The adventure has officially begun! Today I woke about 6:45 ready for adventures and after a quick shower, headed down for breakfast. In honesty I hadn’t slept well the night before – it turns out that turning off your air conditioning in a country where the ambient temperature is upward of 25c outside isn’t such a good idea.
Breakfast was, like most hotels, a buffet style but in Thailand this buffet included curried vegetables, rice and soups – although I initially stuck with the conventional yoghurt and cereal, followed by some French toast, potatoes, an egg and I did brave some curried vegetables (which were pretty good!). I also had some amazing fresh pineapple juice, and some terrible tea. I ate breakfast with Karl, since Petra didn’t want breakfast and it was nice to get to know someone in the group a bit more.
After breakfast I went to my room and jammed all my stuff into my bag before meeting the group in the lobby. I have a pretty small bag compared to most people – all the Canadians have tons of luggage, only Jaqueline has a smaller bag than me, so I feel pretty good about how much stuff I’ve brought (I was really worried about this before the trip).
We loaded the bags onto 2 minivans and travelled over to the Grand Palace, our first stop for the day. The minivans are ours for the day which is great because we can leave all our luggage with the drivers whilst we go explore – I didn’t think twice about this but some others seemed concerned about leaving their bags with the drivers. Maybe I’m too relaxed, or maybe I should really worry a bit more?
The Grand Palace opens at 8:30 and we got there pretty much bang on time (good score, GAdventures). Unfortunately it seemed like the entire population of China also got there for 8:30. This place was CRAZY, it was busier than Disneyland at opening time. In fact it reminded me a lot of Disneyland – without the rides. Lots of tour guides waving flags and babbling in foreign tongues whilst people shove and jostle to get through ridiculous security procedures that involve tying a piece of yellow twine around your bag to prove it is safe.
There were so many people at the Grand Palace that it was actually fairly uncomfortable – I’m not great in crowds and this was one of the busiest places I’ve ever been. We queued to go through security and then had a short wait whilst Dek (our CEO) picked up our tickets and then joined another queue (no, a crush – there was nothing orderly about this one) to get through the turnstiles and into the palace.
Once we finally made it through the crush, Dek took us to a shady spot (it was already over 30c at 9am!) to describe some of the history of the Grand Palace and it’s many buildings. The palace has a lot of Hindu styling which surprised me since Thailand is a mostly Buddhist country but a lot of the Royal history is Hindu and the practices follow a combination of both cultures. To say that the palace is beautiful is to do it an injustice – this place is quite seriously one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. There were whole buildings decorated in gold, others with ornate sculptures and carvings, and incredible murals and paintings too.
The official highlight of the trip is a chance to see the Emerald Buddah (actually made of Jade) which is housed in an oppulant building of it’s own which you have to remove your shoes to go into. Dek stayed to guard our shoes, and we proceeded to push our way through the throngs of Chinese to get into the temple to see this famous Buddah. It was really an interesting experience, and the Buddah looked good, but there were an unnecessary amount of people and photography wasn’t permitted, so you’ll just have to believe me on that one.
After the Emerald Buddah, the crowds thinned a bit as we headed into the more modern section of the palace with the latest buildings added in the 1850s – these were built in European or Western style, but with Thai roofs – quite a neat mixture. We timed it perfectly to hit the changing of the guard procession, and got to see the white uniformed guards following a drummed march off duty.
It’s clear that the monarchy in Thailand is still very important to the country, and (unlike in the UK) they seem very proud and happy with their King. We finishes the tour with a quick chat about the funeral processes in Thailand which involve cremation and spreading of ashes to the earth and water, following the Buddhist principles of returning the physical body to the elements whilst the spirit/soul moves on to it’s next life. Apparently some people get buried with something they want to have in their next life – money, nice clothes, etc are common but occasionally people will go with a car or something else they’re attached to!
After the end of the tour there was a request from the group for a toilet, which seemed to be lacking in the actual complex of the Grand Palace. Our guide popped us back on the minibus and we headed towards the river, our next stop – where he discovered that the toilets were closed. No problem – a bit of chatting away in Thai with locals and he was pointed to the university building down the street, where we processed like a group of school children on excursion before invading the university cafeteria building for a quick pee break. The university building actually had a small exhibit showing the old city wall and some bits and pieces which were found in the canal/river next to their site.
Once everyone was suitably refreshed we headed down to the river to board a long tail boat for our river trip. The purpose of this trip was not to see the major sites, but to see some of the other parts of Bangkok – including the houses which literally border to the river. These people live their whole lives around the river, even their bin lorries (garbage trucks) float up and collect the bags from the edge of the water.
We saw a lot of interesting sites on this trip, including a water monitor (lizard) which made everyone quite excited, and a huge variety of standards of living from almost collapsed buildings to luxury waterside properties. I think the highlight for everyone was when a old lady in a canoe floated up and sold us beers (ice cold) in the middle of the river. Clearly a tourist trap, but a great experience too!
The boat trip finished fairly quickly and then we jumped back on our mini bus to head to the airport – a trip of about 45 minutes. The airport in Bangkok really is streamlined – check in was smooth (although some of the party had problems with overweight luggage) and security also simple (again, others had liquids in their hand luggage and other issues – being a frequent flier is paying off!)
Once we made it through security we stopped at the ‘Food Stop’ for a spot of lunch. I bought a Pad Thai and a coke, which cost 255 baht (£5, $8) – not much to us, but REALLY expensive compared to most Thai food! The food was okay, nothing really special. After my food I decided to treat myself (and our CEO) to a Krispy Kreme doughnut – after all, it’s a holiday! It’s Mango season in Thailand and as a result, they had special Mango doughnuts – I chose a Mango Twirl and a coffee, and together with a doughnut for our CEO, it cost 178 baht (£3.50, $5).
The group dynamic was a bit weird at this point – a few people chose to sit apart from the rest of us. I think it’s going to take a while to bond with everyone!
Whilst we were waiting, Dek (our CEO) talked about the options for the ‘free choice’ day in Chiang Mai. I was really interested in doing something called the Flight of the Gibbon which is a zip lining adventure course near Chiang Mai which I had read about. Dek told me that there are lots of competitive options there, and recommended a different company, called Dragon Flight, which is cheaper and better in his opinion. He showed me their website and it does look pretty good – I think i’ll trust his local knowledge and save myself 1000 baht! The course has 47 platforms, 26 zip lines and the longest zip line is 800 meters – can’t wait!
We headed to our gate (B8, if you’re keeping track) to board our flight (WE164, with Thai Smile airlines). It was a small bus gate but since the plane was also small, that wasn’t really a problem. The plane was a Airbus A320-200, and the flight was short and uneventful – although they did present us with a funny bag snack pack containing a bottle of water and what looked like it was meant to be a Tuna sandwich.
As we came in to approach Chiang Mai, it was clear we were in a completely different region of Thailand – where Bangkok had been hot and flat, Chiang Mai was green and hilly. I asked Dek and he confirmed that Chiang Mai is about 330m above sea level. Chiang Mai means New City, but it’s also centered around an area called Old Town, so it’s quite a juxtaposition to get your head around.
In Chiang Mai we only had one van, so with all our luggage it was really full when we all got in! Luckily the journey to the hotel was short! During the van trip, Dek briefed us on the stay in Chiang Mai and what our plan was.
Our hotel in Chiang Mai is really nice – the Empress Chiang Mai. I have a nice sized room and we got around 2 hours to sort ourselves out before meeting at 7pm to head out to the Sunday Night Market, which is a huge attraction in Chiang Mai. Before our meeting I headed down to the hotel bar to use my ‘welcome drink’ voucher, which was presented to me- a glass of what tasted like apple juice… Not that exciting!
As we got ready to meet at 7pm, a bit of drama happened when one of the Canadians got their credit card stuck in an ATM and our CEO had to run to the rescue. It all ended up okay, but they seemed really stressed by it – understandably.
We took a red truck ride to the Sunday Market. The red trucks in Chiang Mai are great – they’re like a cross between a taxi and a bus. You get on and pay almost nothing (20 baht – £0.40, $0.50) for your ride, and the driver takes you there but he also stops and picks up other people and goes wherever they want to go too. Because we were 9 people, we got our own truck for just 180 baht.
The Night Market is huge, and crazy busy – tons and tons of stalls line the streets of the old town. They shut all the streets to traffic, so it’s just people walking around shopping and lots of food stalls. The primary focus of this market is hand made and craft stalls – locals make things and bring them down to sell. I bought a couple of trinkets, but since my backpack is pretty tight already resisted the urge to go crazy and buy a ton of things. During the market we got split apart as a group by the sheer volume of people, so I ended up on my own which was actually great as I got to go explore a few temples and food stall areas alone.
When I got bored of the market, I decided to walk back to the hotel – about a 40 minute walk. Dek had provided us all with maps and the route is really simple, and it gave me a chance to see more of the city. I really like Chiang Mai – it’s small and friendly and not hot and noisy and crazy like Bangkok.
Back in the hotel, I bought a 50baht internet voucher and sent a few reassuring texts home before heading to bed. We have a 9am start tomorrow for our cooking adventure!
Want to read part 4? It’s here!