A Travellerspoint blog

Two Nights in Bangkok...

...and the world's your oyster. The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free.

After returning from our trek, we spent a night catching up on sleep (read previous post). The following day, we had booked to join an overnight meditation retreat - kind of like "Meditation for Dummies". We, along with about 15 other westerners, were taken 1/2 hour outside Chiang Mai to the Meditation Center, a newly constructed building for the purpose of initiating westerners to meditation and Buddhism. This is all run through a temple in Chiang Mai - and the amazing part is that accommodation, breakfast, lunch, dinner and instruction by a Buddhist monk are all free. Of course, we did give a donation at the end, but still pretty amazing.

As far as meditation is concerned, it is impossible to achieve any state of "awareness" in a 24-hour period. Monks practice their entire lives to be good at this. But, we learned some of the basic fundamentals of meditation which we can practice on our own when return. What we found more interesting was the discussions on the Buddhist "religion" and the beliefs of the Buddhist monk running our training. I (Amber) have always been drawn to the philosophies of Buddhism, but this really opened my eyes to many things that I was unaware of, and to hear the information directly from a Buddhist Monk is a little better than reading it from a book. All I can say is that all the monks we've spoken with since our time here are truly some of the most peaceful people I have ever met, and it's probably not a coincidence.

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Practicing walking meditation.

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The morning alms (food offerings) given to the monks.

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Our morning yoga session.

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Our "class". Come join our cult! :)

Check out the program if you are interested at http://www.monkchat.net/meditationretreat.htm. There are some more pictures posted from our retreat.

Our schedule:
1st Day : Tueday
02.15 p.m. Assemble at Wat Suan Dok
02.30 p.m. Introduction to Buddhism.
-What do Buddhists worship?
-What do Buddhists believe?
-How do Buddhists practice?
04.00 p.m. Departure for the Training Center.
05.00 p.m. Free time / tea and snacks.
06.00 p.m. Evening chanting and meditation.
09.00 p.m. Bedtime.
2nd Day : Wednesday
05.00 a.m. Morning gong/Get up.
05.30 a.m. Morning chanting,
Yoga Meditation,
Insight Meditation.
07.00 a.m. Breakfast.
08.00 a.m. Discussion on the general ideas
of Buddhism
10.00 a.m. Meditation
11.30 a.m. Offer food to monks and lunch
12.30 a.m. Take pictures/ Clean up rooms
13.30 p.m. Return to Wat Suan Dok.

After the retreat, we were off to Bangkok. Unfortunately, when we arrived to the airport, our flight was delayed a couple of hours. We have since learned that this is a common practice.

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354 miles

Bangkok, as could be expected, is a very busy city. There is a lot of air pollution, but it’s surprisingly clean otherwise. We stayed our first night outside of Bangkok with a friend of Eric's, which was really nice, and we will probably go stay with them again when we return. But, we left the pleasant home stay figuring it would be best to stay in the heart of the action since we only had 2 nights in Bangkok.

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Amber, Patty, Pum and Jup outside their house.

We stayed off Khao San Road, which is tee shirt, Singha, phad Thai, & banana pancake-land. Basically, commercialism is king here, but why not pay too much money for a beer and watch the action? It was alive with backpackers and young Thai’s out for the evening. We managed two good nights out on the town absorbing the atmosphere.

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Looking for a cheap hostel near Khao San Rd - not as easy as we thought!

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The busy Khao San Rd.

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Enjoying a drink and watching the world go by.

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Street eats- what's your favorite insect? Fried grasshoppers, mealworms, ants, or maybe a scorpion?? Yum!!

During the day we toured the city and went to the Grand Palace and Wat Praew Kaew, which were both spectacular. The wat was by far the most elaborate that we have seen so far and is the King’s personal temple.

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Some of the elaborate tiles that covered every square inch of the wat and surrounding buildings.

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To get away from the craziness and pollution, we will be spending the next couple of weeks down in the islands of Southern Thailand...we can't wait!

Posted by rebmamber 01:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Trekking in Northern Thailand

sunny

We booked ourselves on one of the many trekking tours out of Chiang Mai that go up to northern Thailand. Originally it was for 3 days, but our plans changed, so we had to bump it down to two days.

We started off heading out of town in a sawngthaew (truck with an open back door and bench seats) along with two girls from Sweden. There can be anywhere of up to 12 people on these treks, but our group ended up being just the 4 of us.

Our first stop was a local market outside of town to buy any needed water or supplies. Justin passed up the fried chicken feet (4 for 20 baht, or 50 cents!), but we did not pass up the fried bananas, YUM! We continued on into the countryside and made our next stop at the Longneck Village. You have probably seen images of these women on the pages of National Geographic Magazine, as I had, so I was interested in seeing them in person. They are actually refugees from Myanmar (Burma) and this particular tribe has been set up here for about 6 months. They allow tourists to visit for obvious reasons; we buy their crafts and pay a fee to enter. Of course, the downside to this is that it feels almost like a human zoo - "Look at the strange people". After the initial discomfort (look at our faces in this picture) -

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you begin to interact with them, "talk" to them about buying some of their silk-weaved scarves, watch them weaving the scarves and feeling the weight of the brass rings (which are very heavy), you begin to feel a little less like an intruder and much more welcome. The villagers are very friendly and do seem to appreciate you being there, which I suppose is how you have to look at it. If we weren't coming to see them, then they would not be making any money. So, hopefully it is a symbiotic relationship.

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Afterwards, we drove a little further and got dropped off to begin our 5-hour hike. We, believing ourselves to be in good shape, don't worry very much about how strenuous these outdoor activities can be. We figure if these are designed for normal tourists, we're probably in the upper part of that group physically. I'll just say that at one point in the hike, I realized that this was a lot more difficult than I was expecting - only later did I find out that at that point we weren’t even halfway there! Regardless, it was very beautiful and really wonderful to be out of the bustle of the city. We had to cross over several rivers, by walking/jumping across rocks or by using "sturdy" pieces of bamboo laid across the river. We had two guides to help us with this task, which was good, because I surely would have been swimming!

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We walked up and down along the forested trail, and then we walked up and up and up. Just when we were about to fall over, we took a break at a beautiful waterfall. Then, everything seemed worth it! One girl from Sweden took a swim, but it was too cold for our Florida blood.

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Our destination for the evening was a tribal village in the Chiang Dao valley. When we got our first view of the village, it looked like something out of a movie. On the other side, was a gorgeous view of Doi Chiang Dao mountain - and we were excited to rest our tired bodies and to meet the villagers. Then, the sounds of loud booms in the distance...

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Apparently, this and other villages celebrate New Year's by having a weeklong celebration. And what means celebration to villagers - fireworks. I'm not talking about the light up the sky, 4th of July type; we're talking M-80's and miniature dynamite. Also, there are no rules as to where, when or at what age you can set off these fireworks - we literally saw a kid no older than 4 running around the village lighting them on his own. We were all a little surprised by this, but were still very intrigued for what was to come. The villagers were definitely different than the city people. While some were very friendly and welcoming, others would just kind of stare at you - we were the attraction at this human zoo.

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The evening festivities involved dancing around a pine tree (which was about 10 feet from where we were sleeping) where the villagers would dress in their traditional outfits. There was a makeshift sound system set up where people would sing or play a Lisu flute. Then the real party started - before beginning the festivities, what better way to celebrate than hanging not one, but two pig's heads from the tree you are dancing around?

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Of course, being a longtime vegetarian, I found this to be less than appealing, but I realized this is their culture and I took it for what it was. The purpose of the pig head is an offering, and I guess they had just eaten that very pig earlier in the day, so they were giving thanks as well.

The drums came out, the people showed up, and the dancing began. It was pretty much like line dancing, but in a circle. Eventually, after offering us shots of the local rice whiskey (I don't even want to know what was in that bottle), they had us join them in the dancing. It was neat to experience their culture along with them and they seemed very proud to have us there.

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We retired to our beds around midnight, since we had had a long day of hiking. The villagers, on the other hand, had been saving up all their energy for this celebration, and they literally did not stop until the sun rose. Now the singing, drums and the generator under our hut I could handle, but the massive fireworks explosions outside our door got a little old. Needless to say, we did not get much sleep.

Here were our accommodations -

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We headed out the next morning for another 4 hours of hiking. This day was a lot easier as we were going mostly downhill, however with no sleep, we were still be dragged along by our Thai guide.

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Overall, it was a worthwhile experience, but we really appreciated our quiet bed when we returned to Chiang Mai.

Posted by rebmamber 23:59 Archived in Thailand Comments (5)

Thailand by Scooter

Chiang Mai

sunny 29 °C

Against the better judgment of our mothers (we're guessing), we decided to hit the highway, Thai Style! We rented a scooter for 2 fun-filled days of being honked at and scaring the @$%# out of Amber. Actually it wasn't that bad, once I (Justin) got used to the manual scooter. There were a few rough down shifts before I realized, why bother? Just leave it in second gear, it's a rental!

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First we headed to Wat U Mong, just a few kilometers outside of Chiang Mai. Unlike the majority of the wats we had visited, this wat's appeal was the forested grounds that had a park-like feel, complete with a duck pond. Many of the trees within the grounds of this 14th-century wat had Buddhist sayings written on them, which made for pleasant walking and reading.

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Others included:

"Water is what makes a ship float; water is what makes a ship sink"

"The next life or tomorrow - we can never be certain which will come first; But we hope to go on living"

"Today is better than two tomorrows"

"Do try to be good, but not to be great, otherwise you will be in danger"

Under the stupa of this wat were several interconnecting tunnels that had shrines at the ends of them. A bat nearly whizzed by my head at the end of one of the tunnels (which I think is good luck in Thailand). Luckily, I literally had raw garlic cloves in my stir-fry the night before, so I survived unscaved.

Below you will see Amber taking her first picture of the trip!?

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Back on the scooter we headed to Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in the city, built in 1296. The elephant lined stupa was fantastic at this wat.

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Feeling quite confident on the scooter, we headed up into the mountains the following morning. We read about a place to get a fresh cup of coffee at a coffee farm about 30 km out of town within the Doi Pui National Park, approximately 1700 meters above sea level. The old scooter-that-could putted up the mountain with Amber clinging to my waist (we probably would have made it a little faster if I hadn't eaten so many Thai meals!). Several times we came to a slow stop while I found my way to first gear, but we made it!

At the park's entrance we ditched the bike and walked about 4 km to the coffee farm. To our surprise Starbuck's recently bought the farm and a three-story, air-conditioned Starbucks with wireless internet and flat panel TV’s greeted us. Just kidding. We found a wonderful coffee hut perched over the coffee fields serving delicious fresh coffee.

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After we caffeinated our bodies, we walked around the farm and watched the coffee beans being picked and processed.

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The walk back was uphill, but nicely, three guys from Bangkok were driving by in a 4-wheel-drive truck and offered us a ride to the scooter.

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The ride back down to the town was a breeze; the gas "pedal" was never touched, just coasting down the mountain road (it's a good thing since the gas gauge was on empty and we were far from town).

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The night before the wedding reception, which was five days after the wedding for those of you who were wondering, we all went out for dinner and a bit of partying.

After much coaxing by the Thai girls, I gave in and shook my western bod on the stage. They had not seen moves like that since the last drunken westerner decided to hop up on the stage and attack the lead singer.

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The following night was the reception. The BIG PARTY night, right? Well, apparently not over here. It was really wild because we are used to wedding receptions that end only by being kicked out of the reception hall with guests clutching their 11th bourbon and seven. But after dinner about 75% of the 300+ guests just got up and left??? We were left with a handful of Thai family members and us Americans. All in all it was a great time and a great experience.

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Posted by rebmamber 22:32 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Eric & Ying's Wedding

01-02-2006

As many of you know, the main reason for us coming on this adventure was to attend our good friend Eric's wedding (no, it wasn't to skip out on work for 4 months!)

The day began early with a 5:30 a.m. alarm buzzing in our ears. For the occasion, we (Justin, Eric's mom, Eric's uncle and myself) had all purchased traditional Lanna Thai outfits, which are basically linen loose fitting pants and shirt for guys and a patterned wrap skirt and linen wrap shirt for girls.

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The ceremony took place at Eric & Ying's house, which apparently is the custom here. We were instructed to go outside onto the street along with Eric and a few other people and escort him (basically be his wedding posse). We were each given a basket to bring to the house as an offering so that they would let us in - we had baskets of oranges. There was a drum ensemble that led the way and announced our arrival as we were heading toward the house. When we arrived, they would not allow Eric into the house until he answered their questions - most of which were in Thai. I'm not exactly sure what was said, something like "Does the girl live in this house?" and "Is the groom handsome?”. After answering and giving his offering of money to the gatekeepers (Ying's family), we were allowed to enter and headed to the front door. We were stopped again by Ying's mother and other older women, and the same process ensued. After this we were allowed to enter.

Ying was seated inside on the floor, and Eric, Eric's mother and Ying's mother joined them. They went through our offerings and then did an exchange of rings.

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There was no officiant for the wedding; the ceremony just flowed from one thing to the next. After the rings, they sat on a bench and had all the people from the family, starting with the eldest, come up and tie a piece of white string around each of their wrists, binding them together. As you can imagine, as more and more people do this, they get pretty tied up.

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Next, we followed Eric & Ying up to their bedroom and then left them there until they had broken all of the strings with their hands in order to separate themselves. They still have to keep the strings on their wrists for 3 days, however.

They also incorporated a house blessing along with the wedding day. Five monks came into the house and performed chants for about an hour in order to bless the house and the owners. It was a really interesting thing to watch and listen to.

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Following the blessing, it was time for eating and drinking. And after the eating and drinking, it was time for more drinking! Who knew the Thais could drink so much - especially at 1:00 in the afternoon.

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We had a wonderful time socializing with all of Ying's relatives and talking about our different customs. They know so much about American culture, it is really amazing. We have had several more evenings visiting and having dinner with them, and it has been a great introduction to Thai lifestyles.

The reception will follow this Saturday (tomorrow for us), so that should be fun now that we know each other so well.

Posted by rebmamber 00:22 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

New Year's Eve

...Thai style!

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Fireworks in the US have nothing on Thai fireworks. We can safely say that we have never been that close to that massive of booms and bangs. They also have a fantastic tradition of setting off floating lanterns into the night sky. Like an illuminated hot air balloon, these paper lanterns rise and fill the sky with beautiful reddish "stars".

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We brought in the New Year along the Ping River listening to a Thai band nail Bob Marley tunes. Bob would be proud and the guitarist was one of the best I have ever seen - absolutely amazing!

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Who would have thought that we would have to go to Thailand to find good live music, even if it is only covers. After the bar shut down the entertainment continued on the streets. Apparently, there are no drinking and driving laws here. Don't worry, we safely strolled back to our hostel at about 3 am.

We decided to join the madness on the road on January 1st and rented a jeep to drive out of town to Maesa Elephant Camp and Wat Doi Suthep. I (Justin) only received 3 honks, 2 of which I feel I deserved. However, remembering that the Thai's are very non-confrontational, I probably made everyone around me mad. Adding to the crazy driving, they also drive on the "other" side of the road here in Thailand (not the "wrong" side, right Liz?)

The Maesa Elephant Camp is home to about 100 elephants that once were used in illegal logging operations and other such activities. Now the elephants live the good life playing soccer, jamming on harmonicas, painting, and being fed a ridiculous amount of bananas and sugar cane from "farangs" (tourists). The soccer playing and painting was by far the most impressive talent. These pachyderms can kick the ball and Dumbo is no slouch behind a canvas (Yes, Amber made us buy an elephant painting).

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After being thoroughly impressed by the elephants, we headed up the Doi Suthep mountain to Wat Doi Suthep, which apparently is a popular place on New Year's day because the place was packed with Thais and traditional music filled the air. Seeing hundreds of people carrying flowers and burning incense while walking around the stupa was a truly spectacular site and a reminder of the deep Buddhist faith that is shared throughout this region of the world.

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The following day, Justin polished his culinary skills by taking a Thai Cooking course - so expect some awesome phad thai, coconut soup and curries when we return!

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Posted by rebmamber 03:45 Archived in Thailand Comments (5)

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