Archive for the 'Thailand' Category

February 17th 2008
Dude Looks Like A Lady

Posted under Thailand

After a glorious boat trip, we decided to spend our last two nights in southern Thailand in a beach town called Patong, well known for its raucous and somewhat seedy nightlife. We were dropped off near the beach around 5 p.m. and, having made no prior reservation for a hotel room, humped our burdensome load around town in the muggy afternoon heat looking for cheap digs. It wasn’t long before we settled on “beach budget” accommodation at nearly three times the rate we’d paid everywhere else in Thailand. The spotless air-conditioned lobby with smiling receptionists in tailored silk suits and complementary iced chrysanthemum tea enveloped our weary senses like a desert oasis and we eagerly booked the last available room in paradise, relatively speaking, for two nights.

We freshened up and went out exploring. Our hostel was two blocks from the beach and every street was crowded with sun-kissed tourists patronizing the endless merchant stalls and patio restaurants. The sun was just beginning its slow descent behind a jagged mount jutting out from the mainland and already the city was alight with flashy, Vegas-style neon signs advertising disco clubs, go-go bars, and beach-themed restaurants. As we walked down the pub and club-lined Th Bangla road, a medley of party tunes rang out from the booming open-air venues already speckled with the most eager revelers. It was Valentine’s Day – the happy Hallmark holiday has spread to Thailand – and fancy beachside restaurants straightened their tables and perfected their displays of fresh seafood over crushed ice beds on the sidewalk, enticing inside those pheromone-saturated tourists looking to celebrate love and lust with reckless abandon of all financial boundaries.

As we leisurely strolled by the lines of lobster tails, gargantuan prawns and all varieties of fresh fish, the candlelit tables with well-dressed two-week travelers toasting glistening glasses of vino, we were almost immune to the decadence in which our former yuppie selves would once have thoughtlessly indulged with the easy swipe of a credit card. No, after four straight days of Thai cuisine on the dive boat, we had tunnel vision and, at the end of the tunnel, was Ronald McDonald saying “Sawasdee Khrap” with traditional Thai prayer hands. In the States, our fast food cravings were few and far between but, on the road, those golden arches symbolize a little taste of home. So often while traveling, we order a dish that is considered “international” to that particular country and it never meets our wishful expectations. For example, I ordered spicy Chinese chow mein noodles in India and got spaghetti noodles swimming in Tabasco. Aaron ordered a grilled cheese in Thailand and got two slices of cold toast with lettuce, tomato and a non-melted slice of white processed cheese. An Italian restaurant in India isn’t owned by an Italian expatriate but rather an ambitious Indian whose interpretation of Italian food would surely induce a spew of curses from any true blood Italian. At McDonald’s, you know that the double cheeseburger and fries tastes exactly the same in Thailand as it does at home. With our bellies full of greasy fast food, we rolled ourselves back to the hotel to relax and hibernate after our long day.

We slept in and spent the day at the beach, which was already crowded upon our arrival. We secured a couple of beach chairs under an umbrella and took in the scene. While topless sunbathing is generally discouraged, there are enough Europeans on their much-coveted-by-axe-grinding-Americans month-long holidays to ensure uninhibited displays of old, sagging boobs. While I wholeheartedly admire women with the self-confidence to bare it all, it does seem unfortunate that with all of the obviously expensive, custom designed sets of knockers on the beach, the only ones bared are those of the fabulous fifty-plus matrons with nipples approaching belly button levels. You go, girls!

The Patong Thais have the beach commercialism mastered. Without ever leaving the comfort of your chair, you can secure a variety of deep fried delights, skewered meats, perfectly ripe fresh fruit, smoothies, beer, cocktails, nonalcoholic beverages, coconut oil, wall hangings, sunglasses, handbags, sundresses, musical instruments and massages among other things. The powder white sand and emerald green water live up to Thailand’s reputation for idyllic beaches. We spent the better part of three hours reading under our umbrella with intermittent dips and bouts of people-watching thrown in for good measure and then wandered back to the room to clean up for our first evening activity: a drag show at the Phuket Simon Cabaret.

Homosexuals and transvestites enjoy widespread acceptance in southern Thailand. The often indistinguishable kathoeys or “ladyboys” are commonly considered the third gender. All of the performers at Simon Cabaret are genetically male but their hormone-induced curves, breast implants, stage makeup and unbelievable tuck jobs (unless they’ve actually had the snip) leave even the most critical eye in doubt. We were blown away by the quality of the performance; the brilliant costumes, elaborate sets and energetic lip-synched dance numbers held our firm attention for over an hour until the grand finale signaled the end of the show and the beginning of the rest of our night.

Back on the streets of Patong Beach, we learned that Jon would come over from Phuket Town and meet us around 11:30 so we had a couple of hours to kill around town. With our day at the beach finally pushing a wave of fatigue over us, we alternated between beer and iced coffee as we bar hopped and browsed the cute little clothing shops. By day, Patong is a family-friendly atmosphere but the blackening sky brings out the seedier elements – beautiful, young Thai prostitutes accompanying unattractive, middle-aged western men; scantily clad “ladyboys” dancing on bars and posing for raunchy photos with tourists for cash; costumed cabaret dancers beckoning patrons inside and plenty of adult entertainment venues offering menus of perversities. Sex is definitely for sale in Thailand. We met Jon and a few of his friends and had a spectacular night of alcohol-induced people-watching as we bounced around to a few different bars. When we finally made it back to our hotel, around 4 a.m., we passed out and woke the next morning (surprisingly not hung over) with just enough time to quickly shower and check out. It was the perfect end to our adventures in southern Thailand.


February 16th 2008
Living Aboard on the Andaman Sea

Posted under Thailand

Most scuba divers will tell you that the best diving is done from a live aboard boat. A live aboard is basically a sea-worthy vessel equipped with sleeping berths and a dedicated deck to house scuba tanks, equipment and an air compressor. These boats usually sleep as few as six people or as many as thirty, depending upon the size and design of the boat, although fewer divers usually makes the experience more pleasant. The advantages of a live aboard are basically three-fold; you can reach far away dive sites which are practically undesirable for a day trip, there’s no need to switch tanks and gear between dives because your original tank is simply refilled by the compressor onboard, and minimized boat travel time means more time for diving. But diving from a live aboard can be expensive and you’re stuck, for better or worse, in rough seas or calm, in the middle of the ocean on a boat. Given our passion for diving and proximity to a world-class diving destination, we tossed our budget out the window and booked the best, last-minute boat deal that we could find; a four-day, four-night trip to the Similans aboard the Vilai Samut.

The Vilai Samut (meaning Sea Anchor in Thai), has the capacity to carry 22 divers plus crew, but our trip had only 10 divers plus an all-Thai crew: two dive guides, two kitchen staff, two deckhands, and the captain. Our itinerary included the Similan Islands, plus two small islands north, Koh Tachai and Koh Bon, and an underwater sea mount near the Burma Banks named Richelieu Rock. For three glorious days we followed a full but relaxing daily schedule; 8am dive (one), eat, sleep, 11am dive (two), eat, sleep, 3pm dive (three), eat, sleep, 7pm night dive (four), eat, sleep. We lazed on the sun on deck, immersed ourselves in good books or quiet conversation, and took intermittent naps, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat.

The diving was good to great, but varied significantly between dive sites. The visibility was better than average but we were often plagued by thermo clines, currents of cold water mixing with warm water, sending chills through our wetsuits and significantly reducing visibility. Most of the reefs were in very good condition, surprisingly unaffected by the December 26, 2004 tsunami that devastated the Thailand west coast. According to our dive guides, the greatest threat to these reefs now is the tourist masses, boating in each day to snorkel and dive the islands. During our twelve dives we found the reefs to be plentiful with fish life, big and small. We saw hundreds of schools of reef fish, numerous giant moray eels, gigantic tuna, a banded sea snake, blue-spotted rays, a great barracuda, a leopard shark, and on our last dive at Koh Bon Island, two majestic, graceful manta rays. During one of our lazy afternoons anchored in an island bay, two green sea turtles graced us with their presence for almost an hour, allowing me to swim with and photograph them freely. After four full days of diving we head back to shore and prepare to explore a different side of Thai wildlife, the tourist hotspot and omnipresent party scene at Patong Beach.

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February 15th 2008

Posted under Thailand

Emerging from the airport in Phuket, the hot balmy air surprised us. Noticeably hotter and wetter than Chiang Mai, we were happy to finally be in southern Thailand; the land of idyllic white sand beaches, warm crystal-clear water, and world-class scuba diving. We decided to head directly to Phuket Town, in the southeastern part of the island to get our bearings and hopefully meet up with the brother of a Fort Worth friend. Phuket Town is the provincial capital and while it has its share of tourist haunts, there are very few tourists here in comparison to the streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. It was a refreshing change to be surrounded by more Thais than farang (westerners). The streets were filled with tuk tuks, cars and of course, the ubiquitous motorbikes which weave haphazardly in and out of traffic. And as we would soon find out for ourselves, the motorbike drivers in Phuket are some of the craziest in the world.

Before we left on our trip an Alcon colleague introduced us, via email, to his brother who is living and teaching English in Phuket. After checking into our hotel, we connected with Jon and agreed to meet for dinner. While we’ve eaten out for almost every meal, including lots of street food, we have remained relatively unadventurous in our ordering (usually because the menus are either too ambiguous or poorly translated to English), sticking mostly to Pad Thai and vegetarian noodle dishes. With a local expert on hand, we asked Jon to order some of his favorites for dinner, no holds barred. We feasted on spicy chicken and prawn curries, a delectable grilled pork dish, and a fried catfish served with an assortment of vegetables. Dinner was wonderful! Having become fast friends with Jon, we finished the night with a couple of pints at a local pub and eagerly accepted his invitation to join him for a day of scuba diving on Saturday.

Friday was for the beach and our recommended stop was a lesser-known cove in the southwestern part of the island, Nai Han. Against our better judgment we rented a motorbike, and two helmets, and braved the Phuket Town traffic. Having ridden a motorcycle for a number of years in the U.S., I am confident in my own abilities but the rest of the town’s drivers concerned me. When you first learn to ride a motorcycle, you are taught to expect everyone else (drivers, pedestrians, other motorcyclists, etc) to do stupid, crazy things. Most of the time people in the U.S. behave somewhat logically and accidents are relatively uncommon. But in Phuket everyone actually does all of those unexpected, illogical things and guidebooks and locals alike warn of the dangers of riding a motorbike in Phuket. Thousands of people are injured or killed on Phuket highways every year in motorbike accidents. Jon told us about his numerous close calls and the relative frequency with which students at his school are involved in road accidents. The sheer number of motorbikes is staggering; by my rough approximation, outnumbering cars and trucks at least ten to one. To complicate matters, motorbike riders do not seem to follow the same traffic rules as automobiles. They weave through traffic with reckless abandon. The most disturbing sight, in our western minds however, is the prevalence of children on motorbikes. We realize that this is cultural thing. Motorbikes are an inexpensive mode of transport and often the only mode financially available to families. This was evidenced by a funeral procession that we saw on the street while riding one day; the coffin was carried in a truck bed and the entire motorcade consisted of motorbikes. Still, the sight of young children sandwiched between two adult passengers or sitting in front near the handle bars without helmets instinctively makes us cringe.

After a harrowing 45-minute ride, we arrived at Nai Han and enjoyed a day relaxing at the nicest beach we’ve seen since Zanzibar. The white sand beach, enclosed on either side by sheer granite cliffs jutting out into the sea, was filled with colorful umbrellas sheltering sunbathers from the afternoon sun. The water was warm, clear and calm with an occasional rolling wave to remind us that we were still swimming in the ocean. After allowing our skin its first kiss of sun since Mozambique, we returned to town via a scenic route through Phuket’s western hills and stopped for dinner at an ocean view restaurant high above the shoreline with a front row seat to a paradise sunset.

The next morning, eager to get our fins wet once again, we met Jon and two friends, Sarah and Maria, for a scuba diving excursion to one of the islands directly south of Phuket, Racha Yai. As a Dive Master with a local shop, Jon helped us procure our gear and agreed to be our guide for the day. The diving was nice and easy, warm calm water and better than average visibility, but we were still underwhelmed by the corals and aquatic life – our Red Sea standard still firmly entrenched in our minds. The reefs were in good condition, colorful and vibrant hard and soft corals, and huge schools of reef fish. We were both happy to have some easy diving after our experience in Mozambique and it convinced us that we had to dive Thailand’s greatest aquatic offering, a self-proclaimed Top 10 diving destination in the world, the Similan Islands.

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February 14th 2008
Thailand Trekking

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One of Chiang Mai’s token tourist activities is a guided trek into the surrounding mountains. I had made almost a full recovery from my trifecta of ailments so we signed on for a three-day, two-night trek which included a tantalizing package of activities: a visit to the “Long-neck” Padaung Village, elephant rides, white water rafting and bamboo rafting.

We were picked up in the morning from our hotel and driven into the “Long-neck” village just above the base of the mountain. Due to our past experiences with the package village tours, we skeptically expected the usual beggars and clichéd awkwardness. Our initial impression aligned with that cynicism as we entered the village restroom at the entrance; it was spotless and perfumed with western toilets, paper, soap and a hand towel…in a tribal mountain village! We exchanged knowing exasperated looks as we exited the restrooms and entered the village. With our guide, a local university student with only basic command of the English language, we walked through a small cluster of bamboo huts on stilts. The huts were beautifully designed with large covered patios and each patio was transformed into an individual handicraft stall, attended by old men and women in beautifully embroidered tribal dress. These were not the “long-necks” but rather members of the Karen tribe, one of the oldest and most prevalent tribes in northern Thailand. As it turned out, this was a village collective of multiple tribes which, according to our unofficial guide, all share crops and income from tourism. We made our way through rice paddy fields, strawberry fields and cabbage fields to the Long-neck village in the back. We first encountered the little girls of the Padaung tribe. They sit on their patios and weave scarves using special looms that stretch from the ceiling to a wooden belt that closes around their small bodies. Since the number of rings around the neck is increased gradually with age, the young girls were still in the preliminary stages of neck stretching with coils of twelve to eighteen rings. The most rings that we saw on any woman’s neck were twenty-five. The rings are removed only once each year for cleaning. The women sleep, swim and perform all of their daily chores with the rings. We saw photos of two of the young women with the rings removed. Their freakishly stretched necks looked bruised but otherwise intact. When I picked up a set of rings that were on display, I immediately understood the bruising – the rings were solid metal and VERY heavy!

The village had a small wood and bamboo schoolhouse and teachers come from Chiang Mai, two days each week, to teach Thai and English as well as basic elementary skills. A large Christian church was also under construction, which was surprising. I wouldn’t have expected the long-necks to be Christians, especially with such a dominant Buddhist following in Thailand. I immediately recalled the Poisonwood Bible and imagined a wily, eccentric Christian evangelist climbing the mountains of north Thailand to convert the “long-necks”. Men were noticeably absent from the “long-neck” village. We were told that they work outside the village and return only one day each week to be with their families. Judging by the village entrance fee, the prices of the handicrafts and the number of woven scarves in every tourist’s clutches (including mine), I suspect that the women are the major breadwinners. The women were meek and sweet-natured, welcoming photographs and patiently answering questions. While the village tours add a commercialistic nature to their daily lives, they don’t seem to be bothered by it. The tourism dollars allow them to live a more comfortable, secure life than they otherwise would. With our small sack of woven scarves in hand, we bade farewell to the “long-necks” and moved on to the next phase of our adventure.

We met the rest of our trekking group in the parking lot of an orchid farm and climbed into the truck with our packs. There were eight of us in total, excluding our guide. In the covered bed of a truck with no shocks, we bumped up a winding road for about forty-five minutes through lush, tropical landscape – banana plants, palm trees, bamboo forest – and finally arrived at the elephant park. The elephants were already fitted with large metal baskets on their backs. Aaron and I climbed onto the pavilion and into the basket while our guide mounted the elephant and climbed onto the back of its neck. I must admit that, after seeing elephants in the wild during our safaris, I hated seeing them as working animals. I tried to convince myself that they had a good life there, in the control of rural Thais who jab them with sickles to make them carry loads of obnoxious tourists around for their own financial gain. Elephants are so much more beautiful in the wild than in captivity. The passive pachyderms clearly had their own agenda as they stopped every ten steps or so to rip an entire tree out of the ground for a snack. Our elephant seemed to be the hungriest and most incorrigible of the group and we gasped in horror on several occasions as we felt almost certain to fall out of the leaning basket and plunge to our deaths down an almost vertical mountainside as the elephant went for another tree. We rode for about an hour in one big circle. The ride was scenic but gut-wrenching and I was happy to dismount in the end. I felt sorry for the working elephants and I never want to ride one again!

With everyone safely back on the ground, we walked across the road for a simple but satisfying lunch of fried rice and fresh watermelon. Our guide encouraged us to have second and third helpings of the rice. “No food, no power!” he said and we all laughed but little did we know that he meant it in the most serious way. Our first day of trekking, while only a few hours long, was painfully intense! What we had envisioned as a leisurely afternoon hike materialized into my worst nightmare – a steep, grueling, unrelenting ascent for nearly three straight hours to the summit of the mountain. In hindsight, two clues should have alerted me to the advanced nature of the trek: first, the first night’s stay was advertised as being in a hill tribe village; second, we had taken a moped into the mountains and should have noticed how intensely steep they were. At the time, however, my mind was solidly focused on proving that I could handle with style not just one but two nights of camping in the woods! Still, even steep mountains usually have zigzagging paths to soften the steep ascent. Not this one. The path seemed to go almost straight up the entire way. It was brutal and I almost cried in response to the physical exertion. Once again, I felt every day of my age, every beer I’d indulged in for the past week, and every extra pound of fat on my body. My inner monologue was plagued with curses and negativity and I think some of that emotional bile even bubbled up and out of my mouth, though I don’t think anyone but Aaron witnessed it…thankfully. He’s been with me through enough rounds of PMS by now to have developed immunity to my snarling. After battling through an almost constant urge to sit down, refuse to continue, and let the wild animals have their way with my exhausted body, the village in the sky finally appeared – a cluster of bamboo huts on stilts at the TOP of the mountain. At first glance, I wondered why anyone would choose such a hard-to-reach location for a village but then I turned around and beheld the most picturesque vision of a lush, green, distant valley dividing stunning grey and green mountains against a perfect, soft blue sky.

We settled into a large bamboo hut with an elevated deck where we would spend the rest of the evening. When we spied the menu of ice cold beverages, we knew that we weren’t too far off the tourist trail. We were appreciative, though, because never does an ice cold beer taste as good as it does after a grueling three-hour hike in the mountains. We sat on the deck, drinking, laughing and taking turns in the cold shower. I was the only one who was too wimpy to brave a cold shower on a cold night and instead opted for the camper’s baby wipe shower. Some of the village women tried to sell us the usual bead crafts and, as usual, no one was interested but then they said the magic word: “Massage?” I didn’t hesitate to accept and, surprisingly, after the day we’d just had, I was the only taker. Their loss. After dinner, while the revelers continued their revelry, two village women took me into our hut and kneaded me like a ball of dough, double-team style, for one blissful hour. By now, I’ve indulged in five massages in Thailand so I can say, from experience, that the women employed no discernible technique but their hands were strong and sure and, at no time, did I have less than four hands on my body. The soothing background noise was a composite of my laughing comrades, the women speaking softly over me in their musical tribal language, and the village animals rustling around under the hut. I emerged in a semi-trance and remained that way until bedtime.

We began the next morning with large kettles of hot coffee and tea, boiled eggs and a mountain of toast. We packed up and started hiking – from the top of the mountain, we had nowhere to go but down – toward a waterfall where we would have our lunch. We all went for a swim in the frigid water pool, even if only for a few minutes. Once again, I was the wimpy one. I can’t help it – I detest being cold! After our dip, we ate huge bowls of Thai noodles around a large picnic table and then lazed in the sun for the next two hours. It was wonderfully relaxing.

Two more hours on the trail took us to our next campsite – a small secluded cluster of huts on the edge of a river. I hopped into the cold shower before I had time to lose my nerve. We laughed some more over a hot dinner and spent the evening playing games around a campfire, including one in which, whenever you lost a round, our guide would paint your face with ash from the bottom of the cooking pots. Having just finished my first real shower, I was against the whole ash-on-the-face idea but everyone else was into it so I went along. We had fun with it and didn’t stop playing until everyone had black faces.

Our final day began with a thirty-minute hike to the site of the white water rafting. After a cursory safety briefing, we were in the rafts, gliding through a series of tame rapids. We enjoyed the sun and lush, forest-covered riverbanks but the rapids were not intense enough to get our adrenaline pumping and certainly no comparison to the mighty Zambezi. We were only in the boats for about forty-five minutes before the guides were shuffling us onto the bamboo rafts. At first, they had our group divided onto two rafts but then, for reasons unknown, they consolidated us onto one raft. With the weight of all eight of us and one guide who maneuvered through the water with a long pole, the raft was barely buoyant and we glided along with water up to our waists. We had some good laughs about the situation but I wouldn’t do it again. Bamboo rafting is decidedly overrated, if it’s rated at all.

Thankfully, a huge pot of Pad Thai and plates of sliced watermelon were awaiting us as we climbed off the bamboo rafts and up a small hill to a little Thai rest stop. Our camping trek was swiftly coming to an end. Despite the grueling inclines on the first day, the cold showers and squat toilets, we really had an amazing time and I attribute it completely to our group dynamic. We laughed – big, rolling belly laughs – for three straight days. The eight of us had so much fun together that we decided to meet for a drink that night at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. One drink turned into three gigantic towers of beer and, as we said our goodbyes, we were sufficiently drunk and happy. When we sign up for these group excursions, we realize the risk of getting stuck with a group of people who don’t speak English or simply aren’t fun. While we’ve had a handful of the aforementioned sort, we really have been lucky for the most part. We’ll probably never again run into Tom, Jamie, Ann-Marie, Vicki, Marie-Pierre and Jean but the eight of us will always have the memories of that brutal first day’s hike, ash-painted faces, a freezing waterfall swim and laughing uncontrollably for four days about Tom’s pant-ripping fall that only a few of us saw. We’ve met so many interesting people with the common love of traveling and a refreshing number of people who are in the midst of trips similar to ours. Someday we’ll have to rejoin the real world but, for now, we are enthralled with this free-spirited backpacker world where everyone is happy and the only real worries are deciding where to eat dinner, which beach to go to, and how many pairs of clean underwear we have left. Life is good.

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February 10th 2008
Adventures in Chiang Mai

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We arrived via overnight train from Bangkok and took a taxi to the Chiang Mai White House, our budget hotel of choice, inside the Old City. The Chiang Mai province is surrounded by forest-covered mountains and edged by a river. The Old City is a large square-shaped area enclosed by a moat and the ruined remnants of a thick stone wall. It is clean and beautiful with a vibrant café culture, Thai massage parlors on almost every block, over three hundred temples, street vendors and a broad selection of restaurants and a host of western amenities. The population seems young and energetic; the streets are crowded with teens and twentysomethings weaving through traffic on mopeds. Young girls in smart school uniforms of white blouses and black pleated skirts with white ankle socks and heeled shoes ride two or three to a bike. The boys are all sporting blue jeans and trendy layered haircuts, which undoubtedly require more hairspray than their girlfriends’ dos. There is an endearing wholesomeness about Chiang Mai and everyone is smiling.

After settling into our room, we rented a moped for the day and headed northwest through town and up a winding mountain road to Doi Suthep, a peak named after an old hermit who lived there for many years. Near the top is a Buddhist temple compound called Wat Phra That Soi Duthep. We parked the moped and wandered through the vendor stalls at the temple entrance, indulging in fresh pineapple and strawberries to energize ourselves for the 306 stairs leading up to the temple. The compound boasted flowery courtyards, ornate temples with large gold Buddha statues, the International Buddhism Center with throngs of crew-cut Buddhist monks in their traditional orange robes, and picturesque views of Chiang Mai in a pastel haze.

Back down the mountain, we spent the afternoon touring a host of other Buddhist temples until we were effectively “Buddhaed out”. The temples were all gorgeous, designed with exquisite curves and inordinate amounts of gold, and smelling pleasantly of incense and fresh flowers. There are always as many tourists as worshippers yet the Buddhists still manage to avoid (or mute) the annoying commercialism that one encounters at the Hindu temples in India. As a visitor, you can quietly, respectfully view the Buddhist temples without being hit up for official and unofficial donations, although there is always a contribution box in sight. Among the temples that we visited were Wat Phra Singh, which houses the city’s most revered Buddha image – the Lion Buddha; and Wat Chedi Luang, an impressive elevated temple complex, now in partial ruins, which formerly housed the “Emerald” Buddha (now in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok).

That evening, we ventured out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar – a buzzing outdoor market with hundreds of merchant stalls selling Thai handicrafts, designer knockoffs, colorful Thai silks, jewelry and antiques. The stalls are alight from sunset until midnight, every night of the year. There are indoor and outdoor food stalls and restaurants with open patio seating offering every cuisine from Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese to German, American and Mediterranean. We perused the merchant wares and sampled our first local beers – Chang and Singha – which both taste similar to Bud Light and go down just as easily. Our favorite food stall was the rotee cart. Rotee is very similar to the dessert version of the Zanzibar pizza – a pocket of fresh fried dough, stuffed with banana and egg or banana and chocolate, drizzled generously with thick, sweet milk and sprinkled with sugar. I can feel my derriere expanding with each sugary bite of the sweet fried dough but decide that it is worth it! Mentally, I plan to do a lot of walking in Chiang Mai to counteract the Pad Thai and rotee.

The next day was the first of three days of the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival and it rained almost all day. We had begun to walk to the festival at Buak Hat Park, near the southwestern corner of the city, but when the light drizzle increased to a steady downpour, we ducked into a nearby hotel restaurant and took advantage of their free Wi-Fi for the next four hours. Just outside the window of the restaurant was a small multi-colored house on a stand, resembling a bird house or a decorative mailbox. It was adorned with fresh flowers and offerings of fresh fruit. We have begun to see these everywhere – in storefronts and front yards. I think that they are little Buddhist shrines and have seen them with offerings as elaborate as a full Christmas dinner.

Finally, the rain subsided and we continued on to the festival. It had a small town feel, encompassing the two outer streets bordering the park and a good half of the park’s interior. The streets were lined on one side with elaborate displays of beautiful bright tropical flowers, including an impressive variety of orchids. Many of the displays were constructed as arbors with small benches, inviting passersby to snap photos of themselves in a garden paradise. We were among those who couldn’t resist; everyone seemed to be having fun with the exhibits, posing and laughing in spite of themselves. The opposite side of the street was the real highlight of the festival, however – the food vendors! Grilled squid skewers, sushi, every imaginable variety of skewered and deep fried meats and seafood, fresh fruit, roasted nuts, Pad Thai, and rotee, donuts, and other sugary Thai sweets called to us from street carts as we tried, unsuccessfully, to resist.

Inside the park, I sat down for the most disappointing foot massage of my life while Aaron perused more vendor stalls. He returned with a smile to the massage tent and ushered me to a booth that was taking donations to help the stray dog population in Chiang Mai. Like India, the city has no animal control and mangy muts roam the streets in search of food, water and love. Aaron made a donation with the money he would have otherwise spent on a massage and I got the t-shirt.

Overall the Flower Festival was a great time. It is always nice when the timing of our stay in a place coincides with one of its special events. The tropical flowers were spectacular and the event itself was beautiful and wholesome. Chiang Mai seems like the kind of place that you would want to raise a family.

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