Category Archives: Thailand
We spent some time in Chiang Mai deciding what to do next. Our Thai visa was expiring soon, so we had two options: going to the border with Burma (Mae Sai/Tachileik) for a visa run (which basically means that you cross the border just to stamp your passport and get a new 15-day Thai visa) or actually flying to Burma to visit the country: because Burmese government restricts the areas that can be visited by travellers, crossing the border overland wouldn’t allow us to move into the country as freely as if we flew, say, to Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan or any major destination. Plus, flying to Burma and back to Thailand would entitle us to a longer, 30-day Thai visa on our return. These were all factors to consider…
We heard wonders from travellers that actually ventured into Burma - you can read Laura’s and Ryan’s stories on their travel blog RoundWeGo.com to get an idea. Other people decide not to go Burma due to the country’s political situation, to avoid supporting the dictatorship financially (I found this Lonely Planet article very interesting if you want to read more about the pros and cons).
Anyway, after careful consideration we came to a conclusion: we needed a break from travelling! We were feeling too tired to cope with a country that would probably demand from us the same energy as India or Vietnam.
So we decided to go for the visa run. We got our new 15-day permit and headed south to the some of the world’s most famous beaches. As a fellow traveller told us “The best place to go and do nothing without feeling guilty about it is the beach” – and this was exactly what we needed. Do nothing, relax and recharge our batteries to continue the adventure.
We went to Maikhao beach, in Phuket, following the recommendation of a couple we met few months back in India (thank you David and Marine for your valuable tips). If it’s peace and relax you are looking for in your holidays, this is probably the only place in Phuket where you can still find it. We had a beach with several kilometres and few people to share it with. The bungalow was quite nice and great standard for the price.
However, we didn’t really manage to enjoy as much as we wished, because the weather changed and brought some ugly grey clouds and Emanuele got a nasty skin infection on his leg, forcing us to move to Phuket town to visit the local hospital. The following days, we had plenty of the rest and relax that we wished for, but not in a dream like beach – instead we were in the ugly Phuket town just to stay close to hospital until Emanuele’s infection healed. We took the opportunity to sort out thousands of pictures we took in Vietnam and draft few more posts.
During those days the rain didn’t stop, causing flooding in the South – it was all over the news, some people died and many houses were destroyed due to landslide. Bear in mind that it was supposed to be the dry season!
When Emanuele got better, we went to Krabi where we were deciding if we should wait a bit longer hoping the rain would go away or if we would continue south and go to Georgetown in Malaysia.
We were very happy we decided to stay and wait, because the day after we arrived in Krabi the weather started slowly to improve and we finally managed to enjoy what we were there for: Thai beaches.
The first beach we went to was Railay beach, which can be reached by boat from Krabi town. We stayed just for the day and returned by boat in the evening. The beach was exactly what I was expecting to see in a Thai beach: white sand, crystal clear water, lime stones and Thai long tail boats. Still the weather wasn’t 100% good, as some clouds were looming over the beach and full-blown sun would come out only sporadically. We also caught some rain while we were walking between one beach and another. Fortunately it didn’t last long!
As we had wasted so many days because of the rain, and even though the weather at that point in time didn’t look amazing as we hoped yet, we decided to take a boat trip to the famous Koh Phi Phi anyway. We had heard some bad things about it though – that it was too touristy, too dirty and no longer the beautiful tropical paradise it used to be. But we couldn’t leave Krabi without seeing that for ourselves – Verdict? We found the beaches in Koh Phi Phi stunning despite the amount of tourists populating them, and definitely we don’t regret taking the tour: it was totally worth. The funny thing is that one person from the boat crew told us that because it had rained so much in the previous days many people had left, and so the beaches weren’t as crowded as they normally are.
Our final stop in the south was Koh Lanta, where we stayed only for couple of days as our visa was expiring again. We could have stayed there for a week or two. That was the perfect place to enjoy the beach and do nothing else. We found a nice place within our budget called Lanta Marine Park View Resort, overlooking Kentiang Bay from a hill. The bungalows were nothing fancy, but we immediately fell in love with the beautiful views of the beach: one km of white sand and clear blue waters, almost deserted (even here many people had left because of the rain in the previous days). After two stunning sunsets, countless swims, 4 delicious meals and a nice tan, we sadly said goodbye to Kentiang Bay. I guess the only thing I didn’t like about that place was leaving it.
As we asked our facebook followers: are you able to find the ‘mistake’ in the photo above?
We went back to Krabi for the night as the next day early morning we were to catch a bus to Georgetown, Malaysia. It was the end of our semi-wet trip in Thailand. Still, we left with a better understanding of what makes this country so famous all over the world: it’s simply beautiful and we’ll be back for more
Now that we’ve been over 5 months on the road with a handful of countries visited, friends back home and fellow travellers are often asking us “which is your favourite place so far?”.
We don’t really have a favourite place. We have enjoyed every country, city and village we’ve visited, but all in different ways. However, even though we don’t usually make comparisons, there are a few places that took our heart more than others. Some of the places that had a stronger impact on us and that are more difficult to forget are those where we experienced a strong culture shock – like many places in India and Vietnam. Other places that we loved were just and simply nice to hang around – no matter how touristy or ‘modern’ they were.
Chiang Mai belongs to the latter category. Perhaps it wasn’t an all time favourite, but it was a place where we could easily move to live permanently. It seems that many people like Chiang Mai in the same way as we did. We’ve come to realize that there is a fairly big expat community living there. Some people we met work remotely for western companies and chose to live in Thailand rather than in any western country.
So, I guess you are wondering, why Chiang Mai? I think above all, we enjoyed mix of tradition and modernity. You can still immerse in Thailand’s ancient culture and tradition, while having access to all sorts of modern facilities. The surroundings have beautiful landscapes, the climate is nice and more moderate than other places in Southeast Asia, the food is delicious (and cheap), the hospitals are known to be some of the best in all Asia (and probably even better that many western hospitals), there is a great night life where you can meet expats as well as local people (having a good social life is an important criterion for us), people are very open to meet foreigners and they are also very open-minded and educated. I guess the only downside is that Chiang Mai is far from the sea – but you can easily book cheap flights to get to Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui in the south.
From a traveller’s point of view, Chiang Mai can keep you quite busy. There’s lots to do. We stayed there 6 days, but we left with the feeling there was still plenty more to try. I guess we have more than an excuse to come back
Here are some some of the highlights of our visit to Chiang Mai:
Thai cuisine is famous for its delicious, exotic dishes and it’s one of our favourite cuisines in Asia. If you want to take a Thai cooking class then there’s no better place than Chiang Mai. With its many cooking schools, some of which are in operation since a long time, and all of which are in competition with one another, you’re guaranteed to get a great service. We choose asia scenic cooking school and we learned to cook some of the most famous Thai recipes, including phad thai, chicken with cashew nuts, and some variety of Thai curries. The cooking class starts with a visit to the local market where you learn about the different ingredients you’ll use during the day. The next stop is the school’s back garden where they have some typical Thai spices and herbs. Finally you go hands-on and with the help of the teacher, you learn to cook the recipes you’ve chosen. After the cooking part each student get to eat the dishes they prepared. At the end of the course you’re given a cook book so if you don’t remember your recipes you can use the book as a reference.
After seeing professional Khmer kickboxing (also known as Pradal Serey) in Phnom Penh, we were a bit disappointed with Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) in Chiang Mai. I’m sure there are plenty of other places where you can see real professional Muay Thai – unfortunately we ended up in one of those tourist traps and the matches looked more like a show put together for tourists rather than a genuine sport event. There were only few Thais in the crowd, and many beer-drinking farangs (foreigners).
There’s something like 300 temples (or Wat, which is the Thai word for temple) in Chiang Mai. No, we didn’t see them all, I guess we would need a month to do that. But we spent one and half day just going around walking in and out of the most important wats in town. Some temples organize what they call the “monk chat“, where travellers can meet monks and ask them all sorts of questions about Buddhism, their life as monks, etc. The monks love to meet foreigners as it’s an opportunity for them to practice their English. Unfortunately, somehow, we always managed to arrive at these temples outside the “chatting” hours so there was no monk chat for us this time. Chiang Mai is also very popular with people looking to learn more about meditation and many temples offer meditation courses – we regret we didn’t take any of these courses… another reason to come back
Sunday walking street
If you are planning a visit to Chiang Mai, make sure you stay for the weekend. There is a Saturday street market in Wualay street, south of the old town – we went too early and then we didn’t manage to come back, and a Sunday market in Ratchadamnoen street, right in the heart of the historical centre. We walked this street back and forth dozens of times, and we were impressed to see the transformation it underwent on Sunday. Cars and motorbikes were replaced by hundreds of pedestrians, side walks populated with dozens of stalls selling all sorts of things, from handicraft and clothes to foot massage, and finally inside the temple walls, you there were food stalls with yummy food, sweets, and fruit shakes. I think we tried 10 different small dishes that night in a sort of Spanish-tapas style and we would have loved to try more but our belly was exploding after a while. One thing that I was really impressed with is the waste sorting system that was in place so to lessen the impact of the market on the environment. This was the first time I saw something like this in Asia. Well done people of Chiang Mai!
Elephant Nature Park
When walking in the streets of Chiang Mai, you will see plenty of agencies, hotels and guesthouses selling all types of elephant tours – elephant trekking, visit to elephant camps, mahout courses, etc. After doing a bit of research, I decided to go for Elephant Nature Park as it seemed to be the place where the elephants were better looked after - Emanuele didn’t join me on this one so I went alone. A French guy we met in the cooking class advised against going to Elephant Nature Park based on the fact that they don’t provide elephant riding. But yes, I knew there wasn’t elephant riding and that was one of the reasons why I chose them. Lek, the park founder says that tourists have to entertain the elephants, not the other way around. This is their philosophy and it is also a guarantee that their elephants don’t suffer any kind of abuse to make tourists happy.
Most elephants in park were rescued from abusive mahouts and I learned some sad stories about the life of some of these animals. One of them for instance, was blinded by their mahout because she refused to do what was asked. Another one lost her baby and because she was so depressed she didn’t want to work so the mahout used to beat her. Most elephants in the park have a sad past, some are blind, some disabled, some orphans, but at least these sad stories had already an end thanks to Lek.
Lek comes from a ethnic minority village and she has a humble background, but with a lot of love and hard work she managed to found Elephant Nature Park in 1996 and now the park has already few dozens of Elephants. I found her courage and determination a real inspiration (in countries like Thailand, it get’s even tougher if you come from an ethnic minority – many ethnic minority people never get the Thai citizenship, preventing them from accessing education, health care, etc.). Her work has been featured in many famous newspapers and TV channels, such as National Geographic or BBC.
Despite being a bit expensive by Thai standards and for my long-term traveller pockets (2500THB, the equivalent of about 57 euros), it was money well spent. I had a fabulous day feeding and bathing the elephants, but what I enjoyed the most was just watching them playing and being happy
I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to do this one or not because I know my level of fitness is not exactly the best. But with Emanuele’s persistence, and the reassurance from the guys at Chiang Mai Mountain Biking that we would take a not too challenging trip, I agreed to it in the end. And I’m so glad I did!
This was a first for me and I loved it! I actually wonder why the hell did I wait 30 years of my life to try mountain biking?
There’s really not much to say about our mountain biking trip, just that it was a cool half-day going downhill and enjoying some stunning jungle and mountain views. Our itinerary ended by a beautiful lake, there we had lunch in a nice ‘floating’ hut.
We were enjoying it so much that we almost forgot to take pictures.
With the amount of rain we got in the last couple of days, there was no better time to lock ourself in our hotel room and sort out some of the pictures we’ve taken lately. As I anticipated in my previous post, we went to spend two days with a Akha family, in a tiny little village, close to the border with Burma, north of Chiang Rai. We also visited a Lisu village, not far from our hosts’ village and learned something about their cultures.
This time too, like some time ago in Laos, it was a responsible eco-tourist thing we went for – Natural Focus, the provider we chose, call this CBT, or community based tourism. The hill-tribe tourist business in Northern Thailand , as well as in Northern Vietnam and Laos is a quite controversial one (stories of exploitation, prejudice and racism are not unheard of) so, when we take tours like these we try to do it responsibly and only chose those providers who give back to these communities and help their development while also helping preserving their traditions.
Akha people are an ethnic minority originally from South China. They first migrated to Burma, then some moved to Northern Thailand and Laos. All Akha people used to be animist, but in recent years a number of them were converted to Christianism by protestant missionaries from Taiwan and catholic missionaries from the US. While missionaries were accused by activists of attempting to ‘kill’ Akha’s traditions, it is also true, on the other hand, that the adoption of Christianisms put an end to some controversial cultural habits – for instance, if a woman gave birth to twins, she was supposed to kill them, as having twins was considered to be a bad omen for the village. If the women refused to kill the twins, then the community would expel her from the village. Christian Akha have dropped this tradition, and similarly they gave up some propitiatory rituals and festivals involving the ‘sacrifice’ of animals, like pigs and chickens – In the context of poverty, having dropped these rituals entailed more food available to the communities and less ‘religion-related’ costs. Traditionally Akha people where involved in the cultivation and the trade of Opium, which was (and still is) quite common in the so-called Golden Triangle. However it looks like more and more Akha people have quit this business over time. Akha people in Northern Thailand weren’t allowed to get Thai citizenship, with all the disadvantages that this entailed. However, 7 years ago, as part of a wider project started by ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, hill tribes, including Akha were recognized the right to education and health care, so more and more young people from many minorities are now going to school. Also, in the last years many minority villages have seen an improvement in their infrastructure, with some villages being finally reached by electricity.
Our host family was a big family. Archá and Buphae, grandfather and grandmother, their sons and daughters, most of whom we didn’t get to meet, and their granddaughters and grandsons. They all speak Akha, but the younger generation speak Thai because they learn it in school. Archá and Buphae live in a wooden house, with a veranda that allows amazing views on the mountains. They are both great cooks and we enjoyed their culinary abilities. They escaped from Burma 30 years ago. The escape took them 4 nights (they couldn’t walk during the day or it would be too easy for the military to spot them) and Buphae was eight-months pregnant, plus she had a two years old daughter. Finally they crossed the border and settled into Thailand. Archá and Buphae now have a shop, but they also run a little farm where they grow corn and other vegetables. Plus, they host some travellers, from time to time, through Natural Focus, which allows them to round up their income.
Click the pictures below to enlarge them.
Law Yo – The Akha village
Law yo is a small village with less than 50 households and less then 400 people. The majority of houses are made of wood and stand on high stilts, but there are also some buildings made of bricks and cement, including the kindergarden and the church.
The Lisu and their village
Lisu people are another ethnic group living in Northern Thailand and various regions of Burma and China. Lisu living in Thailand are animist and believe in ghosts and spirits. Lisu people don’t have first names, and when a new child is born they’re called boy, or girl, depending on their sex, followed by a number denoting whether they are the first, second,(and so on) son or daughter. For instance, the first girl is called girl 1, the first son is called boy 1, the second girl is called girl 2 and the second boy, boy 2.
As usual I will post more pictures on facebook, so check our page soon.
Greetings from Chiang Rai! Four days ago in Luang Prabang we took a slow boat to Houay Xai, a little town on the Mekong, across the river from Thailand. The trip lasted two days but we enjoyed some stunning and unspoiled scenery along the way (pictures coming soon), and it gave us a chance to catch up on our reading and our future travel plans. We spent the first night in Pak Beng, mid-way between Luang Prabang and Houay Xay. We left the boat, took a room in a guesthouse, and jumped back in the boat the morning after. At the end of the second day we arrived in Houay Xay but because it was too late, the border crossing was closed, and we had to stay overnight. Finally the day after we crossed the Mekong (and the border), got to Chiang Kong, cleared the customs and entered Thailand with a free 15-day stay permit. The thing is we should have arranged a visa beforehand, if we wanted a longer permit. But because we didn’t do so, we’ll have to sort out a visa extension in Chiang Mai, in a few days time, or leave the country briefly and re-enter at some stage (we are seriously considering going to Burma for a week, as Air Asia’s fares are very cheap at the moment). If we re-enter through the airport, as opposed to overland as we did, we would be granted a free 30 day visa.
Baan Warabordee – Our accommodation
In Chiang Kong we managed to take a bus to Chiang Rai, where we arrived two hours later. We got us a nice guesthouse called Baan Warabordee, which is down a quiet secondary road, but within walking distance from where the action is. Maybe not the cheapest accommodation we’ve found so far (500 bahts, about 12 euros) but the standard is excellent and eating out here is so cheap that it compensates for the extra amount we’re spending for the accommodation.
The night market
One of the things that we’ve loved since the very beginning is the night market. There is a big square at the back of it, with a bunch of food stalls and tables. At one end of the square there’s a stage where dance shows and concerts are performed.
The food is gorgeous, and as we said, extremely cheap – yesterday we had dinner with 60 bahts for both of us (the equivalent of 1.40€)
White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
If you thought of religious art and architecture as a quite conservative form of expression, characterised by the re-iteration of a limited number of relevant, holy icons and symbols, you’ll feel a sense of displacement when you get into the white temple. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the designer of this unconventional religious building, has managed to mix Buddhist and secular references in the mural painting inside the Buddha abode. Don’t be surprised to find graphical representations of Superman, Batman, Spider-man, planes crashing on the twin towers, Pandora’s green Na’vis from Avatar and much more, in the context of a wider metaphor, with an image of Mara (a demon in the Buddhist tradition) in the background (Read more on this temple on wikipedia.)
Here are a few photos I’ve taken today. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures inside the abode but you can take pictures outside.
Responsible Hill-tribes treks – our experience and some tips
Chiang Rai is a very ethnically diverse province, with a number of hill-tribes living in the area. The tourism industry benefits from the presence of these tribes and expectedly the hill-tribe trek is a popular product, provided both by agencies and hotels/guesthouses. The problem is that not many of those who provide these tours are really concerned with giving back to these minorities. However there are some organizations who share part of their profits with the tribes, and engage in development projects aimed at improving the tribes conditions, while maintaining and preserving their traditions. One of these organization is Natural Focus, about which we found out through our lonely planet guide. Today we met Poo (please resist the temptation of making easy jokes!), who is Natural Focus’ project coordinator – he seems to be a very nice guy and what’s more important he’s very flexible. We agreed a one-night, two-day program with him, and tomorrow we’ll go to a Akha village, where we will stay overnight. The program includes staying with a Akha family, having a cultural exchange, and learning to cook a typical Akha lunch. We’re expecting a very exciting two days, and we’re sure we’ll be able to take one or two nice pictures Another eco-tour organizations to look for in Chiang Rai is PDA. We visited their Hill-Tribe Museum yesterday and found it extremely informative and interesting. PDA also offers a range of tours and programs and, as a NGO, is involved in various community development initiatives including anti-human trafficking projects and AIDS education (read more on their website here).
The controversial long-neck Karen Padaung, or the human zoo
A few months before the trip we came across a documentary about this supposed ethnic group, whose women use to wear a neck coil that over time extends their neck. As we got curious about this unusual, picturesque thing, we thought we’d visit their village once in this area. However we changed our mind yesterday during our visit to the Hill-Tribe museum. As we asked the staff, we were told that these people, referred to as long-neck Karen, or Karen Padaung (sometimes written as Padong), are just Burmese refugees who were hired by a businessman and used as a human zoo type of tourist attraction. Tourists visiting the long-neck Karen village pay a fee, a part of which (maybe a thin part) goes to the villagers. Tour guides use to tell tourists that Karen Padaung people rely on farming for their living, but – we learned – there is no evidence of farming activities in the village or around, and it is quite likely that their only income comes from tourism (e.g. the fees I was talking about above and the sales of crafts). Someone says that, on a positive note, these Karen live in better conditions than most refugees, which may be true, however the Thai government doesn’t recognize them as Thai citizens, it tolerates their presence, but doesn’t allow them to move out of their area. Also, BBC news reported some times ago that some of these people were offered the possibility to move to other countries including New Zealand but the Thai government didn’t allow them to leave. Well… for us this was enough information to decide to boycott this type of tourism. Maybe we’re overreacting, but the idea of visiting a human zoo where people are not allowed to leave and decide what type of life they should be living, makes both of us uncomfortable. To see some images of long-neck women click here. Also, here is that short news video from the BBC news website I was mentioning above (if the video doesn’t start, then click ‘launch on a stand alone player’, or click here and open with your default media player).
That’s it for now. We’re looking forward to taking the tour with Poo tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some pictures of the Akha soon – and a recipe. Keep in touch!