Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 9: Rest day

Another beautiful day. We decided to take it easy, since the next day was the Elephant Nature Park. After a leisurely breakfast, we did some shopping along the main road. L bought some jewelry, which is big here, particularly silver

We had lunch at a really good Middle Eastern place called Jerusalem Falafel. It was a nice change of pace from Thai food, which is excellent, of course, but we felt like a break from it. I had the special, which was an excellent eggplant moussaka while L had an excellent chicken dish. The hummus and pita was really good as well. The pita was a lot thicker and breadier than we are used to, but it was really fresh and delicious. It was obviously homemade.

Didn't really do much else that day. Shopped a little more. I had another Cuban on the porch, and we had dinner at The Good View, one of the restaurants near the hotel. It was really good and did, indeed, have a good view.

Some random pics.

A cool Wat we visited in Chiang Mai. Probably more pics of this one to come.



Another river shot.
People living along the river in CM.Broken signpost.
Crumbling stupa.

I didn't know this until I started doing research for the trip, but Red Bull actually started in Bangkok. Here's what it looks like there. Tastes exactly the same, except it's not carbonated. Oh yeah, and a bottle is like 13 baht, or about a 40 cents. Of course, this bottle is clearly labeled 10 baht on the bottom right. Baht is the one word I learned how to recognize. Must be the 7-11 markup.Silly, I know, but one of the things I enjoy while traveling is trying local potato chip flavors. Here is nori seaweed. Not bad, but not my favorite. Also, I am pretty sure the first two are Lay's brand.

The most interesting were these-hot chili squid. They were...interesting. Not great, but better than I thought they might be.These are crab curry flavored, and I actually really liked these. This was by far the best flavor I tried while I was there.
Tomorrow: Elephant Nature Park, a highlight of the trip.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Day 8: Chiang Mai flower festival parade

We awoke to a beautiful day. Since it was the day for the famous Chiang Mai Flower Festival, we got a move on and got going pretty early. We walked down to Tha Phae Road, which leads into the main eastern gate into the old city, which I posted a picture of on yesterday's post.

This parade was so cool. It was already going on when we got there, but we still saw over two hours of it. It was so much like a parade in the US, and let so unlike one here as well. It was like ones here in that there were marching bands, all playing western songs I recognized, and there were flower floats, local groups. etc. However, it was also unlike one here in that there were no barricades, and we were right up on the parade. When something large, like a float, was coming through, guys with whistles would urge people back. Also, there were, of course, a lot of things you don't get in parades in the US, like all the people in traditional costumes and the guys carrying huge drums (one of my favorites).

Here are some random pictures of the parade.

Not sure who these guys are, but we were walking behind a trio of them on the way down to the parade.



I think this little boy thought the parade was about the most amazing thing he had ever seen. I tend to agree.
I think I mentioned that the King's sister had recently died. She was featured on several floats (not to the mention many, many pictures of her everywhere).




Some of these pictures really give you a sense of how close we were to the action.








This band was so great.
Here's a video of them. See if you can figure out what song they are playing. I think you can.
video

Another cool thing. Since there were no barricades, five minutes after the parade was over it was a major street again, carrying a ton of traffic.

After the parade was over, we had an OK lunch at a place called The Corner. It was good, but nothing great. One cool thing happened, though. I went to use the restroom, and to get to it you went right through the kitchen, right past the guy at the wok. Everything was right there. It was pretty cool, for some reason. I was excusing myself to squeeze past the guy who had just cooked my lunch.

After the parade is over, they take all of the floats down to a large park that is in the southwest corner of the old city. They stay there all weekend so that everyone can go see them. There are also flower displays, and, of course, food vendors. Actually, that's not different. Food vendors are everywhere in Thailand. Seriously. Everywhere.

Here is a picture going into the street where the floats are. Note the city wall on the left.


I think pretty much the whole city was there. Many people were having picnics at this nice park. This picture doesn't look really crowded, I know, but trust me, there were people everywhere.
After walking around the park for a while, we decided to head back. We were actually a long way from the hotel, so we decided to take a tuk-tuk. This was actually the first one we had taken. The ride cost us 50 baht, and I gave the guy 60, or about $2. We asked the guy to take us to The Chedi, which is a really nice hotel over on the river that sells cigars. Man, I would like to stay at this place. Swankerrific.

A got three cigars, and we took another tuk-tuk to the pedestrian bridge, then walked back to the hotel for a rest. L went shopping at a really nice place next to the hotel, and I sat on our porch drinking Singha and smoking a Cohiba cigar. It was an extremely pleasant afternoon.

That evening we had dinner at The Brasserie, another of the nice places on the river. It has good live music and good food. It was a great place.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day 7: Rain in Chiang Mai, The Night Baazar

It rained last night, and was still raining when we woke up this morning. After breakfast (which was delicious, as usual) I got on the computer in the lobby to look at the weather report and also to try to find a cigar store in Chiang Mai.

The weather report was not heartening. It was supposed to rain all day. We decided to go out anyway, since it was out first full day in the city. We waited until it slacked off a bit, then headed out. We didn't bring any rain gear, because it is not supposed to rain at this time of year in Thailand. Anyway, it really didn't matter; even had I brought my rain gear, it was too warm to wear it. I would rather be a little wet than hot and wet. I had my adventure hat, anyway, so no worries.

Anyway, we decided to walk to the old city, which is defined at the area inside the old moat. Our hotel is not even on the map that I just linked to, but, if you look at the scale, it is not huge. The area inside the moat is about a square mile, so it's really not that far from out hotel. It would normally be about a half an hour walk, but, when you have to stop and look in every other store, it sometimes takes a little longer....

We walked and shopped our way there. Once we were there, it started to rain harder, so we took refuge in an Irish pub called the UN Irish Pub. I had some very mediocre Hungarian Goulash, and some excellent chicken fried rice, and L had some pretty good fish and chips. And of course I also had a Singha. Singha is a Thai beer, and pretty much the most popular one, although there is also Chang and Leo, neither of which is as good, IMO. Chang has a higher alcohol content, at 6.4%, as opposed to 5% for Singha. It's just not as good, though. Singha is a lager (like most standard American beers) but has more hops and more flavor than your typical American brew. It was an OK, but not great, meal (I know, what do you expect at an Irish pub in Thailand?) What can I say, it was raining and this place was close.

After trying off at the hotel we decided to try the famous Night Bazaar. This is not a single building, I found out, but several. I saw at least three separate buildings on the map, and they are all huge. This is in addition to the stalls lining every side of every street. There is so much to see here it is staggering. I didn't take many pictures that day, but this should give you an idea.

This one is not actually the night baazar, technically, it is Waorat Market, which is right over the pedestrian bridge from our hotel.

We had lunch at the food court at the Night Bazzar. It was one of those places where you buy tickets, which you exchange for the food. When you're done you turn your tickets back it for a refund. We had red curry, pineapple fried rice (always a good choice here), some veggie samosas, a soda, and a beer (Chang this time, they seem to have a monopoly at the food court). It was all really, really good, and the total cost was 270 baht, or about $8.50.

Afterwards we shopped some more. I actually bought something, a little alien warrior guy made out of aluminum wire, who is now proudly guarding my TV in my game room. I paid a lot for him, 450 baht, or almost $15, and I forgot to haggle, but it's ok. He is very cool. From the same lady L bought a very nice embroidered purse which she loves.



We had dinner at The Riverside, which, as you might guess from the name, is right on the river. It also has the large advantage of being on our side of the river, and about a 5-10 minute walk down the road from the hotel. It has a fantastic terrace overlooking the river. The food was good, but nothing spectacular. The good news is there are three other fairly famous restaurants in the same area almost next to each other, so we'll try them next.

Here's some random pictures of Chiang Mai.

The Ping River from the pedestrian bridge.

The Ping River at night.The flower market at night.

The Tha Phae gate. The picture is not great because I couldn't get a head on picture, because there was a huge poster of and memorial for the King's recently departed sister.
One of the streets that runs along the moat. This is where the walls used to be, but they are gone now except for at the corners and at some of the gates.
A better shot of the moat.
I wish KC had a moat. City walls, too, for that matter. You never know when St. Louis will decide to attack. Can't be too careful.

One of the remaining corners from the inside. Unreconstructed, obviously.
Tomorrow, the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Day 6. Travel to Chiang Mai

This is the day we flew to Chiang Mai. We thought about taking an overnight train, but it's a 12 hour ride, and to maximize our time, we decided to just fly. We flew on a local budget airlines called Air Asia, and two round trip tickets cost us about $158, which was pretty good. To make it easier I booked our flight for around noon. After another breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we headed to the airport, which is a 45 minute ride from central Bangkok.

The new Bangkok airport, Suvarnabhumi (which, somehow, is pronounced Swan-a-poom) is really nice. The main terminal is, by some measures, the largest in the world, and it is indeed extremely huge. There were apparently some problems when it first opened, but it seemed to be operating smoothly every time we were there.

I even remembered to have the doorman at the hotel tell the taxi driver that we were flying domestic, so he took us to the correct area. By the way, an interesting thing; almost every building we went to had a doorman, in Bangkok at least. I don't think I opened a door the whole time I was there. At the hotel there was a guy that was always there to open the door and wai us when we left or entered.

We made our flight with no problems, and, although it left about 45 minutes late, it was an uneventful hour long flight to Chiang Mai. Air Asia was fine. It was kind of like Southwest, in that there was no assigned seating. Also, there were no free drinks or food (not even water or soda); if you wanted anything you had to buy it. It was fine, though, and I would certainly fly them again.

While flying up, I stared out the window the whole time, which is what I generally do. It was very interesting in that for the first perhaps two thirds of the flight, everything was all rice patties. I had read that the central part of Thailand, meaning the area around Bangkok, is a huge rice producing area, and this certainly reinforced that. Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice, and the rice there is fantastic, and there are many different varieties.

Once we were at the airport at Chiang Mai, which is, to say the least, somewhat smaller than that in Bangkok, we headed for the cab stand. I was a bit worried that they wouldn't know our hotel, but they woman knew right where it was and we quickly got there for 140 baht, or about $4.50.

The bed and breakfast we stayed at in Chiang Mai is named Baan Orapin, and it was simply our favorite place we have ever stayed on vacation. It is fantastic. We had a junior suite, which consisted of two large rooms, and a large bathroom, for $67 a night, including a cash discount. We loved this place. The grounds were beautiful and lush, and it was like a quiet sanctuary from the city.

The grounds in the kind of central yard.



That was our porch.

Our bedroom.

Me watching Thai TV in the living room.

I can't say enough nice things about this place. A great breakfast was included, and it was served in a wonderful open air room by a very nice guy named Pepsi. There was a selection of several different items, but I quickly settled on the Thai omelette with tomatoes and onions, served over rice with a side of bacon. Every breakfast also included coffee or tea, fruit juice, and fresh fruit. It was fantastic. The owner has a computer with internet you can use for free in the lobby, and is available to call a taxi or arrange tours and the like. The B&B is in a kind of compound, and has a gate, which you get a key to along with the key to your room. There was even a mini bar/fridge in the room, the items in which are actually offered at a fair price (35 baht, or $1, for a beer, 15 baht for a soda, free drinking water, etc.). I couldn't wait to give this place a great rating on tripadvisor.com.

We decided to chill for the rest of the day.

Day 5. The National Museum

We got up a little early, since we wanted to get the the Bangkok branch of the Thailand National Museum by 9:30 so we can take the weekly free English tour. It was raining on the way to the museum, and for a time while we were on the skytrain it was pouring. No matter, though, museums are perfect for rain days.

We did have a minor setback on the way there; we took the river taxi to a dock a little north of the one we took the last day, and got off on N10, or Tha (pier, in Thai) Phran Nok (see map here), in the hopes that we could take a cross-river ferry and get to Tha Prachan, or at least Tha Makarat, both of which are a good bit closer to the museum. Unfortunately, the cross-river ferry took us back to N9, or Tha Chang, so we had a bit of a walk to the museum. No big deal, though, as we got to walk along the Sanam Luang, which is a big open area adjacent to the Grand Palace where various ceremonies take place. It's pretty much the only large open area in the part of Bangkok, which is the old city, so to speak.

In any case, although we were a few minutes late, we made it. Tickets were 50 baht, or about $1.60, each. A good deal any way you look at it. So we found the English tour, which had only just started. At that point, there was only one problem; the woman who was giving the tour was so quiet, I could barely make out what she was saying. The first part of the tour was outside, and she was completely drowned out by traffic on the road in front of the museum. Soon, we moved into the first building, which is called Buddhaisawan Chapel, and contains the second most sacred Buddha image in Thailand. Around the inside of the chapel was painted scenes from Buddha's life. The tour guide took us around to several of the more famous ones and explained them, although she was generally drowned out by a woman giving a tour in Japanese on the other side of the building.

Here's the exterior of Buddhaisawan Chapel.


We weren't allowed to take pictures of the interior, which is too bad, since it was very beautiful.

Afterwards, we moved on to some of the other buildings, and the guide explained a some of the other collections. At this point, we were in a somewhat quieter area, and I was able to hear more of what she said, although by no means all of it. Although quiet (and with a habit of looking away from us as she talked) she was very knowledgeable, and gave us an extensive lecture on the various styles of Buddha sculptures in the collection.

The tour lasted about two hours, and ended in a large structure that contained a huge collection of funeral chariots. These things are amazingly elaborate. One was so large that she said that it took 140 people to pull it, and I believe her. They are used to pull the remains of royal family members to the location of their cremation (which takes place on the aforementioned Sunam Luang. In fact, the king's sister had recently died, and she will be taken to the cremation location in a chariot like these.

After the tour was over, we had an excellent lunch at a restaurant on the grounds of the museum.
Like many buildings in Thailand, this one was open air. Not really a use to seal things up when it's 100 degrees in winter, I guess. Most of the older buildings at the museum we not air conditioned, either, but it wasn't that hot that day, so it wasn't a big deal. It was also, of course, very cheap. Two entrees, a large water, a soda and a beer was 230 baht, or about $7. And the food was really really good. I had one of my new favorites, which is Chicken with chilies and holy basil. Awesome. I had it for the first time at the place the day before, and started ordering it a lot.

After lunch we walked around the museum on our own for a while. While we were touring the newest building, something really funny happened. This building had a new, really nice state-of-the-art exhibit on the history of Thailand, and was very interesting. However, while we were there, there were also numerous school groups touring the building as well. While they were looking around, there was a school teacher that was blaring out a discussion into a microphone the entire time. It was so amazingly loud, and the kept it up almost the whole time we were there. It was kind of annoying, particularly since we couldn't understand her, but it was so funny it was hard to be annoyed. We were laughing about it the whole day. The best part was that the kids were running around, talking and playing, and couldn't have been paying less attention. It was hilarious.

One of the coolest things in this exhibit was a stone inscription (shown in the link above) that exhibits the oldest known example of the Thai script. Except for the screaming, it was very cool.

We looked around a lot more of the museum, and although there are no pictures of interiors, there was a lot of cool sculpture. With the assistance of the tour guide, we could really notice the difference between Buddha sculptures from the different areas and time periods. There was also an interesting (at least to me) exhibition on the prehistory of Thailand.

One funny thing. In the older buildings, the display cases did not have any locks. They had little pieces of string with wax seals, but anyone could have opened them and taken stuff. It was really funny. Based on what I saw (both this and other things), and everything I have read, the Thai people are very honest. Many times at markets I would see shopkeepers leave thier stalls unattended for a long time while making an offering at the shrine (there was one at every market, always with food and incense offerings) or to get food. No one ever seemed to be worried that anyone would steal anything. As an aside, there was never a time anywhere we were in Thailand where we felt anything less than totally safe.

Here are some other photos of things around the museum.

A fancy chariot or cart.

The place was well defended.
Another ceremonial structure.
This is called the Red House. It is a traditional Thai house, although one of an upper class person, as demonstrated by the large size and decoration.



Overall, we walked around the museum for about six hours. Afterwards, we were tired, and walked back to the pier to take a river taxi back to the skytrain, then back to the hotel.

I think I mentioned that the river taxis do not tarry at the docks. Here is a video of us coming into the dock. If you listen, you can hear the boatswain whistle the guy in the back uses to signal the pilot while docking. You can also hear the long whistle he gives when it is time to get going again. And yes, we unloaded passengers during this stop.

video

So, yeah, when it's time to get off the boat, you'd better be ready.

We were very tired that night, so we just had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was actually quite good. We didn't want to wander too far, since we were leaving the next day for Chiang Mai.