After crossing the border from Cambodia into Thailand, we hurried on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. We had altered our plans to make sure we could celebrate New Years in Chiang Mai due to the Lantern Festival. The night did not disappoint! We spent the night with Alex and Aga, new friends that we had met in Cambodia, and run into again on the streets of Chiang Mai. It was a great night of fun, laughter, drinks and, or course, lanterns! Truly magical!
Our GIANT lantern…with a sparkler attached!
Earlier that day, while waiting in anticipation for the festival to begin, we “wat-hopped” around the city. We didn’t make it to all the 120 wats in the city, but we did manage to visit a few, including the most famous Chedi Luang.
We also visited the King’s Monument and the Cultural Arts & History Museum. However, one of the most interesting experiences we had was participating in a ‘monk chat’ outside Chedi Luang. We sat down with a monk and could ask him any question we wanted about Buddhism, a monk’s life, or the wats in general. We still walked away confused about what Buddhists actually believe, and who they believe that God is, but it was interesting nonetheless.
We spent the next day with elephants! I couldn’t WAIT to ride one and bathe one. Although, after it was all said and done, feeding the pachyderm was my favorite moment. When you have sweet sugar cane and bananas, they sure do get close and friendly!
Bathing these mammoths was another…adventure. We thought we would be entering a rushing river, pure of clean, crisp water. But, what we actually entered was a stagnant pond. The mud squished beneath our sandals and our eyes bulged when we saw the watermelon-sized droppings being released from the elephants and floating all around us. “It’s okay,” we thought, “we’ll be taking showers soon.” No sooner had these fleeting thoughts been muttered when our four-legged friends began spraying the water in the air. Pond scum and poo flecks rained down on us! Time to bolt! I suppose the mud under our feet wasn’t mud after all, and some adventures are made more memorable when they aren’t exactly perfect.
Chiang Mai also rewarded us face-time with other gorgeous animals: Indochinese tigers! Although hesitant at the size of their fangs and prowling stance, we do not regret the experience. These cats were beautiful!
Evan thought the small cubs were ‘over-rated’ at first, but their playful demeanor quickly changed his mind!
You aren’t allowed to touch or lay near the cats’ heads. Why? I can give you 4 reasons…each is about 2 inches long!
Just a short tuk-tuk ride away from Tiger Kingdom was the hilltribe markets. Although this area is highly commercialized, it was fascinating to see how beauty is defined among cultures of the world.
We spent the afternoon at Doi Suthep: one of the largest and most popular temples in Chiang Mai. This temple sits atop an enormous hill and overlooks the city below.
Chiang Mai from a bird’s eye view, as seen from Doi Suthep Wat
We ended our Chiang Mai experience on a tasty note. Evan desperately wanted to get his hands dirty in a Thai cooking course. We started the morning with a train ride to a local village, Our morning was filled with spring roll appetizers, hot and spicy prawn soup, pad thai and holy basil chicken. Our brief intermission from cooking gave us time to peruse the village by bike and take an afternoon nap in the garden. We finished the afternoon with curries and banana spring roll and sweet sticky rice desserts. What a delicious success. We even got Thai cooking books to take home to practice!
We started the day picking out fresh vegetables and spices from the market.
Farewell Chiang Mai! Thank you for the wonderful memories!
Another overnight train ride took us back to Bangkok-the next stop on our Thai whirlwind. In trying to beat the heat, we headed out early to the Grand Palace. The palace was spectacular! The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Buddhism’s version of the “Sistine Chapel”) is painted with images from Buddha’s life. Most interestingly, we learned to distinguish differences between Cambodian and Thai architecture. Thai architecture reflects the Buddhists’ belief in reaching nirvana, as the spires on towers become slimmer and slimmer, eventually evaporating into nothing.
We also learned that the Thai name for Bangkok is 66 syllables long, but the locals just call it Krung Thep. The ferry took us across the river to Wat Arun, where we climbed incredibly steep steps to the temple’s tower, rewarding us with high views of Bangkok. We even experienced a few moments dressed as Thai royalty!
Exhausted, we trudged through What Pho in the Bangkok heat before retiring for our afternoon siesta. Revived and ready to conquer the city by night, we indulged on Khao San Road in local cuisine…that’s right, we tried scorpion!
The impressive, ‘building-sized’ reclining Buddha
The following day, we rode out to experience the Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets. In a floating market, merchants sell to you either from their boats in the canals, OR you can hire a boat to take you through the canals to the merchants alongside the river. Prices were highly inflated due to tourism, but we managed working our spices down from 600 baht to 200 baht. Hooray for bargaining! Our excitement was short lived when we later saw the same spices in a store for 80 baht. Ugh.
After the floating market, our day was filled with milling around Khao San Road: We perused market stalls, tried ridiculously cheap appetizers and mains at restaurants, Evan got an Asian hair cut, and we even experienced our first Thai massage. It wasn’t at all what we were expecting. We were crammed into a sweaty upper room, in the dark, with about 20 other people, lying on the ground, getting pulled in every direction. Interesting…it was dirt cheap though!
Our evening blessed us with a riverside dinner next to Wat Arun at sunset. What a lovely view with lovely company!
After soaking in the heat for 3+ weeks, our tired bodies needed some beach time…and stat! So, one flight, bus, and longtail boat ride later, we were finally at Railay Beach for 3 days with NO plans…only relaxation! Well, I guess we did some swimming, kayaking, hiking, and of course, eating!
Soaking in Vitamin D! Thank you Thai sunshine!
We hiked a VERY steep, difficult, muddy hill to the beautiful Railay Viewpoint
Our sunshine extravaganza wasn’t over yet! We drove to Koh Lak to board a 5-day liveaboard diving boat. We cruised through the Similan and Surin Islands, visiting dive sites that revealed vibrant color, huge schools of fish, and even a manta ray! We got our deep-diving certification to 30 meters (about 100 feet) and the professional photographer on board shot some amazing photos on each of our dives. Over the whole week, we dove 15 times….almost. Morgan had a tummy bug and head cold that kept her out of the water for the last 6 dives, although she saw the water multiple times as she leaned over the edge of the boat. Ouch.
Stonefish: Yikes! Don’t touch it!
The photographer commented that this was his favorite shot of the whole week…I think I agree!
The whole crew on the liveaboard with whom we spent the week
In order to give our bodies enough time to recover between dives, we also spent quite a bit of time on the beaches surrounding the reef. These weren’t too shabby either…
Views above the water, from the boat, weren’t so bad 🙂
We spent our final night in Thailand on the island of Phuket. We found a small pizzeria on the sand, and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the Andaman sea, sad to see the sun also setting on our amazing Thai adventure.
To see more of our photos, scroll over our gallery below!