Our experiences in Bangkok, Khao Lak and Chiang Mai
Asian elephants have been in northern Thailand for hundreds of years. Originally they were used for transportation, logging, farming, while also being major players in combat battles. Riding elephants used to be done in the army by someone who would play the drum throughout the battle. If the drum ceased playing, they were dead and it was signal to retreat or surrender. They were also killed for their ivory tusks. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and are brown rather than grey. Their ears are smaller and their trunks have two holes instead of one.
Riding elephants became popularized for pleasure by the cinema, with many tourists coming to Thailand in the hopes of crossing “ride an elephant” off their bucket list. The mentality has changed recently with animal welfare groups bringing more attention to the poor conditions of the elephants in Thailand. Alayna was in southern Thailand four years ago and rode an elephant at that time (and then felt bad doing it because the elephant had chained ankles and was whipped in the head), and has noticed a huge shift in marketing. No longer are there places advertising “ride an elephant” but rather in big letters state “NO ELEPHANT RIDING”, with the words “elephant sanctuary” being put on every page. Many of those elephant riding places simply have changed their names and marketed themselves as sanctuaries, while few of them actually are. The true sanctuaries house elephants that have been mistreated by owners and are now living the life of mud baths and sugar cane. You have to do your research to determine which advertisements are legitimate, but in the end at least you are supporting happy elephants (hopefully).
We found an elephant sanctuary that lies in a National Park about two hours southwest of Chiang Mai. After a very long and bumpy ride in the back of a truck we arrived to find five elephants (ranging in age from 18 – ~50 years old) happily awaiting us to be hand fed a nice snack. We changed into the uniform (so that the elephants think the feeders are the same people every day) and started feeding them sugar cane. They grab it with their trunks, or if you are brave enough you can plop it right in their massive mouth.
After the snack we headed into the forest with the elephants for a little walk, and of course, for the elephants to find more to eat. They eat 18 hours a day, consuming between 100-200 kg of food. They are surprisingly agile for such large creatures and traverse the muddy slopes with ease. The larger human “elephants” of our tour group had much more difficulty with the hike.
Being a four ton animal, they have a lot of thermal mass, especially under the Thai sun. To protect their skin and keep them cool, they cover themselves in dirt or mud. We headed down to the mudpit-elephant spa and proceeded to rub mud onto their giant bodies. Behind the ears is a key spot and I think if they could purr, they would be doing so. Laying in the water, belly sticking up like a small island and the end of the trunk sticking up like a snorkel, we lathered on the muck.
Then it was time for a bath (for both the elephants and us). We headed to the waterfall and dipped into the freezing cold water to await the chain of elephants. They came slowly and when they arrived we all sprayed them with buckets of water to get the mud off. Some like it and will stay and roll around, others promptly go up to the main area to dry off and get more food. One got into the water and promptly let out 5 coconut sized balls of dung right where we were standing to peacefully float down the river (they create 50-60kg of dung per day).
I am sure it costs a lot to keep an elephant, but we paid a sizeable amount of money for a one day experience. There were roughly 20 tourists there. We think that most of these places (true sanctuary or not) are still making good money off of the tourist industry. It was a neat experience and the elephants seem to have pretty good lives all-in-all.
We are soon departing Asia, with a couple days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before arriving in Australia. We’ve had three months in Asia and are ready to get back to the commonwealth. It’s been an amazing experience with so many adventures that it’s hard to even remember them all. What am I most excited for moving on? Toilet paper in the bathrooms. (Alayna)
Chiang Mai is famous for being the lantern center in Asia. A festival called Yi Peng, which occurs on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (mid November usually), is celebrated by releasing lanterns into the sky, or floating them away on the water. A lantern festival has been on Alayna’s bucket list for quite some time. For those of you with children, it’s like what happens in the movie Frozen. We obviously missed the lantern festival in November, but luckily enough a similar thing happens at New Year’s eve.
It’s extremely hard to fully capture the magical sight of thousands of lanterns floating through the night sky. We arrived to the main square area around 10 PM and already there were hundreds of lanterns drifting through the sky, guiding our way to the main site. Once there, many locals were selling lanterns; a small size for $1, a large size for double. They come folded up with a large circular wick in the middle. You are supposed to write your New Year’s resolution or a your wishes for the future and think of them as you release the lantern into the night sky. Releasing the lantern symbolizes letting go of the misfortunes and illness of the previous year.
Some people’s lanterns and dreams immediately caught fire and burnt to the ground. Others got caught in trees, and some had holes in them and never took off at all. A little depressing start to those New Year’s resolutions so carefully thought out, but realistic nonetheless. Thankfully, all of the three lanterns that we set off floated blissfully into the night sky.
It’s interesting to see how the lanterns change direction with the invisible wind currents that are in the sky. They start floating one way with the breeze you can feel on the ground, and then loop up and around and go back the opposite direction so high above you that they look like stars. What goes up must come down; indeed they do, burnt out lanterns fall in the northern part of the city, littering the streets and homes. Airplanes adjust their routes and certain flights are cancelled during these times.
There was no loud music, no big countdown, and the stroke of midnight passed us by without us really knowing it. It’s a little confusing to start with, because Thailand uses the Buddhist calendar, which is 543 years ahead of us. Happy 2562 everyone!
A very Merry Christmas from us here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On Christmas Eve we went out and found ourselves a small Christmas tree at a stationary shop, got some wrapping paper and did some very last minute Christmas shopping so that we each had a gift to open Christmas morning. We had dinner with a friend from our Myanmar volunteering and then came back to our condo to decorate.
Today (Christmas) we had a huge English breakfast and then Alayna set to baking a pie in our “kitchen” which consists of 2 spoons, 2 forks, 2 teacups, 2 cereal bowls, 2 plates and a microwave. With a little ingenuity, a handmade pie crust was made by rolling the dough with the teacup, and baked in the microwave. Voila a cherry cheesecake pie was made and consumed with merry cheer. Our plans for the rest of the day are to relax, go swimming in our pool and go to the movies later. We wish you all an amazing Christmas and wish we could celebrate with you. We are there in spirit (and occasionally video calls) and are thinking of you this holiday season.
Air Asia Flight number FD371 from Phuket to Chang Mai. You’re sitting in the boarding area waiting for the attendants to announce the gate opening. Glancing around you see the normal skew of people that frequent these flights. There’s the young backpackers glued to their phones, the couple who look like they’ve done this a thousand times, an elderly lady who’s being assisted by her adult child, families burdened by all the things they brought, and locals who desperately want to get this over with. Finally you have one of Thailand’s finest imports: the Western douchebag. They range from the well kept, tattoo covered, trimmed beard and designer clothes to the grubby, hipster look: the “I’m-so-damn-cool-cause-I-live-in-Asia-and-that-makes-me-special”. Their demeanor screams obnoxiousness, ignorance, and a touch of arrogance; it unites them all. Irritating as they are, they’re not harmful to anything besides your psyche.
An attendant begins an announcement in a dreary, broken English. What did he say? Who knows but everyone begins charging the desk to be first in queue. This is to expected with a budget airline as there is limited space in the overhead compartments. You’re unfazed by the commonplace behaviour and meander your way to the end of the line; no point in wasting energy on this battle, more are sure to come. Surprisingly, you arrive in your seat unscathed, with a space for your carry on, and before most others have boarded. Perfect, the worst is over with! you think as you try to drift away to your ‘happy place’ for the next 1.5 hours. As fate would have it, you’re sitting in the second last row of the plane, on the aisle, close to the toilets. A minor annoyance at worst. The seat offers you, however, a perfect vantage point for those still boarding. Most of the seats around you have yet to be filled but you’ve seen the crowd in the boarding area and you know it will be a full flight. Let’s nickname the plane’s, dirty, 32 seat aisle as “chaos catwalk” for its loose resemblance of a model’s runway. The first to stumble down chaos catwalk are a couple who share a tension between them. No biggie; no one’s expecting you to be chipper whilst in this tin can. Next to trickle down chaos catwalk is a 20 – something, bearded fellow who looks completely detached from reality, likely his way of dealing with Air Asia travel. He clutches his Lord of the Rings book tightly as he hops over the passenger in the aisle seat, using your headrest to balance himself. Not the most pleasant thing to have your seat smashed but “this is budget travel” you remind yourself. More passengers board and fill the spaces around you, most of whom seem normal enough with a sprinkling of Western douchebags having loud conversations. The last one to walk the catwalk is a quasi douchebag, who’s obviously high out of his mind. He walks as if the whole of his concentration is focused on how to walk like a normal human being. He’s wearing a gold watch, has tattoos, ripped jeans and a muscle top. Earbuds are firmly placed in his ears and he is ferociously chewing a massive wad of gum. He doesn’t say anything to Alayna, who is sitting in the other aisle seat next to you, but stares intently at his assigned window seat beside her. She allows him to pass and sits again. The stage is now set.
Within moments of the plane being pushed back, a fight erupts between the couple sitting in front of you. The male is trying to calm down the female who looks like she is about to absolutely lose her mind. It sounds like the fight has been brewing for days and nothing will stop what is about to come. She’s talking under her breath and crying but every few seconds the intensity increases. Suddenly, BAM! the seat directly in-front of you smashes backwards. Then again and again. The seats are so tightly jammed together that it almost hits your face. “Doesn’t this guy know that seats remain up until cruising altitude?”, you think as the seat continues to bang back and forth. As the fight between the couple grows and become more personal and messy, the bearded reader behind you hops out to the aisle again, smashing your crappy seat forward. Your face is only an inch away from the guy infront of you playing with his seat. Now the bearded reader is on his tippy toes looking for something in the over head compartment. His hairy belly and crotch region is almost touching your shoulder as he rustles through the luggage above you. BAM! The seat almost hits you again in the face but to look to your right is only crotch and belly. The female in the fight infront of you is now bawling in frustration and is smashing something while her male partner tries to hold her down. You glance to your left and see two very petite Chinese girls both looking perfectly straight ahead with face masks on. “Our row will be the pillar of normal” you think as the plane gains altitude. The lights are dimmed and now all that can be heard is the fighting infront of you and the obnoxious conversations coming from the douchebags that surround you. Druggie dude is now chewing at 144 bites per minute (Alayna counted) and mesmerized by the headrest that is infront of him.
BAM! and then a terrible horking sound coming from an unknown origin. The guy infront of you finally signals to you that his chair is broken and won’t lock – yes, it has taken him screwing around with it for 20 minutes to finally figure that out. He scrambles forward to the next row. Turbulence ensues and it’s pretty rough. Not uncommon for a tropical climate and we are flying lower than usual because the distance is so short. Suddenly, between the full on fight ahead of you, the obnoxious conversations, the toilet door smashing open and shut, the god awful horking and the seat smashing comes a disgusting vomit session from the Chinese girl beside you. “Faaannntastic, it’s probably Ebola“, you think as she moans quietly. Don’t think for a second this dampens ANY of the crazy that surrounds you. A flight attendant comes to collect the vomit bag. She passes the bag over your lap to him and he nonchalantly swings it around while distracted by a previous conversation with a colleague. “How the hell did such a small girl produce so much excrement?” is your first thought as you study the white baggy. Then the rancid smell of vomit hits your nostrils and your stomach curls. BAM! The seat infront of you which was vacated for a little bit is now occupied by the fighting couple. You glance over and Alayna is laughing. It can’t get any worse can it? HORK! This horking session makes you want to scratch your ears out. The local Thais are chatting away as if all is normal. Looking around you chuckle, anyone of these things could wreck your flight but somehow adding them all together in a symphony of madness provides you with some humour. You close your eyes and think of sitting around a Christmas tree, surrounded by family and friends, snow falling outside and the warm glow of a fireplace on your skin. That’s your happy place.
Picture yourself hovering slightly above the ocean floor; all around you are beautiful fish and marine life. Massive coral reefs stand like apartment buildings housing their tiny, exotic inhabitants. 14m of ocean rests above you, compressing your body and all the gases within it. Sound is distorted, making the experience feel foreign and other worldly. Most of what you hear is your breathing – consisting of the air regulator’s unique sound of providing air, followed by the bubbling of your exhalation. Your peripheral vision is blocked by the diving mask that sits firmly on your face.
This adds an additional handicap that makes you feel vulnerable. You’re acutely aware of the fact that you cannot surface without following ascent protocols so you don’t suffer from the dreaded “bends”. Your mind scampers between the feeling of amazement and fear. A tension starting deep in your stomach slowly builds and permeates upwards towards your chest. Suddenly you can feel your heart pounding in your throat and hear it echoing in your ears. Panic consumes you and plays with your mind.
You begin gasping for air. It feels like you’re watching as a bystander as all this unfolds in seconds. Your brain reprimands you, “You idiot, why did you do this? Swim up to the surface and breath!”. The feelings are primal and visceral. The urge is powerfully tempting and you struggle to keep from its grip. Somehow section 4.5 of your training manual pops into your head (your brain works in mysterious ways). Recalling a breathing technique that was mentioned, you begin slow, deep breaths. Within seconds the heart pounding disappears and your anxiety vanishes. It’s only now that you realize what lays before you. A gorgeous, little clown fish that’s swimming around his wonderful sea anemone home. You’ve seen Finding Nemo so you know how special this little guy is. Looking around his home you see thousands of other beautiful fish all going about their lives, not in the least bit concerned about your presence. You think to yourself, “This is incredible but what was the deal with that anxiety, where did it come from?”. You can’t shake the feeling that it came so quickly once that it may rear its nasty head again. Mid thought you notice an incredible Lion Fish, striped like a zebra, bouncing along some coral. This steals your mind’s focus and before you know it you’re ascending. Slowly and following your dive computer’s instructions, you emerge from the water’s surface. In the splashing waves you inflate your buoyancy vest and bob in the ocean. You survived.
Diving can be tough. It can also be very natural and easy. What we’ve found is it’s mainly psychological. Remaining calm and following your training is essential to safe diving. That’s easier said then done; it comes with experience and needs to be ingrained in a diver’s actions. We have passed our Open Water Scuba Diving certification which means we are now licensed divers! We have both wanted to get our Scuba licenses for years now and finally that day has come. We did four open water dives, two were at a shipwreck from the 1980’s and the other two were at the Surin Islands.
Both of these dive sites are world class locations which is why we chose them. The license consists of a theoretical portion with written tests and a practical portion with live tests. Taking off your dive mask is a daunting task when you’re 16m below the ocean’s surface.The challenges keep coming and by the 3rd and final exhausting day you’re ready to be done with the whole thing. We pushed through with the certification even when we were demoralized by the thought of spending a lot of money and not enjoying the process. Here we are, licensed divers, feeling a sense of accomplishment. We’re also more comfortable with the dives themselves which means a more enjoyable experience. We only have a handful of our own photos as taking them while at sea is a challenge. We will use other photos similar to what we saw when we were diving. Too often you hear that diving is incredible and life changing. While that’s true, what’s left out is how difficult it can be and how things can take a scary turn abruptly. We wanted to share a different perspective.
We are now in full relaxation mode, enjoying the world class beaches from above sea level. It’s much easier to remain calm while sipping on banana mango milkshakes with one’s butt firmly planted on the beach.
Bangkok. Just the name itself immediately conjures up images of craziness, dirty streets, and delicious food. Well, one of those three is correct.
The most people know about Bangkok from movies like “The Hangover 2” in which “Bangkok’s got him now” is said in a sinister voice followed by mayhem and disaster. In reality, it’s not that bad.
Bangkok is the capital city of Thailand and is often referred to as the gateway to Asia. Pretty much smack dab in the middle of all Asian countries it’s nestled along a large river with canals snaking through it. Its significant development and expansion started in the 1960’s and its population has boomed from 2 million to over 10 million. Its demographics have also changed; nearly half of its population is under 20 years old, and about 1/3 of the city’s population are expatriates.
With this booming growth there are some noticeable infrastructure problems, but they seem fairly minimal. The traffic lights are obeyed, there’s limited honking, streets are clean and there are sidewalks to walk on. Granted, we have mainly been in the touristy areas but so far the city looks well put together. One issue we’ve noticed is public transport, especially the ferry boats. Jammed in and herded like cattle we traversed the river. We did not take the ferry back across, we opted to spend $3 and take a clean, air-conditioned taxi.
The young population makes it a city for nightlife and partying. There are particular roads which do get a little crazy. You can buy laughing gas, do some shots served by lady-boys, eat some deep fried insects (Alayna tried a cricket), get a massage and jump in a tuk tuk and cruise around under a disco ball. For us, the most enjoyment can be had by sitting on a patio and people watching.
Bangkok is also world renowned for its street food. Sweet, salty, and savoury dishes, with the freshest ingredients, are cooked up right in front of you in a small wok on a cart, or even from a boat if you go to the floating markets.
Absolutely everything you could think of, and many things that you never would have thought of, are available for you to purchase.
Most street food meals are about $2-4. If you want to sit down in a restaurant then the same meal will cost you $6-10. The best way to do street food is to grab a few dishes from a few places, sit down at a plastic chair, and feast. The only issue with that is they do not provide any plates, cutlery, napkins, and sometimes your soup will come in a plastic bag (geared towards locals taking it home to eat, but you don’t find out until after you ordered it).
If the street food is not enough to get you out to some of the markets, the shopping will. Bangkok is home to the world’s largest weekend market: Chatachuk market. It houses over 15,000 stalls spread across 27 acres. We were one of the 200,000 visitors when we went. You endlessly wander through the stalls, not trying to go in any particular direction because that would be a hopeless endeavour. The stalls are vast and once you’ve wandered in the heat for long enough, there’s that beautiful stall of fresh coconut ice cream awaiting. The cool, creamy, coconut tastes like chilled heaven after squeezing your way through the alleys. The mango is also to die for. It melts in your mouth.
So we bought some stretchy pants and loose shirts. We’re going to need them.