The Reimanns Take On Thailand

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
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Trip End Mar 30, 2006


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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Our two day river trip from Laos to Thailand was pretty nice, but for one setback. For some reason (hmmm...), our boat left late the second day, and we just "happened" to reach the border town about 20 minutes after the border had closed. So, suddenly, there was a boatful of backpackers needing a place to stay. Good thing (insert sarcasm) the boat operators had a friend who had just opened a hotel near the boat landing... This sort of thing would have been kind of funny if not for the fact that we had to meet Jeff's parents the next afternoon, several hours away from the border. But, we were stuck, so we made the best of it. We were first in line at Immigration the next morning before the window had even opened and were almost overjoyed when the boats across the river to Thailand were ready to go right away. We got stamped into Thailand and for once were happy to be met by motorcycle taxis - for one thing, we wanted to get to the bus station ASAP - even better, they had posted fixed prices that were actually fair (been a long time since we had THAT happen at a land border crossing!) We had good luck and left on our first bus of the day within minutes of arriving (but with just enough time to pick up a bag of just-cooked, deep-fried bananas for breakfast, which are almost a reason to come to Thailand alone). And through a lucky combination of two buses, a pick-up taxi and some slightly confused wandering through the alley-filled old part of Chiang Mai, we happened to have the luck to turn a corner and see, about a hundred feet in front of us, a taxi driver helping Jan and Jerry get their suitcases out of the trunk. We caught up with them practically on the doorstep of the guesthouse where we were meeting, so, in the end, our timing couldn't have been better.

The group of us spent four fun and action-packed days in Chiang Mai. The first full day we made a tour of some of the best old temples in town and got a little taste of Buddhist ceremony. At one temple we happened to arrive while monks were blessing local children, and at another temple Jan paid a few dollars to set some doves free from their wicker cages (a lot of temples have ladies with birdcages and setting them free is supposed to bring you merit - a lot of birds end up getting recaptured, but the lady at this temple SWORE she doesn't do that...). We also just generally enjoyed the old part of Chiang Mai, which is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Thailand. It is surrounded by a moat and a city wall (well, the wall isn't totally intact) and is filled with little alleys that encourage getting lost. There are Bhuddist temples and monks everywhere. It's touristy, but in a nice way. The people of Chiang Mai seem to be in balance with the tourism.

The second day we went outside of town to an elephant sanctuary. First up was an elephant show: everything from elephants playing basketball, to elephants painting T-Shirts (ask Jerry to see the one that he bought), to a demonstration of the work that elephants used to do in Thai forests. Next was a trip on a bamboo raft down a pretty river with jungly hills on either side, pointy Asian sunhats for each of us included. After a good lunch, we were off for an hour-long elephant ride through the forest. It is interesting that elephants used to be a means of royal transport, because there seems to be nothing graceful or elegant about riding an elephant. Just a lot of swinging back and forth, side to side. It is surreal to be on a such a large animal, though, and to feel how little we weigh to them. And it is amazing they don't tip over - from an elephant's back, it is hard to believe the animal is managing the terrain it navigates, but we have read that they distribute body weight better than almost any other animal on Earth. Once we got to the end of the elephant ride we walked through some souvenir stands (cleverly marketed in the tour brochure as a "Hill Tribe Village") and then took a ride back through the countryside in an ox-drawn cart. So, a fun afternoon, and it was good to see that the place treated their animals pretty well (it's been a problem in Thailand figuring out what to do with huge animals that formerly worked forests but have recently be put out of a job by modern equipment - elephant sanctuarys and "theme parks" have been both good and bad to them). But the day wasn't over yet. From the elephant park, our group (which included 6 or so other people) was given the option of visiting a monkey show, a snake show or an orchid farm before going back to Chiang Mai (did we mention Chiang Mai has a reputation for being touristy?). While the two of us checked out the orchids, Jan and Jerry took a trip to the monkey show, which they found less than funny: no monkey deserves to be kept on a leash.

The third day in Chiang Mai we let Jan and Jerry rest up a bit while we figured out some details for the next leg of our trip. We all reunited later in the afternoon for a trip to Chiang Mai's famous Sunday Night Market. The town closes off several blocks and the street becomes filled with a great mix of locals and tourists (including Thai ones) moving from vendor to vendor. It was a lot more like an art fair than the average craft markets we've visited and had tons of great food - pumpkins filled with custard, whole barbequed fishes, all sorts of fried noodles and spring rolls... And you can get a half-hour Thai foot massage for about $1.50, a good way to end the night. We fully endorse the Sunday Market.

Day Four was all about food. Jan joined the two of us in taking a Thai cooking class, an event the two of us had been looking forward to doing for months. It was pretty great. We got a tour of a market, learning about Thai ingredients as we walked through the stalls (Thailand has about 17 different kinds of eggplant it seems). Then we were driven to the cooking school, which is located a little outside of town in a beautiful location with lots of gardens. We each had our own cooking station, which were located outdoors under a canopy, and learned seven different dishes - fish cakes, spring rolls, tom yum soup, green curry, pad thai (fried noodles), a cashew stir-fry and a custard filled pumpkin. We got to eat about the half of the dishes for lunch and each person had enough food to feed about three people, so we were stuffed. And then we got to-go boxes for the dishes we made after lunch... Though the Reimann threesome wasn't the smoothest (Jan knocked all of the ingredients for one dish onto the floor, and Allison cracked an egg all over her stove), we can all claim to make some pretty mean Thai food now.

The next morning we picked up a rental car and headed west for a three-day road trip through the beautiful Northern Thailand hill country. The first day we wound our way to a little town called Soppong and found a really great place to stay along a pretty river. It happened to be just after Chinese New Year, and some of the Chinese descended ethnic groups in the area celebrate it every night for about a week. A really nice local woman who worked at the guesthouse where we were staying took us up to the celebration going on the night we arrived. Although it was apparent that several nights of festivities had started to wear the villagers out, it still was fun to drop in for about an hour. We were the only Western visitors, and the people were incredibly welcoming. We (well, Allison mainly) were swept into a circle dance the women were doing to a sort of trance-like music blasting from a children's portable karoake machine, which was carried by a man who also supplied some vocals. Everybody was wearing traditional outfits that are only brought out for Chinese New Year and there was a healthy quantity of rice whiskey being passed around. Lots of famous Thai smiles.

The next morning Jeff and Allison visited a couple of local caves (one had extremely old coffins carved from tree trunks in it), while Jan and Jerry relaxed on the guesthouse deck by the river. We then moved on to the friendly and interesting town of Mae Hong Son, located near the border with Myanmar (Burma). Our luck continued, and we happened to be in town during another big festival, which was taking place at a Bhuddist temple on a hilltop overlooking the town. When we visited that night there were lots of people milling around - some were buying offerings to be placed at various points in the temple, others added coins to the alms containers of the temple's monks (placed one by one on a very long table), and a big crowd had gathered to watch a slapstick comedy show playing on a stage off to one side of the temple (we think traditional stories were being told, but it was hard to tell). The next day decided to go back to Soppong for another night because we had all liked it so much. After spending the next morning sitting by the river again, we returned to Chiang Mai to drop off the rental car.

The main reason we had decided to come back to Chiang Mai for another night before moving on to other parts of Thailand was so we could catch the best part of the Chiang Mai's annual flower festival, which had started while we were out of the city. The next morning we joined quite a crowd lining the city's main streets and watched a sort of Thai Tournament of Roses Parade. It was sort of like being back home - high school marching bands, beauty queens, crazy costumes, floats covered in flowers and a guy on a huge elephant (oh wait, we have fire trucks). It was a good time.

That night we took an overnight train down to Bangkok and then spent the next day resting up. Jan and Jerry specifically found a place with international cable, so the next day we all reunited in the early morning hours to watch the Superbowl (Thailand is 12 hours later than the Eastern US). It was sort of a strange Superbowl party, involving coffee and cookies, rather than beer and chips. Post-Superbowl we spent a few days in Bangkok seeing some of its more well-known attractions. One of the best things we did in Thailand period was visiting two of Bangkok's most famous temples. The most impressive, Wat Phra Kaeo, is located on the same grounds as the site of the Grand Palace, the former residence of the Thai royal family. It was one of the most beautiful spaces we've seen anywhere in the world, with incredible jewel-like mosaics over temple walls and beautiful murals. But we don't do words well, so we'll attach photos that give a better idea. The other temple we visited, Wat Pho, was also great - it contains one of the largest reclining Bhuddas in the world; 45 feet high and about 140 feet long, it basically fills an entire building. And the surrounding temple grounds look like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with strange pastel mosaics covering many structures, as well as hundreds of Bhudda statues tucked into seemingly every available corner.

From Bangkok the four of us traveled south on an another overnight train and then took a bus to the city of Krabi, located on the southern west coast. From Krabi, we took a minibus and a couple of ferries to the island of Koh Lanta, where we spent about the next week relaxing on a beautiful beach. At the end of the week, we said good-bye to Jan and Jerry, who returned north to Bangkok so that they could make a side-trip to Cambodia before returning home. Another thanks to Mom and Dad Reimann for catching up with us and being part of three fun weeks!
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