Never in a million years would I think I would survive a 24-hour bus ride but once I landed my two feet on concrete in Chiang Mai, Thailand I felt great and energized. In order to make the most of the day, I walked around the entire city, bought a couple of gifts, talked to a couple locals and tried some Thai food. The more people I talked to, the more people told me to get out of Chiang Mai and head to Pai. Pai is a little town 3 hours outside of Chiang Mai in the mountains. I decided since everyone was raving about their experience in Pai to only stay one night in Chiang Mai and take the first bus up to Pai the next morning. Before heading out to Pai in the morning I checked out the Night Bazaar where I had a wonderful BBQ dinner that consisted of 3 meats on a skewer and 4 vegetables all for $4! The journey to Pai the next morning was incredible; it takes buses around 3 hours to get there because of the windy roads. There are approximately 762 turns in order to get to Pai from Chiang Mai. After the crazy winding roads, I ended up in a small town with lots of motorbikes cruising past me. I knew instantly I would love this small town because of the earthy smells and friendly locals. As soon as I arrived at my hostel, I met one of my roommates, Hannah. Hannah is from Chicago and just graduated from the University of Michigan so we were able to bond quickly by catching up with BIG 10 football gossip. After settling into our small 3-bedroom bungalow on the outskirts of Pai, we headed into town to grab a quick bite to eat. Luckily Hannah had been travelling in Thailand longer than I have and recommended some great Thai dishes to try. I decided to try the local Tom Yum soup which was full of savoury flavours. After enjoying the local food, we rented a motorbike and headed to the Temple on the Hill (Wat Phra That Mae Yen) also commonly known as the White Buddha. From the centre of town, if you look towards the north and up, you cannot miss this ginormous white Buddha in the middle of the trees. Once we arrived on our mopeds and skipped the 300 stairs up to the White Buddha, the size put us in awe. It was HUGE! You can see the massive sculpture below and see how little we are compared to it. We also learned that apparently the white is just an undercoat and will be painted gold once they are done with the construction of it. Maybe the next time I come to Pai, I will have a before and after picture to show everyone.
One of the locals recommended that we catch the sunset at the Pai Canyon so we decided to head there and walk around a bit before the sun started to set. The canyon was absolutely breathtaking from the picturesque views on the horizon to the intricate trails that were formed over time (pictured below). After walked around the top of the canyon, we decided to pick a spot to watch the sun set and enjoy life. While watching the sun start to set with 50 other people sitting around us, this German girl asked us to take a picture of her. After taking a picture, we started to talk to her about where she was from and how long she was in Pai for. After a couple minutes into the conversation, Hannah asked her where she was staying in Pai so we could coordinate dinner or drinks with her. After she explained where her accommodations were and the bungalow with the 2 beds taken and my strawberries out on the porch table we realised we had found our 3rd roommate! We could not get over the coincidence especially since there was around 200 people on this canyon watching the sun set in different places. Looks like our 3rd roommate was Vivien from Germany who has a contagious laugh and a hilarious personality! After that, the three of us were inseparable for our entire time in Pai. After perusing the Night Market and trying so many different authentic Thai dishes from the food stands, we were all in a food coma and decided to call it a night. The next morning, Vivi, her friend Zach and I went to spend the day at the Conserve Natural Forest around 15 minutes out of the city. I found this non-profit organization on Instagram after searching for ethical places in Thailand to play with elephants (also it was 1/4th of the cost). The Conserve Natural Forest is a non-profit organization dedicated to combating deforestation and conserving endangered species, specifically the Tortoise and the Asian Elephant. They currently are raising 2 females on their property which is hundreds of acres long so they can reproduce. One female elephant was 23 months pregnant and the other one was 12 months. We learned that elephants can carry their babies up to 24 months, I could not imagine being pregnant for 2 years….let alone 9 months! While we were there for the day, we were able to feed Maemoon and Kamjan around 50 pumpkins, walk with them through the grass fields, play in the water with them, bathe them and plant a tree. It was such a wonderful experience and allowed Vivien, Zach and I to bond together and help the community out a bit. This day brought us so much joy to see how well these elephants were being treated on the grounds and raised awareness for how cruel the elephants are being treated all around Thailand and Southeast Asia. Because the elephant rides are a huge tourist attraction, all the locals see that as a money maker and by riding these elephants they are literally killing off the population of them and that is half of the reason these elephants are becoming extinct. After hearing about the cruelty these elephants go through around Thailand, Cambodia and Laos I would never think about riding the elephants and instead spread awareness to other tourists I meet to make them aware of these awful conditions. To end a wonderful day with the elephants and giving back to the community by planting a new tree, we enjoyed a wonderful chicken fried rice dish for 50 baht ($1.50) and the best cocktail I have ever had, Passionfruit Gin & Tonic for 50 baht ($1.50). While we were on our way back to the city, I was in the bed of the truck looking out over the mountains with the sun setting behind them, I felt this sense of happiness that I haven’t felt in a very long time. To conclude this perfect day, we enjoyed some Kombutcha around a campfire and listened to the open mic night performances.
After feeling high off of life the day before, Vivien, Hannah and I rented motorbikes to enjoy the day at the secret hot springs. During the journey there, we enjoyed the breathtaking views around us and the different animals we passed by. Since I had never been to a hot spring before, I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I put my toe in the water, I felt like I was back home in a hot tub outside. Thinking about the hot spring now, I wish I could have just taken my showers or bath with that water instead of my cold shower water….12 days of cold showers can really change a person and their appreciation for warm water! The next day, Vivien and I said goodbye to Hannah and headed back to Chiang Mai.
762 turns and 3 hours later, we arrived back in Chaing Mai where we planned to check out the Chiang Mai Flower Festival and enjoy the parade. When we asked the locals around town when the parade started and ended they mentioned that it starts at 8 am and ends at 6 pm. We knew that they must have gotten their times wrong because how can a parade last 10 hours….well after watching bits and pieces of the parade we realized why it can take 10 hours and why Chiang Mai really needs to invest in an event planner. Every 30 minutes a couple floats and a high school band would pass us then it would be silent and everyone would be very confused until the next set of floats came….30 minutes to an hour later. Vivien and I admired the floats as well as the authentic dresses and costumes that the thai women and men wore in 90-degree weather. After about two hours of walking the parade route and seeing a handful of floats made of different flowers, Vivien and I stumbled upon a Thai cooking class that interested us. Since we didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day and was starting to think about our next meal, we decided to learn how to cook some Thai dishes at Thai Kitchen Cooking Centre. We started the class by choosing the 4 dishes we wanted to cook. I decided to choose the Khaw Soi Curry with Chiang Mai Noodles, Pad Thai, Chicken Satay and Vegetable Spring Rolls. At the Thai Kitchen Cooking Centre, they use 80% organic ingredients because if they were to use 100% organic ingredients it would restrict their recipes and dishes to seasonal or fusion type foods. The recipes that we followed to cook the authentic foods are hundreds of years old and were passed down to each generation in the family that owns this kitchen. Vivi and I had a wonderful time cooking all the dishes (although some were a bit too spicy for us), bonding with the girls from Seattle and cracking jokes with the Thai family that owned this kitchen. It was so much fun to cook al the dishes and then enjoy each of them. My favorite was the chicken satay appetizer. Luckily they gave us a recipe book so I will be able to cook the dishes again – dinner party when I get home with Ana’s Authentic Pad Thai and Passionfruit Gin & Tonics!
After enjoying the Thai dishes we cooked, we headed to a local jazz bar that was recommended to us by an American local and enjoyed our nightcaps with some background music. Here we met a 20-year-old Thai women, Bowie. After talking a bit to Bowie she mentioned that the only time she ever left Thailand was on a trip to Singapore last year. We were shocked to hear that she never travelled around Southeast Asia and told her about our travels so far and our favorite memories. My hope by telling her all of the places that I had visited to and what I plan to do in this upcoming year inspired her to travel a bit out of her comfort zone or at least around Southeast Asia.
The next morning Vivi and I caught the bus to Chiang Rai to meet up with Hannah…but, unfortunately, we missed the 10 am bus and had to wait at the station for the 4 pm bus. Another day lost due to travelling and missed connections but it was that much better when we arrived in Chiang Rai hungry to explore the night market! The next morning Hannah, Vivi and our new friend from North Carolina, Christy went to Wat Rong Khun also called the White Temple. Basically, Chiang Rai is a tourist destination because of the White Temple and was on the border of Laos, our next destination. Below find some fun facts about Wat Rong Khun and the unbelievable artist who is in the process of restoring and building new temples:
- Wat Rong Khun is a unique temple that stands out through the white color and the use of pieces of glass in the plaster, sparkling in the sun. The white color signifies the purity of the Buddha, while the glass symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom and the Dhamma, the Buddhist teachings.
- The Wat Rong Khun was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist. To date, the temple is not finished. Eventually, there will be nine buildings including an ubosot, a hall to enshrine Buddhist relics, a meditation hall, the monks living quarters and an art gallery.
- On May 5th, 2014 a strong earthquake hit Chiang Rai. Although the white temple was badly damaged, Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to restore and further expand the Wat Rong Khun.
- Every detail of the white temple carries meaning and encourages the visitor to reflect on the Buddhist teachings that show the way to escape from the worldly temptations, desires and greed and focus on the mind instead.
- The ubosot, the main building of the white temple, is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge is a circular area with hundreds of reaching hands that symbolize desire. This area represents human suffering and hell. The bridge towards the ubosot, called the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth” signifies the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. It symbolizes the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things as temptations, greed and desire.
After admiring this wonderful piece of art and learning about the history and how each structure symbolizes something in the Buddhist religion, we had the pleasure to meet the talented artists who constructed this building, Chalermchai Kositpipat! He was such a wonderful and kind human. He was eager to talk to us when we approached him to ask for a photo and even offered us some juicy pineapple slices! After asking him when he started restoring this temple, he mentioned he started at the ripe age of 21 and he is currently 60! 40 years of his life dedicated to making this one of a kind attraction for others to enjoy as well as painting hundreds of paintings during his “free time” that are showcased in a museum next to the temple. We were all giddy with excitement after meeting the great Chalermchai and headed back to Chiang Rai to walk around the night market. Just another wonderful experience to end our trip in Chiang Rai. Next stop, Houx Xai, Laos to zip line through the trees of Bokeo Nature Reserve!