Friday, May 8, 2015

#14) That Time I Was in Thailand

So once again I think I've proven that I'm incapable of running a timely blog while traveling. These pictures and experiences are all from the end of February, well over two months ago. A lot has happened since then in both your lives and in mine. I'm nearing the end of my travels now and I'm beginning to reflect on all I've experienced and learned while abroad. I still want to give you all insight into what I've been doing the past two-plus months so I'll try and update this a few more times for you all to savor. Some of the posts might be updated after I actually get back to US soil, but I figure it's meant to be a log of my travels and even if I update it late it's better than never updating at all. Stay tuned for some pictures and stories from my time in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia!

This very little and very pregnant dog lived at the hostel I stayed at when I made my way north from Koh Tao to Chiang Mai. There were also two even tinier puppies lived there as well but I couldn't get a clear picture of them because they were running around  with so much energy! It was wonderful to stay at a hostel with animals, I would just lay on the bean bag and be swarmed with little puppies - the only reason I left home tbh.
One of the first things I did in Chiang Mai was go to the 3D Art Museum - it was basically a collection of murals that you could take your picture with a certain angle and it would look like you were a part of the picture. This was my favorite for obvious reasons.
Chiang Mai is also famous for it's Night Market and here is just a snapshot of the chaos. Lots trinkets and knick-knacks - perfect for souvenirs. 
The "Walled City" of Chiang Mai is in the center of town and has large gates on each side that have been modernized with the addition of paved roads for cars and motorbikes to go in and out. Within the brick fortifications there are lots of interesting temples and things to see.
Wat Chedi Luang is probably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai - this is the front portion which is more modern than the historic temple in the rear.
The Buddha statue situated in front of the temple. 
These colorful, glimmering pendants were hanging inside the front temple itself. They were decorated with the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in celebration of Chinese New Year.
The large Buddha statue inside the temple itself with local Thai worshipers making offerings and saying prayers in the front and tourists awkwardly standing to the side. In Thailand you have to be cautious about how you sit inside of a temple because it is considered very rude to point your feet at the statue of the Buddha.
This is the massive stupa for which the temple is famous. It was completed in the 15th century and was damaged in an earthquake in the 16th century which accounts for the large chunk of the upper portion missing. 
So many Buddha statues.
I liked the Naga decorations that snaked up the sides of the staircases. One of the niches of the stupa formerly held the Emerald Buddha that is now on display at the Imperial Palace in Bangkok - it was removed shortly after the earthquake and moved to Luang Prabang, Laos. It changed hands a number of times before it made its final journey to Bangkok.
One corner of the stupa was decorated with these giant elephant statues which I really liked - I assume they once decorated the entire perimeter of the stupa. There is some controversy with the stupa today because it was restored/reconstructed in the 1990s, but the architectural elements used where in the Central Thai style rather than the Northern Lanna style. The history and culture of the people vary widely in different parts of the country.
A reclining Buddha under an awning in the rear of the temple - I liked the golden flower motifs on the pillars.
I also liked the carved dragon elements in the awning's supports. 

These mini-stupas were placed all along one side of the main stupa along with donation boxes and little statues of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. I assume you were supposed to put some money in the box next to your zodiac sign in celebration of the New Year. The Thais have their own New Year celebration called Songkran which is celebrated in April according to the Buddhist calendar. 
These signs with Thai or Buddhist aphorisms were adorning all the trees around the grounds of the temple - it was interesting to walk around and collect a bit of knowledge.
More knowledge.
This sign is obviously about me.
The library at the temple was interesting to walk through as well - the ground floor was a small museum and the upper floor had collections of Buddhist scriptures. 
The dragonish-creature decorating the staircase of the library.

The collection Buddhist scrolls and scriptures on the second floor - I wanted to thumb through them but unfortunately they were off limits to visitors. 
The view of the temple from the library - I liked the image of the lone monk in his bright orange robe walking across the frame at the bottom.
The temple also had a special area cordoned off called "Monk Chat" where visitors could talk to Buddhist monks and ask them questions about Buddhism and their lives - I found it funny that the sign said "don't just stare at us from afar - come and chat!" Unfortunately there weren't any monks there when I was visiting so I missed out. 
The City Pillar was also on the grounds of the temple - not really sure what it is all about but the murals inside the building were interesting.
Another temple called Wat Phantao which was just down the street from Wat Chedi Luang. I liked how this one was constructed of wood with the hundreds of flags fluttering in the wind on the side - very peaceful.
More flags.
Monks have to dry their laundry too, right?
"Does a dog have the Buddha-Nature?" (If you Google it you'll understand the joke)
Another adorable dog that was laying outside of one of the buildings on the temple's grounds - so pensive.
A visit to Thailand would not be complete without seeing a Thai Lady Boy Cabaret Show. "Lady boy" is not an offensive description in Thailand as it is the closest English translation for the Thai word Kathoey - which is used to describe what we would probably think of in the West as transgender people and/or effeminate/cross-dressing gay men. Kathoey is kind of a catch-all word for various sexual and gender identities and because the culture in Thailand some of it is literally lost in translation. 
The Cabaret show was really fun - the lady boys came out in really elaborate costumes while lip syncing to famous songs - the older girls tended to sing diva ballads while the younger girls would go for dance-y pop songs.  
This performer got up on top of our table and started whipping her hair around before leaning over to dole out some cheek kisses to the guys in my group....
...before knocking over an empty beer bottle and having it loudly clatter to the floor. Here's the face she made afterwards - I think she was luck the lights flashed off at that moment because no one else at the show realized.
Pretty in pink. 
And with an entourage. 
I don't really know what to comment here, I just really liked this picture.
Bam! Work that feather headdress and tail, girl!
One act near the end of the show featured one of the ladyboys coming onto stage in a dress while the lights were dimmed and changing into these pants and jacket. When the lights came on brighter she wiped the makeup off her face while lipsyncing to Frank Sinatra's "My Way". It was a powerful performance.
In the last performance of the night one of the male backup dancers came out in this gender-bending costume while lipsyncing a duet - I can't remember which song it was but I also really liked this act. 
Thailand is synonymous with the Asian elephant and there are loads of ways you can interact with them as a tourist, but not all of them are always ethical. There is controversy about riding elephants and how they are treated by their handlers. I decided to find the most ethical place that I could which was Elephant Nature Park located in the hills outside Chiang Mai.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from cruel and abusive conditions in the past - be it in the logging or tourism industry. This park was the first of its kind when it was established in the 90s and I felt really good about spending whole day feeding, bathing and interacting with the 40+ elephants. The pictures seem a bit random, but are in chronological order. This was us giving them their morning feeding of fruit at the main building of the park.
This elephant was blinded in both eyes by her former owners (you can see where the eye is now white) because they used to poke it with sticks and throw things at its eyes in order to get her to do what they wanted.
After the morning feeding we walked out to the field to find the elephants - they are allowed to wander and roam around the park at their leisure.
Our guide brought us to an area of the park with an enclosure that they use to administer medical care to the elephants when they need it and she explained what kind of routine care the elephants need. These are the teeth of an Asian  elephant. 
This is a list of some of the elephants in the park and what kind of care they needed individually.
Me and an elephant! They weren't as large as I imagined they would be after seeing so many African elephants last October/November. One difference between African and Asian elephants is that only males of the Asian variety have tusks whereas all African elephants have tusks (unless they've been poached of course). Most of the elephants in the park are female because they are easier to train. 
One of the mahouts ("elephant trainer") watching over a group of elephants.
A baby elephant! He was so cute, but he was a little bit mischievous - he would come barreling into us all standing in a group and we had to dodge him so we wouldn't get pushed over. That's our guide on the right explaining something about the baby, but I can't remember what she said.
The baby got back in his place with his herd.
This is Sangduen Chailert (AKA Lek which means "small" in Thai ) - she's the founder of Elephant Nature Park and the recipient of many international awards. We were trailing the elephants after bathing them in the river and before I could turn around she appeared out of no where with her basket of fruits. The elephants perked up at seeing her and you could tell there was a special bond that existed between Lek and the elephants.
This is Lek being smothered by her elephants. How else would you do that unless you knew they loved you and weren't going to squish you?
To be honest I was almost more star-struck by Lek than I was in awe of the elephants - this woman has done so much for bringing recognition to the abuse of elephants and meeting her you could tell she had a very strong sense of self and purpose.
This elephant had an itchy back and so it used the viewing platform as a back-scratcher.
Enjoying some delicious watermelon - elephants eat pretty much constantly throughout the day and most of the money from the visitors to the park just goes to providing food to all the elephants.
Mud bath! After we went through all the work of washing the elephants in the river they went right back to the patch of mud and rolled all around. I can't blame them though - elephants use mud and dirt as a natural form of sunscreen and they need it with the intensity of the Thai sun.
More muddy elephants.
Just a light misting of mud - they were using their trunks to scoop it up and through it onto their backs where the sun would be the most intense.
After the mud bath it was back to eating - life's hard, ya know?
The baby elephant was being mischievous again. He was barreling unapologetically into the crowd of people gathered around. The mahout was trying to lead him back into the herd, but here he is being cheeky. As you can see by the size of the crowd gathered there are quite a visitors everyday - something like 90+. Tours are often booked days or weeks in advance.
A little love tousle.
POV of me feeding an elephant just before the end of the day - from this angle its trunk looks creepily long.
The elephants know exactly what to do to the point that we're the trained ones. Just cup your trunk and the humans will do the rest.
Sweet satisfaction.
At the end of the day I was able to get a picture with Lek! She was so sweet and friendly. Notice the giant splotch of mud on my shorts - I got an elephant mud shower by standing just a little too close. In the end the experience at the park was completely worth it and better than any hour-long elephant ride could have been.
After Chiang Mai I headed further north to Chiang Rai - I decided that after the touristy atmosphere of Chiang Mai I would rent I bicycle and try to get more of a feel for the small city of Chiang Rai. I cycled quite a few kilometers out of town to a natural waterfall and hotsprings. This was one of the paths down to the waterfall itself.
The falls weren't nearly as impressive as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or as some I would see in Laos, but the atmosphere was serene and there were many Thai people sitting around having picnics near the stream.
There was a small pond nearby filled with thousands of little tadpoles swimming and squirming about.
Eventually they will grow big and strong and become one of these guys! He was trying to sit so still like I didn't see him, but he wasn't fooling anybody.
The surrounding area was also full of hundreds of butterflies and throughout my travels in Southeast Asia I've discovered that the region is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of different species of butterfly.
There was an entire swarm of them gathered near the water - not really sure what they were doing together is such a large group, but maybe they were mating?
They are such delicate and beautiful creatures.
This was the largest of the butterflies that I saw and he seemed to be a loner.
I also spotted a snake while wandering around the little park.This one looks relatively harmless because of its size, but I didn't get too close to find out if it was poisonous.
After I went to the waterfall I cycled on to the Baan Dam or "Black House" created by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. It's a collection of various wooden structures filled with his carvings, statues, taxidermy animals and arrangements of bones. It's kind of fascinating and kind of weird at the same time.
One of the carved doors that lead into the largest building on the property.
A wooden Buddha statue.
This is one of the carved pillars that supported the roof of the main building - really beautiful work.
The ornate wooden doorway to one of the smaller buildings on the property. I'm not sure if the wood was treated or weatherized in any way so I wonder what they do with it all during the monsoon season.
A throne made of water buffalo horns and a random assortment of shells and animal skins.
A stone statue overgrown with moss - not sure if this is the work of the artist himself or if it is a part of his antique collection. 
After Baan Dam I cycled another few kilometers to Chiang Rai's most famous attraction - Wat Rong Khun or the "White Temple". The project is also constructed by a Thai artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat even though. Admission is free, but visitors are not allowed to take pictures within the "temple" itself. Unfortunately the day I visited the staff decided to have their monthly staff meeting and closed early so I never even got to see inside - supposedly the walls are covered with really strange murals. A simple google image search yields some interesting results. The grounds of the temple were equally as interesting though.
The most terrifying traffic cones in existence. 
I can't read Thai, but I know a thing or two about Buddhism - I imagine that this statue warns of the dangers of drinking. In  Buddhism one of the 5 precepts is to refrain from intoxicants or mind-altering substances - which includes alcohol. It's not necessarily a strict rule and alcohol is freely available in Thailand. 
Decapitated heads hanging from a tree on the grounds - one with an eyeball oozing out of the socket and the other shaped like a pig's head. This "temple" is definitely unique among Buddhist temples  in Thailand and throughout SE Asia as most temples are peaceful places to contemplate and reflect - not view gruesome imagery.
The bridge leading over the koi pond and leading into the temple. It was surrounded by a number of interesting statues and I've heard that on either side of the beginning of the bridge has pits with disembodied arms reaching out and grasping in contorted and grotesque positions.
The temple as seen from the side in the fading light of the late afternoon. Notice the spire on the building to the left - there was an earthquake in early 2014 which caused some damage to the temple itself. Luckily none of it was structural and the project will continue on as planned.
A walkway with an awning covered with thin silver ornaments in the shape of a leaf from the bodhi tree - the type of tree that the Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment. 
An ornately decorated fish statue covered with reflective mirrors.
There was also  a wishing well near the temple where you could toss a few baht coins and make a wish. Notice the building on the right side is just a cement super-structure - the project is far from being completed and many of the smaller buildings remain unfinished.
The top of the fountain was decorated with the animals of the Chinese Zodiac just as the temple in Chaing Mai was - I'm the year of the goat so I'm partial of course.
The inside of the wishing well just as someone dropped a coin in. I'm sure there must be loads of foreign currency in here as well.
Another, smaller building located on the temple grounds.The building on the left also remains unfinished.
One final shot of the temple before cycling back to my hostel.
I didn't want to get caught cycling back after dark because my bike didn't have any proper safety measures - lights, reflective tape, etc.
The way back went directly through many rice paddies and I stumbled upon this beautiful spirit house along the roadside. I can't remember now if I've described the function and purpose of the Thai "spirit houses" in my blog so I'll repeat it just in case. The Thais place these houses in an auspicious location on their property (be it a business, private home, or rice field apparently) in order to house and appease the spirits who also live on the property who could cause problems if angered. Votive offerings like the ones in this pictured are periodically offered to please the spirits as well. If your property undergoes a renovation or made larger in anyway it is necessary to also invest in a bigger spirit house lest they get jealous and cause problems for the owners.
And with that the sun set on my adventure in Thailand. (However, I'm sitting here writing this from a cafe in Bangkok so I guess it's not completely over. I've been pretty bad about updating these past 2/3 months, but I guess it's better late than never!)