For my March school holiday I went to Thailand with my dear friend Becca. The ex-soldier and current security guard at the school hostel where I live has agreed to take me to the airport. I tie up what I hope are all the loose ends, lock my house key behind me when I shut the door, and plunk my backpack down in the 1990s taxi. Berkholi speaks a little less English than I speak BM. But we still have a nice conversation.
I sit down at my gate and a middle aged woman in traditional clothing sits down next to me. “You are ETA?” “Yes! How did you know?” She is an English teacher at another ETA’s school and likes to adopt us as her own. “You are my daughter now!” She is going on a solo-trip around Europe for her spring break. “London, Paris, Prague, it will be fun! Maybe I’ll see my daughter and her husband there…”
Later I talk with a Chinese-Malaysian woman my age on her way home to Borneo to see family. She is teaching Chinese in Kelantan for one year. We bond over food and being outsiders.
Welcome to Bangkok! They call it “Venice East” because of the canals. During the hot day we wander through the streets, markets, malls, tailor shops, and juice stands. The stereotypes are true, there are massage parlors on every corner.
We stop at a street cart for dinner. We sit sown at a small plastic table on the side of the road and order “2 SUP!” Two steaming bowls of noodles, fish balls, and pork, drowned in hot umami broth arrive. Each table has a heaping basket of beansprouts and Thai basil. A man approaches us and motions to join our table. Through motions he communicates that he’s a Taxi driver, he’s lived in Bangkok for years, it’s hot outside, the noodles are delicious, and I should try the sauces. We communicate that we are from the United States, we are English teachers, we like Bangkok very much, the soup is delicious, and I took too many chili flakes.
In the morning we hop on a public bus bound for the Grand Palace. Thanks to generous strangers we get off at the right stop. We walk past a huge, manicured park. The approach to the Grand Palace is impressive. The slanted stone walls remind me of the Vatican.
We keep hearing about the Emerald Buddha. We take off our shoes and wear our scarves and are instructed to kneel or sit once we have entered the temple. There are no photos allowed of the emerald buddha, surrounded by gold, high on a mountain of ornament.
We walk a few minutes from the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, the temple housing the famous Reclining Buddha. It’s a lot bigger than it looks on TV.
The next morning we take the bus again. We arrive at the second largest market in Asia. The Chatuchak Market occupies several football fields in the heart of the city. There are special market Police, and officially printed maps.
At the market we eat mango and sticky rice, a famous dish. It is white rice cooked in sweet coconut milk with fresh mango chunks on the side. Served as a hot dessert. Delicious!
Back on the bus, we go to China Town. Bangkok’s is known as one of the greatest. We walk through a labyrinth of markets. A man stands on the street and masterfully cleans and scales a ten-pound fish. Deep green dried tea leaves spill out of scratchy burlap sacks on the street. I want to know the names and flavors of the dozens of spices and foods I’ve never seen or smelled before. I buy a fatty, deep brown Peking duck breast from a woman and her daughter. They chop it for me and I eat it right on the street out of a plastic bag. Before the bus comes, I have just enough time to run across the street to an old man’s drink cart. I hand him 20 Thai Baht (THB) and he scoops ice into a little plastic bag and decants a coco-cola until it perfectly reaches the handles.
That night we take a double-decker night bus north into the mountains to Chiang Mai. The seats recline all the way. They give us blankets and hot tea. Two Buddhist monks in saffron robes are seated across the aisle.
All morning we wander the streets, finding a temple every few steps. Chiang Mai is easy to navigate. There is a square mote delineating the city bounds.
We see a flier for a Muay Thai boxing match that evening at the night market. Neither of us are interested in boxing, but we decide to go anyway.
To get there we ride in a Tuk-Tuk. It is a motorcycle with a golf cart built around it.
We sit right next to the ring and are amazed by how much fun boxing actually is.
The next day we hop in a covered, red pickup truck with passenger seating in the back. Red trucks are more common than taxis in Chiang Mai. We jostle around on the switchbacks all the way up the Doi Suthep mountain. The city is beautiful from the top. The temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple was built in 1383, but the first road up the mountain wasn’t until 1935.
The steps are flanked by an endless, green dragon hand railing leading to the temple complex at the top.
The next morning we get into another red truck. Our destination is the “Grand Canyon.” It’s all red cliffs and cool turquoise water. When we get tired from swimming we roll onto bamboo rafts placed throughout the swimming hole.
On our final day in Chiang Mai we are picked up in town by the son of a family of elephant keepers. He takes us into their village in the hills. On the way there we stop for lattes, he blasts his favorite playlist, and we talk about conflict on the Malaysian/Thai border. The big pickup truck winds through hills and up impossibly narrow and steep dirt roads.
We pass other elephant camps. The elephants stand in corrals with chairs harnessed to their back. Our guide explains “It is okay to ride elephant, their backs are strong. But rope around belly and hard chair and standing in sun all day are very bad for elephant. The elephants are part of our family, we do not ride them.”
We reach the elephant and see them in a shady wooded area. We feed them whole bunches of bananas at a time and foot long raw sugar cane. Elephants have about the same lifespan as humans. The oldest elephant at the camp was 55-years-old.
We follow the elephants to a large mud pit then go to the river. We throw water on the elephants and use brushes to scrub their hairy tough skin. At the end of the day we are in love with the elephants.