilation as devotion to the gods, although no threat to us, was equally intense. (watch our video in Penang, Malaysia here).

dani & jess with elephants and tigers in thailand
Playing with big cats and elephants in Thailand

The anguish caused by learning about the wrath the Khmer Rouge unleashed on the people of Cambodia was the most shocking of all. We knew so little about Pol Pot’s maniacal genocide here in Cambodia before arriving but it will be a lifetime before we forget witnessing the sight of 9,000 skulls and discarded clothes of thousands of slaughtered Cambodians at the Killing Fields, the images at Tuol Sleng, the former school turned torture prison in Phnom Penh, or being shown around the ‘Killing Caves’ near Battambang.

photos of victims at tuol sleng prison
Nearly 2 million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population, was killed under the Khmer Rouge regime 1975 – 1979

Heartwarming moments through Housesitting

We’ll be talking in much more detail about our passion for housesitting in the coming months, but the course of our journey has been re-directed now several times due to the location of our housesits. At the start of these last 100 days we were on our way to a housesit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, to care for ZZ, a rather complicated cat belonging to a Canadian ex-pat couple. What we didn’t know is that during that housesit, we would secure our next one – right back in Chiang Mai a month later. This time we cared for Fred, a selectively sweet (he hates men!) little dog, a housesitting gig we found through our favorite housesitting website Housecarers.com.

housesitting in chiang mai thailand
The joys of housesitting: an adorable puppy, having friends over for dinner, shopping at the market, and home-made Costa Rican breakfast when you feel like it

Why go back to Chiang Mai? A life of constant moving on can mean a lot of saying goodbye and a limited number of deep friendships. Housesitting has been such a major boost to our morale as it (usually) gives us a cat or a dog to cuddle with and a couch to cuddle up on, a kitchen to make comfort food and try out new recipes. Housesitting allows us time and space to get to the business of our businesses. In short, during these housesits, we tend to get sh*t done!

Ultimate sophistication, absolute destitution

These last 100 days have taught us a great many lessons. Another is that almost nowhere in the world is quite like this region when it comes to the lifestyle contrasts. Sometimes, we take in these contrasts on a macro-level – on a long bus ride through Thailand, for example, starting in the sophisticated city of Chiang Mai in the north, passing through chains of small villages that time has forgotten. In bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, these contrasts can be seen on a micro-level, within the frame of one simple photograph. Here, mega-malls tower over slums, Gucci and Prada can be found as easily as third-hand television remote controls for sale in the market.

Despite these contrasts, Thailand and Malaysia are very developed in comparison to Cambodia, where we end these 100 days. We are still trying to come to terms with what happened here, and the incredible survival of the Khmer people after the Pol Pot regime. So while a 150km bus journey takes five hours on spottily paved roads, it is amazing at how far Cambodia seems to have come since over one quarter of the population was brutally slaughtered 30-odd years ago. Of course, what this means is that, unlike Malaysia or Thailand, overland travel in Cambodia is an entirely different experience.

contrasts in South East AsiaTransportation in South East Asia

One aspect of travel in South East Asia in general that is fascinating to us is the developed presence of quality domestic air travel options. In Central America we would have never considered flying between countries, let along within the same country, but here in South East Asia, flights join train travel and buses as viable transportation options.

air asia plane malaysiaAnd yet while crossing borders at 30,000 feet is a breeze, we still enjoyed the land border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia the most. It was a grueling 22 hour transportation night/day from Chiang Mai to Battambang, we successfully avoided the dreaded Thai-Cambodian border scam. After 700 days we realize that we still enjoy the nitty-gritty as much as anything else, and that the journey is really more important than the destination.

Eating in South East Asia

There are plenty aspects of travel we adore – people-watching, absorbing customs, scoping out great hotels. But if we are truly honest, the food has fueled much of our passions in the last 100 days. Put simply – South East Asia has been a vegetarian’s foodie paradise.

We are spoiled for choice here. New spices, flavors, colors, textures are constantly on our tongues, along with western food as good as at home. We drink coconut water and eat rice every day – and never tire of this. While we expected Chiang Mai’s veggie options to trump all other food experiences in the last period of time, we have eaten incredibly well in Cambodia and Malaysia as well. Read our Tops and Flops for details on our delicious food options.

food in south east asiaAn important discovery

We have to admit something: Initially part of the purpose of ‘the trip’ was to discover a place in the world to settle down in, to find our own personal paradise. 700 days in and we still have yet to find the perfect place, but we now know that we can rule out South East Asia. No matter where we go, we are truly Latin at heart. Looking back at our favorite places of all time, we continue to highlight Mexico, Italy, Paris, Lisbon as influenced by a spicy Latin mentality that resonates with our hearts. We feel pretty good about the fact that we still have all of South America left to discover (not that we have any idea when we’ll ever end up there!)

What the future holds

Inspired by all of our bellies’ content, we have finally made the decision to visit India. We will start slowly with the sub-continent, spending just five weeks in the southern state of Kerala before flying back to the States for a wedding and a housesit. We could have gone to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma…all countries that sit ever higher on our list of dream destinations, but we are ready and willing to get our first taste of India now. In fact, we can hardly wait. So, after a short stint in one of the world’s most modern cities – Singapore, we will finally make our way to India.

we are going to india next monthLooking back:

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There’s the Thailand we were looking for | Cycling with SpiceRoads

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The Thai Rhythm of Life

Preparing for our trip to Thailand, I remember reading somewhere about the romantic Thai rhythm of life. Waking up early, air still crisp and cooking the rice, first thing, so enough is made for the day. The smell of rice fills the house as people sweep floors or clean the kitchen and get ready for work. Chores are done before the brutal tropical sun burns away the light morning dew, before the humidity lays heavy in the air. In the late afternoon, once the sun has receded, Thais water their carefully manicured flowers and plants in lush green gardens.

These images stuck with me after arriving in Thailand, even though this rhythm was difficult to find. We certainly didn’t find it in buzzing Bangkok and the islands seemed to take on the pattern of tourists. The closest we came to the feeling was during the time we spent in Chiang Mai, although, like the throngs of digital nomads and online entrepreneurs in town, our daily pattern was more about bouncing between cafes and restaurants, working hard and crossing items off to-do lists than soaking up Thai culture.

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Cycling Tours in Chiang Mai

At some point while our heads were down and we were working away, the SpiceRoads cycle tour company got in touch to offer us the chance to join a cycle tour of the Lanna countryside outside of the city. We jumped at the chance, not only to experience more of rural Thailand, but also because of our growing passion for cycling while traveling. On a bike, we are right out in the experience, the smells, the sights, the scenes and the people. Cycling frees us the limits of a bus window as much as it does from the slow pace that our legs alone can take us.

cycling through rice paddies northern thailandThe day started early in the morning. Five of us rode along in single file behind our guide, much of the 33km ride spent alone. At each stop, the guide would tell a story, and answer questions. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple with a mummified monk before snaking through peaceful rice fields for miles, stopping at other temples, passing through villages with morning markets in full swing.
mummified monk in buddhist temple in northern thailandWe stopped at small roadside factories where relaxed workers pounded out the tourist trinkets we know from Chiang Mai’s many night markets. Most interesting was watching men whittle mango wood down into beautiful vases at hypnotizing speeds.

wood carving workshop in northern thailandLooking back on our Lanna countryside cycling tour, what I will remember most is feeling that rhythm of rural Thai life. Catching bright smiles from locals who wave from their stands selling eggs or fruits, honking on their motorbikes as they pass. I can only imagine how we look, all lined up in a row, colorful helmets on, fancy mountain bikes, as people whiz by on all sorts of transport. We come upon smell the onion harvest before we arrive to the field to watch workers load up thousands of onions onto a truck.

onion harvest & rice fields in northern thailandAt some point the road becomes punctuated by more and more hills, and the last five kilometers or so are by far the most challenging. Our guide suddenly picks up the pace, and we are pumping our pedals, pouring with sweat. By now it is noon, and the heat has brought along his friend humidity so add more of a challenge as our legs and lungs burn. And, as suddenly as it began, the hard part is over, as is the cycling tour. We have landed at our final destination: the hot springs.

lanna countryside bicycle tour thailand

Last Stop: Hot Springs?!

Hot springs are not exactly what you hope for at the end of a 33km ride, but the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs in Mae On are definitely worth a visit, even without the long cycle beforehand if interested in a more authentic Thai day out.  The group had lunch together with guide, who was nice enough to order the group a papaya salad for those who hadn’t been in Thailand long enough to sample this quintessentially Thai dish.
bicycle tour through the lanna countryside thailandWe splintered off after that to explore the leisure park, with its expansive green lawns, hot mineral baths and hot spring geysers. Dani and I joined the gaggles of Thai teens, glowing old men and their beautiful wives, families with babies and just a handful of fellow westerners all soaking their feet in the warm lazy river. We watched as everyone around us munched on boiled eggs. All around the park, vendors sell eggs in baskets, which people boil in tubs of hot spring water. Signs dictate the number of minutes for soft or hard-boiled eggs. Lunch and entrance fees to park were included in the tour, but eggs, drinks and mineral baths were extra.
sankamphaeng hot springs thailandAfter an hour, the group comes together back at the van, and we are all dropped back off in Chiang Mai.

These are the moments we really travel for, these glimpses into everyday life.

In a year from now, on a Saturday just like the day of our tour, wherever we are in the world, we know about these moments taking place in the northern Thai countryside. The factory workers, the onion harvest, worshipers visiting the mummified monk, the patterns of life in the sleepy Lanna countryside, and most likely, the small, Spice Roads tour group cycling through.

workshops in northern thailand

Tour Details

The Lanna countryside tour takes around 8 hours from pick-up to drop-off, but the 33kilometer cycling part runs between 3.5 and 4 hours. Cycling is easy to moderate, with a few hills and mountains at the end. Group size ranges between 2-16, but the guide assured us that there are usually no more than 7-8 on any given tour.

Price: 2,500 Baht / US$80 (the same price as almost any tourist undertaking in Chiang Mai – Tiger Kingdom, Nature Elephant Park, etc).

Visit the SpiceRoads website for more information on other tours from Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Bangkok and other destinations in Asia such as Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Burma, China, India and Japan.

see asia by bicycle

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Getting scammed in Bangkok

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We avoided them in Mexico, outsmarted them in Central America and other than a bank card being cloned at an ATM in Panama, the first 18 months of our nomadic travels had been entirely scam free. Until we got to Bangkok, that is – on our first day no less. Here’s our story of how we got scammed in Bangkok.

SCAMMED! in BangkokOur egos are still bruised and it has taken us a few months to sit down and actually write about this because we still feel stupid about how it all went down. But the fact of the matter is – we got soft. We had just done our massive U.S. road-trip, landing safely in Chicago amongst friends and family afterward. Before that there were the three months in Europe and seven weeks in Canada. Surrounded by the safe and familiar, we had let our instincts do most of the planning during the past six months.

Not only did we get soft, we also got lazy. We’ve told a few friends about this Bangkok scam ordeal long before we decided to write about it publicly, and everyone said the same sort of thing – that this could have happened to anyone. To a certain degree, they are right. Plenty of people fall for scams when arriving in Bangkok. Hell, there are even websites entirely dedicated to informing travelers about it – like Bangkokscams.com (now defunct) and the chapter on scams on the Wikitravel Bangkok section.

Did either of us take the time to read those websites? No. What about the Dangers and Annoyances section of the Bangkok chapter in our Southeast Asia Lonely Planet that talks about Bangkok scams in detail? Nope.

So you want to know what happened? Fine, but be gentle with us…

Day one in Bangkok. With major jetlag and on edge about the floods set to hit the city in a few days, we set off for a full day of sightseeing. First stop: the Royal Palace. Not two blocks from the hotel, a friendly Thai man approaches us and asks us where we are from.  From Germany, I tell him, and his eyes light up. ‘Ah, Germany! I have friend in Frankfurt. Wonderful country! Football! Deutschland!’ We are immediately at ease with this smiling stranger and he asks when we arrived.

AND.WE.TELL.HIM.

Oh, just six hours ago, we say, almost not believing ourselves that we have landed in Asia for the first time. Mistake #1! Now we have given him the ammunition to scam us – we’re brand new here, and we have now stepped, unknowingly, into a dense, complicated web of Bangkok scams with a cast of characters longer than the annoying Valentine’s Day movie.

bangkok tuktuk driverWhere you go now? He asks us this nonchalantly and we answer that we are going to the Royal Palace. Oh, no, Royal Palace closed this morning, he explains. Only open in afternoon

Wikitravel: Be highly skeptical when an English-speaking Thai at a popular tourist attraction approaches you out of the blue, telling that your intended destination is currently closed. Temples are open just about every day of the year. Anyone telling you otherwise is most likely out to scam you, especially if they suggest a tuk-tuk ride to some alternate sights to see until the sight re-opens.

Reacting to our sad faces, he assures us he knows some fantastic Buddhist temples that we should check out instead. Take a tuk-tuk to get around he said, and then, leans in and says – only tuk-tuks with blue license plates. These are government regulated, he explains, and only charge 20 Baht. 20 Baht, we think? That’s…60 U.S. cents. For both of us – all morning. Yay! We’re in South East Asia and travel is finally cheap again. Our new friend circles the temples on our Bangkok map and stops a tuk-tuk, explaining to him in Thai where to go.  We can’t believe our luck. What a nice guy.

Wikitravel: Always beware of tuk-tuk drivers offering all-day tours for prices as low as 10 baht. You may indeed be taken on a full-day tour, but you will end up only visiting one gem and souvenir shop after another. Don’t buy any products offered by pushy salesmen — the “gems” are pretty much always worthless pieces of cut glass and the suits are of deplorable quality. The tuk-tuk driver gets a commission if you buy something — and fuel coupons even if you don’t.

Before we set off in the tuk tuk, our new friend mentions that we should only stop at the TAT travel agency – the Tourism Authority Thailand – to book onward travel from Bangkok. He made sure to relay this message to our driver, too.

Off we went, ready to visit our first Buddha temples and happy to have that travel buzz back that we haven’t really felt since Central America. At this point, it might not be clear why we would trust a complete stranger like that. The thing is that throughout our travels, over and over again, we have learned that most people are good, and almost everyone who has offered to help us in the past has gone out of their way to make sure we got where we were going, pleased we are visiting their country. Up until that point, we had no reason to think that Thailand wasn’t exactly the same.

After a few temples, the smiley driver stopped at the ‘TAT’ tourist agency (later we would learn that the TAT does not even have storefront tour agencies at all). We hadn’t even suggested we might want to book anything, but hell, while we were stopped, we might as well go in and see how much the travel is going to cost us. The lady in the office tried to sell us an entire package for our month in Thailand, including transportation and hotels for 540 Euros. As independent travelers, we prefer to arrange these things ourselves, we said, so we thanked her for her time and said No.

Away we sped, this time the driver explained that, in order to get a free government gasoline credit, he had to take us to a jewelry store and a tailor. We didn’t need a suit, but were still plenty giddy, and so we walked in and out of both stores, thinking we are doing this guy a favor. Then, it’s on to the next temple. Inside, a man is sweeping up and starts up a conversation. Looking back now, it is the exact same conversation template from this morning. Where are we from (oh, Germany, my cousin…study in Germany, football, Deutschland!), how long have we been in Bangkok, where are we going to next. Then he lets us in on a little secret. Don’t waste your time at these tour agencies for tourists. He knows an office where only local Thais go to buy tickets – cheap cheap.

Well, now he has pushed our hardcore traveler button. Only locals go there? Cheap cheap? Forget the hunger rumbling in our tummies and our jet lag. We’re on our way there! He tells the tuk tuk driver where it is and off we go.

bangkok tuktuks

It is at this point in telling the story that we start to feel REALLY.DAMN.STUPID.

The guy behind the desk is well-dressed, with a big smile, and 100% American. You’re probably thinking something like…Why would an American be working at a place where only Thais buy their cheap bus tickets? Yeah, that would be logical. Did we think that? No! Mistake #2.

Somewhere between the temple and the tour agency we had forgotten that this was supposed to be for locals. And cheap cheap. Just like the other woman, he maps out a journey, but we are not interested. But he starts to go on about the floods, and this is something that is really starting to concern us. Before we know it, not only are we booking (expensive, very very expensive) bus tickets from him down to the islands, but now we are booking an Air Asia flight from Phuket up north to Chiang Mai, too. He insisted on booking them immediately as it was a weekend and in high season. We had just looked online at exactly those airline tickets, and it seemed to be the right price range. His Thai assistant handed us two bottles of cold water and we handed over our credit card for him to go in the back of his office to book our plane tickets. What happened to that whole, we’re independent travelers ride we were on at the last place? Totally, completely forgotten.

Why did he not make that phone call to Air Asia and the bus company right at his desk? Why the back room? Congratulations! You have asked another logical question, one we forgot to ask.

Okay, all done, he says reassuringly. Come on by tomorrow and you can pick up both sets of tickets. Great, we say, and hop back in the tuk tuk. We have booked hundreds of flights online in our lives, so why didn’t we ask the next logical question – where were the flight reservation print-outs?

We spend about twenty minutes at the next temple, and when we get back to where our driver let us off, we discover that our tuk tuk is gone. Did he go for lunch? Gas? Now we are just hanging around, and another tuk tuk driver offers to take us wherever we need to go. But we are loyal to our driver – after all he waited all day for us at all our stops and we haven’t paid him yet. He’s gone, the other drivers kept telling us. But we haven’t paid, we keep saying to which they reply: It’s okay, free gas credit, he doesn’t need you to pay him.

bangkok golden mount bellsAt this point we are hot, sweaty, jet-lagged and starving so eventually we allow another driver to take us back to our hotel.

In hindsight, this was a major warning sign – who doesn’t need money? Who doesn’t want to get paid for services rendered? Someone who is getting a kickback from a scam, that’s who. And right there, that is when we had now fallen for the Tuk Tuk Scam. Mistake #3. All that business about a gas coupon is, of course, a lie. If you, the tourist, make a purchase from the jewelry store, the tailor, or overpriced airline or bus tickets, the drivers get a commission on your purchase, a fact we later learned on Thai-blogs.com.

Our next driver also insisted to stop at these jewelry stores / tailor shops for the gas coupon, but by then we were fed up and Jess was shoveling buckets of attitude at the tailor when our tuk tuk driver practically shoved us inside. Once he realized we weren’t going to buy a suit the owner threw us out of the store. In the end, we were practically begging the driver to just take us home with no more stops, even offering to pay double. This was our last tuk tuk ride in Bangkok, although at the time, we were still blissfully ignorant and suspected nothing. Check out our Facebook status from that day:

facebook status bangkokOuch, that hurts to read now.

The next day we made our way to the travel agency to pick up our tickets and our American scammer hands us two envelopes – one with two bus tickets, the other with print-out flight reservations – with our names spelled wrong. This is now Mistake #4. How could an American, a native English speaker, someone comfortable with the Roman alphabet, spell our names Jessiea and Ganiela? We pointed out the mistakes, and he finally agreed to call AirAsia to amend the booking. He went to the back room again of course, and not a minute later was back assuring us that everything was alright. Deep down, I knew he lied to us at the moment (having spend hours on hold with airlines throughout the years), but pushed it away, telling myself not to be so suspicious all the time.

During the next two days we were there we were approached by these ‘well-dressed English-speaking Thai guys’ more times that we could count, and we began to ignore them as they told us of closed attractions and tried to sell us tickets to boat trips and floating markets. Now that tuk tuks were not an option, we battled with taxi drivers who refused to use their meters, instead quoting us insanely high set prices which we emphatically refused each time.

We were back in the independent traveler groove, jet-lag free and heads on straight. We were really looking forward to getting down to the islands on the overnight bus that night.

But the bus never came.

bangkok busThe a-hole in the travel agency had given us a number to arrange pick-up to the bus station, which we had dutifully done. But when the bus didn’t show after 10 minutes we called again. ‘Oh, driver coming, wait please,’ said the voice on the other end. Thirty minutes later, we called again. She hung up on us and never picked up again.

Our overpriced bus tickets were not even real bus tickets.

Near tears, we loaded our bags on our backs and prepared to hunt down an affordable hotel for the night, knowing we had missed all buses and trains for the night. Hanging our heads in shame, we almost missed a big bus driving very slowly by. It was filled with tourists, so I took the chance to ask the driver if he was going to Krabi, our last stop before the islands.

The dark cloud had a silver lining! The bus was going to Krabi and had room for us.

Our tickets looked nothing like what others had, but were accepted… and as other passengers handed over their tickets, we learned that everyone else had only paid $10. Let’s just say that we paid much more than that for a bus that never came.

As we sat for hours on the night bus, Jess pulled out our plane tickets and took a closer look. We found no reservation number, no evidence of payment, two misspellings in our names… and we lost it. We cried, we moped, we argued with each other. How could we be so stupid?!

Finally having passed out, we were woken a few hours later to an uproar on the bus: someone’s bag had gone missing and someone had seen one of the Thai helpers try to steal another passenger’s bag.

Great. Just what we needed!

Had we just read about scams before we left we would have known the following:Top Ten Scams in Thailand on Bangkokscams.com 7. Long Distance Bus Scam – Many people have had things stolen from their bags on overnight bus trips. Some have even reported they were drugged and found their money missing when they woke up.

Wikitravel: Also beware of private bus companies offering direct trips from Bangkok to other cities with “VIP” buses. There are a lot of scams performed by these private bus companies. Instead, try to book public BKS buses from the main bus terminals. It’s worth the extra shoe-leather, as there have been reports of robberies on private buses as well.

Twelve hours later, we finally arrived in Krabi with all of our belongings – but with one more scam left to go.

The bus didn’t drop us off in town, as promised, but rather on the side of a highway where there was, conveniently, a travel agency with three minivans ready to take us in to town for an additional (high) price. Sure we argued back and forth, throwing dirty looks at the ladies behind the desk, but to be honest, we were worn out. We had been scammed left and right, cheated, lied to, and to top it all off, we would now spend the next five hours after a semi-sleepless night on the phone with the banks to cancel our credit card.

Now, months later, we are still fighting to get the money refunded from the fraud department of HSBC. We have been back to Bangkok since, and although every cell in our bodies wanted to go gangster on that weasly little American, we have decided to be gracious about it and not to get ourselves anymore involved in this underbelly of society than we already were.

Traveling to Bangkok?

Check out these sites beforehand to avoid getting scammed in Bangkok:

5 Best Known Scams in Bangkok… and how to avoid them

Avoiding Bangkok scams

How To Beat Bangkok’s Scams

Scams in Bangkok: smiling Thais & dumb tourists

10 Lines that Say You’re Being Hustled

Shysters, shams and Bangkok Scams

Stay alert while crossing borders as well. Scams are not just in Bangkok – they are all over Thailand. A particularly bad scam is the ‘fake’ (!) Cambodian embassy at the Thai-Cambodian border crossing between Aranya Prathet and Poipet. You can read about it here:

Read up on other popular scams in Thailand here:

If you made it all the way to the end of our monster post…misery loves company. Have you ever been scammed while traveling? We want to hear all about it!

 

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Kamphaeng Phet: The Thai town that tourism forgot

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The sound of the closing door echoed down the long, dark hallway of our hotel…

The Navarat is an old-school 1970s-style monolith of a hotel in Kamphaeng Phet, a small city in central Thailand. Our door seemed to be the only one that opened and closed with any regularity at all, though we had spotted a few Thai businessmen mulling around the lobby earlier. With only one other half-empty hotel in town (the once-grand Chakungrao Riverview Hotel) and not an English restaurant menu in sight,  it is clear just how few tourists visit Kamphaeng Phet.

And yet, Kamphaeng Phet is home to magnificent ancient ruins.

big buddha face kamphaeng phetIn fact, the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park is one of the ‘associated historic towns’ in the very wordy ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns’. The equally magnificent site at Old Sukhothai, about two hours to the east, is smack dab in the middle of the well-beaten tourist path. Here in Kamphaeng Phet, however, we had an entire ancient archeological site to ourselves.

buddhas & temples kamphaeng phetSo why is there no tourist trickle to Kamphaeng Phet? We are honestly not sure. One reason might be is that while Sukhothai has buses running to and from Chiang Mai in the north and Bangkok in the south, the only way to get to Kamphaeng Phet is by a shared Songthaew (covered pick-up truck) ride. It took us a bit of poking around in Sukhothai to even figure out how to find those, which we found to be an entertaining 2.5 hour ride watching locals hop on and off with groceries, bamboo baskets or brand new pop CDs, gossiping cross-legged on the benches along the way.

songthaw kamphaeng phetWe were the only ones to take the whole Sukhothai-Kamphaeng Phet ride, and the driver dropped us off in front of one lone tuk-tuk when we pulled into town. At first, we assumed it was her brother or friend she wanted to hook up with a deal, but in the end, we realized the favor she did for us, as getting around town is as hard as getting in.

Taxis and tuk-tuks in town are nearly non-existent. Our hotel receptionist would have known that, but made no real effort to assist us. She, like the rest of the staff, spoke no foreign language at all. Communicating was done by a lot of pointing and giggling.

Instead, we flagged down a passing songthaew and said the name of the park. Somehow, we ended up at the main bus station outside of town.songthaws kamphaeng phet

Amid the ensuing confusion, we tried to make our needs clear to several drivers, none of whom understood. One brought us to a booth, conveniently labeled “tourist information”, where a lady gave us a map and pointed to gate 5. After 30 minutes of fascinating people watching (bus stations are perfect for this), our feet were getting itchy – where is this songthaew she had promised? After asking a second time, she said thirty more minutes. 30 more minutes? There were songthaews pulling in left and right, surely one would take us to the ruins?

Yes, our Thai is limited. Yes, we had been spoiled down on the Thai islands, and in Bangkok, and Chiang Mai where so many Thais are practically bilingual. But language wasn’t even what was holding us back. The strange thing was that the ruins were plastered all around the bus station, on advertisements for a cell phone company, on the maps of the city, on the brochure she had given us. We could easily point to where we wanted to go, and yet it seemed like such an out of the ordinary proposition to get there.

Eventually we did get there, and spent the afternoon cycling around incredible chedis and statues of Buddhas and elephants, in utter peace and quiet.

kamphaeng phet elephant templeThe thing is, Kamphaeng Phet is no rural village. It is a modest- sized city set overlooking the Ping River. Infrastructure here is strong, with engaged locals who are educated and active. There are dozens of schools, Buddhist temples and plenty of cute restaurants and quality cafes, useful shops ranging from lazy barbers to laptop shops. And our favorite part is that the whole town is practically one big outdoor gym. Along the river along we counted five outdoor gyms in the parks throughout the city center. Life is great in Kamphaeng Phet.

kamphaeng phet outdoor gymThe city is as typically Thai as to be found in Thailand, without all of the plastic tourist trinkets to confirm it.

You won’t find a fridge magnet or T-shirts that say I heart KP, and you won’t be getting a postcard from us from Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park as we did not find a single one in town. During online research, all of the web resources we trust came up short as well. Wikitravel has no details about the city, Lonely Planet mentioned a bit about transport links only and the same pair of hotels came up across all the booking sites as well. Forget any foreigner-friendly foodie spots either. Restaurants here, and there are tons of them, set out to please their local clientele only.

We walked all the way back to the hotel that night along the river, as the sun set that evening and caught such a refreshing glimpse of life in Kamphaeng Phet: joggers along the river, families in the playground, large groups sweating it all out at outdoor aerobics classes (which looked like the international Zumba phenomenon) or pumping iron at the outdoor gyms, kids in school uniforms with parents in suits and dresses on motorbikes arriving at the market for dinner.

kamphaeng phet market standPerfectly friendly to us, the kids waved enthusiastically as they rode by on bikes, and the market stall vendors smiled as we took pictures of the frogs on sale in the market. But no one there was making a living off of tourists, no one catered to our needs at all.

kamphaeng phet outdoor gym
In fact, no one really could have cared less that we were there, and we loved Kamphaeng Phet more for it.

kamphaeng phet thailand

This post was made possible in part by Aqua Resorts, the premier boutique Hawaii hotel chain that provides a wide range of Waikiki hotels and Hawaii resorts for all types of budgets.
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Polaroid of the Week: Ladyboy on stage in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai ladyboy showWe have never run out of things to do in Chiang Mai, quite the opposite in fact. We ran out of time last time we were in town and were not able to see a particular cabaret show that a friend recommended. Luckily we returned to our favorite Thai city this past month and caught the ladyboy cabaret with our friends Betsy and Warren from Married With Luggage.

Ladyboys, known in Thailand as Kathoeys, are more accepted and prominent in Thai culture than transgender people in Western culture. Kathoeys usually work in more typically female professions, such as shops and beauty salons, and more recently as flight attendants on some Thai airlines. While their lives are certainly not easy (no chance to become legally recognized as women despite surgeries, for example), several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys. But what we find the most inspiring and interesting, is that ladyboys need not ‘escape’ to the big city, instead being accepted in rural villages as commonly as in urban areas, which can help to eliminate feelings of loss, shame and solitude that transgender people in western cultures most often deal with.

At this show at the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, these ladies put on such an entertaining show. It’s free to enter, but everyone must drink! We were not complaining about that…

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How to apply for an Indian visa in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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For awhile now we’ve known we wanted to go to India, so when we found a great bargain on cheap flights to India, we couldn’t resist. Unfortunately we booked flights without realizing we could not apply for an Indian visa where we were in Malaysia, as only residents of Malaysian are permitted to apply. Luckily, we were headed back to Thailand, where non-Thai nationals can apply for the Indian Visa. The best part, we then discovered, was that we could apply in Chiang Mai, without having to take an extra trip to Bangkok to do it. Read on for details on how to apply for an Indian Visa in Chiang Mai.

How to get to the Indian Embassy in Chiang Mai

The Indian High Commission in Chiang Mai is set in what looks like a private home, in a small soi (side street) house near Chiang Mai’s railway station. Unfortunately, Google Maps still displays the consulate’s previous address.

indian consulate chiang mai thailandThe new address of the Indian High Commission in Chiang Mai:

33/1, Thung Hotel Road,
Wat Kate, Muang,
Chiang Mai 50000
Opening Times: Monday to Friday, 9am to 12pm. The consulate is closed on Thai and Indian holidays, so check the respective holidays before you go.

How to get to there:

You can take a Songthaw or TukTuk from anywhere in Chiang Mai. If the driver does not know exactly where the consulate is, he might know Thung Hotel Road at least, and you can look out for the white sign with plain black letters. If not, ask him to bring you to the railway station – it should only be a fifteen-minute walk from there. Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle and cycle from the Old City in 25 minutes, or walk in about an hour.

indian visa - chiang mai map to indian embassyClick on the picture to enlarge the map

Which documents do I need to apply for an Indian visa?

***Update April 2012***

It is not possible any longer to just show up at the Indian Consulate and apply for a visa there – you have to apply online first, using the official application form on the Indian Visa website. Make sure to print out your application and bring it with you to the Consulate.

You will need to present the following documents:

1. The obvious
•Your passport (valid for at least 6 more months).
• Two passport photos.
• A copy of your passport.

2. The not-so-obvious
• A copy of your Thai visa, or if you have a simple 30-day tourist visa stamp from the airport or 15-day visa stamp from a land border crossing, you will also need to have a copy of this stamp as well as your departure card.

indian visa thai visa stamp• Two references in India. These can just be two hotels you’re planning to stay at while you’re in India, but make sure to write down the addresses and telephone numbers before you head to the consulate as there is no way to look anything up while there.
• Your current address in Chiang Mai. This can be a guesthouse or hotel, the name and address of the guesthouse are sufficient.
• Your planned arrival date in India. The visa is valid from the time of issue; that means you will have a 3-month visa valid from the day you collect it in Chiang Mai.
• Thai Baht to pay the visa processing fee.

indian visa copy departure cardYou need a copy of your Thai departure card.

Bangkok vs Chiang Mai – where should I get my India Visa?

If you plan to stay in India longer than three months, or would like to apply for a ten-year tourist visa, then you will need to apply for the Indian Visa in Bangkok. In this case, fill in the application form here first. However, if you only need three months, like us, going through the process in Chiang Mai is just so much easier. The Indian consulate in Chiang Mai is much smaller, more laid-back and as stress-free as a visa application process can be.

How much does an Indian visa cost?

You will pay two different fees: a fee to process your application, which you pay on the day you drop your passport off, and the fee for the visa itself, which you pay on the day you pick the passport up – and only if you actually get the visa.

Indian Visa Application processing fees: 400 Baht ($13), or 1400 Baht ($45) for Americans. Thai nationals can apply for free.

Indian Visa fees:
1770 Baht ($58) for all nationalities.

***Update September 2012***

Apparently the entire fees for the application AND the visa 2170 Baht (3140 Baht for U.S. citizens) are now to be paid upfront, so make sure to bring enough cash with you when you apply for your visa. The Consulate does not accept credit cards. If you forget, the nearest ATM is a 15 minute walk away.

indian consulate chiang maiHow long does the application process take & is the visa application process for an Indian Visa in Thailand complicated?

Not really. Although you would think that applying for a visa for one country in another country when you are not from either country might be complicated, the fact is that the process itself is both straight-forward and common. The Chiang Mai Indian Consulate is not usually busy. Just take off your shoes and walk inside. The consulate employee will check that you have the necessary documents and then hand you two forms and a pen. Fill out both forms, hand them back to the employee with your passport and then pay the application fee.

At the time the employee will give you a receipt and tell you when you can pick up your passport – usually seven days from the date of drop off. On that date, bring your receipt and return to the consulate. Show your application receipt, and then, you may need to wait a bit before your name is called. You will get your passport back and, if awarded the India Visa, just pay the fee. That’s it.

indian visaAgain, you will have three months from the date of visa issue, not the date you enter the country. So if you pick up your visa on the 15th of September, your Indian visa will be valid until 15th December of that year.

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Polaroid of the week: Cycling through rice fields in Northern Thailand

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..polaroid of the week thailand chiang mai province cycling through rice fieldsWhen we recently arrived in Chiang Mai for our second visit, we were determined to see more of the scenic countryside of Northern Thailand rather than staying within the city. As we have learned, bicycle tours are the best way to get to know any area while traveling, so we hopped on a tour, pedaled through rice fields and watched handicraft-makers create the beautiful products by hand that we usually see at the markets in Chiang Mai. The tour ended at Sankampaneng Hot Springs…we had lunch and dipped our feet in the rejuvenating mineral waters before heading back into the city. Stay tuned for the full story about our cycling tour with Spice Roads.

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When travel dreams die…our disappointing trip to The Beach

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 “You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real.” Richard, The Beach

Visiting the beach, or rather The Beach was a must for us while we were in Thailand. Few movies/books have played such a role in our wanderlust as Alex Garland’s novel-turned-Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Beach. So we couldn’t have been more excited to see that jaw-droppingly gorgeous, secluded Maya Bay in person. It turns out, we almost wish we didn’t come here at all.

Look, we know that the scenery is truly breathtaking, and some people looking at the images might say they would give an arm or a leg to spend time in surroundings like these…We get that. Read on for why we found the situation to be pretty ugly…

maya bay phi phi lei thailand
After disembarking from our ferry from Koh Lanta, we weaved our way through the narrow streets of Koh Phi Phi, which, rather than any sort of tropical paradise, was cluttered with cheap hostels, overpriced guest houses, souvenir shops, dive shops, internet cafes, tour agencies and western/westernized restaurants. Where were all the Thais? And while we’re at it – where was anyone over 30? This isn’t what our experience was supposed to be like.

koh phi phi tourist streetWe’re not entirely naive. We came over on a ferry with at least 200 people, so we knew that Koh Phi Phi and Phi Phi Lei were not exactly undiscovered.

day trippers from phuketBut at least a small part of us both had hoped for at least a touch of the romanticism and escapism to remain on Phi Phi Lei, the tiny island where the actual film location is set. In the book, The Beach, Garland describes the hand-drawn map discovered in a cheap hostel in the backpacker ghetto in Khao San Road, Bangkok:

The island’s perimeters were drawn in green biro and little blue pencil waves bobbed in the sea. A compass sat in the top-right-hand corner, carefully segmented into sixteen points, each with an arrow tip and appropriate bearing. At the top of the map it read ‘Gulf of Thailand’ in thick red marker. A thinner red pen had been used for the islands’ names. Then, on one of a cluster of small islands I noticed a black mark. An X mark. I looked closer. Written underneath in tiny letters was the word ‘Beach’.

Now here we were on nearby Koh Phi Phi, experiencing the polar opposite of the description above. Dozens of travel agencies were ready to sell us tickets to boat tours to Maya Beach, posters with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face plastered on them urging us to experience ‘The Beach’.  But damn it we had made the decision to come here, and committed to seeing what The Beach looked like in real life so we booked a snorkeling tour around Phi Phi Lei, which included a mandatory stop at Maya Bay.

the beach toursThe first stop on our tour was Monkey Beach – one of the most disgusting real-life example of apathetic animal abuse either of us have ever seen. The beach is inhabited solely by monkeys, who, upon seeing our ramshackle wooden boat arrive, sprinted and jumped on board. Instead of some fresh fruit or other monkey-friendly food, our soulless tour guide opened up a bag of chips and starts tossing them over the side of the boat one by one to get these extras from Outbreak off our boat.
monkey on boatThe guide threw the empty bag right onto the beach, leaving it for the trans-fat addicted monkeys to tear apart.  Some people had jumped off into the water to feed the monkeys as well, and one man, let’s call him Big Fat Foreigner, complained of a monkey bite as he got back on the boat. Ah, yes, Monkey Bite, said the guide. 35 people got bit yesterday, too.

All we could think was – thanks for the warning, buddy.

monkey beach touristsSo now that our hearts have sunk into our stomachs, we were unenthusiastic about the snorkeling stop that came next – and we would stay that way when we saw over 20 boats lined up in traffic – yes, actual traffic, in the main snorkeling areas. The water smelled of gasoline, a Chinese tourist on our boat thought nothing of throwing his empty pack of cigarettes in the water, and though we saw small schools of tropical fish, the coral was barely surviving.

phi phi lei tourist boatsFinally, already entirely disenchanted, we arrived in Maya Bay. Those who know the film may remember that The Beach was closed off to the ocean by massive rock formations around the bay, and it was entirely isolated. In reality, that closed off feeling can only be seen from one specific angle, otherwise it is completely open to the ocean. And anyway, speedboats and mini-yachts lined up on side of the beach, long-tail boats on the other.

maya bay tourist boatsAll together, the boats took up two-thirds of the shore, leaving hundreds of tourists to float in the remaining stretches of warm, knee-deep water. Rather than that idyllic white sand beach where Leo and friends played beach volleyball, or where the Swedes emerged from the water trailing gallons of blood after that infamous shark bite, this beach resembled more Spain’s Costa del Sol in the summer. We were given an hour to mull about, take pictures, buy ice cream and gawk at the hundreds and hundreds of tourists – undoubtedly fans of the film or the book.

maya bay phi phi leiNot that we place any blame on the author Alex Garland. After all, he places the island in the Gulf of Thailand, not the Andaman Sea. The location scout who discovered Phi Phi Lei isn’t to blame either – he did his job amazingly well. This was the perfect location for the film (and yes, we know that these pictures reveal stunning sights. We’re not trying to sound spoiled here, it was just the antithesis of the romantic notions of travel in the book/film).
maya bay thailandTo be fair, there is no single person, no agency, no one to blame for the overrun beaches, polluted water and unhealthy monkeys. When tourism opportunities spring up for newly popular destinations, individuals jump at the chance to maximize profits and run successful businesses. We just hope that lessons have been learned from this and that in similar situations in the future, sustainable tourism is fostered, encouraged or even made mandatory. We know that we have certainly learned a lesson out of all of this…don’t expect reality to match a work of fiction.

maya bay with longtail boats

Have you been to The Beach? What did you think?

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Bang Namphueng, Bangkok: Love at first sight, the second time around

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On our first visit to Bangkok, we couldn’t wait to leave. We may have given up on the Thai capital a bit too quickly after a combination of being scammed and the need to escape floods that were due to hit the city any day, but after just a few days, we headed down south for a few weeks of island hopping instead. Last month we booked flights to Bangkok again, ready to give the city a second chance. This time we would be checking out a new part of the city: Bang Nampheung. Good thing we did, too, as it was love at first sight.

bang namphueng kids in hammockHad we not stayed at the fabulous and brand new Bangkok Tree House, we would have never set foot in that area of southern Bangkok, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. After having spent a few days in the Sukhumvit area, home to mega-malls, hotels, high-rise apartment complexes and bars and nightclubs, we crossed over the Chao Phraya River and within five minutes we were worlds apart from the buzzing metropolis, surrounded by palm trees and silence, save for the chirping of birds. No bridges connecting Bang Namphueng with the east side of the river means that developers are reluctant to buy up land in this part of Bangkok, which has helped it maintain its village feel.

ferry terminal wat bang naThe area along the banks of the river forms miles of lush green swampland. Although the land seems uninhabitable, the amphibious locals have created raised cement sidewalks that snake in and around neighborhoods that all eventually connect up to large main roads. We took out a pair of bicycles to explore the area and within just a few minutes managed to see one of the largest lizards we have ever seen scrambling back into the water as we rode by.

bang namphueng lizzardThis happened just a hundred yards from the Wat Namphueng Nok, with its big fat Buddha statue and little market stalls surrounding it filled only filled with locals. There was not a single tourist to be seen anywhere. – entirely out of character for most other areas of Bangkok.

wat namphueng nok big buddhaFrom the temple, we followed along what appeared to be a main road for a while before eventually getting lost in a neighborhood, quite a few of which were offering homestays. The whole time, we find ourselves in the untouched wilderness; Bang Namphueng truly lived up to its nickname ‘the green lung of Bangkok’ with its wildlife, jungles and waterways.

Bang Namphueng Palm Trees BangkokDeep in the center of one such neighborhood we came across the Herbal Joss Stick house, privately run by an adorable husband-wife duo who immediately welcomed us and gave us a tour of their home and gardens. The woman showed us how she makes herbal joss sticks, which are like incense to ward off mosquitoes, not letting us leave without a pack of her handmade joss sticks each. She also runs Thai cooking classes, while the husband offers cycling tours through the area in his down time from teaching at a Bangkok university. This older couple was remarkably geared up for tourism, but we are not sure how many tourists ever come here, as didn’t spot another western face the entire afternoon. In fact, the entire Bang Nampheung area feels almost completely undiscovered, save for the newly created Bang Nampheung floating market, which is said to bring quite a few visitors to this part of Bangkok every weekend.

incent maker house bangkokEven though we were not there during the weekend to experience the Floating Market, we were lucky enough to see a ‘Riding Market’ for the first time – because many of the neighborhoods are so far from any major markets and supermarkets, a pick-up truck goes up and down the main roads every day selling fresh vegetables and fruit to the locals of Bang Namphueng.

bang namphueng rolling marketAfter a couple of hours of exploring, we were ready for coffee, as usual, but dreaded the thought of attempting to find a  proper coffee shop in this neck of the woods. We should have known better, as Thais love their coffee! We actually found a trendy coffee shop called Coffee Professionals. The barista served us two perfectly prepared coffees, and we scarfed down home-made cookies and sunk in to some serious people-watching before heading back to our tree house. We arrived just in time to see the sun set behind the palm trees and couldn’t believe that we were actually still in Bangkok.

bang namphueng coffee shopHow to get to Bang Namphueng from Central Bangkok

  • Take the Skytrain (BTS) to Bangna BTS station, take a cab from there to Bangna Nok Temple. There is a ferry boat to Nampheung Nok Temple on the other side of the river for only 5 Baht.
  • From the ferry landing right at Wat Bang Nampheung Nok, you can catch a motorcycle taxi to Bang Nampheung floating market for 10 Baht.
  • The market is open every Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 2pm.
  • You can rent bicycles at the Floating Market for 30 Baht per day.
  • SpiceRoads Cycling Tours offer a Bangkok Jungle Tour that covers Bang Namphueng and the Floating Market..

bangkok water & path bang namphueng.

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Hijacked by a Buddhist monk in Sukothai

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We are staying in the unimpressive town of New Sukothai in central Thailand, using it as a base. The purpose of our visit lies twenty minutes up the road in Old Sukothai, the ancient city of the Sukothai empire. After tooling around here in the new part of town, we have already concluded that there isn’t much in the way of sights here. Little do we know that we are about to have one of our most interesting experiences in Thailand right here in this ho-hum spot.

Determined to beat the heat and the tour bus crowd, the alarm has gone off early, and we are off to visit the Old City. We stop to pet the cat we had tried to feed the night before when we notice a monk smiling at us, urging us to come with him to visit the temple complex just on the other side of this unpaved road. He stands tall in his flowing saffron robes draped around his gentle frame. He is not asking us, but rather motioning as if he had been waiting for hours, as if we are very late for a scheduled tour we knew nothing about.

In an instant we are following him toward the grounds despite our plans. When a monk offers to show you around a temple, you don’t say no…right? Brief introductions in limited English ensue, and his furrowed brow indicates that it is very important to him to show us around, as if he is on a mission. We attempt to ask his name, but he has no time for such small talk. He hurries us along.

dani & jess & monk in sukothaiDebris is strewn throughout the lawn, a result of the massive flooding that hit Central Thailand a few months back. The land is actually divided into four parts: in the center there is a large temple with a smaller temple being rebuilt in front of it. Across an open space covered in elementary students there is a large three-story school. The fourth part in the back is near the monks’ quarters, where we enter. It is a bit of a mess, but our monk friend insists that it is picture worthy, leading us over to a small damaged temple.

He sits down in front of a destroyed altar, and his animated face becomes expressionless. “Take picture,” he says, and Dani enthusiastically snaps a shot of him. “Now, you here.” He places me near him, poses behind me and demands again, “Take picture.” Dani snaps the shots and as she approaches to show him the pictures, he insists that I take the camera and that Dani pose with him. I stand up, take the camera and take a picture of Dani with a monk. Over the next two hours we will end up taking over 80 similar shots, of the monk, then me with the monk, then Dani with the monk, all at his command.

dani & jess with monk in sukothaiBut we don’t know that at the moment. For now, we are quite excited to be escorted through this buzzing scene of monks and school children whizzing by as we stand on either side of our own personal monk escort, listening as he tries to explain how the grounds are laid out.

I notice his face twitch quite severely for a couple of seconds. He rummages around inside his robe to grab a pen and then opens his palm to draw a map of the grounds. At first it seems spontaneous, but on his palm we see the inky remnants of dozens of maps drawn there before. He just draws thicker, darker lines right on top of the old one, writing school, temple and of course – The Map.

the map
drawing the mapThen we are led over to a table outside and he seats us as though he is our teacher and we are his students. There are a few more seconds of twitching before, on a piece of paper, the monk draws the same map as on his hand.

drawing the mapThe situation has now crossed over into being entirely bizarre, but Dani and I agree that we are both fascinated at how quickly he can draw and write English words upside down.

We are instructed to take more pictures, and then, as fast as we sat, we stand and he is rushing us toward the temple. We start our tour inside the temple with an awkward ten minute session of drinking warm water together out of three glasses he insists on fetching and filling for us. We then proceed to learn first hand from a monk just what to do inside a Buddhist temple.

What to do inside a Buddhist temple

General rules within a temple are simple. First, all shoes must be taken off outside out of respect. Shoulders must be covered and all pants and skirts much reach below the knees to enter the temple. Never point your feet toward the Buddha, and your head should never be above the Buddha’s head.

Most of this we already know, but we have never taken part in the actual prayer. Until now, that is. He asks us nothing, and does not baby us. Instead, we have to keep up with him on this crash course in Buddhism. We head to the first of many altars and the monk hands us a few sticks of incense and a candle each, fishing out a lighter from one of the inner pockets of his robe. Down on our knees, we touch our heads to the ground three times in prayer, then stand up to light the sticks and candle and each get put in its own special place. Incense is lit to pay the highest respect to the Buddha, as it is believed that incense trains the mind to focus on a single object during meditation. The bowing signifies one’s respect, compassion and commitment.

dani & jess with monk in sukothai thailandFor the next 45 minutes we moved from altar to altar, Buddha to Buddha, each time taking pictures of the monk, then me with the monk, then Dani with the monk. He stands always stoically, and so still, he looks no different to the wax figures we have seen in many other temples throughout Thailand. He particularly wants us to get pictures sitting cross-legged in meditation pose, over and over again.

sitting monk &daniHis twitching has gotten a bit worse, a result, it seems, of a very important ceremony he has now decided to perform on us. It just so happens that our visit takes place shortly after the New Year, which is a time when the special Baci ceremonies take place. Not to leave us out, the monk takes two pieces of white string, and ties one around each of our wrists. He is acting as the ‘mor phon’ or communal elder, and this ceremony, which also involves sitting around a floral centerpiece, lighting candles, and in our case of course, documenting the entire experience with dozens of photographs, is done to ensure blessings of the spirits and help us bring the good in with the new year, and leave the bad in 2011.

jess & monk braceletAt this point Dani and I have made friends with two kittens that have been following us around, so we are juggling kittens, candles, incense sticks and the camera as we take turns taking pictures of each other with the monk.

dani & jess & kitten & monkWe have no fresh fruits or flowers with us to add to the altar offerings, but we do stuff a few of the donation boxes with a bunch of Thai Baht, truly thankful for this experience, no matter how absurd it has become.

Just a few minutes later, our monk gives us a handful of gold flakes – which in turn ends up answering the last question we have about Buddhist temples. In most temples, there are small Buddhist statues and other sacred statues that seem to be flaking off massive amounts of gold. It turns out that there are postage-stamp-sized booklets holding gold leaves (hammered down to .000005 inch thick), which Buddhists stick onto statues as a sign of respect to the Buddha, and the temple, as well as when requesting favors, especially related to health and wellness. This is harder than it seems at first, and we both end up with as much gold on our thumbs as makes it on to the statues.

dani & jess & golden leaf sukothaiWe have finally completed a full circle around this large temple now, and I have one foot outside, already sliding on my flip-flops when I realize Dani is sitting back in the chair with our monk. I nearly burst out in a fit of giggles at just how long and strange this hi-jacking has been, but I eventually regain my composure, grab one of the kittens and sit back down to join them with a final glass of water together before we leave.

Once outside, there really is always more to learn. Now he insists on showing us the very old-fashioned, yet simple and effective pulley system the builders are using to get the gorgeous tiles up on the top of the second, smaller temple that has been rebuilt as a result of the floods.

monk & tile machineIt takes another 20 minutes before we are saying the last official goodbye to this monk who, in the course of two hours, has grown quite attached to us. This has been one of the most interesting days we’ve ever had in Thailand. We are fully hydrated, have been fully blessed and have starred in a series of photo shoots with a monk. Not your average day…not even in Thailand!

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