Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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For years I have longed to attend the Thai festival of Yi Peng, but my travel itinerary never cooperated. Finally, this past December the stars aligned and I found myself in Chiang Mai, the epicenter of this celebration best known for launching paper lanterns into the night sky for good luck. Eagerly, I pieced together information about the schedule of events from various expat websites, but the more I learned, the more concerned I became. The premiere event, a simultaneous release of thousands of lanterns, would take place after dark at Maejo University, located several miles north of the city. Friends described it as “pure craziness” and advised me to arrive several hours before dusk if I hoped to secure a good spot. They described shoulder-to-shoulder revelers, all jockeying for position on an unlit, uneven patch of land.

Crowds are not my favorite thing to begin with, but the idea of being trapped in a sea of bodies, unable to clearly see my surroundings, and risking being trampled, sent me into a cold sweat. As much as I wanted to witness this sea of glowing lanterns floating like bio-luminescent creatures on gentle ocean swells, I knew I had to find a different way to enjoy the festival.

Decorations at Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng Festival

Decorations at Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng Festival

Fortunately, there was no shortage of Yi Peng activities elsewhere in Chiang Mai. Each of the main gates of the old walled city was decorated with giant illuminated cartoon characters, dragons, and castles. In the city center I strolled through a tunnel of pastel lanterns leading to a giant blooming lotus framed by a wall of red, white, and blue lanterns. Read More

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Anyone who has visited Chiang Mai, Thailand has heard about the 36 temples (wats) within the Old City walls and spectacularly gilded Doi Suthep temple, an important wat that offers stunning views of Chiang Mai from its hillside perch atop Doi Suthep Mountain. Strangely, the site that holds the most significance for this ancient Lanna capital is virtually unknown.

Built by King Meng Rai in the latter part of the 13th century, the city of Wiang Kum Kam was intended to serve as the the municipal center of the kingdom he had stitched together from Burmese, Lao, and ancient Tai cultures. He located the city on the eastern shore of the Ping River, about five miles south of present day Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, the site flooded severely and just a few short years later, a major flood buried all but a couple of temples beneath nearly 10 feet of mud and sludge. Mengrai abandoned Wiang Kum Kam and moved his capital up the river to the present day site of Chiang Mai.

Khan Tom Chedi at Wat Chang Kam complex in the ancient underground city of Wiang Kum

Khan Tom Chedi at Wat Chang Kam complex in the ancient underground city of Wiang Kum Kam

As if following Mengrai’s lead, the Ping River shifted course away from Wiang Kum Kam and over the next few hundred years the memory of the city faded away until the ancient “underground city” was thought to be mythical. Read More

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As a vegetarian who travels perpetually, finding appropriate food can sometimes be stressful. Last year I spent two months in Chiang Mai, Thailand and since I’ve been there there many times I was aware that scores of vegetarian options were available at local restaurants, food courts, and street vendors, such as those at the street vendors at Chiang Mai Gate, shown in the photo below:

Street food vendor at Chiang Mai Gate, in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Street food vendor at Chiang Mai Gate, in Chiang Mai, Thailand

My problem was the language barrier; I speak a little Thai but not enough to ask about all the food choices at street food stalls, markets, or food courts. So I asked a Thai friend to accompany me to the local food bazaar in the lower level of Central Airport Plaza to show me the ropes. Read More

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The term ‘Thai art’ is something of an oxymoron in modern days. Centuries ago, craftsmen produced stunning sculptures, wood carvings, and paintings that illustrate Buddhist texts or honor Buddha, but other than a few artists who are combining traditional Thai elements with modern techniques, contemporary art in Thailand is comprised largely of production line paintings and concrete garden ornaments. Recently, this penchant for kitsch spawned a new museum of sorts in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Billed as the world’s largest 3-D Art Museum, Art in Paradise features the work of 12 Korean artists who are masters of creating three-dimensional paintings that beg for interaction. My friend Paola and I spent a fun afternoon experimenting with the images that plaster the walls, floors, and in some cases, even the ceilings, trying to find the perfect vantage point for shooting photos that best displayed the illusions. We hopped onto surfboards, wrestled with a giant octopus, and tiptoed across a rope bridge that crossed a yawning chasm. Words simply cannot do it justice, so without further ado, I present the photo gallery below for your entertainment and amusement:

I fight off a giant octopus at Art in Paradise in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I fight off a giant octopus at Art in Paradise in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Half a dozen elephants wandered around the compound as I dug into my delicious vegetarian lunch at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. Earlier that day I’d fed and walked among many of the 37 elephants that the park had rescued from circuses, logging operations, and street begging, but at the moment I was watching a big female who was rubbing her rump against a tree hard enough to make its yellow blossoms fall.

Up close and personal with the elephant that our group had just given a bath in the river

Up close and personal with the elephant our group had just given a bath in the river

“Elephants have very thick, but very sensitive skin,” explained my guide. “They often use tree trunks and the concrete columns scattered around as scratching posts.” The big female lumbered out of the trees and deftly picked up a broken tree branch her mahout had tossed in the dirt road. “The theory is that she will use it to scratch herself,” my guide continued. Sure enough, she wrapped her trunk around the stick and used the broken end to scratch her thigh, chest, back of her leg, and a couple of toes. Read More

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In my windowless room I sat propped up in bed, a pillow wedged between my back and the wall. Outside, a late season monsoon pounded the hostel’s tin roof like a herd of galloping horses. Determined to use the inclement weather as an opportunity to catch up on writing, I balanced my laptop on outstretched legs and tried to ignore the cacophony. Thirty minutes later a blank screen still stared back at me. Frustrated, I jiggled my legs awake and reached back to plump the pillow. It was soaking wet. What on earth? I jumped up and discovered the seat of my pants was also soaked. Rainwater had silently run down the wall behind my bed, soaking the pillow and mattress. Worse, the hostel had no other room available. In the deluge I packed up and moved to the hotel next door, happy to have found clean and dry accommodations with fast wifi, despite having to pay triple what the hostel was charging.

Kuala Lumpur's famous Petaling Street, in the center of Chinatown

Kuala Lumpur’s famous Petaling Street, in the center of Chinatown

I had scheduled this five-day stopover in Kuala Lumpur in order to get my two-month visa for Thailand, however the previous week I had discovered it was just as easy to do so in Istanbul, so when I arrived in the Malaysian capital I was fancy free for five whole days. It was not my first time in KL, but on all my previous visits I had been just passing through on my way to or from somewhere else. This time I was looking forward to seeing some of the city’s sights. The rain slackened enough that first evening for me to venture out into the Chinatown neighborhood where I was staying. Seeking shelter beneath the high canopies that arch over Petaling Street, I browsed through market stalls and fended off hawkers until the sun finally set and hundreds of crimson paper lanterns were set aglow. Read More