Monday, January 26, 2015

สำรวจ [explore]

Chiang Mai was an incredible weekend getaway! We had been looking forward to visiting this city in the north since we first started planning our time in Thailand. Chiang Mai is the 2nd city in the adventure of Erin’s life story - her family moved here after she was born in Bangkok. Plus it is famous for its unique culture, since it was previously the capital of a separate kingdom called the Lanna kingdom (Lanna means Million Rice Fields). 

Our hotel in Chiang Mai

Flight to Chiang Mai

We arrived Friday night to our awesome hotel, The Raming Lodge, and immediately fell in love. We couldn’t wait to stay here for the weekend. (Later notes for future travelers: Pros of this hotel include the gorgeous accommodations, location, friendly staff, and awesome breakfast buffet. However, there’s not great WiFi and it’s an open-air concept so it may be a little noisy. We loved the design so we didn’t mind the noise, but just wanted whoever may read this and consider staying here to know!) Our room had gorgeous teak furniture with beds covered in embroidered silk spreads and Thai art murals, not to mention very hot water in the shower, so we felt like we had the Thai princess experience! The location of our hotel was great, tucked just off a main street and within walking distance to the famous Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. We were able to drop off our luggage in our room and walk down the restaurant, massage parlor, and clothing shop lined-streets to this shopping mecca. The Night Bazaar was even larger than we had expected, spanning across both sides of the main street and had so many vendors in the open selling everything from Thai spices to gorgeous oriental rugs. We decided to head to the side of the night Bazaar that had an area for food vendors to grab something to eat and scope out the shopping options. We enjoyed a great dinner of fresh stir-fried vegetables, omelet with rice, and garlic pork. We had been craving just plain vegetables and this really hit the spot!

We decided to sleep in a little Saturday morning and wake-up at 8:00 AM. We really haven’t been getting much sleep since we’ve been in Thailand since there are so many wonderful things to be awake for instead! Our day Saturday truly could not have gone any better! We had planned to head to Tiger Kingdom first thing, so we hopped in a red songthaew that was just sitting waiting for passengers outside our hotel. A red songthaew is essentially a red pick-up truck with seats, rails, and roof in the bed that passengers ride in and is definitely the way to get around Chiang Mai! We had the red songthaew all to ourselves for the 30 minute ride to Tiger Kingdom which is in Mae Rim, outside of Chiang Mai. We enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of the city and views of the mountains that surround the city. Tiger Kingdom is set up like a zoo with only tigers.  The tigers are divided into living habitats by their age. Once you arrive, you can select which tigers you would like to see up close, so we decided to see the smallest and the biggest tigers. It’s 1,040 (around $30) to see both tigers but it is TOTALLY worth it! We opted not to pay for a photographer and had no problem getting all the great pictures we hoped for with our own cameras and iPhones. We started with seeing the littlest tigers first. We washed our hands, took off our shoes, and went over the do’s and don’ts of interacting with Tigers. Then a staff member lead us into the little tigers play area. We marveled at the beauty of all 6 of the 4-month and 3-month-old tigers, as we sat right beside them, gave them belly rubs and a foot massage of their back paws, watched them take their little tigers snoozes, practice their hunting skills by playfully wrestling one another and teeth on a wooden log. One of the tigers was especially fond of Erin’s long blonde locks and bit her hair! It was a sweet bite though and all was okay! We learned a lot about tigers while we were there and wanted to share a few fun facts: 

·   There are 1 to 5 tigers born in each litter, but usually only 1 will survive if born in the wild. Their life span is 8 years. All tigers at Tiger Kingdom at born in captivity and usually 3 from each litter with survive and live about 20 years.
·   Tigers will lose their baby teeth at 1 and a half years old.
·   Tigers sleep 18 hours a day intermittently – they sleep 1 hour and then wake-up for a half hour.  Must be nice!

After saying goodbye to our sweet new small tiger friends, we walked through Tiger Kingdom looking at all the tigers basking in the sun in their respective areas. We saw a beautiful white Siberian tiger, 3 adorable newborn tigers, and several other tigers. Then we reached the biggest tigers’ area and entered through a gate. The biggest tigers are the 2-year-olds, named Nancy, Frankie, and Michael. It was surreal being so close to these regal animals and being able to pet their furry stripes. These incredible creatures even posed for a picture with our Auburn flag! They agree it’s great to be an Auburn Tiger! War Eagle to that.

Before leaving Tiger Kingdom we took a quick break for mango and pineapple popsicles and a little more tiger watching. Travel tip: there is a great restaurant at Tiger Kingdom where you can eat just a few feet from the Tigers. Our songthaew driver had waited for us while we were at Tiger Kingdom and since we were already in Mae Rim, we decided to go ahead and have him take us to the Sai Nam Phung Orchid Farm upon leaving TK.  

The Sia Nam Phung Orchid Farm ended up just being a quick 5-minute ride in the songthaew away. It was 100 baht to enter and our entry pass was a beautiful pink orchid, which they pinned to our shirts. It truly is difficult to describe the beauty of the orchid farm. The glorious, fresh aroma hit us as soon as we walked up the entrance and we enjoyed walking down rows and rows of orchids of every variety and color growing from their individual pots, with the occasional little butterfly gliding by. We could not stop taking pictures of this beautiful experience!  Our songthaew driver again patiently waited for us while we toured the orchid farm and took us back to Chiang Mai. We had him drop us off at Wat Phra Singh in the Old City area of Chiang Mai, so that we could spend the rest of our afternoon exploring the Old City, which is surrounded by a city wall and moat built during ancient times to protect the city from the flooding Ping River.  

Wat Phra Singh is considered to be Chiang Mai’s most important temple, as it houses the most famous bronze Buddha image in Thailand. We enjoyed walking around this complex and seeing the mixture of old and new intricate details on the main temple, ho trai (Buddhist library), bot (ordination hall), and chedi. Then we were ready for a lunch break and stopped at the cat themed café just across the street. We opted for grilled chicken spring rolls and a little caffeine with ice green tea for Megan and an iced cappuccino for Erin. Our walk through the Old City back to our hotel was fabulous. We enjoyed strolling through the winding lanes (called ‘soi’ in Thai), which reminded us of Europe. We passed many shops with gorgeous lanterns hanging and even stopped to smell the pungent jasmine that lined the gates of a few houses. This was probably the best weather day we have had yet in Thailand, perfectly sunny and a warm 81°F.

Wat Phra Singh

For dinner Saturday night, we finally had we had some American food and went all out! We ate at Rock Me Burger, which is just outside our hotel and claims to be the best burger in Chiang Mai. We definitely agree and think it may be one of the best burgers we’ve ever had! We both opted for the cheeseburger and picked out our own toppings to add. It was fun to sit at the bar on the street and watch as they grilled the perfect patties and toppings right in front of us, and then piled our burgers onto the soft buns, which they make fresh daily from their own recipe.  The presentation was phenomenal too, since the burger was served on a cut out ring of a tree. The hand cut wedge fries topped with cheddar, parmesan and bacon really helped our cheese and potatoes cravings and the smoothly blended mango margaritas were hands down the best margarita each of us has ever had. We definitely recommend this place to any other American traveling in Chiang Mai who need a great American burger!

With full stomachs and happy hearts, we were ready to take on the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar for a second night determined to finally put our bartering skills to the test and get some awesome gifts for some awesome and special people in our lives. The night was a big success! Travel tip: Learn Thai phrases for bartering!!!! This absolutely makes the Thai vendors smile and they can’t resist giving you the discount and practically whatever price you ask for! We had so much fun asking the vendors “Tao-rai-ka” (how much) and “Lode dai mai ka” (will you discount please?) and using our Thai numbers to interpret and request prices. We owe our friends Tony and Best big time for helping us learn these phrases and practice our numbers! After a few hours, we finally took a break from looking through all the stalls of silks, paintings, carvings, and clothing and grabbed some gelato. The nice vendor let us sample the durian flavor, which we had both been curious to try. This fruit is infamous in Thailand, but it is currently out of season so we hadn’t seen any other durian food items yet. Durian is a unique Thai fruit that is renowned for its distinct, stinky odor. The flavor of the durian ice cream was somewhat tangy with a funny aftertaste…we aren’t quite sure how to describe it. We were glad for the opportunity to taste-test rather than purchase, and decided to go with coconut and coffee gelato instead.

Trying Durian!

Sunday morning we woke up excited for our 1 Day Trek that we had booked a few weeks ago with Travel Hub Chiang Mai. (Thank you to former Auburn HSOP students Kent Owusu and Kyle Peterson for this recommendation!). We were a little tired though and needed some extra caffeine first, which lead to one of the most impressive shows of the resourcefulness we have developed during our time in Thailand! Megan went to grab her sunglasses she left in the room while Erin went in search of iced coffee.  Erin worked with the lady at the drink bar in the hotel to find two plastic ‘take-away’ cups with lids and fill them with ice and then the lady watched in awe as Erin poured the free hot coffee and milk from the hotel breakfast buffet over the ice! Megan was in almost as much awe when she returned to the lobby finding Erin with two ‘take-away’ iced coffees in hand! There is nothing Erin McCreary can’t accomplish!

With ice-coffees in hand, we met our tour guide in the hotel lobby and jumped on the van to start our day trek in the Mae Tang area. Our trekking group for the day was very international! There was a family from Korea, a group of friends from China, and a couple from France who were visiting from Udon Ratchathani, Thailand where they are teaching English for 7 weeks. After driving for about 45 minutes through the views of the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai and the beautiful farmland countryside, we arrived at to our first activity—riding elephants at the elephant camp. We purchased a bag of bananas and sugar cane to feed to the elephant during the ride and quickly stepped from the raised hut directly onto the elephant’s strong shoulders and sat in the seat strapped onto the elephants back. We had a great mahout (elephant keeper) and female elephant, which we named Eleanor, who carried us for a 20-minute ride across a street, up and down a few hills and through a river. Erin even was able to sit on the elephant’s head and serve as our ‘driver’ for most of the ride while the mahout walked beside us the ground. It was an incredibly smooth ride and the backdrop of rice fields, mountains, and jungle views were breathtaking. It was interesting to feel the elephant’s tough, thick skin, which was actually covered in long dark black hair, as well as have our hair windblown with air from the elephant’s trunk when the elephant raised her trunk over her head for a snack. We learned a few facts about elephants along the way too:

·   There are 2 types of elephants in the world: Asian and African. Asian tend to be smaller, but they are by no means small!
·   Elephants are always hungry! They eat 250kg of bananas, sugar cane, and bamboo shoots a day, and drink 100 liters of water.
·   Female elephants do not have tusks, while male elephants have tusks.
·   Traveling on an elephants back used to be the only way besides the river to make the trip through the mountains into Northern Thailand. Elephants also used to be heavily relied on for carrying the heavy teak logs from the mountains down to the villages to be carved into beautiful Thai teak furniture. However with other modes of transportation and a logging ban in place, elephants are out of a job and these elephant camps give the elephants and their mahouts a source of income and place to stay.

After admiring these elephants a little more, we went back to our regular motorized transportation and rode the van to the Karen Hill-Tribe Village, where we started our trek. There are several hill-tribes currently in Thailand and these hill-tribes are known for their rich nomadic culture, unique garbs and accessories, and craft making. The Karen Tribe has resided in Thailand for 50 yeas and is also called the White Karen Tribe as the women wear only white dresses until they are married. Once married, they can wear dresses of any color. In this tribe the dark red/black teeth of the older members from chewing bitter nuts for many years are considered beautiful and actually make their teeth clean and strong! We learned that the religion of hill tribe people is typically a form of ancestor worship, but many are now Christians due to the many Christian missionaries in the area. We both were struck by the beautiful sentiment that our tour guide, Mr. Tea, shared when speaking of religion, “I believe all religions teach people to be good people.” Mr. Tea also told us that in the past, the hill-tribes lived in the mountains and grew opium. However, due to an initiative by the monarchy of Thailand called The Royal Project, the hill-tribes are now focusing on planting tea, rice, and corn, and making beautiful woven handicrafts and silverworks.  

We left the hill tribe village and started trekking through the rice fields, and then Erin found 20 baht. No really, Erin found 20 baht in a rice field! The rice fields had been harvested a few months ago, so we didn’t get to see the current crops, but learned that rice is typically planted 2-3 times a year and the whole process take 4 months for 1 crop. Our trek then lead us into the jungle, where we saw the large teak trees and followed a trail down to the Maewang waterfall. This was one of the most refreshing moments of our lives. We enjoyed sitting on a rock for almost an hour taking in the sounds of the cascading water, sunlight pouring in through the bamboo shoots and teak trees of the jungle, and soft mist from the waterfall spraying on us from the breeze. Next, the trek tour took our group to lunch at a little restaurant along the roadside, where they served rice, watermelon (not seedless of course), a few vegetables and chicken dishes. Then we were off for bamboo rafting on the Maewin River, which runs into the Ping River in Chiang Mai that flows onto the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok. The bamboo rafting was an awesome experience. It was just 8 pieces of bamboo about 20 feet long strapped together with ropes and a few other pieces of bamboo. The two of us and cute French couple sat Indian style spaced out along the bamboo and enjoyed the ride as our Thai raftsman, who spoke no English, guided us down the flowing river with small rapids. Megan was even able to stand up and steer the raft for a little bit too! This was an awesome way to experience beauty of the jungle and we even floated past an elephant taking a bath with his mahout. We also saw a few tourists, people eating meals and playing guitars at quaint restaurants that lined the river, and some local kids playing in the river. They enjoyed splashing us with water during our trip. Mr. Tea told us their motto is “Not wet – no fun!” We didn’t get many photos since we were nervous to have a mishap with our phones or cameras in the water, but will definitely treasure this memory in our hearts.  After changing from our drenched clothes, the tour van took us back to our hotel in Chiang Mai and we quickly changed and headed out for a bite to eat.

Bamboo raft

Rice field

Teak tree protected by monks

One of our favorite spots in Thailand

For dinner we went to the Anusarn Market, which is just a block north of the Night Bazaar area and known for having more food. We got side tracked on the way though by the street cart selling banana rotee. We are so glad we stopped to try, as this was one of the most delicious foods we have had during our entire time in Thailand. The Banana Rotee Man only sells rotee (a crispy crepe-like sweet made from a ball of dough which is hand tossed into a round shape) with banana filling and that’s all he needs - he’s got this perfected. The thing about Thai vendors is that they do one thing, but they do it right! The warm banana rotees, one drizzled with chocolate and the other with honey and also sweetened condensed milk, were so wonderful we had to stop walking and just stand on the streetside and relish the moment eating these. Seriously.

Banana rotee

Banana rotee

At the Anusarn Market we enjoyed shopping at the various stalls that had so many varieties of dried fruits, spices, and nuts and also a few more unique crafts. We then picked from one of the many great looking food stalls and shared fabulous pineapple fried rice and the crispy noodles and Khao Soy (coconut chicken soup) which are popular dishes of Northern Thailand. Our friend Fern recommended we try these while we were in Chiang Mai and we were very glad we did. We then headed back to the Bazaar for a few more items we decided we needed and ran into a few familiar faces from the night before. The lady selling silk scarves was especially friendly and even showed us pictures of her daughter!
Khao Soy

Pineapple fried rice

Monday morning we woke up and packed away all our new treasures, checked out of the hotel and easily hailed a red songthaew outside our hotel to Doi Suthep all on our own. The songthaew ride was the perfect way to take in the fantastic weather, views of the hustle and bustle of the city and gorgeous winding tree-lined road up the mountain. Wat Phra Doi Suthep is a beautiful temple located halfway up Doi Suthep (mountain). According to legend, an auspicious white elephant was let loose by a monk with a Buddha image strapped to his back. The white elephant climbed the mountain until it could go no further and the temple was built in the site where the elephant halted during the mid-1300s. To reach the temple today we had to climb 210 steps of the Naga Stairs, which are named this because of the 7-headed naga statues that form the banister of the stairway. The views at the temple area were spectacular. We were taken aback by a tree that was growing Jackfruit and draped with the colored cloths which symbolize a glorious life. Two of our favorite things combined into one spectacular sight to behold. There were also beautiful hot-pink flowers covering the rooftops of several of the structures and several beautiful bells with dangling gold leaves, inscribed with names and requests. The main temple area contained an impressive golden chedi that was surrounded by gilded parasols. We tried to take in the details that covered every inch of these temple grounds.
Our songthaew driver had agreed to wait on us while we visited Doi Suthep, so we easily made it back to our hotel for only 400 baht (~$14) round trip. It only took about three hours to get to the temple, walk around, and get back into the city as well so definitely something you can squeeze in, like we did! We spent our last hour in Chiang Mai out in the city walking a few blocks and stopping at a café. We enjoyed sitting at the table outside drinking iced cappuccinos and eating the delicious mango and sticky rice. On our walk we also came across a man selling khao tom mad and decided to try. Khoa tom mad is a traditional Thai dessert made from sticky rice, cooked in coconut cream, and stuffed with banana a black beans. Its covered in a banana leaf and steamed. It was a great soft sweet coconutty snack! We’re both really going to miss eating essentially every meal outdoors.

We're ALMOST THERE! 210 steps

We color coordinated with the Temple :)

Red Songthaew's everywhere!

Blonde Hair Tax

Jackfruit tree and glorious life ribbons. We love Thailand.

The auspicious white elephant

While we were sad to leave Chiang Mai (a favorite city for us both), we were excited to be reunited with our friends back at school. The trip home to Maha Sarakham went smoothly. Our hotel had a complimentary shuttle to take us to the airport and flying NokAir was great. We would recommend this airline to anyone flying domestically in Thailand! During our flight, we had awesome views of the gorgeous Thai mountains and once we landed we were greeted at the Udon Thani (pronounced TAN-ee…the H is silent in Thai!) Airport by our friend Beauty and her wonderful family. Beauty is from Udon Thani and went home for the weekend, so it worked out for her parents to drive us and her sister back to Maha Sarakham. We enjoyed seeing Udon Thani and having dinner with her family and cousins at a local restaurant. They really made us feel a part of the family and we had a nice 3-hour ‘family road trip’ back to Mahasarakham watching movies on the DVD player in the car. Arriving back at our dorm in Maha Sarakham felt like we were coming home. We truly will miss this home-away-from home when we leave on Wednesday for Bangkok, where we will spend the next week.   

Outside in Chaing Mai :)



Landed back in Udon to be picked up by our friend Beauty and ride back to Mahasarakham

We love Chiang Mai!!

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