Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I laughed out loud the first time I saw an advertisement for Pooping Palace on the window of one of the hop-on/hop-off pickup trucks that carry passengers around Chiang Mai, Thailand. I understood the problem immediately. The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 15 vowels that combine into at least 28 vowel forms, and four tone marks with five sounds (high, low, rising, falling, and neutral). Additionally, certain letters or combinations of letters, when words are translated into English, are not pronounced the way we would expect. For example, the “TH” combination is always pronounced like a “T”, as in the case of the word Thailand. When the letter “P” appears in an English translation of a Thai word, it is almost always spoken like a “B”, thus the confusion.

Once I got over my case of the giggles, I realized that I’d never visited this Royal Family residence, which is located just a couple miles further up the mountain from Chiang Mai’s premier Buddhist temple, Doi Suthep, so I gathered up a group of fellow travel bloggers and expats who were also wintering in Chiang Mai and put together a sightseeing trip. Though there are nine buildings on the site, we were most interested in the gardens, including Suan Suwaree, the famous royal rose garden. Taking advantage of the cool mountain air, rose varieties that otherwise cannot survive in Thailand thrive at Bhubing.

Roses in the gardens that frame the "Log Cabin," one of the nine Royal residences at Bhubing Palace

Roses in the gardens that frame the “Log Cabin,” one of the nine Royal residences at Bhubing Palace

For me, however, orchids were the most splendid of the many varieties of blooming trees, bushes, and flowers on display. Exquisite clusters of violet, buttercup, orange, and deep purple orchids were tucked among the foliage, and gardeners were hard at work attaching more of these air plants to naked tree branches alongside meandering paths. Read More

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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