Chiang Mai: The Anti-Bangkok

After celebrating Christmas Day at school with my students and fellow teachers, I packed up my backpack once again and headed out bai tiao (to go travel). I planted myself in a seat on an overnight bus, something that I've come to know too well in Southeast Asia, and headed north. 9 hours in and out of sleep later, and I had arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's most popular city. Riding on a bus all night isn't ideal, but it's cheap and easy and saves you on accommodation for the night.

The first thing I encountered stepping off the bus was the weather. It was COLD! Okay, it was cold-er than Phrapradaeng. It was only about 50F/10C, but this was the coldest air I've felt for more than 8 months! I immediately put on another layer of pants and a scarf and shivered dramatically. The second thing that struck me about Chiang Mai was how small it was. Growing up close to NYC and now living near Bangkok, for me, cities mean skyscrapers and masses of people. Chiang Mai was nothing of that. There were no tall buildings and definitely no mobs of people like I've often encountered in Bangkok. The buildings didn't raise more than ten stories here and there, this was a city that moved at a slower pace… and I was liking it.

Chiang Mai's style and atmosphere has been heavily influenced by the slower way of life in Northern Thailand, where village life still exists. Street markets sell goods in the style of villagers, very similar to what I saw in the northern villages of Vietnam. Gone is the mass produced trendy Western clothing that's for sale everywhere around Bangkok. I found Chiang Mai to be everything that the capital is not; clean, relaxed, walkable, friendly, cheap, and charming.

Over the next two days, I met up with some fellow teachers and spent most of my time wandering the streets and indulging in the Northern way of life. I was introduced to Khao Soi, a northern Thai curry dish that's main ingredient is curried perfection.
Photo by  Andrew Ho

Photo by Andrew Ho

Khao Soi consists of a coconut based curry served with egg noodles and topped with crunchy noodles, red onion, pickled cabbage, chilies and lime. I can confidently say that it is one of the best dishes I have eaten in Thailand. I'm a condiment queen and the toppings were a perfection addition to this warm and comforting curry. I'm used to eating hot curry in hot weather, and having a bowl of Khao Soi on a chilly Chiang Mai night with a Singha beer to wash it down was perfection. I feel quite cheated that I cannot have it every day in Phrapradaeng!

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples, which means you can probably never be done exploring them, if that's your thing. Besides indulging in new cuisine, I took an afternoon to explore Wat Phra Singh, a temple dating back to. 1345 and home to the city's most admired image of Buddha. The grounds consist of three temples, a large chedi, a reclining Buddha, gardens, and a temple library. The grounds were lavishly decorated for the New Year including a bustling market filled with tourists, both Thai and foreign.

After visiting each temple and seeing the creepy lifelike replicas of dead monks, I took refuge in the shady gardens that surround the wat. Temple grounds are the ideal place for monk spottings, always and exciting and unnerving experience as I try to steer clear of them so I won't accidentally touch them (Thai cultures forbids monks to touch women and vice verse, and it's respectful to move off a path to let them pass in front of you). I always have visions of my klutzy self tripping and falling on top of a monk to the horror of everyone watching, and then it ending up on random Thai Facebook pages…

Above: Lifelike replicas of monks. Below: real living monks.

One of my favorite attributes of temple interiors are the elaborate painted doors and walls that fill the space with life and color. I think literally every surface of a temple is decorated in some fashion, the bolder the better. The exteriors are just as beautiful and unique. Many temples are decorated with mosaic that is made from broken porcelain cups and teapots (china, as we Americans would call it). And the gold, there's always so much gold!

Wat Phra Singh consumed me for a few hours, as I snapped photo after photo trying to capture its beauty before leaving in search of my next coconut shake. That night in Chiang Mai led my friends and I to a popular backpacker bar area, Zoe, filled with travelers indulging in shisha and cheap drinks. My favorite part of that experience was discovering the 40 Baht Mexican food cart serving up black bean burritos well into the early morning. It was tasty and cheap, sometime Bangkok sorely lacks.

Somewhere along my city strolling I passed by an adorable Anuban school that made me stop and peer through the gate into a parallel Northern universe. Chiang Mai is a city that's cheap, relaxed, surrounded by mountains, and offered delicious food and a break from the sweat fest down South. It's basically Bangkok's polar opposite; I will definitely be returning.

 

Discovering Angkor

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On my first full day in Siem Reap, I headed to the world famous Angkor Wat and spent the day exploring the ancient ruins and temples. This region of Cambodia known as Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. The Khmer kings were known by many powerful names like “god-king”, “lion-man”, and universal monarchs. The architecture that was constructed during under Khmer rule are sprawling and magnificent; fit for nothing less than a “god-king”.

Because of the sheer size and number of archeological sights to visit at Angkor, you need to start your day with the sun in order to fit it all in and not faint from heat exhaustion. Located about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap town, the temples are best reached by hired tuk-tuk driver who will be your personal driver all day for about $15 USD.

I headed out at seven a.m. and was happy to see that the day was hazy but not rainy, ideal weather for exploring outdoor temples in the heat. After purchasing a ticket and temple pass for $20 USD, the first and most anticipated stop is the principal temple of the region, Angkor Wat. Built around 1113, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most famous religious monuments in the world, not to mention the largest religious structure in the world.

Approaching the temple is like approaching the Eiffel Tower. You crane your neck to see it as you’re turning the corner, but nothing can prepare you for the actual sight. This temple is absolutely massive, it’s surrounded by walls on all sides as well as a giant moat and was once enclosed by another outer wall that occupied a space of 203 acres. Talk about massive!

Because of my early arrival at the temple, I was able to explore the grounds mostly alone. It’s easy to get lost in there, the hallways that encompass the central tower go on forever; I must’ve only seen about 50% of the temple in two hours. The imposing structure is built of sandstone and is a classical example of Khmer architecture. Towers are shaped like lotus buds, bas-reliefs cover the walls depicting ancient scenes, with vaulted archways similar to ones used in Gothic structures.

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There are many other sights to visit within the Angkor grounds, and it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring. Ta Phrom is a smaller temple, yet it is still large and sprawling. Dense jungle has grown around and literally through this temple fusing the natural and the man made. There are literally huge trees that have engulfed parts of the temple walls and grown upward towards the jungle canopy.

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You can walk amongst the ruins here and get lost in the maze of corridors that sometimes end abruptly from the roof caving in.  I loved the ruined feel of this sight and how it’s located deep in the jungle. Walking through it made me feel like I was the first person to explore the temple, just like Indiana Jones. Ta Phrom made its big screen debut in 2001’s “Tomb Raider” film starring Angelina Jolie, which is how it’s known today.

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Another well known sight is Angkor Thom, which was one of my favorites. It was the capital city during reign of King Jayavaman. The temple that lies at the center of this sight is known as Bayon Temple.  Because of my late morning timing at this temple, it was literally mobbed with tourists who arrived by the busload. I tried to ignore the hordes of people but it soon became overwhelming as I could hardly take two steps and not bump into someone. The most unique feature of the Bayon are the  200 “face towers” that are located on the top level. These massive stone faces silently watch over the 1 million tourists that visit Angkor every year.

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I really liked the details that are present at the Bayon Temple. The walls are carved with historical scenes from ancient Angkor, from battles to everyday life in the city.

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After wandering through the temples for the better part of the day, it was safe to say I was templed out, hungry, and dehydrated. The skies turned dark around the fourth or fifth temple, so I decided to call it a day and head to the nearest restaurant. The temple tour finished with a fruit shake and famous Cambodian curry fish amok, which was served in a large coconut.

I would love to see Angkor again in my lifetime, it’s almost too much to internalize in a single trip. What I would love most is to visit with my Dad, who is a history buff and was most excited for me to see the temples. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, take the time to go to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor Temples, I don’t think there is anything like it in the world… and you can fulfill your childhood dream of pretending to be Indiana Jones for one day.