The water theme continued into the next day. It was Songkran, a celebration of the Thai New Year. The Buddhist tradition of symbolically washing away misfortune and wrongdoing has morphed into modern Songkran, the world’s largest, and most insane, water battle. Families stand outside their houses with hoses and buckets full of (ice) water to douse passersby. Pickup trucks hauling giant garbage can reservoirs take the water fight to the streets attacking pedestrians, other cars and trucks, and Thailand’s countless moped riders (for those wondering, no, it’s not all that safe).
Mandy and I had taken a water shuttle up the Chao Phraya River to visit the Royal Palace and Emerald Buddha Wat. Every temple seemed to have a slightly different dress code, which varied from not allowing exposed shoulders to requiring full-length sleeves. The same discrepancies applied to legs: some temples allowed shorts, others allowed shorts if they covered the knee, and sites like the Royal Palace required the legs to be completely covered.
Because of the heat and the fact that we could never keep it completely straight, we simply wore shorts and didn’t spend much time worrying about the daily dress code. Most temples had clothes available to borrow (for free) at the entrance. Since we had no desire to complicate our day or buy any new clothing, we happily accepted the inconvenience of a quick change outside each temple before entering. As we rummaged through the boxes of clothing outside the Royal Palace, Mandy came away with a decent pink sarong, while I had to settle for grey M.C. Hammer pants. Continue reading
The train for Bangkok was dated and slow, an older generation European model. But we rode the rails for relaxation and comfort, rather than speed. It was already evening as the train chugged out of the station. Over the next few hours, the scenery slowly faded to black and darkness enveloped our cabin. With nothing more to see, we drifted off into a restless night’s sleep. When we awoke, we were rolling slowly through the outskirts of Bangkok. The sun had returned and was caressing the rooftops in warm, early light. We were no worse for wear, except for my right arm, which burned from 15-20 insect bites–payback, no doubt, for us eating some of their brethren in Chang Mai’s night market. Continue reading
The day we left home, a full year stretched out endlessly before us. I’d noted the halfway point…barely; too mesmerized by Rwanda’s turbulent beauty to truly appreciate the milestone. For the last nine months we’d lived almost exclusively in the present — our minds swirled, permanently suspended in sensory overload, with the vibrancy of each new destination. Now, we entered the autumn of our travels and, grounded again by the concreteness of our inevitable return, our appreciation of each incredible moment was heightened even further.
We took a deep breath on our arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The air was cooler and invigorating. The ever-present dusty heat of Cambodia gave way to verdant, rolling hills — the “mountains” of Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is a small city whose Buddhist temples and yoga studios are the yin to the yang of buzzing markets and increasing numbers of tourists and ex-pats.
There are plenty of cozy backpacker havens in Thailand, but we were drawn to Chiang Mai by a woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Lek opened the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in 1996. Her tireless quest to save the Asian elephant and to change traditional attitudes toward animal cruelty made her Time Magazine’s 2005 Asian Hero of the Year. The backstory to Elephant Nature Park is a long and brutal one which I’ll abridge. Suffice it to say, elephants don’t volunteer to carry tourists on their backs or dance in the streets. Continue reading