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We had an amazing trip in Thailand in August - here are some highlights.
If you have any questions about our trip , please email me ( We'd love to hear about your travels too - or any ideas you have about where we should go next!

Some tips on reading the travel log: "I" is usually Juliana, except for Ty's two entries (which are labeled).

We entered these backwards, so you can read straight down to move through the trip chronologically. No backscrolling!

Ignore the posting dates - go by the dates in the title.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

8/12 Thursday: Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep

We love Daeng! Daeng runs the show at our guest house, and she hooks us up with whatever we need – tuk tuks, taxis, guided tours, stamps, directions, breakfast, etc. We would be lost without her. We wanted to get her a thank you gift but obviously everything we can buy here they already have in abundance. Maybe we can mail her some SF chocolate when we get home?

Ty is off on his own for the first time, to ask Dang to set up our train ticket for our Koh Samui to Bangkok leg, to check on the price of a songthaew to the wat up on Doi Suthep, and to get money from the ATM. He is being very brave! I am resting my stomach after a rough morning and getting caught up on journaling.

The Queen's birthday is today, which makes this a national holiday and a 4-day weekend for many Thais. We wanted a quiet, refueling day, so decided to do more wat-touring and generally lay low. We opted for a songthaew ride up Doi Suthep in the afternoon, the mountain closest to town, which has a highly recommended wat half way up. We found a songthaew quickly but had to wait for a minimum of 10 people for the driver to make the 40 minute drive. We never actually got past 6 people – but we had some good barterers in the group who got the driver to take us without a markup for the missing heads. We traveled with an Australian couple and a French and Italian couple, and shared stories. The Australians had some very negative experiences – but it did seem like they might have brought some of them on themselves. The French and Italian couple had just arrived in Chiang Mai so we had some suggestions for them, and they told us about other places in Thailand they had been too, which we were heading too. It's quite amazing the network of travelers that exists in the world, that we don't even think about until we dive in and become part of it!

(fun times in a pickup bed!)

The drive up the mountain was windy but beautiful, lush and with sneak peaks of the view of the city below, which was Ty's main reason for wanting to go up the hill.

(view of Chiang Mai from the wat on Doi Suthep)

But once we arrived at the wat, we couldn't believe what we saw. The entire highway was covered with stalls, songthaews, and crowds. The steps to the temple were also covered with food vendors and cheap tourist gift vendors. The place was crawling with people such that you could hardly see the temple beneath it all.

(crowded entrance to the stairs to the wat)

(the chedi being restored is supposed to hold some of Buddha's bones, so this is a special wat to visit)

We climbed the 304 stairs up to the main temple, which were actually quite lovely and had impressive nagas (snake handrails) guarding them. At the top, it felt more like Disneyland than anywhere else we had been. We were directed by sign to pay a foreigner-visiting-fee, but no one collected our tickets after. We were okay with paying for access to public places since we don't pay taxes or make donations to the local temples, but this was a horrible place to have to pay – it felt very unrewarding. Ty even had to pay 3 baht to use the restroom here!

(beautiful Nagas guarding the many stairs to the temple)

The temple itself was interesting, although much of it was under restoration. The views were amazing, and the air cooler than in the valley. We also realized that the crowds were due to local Thai's coming to worship at this special temple for the Queen's holiday. That made it much more bearable, and in fact interesting. However, I don't think the Thais were as appreciative of the tourists being there in the middle of their worship.

(ringing the bells is good luck)

My deep thought for today is about the power of action in worship. The locals bought beautiful flowers and incense to give to Buddha, then circled the chedi in the inner courtyard together, as well as lighting candles, pouring oil into lit oil lamps (my favorite of the buddhist worship traditions), knelt and prayed together, were blessed by monks sprinkling water over small groups, etc.

(prayer and blessings with the monk)

There is an inner courtyard here and an inner-inner courtyard, where the worshippers were walking clockwise around the chedi. The outer-inner courtyard was filled with people admiring the various parts of the temple or making their way to prayer rooms or candle stations. This outer area took on a bit of a circular motion to it as well. We initially were walking into the current (in the outer, non-worshipping area), and eventually decided to backtrack in order to walk with the crowd. This meant we were walking in step (and not far from) the inner courtyard procession, which was separated from us by only a half-high wall. While we were not worshipping ourselves, nor were the people right adjacent to us, just walking together with those in the inner courtyard was moving. I realized many in the worshipping procession, while quiet and reverent, were not praying in the sense that I pray- talking in my head or listening internally for God. They were simply walking, looking, observing us as much as we observed them. It looked more like a well-clipped line to a movie theater in some ways.

(worshippers circling the chedi holding the bones of Buddha)

Once we were walking in sync with them, I understood that the very action itself was meaningful, even if one was not completely turned inward. Buddhism for the masses, I guess. It made me think about the many rituals modern Christians have left behind, and which some are reclaiming. The liturgy, prayer stations, icons – just the actions themselves have a place in a life of faith – although I wouldn’t replace prayer or relationship with rote behaviours. However, sometimes routine action meets us where we are at instead of asking us to leave our normal life behind before encountering God I wondered if the many Buddhists I was watching today felt that their motions were indeed leading them closer to what they were seeking. Or did they feel, like I did as a kid growing up in the Catholic church, that these were actions that might be boring or ineffective, but not optional?

(making an oil offering to the Buddha representing the day you were born)

(beautiful temple roof with bells. Many bells had prayers written on them.)

(It was really hot and crowded. The Queen's birthday is like Mother's Day, which you celebrate by going to the temple).

(For the Queen's Birthday, many groups put on cultural dances and performances)

(Hmong children dancing for the crowds).

We ate bananas covered in waffle and chocolate sauce on a stick for lunch, which were sadly not nearly as delicious as they sound, but were pretty filling. We inadvertently got sucked into a short video and tour of the jade store/factory next to the temple, while seeking out some free air conditioning. We actually learned a bit and can appreciate the stone more – but only left with a small elephant to show for the skillful sales technique. It's easy to not get suckered into buying things when there is no money to be giving up!

(very excited about banana-waffle stick. sadly it was more bready than sweet).

(Jade factory tour)

The ride down the hill made us both sick – the exhaust was extra bad, plus the downhill curves and being packed in the songthaew (13 adults and 3 kids), and we were last in so sat stewing in fumes at the back of the truck. We had to rest a long time after that, and Ty is committed to never ride in a songthaew again.

(the start of our long, crowded ride down a windy mountain road)

The weather is much nicer – cooler and less humid by comparison to our first days here, so after a long nap we walked to the wats nearest our hotel – which turned out to be really lovely and unique. Again, each wat had a completely different style than the others, and often within each wat the buildings were entirely different.

(at this wat you could write a prayer on the ribbons of orange and yellow fabric that are wrapped around the base. There is a table with a scroll of fabric, once full its twisted to new blank section, and eventually wrapped around the stupa).

(giant outdoor Buddha near our guest house)

(tall stairs for me - let alone short people!)

(outer wall made of mirrored glass tiles at a wat just down the street from our guest house).

We took a tuk tuk to the eastern side of town near the river for a nice and somewhat fancier dinner. It was still casual but we got to have some wine and dessert, followed by a nice night of exploring a new part of town.

(Enjoying tod mun variation #1 for the trip. Our "quiet day" turned out to be really crowded and chaotic - a nice dinner helped us finally relax.)

There are more modern and nicer hotels here, and much more of a tourist scene at night. Seeing too many girls, way too dressed up, crowded into a tuk tuk and trying to get out in a suave fashion is pretty entertaining. After our week in the charming but older part of town this area felt like it was trying too hard. It was much more western, with the western-interpretation of eastern style (such as paper lanterns and trendy bamboo growing around the restaurants, which you don’t see anywhere else in the city). We got a feel for how tourists can never really leave their bubbles – and how lucky we have been to see a relatively normal part of town. Of course, we are in the cute old part of town and not the modern city, and we do many tourist things here, but we feel we have better conversations and are more challenged in terms of food, cultural expectations, and not being catered too here than from what we saw and heard around the touristy areas where so many people stay. On the other hand, it was fun to finally get some mango sticky rice (apparently a western version of thai food – at least it has not been common in the north so far). At one point at dinner tonight we were surrounded by so many European and American tourists at nearby tables, I forgot I was in Thailand and started speaking to my waiter quickly, instead of the slower, simple English everyone uses to speak on common ground. It was nice to get back to our part of town, where there are certainly other tourists but we are the minority here. I think we are treated more respectfully here in the old city as well. We might still get conned but at least we don’t feel taken advantage of – in fact we have felt warmth or at least respect in all of our interactions with thais, whereas we heard stories from other travelers of how horribly rude and conniving the thais are to tourists.

(interesting egg dish - other than the strong lemon grass flavor, it was quite good!)

I also got real Thai smiles today – both times from scooter drivers who were passing me at the crosswalk (I am sure we were entertaining trying to navigate traffic). I realized that although this is the “Land of Smiles” so many of them are customary, not genuine. As Piak, our tour guide, explained, “You are happy, you smile. You are unhappy, you smile. You are lucky, you smile. You are unlucky, you smile.” Even unhappy and unlucky smiles serve a purpose – at the very least, as a sort of social grease for the wheels of community. But you soon learn that different smiles might connote confusion, frustration, or non-attention. Today the genuine smiles were like a breath of fresh air. It is perhaps like the difference between a handshake and a hug.

Tomorrow we play with elephants. I am actually really nervous – they are big animals! It will also be our last full day in Chiang Mai and our last day-trip tour. The time has flown and I think we will be sad to leave. It’s such a charming, human-oriented city. At first we wondered if we could fill all 6 days and now we are leaving without having even an afternoon or night to get bored. It would be amazing to stay a long time and really get to know people – to feel the rhythms of the city, understand the various neighborhoods, etc. We did travel in all four directions out of the city center as well as walk a fair bit around the old city itself, and we are starting to learn some places and landmarks and customs. It still feels as thought we are barely scraping the surface of everything Chiang Mai has to offer!

(Thai dessert sampler - mostly gelatin in various colors)

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