Posts Tagged With: South East Asia

May 28th – Day 9 – Mountain, Millionaires and Motorcycles

In the peak season, the tour would move on to Vietnam in the morning on this day, but since we’re travelling in the off -season, Lao Airlines only flies in the afternoons to Hanoi, so we had a free morning in Luang Prabang. I was pretty happy about this since I’ve really enjoyed the pace of life in Luang Prabang and I wanted to explore their most famous site, the Phousi Mountain (don’t say it too quickly!).  At the top of the mountain is a small temple which can be seen from all over the town, and it offers spectacular views of the two rivers which converge just outside of Luang Prabang.

I started the day with an early breakfast, around 7, before heading out to the mountain before the heat of the day hit. The base of the mountain path was a short walk from the hotel, and I was able to make good time heading up – after paying my 20,000 kip entrance fee. Almost every tourist attraction seems to charge the same here!

It was 309 steps up to the top of the mountain, but it was worth it – I had the top to myself and could see all of the town, the rivers and the small temple as well. The sense of achievement in doing this was also worth it!

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A view of the river and Luang Prabang from the mountain

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Top of the mountain selfie

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The other side of the town

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The temple at the top

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No idea what this purple leaf is but it was really vibrant and visible throughout the town

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It was a steep walk up the mountain

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Selfie after making it back down

On the way back down I decided to go for another Lao coffee, having enjoyed it the day before. There was some confusion in the shop who seemed to think I wanted a take away coffee and gave me the boiling hot coffee and condensed milk in a plastic bag, like a goldfish at the fair. After clarifying my request, I was quickly brought a new one in a glass and enjoyed it just as much as the first, although I didn’t dare to try and communicate about the doughnut !

Once I got back to the hotel I quickly packed before going for a swim in the beautiful hotel pool. It was still not even 8:30! The early mornings on this tour really mean the day packs in things… I swam for half an hour and by that point some of the others emerged from their rooms.

Since it was so early, I went back to the room for a little cool off and a nap before checking out from the hotel.  I walked back into the town and explored a little of the old town, hunting out some gift shops and stopping for lunch in a tourist restaurant called The Pizza, which served terrible over priced pizza and drinks but I wanted to be gentle to my stomach after the upset yesterday – I also ordered ginger tea which seemed to help.  After I ordered the olive pizza, the waiter dashed out of the shop to a neighbouring supermarket and came back in with a pack of olives and some ginger. Got to love small towns!

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Olive pizza

With a couple of hours remaining in Luang Prabang once lunch was over, I went into a coffee shop for a cold drink and some aircon as well as free wifi… Honestly this day was a bit unnecessary but the flight schedules had determined we should stay until 3pm.

At 3 we regrouped and headed out to the airport, where check-in was smooth and allowed us a little more waiting before we boarded Laos Airlines QV313 to Hanoi.  The flight was pretty much a mirror image of our flight from Chiang Mai – an ATR plane, terrible box meal and a 45 minute hop.

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Laos airlines selfie

When we landed in Hanoi the sky was incredible – the clouds were so dark and low, it was clear a storm was about to hit and shortly after we left the airport, we were presented with a wonderful thunderstorm. The Vietnamese visa process for a UK passport holder was super easy- no paperwork at all, just handing over my passport and getting a stamp at the border. Some of the others had spent upwards of $200 on their Vietnam visas!

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Vietnams visa is somewhat simple after the crazy Laos ones

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Our luggage collection

In the airport I also changed some US Dollars into Vietnamese dong and once again became a millionaire – $1 was worth 22,240 dong so my $100 gave me 2.2 Million dongs!

Our trip to the hotel was in a nice big comfortable bus and we got to see a bit of the hubbub of Hanoi – our hotel was quite central in the city on ‘silk street’ (fittingly the hotel was the Golden Silk Hotel).  The streets of Hanoi are organised by what is sold there – so there is glasses street, coffee street, and beer street. Quite an efficient way of shopping, unless you want a lot of different things at once!

During our bus ride Dek gave us some tips about Vietnam – a country of 90 million people, and Hanoi – the capital city with over 8 million people and over 4 million motorcycles.  The constant ‘beep beep’ of the motorcycles and cars weaving in and out was infectious and I couldn’t wait to get out and start exploring! We only got one night in Hanoi before our next destination, so we went on a short walk to Deks favourite local restaurant – called 96 Restaurant. Dek said they have one as well called 69 -although that sounds like a whole different dinner to me!

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Another hotel, another massive bed!

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Pineapple juice

Crossing the roads in Hanoi is something of an art form, as there is never really a break in the traffic – you just kind of ‘go for it’ when you want to cross, and the traffic avoids you. At first it sounds scary, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

At 96 Restaurant I had some fresh vegetable spring rolls and tofu with satay sauce,as well as a fruit juice and it cost 250,000 dong! That feels like a lot, but it’s really about $20.

Once back at the hotel, and safely across the roads again, I quickly replaced my day pack into an overnight pack since we couldn’t bring our full bags for the next day trip to Ha Long Bay.  Tomorrow would be another early start, setting off at 6:30 – so I got an early night again. Excited for tomorrow though – Ha Long Bay is one of my reasons for booking the trip!

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May 27th – Day 8 – Monks, Caves and Coffee

This morning we met at 5:20am, before sunrise, which meant a 4:30 alarm (followed by a 4:35 alarm, a 4:40 alarm, a 4:45 alarm and a cold shower…). The reason for our early rising? Today we were to give Alms to the monks who live at the various temples around Luang Prabang.

The daily ritual is the way that the monks in the area receive food and gifts from the local community. Every morning at sunrise the monks walk a route around the city with collection baskets and locals give gifts of sticky rice, crackers and sometimes treats. It’s something of a tourist event now, but there were still plenty of locals continuing the tradition even in down-season.

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Our 5:20am walk

We headed quickly from our hotel to the Main Street, around a 5 minute walk, and took our seats on some small plastic stools. By each stool was a large basket of sticky rice, provided by GAdventures as part of the tour.  Shortly after we sat down, the first of 5 temples worth of monks began walking past us.  Dek instructed us in how to create balls of sticky rice and place them into the donation baskets. The rice was incredibly hot, which made it difficult to handle, but it was an amazing experience to provide for the monks who live their lives from donations.

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The monks arrive at sunrise

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Prepped and ready at 5:30

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Me, giving alms

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The procession of monks

In total 5 temples passed us in the space of about 15 minutes, and a lot of the experience for me was reflection on the life of a monk – taking their spirituality into mind and understanding more about how much it means to them that these traditions continue.

After giving alms, Dek led us through the local market in Luang Prabang where we were warned we would see a lot of unusual products. This market was really for local people, not like the tourist markets we’d been shown so far. As I mentioned yesterday, Laos people are really resourceful when it comes to food and eat pretty much whatever is going in the area – and that included a lot of fish (in various states of disembodiment), snakes, lizards, bags of animal blood and animal bile, snails, frogs and a thousand other things you wouldn’t expect to find as food! It was really interesting to consider how much these people take from their resources which we would normally disgard or not consider as part of our diet. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to pick and choose what we eat, but we are also incredibly wasteful.

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Some stuff was actually packaged

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Chillis of all types

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Some sort of lizard for sale at the market

With our stomachs now rumbling even though it was only 7am, we were offered a chance to try Lao coffee – a local speciality which is prepared with condensed milk at the bottom of a glass followed by strong thick coffee poured on top.  It was served to us outside of a local coffee shop, with a small fried doughnut in an H shape for 6000 kip – less than $1.

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Lao coffee

Just after the coffee, we headed back to the hotel for real breakfast before preparing to leave at 8am for our next adventure.

At 8 we got onto the minibus to head upstream – this was the easier option of two we were given (the other one involved an extra 90 minutes on a boat floating upstream).  The 30 minute drive gave us all a chance for a short nap before we arrived at what was described as a rice whiskey village. This was a local village by the edge of the water where tourist boats stop and the locals sell their rice whiskey, as well as other hand made products – I bought a terrible hat (to match my terrible hat from Peru) but avoided trying the rice whiskey which had scorpions soaking in it (to add to the flavour, or just to make it look scary – I couldn’t really tell!)

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Rice Whiskey lady

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Styling out my new weave/Burberry $3 hat

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Snake rice whiskey

Once the locals had finished convincing us to buy things, we boarded our boat and started a short 30 minute trip on the river to our destination – the Pak Ou Caves.

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Our boat

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River photo

These caves are famous for housing over 2500 Buddha statues, a sort of cave temple I guess. The caves are split into two – the lower cave is easily accessible from our boat and the upper cave is a few hundred steps up the hill.  I decided to do both, and it was really spectacular. The lower cave is well lit and interesting, but the upper cave was pitch black and meant I needed a head torch to see all the statues. Jaqueline and I explored and felt like we were in something out of an Indian Jones movie. It was so hot at the top having climbed the stairs, I was glad to get back down and drink some cool water on the return boat ride to Luang Prabang.

The boat ride back took about an hour but we landed right in the centre of Luang Prabang, just behind the Royal Palace Museum. It was a short bus ride back to the hotel and we were able to relax for the rest of the day.

First on my priority list was a massage which I took in the hotel spa.  It wa a little more expensive than the massage places in town, but still only $20 for an hour!

My stomach wasn’t feeling so good so I opted to just make a short trip to the store and bought some snack foods to have in my room before napping and sleeping off my funny tummy. After all, I had woken up at 4:30!

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My snacks

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May 25th – Day 6 – Laundry, Laos and Lilypads

Today was quite an easy day – essentially a travel day.  I started with a 9am lie in, followed by almost missing the breakfast closing at 10am – I was the last person there when they closed! Oops!

After a brief breakfast, I popped down to the laundry to collect my 60 baht washing load.  It was really amazing to have everything washed, folded and packed for me for just over £1! As we were due to leave the hotel, I headed to the room and packed… It seems to be getting easier as the trip goes on (which is good, because there’s a lot more packing and unpacking to go!)

At 12:00 we had to check out from our rooms, so I headed down to meet and chat with others outside the hotel for an hour before we headed to the airport.  We were about to fly to Laos so it gave me a chance to read my guide book and clue up on Laos a little bit more.  I also remembered to take my first Malaron, anti malarial drug – nobody else on the trip is taking malarials but since the travel clinic advised it, I decided to go for it.  I read the potential side effects, and it says that 1 in 10 people react in some way… Watch this space!

At 1pm we headed to the airport to prepare for our 15:30 flight.  Chiang Mai airport is pretty small, and the Laos airline check in desk had 4 people handling our little flight check in – it seemed to be a case of each person had one job to do, including one guy who just picked up stuff from the printers and handed them to someone else.  Quite a strange arrangement but I guess it works as we were through check in very quickly.

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Check in in Chiang Mai

After Check-In, Dek warned us that we should probably grab food before we headed through security so I headed off with Karl and Petra to find something suitable.  There were two options – Burger King or McDonalds. I checked my wallet and literally had 100 baht left (£2!) – excellent planning on the currency side, but it meant that I couldn’t buy anything more than a pack of French fries. Karl and Petra gave me 25 baht so that I could get together enough cash for my meal – thanks guys!

Once we’d had a brief meal, we went through the process of leaving Thailand – a departure form and a security check and we were through, ready to head to the gate.  Gate 9 in this case, where Dek was waiting with paperwork.  As Laos has a visa on arrival scheme, we had to fill out a visa form AND an arrival form – glad we got through there in plenty of time.

We boarded QV636 from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang via a bus – it’s a little properller plane (ATR 72-600) and settled down for the short flight.  Lao Airlines are ‘ready to be a national carrier’ for Laos, but so far don’t have that status, but they were putting in the effort – a little box meal on a 45 minute flight, even if it was a nasty looking sandwich and a box of fruit.

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Obligatory plane selfie


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Lao airlines inflight meal

As we approached Luang Prabang, it was clear we were heading to a much smaller town – just 50,000 people live there.  The hills were filled with trees, rivers and a much more natural looking area than Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  I spotted the airport from the plane as we circled and it was tiny – just a runway and a tiny terminal building with what looked like one gate.

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Chiang Mai from the air


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Laung Prabang from the air


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Our tiny ATR plane


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Wasking to the terminal

After landing, we parked quite a distance from the terminal and were let off the plane.  There were no instructions, but people seemed to just walk towards the terminal, so we followed – the rules here are so relaxed about this sort of thing! We were lucky to be near the back of the plane (ATR planes deplane from the rear) so we got to the front of the immigration queue quickly.

The first stage of immigration into Laos was to obtain our visa on arrival.  This was a simple process when we had completed the form and photo in advance – simply a case of handing over our passport and forms, waiting a couple of minutes and going to a different window where we paid the $35 (plus $1 service fee) and obtained a properly printed visa in the passport!  Makes you wonder why so many countries take days or weeks to prepare visas!

After that, the immigration was straightforward – arrival form and baggage collection. Since it was a tiny flight and a tiny airport, the bags were there before we even got our visas.

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My Lao visa

After we all regrouped, and the Canadians complained about their $42 visa (different countries have different costs), some people went to withdraw cash from ATMs.  Since I had USD I wanted to change, I had to wait till later to become a millionaire! In Lao, the currency is the Lao Kip and is worth approximately 8000 kip to 1 USD.  So to become a millionaire, you only need $120 – actually the recommended amount by Dek for our 3 day stay.

During our minibus ride to the hotel, Dek explained that Lao is one of 5 communist countries in the world, and the name here is PDR of Laos – which colloquially stands for People Don’t Rush! He warned us – don’t expect fast service anywhere!

We quickly arrived at our hotel, the Maison Dalaboa.  It’s a really cute boutique hotel next to a lily pond.  My room had a HUGE double bed and there was a lovely pool as well.  Once we checked in (and had another welcome drink), we were to meet at 7pm for dinner and a trip to yet another Night Market!

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MAulson Dalabua


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My huge hotel bed


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Beautiful boutique hotel


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Lilypond outside

Our dinner was at the Coconut Garden restaurant, a fairly nice place just through the Night Market.  On the way there we stopped at a foreign exchange booth and I changed $124 into 1,004,000 kip – making my briefly a millionaire!

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Coconut Garden


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Proof that I was briefly a millionaire

I ordered a pumpkin and coconut soup, steamed vegetables with a spicy tomato sauce and a Beer Lao – the local beer.  Service was predictably slow (PDR, after all!) and the restaurant was quite dark, but the food was tasty when it did come.

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Beer Lao


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Pumpkin and Coconut soup

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Steamed Vegetables and spicy tomato dip

Local shop


After dinner we headed into a local shop to buy some water and some of the group wanted some night booze supplies. It had been a pretty calm day, but I feel like that’s probably the way of life in Laos. 

Looking forward to exploring tomorrow!

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May 23rd – Day 4 – Durian, Cooking and Chanting Monks

The day started with an early and light breakfast, since the first activity of the day was starting at 9am. I ate with Fred & Carol, then popped up to my room to grab my bag before heading out to meet everyone for our pick-up.  We were collected by our guide from Thai Orchid Cookery School, who later introduced himself as Kong (as in King Kong).

Breakfast, buffet style as always

Thai Orchid Cookery School

Kong took us to the local market, about a 10 minute drive from the hotel, and we had a chance to see all sorts of local speciality fruits and delicacies, including the infamous ‘1000 year egg’ – an egg which has been buried under ground for 100 days and is completely black in colour inside.  The yoke has a sort of jelly texture to it.  Steve from the group was brave enough to try it, but his reaction told us that the rest of us didn’t need to try it!

In Thailand, eggs are coloured to identify their type – brown is chickens egg, white is duck egg and pink is flamingo egg (only kidding, its 1000 year egg)

1000 year egg

We saw a lot of local fruits including dragon fruit, mangostines and the durian fruit.  Durian fruits are banned from all hotels, due to their strong smell and flavour. They smell something like cheese or rotten eggs, and the smell can linger for days or weeks if they are opened indoors, but Thais love the flavour of them – and Kong bought a pack of already cut Durian (a few days old) for us to try – by then the smell has become manageable and actually the taste was pretty good!

Durian fruit, and the cut durian in the bottom right in cling film

Also on sale at the market were spices, curry pastes and lots of different type of rice for different purposes.  Thai people eat rice 3 times a day, so I guess you have to change it up from time to time!

I bought a small pack of pre-cut green mango, which was provided with a sachet of sugar, salt and chilli mixed together to be dipped.  The green mango is quite firm and bitter on it’s own, but with this little pack of zing, it was a really nice experience to eat it!

Green Mango with Sugar, Salt and Chilli – 10 baht (20p!)

After a few minutes of free time whilst Kong gathered some last minute ingredients, we headed back to the van and drove to the cookery school – which turned out to be Kongs house. He runs the cook school as his business and it was really professionally laid out, with a giant angled mirror above a demonstration station in one room, and a bunch of gas stoves in the back garden (with a covered roof) for us to cook on.  We each got our own station, so the pressure is on to really cook!

Our cooking areas, all prepped and ready to go

The Demonstration Station

A chef in the making

The first dish Kong showed us how to prepare was Vegetable Spring Rolls, which were surprisingly easy.  It was great to see all the different ingredients and learn about things like the rough and smooth side of the spring roll paper, the way Thai people make a glue up from tapioca flour to stick the edges together, and to make up our own sauces with traditional Thai ingredients. Kong made it look really easy, and then it was our turn – first collecting the ingredients for our sauce and then chopping the vegetables, stir frying and then wrapping them before frying off the finished spring rolls.  Kong gave us each a dish of home made Sweet Chilli Sauce and we sat down to eat our first home made concoction!

Kong shows us Vermicelli (glass noodles)

Stir frying for the filling of the spring rolls

My turn!

My first spring roll

And then there were two

They survived the fryer

Starter is served!

Got to admit, I am pretty proud of my first Spring rolls – they tasted good and they were super crispy. The second one kind of exploded on me as I was eating it, but at least it tasted good. There was a sign up in the dining room saying that they had beer and soft drinks for sale for 40baht so we agreed we’d all like to order a beer – which resulted in Kong jumping in his car and driving to the shops! Not quite what we had expected, but a few minutes later we had cans of beer in our hands.

We took our beer through and watched our next demonstrations – for Banana Steam Cake, then Yellow Chicken Curry and finally Chicken and Cashew Nuts.  All of the recipes were easy to follow and surprisingly uncomplicated – lots of measures of ingredients – but the end results spoke for themselves.  It was a great lesson in Thai cookery and showed just how simple their dishes are. As long as you have a handy cup of coconut cream around, you can make most of their things with a very simple powder or paste.

Below are a few snaps of the finished articles, and I can assure you that they tasted amazing!

Kong demonstrates Banana Steam Cake

My banana steam cake

Carol smashing it with her Banana Steam Cake

My yellow curry with chicken and potatoes

Fred cooking Chicken Cashew Nut

My chicken cashew nut

Lunch is served

My Banana Steam Cake

Our free cook book

Thai Orchid Cookery School

At the end of the cookery lesson, Kong gave us all a free cookbook with more simple Thai recipes and drove us back to the hotel for a brief rest to allow our stomachs to settle after so much food!

Around 4pm we set off for the next bit of our adventure – a trip to Doi Suthep, the second most sacred sight in Thailand. Doi Suthep was a 45 minute bus ride up a VERY windy road up hill to reach the temple. The road was pretty scary at places and we were amazed to see people cycling up the hill.

At the top of the hill, the minibus stopped and we were told that there were two options to reach the temple – we could either take a tram, or we could walk 309 stairs. Of course I chose the stairs!

Dek gives us the options for the journey up the hill

Dek gives us the options for the journey up the hill

And I chose the hard option, of course!

And I chose the hard option, of course!

In honesty the 309 steps weren’t that hard, and it was a lovely ornate staircase.  There were even some fallen fresh flowers on the steps, which made it pretty to walk up.

Once we regrouped at the top, we headed to a really fantastic viewpoint over Chiang Mai, where you could see the whole city.  Dek explained to us that the temple was built in this location because many years ago an elephant carrying the remains of Buddha indicated that this should be the site, by turning in a circle 3 times and trumpeting.  Somme stories say that the elephant died, others just that it trumpeted. Either way, they decided to build a temple here.

Dek also explained some details about the life of a Buddhist monk, how they follow 227 rules and dedicate their life to the Buddhist principles.  What was interesting that I had no idea about is that you can also get female monks, and they have more than 300 rules to follow because, as Dek said, women are more emotional so they have to have stricter rules.

The temple contains the remains of the Buddha which were carried by the elephant, which is what makes it such a sacred site.  The remains are buried under the temple, and people make trips from all over the Buddhist world to visit and pay their respects.

Whilst we were getting all this information, Dek also explained to us the story of the first Buddha – how he was the son of a King, and lived his life in the palace, never seeing the outside world. Eventually he left the palace and was shocked by the suffering he saw, the sick and dying people. This is what caused him to start the life of a monk, suffering like those people, and since he was making such a sacrifice, people respected him and started to follow his principles. That was the birth of Buddhism.

After all this information about the Buddhist faith, we were given times to wonder around the temple before sunset when the monks who live there come out to pray and chant.  This was what we were aiming for, and we waited around to watch the start of their chants. This was an incredible spiritual experience, seeing these men and a few women who have dedicated everything to their beliefs.

Here are a few snapshots from the temple:

Doi Sutep

Doi Sutep

Doi Sutep again

Doi Sutep again

Somme of the smaller Buddha statues surroundings the main temple

Somme of the smaller Buddha statues surroundings the main temple

Young (novice) monks praying and chanting

Young (novice) monks praying and chanting

Chanting to the Buddha in the temple

Chanting to the Buddha in the temple

People bring bells with their name on and leave it with a wish. Most were in Thai, but I found one from Kati and Fredi.

People bring bells with their name on and leave it with a wish. Most were in Thai, but I found one from Kati and Fredi.

After that amazing experience, we were free to wonder down the hill at our leisure. I grabbed a couple of shots to show the ambience of the area and the steepness of the hill:

The stairs were easier going down, for sure

The stairs were easier going down, for sure

Another Buddha, at the bottom of the hill

Another Buddha, at the bottom of the hill

The flags at the bottom of the stairs

The flags at the bottom of the stairs

Once everyone regrouped, we jumped into the minibus and headed back into Chiang Mai. We stopped at a viewpoint over the city to see some of the lights switching on, then headed all the way down the windy road again.

Once back in Chiang Mai, we were dropped off at another Night Market near our hotel. We had a bit of a look through the stalls, but most of the people in the group wanted to try a ‘Fish Massage’ – something I ruled out straight away! With my ticklish feet, there is no chance I would enjoy that.

Dek took us to a stall which was really good value for money – the fish massage was 100 baht for 20 minutes, and they offered Thai massage for 100 baht (£2) for 30 minutes. I opted for a neck and back massage, whilst the others tried the Fish Massage!

Steve didn't last long!

Steve didn’t last long!

Feeling accomplished from our mixed day of cooking, temples and massages, we grabbed a light dinner in a bar at the market and I treated myself to a hand made ice cream as well.  Afterwards, we took a Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel and had a fairly early night – preparing for my Ziplining adventure tomorrow which Dek has booked for me! Got to be ready to leave at 8am, so it’s an early start.

Brownie and M&Ms get cream poured over them and smashed together

Brownie and M&Ms get cream poured over them and smashed together

Then the mixture is spread out on a cold plate to freeze, and rolls of it are created using the spatula once it's frozen

Then the mixture is spread out on a cold plate to freeze, and rolls of it are created using the spatula once it’s frozen

Then whipped cream is added and more M&Ms and brownies... Voila, calories in a bowl! But I'm on holiday!

Then whipped cream is added and more M&Ms and brownies… Voila, calories in a bowl! But I’m on holiday!

Night all!

Categories: Food, South East Asia, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

May 22nd – Day 3 – Chinese, Canal trip and Chiang Mai

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.

Breakfast

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).

My bag is really reasonable in comparison to others

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.

Busier than Disneyland!

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 amazing view as you enter the palace

This building is made entirely of gold mirror tiles, like a giant abstract gold mirror ball

A close up of the giant mirror ball tiles

Another angle on the giant mirror ball building

Dek, our CEO and Thailand guide

Phra Si Ratana

Amazing carving and sculptures too

The lines of the buildings are so beautiful

The symbolism here is amazing

Another incredible statue

This is where the Emerald Buddha lives, but cameras are forbidden inside

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.

Chakri Mahaprasat

Beautiful temple, possibly my favourite so far

Changing of the guard

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.

Dek on a Deck

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!

Our boat arriving

Boat Selfie

Steve took my photo too

One of the grander places on the river side

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).

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Pad Thai at the airport

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Krispy Kreme Mango Twirl


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.

Obligatory plane selfie

Obligatory plane selfie

Bag of food, our 'smile meal'

Bag of food, our ‘smile meal’

Water and a suspect tuna sandwich

Water and a suspect 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.

Backpacking! (And front packing)

Backpacking! (And front packing)

Tight pack on the van

Tight pack on the van

Nice hotel!

Nice hotel!

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.

Our red truck to the market

Our red truck to the market

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.

Sunday Night Market

Sunday Night Market

A temple at night. There are over 300 temples in the old town of Chiang Mai.

A temple at night. There are over 300 temples in the old town of Chiang Mai.

Hand made crafts

Hand made crafts

Glass blowing

Glass blowing

Everywhere you are in the world, there is Starbucks. I didn't try it.

Everywhere you are in the world, there is Starbucks. I didn’t try it.

The market was really colourful

The market was really colourful

Colourful elephants

Colourful elephants

Neat little lamp. If I had space in my bag, this guy would come back with me.

Neat little lamp. If I had space in my bag, this guy would come back with me.

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!

Categories: South East Asia, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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