Archive for the ‘sight’ Category

The Gateway

Location: Khao San Road, Bangkok
Soundtrack: Hardcore house trance

Coming back to Khao San is an appropriate end to a trip, as well as a fitting place to start.

It’s a place of beginnings and endings, a gateway from one world into the next. It envelops you in gaudy neon advertising, shouts at you with the latest dance tunes, spins you around with touts and tuk-tuks and street food. You’re slammed with a sensory overload that is uniquely Khao San.

But all of that is a gloss over the surface, a veneer rubbed on to give the impression that this is what Thailand is. But scratch at it – travel away from Khao San, Ko Samui, and Phuket – and you’ll see the real Thailand underneath. A land full of amazing people and stunning scenery, mixing ancient history and modern experiences together into an intoxicating elixir.

It makes sense, then, that Khao San is a fitting final counterpoint to your Thai experience. Sit at any one of the plentiful bars or cafes along the street, and just watch the wide eyed backpackers fresh off the plane stumble through the gateway and into the adventure that awaits them. You know it’s going to be an adventure – after all, you’ve just finished yours.

And you take with you your memories, and your learnings from the road. In my case, I took the clarity I’d been seeking, and had finally found in Pai.

Harold Stephens, writing for Thai Airways, summed the road up well:

So what is Khao San Road?  It’s a street, or a road, that is true. But it’s more than that. Khao San is about people. It’s a place where not all dreams may come true but at least those people who go there dared to dream. For the young travellers, it’s a place they will remember all their lives. For the young Thais, it’s meeting these crazy foreigners and perhaps even imitating them, for one night at least.

Then the time arrives.

You pay your bill. You pick up your bags. You take one last glance around at the veneer of Khao San, and behind it – your Thailand.

You promise you’ll be back, and know that you mean it.

Then you straighten up, and walk towards the gateway that the backpackers are coming through to start their adventure.

And without hesitating, you step back through the gateway and start your own journey home.

 

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
~ T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

The View

Location: Vertigo, Banyan Tree, Bangkok
Soundtrack: Smooth jazz

A day after my elephant adventure, I left Chiang Mai for Bangkok.

I’d reached a turning point earlier in Pai – I’d achieved what I’d set out to find. And now I was on my way home.

I had a few stops to make, and a few traditions to uphold. One of them was a beer on Khao San Road at the Centerpoint Plaza Bar, just above the road itself.

It was on the road that I met up with Michael, a friend from Brisbane who was in Bangkok at the same time. We shared a few too many beers at the Center Khao San (which seemed to have become an Irish pub since the last time I was there), and agreed to go out somewhere quieter the next night for a drink and dinner.

Part of the experience of Bangkok is, if you can afford it, staying in one of their luxury hotels. Instead of staying in one, we just settled for a drink in the Sheratan Grande Sukhumvit jazz bar, The Living Room. A few frosty beverages and a flight of cheese and wine later, Michael revealed a surprise: we were going to be having dinner at Vertigo.

Top floor, please Garcon.

Vertigo
Vertigo is an open-air restaurant and bar on the 61st floor of the Banyon Tree resort. It’s a dizzying height, but offers up spectacular views of Bangkok at sunset and into the night. It’s currently sitting at Number Two in my favourite unique bars of the world – Number One is the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, famous from Lost In Translation. But Vertigo comes a very close second.

Vertigo was brilliant.

It fit perfectly with my life philosophy of valuing experiences over things – and Vertigo was definitely an experience worth every penny. I settled on the 4 course set menu with matching wines, and wasn’t disappointed. The view, the meal, and especially the company were all perfect.

If you’re ever in Bangkok, and you have a night spare, and you like the person or people you’re travelling with, you have to visit Vertigo. It’s simply a unique experience that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world.

I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing way to start wrapping up the trip.

The Elephants

Location: Baan Chang Elephant Park, Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance (Marches 1,2,3, & 4) 4min55sec onwards

Click here for the Video Review

There’s a majestic power about elephants.

They’re the largest land animal on Earth – to see them up close is nothing short of breathtaking. The first time you see an elephant will stay with you forever. They just have this ability to turn even the most jaded humans into tiny spectators, gaping at the wall of grey in front of them in wide-eyed wonder.

But the elephants at Baan Chang Elephant Park aren’t display animals. They’re not there for show, or to do a little dance in front of you, or for you to sit in a big basket tied to their back as they walk 100metres up a road from one bamboo roadside stop to the next.

They’re there to live their lives in happiness and peace, and you just happen to be given one day to be a part of it.

I use given correctly. We may pay to spend a day with the elephants. But the guides explain at the start of the day exactly where the money goes: to the elephants. To feed them, to upgrade their park, and to rescue more elephants.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
Baan Chang is run by Ittiphon Kantanaul, or Pom to his friends, with his wife Tinar. He even brought his mother in to cook meals for his family, staff, mahouts, and guests. The park has been running as an elephant rescue park for seven years, and has been open as a commercial enterprise for the last three years to enable the camp to earn more money to grow it’s preservation work. It’s situated well outside of Chiang Mai on the slopes of a nearby national park.

The 14 elephants at the park eat between 100,000 (AUD$33,000) to 200,000baht (AUD$66,000) of food a month.
250kg of sugarcane, bananas, banana leaves, and grain crops per elephant, per day. Seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Elephant + mahout = winning combination.

Each elephant can cost upwards of 1 million baht (AUD$333,333) to buy from their current owner, assuming the owner is willing to sell.

So the AUD$80 for the day wasn’t a fee to visit a park: it was a donation to a worthy cause. I donated my money, and in return the park gave me the gift of living with the elephants for a day, and educating myself about what it means to truly care for an elephant.

Onwards and upwards!

We fed the elephants and helped them to exercise. One exercise method consisted of us learning how to ride the elephants bareback (grab their ears, and hold on tight). Then, riding bareback with one rider behind the head and the other on the back, we took them up the mountain to a wooded area. The elephants were left to roam and play as we learned more about their lives in Thailand.

We were tasked to guide them back down the mountain, which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you have nothing to hold onto but an elephant’s two ears. We guided them to their “bath tub”, a large pond near the front of the park. Dodging the many balls of floating elephant crap, we jumped in the water and scrubbed them down.

We were all merely doing our parts to help: the mahouts do this same routine of walk, play, and scrub every day of the year, twice a day.

When you’re a mahout, or elephant trainer, there’s no such thing as a holiday or time off. You are with your elephant permanently. It’s almost a monastic lifestyle choice: you are either with your elephant, or you aren’t. Transitioning between mahouts and developing that relationship with an elephant can take anywhere from six months to a year.

I stayed overnight, and after dinner I talked about the park with my guide Lulu, and with Pom. After a while, Pom’s wife Tinar arrived from their travel agency in Chiang Mai, said hello with a stunning smile, and quickly started packing a few bags. Pom looked at me and smiled.

“We’re going away for a day and a half. That way,” he said, waving in a vaguely eastern direction. He couldn’t suppress his smile.

“We’re going to go rescue our fifteenth elephant.”

And with that, Pom vanished into the night, doing what he was born to do: rescue these majestic creatures, and bring them to his park to live a high quality life in happiness.

It’s all any of us could ever ask for, really.

The Day

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: Fireworks

Dignity.

It’s the only word I could come up with that describes what I experienced last night.

The night sky was full of floating khom loi or sky lanterns/balloons. They often represent the fears and worries of a person floating away – it’s like refreshing your spirit at the end of 2010 as the calender shifts to 2011.

Sky lanterns, and lots of them!Image not mine: courtesy of Takeaway from Wikipedia

The best thing about these balloons, though, is that the larger they are, the more people you need to help you launch it. And you can’t launch one on your own. Read into that what you will about our new years resolutions, which are often made privately.

There was a dignity and a restraint to the celebrations. Children ran around in delight, proud parents watching on. Teens and adults weren’t stumbling around in drug or booze induced hazes.

As I walked the streets, the sudden bursts of pops, fizzes, and sparkles from hand-launched fireworks echoed through the night. The few foreigners I saw had a look of annoyed reservation on their faces. They were promised “the Khao San of the north”. There were a few bars out of town that lived up to the party hype, but they were few and far between.

Instead, we were all part of a dignified celebration of the end of 2010.

I’ll always treasure the memory of standing by the river, leaning against a fence, and looking up at all the sky lanterns as they floated across the stars.

It’s my idyll of how a New Year (or Countdown?) festival should be celebrated.

It wasn’t a gala party in a giant hall filled with strangers.

It was an event to be shared with your loved ones and family, and a time for personal reflection on the past year and resolution about the year ahead.

You might be able to tell that it had a profound effect on me. That’s because it was a turning point in my journey – watching the lanterns and listening to the fireworks, I finally found the clarity I’d been looking for. All it took was a festival in the mountains of Thailand to get me there.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.
~ G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

The Eve

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees, the running of the water

I woke up on New Years Eve morning and stretched in my little bungalow by the river. I hadn’t prebooked a place – I’d tried, but everywhere was booked out, so I gambled on finding a place when I got there. Lying on the mattress on the raised bamboo floor, looking up at the mosquito netting, I stuck my hands behind my head and listened to the early morning noises outside and the quiet flow of the river.

I was finally starting to unwind from 2010, just as 2011 approached.

At breakfast at Pai Country House, I watched as the town slowly filled with more and more Thai as the morning rolled on. The Thais came on scooters carrying backpacks and tents to camp beside the river, or with their family 4WDs and sedans packed to the brim with luggage. I felt like, in a way, I’d intruded on their secret oasis.

But then I likened it to a German backpacker turning up at Maroochydore at New Years – I’m not an intruder, I’m just another face in a rather large crowd of holidaymakers. Sure, my face is a bit different, and I was stopped twice by people who wanted a photo with a 6 foot redheaded white dude wearing purple shorts and mismatched blue and yellow socks (it was laundry day!). But I wasn’t intruding on anything private.

My choice for breakfast was also where I found the expat enclave, and they were taking a different view to what was happening in their town.

One old Dutch guy bemoaned loudly “I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s never been like this,” he said, gesturing at the traffic choking the main street. “I’m thinking about leaving.”

He passed an article over to two French expats sitting at the table beside mine. “You want to cheer yourself up? An article on Pai.” It was by Anchalee Kongrut in the Bangkok Post, and you can read it here.

To Pai or Not To Pai
For many, Pai is the latest case of cultural and environmental decadence and negative gentrification. Antique shops have been converted into beer bars and shops selling T-shirts bearing the word “Pai”. Investors from Bangkok have rushed into town and opened either cheap guesthouses or boutique hotels if not chic coffee houses, Italian restaurants or herbal spa retreats. Ethnic villagers are no longer living cultural heritages, but are fast becoming eye-catching exotic subjects for Facebook photos.

As much as Ms. Kongrut paints a picture of a changed Pai than the one from her past, it’s not an overly negative picture.

I love it here, so it’s easy to imagine that I’m not the only one. But I’m not a Pai local. So when your quiet little town gets invaded every year, and the invaders keep increasing in number, what happens? Over time they’ll keep leaving bits of themselves and their culture behind – a few new tourist-oriented businesses, an increase in guesthouses, a few more market stalls selling more trinkets and souvenirs, another coffee shop or juice bar. The banana pancake trail effect.

Each year, the path to Pai gets easier for people to follow, and they’re welcomed with open arms by local business for the influx of easy capital they bring. It’s nothing new; it happens to small awesome places the world over, time and time again.

Ms. Kongrut sums it up well: “To Pai or not to Pai is still a question to be asked. But it is time for another question, not about the place or the impact of tourism. Places change, for better or for worse, or both. And so do we.”

The question of whether or not to visit Pai is redundant – of course you’re going to visit Pai. It’s a wonderful place. The question is really whether or not you’re comfortable with the changes that make it an easier place to visit.

As the sun started going down, the town reached capacity. Every now and then I saw a foreign face flash among the crowd, then vanish again. This was definitely not going to be a Western New Year: this was going to be a completely Thai celebration.

So many markets!

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
~ W. Somerset Maugham, (1874-1965)

The River

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: Powderfinger

I arrived in Pai, and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

I was picturing a dirty commercial Khao San Road or Vang Vieng. Instead, I want you to picture where your mum and dad used to take you on family holidays when you were a kid.

Relaxed, casual, family-oriented place that had a few restaurants, maybe a couple of cafes, access to some fun kids activities – yeah, that’s the place.

Now pick that place up, localise it, drop it in northern Thailand, and you have Pai. Video.

Pai by the river

There’s something magical about Pai. It’s relaxed in an uncommercialised way. It’s a Thai holiday destination, not a foreign one like the islands down south. The number of Thais outnumber the foreigners like I’ve never seen before, even while in Bangkok. The streets are clean, the crowds are friendly and relaxed, I’m not being bombarded every three seconds with calls of “Hello sir, where you go, tuk tuk?”, and there’s a dude dressed up like Jack Sparrow posing for photos.

It’s a perfect place for a relaxed New Years Eve, which is exactly what I was looking for. And on top of that, I get to experience what a New Years Eve (or Countdown, in this case) festival is like from an entirely different cultural perspective than my own.

It’s a very relaxed place, and I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to the experience that tomorrow night will bring.

Interlude: Postcards

Pai is the postcard capital of the universe. They’ve created an industry out of selling postcards at a stall, having people sit down and fill out the postcards with provided pens and stamps, and then posting them at the postbox right beside the work table. Genius way to reinvent the postcard – make it a snapshot of the moment, not a letter describing the past in “Wish you were here” style. Joe Moran hits the nail on the head when he describes postcards as a form of phatic communication – a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying “Hello, I’m here and you’re there.”

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.
~ Douglas Adams (1952-2001: Don’t Panic.)

The Ride

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees

I rode 27.7kms yesterday on a half day bike tour out of Chiang Mai city and into the surrounding towns and suburbs.

It’s amazing how much my view of Chaing Mai is coloured by the experiences we as travellers are forced into, whether we want to be or not.

For example, Chiang Mai has it’s tourist side – the markets, the bars, the restaurants, the tours and treks. All of this occupies our time while we’re in a location, and satisfies our needs – but it doesn’t really open up the city for exploration. When a well-worn path is in front of you, it’s difficult to avoid walking down it.

I took the fervent advice of a friend at Intrepid Travel in Bangkok to take the half-day bicycle tour, and I’m very glad he pushed me into it.

I’m not a cyclist. The last time I rode a bike I was in Melbourne, and it was one of those trendy fixed-gear bikes that all the hipsters love. So I’m not exactly your role model bike rider.

Rit was my guide on the half day bike tour, which was delivered by Click and Travel. He made the trip fun, relaxed, and most of all comfortable – riding at a pace I could handle, and knowing exactly where to go and how to get there.

Rit
Rit came fom a family that couldn’t pay for secondary education, so he voluntarily chose to be a monk and receive his education through temple. He lived and studied as a monk for 7 years.

When the time came to leave the monkhood and return to society, he found it incredilby difficult. As a monk, the only skills you’re taught are how to pray and meditate, so you have no translatable skills. He’s studying now for his tour guide certificate and has been a bicycle guide with the company f or two years.

What really struck me about the bike tour (aside from my incredibly sore butt afterward) was how different Thai life was once you leave the tourist side. It’s a crime to call their life simple. These people’s lives are not simple – they’re as complicated with relationships, dreams, and desires as ours are. We’re all human beings.

The word I’m looking for is solitude. Compared to the hustle and bustle of tuktuks, taxis, songthaews, and utes, this almost felt like a quiet paradise. It’s exactly the same as our own suburbs – they’re the places you live, not the places you work.

We visited Rit’s home temple; a former Leper colony with a rich history about a US missionary doctor in the early 20th century; and Wiang Kum Kam, an original settlement that predates Chiang Mai.

But the point of the ride wasn’t the destinations – it was the ride itself, and being exposed to the other side of life.

I really appreciated the chance to see what life was like outside of Chiang Mai city – it’s not often you get the chance to escape the well-worn path, even if only for a little while.

Plus it helped me burn off some calories that I knew I was going to be gaining the next day, when I went to do my Thai Cooking Class