We are cheating at travel. Well it is not just us. It kind of feels like everyone is. I am writing this update from what must be Bangkok’s most hipster hostel – Bed Station Hostel. This place is all concrete, wood and metal with great and consistent use of a clean and distinct font. It has all the things Thailand has learnt we want when we travel halfway around the world to explore an exotic location – fast wifi, strong coffee and Instagrammable decor.
And lets be honest, I freaking love it here. But it does make me feel like we are cheating. Or maybe that we have been cheated. Cheated out of the joy of real travel. The joy of heading into the unknown, of getting lost (and found), of exploring and discovering and wandering. Traveling today is maybe just a little bit too easy…
On the 18th of November we landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. We changed currency, bought a sim card/ data and hailed an Uber. We used Google Maps to find the guesthouse we booked on Hostelworld, dropped our bags, headed up to the rooftop restaurant and ordered a round of Chang’s and green curries before connecting to the WIFI.
Three days later we picked up the train tickets we booked online through 12go.asia (recommended by Seat61). We boarded a clean and comfortable overnight train to Chiang Mai. We arrived (on schedule) on a Saturday morning and took a red taxi to our Airbnb, HeyHa House.
So basically smooth sailing so far. Not that I am complaining (maybe just a little). And as I write this I know I am going to eat my words once we set foot in Myanmar. So before I need to readjust to slow internet speeds and bad coffee, here is a quick recap of our time in Thailand so far:
Loi Krathong/ Yi Peng
The reason we decided to head North to Chiang Mai as the first stop on our trip was to attend the annual Loi Krathong/ Yi Peng festivals in Chiang Mai on 25 November 2015. I will write up all our tips for attending this festival soon but for now all you need to know is: SKY LANTERNS – millions of sky lanterns.
Unfortunately we were a bit too late (and a bit too poor) to buy tickets to attend the mass release of lanterns at the Mae Jo University and decided to join the other disorganised/ poor masses at the Nawarat Bridge. And it was pretty disorganised – mostly tourists launching lanterns directly into nearby trees and electrical wires. It was also magical watching thousands of lanterns drift off into nothingness. Only three houses burnt down.
We escaped the madness when people started attaching fireworks to lanterns and wandered down the road to Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City. The novices (young monks) of the temple were playing around and setting off fireworks too. A crowd of Chinese tourists on a photographic tour marched in with cameras flashing. They made a sizeable donation to the temple and the novices lined up to release lanterns. We were so lucky to be there to capture the monks releasing lanterns (and lucky all the photos were not ruined by the aggressive photography of the Chinese tourists). Like Adam always says: “The first rule of photography: a monk doing anything is photogenic.” And it was.
Elephant Nature Park
Another highlight of our time in Chiang Mai was a day-long visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Located just outside Chiang Mai, it is the home and rehabilitation centre for about 60 Asian elephants rescued from abuse (logging, forced breeding, circus).
On the hour-long drive to the park we were shown a (very dated) video telling the story of Lek – a woman who has dedicated her life to the plight of the elephant (and the film crew there to film a conservation music video – don’t ask). Thailand (and many of the surrounding countries) view elephants as domesticated animals. What tourists don’t get to see is the process involved in “breaking the elephant’s spirit”- called Phajaan. (Here is a pretty sad Youtube playlist if you do not know what I am talking about).
The day left me feeling both sad and hopeful. Our guide, Sek, told us each elephant’s story. One had her foot blown off by a land mine while working in the logging industry at the Myanmar border. Another’s back curved at a 45 degree angle due to forced breeding. Ironically she had her first baby after being rescued – a young and very naughty 3 year old. His posture and expression were so different from the other elephants. He has no idea what his mother had to endure and, hopefully, never will.
Chiang Mai: Canadians, Cat Cafes and a Chat with a Monk
Chiang Mai was the perfect place to start this adventure. We were never more than 20m from the nearest temple and never more than a block away from the nearest Seven Eleven. We wandered through walking markets and sampled every type of street food. We had coffee in our first cat cafe called Catmosphere (where all the cats were named after Star Wars characters). We even got to spend a morning chatting to a monk about life, how he stopped smoking and why their robes are orange.
We met an older Canadian gentleman at our Airbnb. I use the word “met” quite loosely here in that he basically loved imparting his knowledge of any destination to anyone in the communal dining area, regardless of the fact that some of it was decades old.
He told us about his early travels – of connecting six or seven times on flights from Canada to Asia, of craving chocolate and there being no Seven Eleven nearby, of having his passport stamped “SHIT” (Suspected Hippie In Transit) in Malaysia (this last one might have been made up).
Apparently there was a time before the internet (what!?!?), a time before Lonely Planet, when people got most of their travel information from other travellers. And then I realised that maybe not that much has changed. Today we might use blogs instead of pen and paper, but the internet has made it possible for us to share this adventure. So what if it makes traveling a bit easier.