Chiang Rai Video Part Two: The White Temple

Wat Rong Kun, or the White Temple as most international travelers know it as, has become one of my favorite things I’ve seen/done in Thailand. Nothing beats the back drop of the green grass, blue sky, and white sparkling temple. Once we got sight of it, I found it difficult to take my eyes off this masterpiece, designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. It’s nowhere near complete being about fifteen years in to construction and an estimated fifty more to go to finish what will be a collection of temples. This contemporary Buddhist temple is a must see for any traveler coming to Thailand.

I didn’t get to take any pictures inside, but it is more explosive than the outside.

Tourist Thailand: Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai first came to my attention from several other PCVs mentioning their trip and the bugs they had placed on various parts of their body. Planning my Mom’s visit to Thailand, I knew we had to make a stop after reading again and again how staggeringly beautiful this park is.

On the edge of Nakon Ratchasima (Khorat to any Thai person), you get off the bus (or train) in Pak Chong. Most accommodation is somewhere within town or close by. Our guesthouse, Greenleaf, picked us up on the side of the road and swept us out-of-town. We arrived with just enough time to get some lunch before the half-day afternoon tour started. It felt a little rushed at the time, but looking back, I’m so glad we did it.

Our first stop was a natural spring that was beyond magnificent. I saw it through my Mom’s winter-tired eyes that made it seem like an explosion of green and blue with the crystal clear water that we swam around in. We weren’t the only ones, with a few groups of Thais joining in the water and armed with picnic lunches. It wasn’t crowded despite it being the start of high tourist time (winter for Thailand), but I imagine during the long afternoons of hot season, it would be packed.

Water looks inviting doesn't it?

Water looks inviting doesn’t it?

After our swim we were off to the bat cave, Bruce Wayne not included. I was a little freaked out as we descended underground, but once we got there, I was ready to get up close and personal with some creepy crawlers. And boy, did we.

This is the same kind of bug they used in Harry Potter.

This is the same kind of bug they used in Harry Potter.

This temple is just outside of the bat cave. I loved how the light was hitting it at the end of the day.

This temple is just outside of the bat cave. I loved how the light was hitting it at the end of the day.

The guide picked these little guys up and told us to put them in our mouths as tasty snacks. They surprised us by popping the moment they touched our wet tongues.

The guide picked these little guys up and told us to put them in our mouths as tasty snacks. It surprised us by popping open the moment they touched our wet tongues.

I found the bats equal parts fascinating and disgusting. More than once I felt wings flapping in front of my face once we turned our flashlights off. Never before had I seen so many bats in one place, and babies too! The cave we went inside was apparently quite small compared to our next stop outside of a different one. As the sky turned dark we watched millions upon millions of bats flood out in search for dinner. It was really difficult to capture in a photo or on video, so dear blogette, you’ll just have to go yourself one day to take it all in.

Oh hey, what's up guys?

Oh hey, what’s up guys?

The next day we were in for a whole day of hiking within the national park. We spotted gibbons up in the trees, toucans in the sky, and a family of wild elephants who roam freely (they have a couple hundred within the park). The hike we did with our guesthouse was very doable, even if you aren’t in any sort of exercise shape. More difficult treks are available though too with camping in the park. I’ll let the photos tell the story from here.

These guys were bold enough to accept food from people's hands. We were told not to encourage them though.

These guys were bold enough to accept food from people’s hands. We were told not to encourage them though.

Not the first photo I've imitated a bear in a national park...

Not the first photo I’ve imitated a bear in a national park… don’t forget your leech socks!

Didn't hurt but it wouldn't be comfortable either.

Didn’t hurt but it wouldn’t be comfortable either.

This day I learned female spiders are usually bigger than their male counterparts so the gals can eat them after mating. Must be nice.

This day I learned female spiders are usually bigger than their male counterparts so the gals can eat them after mating. Must be nice.

This is one of the coolest trees I've ever seen. You could climb inside and no one would even know you were there if you didn't want them to.

This is one of the coolest trees I’ve ever seen. You could climb inside and no one would even know you were there if you didn’t want them to.

No the bugs weren't done after day one.

No the bugs weren’t done after day one.

Mid-hike, we leave the rain forest for the grasslands. It was so beautiful watching the different directions of the wind in the grass.

Mid-hike, we leave the rain forest for the grasslands. It was so beautiful watching the different directions of the wind in the grass.

One of the guides taught us a little scorpion lullaby... clearly this guy is in need of one.

One of the guides taught us a little scorpion lullaby… clearly this guy is in need of one.

Totally uninterested in us.

Totally uninterested in us.

Mid-day lunch break (provided) at this scenic spot. I'd say they picked a good one.

Mid-day lunch break (provided) at this scenic spot. I’d say they picked a good one.

We ended the day with a visit to one of the many waterfalls within the park.

We ended the day with a visit to one of the many waterfalls within the park.

Even if you’re not a nature or hiking kind of person, I would definitely suggest a visit to Khao Yai. I cut a few days off of Bangkok sites so that my Mom and I could have time in Khao Yai instead and I think we were both glad for that schedule change. It’s developed enough for non-Thai speakers to be able to get in and out easily, but not overcrowded in the least. An awesome alternative to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai-Phuket itinerary that many travelers stick to.

Tourist Thailand: Bangkok

The ‘kok as Manfriend so unoriginally calls it. And sometimes, that’s just where you feel like you are, in a humid, crowded place with trash, odd smells, and traffic. Much like other major cities in the world, Bangkok doesn’t really reflect how the rest of the country feels culturally, politically or economically. And it’s a lot hotter too.

By a year in to my Peace Corps service, I decided I was more than ok never spending a long time in the capital or going to the major tourist sites. The most I ever did in Bangkok before I had a visitor was hang out in the delightfully comfortable PC lounge (it’s like a little sanctuary of America), eat lots of western food, and frequent the ginormous JJ weekend market.

So when Momma Coop was going to be coming to town, I knew I needed to bite the tourist bullet and figure out our way there. I was pleasantly surprised. Absurdly jacked up ‘foreigner’ prices not withstanding, Wat Po and the Grand Palace are worth a visit. For the ‘templed-out’ traveler, I would still suggest making your way to both locations. Both Wat Po and the Grand Palace are easily accessible and very close to each other so you can do both in one day. Like I wrote in my other post though, I would definitely suggest starting earlier in the day so you can wander around half a day in each location. Let’s break them down.

Wat Po
One of the largest and oldest temples within Bangkok, Wat Po is recognized as the birthplace of Thai massage, the first school opening within the complex. Visitors will note it is the home of the jaw droppingly huge reclining Buddha. Along with it, there are over 1000 Buddha images, beautifully colored pagodas (my favorite part), and a nice little fountain of a waterfall (very peaceful compared to the normal experience of being on a Bangkok street).

The reclining Buddha, a must-see in tourist Thailand

The reclining Buddha, a popular must-see tourist attraction in Thailand

The intricate carving on the feet alone is worth the trip

The intricate carving on the feet alone is worth the trip

A nice little fountain right next to the reclining Buddha

A nice little fountain right next to the reclining Buddha

I had to capture this, yes the monk has an Ipad

I had to capture this, yes the monk has an Ipad

I got a little obsessed with the faces

I got a little obsessed with the faces

I really enjoyed wandering around the back portions of the complex. This was where most of the Buddha images were, along with many pagodas, animal statues, and not a lot of tourists. For this reason I would suggest going in the morning if possible before the tours and to not be on a huge tour in the first place.

I think the artist was capturing the kind of nose they wanted to have

I think the artist was capturing the kind of nose they wanted to have

The colors on these things was amazing

The colors on these things was amazing

On a crowded tour, you miss the little nooks and crannies that make a place even more interesting

On a crowded tour, you miss the little nooks and crannies that make a place even more interesting

Up close with one of the flowers on the pagoda

Up close with one of the flowers on the pagoda

There are modesty skirts and shawls for those with wearing shoulder and thigh baring clothing, but Wat Po’s standards are more relaxed than the Grand Palace. At the Grand Palace, both my Mom and I were stopped and asked to cover even our lower legs. You pick those up at the very front with a small deposit.

The Grand Palace
The official residence of Thai royalty since the late eighteenth century (though the royal family has lived in other palaces since the 1920s), the Grand Palace is a staggeringly large collection of buildings. Currently in use for only a few official state functions and ceremonies a year, it is the most visited tourist attraction in Bangkok. It’s easy to see why.

We didn't get a chance to get across the river before sun set, so this photo is from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Palace,_Bangkok

We didn’t get a chance to get across the river before sun set, so this photo is from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Palace,_Bangkok

The big attraction here is the jade Buddha. The story originally goes that a temple in Chiang Rai was struck by lightning in the 1400s and broke open an octagonal pagoda. Inside was the jade Buddha. No personal pictures are allowed inside (though people sneak all the time), but it is something to sit and gaze at the Buddha (feet pointing away, obviously). I also really enjoyed the golden pagoda and all the buildings made from tile that made it seem to have a rainbow effect.

Blue, blue, blue

Blue, blue, blue

The colors that wrapped around the entire building... sigh

The colors that wrapped around the entire building… sigh

How can you not love these guys?

How can you not love these guys?

What I imagine meditation looking like

What I imagine meditation looking like

The main event

The main event

I love the flowers and colors

I love the flowers and colors

There are a number of museums and smaller temples within that are worth a quick gander. Our favorite was the Queen’s Museum of Textiles with yards upon yards of beautiful Thai silk and utilizing it like bookmarks, magnets, notebooks, and the like. Right near the exit/entrance, it was a nice finish to our day of touring.

For those a little cultured out (or in desperate need for western food like myself), there is a conveniently located Au Bon Pain right across the street from the Grand Palace where Momma Coop and I indulged, waiting for sun set. Have I mentioned I’ve been dying for a chicken caesar wrap for two years?!

The pretzels were stale and the chicken a little funky, but I didn't care one bit

The pretzels were stale and the chicken a little funky, but I didn’t care one bit

Afterwards we wandered over to the river and digested and were quite rewarded with this shot.

Not only did we get an awesome sunset over the river, but this view was the next act

Not only did we get an awesome sunset over the river, but this view was the next act

Check out the companion video for Bangkok in this previous post.

Bits of Bangkok: Wat Pra Kaew and the Grand Palace

These two places are mentioned in every tourist’s Thailand guide-book as must-do Bangkok activities. And for good reason. I was ambivalent about going at first. I’m not really a big fan of Bangkok and herding myself in with a bunch of clueless white people didn’t sound like my cup of tea. Once we arrived to Wat Pra Kaew, I was in full tourist spirit, snapping pictures every few feet.

You can do both in one day, but I would suggest getting out earlier in the morning before the crowds. Both places are held in very high esteem by Thais as national monuments and it’s important to dress and act appropriately in both areas. That includes free modesty skirts and shoulder covers (after you put down a deposit), especially in the Grand Palace.

On the Road Again

It’s been a fantastic month. Mom’s circle around the country, a week at my old site to recover, and the finishing touch being the Peace Corps’ ‘Continuation of Service’ conference. I planned to do maybe a short trip afterwards before heading back home to Roi Et, forfeiting the rest of my vacation days which must be used before December 20th. Now my previously hibernating travel bug is gnawing at my insides and I’ve decided to keep this party going.

I’m taking a little solo trip around this country I’ve grown to love so much. Seeing the places off the beaten down travel trail while my Thai is this good and I’m this confident about my ability to handle Thailand. I don’t have much planned or prepared and I kind of like that. Unfortunately that means blogging for the month will be sporadic at best, more likely to be fairly limited. Sorry Charlies. But it just means all the more to report back when I do finally return to site and slow down my pace until March. It’s coming up so, so fast.

Let’s Check Out Paradise

Finally, the recap video of the fantastical Koh Chang! Such a short time there, I wish we had scheduled a few more days. Koh Chang has it all with plenty of restaurants, shops, and natural attractions to keep you busy or taking a load off beach side. It’s a nice alternative if you don’t have time to go down to famed beaches of the south (fewer people too!). I’m hoping to go back and take in a yoga weekend and a trek into the jungle. Here is a small piece of my experience.

Friday Five

Five Things About Koh Chang- Keeping with the theme of the week, I figured I would mention some particulars about my recent vacation spot. It’s a theme, go with it.

Some Background
Before World War II, Koh Chang was one of those remote islands than rarely anyone had heard of, much less visited. During the Japanese occupation, in January 1941, the French and Thai Navy battled in the water southeast of the Island. The French won. Afterwards, things returned to normal with families growing coconuts, fruit, and catching fish until the first backpackers started arriving in the mid-70s. It remained a low-budget paradise until about ten years ago as with major development turned it into a must-see place for both Thai and foreigners alike.

Koh Chang means Elephant Island
You would guess that would mean there are a lot of elephants there. You’d be wrong. Well, sort of. Elephants are not indigenous to the island. There are some now in specific touristy trek adventure places, but not in the wild. The island was named as such because they thought it looked like the profile of an elephant. You be the judge.

You can kind of see it..
http://blog.siampedia.org/?p=5598

Koh Chang was dubbed the next Phuket
Being the second largest island belonging to Thailand, there’s lots of room for resorts and development. Within the past ten years, rapid expansion has affected the atmosphere of the island. It was definitely its own little world with 7/11s, shops galore, restaurants, and bars for both short and long-term visitors. While I didn’t find it as garish or shoddy as Phuket, I’m not sure how much longer it will stay that way.

Koh Chang is mostly an untouched jungle
Seriously. Seventy percent of the island is rainforest, cliffs, waterfalls, mountains and hills. Six waterfalls, an abundance of coral and marine life on the coast and near surround islands, as well as jungle trekking would keep any nature enthusiast well entertained.

West Side represent!
The eastern side of the island, where we stayed, was developed enough for our taste (plenty of farang food and nearly all shop keepers could speak English). It wasn’t too crowded (but it is low season) either. We went to the other side just to explore and I couldn’t believe how Thai it was. Passing by some of the neighborhoods, it could have been my tiny village in Isaan with old women gossiping while chewing beetle root, kids riding around on bikes, and men sitting on a porch drinking whiskey way before 5pm. It was really amazing to see these parallel worlds in such close proximity to each other. There are some hotels on the west side of the island, but there wasn’t much to venture out to do unless you wanted to get your cultural hands dirty in some Thai island life. If I were to stake out some where on the island for the long-term, it would be here.