Archive for the 'Chiang Mai' Category

Mar 10 2008

Chiang Mai Finale: Three Stories

Published by under Chiang Mai,Thailand

1. Brittany Takes a Beating

Since one of our worst fears prior to arriving in Thailand was that we would end up in prison unable to escape and fruitlessly trying to convey our innocence, it was strange that I found myself voluntarily walking into Chiang Mai’s local prison one morning. Stranger still that I was there to inquire about a massage, as under any normal circumstances, if you’re in a jail and an inmate offers you a “massage,” I can guarantee that it’s not something you want to be a part of, and you should get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible.

I understand that my actions require justification: the day after we returned from trekking through the jungle of Northern Thailand, my legs were aching something fierce. So I decided to splurge on a $5 full-body Thai massage. I didn’t want to visit one of those cheesy Western-catering resort-style spas. Instead, I opted for the prison, which, I know, is going a little bit too far towards the other extreme. I’d learned that Chiang Mai’s women’s prison runs a spa and store to train and employ inmates, with all proceeds going directly to the women after release. And since prisoner rehabilitation is a GOOD thing, I decided I would do my part and selflessly volunteer to receive an hour-long massage.

I guess being massaged by Thai convicts wasn’t too popular among tourists, because the spa project has shut down. But a prison guard informed me of a newly opened spa down the street that hires recently released prisoners. I figured this would be nearly as altruistic, and made an appointment.

So a Thai massage is a different experience than one back home: you don’t listen to soothing nature-sounds CDs, you won’t be ushered into a dimly-lit private room full of candles and scented oils. A massage is seen as a necessary component of maintaining good health and Thais visit their local spas frequently, making the experience a social one, much like an American hair salon. Once I’d changed into my special lightweight massage clothes, my masseuse (a Thai woman who was literally half my height), led me to a long room lined with mats. Several people — three men and two old women — lay on the mats, cheerfully chatting with their masseuse as she massaged them.

What happened next is painful for me to recall. I was pummeled by this woman. I know what you’re thinking: how much pain can such a tiny women really inflict? Well, my friend, once you’ve had that tiny woman crawl up and down the length of your body, digging her elbows into your spine, you can ask me that question. These women are tough and they are sassy and they don’t take FOR THE LOVE OF GOD OW for an answer.

She basically performed yoga on my body. She stretched me into positions no American has previously achieved. At one point, my feet were above my head, my arms outstretched behind me, while the masseuse took hold of my head and shook me violently back and forth. I was grateful only that no one I know could see me in such a state.

By the end of my hour, I was a gelatinous, useless heap of humanity. I have no idea how I managed to crawl home.

It was only after my massage that I consulted the guidebook to learn that what I received is exactly what I should’ve expected from a traditional Thai massage. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, opt for the “herbal” massage. And whatever you do, don’t get a Thai massage when you’re already sore if you want to retain use of your legs for the next three days.

2. Impromptu Therapy Session/Talking with Monks

“Welcome! Please! Sit down! Would you like a tea?” the bespectacled monk said, leading us towards a small table. He gathered up his saffron-hued robes and sat across from us. “Ask me your questions!” he commanded, enthusiastically.

We’d visited Wat Suan Dok for its evening “Monk Chat.” Visitors are able to converse with monks about Buddhism and Thai life, while the monks appreciate an opportunity to practice their English.

Ben and I were eager to ask some of the lingering questions we’d accumulated over the course of our time in Thailand. We ended up chatting for nearly an hour with a cheerful monk about everything — Buddhist theory, the religious practices of the Thai (although 95% of Thai people call themselves Buddhist, their daily religious practice is more like a fusion of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism), karma, reincarnation, Nirvana, the Buddha, the life of a monk … it was fascinating. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked about meditation, and our monk (yes, we now call him “our monk”) clarified my faulty perception. What I’ve always considered meditation — you know, to sit down and say “ohm” repeatedly — is actually practicing meditation. A Buddhist is always in a state of meditation.

“It is simply to focus the mind on the present,” our monk said. “Not to think about the past, or the future. Think about only what you are doing, Breetahnee. Focus. That is meditation.”

“Well that’s much easier said than done,” I replied, bitterly.

“I am sorry, I do not understand. Can you say again?”

“Sorry, I mean, that’s a hard thing to do.”

“No. It is easy.” our monk said, bluntly.

I was taken aback my his abrupt response. “Ok, well, it is hard for me, I guess.” I said.

“If you think it is hard, it is hard. If you think it is easy, it is easy,” he replied.

I wanted to yell EXCUSE ME but I think that the MILLIONS OF AMERICANS who spend HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS A YEAR ON THERAPY would agree with ME that NOT regretting or worrying is NOT AN EASY THING TO DO, when the joyous simplicity of what he was saying struck me, and I sat there gaping at him, trying to process what he could possibly mean.

“Do not think about the past, it is done, it cannot change,” he continued. “Do not think about the future, it is not born yet. You control your thoughts, your thoughts do not control you. You need to exercise your mind like you exercise your body, so you will have better control of your mind.” He said this all with a bright smile on his face and laughed at our incredulous expressions.

“It… is… easy… isn’t it?” I said, slowly.

Ben, Brittany and the monks
Our monk is the smiley one next to Ben

“Yes!” he said, laughing. “It is easy! Later, will I think ‘Today an American boy and his beautiful girlfriend came to ask questions?’ No, I will not. Because it is in the past. I focus on only what I do. Right now I am talking, talking. Right now you are hearing, hearing. When you are walking, you are only walking, walking. When you are kissing you are only kissing, kissing. That is all! Ha ha! It is easy! To focus. Control you mind. Be happy all the time!”

It was a mental breakthrough like I’ve never experienced before. I wanted to reach across the table and hug him tearfully, but checked myself upon remembering that women cannot touch monks.

Instead, we thanked him profusely, clarified a few English words for him, and stood up to go. As we were leaving, he called out after us, “be happy in your travels through Thailand together!” before laughing, turning on his bare feet, and walking back into the monastery.

Right now I am writing, writing… Right now, you are reading, reading…

3. Wok and Rolls (Spring)

Tourists come to Chiang Mai to do two things: they trek and they take a Thai cooking class. Not wanting to miss out, on one of our last days in Chiang Mai, Ben and I signed up for a cooking class on an organic farm a little bit outside of town.

Because on the morning of the trek, we’d woken up late and missed breakfast, which was obviously completely unacceptable, Ben made sure to get up super early before our all-day cooking class to order us two gigantic breakfasts. I know: we didn’t eat before an hours-long trek and we stuffed ourselves before a class in which we were cooking seven courses. Things like this happen if Ben ever misses a meal.

On the way to the farm, we stopped at a local market where our instructor gave us a tour of the various ingredients commonly used in Thai dishes. Did you know that coconut milk is not actually the milk inside of the coconut, but the liquid that comes from juiced coconut shavings? We also saw a variety of delightful fried insects. Bamboo worm! Yum!

After a tour of the farm and sampling (and promptly spitting out) the homegrown bitter/hot herbs used in Thai cuisine, we got down to cooking. It was quite a sight to see me trying to work a very heavy mortar and pestle to grind fresh red curry paste — nearly as hilarious as watching Ben attempt to yield a large wok. In the end, though, we made pad thai, spring rolls, curries, papaya salad, Thai soups, and a couple other stir fried dishes — impressive, huh? Before you moochers back at home get any ideas about having trained chefs prepare authentic Thai food for you, I should let you know that we immediately forgot everything we learned.

our finish productsFor dessert, Ben was making mango with sweetened sticky rice, while I was able to choose between either fried banana or fried pumpkin in coconut milk. Because Ben claims he’s “banana-ed out” and because of his not-so-subtle prodding (“gee, that pumpkin dessert sure would be delicious! I wish I could make that one too!”), I decided to be a good girlfriend and select the pumpkin in coconut milk option.

When I finished cooking, I held up a piece for Ben to try. “That is NOT pumpkin!” he exclaimed, grimacing upon tasting my creation.

“Yes it is. That’s what pumpkin tastes like,” I replied.

“But it doesn’t taste like pumpkin pie at all!”

I paused, thinking that he must be joking. He wasn’t. “Do you mean to tell me that over the past four years we’ve been ordering all these ‘exotic’ pumpkin dishes, none of which we’ve really enjoyed, because you like pumpkin PIE?? That just means you like pie!”

“No… I also like pumpkin bread,” he said, meekly.

“So you like sugar! Great!” I said, huffily making him switch desserts with me.

While we had a great time at the cooking course, and ate lots of delicious food, we realized later that evening that we hadn’t actually learned anything. I couldn’t recreate any of those dishes if I wanted to, and I’d hoped to learn a little bit more about the general techniques used in cooking Asian food. The class did show me that Thai cooking is more accessible than I previously thought and now I definitely want to own a wok, if only to entertain myself by watching Ben use it.

Our beautiful week in Chiang Mai came to an end sooner than either of us wanted. We left the city to experience our first sketchy S.E. Asian border crossing, but our trip into Laos is a story for another day…

3 responses so far

Mar 09 2008

Trekking Adventures in Thailand: Day 2

Published by under Chiang Mai,Thailand

We were woken up the next morning by the crowing of the village roosters. As least once an hour, starting shortly after midnight. I was under the impression that roosters crowed at dawn (an assumption that was validated in Italy), but this hilltribe has been blessed with one rooster that crows at any old time. And whenever he does, he sets off the rest of the impressionable lot. None of us enjoyed the restful sleep we’d anticipated upon first seeing our floor mats, but on the bright side, being awake at 3am allowed us to enjoy the music of pigs rooting around under the stilts that supported our hut.

There was little time for grumbling once the sun rose, as Johnnie Walker hurried us through our toast-and-jam breakfast (now I finally understood why he’d been carrying a loaf of white bread the whole first day) and back to the jungle trail. Walking up the mountain had been strenuous, but walking down the other side was even more difficult, due to the slippery slope, and inviting footholds that gave way once you put your weight on them. Falls were commonplace in our party, but no one suffered real injury.

In the waterfallOur first stop of the day was the foot of a waterfall, where icy mountain water filled a rock basin before continuing on downstream. We quickly stripped down to bathing suits, and found the water to be every bit as cold as we hoped it wasn’t. Because it’s the dry season in Thailand, the water level in the basin was only thigh-high, but we all took pictures of each other enduring the freezing showers in the waterfall. It beat the showers back at the hilltribe by a mile, but is that really saying anything? How can you make a trash can full of cold stagnant water and a floating spoon any worse of a shower? I should probably take that back before the next village I visit takes it as a challenge, and finds a way to replace the spoon with Enrique Iglesias.

Confident that we’d washed all of last night’s shower off our bodies, we pressed on in order to reach whitewater rafting by lunch. Along the way, we passed one very small village (more like an outpost) whose principal source of revenue seems to be selling hand-made slingshots to passing trekkers. A lucrative trade it is too, because I think every male in our party bought one. After jealously watching Johnnie Walker shoot things out of trees over the past couple of days with HIS slingshot, it was with great excitement that we discovered this slingshot outpost. I suspect that the Thai villagers believable innocence belies a calculating marketing savvy, and that Johnnie Walker has already spent his kickbacks on bamboo bong refills.

Around noon, we reached our whitewater rafting launch point. Despite the fact that our brief instructional lecture consisted almost entirely of Johnnie Walker pretending to help buckle my life-vest, but instead tugging on my armpit hair and laughing hysterically, we were deemed fit for whitewater. Just like we’d found at the waterfall, the dry season makes the water levels low. We were able to get up good speed in some parts of the river, but in others, we spent an inordinate amount of time dislodging our raft from rocks that will be submerged in the summer months. Nevertheless, the journey was enjoyable, due in no small part to our Thai coxswain, who boasted a strong English rafting vocabulary of “to the left,” “to the right,” and “forward, forward!” but a poor grasp of each command’s appropriate use. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a lack of spinning in place during an American whitewater rafting trip, I can strongly recommend that you come to Thailand!

The most eventful moment of whitewater came when we were cruising through a deeper, murky section of the river, and all the raft guides began to loudly slap the water with their oars. I asked ours why he was doing this, and he replied, “scare crocoliles.” Crocoliles?? I tried to take over as coxswain by paddling furiously and shouting “forward, forward!” to my teammates, which was notably successful in spinning our raft in slightly tighter circles.

We stepped dizzily out of our rafts at the end of the whitewater line, and waded to the bamboo rafts that would float us to the trekking finish line. Sitting cross-legged and properly spaced apart, we were propelled down the river by a polesman who seemed sufficiently adept at his job. Until he got us stuck. While every other raft cruised down the deeper center of the river, our polesman managed to take us into the shallow water by the riverbank, and wedge us there. As we watched him vainly struggle to free us with his bamboo pole, crocoliles were in the front of everyone’s mind. Until we saw the snake coiled around a rock near shore, maybe 15 feet away. Then that was in the front of our minds. We reassured each other that everything was fine: so long as we could see the snake over on his rock, he wouldn’t be bothering us. We sat there up to our waists in river for several minutes (our weight made us ride low in the water), keeping constant tabs on the status of the snake. And then, I looked back at the rock, and saw that the snake was no longer there. I immediately informed my raftmates, and we all had the same reaction: stand up. Except for Raphael, our young French companion. He either doesn’t mind tropical water snakes, or he likes them even less than we do, because his instinct told him to plunge into the river and start tugging at the raft himself. Whatever his motivation, I still owe him one, because his tugging proved far more effective than a bamboo pole: we were soon free and on our way, with nary a snake among us.

As we approached shore, I’m sure that our raft made a funny sight for those waiting to receive us. While every other raft arrived full of happy, cross-legged passengers, photographic evidence reveals that our party arrived at the finish line looking like this:

Heading back into shore after dealing with the snake episode

AND CAN YOU BLAME US?? I think I’ll title this photo, “treasured river memories.” By the way, that’s Raphael’s dad, Alain, sitting down on the raft, looking gleefully oblivious to the fact that a snake ever existed in this cruel world.

And so concludes our 2-day trekking experience. But never fear, Thai economy: we weren’t done spending money in Chiang Mai yet. After five months with the euro, all this baht was burning a hole in our pocket…

The whole trek crew. Go Johnnie Walker
The whole trek crew at the finish line. Go Johnnie Walker!

2 responses so far

Mar 08 2008

Trekking Adventures in Thailand: Day 1

Published by under Chiang Mai,Thailand

Too much elephant lovesies?The third best thing about Thailand is the food, from mangos with sticky rice to noodles with EVERYTHING. The second best thing about Thailand is that Enrique Iglesias doesn’t live here. But the BEST thing about Thailand is that we can actually afford to DO things here! Last week, we took a 2-day trek into the hills north of Chiang Mai, as part of a package deal that included elephant riding, hiking with a local guide, whitewater rafting, bamboo rafting, all our meals, and accommodation in a hilltribe village. Total price: $30 each, or about 20 euros for you silly people back in the Old World. Do you realize what 20 euros would buy you in Western Europe? Do you?? Well, neither do I, because I don’t think they make euro coins that small. It’s like the half-cent on sales tax that always gets rounded up at the register. Moral of the story: travel in wonderful, affordable SE Asia, and whatever you do, don’t let Iglesias find out about it.

For lots of travelers, treks like the one we signed up for are the reason to visit Chiang Mai. So we weren’t surprised when we got picked up Tuesday morning by a truck filled with five Londoners and two Parisians. Our driver, tour guide, and constant companion was a wiry, excitable Thai man, somewhere between the ages of 20 and 50, who introduced himself with his self-appointed English nickname: Johnnie Walker. This accompanied by a pantomime of chugging from an invisible bottle, and wild-eyed laughter. We liked him immediately.

An hour’s drive from the city, we stopped on a dirt road in front of a place I don’t really know a good word for, so I’ll call it an “elepharm.” Which is really just a word I made up by combining the words “elephant” and “farm,” in an attempt to impress you. Since “elepharm” wasn’t a part of our mutual lexicon until you read that last sentence, you may be wondering if YOU have ever seen an elepharm. To find out, simply complete the following self-assessment:

  • Have you ever seen a farm?
  • If yes, did you notice, after further observation, that it wasn’t really a farm at all, but a large clearing in the jungle, full of elephants, elephant trainers, and ladies selling elephant food to tourists?

If you answered YES to both questions, then congratulations! You’ve seen an elepharm!

For the record, we did buy elephant food from the ladies, which consists of a bunch of bananas tied to several sticks of sugar cane. You might also call this Brittany food, but you wouldn’t be wise to do so. We used some of our treats to lure elephants into posing for pictures for us, and when it was time to climb the Elephant Boarding Platform (patent pending), I brought the remaining snacks with us. The Elephant Boarding Platform allows wimpy foreigners to easily slide into a two-person seat mounted on an elephant’s back. While they are so engaged, an elephant trainer (or “mahout”) soothingly scratches the elephant on the top of its head, and the elephant lowers it enough for the mahout to jump on top, where he will comfortably ride in the somewhat disturbing crease that I didn’t realize all elephants have on top of their skulls.

The view from atop our hungry elephantI also didn’t realize how strong elephants truly are until I watched ours uproot a tasty-looking tree from the side of the walking trail, without jostling us in the least. And I had no idea how quickly they can accelerate until I lobbed a banana up ahead on the path to see what would happen. This discovery led to extra entertainment during our ride, but also taught our elephant that we were carrying bananas. Once he figured that out, he stopped every few steps to lift his trunk backwards over his head in hopes of receiving a gift. To show him who was the master, I ignored such begging, and saved my bananas to encourage bursts of speed during key moments in our unspoken race against the other riders. Unfortunately, I remembered who the REAL master was as soon as he jumped off our elephant’s head for a short break. The moment he was gone, out elephant hustled to the edge of a precarious cliff to stretch for some barely-out-of-reach leaves, and I found myself screaming like a girl and flinging bananas back toward the trail.

We needed to reach the hilltribe village where we would be sleeping by the end of the afternoon, so after bidding the elephants goodbye, we lathered on the malaria repellant, and began our hike to the village. If this is a hilltribe, I have no interest in visiting a mountain tribe. The near-vertical gradient of the only path to the village found us all wishing we’d brought much more water about two minutes into the jungle death march. You wouldn’t know it by looking at Johnnie Walker though, who was continually bounding off the path in order to chop down eye-catching pieces of bamboo with his machete, and bringing them back to the path to whittle into bongs. If you looked like you might not get that the bamboo stick was supposed to be a bong (or like you might have forgotten since the last time he showed you) Johnnie was always happy to pantomime taking a hit from the hollow bamboo rod, and then stumble around dizzily while rolling his eyes.

I’m happy to report that we did see some authentic Thai wildlife on our trek. Sort of. First, one of the Brits spotted a huge spider sitting in a cone-shaped web. We all leaned in for a closer look, until Johhnie looked up from his whittling and yelled,

“Jumping! Jumping! In you eye! Watch you mouth!”

We enjoyed spiders from a distance after that.

Another time, a few of us spotted a small mound of dirt that was moving, and apparently being created by an unseen digging creature beside the trail. I cautiously poked at the mound with a long stick, but couldn’t uncover whatever animal lay below. Snake? Even bigger jumping spider? We asked Johnnie about it, and he instantly fell on the mound with his machete, carving away huge slices of earth as quickly as possible. Sadly, he only succeeded in scaring the creature further underground. Or not so sadly? Johnnie said he didn’t know the English word for the animal we’d pursued, but he did tell us “animal like this” while making giant fangs with his fingers. I stopped poking moving dirt mounds after that.

Here's the hut we slept in!We arrived in the village before sunset, exhausted, sweaty, and in desperate need of a shower. Fortunately, our village accommodation came equipped with a shower. [Insert evil maniacal laughter here.] The shower consisted of a bamboo lean-to outside our sleeping quarters, which sheltered a large plastic trash can of cold water. Voila! Oh, and there was a plastic scoop floating in the trash can, for to ladle dirty freezing water over your filthy shivering body. I borrowed a hairy bar of soap from one of the French guys and got to work, keeping one eye on the jumping spider in the corner all the while.

It’s amazing how early you’re ready to go to sleep when staying somewhere without electricity, but we lit candles after sunset, and postponed retiring to our mosquito-net covered floor mats. We enjoyed a great dinner prepared by a couple of the villagers, and Brittany bought a bracelet from some girls who paid us a visit when they smelled farang (foreigners of a Western persuasion) in the village. By this point, we were ready for bed, but Johnnie Walker insisted that we all play cards by firelight. He also insisted on painting losers’ faces with ashes from the fire, which ensured that the last thing we all did before closing up our mosquito nets was clean each other’s faces by flashlight.

Next time: Thai Trekking, Day 2!

3 responses so far

Mar 04 2008

1,000 Words

Published by under Chiang Mai,Thailand

Ah, Chiang Mai. After Bangkok, Thailand’s second largest city is like a breath of fresh air. Picture me sitting on the sunny patio of a cafe, drinking Thai iced tea, eating fresh mango, and writing in my journal, as I whimsically sigh “ah…Chiang Mai…,” and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how I spent my time in the city.

We took a train through the rice paddies and beautiful countryside of Northern Thailand, to arrive in Chiang Mai sometime last week. We became so enamored with the city we extended our stay multiple times. Ben has deemed it a Special Place, a hard-earned title in our book, alongside Chania and Charlottesville. The Thai are proud of this city, and consider it the cultural and culinary capital of the country. Which probably explains why we like it so much.

I’d love to delve into the usual account of our day-to-day adventures, but I think a detailed description of our many meals and market shopping would bore everyone except probably my mom (who, despite my many attempts to assure her otherwise, is steadily convinced this country is going to eat me alive). Plus, a street vendor selling bananas in coconut milk just passed and I must go chase him down. So we’ve decided to capture our week in Chiang Mai with photos. Please enjoy our first attempt at photojournalism while keeping in mind that we are not photographers and I am a delicate flower. So be nice.

mango with sticky rice! our favorite breakfast!
This picture encapsulates our week more than anything else. We discovered this tiny cafe in the old town of Chiang Mai on day one, and have brunched there daily ever since. Mango with sticky rice (with a slight drizzle of coconut cream) is probably our favorite meal we’ve had on this trip. It’s that good. I won’t say that we ate it multiple times per day. But we did.

Chiang Mai handicrafts
Chiang Mai is known for its handicrafts. Which is a weird word, but a fun one. Thanks to the concentration of hilltribes in the region (who come down from the hills to sell their beautiful wares) and the many outlets for young Thai designers to show off their skillz, the city has an incredible variety of impressive and quality handicrafts. It was hard to mind our budget.

Sunday Walking Street
One of those outlets is Sunday Walking Street, a market on the main thoroughfare of town that happens every Sunday evening. It’s fun: the street is jam-packed with locals and tourists and vendors selling all sorts of great stuff. Street musicians play ambient music (from ethnic hilltribe music to Bob Dylan covers) for your spare baht, and the air is filled with a char-grilled scent wafting from hundreds of woks and deep fryers. After six months abroad, Ben and I are market connoisseurs, and this is definitely the best we’ve seen.

wat + mountains
The mountains north and west of the city not only provide beautiful scenery, but are home to the many ethnic hilltribes that have settled in Thailand. Also, they offer many opportunities for crazy tourists to pay to climb them. Like we did.

park crossing Chiang Mai moat
A moat defines the borders of the old town. Small parks and trees line the streets on either side.

some guy has decided to swim in the moat
Some people have decided they like to swim in the moat. Not for people equipped with only a Western immune system.

exploring the many rice options
Ben learning about the many, many, many varieties of rice grown in the region at a local market.

motorcycle: A LIVE HALF LIFE
Most people in Chiang Mai speak a little English. Sort of.

street vendor
A street vendor whipping us up a fresh batch of pad thai on the spot.

The flora here is beautiful.

huge ex-pat population means restaurants like this
Large ex-pat population = strange restaurants. Thai. Mexican. Western. FOOD. Fish’n Chip shop, of course. I admit it! We ate here.

Golden Chedi in Chiang Mai
Golden chedi + pretty sky. Gotta have a wat shot.

Vegetarian restaurant menu
Chiang Mai offers the best Thai food we’ve had so far. Lots of specialty restaurants for cheap!

That’s all for now! We’ll be getting into the down and dirty of our time in Chiang Mai soon, including details of our two-day trek into the jungle and that time I was pummeled by a tiny Thai woman.

8 responses so far