As the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai was actually quiet… compared to Bangkok, at least! It is apparently home to Thailand’s best cuisine, and a favourite place for foreigners to live as expats. It is where we chose to spend xmas and soak in as much food and beer as possible before our next destination, hehehe… (you will see why when you read on!)
A couple of weeks ago, my parents and grandma transferred us some xmas money (thank you!) which was spent wisely on a few things, including… a cooking class! So, on December 24th, all I did was cook from morning to mid-afternoon. I learned how to make coconut soup with chicken, pad thai, papaya salad, green curry paste, coconut green curry with chicken and coconut sticky rice pudding with mango, all of them from scratch. We started the day by going to the market, and choosing ingredients for our meals. Our teacher explained the use and names of many veggies and spices. It was absolutely fascinating!
We then came back to the class, and started cooking! You all have no idea how much I am CRAVING to cook these days, I haven’t touched a kitchen or anything for months. It was absolutely blissful to start chopping up veggies and cooking ‘em up!
And at the end of the class, we each got a certificate as well as a recipe book. Kickass! I can’t wait to try these recipes at home, in Canada!
The next day (December 25th), François offered me an afternoon at the spa, including some time in a herbal steam sauna and an aromatherapy oil massage. The place itself was very beautiful, and the treatments relaxing, but the massage was not THAT good compared to others I’ve tried. It was nice anyway.
For xmas dinner, we went to a French-Thai restaurant. We had a charcuterie plate as an appetizer, and for main meals, I had steak tartare and François, cheese fondue. It was quite decent, but the service was weird – the entree arrived with the fries and salad that were supposed to come with the steak tartare, and everything arrived so fast we were finished everything 30 minutes after entering the restaurant. Let’s just say I wasn’t too impressed. We decided to finish the evening in a really cool rock bar, which blasted AC/DC and Black Sabbath. There were a few bikers, which kindly invited us to their table, and bought our beer for the rest of the evening!!! The leader was a tattoo-ed up British who was vegetarian, involved in Buddhism and meditation. He showed me some amulets that protected him from the police and others from falling off his bike. I wish I had my camera, it was just too surreal of an evening!
A few days later, we decided to go to another restaurant called Huen Phen, which was much better than the French-Thai one. They specialize in northern cuisine and are one of the most popular (and affordable) restaurants in Chiang Mai. We had a Khantoke set menu for two, which is usually reserved for weddings and other special events. It was a great introduction to the local cuisine, and everything was tasty as hell. I mean, the food was so yummy that it kind of made our tastebuds explode, haha!
We also went to another quite famous restaurant called Aroon Rai, which apparently has some of the best curries of Thailand. I am not a huge expert in Thai curries, but I have to admit the ones they had were to die for! (Although my very own green curry was superior hahaha)
Since we were there for the weekend, we went to the Saturday market. It was really really busy and completely packed with people! Vendors and merchants were selling everything from slippers to sushi, sweets, bbq’ed skewers, etc…
The problem with these markets is that they are a few kilometres long, packed and equipped with very few toilets. Luckily, I found some but they were quite something!
Oh yeah, there was bunch of hot Thai chicks dressed in Santa costumes, since it was Christmas day. I took this photo especially for the guys!
While walking, we saw quite a few random, interesting and funny things, which I wanted to share…
Anyway, we didn’t do too many touristic things in Chiang Mai, but it was a really nice week to relax before we spend a week up north in the town of Fang, more precisely at Wat Sri Boen-Ruang, a Buddhist monastery. We also spent about six hours rehearsing and writing in a local studio (3.50$ an hour, including instruments!). I snapped a photo of François, which I thought looked totally 70’s haha
From the Chiang Mai bus station, we took a local bus to Fang, which is located 3-4 hours away, and is only 20km or so from the Burmese border. Hill tribes live in the area, as well as the famous Giraffe ladies (the women with a million rings around their necks that fascinated all of us as kids). We didn’t visit any of these unfortunately, but perhaps we will next time! Anyway, when we got on the bus to Fang, we were a bit surprised; the seats that would normally be for two were for three! I thought it was made like this if there were families with small children, but no, people actually crammed themselves three per seat. But I guess people were shy around us and they take the third place on our seat, haha!
We showed the name of the monastery we were going at to the bus driver and so he dropped us in front of it. When we entered the gates, our initial reaction was that it looked very calm and kind of ghostly – there was hardly anybody on the grounds! Only two guys were sweeping, and luckily one of them spoke English and brought me to the hut of one of our monk/teachers, Phra Greg.
We came to stay in Wat Sri Boen-Ruang especially to learn about Theravada Buddhism (the “purest” branch of Buddhism – practiced mostly in Burma, Lao and Thailand) and to learn how to meditate.
Basically what we’ve learned is that Buddhism is the philosophy of following the Dhamma (the teachings of professor Buddha). Phra Fred taught us that Buddha was actually a prince who lived around 2600 years ago, and who was born in what is now known as Nepal. He intensely meditated and attained Nirvana (enlightment) under a tree, then lived the rest of his life teaching his findings (the Dhamma). What is enlightment? Essentially, it is total, pure, blissful joy by doing good (and getting the results of it), as well as stopping all internal suffering. It is a state that can only be attained by yourself.
In the monastery, we learned from Phra Greg about the Dhamma and how to meditate with mindfulness (visspassana meditation). By concentrating on ONLY one thing at the time during meditation (breathing, for example), you get to control much more what you are thinking, and therefore are able to stop any thoughts or actions that are getting in our way.
And how to stop all internal suffering? What I understand of it is being able to keeping a balance; not to be to be extremely sad/negative or be extremely happy/positive. It’s what is called “the middle path”. Talking about happiness; I actually get stressed when I talk about some dish that I like so much. I get huge skin rashes!! And a similar thing happens when I get really, really angry. By staying focused and not feeling about anything too strongly, I’d stay on the middle path. I’d suffer enormously if a fire wiped out my entire LP and CD collection… but if I wouldn’t get attached to my records too strongly, I’d say “Whatever! I can live without ‘em!” But obviously, I know that this would not happen as music is my very own religion hehe
In order to stay in this particularly monastery, we have to go through eight rules, or eight precepts:
- No killing or harming living beings
- No stealing
- No sexual or romantic activity (not even if I’m married, snif! Can’t even sleep in the same room!)
- No improper speech
- No drugs or alcohol
- No eating from noon to 6AM (very very hard for me!!)
- No entertainment, singing and beautification (cosmetics) – and wearing white clothing only… this one is extremely difficult as I’m not allowed to listen to ANY music for a week! I will make it up afterwards, arghhh
- No luxurious beds (it makes you want to sleep too much)
We thus went through the precept ceremony (atasilani). Conducted by Phra Greg, we took the temporary oath of keeping the eight precepts by reading them out loud in Pali, the ancient language spoken by Buddha himself. We also had to an offering of flowers, incense and candles.
And, here is our modest bed hehe:
And we bought dark chocolate (it doesn’t count as a food, according to our teacher, Phra Greg, as it melts in the mouth like a liquid) so we could survive. It actually helped alot!
Every morning (except for Buddha days), monks and novice monks leave the monastery at 6:15AM to collect food offerings from the locals. (Monks cannot buy, or prepare their own food to be able to fully concentrate on their practice. The community relies on the normal people for material needs, and in return, the monks provide spiritual guidance and moral support.) We, of course, had to follow them on their rounds. Sometimes the mornings were chilly and misty, and it was super awesome!
And here is a video of it. Sorry for the dog barking, it’s the only decent video my camera could take… you get the point though!
When we arrive, we can finally feast! I can say that we are totally starving at this point. And we are able to eat an extremely vast variety of northern Thai food!!!
The monastery is also home to about twenty dogs. People drop them there and others adopt some… they are absolutely adorable and each has a personality of their own:
Sometimes, in the evenings around 6PM, there would be chantings in pali. The whole monastery would group up and sing the teachings of Buddha. It’s hard because you have to sit on the floor the whole time, but when you get a good position, it gets very soothing and frankly, it sounds really cool!
So, we spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in the monastery… for New Year’s Eve, the abbot of the temple decided to organize evening chants and Dhamma talks that would lead the local devotees into the new year by doing good. It started around 7PM and lasted to probably around 1AM. There were also fireworks and firecrackers going off in the air!
For New Year’s Day, it happened to be a Buddha day (one of the 4 phases of the moon). Instead of the monks going on their alms round, the locals come to the temple and do offerings there directly. They lay out food on the table, and offer chunks of sticky rice to the novices, which they place directly in their bowl. A bit like in Luang Prabang.
We also experienced more events during our short stay – such as…
…an ordination into monkhood:
…and a funeral! Funerals here are seen as an important day, like births and weddings. It’s part of the cycle of rebirth. People must talk good about the deceased in order for him to reach a higher realm. Or something… thus, funerals here are not all about crying and mourning… although I did see a couple of people cry!
Once the ceremony is done, monks symbolically carry the funeral casket to the crematorium. It results in some sort of really cool funeral march. The first guy in front flies a ghost to scare away bad spirits, and the monks (and family of the deceased) pull on a rope.
I took yet another video so you guys can listen to the music and soak in the atmosphere. The music is supposed to be loud and “annoying” to, again, scare the bad spirits away, but I actually quite enjoyed it!
After all of this, we went through another ceremony to downgrade ourselves to the basic five precepts (or whatever we want to follow). We had to do another offering:
And that’s pretty much it for our temple stay! Our experience was absolute gold and we really enjoyed our time there. We discovered not only what Buddhism is about, but we learned about Thai culture, how to meditate and how to include it in our daily lives. We totally recommend and urge people to come and stay this monastery! You can learn more about the program HERE.
Anyway, the last evening, I celebrated by undergoing a traditional Thai massage, which was offered in the home of a small family near the temple. It cost US$ 4,50 for two hours and it was the best massage I’ve even gotten!!! I was the last client of the day, so the owner also massaged me for quite a while, which made it a four hand massage! It was absolutely mind-blowing. I came out of there feeling totally high and had trouble walking!
The next day, we got very lucky and a generous Thai man gave us a ride all the way to Chiang Mai, where we are taking the train to reach the south of Thailand. It was a tiny bit awkward because he knew maybe 10 English words, and us about 5 words of Thai, but we kept on laughing at our mediocrity the whole way hahaha!
Now we are on the train, riding for two days, going to the hot and tropical beaches of Thailand…
Koh Phi Phi
One car, two trains, 3 buses and two boat rides later… we arrived on Koh Phi Phi Island! Known as having some of the world’s best beaches, Koh Phi Phi was hugely stuck by the tsunami in 2004, killing something like 1000 people… but of course everything has been rebuilt since, and they did one hell of a good job!
We booked 5 nights in a bungalow on Long Beach, located about 45 minutes walk from the town. Since we were tired as hell from our traveling, and we had all our bags with us, we decided to take a taxi boat to reach our destination on the island. The color of the water really blew me away, it looked so clear and had beautiful emerald colors!
The beach itself was surprisingly quiet and really well organized. There were no sellers trying to sell you sunglasses, bracelets or fruits… and they had fresh fruit shakes for 1.25$! I bought a small bottle of rum, and made my own frozen margaritas hehe! (The real ones were going for 4.50$ a glass, screw that!)
What surprised me the most was when you enter the water, there are tons of multicoloured fishes that come and meet you! At one point, I think I had around 50 around me, it was kind of intimidating haha! Some were tickling my feet. It really felt like we were in an aquarium or something…
The highlight of Long Beach though, were three Maltese dog puppies that were owned by some lady working at our hotel. They are so cute, oh man, I couldn’t resist hugging them haha… I wish I could have held all three at the same time, but only two fit in my arms.
And so that is it for our trip to Thailand. I think I’m seriously going to miss this country and its people… but we must move on. Tomorrow we are entering our first Islamic country; MALAYSIA! See you soon!