Thailand

A Page from Elsewhere: Broken Boats and Rocky Coastlines

I'm leaving Koh Tao, a Thai island in the Gulf tomorrow. It's a little hard to imagine. I won't be living at the beach anymore, eating juicy mangoes everyday and snorkeling when I feel like it. It's a beautiful place, perfect for the last stop on my trip. (After a night in Bangkok, I fly home!) The painting today was done on Sai Nuan beach, a quiet little beach with lots of palm trees and crystal-clear water. Keep an eye out for a Koh Tao beach guide, becauseI have done a ton of beach-hopping in the last two weeks.

 

Taking Time out in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Kanchanaburi. You've probably never heard of it, even if you visited Thailand. Around a two and a half hour bus ride from Bangkok is a town with lots of history in a beautiful natural surroundings. It's mostly known for the Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Bridge

Originally the bridge was made famous in a movie (based on a novel) "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in the 1950s. The movie and book told of British Prisoners of War who had to build a railway from Burma, now known as Myanmar, to Thailand under the command of the Japanese. While the original tale is fiction, the basis is historically acccurate. The bridge was part of an operation that woulld later be known as Death Railway.

Thousands of PoWs (mostly British and Australian) and even more forced Asian laborers lost their lives in the harsh conditions of the railway's construction. Starvation and disease abounded, coupled with the extreme heat and drive of the Japanese. Other workers were killed by Allied Forces' bombings, since the Japanese would not reveal the location of prisoners. All to transport goods to the warfront in Burma.

The bridge was bombed in 1944, so today there are three replaced portions. A local train still runs across in a link from Bangkok to Nam Tok (not all the way to Myanmar). I was able to walk across the bridge and observe the perverse beauty of this place. It is not far walk from town and there are plenty of quality restaurants and shops lining the way. As well there is a market and some restaurants right near the bridge. I suggest eating at a floating restaurant, to gaze upon the bridge, mountains, and water.

Also the War Cemetery is open to visitors and a lovely spot to spend a few minutes reflecting. Across the road is a very nice museum that explains in depth the construction of the railway and how it fit into WWII. I particularly enjoyed the many personal stories told throughout the exhibits and the artifacts recovered.

Erawan Falls

For a worth-while day trip out of Kanchanaburi go to Erawan! Any travel agency in Kanchanaburi will sell you some tour that includes the waterfalls, but it is so much better to do it yourself and spend the whole day. You can go either by motorbike (rental is cheap in town) or by taxi or public bus. I chose the public bus. It picks up every hour from the bus station and filled to the brim with locals, takes the two hour trip to the waterfalls. 50 baht will get you all the way there and back. But beware, the last bus leaves Erawan at 4. So go early to avoid the crowds and give yourself some time to relax.

There are seven levels of pools and waterfalls, each seemingly more beautiful than the last. There is quite a bit of trekking in between levels so wear sturdy shoes, not just flip flops. The first three levels are okay, stop here to eat food, because you can't take any past the third level. However, there is a drop-off where you can come back for it. There is also a food stand here with reasonably-priced basic Thai cuisine. The fourth level is where the swimming starts getting nice and there's an awesome rock to slide off of. After that I found the fifth and seventh levels the prettiest and most enjoyable. My favorite spot was somewhere between six and seven, a big pool off to the side with a waterfall and nearly nobody in it.

Erawan falls is the perfect place to appreciate the beauty Thailand has to offer. Drink in the sight of aqua blue water and the sound of rushing water. Let the fishies nimble at your toes in the most natural form of fish massage. Take a book (or sketchbook) and find a mossy nook.

Getting to and from Kanchanaburi

I couldn't resist--I had to take the train running from Bangkok. About 3 hours, only 100 baht, the train is quite basic without aircon and only in third class. Still the views were gorgeous and the windows wide open. Note that it leaves from Thonburi station (Bangkok Noi) not the normal train station Hua Lamphong. It runs twice daily, check the Man in Seat 61 for details.

The other option is to spend 140-180 baht on an air-conditioned minibus that leaves every hour in either direction. Generally this is quicker and more convenient.

When I visited Kanchanaburi, it was off-season and quite quiet. Honestly, it felt like a good break from Bangkok's rush. I deeply enjoyed my time here and suggest you stop in for a few days if you have an open itinerary in Thailand.

Have you ever been to Kanchanaburi? What did you enjoy there?

 

Exploring Chiang Mai: the Jewel of Northern Thailand

I'm going to keep this simple. I don't need to tell you why Chiang Mai has been one of my favorite places in Thailand--I can show you.

Temples

I did a temple day, in which I walked around, sweating in my long pants and sleeves (make sure you cover shoulders and knees for visiting temples, it's basic respect), stopping at whatever temples caught my fancy. I was lucky because most were still decorated from Songkran the water festival in Thailand. I would definitely recommend you hit a few of the big ones.

Chedi Luang

One of the biggest and most popular temples, this one was quite nice to walk around. Known for its huge chedi, which was built by a king to contain the ashes of his father, it's massive structure will amaze. I particularly enjoyed the monk chat, where you can ask the monks questions and talk with them. I learned that while women do not become monks anymore, they can become bhikkhunis which is similar to a Buddhist nun. You will see my pictures of these women and girls swathed in white from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

 

Phra That Doi Suthep

Known as the temple on the mountain, you must take a taxi or scooter from the old city (inside the walls) of Chiang Mai. You can find a song-taew or red truck that fills with tourists and backpackers heading all for the temple and only pay about 100 thb roundtrip per person. Just ask your accomodation where the nearest pickup for Doi Suthep is. The trip is totally worth it, however you do not need a ton of time here; an hour is enough to see everything. Climb the Naga Staircase to the top. This is where a sacred white elephant carrying the Buddha's shoulder bone was said to have stopped, thus blessing the area. The temple glistens, the golden fixtures blinding. Come around 2:30 and you might see the monks and nuns chanting, as I was lucky enough to experience. And before you go make sure you visit the look-out to see a beautiful view of the city.

Phra Sing

Another very popular temple, known simply for being old and notable and large. I enjoyed the temple itself less than many of the others I visited, but the grounds and smaller buildings were nice. Be prepared for many golden Buddhas.

 

Smaller temples

Don't skip the small ones. Don't stop at every temple either as you won't survive the day. It is best to peer in and see if it strikes your interest. That is how I found a new temple, the walls being painted by a monk. Or Wat Lok Molee with its pretty little garden and lack of tourists. I found I prefered to stop and sit in front of a Buddha in some of these quiet, little temples rather than where you all you hear is tourist chatter and the click of cameras.

Markets

Night Bazaar

The bazaar has more clothing and brand goods than the Sunday market. Come here if you need a new backpack or a sturdy pair of shoes. There are plenty of food stalls and restaurants and even some entertainment.

Sunday Walking Market

This market is not to be missed! Try to come to Chiang Mai for a Sunday evening, as I came to this market twice and loved it. You will find everything from vintage dresses to painted lanterns to leather goods. I found many of the goods here to look actually handmade and a higher quality than most markets. Perfect for finding presents or a little something for yourself. And don't bother getting dinner before you go! There are many pockets and squares filled with stalls selling the tastiest and cheapest food. Try the soft-boiled quail eggs or the gyoza dumplings and finish with the traditional favorite--mango sticky rice!

Other Activities

Get a massage.

This is something you can do anywhere for cheap across Asia. And it could possibly be very good. Possibly. That is why I recommend you do it in Chiang Mai. There are a few locations that offer massages from ex-convicts who are rehabilitated. I went to one of these (near Chang Puak gate) and had a positively delightful thai massage for 180 thb. So worth it.

Find a local artist or goods shop.

Browse about, as I did in HQ Paper. They sell beautiful, handmade paper that is manufactured right outside Chiang Mai. I don't know how, but I found a place in my suitcase for a roll of the stuff.

Explore the cafe culture.

This is something especially close to my heart, as I have a true fondness for a good cappuccino in a funky, local joint. Into the Woods had a cutesy vibe and good wifi, but the coffee across the street at the tiny espresso bar (I forgot the name!) was stellar. Fresh & Wraps by the east gate was easily the best aand freshest meal I had in a while.

Walk the moat.

There is so much happening around the moat and the gates: street food, markets, and good restaurants. The added plus is the scenery of the water and the rush of traffic.