Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sorry for the delay everyone! We had some difficulties with internet connections in India, so I’m just getting this post up now.
On April 14th we got up and headed to the Luang Prabang airport to fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 1:10 but instead left at 1:00, which was the first time that’s happened to me with an international flight. I guess such a small airport can do that! We arrived in Chiang Mai at 2:00 and were greeted by Ted. He took us to his apartment where we unloaded our things and prepared for Songkran.
We took a songtao, basically a pickup truck with a covered bed and benches in the back, downtown with Ted and Kate and headed toward a moat in the center of town. People use buckets to bring water up from the moat to fill their trash cans that they put ice into. The ice water didn’t feel nearly as good as slightly cool water in Luang Prabang, immediately causing anyone who gets hit to tense all muscles and gasp for air. Across the street from the moat there were several stages blasting music and spraying water on people with areas to dance which was a blast. We spent that day and the next dancing in the street soaking wet celebrating the new year with tons of people having a blast. I would love to experience it all again.
The next few days in Chiang Mai we spent meeting some of Ted’s friends who were also teaching English in Thailand hearing about their experiences. It was nice to hang out with and meet new people again. Ted showed us around Chiang Mai University where he taught and also took us to his favorite local restaurants and street vendors for food. I had the best Pad Thai I’d ever eaten, and it was only $1.50. I wish I could get it that cheap in the States! It was nice to relax for a few days after all of the dancing in the street as I’d somehow managed to hurt my neck and back by jumping around so much.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
On April 22nd we took a bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and it was by far the nicest bus I’ve ever been on. The seats were wide, three to a row and all could recline with a footrest. The seats were also massage chairs that we could turn on whenever we liked. We arrived in Bangkok around 8:30 pm and got a hotel for one night as we were catching another bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia the next day.
The ride to the Thailand/Cambodia border was uneventful. We met a nice guy named Jonathan also from Illinois who decided to join us during our time in Siem Reap. When we got to the boarder bus stop we had to take a tuk tuk to the actual border crossing and we’d read about the scams that they have going on there. Tuk tuks will take you to what they say is the boarder, you’ll go into a building to buy your Cambodian visa and end up paying four times the cost that you would at the real boarder crossing. We were taken with Jonathan to a fake boarder crossing about a kilometer away from the real boarder crossing and walked around a parking lot confused for a bit before we figured out the direction we had to go. They weren’t going to scam us! We walked through and got our passports stamped by Thailand before getting our Cambodian Visa on Arrival which is what you’re supposed to do.
We got through the boarder into Cambodia and shared a cab ride to Siem Reap. We found the hotel we’d booked online and arranged for a tuk tuk to pick us up the next morning at 5:00 am so we could see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. The rest of the night we walked around Siem Reap which has a really cool downtown area and found good places to eat and drink. We got $0.50 beers with Jonathan and got to know him a bit better before finding a fish “foot massage” place that are everywhere in the touristy area. For the foot massage you put your feet in a tank filled with fish and sit while they eat the dead skin off of your feet. It tickles a lot at first, but once you get used to it it’s bearable. It’s was always fun watching the first few minutes of someone’s massage as they tried to keep their composure.
The next day we got up incredibly early, not the most fun, but it was definitely worth it. We took our tuk tuk to Angkor Wat and got there with about 15 minutes to spare before sunrise. It was incredible seeing watching the temple gradually light up as the sun rose as it was mostly a silhouette when we got there. We stayed at Angkor Wat until 7:40 am when the top of the temple was opened so we could climb up. The intricate carvings on every wall were awe inspiring even though they were fading with time and made you wonder what it looked like when it was first built.
From Angkor Wat our tuk tuk took us to several different temples including Bayon and Angkor Tam. Many of the temples are close to each other so it didn’t take long to get there.
By 8:30 am it was already getting incredibly hot, especially with the stone temples absorbing the heat. We managed to last until noon when it was easily over 100 degrees out before heading back to the hotel. Will and I slept until 4:00 pm after being out wandering around the temples. Definitely necessary. We wandered around for a bit while Jonathan napped and got some food before coming back to meet some German girls also staying at the hotel. We invited them to join us exploring Siem Reap and headed to the night markets and Bar Street where many tourists are.
A few days later Jonathan Will and I signed up to take a Khmer cooking class at a local restaurant. We each got to pick an appetizer, entree, and then as a group we picked a dessert. I chose to make fresh shrimp spring rolls, seafood amok, and the dessert was mangoes and sticky rice. The amok had squid and shrimp in it and was very much like a curry at the end. We spent the day learning the dishes and eating delicious food which was quite enjoyable. When we sat down to enjoy our main courses, Will and I noticed that they had Kingdom Beer on the menu which is from a new brewery in Phnom Penh. I read about it back in Chicago several months before planning this trip and had almost forgotten about it until we saw they had it. It was definitely the best light beer I had on this trip. It uses the best Czech and German hops, German malt and quality water making a delicious beer.
On April 27th we got up and caught a bus to Bangkok. The boarder crossing going into Thailand was much busier and more stressful than the boarder going into Cambodia. We ended up sitting in the sun for several hours waiting to get our passports stamped which made us late for our arrival at Mae and Ken Mays’ home, one of my dad’s college room mates. When we finally arrived in Bangkok we called the Mays to let them know we were alive and caught a cab to their home.
The next day we got up and went with Uncle Ken to get measured for a suit by Jesse and Sam Gulati, another connection of my Grandpa Swede’s. Maybe 10 years ago Jesse Gulati came to Chicago and measured me for one of the first suits I ever had and I had no idea he was based out of Bangkok. Incredibly random, but it was funny seeing him again and updating him on my family. Will and I both were measured and picked out our fabric for our suits and shirts. I wish I could wear the finished product now, but it has to wait until I get home!
After going to the Gulati’s, we headed to a movie theater to get out of the heat. The theater was in a new mall called Terminal 21 that is themed like an airport and different cities. Kind of a cool idea and it must have taken an incredible amount of work to put together.
After the movie Uncle Ken took us to see Thai Craft which was started by their international church. The idea was to make sure that the people putting the work into the arts and crafts were getting paid fairly for their time and efforts, so prices are set and there was no bargaining. That was also kind of nice, because haggling all the time can get a little frustrating. It was nice to know that if we bought anything there everything was done fairly.
Before dinner we joined up with Auntie Mae again and then went to House of Beers for good Belgian beers and french fries. We’ve been told by several people that Belgians make the best fries, so hopefully I’ll get to try them in Belgium! Someone said that their trick is to fry them two times in order to get them extra crispy. It was great having a few good beers and fries before going out for dinner.
The Mays then took us to an Italian restaurant, knowing that we were missing more familiar spices and flavors. It was phenomenal due to being owned by an Italian who married a Thai woman and moved to Bangkok. I didn’t get to look in the kitchen, but the chefs did a great job with the pizza and pasta. Everything was made in house, so the fettucini was to die for.
On Sunday the Mays took us to the non-denominational International Church of Bangkok. It was cool to see people from so many different backgrounds in one place with similar beliefs. Quite different from churches I’ve gone to back home. When the congregation was to recite the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin it said that people were welcome to say it in their native languages, making for a very different sound than I was used to.
After church we headed to Amphawa floating market south of Bangkok. It was a more popular floating market that ran on a river with many shops along the way. There were many boats that would pick a spot near steps going down to the river so people could walk down to buy food. We got a delicious Thai lunch on the river and then explored the floating market a bit before the heat drained our energy and we headed back to Bangkok.
The next day Auntie Mae picked up many fruits native to Southeast Asia that Will and I had never seen before. Most of them had similar consistencies and sizes but they tasted very different. I don’t remember the names of all of the fruits, but we got some pictures so we should be able to figure it out.
Auntie Mae had also brought home a beetle leaf appetizer that was phenomenal. What you would do is take a beetle leaf and put cut ginger, lime, dried coconut meat, peanuts, dried mini shrimp, a slice of a spicy pepper, shallots, and a coconut sauce inside before wrapping it up and eating it in one bite. I wonder if I could find all of the ingredients back home!
When Uncle Ken got home we had dinner and were then told that they had both picked up the notorious durian fruit for us to try. We had been told that it smells terrible and has a gooey, chunky consistency, and outside several hotels you’ll see signs saying they don’t allow durian inside. Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical about trying it but knew I had to. Uncle Ken and Auntie Mae both love it and told us that people pretty much love it or hate it. When they brought it out, I breathed through my mouth to give it a fair chance because I didn’t want my view of the fruit to be tainted by a bad smell. Unfortunately, that didn’t help very much. Will and I fell into the latter category and didn’t like it that much. Afterwards, the dining room reeked of durian so much that Uncle Ken lit candles to get rid of the smell.
One of the nights Will and I went to check out Khao San Road, a popular place for backpackers and tourists to check out in Bangkok. It was very crowded and had plenty of bars and shops, which was kind of fun to look around. It wasn’t exactly our scene, so we picked one bar to have a drink at and people watched for a while. At one point I had to use the bathroom, so I went inside the fancier looking club we were sitting outside of and told the guy sitting at the front, “bathroom,” to which he nodded his head. I thought there was some sort of cover charge, so I was followed into the bathroom by a worker who I assumed was just going to make sure I didn’t try to skip out on the entrance fee. I was wrong. I started getting a massage from him while peeing, which was very nice but quite unexpected. He cracked my neck and lower back and then went to get paper towels for me for after I washed my hands. I was wearing my “Bia Hoi” shirt from Vietnam and when I turned to face him he tilted his head, pointed, and asked, “Vietnam?” I said, “yes!” and he looked excited as he pulled out his Vietnamese passport. I showed him my Vietnam visa so he could see when we were there and said that I liked Vietnam very much. He smiled, understanding despite the language barrier and showed me his Thailand work visa. It was fun communicating with him with gestures and passports and when I was heading back out of the club I tipped him with the smallest bill I had, 100 Baht, around $3. His eyes got incredibly wide and jaw dropped a little bit before he gave me a huge hug. Definitely the highlight my night and possibly his.
Our last full day in Bangkok we went to see the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. To get there we took the BTS train to the river and got on a boat bus. When we got to our stop, we hopped off and walked through a market to get to the temple. We toured the temple, taking many pictures of the ornate designs and structures everywhere. The Emerald Buddha Temple is where the King goes to pray to Buddha and there are two rooms near the front of the temple that are hidden from view to maintain the King’s privacy. The history of the Emerald Buddha is interesting with it having been covered in some plaster when it was discovered to hide its value. It floated between Laos and Thailand during wars and ended up in Bangkok where it is today. It is made entirely of Jade and there are different outfits for it depending on the season in Thailand. The King changes its outfits three times a year.
After the Emerald Buddha Temple we went to the Grand Palace and took some pictures outside. The King doesn’t live in it anymore, but there are many areas within the Grand Palace grounds that are fenced off for royal use.
After exploring the Grand Palace, we headed to find some Pad Thai as it was our last day in Thailand. Auntie Mae didn’t want to get it with us as it’s Thai street food, but we ate it very frequently in Chiang Mai with Ted and were going through some withdrawal. We found a street restaurant that served it and then headed back to the Mays.
The next morning we got up early to go to a wet market with Auntie Mae. Will and I had said we were going to eat bugs in Thailand and we weren’t going to wimp out. We arrived at the wet market and after Auntie Mae asked around, we found out that the shop that fried bugs to eat was no longer in business. Bummer! I’m not sure how well bugs would’ve sat in my stomach that early in the morning anyway, but I would’ve done it. Some other time! We explored the wet market which was pretty gross at times with live fish and frogs being skinned. PETA would’ve flipped, but when the Thai people want something fresh they mean it.
Auntie Mae then took us to a mall that sold bootleg DVDs and other electronics. Pretty wild that it was housed in a mall! Copyright means something completely different in Southeast Asia if it exists at all. Finally we grabbed lunch at a nicer mall food court before going back to the Mays to get our things together to head to India. We had a phenomenal time in Southeast Asia and I know I’m going to miss it immensely. I hope to go back for a longer period of time if it’s ever possible to see more things, eat more delicious food, and meet more great people.