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!
It was then time to leave Kanchanaburi and drive for three and a half hours to our next destination. En route, our tour leader, Lee introduced us to some local delicacies, and these sweet treats included 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.
Although many of Ayutthaya’s temples were left in ruins when the Burmese raided the city for gold, the grandeur is still evident and I could imagine how beautiful the city would have looked previously.
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.
That evening, before boarding an overnight train to Chiang Mai, we had a special treat which other groups had not previously enjoyed. We had dinner at Al’s house, cooked lovingly by his wife. We met his children too and they were all so hospitable and kind to welcome such a big group into their home.
It was then time to board our train. We would be travelling for just under twelve hours, and I remembered the less-than-pleasant night train I took in India. However, this one was fortunately much nicer. The train was smoother and the seats, which transformed into beds, were more comfortable. After playing cards and keeping each other occupied, when bed time came I drifted into slumber to the gentle rocking of our moving bedroom.
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.
Later that day, after a visit to 7-Eleven (which quickly became our favourite stop off shop, for its cheese toasties and other snacks), some of us decided to partake in a Muay Thai class.
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!
Our busy day wasn’t over just yet, and after a quick (and much needed!) shower, it was time for our evening cookery class. This began in a food market, as we were shown various ingredients and fresh fruit and vegetables.
We were even shown how to make our woks burst into flames. Mine didn’t work the first time we tried, so Permpoon let me have another go, which was much more successful!
Each of us got to take home a recipe book with everything we had made that evening (I have since enjoyed making a pad Thai for my family and can’t wait to try the next one), as well as some other popular Thai dishes; and if we filled out a review online, we were even given a free bamboo ladle.
We had such a great time learning how to make really flavoursome food, which we then got to eat for our dinner, in a lovely setting, with our funny and learned teacher and a great atmosphere.
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.
The following morning I woke up ready for another busy and exciting day. It was Valentine’s Day and the lovely Empress Hotel that we were staying in had gone to quite some effort for the occasion. They even put a red rose on each of our pillows.
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.
We had a lovely lunch at the zip lining location and then headed back to our hotel, where we chilled by the pool and sipped rainbow cocktails (which matched the rainbow jumpsuit I was wearing, and had purchased in the market the previous evening) until it was time for dinner and a trip to the Thai Cabaret.
We went for a quick dinner, and our theme for our final evening in Thailand was ‘shit shirt night’. So at the markets the previous day, we had bought weird and wonderful shirts to wear (I actually really liked my elephant one though!).
That evening’s trip to the Thai Cabaret was the perfect way to end yet another incredible day in Thailand. We were kept extremely busy and had so much to do, but I was loving every second.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!
After the Thai Cabaret, we went to a popular travellers’ bar, called ‘Zoe in Yellow’ to end the day with some dancing.
Tomorrow, we would be leaving Thailand and boarding a boat to Laos. So watch this space to find out all about my time in this rather unknown, but exceptionally mesmerising country.