Becoming a Tourist Again
Originally posted on Feb 14, 2017
Before retiring to Thailand I spent many years as a part-time resident and a part-time tourist. Upon retiring and settling down here, my time spent doing touristy stuff in Thailand became less and less. I had forgotten what a really cool place this is to be a tourist. Then some old friends came for an extended visit and helped us to remember.John and Denise and Pikun and I had shared a house together when John and I got jobs teaching in Iran. This was in the mid 70s, before the Iranian revolution and when the Shah was still in power. We later joined them when we moved to Seattle and have been friends ever since. After many invites to visit us here in Thailand they acquiesced and in being their tour guides for the next three weeks we also got to renew our acquaintance with them as well as with so many wonderful places that surround us here and that we had forgotten to appreciate.
Here is some of what we did. Denise had done her homework and had a bucket list of the many places to visit and things to do while here in Thailand, and we were able to check off the majority of them. I had done all of these things and visited all of these places years ago. All had changed, some for the better, some not, but I was glad to experience them all again. If you are just coming here, this tour will get you acquainted with your new home. If you have lived here a while, try revisiting them.
Lift your eyes just about anywhere in Thailand and you’ll probably be looking up at a temple or pagoda (“chedi” in Thai). You don’t have to go to a fancy temple popular with tourists. Just about all of them are filled with beautiful artwork and architecture. We are lucky here in Chiang Mai, a city of over 300 temples, or “wats”. You can spend days going from temple to temple, as we did with churches and cathedrals on our visit to Italy. But we narrowed down our choice to two for John and Denise to tour, Wat Doi Suthep, the temple which overlooks Chiang Mai from its mountain perch, and Wat Doi Kham, our own local temple, also on a mountain, this time overlooking our house.
Wat Doi Suthep is the one temple that people say is a must visit on you trip to Chiang Mai. I myself don’t visit it often because it has become quite commercial with vendors lining every empty space along the road around the temple. But it is beautiful and on a clear day will give you a panoramic view of the city a thousand meters below. I put John and Denise on a red taxi for the trip up the mountain. The taxis queue just west of the entrance of Chiang Mai University on Huay Kaew Road and will save you from driving that winding road up the mountain.
My favorite temple was the one near my house on Doi Kham Mountain. Wat Doi Kham is a sister temple to Wat Doi Suthep and the temple buildings and the central chedi are replicas to the ones on Doi suthep although about a third the size. But, as happens to so many nice places around the world, Wat Doi Kham has become even more commercial than Wat Doi Suthep. What was once a quiet beautiful temple has now become inundated with visitors after a rumor that the Buddha image there will grant your wishes, and even give you the winning lottery numbers. Denise got frisky and walked the hundreds of steps up to the temple. There are some huge Buddha images up there and she got a great view of the south of the city and the Royal Flora Park below.
We now found a temple that no tourists visit. It has only one monk and is quiet and meditative. There will probably be one just like it only doors away from you where you will be staying.
Chiang Mai was originally a kingdom of its own. It has its own language, music, dances, and culture. One place where you can experience the culture of the north of Thailand is at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center just south of the city wall. There you’ll get a taste of northern Thai food, called a “Khandok” dinner, with sticky rice, barbecued chicken, northern pork stew and northern sausages. And with the dinner you’ll be entertained with Thai music and dances and the hill tribe cultures. It’s real touristy but a great place to spend an evening. The food is really good and plentiful too.
One thing to note. Northern Thais eat sitting on the floor with a small short table (the “khandok” table) holding the food. If sitting on the floor makes your old bones scream like it does mine, then request a table and chairs. You and your bones will be much happier.
I still love Thai outdoor markets. I visit my local one almost daily and usually in the middle of every Thai town is a morning or an evening market. There are also markets that meet on designated days (“talaat not”), similar to farmers markets back home. But the one can’t-miss-market in Chiang Mai is the Sunday evening “Walking Street Market”.
The usually busy streets of the central part of the old city, within the moat, become traffic-free and by early evening the handicrafters, artists, and food vendors set up. Just about every kind of Thai handicraft, woodcarving, garment, and art work will be there, as well as t-shirts and tourist trinkets and street foods. There are now “walking street” markets all over Asia but the one here was the first of its kind.
It’s best to go there early. We go at 4pm. By about 5:30 the streets will be crowded with market goers. By 7pm tens of thousands jam the streets. Unless you are an avid people-watcher it is a good idea to get out of there before the crowds make market browsing impossible.
Thai gardens and flora
John and Denise spent lots of time in our garden. When you leave a cold country in the winter and land in the tropics, just hanging around a Thai garden is as good as visiting any tourist spots. Growing a garden in Thailand is almost opposite to growing one in a cold country. There you need to encourage and nurture and pray that your plants grow. Here, we spend most of our time cutting and pruning and trying to control our plants’ growth. So gardens and parks in Thailand are great places to visit.
Kham Tiang Market: Gardening is one of the most popular leisure-time activities around the world. Thais love gardening and because of its popularity there are garden centers and flower markets in every town. There is a large market near the river here that has just about every cut flower you could think of. But for gardeners, the Kham Tiang Market is the place to go; a huge garden center where walking through it is as good as a tour through any botanical garden. From flowers, to orchids, to full grown trees, to garden statues and fountains, and Japanese koi fish, you can get anything for your garden.
Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens: The Mae Saa Valley, with its elephant shows, and tiger gardens, and orchid farms, and monkey schools, and snake shows, is a big hit with foreign tourists. We drive past all of these and head for the place that most Thai tourists visit. Settled right in the mountains, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens contains beautiful tended gardens as well as a group of green houses containing medicinal plants, carnivorous plants, cacti, a tropical waterfall, and lotuses. The best thing about it for us, everyone over 60 is let in for free. Check out the video.
The Royal Flora Park: In 2006 Thailand threw a highly successful International Horticultural Exhibit attracting garden exhibits from dozens of countries and 30,000 visitors a day. After the exhibit closed the park was kept open to the public and can be visited daily. There is a beautiful northern style palace (Haw Kham) and the park is used for a number of festivals including a New Years Eve countdown.
I’m a pushover for ruins having visited Rome, and Greece, and Egypt, and our neighbor here to the east Angkor Wat. And Thailand has some really interesting ruins too, especially in the northeast. But the queen of them all is Sukhothai, the former Thai capital. After being named as a World Heritage site the ruins at Sukhothai have been spruced up and are quite beautiful. If you are doing a road trip to Sukhothai you might want to visit the nearby ruins at Sri Sachinalai Historical Park and the historical park right in the middle of Kamphaeng Phet town.
But John and Denise’s visit wouldn’t be complete until we experienced the tropical humidity, see palm trees and rubber trees, and walk on the beaches and islands of the south. We like Trang Province because of its isolation compared to Phuket and Pi Pi Island (2 places we loved 10 years ago but never visit today). But we chose to fly down to Krabi (pronounces Kra-bee, not crab-ee). Krabi is really not Thailand anymore. The workers there are often foreigners (the hotel desk clerk Philippina, the bartender American, the waiter Nepali). But we got a room on the beach, did some island hopping, and ate lots of fresh sea food while watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea. Commercial as Krabi is, I still love the place, as did our two visitors.
Lots of other stuff to do here
We visited elephants (not the show and riding kind but the more natural, happy, retired elephant kind), ate lots of Thai food (J and D learning that the Thai restaurants back in Seattle serve cuisine not anything like what we eat here), drank lots of Thai ice coffee and cappuccino fraps, and, especially John, drank lots of Thai beer and got a daily massage.
My massage story: John and I were taking a walk on the Ao Nang beach in Krabi and there were lots of massage shops set up there for tourists. John hadn’t had his daily massage so he elected to get one on the beach. Unlike John I am not addicted to Thai massage but I didn’t want to wait around so decided to get one too.
Here is what happened. I told the manager, Please be gentile. I don’t want a hard massage. I don’t want to hurt. He said sure. I lay down and waited for my masseuse. The girl working on John (who turned out to be really gentile) looked up as my masseuse arrived. She said, Oh no! You got Sumalee. It’s going to be a hard one. You’re going to hurt for sure.
When I studied karate we learned about nerve bundles and how to use them to disable our opponent by using them to inflict severe pain. Sumalee knew each one of them and dug her thumbs into every nerve bundle of mine she could find. I was still hurting 3 days later. It reminded me why I don’t get Thai massages very often. John got another one the next day.