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The North

8/12

Wat Phra Keo (23).JPGFriday was Mother's Day as well as the Queen’s Birthday. Our friend took us to Bangkok in the evening, telling us of the celebration that would most likely be taking place. Upon crossing the bridge we saw tons of people wearing pink shirts. Apparently the King's color is pink because red, yellow, and blue all became extremist colors. Hundreds of people were walking around this park in pink shirts, the grass looked like a sea of pink.

Since the festival wouldn't fully start until seven in the evening, when everyone would be given a lit candle to wish the Queen a long life, we went in search of dinner. I was originally planning on street food. Unfortunately, it began pouring rain before I could look for any. The rain forced the street vendors to close shop for a bit because it was raining so hard, so we took shelter in the closest restaurant we could, Burger King. I've never been a fan of fast food, but I was starving and we had no idea when the storm would pass. It's sad when the most expensive food you can find is Burger King followed by McDonalds. Oddly enough, after three weeks of Thai street food, I got sick from Burger King. 

After eating we went to a bar on the second floor of a building on Khao San. From there, we saw the fireworks over the tops of the buildings, despite the rain. The rain stopped shortly after and we went to see what was still happening at the park. First we saw a large group of kids playing traditional Thai instruments. We moved to another stage where a silk fashion show was ending, apparently the Queen had a large impact on the development of the silk factories in Thailand. This was followed by a series of singers, mostly singing pop songs. At one point, one of the singers had background dancers who wore pink outfits that reminded me of an old casino poster I've seen. These individuals were later backed up by more girls in pink; however, these ones had giant wings attached to their arms.

Finally, a traditional dance started. However, despite their traditional clothing, the dance was quite modern. It even included a small segment of break dancing. We followed this performance with one last event, a play that was just finishing on another stage. The men were dressed in very shiny clothing that sparkled in the light. Our friend told us the basics of what happened while we were there. The King's men had fought with some others, how were captured. Since the King of Ayutthaya was generous, the three prisoners lived.

8/13

Saturday morning we were picked up at 06:30 to go to the airport. The drive was quiet and nearly everyone fell asleep on our fifty minute flight. By 10:30, we were in a province called Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We were first taken to our small hotel called Yesterday. It's a beautiful and tiny set up, with old furniture, pictures, and accessories. Rotary phones sit in the hall way and our small rooms contained a TV that was placed in a box to look like it was from the 1960's. After unpacking, we went to lunch at a restaurant that was next to a pond. After lunch we piled into the van and began driving up a hill. At one point we switched to a covered open backed truck with seats on the sides, a common form of transportation. We drove up a mountain road that was surrounded by forest on both sides before getting out at the base of a small village. This village is only open at certain times in the rainy season, and we were lucky to be able to visit it. After walking up a series of steps that weaved between small shack like shops, we reached a traditional style house that was acting as a museum. Inside were various metal objects and pictures of how they were created, a series of tools, and information lining the walls. The most interesting items in there were actually the two posters describing the Giraffe Women of Northern Thailand, an information chart and a picture showing where their shoulders and neck meet in comparison with a normal body. Upon leaving this building we were able to test our aim for a few baht and shoot a crossbow. The trail led us past more shops and small houses before we got to a large garden on the hillside. Two girls in traditional clothing ran up to us and when we took their picture, they decided to demand ten baht in exchange. Eventually the girls left but such behavior is common in South East Asia I would find, kids are always asking for money of tourist. When we reached a platform and small shrine type building further up the hill, we looked over a view of green peaks that led into a city. Our tour guide told us that this city used to be used for opium growing before it became the first to be closed by the King. In exchange for closing the opium fields, the village became a tourist center for income, allowing visitors to see an example of traditional life. Walking back down we realized just how much cheaper the prices were compared to Bangkok, a theme that we would keep noticing all weekend. I ended up wishing that I had been told not to buy anything in Bangkok at the markets because everything would be cheaper here.

After the village we went to a temple named Wat Prathat Doi Suithep. We entered a tram that was the size of an elevator and moved diagonally up the mountain. We were met at the top by large touring walls, guarded at each entrance by tall, colored giants. A shrine to the side showed a women squeezing water from her hair, the maiden who washed away the demons that were tempting Lord Buddha while he reached for Enlightenment. We first walked around the outer wall of the temple, passing colorful entrances and large bells that we were able to ring if we were gentle. We also encountered a shrine to a white elephant.

The story goes that the King didn't know where to place the temple that would hold some of the remains of Lord Buddha. They placed these artifacts on the Kings prized white elephant and the sacred animal walked in to the forest. It walked for days, climbing over hills, before finally coming to a stop. The elephant released a noticeable tune from its trunk that would lead the King and his men to him. By the time the men arrived at the place chosen by the elephant to be the temple grounds, the elephant had died from exhaustion at climbing the mountain. For this reason, the temple contains a shrine towards the white elephant that gave its life to find a proper home for a temple dedicated to the Lord Buddha. The view across from the elephant showed just how high we were, overlooking the city and seeing far to the horizon.

We entered the temple after removing our shows and walked in a clockwise direction around it. All around, people were praying to the Monks in the four side rooms that each contained a Buddha. Many also prayed to the central stupa, many standing and walking within the inner fence clockwise while holding a lotus in their hands and praying. The large gold stupa reflected light from the sun in all directions. One of the monks would call you over as you passed and tie a thin bundle of thread of white around your wrist. This bracelet was to grant good luck. In order to receive the luck, the bracelet had to remain on your wrist for three days, at which time you could take it off or leave it until it fell off. When the bracelet is no longer on your wrist, you must place it behind your left ear and pray to Buddha before keeping it stored in a high place. If these steps were not followed or the bracelet fell before three days, one would not receive good luck. After walking around the temple we walked down the 306 or so steps that led to the temples main gate and returned to our hotel.

We later went to dinner at a fancy restaurant where, if it wasn't raining (which unfortunately it was) you were able to sit outside and on the floor in a traditional manor. Instead we sat in chairs and they brought us two large platters with various foods on them. The meal was served family style and like a buffet. The restaurant had people walking around in traditional clothes and taking your picture with them if you wished to buy one. Shortly after dinner started, a show of traditional dance began. First, women in colorful dresses with long golden metal attachments to their fingers walked out and danced. They were joined by men wearing demon masks. These women were followed by a group with umbrellas and various other dancing stories. There was also a sword dance. While leaving the restaurant, we released one of the light lanterns into the sky that are supposed to remove evil energy and demons from your surroundings. These lanterns were large rice paper cylinders with a closed top and a large candle like object attached by wires to the open bottom. After the wick is lit, the smoke and heat fills the top of the white tube and you release the edges to allow the light to float into the night sky.  We watched as ours joined many other lights that glistened in the distance. These lanterns are only allowed in designated areas of Thailand now due to the danger it poses to airplanes.

My roommate and I later walked down the main road trying to find a nice bar to relax in. After sitting at one for a cocktail, we headed down on of the side streets and soon came across a huge party area. The area was packed with people and motor bikes took up what free space was left. I counted six different bars, each with a different atmosphere in the main area, with another across the street and one further down the road. We chose a bar with live music were the band was playing music from the '90's like Green Day, Smash Mouth, and Blink-182.

8/14

The next morning we enjoyed the complimentary "American" breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, and ham. There was fruit, coffee, and bread on the side. WE soon loaded into our van and began a long drive further north to the rural areas. After three hours, we arrived at the base of a mountain and our tour guide led us into the jungle. The forest was lush and green, making me truly feel like I was in South East Asia in comparison to the cities and tourist districts we had been in for three weeks. The full day hike through the mountain showed us trees covered in vines, moss spreading along their surfaces. We saw many types of butterflies and bugs, the most exciting being the Golden Orb Weaver Spider, also known as the bird eating spider. The females that we saw seemed to be an inch or two long, and the males were too small to see without getting too close. There yellow and black pattern along their long bodies made the females to identify all the way through the jungle. We reached a beautiful and large waterfall with crystal water rushing over the rocks. Unfortunately we were unable to go swimming because the current was far too strong. We followed this river a ways before reaching a steep and narrow path down a segment of the trail. There were flimsy bamboo guard rails on one side and the mountain with its lush growth on the other. The last portion of this trail was a shaky Bamboo ladder. After accomplishing that, we were led to a bridge that stood over the rushing river. This bridge was exactly four thin bamboo rods thick and held together by rubber from old tires and a weak feeling handle bar. It was supported by even thinned trunks of bamboo sticking out of the water and propped between rocks. The trail then led us to a cleared area where we saw hillside after hillside of rice fields, the water running from one down to another before rejoining the river that passed the only small shack in the area. Continuing down the trail, the forest seemed to get more and more beautiful. After at least three hours of walking, we reached a small village on the top of the hill. The houses were a mix of traditional, being made of woven wood with what looked like hey roofs, and modern building with blue walls and a large satellite in the yard. The inhabitants of the village watched us as we walked by and the children continued with their games. Was we were about to load into the van that was waiting for us at the entrance to the village, a group of Northern Thais invited us to try some freshly brewed coffee that was grown in the area. We watched as he ground the roasted beans using two rocks. He then packed the coffee into a fine net and poured hot water from a kettle on the fire over it, pouring it from one container to the next until he believed it was strong enough. I am not a coffee drinker, but this coffee was less bitter than what I had usually tasted and the others in my group were more than happy to buy some, a few people even buying five bags. After lunch at a restaurant back on the main mountain road, we were taken to the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything from the viewing platform due to the thick clouds that had brought the rain. We were able to see a little more of the thickly packed jungle before head back to our hotel.

8/15

We woke up early again, waited forever for our breakfast, which at parts I think they forgot, and loaded back into the van for another three hour drive to Chiang Rai Province. Our first stop there was the White Temple, its real name being Wat Rong Khun. We had seen pictures of this temple but it was nothing like I thought it'd be. The sparkling white walls stood against the green grass and were brighter than the cloudy sky. I watched as a group constructed more pieces for the surrounding area, placing large pieces of a type of clay over the wire frames and carving in the intricate designs. The temple was built thirteen years ago and construction was still occurring. An artist had started the temple in an attempt to show tourist the beautiful Thai and Buddhist artwork and styles. His modern view mixed interestingly with the idea of a temple. The main building was covered with detail too advanced to describe. A large white bridge led to the main entrance and a pond flowed beneath it with statues spread on its edges or podiums in the water. The entrance to the bridge was guarded by two demons and hands reached from the ground, grasping at the air. Some hands in statues on the sides held skulls and other items. The hands were supposed to symbolize the release of longing and want for material things before entering the temple. Upon entering the temple, I was sent into a world of abstract art. The single room had a painting of Buddha on the wall across from the door with a fake monk sitting at its base. The side walls had planks for walking on as individuals still painting the detailed designs. The side with the door was the most detailed. It contained an odd mix of Thai style and Western influence. The largest painting was the image of the devil which, after looking in the book I bought on it, had the image of President George W. Bush in one eye and Osama bin Laden in the other. According to the book, this was supposed to signify that fighting will solve nothing and to avoid evil we must learn to look each other in the eye. Smaller images included Star Wars characters, the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek, images of Russian space crafts, the World Trade Center falling with a demon pulling it down, and characters like Batman and Neo. The super heroes are supposed to signify that there are no hero's like them in the world and we have to act on our own. Outside of the main temple, there is a large building with a similar design but it is entirely gold. This two or three story building, believe it or not, is a bathroom, the nicest public bathroom in Thailand, if not the world.

After leaving the beautiful but odd white temple, we set off for the gate on the border of Myanmar and Thailand. Unfortunately we couldn't go into Myanmar. Our guide told us that Thais usually only cross the border to go shopping directly on the other side, but few linger. Myanmar is also highly restricting on where tourist can go, only permitting entrance to certain areas in the country. We had lunch on the river that acted as a natural border, the crab curry I got was one of the best crab dishes I've ever had. We then climbed more steps to reach a temple that overlooked the border, giving us a view into Myanmar. It was a beautiful sight, though the temple and buildings on the mountain were being repaired due to a large earthquake in Myanmar a few months ago that cause damage. The temple compound also had a large metal scorpion statue that was highly detailed. Unfortunately, no one knew the reason for its placement.

We got back in the van and traveled a short distance further to the Golden Triangle. This river front is a connecting point for Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. The Mekong River is shared property between the three countries at this point and we took a boat ride up and down the river for a short period of time. We saw two large casinos, one on the coast of Myanmar and the other in Laos. Many Thai business men go to this area to build casinos on the river because gambling is forbidden in Thailand, including casinos, due to the Buddhist society. Though the water was very high for us, we were told that in the dry season large sand bars spread across the river bed and you could commonly see people playing soccer on them. Our boat took us to a small port where we were allowed to enter Laos. To my disappointment, there was no need for Passport stamps. The people were nice and welcoming, but children walked everywhere, following you around asking for money. My favorite part of being in Laos for an hour, besides noting the subtle differences between the behaviors of the individuals, though this village placement was definitely just for tourists, was the whisky I tried. They had whisky made from scorpion (a little bitter), snake (a subtle but smooth flavor), gecko (the strongest but a bad flavor), and tiger penis (a little greasier seeming and disgusting to even think about). We received small shot glass samples of each one, made difficult by looking into the clear tubs they were stored in and seeing the animals and parts in each one. While there I was told by our tour guide to try a dark Laos’s beer, which pretty good, though it tasted very similar to American beer. The boat took us back to the Golden Triangle where we looked at the Buddha shrine for a bit. The large Buddha sat on a metal framed boat that reached down to the river, colored class decorating it. The Lord Buddha's base was covered with symbols from the Chinese zodiac. There was also a Chinese happy Buddha, commonly seen outside Thai temples in the north, on a lower platform. This Buddha had two metal bars leading into a hole in its stomach where people could place a donation at the top and watch it role into him, as odd as it sounds.

8/16

The next day was our last in the North. We checked out of the hotel and left early to watch an elephant show. Though the elephants seemed to enjoy the water, some of them seemed sad during the time they were performing tricks. Our guide told us that these types of elephant homes, where they were trained to do shows and be ridden, actually benefit the elephants because many die during the rainy season by being washed of cliffs and other disasters. If a baby elephant meets such an end, commonly the mother will die as well because she will refuse to leave the baby's body. Our guide told us that when an elephant dies, a ceremony is held in their honor because they are sacred animals. During the show I was chosen to go up and sit on two of the elephants trunks while they walked while another girl received a "back message" from one, which included it prodding her back with its foot. I think I got the better deal because the idea of being stepped on by an elephant is horrifying. After the show we went on a short elephant ride a little ways into the jungle. Mine and the person sitting next to me got an elephant that didn't seem to want to move and needed some motivation from our driver. At one point we were able to move from the seat on the elephants back and ride on its neck. It was an amazing feeling to be able to ride an animal with such enormous power and the skin was surprisingly soft. Its neck actually felt more stable than the seat we had to climb down from, which rocked back and forth a lot. We also saw a baby elephant, about 2 1/2 feet tall, walking along side its mother during the tour. We were then taken to a set of bamboo rafts. These rafts were made of thin pieces of bamboo tied together and two bench like seats in the middle and each one held four people and the drive. Our driver handed us each a safari hat and pushed us away from shore with a long bamboo stick. We were told that in this murky and muddy water were crocodiles and to not stick our feet I the water. The driver gave us each a chance to steer the raft, though my group did it mainly for pictures before relaxing on the raft, too afraid of it tipping to really try to steer it. The other raft ended up being sideways by the students steering and the driver began to shout "titanic" at them. The girl raised the steering rod over her head thinking that he meant a pose. The driver rushed to the front of the raft and grabbed the steering rod to turn the boat as it almost hit a tree growing from the bottom of the river. Our driver, I think thankful that we did nothing like almost crash his raft, gave us a bag of lychee fruit to eat for the remainder of the ride. This fruit, along with Durian, a large spiky looking fruit that gives you small pods to eat and is forbidden in most buildings because it smells so bad, have become two of my favorite fruit.

After the raft ride, we went to lunch at an orchid farm. The farm was large with pots of orchids everywhere. They served us delicious food before we walked through the orchid rooms. There were types of orchids I had never seen before in a wide range of colors and our tour guide pointed one out to me that smelt amazing. On the other side of the building was a series of old cars, one of them looking like an old box car. The farm also had a large shop where you could buy orchids at various stages of development, lacquered orchids and butterflies, pictures made from butterfly wing pieces, and perfume. Unfortunately it was all quite expensive.

We then went to a series of factories. The first factory was a silver factory, where we saw some people polishing the silver and looked at things we'd never be able to afford. We then went to an umbrella factory, where they make paper and bamboo fans with beautiful paintings on them. We watched women work to strip thin pieces of bamboo for the frames. The paper used to make the fan is made from the bark of a tree. The bark is pounded into mulch then soaked in water. Thin netted frames are submerged and the paper paste is left to dry. It is then cut into strips and attached to the frames in layers with starch. The wall showed a large series of paintings that you could pay them to put on clothes, fans, and umbrellas. This is where I got my shirt from Thailand, having a picture painted onto one of my sweaters. We then went to a silk factory, where I learned how silk was made, which I never knew. They had worms at various different stages on leaves, and then a tray with them wrapping themselves in cocoons. The cocoons were then boiled as to not damage the silk while killing the worms. The silk threads are then pulled up by a machine before being died and turned into fabric. We also went to a jade factory where we learned about different types of jade and saw more things we'd never be able to afford.  We then went to the airport and took the fifty minute flight back to Bangkok. We got to the rooms late Tuesday night.


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