Kristen’s Exercise Series: Colors of Chiang Mai

After doing the delightful night tour of Bangkok by bicycle in my first few days in the country, I decided to give it a go in its neighbor to the north, Chiang Mai. This time around, I booked a half day trip cycling around the northern Thai countryside in the early morning (well, early for someone who has been unemployed for the last three months, at least…). The conclusion? I’m basically Lance Armstrong, minus the scandal. And some other bits.

So what made this tour so special?

TEMPLES! 

In case you couldn’t guess it, Thailand is full of a lot of temples. I’ve found that these are best viewed in moments of quiet – like what you get when you arrive at one far away from the city center at 9 in the morning.

FOOD! 

The guide totally knew his audience and took us to a number of places for noms, including a market, a bakery, and a candy factory. Besides getting to see the teeniest little puppy on the planet in the bakery, I also got to discover just why diabetes is such a health risk in Thailand (every wonder why pad thai is so delicious? BECAUSE OF THE 15 TABLESPOONS OF SUGAR, THAT’S WHY!).

Not that I’m complaining. After all, eating a sugary butter roll during a bike ride is basically like eating celery – it’s negative calories.

THE LESSER-SEEN THAILAND! 

In addition to the typical sites, we also got to explore some of the bits of Thailand I would have never seen otherwise: rice paddies, cauliflower fields, banana tree plantations.

And my favorite bit, going to a Thai school! Normally I dislike going to places that feel like they are catering to tourists, or where we may be disrupting normal life. But the tour (of a very small group) was timed perfectly to when the kiddos were at recess, and the guide has been coming to this school for the past four years – he’s basically a member of the family. So many little girls came up to him begging to the thrown into the air (which was particularly funny when the older girls, who have known him for years, would come up and demand the same!). The little girls crowded around us while the boys pretended to be too cool for school. I quickly became the “flower lady,” as dozens of giggling girls scampered up to give me a flower and a shy smile – soon my hands were literally overflowing! Of course, going to this school had me itching with dozens of questions about the public/private/religious school divide in Thailand, the system of education, and the tracks from primary to secondary to tertiary education – but the international education nerd in me will just have to look that up 🙂

This tour is also when I had my first This is your life, Kristen moment. Strangely enough, it happened when I was watching the guide throw food to some catfish in a pond (CATFISH!) and laughing. I looked at my clock and realized it was 9am on a Wednesday, and the only thing I was doing – the only thing I had to do, at that moment, was enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing scarily large creepy fish jumping up for food.

After that, we rode down small paths cutting through the fields and past small, simple houses with the sun shining down. Every time we passed someone, they shouted, “Sawatdee!”, smiling and waving vigorously. Everywhere I looked was an explosion of color, as tropical flowers bloomed proudly along the side of the road, and banana trees gracefully lined the path.

This is your life, Kristen.

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The Thai Sneak Attack… Updo.

You guys, something weird happened to me in Chiang Mai.

After settling in for a few days, I decided to do a treat-yo’self day (you know… to relax from my busy life of being unemployed) and spring for a spa package. I was promised pick-up and drop-off at my lodging, a body scrub, massage, and facial, all for about 1/4 of what I would pay in the U.S. AWESOME!

On the day, everything seemed to proceed normally – although I did feel a bit overwhelmed by just how accommodating everyone was. It’s Thai culture to give a bow after serving your customer – even for something like at the supermarket – so pump that up to the max at a spa and there I am sitting in my throne, having my feet carefully placed into a flowery water bowl by a kneeling Thai woman.

I blissed out for a couple of hours as my skin became silky-smooth and my limbs turned to rubber. As we wrapped up with my facial, I figured the experience was just about over. NOT SO FAST.

First, the masseuse started to gently untangle my hair. Okay, pretty normal – it was just up in a hairnet for my body scrub (DON’T WORRY I HAVE A PICTURE) and a headband for the facial, so it’s a little tangled.

But soon the untangling grew into a sensation that was very familiar… what…? Why, yes, she IS braiding my hair across the crown of my head. Well, okay, go on then.

I had no idea why it was happening but figured I would go with it. After finishing, she wrapped the blanket around me and gestured for me to sit up… so she could sit behind me on the table in a sort of Thai slumber party and finish the hairdo, of course!

Cue her putting my hair up into an elaborate updo… including flowers tucked into the top, of course.

Then, just when I thought I was leaving… they present me with the most delicious thing to come out of Thailand, mango with sticky rice. And of course my masseuse gently washed my hands with a hot towel, lest I have to do anything myself. Well, I did have to feed myself.

I decided that yes, this was a little weird, but who am I to complain over having an impromptu hair styling session? Plus it meant I was the prettiest girl at yoga that evening!

My Time with the Elephants

After languishing for two weeks on a beautiful beach in Koh Lanta, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the myriad of activities available in and around Chiang Mai. Top of the list? The Elephant Nature Park.

This beautiful park, 60 km outside of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants (more on that later). Set in a valley surrounded by mountains and with a river flowing at the foot of the park, it’s easy to see how it got the name of “Elephant Heaven.”

So how did I spend my time with the largest mammals on EARTH?! (To be fair, the Asian elephant is only the second largest land animal, after the African elephant. I was going to make a really off-color joke about that but in deference to my mother, I shan’t. Just know it’s there.)

After being picked up at my hotel and loaded into a van, we took the 1.5 hour bumpy drive out to the conservatory. Our guide briefly explained what we would do and then popped in a video that Animal Planet made on elephants in Thailand, including a highlight of the ENP, to prep us. My favorite part of the video is that the entire time they kept teasing about the “conservatory music video” they would be showing at the end, which was basically just shots of Thailand and elephants rolling through music and credits.

After arriving at the park, we jumped right into feeding time! This basically involved hesitantly putting the food in the elephant’s trunk and then delighting as they stuffed it into their mouths, or rejected it (elephants are quite human-like in that some just don’t have a taste for watermelons or bananas, for example). Also… the inside of an elephant’s trunk feels kind of weird, you guys.

 After that, we did a tour of the sanctuary – including the medical area where we all got to feel an elephant’s tooth, which I think should be added to Clue as a possible murder weapon. It was Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the ELEPHANT’S TOOTH!

One of the highlights? A very hairy baby elephant had been born four months ago! A few fun facts:

1) This may not be true for all elephants, but at the park a lot of the babies will have both their elephant mom and an elephant nanny who basically decides to be an auntie to the baby, and they all hang out together and protect the baby. I can’t wait for Hollywood to make the movie Elephant Nanny, personally.

2) It’s pretty impossible for us to know if elephants are pregnant – they can assume if the elephant is getting fatter and her breasts are, you know, milky, but they don’t really know – and didn’t know in this case – until the kid pops out. I’ve heard this one before.

After tucking in to a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet, we came to the main event: bathing the elephants. Essentially this involved standing in the river and throwing buckets of water over them.

 At one point, someone in our group mused, “Do you ever think the elephants are like, ‘…Why are these humans doing something to me I can do myself?'” But as they sat there munching on their watermelons while getting bathed, I thought, you know, I wouldn’t mind that lifestyle.

So why does this sanctuary exist? Despite the veneration elephants receive in Thai culture, and the important role they have played in Thai history – both warfare and work – they have an exceptionally tough life. The elephant population in Thailand has dropped 95% over the past century. However, only wild elephants are counted as endangered; domesticated elephants are considered livestock and have little to no rights, and there are very few legal punishments for misuse or abuse.

As logging was made illegal in the late 1980s, elephants who previously had been used for work have been shifted to tourism – trekking, rides, and street begging. However, the methods used to break the elephants of their connections to their mothers and make them submissive is absolutely horrifying. I won’t preach at you, but I encourage you to do your own research into the technique known as elephant crushing.

Anyway, the vast majority of elephants who have been rescued by ENP had pretty tough lives before – broken backs from giving rides (or from men elephants getting too rough with the females…), broken legs from logging or chains, blindness from their cruel owners shooting rocks into their eyes to try to get them to work faster, or from the lights at elephant shows. You can see the previously broken back of one of our elephants below – once they are broken, they can’t be reformed back into proper shape.

So to round out this kind-of-depressing post… I’m so glad I did this. It was by far the most expensive thing I’ve done on this trip, but knowing what the money goes towards – and seeing how happy these elephants are – made it worth it. Once these elephants get to the sanctuary, they get an awesome life of just romping around, forming herds, eating, and getting love.

 THE END.

Unexpectedly in Chiang Mai

I never thought I’d end up in Chiang Mai. I figured I would hang out in Bangkok for a while, then spend the rest of my month in Thailand down south in the beaches. Chiang Mai (a major Thai city in the north) was just a little too far out of the way.
Well, you know what they say about making plans. I got out of Bangkok after four days, desperate to be done with the massive crowds and heat. I did spend a lovely two weeks on the beach in Koh Lanta, but I think that was just enough time. Bumming on a beach is not so much a solo activity – it’s much better done with someone who can watch your stuff when you scamper into the surf. Plus, the one water activity I had planned – a snorkeling tour – had to be canceled when I tore up my leg and couldn’t go in to the water right after.
The current status of the leg. Thank you for asking.
The decision to go to Chiang Mai was made when I decided to swing into China (I’m so CRAZY like that), which of course means I needed a visa. I read some horror stories about people trying to get Chinese visas at the embassy in Bangkok, but that it was usually much more relaxed up north at the Chinese consulate. Done and done! I booked my ticket and was ready to roll.
So what have I found?
You guys, I really do like cities. I constantly go back and forth between whether I want to live in an idyllic Stars Hollow-esque small town or a medium-to-large-sized city. After spending two weeks on a random island in Thailand, I can confidently say that the small town is nice, but only for a bit. I got to Chiang Mai and one of the first times I was truly ecstatic in the last few days was when I walked into a grocery store. A GROCERY STORE! A store that sells groceries that isn’t a 7-11! You have no idea how wonderful it was just to wander around a little bit, soaking in the A/C and the order of the food. Sure, it’s a Western-slanted store so everything is way too expensive, but I can still window shop.
Wait a tic. If I can’t squeeze the cheese then WHY AM I EVEN HERE
Chiang Mai, as a rapidly growing city in a developing country, is full of contrasts. You have a beautiful high-rise hotel right next to a slow-moving river… and dilapidated buildings. There is a huge expat community here, a lot of medical tourism, and the businesses to support that… but also men languishing by the moat.  

It’s also full of surprises. You might see a sketchy-looking alley, but at the end of that alley is a beautiful oasis of a yoga studio.
I’ll be in Chiang Mai for the next week, with some fun stuff lined up – a trip to the Elephant Nature Park, a bike tour around the city, a cooking class, and a decadent spa package. Then I’ll be off to Laos for the weekend before heading up for some family pampering in Beijing (RIGHT?! Otherwise I’m not coming). Good times ahead, y’all. 

Grounded in Paradise

After a week, I had just about reached the point where I was over just relaxing on the beach and was ready to do some more exploration of the island, as I have another week here. Of course, about one hour after making this decision I was crushed under a motorbike and effectively grounded. (While my injuries are thankfully [hopefully] superficial, they’re conveniently in places where it makes it painful to walk for too long and impossible to ride a bicycle or even run, given the dastardly one on my knee). I could take a tuk-tuk, but frankly I’m cheap and didn’t really even have a specific destination in mind.

So what is a girl supposed to do? Why, finally walk the length of the beach and take really crappy pictures on her really crappy iPhone, of course!
I also answered your prayers by shooting a VIDEO of my feet surrounded by a bunch of fish. I KNOW! HOW EXCITING IS THAT?! Try to rein in that excitement, folks. I also have a pair of sunglasses dangling from my mouth, hence the weird talking.
Turns out I pushed my poor leg a bit too much on said walk, as the next day I had a bit of pain and needed to stay closer to home. And so, the day was spent alternating between the following two places.
I also spent a lot of time – I mean, a lot – taking pictures of my wounds and peering at them anxiously with a flashlight in an attempt to determine if they were getting worse/better. (Don’t worry, I already anxiously confided in someone my amputation fears, so I’ll spare you).
But I won’t spare you a picture of my leg two days later! Medical professionals – should I be grabbing a Sharpie and writing “DO NOT AMPUTATE THIS LEG” on the left and “AMPUTATE THIS” on the right?

Koh Lanta Sunsets and Looking Through the Lens

When I was in Turkey in 2011, we had just finished a day of touring mosques by walking up a steep hill past a cemetery. As is law, the cemetery was incredibly creepy but still beautiful as the sun slowly set over it.

Before long, we reached the top and were greeted by this beautiful view over Istanbul:

Immediately, we all pull out our cameras and begin snapping away. After all, if we don’t take 15 pictures of the same exact spot and then post them on Facebook, how will others know we have been there?

After a minute or two, our faculty director (and my awesome friend Papa Kev aka Kevin) asked us to put down the cameras, just for a minute, and appreciate where we were and what it meant.

The lesson he was trying to teach us – to look at, and appreciate, life with our own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera – is one I’ve carried with me in the two years since that moment. Yes, I want to be sure to capture beautiful moments and share them with others, but some beautiful moments deserve awestruck appreciation, without the sound of a camera clicking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Koh Lanta, Thailand, where I’ve parked myself for about two weeks. As the island is on the western coast of Thailand, and as I am staying on the western side of the island, the sunsets are pretty spectacular.

I love that I have been able to capture some amazing sunset shots and share them with others. But the most meaningful night, so far, happened the one time I didn’t have a camera or my iPhone. I was out for a run (yes, a run. Yes, someone already said to me “WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH KRISTEN?” :-)). As I jogged along the surf, I was treated to the most spectacular light show. I berated myself at first for not having a camera but then I realized – I already had two things with me that could see this beautiful natural creation just fine. And so I did a few sun salutations, and at one point did a literal toast to God with my water bottle, in appreciation of being alive and able to enjoy such a sight.

Obviously, there are no pictures of that. But these next few should hopefully convince you to pay Koh Lanta a visit soon:

Driving in Thailand – and why I’m never doing it again

As part of my resolution to be a Yes Girl in 2013, after about a week in Koh Lanta, Thailand I decided it was high time to get off the patch of beach I had been on and actually explore the island. The best way to do that? By motorbike, of course!

Approximately 3 minutes after talking to my friend at the front desk, I was greeted by two Thai entrepreneurs, a shiny red motorbike, and a helmet. My “driving lesson” was completely laughable – after showing me how to turn it on (which I completely forgot and later had to ask the woman at the gas station how to do it) and indicating that throttling the handle gives it gas, the lads were off. But not before asking me to give them a few minutes head start so I wouldn’t crash in to them. Thanks for the vote of confidence, guys.

Well, shocker to everyone, but it turns out their distrust in my abilities was completely accurate. At first it was fine – I was zooming along, loving the wind in my face. As I drove past tiny villages and tree-lined streets with the jungle in the distance and the ocean on my side, I was pretty darn pleased with how cool I was.

And then… the incident. The first time I had to make a true, actual right turn (p.s. they drive on the left side of the road here), I completely ate it and skidded into the ground. It hurt. I cried.

I now have a pretty awesome road burn goin’ on down my leg, as well as a bruise/cuts on my knee (incidentally, the cuts are EXACTLY over where I already have scars. So will I have scarred scars? Also, that’s the name of my new single that I’m going to drop soon, y’all).

(And before people [Mom] freak out – I’m totally fine, and the injury is what I would have if I were riding a bike or even just walking and I tripped, since I was going about 1 mph at the time)

I reluctantly got back on the bike (no other option, really), and shakily drove back to my bungalow. But rather than let the bike WIN, after cleaning myself up I hopped back on to get lunch, make a 7-11 food run… and then immediately turn the keys back in and swear to never drive one again. I’d rather use a regular ol’ bike or my barking dogs.

The nice part of the day, even if my leg is very sore right now – there are a lot of nice people around, you guys. The woman at the front desk greets me with a “HELLLOO!!!” every time she sees me, like we’re best friends that haven’t seen each other for five years, and it makes me really happy every time. When I crashed, a passing motorbike with American gals immediately stopped to make sure I was okay, and a Thai gentleman rushed over to help me get the mirror back on (shhh don’t tell the guys who rented it to me…).

After my harrowing adventure, I had to comfort myself the best ways I know how:

Cuddling with a kitty…

Watching the sun set…
And now I’m going to eat cereal for dinner. Koko Krunch, to be specific. And… a chocolate muffin.