Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Southeast Asia Vacation - THAILAND

Thailand. Oh, Thailand! How I have fallen in love! The gorgeous sights, the delicious food, the friendly people. Honestly, how someone couldn't fall in love with your charm is beyond me!

Unlike Cambodia, where I entered not really having any expectations, there was a lot of pressure on good ol' Thailand to hold up to the standards that other people have put on it. I had a lot of assumptions about Thailand and I had a lot of hope that it was going to be one of the most memorable and best trips of my life. And boy, was I not let down for a second. 

Originally, the girls and I had planned to go to Bangkok, then on to Chiang Mai, and finish in Phuket. However, in the months prior to our departure, Thailand (specifically the city of Bangkok) was experiencing some political disruption and turmoil. There was to be a fairly important election happening on the day of our arrival, which if things didn't go the way of the people, could end in some serious protests and unrest. Actually, even before the election there were some pretty intense protests happening in Bangkok that were making the daily news all over the world. A few days before heading to Thailand, we concluded that it would be in our best interest to skip over Bangkok and just spend the extra time in Chiang Mai. So, this is where my two weeks in Thailand (AKA - "Paradise") begins.

Chiang Mai is an amazing city. I experienced some crazy bucket list moments while I was visiting here. The two things everyone kept insisting I do while in Thailand was to see the elephants and to take some time to soak up the sun on one of the many, many, many beautiful beaches. In addition to those two activities, I wanted to see and cuddle with my all-time favourite animal: the tiger, to eat all of the curry, and try authentic pad thai, to take a Thai cooking class, and to try NOT to get a sunburn all the while. Well, I succeeded at all of those items...except the sunburn. Oh, the sunburn I got. But I'll get to that later.

The day we spent with the tigers was so surreal. I LOVE tigers. They are so regal and majestic. I think they are the most beautiful, handsome, unique animals on the planet. I had heard that there were places in Thailand where you could get in a cage with a tiger and pet them. I did some research and learned that many of these places in Thailand treat the animals badly, and they are often chained up and given a sedative to keep them calm. As much as I wanted to be that close to a tiger, I couldn't enjoy it knowing that they were being treated that way. However, I got some great advice from other fellow travelers about a place called Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. They don't believe in drugging their tigers, and they don't tie them up in chains. I was sold! We paid the price to visit the babies, the small tigers, and then the big tigers.

We visited the babies first. They were the cutest! We were slightly disappointed though because while we were in the cage all set to play with the tigers, all they wanted to do was sleep! Prior to entering the cage, we watched from outside and saw others playing and getting pounced on by these playful creatures. They couldn't get them to sit still long enough for anyone to even get a picture with them. All they wanted to do was play. However many minutes later (probably close to 30/45), we entered for our turn and it was like someone clapped their hands and the tigers conked out. Zzzzz! Nothing. But, we petted them and got our pictures taken anyways, and then moved on to the small tigers.

My favourite and most anticipated visit though was with the big tigers. The papas. The full grown grandaddies! Oh man, they were beautiful. Upon my first pet, I got all teary eyed and could have cried. I don't know why, but all of the emotions just poured over me. I held it together though and took in every minute of my 15 I had with these animals. PS - tigers love getting their bellies rubbed! Pet and cuddle with a tiger: check!

The next biggest thing I needed/wanted to experience and accomplish during my week in Chiang Mai was to pet, bathe, and ride an elephant. Travel tip #1 for all of you wanting to go to Thailand and plan to spend some time with elephant friends: book in advanced. We had a moment of panic when we went to book our day trip with the elephants through the hostel we were staying at. While we were in Vietnam, we got a great tip from some of our new friends we had made to use a specific adventure company for our day with the elephants. We would ride bareback, the mahouts (trainers) were extremely nice, we got to bathe and swim with the elephants, and the price was right. However, we tried that company and there was no space. Neither was there space with the next company we tried. Nor the next one. Eventually, it got to the point where we had to call any and all companies just to find out if they had enough room for three people to spend the day. We ended up with a company named Chang Siam. And we definitely lucked out!

What better way to spend a day in Thailand than with some beautiful elephant friends. We learned their names, had lots of time to interact with them in the sanctuary and feed them bananas. We spent a large part of the time with the momma elephant and her baby who was about a year old. They were adorable, and the baby was so curious and playful. There was one point where one of the mahouts was rolling around on the ground with the baby wrestling and playing. Even though it was a baby elephant, I can't imagine having him lay on top of me at a whopping 300lbs. After spending the morning interacting with the elephants, we had a wonderful lunch of curry, rice and fresh fruit. Then we were set and anxious to take our ride through the jungle and to the lake where we would bathe and swim with the elephants. However, as we waited and paced and began to get worried that they had forgotten about us, we learned that there was a funeral across the field in which we had to wait for to end. You see, in Asia the locals love their fireworks displays. Fireworks are shot off for every and all occasions: birthdays, weddings, funerals, because it's a Wednesday. It's not uncommon in my little village in Beijing to be woken up on a Saturday morning at 6:30am to the bangs and bursts of fireworks on the other side of the gate. It makes me happy that they are so attached to these magical and happy displays, but at 6:30am...really? Anyways, this funeral would most definitely feature fireworks and they would startle the elephants. I was okay waiting for the ceremony to end as I DID NOT want to be on an elephant when it happened to get startled. Nope, that's okay. As we waited, our mahout asked us if we wanted to go to watch the funeral. Some people agreed immediately, but I stayed back and was hesitant. I didn't want to intrude and I thought it would be awkward to have a bunch of westerners gawking at this funeral we had no connection to. But as more and more people wandered towards the ceremony, I decided to go along. As solemn and sad as the ceremony was, at the same time it was extremely beautiful and at times sent chills down my spine. It's hard to explain in writing what I saw and experienced. But what I can express is that even though I had no connection to this young girl who had tragically passed away, the combination of the gorgeous colours of the temple, the offerings of flowers and monetary donations to monks to be passed on to the families, and the fireworks display and burning of the temple and coffin was mystical and it took my breath away. It does now as I write about it. What an interesting experience to see how someone is laid to rest in a different culture. And how different it was.

As we walked away from the funeral towards to the elephants, I was worried as to how I was going to enjoy this adventure now that I had just attended such a sad and solemn ceremony. But, as we got on the elephants and they began to play and trek through the jungle, I was in awe that I was actually having this experience. To have been so immersed in the nature and to be interacting and creating a bond with my elephant (who happened to be the Momma that I wrote about earlier), I got choked up and once again had my breath taken away at the experience I was having. It all felt so surreal. They were the exact same emotions I was having when I fulfilled my dream of interacting with the tigers. I think the pictures will speak louder than these words that I type...

The last week of our four week adventure was spent on the island of Phuket in Thailand. We specifically planned this part of our vacation for the very end for a reason: the only thing we really intended to do was to bum around on the beach for an entire week. To relax, to put our feet up, and enjoy the sun before coming back to Beijing and getting back to work. To breath. And that's exactly what we did.

Phuket is beautiful. The water is so clear with beautiful colours of blue and green. The sky is as clear as glass, and you could see for miles. A nice change from the smoggy winter days in Beijing. It was extremely hot, too (not complaining!). And of course, my fair-skinned ginger self got sunburnt quite badly despite 4 layers of sunscreen. Chinese sunscreen though. Very unreliable. I spent one day in the hotel room sponging myself with cold water and staying under the air conditioning and out of the sun. However, regardless of that day in the hotel, the week in Phuket was probably one of the most relaxing weeks I've had in as long as I can remember. Take me back?

I have completely fallen in love with Thailand. HEAD OVER HEELS IN LOVE, guys! It is the most beautiful place I have ever been and I'd jump at the opportunity to go back. There is so much I haven't explored. And in all honesty, I'd go back just for the food. Curry, pad thai, sticky rice and mango, spring rolls, curry, Tom Yam soup, more pad thai, and more curry. Drooling.

Thank you for the memories, Thailand!

1 comment:

  1. 1. I, too, would go back just for the food. Drooling right now.
    2. Love your bathing suit!