Saturday, January 12, 2013

Thailand Tale Part One

It had been a whole year since I had visited Thailand and it wasn't as easy to adapt as I'd imagined. This blog posts attempts to highlight my December travel experiences and a little about our (Toys for Thailand) projects with Hill Tribe schools. 

Bangkok Blues
Our luggage was packed with toy donations.

Despite sleep aides and 6 full length movies, my 18 hour Thai Airways flight ranged from uncomfortable to agonizing.  My dozen previous Thai Airways flights were overall very pleasant, even in economy seating. Apparently Thai Airways acquired some new planes and my travel partner (Sasha) and I got the two worst seats on the bus (39 J-K). If you plan to fly on Thai, check your seats carefully because 18 hours is a long time to not be able to recline your seat with knees jammed in a locked position.

Suvarnabhumi: the most photographed airport in the world and my favorite. 
Arriving in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-wan-na-poom) Airport my identity changed from an American to being a farang, Thai term for a foreigner. Within Bangkok's mass sprawl are 14 million people and most didn't look anything like me...I was an alien on full radar alert for being taken advantage of, and tried to maintain a " I know where I'm going, what I"m doing" look on my face at all times.

I spent a few days alone in Bangkok staying a modest three star place (Asia Hotel) which has a decent breakfast buffet, easy access to the sky train and is a short taxi commute (depending on traffic) from Suvarnabhumi. I managed to do my business using the sky train (signs are in English) but clung to my Thai cell phone with numbers at hand should I get lost or otherwise in need of a translator (Sasha). Unfortunately I don't speak Thai and although the tour books may say, "people in Bangkok speak English" this has not been my experience.

There were things about Bangkok I found fascinating and frightening. It is a city of luxury malls (Siam Center and Central), five star hotels (Sangri La) elegant temples (Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn) right along with dilapidated buildings, thousands of street vendors of every variation, chronic and crippling traffic congestion and hideously deformed street beggars. It was a confusing city to travel in alone and there are smells in Bangkok that defy my description. After a few days of intense humidity and heat alone in a city with millions of people who never seem to sleep, I was eager to fly to the much calmer north.

Chiangmai - My Second Home

BaanKaew Guest House: A recommend
On my (59th) birthday I arrived in a place I consider my second home, Chiang Mai. An inexpensive ($3) taxi ride brought me to Baan Kaew, my guest house near the Night Market and Pantip Plaza. Location is important in Chiangmai as I usually attempt to walk to most places in the city (markets, bank, restaurants). Baan Kaew was not only a great bargain ($26 per night for two) but offered a comfortable, clean and secluded oasis for me to recover from my Bangkok blues. You can book with but may pay less by emailing the bilingual staff at BaanKaew directly. BTW, I didn't get paid to endorse BaanKaew, it's just a place I enjoyed basing out of for 9 days. Also, Wan the hotel manager for over a decade was very helpful to our charity group and even donated a couple boxes of clothes to one of our Hill Tribe schools.

My Thai travel partner and charity co-director (Sasha) arrived in Chiangmai a few days after me. Getting around in Chiang Mai was not complicated, with a map and most major street signs in English, I had no problems traveling solo. My attempt to set up my own bank account (as a farang) was not successful however, until Sasha arrived. Bangkok Bank required that a Thai person endorse me on the application and show proof of Thai citizenship. After six years traveling to Thailand, I was so excited to have my very own savings account with an ATM card.

There is a lot about Chiang Mai that resonated with me. The city is well known for temples and festivals, but I loved the incredible options for eating exotic vegetarian food, getting invigorating body or foot massages 24/7 and shopping at day, evening, weekend markets and walking streets. On this trip I was treated to a lunch buffet at  Khun Churn, a vegetarian restaurant with exciting food choices, including lemongrass wraps (see photo). 
A Note about Shopping 
After years of shopping in Thailand, I found the best shopping bargains in Chiang Mai are at the Sunday walking street or the wholesale shops around the morning market.  BUT just about any thing you buy in Chiang Mai you can also buy at  (Chatuchak) or "JJ" weekend market in Bangkok with its 8,000 shopping stalls. As luggage weight is always an issue for me, I do my big (donor gift) shopping at the end of my trip at JJ. 

Our week in Chiangmai seemed like a daily adventure of recon and recovery and I loved every minute of it. We researched items to buy for our school projects and then crashed in the evening for a massage and Facebook updates. The wifi signal was weak in our room so I often would go outside to check email (resulting in more than one mosquito bite I might add). Going to our local fortune teller for an annual life review was also a fun diversion.

Utilizing the services of our bilingual taxi driver (Patrick) we spent one whole day researching chick incubators, water and refrigeration systems. I took notes while Sasha talked Thai, details were noted and prices negotiated. In the end, we did buy a chick incubator and had it transported to  to Rajabaht University in Maehongson, where chicks will be produced and shared with some of the Tribal schools in the area. 

We also spent time meeting with people: Kru Lar from Musser Nai to repair the school laptap, Bill Weidinger from PNDO (an organization that supports a children's home in Maehongson) for a first cup of tea, and the Maejo University students to acknowledge them for completing a solar panel project for us. During my time in Chiang Mai I also did a bit of personal recon about living in Thailand as an Expat and made some new connections for my next trip when I plan to go to Language School and perhaps do some travel blogging.  

On December 17th, Sasha and I left Chiang Mai. We took a 20 minute (Nok Air) flight up mountain to a totally different world on the Summit of Serenity, also known as, Maehongson. For 10 days we were absorbed in meeting and visiting Tribal schools culminating with our best ever Small World Festival...those details will be highlighted in Part Two of my Thailand tale.  

The best part of all is spending time with the sweet and unpretentious children. 

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