A few days before the start of the trip, my partner Rich’s 80yr old father was admitted to the hospital. With the information known at the time, together we made the decision that Rich would stay behind and I would take the trip to Thailand without him. A few days into the trip we learned that his Dad has end stage, aggressive, untreatable terminal cancer.
With today’s technology, it’s amazing how we feel connected to each other and able to offer support from halfway across the world. Although bad timing, this trip has taken on a whole new purpose and goal for me. More and more, I’m aware of my own mortality and how health can be so fragile. If you wait for the stars to line up perfectly before you tackle your bucket list, you’ll be waiting forever. And we all think we have more time than we do. I’ve decided that the theme of the trip is “Carpe Diem” / “Cease the day”.
Thailand first stop - Chiang Mai
My bag didn’t even hit the floor of the Chiang Mai hotel reception lobby before I booked a 1hr massage. This was my first Thai massage, and I can report that it is very intimate and very physical. Prepare to be pulled and pushed and stepped on and be in an intertwined human pretzel with your practitioner. All for $10/hr CDN. And I’ve since found it for $5/hr. I’ve also found a massage place by ex-inmates, and one by blind practitioners. Have your heard of “fish spa”? It’s a foot soak in an aquarium of tiny fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet. Checked that one off the list on the second day at a cost of $2.50 for 15min. I love self care, I’ve decided I’m going to have as much massage and yoga and drug store facial masks as I can fit in.
I think Thai food might be my favourite. I love it so much, I enrolled in a Thai cooking class, one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai. I made a chicken and cashew stir fry, Penang curry, sweet and sour soup, and egg rolls. The class location was on a quaint, rural organic farm. I ate all the food I made, and it was only a half day course. Is it possible to overdose on Thai food?
I planned the timing of the trip to make sure to be in Chiang Mai for their famous Sunday night market. I loved it!! They closed traffic on two intersecting roads, each about seven blocks long. The main theme was local handmade arts and crafts, with lots of food stalls (including deep fried bugs), as well as huge massage stations for $3/30min foot massages (of which I partook, of course...). Well into the start of the market, there was a loud speaker announcement for the start of the Thai national anthem. Huge, busy market stopped and went silent until the end of the anthem.
This was a big part of the reason I wanted to come to Chiang Mai. The tourist trade in many parts of Thailand abuses and tortures elephants so they are rideable and can perform circus stunts. There is a huge demand from consumers for more ethical interaction with elephants, which gave rise to the elephant sanctuary experience. Elephants are rescued / retire from the tourist (and farm) trade, and live out their days in a more natural jungle setting, being nurtured and cared for. Tourists pay to visit and interact, and to help feed them and bathe them. Huge highlight for me. I had a mud bath with the elephants, then we all rinsed off in the waterfall. We went on a jungle walk and watched how they eat and carry on in the wild. They carve their own path wherever they go. Huge trees being crushed in their wake. During the participant lunch, two of the elephants (mother and baby) stepped over the barrier of the camp ‘enclosure’, came over to the dining table and ate the platters of pineapple and watermelon from in front of us. The baby kept brushing up against me on the jungle walk and got mud on my camera lens.
Temples and more temples
There are so many temples in Chiang Mai, and they are all so beautiful and peaceful. There really is one every few blocks it seems. Many temples had a massage place on their property, which worked out well for me. I had an experience in the temples, probably given the context of this trip. I found myself mesmerized and in a meditative and emotional state, thinking about my partner and father-in-law, reflecting on the finite nature of all our lives.
Next stop in Thailand: The island of Koh Tao
Snorkelling / massage / yoga
Koh Tao is a small island on the eastern side of Thailand, close to Koh Samui. This is just the vibe I was looking for. It is very “local”, not too crowded with tourists, but has all the restaurants, accommodation and activities that tourists want. One of the yoga places I went to was at a youth hostel in the middle of town. The practice space was in the main lobby of the hostel, open air to the traffic and hustle bustle of the town. It was an interesting challenge to get on my namaste beside a working blender with scooters honking and hostellers smoking next to me. I was the only student in the class, so the instructor had the opportunity to do lots of adjustments for me. He was pulling me, pushing me, twisting me, it almost felt like a Thai massage.
Koh Tao is well known for cheap scuba. Many people come here to get PADI certified. I’m not into scuba, but I love snorkelling. I was in my bathing suit and flip flops for the majority of my time on Koh Tao, with a permanent imprint of the snorkel mask on my face.
My resort was a 10min walk to the main town through a lovely jungle path connecting other neighbouring waterfront resorts. I mostly walked everywhere I needed to go, including 40min walk to the next town for my favourite yoga place. On the way back one day, I decided to hitchhike and got picked up by a fellow traveler on a scooter who took me 2/3 of the way. Most everyone rents scooters to get around, but everything I read warned against it, due to the danger of inexperience, the quality of the roads, as well as the racket of the rental companies charging crazy money for scratches and dents you were not responsible for.
One day I went exploring down the beach trail, past the my resort beach to the next, more remote beach resort. I found heaven (right after I found a 6 foot lizard crossing my path). Hippie dippie beach with just a few people, a couple of ramshackle beach bungalows, a girl playing a ukelele, people practicing slacklining, and snorkeling right from the beach. I spent a few hours reading my book on a pallat platform swing in the shade, with a few swim/snorkel breaks. Then I carried on farther down the path and found the Banana Cafe, playing a cool playlist of my favourite music, selling cold drinks and Thai food oceanside with a view. There were a few boat taxis available to take people back to the main pier or other parts of the island. This is my idea of awesome.
Final stop: Bangkok
Massage / Markets / Temples / Grand Palace
My accommodation was a small B&B right ON the river, with a direct view across the river to Wat Arun (beautiful temple), and right beside the reclining Budda temple and Grand Palace. I spent my time exploring by foot, tuk tuk, and boat-bus on the river. I visited the temple of the reclining Budda (huge, golden Budda), spent time on Khaosan Road (backpacker party area, markets, restaurants, massage places), and visited the Grand Palace (former royal residence). I joined a tour for the floating market and train market, which were quite a drive from the city. The floating market is set-up in a network of canals, with market stalls on the sides as well as vendors selling from their own boats, and you travel through via Gondola style boat. Congested, chaotic and crazy, but very cool. The train market is set up on the tracks of a working railroad, with trains coming through every hour or so. The walking path between stalls is the tracks themselves. When the trains come through, vendors pull their awnings back and move items out of the way, and everyone squishes to the side as the train inches through at a snails pace. Then awnings come back and goods are shifted back, and the bustling market continues on.
The heat in Bangkok was a bit overwhelming. I was soaked in sweat most of the time, guzzled water, and I had to cool off with any fan or AC I could find just to save from melting. In the summer months it is even hotter, I can’t imagine.
- Personal space: on my flight from Shanghai to Bangkok, my airplane row seat mate decided to stretch out over the empty seat between us, and nuzzle his head into my lap, with his legs extending into the aisle. I was asleep at the time, but came to as he was getting settled. Not sure if this deserves a post to the #metoo movement. Trying not be be offended at the same time as not being comfortable with it.
- Tai chi instruction on the airplane entertainment monitors. I’m happy to report that I did the cloud arms, and flamingo posture all from the comfort of 39L.
- Safety laws. Most scooter/motorbike drivers don’t wear a helmet. Many are on their phones while driving. People riding in the back of pick-up trucks. Family of 4 (or more) piled onto a scooter weaving through traffic. Babies riding in cars with no car seat or restraints of any kind.
- food safe practices - cooked food sitting on display all day in this tropical weather without heat/refrigeration. May have contributed to a few tummy grumbles I had on the trip.
- smoking - there is lots more smoking here than in Canada. And when I ask to be seated away from smokers in a restaurant, people look at me like I have four heads.
Goodbye Thailand, thanks for having me!