Goodbye, Chiang Mai

I have been in and around Chiang Mai for about two weeks and am sad to leave but ready to move to my next destination.  Before leaving, there are a couple more sights, sounds, and smells that I want to experience.

At one stop in the Warorot Market, I have a chance to shop as the locals do. There are less wooden elephants, more practical items, and many fabrics. The colors coming from the fabric shops almost make me wish I know how to make something with it all; but instead, I am happy to realize that the clothing I already bought was sewn from those colorful rolls. When my feet began to tire, I take a break upon finding a stand selling sticky rice with mango, which I eat while watching a seemingly important Muay Thai boxing match on a television with other emotional locals. Rice, mango, Muay Thai, hot temperatures, humid weather, the smells of food from an open market, sights of cloth, and shops selling everything from kids toys to motorcycles made me feel like I am starting to better understand Chiang Mai.

Fabrics at Warorot Market

In addition, in my last 24 hours in Chiang Mai, I visit the Women’s Prison. Rumor has it that many of these women are being taught translatable skills that they can then use to get their lives back on track, and one of these skills is that of Thai massage. The money that the women earn while massaging gets put away and then is given back to them when they leave the prison as an aid in getting their lives restarted. Surprisingly, the atmosphere of this massage spa is one of the nicer I’ve experienced since away. Although the massage isn’t great, I am happy that I learned about the programs happening at the prison and had a chance to contribute a small amount while getting an extra massage in the process.

Lastly, I visit the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium. The other visitors are mostly Bangkok tourists as becomes obvious when the tram driver only speaks in Thai. The zoo is a typical zoo, where the animals are placed in areas a bit too confined and many onlookers wait for the animals to do something spectacular like Mumble’s dance from Happy Feet. The Aquarium, on the other hand, I really enjoy from the fresh water tunnel to the obscure and beautiful sea creatures to the scuba diver feeding some of the larger fish. I also notice some fish, such as the stone fish and clown fish, that I had seen just several weeks ago while scuba diving in Bali. In the afternoon, sun turns to rain, everyone rushes for their cars and taxis, and back at the guest house, I do my last preparations before my sleeper bus.

Feeding at the aquarium

Stone Fish at Chiang Mai Aquarium

As with most places I’ve already visited, the people I met during these two weeks made the experience. These include the silent yet smiling other meditators at Doi Suthep, Aurelieu, my French friend, Beth, another meditator who I randomly ran into on the street after the retreat, Earl, a local from Chiang Mai, as well as those I had spent time with pre-monastery. I leave my second guest house, Grace House located on Soi 9 of the old city, watch out for any water-spraying Songkran celebrators, and make my way back to the bus station.

Songkran Begins

Songkran, as celebrated in Thailand, is the traditional New Year’s Day and includes a celebration that lasts almost a week. In each of my last two days in Chiang Mai, this festival began, the music got louder and more abundant, and the water wars were beginning in full force. Tradition is that people cover each other in water to celebrate the clean slate given to all at the beginning of a new year. All weapons are allowed from water guns to buckets to garden hoses, and every street I walk down, I try to spot any potential threats. I don’t mind the water guns, but it’s the buckets of water that can really do damage. Unfortunately (or fortunately because of the 95 degree weather), I was hit by a bucket right next door to my guest house while my guard was down.  From a safe distance, here she is smiling while holding her weapon of choice.

Ready for Songkran

I am dripping in water and many faces from around the street are smiling and some are laughing. I look at the culprit, and she is probably a little over 10 years old and has the biggest grin of anyone. I smile back, and continue walking down the street missing my guest house because I am understandably flustered. A little farther down, a couple, who witnessed the whole bucket-drenching event shot me benignly with their water guns and ask if I want to borrow one to get a little revenge. I take the biggest one I can find, the one where you stick the end in water and fill the gun like a giant syringe. I hide my weapon behind my back, approach the girl who is still smiling, wait for her to dump her water on the next unsuspecting passerby, and I get a clean hit on her back. My dignity is saved and I now feel I had a chance to play a role in the water wars of Songkran.


Strawberry, dragon fruit, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple, guava, and my favorite mango! My post-monastic life has been spent eating and smoothie-ing. The day I left the meditation retreat, I never turned down a smoothie and stopped for any and every snack I could find. Several curries and pad thai’s later, I again feel energized to see what’s out there, until I find another stand selling rotis or sticky rice with mango. The rotis with banana, egg, chocolate, icing, sugar all in a thin pancake then soaked in oil, butter and more oil are the perfect morning, mid-afternoon and bedtime snack. Good thing these treats fit in the budget as most smoothies and snacks can be found for 20 baht ($0.67 USD).

Roti Cart
About to cook up a delicious Roti
sticky rice with mango
Sticky rice with mango made to order

Meditation Rules and Guidelines

As I set off for Vipassana Meditation at the Wat Phradhat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I want to record the rules, guidelines and daily routine that I should expect. I have my two sets of loose-fitting white clothing and think I am ready.  I start in a couple hours and finish in a week.

Rules for Meditators:

  1. Abstain from killing living beings
  2. Abstain from stealing
  3. Abstain from sexual or romantic activity
  4. Abstain from wrong speech
  5. Abstain from intoxicating drugs or alcohol
  6. Abstain from solid food after noon
  7. Abstain from diversion and beautification
  8. Abstain from luxurious seats and beds

Meditator Guidelines:

  • Meditators are not allowed to mix the practice with other meditation techniques or yoga, tai chi, aerobics, etc.
  • Meditators are not allowed to smoke cigarettes during their stay
  • Meditators should be polite and respectful to the teacher, and to the monks, novices, nuns and lay people staying at the temple
  • Meditators are not to speak with each other except when necessary
  • Reading, writing, listening to music, using e-mail and telephone etc, are not allowed.

Daily Routine for Meditators:

  • 05:00 a.m. Wake-up time
  • 05:30 a.m. Morning Practice
  • 06:30 a.m. Breakfast
  • 08:00 a.m. Dhamma Talk
  • 11:00 a.m. Lunch
  • 03:00 p.m. Reporting with your teacher
  • 06:00 p.m. Evening Chanting
  • 10:00 p.m. Sleep

A Better Elephant Experience

bw elephant

Jokia was born in 1960 along the Thai-Burmese border. When she was younger, Jokia worked in the logging trade to support her tribal family. However, after the 1989 logging ban in Thailand, Jokia found herself unemployed. Being no longer useful to her tribe, they sold her to an illegal logging camp, after which she soon became pregnant. Working through her entire pregnancy, she gave birth while pulling a large log uphill and wearing heavy chains. The baby rolled down the hill behind her and she was not allowed to tend to her newborn. From the death of her new baby, Jokia was understandably depressed and refused to work despite physical threats. One such physical threat included being hit by a sling-shotted rock blinding her in one eye. She started working for a brief time before she hit her owner, who afterwards, completely blinded her by shooting her remaining eye with a bow and arrow. Now, unable to see, Jokia was forced back to work. When Sangduen “Lek” Chailert rescued Jokia in 1999, Lek found Jokia full of infected cuts and scars along with tears coming from her blinded eye and empty socket.

two elephants

The story of this elephant is only one of the 36 currently being supported by the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The pasts of the others are equally tragic from being orphaned when only weeks old to stepping on forgotten land mines to being severely handicapped from being forced to mate when no longer useful. Lek Chailert, the Founder and Director of the Elephant Nature Park was born in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao. She grew to love elephants when her grandfather received a baby one as payment for saving a man’s life, and now she has made it her life work to save as many of these sacred and revered animals that still remain.

elephant eye

Unfortunately, with these domesticated animals out of work and expensive to care for, their owners have started using them more and more in the tourism industry offering rides. My desire to go see Lek’s Elephant Nature Park came from my two-day trek when I saw how the elephants were treated. There were chains around their ankles and necks, their owners had hooks to stab them with, and many of their tusks were either missing or cut. In a country where no house, no restaurant, and no shop is complete without decorative elephants, I wanted a better elephant experience before leaving, and I found just that at the Elephant Nature Park. We fed the elephants, bathed the elephants, and learned about their complicated but rich history in Thailand.

elephant bath

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, was a great alternative to the floods in the south. The sun was out most days, although I never complained about a little extra cloud cover making the temperature more bearable in my non-air conditioned room at Smile House. I found the people, both foreigners and locals, very nice. There was Tess and Paul who laughed with me about my fear of heights while zip-lining. Claire and Kalley from Australia who cooked with me and introduced me to some of the more delicious street food like Rotees. And Eid, a Thai native, who showed me some of the better nightlife in and around Chiang Mai. The city felt modern, yet relatively quiet and brimming with Thai culture. And with the famous Sunday Market through the middle of town, I also had the opportunity to haggle over shirts that already only cost 3 US dollars while listening to the shop owner’s favorite line “Same, same…. but different.”

dried orchids

These flowers caught my attention at an orchid farm in Chiang Mai. They were made with real dried orchids. The orchids were lacquered, painted with bronze around the edges, immersed in sulfamate and nickel, and finally coated with a very thin layer of gold.

Trekking in Northern Thailand

So, a Spaniard, a Korean, a French couple, a group of Argentinians, and an American all pile into the back of a truck. The Korean says, “Ko ki o.” The Argentinians go, “Ko lo ro.” The Spaniard replies, “Ki ki ri ki.” The French shoot back, “Cocorico.” And then the American sings, “Cock a doodle doo.” Then, as if answering Alex Trebek, the truck driver turns around and asks, “What sound does a rooster make?” That scene was a bit dramatized for effect; however at some point during our two day trek, we did all compare our languages’ onomatopoeia for the sound made by a rooster. Always a fun discussion when many languages are represented and given that “cock a doodle doo” sounds the farthest from a rooster’s actual sound. As per usual, the group made the trek.

thailand trek1

thailand trek2

The two days were full of visiting the hill tribes in Northern Thailand, white water and bamboo rafting, sleeping in a hill tribe’s bamboo hut, elephant riding, and waterfall swimming. One of the tribes we visited called the Padaung are famous for their long-necked women. The women undergo a beautifying process throughout their adolescence by adding brass rings to their necks. The effect of the brass rings is to push down the collarbone giving the appearance of an elongated neck. Because eventually their heads are accustomed to being supported by these rings, their necks will atrophy and will be unable to hold the weight of the women’s heads without the rings.

longneck tribe thailand
A woman from the longneck tribe in Northern Thailand
thailand trek3
Floating down the river on a bamboo raft

Another highlight of the journey was around the evening bonfire when the Argentinians picked up the tribe’s guitar and drums and entertained the group.

argentinian at camp fire
As seen at the bonfire

boy from hill village

Buddhism and Thai Massage

Much of Thai massage techniques facilitate seated meditation. I used this as validation to go to the excellent Thai massage place just next to my guest house. Bon Massage, which is located in the southeast corner of central Chiang Mai near the Thaphe Gate, provides a great atmosphere along with their traditional Thai massages.

Massage is linked to Buddhism in ways beyond its usefulness to meditating in the seated position for seemingly too long a period of time. In addition, the Buddhist concept of Metta, which is understood as Loving Kindness, is applied in the practice of massage and healing work. As a result, both the recipient and practitioner can benefit from Thai massage. Throughout the massage, the practitioner tries to work in a state of mindfulness with great concentration on each breath and each moment.

Flight of the Gibbon

My semi-rational fear of falling to my death when at great heights was on display during this zip lining, treetop bridge walking, and abseiling adventure. At no time was this fear higher than when we had to jump off a platform with the rope connected to a carabiner on our backs. Although only a short distance, the free fall period before feeling the harness catch me had my heart racing. That all said, looking down on the trees of the forest while zipping above let me see this piece of Thailand from new perspectives. The mix of having an adrenaline rush, seeing and hearing the gibbons, and appreciating the forest from a canopy level all made this a highlight.

flight of the gibbons

buddha pose

cable from flight of gibbons

Thai Spicy

Between doing Lonely Planet’s self walking tour of the temples of Chiang Mai’s Old City and going to a Muay Thai Boxing Fight in the evening, I tested my hand at a Thai cooking class. Taking a cooking class when coming to a new place not only teaches a good skill, but also is an introduction to new people, and after class, I made a plan to meet up with two friends the next day.

Buddhist temple
From a Buddhist Temple in Chiang Mai

When making the various dishes and especially the green curry, the teachers would ask what level of spicy we desired. There are two different spicy scales, foreigner spicy and Thai spicy, and unfortunately, the locals seems to have some difficulty converting back and forth. The scale conversion is not quite as well defined as Celsius-Fahrenheit or the English-Metric. I indicated that I wanted foreigner spicy or Thai medium spicy, and although I was making my own curry, judging the spiciness level is not an easy task. In the end, my green curry had some real kick and I ended my meal very hydrated as the cool water provided some relief from the hot food.

chiang mai market
As seen during the class' market tour

At Baan Thai Cookery School, which I would recommend to anyone traveling to Chiang Mai, I chose to prepare gaeng keau waan kai (green curry with chicken), kai pad med ma-maung (fried cashew nut with chicken), pho pea thod (spring rolls), and kao neeaw ma muang (mango with sticky rice). And after a tour of the local market, I sort of learned how to prepare those dishes. Having someone look over my shoulder, add a little extra of this, and throw in a pinch of that into my wok definitely improved the final outcome.

fried cashew nut with chicken
My fried cashew nut with chicken
me cooking curry
Making the green curry paste
green curry with chicken
My green curry with chicken

P.S.  While writing this entry and drinking my fruit shake in a small restaurant, I heard a group discussing which cooking class to take, and I highly recommended the Baan Thai School and made a friend in the process.