I decided to head up to Northern Thailand on the overnight train from Bangkok. What a great way to travel the country - it's wonderfully comfortable, the food is delicious and you get your own cozy little bunk. Definitely would recommend this over the buses anytime!
I got in touch with my aunt's friend who lives in Chiang Mai and works at Maejo University (about 30 min outside of town). You can never know too many people...I figure meet for coffee and get some advice as to what to do see. What a wonderful surprise when I walked out of the train station and saw 2 women with a sign with my name on it! One was her niece Sirikan and the other. I find out happens to be the granddaughter of my parents' hometown friends (my mom actually lived with them!) And to make things more interesting, I end up staying at the International Student dorm (follow me here...) and in the dorm next to me is my godbrother who is doing his PhD here. Oh I'm not done yet, as it happens, my dad use to coach the current uni president in soccer back in the 70s in the Philippines. How random is that?
Chiang Mai is a fantastically beautiful city with over 300 temples or 'wats'. The Old City (the main touristy drink hole) is around 2 by 2 km surrounded by canals and an old defensive wall that use to protect it. I walked and biked around, taking in all the beautifully ornate and intricate temples. I took the mandatory temple pics because there are amazing photo ops everywhere (check out the overkill number of temple pics) but honestly, it's crazy how quickly you can feel "templed" out. Somewhere after about 8 they all start looking the same! Although I don't think I'll ever get tried of seeing monks with their colorful yellow and orange robes walking around everywhere!
This is my favorite wat. I found it arrestingly beautiful.
Gold, intricate, beautiful.
They have the greatest Sunday night market - which they call the "Walking Street" market. Basically they shut down all the major roads and set up stalls that sell absolutely everything! They're quite artistic and creative with hand made bags, towel holders, scarfs, monk paintings, picture frames, clothes and other kitchy fun things. The coolest part is that they put the "food courts" inside the temples! So you get to eat your Pad Thai and watch monks at the same time. Wonderful.
Everyone should experience eating and seeing monks!
I'm kinda glad that I'm backpacking. I have no room to buy stuff!
The Elephant Show - Ok, I wasn't really sure how I felt about watching elephants play soccer, throw darts or paint...but Sirikan took me and I was amazed at how skilled and talented they are! I just don't think it's fair that an elephant has more artistic abilities than I do. It's actually unnerving how how good they are - very Van Gogh like. And some elephants really have their own personality. The baby one was quite the performing clown - is it bad that I enjoyed this?!?
Can you see how seriously good that painting is?!?!
The day began at the Wat Suan Dok Temple with a brief introduction to Buddhism given by the master monk. We're taught that Buddhism is not a religion but rather a way of life - a set of guidelines to help you have peace and happiness. I find it particularly resounding that the "Middle Path/Way" is fundamentally yours to interpret and integrate in your life - one that is suppose to be neither nihlistic or hedonistic. Our "phra"/monk is a happy man in his late 40s with a soothing voice that's calming, his whispered high intonations gives you the confidence that you're about to experience and learn some really amazing new things. His powerpoint and anecdotes are funny. He tells us that weneed to know the nature of our mind. We must train our 'monkey mind'.
The essence of what is taught in this 2 day retreat is learning and knowing about balance in yourself, others and nature. That through moral and mental training you can achieve higher states. It is about the right effort, observing and doing the "good thing". It's having a sense of Mindfulness and Self awareness. Basically Love all beings and wish everyone peace and happiness. Be good to your mind, with your words and your actions.
We drove out to the Medication centre - which is about 40 mins from town. Its a beautiful building built completely from donations. We're given our room keys and told to shower and change into our loose all white, non transparent clothes. Yes, at one point, I did think to myself "Don't drink the Kool-Aid". That funny thought disappears as soon as we're ushered into the dining room and find out that that it's actually a silent retreat as well. Makes sense given that you are there to learn about meditation, calming your mind and observing your thoughts. We were taught how chant in a beautiful melodic way before our meal and that we must contemplate on our food. I'm not sure if it's because you don't talk during the meals or it if was actually just plain delicious but food tastes differently/better when you sit silently and really think and feel and experience your food. Go ahead and try closing your eyes and actually think about what you're eating! It's more pleasurable.
The second day, you're woken up at 5am by the sound of the dong. The sun starts to break through the clouds as we begin our chants to the Buddha. We all stood outside in a line and gave offerings to the monk. After, we went back in our meditation room aka "the Happy Place" and learned a total of 4 different types of meditation - 3 types of walking meditation, 1 lying down and another sitting down. It's all about clearing your mind, focusing on your breathing and not letting your thoughts or feelings distract you. I really got into it. I honestly just wish I wasn't so sleepy being a night owl and all. But the whole experience seemed surreal. It was like being in a peaceful trance state - a place between reality and a dream like place of zen. In fact, it's been very odd these last couple of weeks - I feel like I've been floating high on a cloud "blissfully-out-of-it" (tm CB) but oh so very present. I've realized how fluid states of awareness and presence truly are in every moment. Sadly, the whole experience went really quickly. In fact it was a little bit too short...but it was a great introduction to something I'd like to explore further.
Wat Suan Dok - the place where I've learned to wish Peace and Happiness to all.
I'm so excited to be at a Meditation retreat! I now have meditation pants.
PAI - Randomly, I think it's really funny that I met Heidi as we both walked into the temple looking for the "monk chat" office. Officially my fave Australian that I've met traveling, we ended up celebrating our new experience over dinner, drinks, buckets and the dance floor. There may have been some chanting over shots and needless to say people fell in love with our energy. Having a great time = sexy. The random adventures continued when we traveled to Pai - a fun little town on a river in the north close to Myanmar. It's the kind of place where old Thai grandmothers jump in front of your motorbike trying to sell you ganja and opium on your way to see the waterfalls. Pai has the same atmosphere as any relaxing hippie town - a mixture of chilled out stoners, good munchies and hardcore partiers looking for cheap drinks ready to rip it up.It's nestled in the beautiful countryside with natural hotsprings and lush nature.
After a bit of a search (i.e. walking around for 2 hours), we found a perfect bungalow/d.o. den that had the world's most comfortable hammock, a big bed and right on the river. Everything we did was a "mission" of some sort and we succeeded in having some crazy funny moments. There were like a billion attempts at getting things just right but did we ever have the BEST food. Man do they know how to do spring rolls, ice cream, waffles and breakfast right in Pai. The Curry Shack and the old Thai style iced coffee was legendary. Along the way, we adopted Helena, our sweet German future documentary film maker. Laughed til 3 with an Irish comedian telling us about his slightly disturbing first Thai massage experience. Got great advice from a Hawaiin guy self medicating by smoking copious amounts of stuff because of his motor bike injuries. We scootered around town and got pelted along the way with painful drops of rain. Global change is NOT good - we couldn't believe how cold we were! But it was all worth it with our fun finds - a beautiful trekkable canyon that overlooks views of the many layered mountains, a night time drive that reminded us of home and I think we nearly died and went to heaven when we discovered The Bakery. Overall, Pai was an unexpectedly fun side trip!
Off to Pai with Heidi, my fave Australian.
Most beautiful find = this canyon.
And back to Chiang Mai just in time for some festivities. Helena and I took a 1 day cooking course in a Thai Organic farm. It was amazing!!! I'm inpired to cook everything with a little bit of sugar, chilli and fish sauce now. There's something really cool about learning how to make your own curry paste from scratch with a mortar and pestle. I learned how to make Green Curry with Chicken, Tom Yam soup, Papaya salad, Pad Thai and Mango sticky rice! It was amazing and wonderfully delicious if I may say so myself! Now if only I can find the recipe book they gave me! Lol. It was really informative walking around the market - learning about coconut cream vs. milk (amount of water). The best is picking your ingredients from their organic farm and learning about the different types of spices that they use - the fact that there are 4 types of basil used, the diffrences between the types of curry is based on adding either red or green chillies or turmeric. It's unbelievablle how easy and quick it is to make Thai food...the only issue is, can you find all the ingredients that you actually need?
I think I gained about 5 lbs during the course of the day...at least a 1lb for each meal that we cooked! But was it ever worth getting fatter for!
Helena and I ready to pick some organic stuff...
Songkran - สวัสดีปีใหม่
This is hands down the most enjoyable way to celebrate a New Years ever! It's typically 3 days but from what I can tell - it pretty much starts early and lasts long. To bring it on the whole city gets into a gigantic water fight! No wonder they call it "Wet and Wild Chiang Mai" in the Lonely Planet. It's suppose to be THE place to celebrate and let me tell you - it did NOT disappoint. The splashing with water is a time for cleaning and renewal - a sort of metaphoric washing away your sins.
While the spiritual aspect may not be as strong, the fun part is in full force! The whole city turns into an insane street party/festival with locals and foreigners alike running around town with buckets to splash you (Helena's preferred mode of combat = one on one revenge) and water guns (my preference is aiming straight for people's faces and ears). It's crazy fun and the icey water is wonderful specially during the hot and sunny moments. So wicked but it's weird being wet for about 6-8 hrs a day! You are not safe anywhere or from anyone! Helena being blonde was the fave target of the locals and since I look Thai the backpackers loooooved trying to get me! I wish I had better pictures of how much life and fun is injected into the whole experience when everyone is driving around in trucks and tuk tuks with tubs of water. There's live music everywhere and booming dance music around the whole city. Stages have been put up to host dancing "pretties" (Thai women in sexy outfits) and even the "tourist police" get in on the action. For a bit more of a cultural moment, there's a parade of Buddhas with the locals throwing fragranced water so that it may bring them good luck and prosperity in the New Year. Miraculously the water fight stops at around 8pm and people carry on drinking the night away.
** Ugh, you know what's sad?! I have a ton of pics up on FB but this is the first time that I feel like I don't actually have any pictures that truly capture the moments I had in Pai and Chiang Mai! And I'm a bit gutted to not be able to fully share the magnificence of Northern Thailand (so I broke down and downloaded some pics - I might even be there somewhere! LOL. It's definitely in my MUST DO recommendation - well, at this time of the year **
Ok, not my pic but I might be in there somewhere!
If you see a wet Asian...um, wait...ya, we're ALL wet!
Wanna piece of me?? Bring it on Songkran! :D
Thailand has been amazing and will always hold a special place in my heart. Khop Khun Kaa. I think I've pretty much done everything that I would like...and now, I'm feeling the pull of Laos...