Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chiang Mai

I'm trying to catch up on my blog, but it's a little difficult.  I've been walking around with a bit of a heavy heart that started with the news of my friend, Tiffany, while I was traveling in the Philippines.  I met her while rock climbing with an amazing group of cancer survivors just 6 months ago.  Her cancer went from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks.  Then, just a week ago, I received news that another friend, Keith, suffered a massive blow to his health when he collapsed from a heart attack after a run and hit his head when he hit the floor. It is with a broken heart, and a soul filled with sorrow that I have to report Keith passed away on Friday and Tiffany passed away on Sunday.  I'm not sure how much more pain I can handle on this trip.  If I were home, I would at least be with other people who were mourning and therefor be allowed to cry in public surrounded by others who felt the same way, but I'm currently as far away from home as I could possibly be on the other side of the world and it has taken all of my strength to keep it together and to tell myself to continue on with this trip.  I attended a 2 day mediation course at a local temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand at Wat Suan Dok.  and while talking with the monk, he was explaining that since people in Thailand were Buddhist, they are rarely seen crying at funerals.  They have accepted that death is part of life and something that everyone must go through and some how they are able to detach themselves from feeling the intense pain of mourning the loss of a loved one.  At first, I wished I had that ability.  I wish I could just detach  myself from my emotions and control my thoughts like those Buddhist monks,  it would make it much easier on myself.  But then I realized part of the mourning process is the memories, thinking about that person and the time you've spent with them.  Even though I feel intense sadness for my friends, I am so grateful for the memories I have of them and am ok with having the sadness so that I can now celebrate them.

So now, I will try to continue my blog about my travels here.  Thailand, so far, has been centered around some of the most difficult times of my life.  I was supposed to come here when I was diagnosed with cancer, and now that I've finally made it here, I have lost not one but 2 friends in the short few weeks I've been here.  Someday I will have to return here so that I can feel the joy of this country. Right now my heart is filled to the brim with too much sadness.

So I will start my blog from when I left from Bangkok on my way to Chiang Mia, Thailand which is in northern Thailand.

From Bangkok, I decided to take the night train to Chiang Mai, about 14 hour journey.  I really enjoy train travel and wanted to see what it was like in Thailand, plus I booked a sleeper car with the intention I would actually sleep.

When I arrived at the train station, I piled up on some snacks as I read the food on the train wasn't so good and then went to search for my bed on the train.

I find my car and get in.  A guy working on the train as sort of  server, or steward, I'm not sure what you call them on trains, looks at my ticket and points to a seat.  I see two seat facing each other and motions toward the one on the right as my spot.  Puzzled, I ask if this was a sleeper car and he nodes yes. Then he asks, "beer?" to which I reply, "no".  Now he was puzzled, and repeated, "No beer?" and I said, no, again.  He then asks, "Orange juice?" and I say no and he walks away.  A few minutes later my seat mate arrives, she is a 20 something girl from Finland who is studying in Bangkok for a semester.  She is also traveling to Chiang Mai alone. It was nice to sit with another solo female traveler.  The waiter came back and asked, "beer?" as he looked at my seat mate, Tiia, to which she replied no as well.  He looked very confused.  A few minutes after that a couple boards and sits in the seats across the isle from us, they are both from England. The guy was carrying 4 liters of beer, which I later found out were all for himself as the girl had her own stash of gin her bag.  So when the train guy came back and asked them for beer, they said no, but showed him their own stash, to which he made a sad face.  I had a nice chat with my 3 new seatmates, and they all seemed really nice.   About an hour and a half into the trip, a women started making her way down the train an converted all the seats into beds and pulled down the top beds that were stowed away almost like giant air plane overhead compartments.  I was so ready for bed.
Tiia on the sleeper train

The couple from England head to the food car and come back a few minutes later to tell us there's a big party going on there.  I guess the food car turns in to some kind of disco at night, but I was already tucked into my bed, as was the Tiia.

The train wasn't easy to fall asleep on.  I thought the rocking and click clacking of the train would put me to sleep, but this was an old train that jolted back and forth more tha soft rocking.  Then, at some point in the middle of the night, the party car closed and so all those drunk party goers were kicked out and send back to their sleeper cars.  The couple from England took that as sign to continue the party in our sleeper car full of sleeping people and even invited friend.  Yep, I was woken to loud talking and obnoxious music next to my bed.  For the first 30 minutes I tried to drown them out with white noise on my Ipod and finally I had enough.  I peaked my head out, and they guy instantly saw me.  In the nicest voice I asked them to keep the noise down, and thankfully they did.  I honestly think they were so drunk they didn't realize how loud they were and a little embarrassed when I asked them to keep quiet.  But I was also embarrassed as they were perpetuating the stereotype of drunken westerners. No wonder the train waiter was so confused I didn't want beer, this is what he deals with every night.

We arrived in Chiang Mai around 10am and Tiia and I get a Songtaew, a form of public transportation similar to a Jeepney,  as we were going to different guesthouses, but in the same area.  I was beat, but my room wasn't ready yet so I sat down and had some breakfast.  When I was finished, it still wasn't ready, so I decided to explore the city a little near my guesthouse.  Within a few minutes, I saw several wats, or temples, in the old part of the city.  I've heard such wonderful things about Chiang Mai that many tourists never leave.  I was beyond tired so I only walked around an hour before I couldn't take it any more needed to go back to the guest house hoping my room would be ready and it was! I spent the rest of the day sleeping and got up around dinner time.
Chiang Mai Temple

While exploring, I walked past a little Thai Vegetarian restaurant called Bamboo Bee and so I decided to give it a try.   It did not disappoint!  She had amazing delicious vegetarian Thai food that was cooked fresh in front of you.  I ordered Khao Soi, which is a typical northern Thailand dish.  I asked her if she did cooking classes, and she said, "Yes, you want to come tomorrow morning?"  And so we set up a time and I was excited to cross off on the things on my list for Thailand, a cooking class!

I went back the next morning and Bebee and I spent the entire morning making Pad Thai, Khao Soi, spring rolls and Tom Kha.  Then she showed me how she makes her signature veggie meat out of mushrooms.  I made so much food that iI couldn't finish it all for lunch and she packed it up for me and said, "you come back for dinner to finish this." and put it in her fridge.

Tom Kha

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Bebee is also in her mid 30's. She lost her parents when she was little and then was raised by her grandmother, who is now deceased.  She has big dreams.  She wants to travel the world and teach people how to cook delicious healthy meals.  She's single and has no children, which is quite unusual in Thailand, but she is extremely independent and resourceful, and people really enjoy being around her.  I ate her place almost every day in Chiang Mai because I knew I was getting the vegetarian version of some traditional Thai dishes that were made from the freshest ingredients so I wouldn't have to worry about food poisoning.  I met several other travelers that became regulars in her restaurant during their short visit and one was helping her create a website for her business. The day I took her cooking class, she asked met to type up a couple of recipes for her as she didn't believe she wrote well enough in English. She is in the works of putting together a cookbook that will be available for download on her website.  If I lived in Chiang Mai, I know Bebee and I would be good friends.  For now, we are Facebook friends.

The next morning I took it slow and just walked around town for a bit orienting myself with Chiang Mai old city and in the afternoon, Tiia and I went to Tiger Kingdom.  Tiger Kingdom is a place that would never exist in the US, it is basically a place full of caged tigers of different ages.  You choose what age group you want to be with and they allow inside of their cage for about 20 minutes.   Tiia and I choose the smallest size, 2-3 month old tigers, as we both thought it was a little scary to be in a cage with full grown tigers, plus we read the big tigers were drugged to keep them docile and we didn't want to be a part of that, even though by simply going to the place was supporting the drugging of tigers.  I had never been that close to a tiger before and to be in  cage with adorable, playful baby tigers was incredible.  Even though they were small, they still had massive claws and teeth.  At one point a very playful tiger climbed into my lap and the trainer freaked out and pushed him off.
Baby Tigers!

Crazy old man

A couple nights later, I met a girl from the US and we were comparing notes about Chiang Mai. She blurted out, "Don't go to Tiger Kingdom."  Embarrassed, I admitted I already went and I braced myself for a lecture about how they drug the animals.  Instead she told me about her friend who was in cage with the full grown tiger and it bit her.  They had to beat the animal to get it off of her and when she got to the hospital the staff there told her about a little boy a tiger had been bitten the previous week. I'm so glad I didn't go in with the big tigers!  I can't believe that place is still open.

When we got back to town, Tiia and I headed down to the Saturday Night Market.  Night Markets are a big deal in Asia, and you can often find some of the best deals on stuff at these markets.  We spent a couple of hours walking through this market before we both ordered fruit smoothies and made our way to east side of town to find the Lady Boy Cabaret.  It was a "free" show, but they insisted you order a drink.  So I decided to order a Pina Colada.  The drink tasted a little funny, but I thought it was just cheap rum.  I only drank about a quarter of it as I started to fell funny.  My stomach was churning and by the end of the show, I knew something was wrong.  I told Tiia I didn't feel well and so we went home.  As soon I walked into my room, I ran to the bathroom and got sick.  I spent the rest of the night very uncomfortable with stomach cramps. I woke up still feeling crappy and with a slight fever and so I decided to play it safe and go to the hospital, again.  Only a week in Thailand and I've made 2 trips to the hospital. Oy vey.  There they told me I had food poisoning and I just had to let it pass.  I had my fingers crossed I would feel fine that next day as I had scheduled to spend the day at Elephant Nature Park.
Snack anyone?

Lady Boy cabaret

I woke up the next day feeling so much better, and I was excited to finally play with some elephants!  There are several elephant parks in Thailand, but I chose Elephant Nature Park because after reading about the abuse the elephants endure while entertaining tourists with rides and shows, I knew I wanted to go to a park that actually cared about the elephants.

This park was founded by a woman named Lek who grew up in a village that used elephants for work. She developed a deep empathy for elephants and started rescuing abused and abandoned elephants.  She now has about 30 elephants that roam freely on a large plot of land and are only there to heal and live out healthy and happy lives.   Several of the elephants were blind, some done by their former Trainers, or Mahouts when they refused to work.  Another elephant was missing part of its back foot from stepping on a land mine on the Myanmar border.  Since the elephants were raised by people, they do not know how to care for themselves and must always be taken care of, so each elephant has a Mahout even the babies have their own mahout.

On the van ride over, then had us watch an extremely sad video about the elephants at the park.  Each one had a story that tugged at your heart.  When got to the park, our guide went over all the rules: Don't touch an elephant unless I say you can.  "Some are very gangster. You see that one?" as he points to an elephant under a tree, "She's super moody, you can only pet her if she is eating."  If an elephant is coming your way, move out of the way, or they might move you out of the way.  Also, touching the babies were a big no no.  They were trying to get the babies used to their mahout and if too many people touched them, they would get confused.
Baby Elephant and his mahout

Big Elephant and her Mahout

We spent the morning feeding the elephants. After lunch they had us watch another movie about how they "break" the elephants into submission for working and riding. It is an incredibly brutal process that starts off with days of torture, sleep deprivation and withholding of food.  The elephants were actually crying, real tears, as this was happening to them.  It was extremely hard to watch.  We all left the room in a very somber mood, but then in the distance you could see herd of elephants coming down to the river for their bath.  "The elephants are never late." said the guide.  "They always know what time it is."  The elephants got into the river and the guide handed us each a bucket to throw water on them  The elephants stood in the water with the look of pure content on their big faces.  
Bathing Time

 We then walked a little further down the river to watch group of elephants with a 6 month old baby bathing in the water.  The baby became curious and came up on the bank to check us out and ran back and forth between the crowds in a clumsily toddler-like way.   At the end of the day, our guide told us we have to get back to the main hut because the elephants are never late and another group will want their snack.  This time a baby of 1.5 years with his mom and nanny were coming for snack.  More than the mother raises the babies, usually the babies have 2 or 3 other female elephants helping raise him.  This baby was fun to watch.  Our guide told us to stay away form him as he was very very naughty.  We ended the day feeding the elephants yet another snack before we all got in the van to head back to the city.  Being with those giant creatures was definitely a highlight of my trip.

The following day, on Tuesday, I signed up to do an over night meditation course at a temple, Wat Suan Dok.  There were about 40 other tourists doing the course and they transported us out of the city to a quite mediation retreat.  We spent the next 2 days learning about Buddhism and meditation.  It was also this day that I found out Keith had a heart attack and so it was extremely difficult to quiet my mind.

We learned 4 different types of concentration meditation: Sitting, standing, walking and laying.  We had 2 young monks, age 26, who were actually from Myanmar, but came to Thailand to go to Buddhist University. They have been monks since age 13.  Almost all men in Thailand become monks at some point in their lives, even if it is or a few short days.  Some stay in longer than others, but they are allowed to leave at any time with out any stigma.  These 2 young monks said they really like being Buddhist monks, but they aren't sure if they will be one forever, but right now they like it.

Monks in Thailand aren't allowed to touch women and they aren't vegetarian like the monks in China.  The monks in Thailand get their food by going out to gather morning "alms" in the early morning from the local villagers.  They only eat twice a day.  The monks in China will eat three times a day, but they cook their own food.

The young monk explained the importance of mediation.  He asked us what would happen if you didn't shower for a week. "You be really dirty, right?"  Same with your mind, he said,  you need meditation to clean your mind and to learn how to better control you thoughts and emotions.  Boy, do I have a lot to clear out of this mind.  I don't think 2 days is nearly enough time.  He then taught us the 4 different types of mediation and we practiced in a group.  After about an hour and a half got a break until dinner time and so we all sleepily got up and wandered out in the court yard.  At meditation retreats, they require you to wear only white clothes, so here were 40 people all dressed in white wandering aimlessly in different directions without saying a word to each other unsure of what they were supposed to do.  It looked like I was watching a bunch of insane people walking around the court year of a mental hospital. It took all of my strength to not bust out laughing. \

I met really nice people a this retreat, people more my age or older.  It seems most travelers in Thailand are backpackers that are in their early 20's.  On this retreat I particularly connected with a group people who seemed to be around my age and after the retreat I took them to my favorite restaurant, Bamboo Bee Vegetarian restaurant.  We talked about our lives, one of the guys was also an RPCV while one of the girls has always wanted to join the Peace Corp.  We talked about traveling and life, dreams and hopes.  Most travelers I've met got sick of their lives and desperately needed a change, so off they went.  They also don't know what they're going to do when they get back and are quite confused about the direction they want to take their life.  It's nice to be surrounded by people who are just as confused as I am.

I go back to my room at Mountain View Guesthouse and was getting ready for bed when the front desk calls to tell me Kimberly had arrived.  Kimberly is a friend of my sister who has been traveling around Asia.  We had agreed to meet the next morning so I was confused why she had come to my guesthouse at 11pm.  Apparently the owner of the guest house she was supposed to stay at was quite snarky and threw her out when Kimberly asked to see the room first. That's one major difference I've noticed in Thailand compared to the Philippines.  You would never see Filipinos express anger, that is considered to be a poor sign of character to not control your emotions in public, but I've seem quite a few Thais yelling at each other on the streets.  I told her she could stay with me as my room had 2 beds, plus I was getting a little lonely traveling by myself. It was nice to have a companion for a few days.

On Thursday we went up to Wat Doi Suthep, a temple on top of a mountain. It was a really pretty temple and we both got a blessing from a monk who sprinkled water on us, said a prayer for good luck and gave me a white sting bracelet for good luck. I noticed a lot of little tiny bells with peoples names or sayings on them hanging all over the temple.  I asked what they were for, and I was told for good luck.  So I bought a bell and wrote all the names of people I could think of who were struggling with their health and hug it up. Unfortunately, since I hung that up, 2 of them have passed.  I hope at least they passed peacefully.

When we got back, we decided to make a reservation to do a guided hike and bike.  The brochure described it as a 3 hour walk and then a 2 hour down hill mountain bike ride. It sounded fun, and not too strenuous with a nice leisurely lunch in the middle and ending at a beautiful lake for a swim.

On Thursday, We also had a Thai massage.  We both had never had one, and I'm not sure I like them.  It was actually more painful than comfortable.  At one point the women was in the air on top of me as she pushed own on my spin with her hands to thrust herself up to crack my back, so far, I'm not a fan of Thai Massages.

Then next morning we get up, I have a big breakfast and am excited for the day.  We get to the bike shop and they guide asks me if I've ever mountain biked, which I said no, and he shook his head.  I was scared. he then smiled and said, "don't worry, I'll help you!" There were different groups of people for different trips of different difficulty levels.  We were in a group of about 10 people.

We started off the hike on nice rolling paths, nothing too strenuous. That's when he told us we would be hiking 11 kilometers.  I was scared again.  We went several kilometers when the guide asked if we wanted to see the water fall, we all said yes.  He warned, "ok, but we have to go down and then up, Ok?"  "O.K." We all said he then turns down a path, that was barely marked with incredibly steep down hill.  The whole time I kept thinking, "If we're going down, that means we have to go up"

The waterfall was, well, cute, but nothing special.  We hung out there for a few minutes before he started up a different path where for a couple of kilometers we had to scramble our way out.  I didn't sign up for climbing.  And soon, I was the lagging hiker with the guide lagging behind with me.  I turned and apologized to him, I told him my endurance and stamina isn't the same as it used to be. He asked why, so I told him.  He completely understood as his dad had died of cancer recently.  He said to take as many breaks as possible.  Then he scrambled ahead of me, blew his whistle and yelled at the others to hurry up.  He did these little bootcamp- drill-Sargent commands once in a while, i think more to get a laugh from people.  A girl from Canada always yelled back at him, "stop yelling at me!" and then he would wait for me, grab my hand and pull me up a few meters until we reached the spot where it leveled out.  We had a few more difficult climbs and my heart was definitely racing.  He then split the group in two, sent the more able bodied hikers with his assistant while he took the rest of us on the easy route. He told us about this one time a Chinese lady couldn't finish the climb so he had to carry her.  We finally made it to the top at a Hmong village where a nice bowl of hot noodle soup was waiting for us.  Art, the guide, grabbed my water bottle and filled it with ice cold water.  As soon as we were done eating, they unloaded the bikes, gave us each bikes, helmets, knee pads and elbow pads.  He gave us a quick lesson on mountain biking and off we went.  Again, he split us into two groups with Art taking us down the easier path.
The Gang

I had never mountain biked before, but I've road bike plenty last year.  I didn't realize how different the two were. And since we were mostly going down hill, it was terrifying and I spent the majority of the time clutching my breaks. Right in the beginning my bike slipped on a patch of leaves sending me to hop of my bike and leaving my bike smashing into the ground.  That only made me go even slower, even though Art kept yelling at me to take my hands off the break.  At one point, since I was so scared the entire time, I had to pee so bad.  When I get nervous or anxious, I have to pee a lot for some reason.  Since I was the last one, I just stopped my bike, looked around and peed on the side of the road.  Thankfully we were in the middle of no where.

We then come to a clearing and he asks if we want to go eat some strawberries, which, duh, of course and we veered off the road down another side road to a big strawberry patch with the sweetest strawberries.  Even the strawberries that didn't look ripe, that were still mostly white were really sweet.  It was a nice treat to a stressful day.  We then start our way back down and once again I lose control of my bike and once again I was able to hop off before it smashed to the ground.   I was ready for the day to be over. I get back on my bike and my seat falls off.  and I say, "Oh F*&k"  Art calls back, "I heard that, what did you do?"  He comes over, tries to fix my seat, which he couldn't and then ends up trading seats with me and rigging the broken one to his bike.  He assured me we were almost there.  Then all of a sudden we come around a corner and there is the lake! I was sooooo happy, and it was on a paved road.  I was very thankful the day was over.  I was beat. I was so tired that I couldn't make myself eat anything or get in the water for a swim.  I just sat there sipping water and cokes to cool off.
Strawberry Patch

 Kimberly and I had originally planned on going to Pai the next day, but I told I probably would need a recovery day before we headed there.  So she signed up to do a cooking class the next morning and I allowed myself to just sleep in.
Kimberly and I going to Pai!


  1. A nice read - can't wait to see you and compare notes.

  2. Erica stay out of the hospitals!! Stay healthy <3. It sounds like an amazing trip!! I'm so glad that you were able to go on it.