Over the holidays, Daniel and I set out on what was to become one of our favorite adventures together: A voyage to Thailand and Cambodia in search of street markets, elephants, beaches, and temples.
As we began our descent for one night in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed were the many multi-colored rooftops scattered throughout the outskirts of the city. It was a foreshadowing for the vibrant and chromatic culture we were soon to discover.
Bangkok Chinatown Food stall night market
Loud noises, flashing lights, people by the thousands, locals and tourists, vehicle exhaust, traffic, amazing smells, terrible smells, mosquitos, sticky air, sticky rice, blisters…the entire cacophony of Bangkok. This city is a giant mess with so many gems, both blatant and hidden. For our one evening we chose the Chinatown night market for a banquet of food stalls to get our first taste of Thailand’s cuisine.
The streets consisting of the market were packed so full of people, I couldn’t imagine how this was a nightly occurrence. The food stalls are parked along the sidewalks, cooking up strange delicacies and corralling patrons to the tiny tables shoved in the small openings between the sidewalk and the buildings. The amount of tables varied between street vendors, sometimes two, sometimes eight, and any amount in between. We chose a popular pad thai vendor and took a seat amidst massive droves of hungry locals searching for the evening feast. It was the most stressful “first experience” we could have mustered, but we are all the better for it, and the pad thai was to die for.
Chiang Mai Lanterns
Finding our way through Chiang Mai was like a fairytale: quaint, palm tree-lined streets with hippie tourists, locals on motorbikes, bicycles, hole-in-the wall cafés, coffee shops, vegans and vegetarians, backpacker hostels, yoga classes, and watering holes. Here we discovered some of the most amazing breakfast nooks and excellent café Americanos, and found my favorite night market filled with everything from open air foot massages and fruit smoothies to artisanal carvings and fried scorpions.
We arrived on New Year’s eve and, despite my previous disappointment that we would miss Thailand’s lantern festival that happens in October, it wasn’t too far into the evening when we looked up and spotted two magical specs of light floating up into the night. Upon confirming our sighting, we made our way to the Iron Bridge where we found hundreds of locals and tourists alike lighting and sending off these hopes and dreams for a blessed future.
It was surreal to experience one of my dreams coming true as we lit our own lantern and sent it up into the sky, watching it until it disappeared into black. Walking back to our hotel we found another lantern “hot spot” at Ta Phae Gate, which was mainly filled with western tourists, but the magic of the lanterns was still undeniable. They floated up like thousands of little yellow stars dotting the sky.
Having our New Year’s Eve fulfilled, we headed to bed around 11pm. One hour later, we were awaked by the loudest pops and cracks we’d ever heard. Jumping up out of bed and opening the door to our balcony, we were met with the most incredible sight: The sky filled with exploding fireworks of all shapes and colors, and behind them, thousands upon thousands of lanterns, more lanterns than we’d ever seen! They were speckling the sky and lighting up the entire city of Chiang Mai. I will try to hold on to that moment for as long as I can.
On New Year’s Day another dream came true, when we made our way to an Elephant Discovery on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It’s very important when looking for an elephant experience in Thailand that you put a lot of research into the organization, to make sure the elephants are treated ethically and are not being harmed in any way for the sake of tourism. I couldn’t have been more impressed with Elephant Discovery and the exceptional love, care, and treatment that are given to the animals. Arriving to the grounds, we were immediately introduced to Buddha, Matau, Babydoll, and Linda: all female elephants ranging in age from 15 to 45. The elephants are never chained or prodded, and spend their days roaming the grounds, bathing in the water, eating tremendous amounts of food, and hanging with tourists. So as not to overwhelm the magnificent animals, the visitors are limited to 6-8 people maximum. An added bonus to this is that we were able to spend plenty of quality time one-on-one with the elephants.
The first thing we did was feed an entire bucket of bananas to each of our elephants. We learned how to ask them to open their mouths, and how to tell them “hello”, and “thank you.” I couldn’t believe how massive their tongues were! Not slobbery at all, and sort of the texture of a marine animal. A few members of our group wanted to spend a short time riding the elephants, though Daniel and I opted not to. Elephants are put through rigorous and often harmful training to learn how to accept riders, and we felt we shouldn’t contribute to that process. With Elephant Discovery, they only allow one rider per elephant for a very short period of time, and they do not use wooden crates, which can have harmful effects on the elephants. I found this to be very responsible and I highly recommend this organization.
The life of Pai can be described as follows: hippie, island, mountains, night market, jazz, motorbikes, and hammocks. After the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Daniel and I took the motorbike 3 hours up into the mountains to the secret little “island” enclave of Pai. This magical respite had no traffic (and therefore no toxic exhaust), far fewer tourists, and seemed to be filled with long-term travelers who appeared to be sticking around for a while. Pai was truly a dream. There was one “Walking Street,” which was a series of streets that turned into a night market every day at dusk, and had some of the best foods and spices we’d seen yet. There was an established music and bar scene, and hammocks were everywhere. One of our favorite evenings was spent laying in hammocks at the jazz bar, Edible Jazz, just reading, drinking wine, and relaxing. Lots of day trips can be made from Pai, and ours were spent exploring hot springs and Lod Cave: a giant cave filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and bats, through which you take a long and extremely narrow raft through to the other side using only lanterns to guide you.
Beaches, Islands & Rock Climbing
We finally got on the rocks once we arrived to Railey Beach, our entrance of which posed it’s own challenges. Railey beach can only be accessed via longtail boat…you can’t drive to the beach. By the time our flight landed and we arrived to the pier it was 8pm, and all of the regularly scheduled boats to Railey had ended for the day. We found ourselves in a position where we had to charter our own longtail boat in the pitch dark at low tide. Read: Daniel carried two suitcases as we waded through the mucky sand sludge until the water reached out knees and we made it to the boat, the driver of which was drunk, impatient, and clearly gave me the impression he was taking us to be plundered by pirates. The ten-minute ride left us in an equally precarious situation. The tide was so far out we couldn’t see the actual beach, and we trekked again through the muck for what seemed like hours (I think it was 15 minutes) until we were able to see one beacon of light directing us toward “town.”
Our time at Railey beach was spent making friends, getting massages, enjoying beach time, and rock climbing. There was also a morning spent making our way to a secret lagoon, which required the steepest ascent imaginable followed by an equally dangerous descent via rickety ladders and muddy landslides. Railey was all about the reggae vibe. Wandering around shoeless, sunburnt, and in a bathing suit was a common theme, in hunt of the next fruit smoothie.
We then hopped on a ferry and headed to the Phi Phi Islands where we kayaked, watched fire shows, got sun poisoning (me), and snorkeled with black tip reef sharks (I saw two and panic-swim-splashed my way back to the boat as fast as I could).
Angkor Wat & Cambodia
Landing in Cambodia was a much-welcomed reception, with the weather being much cooler and being met at the Arrivals terminal by Chen, a representative from our hotel, The Golden Temple Retreat. Chen was enthusiastic and full of gratitude, profusely thanking us for visiting his country and choosing their hotel. He presented us with handmade scarves from a local orphanage, and ice-cold coconuts with straws. During the drive to the hotel, he spoke about the history of Cambodia using excellent English, and his nature cheerful, kind, relaxed, and interested, a nature that was repeatedly seen in the Cambodian culture. Upon arrival to the hotel, we were presented with roasted peanuts, fresh fruit, sticky rice, and lemonade. We were given vouches for complimentary dinner, one-hour massage, and a lunch before being shown around the premises. I highly recommend staying at this hotel if you plan a trip to Cambodia; it had the best rooms and breakfast buffet out of anywhere we’d been, complete with chaise lounge, porch swing, rain shower and ceramic tub. And the staff were incredibly accommodating, all for $150/night.
I vividly remember 3 things about our visit to Cambodia:
Time spent riding the tuk-tuk to and from the various temple sites, getting lost in the scenery of red dirt and greenery with palm trees as we sped past sleeping dogs, water buffalo, and street stalls filled with clothing, gasoline, and snacks. The warm woosh of air casting the soundtrack with an occasional blast of western music blaring from a roadside wedding or a mechanic’s workshop.
Waking up at 4:45am to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, watching the black night slowly fade to colors of yellow, red and orange and finally turning around to see thousands of people behind me to capture the magic of the moment.
And finally, experiencing complete awe in the Ta Prohm temple, where massive overgrown tree roots env eloped ancient ruins looking like creatures taking over their rightful place in the world. In all things, life finds a way.
As we began the journey home, sunburnt, weary, and enlightened; I felt both energized and humbled at the sheer vastness and beauty of this world, and gratitude for the privilege to explore and share in its wonder.