Backpacking Bonus 3: Cultural Experiences in Chiang Mai

After spending about a week in Bangkok and knowing it was time to make a move, I bought a train ticket that would take me all the way to Chiang Mai, a town in the northern region of Thailand. While cheap one-hour flights are readily available (It would be like flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco), I opted for the 12-hour train trip so I could see what Thailand really looks like in between two major cities as I am not stopping to try to visit every city the guidebook suggests this time. While the lunch they served on the train was so nasty that I managed only to eat some of the white rice, the rest of the trip was quite enjoyable and I passed the time reading, writing, and watching lush green jungles and wild rivers pass by outside my window.

In this basic map of Thailand (and the neighboring Southeast Asian countries), you can see the relative distance between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. (You can also see where Laos--where I am now-- is in relation to Thailand.)

In this basic map of Thailand (and the neighboring Southeast Asian countries), you can see the relative distance between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. (You can also see where Laos–where I am now– is in relation to Thailand.)

Thai CULTURE at its Finest

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, however, it has much more of a village or small town feel than a city vibe. Whereas the elevation of Bangkok is a whopping 14 feet above sea level, Chiang Mai sits at 1,000 feet, located in a mountainous cloud forest (high-altitude rainforest) region which means that although the humidity is still quite tangible, the overall temperature is cooler than it is in Bangkok by a couple of degrees, say low 80s. This is also Backpacker Central. I probably saw more obviously non-Thai travelers here in two days than I saw in Bangkok in an entire week. (That is probably due in part to me staying in the business sector in Bangkok as opposed to the downtown area.) Most seem to be from Europe and Australia. Oh, yes, and China, since it is only separated from Thailand by pieces of Myanmar (North/West of Thailand) or Laos (North/East of Thailand). But to be completely honest, I can’t tell the difference very well between the Thai and the Chinese; the only tourist giveaway would be cameras and selfie sticks.

The Saturday Market just getting started on the streets of Chiang Mai.

The Saturday Market just getting started on the streets of Chiang Mai.

There is a lot to do in Chiang Mai and it is easy to get around. The city was originally built surrounded by a moat and high walls to protect it from Burmese invaders (from “Burma,” now known as Myanmar) over 700 years ago. The Thai were successful in their endeavors and while the wall has been mostly demolished, the moat still exists so the main part of the city is a square–referred to as “The Old City”–with water on all four sides and a couple bridges on every side allowing for easy crossover to the outside. It could probably take about an hour and a half to walk the perimeter of the square so everything within the square is accessible by foot. Most of the city consists of wide, busy main streets with small lanes intertwining and connecting everything. While there is a variety of shops, restaurants, temples, and lodging/homes along every street, it seems that no block can be complete without the essential Thai massage parlor or beauty salon and a 7-Eleven.

The center of Chiang Mai is a square part of town with a moat (and pieces of the ancient wall) surrouding all sides.

The center of Chiang Mai is a square part of town with a moat (and pieces of the ancient wall) surrouding all sides.

My lodging experience was very different here than it was in Bangkok as most of the set-ups are “guesthouses,” or converted homes made to accommodate many people, either in their own room or in a dorm room. There are hostels as well, but the guesthouses supposedly offer a warmer, homier environment. I spent an entire day “guesthouse-scouting” but didn’t come up with anything good AND available. Most of the nice places were already full as there was a National Holiday that week: it was the Queen’s birthday, which is the day Thailand celebrates Mother’s Day as well. It is neat being in a place where a king and queen are in charge of a country. The King has been the head of Thailand for 69 years–the longest reign of any king in Thailand yet–and he and the Queen are highly revered and loved by all. The country celebrates Father’s Day on the King’s birthday and Mother’s Day on the Queen’s birthday. There were many special festivities going on in honor of the Queen/Mother’s Day. Here is a short video of a traditional Thai performance for the holiday: http://youtu.be/bDqZJeMflpE

Photos and paintings of the beloved King and Queen of Thailand can be seen in public everywhere--in front of temples, in public parks, and outside business buildings, to name a few examples.

Photos and paintings of the beloved King and Queen of Thailand can be seen in public everywhere–in front of temples, in public parks, and outside business buildings, to name a few examples.

The cleanliness, order, and functionality of Bangkok was sorely missed, but I can’t say that I didn’t know what I was signing up for here. I bounced around a couple times, staying in four different places the first four nights which drove me insane, but I finally got a room at Rendezvous Guesthouse and locked in for a couple days. It was more than double the price of anywhere I had stayed thus far, but so worth it to have A/C, wifi, private bathroom with a hot shower, breakfast included, and peace of mind that I had my own space to spread out and leave my stuff secure during the days. I know I’m backpacking and everything, but one night in a crowded, co-ed 8-bunk dorm with a bunch of 20-year-olds was enough to make me feel like I’m too old to be doing that. Sometimes a dorm will work, but I will avoid it when I can. Last time I was backpacking, I was fresh out of the Peace Corps and pinching pennies as I was pretty much broke off my bum; this time, I can have different, more comfortable, experience as I am older and no longer broke. I’m not swimming in cash, but I have more than enough to not worry about spending a few extra dollars for quality of experience.

While there are some parts of town that come alive at night with busy restaurants, bars, a nightclub, and a HUGE night bazaar (market), the rest of the town pretty much shuts down between seven and eight in the evening. A major thing that draws visitors to Chiang Mai is the opportunity for daytime adventure and cultural activities. People come here to study Thai at language schools (for any of you who know Guatemala, Chiang Mai is kind of like the Antigua of Thailand), take Thai massage courses, go on meditation retreats, study Buddhism and Thai culture, learn how to cook Thai food, teach English-as-a-second-language, and engage in the practice of Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. Other activity options include ziplining, mountain biking, kayaking, river rafting, visiting tiger and other animal parks, trekking to “hill-tribe” villages, having up-close-and-personal experiences with elephants, taking tours of temples, or just getting a massage and eating in town.

On my first full day here, in addition to my guesthouse investigation and walking all around the square to orient myself, I decided to drop by a “Fish Spa” that I passed; my former roommate, Henry, had told me about this Thai tradition so I was curious. Have you ever had a fish tank and bought the little sucker fish to keep the tank clean? Well, that is the concept of the Fish Spa. All you do is place your feet (up to mid-calf) into a tank with about a hundred of those little sucker fish and let them have at ’em! The purpose is to get a full foot cleaning as the little fish suck off all the dead skin; it is also a tactic for preventing bacterial and fungal infections. Being that the majority of people in Thailand wear sandals and go barefoot regularly to enter buildings and temples (and even some bathrooms!), I can see why this practice has gained popularity for practical purposes. At first, it tickled so much that I couldn’t even keep my feet in the water, but eventually I got used to it; they nibbled away for 20 minutes. Video clip if you’re interested: http://youtu.be/dVbmQQl1h5k

My first Fish Spa experience in Thailand, where the little sucker fish clean your feet by sucking off all the dead skin, leaving your feet nice and soft. Only recommended if you can manage your ticklishness!

My first Fish Spa experience in Thailand, where the little sucker fish clean your feet by sucking off all the dead skin, leaving your feet nice and soft. Only recommended if you can manage your ticklishness!

Another thing that interested me was getting massage training. I figured I might as well since I’m here. Originally I thought I’d do the Thai massage training–and then I went and had a Thai massage. That changed my mind. Thai massages are amazing and they can hurt! Your body gets twisted and bent in so many different ways and the masseuse practically crawls on top of you, using her legs/feet/forearms/elbows/shins/whatever to dig deep and work the tissue and she even twists you in such a way that your back will crack. It hurts so good. But I couldn’t imagine myself comfortably doing that to anyone else. Luckily, I found a school that offered a 2-day Foot Massage & Reflexology course over the weekend that was much more along my practical preferences so I signed up.

When I arrived to the Old Medicine Hospital Thai Massage School Shivagakomarpaj at 9 AM Saturday, I was pretty excited because it has been awhile since I had the time to really study anything and practice something new. There were a total of five women taking the course and we had “Pad,” a former monk, as our primary instructor with two other secondary instructors guiding us. In Thailand, there is a very strong spiritual belief and healing energy associated with massage–it is not simply for relaxation, but for facilitating balance and flow in a person’s body. Foot massage is not nearly as intense as a full body Thai massage, but it is considered a basic form of healing nonetheless.

This was the setting where the foot massage and reflexology course took place--the instructors demonstrating in the middle so everyone had a clear view.

This was the setting where the foot massage and reflexology course took place–the instructors demonstrating in the middle so everyone had a clear view.

It was really neat to learn about the other women, all 5 of us traveling (or living abroad) independently. Instead of using names, we started calling each other by the places we’re from which meant collectively we were AussieThai, Brazil, California, Japan, and Venezuela. As I have mentioned before, traveling really gets people to open up about themselves in amazing ways; I don’t know if it’s the break in routine, the freedom from the expectations that people around us (namely family, friends, and coworkers) naturally place on us at home, or the exposure to new forms of stimulation, but it is intriguing nonetheless. Two of the ladies came to Thailand specifically for the 2-week Thai massage course (the weekend foot massage was just an extra thing they signed up for), and the other two were spending longer amounts of time in Thailand, one for work, the other for just living. It was a fun and dynamic group for sure!

We covered a lot in two days, first learning how to make our own cream, balm, and herbal scrub from scratch, then observing the moves from the instructors and practicing a full foot massage flow–lasting 30 minutes each foot–on each other. On the second day, we moved into the reflexology points on the feet. There are 27 total on each foot, mostly the same, with a few exceptions; for example, a particular pressure point on the left foot is associated with the heart while the same point on the right foot is associated with the liver. By using foot reflexology, serious problems in other parts of the body can be identified and, if the issue persists, further medical treatment will be recommended. The course wrapped up with learning the technique for calf/leg massage, then closing out the flow. With practice, the entire massage from start to finish for both legs should take about an hour. At the end of the day on Sunday, we each received our official certification for the course. (So since I am currently job-searching, I guess I can add this to my résumé now, right? And just putting it out there: I am still unemployed; I will work for food…or lodging…when I get back to California.)

Goofing off after receiving our course certifications, we all enjoyed taking the course together. Back: Venezuela (Marianela) and the AussieThai (Juntra). Front: Japan (Maki), Brazil (Kenya), & California (me).

Goofing off after receiving our course certifications, we all enjoyed taking the course together. Back: Venezuela (Marianela) and the AussieThai (Juntra). Front: Japan (Maki), Brazil (Kenya), & California (me).

Another thing I did over the weekend was stroll through the huge “Saturday Market,” which is apparently one of the biggest in Chiang Mai. All the vendors were out with their food stands, artwork, jewelry, clothing, and other goods. Markets are a great place to people watch. This particular market was packed to the brim with tourists and has probably become a tourist attraction in and of itself. But there were locals as well, taking advantage of the goods and services offered at a cheaper price than normal. I sort of ended up there on accident, but I couldn’t resist picking up a couple postcards, devouring Thai-spiced sausage-on-a-stick, snapping a few photos, and grabbing a fresh mango smoothie “for the road.”

At the Saturday Market, the local Thai Ice Cream Lady was scooping up tasty cones as she pushed her cart through the crowded streets.

At the Saturday Market, the local Thai Ice Cream Lady was scooping up tasty cones as she pushed her cart through the crowded streets.

Saturday Market in Chiang Mai is filled with food vendor stands, including this one, where fresh fruit smoothies are blended and poured on the spot.

Saturday Market in Chiang Mai is filled with food vendor stands, including this one, where fresh fruit smoothies are blended and poured on the spot. (That mango one is about to be mine!)

While I have seen mostly couples, pairs, or groups traveling around here and people sometimes have had a surprised reaction when they learn that I am traveling solo, I feel like a good handful of female solo travelers have been crossing my path. Maybe it’s the vibe I’m putting off. In addition to all the ladies at the massage school, I spent time with two other women in Chiang Mai. The first one, Abby, I met completely by chance. I was wandering around town looking for a post office and where I thought the post office would be, there I found Abby glancing down at her map, looking up at buildings, taking a few steps, then checking the map again. It was like a mirror image of what I was doing so I walked over and asked her what she was looking for and if she knew where the post office was. Immediate friendship. We found the post office, went and had lunch together, then split up for a bit. Abby had just completed a summer job in China and was traveling around for a month or so before returning to Colorado to start a geology-related job. It just so happens that her cousin had served in the Peace Corps, her sister had lived in Guatemala for a year, and she and her sister both know a PC Volunteer who served in Guatemala (in the community Eco-tourism sector) around the same time I did my service there. (I only knew Trent by name and “turtle-worker” reputation, not personally.) Talk about a small world.

Abby and I eating a traditional noodle and chicken dish called

Abby and I eating a traditional noodle and chicken dish called “Kao Soy” for lunch the afternoon we met.

In addition to Abby, a friend of mine and former pre-service trainer for my group in Peace Corps, Christine, is also currently traveling around Southeast Asia indefinitely, having recently completed a stint in South Sudan as a volunteer for the United Nations.We arranged to meet up in Chiang Mai, where she told me some crazy stories about South Sudan–not a place I’d ever like to go. Ever. Never ever. Relieved and ecstatic would be understatements to how Christine feels about being finished with her contract there; she is happy to be in a place of the world that has a reputation for being a place of healing. Some of the experiences Christine shared with me made me consider the sometimes unnecessary loads that “volunteers” take on in an effort to help others. Christine is an amazing woman and I feel that the next phase of her life will undoubtedly be a brighter one than the last.

That evening, Christine and I met up with Abby again so we could all attend the Ladyboy Cabaret Show together in the night bazaar–a show that had been recommended to me by my friend, Kristin, whom I had met in Bangkok. A recent cultural development in Thailand is the concept of a “Ladyboy,” transgender men who acquire “lady parts,” most commonly in the form of breasts, as well as “lady lifestyles” in regards to dressing and just being in life. While it is more common now than ever to see masculine-looking women in Thailand who you can discern as men as soon as they open their mouths, it is still a taboo topic with the modest and relatively private locals. I heard it is creating an issue with the monks and temples as well because monks live by certain rules relating to women–for example, male monks cannot physically touch a woman, if they are transferring an item to a woman, they have to put it on the ground first from where she will then pick it up, and women cannot enter a temple while they are menstruating–so being that ladyboys identify as women, but usually still have male parts, male/female classification isn’t so straightforward anymore. Blurred lines, perhaps? Anyway, we all thought the show was pretty entertaining and the costumes were great, along with the dramatic lip-syncing. Here’s a clip from one of the performances: https://youtu.be/4Owe__rhVwo

The costumes and performances were all out Cabaret-style with high energy, big moves, and lots of feathers.

The costumes and performances were all out Cabaret-style with high energy, big moves, and lots of feathers.

This is Abby (far right), Christine (second from right), the Rihanna Ladyboy, and I after the show. Crazy resemblance, right?

This is Abby (far right), Christine (second from right), the Rihanna Ladyboy, and I after the show. Crazy resemblance, right?

Some of the ladyboys weren't as convincing...

Some of the ladyboys weren’t as convincing…

The following day was low key, but I had plans to meet up with Abby in the afternoon for some activities around town. We planned to go to a temple, but it was too late in the day so we opted for some Thai Iced tea and the fish spa again. After that, we shared a delicious meal at a nice Burmese restaurant called “The Swan,” then hopped over to open night mic at a local Jazz club for a little bit before parting ways. It was really nice to have that companionship again; despite the minor annoyances of Chiang Mai, spending time with Abby and planning activities together made my week much more enjoyable.

On Wednesday, I signed up for an all day cooking class at Thai Orchid Cooking School. While I will save the food details for my next Backpacking Bonus which is all about Thai cuisine, I will say that the cooking experience was fabulous. Many of the dishes are so simple to make and usually it’s the chopping that will take the most time. The lady who runs the school, “A,” is wonderful. She runs the classes out of her home from 2-10 people daily (except Sundays) and creates a personalized experience for everyone; each person gets to select their favorite of three food options in each of the following categories: appetizer, soup, curry, stir fry, and dessert. By the end of the class at 3:30 in the afternoon, we had each prepared five dishes (and eaten them)! “A” also takes her students to the local market to show them what the ingredients look like, where to find them, and how to order them. She educated us on the local fruits and vegetables and how to eat them. Then, when we returned to her house, we sampled some of the popular fruits, fried banana, and lemongrass tea. The business she runs is brilliant and lucrative: for $35/person, each student comes away from the class feeling accomplished, excited, and full. Whereas I am trying to live on about $35-$40 per day, “A” is often bringing in nearly ten times that amount on a daily basis and she is so efficient, friendly, and humble. This is a great local business that I would encourage anyone visiting Chiang Mai to support.

Here

Here “A” is demonstrating to us the simple steps involved in making spring rolls.

I was so excited to dig into my pad thai creation! And even happier that I now know how to make it on my own.

I was so excited to dig into my pad thai creation! And even happier that I now know how to make it on my own.

Something else I was looking into doing while I was in Chiang Mai was taking a full day trip to the Elephant Nature Park to have an up-close-and-personal experience with a couple of rescued, formerly abused elephants. However, the park was fully booked for over week out (and I was only planning to be in Chiang Mai for a week) and the price for the very personal one-day package (8 people for 4 elephants which included feeding them, walking with them into the jungle and watching them play, bathing them in the river, and then observing them more in the afternoon, plus a picnic lunch, 30 minutes of river rafting back to the park, and transportation) was 6000 Baht, or nearly $175. I almost did it. For the experience, I was ready to pay that. It likely would have been worth it. But then there was the tipping point of my decision: those first four days of feeling unsettled and claustrophobic in Chiang Mai. Too many tourists, not enough space, and way too hot to be worrying about where I would stay from one day to the next. I know better than to try to force something when the universe has other plans; sometimes you can push and persistence will pay off, but at other times, you just have to know when to stop and have faith that things will organically happen as they are meant to be. In this case, I took the hint, knowing that I will very likely encounter elephants in other places in the journey ahead–and those places will probably be more affordable and have fewer tourists.

Unfortunately, before I left Chiang Mai, I had to move from my mini-hotel room to yet another lodge because the place was fully booked for Mother’s Day. In a total of eight nights I spent in Chiang Mai, I spent those nights in five different places. I could say poor planning on my part, however, all the info I had researched said not to lock yourself in anywhere because once you pay for it, they will NOT reimburse you if you change your mind (or if you get eaten alive by bedbugs and decide to leave), and some places you may not want to stay in for more than a night or two. I made my last move to “Smile House 1 Guesthouse” and it actually ended up being my favorite place of the week with lots of space, natural light, and although no A/C, there was a fan and the ventilation was fine. For about $11.50/night for a double room (because no singles were available), I had two nights of perfect sleep. The place even had a pool!

My final room in Chiang Mai at Smile House 1--a fabulous, airy, spacious bungalow!

My final room in Chiang Mai at Smile House 1–a fabulous, airy, spacious bungalow!

It seemed that things were working against me in Chiang Mai, but I finally could focus enough to write and finish a big chapter. As soon as I booked my ongoing ticket out of town, I immediately felt better and my last full day was smooth. I ran some errands, then headed up to a temple on the outskirts of town called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is the most revered temple of Chiang Mai because it sits way up on a mountaintop overlooking the entire city. To enter the temple, visitors must ascend a staircase with 306 steps, which is regarded as an act of meditation. The temple contains a lot of the usual golden Buddhas with two main prayer rooms, beautiful gardens, and a meditation area. I didn’t visit many temples in Chiang Mai, but I am glad I chose this one as the setting was peaceful.

Golden Buddhas surrounding the center temple at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Golden Buddhas surrounding the center temple at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

A panoramic view of Chiang Mai from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the revered temple sitting high above the city.

A panoramic view of Chiang Mai from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the revered temple sitting high above the city.

Classic view of the center temple and surrounding structures at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Classic view of the center temple and surrounding structures at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

That evening I had one more thing to do. My friend Alisa, from California, had seen that I was in Chiang Mai and suggested that I connect with her friend Peter via Facebook. I used to dog-sit for Alisa and her husband, Paul, before I started Peace Corps, and we have stayed in touch. Sure enough, when I reached out to Peter, who has been living in Chiang Mai for two and a half years now, he said that he and his wife, On, would be at a local spot that evening about a 10-minute walk from me. I wasn’t really sure was I was walking into, but I found myself at a tiny corner bar where both ex-pats and Thais hang out and play music. Peter, a songwriter, regularly accompanies local artists who sing while he plays the guitar (sometimes with other guys as well). I didn’t expect to be surrounded by ex-pats, but the handful of them, along with some very sweet Thai women (one of them Peter’s wife, On) were great company. Peter and his friend John, a California native who has retired and has been in Thailand for 6 years, both shared some great travel advice with me regarding the places I will be visiting soon. Because they know the area well, they both offered to be of assistance if I run into any trouble or just want any recommendations. So it was great to make new friends and hang around for some fun music! (Thank you, Alisa, for connecting us!)

Paul and his wife, On, were wonderful hosts to me when I stopped over to the local spot where Paul plays music regularly.

Paul and his wife, On, were wonderful hosts to me when I stopped over to the local spot where Paul plays music regularly.

I am trying to outrun monsoon season, which hits the Southeast Asia mainland hard in September, with heavy rains through October. This pending weather is dictating my travel route so I have to move fast through the mainland and am planning to spend another day or two in Laos, then head to Cambodia for 7-10 days which should take me to the first week of September, at which point I may slide back across the border into Thailand again so I can fly out of Bangkok cheaply to get to Bali, in the Indonesian Archipelago. Monsoon season in the mainland is actually dry season for most of Indonesia so it will be a perfect time to be there. Plus all the summer vacation tourists will be back in their own countries which means fewer crowds and lower prices. That’s a bonus that I am very much looking forward to after getting double-slammed by summer vacation and national holiday visitors in Chiang Mai.

TRAVEL TIP: Spend a few minutes studying a map and then walking around a new town once you arrive. Getting oriented from the start may save a lot of time and frustration as it could keep you from getting lost. If you know where you are, you’ll know how long it takes to get to where you need to go, reducing the likelihood of not making it to a tour/bus station/other scheduled activity on time. Also, if you’ve been in transit for several hours, taking a walk through town is a good way to stretch out and get your legs going while feeling out the vibe of the new place. And if you’re really looking, you might discover some hidden treasures or places you might want to revisit once you settle in!

Much love,

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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