It was only the fourth day of my ‘Big Indochina Adventure’ and I had already soaked up some wonderful Thai experiences in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi. Today, our first stop before leaving the latter town, was to Erawan National Park.
The protected national park, which costs 200 Thai Bhat for tourists to enter (just under £5) is most famous for its seven-tiered waterfall. Built in 1975, Erawan Falls is 1,500 metres in length and visitors can enjoy any of its seven levels to swim and soak in the beautiful views.
The top level is said to resemble the head of Erawan, the three-headed elephant from Hindu mythology. However, in the over-30-degree heat, most of us didn’t complete the hour and a half hike to reach it, and instead enjoyed the beauty of the bottom three levels, sliding and jumping off large rocks. We did experience some small fish nibbling at our toes, which some people didn’t enjoy, but it was a bit like a natural foot massage!pandan chiffon cake, a light, green cake flavoured with the juice of pandan leaves (ours also had candyfloss inside), dried banana and yam chips and coconut pancakes. These were all really tasty, especially the pandan cake.
Before long, we arrived into the UNESCO listed city of Ayutthaya. Our local guide, Al, informed us that it had been the capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767 (before it was tragically destroyed by the Burmese). He also told us that Thailand means ‘land of the free’ as it has never been colonised, unlike its neighbours. However it had thirty three kings over a period of seventeen years, so it was a literal ‘game of thrones’ scenario. There are also over 40,000 temples in Thailand.
Once we arrived into Ayutthaya, we took a scenic bike ride around the city’s ornate temples and palaces.
Despite the intense heat, once we arrived we were instructed to cover our shoulders and knees out of respect for the Buddhist culture. Our first stop was to Wat Lokaya Sutha, which means ‘the temple of the Earth’. It had a 42-metre long Reclining Buddha statue outside and this was very impressive.
Outside the temple Wat Mahathat, we came across one of the most recognisable images of Thailand, the head of Buddha hiding amongst the roots of a banyan tree. It is speculated that it was entwined in the roots after a thief stole it from the main temple and planned to come back for it later. Perhaps the head was too heavy to move any further and the thief never returned.
We arrived into Chiang Mai the next morning and were met at the station by our new local tour guide, Daniel. He told us that he used to be a Buddhist monk and that he could be a monk again if he decided, as one can become a monk up to three times. Daniel also informed us that Buddhist monks have to shave their hair and eyebrows for vanity reasons, so that they all look the same, and that South East Asian monks never believe that they can reach nirvana, as Buddha did. Instead they strive for a higher existence in their next life.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city with 1.6 million people; and with so much to see and do, it is also very popular with tourists.
We boarded a new coach to our hotel, and were impressed by how luxurious The Empress Hotel seemed. Lee told us that the breakfast buffet was an absolute treat, and she wasn’t wrong, there were so many options and we took full advantage of this.
We then visited Doi Suthep–Pui National Park, home to some exquisite Buddhist temples. With some struggle, we climbed the 309 steps up to the temples and enjoyed seeing the immaculate golden statues, dragon designs and amazing architecture.
We also had our fortune presented to us inside one of the temples. This common procedure involved a handful of numbered wooden sticks in a container. We shook the box until one of the sticks fell out, and that number related to our prophecy, which we were given on a piece of paper.
This combat sport, sometimes known as Thai boxing, is a form of self-defence that uses the body to defend, instead of weapons. It is also referred to as the ‘art of eight limbs’, as it combines the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins. It was so much fun to be taught the basics of the sport in a real boxing gym, with excellent instructors. They certainly put us through our paces!
After our delicious experience, we ended the evening by heading to some of Chiang Mai’s famous night markets and bazaars, to browse, have a drink and unwind from another very enjoyable and successful day.
There were nearby displays for Valentine’s Day too.
It was then time to go zip lining around the Thai rainforest and I was hugely looking forward to this activity. We took an hour long transfer to the forest village of Mae Kampong and then split into groups. The course was called the ‘Flight of the Gibbon’, inspired by the wild gibbons living in the area (sadly, or perhaps fortunately, we didn’t see any gibbons whilst there).
The gibbons were actually introduced to the rainforest by the zip line company as part of a conservation effort. The two older gibbons were found locked inside a cage on the side of the road and the company’s founders rehabilitated them and reintroduced them into the jungle, where they have since reproduced. They are the first gibbons to live wild in Chiang Mai for decades and the company employs someone to watch for poachers and look after them. It was so lovely to hear such a positive story about the local wildlife.
We hiked to the starting spot and spent two and a half hours zipping through the rainforest, mostly on solo zip lines but sometimes in pairs. There were seven kilometres of zip lines, swinging wood-plank bridges and an abseil down an enormous tree to finish. It was a great adventure, soaring above the trees and taking in the views on this adrenaline-pumping activity.
At the Cabaret, we were entertained by absolutely stunning drag queens, as they lip-synched, performed comedy numbers and made some of the men feel very uncomfortable, much to our enjoyment!