Thursday, October 20, 2011

Laos Part 1 - Chiang Mai Temples and Tigers

We flew into CM from Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia without a hitch. Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I came overland from Lumpang and left via night train to Bangkok so was actually very impressed with the modern and reasonably spacious airport (well if you’ve been to Kuala Lumpur LCCT you’ll know exactly what I mean). We cleared immigration / passport control just as a big 747 Thai airways jet landed so really lucked in with timing.
After getting THB from an ATM (and almost leaving my card in the machine – what a disaster that would have been), we went to the taxi counter and were allocated our driver. Though the fare would have been 80 THB, we gave him 100 and he gave us his card and offered to take us pretty much anywhere at anytime. The trip took at most 10 mins and before we knew it we were greeted by a stout guy in a pith helmet and safari suit, the doorman at Ping Nakara.
(wai) Sawadee-Ka. Oh how I miss Thailand. This was my fourth trip back, and scheduled to be the shortest visit yet. It was also my second visit to Chiang Mai – the previous one 6 years ago was as part of an Intrepid tour. This whole adventure was more a foray into Laos with Chiang Mai unfortunately just a starting point.

Ping Nakara was an amazing experience (check out my review on Trip Advisor - Check in was quick with the staff providing excellent detail about the hotel, surrounds and room. In no time flat, I had my bags semi-unpacked, toiletries in the spacious bathroom, and itching to check out my surrounds. Swapping from long pants to shorter shorts, there was a little time for a quick stroll up the road to check out the neighbourhood. Paul Collins, of Best Tuk-Tuk Tours, was due to pick us up at 11am for a day trip.
The short walk gave me a glimpse into the riverside area. Only two weeks prior to arriving, parts of Chiang Mai were pretty badly flooded, including the area around the hotel. All along the road, smudgy brown lines marked the high water mark on shop walls and fences. Judging by the marks, I would have been waist deep in the flooded waters of the Ping River if I standing on the footpath. The river itself was less than 100 metres from the hotel, but now back to within its banks.
As we arrived back at the lobby (after a quick maybe 2km walk down the main road that ran parallel to the river), I noticed a tuk-tuk parked near the door, and a tall Western guy coming out the main entrance. I checked my watch and it was maybe 10:45 – fifteen minutes until pickup, but Paul was early. ‘Paul?’ ‘K?’ We greeted each other with questions and a brisk handshake. ‘Give me one minute’.
A super-fast visit to the room to pick up my camera, and we were quickly on our way in the back of Paul’s tuk tuk happily chatting away. Paul has Thai citizenship, was born to American parents and educated in the USA, but lived most of his life in Chiang Mai. I was instantly jealous – to live in this amazing country and wonderful city. We exchanged a few stories and talked about the itinerary, as Paul expertly wove in and out of the crazy traffic like a pro (as he was). Black plumes of exhaust wafted into my face at every intersection or stop. Along one of the roads near the moat of the old city, a couple motorbike riders and car drivers gave Paul (and us) a bewildered look; What the? Farang? (foreigner) Driving a tuk tuk? With farang passengers? Huh? That’s not right...  Their reaction amused us all.
Paul is a fantastic guide and knows so much about Chiang Mai. When I booked the trip, I gave him a list of what I hoped to try to see, and let him make the day’s itinerary based on locations and ease of drive between them. Through the whole day, Paul pointed out interesting facts or objects we may have otherwise overlooked. And he knows his Thai history and gave us the low-down on each place and the king (or other important monk) who built each.
First stop, Wat Chedi Luang. I’d visited it all those years ago and was very keen to see it again. Paul explained its architecture and major points of interest before we stopped and chatted with a monk, connected with the temple and Buddhist University there. They all study English and are keen to practise with native speakers. Many temples now have a ‘Monk Chat’ program to encourage visitors to spend some time talking with them, and at the same time learn a bit about Buddhism or the temple.
We chatted for quite some time, and were so impressed he knew the good old “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi” chant. We talked about sport, Australian schools, his daily routine and study, thoroughly enjoying his friendly laugh and curious questions. As always, I took a few photos before Paul ushered us back into the tuk tuk, handed us a fresh cold bottle of water, and drove us to his favourite local restaurant for lunch.
Lunch. OMG! Seriously, it was maybe the best Thai meal I’ve ever had! Paul had mentioned that lunch would be in a local restaurant in an area not visited by tourists, advising that we would be the only foreigners there. We arrived at an innocuous open air shop front, with a dozen or so white, outdoor furniture tables, covered in red-checked plastic table-cloths. Along one side, benches were set up for food preparation, with a few large steel pots at one end, omitting ribbons of steam and luscious smells. Almost every table was occupied, with groups of locals enjoying bowls of yummy-looking curries and stir fires.
Paul led us to a free table near the back, exchanging greetings and smiles with the employees. He explained that the local speciality was khao soi (pronounced cow soy). Interestingly enough, we’d seen a TV cooking show not long before our trip that showed the hostess, Poh, in Chaing Mai, talking with the locals and cooking khao soi. After a quick scan of the menu, we all decided to order the local dish. Khao soi is a spicy noodle soup similar to Malaysian Laska, but undoubtedly Thai. For what I’ve learned, it’s served mainly in northern Thailand, Burma and northern Laos.
A short, bow-legged, old woman, probably the owner or head cook, came over to take our order. Joking with Paul in Thai, she gave us warm and welcoming smiles. Knowing I was vegetarian, Paul ordered my meal ensuring no meat (or chicken stock) was used. A few minutes after ordering, the Thai woman delivered a large jug of iced green tea, as well as little plates of pickled cabbage and tiny little, super-sour Thai limes, about the size of a quail egg. A few moments later, our meals were brought over in simple, large, white bowls. The sweet, fragrant, aroma made me instantly hungry, given I hadn’t eaten since a dodgy sandwich grabbed from a convenience store as the airport before our flight earlier that morning. It was a soup-like dish, with soft rice noddles, deep-fried crispy noodles, shallots, veggies and chilies all swimming in a curry-like coconut milk based sauce, similar to a yellow curry.
Of course, I was wearing a white shirt. Perfect for a slurpy, soupy meal, eaten with chop sticks and pinyin (you know, the Chinese style soup spoon). Paul quickly pointed out how white clothing attracts curry sauce. After Paul had a quick chat with the restaurant’s cook a large red apron was draped around my neck, attracting many smiles and giggles from the other restaurant patrons and staff. I didn’t care how it looked; this delicious-aromatic-spicy-crunchy-herbaceous soup was worth looking like a clown or a freak. And no photos were taken to worry about re-surfacing later at a most in-opportune moment...
After considering a second bowl (and knowing that I would feel too drowsy afterward to enjoy the rest of the afternoon), I said a “khop khun kha” with a deep bow of appreciation to the cooks, climbed back into Paul’s tuk-tuk and we were on our way. Next stop was Wat Suan Dok, whose name means ‘field of flowers’, a 14th century temple built by King Kew Na. I’d not seen a temple like it in Thailand. Its huge wiham (prayer hall) was built open on the sides rather than being totally enclosed. Inside, there were two large gold Buddhas, one standing and one seated, placed back-to-back facing opposite directions on a gorgeous alter adorned with candles, smoking incense and gold-gilt dancing buddhas.
In the temple grounds were dozens of stark white mausoleums containing the ashes of the royal family of Chaing Mai. A massive 48-meter golden chedi stands tall in the centre of a sea of white. According to legend, Sumana Thera a monk from the Sukhothai Kingdom brought a relic of the Buddha to Chaing Mai. When the relic was being readied to be placed in the temple, the relic is said to have miraculously duplicated. One relic was interred in the chedi; the other was placed on the back of a white elephant which was then allowed to wonder wherever it wanted. It walked up Doi Suthep mountain and died. Wat Prathat Doi Suthep was built on the exact spot the elephant came to rest.
A short drive from Wat Suan Dok was Wat Umong – my favourite of the day. It’s set in a forested area near the foot of Doi Suthep. There’s an old, crumbling chedi in the style of an Ashoka Pillar (which is the national emblem of India). Below the chedi are tunnels with alters and gold Buddhas to explore. In the rambling gardens are hundreds of moss-covered Buddha images, with overgrown plants and vines growing over all the stone works.

An unusual Buddha statue sits off to the side of the chedi. Before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he practiced severe austerity, wondering around in rags, only eating scraps he could find. The statue depicts the Buddha during this period, before he found the ‘Middle Way’ between austerity and indulgence, and attained perfect enlightenment. Looking at it, it reminds us of the balance required between these two extremes to find true peace. Today, there are very few Buddha images of the emaciated Buddha pre-enlightenment. I appreciated the rareness of the statue, doing a quick meditation on that illusive middle way.
Paul tried to hurry us along, motioning fur us to go back to the tuk tuk. In my usual hyperactive way, I had tried to pack in too many things into a small amount of time, which meant that we didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Wat Umong. I hung back, hurriedly trying to take some more photos. I loved the peaceful, jungle feel, bathed in lots of wonderful shade against the hot Thai sun. There was so much more grounds to explore, but it would have to wait until next time (and gave me a great excuse to justify another visit to Chiang Mai).

Our next temple was Wat Jed Yod, a major Chiang Mai temple that is seldom visited by tourists. Seven chedis top the large central structure. Many sculptured Buddha images are carved around the exterior, many missing hands or heads after years of weather (and the looting war parties of conquerors that came through over the centuries). A few other ancient chedis dot the large temple gardens and grounds. It was built in the 15th century to host the 8th World Buddhist Council. It was a lovely quiet spot, and again I cursed my lack of planning enough time to truly explore and appreciate it.
So far, so many temples. I have a particularly strong interest in temple architecture and history. Given enough time I would spend weeks and months, maybe years, exploring and studying all Chiang Mai’s (and the whole Chiang Mai/Ching Rai regions’) temples. But, needing to balance out the trip for the sake or poor Mr J, the next stop was the Tiger Kingdom.
I had researched and read much about Tiger Kingdom, and I had my reservations due to some ethical questions that have been raised. But in the end, the animals are being protected, appeared to be well cared for, and there would be no (or maybe very little) chance to ever have the opportunity to be up close and personal with these amazing cats again. So the choice was made.
On arrival, we scanned all the various options and prices posted on big boards at the front desk. There are four ‘cages’ of tigers that you can go in: very young, young, adolescent and adult. We decided to go in the cages with the very smallest and the very largest tigers. First the big ones. 
It was late afternoon and the big guys were mostly dozing. The handlers ushered us to a reclining, huge cat, encouraging us to lay on it, pat his back and rear, play with his tail. He barely looked up. All the while, the organised photographer took photos of us as we were posed into positions for the shots. The next big guy along decided he had had enough of tourists laying on him for the day, rising from his position and walking to the back of the enclosure. The handlers let him be. The last big cat was semi-sleeping at the end of the enclosure. Once again, approaching from behind, we lay our heads on him as if he was a pillow, and one of the handlers wrapped his tail around our necks. At that point, this 300kg cat decided that it wasn’t cool. He raised his head, sat up on his front paws, looking at us out of the corner of his eyes. Onlookers gasped. The handlers let out a little ‘ooooh’ with a giggle, and told us it was OK. “Pat, pat. No problem”, all the while the tiger watched us impatiently. I watched him back, nervously.
After making it out alive, the next cage was the 3-month olds. Cute is an understatement. Amazing. Gorgeous. Beautiful. Delightful. Adorable. Not enough adjectives for lovely exist in the English vocabulary to adequately describe these little darlings. There we met Tash, a volunteer from England who had the lucky privilege of working with these babies for a few months. We chatted with her about the cats, their care, their behaviour, and their training. But mostly we played with them. Tash gave instructions on dos and donts to make sure good traits were encouraged.
There were six little sweet-hearts in the large enclosure. They were running around, playing, interacting with us tourists. Just like domestic kittens, they loved to stalk and wrestle. We sat on a little bench while playing with one of the more gregarious little fellows, while Tash told us about the adolescents in the enclosure next door. Basically they didn’t let young children in the cage with them. Although they are well socialised and trained and never attacked people, small children were just too much of a temptation. You can see it. Toddlers are smaller than they are – just about the right size for a little snack... A few of the little guys were watching the other cage fascinated with their antis. The older cats were playing with their handlers in and around their wading pond, jumping in after their toys, splashing the on lookers.
Though we were only meant to be in with the little tigers for ten minutes, it wasn’t too busy and the attendants weren’t being too watchful, so we managed to get almost twenty minutes with them. I was jumped on and walked over, swiped, pawed and patted. One little girl even sat on my lap for a lovely little cuddle. Honestly, a once in a lifetime experience.
On the way back to the tuk-tuk, Paul joked with us about the big tiger that eyed us off, saying he was happy that we had paid up front – yeah, real funny. It was now well after 5pm and the sun was getting low. Last stop was Wat Doi Suthep.
Paul parked his shiny tuk-tuk in the row of other taxis and song-thaews, not without attracting a few curious looks from other drivers surprised to see a white man driving. He negotiated with a driver to take us all up the mountain, his tuk-tuk not having enough horse-power to climb the steep ascent. An older man, dark skinned with tobacco stained lips and fingers, finally agreed to a price with Paul. We jumped in the back of the red song-thaew. As the driver fired it up, a huge black plume of smoke from the rear exhaust wafted in to the back where we hunched over on the back of the little van, making us cough and splutter. The driver steadily drove us up the windy road, occasionally kicking back a gear to get around the steep bends.
Six years ago, I spent a couple of hours at this most sacred temple, sitting with other white-clad foreigners during the 6 o’clock chanting and meditation. This time, I wasn’t alone. Though I was happy to walk the 309 steps up to the temple, Paul and J headed straight for the cable car (funicular) to take the easy way up. Within a minute we were at the main entrance of the revered temple. After a quick walk around with the guys, I split off, purchasing a lotus flower, candles and incense. Time to pay homage. Clearing my mind, with a quick prayer of refuge, I circumambulated the golden stupa three times, slowly, along with other some other practitioners.
I lost track of time, and after my practice, I rejoined the guys for a walk around the temple grounds. Paul translated some of the signs as well as gave lots of wonderful history and information about the temple. We stopped at one of the side alters where Paul showed us how to use the fortune sticks. First, you light some incense and make a prayer. Then you shake a bamboo cylindrical container holding the fortune sticks (that kind-of resemble Chinese chop sticks) until one falls out. Each stick has a number. You then match the number on the stick to a set of fortunes in front of the alter. Apparently Paul has a fortunate time ahead with lots of hard work. I gave it a go, but when I shook the sticks, about five of them came out – looks like I have many fortunes ahead...
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to sit in on evening prayers and chanting again. I wanted to soak up the calm energy of this place. I wanted to meditate in this holy place. I almost told them to leave me there. I knew that that wouldn’t happen. I slowly descended the 309 stairs. I climbed in the back of the song-thaew with the guys. I returned to the lights, smells and sounds of the hustle bustle of Chiang Mai. I knew that it was not my last visit to Doi Suthep...

We were dropped safely to our hotel as night was really taking hold. The last of the sun’s light was just fading from the sky. I was ready for a cold beer. But not before a change of clothes and a quick rinse. We headed off, taking the first street in the direction of the night market. Within a couple of blocks, we came across ‘The Whole Earth’ restaurant. It’s set in a surprising large garden, with some little paths around the trees and water features. From the branches of the trees, a steady stream of cool mist provided a refreshing spray.

We chose a table on the outdoor balcony and ordered a beer even before the waitress gave us our menus. Entree was marinated tofu skewers with beautiful peanut sauce, followed by a spicy green curry (which was great, but paled in comparison to our amazing khao soi from lunch). Service was great and we thoroughly enjoyed our meals.
From dinner, we ‘cased out’ the night market. Mr J thinks I’m a bit crazy. I like to check out all the stalls and goods on offer to compare the best deal and the choice items, and return the next day or night to go in hard, and bargain my heart out. We walked the whole length of the night market main road, including all the side streets, little side alleys, laneways, and lower ground malls, before settling in to one of the little restaurant/bars near the front of the Ansuran market area to watch the shopping and haggling. After a final beer, we headed back to our luxurious hotel, well and truly tired from a very long day. I needed sleep. Another busy day was planned for tomorrow.


  1. do you have Paul's contact info? Would like to take a tour with him when we visit CM


  2. yes I also would like Paul's contact info. Thanks so much L

  3. Pauls details are : Paul Collins
    0849483315 0850484606
    It was such a good day and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did