Temples on temples on temples: my week in Thailand (December 2016)

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At the end of our meeting, my supervisor asked, “Why haven’t you requested time off next week?” Confused, I asked why I would. Her response was something along the lines of, “Well, there’s a four-day weekend! You only need to take three vacation days to end up with nine days off. Go look up flights!” This is how, just over a week later, I found myself on a plane to Bangkok, Thailand.

I live on a beautiful island (Sri Lanka) and so I get a lot of amazing beach time along the coast. So, while I definitely want to explore the southern beaches of Thailand someday, it wasn’t the right time to do that. For this trip, I decided instead to work my way by bus and train from Bangkok to the hills in northern Thailand. I was excited to explore Thailand’s nature and cultural sites as well as eat as much Thai vegan food as I could over the next eight days. I was also excited because it had been a while since I had traveled by myself and, though I love traveling with friends, I was eager to get back into the groove of doing whatever I want, whenever I want.

After landing in Bangkok, I immediately traveled into the city to the famous neighbourhood around Khao San road. It’s touristy but amazing and I knew that, while I’d probably be overwhelmed by its chaos, it was something I had to see as part of my first time in the country. I dropped my backpack at my hostel (Nappark, which I would highly recommend!), bought a fresh mango juice on the road, and wandered through the chaos of the neighbourhood’s small shops and street markets to arrive at the Grand Palace.

A couple of months before, the king of Thailand had passed away, which meant the Grand Palace when I visited was still a place of mourning. (It also meant most of the cultural sites I visited on my trip were free, which was a bittersweet bonus.) All over Bangkok and especially around the Grand Palace, people had traveled to say goodbye to their king. Most people in the city were dressed in black and most buildings in Bangkok – especially those nearest to the palace – were draped in white and black cloth to honour the king’s passing. It was a very moving sight to witness.

As I took in all the hustle and bustle of mourners around the Grand Palace, three tourists rushed past me. They assumed that I, too, was heading to the palace so they waved me forward to run with them. We didn’t share a language but I felt their urgency so, laughing, I ran with them. I am sure thankful I did because I just made it in time to get entrance to the temple before it closed its doors for the evening. I explored the Grand Palace grounds for about an hour, marveling at the beauty, size, and shininess of it all. (Food side-note: After all that excitement, I settled down for dinner at Mango, a vegan restaurant near my hostel. I especially recommend the coconut ice cream.)

The next day, before my train to Ayutthaya, I walked the quiet Sunday streets of Bangkok on a mission to visit a couple of the famous Buddhist temples in the area where I stayed the night before. I visited the Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn). I also walked through the national museum and an indoor flower market, which was filled with the same lush purple and yellow flowers at hundreds and hundreds of stands. (Food side-note: I ate lunch at Ethos, another excellent vegan restaurant. It was mostly a friendly place except for the weirdly threatening note in its menu about how they don’t serve Coca-Cola because it’s a concoction of chemicals designed to kill you…)

Then, I took the train about an hour to Ayutthaya, where I stayed for the night. (Funny story: I went to the train station, bought my ticket and got on the train before realizing that I had forgotten to pick up my passport again from the hostel. I had just enough time before the train left to hail a taxi, get myself to the hostel, convince the driver to stay nearby for five mins, grab my passport, then race back to the train station. I made my train but, oh boy, it was a close one.)

The next day in Ayutthaya, I rented a rickety bicycle from my hostel (AllSum, another place I would highly recommend). For those that know me, you know I’m mostly terrified of bicycling on roads… but everyone at the hostel agreed that biking or scootering were my best options for getting around and I was NOT about to drive myself around on a scooter (I’m too young to die). So, I chose biking as my mode of transport around the incredible historical park in Ayutthaya. The ruins there are breathtaking. Ayutthaya was founded around 1350CE as the second Siamese capital (after Sukhothai). They were mostly destroyed by a Burmese invasion in the 18th century but they are nonetheless incredibly beautiful to explore. I sweat out most of my body weight that day, biking over twenty kilometers in the sun, but I loved every minute of exploring those ruins. (Non-food side-note: I want to give a shout-out to the Dutch guy who became my biking coach for a couple of hours and taught me how to cross a six-lane Thai highway on a bicycle without dying. Thank you!)

After exploring temples in Bangkok and then some ancient temples in Ayutthaya, I figured I hadn’t had enough temples (haha) so I traveled by bus to Sukhothai, which you might remember from the paragraph above as the first Siamese capital, which was active during the 13th and 14th centuries. The ruins in Sukhothai are very different from those in Ayutthaya so, as someone who enjoys visiting cultural sites like temples and ruins, I’m glad I went to both. I again rented a bicycle and whizzed around from temple to temple so proud of my newfound biking confidence.

From Sukhothai, I traveled by bus to Chiang Mai, a large city in northern Thailand that is famous for its night market and vegetarian food (yum!). I expected to love Chiang Mai but after a day of exploring, including visiting the beautiful temples Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Pra Sing, I felt it was time to move on. Chiang Mai seemed like a nice place to live but not the most exciting place to be a tourist with my interests. Besides, everyone was saying that Pai was the place to be for nature lovers… so I clamoured into a minibus on its way to Pai.

The route to Pai from Chiang Mai is one of the windiest roads in the country. It is so treacherous that experienced motorcyclists will not take the route (though tourists on scooters ride it – and crash on the way – everyday). It’s also so windy that every minibus that travels there has signs posted stating the hefty fine for throwing up on the upholstery in the vehicle. I thanked God that I generally don’t experience motion sickness and settled in for one of the most uncomfortable bus rides of my life. (Thank God also for distracting podcasts. I listened to several episodes of Stuff Mom Never Told You on the way.)

Though it was touch-and-go at times, I made it to Pai in one piece (hurrah!) and only two people on our bus were carsick so that’s good… I guess? I was thankful to finally have my feet on solid ground and followed Google Maps to the hostel I had booked myself in for the night. Long story short, I would NOT recommend this hostel (which will remain nameless). After almost an hour of deciding what to do about the fact that I’d already paid to stay in that hellhole, I finally decided to give up the money I’d spent on a bed there that night and wander back into town to find somewhere less awful. Thankfully, a kindly hostel owner took pity on me and let me check in to his last dorm bed, even though it was by then well past midnight. It was clear, though unspoken, that I wasn’t the first backpacker he had rescued from the horrors (bugs, filth, grime) of the other hostel.

After all that fuss, I actually had an excellent night’s sleep and was rested well the next morning for the six hour hike I took by myself to the beautiful Mae Yen Luang waterfall. It was on this hike that I began to understand why everyone was telling me to go to Pai. Surrounded by hills and forest and waterfalls is truly a nature lover’s dream. After the hike, I showered and walked out of town to eat some delicious food at the most hippie restaurant I ever visited (Earth Tones – so good!) walked up a BILLION stairs to watch the sunset from the perch of Pai’s White Buddha. It was truly magical to watch the hills cast shadows across the valley as the sun set.

My second day in Pai, I visited Pai Canyon. I borrowed a bike from my hostel, which was the most rickety bike of the trip because it was stuck on a gear that forced me to peddle very quickly to get anywhere. The eight kilometre ride from the town to the canyon was a bit of an adventure on that bike, especially up and down those hills (I walked the bike for quite a few, if I’m honest), but I was so proud of myself when I arrived at the canyon. I guzzled some water and a coconut and then some more water to stay hydrated then hiked up and down the little narrow paths in the canyon. The views of the hills in the distance were outstanding and the canyon itself is very unique. I’m fairly sure the rock in the canyon is made of some kind of chalk because after a couple of hours I was covered in a fine beige powder. After my exploring the canyon, I grabbed my poor excuse for a bicycle to pedal my way the eight kilometres back into town.

I spent another night in Chiang Mai – eating at more delicious vegetarian restaurants (a standout was “Taste from Heaven”) and visiting more temples (Wat Sri Suphan with its silver sanctuary was especially beautiful) – before flying back to Bangkok and then, flying home to Colombo. In all, my trip to Thailand was exactly what I wanted. I met some really cool people (and some ~interesting~ people, too) and got to do all the things I love, including seeing ancient stuff, spending time in nature, eating vegan food, and reading good books on the road.

An interesting side-effect from my week in Thailand was how much it made me grateful for the more immersive experience I am gaining in Sri Lanka. Because I’m spending months and months here living and working and traveling, I’m gaining an understanding of the country that I would be unable to access if I was passing through for only a week or two. I still believe that shorter travel is valuable and amazing. But it’s different from what I’m doing in Sri Lanka and I’m thankful that I’m able to spend more time learning about this incredibly complex and beautiful country.

Photos from my holiday:

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First stop: the grand palace in Bangkok

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Look at how beautiful the walls are there!

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The walls at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are also amazing (And here’s a fun fact: there’s a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha in Colombo at Gangaramaya Temple that was a gift from Buddhists in Thailand to Buddhists in Sri Lanka.)

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The garden of the grand palace

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Hanging out at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha… (PS: RIP sunglasses that I left somewhere in Thailand)

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The reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha)

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A small ferry that bring folks across the river to visit Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn)

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The garden at Wat Arun

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Flowers at the flower market I visited in Bangkok

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View from the only tuk-tuk I took in Thailand (they’re not a good deal but it’s all ~part of the experience~ so I had to take ONE… I prefer Sri Lankan tuks but I’m biased!)

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A very famous relic of eras passed in Ayutthaya

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More ruins at Ayutthaya

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More ruins at Ayutthaya – breathtaking!

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I biked SO far out of my way in the high noon sun to see this statue… Very worth it! (Also in Ayutthaya)

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Seaweed chips? YES PLEASE

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Ruins part 2 at Sukhothai (This is the most hilarious photo to me because I look VERY excited that I had just discovered self-timer photos and could free myself of selfies while touring solo!)

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Ruins at Sukhothai (Also check out that Ceylonese style stupa behind the statue. Sri Lanka-inspired ancient architecture right there!)

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Also had to bike far out of my way to see this GIGANTIC statue (photo doesn’t do it justice) but it was also very worth it

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In Sri Lanka, it’s not appropriate to take photos with Buddha – there are signs everywhere at touristy religious sites – but I asked around in Thailand and it didn’t seem like an issue there, which I found interesting. (That said, if you know that it is in fact an issue, let me know and I’ll remove this pic!)

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Lanterns in Sukhothai

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Surely the most colourful building in Sukhothai

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Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

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These guys guard the staircase leading up to the temple at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

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Wat Pra Sing in Chiang Mai is a vision of gold!

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Inside one of the temples at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai

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A book shop next to a vegan restaurant = heaven indeed!

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Mae Yen waterfall in Pai

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The famous white Buddha in Pai

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Sunset over Pai from the top of the stairs to the white Buddha

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Pai Canyon

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Some of the beautiful hills of Pai spotted while biking back from the canyon

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Peaceful moments with a cup of ginger tea and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods” at my hostel in Pai

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I visited one last temple before I flew through Bangkok back to Colombo. (This is the silver sanctuary at Wat Sri Suphan.)