Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

When I arrived in Thailand I was granted a free 30-day entry stamp. Thailand’s immigration law allows tourists to stay in the country for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period, however the entry stamp must be renewed every 30 days. The only way to accomplish this is to leaving the country and come back in again. Since I planned to be here slightly more than five weeks, that meant I had do a ‘visa run’ as it is commonly called (although it is a misnomer, since I do not technically need a visa to visit Thailand – just an entry stamp).

A giant industry has sprung up around the visa run. Tours are offered to all the nearby borders for ridiculously high prices, where busloads of backpackers traipse through Thai immigration, receiving an exit stamp that proves they have left the country, walk a few feet to get a passport stamp from the neighboring country, then reverse direction and come right back into Thailand. For those staying in northern Thailand, as I am, the most convenient visa run destination is Myanmar (Burma), about four hours north of Chiang Mai. So along with a host of others, I paid my 900 Baht (about $27 US) to the tour company and boarded the bus for the 14 hour round trip. It poured rain the entire day, which made me feel a bit better about the whole ordeal, since I probably would have been stuck inside the hotel anyway.

To their credit, the tour companies have tried to make the trip pleasant, throwing in some interesting sites along the way, such as the spectacular Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai. Called the ‘White Temple’ by the locals for obvious reasons, this wat has been under construction for ten years and the architect who designed it estimates that it will require another five years to complete. It was spectacular under gray skies. I can barely imagine how it must be in bright sunshine, the light sparkling and reflecting off the hundreds of thousands of mirrors embedded into its brilliant white stucco exterior.

Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai, called the White Temple

Spectacular Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai, called the ‘White Temple’ by the locals

The pit on either side of the walkway leading to the main entrance at Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai is filled with a sculpture of bleached white bones

The pit on either side of the walkway leading to the main entrance at Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai is filled with a sculpture of bleached white bones

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Three days ago I headed out on a walking tour of Chiang Mai, intent upon visiting the three major temples in the Old City that the guidebooks classify as ‘not-to-be-missed.’ The problem is that I suffer from a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I want to see everything and in Chiang Mai you can’t walk 500 yards without running into a temple. Over the past four days I figure I have walked at least 20 miles and seen scores of temples.

Wat Chedi Luang

By the end of the first day I was – technical term coming up now – templed out. I thought if I saw one more golden Chedi or one more mirrored great hall I would gag. By the end of the second day I was just numb and my feet hurt so bad I could barely walk. But by the third day I started noticing the differences in the temples. Like the one that’s dedicated to caring for the thousands of stray dogs in Chiang Mai. Or the temple that has dozens of animal statues scattered around its grounds, including a Donald Duck statue right out in front. There are temples with jade Buddhas, temples with quartz crystal Buddhas, and temples with traditional golden Buddhas.

I have learned that all the temples have Viharas (great halls) and Chedis (monolithic stupas, shaped like giant bells, each of which houses a relic of Buddha, such as one of his bones). There are Viharas built of intricately carved teak, Viharas that are covered entirely in multi-colored mirrors that sparkle and blind in the sunshine, and Viharas made of humble bricks cast from the red Asian clay. So, in honor of all this opulence, and in tribute to my very sore feet, I decided to dedicate this post to a photo tour of the temples of Chiang Mai.
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It started in Bangkok. The itching, I mean. I needed a haircut so I stepped into one of the salons in the Khao San Road backpacker district and followed the girl to the back of the shop to get my hair shampooed. When I returned to the front of the shop two of the stylists were curled up on a sofa next to the entrance, one with her head in the lap of the other, who was slowly picking through the hair of her fellow worker. Oh my God! Lice, I thought. I can’t believe they allow their employees to do this in full view of the customers. My scalp starting itching that afternoon but I knew it was all in my head (pun intended).

Then I went south to the Phi Phi Islands. Everywhere I saw pairs of women grooming one another’s hair. They sat on front stoops, in the entryways to retail stores, even in chairs in restaurants, picking nits. The itching in my scalp grew worse. By the third day on Phi Phi Don, whenever I scratched, my fingernails came away from my scalp with small, hard white grains that resembled lice eggs. I told myself it was just embedded sand from the beach.
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I’ve been interested in Buddhism for years – it speaks to me in ways that other religions do not. So when I saw the sign that said “Monk Chat” at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to one of the 700 monks who train at this temple. Just beyond the sign I found three young monks in mustard and saffron robes, sitting at concrete patio tables, deep in discussion with a middle aged man. When I approached, one of then quickly broke away and greeted me, proffering me a seat at a second table.

Chat with a monk on the temple grounds at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai Thailand

Chat with a monk on the temple grounds in Chiang Mai Thailand

My monk was a tall, thin young man with a wide smile and huge ears protruding from his smoothly shaved head. He was clad in a silky burnt orange robe that hung from one shoulder, baring both arms and half his chest in the midday heat. He sat, arranging the yards of ankle-length material in his lap to keep it from dragging on the dusty cobblestones in the yard. In good English he told me his name was Udon and asked me what I would like to discuss.
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My immediate impression of Chiang Mai during the drive from the airport to the hotel is that I am going to LOVE his place! It must be obvious to all my readers that I have fallen in love with Thailand. This is my third visit and I am sure there will be many more in the future, but this is my first ever trip to the north of Thailand.

Remnants of the moat and wall that originally surrounded Chiang Mai

Remnants of the moat and wall that originally surrounded Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is both a city and a province and is second only to Bangkok in terms of size, the entire province having a population of over one million with an estimated 300,000 people living in the city itself. Chiang Mai is situated alongside the Mae Ping River and shadowed by the magnificent Doi Suthep mountain. As Thailand’s second city and capital of the northern provinces it boasts a culture unique to northern Thailand and a rich history dating back more than 700 years to the Lanna period. Various hill tribes who all still lead traditional lives and follow ancient customs inhabit the mountains that tower above the city.

The town and its surrounding area are renowned for arts and crafts, spas, massage and herbal health products, trekking opportunities galore, and day trips to the Karen and Hmong hill tribe villages. Almost 70 percent of the province is covered by lush forests and mountains, which accounts for its reputation as a treasure-trove of natural beauty. There is so much to see here that the choices made our heads spin, so we decided to start with the Old City in the center of town.

The central square in Chiang Mai comes to life with vendors and artisans every Sunday

The central square comes to life with vendors and artisans every Sunday

The Old City is one of the most popular attractions in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Built over 700 years ago, it was once an entirely walled square surrounded by a moat. Some of the original city walls still remain – particularly the great brick bastions at the four corners – as does the moat which, rather than repelling raiders, is now an inviting green swath with illuminated spraying fountains. In the middle of each of the four sides of the Old City are the original gates to the city. The main gate, Thapae on the eastern side and facing the river Ping, has been rebuilt complete with a stretch of wall to give people an idea of what the walls were once like. Read More

The most exciting thing about Phuket was the ferry ride between Phi Phi Don and Phuket Town, when two blokes aboard our boat discovered they had gotten on the wrong ferry. The operators had to radio up the Krabi ferry to come alongside so the two errant passengers could be transferred from one boat to the other. It was accomplished easily and with precision (and astonishingly, without any ropes or tie lines between the boats), leading me to believe that this is not the first time they’ve had to perform this maneuver. I watched as each of the young men handed their luggage over our boat railing to outstretched arms waiting to grab it on the other boat bobbing up and down next to us. Then, timing their jump for a moment when the two boats were level with one another, they jumped across. I said a silent prayer of thanks that it wasn’t me who had boarded the wrong boat.

Transferring passengers from one ferry to another in the middle of the bay

Transferring passengers from one ferry to another in the middle of the bay

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